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the roads we walk are winding

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“Bards don’t believe in goodbyes—we know that the roads we walk are winding, and we generally tend to come back to people and places we’ve known and been before, and often at just the right time.” 

Sean Gibson, The Chronicle of Heloise & Grimple

 

 

 

There’s no light in the cell.

 

Jaskier doesn’t actually know how much time has passed since the black-cloaked Nilfgaardians grabbed him after a performance in a shitty tavern in the backcountry of northern Kaedwen. He’d assumed--foolishly, apparently--that he was far enough north that any Nilfgaardian soldiers would be few and far between, likely just scouts or even deserters. It would have been hard to actually get any further north--the little backwater town where he’d been singing was just a day from the mountains. Anymore travel, and he’d find himself skirting the Trail up to Kaer Morhen, the Warlord’s Keep, and, well. He’s brazen, but not that brazen.

 

He’s also not a fighter, which is likely why it was horribly easy for the pack of soldiers to corner him in the tavern’s stables, steal his lute, express their extreme displeasure in his music, especially the particularly irreverent Emperor Emhyr’s Empirically Small Cock (a hit even up here, where most of the towns are still relatively untouched by the War itself). When he’d suggested that perhaps their taste in loyalties was as flawed as their taste in music, he’d gotten the pommel of a sword to the back of the head.

 

And then darkness.

 

He’d woken in darkness, too, and for a few brief, horrifying moments, was sure the hit had rendered him blind. It’s a total, heavy darkness, an utter lack of light that somehow seems to crawl with even deeper shadows. It’s cold, too, and the soldiers have left him with nothing but his breeches and chemise.

 

When the light does come, it’s so bright it hurts. The soldiers who carry the torches laugh at him when he shrinks back from the flame even as his body yearns towards the heat. They handle him roughly as they force gruel down his throat and fix the chains around his wrists to the loop on the ceiling to easily access his ribs with their gauntleted fists, can force him to struggle on his tip-toes until he has to drop down to the soles of his feet and then struggle against the overstretched pain in his shoulders until they slacken the chain.

 

But it’s the sorceress who scares him the most.

 

The soldiers ask questions--who he is, who he works for, how dare he insult the Emperor in the ways that he does, where does he get his information, where do his loyalties lie. It’s flattering, almost; after all, for soldiers to take such an interest in a bard, his songs must truly be doing their job, which is to utterly undermine the fear and terror of the Empire in favor of absolute mockery.

 

The sorceress, though.

 

She asks no questions. In her fine silks and perfect cosmetics, he could almost mistake her for a noblewoman, if not for the power that crackles around her and makes the hair on his arms stand on end. The first time she visits him, she touches him only once: pulling down the back of his chemise until the collar cuts into his throat and pressing two fingers to the skin between his shoulder blades. There’s a brief, choking flare of pain, the air filling with the scent of seared flesh, and then her touch is gone, and Jaskier hangs, gasping, from his bonds.

 

After that, her touches are worse. They’re light, and cool, just the brush of her fingertips against his brow. And then the visions come, and come, and come, memories and dreams and nightmares, all so vividly real they leave him dizzy and sick and shaking. He doesn’t know what she’s looking for, not that he’d give it to her if he did--he’s not loyal to anyone in particular these days, but it’s the principle of the thing.

 

Time and time again, she steps away. In the still too-bright torchlight, he can see her face twisted in disappointment and frustration for a half-instant before she smoothes it away, leaving only a horrible sort of blankness.

 

“Well,” she says each time, as if she’s leaving a particularly boring dinner party, and not a black site torture cell. “I suppose, Master Bard, we will try again tomorrow.”

 

She sweeps away. The soldiers unhook Jaskier’s chains from the ceiling and reattach them to the loop on the floor. He doesn’t know how long he’s been here, but it’s long enough that his wrists are rubbed raw, the skin broken in places.

 

Time passes, at least he thinks he does. In the darkness of the cell, he doesn’t know when it’s day, or night. He chooses a corner for a latrine and curls up on a lumpy pallet on the opposite side of the cell, trying to keep at least a semblance of civilization. He wishes for a blanket, for his winter cloak, for his boots, or at least for his socks. He wishes for--

 

Well. He wishes for a miracle. He’s a bard, after all. He loves a bit of romance.

 

But no one is coming, he knows. He’ll die in this cell, or they’ll ship him back to the Empire and kill him there. This is the end of the line, Jaskier thinks, for the Viscount de Lettenhove, if he can still even claim the title.

 

Ah, well. It’s a fitting end for a bard, maybe. His only regret is that no one will know enough about it to tell his last story.

 

Not for the first time, he sighs. The exhale hurts his almost certainly broken ribs. The brand--it is a brand, he’s certain--between his shoulder blades feels hot and tight, almost certainly infected. His head hurts, has been pounding since the soldiers first knocked him out, and his vision swims sickly. He wonders when the fever will set in.

 

Just when he’s beginning to contemplate another round of singing--he doesn’t have much voice or breath support yet, but he figures at least he can annoy the guards, which is always something--torchlight flares outside the door. Jasker winces and turns his face away, just in time to hear the door slam heavily open.

 

“You can’t do this to me!” someone is shrieking. A very young-sounding someone. The door creaks more, and a young girl, probably somewhere in her teens, with a mane of white-blonde hair and furious green eyes briefly illuminated by the flash of the torches. The guard has a grip on the girl’s arm, wrenching her shoulder up at what looks like a painful angle, but she doesn’t show a lick of fear. “I’m not who you think I am, I’m just--I’m just some kid. You have to let me go!”

 

“You’re even less of a nobody than our bard friend in there,” one of the guards says, jerking his chin at Jaskier. The girl looks at him, her features cast in stark relief by the torchlight, and Jasker loses what’s left of his breath. It’s been years since that fateful night in Cintra’s court, but he would know this girl anywhere.

 

She is, after all, the absolute image of her mother.

 

The guard takes advantage of her momentary distraction to shove her none-too-gently into the cell, sending her careening into Jaskier. She catches herself against his shoulder, and he bites down a wince at the impact against the broken skin under his chemise. Just as quickly, she lets him go.

 

“Sit tight, little girl,” the guard says, taunting and cruel. “This might be your last night of peaceful sleep. In the morning, you see the mage.”

 

The door to the cell slams shut, the torchlight vanishing with it. The returning darkness is absolute, skin-crawlingly thick.

 

In the newly deafening silence, Jaskier swallows around his horribly dry throat. It doesn’t go well, and he coughs. It takes him a few moments to get his breath back, his ribs screaming.

 

“Um. Here.” A gentle hand touches his arm, and he looks sharply up, trying to make out her shape in the darkness. He can’t, of course, but he can hear the soft sloshing of water. “They--they left me my water skin. Unless you have some?”

 

“I don't,” he croaked. “Thank you.”

 

“You’re welcome,” she says, and, with the kindest touch he’s felt in far too long, carefully cradles his jaw in one hand as she puts the water skin to his lips. He drinks gratefully but carefully, and makes a quiet sound of gratitude when his stomach starts to protest. “They...said you’re a bard?” she asks, uncertainty clear in her voice.

 

“I am,” he says wearily, too tired for his usual pomp. “Or at least, I was. It’ll be some time before I’m back in performance form, I think.” Still, there’s no call to be rude. “My name is Jaskier.”

 

A soft intake of breath. “Jaskier,” she says. “Why...why do I know that name?”

 

“I spent some time at one court or another,” he says. The water has worked wonders; for the first time in what feels like days, it doesn’t hurt to speak. Too bad he’ll ruin it again with the screaming he’s sure to do when the sorceress returns. “Wrote a few rather catchy tunes. Sometimes I even get credited for them.”

 

“No,” she says slowly. “I--I know your name. You wrote the songs--one for my parents, and one for--” She breaks off suddenly, sucking in a breath, and, even through his weariness, Jaskier’s heart softens.

 

“It’s alright, sweetheart,” he says. It’s more familiar than he should be, of course, but he’s tired and in pain, and far too exhausted to try and figure out what title she uses now. “I know who you are,” he says. A murmur, barely a breath of air.

 

“You...you know?”


She sounds suspicious. Not afraid, he thinks, but wary, like a prowling animal, uncertain whether to flee or strike. Good girl, he thinks, Your grandmother would be proud.

 

What he says instead is: “You’re the spitting image of your mother, Princess.”

 

Princess Cirilla, the Lion Cub of Cintra, the last remaining heir to the Cintran line, sucks in a breath. “You,” she says, and makes a soft, hesitant sound. Her voice, when she speaks again, is very young. “You knew my mother?”

 

“I did,” he says, remembering nights at court, Queen Calanthe’s roaring laughter, Pavetta’s swirling blonde braid. He closes his eyes. His head hurts again, but it’s been so long, he thinks, since someone has spoken to him kindly. “Would you like me to tell you a story about her?”

 

There’s a moment of silence, and then, with a soft clink of chains, Cirilla sits next to him, close enough that he feels the warmth of her against his side. Wincing slightly, he lifts his arm to tuck it wordlessly around her shoulders.

 

“It started,” he says, his voice still hoarse, but the familiarity of storytelling coming back so sweetly, like a dear old friend, “at a banquet.”

 

 

“What does Nilfgaard want with you?”

 

Jaskier rouses himself from the half-doze he’s slipped into, lulled by the pounding in his head and the throbbing in his ribs and the soft rush of the princess’s-- “Ciri,” she’d said, sleepily, “Call me Ciri”--breathing. She’d nodded off sometime after he’d finished telling her the story of her parents’ fateful engagement, then soothed her sudden tears with as many Cintran lullabies as his ragged throat could handle. It hurts a bit where her head has slumped against his shoulder, but he’s missed human contact—at least, nonviolent human contact—so badly that he can’t bring himself to nudge her off.

 

“I sang a few songs I shouldn’t have,” he says, which is more true than not. He’s sung, in fact, almost exclusively songs he shouldn’t have sung for the better part of the last three years, ever since His Excellency the Emperor down in the City of Golden Towers got it into his mind to try and conquer the rest of the Continent. Jaskier has been out on the road for less than fifteen years, but he’s made a name for himself--fortunately or unfortunately, he’s still not sure--for the way his songs blend irreverence with hope, humor with political metaphor. Every bard needs a reputation, of course, but at times like this, he finds himself wishing he’d stuck to tavern ditties and love songs.

 

It’s not a thought he’s particularly proud of.

 

“Anyway, enough about me,” he says, because if he lets them go down that path any further, he’s quite sure Ciri will ask about the blood she can surely feel under her cheek where it rests on his shoulder, the hitches in his breath at every movement. “Where have you been, Princess? I hear the Emperor’s been scouring the Continent for you, while you vanished without a trace.” There’s no light for him to see her now, but in the brief glimpse he’d gotten of her face, she looked well-fed and healthy, her clothes well-made and well-fitted, despite the wear-and-tear one might expect from someone recently kidnapped by extremely determined soldiers. “It doesn’t seem like you’ve been on the run.”

 

“No, I…” She hesitates, a hint of wariness coming into her voice. Smart girl, Jaskier thinks again. Someone taught her well.

 

“You don’t have to tell me,” he says, as kindly as he can manage.

 

“It’s okay.” She sits up, her touch vanishing away into the darkness, and Jaskier doesn’t even have time to miss the reassuring human contact before her hand reaches out to grasp his arm, then feel along his sleeve until she can clasp his hand. He squeezes as reassuringly as he can. “I’ve been in Kaer Morhen.”

 

Whatever Jaskier was expecting, that wasn’t it. “The White Wolf’s keep?” he asks, incredulous.

 

Shh,” Ciri hisses, and then gives a small, self-deprecating laugh, as if she’s just realized that they’re alone here, in the dark. No one is listening. Jaskier knows--he’s spent enough time shouting curses on the Emperor’s name down here that if anyone was listening, the absolute Nilfgaardian loyalty of his captors wouldn’t have let him get away with it without breaking his fingers.

 

Well. Another of his fingers.

 

“Sorry,” Jaskier says. Quieter, now. “But--Kaer Morhen? How? Why?”

 

The warmth of Ciri’s body shifts slightly as she resettles herself against his side. “Geralt,” she says.

 

Jaskier frowns. The name is familiar, but he can’t place it. “Geralt?”

 

“Geralt of Rivia, the Witcher. He’s my…” She trails off, and it doesn’t sound hesitant so much as uncertain. “I don’t know what he is to me, exactly. But I’m his Child of Surprise.”

 

If she could see him, he would have had to try to keep his expression even. In the utter darkness of the cell, he lets his jaw drop. “You’re his what?”

 

“His Child Surprise,” she repeats. “He saved my father’s life, and claimed the Law of Surprise when my father insisted on repaying him.” There’s a soft scraping sound of her boots moving against the floor of the cell, the only indication that she’s fidgeting. “It was the night my parents got engaged. Weren’t you there?”

 

“I was,” Jaskier says slowly. He remembers the Witcher, of course, with his striking features and stark white hair, leaping into the fray of the fighting in Calanthe’s hall, but nothing about the Law of Surprise. Then again, he’d been briefly distracted by the Countess de Stael clinging to his arm and whispering numerous promises into his ear.

 

Not that Ciri needs to know that--


Wait.

 

A white-haired Witcher, claiming the Law of Surprise. Ciri, swept away from Cintra just before Nilfgaard marched on the gates. Ciri, in Kaer Morhen.

 

“Ciri,” he says, realization dawning. “Your Geralt--is he the White Wolf?”

 

Ciri’s silence is answer enough.

 

The White Wolf of Kaer Morhen, the Warlord of the North, is almost more of a legend and a bogeyman as much as a reality. He’d come to power when he and a pack of fifty Witchers--notoriously independent, free-roaming warriors, suddenly united under a single banner--stormed the capital of Kaedwen and killed the king.

 

(Who had, if the rumors were true, entirely deserved it.)

 

In the five years since, the White Wolf’s army had become an unstoppable force, his empire in the North growing almost as quickly as Nilgaard’s in the South. He’d started with Kaedwen, and taken Caingorn, Kovir, and half of Aedirn and Redania in quick succession. The difference, of course, is that while the Emperor has left a trail of blood and gore and death in the wake of his army, the White Wolf, by all reports, has done nothing but improve the fortunes of most of his new subjects. Kings fear him, nobles guard their gold and build their guards, but the common folk--at least the ones Jaskier has met--speak of nothing but more food, cleaner water, a sudden drop in fear and violence.

 

For all that the Witchers of the White Wolf’s army are deadly and terrifying, and the White Wolf himself even moreso, the people of his empire are...well, if not thriving, something close to it. Little is known about the White Wolf himself. A Witcher, of course, rumored to have undergone more mutations than his peers, rendering him faster, stronger, even harder to kill. He’s spoken of in whispers, described as a monster as much as a man.

 

Jaskier remembers broad shoulders and golden eyes, a firm voice and a complete lack of hesitation to do right. He tries to match that to the ghost stories of the White Wolf, and finds it simultaneously obvious and strange. Handsome and deadly and noble.

 

It fits.

 

“Jaskier?” Ciri says, her voice small. “Are you all right?”

 

“Fine,” he croaks, and then clears his throat. It hurts, but no more than anything else, and it’s grounding. “Fine,” he repeats. He swallows. “Ciri, I don’t--what are you doing here? Is Kaer Morhen...Weren’t you safe?”

 

For a long moment, Ciri is silent. And then, very quietly, she sniffles--once, twice--and bursts into tears.

 

Alarm builds rapidly in the pit of Jaskier’s gut. Strange, he thinks, that he’s become pretty much immune to the fear of torture, but a crying child is still enough to alarm him. Then again, he supposes, that crying child is related to Calanthe of Cintra, so her bar for tears is probably horrifyingly high.

 

“Ciri,” he says, as gently as he can. “Cirilla. Princess.” That makes her stop mid-sob, gasping a hiccuping breath. “Princess,” he says again. “It’s okay. Whatever it is, it’s okay. You can tell me.” He hesitates. “If they--the Witchers, if they hurt you--”

 

No,” she says, sounding horrified. “No, they’d never. They’re good, they’re so good, they’re…”

 

She trails off, sniffling. Jaskier says, carefully, “Cirilla?”

 

“It’s my fault,” she whispers. “It’s my fault I’m here. I--I ran away.”

 

She sounds miserable, and Jaskier clicks his tongue sympathetically. “Come here, love,” he murmurs, and she curls up against his side again, tucking her head against his shoulder. He winces and does his best to wrap his arm around her. “It’s alright. It’s okay.” He waits until her breathing settles again.”What do you mean, you ran away?”

 

Ciri rubs her face against the bloody fabric of his chemise, and he cringes. Her skin wasn’t perfectly clean when she was tossed into the cell, but it’ll be a mess now. “I just felt so useless,” she says. “They were training me--with a sword, with magic--” Magic? Jaskier thinks, a little wildly, and then, Oh, Pavetta, “But they wouldn’t let me--”

 

She breaks off, and he hears a rustling, an arm dragged under a nose. “They killed my family,” she says, fierce and angry, the misery gone from her voice and replaced by a rage that’s all too reminiscent of Calanthe at her finest. “Those--those Nilfgaardian bastards. My grandmother. Eist. Everyone I cared about--Cintra. I wanted...I wanted them hurt.”

 

“Princess, that’s…” He chooses his words with care. “It’s not your job to do that.”

 

“It is,” she says. “It is. I’m--I’m all that’s left.”

 

“Oh, Ciri,” Jaskier says, sympathetic before he can stop the tone. He knows better than to say something stupid like you’re just a child, but gods, she’s just a child.

 

“I thought I could do something,” she says. “I was so sick of doing nothing. Geralt told me that Kaer Morhen kept me safe, but I heard him talking about the patrols in Kaedwen, and I thought--I thought if I could just prove…” She cuts herself off with a sob. “I’m so stupid.”

 

“No, love, you’re not.” He strokes a careful hand over the crown of her head. “You were trying to make a difference. That’s not stupid.”

 

Ciri scoffs, but she still leans into his touch. “I should have listened.”

 

“Don’t get hung up on the shoulds. That way madness lies.” He pets her hair quietly for a moment, and then asks, “How did they find you?”

 

“I found them,” she says dully. “Walked right into their camp. I thought my magic would give me an advantage--I didn’t realize they’d have a mage.”

 

Jaskier shudders, remembering a burning brand between his shoulder blades, the cold tickle of phantom fingers through his mind. “Yes,” he says. “She’s...something.”

 

Ciri’s fingers find the sleeve of his chemise and hold tight. “She hurt you, didn’t she?”

 

“Yes.”

 

Her grip twists. “Will she hurt me, too?”

 

The question comes out small and young, but he knows she’s too old to be comforted by lies. “She might. I don’t know.” He pauses, not sure what to say. “It might depend on...on why they want you.” It makes him sick to even think about it, but she’s a lovely girl, and the only legitimate heir to Cintra. There are only so many reasons that a man like Emhyr var Emreis would put so much effort into finding her, and none of them are good. “I wish I could tell you something kinder.”

 

“No, it’s…” She takes an audible breath, lets it out in a rushing sigh. “It’s better this way. Geralt says--he says it’s easier to be brave when you know what to expect. You can prepare yourself.”

 

Geralt, Jaskier thinks, and shakes his head. Lucky thing he took on that White Wolf moniker; Geralt isn’t exactly a name that can strike fear into a Continent. “What’s he like?” he asks, figuring it’s a safe way to get her talking about something less terrifying than impending torture--or worse. “The White Wolf?”

 

Ciri makes a soft hm noise, something between a hum and a grunt. “He’s hard to describe,” she says. “He’s quiet, I guess. Kinder than he’d like people to think. He’s...commanding. I mean--” She laughs a little. It’s a good sound, Jaskier thinks. He prays she’ll get to keep laughing for years. “He’d have to be, to keep all the Witchers in line. But there’s something about him that makes it work, even if it’s not…well. I don’t think he ever expected to be where he is now. But it makes sense, when you know him. It seems like he was made for it.”

 

Jaskier inclines his head, though he knows she can’t see it. “And--Kaer Morhen?”

 

“It’s--”

 

There’s a crash outside, and the sound of footsteps. Ciri breaks off with gasp.

 

“Behind me,” Jaskier says. It’s useless, probably, it’s not like he can do anything to protect her, chained to the floor like this, but gods, he has to try, he can’t let this sweet girl get hurt--

 

The cell door clangs open, and he and Ciri both shrink back from the sudden light. The Nilfgaardian captain steps in, followed by the mage, velvet-robed and stone-faced. “Good evening,” the captain says, the slightest curl in his lip. He makes Ciri a bow that almost seems genuine. “Your Highness.”

 

Ciri says nothing. Her fingers tighten on Jaskier’s sleeve.

 

“The Emperor sends his regards, Princess,” the mage says. Her gaze sweeps over Ciri and then shifts to Jaskier, and he suppresses a shudder. She has a face that seems, at first glance, kind--soft eyes, as if there could be warmth there, if things had been different for her. But instead there’s only ice, stony and cold, an utter lack of compassion. “Bard.”

 

“My lady,” Jaskier says, with more calm than he feels, because he may be an utter disappointment to his parents in every possible way, but at least he remembers his manners.

 

Her expression doesn’t change, but she still gives off the impression of amusement. “Are you feeling more talkative today?”

 

“I’m always talkative,” he says. It’s not what she means, and he knows it. They’re convinced that he’s part of the Redanian Secret Service, his bardic talents a means for sowing dissension rather than searching for fame. They’re half-right, he supposes, he is trying to sow dissension and the Service did try to recruit him while he was at Oxenfurt, but it only took one sit-down with Dijkstra for him to determine that he wanted nothing at all to do with that, thanks ever so much. “I could even sing, if you’d like. I have a few new songs about His Eminence I’ve been working on down here; it would be lovely to have an audience to try them out on. The rats just aren’t giving me the feedback I’m used to.”

 

The mage clicks her tongue. “Little bard,” she says, an almost disappointed note to her voice. “Such a waste.”

 

She reaches out with a slender, perfectly manicured hand, delicate fingers Jaskier sees in his nightmares. He pushes Ciri further behind him.

 

Her fingertips touch his forehead, and several things happen at once.

 

Pain explodes through his temples, ripping down his neck and spine, hot and fierce like lightning.

 

Cirilla screams, high and wordless, and the cell around them ripples with so much power that Jaskier’s ears start to ring.

 

And a portal opens in the corner of the cell.

 

The mage yanks her hand away from Jaskier’s forehead with a curse, flinging her arms up and out just as a man--no, Jaskier realizes dizzily, a Witcher, the Witcher, the White Wolf himself--charges through the portal, golden eyes blazing in the torchlight and the shimmering spiral of the portal. He throws out a hand, the air cracks, and the mage staggers back.

 

More Witchers stream out of the portal, armor-clad and bellowing, swords drawn. A woman brings up the rear, very beautiful and clearly very furious, and her eyes snap to Ciri, clinging to Jaskier, to Jaskier, still swaying and cloudy with pain, and finally to the mage, struggling to her feet. Her lip curls.

 

Fringilla,” she snarls. Her hands burst into flames.

 

Everything dissolves, very quickly, into absolute chaos.

 

Jaskier watches through pain-blurred eyes, wavering on his knees. The White Wolf fights like the demon he’s rumored to be, ruthless and already bloodied, his sword swinging silver, his movements graceful and deadly. His Witchers cut down the Nifgaardian soldiers like paper dolls, blood arcing through the air. The cell, already thick with the smells of blood and sweat and piss, fills with the screams of the dying, the stench of gore and bile and shredded guts. Ciri clutches his arm and he’s aware, dimly, of her retching beside him.

 

You,” someone snarls, and Jaskier drags himself back to reality as the Nilfgaardian captain looms above them, sword drawn. His face is smeared with blood, his mouth twisted with rage. “You’re more trouble than you’re worth, Princess--”

 

He reaches for Ciri and Jaskier moves without thinking, putting his body between them. The captain makes a furious sound and raises his sword.

 

“Cahir!”

 

The snap comes from the mage. The captain whirls, and Jaskier follows his frantic gaze to the opposite end of the cell, where the Nilfgaardian mage has one hand extended, holding off three Witchers with a forcefield, the other opening a portal. “Now,” she grits out, and the captain swears and runs. The portal swallows him, and the mage follows him through, just in time for the Witcher’s mage to whirl towards them with a cry of frustration and rage.

 

A last body slides off a Witcher’s sword with a horrible squelching noise, then falls to the ground with a dull thump. The sounds of battle disappear, replaced by only ragged breathing, the groans of the wounded and dying, and the pounding of Jaskier’s pulse in his ears.

 

Someone says, soft and winded, “Ciri.”

 

Ciri’s hand drops away from Jaskier’s arm. “Geralt,” she says, and bursts into tears.

 

Faster than any normal man could move, the White Wolf is there, sweeping Ciri into his arms. She flings hers around his neck, burying her face in his shoulder, her ash-blonde hair nearly blending into his, the white strands darkened in places with splashed blood. They fit together like parent and child, her body utterly trusting as she clings to him.

 

Destiny, Jaskier thinks, fuzzy and warm. That’s nice.

 

Everything dips around him, then, and the world suddenly goes very light. He barely feels it when his head hits the stone floor of the cell.

 

“Jaskier!” It’s Ciri’s voice, high and frantic. He feels small, gentle hands on his face, and forces his eyes open. Her face is pale and worried. “Jaskier, stay awake--Yennefer, Yen, you have to help him--”

 

Then the Witcher’s mage is there, her violet eyes very bright and very lovely. Her gaze scans him clinically, but when she reaches out to touch him, all he can see is the memory of other magic. He shrinks away, and pain lances through him again, days of torture and beating rushing back through his nerves. The world spins. His face feels damp, something hot and wet spilling down from his eyes and nose.

 

“Fuck,” the mage says. “She must have--fuck. Geralt, hold him down.”

 

Strong hands curl over his shoulders, firm enough to hold him in place, gentle enough not to aggravate his wounds. “I’ve got him,” says a voice, low and rough.

 

The last thing Jaskier sees before everything falls away is a pair of brilliant golden eyes.

 

 

 

Chapter Text

 

 

 

Jaskier wakes to warmth, and the sound of singing.

 

For a few moments, he lets himself drift, comfortable and relaxed in what’s almost certainly a dream. Light flickers on the other side of his closed eyelids, crackling like a fire laid in a hearth, and the bed beneath him is soft, the blankets smooth-spun and gentle on his skin. The singing is sweet, if a little sharp, a voice that’s clearly had some tutelage, if not a great natural talent. He recognizes the song as a Cintran lullaby, rather old-fashioned, and that’s a nice touch.

 

He can’t remember the last time he dreamed like this. Since the Nilfgaardians took him, he’s had nothing but nightmares: the cold, dark cell; the crack of blows and the taste of his own blood; the skin-crawling curl of the mage’s magic. This, though--this is lovely. A welcome change. Jaskier sighs, relishing the lack of pain in the exhale on what he knows to be broken ribs, and turns his head into the pillow.

 

The singing stops. “Jaskier?” the singer says, and that’s a familiar voice, isn’t it? He can't quite place it. “Jaskier, are you awake?”

 

“No,” he says, because if he wakes up he’ll be back in the cell, and he wants to stay here, just for a little while longer, where it’s warm and safe and quiet.

 

“Jaskier,” says another voice, older than the first, touched with amusement. “Come now, little one. Open your eyes. You’re safe now.” A cool, soft hand settles on his brow. It feels lovely, and he hums, leaning into the touch before he can stop himself. “There you are. Open your eyes.”

 

Reality rushes back, and he opens his eyes with a gasp.

 

The sudden intake of air brings the pain back to his ribs and he chokes, curling up automatically to try and make himself a smaller target. “Fuck,” he wheezes, pressing his face into the pillow, and--

 

Wait. He blinks.

 

Pillow?

 

Cautiously, he lifts his head.

 

He’s in what’s clearly a sickroom of sorts, warm and well-lit and utterly impersonal, with stone walls and a fire crackling in a nearby hearth. The air smells faintly of healing herbs, lavender and chamomile and feverfew and mint. The sheets and blankets he’s swaddled in are soft and soothing against his skin, the mattress comfortable.

 

The woman with her hand on his forehead is lovely, with olive skin and a tumble of chestnut curls. Her face is kind, her touch tender, and she smiles at him when he meets her eyes. “There you are,” she says. “How do you feel?”

 

“I…” His mouth feels dry and horrible. He swallows a few times to try and soften his throat, and Princess Cirilla, the Lion Cub of Cintra, who had apparently been sitting curled in the armchair beside the bed, scrambles to hand him a cup of water from a table by the window.

 

“Here,” she says, and he takes it with what he hopes is a grateful smile. His hands twinge slightly as he curls his fingers around it, but it’s a dull ache, nothing like the agony he remembers from the cell. In fact, none of the pain in his body feels like what he remembers. “Do you feel alright?”

 

He swallows his mouthful of water. “Shockingly, yes,” he says. His voice is a little raspy, but it doesn’t hurt to talk. Cradling the cup carefully in both hands, he turns to the woman. Something about her makes him think she must be a mage--it’s her eyes, maybe, so much older than her relatively youthful face--and fear prickles down his spine. But Ciri looks utterly at ease in her presence, and the woman is looking at him with what seems like genuine concern, so… “I...suspect I have you to thank for that?”

 

She smiles, inclining her head. “You do,” she says. “How’s the pain?”

 

Jaskier takes stock. “Manageable,” he says. “Which is far better than I expected. I’m in your debt, my lady.”

 

“Just Triss is fine,” she says, amusement in her tone. “And it was my pleasure, after what you did for our girl.” Ciri beams at her, and Triss cups her cheek briefly with a tender hand before turning back to Jaskier. “I healed the worst of your injuries,” she says. “You might have some residual pain--that’s your nerves catching up to the magic. You lost quite a bit of blood, as well, so you’ll need plenty of fluids, and I’d like you to take it easy for at least another day before you go exploring. The last thing you need is to fall down one of the stairways and re-concuss yourself.”

 

“Right,” he says slowly. He does feel drained and shaky, but he’d been assuming that was just the trauma of the whole kidnap-and-torture thing. He remembers the Nilfgaardian mage’s hands, then, and shivers. “The other sorceress,” he asks, a little tentative. “Did she...with her magic, I mean…”

 

He trails off, not sure what he’s even trying to ask. Triss gives him a sympathetic look. “She did some nasty spellwork, yes,” she says. “I don’t know what she was looking for in your head, but she wasn’t gentle trying to get to it. The concussion certainly didn’t help. But there shouldn’t be any lasting effects.”

 

Good. That’s good, right? Jaskier takes a deep breath. “Thank you,” he says. “Where are we now?”

 

“Kaer Morhen,” Ciri says, perching back on the edge of the armchair. “Yennefer portaled us back once she stabilized you.” Worry flickers in her blue-green eyes. “I’m sorry,” she says. “I didn’t realize you were so badly hurt.”

 

Oh, sweet girl, Jaskier thinks. He shakes his head, holding out a hand, and she slips hers into it. “That was on purpose,” he admits. “I didn’t want to scare you.”

 

She drops her gaze to her lap, picking at a loose thread on her trousers with her free hand. “I was scared anyway,” she says quietly.

 

Jaskier squeezes her hand. (Fingers! He can move his fingers again! Healing magic is amazing.) “So was I.”

 

“You’re both safe now,” Triss says. She turns to Ciri. “And you, my dear, should be off to bed.”

 

Ciri makes a face. “But Triss--”

 

“No buts, Princess.” She’s firm, but her tone is touched with amusement. “Your father said you could stay up until Jaskier woke up and you got to see he was okay, and you have. It wasn’t so long ago that you were in that horrible place, too, and you need your rest.” She touches Ciri’s hair gently. “Off you go, little cub.”

 

Ciri sighs. “Fine. But I’m coming back in the morning.” She hesitates, and then, quite quickly, darts forward and flings her arms around Jaskier’s neck.

 

“Oof,” he says, startled, but hugs her back, because when the Crown Princess of a dead country hugs you, you don’t push her away. “Hello.”

 

“Thank you,” she says, her hair tickling his cheek. “I would have been so much more afraid if you weren’t there. And I know you were going to try and protect me.”

 

He pats her back, a little awkwardly. “I don’t think it would have done much good.”

 

“But you were going to try,” she insists, and sniffles slightly before pulling back. “Feel better soon, alright? I want to hear more of your songs.”

 

If he felt any better, he’d bow. As it is, he gives her his most courtly nod. “Your wish is my command, Your Highness.”

 

She sniffs again, then plants a kiss on his cheek and pulls away. She musters a watery smile, lets Triss bop a gentle finger against her chin, and leaves the room with a whirl of ash-blond hair.

 

Before the door closes behind her with a heavy thump, Jaskier catches sight of a large, vaguely hulking form peel itself away from the wall by the door, falling into step beside her. A bodyguard, probably, he thinks, and then, a Witcher bodyguard, and then, oh, shit, Kaer Morhen.

 

Panic kindles in the back of his mind. He’s never sung a word against the White Wolf, but that doesn’t mean he’s ever been stupid enough to wander up into his den. He’s acutely aware, very suddenly, that just about everyone in this keep could kill him with very little effort at all--Kaer Morhen, as far as he knows, is full of Witchers and mages. Even the servants here are probably deadly. As grateful as he is for the rescue, he kind of wants to ask Triss if she can portal him right back out of here.

 

What he says, though, is: “She’s a good kid.”

 

“She is,” Triss agrees, sitting on the side of his bed. “And well-loved here.” She holds out a hand, and Jaskier lets her take his and turn his wrist to put two fingers to his pulse. She’s quiet for a moment, then nods in what looks like satisfaction and releases him. “We’re very grateful for what you did for her.”

 

Jaskier flushes, embarrassed. “I didn’t do anything. A few songs, a few stories.”

 

“You kept her calm,” Triss counters.

 

“She’s a child,” he says. “It’s what anyone would have done.”

 

Triss gives him a sad look. “I think you and I have both spent enough time at court to know that’s not true.”

 

He winces. She’s right, of course. Gods, he does not miss that. He changes the subject. “So...Kaer Morhen?”

 

“Yes.” She smiles. “Ciri refused to leave you behind. Not that Geralt would have left you anyway.”

 

Why does that name sound familiar? “Geralt?”

 

Triss inclines her head. “You might know him better as the White Wolf.”

 

It probably says something about how exhausted he still is that he doesn’t even have the energy to panic at the idea of the White Wolf himself orchestrating his rescue. “Right,” he says, his voice coming out just a pitch higher than usual. He clears his throat. “And he...doesn’t mind that I’m here?”

 

“Not at all.” She takes his hand, her eyes warm and kind. “Ciri means the world to him,” she says. “And you were willing to put yourself in danger to keep her safe.” Her lips twitch. “It’s not quite in his nature to be welcoming, exactly, but he gave me very firm instructions to make sure you were taken care of.” She sniffs, as if offended. “As if my work is ever less than superb. Gods know I’ve patched him up enough times.”

 

Jaskier laughs, a little nervously. “From where I’m sitting, at least, you do excellent work, my lady.”

 

She chuckles, squeezing his hand and climbing to her feet. “Thank you,” she says. “Now, get some rest. Your wounds are healed, but your nerves and your brain are still catching up, and sleep will help.” Gently, she helps him lie back against the pillows, and then pauses. “You’ve...been through some trauma,” she says, as if choosing her words carefully. “I’m sure you’re not eager to have any more magic done, but I can make your sleep dreamless, if you’d like.”

 

His instinct is to refuse. She’s right--he has no interest in anyone else poking around inside his head, thanks very much. But he is tired, and the thought of falling asleep and finding himself back in that horrible cell, with those horrible people, makes his skin crawl.

 

“That would be nice,” he says. “If it’s not too much trouble.”

 

“Not at all,” Triss assures him. “We owe you a debt.”

 

He starts to ask her what she means, but her fingertips brush his forehead, and everything drops away.

 

 

When Jaskier wakes again, the White Wolf is sitting by his bedside.

 

In all the chaos and panic of the cells, Jaskier hadn’t really gotten to--to look at him during that daring rescue. He remembers the White Wolf at least a little from that fateful night in Cintra (he doubts, obviously, that the White Wolf remembers him, but he wasn’t the one saving princesses and de-cursing knights), but here, up close, he finds himself staring. The White Wolf is more handsome than he remembers, moon-white hair caught up in a half-tail and well-groomed stubble on his cheeks, strong cheekbones and a stronger jaw. He’s large, even sitting, broad-shouldered and thick, and even without his armor or swords, with his eyes closed in what looks like some kind of meditation, he radiates danger.

 

Jaskier is just wondering if he should say something when the White Wolf, without opening his eyes, says, “I know you’re awake.”

 

It’s pure exhaustion that keeps Jaskier from startling straight out of his skin. As it is, he lets out an entirely too-high shriek of surprise. The White Wolf’s lips twitch. “Sorry.”

 

Warn a man,” Jaskier wheezes, putting a hand to his chest. “Gods. Why were you just--lurking?”

 

“Meditating,” the White Wolf says. He leans over and picks up the cup of water on the bedside table. “Drink this. Triss says you need fluids.”

 

Jaskier’s not about to argue with the Warlord of the North. He takes the cup and drinks.

 

The White Wolf settles back in his chair, regarding Jaskier with an unreadable expression, his golden eyes intense. It’s more than a little unnerving, and some half-buried prey instinct in Jaskier’s hindbrain wants to hold perfectly still in return, as if it might keep the predator in front of him from striking. It won’t, of course, but the impulse is still there.

 

Jaskier lowers the cup. “Thank you,” he says. The White Wolf cocks a brow, and Jaskier says, “For the hospitality. And, um. The healing.”

 

“Hm,” the White Wolf says, and then, “You were kind to Ciri.”

 

This again? “She was a terrified teenager thrown into a torture cell,” Jaskier says. “Of course I was.”

 

“You knew who she was.”

 

It’s not a question. Jaskier blinks. “Well, yes. She looks like her mother.”

 

The White Wolf looks at him, and maybe Jaskier’s imagining it, but it seems like there’s something thoughtful in those striking eyes. “You were there,” he says after a long moment. “In Cintra.” Jaskier frowns. “Pavetta’s wedding.”

 

Oh. “You remember me?”

 

“I don’t forget faces.” Gods, the man really is expressionless. If he were any less handsome it would be unnerving. As it is, it’s sort of like being stared at by a very sexy statue. “You weren’t singing war songs then.”

 

Jaskier winces. “No,” he says. Those were simpler days, full of bawdy songs and heroic ballads and ill-advised sexual escapades. He’d been very good at being simple, but when Nilfgaard started slaughtering children by the hundreds in their path up the Continent, somehow simple just didn’t seem like the right thing to be anymore. He’s good at war songs, at political barbs spun into choruses that even the lowest tavern drunk can catch onto and sing.

 

Too good, apparently.

 

He clears his throat. “No,” he repeats. “No, I wasn’t.”

 

The White Wolf says nothing for a long moment. When he finally does speak, his voice is even more stilted, formal in a way that’s clearly not his preference. “Kaer Morhen owes you a debt,” he says. “How would you have it repaid?”

 

Jaskier stares at him. “Um,” he says. “Sorry. You’ll have to say that again.” The White Wolf narrows his eyes, and Jaskier hastens to add, “Not--I’m not making fun. I just...what? Why would you owe me?”

 

“Ciri is my heir,” the White Wolf says. “You were willing to put yourself at risk to protect her. You’re not her guard, not a fighter, you had no obligation to her or to me. Yet you did it anyway.” His gaze is steady and calm. “That’s no small thing, and I thank you for it. But I prefer not to owe favors.”

 

“Oh,” Jaskier says. “I mean--well. There was the whole…” He waves a hand, indicating the sickroom. “Your mage did heal me.”

 

The White Wolf’s lips twitch. “Don’t let her hear you call her my mage,” he says. “But that was decency, not repayment. Ask again.”

 

...all right, then.

 

Jaskier takes his time. It’s not every day the Warlord of the North gives you the choice of a favor, and anyway, he gets the sense that the White Wolf isn’t a man who rushes into things, or appreciates people who do.

 

Which Jaskier does, usually, but the White Wolf doesn’t need to know that.

 

So, a favor. Security, probably, would be the logical choice. He’s gotten himself on Nilfgaard’s shit list, apparently, and having a Witcher as a bodyguard would probably help keep them off his back. Then again, Witchers aren’t mercenaries, and if they’ve gotten used to fighting for truth and justice or whatever under the White Wolf’s banner, he can’t imagine any of them would be happy following him around and keeping him from getting kidnapped again.

 

He could ask for money, of course, or treasure. It’s no secret that the White Wolf receives tribute wagons, from the kingdoms he’s conquered and the ones afraid he will conquer them alike. But Jaskier’s a travelling bard, not a landed noble--not anymore, at least--and other than what he needs for food and inns and the occasional new piece of clothing or souvenir trinket, he can’t exactly carry bags of gold around.

 

A token, maybe? Some symbol of the White Wolf’s favor? Other kings give those out, guaranteeing safe passage through their lands, and the White Wolf’s kingdom is large enough that it might be a useful thing to have. But those are mostly useful for bribing state officials and working one’s way into a warm bed in the manors of local nobility, and Witchers don’t really seem to be the bribing type, nor does Jaskier particularly enjoy spending all his time in noble courts. He got the fuck out of Lettenhove at the first possible chance for a reason. One could use such a thing for getting free room and board at local inns, maybe, but innkeepers need that income, and flaunting a king’s token isn’t exactly a way to sow goodwill from people Jaskier needs to woo with his music.

 

So: not a bodyguard, not money, not favor. What, then?

 

Oh, he thinks. Of course.

 

“A song cycle,” he says.

 

The White Wolf frowns. “What?”

 

“A song cycle,” Jaskier repeats. “A series of songs that create a concrete narrative--”

 

“I know what a song cycle is,” the White Wolf interrupts, and--really? Jaskier hadn’t exactly thought that would be part of Witcher education, whatever that looks like. “I don’t know what you’re asking for.”

 

Jaskier spreads his hands. “I’m a bard,” he says, by way of explanation. “I go where the stories are, and right now, you and your rise to power are the most important stories on the Continent, but no one’s telling them--at least, not correctly, I’m sure. The lands you haven’t conquered talk about you like a monster--”

 

Something unrecognizable but certainly unhappy flickers across the White Wolf’s face, and is gone just as quickly. Jaskier presses on hastily. “--And in your lands the nobles barely talk about you at all and the common folk seem to sing your praises. But no one’s telling your side of the story, about whatever it is that made a bunch of wandering monster-killers get together and start taking over half the Continent. Not just taking over, but taking over and making things better. So.” He gestures between them. “I want to know what happened. And then I want to sing about it. Get your story out there.”

 

The White Wolf’s face is absolutely unreadable. Finally, he says, “Why?”

 

Smart man, Jaskier thinks. “Two reasons,” he says. “First, no one else has this kind of chance. A cycle like this will make me famous, especially once it gets out that I got the stories straight from the source.”

 

The White Wolf’s lips twitch. Is that the closest he gets to smiling? Jaskier suspects that learning to decipher his expressions is going to take work. “And the second?”

 

Jaskier shrugs. “Nilfgaard is still after me, I assume,” he says. “They don’t exactly like losing their prisoners. I can’t imagine there’s anywhere safer on the Continent to hide out than Kaer Morhen. If I stay here while I’m composing, I’m out of their reach.”

 

“Ah.” The White Wolf sounds almost amused. “Sanctuary, then.”

 

“As a byproduct,” Jaskier says airily. The White Wolf snorts--definitely amusement, all right, Jaskier can do this--and leans back in his chair.

 

“How long?” Jaskier inclines his head, curious, and the White Wolf elaborates, “To write the songs.”

 

“Oh.” Jaskier thinks for a moment. He could do it in six months, probably, he’s very good at what he does, but with Nilfgaard prowling, better to be safe than sorry, right? “A year?”

 

The White Wolf looks at him, thoughtful, and then tips his head in a nod. “Done,” he says, rising to his feet. “Get some rest. Triss wants you in bed another day, and then we’ll find you quarters. Once you’re healed, we’ll talk about your...songs.”

 

Now that he focuses on it, Jaskier is starting to feel tired again, his limbs heavy. “All right,” he says. The White Wolf helps him lay back down with surprisingly gentle hands, and Jaskier settles back against the pillows again. He draws the blankets back up over his chest, watching through half-lidded eyes--gods, that exhaustion came out of nowhere, magical healing is weird--as the White Wolf makes his way to the door of the sickroom.

 

There’s a soft scrape as the door opens, and then a pause. Jaskier opens his eyes in time to see the White Wolf turn to look back at him. There’s something in his eyes that looks almost curious. “You’re not afraid,” the White Wolf says.

 

Jaskier blinks at at him. “Of what?”

 

“Of me.”

 

Oh. Jaskier thinks about the many ways he could answer that question--I saw you risk your life so that a girl could marry the man she loved, or you can kill like it’s breathing but you held Ciri more gently than my family ever held me, or no one as monstrous as the stories say you are would ever build an empire like yours.

 

None of it seems right. He lifts his chin and meets the White Wolf’s golden gaze, and answers with a question. “Should I be?”

 

The White Wolf stares at him, his face blank. Jaskier could read a few things on him earlier--at least, he thought he could--but now, he’s got nothing.

 

“Hm,” the White Wolf says finally, more a grunt than any kind of statement, and leaves the room, shutting the door behind him.

 

Jaskier doesn’t even have time to wonder what the fuck that was about before sleep carries him down once more.

 

...

 

Triss keeps him in the sickroom for two more days, and on the morning of the third pronounces him healthy enough to move to his own quarters. A servant boy in simple but well-made clothing escorts Jaskier through the winding halls of the keep--Jaskier tries, and fails, to memorize the way--and stops in front of a door in what seems to be a residential wing of sorts. The boy opens the door for him, and Jaskier finds himself in a small but neatly-appointed sitting room, with a few squashy-looking chairs, a desk, and an empty bookshelf, a door in the back of the room leading to what’s clearly a bedroom, just as neat and just as impersonal.

 

“Will it suit you, sir?” the boy asks.

 

“It’s lovely,” Jaskier says, both because it is and because he’d hardly dispute the White Wolf’s hospitality even if it weren’t. “Would it be possible to bathe, and to find some fresh clothes?” He’s still wearing the simple linen shift from the sickroom, and while the extra air flow is quite lovely, he misses feeling like he’s properly dressed, and he suspects Kaer Morhen gets quite chilly at night.

 

“I can find you some clothes,” the boy says. He gives Jaskier a critical look, and Jaskier suspects he’s being mentally measured. It’s a little disconcerting, but no worse than any of the seamstresses he’s patronized over the years. “As for a bath, I can have someone bring you a tub if you’re still feeling poorly, or I can take you down to the hot springs.”

 

Jaskier startles. “Hot springs?”

 

“Yes, sir.”

 

Like Jaskier’s going to say no to that. “A hot spring sounds delightful,” he says. “Let’s go.”

 

The boy--Markel, he introduces himself, when Jaskier asks, because it’s only polite--leads him back through the halls and down one flight of stairs after another, deep into the bowels of the keep. Jaskier looks around as they go, taking in as much as he can and committing details to memory: the rough dark stone of the walls, the well-worn flagstones of the floor, the healthy glow and easy nods of greeting from the servants who pass them by, the leather-metal-spice scent that lingers in the air.

 

“There aren’t any Witchers around,” he says, as Markel takes them down yet another corridor. Jaskier’s going to need a map to get around this damn place.

 

“No, sir, not at this time of day.” Markel glances back at him. “Training,” he adds, at Jaskier’s no-doubt-baffled expression.

 

“Oh.” What do Witchers train for? Fighting, he supposes. “How many of them are there?”

 

“Witchers?” Markel scrunches up his face in concentration. “Three hundred and fifty, or so, across the different schools? Four hundred, I guess, if you count the trainees and the instructors.” He gives Jaskier a sympathetic sort of look, which probably says something about whatever expression must be on Jaskier’s face. “You get used to them, sir. I was scared when we first came here, my ma and me, but they’re kind, even if they’re a little--um, dirty. But they’re only rough with each other.”

 

Jaskier nods slowly. KInd. Gods, these songs are going to be incredible. “Your mother is here as well?”

 

“Yes, sir. In the laundry.” He wrinkles his nose. “She was the best in our village, and they needed someone who could handle all the blood and ichor and monster guts. Ugh.”

 

“Ugh,” Jaskier agrees.

 

They walk a bit further in a friendly sort of silence that would be unthinkable in any normal court, and Jaskier is just starting to feel a little bit like he should have asked to bathe in his rooms when they turn a final stone corner and emerge into a large antechamber with walls of natural curved stone. There’s a slightly metallic scent on the air, and it grows warmer as they move further in.

 

“You can store your clothing there,” Markel says, motioning to a series of shelves carved into the rock, each filled with rows of woven baskets. “And there are linens, as well. A lot of people come down in robes. I’ll talk to Mistress Anya--she’s the Mistress of Wardrobe, I guess, as much as we’ve got that, she runs the laundry and the seamstresses and all that--and make sure you get everything you need.”

 

Huh, Jaskier thinks, undressing while Markel busies himself finding Jaskier a towel and pouring him a cup of water from a pitcher next to a neat stack of copper mugs. Kaer Morhen has something resembling a proper administration, then. Surprising, but not so much so; with upwards of three hundred and fifty Witchers under one roof, surely someone needs to take charge of feeding and clothing and cleaning up after them, and he can’t quite picture the White Wolf doing laundry.

 

Then again, they must have had to be somewhat self-sufficient before all this Warlord business started, right?

 

He wishes he had something to take notes with. He’s going to lose track of what questions to ask, at this rate.

 

Once he’s undressed and wrapped in a towel Markel handed him with perfunct disinterest, he follows Markel into the next chamber. He’s instantly hit with a wave of heat and steam so strong that he has to stop and blink, and Markel sets a steadying hand on his arm. “All right, sir?”

 

“Fine,” Jaskier says, shaking his head a bit to clear it. His vision focusing again, he stares at the vaulted room in front of him. It’s huge, and seems to go on forever, stretching into darkness, rippling, cascading pools of different sizes and, Markel explains, temperatures.

 

“They get hotter the further back you go,” he says, pointing into the cavern. The sound of running water over stone echoes in the chamber. “Don’t even go near the hottest ones; the Witchers love them, but they’ll scald a human.”

 

“I’ll keep that in mind,” Jaskier says. He dips a toe into the nearest pool, decides he can take a little more heat, and tries the next one, which seems more like what he’s looking for. He slips off the towel and slides carefully into the water, shuddering with pleasure--it’s a few degrees over body temperature, and feels delightful. “Oh, that’s lovely.”

 

There’s a stone ledge running along the inside of the pool, perfect for sitting on and leaving just his head and shoulders above the surface. Jaskier hums happily and tilts his head back against the edge of the pool, and Markel sets the cup of water carefully within arm’s reach. “I can stay if you’d like,” Markel says. “Or I can come back for you, in an hour or so? Lady Triss says the water is healing.”

 

“I’d love that,” Jaskier says. The water feels incredible, seeping into muscles that still remember torture and pain, for all that the physical wounds are gone.

 

“I’ll come back, then,” Markel says. Jaskier gives an approving mumble, and Markel adds, “Don’t drown, please. I think I’d get in trouble.”

 

Jaskier lifts a hand from the water in a salute. Markel giggles, catches himself, giggles again, and pads away, his footsteps echoing off the stone. Jaskier sighs, closes his eyes, and lets the water do its work.

 

...

 

He drifts pleasantly for some time, losing himself in the sounds of water on stone, the warmth of the pool, the soothing absence of pain. It’s tempting to doze off, but he’s all too certain that nightmares will set back in if he does, and anyway, he’d promised Markel he wouldn’t drown.

 

He’s just beginning to think about going in search of more water when there’s a sudden rumbling of sound in the direction of the entrance. Before he can start to puzzle out what it is, the rumbling grows in volume and becomes voices and footsteps, amplified by the natural cavern. Jaskier barely has time to wonder if he should perhaps hide before what can only be described as a horde of men--no, he realizes, noting the bulk and scars and flashing eyes, a horde of Witchers--come naked and boisterous into the chamber. Jaskier muffles an almost certainly undignified squeak and ducks a bit further down into the water, averting his eyes as much as possible (he’s no stranger to naked men, but goodness) as the Witchers, laughing and wrestling and jostling one another, plunge into the various pools. Most of them, as Markel said, head right for the hotter pools, but some of them go for the cooler water at the front of the room, and a few even splash down in the pools closest to Jaskier.

 

Don’t panic, he tells himself firmly. You sat across from the White Wolf in nothing but your smallclothes, you can stay calm in a bathing room full of Witchers. He takes a deep breath, forces his shoulders to relax, and settles his head back in the comfortable nook of the pool he’d found earlier, perfect for reclining.

 

It’s fine. Everything’s fine. He’s naked in a bath surrounded by an army of Witchers, given temporary sanctuary by the White Wolf of the North in exchange for his accidental service to the Lion Cub of Cintra.

 

Water sweeps over his mouth and halfway into his nose as something large splashes into his pool, and Jaskier startles up, sputtering and wiping at his eyes. There’s a bark of laughter from beside him.

 

“Sorry,” someone says, a deep, amused baritone, and Jaskier blinks a few more times to clear his eyes, and then focuses.

 

His new bathmate is broad and muscled, as all Witchers seem to be, with a sweep of dark hair and intense amber eyes. One side of his face is marred by a wicked scar, raking over his cheek and twisting part of his upper lip, but Jaskier can’t help but find him handsome. Something about his features reminds Jaskier of the White Wolf--his hair and eyes are darker, and there’s something softer in his face than the White Wolf’s stoniness, but there’s a similarity all the same. He wonders if they’re properly related, or if it’s just a Witcher thing. “Um,” Jaskier says. “Hello.”

 

The Witcher’s scarred lip twitches up in amusement. “You must be the bard.”

 

Jaskier raises an eyebrow. “I didn’t take Witchers for gossips.”

 

He says it before he really thinks about it, but he doesn’t have time to cringe before the Witcher is laughing, a warm, ringing sound. “Geralt was right,” he says. “You do have nerve.” He extends one broad hand across the pool. “Eskel.”

 

“Jaskier,” Jaskier says, clasping it a little warily. “Word travels fast, I suppose?”

 

Eskel chuckles, reclining back against the side of the pool. “In certain circles,” he says. “You were quite the star of the Council meeting this morning. We’ve never had a bard at Kaer Morhen before.”

 

So the Warlord has a Council? That makes sense. Jaskier files that bit of information away with the servants and the hot springs and says, “I hope it was greeted as good news.”

 

Eskel shrugs one scarred shoulder. “Geralt’s offered you a place here. Good news or not, we won’t speak against it.” Jaskier frowns, not sure how to take that, and Eskel gives him a kinder look. “Sorry. What I mean is, if you’re serious about telling our story from our side, then we’re glad to have you--not that Geralt would ever say it like that. He’ll introduce you to everyone once you’re well enough to come to a meal, probably. No one’ll give you any trouble.”

 

“Right,” Jaskier says slowly, adding to his mental notes: Eskel, clearly part of the White Wolf’s inner circle; communal meals, apparently a thing.

 

The Witcher regards him with the same thoughtful consideration as the White Wolf, and Jaskier tries not to squirm under his gaze. He’s very conscious of being decidedly out-muscled, though there’s no threat on Eskel’s face. In fact, Eskel almost looks calculating, like he’s sizing Jaskier up for--well, the reason men usually look like they’re sizing Jaskier up when they’re not spoiling for a fight.

 

He flushes, not at all because of the hot water, and Eskel laughs again. “You really aren’t afraid, are you, little bard?”

 

Jaskier lifts his chin and tips his head to one side--defiant, but keenly aware that he’s exposing his throat. He’s in a den of wolves, but they’re men, too, and he knows how to handle men. “No one here has given me reason to be,” he says.

 

Eskel’s lips quirk up. “Oh, you’ll do well here.” He stands up in the water, and Jaskier very pointedly keeps his eyes on his face. “I’m looking forward to your songs, Jaskier.”

 

“Thanks,” Jaskier says, for lack of a more eloquent response, and as Eskel pulls himself out of the bath and heads for one of the warmer pools, Jaskier can’t quite help feeling like he’s just passed some sort of test.

 

...

 

Markel brings him dinner on a tray in his rooms--simple, tasty fare that’s a little heartier than the porridge and fruit he’d gotten in the sickroom; thick slices of still-warm bread, cheese, stewed beans, and an apple so crisp and sweet Jaskier almost tears up--but by late afternoon, Triss pronounces him fit to eat downstairs in the main hall for supper. Markel leaves for about an hour and returns with a plump, middle-aged woman who introduces herself as Anya.

 

“Goodness, you’re a scrap,” she says, clucking her tongue in a rather motherly fashion as she sets down the basket of neatly folded clothes she’s carrying. She motions him up to his feet and gives him a critical look, even as she gently manhandles him out of the linen robe he’d put on after his bath. “Have you not been fed? Markel, did you bring him dinner?”

 

“I spent...some amount of time in a Nilfgaardian cell,” Jaskier says, a little embarrassed at the fuss. He still doesn’t quite know how long he was in there. He makes a mental note to ask someone the date. The sudden nudity doesn’t really bother him; he grew up in a noble house and wardrobe professionals have seen it all. “Hell on the diet. I’ve been eating since I’ve been here, I promise.”

 

“You’re down to your ribs, look at you.” She shakes her head. “Well, we can take a few things in, and let them out later. I can see you’re used to having a bit of muscle on you.”

 

“Not really,” Jaskier says, but takes the armful of clothing she hands him. “I walk a lot, but I’m not, you know.” He wiggles his fingers. “Witcher-y.”

 

She chuckles. “A good thing, too, we’ve got quite enough of that to keep my girls busy. Alright, put those on, and we’ll see what needs fixing.”

 

Having long since learned not to argue with seamstresses, Jaskier dresses quickly. It’s a fairly complete outfit--smallclothes, chemise, trousers, a doublet, all well-made and clean, if more muted in color than he usually prefers, a dark, almost soothing blue. It’ll make his eyes pop, he thinks, a little vainly, and turns for Anya’s inspection.

 

“Very good,” she says approvingly. “Arms out, dear, there you go.” He holds still while she pinches seams here and there, adjusting the fit of the doublet and trousers--they do hang a bit loose, but not terribly so; Markel had guessed his size fairly accurately. She adds a few quick stitches, easily removed, and nods in satisfaction. “There,” she says. “Good. I’ve got your measurements now, and I’ll have a few more things sent up for you this evening. There’s boots for you in the basket, as well, and socks.”

 

“Thank you,” Jaskier says, meaning it. He hadn’t realized just how unlike himself he’d felt, dressed like an invalid. The fresh, fitted clothes make him almost feel normal again. “This is far more kindness than I deserve.”

 

“Oh, pish,” she says, dismissive in a way that puts him in mind of his childhood nurse. “You look like a boy used to fine things, and it’s a pleasure to work on something other than tunics that can easily be cleaned of blood.”

 

“Well, in that case.” He flashes her his brightest smile. “I’m at your service, my lady.”

 

She laughs. “What a charmer,” she says, and gives him a rather grandmotherly pat on the cheek. “Markel, you keep an eye on this one.”

 

“Yes ma’am,” Markel says, with an absolutely straight face, and she pinches his cheek as well, picking up her newly emptied basket and bustling out of the room.

 

“Well,” Jaskier says, sitting down on the bed to pull on the socks she left behind. “She’s lovely.”

 

Markel nods pleasantly, perching on the chair by the dressing-table. “She likes you,” he says. “That’s good. She talks to everyone.”

 

Jaskier takes the hint for what it is. “Stay on Anya’s good side. Got it.” He puts on the boots. They’re made of a soft, sturdy leather, clearly hand-me-downs from someone--they’re too well broken-in to be new--but in very good condition. “How do I look?”

 

Markel squints at him. “Um,” he says. “Happier?”

 

“I’ll take it. Where’s supper?”

 

He follows Markel down through the corridors and stairwells of the keep, pleased to find that he recognizes the turns they took to get down to the baths. They pass more Witchers, now, some of them in armor, some in simple tunics and trousers, all of them scarred and more than a little intimidating. A few of them look a bit confused by his presence, but most of them just give him a nod or no acknowledgment at all, though most of them at least incline a head to Markel, who trots at Jaskier’s side easily, pointing out different rooms and hallways as they pass them.

 

Then they emerge into the main hall, and Jaskier stares.

 

He hadn’t really thought about what the White Wolf’s hall might look like. Nothing like a southern court, certainly, probably nothing like most northern courts, either. There’s a distinct lack of well-dressed courtiers and not a single musician in sight, but what there is, instead, is noise.

 

Long tables take up most of the massive room, each full of Witchers, talking and jostling one another and, here and there, wrestling in the space between benches. At the front of the hall is a table set up perpendicular to the rest, with a larger, more imposing chair at its center (currently empty, Jaskier notes) and a few empty spaces. He recognizes Eskel at the right hand of the center chair, two empty places to its left. Triss is further down on one side, chatting amiably to a gray-haired Witcher Jaskier hasn’t met yet. There are a few humans scattered throughout the tables as well--some of them clearly warriors, if the scars and practical clothing are anything to go by, but a few have the fine clothes and slightly just-too-perfect beauty of mages.

 

“This way,” Markel says, tugging gently at Jaskier’s sleeve. Jaskier shakes himself out of his immediate need to commit the room to memory and lets Markel lead him--

 

--directly over to the high table.

 

“Um,” Jaskier says, alarmed, but Markel just shushes him (Jaskier is starting to get a very clear mental picture of how comfortable the servants are here in Kaer Morhen, and he quite likes what he sees) and guides him over to the empty chair on Triss’s other side, pulling it out for him and giving him a pointed look until Jaskier sits.

 

“Well, hello,” Triss says, turning away from her companion to smile at him. “Good to see you up and about, little bard.”

 

He’s not sure how this little bard thing started--he’s not built like a Witcher, sure, but he’s still tall--but she says it fondly, so he takes it in stride, catching her hand and kissing it. “My lady,” he says. “Glad to see a familiar face.”

 

“You’ll see a few more soon,” she says. “Geralt is finishing up a few things with Ciri and Yen. Ciri’ll be delighted to see you, I’m sure.”

 

Jaskier hasn’t seen the princess since his first weary swim back to consciousness in the sick room. “I’m looking forward to introducing myself properly,” he says. “That is, fully dressed and not chained to anything.”

 

Triss chuckles. “You’ll find that there’s not much call for ceremony here,” she says. Markel leans smoothly between them to fill the mug by Jaskier’s plate with ale, and then withdraws with a last encouraging smile. “Just that one,” she says, a warning note in her voice as he reaches for the mug, eager for something other than water and weak tea. “I’ve just healed you, I don’t need you undoing my good work by pouring alcohol onto a freshly healed liver.”

 

Jaskier nearly spits out his sip of what’s actually a very nice ale. “What was wrong with my liver?” he asks, horrified.

 

She waves a hand. “Just some rather severe bruising,” she says, as if that’s nothing at all. Considering she seems to usually work with Witchers, Jaskier thinks, it probably is nothing at all. “Not life-threatening, though certainly not good for you.” Her expression turns sympathetic. “They weren’t particularly gentle with you, were they?”

 

He tightens his fingers around the mug, swallowing around the sudden lump in his throat. He’s been doing a very good job of pushing the entire experience into a little box in the back of his head where he won’t have to think about it, but now memory threatens to wash over him again, hot and cloying and sickly. “No,” he says.

 

Her eyes soften. “I’ll send a sleeping draught for you tonight,” she says. “Not a long-term solution, but it will help you sleep, and keep it dreamless until you settle here.”

 

A tension he hadn’t realized he was holding eases out of his muscles. “Thank you, my lady.”

 

Triss smiles and opens her mouth as if to speak, but a hush sweeps quite suddenly across the hall, and she turns her head away, rising to her feet just as everyone else in the hall does the same, chairs and benches scraping the stone floor. Jaskier follows her gaze to a door at the back of the room, where the White Wolf has just emerged, Ciri at his side and the sorceress he remembers from the cell a pace behind them. The White Wolf, all in black with his long hair swept up into a knot at the back of his head, leads the way to the head table, pulling out the chair at the left hand of the center seat. Ciri steps smoothly in front of it, and the White Wolf stands by his own chair for a long moment, scanning the room, seeming to meet every eye.

 

Jaskier can’t help but shiver slightly as that golden gaze sweeps over him. There’s something almost primal in the White Wolf’s eyes, quietly possessive as he scans the room. It’s not the smug satisfaction Jaskier is used to seeing in kings--no, it’s something imperceptibly gentler, like a desire to see each person in the hall safe and content, quiet pleasure when they are.

 

He is learning, Jaskier thinks, quite a bit about the White Wolf’s expressions in a very short time. He feels rather good about that.

 

The White Wolf makes a gesture, and everyone sits. Jaskier starts to do the same, but the White Wolf looks back at him once more, and he inclines his head very slightly, an unmistakable summoning. Reminding himself firmly that he’s an invited guest, Jaskier moves to the White Wolf’s side, and a heavy, firm hand settles on his shoulder.

 

“This is Jaskier,” the White Wolf says, his voice carrying across the quiet, curious hall. “A bard. He has done us a service, and has claimed a year’s sanctuary in our walls and the promise of our stories in return.” His hand tightens, just briefly, and then moves from Jaskier’s shoulder to the back of his neck. It feels almost possessive, and Jaskier shivers for an entirely different reason. “Treat him well.”

 

“White Wolf,” the Witchers and warriors chorus, a wave of simultaneous sound.

 

The White Wolf nods, satisfied, and drops his hand from Jaskier’s neck. It’s a clear dismissal, made clearer when the White Wolf takes his seat and servants sweep in with trays of food. Jaskier spares a smile for Ciri, waving happily at him at the White Wolf’s left hand, and makes a hasty retreat back to his own chair.

 

“There now,” Triss says, as he slumps gratefully back into his seat. “That wasn’t so bad, was it?”

 

“Not at all,” Jaskier says. He drains his ale with vaguely shaking hands and, when Triss is looking the other way, discreetly gets a refill from a passing boy with a jug.

 

The Witcher on Jaskier’s other side, black-haired and bearded with a Wolf’s head medallion on his chest, chuckles. “Don’t worry,” he says. “You get used to it.”

 

“Good to know,” Jaskier says. He hesitates, and then--come on, Jaskier, he tells himself firmly, are you a bard or not?--extends a hand. “Jaskier.”

 

“I heard,” the Witcher says, amusement clear in his voice, but he takes Jaskier’s hand. “Remus.”

 

One year, to learn the Witchers’ stories and spin them into a song cycle that will make him famous. Well, he thinks. Not a moment to lose.

 

 

 

Chapter Text

 

 

Jaskier's first morning out of the sickroom, he’s woken by a sharp knocking on the outer door of his rooms. He startles up to sitting after a brief moment of absolute disorientation, and then immediately panics that he’s keeping someone important waiting. “Coming!” he yelps, scrambling out of bed and rushing through the sitting room to open the door. “Sorry, good morning, what--” He stops, blinking. “Oh,” he says. “Hello, Princess.”

 

Ciri, dressed in shirt, trousers, and boots with her ash-blonde hair loose around her shoulders, beams at him. Jaskier is very glad that Mistress Anya brought him clothes to sleep in last night. “Good morning,” she says. “Do you want to have breakfast with me?”

 

“Um.” He’s not quite awake enough to process, but one doesn’t turn down a request from a princess. “Of course. Would you mind if I took a few minutes to get myself presentable?” He gestures to the loose linen trousers and shirt he’s wearing. “I’m not quite dressed for company.”

 

Ciri looks amused. “Sure,” she says.

 

Jaskier steps back to usher her into his sitting room--he’s not going to let the Crown Princess of Cintra and the White Wolf’s heir apparent wait out in the hallway--and she shoots him a brief smile before slipping into the room. A tall, hulking Witcher--well, they’re all tall and hulking, honestly, though this one has a litheness about him that puts Jaskier more in mind of a lion than a wolf--follows her with a nod at Jaskier, his slit-pupiled eyes giving Jaskier a quick once-over before seemingly dismissing him as a threat. Which, Jaskier supposes, he certainly isn’t.

 

The Witcher has a sweep of short-cropped sandy hair and a greenish hue to his eyes, his armor lighter than what Jaskier has come to expect. A cat’s head medallion hangs around his neck. He’s handsome, too, though not nearly as striking as the White Wolf.

 

As if sensing Jaskier’s thoughts, the Witcher turns back to him, arching an eyebrow. Jaskier flushes, but holds his ground. “I don’t think we’ve met,” he says, as loftily as he can manage, as if he’s being side-eyed at court and not given an amused half-smile from a trained killer.

 

Ciri perches on one of the armchairs. “This is Aiden, my bodyguard,” she says. “Aiden, this is Jaskier.”

 

“Charmed,” Jaskier says, trying to figure out how Ciri ended up in a cell with him when she has a bodyguard like...this.

 

Aiden’s lips twitch. “It’s a new arrangement,” he says. Ciri’s cheeks flush, but when Aiden looks back to her, his eyes are soft. “The Wolf wants to know his cub is safe.”

 

Jaskier cocks an eyebrow at Ciri. “Are you a Wolf cub now, Princess?”

 

She shrugs. “Wolf cub, lion cub.” She grins, and her teeth glint. “We all have teeth.”

 

Aiden laughs, and Jaskier can’t help but follow. “Good girl,” he says, which is more familiar than maybe he should be, but they did go through a trauma together, so he supposes he’s allowed. “Let me get changed, and we’ll get some breakfast.”

 

Ten minutes later, fully dressed (having taken rather less time than he’d usually take to get ready, but one doesn’t keep a princess waiting), Jaskier follows Ciri down the stairs back to the great hall, Aiden a silent shadow behind them. It’s relatively quiet, most of the seats that had been occupied by Witchers last night now empty, and Ciri snags his sleeve when he starts to head towards his chair.

 

“You can sit with me,” she says. “Breakfast isn’t formal.”

 

Um,” he says, but she’s already dragging him up to a banquet table laden with breakfast foods, hovering at his side while he gets a bowl of porridge and flavors it with honey and dried fruit, and then ushering him up to install him next to her at the high table.

 

He thanks his lucky stars that at least she has the sense to put him at her left hand, where the White Wolf’s dark-haired sorceress--Yennefer, he thinks--sat last night, and not in the throne-like chair at her right. Small mercies. Aiden fills his own plate and sits down on Jaskier’s other side, tucking into his hard-boiled eggs and bacon.

 

None of the other people in the hall--mostly mages, he thinks, and maybe a few other humans who occupy whatever space exists between Witcher and staff--pay them any mind, even with Jaskier sitting at Ciri’s left hand, so after a few uncomfortable moments he lets himself relax enough to start on his porridge. It’s very good, with undertones of cinnamon under the honey, and he digs in with as many of his manners intact as he can manage, nodding a grateful acknowledgment to the serving girl who steps in between him and Aiden to pour him a cup of what looks and smells like a rich, strong black tea.

 

Ciri makes quick work of her bowl of porridge in the way only teenagers can, and props her elbows on the table, looking at him thoughtfully. “Can I ask you something?”

 

Jaskier swallows his mouthful of tea and nods. “Of course.”

 

“What did Geralt offer you?” Jaskier frowns at her, and Ciri makes an impatient little gesture. “He said you claimed sanctuary in payment for helping me, but that doesn’t mean he offered it, just that you asked. What did he offer?”

 

“He...didn’t, really,” Jaskier says slowly. “He told me he owed me, and then just kind of.” He flattens his expression as much as he can in imitation of the White Wolf’s imposing stare.

 

Ciri snorts a rather unladylike laugh. “He does do that, doesn’t he,” she says, a little conspiratorially, and Jaskier smiles despite himself.

 

“He does,” he agrees. “Anyway, he gave me the stare-down, I ran through all of the things one might usually ask a king in this position, figured none of them made sense, and went professional on it.” He sips his tea. “Hiding out in Kaer Morhen for a year was just a bonus.”

 

She props her chin on her hand, looking at him thoughtfully. It is a little disconcerting, how much she resembles the White Wolf. He wonders how much of that is the magic of the Law of Surprise and how much is just their natural personalities. “You’re very smart,” she says. “Aren’t you?”

 

He shrugs. “I’ve been a travelling bard for fifteen years,” he says, which isn’t really an answer, but, well. He’s well aware that his sphere of intelligence is primarily literary, but one doesn’t look (and dress) the way he does and travel alone with only a boot dagger without having some common sense. Jaskier’s not the little slip of a thing he was when he first left Oxenfurt anymore, but he’s got a pretty face and people have a tendency to take liberties with bards. “I wouldn’t say I’m a genius at anything beyond composition, but I know when to take an opportunity.”

 

“Hm,” Ciri says--Child of Surprise indeed, and if the way Aiden snorts quietly on Jaskier’s other side is any indication, he’s not the only one to think so--and then, surprisingly, she smiles. “I’m glad you’re staying.”

 

“You are?”

 

Ciri nods, a light flush coming to her cheeks. “It’s a little silly,” she says. “But--no one here knows what it’s like, growing up at court, or remembers my grandmother or Eist the way I did. But you--you must have some kind of noble background, I can tell from your accent, and you were at court with my grandmother, and I just…”

 

Oh, the sweet thing, Jaskier realizes, she’s lonely. Of course she is, an orphaned princess in a palace full of fighters. He hasn’t seen any other children her age beyond a few servants and the trainee Witchers, and he can’t imagine she spends much time with either group. He wonders the last time she talked to anyone who remembered Calanthe as anything other than a genocidal tyrant (which she was, no denying that, but she’d loved her family fiercely for all of that).

 

“You know,” he says carefully, not wanting to overstep. “If you’re going to be the White Wolf’s heir, you’ll need to continue all the lessons I’m sure your grandmother started for you. I’m no tutor, but I have a foundation in the seven liberal arts from Oxenfurt, and I’ve lectured there before. I’ve published, as well. I could ask your--”

 

“Yes,” she says, her face lighting up before he even finishes speaking.

 

Jaskier laughs. “All right, then, princess.”

 

 

Jaskier had planned to spend the time after breakfast tracking down some parchment to start taking notes on the songs already drifting around his head, but Ciri insists on dragging him with her to her morning lessons. She hauls him along up (and up, and up, and up) to her tower rooms, Aiden trailing behind them like a vaguely amused shadow. She talks as they go, surprisingly chatty, asking him about his music and his composition process and the poetry he’s published, and Jaskier wonders when she last had someone to talk to about courtly things like this. The mages, he’s sure, are quite well-educated, and all of the Witchers are well-spoken if a bit gruff, but he suspects neither group are likely to spend much time talking about the arts with a thirteen-year-old girl.

 

Well, everyone’s got a niche. This will just have to be his.

 

The sorceress who came for them in Nilfgaard’s dungeon is waiting in Ciri’s rooms, sitting in an armchair dressed in embroidered black brocade, her raven hair swept up and her violet eyes heavily lined. She looks, Jaskier thinks, like a particularly luxurious panther.

 

“You’re late, Ciri,” she says.

 

And then she smiles.

 

It transforms her face instantly, iron-lined ice softening to warmth, laugh lines crinkling despite her ageless features. She smiles like someone who has only recently discovered that it’s something she likes to do, and it turns her from untouchably lovely to absolutely beautiful. “And I see you’ve found your bard.”

 

“He’s his own bard, Yen,” Ciri says, exasperated in the way only teenagers are, and Jaskier bites back a smile.

 

The sorceress catches it, and turns to him. “So. It’s good to see you up and about, little bard.”

 

Little bard again. He can’t tell if he’s being made fun of, or if they’ve decided to adopt him. He sweeps a bow. “My lady,” he says.

 

“Just Yennefer,” she says, amusement in her tone. “And it’s...Jaskier, yes?”

 

He doesn’t doubt for a second she knows his name, but he’s not going to make a stew. “Yes.” He bows again. Warm smiles or not, she strikes him as a woman who likes to be bowed to. “Thank you for the rescue. I owe you my life.”

 

“You do indeed,” she says. “But you’ve been such an amusement already that I’m tempted to call it even.”

 

Jaskier blinks. “I have?”

 

Yennefer reclines back in her armchair, crossing her legs under her rippling skirts. “Not just anyone would come out of a Nilfgaardian black site and have the nerve to look the White Wolf in the eye without flinching,” she says. “And Geralt does love a good glower, so I can’t imagine he made that particularly easy for you.”

 

“He’s not that scary,” Ciri says, perching on the arm of Yennefer’s chair.

 

Yennefer gives her an amused look. “Just because we know he’s a kitten at heart doesn’t mean anyone else does, cub,” she says. “He’s not the most feared man on the Continent for nothing.”

 

“I thought you said that was because not enough people on the Continent know you,” Ciri says.

 

Yennefer laughs. “Good girl,” she says, reaching up to tug fondly on the end of Ciri’s braid. “Now. Is there a reason you’ve brought your pet bard up here with you? I don’t think he’ll be much use in your sorcery lessons, and I can’t imagine musical accompaniment will help your concentration.”

 

“It can’t hurt,” Jaskier says mildly, because he gets the impression that he needs to show a bit more spine if he doesn’t want Yennefer to eat him alive. If the way she snaps her gaze back to him and her lip curls in a sly smile, he’s right.

 

“I want him to take over some of my lessons,” Ciri says, ignoring the back-and-forth. “The non-magical parts. History and geography and logic and rhetoric and all of that.”

 

Yennefer arches a sculpted brow. “Is he qualified for that?”

 

“He lectured at Oxenfurt,” Ciri says, before Jaskier can even open his mouth. “And he’s published poetry, and I think he’s a noble, since--”

 

“Thank you, dear, I can give my own resume,” Jaskier interrupts, a bit hastily. Yennefer’s lips twitch up. He clears his throat. “She’s right, though. I’ve taught at Oxenfurt, I’m published in three disciplines, and I graduated summa cum laude in the seven liberal arts.”

 

“Mm,” Yennefer says. “And the other piece?”

 

Damn. Too much to hope she missed that. He briefly wonders if it’s worth trying to lie to a sorceress, and decides against it. “I was raised at court in Redania,” he admits. “My father is the Count de Lettenhove.”

 

“Ah.” She studies him for a long moment, and he knows what she’s thinking. Most sons of nobility don’t make it long as bards if they have a home to go back to.

 

Jaskier hasn’t been back to Lettenhove in ten years.

 

“Anyway,” he says quickly. The last thing he wants is for them to linger on that little piece of depressing backstory. “I have the educational background. If the White Wolf doesn’t have a particular attachment to whoever her current tutor is, I’m happy to take over those lessons for her.”

 

Yennefer hums. “Her current tutor would be me,” she says, a dry note of amusement in her tone. “Witchers don’t exactly place an emphasis on academia in their training.” She looks at Ciri thoughtfully, and then her eyes soften. “There’s rather more to this, isn’t there?” Ciri bites her lip, and Yennefer clucks her tongue, reaching up to cup her cheek. “You won’t hurt my feelings.”

 

Ciri tilts her head into Yennefer’s hand, hesitating, and then, very quietly, says, “I just need to talk to someone who understands.”

 

Jaskier’s heart cracks in his chest. So, if the look on her face is any indication, does Yennefer’s.

 

“My love,” Yennefer says. She strokes her thumb over Ciri’s cheekbone. “You only had to ask.”

 

Ciri gives her a watery smile. Yennefer’s violet gaze sweeps to Jaskier. “And you’re willing?”

 

“Of course,” Jaskier says. If his voice is a bit thick and his eyes a bit teary, well. He’s a bard. Emotions are par for the course.

 

“Lovely.” Yennefer pats Ciri’s cheek, briskly now, as if to disperse the tension. “I’ll let Geralt know, and we’ll set you up starting tomorrow. For today, my dear, chaos continues.” She glances at Jaskier. “You’re welcome to stay, little bard, if you’re interested.”

 

“Why not,” Jaskier says. How often does a non-mage get to see the inside of a magic lesson? He settles down on the edge of a surprisingly comfortable settee. “Also,” he says, because he’s already in this deep, “little bard? I’m at least a head taller than you.”

 

Her lips twitch. “Maybe,” she says. “But you didn’t see Geralt carrying you out of that cell.” Her smile turns sly. “You could have been a doll, for how small you looked.”

 

Jaskier bristles--and, to his mild horror, flushes. “Um,” he begins, and then breaks off, because what is he even supposed to say to that, and--

 

Yennefer laughs, low and throaty and oddly musical. “Quite,” she says, and gets to her feet. “Cirilla? We’ll be in the casting room today.”

 

She sweeps out of the room in a rustle of lilac-and-gooseberries perfume. “Um,” Jasier repeats, looking to Ciri for help, but she just giggles and follows Yennefer out. Aiden pushes off the wall with a snort and slips out after them on silent feet.

 

Um,” Jaskier says to the empty room.

 

A passing servant sticks her head into the room. “Sir? Did you need something?”

 

He manages not to wince. “No thank you,” he says, clearing his throat. “I’m just. Talking to myself.”

 

She makes a polite little sound of understanding, nods, and, utterly unfazed, disappears back into the hallway. Which makes sense, he supposes. There’s probably not much room for easily shocked servants in a place like Kaer Morhen, and he doubts that a bard talking to an empty chamber is the oddest thing she’s seen this week.

 

“Right,” he says, gives himself a little shake, and heads off after the princess and her entourage.

 

 

Over the next two weeks, Jaskier...settles.

 

He teaches Ciri in the mornings, and finds her a bright, energetic, intelligent pupil, as eager to practice rhetoric as she is to review monarchies. Whatever atrocities Calanthe committed--and Jaskier isn’t looking forward to getting to that section of recent history--she clearly spared no expense on Ciri’s tutors, and she keeps him on his toes even as she soaks up knowledge as quickly as he can teach it. He enjoys it, dipping into Kaer Morhen’s surprisingly expansive library to make his lesson plans and even occasionally coaxing Aiden into their debate practices.

 

In the afternoons he tries to jot down notes of questions to ask the White Wolf and explore Kaer Morhen’s halls and towers and grounds, but more often than not, he naps. He’d been alarmed, at first, to find himself drooping by the end of lunchtime, but Triss assures him that it’s just his body catching up to the rest of the healing, and it’ll fade soon enough. She gives him a little box neatly packed with small vials of a vivid blue potion with instructions to drink one each night before bed until they’re gone, and shoos him out of her stillroom.

 

“If you’re still tired when those potions run out we’ll talk,” she says briskly. “But what you need is rest.” She levels a finger at him. “So stop traipsing all over the keep. You’ll have time for that later.”

 

Sheepish, he takes the potions and slinks back to his chambers to take a nap.

 

He is healing, though. Triss’s initial magic had done the bulk of the work, soothing away the worst physical marks of the beatings and torture, but he’s practical enough to know that it’s not the physical wounds giving him the lingering exhaustion. The days--he knows it was only days, now, having finally found someone to tell him the date, and it had only been nine days in that awful darkness, but gods had it felt longer--he spent in terror and pain have left their own wounds, and Triss’s magic can’t heal his soul.

 

But Kaer Morhen is safe, and Ciri is a constant delight, and Yennefer is wicked and funny, and Eskel is kind and warm, and Triss is lovely, and slowly, Jaskier makes himself a place. He learns the names of the Witchers and warriors and servants, and teaches Ciri, and writes down the stories anyone will tell him, and sleeps quite a lot, and...finds himself a place.

 

The only person he hasn’t really seen, since that first odd conversation where they came to their agreement, is the White Wolf himself.

 

“He’s been busy,” Triss tells him, when Jaskier turns up after the potions are gone for a last examination.

 

He already feels miles better, itching to start learning the White Wolf’s tale, but it’s not as if he can just pop himself into the man’s schedule. He’s currently stripped down to his smallclothes, sitting on a stool in the sickroom while she looks him over. “They pulled some intelligence out of a few of the Nilfgaardians they kept alive, and there have been some plans he needs to make.” She takes his arm, studying the spidery white lines of thin scarring that are all that remains of the marks the Nilfgaardians’ knives left on his skin. They’re so faint he hadn’t even noticed them at first. “He hasn’t forgotten you.”

 

Jaskier blinks. “He hasn’t?”

 

“Mmhm. Ciri’s been nagging him, apparently.” She takes his left hand, where the fingers had been broken, maneuvering the joints carefully. “Any pain here?”

 

“No,” he says, hoping the gratitude he feels makes it into his voice. In that cell he hadn’t let himself think about the damage to his hands, knowing it would break him if he lingered on it, but Triss had healed the tiny bones with skill and care, and his fingers are as agile as they ever were. “Thank you,” he says fervently, just in case, and she glances up at him and smiles.

 

“You’re very welcome.” She steps behind him, examining the lines from the whippings on his back, reduced to thin scars that look a decade healed. She clicks her tongue, and rests her fingers at the place where the nape of his neck meets the top of his spine, where the mage had left her mark. He flinches at the touch, and she makes a soft, sympathetic sound. “I wish I could do more with this.”

 

The brush of her fingertips sends a shudder down his spine. There’s a brand there, he knows, the crest of the White Flame burned into his flesh, and she’s already apologized that none of her healing magic could lift it from his skin. He tries not to think of it much, and asks Anya for doublets with high necks. “It’s all right. You did so much for me already.”

 

Triss touches his shoulder briefly in acknowledgment, stepping back into his line of sight. “You can get dressed,” she says, and leans against the bed while he pulls his clothes back on. “Yennefer can talk to Geralt for you,” she says as he puts on his boots. “If you’re getting antsy.”

 

He smiles, a little embarrassed. “Is it that obvious?”

 

“Just a bit,” she says, teasing. “You stare at him quite a bit during meals.”

 

Jaskier very firmly does not blush. “He’s a very handsome man,” he defends.

 

“I meant you seemed eager to start your songwriting,” she says, clearly amused. “But yes, there’s that, too.”

 

Jaskier winces. “I don’t suppose,” he says, “that I could bribe you to not tell Yennefer that I said he was handsome?”

 

Triss’s eyes sparkle. “Oh, I think we could work something out.”

 

 

Three days later, though, Jaskier is pacing circles around his room, antsy and fidgeting. He’s been at Kaer Morhen nearly a month with nothing more to show for it than a few sketched out snippets of tunes with no lyrics to go with them, and while he’s perfectly grateful that he’s here, and not wandering around waiting for Nilfgaard to make another grab at him, he was promised stories.

 

(And if he was by extension promised some quality time to ogle the White Wolf without Yennefer smirking at him out of the corner of her eye, well, that’s besides the point.)

 

He’s just about to say to hell with the bribing and let Triss tell Yennefer whatever she wants if it’ll get the White Wolf to talk to him when there’s a rap at his door and Eskel’s voice calls, “Jaskier?”

 

Jaskier nearly trips over his feet rushing to let him in. “Hello,” he says, a little breathless.

 

Eskel looks like he’s trying to bite back a laugh. Probably because he could hear Jaskier gallop over to the door like an over-eager colt. Stupid Witcher hearing. “All right there?”

 

“Fine,” Jaskier says, as breezily as he can manage. “Great, even. Extraordinary. Lovely day we’re having, isn’t it?”

 

Eskel arches an eyebrow, looks pointedly out the window, where rain has been lashing against the glass for the better part of the day, and then looks back at Jaskier. “Lovely,” he repeats, a little wryly. “Sure.” Jaskier gives his sunniest smile, and Eskel’s scarred lip twitches. “If you’re not too busy admiring the weather, Geralt wants to see you.”

 

Jaskier’s antsy mood evaporates. “Now?” he demands, scrambling to shove his notes into a pile that he can bring with him.

 

“Now,” Eskel confirms, not bothering to hide his amusement anymore. Jaskier pretends he doesn’t see it.

 

Eskel leads Jaskier down the now-familiar route to the great hall, motioning him up past the high table and the dais behind it to a small, fairly nondescript door in the back wall, very nearly hidden behind the impressive throne that Jaskier has never seen the White Wolf actually use. Eskel opens the door without knocking, and they step into a warm, surprisingly comfortable-looking room. Jaskier can’t tell from a glance what its original function was, but it seems now to be serving as a war-room-cum-office. A large table stands in the center of the room, covered by a map of the Continent and strewn with troop markers. There’s a desk in one corner, its surface full of loose sheets of parchment and inkwells and quills, and the walls are lined in shelves, fairly bursting with books and scrolls. A few chairs are scattered throughout the room, one behind the desk and two in front of it, three others at various points around the table, all of which look worn and slightly lived-in, but well-cushioned and clean.

 

There’s a slightly alarming amount of weaponry serving as decor, Jaskier notes. He inches away from a spear hanging on the wall, and then his eye catches the real danger in the room.

 

The White Wolf is standing at the far end of the large table, his arms crossed over his chest and his eyes fixed on the map, brow drawn tense and tight. His white hair is swept up into a knot at the back of his head, and Jaskier is momentarily distracted by the long line of his neck.

 

Eskel clears his throat. “One bard, Geralt,” he says. The White Wolf hums, clearly not needing Eskel to announce them. He probably heard them coming when they were still on the other side of the great hall. “As requested.”

 

“Hm,” the White Wolf says. His golden gaze flickers to Jaskier, lingering by Eskel’s shoulder with his arms full of papers and quills, and Jaskier shifts his pile so that he can wiggle his fingers in a wave. If the White Wolf is amused, he doesn’t show it, just inclines his chin towards one of the chairs beside the desk.

 

Jaskier takes the hint and sits, finding an empty patch of desk to set down his parchments and, after a moment’s hesitation, sticks his quill behind his ear. Eskel gives them both a nod and withdraws, closing the door behind him.

 

The White Wolf lingers by the map, studying the troop markers. Jaskier watches him curiously, trying to get a sense of his mood from his mostly flat expression. The line of his broad shoulders is tight beneath his black shirt, his lips turned just slightly downward at their corners. He stands in absolute stillness, the barest flicker as his eyes roam across the map the only movement. Even his chest barely seems to rise or fall. Slowed heartbeat, Jaskier remembers, thinking back to the various tidbits of Witcher physiology he’s already picked up.

 

If Jaskier was a man with more self-preservation, he’d probably sit quietly while the White Wolf finishes puzzling out whatever problem the map has presented. It’s never been a particular strength, though, and he makes it maybe three minutes before he gets to his feet, circling the map table to get a look. The White Wolf’s gaze flicks up to him as he moves, but he doesn’t give any other reaction to Jaskier coming within arm’s reach to look over the markers. It only takes him a minute or two to work out what the different markers represent.

 

“Huh,” he says, before he can stop himself. “Well, I can see why you’ve been so hard to find.”

 

The White Wolf glances at him. “Explain,” he says.

 

Jaskier motions to the figures clustered around the base of the Blue Mountains, uncomfortably close to the marker indicating the Trail up to Kaer Morhen. “This is a Nilfgaardian camp, yes? Correct me if I’m wrong, but that’s much farther into your territory than I’d think you’d want them to be.”

 

“Hm,” the White Wolf confirms. It sounds like an affirmative, at least. He motions to another cluster, close to the banks of the Toina and just south of Aedd Gynvael. “That’s the camp where we found you and Ciri,” he says. “The one in the mountains wasn’t there then.”

 

Jaskier frowns. Map scale is never perfect, but there’s at least three days’ ride between the two camps, and another two between the prison camp and the village where the soldiers had captured him. He’s not quite sure where they’d found Ciri, but he imagines it was closer to Kaer Morhen than anywhere else. “They must be using portals.” The back of his neck prickles, a phantom memory of the mage’s touch. “The sorceress?”

 

The White Wolf hums again.

 

“That’s...bold of them.” Jaskier studies the cluster of troop markers in the little camp at the base of the mountains. “Are they moving?”

 

“In one place for the past week. We have scouts out.” The White Wolf glances at him, golden eyes thoughtful, and to Jaskier’s surprise, adds, “It’s still safe, here.”

 

Jaskier looks up, confused. “Of course it is,” he says, and then realizes what the White Wolf is saying, and nearly flushes. “Oh,” he says. “I--yes. I didn’t think your offer of sanctuary was compromised.”

 

“Your claim, not my offer,” the White Wolf says. He steps away from the table, inclining his head to the desk where Jaskier abandoned his parchment pile, and Jaskier takes the hint and goes back to his seat. The White Wolf settles himself in the chair behind the desk, leaning back and crossing his arms, the picture of a predator at rest. He regards Jaskier silently for a moment, and then says, flatly, “Yennefer says you’re getting impatient.”

 

Now Jaskier does flush. He’s never confiding in Triss again, the traitor. “I mean,” he says. “A year isn’t such a long time to write a full song cycle. And now that I can use my hands again and stay awake a full day…” He shrugs. “I’ve never done well being idle.”

 

“Hm,” the White Wolf says. “You’re keeping Ciri busy.”

 

Jaskier smiles fondly. “She’s a bright little thing.”

 

“Yes.” The White Wolf’s brow furrows slightly as he looks at Jaskier as if he’s a puzzle that the White Wolf can’t quite solve, and Jaskier has to resist the urge to squirm under the intensity of that gaze. The silence stretches out between them for a few moments.

 

Finally, the White Wolf makes a sound that might be a sigh. “You have questions.” Jaskier raises an eyebrow, because he has a lot of questions, and it would be nice to have a little more to go on. “For your songs.”

 

“Oh! Yes.” Jaskier shuffles his parchments around back into some semblance of order, trying to find the beginnings of his notes--he’s been talking to any Witcher who will give him the time of day, getting whatever details of the origins of the White Wolf’s rise to power from the people who were there. He’s heard more than one account of the fall of Ard Carraigh and the campaign leading up to it, but not from the White Wolf himself. Even at Oxenfurt there were rumors of the cruelty of the last King of Kaedwen, but kings have been cruel for centuries, and no Witcher ever took up arms against them.

 

So what, he asks, over and over, made the White Wolf different?

 

He hasn’t gotten a satisfactory answer yet.

 

Absently, he twirls his quill between his fingers, trying to think of where to start. He’s left his inkwell up in his rooms, he realizes, and mentally kicks himself.

 

There’s a soft scraping of glass over wood, and Jaskier glances up to find an inkpot much closer to him than it was a moment ago. The White Wolf’s arms are still crossed, his posture nonchalant, but there’s a speck of ink on one hand.

 

Jaskier smiles, dipping his quill. “Thank you, my lord.”

 

“Geralt,” the White Wolf says.

 

Jaskier blinks. “What?”

 

“I told you,” the White Wolf says. “You don’t owe me fealty, or loyalty. I’m not your lord. You can use my name.”

 

“...oh.” Jaskier tries to keep his surprise off his face, then gives up. He’s pretty sure Witchers can smell emotions. No reason to pretend he’s not stunned. “All right. Geralt.”

 

The name feels strange in his mouth, and he’s not quite sure if it’s because it feels odd to address a Warlord by his name rather than his title, or for some other reason, one that might be just a bit tied up in the way Jaskier can’t quite stop himself from staring at the broad span of the White--of Geralt’s shoulders under his shirt, at the sharp line of his jaw, at his golden eyes.

 

The Wh...Geralt’s nose twitches. Jaskier walks that line of thought back, flushes, and clears his throat. “Anyway,” he says. “So. How exactly did you get from walking the Path to leading the siege of Ard Carraigh?” The--Geralt, gods above, this is going to take some getting used to--cocks an eyebrow, and Jaskier elaborates. “I’ve heard about the duels at Kaer Morhen, and the Witcher councils, and the process of it all. But what I don’t know is what made you decide to go Warlord.” He leans back in his chair, drawing his knees up to prop the parchment stack on them like a makeshift desk, and holds his quill expectantly over a blank page.

 

Geralt frowns, but it’s--and alright, Jaskier doesn’t consider himself an expert in the man’s expressions by any means, but he thinks he’s starting to get a handle on them--more pensive than unhappy.

 

“Ciri,” he says finally.

 

Jaskier blinks. “Ciri?”

 

“Hm.”

 

Jaskier lets his hand start moving, a little absently, doodling a little line drawing of Ciri’s profile. “Ciri,” he repeats. “Alright. Tell me more.”

 

The White Wo...Geralt looks mildly distressed at the prospect, but he makes that half-sigh sound again. “The Path was no place for her,” he says. “I never meant for a Child Surprise. But if she was going to be mine, I needed…” He shakes his head. “She needed somewhere safe. Nilfgaard was already massing armies when she was born, and when the Emperor came to power--” He breaks off with a grimace.

 

Jaskier can’t blame him. The rumors of the Emperor’s armies were gruesome, and now that Jaskier has experienced their tender mercies himself, the things he’s heard about the battles just seem worse.

 

“They hadn’t come north yet, but it was clear they planned to,” Geralt continues after a moment. “There was--a lot of restlessness. Politically. When commonfolk get restless it’s one thing, but when it’s the nobility...they get sloppy.” He glances at Jaskier, and Jaskier gives a silent nod. He grew up in a noble house. He knows the cruelty that can be hidden behind fine things and courtly smiles, and how quickly those facades can fall apart with the right pressure. “I was on a contract in Kaedwen. Young girls going missing in the night. They thought it was a vampire.” His eyes flash. “It wasn’t.”

 

“No,” Jaskier agrees. Even when he was at Oxenfurt, there had been rumors about the last king of Kaedwen and his...tastes. One of Jaskier’s classmates had gone home to Ard Carraigh for break and hadn’t come back. She was sixteen. He swallows. “What did you do?”

 

Geralt is quiet for a long moment, and then, “I gave them their money back and went home for the winter. And then I asked the Wolf School to help me kill a monster.”

 

Jaskier takes a breath. He’s heard this part of the story--from Triss who got it from Eskel; from Eskel himself; from Remus and Aubry and Gweld and any of the other Wolf School Witchers who will give him the time. But hearing it from Geralt… “And they did.”

 

“Yes.”

 

It wasn’t quite that simple, Jaskier knows. The Wolf School debated, and conferenced, and dueled, and then summoned representatives from the other Schools for more debates and conferences and duels. It took a year for it all to be settled.

 

But by the end of it, there was a Witcher army. And Geralt, the White Wolf, led them to war.

 

Gods. This song is going to be incredible.

 

Jaskier lets his quill glide across the parchment, sketching out lyrics that he’ll almost certainly replace later, but the ideas are flowing. Gods, he missed this. “How does Ciri fit into all of this?”

 

Geralt’s golden eyes drift to the sketch of Ciri on Jaskier’s first--mostly filled--page of parchment, dropped onto the desk so he could move onto the next. “I didn’t claim her when she was born,” he says. “I thought she’d be better off with her parents, and Calanthe didn’t want me anywhere near her. But I checked in, once a year or so. Just to get a glimpse. Keep Destiny as satisfied as I could.” He’s quiet for a moment. “One of the girls that Henselt took...her parents had a portrait. A little blonde slip of a thing. Barely twelve.” A muscle jumps in his jaw. “She could have been Ciri’s sister.”

 

“Ah,” Jaskier says softly. He doesn’t know much about the Law of Surprise, but he can imagine the protective pull of Destiny. A powerful pull, it must be--powerful enough that even a Witcher, notoriously apolitical, would compel his brothers into an army. “And then Ard Carraigh fell.”

 

“Yes.” Geralt nods towards the map on the large table with a twitch of his lips that’s very nearly a smile. “I’m sure you’ve gotten the story of what happened from there.”

 

Jaskier hums a confirmation, scribbling one more line--and in the maiden’s face the White Wolf saw/Destiny’s Daughter’s eyes writ fair--and then setting his quill down to look up at Geralt, suddenly curious. “How did you get from there to pulling Ciri out of Cintra?”

 

Geralt frowns. He glances at the position of the sun filtering in through the narrow windows, and then shakes his head. “Not today,” he says, and rises. Jaskier hastens to his feet as well. “Council meeting.”

 

“Oh,” Jaskier says. He feels a little off-kilter. “Well, alright. This is a good start. Thank you. When you next have a bit of time, I’d love to--”

 

“Tomorrow,” Geralt says.

 

Jaskier blinks. “Tomorrow?”

 

“What came after Ard Carraigh,” Geralt says, not looking at him. “This time tomorrow.”

 

“Oh,” Jaskier says, surprised. That’s much sooner than he’d hoped. He tries to keep his delight off his face. He’s willing to bet that Geralt isn’t interested in seeing him bounce around like an excited child. “Yes. That would be--thank you.”

 

“Hm,” Geralt says. He tips his head toward the door. A lock of his hair slips over his shoulder.

 

It looks very, very soft, and Jaskier escapes before he can do something incredibly stupid, like ask to touch it.

 

 

That night, for the first time in weeks, Jaskier dreams.

 

He’s back in the cell, in that horrible darkness. It’s cold, so cold, and his breath condenses in a cloud of mist when he shudders out a whimper. The sound echoes off the stone walls, soft and mournful and haunting, and fades away into a terrible silence.

 

The door to the cell is open.

 

Shakily, he gets to his feet. The cold has sunk into his bones and every movement aches. Resting a hand on the wall of the cell for balance, he takes a cautious step out, and then another, into the darkened hallway. The stone floor scrapes against the soles of his bare feet.

 

A whisper of air ruffles his hair, and he turns his head towards its source, squinting in the dark. Far away there’s a faint glow, like a lamp in a distant room.

 

Jaskier looks over his shoulder. The door to the cell is gone. There’s nothing behind him but blank, thick darkness. He swallows, turning back towards the barely-there light, and starts towards it.

 

He walks, and walks, and walks. His steps make no sound on the floor. The rough stone wall chills his fingertips. The hallway dips and weaves, but the light stays distant and unmoving, as steady and untouchable as the North Star. He stares at it until his eyes water, afraid even to blink in case it disappears and he’s left alone in the dark once more.

 

Jaskier?

 

The sound of his name stops him in his tracks. He frowns. The voice is familiar, but not familiar enough to place. It sounds far away, muffled, like a lover's call from outside a window. He waits, but silence has descended again.

 

He starts walking. The light seems brighter now, closer. Fear prickles his skin into goosebumps, and he doesn’t understand why--it’s light, light in this terrible darkness, shouldn’t it feel safe, feel hopeful? But the closer he gets the tighter his chest feels, the colder the air seems against his skin. His breath comes loud and raspy in the silent dark.

 

Jaskier!

 

The voice comes again, closer now. Alarmed. This time, he doesn’t stop.

 

His limbs feel heavy, like his body is resisting his steps. He stumbles, catches himself against the wall, feels a scrape of pain. He keeps moving.

 

Jaskier, says the voice. Jaskier--

 

“Jaskier!”

 

He snaps awake, staring into the White Wolf’s golden eyes.

 

“Oh fuck,” Jaskier says, and his knees buckle.

 

Geralt catches him by the arms. “Easy,” he grunts, and lowers Jaskier down to the floor. Jaskier can’t do anything but let him, his legs and arms suddenly limp and trembling. His sleep shirt is plastered to his skin with sweat and he’s breathing like he’s just sprinted a mile, and his head pounds in the low torchlight. He leans against Geralt’s shoulder, too confused and exhausted to think about propriety, and tries to catch his breath.

 

“What,” he says, when he thinks he can manage talking. “Where--”

 

“You’re in the hallway outside the main hall,” Lambert says, kneeling down next to them. He offers Jaskier a flask, and Jaskier takes it gratefully.

 

He expects water and drinks deeply, only to sputter at the sudden burn of brandy.

 

“Lambert,” Eskel says, from Geralt’s other side, exasperated.

 

“What? Look at him, he’s shivering. Take another drink, bard, it’ll warm you.”

 

Jaskier takes another sip, more cautiously now, and looks around as the spirit spreads through his chest. He is in the hallway, just a corridor away from the office where he’d met with Geralt this afternoon. Aubry and Remus are there as well, and Vesemir, all of them eyeing Jaskier with varying degrees of concern and suspicion.

 

Which is odd, because the last thing he remembers is going to sleep in his own bed, halfway across the keep.

 

As if reading his thoughts, Eskel says, “Do you usually sleepwalk?”

 

“No,” Jaskier says slowly. “I don’t think I ever have.”

 

“Hm,” Geralt frowns.

 

Jaskier swallows. “Triss...said there might be some side effects,” he admits. “From all of the…” He winces. “Well,” he says, and gestures vaguely, as if to encompass the various factors that led to him being here in Kaer Morhen in the first place.

 

“Hm,” Geralt says again. He eyes Jaskier thoughtfully for a moment, and then seems to decide that’s an acceptable answer. “Aubry,” he says. “Get the bard back up to his rooms.”

 

Aubry nods and steps forward to offer Jaskier a hand up. Jaskier takes it hesitantly, lets Aubry pull him gently to his feet. He likes Aubry, really--he’s quiet, but has never been anything other than friendly--but he’s well aware of where he’s just been found wandering, and the Witchers are, after all, at war. “Geralt,” he says softly. “Is this an escort, or something else?”

 

Geralt’s expression doesn’t change, but Jaskier can’t help but see a new softness in it. “Just an escort,” he says, gruff, but not unkind.

 

Eskel, always more expressive, gives him a reassuring smile. “Ciri’d never let him hear the end of it if he sent you off to bed by yourself and you passed out in a corridor somewhere,” he says. He studies Jaskier’s face for a moment. “You do still look pretty shocky. You want me to have Triss look in on you?”

 

“No, that’s--that’s alright. I’ll see her in the morning.” He puts on his best smile, which is almost certainly useless, given that the Witchers can all probably smell how confused and disoriented and anxious he is. “I’ll just...I think I must have eaten something strange, or something like that. A little more sleep, in my own bed this time, and I’ll be fine.”

 

Geralt hums, and nods to Aubry. Aubry murmurs, “White Wolf,” and guides Jaskier gently back towards his rooms, one hand at the small of his back to steady him.

 

It’s not until Jaskier is back in bed, dressed in clean clothing and drifting slowly back to sleep, that he realizes that the voice in his dream was Geralt’s.

 

 

Chapter Text

 

 

“Sleepwalking,” Triss repeats slowly.

 

“Apparently,” Jaskier says.

 

They’re sitting in Triss’s stillroom, surrounded by potions ingredients, bubbling beakers, and some contraptions that Jaskier can’t even recognize. It’s reassuring, he supposes, that she didn’t take him back up to the sickroom--which he’s since learned is actually a wing of healing rooms, which makes sense in a keep full of soldiers--but she still looks concerned, her brow furrowed. Her lush curls are pulled up into a knot on the top of her head, held in place with what he’s pretty sure is a pair of long scissors. She really is a very lovely woman.

 

If Jaskier wasn’t entirely traumatized by the whole evil sorceress thing, he’d probably flirt. As it is, though, he thinks she might be a friend, and that’s much, much better.

 

Now, she holds out her hand expectantly, the same way she did daily when he was recovering. Automatically, he places his in hers, palm up, and she touches two fingers to his pulse. Blue magic swirls around their hands, ghostly and pleasantly cool. She frowns. “I don’t feel anything magical,” she says slowly. “You’ve never had anything happen like this before?”

 

Jaskier shakes his head. “No. I, ah.” He winces. “In previous...situations like this, there was a lot of crying and nightmares and panicking and all of that, you know--” He waves his hand, hoping to be dismissive, because no one likes a bard going on about their trauma, goodness, terrible for business. “That sort of thing. I always stayed in my own bed, though. Or, ah, under it. On one occasion in a closet, but I was very small at the time.” He winces. That last bit slipped out.

 

Triss, bless her, doesn’t react with any kind of pity, save for a brief flicker of sympathy in her eyes. She lets his hand go. “Sometimes the way we respond to new stressors changes as we get older,” she says gently. “I think that might be what you’re dealing with here.”

 

“Right,” Jaskier says. He’s not sure whether he’s relieved or not. “It’s just. Um. I mean, I don’t want to be a bother, but I didn’t know where I was, and…”

 

He trails off. He’s very good at blandishing about into trouble, and flirting his way out of it--sometimes the other way around--but not so much at asking for help. Vulnerability is very good when performing, but he tries to avoid it in front of people who could use it against him. Not that Triss would, of course, because she is obviously lovely, but--

 

“Jaskier,” Triss says, taking his hand again.

 

“Yes,” he says promptly, jerking his brain out of its spiral.

 

Triss looks at him kindly. “Listen,” she says. “I think this is probably something that will fade away on its own, the longer you’re out of that horrible pit and in a safe place. But given where you were found, it would make me feel just a bit better if maybe you weren’t alone at night.”

 

Jaskier, who has just taken a sip from the mug of tea Triss made him when he turned up, chokes on it. “Um,” he sputters. “I’m flattered, but--”

 

She gives his arm a light smack. “Cheek,” she chides, but she’s smiling. “No. I was thinking that maybe we could talk to Geralt.”

 

Jaskier gapes, his face flushing hot. “Triss Merigold--”

 

“Oh my gods,” she laughs. “I was talking about a bodyguard, Jaskier.”

 

He blinks. “Oh.” He remembers Aubry walking him almost solicitously back to his room last night while he was nearly too confused to find his own way, a surprisingly gentle hand on Jaskier’s shoulder. “Doesn’t that seem a little…” He searches for the right word. “Overkill?”

 

Triss arches an eyebrow. “Jaskier,” she says. “The Warlord of the North found you, unaccompanied and delirious, a corridor away from his war room. If he wasn’t a Witcher, if he couldn’t smell how scared and confused you were?” She looks seriously at him. “Any other king wouldn’t have sent you back to bed, Jaskier. He’d have thrown you in a dungeon.”

 

Jaskier’s blood goes cold. “I didn’t think of that,” he says, which is only half-true. He had thought it, just for an instant, but Geralt’s eyes had been so kind, his touch so gentle where he’d held Jaskier up, that he’d dismissed it. “I--Triss. Does he think that I--”

 

She shakes her head. “No. He knows you didn’t know anything. But he’s not the only person in Kaer Morhen, and people talk.”

 

And...well, he’s no stranger to that. The Oxenfurt gossip mill could keep up with even the most robust students’ love lives, and that was just music students, not mutation-enhanced Witchers with superhuman hearing. He clears his throat. “I can’t imagine that any of the Witchers would particularly welcome playing bodyguard to a bard. I’m something of an acquired taste.”

 

“I’m sure you are,” she says dryly, eyes sparkling with a hint of the occasional wicked humor that reminds him just why she’s so close with Yennefer. He makes a face at her, and she laughs.

 

 

And so Jaskier finds himself with a nighttime bodyguard.

 

Well, three nighttime bodyguards, actually. Even a Witcher can’t meditate all night every night instead of sleeping, so Aubry, Coen, and Junod take shifts. Jaskier rarely sees Junod, the Bear Witcher often choosing the middle shift, but he slowly gets used to Aubry’s quiet presence in his sitting room as he prepares for bed in the evenings, and Coën’s friendly nod when he emerges from his bedroom in the mornings. He and Coën walk down to the baths together, Coën handing him off to Triss--though, kindly, without saying as much--before he heads off to do whatever horrible Witchery things the army gets up to in their morning training.

 

In the end, though, it’s all moot.

 

Other than that one awful, disorienting night, there are no more incidents of sleepwalking. He dreams (Gods, he dreams, so much more vividly than he ever used to, and Triss refuses to keep giving him the dreamless sleep potion because apparently it can mess with his cognition after long-term use, which, whatever, is he using his cognition? No.) and sometimes it’s so horrible that he wakes up drenched in sweat, but he stays in his bed, except on the nights when his skin crawls so badly he has to get up and go sit next to Aubry.

 

Who, bless him, says nothing, just stokes the fire in the sitting room with Igni and sits quietly beside Jaskier until he stops shaking. But it’s still somewhat humiliating, sniffling and shivering like a child after a bad dream next to a man who’s probably been killing horrible things that go bump in the night since long before Jaskier was a twinkle in his father’s eye.

 

After a month of bad dreams but no more nighttime wanderings, he’s done.

 

Curled in his usual chair in Geralt’s office, he’s filled up two sheets of parchment in the last half hour, coaxing stories out of a reluctant Geralt who is clearly only consenting to tell him as much as he is because of the terms of their agreement. The man is obviously nearing the end of his tolerance, so Jaskier changes tack. He fills Geralt in on the past month of rubbish sleep and awkward silences, and wraps up with platitudes.

 

“I’m not saying it wasn’t very kind of you,” he tells Geralt, twirling his quill between his fingers. “But I’m clearly not going wandering the halls anymore, and poor Aubry probably has far better things to do than listen to me cry.”

 

“Mm,” Geralt says. He studies Jaskier’s face for a long moment--Jaskier does his best to look confident and convincing--and then says, “No.”

 

Jaskier deflates. “Why not?”

 

It comes out rather more petulantly than he intended, and Geralt lifts one silver brow. Jaskier pointedly ignores the flush rising to his cheeks. “It’s a waste of their time, it’s miserable and embarrassing to me, and--”

 

“Jaskier,” Geralt says flatly, and Jaskier snaps his mouth shut with a wince. Geralt lets him get away with a lot, but every so often he puts just a bit of Warlord into his voice, and reminds Jaskier abruptly that he’s been playing coy with a predator.

 

Silence hangs between them for a long moment. Jaskier breaks first. “I’m sorry.”

 

Geralt says nothing, just holds Jaskier’s gaze with those fathomless golden eyes. “You’re anxious,” he says.

 

It’s not absolving, just vaguely...curious? Jaskier opens his mouth to protest, then closes it. It’s not worth lying, not when Geralt can probably smell his frustrated exhaustion through his pores. “Yes,” he admits.

 

“Why?”

 

Jaskier slumps down in his chair. Trust a Warlord to go right to the point. “I’m tired,” he says. “I’m not sleeping well, I’m worried that I’m going to pass out and fall down one of those sets of stairs and break my neck, I miss my lute--”

 

Geralt frowns. “You have a lute?”

 

“I had a lute,” Jaskier corrects. “Sexiest piece of musicality from here to Skellige. I had it with me when I was captured. Gods only know what happened to her.” He sighs, rubbing his thumb wistfully over his callouses. His poor baby. “I used to play, whenever I couldn’t sleep. It helped.” He shrugs. “I can compose without it, of course, not having it isn’t going to prevent me from working on the song cycle, but.”

 

“Hm.” Geralt narrows his eyes, and then gets abruptly to his feet. Jaskier scrambles to follow. “The guard rotation stays,” he says. “Sleepwalking or not. We caught a Nilfgaardian patrol at the base of the mountain, looking for the Trail.” Jaskier freezes, his blood running cold. “I already doubled Ciri’s guard. I’ve left yours because you’re a lesser target, but they took you once already, and I don’t know how badly they want you back.” He pauses. “You’re shaking. Sit down.”

 

Mutely, Jaskier sits back in his chair. He feels a bit numb.

 

“Jaskier.”

 

“Yes,” Jaskier says faintly, and then gives himself a mental shake. “Yes. Sorry. Of course. That makes sense, I—thank you. For telling me. And for. Well. Thank you.”

 

Geralt looks at him, silent, and Jaskier feels suddenly very small. They're almost of a height, but now, standing while Jaskier sits, Geralt seems almost to loom, his shoulders broad enough to block the world. There's a furrow in his brow, the slightest hint of a downward tilt to his lips, but he doesn't look angry, more...uncomfortable? "If you'd...prefer someone else," Geralt says finally, and oh, gods, Jaskier thinks, a little wildly, the White Wolf cares.

 

He leaves the question unasked, and Jaskier lets himself consider it. He likes Aubry quite a bit, and Coën is lovely in his way, and Junod is more of a shadow than anything else. It's not like there are other Witchers clamoring to spend their nights in his room--well, not in a guarding capacity; he's certainly caught a few glances, though nothing has ever gone further than some flirting. Being assigned guards is bad enough, he can't imagine asking someone.

 

Well...maybe Eskel. He quite enjoys the Witcher's company, and unless he's completely lost his touch, he thinks Eskel enjoys his, too.

 

But as Geralt's right hand, Eskel barely sleeps as it is. The last thing Jaskier's going to do is keep him awake any longer.

 

"No," Jaskier says. "No, that's all right. It's fine the way it is."

 

Geralt studies him, eyes narrowed. "You're sure?"

 

Jaskier has no idea why he says it--later, he'll blame the poor sleep--but the words slip out before he can stop them. "Unless you'd like to keep me company."

 

If he had been any less absolutely mortified, Jaskier might have been delighted by the pure shock that crosses Geralt's face, his jaw actually dropping in surprise.

 

Then Jaskier's brain catches up with his mouth, and he feels his face go red so quickly it's actually a little dizzying.

 

"Ha," he says, his voice cracking. "I mean, you know, Yen says you hardly ever sleep anyway, and I'm quite a good Gwent player actually, you'd be surprised--"

 

"Jaskier," Geralt interrupts, and it almost sounds--amused? Jaskier snaps his mouth shut, and then, despite himself, laughs, embarrassed and a little wild.

 

Geralt's lips twitch.

 

There's a tap at the door, and it opens without Geralt's word, which means it must be a member of the small council. Eskel's head pokes in. His amber eyes sweep over the two of them--what he makes of Jaskier's still-helpless giggling and Geralt's almost-smile, Jaskier can't imagine--and he cocks one brow at Jaskier before looking to Geralt. "Council's ready to meet, Wolf," he says.

 

"Hm," Geralt says. He glances at Jaskier, and Jaskier climbs to his feet without needing instruction.

 

"I'll take my leave." It's a relief to have the out, honestly, his cheeks still flaming. "Thank you as always for the time, my lord."

 

Geralt's lips twitch again. He inclines his head, and if Jaskier didn't know better, he'd think the look in the White Wolf's eyes is almost fond.

 

That way madness lies, Jaskier thinks, and beats a hasty retreat.

 

 

(Three days later, Junod has to tackle him to the floor of his sitting room when he attempts to sleepwalk out the door, large hands holding Jaskier firmly down while he thrashes and sweats and shakes.)

 

 

"When do we get to hear the songs you're writing?" Ciri asks curiously, tilting her head up.

 

She's sitting on a footstool at Jaskier's feet as he perches on the edge of one of the large armchairs in her chambers, gently working a comb through her hair to section it off into the plaits she requested. "Eyes front," he reminds her, nudging her head down. He folds the comb under his last two fingers and starts braiding again. He hasn't braided regularly since he was at Oxenfurt, but the patterns come back to him easily enough. "And...well. Eventually, I suppose. They're not quite in listening shape yet."

 

"Muse got your tongue?" Yennefer asks from the other armchair, all faux-innocence and honey. Jaskier makes a face at her.

 

"My muse is just fine, thank you very much," he says tartly. "I'm just having a bit of composition trouble. It's always a bit harder to do these things a cappella, you know. Ciri, love, eyes front or this will end up crooked."

 

Ciri turns her head. "You've been writing them for a while. I just thought you'd be able to sing one by now."

 

"Mm," Jaskier says--Yennefer laughs, only a bit teasing, and he realizes only belatedly he's channeled Geralt. He wrinkles his nose on principle, taking a bit of waxed thread from the arm of the chair and twining it around the braid he's just finished. "It's not that I can't sing them," he says. "I suppose I just didn't think there was an audience."

 

"Rude," Yennefer says mildly. Dragonfly, the second half of Ciri's guard, snorts a laugh from where she's lounging comfortably against the wall like a panther at rest. Ciri giggles.

 

"Yennefer's right, Jaskier," she says, tilting her head into Jaskier's touch when he directs her with a light tap to her temple. "Just because there aren't any bards here doesn't mean Witchers don't like music."

 

"The Wolf Witchers don't sing much," Dragonfly says idly. She's one of the few female Witchers in the Keep, and Jaskier has filed her and her sisters in the same mental very very hot but very very scary box as the sorceresses. "Cats do, though, and Bears. Griffins, if you get the right ballads. Noble fuckers, Griffins." Coën, filling in for Aiden and sitting cross-legged by the door frame, apparently only pretending to meditate, flips her the bird without opening his eyes. "There'd be an audience for you, if you'd like one."

 

"I--hm." Jaskier considers that. He's been assuming that he'd take his songs with him at the end of the year, not that he'd become whatever Kaer Morhen's version of a court bard might be.

 

He's not opposed to the idea, though, not by any means. He is a bard, after all; he thrives on attention and the reactions of a good crowd. And it would be nice to get some feedback during the workshopping period, since that's always a shitshow and a half.

 

Ciri wiggles her shoulders, a little pay-attention-to-me shimmy. "Please, Jaskier? Just one song?" She bats her eyelashes at him just impishly enough to make Jaskier laugh.

 

 "Little menace," he says fondly, tying off another braid and sitting back. "Alright, let me think." He considers for a moment, running through the repertoire of half-composed songs. "Hm," he murmurs, and straightens in his seat. He hums a few notes, just to give himself a proper starting pitch, and then, quietly, tapping two fingers against the inside of his opposite wrist to keep time, begins to sing the opening verse of The Fork in the Path.

 

With his mismatched audience of Witchers and sorceress and princess, he spins out the story, one he's heard in one form or another from every Witcher he's asked: the story of a lone Witcher, confronted by a monster in the shape of a man, and the choice of two roads: to slay the monster and move along to the next, or to track the monster to his nest, to find the place that made him and burn it to the ground. He sings of one choice after another, of shoulders grown heavy with the weight of bitterness and grief, with the cruelty of humanity and the salt of children's tears.

 

And he sings of the White Wolf. The Witcher who arrived at the same choice, and took the harder path. Who saw that there were more monsters in the world than a single Witcher could ever hope to kill, who gathered his siblings and called them to arms to ensure that no other child would die from a noble's neglect, that no innocent would be taken from their parents to warm a lord's bed.

 

He sings of golden eyes and a silver sword, because the monsters the White Wolf slays are no longer worthy of steel. He sings of a noble heart, with a capacity for compassion no Trial could ever destroy.

 

He sings, rhythmic and soft, his fingers keeping time as steady as a marching army, of the opening of Kaer Morhen's gates, and a Path marked by a single road.

 

When he finishes, the room is silent for a long, long moment.

 

"Oh," Ciri says, very quietly. Her voice trembles. "Oh."

 

Coën looks vaguely stunned. Yennefer's gorgeous eyes are wide, to Jaskier's shock, glistening. Dragonfly makes a sound that could very nearly be a sniffle, though when Jaskier turns to look at her, her eyes are dry. She clears her throat.

 

"Yeah, bard," she says, only a little rough. "You'd have an audience if you'd want one."

 

 

It's lovely to sing in Ciri's chambers, but Jaskier rather quickly forgets about the possibility of anything more than that. He keeps working on the songs, making a few tweaks to The Fork in the Path at Dragonfly's casual suggestion--she has an ear for poetry, actually, and he's not too proud to take her advice--and even sings a few others to Ciri and her guard, but mostly the songs stay on paper and in the quiet solitude of Jaskier's own rooms.

 

Until, quite abruptly, Eskel drops down into a crouch next to Jaskier's chair at supper one night a week after Jaskier sings for Ciri. "Hey," he says. "I hear you've got a few songs done."

 

Jaskier blinks in surprise, and then leans forward, looking past Triss and down the table to Yennefer, who gives him a look of absolutely feigned innocence. Traitor, he mouths at her, and her lip curls in a smirk. "A few, yes," Jaskier says, turning back to Eskel. "I suppose you'd like to fact-check?"

 

Eskel snorts. "Not really my area of interest. You'd have to talk to Vesemir about that. No, I was wondering if you'd sing one for us."

 

"Oh," Jaskier says, taken aback. "To--just you? Or--"

 

"All of us," Eskel says, gesturing around the hall. "We've never had a bard at Kaer Morhen before. And no one writes songs about Witchers. There's...more than a little interest."

 

"Oh," Jaskier says again. He's curious to know who's been saying what--he's been spending a bit of time with all of the different Schools, learning who they are and what made them agree to follow the White Wolf, but he hadn't thought they actually had much interest in what he was going to do with whatever stories they told him. "That's lovely. Um, yes. I do have a few."

 

Eskel cocks his head to one side. "Any you'd sing?"

 

Jaskier startles. "Tonight?"

 

"If you're willing."

 

Jaskier runs through his repertoire, considering which songs are performance-worthy and appropriate for making his Kaer Morhen debut. "I suppose," he says. "I might be a bit rusty."

 

"Oh, then forget it," Eskel says dryly. "I'll get one of the other ten bards to sing instead."

 

"Cheek," Jaskier says, smacking his shoulder. Eskel doesn't even pretend to feel it, which is just mean. "Yes. Let me know when."

 

Eskel nods in satisfaction, rising to his feet.

 

Jaskier turns back to his stew, breathing deeply to calm his nerves--he's an experienced bard, more than ten years on the road, but this is a rather larger audience than he's had in quite a while, and there's also the small matter of no lute and oh, right, his last performance ended with him unconscious and in a cell--and switching his ale mug for a cup of water.

 

When the servants have begun clearing plates and dice games have started to break out at the long tables, Eskel gets to his feet. He gives a sharp whistle, and the hall falls silent.

 

"Alright," he says. "You've all heard by now we've gotten a bard, unless you've had your ears stuffed full of cotton. I'm sure he appreciates you giving him some time to settle in without hounding him for entertainment." A low chuckle goes through the room, and something very much like tension eases out of Jaskier's spine. "But he's agreed to give us a few songs, so don't scare him off."

 

Another low rumble of laughter, a few playful jeers--aimed at Eskel, Jaskier notes, not at him. Eskel huffs, and turns to Jaskier, his wry smile twisted on one side by his scars but no less kind. He inclines his head, and Jaskier gets to his feet.

 

The Witchers stay quiet in anticipation as Jaskier makes his way around the table, considering where to start. He hasn't performed without an instrument in years, and feels a bit naked without one. A passing servant carrying a barrel of ale on his shoulder catches his eye, and Jaskier waves to him.

 

"May I borrow that?"

 

The young man blinks at him in surprise, but comes over and sets the barrel down on the floor in front of Jaskier. "Thank you," Jaskier says, running his hand over the smooth wooden lid and giving it a testing tap. It makes a pleasant thump and he nods in satisfaction.

 

"Right," he says, and looks up at the waiting crowd. "Let's start with something familiar, shall we?"

 

Using the barrel as a makeshift drum to keep rhythm, he launches in with What's in a Bottle of Elven Wine, a catchy, popular tavern ditty about a human vintner in search of the perfect recipe to replicate the taste of a fine Elven red he tried as a youth. It’s a classic song and well-known, with verses that build in speed and complexity as the song goes on and an easy-to-follow beat and refrain.

 

Jaskier suspects it’ll be the right fit for an audience like this, and if the response of the gathered Witchers is any indication, he’s not wrong. There’s a pleased ripple of recognition as he begins, and half the tables are pounding the beat along with him by the end of the first verse. The refrain rings through the hall, Witchers bellowing along with enthusiasm if not great skill, and Jaskier warms to his element, nerves falling away and leaving only the familiar flush of pleasure and song.

 

He follows Elven Wine with The Ballad of Mollie Merry, a humorous (and bawdy, if one likes, though Jaskier leaves those verses out in deference to Ciri’s presence at Geralt’s left hand) tale of a village milkmaid with a literally contagious laugh, and then My Lady a-Leaping, a sweet, light-hearted song about a princess turned into a frog and her quest to claim a kiss from the stable lad she loves. In the laughing applause that follows, he transitions into Ale for the Virtuous, a Cintran soldier’s marching tune four generations old.

 

As expected, the singing of the Witchers begins to falter as they recognize the song. Cintran army songs were known across the Continent, but Ale for the Virtuous, along with nearly every other, all but disappeared from courts and taverns alike after Cintra’s fall. Jaskier holds the song alone, beating the rhythm on his barrel, and he can all but feel the weight of Geralt’s gaze on the back of his neck, the tension not of a Warlord but of a father, intently aware of his daughter’s lost heritage being sung not twenty feet from her chair. But neither Geralt nor Ciri stops him, and Jaskier sings through the rest of the song, following the familiar arc of the verses and the steady marching beat.

 

Traditionally, the song ends strong and triumphant, a military call to arms. Jaskier doesn't. He turns the major sixth to a minor seventh and then to a tritone, shifting the resounding chorus to something haunting and uncertain. He holds the note, strong and clear, and then lets it fade, unresolved and lingering in the air the way only a dissonant note can.

In the silence that follows, Jaskier starts a marching beat once more. This one slower, more deliberate; weighted, like the steps of men who weigh more than just muscle and armor and steel.

 

He sings The March on Ard Carraigh.

 

Like Ale for the Virtuous, it has the cadence of a soldier's song. But where Ale is a song for a long-established army, standing on the shoulders of hard-won battles and bloody history, The March on Ard Carraigh is the slow, building rumble of single soldiers coming together, a legion assembling for the first time. As the hall of Witchers holds its breath around him, Jaskier weaves the story of the seven Schools coming together, uniting under the White Wolf's banner. The occasional discordance of different fighting styles learning to complement instead of clash, the ripples of conflict giving way to a solid front.

 

An army of Witchers, armed with steel and silver, marching against a single monster.

 

And leading them, like a beacon of a new age, the White Wolf of the North.

 

By the end of the first verse, the Witchers have picked up the beat, gauntleted hands banging the rhythm on the wooden tables. Jaskier sings the first refrain alone, but the second brings a score of other voices joining his, and by the last, the chorus rings through the hall, so loud the stone walls seem to purr with it.

 

Jaskier gentles the Witchers down from their roaring, counting on their enhanced hearing to recognize the sound of him slowing the beat he taps out on the barrel. He repeats the refrain, slower and softer each time, as more and more of the voices die away, until he sings alone once more, Oxenfurt-trained and road-honed voice projecting the depth and richness of the quiet words with the ease of long practice.

 

The song ends on a low hum, looming and ominous, as the Witcher army gathers around the city walls, preparing for the false siege. Jaskier lets the final note linger and then fades it away, running the beat down once, twice more.

 

Silence falls.

 

And then:

 

The Witchers roar their approval, applauding and pounding on the tables and shouting for an encore. It's loud enough that Jaskier startles, genuinely taken aback by the force of it, and then he's beaming, sweeping a bow to the room that triggers another wave of applause. Jaskier laughs, joy flushing through his veins, and he turns around to look at the high table, and Ciri is applauding, Triss and Yennefer are applauding, Eskel and Lambert are on their feet, and Geralt--

 

Geralt isn't clapping. But he's smiling.

 

Jaskier grins at him, broad and bright, so wide his face hurts. Oh, he's missed this, this thrill and this rush, and he's had patrons before who were stingy with their approval but Geralt isn't that. The smile on his lips is real, softening his entire face, his golden eyes warm and gorgeous in the candlelight.

 

He inclines his head to Jaskier, the simple nod as loud as a ringing cheer, and Jaskier lets it wash over him like a song.

 

 

After that, he sings almost every night after supper. The Witchers, already warming to him for his energetic interest in their stories and the apparent lack of fear in his scent, lean into his performances with flattering enthusiasm, singing along to the songs they know and listening raptly to the original pieces he debuts. Jaskier sticks to the catchier songs, the ones that talk about the battles and the victories, the Witchers and their Schools, the glory and the goodness that is so horribly absent from the few songs that do exist chronicling the White Wolf's rise to power.

 

Not Jaskier. He pours their goodness, their nobility, into every song he writes. The Bears' booming laughter and the Griffins' gentle chivalry. The Manticore's brilliant alchemy and the Cats' keen intelligence. The Vipers' sharp minds and the Crane's relentless creativity.

 

And the Wolves. The Wolves with their pack-bonds and their gruff affection, with their steadfast loyalty and endless courage. The School that trained the White Wolf, the best and noblest of all of them, who brought them together and leads them still.

 

(If he makes it a point never to look too hard at Geralt when he sings his praises because he can't keep his face from flushing...well. He's only human.)

 

The Witchers seek him out, now, coming by his chambers or stopping him in the halls. They tell him tales of their time on the Path, of what this battle or that looked like from the ground; they tell him the histories of their Schools and of the lovers and friends they've outlived or left behind. Jaskier writes it down, all of it. Some songs he sings for the entire keep, others in small gatherings in the library or in Ciri's rooms, and some he writes down and folds carefully and presses into sword-callused hands with a small, quiet smile.

 

Some things, he knows, aren't meant to be sung.

 

"You understand them," Triss says.

 

They're in Jaskier's sitting room, Triss and Yennefer sharing his sofa while Jaskier sits on the beside it, leaning up against Triss's skirts. Yennefer has her feet in Triss's lap and one index finger idly curling through Jaskier's hair as they pass a bottle of wine around them in a lazy loop, and Jaskier is fairly sure that Yennefer has no clue she's doing it and would stop immediately if she noticed.

 

"Who?" Jaskier says, taking the bottle from Triss and trying not to lean into Yennefer's rather pleasant touch.

 

"The Witchers," Yennefer says. "You see them for what they are, past the scars and the mutations and the blood."

 

Jaskier shrugs, passing the bottle to her. "They're just people."

 

Triss hums. "You'd be surprised how few people see that," she says. "And those that do often take a long time. You…" She accepts the wine bottle from Yennefer and takes a sip, grimacing slightly--it's a Toussaint red, but Jaskier knows she prefers lighter fare. "You saw it right away. You never even bothered to be afraid of them."

 

"Well," Jaskier says, a little embarrassed. "They did rescue me. It would be rude to turn around and treat them like…"

 

Even as he says it, the words curdle in his mouth. Like monsters, he was going to say, but oh, so many people do, don't they? He remembers the bitterness in Geralt's voice as he told Jaskier the story of his first monster, just a human man who looked at a girl on the road and saw a victim, and how the girl recoiled from Geralt's aid as if he might burn her with a touch. Jaskier swallows, his eyes stinging. He blames the wine. "They're people," he repeats, more firmly now. "They laugh and weep and fight and love and fuck and sing, just like the rest of us."

 

Yennefer laughs, low and throaty. "Oh, little bard," she says, with that fondness that always surprises him. "It's no wonder they flock to you."

 

At his post lounging by the door, Aubry gives a brief snort of laughter. Jaskier chooses to ignore them both, taking the wine back from Triss and drinking deeply.

 

"Anyway," Triss says. "When can we expect your newest debut? Ciri tells me you've been writing while she works at her lessons."

 

Traitor, Jaskier thinks, and makes a mental note to give Ciri extra arithmetic. "It's giving me trouble," he admits. "It'll be about the battle of Dol Blathanna, or at least it should be, there's a bit of Elder that I got from Geralt that's translating like a bitch, but I'm not about to mistranslate Filavandrel just for artistic license. Elves have enough reasons to hate human bards."

 

"Wise of you," Yennefer notes. "Filavandrel is here every year or so, to renew the treaties with Geralt. He's imposing enough even when one hasn't done something to make him angry."

 

"So I hear," Jaskier says glumly, because the song is so close to being done, but he really is being picky about it. For good reason, of course, but still.

 

Aubry shifts suddenly, stepping away from the door. Jaskier looks at him in confusion, only to jump at the knock that sounds a moment later. Aubry doesn't react, though, which means he both heard whoever it was coming and probably recognized them, so Jaskier gets to his feet, wobbling slightly as the wine promptly rushes to his head, and goes to see who it is.

 

He nearly startles out of his skin when he opens the door to find Geralt on the other side.

 

Long hours spent in the White Wolf's office, coaxing stories out of the Warlord and turning them to song, have done wonders for turning the White Wolf of the North into less of a figure and more of a man. It helps that Geralt is usually in simple leathers rather than full armor, swords in easy reach but not necessarily at hand. It's not that he's any less of a threat, certainly as lethal naked as any human warrior is in chainmail, but Jaskier's gotten used to the dressed-down, almost tame wolf of those quiet afternoons.

 

The Geralt in front of Jaskier now is no tame wolf. He's armed and armored, the hilts of his swords jutting over his shoulder and blood splattered across the stubble on his cheeks. His moon-white hair is caught back, streaked with blood along one temple, and his cat-slitted pupils are wider than Jaskier's ever seen them, blown and dark.

 

"Jaskier," he says, and his voice is lower than usual, raspy and rough as if he's been shouting.

 

"Geralt," Jaskier says, careful to hold himself still. It's been a long time since his body's instincts have reminded him that Geralt is a predator, but he can feel himself tensing, the warm flush of the wine leaving him almost abruptly. "Are you--are you alright?"

 

"Fine. It's not my blood." Geralt pauses, looking past Jaskier into the room. His face does something complicated and odd before smoothing back into its usual impassive mask, and Jaskier doesn't even want to know what Yennefer did to cause that. "I have something for you."

 

Jaskier blinks. Whatever he'd been expecting Geralt to say, it wasn't that. "You do?"

 

Geralt grunts an affirmative and picks something up off the floor.

 

It's a lute case.

 

No, Jaskier realizes, reaching out with trembling fingers.

 

It's his lute case. He'd know it anywhere, the dark leather with its emerald stitching, the colorful embroidery on the shoulder straps that Essi had done for him on the floor of their shared rooms in Oxenfurt, the chip in the buckle. "How," Jaskier breathes, taking the case from Geralt and nearly weeping at the perfect, familiar weight of it.

 

"Raided a Nilfgaardian camp today," Geralt says roughly, as Jaskier goes to his knees and lays the case on the floor as gently as he would a child, opening it with shaking hands and staring at his lute, his lute, through tear-filled eyes. "Smelled your blood on the case." He pauses. "It's not broken?"

 

"It's fine," Jaskier whispers. He touches the strings reverently, his heart in his throat. It's there, perfect and shining. "It's--there's not a scratch. It's perfect." He laughs, high and shocked and a little bit hysterical. "A good lute isn't cheap, they must have been planning to sell it or something, I don't know." He closes the case, because if he looks at it any longer he'll burst into tears--he needs to drink the rest of that bottle of wine, and maybe open another--and looks up at Geralt, who looks back at him with something very much like anxiety in his eyes.

 

Fuck it, Jaskier thinks.

 

He gets to his feet and throws his arms around the White Wolf's neck.

 

Geralt makes a startled, almost strangled noise, caught far enough off-guard that he actually staggers back a step under Jaskier's sudden weight. If he had any shame or self-preservation in the world Jaskier would have probably let him go just at that, but he's so, so fucking grateful, and he just squeezes Geralt tighter.

 

"Thank you," he says fiercely. This close, he can smell Geralt's skin, leather and sword oil and clean sweat. He feels a little drunk, and he's willing to bet it's not at all to do with the wine. "Geralt, thank you."

 

For a long moment, long enough that Jaskier hears the creak of Aubry's armor as he shifts and a soft sound from Yennefer that might be a laugh, Geralt is frozen. And then his hands come up and settle on Jaskier's waist, not quite hugging him back, but not pushing him away, either.

 

"You're welcome," he says quietly, and Jaskier closes his eyes.

 

 

 

Chapter Text

 

 

Having his lute back in his hands feels like the return of a lost limb.

 

The first day, Jaskier plays until his fingers bleed, his callouses softened in the weeks of disuse. He sits obediently through Triss's stern lecture as she heals his hands--"Again," she points out, though there's fondness shining through her exasperation--and then promptly goes back to his rooms to play some more.

 

He's delighted to find that his songs, composed freehand and relying only on his well-trained ear and years of practice, sound just as he intended. He plays through the ones he's written and then, soaring high on the sheer pleasure of the reunion, writes three more songs in quick succession, curled up on the couch in his sitting room. Aubry's shift change with Junod goes practically unnoticed, and it's only when Coën rouses him with a gentle hand on his shoulder that he realizes he's dozed off, the lute still clutched in his hands.

 

(If the last song he writes, half-asleep and past the point of caring about the quality of his lyrics, goes more than a little ham-handed on metaphors about silver and gold--well. It's not like he's going to let anyone else hear it.)

 

His performances at supper get longer, the lute letting him extend his original songs with instrumental flourishes and take requests for some of the classics the Witchers probably heard when they were new. He finds himself reaching back in his memory to recall some of the odder songs--the sorceresses, in particular, have a penchant for long, winding romantic ballads that have fallen out of fashion in the last century or so. Fortunately, Jaskier has a memory like a steel trap and rarely forgets a song, and only disappoints Yennefer once when he has to admit she's stumped him.

 

She indulges him with an amused half-smile when he tracks her down later that evening to get enough details on the song to dig up a record of it. To his delight, a bound collection of Aedernian sheet music turns up in his sitting room a day later, including the tune Yennefer requested.

 

Jaskier learns it in a day and plays it for her after supper, not in front of the crowd but cross-legged at her feet, slow and sweet. He tweaks the time signature and the key, just a bit, makes it quiet and hopeful instead of its original melancholy, and when he finishes she actually leans over, pushes back his hair, and kisses his forehead.

 

It's so unexpected that he goggles up at her in genuine shock, and she laughs, musical as any of his songs.

 

"Little bard," she says fondly. "You are a bit of a genius, aren't you?"

 

He recovers himself quickly. "I keep telling you," he says, tossing his head to get his hair back in place. "I am a master bard."

 

Ciri, at Yennefer's right hand, smiles at him. "I thought it was lovely." She tilts her head, the braids Jaskier put in for her earlier slipping over her shoulder. "Was it sad when you heard it before, Yennefer?"

 

"Mm," Yennefer says, lounging back in her chair and picking up her wine goblet. "It was, yes." She tucks a bit of Ciri's hair behind her ear, and her eyes are soft. "I rather liked this version, though."

 

Delighted as he is to have Yennefer's affection and Ciri's smiles, having his lute back in his hands gives Jaskier more than just an easy way to make his performances shine. The weight and scent and familiarity of it soothes something in his soul that he hadn't even realized had gone jagged. He takes to playing in his bedroom at night before he blows out his candle, wordless lullabies he's long since forgotten the words to, if he ever knew them at all. It helps him sleep, the soothing routine of it easing his mind, and he falls asleep playing more often than he cares to admit.

 

Still, it's not perfect.

 

He still has nightmares. They come without warning, whether he's had a good day or a frustrating one, whether he falls asleep flushed with wine or dead sober. He wakes up in cold sweats, in tears, half-screaming, tangled in blankets and terrified he's bound once more.

 

The sleepwalking is less frequent, not gone. He never makes it past his sitting room, Aubry or Junod or Coën holding him fast until he wakes. He doesn't sleep again those nights, sitting trembling by the fire or pacing, jittery and shaking, around his bedroom until dawn comes.

 

And sometimes, like tonight, he walks.

 

He'd woken from a dream he doesn't remember, a scream caught in his throat and his hands white-knuckled in his blankets. He lies still for several long, trembling minutes, catching his breath, reminding himself that he's safe, he's safe, he's safe.

 

When his hands stop shaking and his heart no longer feels like it might beat out of his chest, he pulls himself out of bed.

 

Aubry is still on shift, settled in meditation by the fire in Jaskier's sitting room. He opens his eyes when Jaskier steps out of his bedroom, a woolen sweater pulled over his sleep clothes and his lute slung over his shoulder.

 

(Anya had given him an amused smile when he'd requested oversized clothes to sleep in, but he got into the habit when he stole--borrowed, he'd insisted at the time--his lover's clothing as a student at Oxenfurt, and never quite got out of it. It makes him feel cozy and soft, even in an empty bed.)

 

"All right?" Aubry asks quietly.

 

Jaskier gives him a tired smile, not quite trusting his voice yet. He motions to his lute, and Aubry nods. They've gotten quite efficient at communicating without words.

 

They leave Jaskier's rooms together, Jaskier's soft-soled boots tapping quietly on the stone floors, Aubry silent at his side. The corridors of Kaer Morhen are all but empty at night--Witcher training starts just after dawn, and while there are always a few who stay up, drinking or gaming or just talking, reveling in the safety of being off the Path, they tend to cluster in the small halls scattered through the keep rather than wandering the corridors. The stillness is soothing to Jaskier's nightmare-shaking nerves, and any apprehension the dark hallways might give dissipates with Aubry's soothing presence beside him.

 

The small chamber off the main room of the library is used for council meetings and lessons for trainees during the day, but it's deserted now, the hearth dark and the chairs scattered sporadically across the room, abandoned by whatever group was using them earlier. Jaskier sets his lute down on a table and pulls a chair closer to the hearth as Aubry piles on a few new logs and casts a quick Igni. The flames that spring up cast the room in warmth and golden light, easing the chill that had seeped into Jaskier's fingers during the walk from his rooms. He shoots Aubry a grateful look and retrieves his lute, toeing off his shoes and curling up in the chair.

 

Out of the corner of his eye, he sees Aubry resettle himself on the floor, sinking back into a posture of meditation. Jaskier knows he's still alert, will rouse at the slightest hint of a threat. It's comforting, even when he knows that the biggest threat Aubry's listening for is Jaskier himself.

 

Pushing that thought away, Jaskier shifts a bit more to get comfortable, tucking his toes under his legs and turning his face toward the fire. He inhales deeply, breathing in the familiar scent of burning pine, his mind filling with memories of nights spent under open the sky, writing lyrics by moonlight, soot on his hands.

 

Jaskier closes his eyes and starts to play.

 

His fingers move over the strings without pattern or plan. It's the motion that's soothing, more than the music itself, but even that is quiet and calming and sweet. It fills the room, echoing off the vaulted stone ceiling--he chose this room because the acoustics are delightful, even when he's only vaguely paying attention to them--and the melodies take on lingering, honeyed tones as the stone softens and amplifies the sound. He plays lullabies he barely remembers learning, love songs he wrote as a student. He plays scraps of the White Wolf songs he's still crafting, toys with the ones he's finished, adding flourishes where there's simplicity and easing smoothness into the complicated fretwork.

 

It reminds him of Oxenfurt, playing in stairwells, experimenting with echoes, the audible textures he could coax from his lute and his voice, and he sinks into the sweetness of it. The last of the nightmare fades, the tension slipping from his shoulders, the fear from his mind.

 

He plays until the soft ache in his fingers pulls him out of his reverie, and then stops with a sigh. The last thing he needs is another lecture from Triss, and he knows that's exactly where he's heading if he keeps playing. Jaskier eases his fingers off the strings, idly working his hands through the stretches that are as much muscle memory to him as breathing after years of practice, and looks around, reorienting himself back to the room.

 

The fire has lost some of its initial blaze, but isn't quite burned to embers yet, a few small flames still crackling gently against the mostly-burnt logs. Aubry is right where Jaskier last saw him, eyes closed in meditation, hands resting lightly on his knees. The firelight glints off his medallion, gleams against the hilts of his swords.

 

And beside him--

 

Jaskier nearly drops his lute.

 

Beside him, not kneeling in meditation but leaning against the hearth, his white hair swept up in a knot and legs crossed beneath him, is Geralt. His face is calm, the lines of tension that never quite leave his face during the day--except, sometimes, when he looks at Ciri--smoothed away. His eyes are closed, pale lashes sweeping shadows against his cheeks. The light of the hearth bathes him in gold, and for a moment he's so handsome it takes Jaskier's breath away.

 

Geralt opens his eyes and meets Jaskier's. He inclines his head, just slightly, one eyebrow lifting in a question.

 

"Um," Jaskier says, feeling a bit foolish. "I didn't hear you come in."

 

"Mm," Geralt says, which is probably a nice way of saying, well, obviously. He studies Jaskier for a moment. "I heard you from the hall."

 

Jaskier tightens his fingers against the neck of his lute. "I'm sorry," he says. He casts a glance back at Aubry, who doesn't move. "I thought it was alright for me to--"

 

"It's fine," Geralt interrupts, and then, more gently, "You're not a prisoner, even at night. You can go where you wish."

 

"Within reason," Aubry says, without opening his eyes.

 

Jaskier makes a face at him anyway. Traitor. He bets Aubry heard Geralt come in. And here he'd thought they were friends. "I should probably head back to bed anyway," he says, a little reluctantly. Absently, he starts stretching his hand again. "I don't want to think about what time it is."

 

"Late," Geralt says. He rises smoothly to his feet with a lupine grace--White Wolf indeed, Jaskier thinks--and holds out a hand for Jaskier's lute, holding it while Jaskier untangles himself from the blanket he'd wrapped around his shoulders and feet. Once he's gotten himself free, Jaskier takes it back with a small smile.

 

"Thanks," he says.

 

"Mm." Geralt pauses, as if considering, and then says, a little halting, "You're good. With the lute. It was...soothing."

 

"Oh." Jaskier feels a little flushed. "Thank you. I--well. It's been a lot of practice." He licks his suddenly dry lips, and catches Geralt's gaze flicker briefly down to his mouth. "Thank you for listening. Even if I didn't know you were there. It's always nice to have an audience."

 

Geralt looks at him for a moment, and then nods. "You're welcome," he says, almost awkwardly.

 

Silence settles, except for the crackle of the fire. Jaskier, who has never enjoyed the quiet, breaks it. "Um," he begins.

 

A piece of wood snaps in the hearth, loud enough to startle Jaskier half out of his skin. Geralt catches him by the arm with easy reflexes when Jaskier trips over his own feet in alarm, and chuckles, low and deep. "All right?"

 

"Fine," Jaskier says, more of a squeak than he means it to be. He clears his throat. "Fine. Just, you know. A bit tired. Makes me a little jumpy."

 

"Hm," Geralt says. "Back to bed then, probably." He loosens his grip on Jaskier's arm, and Jaskier misses his touch immediately. "Aubry?"

 

Aubry opens his eyes, rising. "I'll get him back safe."

 

Geralt nods. "Good," he says. He pauses, as if he has something more to say, and then seems to think better of it. He nods again, and leaves the room on silent feet.

 

Jaskier looks at Aubry. Aubry cocks an eyebrow at him, and Jaskier sighs. "Witchers," he says, slinging his lute back over his shoulder. "Come on, then. Walk me home."

 

If Jaskier's ears are still warm and his fingers keep drifting to the place where Geralt's hand clasped his arm, Aubry is polite enough not to comment.

 

 

The Redanian envoys' visit had been in the works for weeks before Jaskier found out about it, so it's no surprise that they're coming. Still, he's not looking forward to it. He's quite enjoyed not having to deal with Redanian nobility since he left home--with the occasional exception of playing at one court or another, but at least then he was getting paid for it--and he doesn't love the idea of having them here in Kaer Morhen, the first place he's felt properly safe in years.

 

He's also absolutely sure that there will be at least three spies in whatever diplomats show up, since there's no way Dijkstra would pass up a chance to get eyes inside Kaer Morhen.

 

("Let him try," Eskel had said, when Jaskier warned him as much. He smiled, teeth flashing sharp. "I've yet to meet a spy who lies so well a Witcher can't smell it on him.")

 

All that considered, Jaskier is perfectly delighted to miss the welcome feast for the envoys when Triss asks him to spend some time in one of her sickrooms, playing to soothe the whimpering dreams of one of Anya's laundresses. She'd gotten cockatrice blood in her mouth while wringing out a Witcher's tunic to wash, and the venom had taken her quickly.

 

She'll live, Triss says, but her dreams are fevered and pained as they work the venom out of her system, and music helps. Jaskier sits by her bedside and plays wordless lullabies well into the night while one of Triss's assistants tips potions down her unresponding throat. He feels a bit guilty for being glad of the chance to avoid the feast, but not guilty enough to turn Triss down and show up. A few snippets of gossip about the envoys reach him as he and Aubry make their way to Jaskier's rooms after Triss dismisses him with a grateful smile, but nothing particularly surprising--a pair of chambermaids muttering darkly about lords thinking they have a right to take liberties, a serving boy scowling to a page about one of the envoys tossing his table scraps on the floor.

 

"I wasn't sure if he thinks Witchers are dogs, or if we are," the boy is saying as Jaskier and Aubry pass. "Either way--ugh."

 

"I told you nobles are like that," the page says, with the resignation of a child who definitely served at court, at least briefly, and Jaskier ducks his head to hide a smile.

 

Remus is leaning against the door to Jaskier's rooms, eyes closed and arms crossed over his chest. He cracks open an eye when they approach, pushing himself off the wall. "Bard," he greets.

 

"Remus," Jaskier says, surprised. "Everything alright?"

 

"Outsiders in the keep," Remus says. "The Wolf's doubled guards on anyone who's got them."

 

Jaskier raises an eyebrow. "Ciri?" he asks, and Remus's wrinkled nose is answer enough. "Ouch. I bet she wasn't pleased with that."

 

"Not at all."

 

Jaskier winces. Ciri was frustrated enough having two bodyguards with her, he can't imagine how she'll react to four--not that he can blame Geralt for the caution. Even if she wasn't the lost Cintran heir, the White Wolf's ward is a tempting prize.

 

He's a little touched that Geralt thought to give him some extra security, though he can't imagine he needs it. It's not as if a few Redanian nobles are more of a threat to him than whatever nastiness Nilfgaard had in store for him.

 

"Well, all right," he says. "I hope you're in the mood for ballads, though. I've been playing lullabies for the past two hours, and I need to play something with bounce before bed or I'll dream of my mother, and nobody wants that."

 

Remus snorts, and opens the door for him.

 

Jaskier sleeps well that night, not a nightmare to be found, and wakes refreshed and bright-eyed for the first time in what feels like an eternity. Coën and Letho walk him down to the baths, where Triss greets him with a smile and informs him that her patient took a turn for the better in the night, her fever breaking in the small hours of dawn. He eats breakfast with Triss, trading bites of his bacon for pieces of the sharp cheese she puts on her bread, and then heads up to Ciri's rooms to start her morning lessons.

 

All in all, it's a lovely start to the day, which is why it's so unfortunate that it's ruined before noon.

 

He's finally managed to get Ciri to stop grumbling about the four Witchers standing guard in her rooms and start working on her arithmetic when there's a sharp rap at the door. None of the Witchers flinch, which is always a sign that they knew who was coming with plenty of time to spare, and Dragonfly opens the door to admit Vesemir. He nods once to the gathered Witchers, gives a much gentler look to Ciri, and then, to Jaskier's surprise, turns to him.

 

"Bard," he says.

 

"Um," Jaskier says, because he can count on one hand the number of times he and Vesemir have spoken since he came to Kaer Morhen almost five months ago. "Yes?"

 

"Eskel says you're Redanian. Yennefer says Redanian nobility."

 

It's a statement, not a question. "By birth, yes," Jaskier says carefully. "I haven't been to court since I was young."

 

"Doesn't matter," Vesemir says flatly. "The envoys are trying to be clever, and none of us have the temperament to deal with it. Yennefer is threatening to curse them, and the Wolf's about to start breaking fingers."

 

"Ah," Jaskier says, realization dawning. "You need someone with people skills."

 

Vesemir grunts an affirmation--oh, Jaskier thinks, so that's where Geralt got it--and Jaskier gets to his feet. "Finish that set," he tells Ciri, touching her cheek fondly. "And then you're free until magic with Triss this afternoon."

 

Her face brightens. "No reading?"

 

"No reading," he says with a grin, and then adds, "Not until tomorrow, anyway. I found a book on Temerian history in the library the other day that I think will be lovely for studying their economic shifts over the past century."


Ciri moans and drops her head onto the table. Jaskier laughs, bending to kiss the top of her head. "You asked for this, my dear."

 

"I did," she grumbles, sitting up and picking up her stylus again.

 

There's a small upward tick to Vesemir's lips as they leave Ciri's rooms and begin the trek down the winding tower staircase. "You're good with her," the old Witcher comments. "The cub."

 

"So people keep telling me," Jaskier says. "I mostly just remember what my own tutors did and try to do the opposite."

 

Vesemir hums. "Unkind men?"

 

Jaskier shrugs. "Not unkind," he says, giving the benefit of the doubt. "But not gentle. Nothing like Witcher training, of course, but I think there's something to be said for letting children learn without caning them." He pauses. "Ah--no offense meant."

 

Vesemir snorts. "If a trainee Witcher gets the cane, boy, he either used a weapon without cause or permission, or harmed one of the younger lads. We don't do it lightly."

 

"Oh." Well, that's good to know. And to be fair, none of the trainees seem particularly abused; the instructors treat them with gruff, stern affection, and the trainees respond with deference and, from what Jaskier can see, good spirits.

 

"It wasn't always that way," Vesemir adds after a moment of silence, regret rough in his voice. "There were too many boys who deserved a gentler touch than they got. But these last years…" He shakes his head. "We learned."

 

"Even old Witchers can learn new tricks?" Jaskier offers.

 

"Mm," Vesemir says, so very much like Geralt that Jaskier has to suppress a smile. He'd suspected that Vesemir was very much a father figure to some of the Wolf Witchers, and he's yet to see anything to change his mind.

 

They come to a stop outside one of the small council chambers--a little sooner than Jaskier would have managed if he were setting his own pace, and his legs throb a bit from the stairs--and Vesemir raps his knuckles sharply against the door. Cedric opens it, eyes glinting in the torchlight and Cat's head medallion gleaming on his chest, and inclines his head to them in greeting. Vesemir puts a firm hand between Jaskier's shoulder blades, nudging him forward, and Jaskier steps into the room.

 

Jaskier's glad to see that the rustic simplicity of the council room hasn't been changed in deference to the envoys. The large table at the center of the room is still empty of linens, simple earthenware jugs of water and tankards of ale provided, the occasional bottle of wine, the platters heaped with simple, hearty fare--roasted meat and good vegetables, thick-sliced bread, wedges of good cheese. Loose pages of parchment are scattered across the table, quills and inkwells and chalk slates.

 

The Redanian envoys stand out in stark contrast to Geralt's small council, all armed, armored Witchers. They're all silk and softness, most of them with their backs to the door--clever, Jaskier thinks--their chairs drawn up close to one another, as if by sitting in a huddle they're somehow safer. Jaskier shakes his head in vague amusement as he surveys the Witchers present: Geralt, Eskel at his right hand, the Heads of the six other Schools spread around him, their identifying medallions polished to shining.

 

Yennefer sits at Geralt's left hand, and her eyes go briefly wide at the sight of Jaskier. He frowns at her, trying to interpret the look, but she gives a quick shake of her head.

 

Eskel catches his eye and rises, tilting his head to indicate the empty chair at his own right hand. "Glad you could make it," he says. Jaskier takes the hint and makes his way around the table to take the seat. Treyse passes him a sheaf of parchment, clearly the notes he's taken, and Jaskier shoots him a grateful smile.

 

"This is Jaskier," Eskel continues, resuming his seat, and Jaskier glances up long enough to flash a quick smile at the envoys, not really paying much attention--more important, he knows, that he familiarizes himself with whatever's going on so far. "Another of the White Wolf's advisors. Formerly one of your countrymen, so he'll be looking out for anything…" He pauses, briefly, letting a hint of menace slip into his voice. "Untoward."

 

Ah, Jaskier thinks, a smile tugging at his lips before he can stop it. So that's how they're playing this. How fascinating.

 

The words on the page he's reading suddenly rearrange themselves, and he has to hold himself in check to avoid visibly startling. Magic, he realizes, it must be, and spares a glance at Yennefer. She presses her lips together and looks down at the parchment pointedly, and he follows her gaze.

 

Don't panic, the new words say, an inky scrawl.

 

Jaskier blinks. Don't panic? What the hell is that supposed to--

 

"The Duke de Rinde," one of the Redanian envoys is saying, and Jaskier tunes himself back into the room, realizing belatedly that the envoys are being introduced. "The Count de Ruyder, the Count de Noailles, and the Count de Lettenhove."

 

Jaskier snaps his head up, and meets his father's eyes for the first time in ten years.

 

The Count de Lettenhove has aged since Jaskier last saw him. Of course he has, it's been a decade, but it's still a bit surprising--the salt-and-pepper hair Jaskier remembers gone almost fully grey, the lines around his mouth and eyes deeper and more pronounced. His skin has the sallow tone of encroaching late middle age.

 

His eyes, though. His eyes are the same, the exact clear blue as Jaskier's own, but so much colder, hard as flint as he regards Jaskier with disdain.

 

It's such a familiar look, as if Jaskier is little more than dirt on the bottom of his shoe, that Jaskier nearly laughs.

 

"We were discussing," Yennefer says, her voice cool and cutting, "The terms regarding the treatment of nonhumans within Redania's borders. I believe the Duke de Rinde's objections had to do with preservation of cultural norms, and he was attempting to explain to us why those cultural norms should be preserved, rather than legislated out of history as racist bullshit."

 

Jaskier swallows. "Ah," he says. "I think I know which practices you're talking about." He steels himself, takes a breath, and shuffles Treyse's notes into a neater pile. "My lord," he says, addressing the Duke de Rinde directly. "Why don't you tell us, in detail, just what you'd like the White Wolf to allow?"

 

The next hour passes with glacial slowness. The Redanians snipe at Jaskier and shrink back at a single icy look from any of the Witchers; Jaskier pointedly pretends his father isn't sitting six feet away from him and systematically tears most of the envoys' proposals to shreds. Eskel is a firm, steady line of heat at his right hand, Treyse a languid, coiled predator at his left, cat's head medallion shining and green-gold eyes sharp. Despite the reassurance of their presence, the knowledge that his father can't so much as lay a finger on him--and that he's since survived much, much worse than the Count de Lettenhove's backhand--he feels the familiar disconnected floatiness of dissociation, his mind racing to keep up with the political back-and-forth even it separates from his body's tense, sweaty-palmed anxiety.

 

A terse nod from Geralt is all it takes to put an end to the day's session, Yennefer rising smoothly to her feet. "Gentlemen," she says to the envoys, in a voice that suggests she considers them to be anything but. "We're done for the day. You're welcome to retire to your quarters until supper, and hopefully tomorrow you'll have something to bring to the table that the White Wolf actually wants, rather than the garbage you've come up with today."

 

It's a clear dismissal. Stormy-faced, the Redanians gather their notes and prepare to leave the room.

 

Jaskier brings himself back to his body by slow degrees, breathing deeply and letting his head drop down to rest briefly against the back of his chair. He's happy to be helpful in any way Geralt needs him, of course, but gods.

 

He needs a very strong drink and, now that he can actually feel the clench in his shoulders and jaw from tensing his muscles, a very hot bath.

 

Not necessarily in that order. Possibly at the same time. He's not picky.

 

"Julian."

 

Jaskier hasn't been Julian in years. He closes his eyes for the space of a heartbeat, steels himself, and then opens his eyes and gets to his feet to face his father.

 

The Count de Lettenhove has crossed to the Wolf's side of the table, standing in front of Jaskier with an expression of flat disapproval. Despite the years added to his face, his bearing is as rigid as ever, spine straight and shoulders set. When he was younger, Jaskier used to muse that his father's posture came from a stick shoved up his arse, but now he's old enough to know that he's likely never known the pleasure. If he had, maybe he'd be a little less of an utter shit to deal with.

 

"Father," he says, matching the coolness of his tone. "It's been a long time."

 

"Yes," his father says, the frown lines around his mouth deepening even further. "Your mother and I thought you'd have given up on this nonsense and returned home. You should have been married years ago."

 

Jaskier snorts. "I can't imagine you'd make much of a match for me these days," he says dryly, crossing his arms. "You had some rather choice words regarding my reputation and choice of bedmates the last time we spoke, if I recall."

 

It's an understatement, and then some. The words useless cocksucker had been thrown about more than once. His father doesn't flinch. "We have influence beyond Redania now," he says. "Your cousin Ferrant is the royal instigator of Kerack, through his wife's position."

 

"So I've heard," Jaskier says. Better him than Jaskier, if the rumors about Ferrant's wife are true; he's a great lover of spirited women, but from what he's heard Ferrant's lady wife is less spirited and more vicious.

 

Ferrant has always been an asshole, though, so perhaps they deserve each other.

 

"In any case," his father continues, as if Jaskier hadn't spoken, "Had we known you were here, playing house with the White Wolf, your mother might have sent a letter." His lip curls in a sneer. "Although when we said we wanted you to find a position at court, we didn't mean bending over for a monster."

 

"Lovely," Jaskier says, sweet and dipped in venom. "And here you wondered where I got my manners."

 

His father's faux-polite mask slips, sneer twisting into a scowl, and he takes a step closer, into Jaskier's space. "You were always an ungrateful thing," he says, low and disgusted. "I should have beaten you more when I had the chance."

 

A hand settles at the small of Jaskier's back, firm and grounding, before anxiety even has time to spike in his chest. The smells of leather and sword oil, clove and heat, sink into Jaskier's senses, and safety flows through him like a river.

 

"It sounds," Geralt says, dark and dangerous, "like you were threatening a member of my council."

 

The Count de Lettenhove flinches back like he's been struck, the color draining from his face. "Ah," he says. "No, my lord. Julian and I were just--"

 

"Julian," Geralt repeats flatly.

 

Jaskier takes a chance and leans back, just slightly, into Geralt's hand. If his father thinks he's the White Wolf's bedwarmer, well, let him. Geralt doesn't move away, and he's a line of pure, solid heat against Jaskier's back. "Geralt," he says. "Let me introduce you to my father."

 

He doesn't need to look to imagine Geralt's face. "Hm," Geralt says. His hand flexes, just briefly, against the fabric of Jaskier's doublet. Five points of pressure around his spine, steadying and firm. "Your escort is waiting for you, Count."

 

Jaskier's father blanches. "Ah," he says again. "Yes. Of course." He bows, jerky and awkward--Jaskier's mother would be ashamed, he thinks, amused--and, with a last, poisonous look at Jaskier, beats a hasty retreat to the door, where Letho is waiting with crossed arms and a scowl.

 

The door closes behind them. Jaskier exhales, long and slow, and turns to face Geralt. "Thank you," he says. "You didn't need to do that."

 

"Hm," Geralt says. He narrows his eyes at the closed door for a moment, then looks back at Jaskier. "Sorry."

 

Jaskier blinks. "For what?"

 

Geralt's mouth tugs downward. "Touched you without permission."

 

"Oh." Jaskier flushes. "That's--that's fine. That is, I don't mind."

 

Geralt hums an acknowledgment. "Will you be alright?" At Jaskier's raised eyebrow, he adds, "The rest of the negotiations. You helped. But if he's…"

 

Bless this man, Jaskier thinks. Even if he hadn't been the type to fall in love easily and often, Geralt could have him in a heartbeat. "I'll be fine," he says, and means it. "I'm not a child anymore, he can't hurt me. And besides--" He grins at the White Wolf, just a tiny bit feral. "Someone needs to stop Yennefer from turning the envoys into slugs for looking down her dress."

 

"Eskel would have," Geralt says, but his lips twitch into a fractional smile. "Thank you."

 

Jaskier inclines his head. "My pleasure."

 

He feels the warmth of Geralt's hand on his back all the way back to his rooms.

 

 

"You know," Yennefer says, lounging on the couch in Jaskier's sitting room with all the languid luxury of a panther, "you could just ask him to fuck you."

 

It's been a week since the Redanian envoys left--treaty decidedly unsigned--and just as long since Jaskier has, he knows, gone from subtly lusting after Geralt whenever they're in the same room to...probably much less subtly lusting after Geralt, if the looks he's getting are any indication. In his defense, he thinks, Geralt had been as close to him as his shadow the entire time the envoys were there, looming up beside him any time the formal negotiations broke up until the Redanians were escorted back to their temporary chambers, his eyes sharp and flashing whenever the Count de Lettenhove so much as looked Jaskier's way. He'd only touched Jaskier twice since that first day, not staking a claim but not not, and both times the touch had burned through him, hotter than mulled wine, more dizzying than vodka.

 

In Jaskier's opinion, though, he shouldn't be held responsible. He falls in love as easily as breathing on a normal day, flirting in taverns and making eyes at patrons at court, taking advantage of the shine of his eyes and the sweetness of his voice. But Geralt--Geralt is nothing like any of that. Geralt, who swept to his rescue like some kind of avenging angel, who gave him safety, sanctuary, stories.

 

And oh, the stories he tells. Monsters and magic and death and destiny--Jaskier's words, of course, not Geralt's; even when he's willing to share, Geralt isn't exactly poetic--but there's so much to them, such weight to the memories that Jaskier is lucky enough to hear. And he makes himself so small, when he speaks, as if he's nothing, as if his part in those stories is nothing.

 

As if he's not noble, and good, and true, and so strong. To have seen so much pain, and so much cruelty, to have borne so much pain and cruelty, and to have finally said "enough."

 

How could Jaskier do anything but fall for him?

 

Something of all of that must show on his face, because Yennefer scoffs. "He's not perfect, you know," she says. "No man is." She arches one perfect eyebrow, gesturing casually with her wine. "Present company included."

 

"Thanks," Jaskier says dryly. He plucks the bottle of wine from the side table and refills his goblet. They're feeling classy enough to have bothered pouring, tonight. "And I know that. I never said he was."

 

She's right, of course. Geralt's not perfect. He's broody and often stiff, uncomfortable with emotion, even more uncomfortable with vulnerability. Ciri has complained about it, to Jaskier if not to Geralt himself, quietly confiding her frustration at not being able to talk to her guardian like she could her grandmother. Vicious as the dead Queen was, she knew how to listen to her granddaughter. Geralt can be an asshole, can be cynical, can be cold.

 

He's imperfect, and lovely in his imperfection. Human in his imperfection.

 

"Anyway," Jaskier considers, waving a dismissive hand. Not the hand holding his wine. He's made that mistake before. "It doesn't matter. He's not interested."

 

Aubry, lounging by the door, snorts audibly. Jaskier shoots him a betrayed look, and gets a twitch of lips in response, but nothing else. "Traitor," he says. "And what's that supposed to mean, anyway?"

 

"That you're an idiot," Yennefer says dryly. "I've seen what that man looks like when he wants to fuck someone. If he thought you wanted him, he'd have had you over the table in his office by now."

 

Jaskier rolls his eyes. "Then he would have," he says. "Can't Witchers smell lust?"

 

"Lust's not consent," Aubry says. Jaskier turns to him, properly now, blinking curiously. Aubry shrugs. "You're under his protection. He wouldn't take advantage."

 

"Oh." That...makes sense, actually. Ugh, of course Geralt's too noble to just--well. Do most of the rather sordid things Jaskier would like him to do to him, apparently.

 

He mentally rearranges a few fantasies. It's not like he's never made the first move before.

 

"Ugh," Yennefer says in disgust. She drains her goblet and sits up, tugging the bottle of wine away from him. "If you're going to be like that, I'm drinking the rest of that." She pours most of what's left of the bottle into her cup. "Gods save us from men making decisions."

 

"Oh, you love me, you shrew," Jaskier says fondly, and steals back the wine when she tries to swat at him with the bottle.

 

 

It's absurd, of course, the idea that Geralt would want him back.

 

Jaskier knows what people want, when they want him. He's a traveling bard, transient, impermanent--he's an opportunity, a chance, an adventure. People want him because he offers them something out of their ordinary. He's not a striking beauty like Yennefer, who turns heads just by walking into a room, but his looks are unique in the way that appeals to men and women both, very nearly regardless of taste. He's pretty and lithe enough to make women feel safe and men feel powerful, strong-featured and hardy enough that his male lovers know he can take whatever they want to give him and to give his female lovers whatever they ask for. He's too hairy and tall to be considered properly feminine, too wide-eyed and easily yielding to be manly, and that's just the sort of intersection that people like in a single night of pleasure.

 

People like to have him, but they don't often want him to stay.

 

And that's quite fine with him, usually. Jaskier likes men, he likes women, he likes the occasional lovely person who tells him they're neither or both or somewhere in-between. He likes sex, likes to give people what they want. Priscilla has gently teased him for years that it's his tendency to fall in love with every person he beds that makes him such a good lover, and that it's his tendency to fall out of love with them in the morning that makes him so easy to leave. She's always been brutal, his Callonetta, but she's always seen him, too, has known him better than most.

 

Gods. He hopes she doesn't think he's dead.

 

The point is, though, that Geralt, who's surrounded by properly stunning people, cannot possibly be interested in Jaskier. And even if, as Yennefer says, he were interested, then he's almost certainly only looking for a night or two, because first of all, why would he, and second of all...well, Jaskier isn't staying, is he? The White Wolf granted him a single year of sanctuary, a year of safety and stories, and at the end of it, Jaskier will be out on the road again with only his lute for company.

 

And if Geralt only wanted a single night…

 

Well, the Jaskier of half a year ago, who knew nothing more of Geralt than his gorgeous face and his frankly almost more gorgeous biceps, probably would have taken him up on it. He's seen Geralt in the training yard; if he fucks anything like he fights, then sweet Mother Goddess, he must be a brilliant lay. But now Jaskier's had to go and be himself and fall for Geralt properly, and the idea of bedding him and then saying goodbye feels heartbreaking in a way it never has before.

 

Which is just typical, really.

 

He's not a saint, though. Yennefer had said Geralt was interested, Aubry had all but confirmed it, and if the attraction is there, Jaskier isn't so humble that he's not going to look for it. He's not a subtle person--bards rarely are, terribly difficult to make a living in drab colors and with a boring personality--but he tries to be surreptitious as he watches Geralt in an attempt to catch sight of Geralt watching him.

 

The last thing he expects is to actually see anything.

 

Geralt watches everything and everyone in Kaer Morhen. Jaskier never knows if it's a Witcher thing, some need to be aware of every aspect of his surroundings, or if it's just a Geralt thing, keeping a sharp eye on the people under his care. The intensity of his gaze varies, and sometimes he does relax, but never without first scanning a room, taking stock of potential threats, analyzing his allies. He watches Ciri with softened eyes, watches Eskel and Yennefer with vague amusement, watches Vesemir with quiet respect.

 

But with Jaskier…

 

Geralt watches Kaer Morhen. But he looks at Jaskier.

 

The difference is so subtle that Jaskier almost misses it at first, and it's all in his eyes. Where Jaskier is used to seeing sharpness when Geralt surveys a room or knife-edged focus when someone speaks, with Jaskier, the intensity isn't wariness, but heat. He doesn't watch Jaskier like he's scanning for a potential threat, but his eyes linger--on Jaskier's fingers, on his lips; on his throat when he sings and on his waist when he moves. And oh, but there is weight to that golden gaze, molten and honey-dark, and Jaskier doesn't know how he ever didn't see it.

 

It doesn't matter, he reminds himself. Nothing will happen between them. Jaskier knows from experience that whoever started peddling that better to have loved and lost nonsense doesn't have a clue what they were talking about--he's lost enough times to know that it's far better to live in blissful ignorance, visiting a fantasy, than to know what you're missing and yearn for it.

 

Still. It's heady, and it makes his heart stutter in his chest the first time he catches it. He feels it rush through him, hot and warm and powerful, the knowledge of Geralt's desire. For him, of all people. He tucks it away like a secret, like a hidden sweet, and if he lets himself linger on it in the darkness of his bedroom, biting his lip to keep his guard from hearing him through the door as he imagines the touch of Geralt's hands--well. That's no one's business but his own.

 

So he looks at Geralt, and Geralt looks at him, and he pretends he's not looking at Geralt, and Geralt--Geralt just acts like Geralt, really, so who knows what he's thinking. And Yennefer looks at him in absolute exasperation and Ciri teases him over their lessons and Aubry very politely pretends he can't hear Jaskier muffling Geralt's name into his pillow at night, and everything continues pretty much as usual.

 

Until it doesn't.

 

...

 

Jaskier usually prefers to bathe first thing in the morning. Tonight's performance, though, was both longer and more energetic than usual, and he hates going to bed when he's tacky with sweat, so he heads down to the hot springs after returning his lute to his quarters. The springs are mostly deserted at this time of night, save for a few people who take evening baths and the occasional Witcher easing an old (or new) injury with the heat, and as much as he loves the thrill of performing, he's grateful for the quiet.

 

He's already given himself a thorough scrubbing and is lounging drowsily against the side of the pool, wondering how long he can reasonably stay in the blood-hot water before Aubry comes looking for him when the world spirals apart three feet away from him. Jaskier yelps and instinctively ducks further down in the pool--whether out of modesty or some absurd idea that it'll be safer, he's not sure.

 

This is what I get for not waiting for Aubry, he thinks, wild and vaguely panicked. He wonders if it's worth it to scream.

 

Yennefer steps out of the portal, fully clothed and as immaculate as ever. The only sign that she's anything other than perfectly poised is a slight tightness around her eyes and mouth. Her glorious violet eyes zero in on him and her shoulders relax, just a fraction. "There you are," she snaps. "Why weren't you in your rooms?"

 

Jaskier stares at her, not sure how to respond to that. "Um," he says. "I was sweaty?"

 

Yennefer makes a disgusted noise. "Out," she says. "Get dressed."

 

"Yennefer--" Jaskier starts, confused, groping for his towel automatically.

 

"Ciri needs you," Yennefer snaps.

 

Jaskier doesn't ask questions. He moves.

 

Barely a minute later, he steps through Yennefer's portal and into the corridor outside Ciri's rooms. Even through the closed door, he can hear her screaming, and he flinches automatically, whirling to face Yennefer as she snaps the portal shut behind her. "A nightmare?" he guesses, and clicks his tongue at her tight-lipped nod. "Bad?"

 

"Bad," Yennefer says grimly. "Geralt's with her, but he can't wake her."

 

Jaskier winces. He's sat by Ciri's side after more than a few nightmares since coming to Kaer Morhen, but usually at Ciri's request, once she's already awake and asking for him, tear-streaked and shaking. He can count the number of times someone has gotten him during a nightmare on one hand, and hated all of them--not just because of how terrible he feels, watching her thrash and scream and sob, but because she has them at all, that this poor, lovely girl has seen so much horror and pain in such a short time.

 

("I see Cintra burning," she had whispered the first time, while he stroked her hair and blinked hard into the darkness of her room to keep from crying. "I see my grandmother falling, and there's blood--there's so much blood--"

 

"Oh, my darling," Jaskier said, and held her tighter, his heart cracking in his chest.)

 

Now, he takes a breath, rolling his shoulders. He hadn't bothered to dry himself completely, and his chemise sticks slightly to his skin. There's a definite chance he still has a bit of soap in his hair.

 

None of that matters.

 

"Alright," he says, and opens the door.

 

Ciri's powers, on a good day, are incredible. Jaskier sits in on her lessons with Yennefer now and then, and loves the wonder and excitement that lights up her face when she masters a spell or understands a new aspect of her Chaos. In everything she does, she's a marvel.

 

But on the bad days--the bad nights--

 

Jaskier steps into Ciri's sitting room and immediately has to duck a flying piece of loose parchment, followed immediately by a shoe that catches him in the shoulder. Jaskier grits his teeth, his ears ringing, and braces himself against the swirl of magical wind as he makes his slow, halting way to the open bedroom door. The screaming is even louder in Ciri's bedchamber, the whipping Chaos stronger, and Jaskier squints into the dim pandemonium until he can focus on the bed.

 

Ciri sits upright in bed, her eyes open but unseeing, her mouth open and her scream deafening, her white-blonde hair whipping around her face.

 

He takes an automatic step toward her, but an arm flings out and catches him across the chest. Jaskier startles, turning, and meets Geralt's eyes, gleaming unnaturally in the darkness.

 

"It's not safe," Geralt says, raising his voice to be heard over the din. "I can't even get to her."

 

Jaskier shakes his head. "I can do it," he says. "She's let me before." Geralt's expression doesn't waver, and he doesn't move his arm away from Jaskier's chest. Jaskier takes a deep breath, knowing Geralt will hear his heartbeat steady and slow. He curls a hand around Geralt's arm, his fingers gentle against the shockingly delicate skin of Geralt's wrist.

 

"I can do it," he repeats, calmer than he really feels. "It's all right."

 

Geralt holds his gaze for a long, long moment, searching Jaskier's face as if he's looking for...reassurance? Confidence? Jaskier isn't sure. But finally, slowly, he nods, and lets Jaskier go.

 

Jaskier smiles at him with a confidence he doesn't feel, and steps away, crossing to Ciri's bedside in three long strides. The force of the magical gale gets stronger as he approaches, and a stray piece of broken crockery, probably the remains of the cup of water that usually sits by her bed, catches his cheek, slicing a thin cut high on his cheekbone. He's careful not to react, keeps pushing forward, moving closer.

 

Something snaps in the air, and the resistance in front of him disappears as Ciri's magic, either recognizing him as him or simply as not a threat. Jaskier doesn't question it, just climbs up onto Ciri's bed, settling himself behind her, and gently draws her back against his chest. She goes, limp and unprotesting, still screaming. His ears pop.

 

"Alright, love," he murmurs, and starts to sing.

 

He begins with the Cintran lullabies he sang to her in that horrible Nilfgaardian cell. His volume doesn't matter, she'll hear him through her dreams or she won't, so he keeps his voice soft and gentle, as soothing as he can manage. When he runs out of lullabies he sings quiet ballads, children's stories spun into song, and then just slow, wordless melodies, stroking Ciri's hair and, when some of the rigid stiffness leaves her limbs, rocking her gently.

 

The screaming doesn't fade so much as it cracks, Ciri snapping from nightmare to reality in the space of a gasp. She sucks in a breath, and then another, and then sight returns to her eyes. The wind dies in an instant, the debris in the room dropping unceremoniously to the floor.

 

Ciri blinks rapidly, surveying the damage of her bedroom, and then bursts into tears.

 

"Oh, darling cub," Jaskier soothes, but Geralt is faster, moving to her side and gathering her into his arms. Ciri clings to him, sobbing, and Geralt holds her with a tenderness that cracks Jaskier's heart in two.

 

Jaskier doesn't know how long they stay there, Ciri wrapped in Geralt's embrace, Jaskier humming quietly to her. Out of the corner of his eye he sees Yennefer slip into the room, restoring order to the scattered detritus with a wave of her hand and then settling herself down in the chair across from the bed.

 

Finally, Ciri pulls her head away from Geralt's shoulder, sniffling and wiping her eyes. She looks exhausted, younger than her fourteen years. "I'm sorry," she says hoarsely.

 

"Nothing to apologize for," Geralt says, his usual gruffness softened for her. He tucks a lock of hair behind her ear, clearly hesitating, and then says, "Do you want to talk about it?"

 

The first time Jaskier was summoned to help with one of Ciri's nightmares, he saw Geralt manage physical comfort well enough, but he clearly preferred someone else to manage anything resembling emotional responsiveness. It's taken months of gentle nudging, for Ciri's sake, and the discomfort on Geralt's face is obvious to anyone looking for it, but he's asking. Affectionate pride blooms in Jaskier's chest.

 

("You know what that is?" Jaskier had said to Yennefer, after the first time he'd seen it. "Growth."

 

"Yes, yes," Yennefer said dryly. "We're all very proud.")

 

"I don't really want to," Ciri says now, wiping her nose on the sleeve of her nightdress. "It was…" She shudders. "I just don't want to."

 

"You don't have to, darling," Jaskier says, as gently as he can. "We'll listen, if you want to, but you don't have to."

 

Ciri hesitates. "Maybe," she says, and then, nervously, "Maybe just Yen?"

 

Yennefer blinks, looking briefly startled, but covers it quickly. "Of course," she says, rising to her feet. She makes a brisk shooing motion at Jaskier and Geralt. "You heard the lady. Out you go."

 

Jaskier kisses the top of Ciri's head and climbs off the bed. "Come on, White Wolf," he murmurs. "Let's give them their space."

 

Geralt's expression is torn somewhere between offended and relieved, but he follows Jaskier's lead, leaning over to press a gentle kiss to Ciri's forehead, then briefly knocks his temple against hers. She gives a small laugh and knocks back, and that seems to reassure Geralt enough for him to get to his feet.

 

Yennefer closes Ciri's bedroom door behind them when they leave, a wave of magic that gives a decisive click of the latch, and Jaskier finds himself blinking in the candlelight of Ciri's sitting room. Ciri's guards are already on their feet, four pairs of cat-slitted eyes wide with worry. "Is she alright?" Aiden demands, the usual deference he shows Geralt tempered with anxiety.

 

"Hm," Geralt says.

 

"She's fine," Jaskier says, when it's clear Geralt doesn't plan to elaborate. "Yennefer's staying with her."

 

Ealdred's shoulders relax. "Good," he says. His eyes slide to Jaskier and narrow. "You're bleeding, bard."

 

"I am?" Jaskier raises a hand to his face, remembering the sharp sting of flying crockery, and is a bit surprised when his fingers come away red. "Oh." Geralt makes a tight, bitten-off sound, taking a half-step closer to him, and Jaskier automatically turns to him, meeting Geralt's golden gaze. "It doesn't hurt," Jaskier says. "It's just a scratch. I didn't even notice."

 

Geralt rumbles, deep in his throat, reaching over and moving Jaskier's hand away from his face to replace it with his own, turning Jaskier's chin so he can look at the cut. His hands are strong and rough but surprisingly gentle, the heat of his skin enough to bring a flush to Jaskier's cheeks. "Just a scratch," he agrees after a moment. "The bleeding is already stopping."

 

"Of course it is," Jaskier says, trying to play off the blush as residual adrenaline.

 

Geralt's eyes flicker down to Jaskier's lips, just for an instant, and then back to his eyes.

 

Tjold clears his throat. Geralt doesn't quite flinch back, but it's a close thing. Jaskier's face gets warmer.

 

"Well," he says, probably a bit louder than he needs to be. "This has been fun, but gods only know what time it is. I should probably head to bed."

 

"Need an escort?" Aiden asks.

 

Jaskier is about to open his mouth and decline as politely as possible, if that's even an option given that this late he'd almost certainly normally have Aubry with him, but Geralt speaks first. "I'll take him."

 

It is by the sheer grace of Melitele that Jaskier does not say something absolutely inappropriate like oh, please do. "You don't have to?"

 

Geralt gives one of his usual noncommittal hums and nods to the door, and Jaskier takes the hint.

 

They start down the tower's spiral stairwell in silence, the only sound the soft rustle of Geralt's armor and the padding tread of the slippers Jaskier had worn down to the baths. Jaskier is acutely aware of the inhuman heat of Geralt's body, the spread of his shoulders, the low torchlight of the stairwell that bathes Geralt's white hair in flickers of gold. He tries, very hard, to focus instead on the slight tackiness of blood on his cheek, the stone of the steps through the thin soles of his slippers.

 

It doesn't work very well.

 

To his surprise, Geralt breaks the silence first. "It's brave of you," he says. "What you do with Ciri."

 

Jaskier glances at him. "It's just a bit of singing."

 

Geralt makes a noise that's almost a snort. "And getting through her magic?"

 

Oh, that. "Well," Jaskier says. "I suppose that was a bit brave."

 

Now, Geralt really does laugh, a soft, slightly disbelieving sound. "You really don't think you are, do you?"

 

"What, brave?" Jaskier shrugs, not looking at him. "I'm not, really. Mostly I'm foolish."

 

They hit a landing and Geralt stops, taking Jaskier's arm to halt him as well. "That's not true," he says.

 

"I mean," Jaskier says, because he does have a fraction of self-awareness, "It's not not true."

 

"Jaskier," Geralt says flatly, golden eyes fixing Jaskier in place. They're almost of a height, but like this, face to face, Geralt knows how to use his presence to seem so much larger. "Do you think just anyone would walk through uncontrolled chaos just to be helpful, no matter how much they cared for the person on the other side?"

 

Jaskier winces. "Well--"

 

"Do you think just anyone comes to Kaer Morhen and sees it as a chance for sanctuary?" Geralt holds his gaze, doesn't let Jaskier look away. "That just anyone would look at Witchers and see stories worth telling?" Jaskier bites his bottom lip, and Geralt says, more quietly now, "Do you think it's every day I meet a human who doesn't smell of fear?"

 

That makes Jaskier snap to attention. "I don't," he says. Not that he could smell it, even if he did, but-- "Geralt, I'm not afraid of you."

 

"I know," Geralt says. His eyelashes flicker, just for a moment. "Jaskier, you never were."

 

It would be so much better, Jaskier knows, to continue on in ignorance. To not know what he's missing, when he leaves Kaer Morhen behind him.

 

Jaskier never did know what was good for him.

 

Geralt's startled sound of surprise is lost between their mouths when Jaskier leans forward and kisses him. His lips are shockingly soft, and Jaskier doesn't even have time to wonder if he was being too presumptuous before Geralt's warm, strong hands curve over his hips and pull him closer, bringing their bodies flush. Jaskier bites back a whimper when Geralt uses his grip to walk them backwards until Jaskier's back hits the wall, and he shivers, caught between cold stone and solid Witcher heat. He can feel pinpricks of almost-pain where Geralt's fingers bite into his hips, and oh--

 

His head spins, and he breaks the kiss to gasp in air. "Geralt," he says, breathless.

 

"Mm," Geralt hums. Jaskier breathes, a little shakily, and Geralt tilts his head forward to rest their foreheads together. "It doesn't have to go further than this," he says, and the understanding in his voice threatens to break Jaskier's heart. "I can walk you back to your quarters."

 

Jaskier takes a deep breath, inhaling heat and leather and metal and clove, and steadies himself.

 

"Or," Jaskier says, opening his eyes to meet Geralt's, molten and golden and warm, "you could walk me to yours."

 

Geralt's lips, just faintly flushed from the pressure of Jaskier's, curve up at the corners. "Yeah," he says. "Yes, I could."

 

 

Later, Jaskier won't remember the walk to Geralt's rooms. He knows, vaguely, that they went down stairs, not up; that at some point Geralt told one of the Witchers they passed to tell Aubry not to worry about standing guard in Jaskier's rooms; that at least three times, Jaskier almost tripped over his own feet getting distracted by the cut of Geralt's jawline in the torchlight and the knowledge that he's going to get to taste that jawline in the very near future--

 

Geralt catches him again with an arm around his waist as he very nearly goes sprawling again. "Mind the stairs, bard," he says, low and amused.

 

"You mind the stairs," Jaskier says automatically, and Geralt chuckles.

 

The White Wolf's rooms, it turns out, lie behind a nondescript door at the base of the tower steps leading up to Ciri's chambers. The only thing that sets it apart is the Witcher standing guard outside the door, a Crane that Jaskier doesn't recognize. He arches one brow as they approach, but gives a respectful nod when Geralt inclines his head in clear dismissal, heading off towards the main hall. He gives Jaskier a quick wink as he passes, and Jaskier spares a momentary thought to the hope that the man will be at least somewhat discrete.

 

He probably won't. Witchers, Jaskier has learned, are horrible gossips.

 

"What do you think are the chances that the whole keep will know about this by morning?" he asks, as Geralt opens the door.

 

Geralt snorts. "Surprised you don't think half the place knows already." He draws Jaskier inside, closing the door behind him, and Jaskier gets half a moment to glance around the outer chamber--well-appointed, comfortable, surprisingly utilitarian for any monarch other than a Witcher--before Geralt backs him up against the closed door, his hands dropping to Jaskier's hips, edging under his doublet.

 

"Jaskier," he says, and oh, this close, Jaskier can see the fine lines around his eyes, the pale, faded scar across one cheekbone. He dips his head down, brushing a kiss to Jaskier's jaw, and Jaskier shudders, reaching to slip his own hands around Geralt's waist. "What do you want?"

 

Jaskier laughs, breathless and shaky. "Surprise me."

 

"Mm," Geralt says. "And you say you're not brave."

 

Before Jaskier can say anything to that, Geralt uses his grip on Jaskier's hips to hoist him up, bracing him against the door for a moment of readjustment and then scooping him up into his arms. Jaskier lets out a probably-undignified squeak, automatically wrapping his arms around Geralt's neck and his legs around his waist, and Geralt chuckles, biting a kiss into the underside of Jaskier's jaw. "I got you."

 

"You certainly do," Jaskier manages, and Geralt hums in amusement as he walks them through the room to an inner door. A wave of heat washes over him and he peeks over Geralt's shoulder to see a fire already blazing in the wide hearth across from one of the largest beds Jaskier has ever seen. He doesn't get a chance to see much more than that as Geralt deposits him on the bed and then folds, with lupine grace, down to his knees on the floor between Jaskier's legs. "Geralt," Jaskier says, and gets a soft chuckle in response as Geralt makes quick work of Jaskier's slippers, pressing a brief kiss to his ankle and then rising to nudge Jaskier onto his back on the bed, pulling off his own boots and socks before joining him.

 

Geralt rests a hand lightly on the lacings of Jaskier's chemise. "Still want to be surprised?"

 

Jaskier kisses him in answer, pulling Geralt close with a firm hand on the back of his neck, and Geralt huffs a quiet laugh into his mouth.

 

Geralt's version of a surprise, apparently, is to coax Jaskier out of his clothing with excruciating slowness, mouthing over every inch of skin that he bares. Jaskier twines one hand into Geralt's hair and fists the other around the pillow and lets him, because if Geralt wants to touch him then by all means, and he's rewarded with a pleased rumble when he tugs experimentally at Geralt's hair. Geralt sucks a mark into the skin of Jaskier's inner thigh, worrying at the muscle there with his tongue and teeth, and when Jaskier arches and chokes out his name, he makes a low, almost growling sound and proceeds to do it again, working his way back up Jaskier's body until he's nipping at the skin of Jaskier's throat.

 

"Fuck, you smell good," he says, his breath hot and wet against Jaskier's skin, and Jaskier shudders.

 

"I was--in the bath when Yen came to get me," Jaskier bites out, arching his neck to give Geralt better access. "It's--oh, fuck, Geralt--lavender soap. And camomile oil."

 

Geralt shakes his head, the motion dragging his stubble along Jaskier's throat. "Not that," he says. "It's--your scent. Warm, sweet. Not afraid."

 

Jaskier's heart clenches in his chest. He cups Geralt's face in his hands and draws him up into a kiss. "Not afraid," he promises.

 

Geralt kisses him back, deep and lingering, and then bites Jaskier's lower lip and takes advantage of Jaskier's startled gasp to nip at his jaw and then drag his mouth back down Jaskier's body. He sucks another bruise into the thin skin of Jaskier's hip, and then licks a stripe up the underside of Jaskier's cock without preamble.

 

The sound that leaves Jaskier's throat is closer to a cry than a moan, and he arches up, grabbing for Geralt's shoulder as the White Wolf of the North takes him down to the hilt like he'd be as comfortable in a brothel as he is on the battlefields. "Geralt," Jaskier gasps, digging his fingers into the black leather of Geralt's everyday armor, and Geralt groans around him, the vibration sending a jolt of pleasure up Jaskier's spine, and oh, oh, fuck--

 

"Geralt," he says again, and this time, he tugs firmly at Geralt's hair.

 

Geralt lifts his head and looks at him, raising an inquisitive eyebrow.

 

Jaskier can't stop a shiver at the sight of him, lips flushed and golden eyes blown dark. His mouth is red and wet and Jaskier would love to just press back into it, but he'd also really, really like this to last. "Too close," he says, and he's pointedly deciding not to be embarrassed about it, because it's been months, and Geralt looks like a fantasy come true. "I don't want to come yet."

 

"Mm," Geralt says. He brushes a soft kiss over the damp head of Jaskier's cock, and Jaskier has to bite down hard to keep back a whimper. "You could. Night's long."

 

Jaskier grins, not self-deprecating, but honest. "I'm not eighteen anymore, Master Witcher," he says, gently teasing.

 

Geralt gives him a considering look, but inclines his head in acquiescence. "Next time," he says, pushing himself up.

 

Next time, Jaskier thinks. What a thought. "Very understanding of you," he says. He sits up and traces a finger down the center of Geralt's chest. "You're overdressed."

 

Geralt's lips twitch, and he rolls off the bed and to his feet. Jaskier watches, shamelessly, as he divests himself of armor and shirt and trousers and braies, and then he's naked, and--

 

"Maiden, Mother, and Crone, I must have been so very good at some point in my life," Jaskier breathes, and Geralt laughs, low in his throat, moving back to the bed. "Oh, no, don't," Jaskier says, and slides off the bed and onto his knees, mouthing over the sharp cut of Geralt's hip until he can get his lips around what is frankly the most incredible cock he's ever seen in his life. Geralt gives a low groan, one hand slipping down to cup the back of Jaskier's head, and Jaskier closes his eyes, breathing in the heat and musk and salt of him, his mouth gloriously full. He brings his hands up to rest on the firm muscle of Geralt's thighs and drops his head lower until Geralt is pressing against the back of his throat, and the temptation to take him all the way down is agonizing, but bardic common sense wins out and he pulls back.

 

"Jaskier," Geralt rasps. His hand flexes against Jaskier's hair.

 

"Mmhm." Anything else would require pulling off, and he's certainly not going to do that. Geralt's grip gets a bit firmer, though, and he takes the hint, lifting his head.

 

Geralt's gaze is lust-dark and molten, darkening further as he looks down at Jaskier. Which, well. Jaskier has some idea of what he looks like when he's like this, swollen-lipped and flushed and wide-eyed, and if Geralt's long, slow exhale is any indication, it's as good a look as he remembers. "Good at that, bard," he says.

 

Jaskier flashes a wink, leaning forward again to lick a pearl of moisture from Geralt's cock. "Mm," he teases, and Geralt gives a low, rumbling laugh. He looks up at Geralt through his eyelashes. "I've heard rumors about Witcher stamina," he says. "And Witcher refractory periods."

 

"Was there a question there?"

 

Jaskier trails his fingertips over Geralt's hip, and the muscle twitches under his touch. He did have that bath right before Yen portaled him up to Ciri's room, and if this is the only chance he'll get--

 

"I want you to come in my mouth," he says. "And then I want you to fuck me. Can you do that?"

 

Geralt's lips twitch. "I can."

 

"Oh, good," Jaskier says, and swallows Geralt back down.

 

He pulls out all the tricks he knows, but he probably doesn't need them. Geralt's usual stoicism has already evaporated, and he responds beautifully under Jaskier's hands and lips and tongue. His fingers twine into the short hair at the back of Jaskier's head and he shudders, the muscles of his thighs trembling under Jaskier's fingers. He bites out a warning when he's close, which is considerate of him, and when he comes it's with a long, shuddering groan. Jaskier swallows what he can and lets everything else spill over his chin and neck and collarbone, hot and slick, and the feel of it on his skin makes him shiver in anticipation.

 

Geralt pulls him up to his feet and then back onto the bed before Jaskier even has time to feel smug. He seals their lips together, covering Jaskier's body with his, and Geralt licking his own taste off Jaskier's mouth is more than enough to have Jaskier arching under him. Geralt edges between Jaskier's legs and rolls his hips against him, and he must not even have gone soft because he's still gloriously hard.

 

"Fuck," Jaskier says when they part, a little dazed, and Geralt leans down to bite at his jaw and then ducks his head into the crook of Jaskier's neck, breathing deeply and then groaning, pleased and rough. Jaskier rocks his hips up, wrapping a leg around Geralt's waist hopefully, and gets a low laugh in return. He opens his eyes in time to see Geralt reaching over to the bedside table, rummaging in the drawer and withdrawing a small, stoppered vial that looks suspiciously like the ones he's seen Triss use for Witcher potions.

 

"That's not going to poison me, is it?" he asks, mostly joking, as Geralt thumbs the stopper out and sits back, slicking his fingers with the bottle's contents.

 

Geralt chuckles. "No." He draws his hand down between Jaskier's legs, teasing over his cock--Jaskier tries not to buck into the touch--and then lower. His touch sends a shiver up Jaskier's spine, and he bites his lip, spreading his legs wider, shameless and wanting. "Fuck, Jaskier," Geralt murmurs, his fingers tracing circles over Jaskier's hole, teasing but not penetrating. "Knew you'd look good like this."

 

Jaskier whimpers and rocks his hips back, trying to hurry him along. Geralt toys with him for another minute or two but takes pity on him when Jaskier starts whining. His fingers are long and thick and brilliant, coaxing him open with agonizing focus. He finds Jaskier's prostate all too easily and then proceeds to avoid it save for teasing brushes of his fingertips, working two fingers deep, then three. His other hand traces circles over Jaskier's shoulders and throat and chest, and Jaskier thinks he's trying to soothe him until he realizes with a shock of arousal that he's rubbing his own come into Jaskier's skin.

 

That thought is more than enough to have Jaskier grabbing for Geralt's wrists. "Enough," he says, and it's desperate, but he doesn't care. "Enough, please, I need--"

 

"Yeah," Geralt says roughly. He pulls his fingers free with surprising gentleness, pouring what's left of the bottle into his hand and slicking his cock, then pausing. He glances up at Jaskier, and for the first time, he looks unsure. "How do you want--"

 

Oh, beautiful, perfect man. Jaskier grabs him by the back of the neck and pulls him between his legs. "Like this," he says. "Just like this."

 

Geralt groans into Jaskier's collarbone, then bites down gently and reaches down between them. When he presses in it's molasses-slow, and the stretch takes the breath from Jaskier's lungs. He drops his head back against the pillow and gasps through it, shaking, and when Geralt's hips meet his he whines, low in his throat. Great's answering shudder vibrates up Jaskier's spine.

 

"Fuck," Jaskier says to the darkness behind his eyes. "Oh, Mother Goddess, fuck."

 

Calloused fingers stroke over his side. "Need a minute?"

 

He should, probably, but Jaskier's never known what's good for him. He opens his eyes and meets Geralt's golden gaze. "Make me feel it," he says.

 

Geralt grins, hot and almost feral.

 

Jaskier has had a lot of sex in the past twenty years. A bit of it horrible, most of it decent, some of it spectacular. All of it pales in comparison to this--the deep, slick drag of Geralt inside him, hard and thick and incredible; the power behind Geralt's thrusts; the scent of Geralt's sweat and the heat of his skin. The absolute sense of safety when Geralt drops down to his elbows and kisses him, open-mouthed and lingering, his teeth sharp on Jaskier's lip and then lower, his chin and his jaw and his throat. His neck must be a mess of bruises and Jaskier is going to treasure every single one, is going to press his fingers into them and remember this, keep this--

 

"Hey," Geralt says, more breathless than Jaskier has ever heard him, and he snaps himself back, meets Geralt's eyes. Geralt tips their foreheads together. "Stay with me."

 

"I'm here," Jaskier says, maybe a little insensibly, and then Geralt picks up his pace, gets even deeper, and Jaskier is coming before he even realizes he's close, the orgasm catching him by surprise and very nearly blacking out his vision. "Oh Gods," he gasps, clinging to Geralt's shoulders. "Geralt, fuck--"

 

A shudder goes through Geralt and he looks at Jaskier, eyes glassy. "I can stop," he says hoarsely.

 

"Don't you dare," Jaskier says, more vicious than he means to. Geralt drops his head down and muffles a groan into his collarbone, rocking into him harder than before. It's almost too much but it's so good, every inch of Jaskier's body oversensitive and every nerve all but singing, and when Geralt comes Jaskier feels it in his throat, his last ragged thrusts almost enough to tip Jaskier over the edge dry.

 

With the loss of the slick sounds of skin-on-skin, the loudest sound in the room is their ragged breathing. The fire crackles in the hearth and, dimly, Jaskier can hear the wind swirling outside the thick stone walls, but all of that is almost lost under the pounding of his own pulse in his ears. He clings to Geralt's shoulders and Geralt jerks one more time, a last shuddering aftershock that makes Jaskier whimper.

 

"Fuck," Geralt says finally, his face mostly smashed into the side of Jaskier's neck. The ghost of his breath makes Jaskier laugh, ticklish in the aftermath of pleasure, and Geralt nips at his skin and then draws back. Jaskier hisses through his teeth when Geralt pulls out, everything slick and too-empty in his wake, and Geralt nuzzles at his throat in apology, shifting to lie down and gathering Jaskier into his arms. Jaskier grumbles at the repositioning, but wiggles around until he's comfortable, dropping his head onto Geralt's chest with a sigh. Geralt's heart beats almost human-fast under his ear, and Jaskier smiles.

 

Geralt traces his fingers through Jaskier's sweaty hair. "All right?"

 

"I can't feel my toes," Jaskier says, pleased. "Mmph. I hope you don't expect me to walk back to my quarters like this."

 

Geralt huffs a laugh, kissing the top of Jaskier's head. "Could carry you." Jaskier lifts his head just enough to pout at him, and gets another low, rumbling chuckle in response. "No. Stay here tonight."

 

"Mm, good." Jaskier closes his eyes. He'd normally never be so impolite as to fall asleep right after sex, but he's been sleeping poorly, and this is a very comfortable bed, and Geralt is very warm, and everything smells like sex and clean sweat and it's all just very soothing and nice.

 

"Could stay here every night," he mumbles, before he can think about what he's saying. "If you wanted."

 

Geralt's fingers, stroking through his hair, go still for the space of a heartbeat, and then, slowly, resume. "Go to sleep, Jaskier," he murmurs.

 

Sated and safe and held, Jaskier presses close to Geralt's chest, and lets the steady thump of his pulse lull him down. He sleeps, dreamless and peaceful and perfect.

 

 

An hour or a minute or a heartbeat later, he startles back to consciousness like a slap to find himself straddling Geralt's waist, looking down into wide golden eyes. His right wrist is immobilized, held fast in Geralt's grasp, Geralt's grip hard enough to bruise.

 

In Jaskier's own hand is a knife, gleaming in the embers of the dying fire.

 

He's holding the blade to Geralt's throat.

 

 

 

Chapter Text

 

 

Everything happens very, very quickly.

 

Geralt moves more like a viper than a wolf, lightning-fast and vicious. Jaskier hits the ground between one heartbeat and the next. He cries out in a mixture of shock and pain, flinching away from the cold floor and instinctively trying to wrench away from Geralt's grasp on his wrist. Geralt's handsome face twists into a snarl, the first Jaskier has ever seen directed at him, and a horrible crack rends through the air.

 

For a moment, Jaskier doesn't understand what's happened. And then the pain hits, sharp and terrible, worse than anything he's felt since the cells. He screams before he can stop himself, tears spilling over his cheeks as nausea clenches his belly.

 

"Enough," Geralt snaps, harsh, and Jaskier bites his lips on a whimper. The grip on his wrist is still brutally tight, but he can barely feel it over the screaming pain in his arm. Something is broken, though what or how badly, he doesn't know.

 

"Geralt," he begs. "Geralt, please, I don't--" A snarl from Geralt kills the words in his throat, and Jaskier does whimper now, his body trying to shy away from a hold that might as well be iron.

 

"I trusted you," Geralt says, low and cruel and awful like he never is, not with Jaskier. "I trusted you with Ciri. And all this time--"

 

"No," Jaskier gasps, horrified. "No--no, I would never, I wouldn't--please, Geralt, you know me."

 

It's the wrong thing to say. Fury flashes briefly in Geralt's eyes, and then his expression is replaced by something blank and horrible.

 

"I thought I did," he says.

 

His hand moves, fingers forming a Sign, and Jaskier's world goes dark.

 

 

He wakes into darkness and cold and pain.

 

It's horribly familiar.

 

At least he's not chained up this time, though that's small comfort. He's naked, curled on his side, and his right arm is a blinding bar of agony. He whimpers, trying to curl in on himself and away from the damp stone floor.

 

Something icy slides through his mind, and gags at the instantly-recognizable touch of magic.

 

"He's awake," Yennefer's voice says.

 

Jaskier doesn't have time to protest before strong hands take hold of his shoulders and haul him roughly up to his knees. The change in gravity pulls at the skin of his inner thighs and something hot and wet runs between them onto the floor, and Jaskier chokes out a laugh, half-hysterical, at the realization that he was thrown into this cell--because of course it's a cell, of course; gods, he didn't even know Kaer Morhen had dungeons--straight from the floor of Geralt's bedroom, the White Wolf's come still slick inside him.

 

Torchlight flares and his laughter cuts off. He flinches back from the sudden light but the Witchers holding his arms don't let him move more than an inch, their grip hard and bruising. Wildly, Jaskier wonders if he'll be able to tell the difference between these marks and the ones Geralt's mouth already left on his skin.

 

"Jaskier," Geralt says, and Jaskier forces his eyes open.

 

Geralt stands at the far end of the cell, armed and armored, his sword hilts jutting over his shoulder. Eskel and Yennefer flank him, Triss to Yennefer's left and Vesemir to Eskel's right. The Witchers are stony-faced, but Yennefer looks like she's vibrating with rage. Triss just looks heartbroken. Even in the dim torchlight, her eyes are red-rimmed.

 

Jaskier swallows through his jagged throat. "Triss," he whispers. It comes out like a plea. "Triss, I--"

 

"Don't talk to her," Yennefer snarls. Jaskier flinches. She looks like she did the first time he ever saw her, violet eyes blazing, magic flickering like sparks at her fingertips. "You're going to talk to me." One of the Witchers holding him shifts just enough that the bones of Jaskier's broken arm very nearly twist, and he bites back a scream. "Stop that," she snaps. "I can't get through when he's in too much pain to think."

 

Another hysterical laugh bubbles up from Jaskier's chest. "Too late," he wheezes.

 

"Enough," Geralt growls.

 

The room goes silent, save for Jaskier's ragged breathing. Geralt turns to Eskel, and they exchange a wordless conversation. Eskel's face, usually so friendly, twists into a grimace, and it has nothing to do with the scar. His lips thin, and he gives Geralt a curt nod.

 

When he turns to Jaskier, his warm amber eyes are cold and flat. He crosses the cell to Jaskier and crouches in front of him. Eskel's a big man, broader than Geralt, and his gloved hands flex on his knees as he looks at Jaskier impassively. He says nothing, though, just waits, until Jaskier's breathing stutters into whimpers again as the pain from his arm flares, sharp and throbbing and enough to make nausea churn in his gut.

 

It's not until Jaskier's teeth start to chatter that Eskel speaks. "How did you do it?"

 

"Do what," Jaskier says, because he thought they understood--that they knew--that this wasn't him.

 

Eskel's next words sweep the last of that hope away. "You've been lying to us," he says. "From the very beginning. But no one smelled it on you, your heartbeat never gave you away. Hell, even the sorceresses say your thoughts lined up with what you've been saying."

 

Tears sting at the corners of Jaskier's eyes. He doesn't bother trying to hold them back. What does it matter if he cries, now? "Because they have," he says. "Please, I don't know what else I can--"

 

"You tried to kill the White Wolf in his sleep," Eskel snarls. "If he were anything other than what he is, you would have succeeded."

 

"I would never hurt him," Jaskier says, his voice breaking on the words. "I wouldn't, Eskel, please--it wasn't me. None of this was me."

 

"Who else, then?" Eskel challenges.

 

"I don't know." It comes out a sob, pain and fear blurring together. His chest feels tight, and it's hard to breathe. "But I didn't--I just woke up like that. The knife was in my hand and Geralt was already--I don't even know where the knife came from, it was like it was--"

 

The thought slams into him and his heart stutters in his chest. "It was like magic," he says, head spinning as the pieces slip into place. "It must have been magic, some kind of--some kind of spell, they can do that, can't they? Mages?" He looks past Eskel to Yennefer and Triss. "That mage from Nilfgaard, couldn't she have done something to me? Made me--" The words make his stomach twist. "Made me try to…"

 

He can't say it. Eskel narrows his eyes, and touches the wolf medallion on his chest. "We'd sense it, if you were enchanted."

 

"And we'd be able to tell," Yennefer says flatly.

 

Jaskier's heart sinks. "But…"

 

Eskel's expression doesn't waver but something like uncertainty flickers in those amber eyes. He raises one hand, and Jaskier has half an instant to recognize the sign of Axii before his mind goes blank, the blinding pain fading to something dull and vague, like a faint buzz in the back of his head.

 

"Jaskier," Eskel says, and Jaskier's drifting mind recognizes that his voice is gentler now, calmer. "Did you try to kill Geralt tonight?"

 

Jaskier feels his lips move and hears his own voice, but it feels distant and strange. "No."

 

"Have you conspired, in any way, to do harm to Geralt or anyone under his care?"

 

"No."

 

"Are you working with Nilfgaard or any other foreign entity to share information or in any way act against the White Wolf?"

 

"No."

 

Eskel nods and moves his hand again. The pain rushes back in a flood and Jaskier chokes back a swell of bile as he staggers against the grip of the Witchers holding his arms. Eskel rises to his feet, as graceful as a panther, and turns to Yennefer. "He can't lie under Axii," he says flatly, while Jaskier struggles to breathe. "Either he's telling the truth, or something's made him so convinced he's telling the truth that he can't tell fact from fiction." He frowns. "Could it be magic?"

 

"No," Yennefer says, but it's not as sure, now. "There's no active magic on him."

 

Eskel doesn't look convinced, and Jaskier feels the faintest swell of hope. "Could there be something on him that's not always active? Something that's not on all the time?"

 

"No," Yennefer says slowly. "Or at least…" Her brow furrows. "There are spells like that, but they need an anchor. Some kind of talisman to hold the magic in place. It's usually jewelry, or something similarly sentimental. Something the person wouldn't take off or give away. You don't want to tie your spell to something that would be left behind in the bath." She gives Jaskier's naked body a pointed look. "Not the case here, obviously, unless you have some jewelry in a very intimate place." Her lip curls, and Jaskier's stomach twitches as she glances at Geralt. "Would you care to confirm?"

 

Geralt growls, a low, dangerous noise, but it's drowned out by Triss's sudden, uncharacteristic cry of, "Oh, fuck."

 

Jaskier doesn't think he's ever heard her swear before, and the shock of it very nearly cuts through the pain. He's not the only one; Yennefer is staring at her in alarm, and even Geralt looks taken aback.

 

"What?" Eskel demands.

 

Triss swallows visibly and purses her lips. She touches a gentle hand to Yennefer's arm and then steps past her, crossing the cell to Jaskier, and he has a fleeting, hysterical urge to protect her shoes from the filth. The Witchers holding his arms tighten their grip, and a soft whine escapes Jaskier's throat, but she waves them aside. She steps behind him--he flinches--and for a long moment, she's silent. When she speaks, it's with a tremor.

 

"Jaskier," Triss says, hoarse and heartbroken. "Jaskier, I'm so sorry."

 

She sets her cool, slender fingers between his shoulder blades, just below the nape of his neck.

 

Right over the brand of the White Flame.

 

There's a heartbeat of quiet. Yennefer breaks it. "No," she says. "That's not possible."

 

"You know it is," Triss says quietly.

 

"Of course it's possible, but that's not what I meant," Yennefer snaps. "Fringilla has gone off the edge of the Continent, but she's still Aretuza-trained. This is too far, even for her."

 

"It's not," Triss says. "Yennefer, you saw her. You know how far she's willing to go for her cause--"

 

"Will someone," Geralt interrupts, frustration and fury warring in his voice, "explain what the fuck you're talking about?"

 

Triss draws in a breath, but Yennefer is faster. "It's that fucking brand, Geralt," she says, her voice trembling with rage. "That's the anchor for her spell."

 

The relief of the knowledge is tempered by the absolute horror it brings with it. Bile floods Jaskier's mouth and he chokes it back, shivering with a new rush of fear-sweat that prickles cold and awful on his skin. Gods, his skin, they burned this horrible thing into him--Yennefer is brilliant and Triss is a genius but this isn't an amulet that can be destroyed, it's part of him--

 

"Remove it," Geralt snarls. "Now."

 

"I can't," Triss says.

 

"Triss." A growl, now.

 

"I can't," Triss repeats, angry now. She stalks back to Yennefer's side, her hands balled into fists at her sides. "Gods, Geralt, do you think I didn't try to get that thing off him when you first brought him to me? He'd been tortured, the last thing he needed was a reminder of what they did to him in that horrible place--"

 

An argument rises on the far side of the cell, heated and fierce. Jaskier can't distinguish any of it. The voices blur together, pain and fear warring in his pulse until the only thing he can think, can feel, is that he needs this to stop, he needs it away from him, he needs--

 

"Cut it out of me," he chokes out.

 

Geralt goes stone-still. "What?"

 

Triss whirls to face him, her eyes wide with horror. "What?"

 

There's an odd echo to the word, and it takes Jaskier a moment to realize that it's because she and Yennefer spoke in unison. He plows ahead before he loses his nerve, fear giving way to a kind of distant, horrifying calm. "Cut it out of me," he repeats. "If I'm telling the truth, then the only way to break whatever enchantment she put on me is to get this thing off my skin. If I'm not, then you're going to torture me anyway to find out what I know. So what difference does it make?"

 

"He's not wrong," Vesemir says. Geralt snaps his head around to look at him, but Vesemir remains stone-faced and dispassionate. "We need to know what he knows. One way or another."

 

Jaskier laughs. It comes out as more of a wheezing sob.

 

Eskel visibly grits his teeth, but reaches for the hilt of the dagger in the sheath on his thigh. "Let's get this over with, then."

 

"No," Geralt says hoarsely. "I'll do it."

 

"Geralt," Eskel starts to protest, but Geralt shakes his head.

 

"It should be me," he says. He holds out a hand, and, after a beat of hesitation, Eskel hands him the dagger.

 

The room seems to hold its breath as Geralt moves across the cell like--well, like a hunting wolf. Jaskier watches him approach through tear-blurred eyes, held in place by fear and pain as much as by the Witchers gripping his arms. He feels unmoored, disconnected; he's moved past the cold of the cell, the shame of his nudity, the heartbreak of these people he cares for--that he loves--looking at him with suspicion and ice.

 

Geralt comes to a halt in front of him. This close, Jaskier can see the tightness of his jaw, the honey of his eyes hardened to stony amber. The only hint of hesitation is in the faintest tremor in his eyelashes, in the way his fingers flex around the hilt of the dagger. Jaskier holds his gaze as he can through the hurt and tears, and Geralt looks back at him for a long time, his eyes searching Jaskier's--for what, Jaskier doesn't know.

 

Strange to think that this man was inside him tonight, that he held Jaskier against him and kissed him with fondness and heat, that he'd pressed Jaskier back into soft blankets and taken him apart. How much time could have passed--an hour, two? The fingers of Jaskier's broken arm have gone numb-and tingling, every sweet, lust-tinted memory shaded now with the feeling of Geralt's sword-roughened fingers around his wrist, snapping the bone like a twig.

 

I should hate him, Jaskier thinks, looking up into golden eyes. I should be terrified.  

 

But there's no anger, no bitterness. There's just sorrow, and a horrible, terrible, lasting trust.

 

Because at the end of everything, Jaskier understands. The White Wolf of the North has an empire to protect. He has Ciri to protect. If Jaskier is a threat--even if he only seems like a threat--

 

Jaskier would chain himself up in a cell before he was responsible for any harm coming to that girl.

 

With deliberate care, Geralt steps out of Jaskier's line of sight. His hand comes to rest at the side of the brand, and then the knife beside it. The steel blade is a cold, threatening line against Jaskier's skin.

 

"Jaskier," Geralt says. Quiet. Shockingly gentle.

 

Jaskier takes a breath, lets it out. "Do it," he says.

 

Geralt's fingers flex against his skin, the barest kiss of pressure. "Scream if you need to," he says, and Jaskier closes his eyes.

 

And then Geralt starts to cut, and the world dissolves into agony.

 

He's not a stranger to pain. The Count de Lettenhove never believed in sparing the rod, and the life of a traveling bard isn't gentle. Any limits he'd had left had been met and shattered when Nilfgaard threw him in that miserable cell. For all Jaskier's love of casual bitching, his tolerance for pain is, he knows, higher than most.

 

This is an entirely new kind of hurt.

 

The knife is honed to a razor's edge, his movements sure and steady, but the skin he cuts through is delicate and full of nerves. The blade is so sharp that the pain comes a heartbeat behind the pressure, but it's horrible when it comes. Blood runs down the back of his neck, hot against the cold sweat that's broken out on his skin, and stars dance in front of his eyes.

 

And then, with a last snick of Geralt's blade, the scrap of skin pulls free, and the brand with it--and all the pain that came before becomes nothing. Jaskier's mind explodes, like crystal shattering against marble, fragmented and jagged and sharp. He screams, then, doesn't know how he wasn't screaming already, and against the darkness behind his eyes he sees--he sees--

 

A stone hall, bannered and draped in the cloth and arms of the White Flame--

 

An office, larger than Geralt's but with none of its warmth, a table laid with a map of the Continent--

 

Spell components and a sigil array, runes carved into a stone table, a circle of candles running hot with dripping wax, and at its center, a single lock of ash-blonde hair--

 

"I know what she wants," Jaskier chokes, the taste of copper thick on his tongue.

 

And then the floor rushes up to meet him, someone cries out, and the pain, at last, is gone.

 

 

"I hope you're proud of yourself," is the first thing Triss says when Jaskier opens his eyes.

 

Jaskier blinks, heavy-lidded and slow, his brain sluggishly trying to put together the thread of a conversation they're apparently already having. He can see her, but only just, as if the room he's in is only dimly lit, and she's more red-dress-and-halo-of-curls than person. He blinks again, trying to bring some awareness back to his body, but everything feels very muddled and disconnected. "Proud of what?" he asks.

 

At least, he tries to. It comes out a slurred, sluggish mumble, and probably-Triss sighs. "You almost died," she says, much more gently now. "That's twice now you've almost bled out from the inside in my infirmary, Jaskier. I'd prefer to not have a third. Drink this."

 

She puts a cup to his lips and supports his chin with her free hand as he carefully takes small sips of sweet, clear water. He realizes only belatedly that he's on his stomach and only half-dressed, and that his right arm is heavily splinted and bandaged. His back feels itchy and dull all at once, as if something should hurt but he can't feel the pain, and he makes a questioning noise around the rim of the cup.

 

"You're on quite a lot of potions," Triss says, which explains both the floatiness of his body and why his head feels like it's been stuffed with sawdust. "Some for pain, and some for...well. It was important to keep you calm."

 

Jaskier mumbles what he hopes is an assent. His memory is patchy, but he distinctly recalls that he had not felt calm the last time he was awake. Triss draws the cup away and gently helps him put his head back down on the soft, sweet-scented pillow, and he closes his eyes, breathes in healing herbs and the warm smell of the crackling fire in the hearth. Tender fingers trace through his hair.

 

"Get some rest now," she murmurs. "You're all right. Everything's going to be okay."

 

He doesn't remember falling asleep, but when he wakes again, his head is a little clearer, and his back is on fire. He hisses through his teeth, struggling to rise on his elbow, and yelps as pain lances through his right arm, fuck, gods, he forgot about the break--

 

"Jaskier, don't!"

 

Strong hands grab his shoulders and ease him carefully but firmly back down onto his stomach. Other hands touch his back, holding something in place, and Jaskier yelps.

 

"Well, stay put then," Triss's voice says, in the exasperated tone she only uses when she's properly worried. "If you crack this poultice you'll set your healing back by two days."

 

Jaskier closes his eyes, breathing carefully through his clenched teeth as he waits for the swell of nausea that had come with the pain to abate. When he thinks he can manage it without throwing up, he cracks his eyes open. Sure enough, Triss is crouched beside him, her brow furrowed as she studies his face. She looks tired, and her eyes are red-rimmed, as if she's been crying.

 

"Hey," he says hoarsely. He wants to reach out to take her hand, but something tells him it would be a bad idea to move. "You okay?"

 

"Am I okay?" She lets out a slightly hysterical laugh, dropping her head briefly into her hands, and then takes a deep breath and lifts her head again. "Jaskier," she says, something hesitant in her voice. "How much do you remember? About why you're hurt?"

 

He frowns. The details are fuzzy, but he remembers…

 

Well.

 

"I think I remember all of it," he says.

 

Her face crumples, and then she smooths it away. "I'm so sorry, Jaskier," she says.

 

He blinks. "Why are you sorry?"

 

"I was the one who checked you over for magic all those times," she says, and gods, she sounds miserable. "If I hadn't been so sure there wasn't anything on you, then none of this would have happened."

 

Oh. Jaskier shakes his head as much as he can, which isn't much. "It's not your fault," he says. She gives him a wry look, which, okay, it's not exactly like him to take the high ground, but even he knows when to make an exception. "No, I mean it." He tries to prop himself up again--he hates carrying on a conversation lying on his belly, unless it's with a bedmate, which Triss decidedly is not, and oh Gods one of them would have had to clean and nope, no let's stop that line of thought right there--and Triss pushes him firmly back down with a hand on his good shoulder. "You looked every time I asked you to look. It's not your fault it was some...awful secret magic thing."

 

Her lips twitch. Win! He goes for the jugular. "Come on, Triss, you know I can't stand to see a beautiful sorceress look sad."

 

That gets him a laugh, one with a little more real humor than the first. Her eyes are damp when she looks at him, and he realizes a bit belatedly that she's crouched beside his bed to be at eye level. "You almost died, Jaskier," she says quietly. "She put a failsafe on the spell, in case you broke it. You almost melted from the inside out. Your heart almost burst."

 

"...Oh." He considers that. "That sounds bad."

 

"Very," she says. "It's why your back and arm are still injured--I'm sorry, but you were already overloaded with magic, between the healing and the potions we put you on to keep your heart rate down. I couldn't risk working on the cosmetic wounds. I'll take care of them as soon as it's safe, and in the meantime, they'll heal clean."

 

"Triss."

 

The sound of Eskel's voice is startling in the quiet room. Triss places a soothing hand on Jaskier's shoulder to stop him from jumping in surprise--he hadn't realized anyone else was there. "Eskel," Triss says, warning. "He's not all back yet."

 

"I'm okay," Jaskier protests.

 

"You are high off your ass on potions," Triss says flatly. "And that's with the intensity scaled back enough for you to actually feel your toes. Eskel, I mean it. You can interrogate him later."

 

"We need to know what he knows," Eskel says from somewhere behind Jaskier, and Triss scowls.

 

"He probably doesn't know anything," she snaps. "He's lucky his brain didn't melt out of his ears."

 

"Triss," Jaskier says.

 

"You heard what he said before he passed out," Eskel is saying. "He saw something--"

 

"I don't care what he said," Triss argues. "He's under my care, and--"

 

"Triss," Jaskier repeats.

 

"And even if he wasn't, the last thing he needs right now is you and Vesemir scaring him out of his--"

 

"Triss," Jaskier shouts, getting halfway up on one elbow before he remembers exactly why that's a terrible idea. His hiss of pain is enough to silence both sorceress and Witcher, and Triss glares daggers at him as she pushes him gently but firmly back down.

 

"You're an idiot," she tells him.

 

"Chronically," he agrees, turning his head to the side to look at her better. His vision swims briefly and he takes a slow, careful breath to settle his stomach, then steels himself. "Eskel's right, though. I did see something, when--" He swallows hard. "When the brand came off."

 

Triss is quiet for a moment, her hands still on his shoulders, and then she sighs and nods, rising to her feet. "Fine," she says. "Eskel, come over here. I don't want him twisting to see you."

 

She shifts to the side, and Eskel appears in his line of sight with a creak of leather armor. He looks exhausted, lines by his mouth and dark circles under his eyes. "Hey," he says, guilt written all over his face. "I--"

 

"If you apologize to me, I will scream," Jaskier interrupts. Eskel blinks, clearly not expecting that, and Jaskier fixes him with as firm a look as he can manage while lying prone and unable to move much more than his face. "I mean it."

 

"Jaskier," Eskel protests, but Jaskier shakes his head.

 

"You didn't have any reason to think I was telling the truth," he says. "I could have killed Geralt, Eskel. I almost did. I would have thrown me into the dungeons too."

 

Eskel still looks troubled, but he gives a slight incline of his head in acquiescence. "To the point, then," he says. "Before you passed out, you said you knew what Fringilla wanted." Jaskier swallows and nods. "Do you still remember?"

 

"Yes," Jaskier murmurs. Eskel holds his gaze, expectant, and Jaskier takes a deep breath.

 

"It was like I was inside her head," he says. Even saying it makes his stomach churn, and he breathes carefully through the nausea, his body remembering pain and terror. "It wasn't that I could hear her thoughts or anything, but I could...I knew what she was doing, I could see through her eyes. Everything she saw, everything she knew."

 

He shivers, cold sweat prickling on his skin. "It was the portal wards," he says. "The sleepwalking--she was mapping the keep. Looking for the ward lines. Trying to find the weak points."

 

Eskel's eyebrows shoot up. "Fuck," he says. "How much of them did she get?"

 

"That I don't know," Jaskier admits. There had been so much flooding into him all at once, and the more he tries to reach for specific pieces, the more it blurs and tangles. "But I could feel--she felt smug. Proud."

 

"Fuck," Eskel repeats. He glances at Triss, his expression tense. "If she's mapped the wards, could she--"

 

"Get around them? I don't know." Triss's brow furrows. "Yennefer set them, she'd know better than me. But if she has enough power...maybe. It's possible." She runs her thumb over Jaskier's shoulder, and he realizes he's shaking. Her touch is calming, though, and he takes a few breaths to settle himself. "Do you remember anything else? What she's after? What she's planning?"

 

He nods, closing his eyes. "They want Ciri," he says. "They want Geralt dead, but the Emperor--it's Ciri he's after."

 

"Why?"

 

Eskel's question isn't pushy, but Jaskier shivers anyway. "I don't know. But I don't think...it didn't feel good." He swallows hard. "There's something else. I could see...there was an office, like Geralt's, and there were all these charts on the table--like star charts, maybe? And a drawing like a--like a star, or a wheel, with eight points. And there was another one--a comet." He exhales carefully, looking at Triss. "Does that help?"

 

"Yes," Triss says. She looks tense and worried, her mouth tight. "Yes, it helps. We're in trouble, but it helps."

 

"Triss?" Eskel asks, confusion in his eyes, and she shakes her head.

 

"I need to talk to Yennefer before I say anything more," she says. "But I think--Lilit's Star will be in the sky during the height of Samhain this year. If there was ever a time when Fringilla's power is at its strongest…"

 

She trails off, but her point is clear. Eskel swears and gets to his feet. "That's less than a fortnight from now," he says. "I need to tell Geralt."

 

"Get the full council," she tells him, rising as well. "Yennefer will need to know as well."

 

He gives a curt nod, but when he looks back at Jaskier, his eyes are soft. "Thank you," he says quietly. "I'm sorry for everything. But thank you."

 

Jaskier does his best to smile. "Yeah," he says. Eskel turns to go, and Jaskier bites his lip. "Eskel?" he asks, before he can stop himself. Eskel glances back at him. "Will you tell Geralt I'm sorry?"

 

Eskel blinks. "For what?"

 

For what? Isn't it obvious? "I put Ciri in danger," Jaskier says, a lump rising in his throat. "I put everyone in danger, but Ciri--if Geralt hadn't caught me in time, I could have led them right to her, and we wouldn't have ever known. I know he probably won't forgive me, but--"

 

Eskel, for the first time that Jaskier can remember, looks visibly taken aback. "Is that...is that what you think? That he's angry with you?"

 

Jaskier drops his gaze, easy to do with his head down on the pillow, and hopes Eskel doesn't notice the embarrassed flush rising to his cheeks. "I mean, he's…" He swallows. "He's not here. Even though we--" He cuts himself off. "If he forgave me, I thought he'd be here."

 

Eskel stares at him for a long moment, then mutters something under his breath in a language Jaskier doesn't recognize. "I'll talk to him," Eskel says. His expression is touched with irritation and something like exasperation, but his tone is gentle. "Get some rest."

 

"I'll make sure he does," Triss says, and Jaskier is glad that Eskel leaves the room before he can see him cry.

 

 

Jaskier makes it two days into his convalescence before he's ready to make a run for it.

 

Unlike the last time he'd been recovering in Triss's sickroom, when she'd encouraged him to get out of bed to strengthen his muscles very nearly as soon as he'd woken, this time he's kept strictly still, stretched on his belly with pungent poultices slathered over his back. He's only allowed up when Triss switches out the poultices, and even then it's only to use the chamberpot and then be sent firmly back to bed. Stillness has never been a particular skill, and while the calming potions Triss keeps him on to bring his heart rate down have the convenient side effect of easing the worst of his fidgeting, she's also started tapering him off the pain potions, so he's achy and irritable on top of being bored out of his mind.

 

The boredom on its own is miserable, but the anxiety simmering under his skin even with Triss's calming draughts is worse. He can't shake the feeling of guilt over attempting murder, no matter how many times Triss tells him that there wasn't anything he could have done to stop it. The look of absolute betrayal in Geralt's eyes haunts him, made even more haunting by Geralt's conspicuous absence from his sickroom.

 

It's not that Jaskier expects him, really. Triss tells him that Geralt's been all but locked in his office with the council, planning new fortifications and wards against Nilfgaard's impending attack. Jaskier's warning has probably saved lives, but even with a fortnight's notice, there's a lot to do to make sure that Kaer Morhen is protected. Even so, Yennefer has come by more than once, ostensibly to ask more questions about the glimpses of Fringilla's plans but also to smuggle him sips of wine from a small flask--a welcome break from the broth and tea Triss has him on--which from her is as good as an apology. Eskel is there at least once a day, at least for a few minutes, and Aubry is back on guard duty, a solid, steady presence just at the edge of Jaskier's line of sight. Even Vesemir, who barely ever talked to Jaskier before this whole mess, stopped in long enough to grunt an apology, ask if Jaskier needed anything, and give him a curt, oddly approving nod before leaving again.

 

So Geralt's absence is...telling.

 

"It's because he's a dumbass who doesn't know a good thing when he has it," Ciri says, curled up on a cushion next to his bed.

 

"Cirilla," Triss scolds, scandalized.

 

"That's what Yennefer says," Ciri shrugs. She's spent every morning at Jaskier's bedside since he woke, putting on an air of almost vicious cheerfulness. She stubbornly ignores Jaskier's gentle attempts to suggest that she might be safer further away from him, given the circumstances, and by the time she starts showing up with her books and demanding that he help her stay on top of her lessons, he gives her the win.

 

He must be taking too many longing glances toward the door, though, because Ciri's clearly fed up with him. Jaskier sighs, picks his head up to roll his neck, and then drops it back down onto his pillow. "Yennefer says all sorts of things," he says. "Mostly because she can get away with them. That doesn't necessarily mean you should repeat them."

 

Ciri doesn't pout, but it's close. "She's right, though," she says. "He's only avoiding you because he feels guilty."

 

Jaskier narrows his eyes at her, considering. He's known her long enough now to know when she's deflecting. "He feels guilty?"

 

Ciri flushes, biting her lip. "Yes," she insists. "He does. Because he hurt you." He raises an eyebrow--because really, there's nothing for Geralt to feel guilty about--and she purses her lips. "Fine," she mutters. "I guess I--" She huffs a sigh. "You got hurt because of me, Jaskier. Again."

 

He risks a glance at Triss, who's busied herself with a tray of potions, and carefully props himself up on his good arm, just enough to look at Ciri properly without craning his neck. The poultice on his back shifts ominously but doesn't crack. "Ciri," he says gently. "We talked about this last time. The only person at fault here is that horrible sorceress." Well, and whoever gives the sorceress her orders, but that's beside the point. "There's nothing you could have done to stop her."

 

She gives him a pointed look. "You felt guilty," she says. "About the magic making you attack Geralt. Triss told me."

 

Traitor, he thinks. "That was different."

 

"How?" she challenges.

 

"It just--" She glares at him, chin lifted defiantly, and Jaskier sighs. Melitele save him from teenagers too smart for their own good, and his own good besides. "All right," he admits. "Maybe there is a...bit of hypocrisy on my part."

 

Triss glances up with a short laugh, and then does a double take. "Jaskier, lie down!"

 

He groans and lets her push him back down. "My neck hurts!" he complains.

 

"It's going to hurt more if I wring it for you!" she snaps. She sighs, sitting down next to Ciri on the cushion. "And anyway, Ciri's right. You're blaming yourself for something you had no control over." She gives him a wry smile. "You're in good company, at least," she says, and puts an arm around Ciri, smoothing back her ash-blonde hair. "Self-martyrdom is a common trait around here. If it weren't for you and Ciri being human, I'd say they built it into the mutagens they gave the Witchers."

 

Ciri gives an unladylike snort, nudging Triss with her elbow, and then looks up at Jaskier again, her face determined. "But Geralt is only staying away because he feels bad," she says. "I heard him talking to Yennefer about it when I was supposed to be working on my fire spells. He's worried that you're going to be scared of him now. Or that you'll hate him because he didn't believe you, and that he hurt you after you two--" She falters, blushing, and Jaskier clears his throat, because he doesn't need her to finish that sentence, thanks very much.

 

"Yes, alright, that's--quite enough of that." He ignores Triss's look of vague amusement, and the heat creeping up the back of his neck. Gods, he hopes she didn't overhear anything too incriminating. What on earth was Geralt thinking, gossiping to Yen in Ciri's earshot?

 

Her cheeks are red, but she doesn't back down. "I'm just saying, Jaskier," she says. "I know you think he's angry with you because he hasn't come to see you, but it's just--he's being Geralt about it. Yennefer's already yelled at him for it, but he's being stubborn."

 

"I did try to kill him, Ciri," Jaskier says weakly. "He could just be saying that so that Yennefer doesn't--"

 

"Maiden, Mother, and Crone," Triss says, throwing up her hands. "You're as bad as he is."

 

"I'm not," Jaskier protests, struggling up indignantly. "It's entirely valid to--"

 

"Ciri, show me your history reading," Triss interrupts, putting a hand on Jaskier's head and pushing him firmly back onto the pillow. "I think there are a few details the author got wrong about Temeria's monarchy."

 

"This is mean," Jaskier mutters, cracking his neck and trying to get comfortable.

 

"Did you hear something?" Triss asks loftily.

 

"Not a thing," Ciri says.

 

"I need better friends," Jaskier says. From his customary place by the door, Aubry huffs a laugh, and Jaskier ducks his head into the pillow with a reluctant smile.

 

 

It's another week before Triss discharges him back to his rooms with firm instructions to rest, move as little as possible, and submit to a regiment of several foul-tasting potions each day.

 

The wound on his back has healed clean, thanks to Triss's magic, leaving in its place a shiny, smooth circle of new skin. It will scar, she tells him; magical wounds nearly always do, but it's a small price to pay to have Nilfgaard's sigil--and Fringilla's curse--off his body. It still twinges when he moves without thinking, the fragile skin not quite ready to stretch, but it's a manageable sort of pain. Whether that's due to true healing or to Triss's continued doses of pain potions, he doesn't know, but he's not about to question it.

 

His arm is another story. It was a clean break, despite the circumstances--he tries not to think too much about those--but Triss will only channel a few minutes of magic into the muscle and ligament and bone each day, her fingers pressed carefully to his pulse the entire time.

 

"All magic requires an exchange," she says, when he whines about the pace of the healing one time too many. "And it takes a toll on the body even in the best of circumstances, which this isn't."

 

"You do more than this on the Witchers," he protests.

 

"The Witchers have mutagens and enhanced healing already," she says tartly. "And even then, if one of them nearly had their organs melted, I'd hold off on healing their broken bones, too." She re-wraps his arm in clean linen, helps him back into his sling, and leaves him with a set of stretches for his wrist and fingers and stern orders to Aubry not to let him "overdo it."

 

While Jaskier is stuck in his rooms, bored out of his mind under Aubry and Lambert's watchful guard--and no, it does not slip his notice that he's never left alone--an uneasy tension builds throughout the keep. Though Nilfgaard's planned attack is not, from what Jaskier can tell, public knowledge, the Witchers are on edge and the mages busier than ever. Fortunately, Kaer Morhen's servants, even used to the oddities of their charges, are more observant than most--and, even more fortunately, are willing to gossip when given the chance.

 

"Markel," Jaskier asks, when the boy comes by to drop off a supper tray, "what's going on out there?"

 

"Wish I knew, sir," Markel says glumly. "The whole army's prowling around like there's a storm coming, but no one's saying anything. All we've got is Maja--" Kaer Morhen's steward, an even-keeled woman with the bearing of a general. "--telling us to remember the siege drills we practice every year, so we know something's going on, but no one'll tell." He hesitates in his gathering of the empty lunch dishes, looking at Jaskier and seeming, suddenly, very young. "There are rumors, though. That there's going to be an attack, and the White Wolf knows when it's going to happen."

 

Jaskier keeps his face carefully neutral. "Who's saying that?"

 

Markel shrugs. "Most people," he says. "But I got it from one of the boys who cleans in the armory. He says they're sharpening everything, doing inventory, matching things by School. They usually only do that before a march, though, and everyone always knows about those because we have to work on the supplies." He frowns, brow furrowing as he arranges dishes on the tray. "They'd tell us, though, right? If there was a danger to us here?"

 

"I'm sure they would," Jaskier says, as gently as he can. "I can't tell you any more than you already know, I'm afraid. But listen to what Maja tells you." He smiles, hoping it looks reassuring and not anxious. "Kaer Morhen is the safest place on the Continent. You know that."

 

Markel gives him a small, crooked smile. "Thank you, sir."

 

When the door closes behind him, Jaskier gives Lambert a pointed look. "So, what," he says. "Geralt's just not telling half the keep that Nilfgaard's planning to portal in and fuck us all over?"

 

Lambert gives a dismissive snort. "Not that I should be telling you, buttercup," he says. "But we're not even sure there's going to be an attack."

 

Jaskier frowns. "But I saw--"

 

"Exactly," Lambert says. "You saw, and for all we know they know you saw, and they're changing everything."

 

"Oh." Jaskier hadn't considered that. Fuck, that would be any advantage gone. He feels a bit sick at the idea. "Does Yennefer think--"

 

"No clue." Lambert spins a dagger around his fingers. "You might get more out of Eskel, since he's actually in those meetings." He pauses, then smirks. "You could ask Geralt to fill you in."

 

He makes a lewd motion that Jaskier pointedly ignores, trying not to feel stung. Geralt's avoidance is a sore spot, though he tries to hide it. "Geralt isn't interested in…" He absolutely refuses to give Lambert the satisfaction of playing into filling me in. "In...giving me the details of his council meetings. For obvious reasons, now that we know I was--compromised."

 

"You're not compromised anymore," Lambert says. Aubry huffs a sound that might be a laugh. "I'm just saying, buttercup, if you want details, you know where to get them."

 

He's probably right, loathe as Jaskier is to admit it. Geralt would come see him if Jaskier asked for him directly, out of misplaced guilt if nothing else, because he's horribly noble and would light himself on fire if it would keep someone else warm. But for all that Triss assures him that all traces of the spell are gone, Jaskier can't shake the fear that something might be lingering in the dark corners of his mind, just waiting for a last morsel of information.

 

Or worse, the opportunity to sink a blade into the White Wolf's heart.

 

"Jaskier," Aubry says, and Jaskier blinks himself back to look at him. "You alright? You went pale."

 

Jaskier forces a smile, picking up the cup of tea that Markel left on his tray.

 

"I'm fine," he says, and they're kind enough not to call him out on the lie they can surely hear in his heartbeat. "Of course, I'm fine."

 

 

In the end, it's Yennefer who comes to him with the plan.

 

She looks wearier than he's ever seen her, circles under her eyes that her impeccable makeup can't quite cover, and she sits down on his sofa without her usual grace, almost folding in on herself. Jaskier, sitting on the other side of the couch and fidgeting with the edges of his sling, watches and waits, knowing all too well that if she's stepped away from whatever preparations Geralt and his council are making, then it must be important. Just to have something to do, Jaskier pours her a cup of tea from the still-warm pot that Markel brought earlier, stirring in a spoon of honey and nudging it toward her.

 

Yennefer takes it with a tired smile, sips it, makes a slight face--alright, maybe it's closer to lukewarm--and waves her free hand over it. The mug begins to steam gently. With another wave of her hand another mug appears on the table between them, and she pours him a cup in turn. For a few moments they drink in silence, the only sound in the room the faint scrape of Aubry's whetstone against the blade of his steel sword.

 

Finally, Yennefer sighs. "How are you feeling?" Jaskier opens his mouth to reply, and she gives him a stern look. "I need an honest answer. It's important."

 

Ouch. Jaskier traces his thumb over the rough ceramic of the cup in his hand. "I'm...okay," he says. Yennefer narrows her eyes at him, and he musters a smile. "I mean it. I'm not great, but considering the circumstances…" He shrugs. "I'm alright. The nightmares are pretty miserable and my arm hurts and I can't move too quickly, but I'm not, you know. In crisis."

 

Yennefer hums. It's a thoughtful sound, evaluating. "The nightmares?"

 

Jaskier tries to keep up his smile, but he can feel it fading from his face. "Bad," he admits. "It's...it's the Nilfgaard cell, sometimes, but sometimes it's the cell here, and sometimes…" He swallows. "Sometimes it's just me, but not me. Not me in control."

 

The memories of the dreams make him shiver, images of his own hands soaked in Geralt's blood, in Cirilla's. He takes a sip of tea to try and fortify himself. He craves a strong brandy, but Triss had told him in no uncertain terms to keep alcohol out of his system for another week at least. "But I think," he says, sure without being sure how he's sure, "that they're just dreams. I can't explain it, but they don't feel like the ones before."

 

Yennefer nods slowly. "Magic leaves traces, even when it tries not to," she says. "And a spell that strong would have a feeling to it, once you know it's there." Her mouth twists in a half-smile, half-grimace. "One of the worst things about it was that once we knew to look for it, it was so obvious. It was seeped into the brand, even once it was off you."

 

"Ew," Jaskier says, not wanting to think about how she was able to determine that. He'd comforted himself with the idea that that little scrap of skin had been promptly burned, but apparently not.

 

"Ew indeed," Yennefer says. "If my teachers at Aretuza knew I'd missed something like that, they'd have had me flogged. But that's irrelevant, now." She takes a breath. "What is relevant is what I need to talk to you about."

 

Jaskier catches the shift in her tone. "That sounds serious," he says, trying to keep his voice light. From the look on her face, it doesn't help.

 

"Triss and I have been studying the brand and the spell," she says. Her eyes are sharp and calculating, the way they are when she's explaining a new piece of magic to Ciri. "Along with the other mages. From what we've been able to reverse-engineer, she would have been able to map the keep just based on your memories, even when she wasn't able to send you sleepwalking. What we don't know is how much she was able to pick up from...background noise, for lack of a better term. We know she wanted to trace the portal wards, and for that she would have needed to be closer to them--which means she would have to sense them while you were moving through the keep."

 

Awareness dawns. "Hence the sleepwalking," Jaskier says slowly.

 

She nods. "Exactly." She taps her manicured nails against her cup. "So. We have a date, we have a time. We have our suspicions of what she wants, and how she plans to get it."

 

"Ciri," Jaskier says, sure in the pit of his gut, and Yennefer nods grimly.

 

"Yes. Between the layout of the keep and the time you spent with her, Fringilla would have gotten a clear picture of where Ciri is likely to be and how many Witchers she'll have as a guard." She takes a deep breath. "If the circumstances were different, we would just increase her guard and move her to a different part of the keep. But with a mage…" She shakes her head. A lock of dark hair slips over her shoulder, and she brushes it back in a quick, irritated flick of fingers. "If she was able to use her connection to you to get a lock on Ciri's magic, not just her location…"

 

"She can go right to her," Jaskier says. Yennefer's expression tells him everything, and he feels sick. "Fuck."

 

It's something he'd never even considered. Not that he would know to consider it; he's no mage, and for all the various disciplines he's picked up over the years, the mysteries of Chaos have always been off-limits. But of course they would want to go right to Ciri; no one can fight through an army of Witchers, but if they could portal right into her chambers and just take her--

 

But there's something else, something he's never seen before on Yennefer's face. Hesitation. Apprehension.

 

Guilt.

 

"Yen," he says, and those luminous violet eyes meet his. He knows, even before he says it, that whatever she's reluctant to ask of him will be dangerous. Potentially deadly.

 

He knows, just as immediately, that whatever it is, he'll do it.

 

To her credit, Yennefer's voice is steady when she speaks. "Magic seeks magic," she says. "But we call it Chaos for a reason. It can be coaxed into a desired shape, but at its core, it wants to snap back to itself, like pulling back a bowstring." She pauses, as if to ensure that he's following her, and he nods. "The spell she put on you--it's broken, but magic leaves a signature, of sorts. If someone was very, very good and very, very clever, they could use that to trick a searching spell into locking onto the wrong target."

 

"Very good and very clever," Jaskier echoes. "Which you are." Yennefer inclines her head, but a small smirk curves her lips. It's probably indicative of something deeply wrong with him as a person that he finds that reassuring. "Right." He chews his bottom lip. "And the down side?"

 

Yennefer's smile turns grim. "About what you'd expect," she says. "Her magic would lock onto you, not Ciri. So any magic she's planning to use on her…"

 

"Right," Jaskier says, stomach twisting. He looks down at his tea.

 

"Jaskier." Yennefer puts a surprisingly gentle hand on his knee. "You can say no. No one would blame you. Not after what you've already been through."

 

He laughs, a little hysterical, and puts his cup down so that he can briefly put his head in his hand. It's true that the absolute last thing he wants is to have any more magic anywhere near him, but the idea of that sorceress with her horrible curses getting her hands on Ciri makes him want to scream. Which would probably be far less effective than one of Ciri's screams, come to think of it, but…

 

He never wants to be responsible for Ciri's screaming.

 

Jaskier puts his hand over Yennefer's, his shaking fingers curling around her steady ones. "Tell me what you need me to do."

 

 

What she needs him to do, apparently, is wear some really weird jewelry.

 

"Are you sure this is going to work?" Jaskier asks skeptically, staying obediently still while Yennefer ties a series of complicated knots in the strings she's tying around his wrist. The cords, she'd told him, are part of the magic and can't be removed: a braid of red yarn, raw twine, catline soaked from sunset to sunrise in Jaskier's blood, and nine strands of Ciri's hair. The combination should take any magic looking for Ciri's unique signature--"Doesn't sound real," he'd said, "but I don't know enough about magic to dispute it."--will lock onto Jaskier instead.

 

("She probably doesn't realize it," Yennefer had said with a humorless smile, "but the binding she put on you is the only reason we're able to do this at all. Magic is attracted to its own signature. It would be pulled towards you anyway, because of the traces she left on you--she'd have to force it to ignore it. This won't let her do that."

 

"That's a simplification," Triss added. "There's quite a lot of theory behind it."

 

"That's okay," Jaskier said, wincing as Yennefer carefully opened a cut in his wrist to collect an inch or two of blood in the bottom of a bowl he was a little afraid might be made of bone. "I think the less I know about this, the better.)

 

Now, he can feel the tingle of magic as she ties them in place, one at each wrist and one at each ankle. "I mean...won't she expect something like this?"

 

"Unclear," Triss says. She's working on another braid, this one knotted through with pieces of crystal. "She'll certainly know that the spell she had on you is no longer in place, but she might not know what you might have seen when we broke it. If she does…"

 

Yennefer snorts. "Fringilla was always a planner, even when we were in school. She liked to cover all her bases, and I can't imagine that working under Emhyr would make her less paranoid."

 

Jaskier frowns. "So wouldn't she…" He gestures to the cord tied around his wrist. "Isn't this the kind of thing she'd plan for?"

 

"No," Yennefer says, finishing the last knot and straightening up with a conspiratorial smile. "This is a Druidic binding, not Aretuza magic."

 

"Most Aretuza sorceresses wouldn't touch something like this," Triss says. "They'd think it beneath them."

 

Jaskier blinks. "Oh."

 

Triss smiles. "Fortunately, not all of us feel that way," she says. "All knowledge is worth having, and you never know when it might save your life." She gets to her feet and brings the cord she's working on over to him. "This is the activation piece," she warns. "You're going to feel it when it snaps into place."

 

Jaskier eyes it warily. "Will it hurt?"

 

Triss shakes her head. "It shouldn't, and after the initial pulse, you shouldn't feel anything at all."

 

"Unless they're working," Yennefer says dryly. Jaskier looks at her in alarm, and she elaborates. "There shouldn't be pain. But if someone is trying to get a lock on Ciri, they'll react. I'm told you might feel them tingle or itch, but Triss is right, they shouldn't hurt." She fixes him with a firm look. "If they do, you tell me or Triss immediately. None of the martyr bullshit. Got it?"

 

"Yes ma'am," Jaskier says. "Whatever you say ma'am."

 

Yennefer flicks his knee with one manicured fingernail, and Jaskier feels something in his chest loosen and ease. She's been walking around him on eggshells since he woke up after the curse was broken, hesitant and cautious in a very un-Yennefer-like way, and if she's willing to throw a casual gesture of exasperation at him, it probably means she's finally gotten it through her head that he's not upset with her.

 

Or that she's forgiven him for making her worry, which is just as likely.

 

He flashes her his best shit-eating grin, hoping he looks braver than he feels, and then looks at Triss. "Alright," he says. "Let's do it."

 

Carefully, she drapes the necklace over his head.

 

She's right--he does feel the spell snap into place. The skin under the binding cords flares hot and then ice-cold, and he shudders at the feeling of magic that crawls through him, like raw egg dripping down his spine. Just as quickly, though, it's gone, leaving a faint tingling hum that, as he breathes through the unpleasant initial surge, fades to nothing. He blinks his eyes open and meets two worried gazes.

 

"All good," he says. Absently, he rubs at one wrist, and Yennefer clicks her tongue and flicks him again.

 

"Don't fuss with them," she says. "If you fray any of them, we have to redo it."

 

Jaskier wrinkles his nose at her, but takes his hand away. "Okay," he says. "So…What happens now?"

 

Yennefer gives him a grim smile. "Now," she says, "we wait."

 

...

 

The sun sets on Samhain in silence and cold, with none of the bonfires or feasting that normally heralds the festival's arrival. Kaer Morhen seems to be holding its breath, the very stones of the walls colder and more imposing as the usual hum of voices and activity has gone silent. The few servants still moving through the halls go about their duties in hushed efficiency, edging around the Witchers patrolling the keep, armed and alert.

 

Jaskier, for his part, is jittery and anxious, pacing as if he can pass the time more quickly if he wears a trench in the floor of his sitting room. Aubry and Coën sit in silent meditation by his door, both of them armed to the teeth and, Jaskier knows, able to snap to alertness at the smallest sense of danger. Lambert is stationed just outside the door, informally elected captain of the group of Witchers standing guard in the hallway. His fingers itch for his lute, but his arm--no longer splinted, but still sore--doesn't allow for it, so instead he fidgets, alternating between attempting to read, neatening his already-neat bedroom, pressing his ear to the wall as if he can somehow hear what's going on outside. He can't hear anything, but the silence isn't reassuring.

 

Midnight comes and goes. The witching hours, Jaskier thinks, shivering. The binding cords at his ankles and wrists and neck have been itching steadily since sundown. Triss had come by to check them an hour ago, and her grim look was answer enough to Jaskier's unspoken question--someone is, in fact, looking for their princess. Ciri is somewhere in the keep, far from her own quarters, her location known only to Geralt's council, Geralt himself, and her guards. It's that thought more than anything that calms him as he starts another round of pacing--the spell is working as it's meant to, redirecting the searching to him.

 

("You'll be guarded," Yennefer had promised, when she explained the spell. "Geralt will see to that. If she comes, and finds you, you won't be alone."

 

It had been a relief, then. Now that it's happening, it's not the comfort he'd hoped for.)

 

Darkness creeps across the sky. Moonrise passes, and the stars are vivid in the clear Kaedwen night. Jaskier presses his hands to the windowsill, trying to see if he can find any trace of Lilit's Star, even though Triss had been clear that it won't appear until midnight. The thick glass is cold under his palms, humming faintly with warding magic that even Jaskier can feel. He shivers and steps back, digging a sweater out of his wardrobe and worming into it, awkwardly navigating his sling.

 

"Jaskier," Aubry says, the fourth time Jaskier's hand twitches toward his lute as if by just holding it he might be able to settle his nerves, "Sit down."

 

"I can't," Jaskier says, shamelessly snappish. He's never done well with tension or silence, and how he's stuck in both. "How can you stand this? Just waiting around?"

 

"Nothing else to do," Coën says. Clearly done meditating, he draws a dagger from his belt and a whetstone from a pocket and begins to work on the already-gleaming blade. He nods at Jaskier's wrist, where he's absent-mindedly started tugging at the bindings again. "Yennefer said not to play with those."

 

Jaskier huffs and rubs his forehead with his good hand. "Can we at least start a game of Gwent or something? I'm going out of my mind." Aubry gives him a look that speaks volumes, and he sighs. "Fine. I just don't see why--"

 

A portal opens in the center of the room, and Jaskier's blood freezes in his veins. Coën's sword rings as he spins to attention and draws it from its scabbard, motioning Jaskier to silence. Jaskier snaps his mouth shut and falls back enough to let Aubry snap to attention in front of him, steel sword drawn. "Lambert!" Aubry barks, unexpectedly loud for a man who's usually so taciturn, but someone is stepping through the portal, and--

 

Coën leaps back with a look of alarm. The someone coming through the portal is not Fringilla of Nilfgaard. It's Ciri, looking like she's not quite sure whether she's shocked or delighted.

 

"Oh!" she says brightly. "It worked!"

 

Jaskier stares at her, torn between shock and horror. "Cirilla," he says. It's not a squeak, but it's uncomfortably close. "What on earth are you doing here? And since when can you portal?"

 

"Yen taught me, in case I needed to get somewhere quickly. And I wanted to see you!" She pushes past Coën and flings her arms around his waist while he shoots a wide-eyed, terrified look at the Witchers. "I've been stuck in a dusty closet all night, and no one will tell me what's going on, not even Geralt."

 

"That's for your own good, love," Jaskier says. She scowls at him, but he shakes his head, trying to suppress his panic. "No, I know you hate to hear that, I do, but we're all trying to keep you safe."

 

"I'm not a child," she says, though she looks like she'd quite like to stomp her foot. "And you're supposed to be the person who won't lie to me, Jaskier!"

 

Jaskier winces. "I know," he says. The cords are itching more than ever. Fuck, he thinks. "Ciri, listen to me. You can't be here. If you don't want to be wherever Geralt put you, I understand, but you can't be here. This is the last place you should be. Okay? It's not safe for you here."

 

Frustration flares on her face. "I don't understand."

 

"I know, and I'm sorry I can't explain it." He cups her face in his hands, heedless of the twinge in his bad arm. "But you need to go, okay?"

 

"Don't want her in the halls," Lambert says. "And if we give her enough Witchers for an escort, you won't have enough of us here."

 

Jaskier startles; he hadn't heard him come in. "Okay," he says. "Ciri, can you portal yourself somewhere else in the keep?"

 

Ciri's frown falters, giving way to worry. "No," she says uncertainly. "I don't--I'm still learning. Yennefer said I could only do it once per day or I could run out of magic and get stuck. I can't do it again."

 

The bindings start to burn. Something is coming, he thinks, and is suddenly sure of it. They're out of time. "Listen to me," he says. "Go into my bedroom. Pull the blanket off and cover your hair, then get under the bed. Get as close to the wall as you can, do you understand?"

 

She searches his face with wide green eyes. "Yes," she says. "But--Jaskier--"

 

Coën's hand flies to his medallion. "Jaskier," he barks.

 

Fuck. Jaskier drops a kiss to Ciri's forehead and shoves her towards his room. "Go!"

 

Somewhere in the keep, someone screams.

 

The color drains from Ciri's face, and she spins on her heel and runs for his bedroom. "Lambert, with her," Jaskier snaps, but he's already moving, sword out and drawn and vanishing into the darkened room after her.

 

Heat flares at Jaskier's wrists and he cries out, more in shock than in pain, stumbling to his knees. He barely remembers not to try and catch himself on his bad arm, but it doesn't matter because Aubry is there, rolling him behind the armchair and coming to a defensive stance in front of him as another portal spins into existence.

 

This one doesn't have the rippling quality of Ciri's. It looks like a vortex, dark and spinning and threatening, and shadows seem to pour from it as Jaskier watches, frozen in fear, through a gap in Aubry's stance. No, he realizes in horror, not shadows, just soldiers, all in black, cowled hoods drawn up to hide their faces, the only color the starlight glancing off drawn blades. Coën roars a challenge and leaps to meet them, the Witchers from the hallway flooding to his aid, and Jaskier doesn't have time to see if any of his guards fall in the sudden onslaught because Aubry is shoving his head down and ordering him to stillness, even as he jumps forward into the fray.

 

In the space of a heartbeat, everything has gone to chaos. The once-silent room fills with the ringing of steel-on-steel and the screams of dying and wounded men. A body thuds to the floor dangerously close to Jaskier's hiding place and he bites back a cry of alarm, flinching back from the spreading pool of blood.

 

At least the man isn't a Witcher.

 

The soldiers keep coming; the portal, if anything, growing in size until it seems to fill the wall. There's no sign of the sorceress, but maybe, Jaskier thinks, terrified; maybe that was her plan, to send an army, to kill anyone who could stand between her and her prize--

 

But another figure is coming through the portal, hooded and cowled in black, moving not with urgent charge of the soldiers but with deliberate, steady steps, not flinching at the carnage around her.

 

Jaskier knows her, even before she pulls her hood back and he sees her face. He's all too used to what she looks like in the dark.

 

Fringilla of Nilfgaard does not stop to take in the chaos. She does not flinch when a sword comes within striking distance of her throat, parried at the last instant by a black-clad soldier. She moves through the room like a hunting panther.

 

Heading directly for Jaskier. The cord around his neck burns. Itching, my ass, he thinks wildly, forcing himself to keep from tearing it away from his skin. He and Yennefer are going to have words if he survives this.

 

If.

 

He sees it, the moment she realizes what her magic has found, or rather, what it hasn't. Her face--beautiful, of course it's beautiful, all sorceresses are; he wonders, a little hysterically, what she might look like if the world had treated her differently, if she had become something other than Nilfgaard's general, and gods, he needs to stop thinking like a romantic, that's what got him into this mess in the first place--twists. He recognizes the flash of fury in her eyes, the same look she would give him in the cell when she'd probed his mind and come up empty.

 

"You," she says, and he hears her through the wail of the fighting as clearly as if she'd screamed to him, even though she doesn't raise her voice. It's as if she's speaking inside his mind, and the realization that she is makes his stomach twist with fear. "You're becoming a nuisance, bard."

 

He opens his mouth to retort, an automatic response that has only ever gotten him in trouble, but the words die in his throat as an invisible hand closes around his neck. He's jerked to his feet, his eyes fixed on the hand she's raised, her fingers curled like claws, and the wave of magic yanks him from his huddling crouch to slam him back against the wall. The air leaves his lungs in a rush and he has time to think oh, good, that's just what I need, another concussion before the reality of the position sinks in, his hands pinned, his air all but cut off by the pressure at his throat.

 

Fringilla stalks towards him, her eyes fixed on his. "It's a clever bit of magic," she says when she reaches him, her fingers tracing the cord around his neck. The words echo in his head. "Yennefer was always clever." She takes his chin in her hand, forces his head up. "Did she think this little earth binding would be enough to keep me from finding what I want?" She clicks her tongue, almost dismissive. "Poor Yenna. So creative, but she never quite appreciated the classics."

 

Jaskier doesn't respond, can't respond. He's held frozen as the horribly familiar tendrils of magic slip into his mind. He thinks, desperately, of anything but Ciri. He thinks of summer sun, warm on his skin and painting his lute in light; he thinks of the sweet, crisp smell of autumn air in Redania; he thinks of the noise and chaos and joy of Oxenfurt. He thinks of Triss's kind smile, he thinks of Eskel's warm laughter, he thinks of Yennefer's sharp wit, he thinks--

 

He thinks of Geralt, steady and golden and beautiful. Of his hands, scarred and rough and impossibly gentle; of his voice, the care he takes in choosing his words; of the strength of his body and the incredible depths of his compassion and conscience. Of the way he took Jaskier apart, first with tenderness, then with a Witcher's efficient violence; the betrayal on his face and the regret in his eyes; the horrible, conspicuous avoidance since that terrible night--

 

No, he thinks, as his heart cracks in his chest all over again, knowing the pain of it will weaken him, no, no--

 

But then Geralt is there, sweeping in like an avenging angel, eyes Cat-black and veins standing stark against his skin, his white hair already streaked with blood. Jaskier doesn't even have time to choke his name before Geralt's silver sword flashes, and Fringilla's head falls to the ground with a horrible thump, her expression frozen in almost offended surprise. The magic holding Jaskier in place disappears in a rush and he staggers, struggling to catch himself on trembling legs as he's suddenly able to breathe again. He scrambles to keep his feet out of the spreading pool of blood gushing from the stump that was once Fringilla's neck.

 

Geralt's hand closes on his hip and steadies him, and Jaskier snaps his eyes up to meet his. There's no gold in Geralt's gaze, and his hand burns like a brand, even through Jaskier's clothing. Fringilla's suffocating magic is gone, but Jaskier's breath still catches in his throat.

 

Around them, the violence is faltering. There's a last choking scream and the crash of an armored body hitting the floor, and then there's only harsh breathing and the occasional grunt as the Witchers--because it's only Witchers left upright--move through the room, silencing any surviving Nilfgaardian soldiers with vicious efficiency.

 

"Are you all right?" Geralt says.

 

They're the first words Geralt has said to him since that night in Kaer Morhen's dungeons. Jaskier manages a jerky nod. "You're here," he says.

 

Geralt takes his hand away, and Jaskier feels the loss like a blow. "I wasn't going to let her kill you."

 

"Jaskier!"

 

Ciri's cry breaks the tension between them, the only warning Jaskier gets before she slams into his side, flinging her arms around his torso. "Oof," Jaskier says, because what else can he say, but he strokes a hand over her hair. "It's okay, love," he says. "You're okay."

 

She makes a vaguely disgusted sound into his chest. "I know I'm okay," she says, lifting her face. Her face is streaked with tears and her face is nearly as pale as Geralt's, but her jaw is set. "I was worried about you."

 

"Oh. Well, I'm okay, too." He kisses her forehead, vaguely aware that he's probably a little bit in shock, because the reality and terror hasn't quite sunk in. There's blood on his bare feet, which is disgusting. Ciri huffs and hugs him again, pressing her face into his sweater, and Jaskier puts his arms around her and holds on, taking more comfort than he expects from the floral scent of her hair and the tangible proof of her safety, her relief.

 

He takes a deep breath, raising his head to ask Geralt what they're supposed to do now--

 

But Geralt is already gone.

 

 

 

Chapter Text

 

 

In the wake of Nilfgaard's attack, Kaer Morhen seems to exhale.

 

Jaskier moves to a set of rooms down the hall from Yennefer and Triss, his own soaked with blood practically down to the stones. The servants scrubbed it down, but the lye-and-ammonia smell lingers, and with the windows open to air out the room, the autumn breeze off the mountains makes it far too cold for any non-Witcher's blood. His temporary quarters are, if anything, even nicer than the ones he's come to think of as his--not that they're really his, of course, just guest chambers he's gotten comfortable in, but he can't remember the last time he stayed somewhere other than Oxenfurt that felt at all like home--and it's more than a little reassuring to have the sorceresses shouting distance away, but he still feels a bit unmoored.

 

(It doesn't help that Yennefer and Triss leave for three days to take Fringilla's body back to Aretuza for whatever secret funeral rites mages have.

 

"I'm sorry," Yennefer told him before they left, circles under her eyes and sorrow on her face that almost seems tinged with guilt. "I know that what she did to you was horrible. That what she's done has been horrible. But she was our sister, once."

 

Jaskier, who hasn't seen his own sisters in years but knows how very easily the course of fate can turn softness into cruelty, shakes his head, and kisses her cheek, and sends her off with a hug.)

 

Ciri's lessons provide at least a bit of normalcy, though they come with their own complications. In any other castle, she would have been in disgrace for the stunt she pulled by portalling away from her guards. Kaer Morhen doesn't quite have a concept of disgrace--indeed, Jaskier thinks sometimes that Witchers wouldn't recognize shame if it flirted with them in a brothel--but they do have a robust history of making punishments miserable without being dangerous. Ciri's usual practical magic lessons are suspended in favor of theoretical tutelage under the watchful eye of Istredd, another of Geralt's mages--"and an absolute bore," according to Ciri--and her weapons training replaced by a new assignment of reorganizing the library with Barmin, one the oldest Witchers in the keep.

 

("Not that it would stop him from catching her," Lambert says with a smirk when Jaskier asks. "That old wolf trained Vesemir. Nothing gets by him.")

 

So Ciri is disgruntled and sour-faced, despite all of Jaskier's attempts to cheer her; Yennefer and Triss return from Aretuza tired-eyed and solemn, and Jaskier hasn't exchanged more than three words with Geralt since he swept to Jaskier's rescue like a goddamn knight in blood-streaked armor.

 

But it's fine. Everything's fine.

 

"This is not fine," he tells his lute, sitting cross-legged on the floor of his room and attempting to coax a tune out of his stubbornly reluctant brain. He's had writer's block all week, which threw a wet blanket on Triss's long-awaited pronouncement that his arm was healed enough for him to go back to playing. He plucks out a melancholy minor scale, then strums a quick, unhappy tune he'd composed at Oxenfurt with Priscilla in a fit of pique. "How the hell am I supposed to finish a song cycle if my muse isn't talking to me and you," he addresses this to his reflection, just visible out of the corner of his eye in the bronze mirror in the corner of the room, "are not using any of your creative genius."

 

His reflection, predictably, doesn't reply. Jaskier makes a face at it.

 

There's a tap at the door. "Come in," Jaskier calls, grateful for any chance of distraction.

 

Eskel slips into the room, dressed down in just trousers and shirtsleeves, his only armor a fitted leather vest, unarmed--at least visibly, Jaskier doesn't doubt he has other weapons hidden--save for a knife strapped to a sheath on his thigh. It's a different knife from the one he used to carry, which Jaskier hasn't seen since that horrible night in Kaer Morhen's dungeon. He's a little curious about what happened to it, but not curious enough to ask. "Jaskier," he says. "How are you feeling?"

 

"Well enough," Jaskier says. He lifts his right hand and wiggles his fingers. "All better and Triss-approved." He cocks a brow at Eskel. "Is this a social call?"

 

Eskel's lips twitch, the scarred side twisting slightly. "Only slightly," he says. He sits down on the hearth, not commenting on Jaskier sitting on the floor instead of a chair like a normal person. He nods towards Jaskier's lute. "How's the playing coming along?"

 

Jaskier shrugs. "Decent," he says. "I can play well enough now that my arm can take it. The problem's with the writing, unfortunately."

 

Eskel hums a very Geralt-like hum, which definitely does not make Jaskier's heart clench in his chest. "Think you'll be up to your after-dinner performances anytime soon?"

 

He asks it casually, but there's a hopeful tinge to his voice that Jaskier catches. He grins. "Why, Eskel," he says. "Do you and your army miss me?"

 

"Not my army, and miss is a strong word," Eskel says, but his eyes crinkle at the corners. "But I wouldn't say no one's commented on the lack of music. Even Witchers can get used to having songs with their supper."

 

Jaskier laughs. "Well, I couldn't deprive our noble warriors of their entertainment," he says, punctuating that with a few jaunty notes. "I haven't written you a song yet, have I?"

 

Eskel looks mildly alarmed. "No," he says warily. "But you shouldn't, ah, feel obligated."

 

"Mm," Jaskier says. He hums, then runs his fingers through a quick progression, dipping subtonic at the last interval, then repeats it, adding a couplet that makes Eskel's cheeks flame.

 

"When did you even see that scar?" he sputters.

 

"There are no secrets in communal baths, darling," Jaskier says, and shrieks with laughter as Eskel makes a lunge for his lute. 

 

He makes a triumphant returning performance two days later, flushing with delight at the roar of approving applause that greets him as he steps out in front of the head table, slinging his lute across his chest. He plays through the brightest, most invigorating songs in his Witcher cycle, adding a few new verses here and there and adding extra repetitions in the refrains to the more popular ones. It's become his custom to walk while he plays, looping through the tables and occasionally improvising verses about whichever School he's passing, and when he glances back up to the head table he sees Ciri smiling for what feels like the first time in more than a week, her cheeks flushed with happiness and her voice lifted in song, an octave higher than anyone else in the room.

 

When he finishes his set, he sweeps a bow to the room at large, and then, out of habit, to Geralt. He's sweaty and out of breath from a longer performance than he's had in weeks, but he's happy, feeling stronger than he has in recent memory, thrumming with the energy of his audience and the lingering vibrations of the lute against his chest.

 

He meets Geralt's eyes, and the joy fades. Geralt was smiling while he sang--Jaskier may have only seen it out of the corner of his eye, but he did see it--but when their eyes lock, Geralt's expression goes blank. He does incline his head, though in approval or just acknowledgment Jaskier doesn't know, but Jaskier may as well be looking at stone.

 

"Play Witchers Marching again!" someone shouts, breaking the moment before it can stretch into uncomfortable silence.

 

Jaskier sets his jaw, forces a smile back onto his face, and leads the hall in an encore.

 

If he adds extra verses just to make Geralt listen to him even longer, well. No one's ever said he wasn't petty.

 

 

No one has ever said he misses an opportunity to bitch, though, either.

 

"He is being," Jaskier announces, gesturing with his wine goblet, "an absolute ass."

 

Yennefer makes a face, waving a hand to banish the droplets of wine that sloshed out of his cup and threaten to stain the divan in her sitting room. "So you've said," she says dryly. "Jaskier, if you're going to swing that wine around instead of drinking it, I'll replace it with a cheaper vintage; you're wasting a good Toussaint red."

 

Jaskier sticks his tongue out at her, because he knows she still feels too guilty over the whole Fringilla thing to curse him for it, and flops back on the divan to put his head in Triss's lap. "I just don't understand it," he says. If it comes out a bit petulant, he'll blame the three glasses of wine he's had before this one. "It would be one thing if I was angry at him, or if I thought he was angry at me, but it's like he's just shutting me out."

 

"Maybe it's not as deep as you think it is," Yennefer drawls. He picks his head up to frown at her, cocking his head in confusion. "Maybe the sex was just bad and he doesn't know how to tell you."

 

Jaskier sits back up with a squawk of genuine outrage. "You take that back, you absolute shrew!" Triss bursts into giggles, and Yennefer's lip curls. Jaskier huffs. "For your information, the sex was excellent."

 

"We saw," Yennefer says, and then winces. Jaskier snorts.

 

"It's fine," he says. "I think we're beyond modesty at this point."

 

Triss makes a small, slightly hurt sound, and he takes her hand and squeezes it. She, unlike Yennefer, is a goddamn delight, and he doesn't want her to be sad. He refills her wine again in apology, and she gives him a soft smile. "I really don't think it's about you," she says kindly, as he settles back into the couch, upright this time. "If he's being stubborn, it's almost certainly just…" She wrinkles her nose. "Geralt being Geralt."

 

Jaskier is almost entirely sure that Triss hasn't also slept with Geralt, but he wouldn't bet his lute on it. At least she's delicate about it, if she has. "Maybe," he says morosely, reaching for the wine bottle again. "I don't know. Sometimes…" He looks down into the goblet, at the deep red of the wine, and tries not to think about how much it resembles blood spilled in moonlight. "Sometimes it seems like he's looking at me, but he doesn't see me. It's like he's looking at a ghost."

 

Triss stills with her goblet halfway to her lips. Her eyes snap to Yennefer's, and Yennefer presses her lips together.

 

"I saw that," Jaskier says, narrowing his eyes at her. "What? What is it?"

 

The two sorceresses exchange another look, this one longer and almost troubled, and then Yennefer sighs. She puts her wine down. "What do you know about the Black Sun princesses?"

 

Jaskier blinks, thrown by the change in subject. "That's a fairytale."

 

"If only," Triss murmurs. "It would have saved quite a lot of death and heartbreak if it was."

 

Yennefer nods in grim agreement. "There were sixty girls born under the Black Sun eclipse," she says. "You know the story?"

 

"Yes," he says warily. "A mage had a vision that an eclipse would be the omen of the end of civilization, brought about by the girls born under the Black Sun." He shakes his head. "I thought that was all just made up, part of the stories that all those knights and princes used to go off in search of maidens in towers. Some of the ballads were lovely."

 

"If they were, they're the only good things to come of it," Yennefer says. "The girls were hunted down. Tortured, imprisoned, experimented on, killed." Her lips thin. "Men can be cruel, even when they're not acting under fanaticism. When they are…"

 

"I'm familiar," Jaskier says, tightening his grip on his goblet. Triss takes his other hand and laces their fingers together, and he squeezes in a way he hopes is reassuring.

 

"Some of them escaped," Yennefer says. "Though not unscathed. Most of the ones that did--Stregobor and his ilk would say it was the Curse coming to fruition, but any woman would tell you that a girl can only be pushed so far before she turns herself into a weapon rather than be hurt again."

 

Jaskier nods slowly. He's known his share of girls like that. Has fallen half in love with most of them, not that it's ever done him any good, though he likes to think that a few might still remember him fondly. "What does this have to do with anything?"

 

"Geralt met one of them," Triss says quietly. "Her name was Renfri. She was a princess of Creyden, once."

 

"Once," Jaskier echoes.

 

"Once," Yennefer says. She pauses, and then summons another bottle of wine. She pours a generous round, takes a long drink, and says, "Geralt met her in a town called Blaviken."

 

Jaskier startles. "Blaviken?"

 

Yennefer's lips twitch, but there's no amusement in her eyes. "You know it?"

 

"Only by rumor." Jaskier frowns. "There was...there was some kind of massacre, wasn't there? The story was mostly out of circulation by the time I heard it at Oxenfurt, but I remember hearing that there was a…"

 

Memory dawns, followed, almost immediately, by horror. "That there was a Witcher," he says hoarsely, meeting Yennefer's eyes, his heart sinking at the sorrow there. "That he butchered half the town."

 

"The Butcher of Blaviken," Triss murmurs.

 

Jaskier feels sick. "That was Geralt?"

 

"It's not the whole story," Yennefer says, almost protective.

 

"Obviously," he retorts, because there's no universe in which Geralt, however gruff his exterior, would slaughter a village in cold blood. "But…I don't understand. How could that have happened?"

 

Yennefer shakes her head. "Even I don't know all the details. What little I do know I got from Geralt, though it was like pulling teeth. As far as I'm aware the only person who knows all of it is Eskel, and only because there was a great deal of liquor involved." She takes a swig of wine, graceless as she almost never is, and grimaces. "What matters is that Renfri and Geralt crossed swords, and only Geralt walked away. He still carries the weight of that."

 

Jaskier's heart aches in his chest. "He loved her," he says. Yennefer doesn't answer, which for her is answer enough. "Fuck."

 

"Fuck," Yennefer agrees. Triss says nothing, but puts an arm around his shoulders, her fingers cool and soothing at the back of his neck.

 

"Well." Jaskier blinks around his stinging eyes. "I think I'm going to need more wine."

 

 

Jaskier wonders from time to time what the people who cower in fear of the Witchers of Kaer Morhen would say if they knew just how much time Eskel Amber-Eyed, the White Wolf's right hand, spends buried in parchment in the small room off the full council chamber that he uses as an office. There had been, Jaskier knows, something of a steep learning curve in converting Kaer Morhen from a school housing fifty active Witchers and a handful of trainees and teachers to a base of operations for an army and governing center of an empire, and no small amount of the success came from Eskel's whip-sharp mind and ability to pull order out of chaos. Geralt is a force of nature, Vesemir a guiding body of wisdom, the other School leaders bring their own resources, and the mages fountains of knowledge about the Continent and its nations, but it's Eskel who keeps the whole thing from falling apart.

 

It's no wonder the man barely sleeps. If Jaskier were in his position he doesn't think he'd be nearly as friendly a person.

 

Still, even Eskel needs a break sometimes. Jaskier justifies that to himself as he heads to Eskel's office, a bottle of wine in one hand and two cups in the other.

 

He's definitely not about to do a mild interrogation in the hopes of getting to the bottom of why the fuck Geralt is being such a dick to him. That would be wrong. He would never do such a thing.

 

"It's open," Eskel calls when Jaskier knocks, and he nudges the door open with his hip. Eskel doesn't look surprised to see him, but then, he probably heard him coming two hallways away. "Jaskier," he greets, as Jaskier hip-checks the door closed and crosses the room to the pile of organized chaos that Eskel calls a desk. "You need something?"

 

"I was hoping for a mutual benefit, actually," Jaskier says, putting the cups down on the least-precarious stack of parchment and tugging the cork out of the bottle with his teeth. "Got a bit of time?"

 

"For you? Sure." His tone is teasing, but Eskel almost looks relieved at the excuse to push away whatever document he's reading. Vaguely, Jaskier wonders if Witchers ever get eye strain. He can't exactly picture Vesemir in spectacles. "What can I do for you?"

 

Jaskier pours the wine, hands Eskel a cup, and sits down in the chair across from the desk. He taps his fingers against the earthenware mug, takes a fortifying sip, and says, "Remember after that whole unpleasantness in the dungeons, when you said you owed me a favor?"

 

Eskel pauses with his cup halfway to his lips. He lowers it, looking at Jaskier warily. "Yes," he says slowly.

 

"Good," Jaskier says. "I'm cashing that in."

 

Eskel puts his cup down. "That bad, huh?"

 

Jaskier musters a smile. "I'm going to ask you some very invasive questions that I've already been told you won't want to answer," he says. "So, yes." He nods at the wine. "You'll probably want to drink that."

 

"I'm a Witcher, Jaskier," Eskel says dryly. "I'm sure I can handle it without the help."

 

Melitele save him from Witcher cockiness, Jaskier thinks. "Suit yourself." He drains his own cup, because he's not going to be a martyr about this, and refills it. "Tell me about Geralt and Renfri."

 

Eskel goes still. Slowly, he lowers his cup back down, then sets it on the desk between them with an earthenware click. “Who told you about Renfri?”

 

“Yennefer,” Jaskier says, because there’s really no point in lying.

 

Eskel looks at him, blank-faced, his lips pressed flat save for the edge where the scar makes them curl. After a long moment, he gets to his feet, crossing the room to one of the overflowing bookshelves. He shoves aside parchment scrolls and pulls a bottle out from behind them, then digs around again and comes up with a cordial-sized cup. Jaskier raises an eyebrow.

 

“Are we not drinking the wine?”

 

“You’re drinking the wine,” Eskel says. He eyes the cup, then puts it back on the shelf, uncorks the bottle with his teeth and spits the cork into his hand, then takes a sip. "I'm drinking this, because this conversation is going to be a shitshow." He takes another sip and grimaces, wiping his mouth and returning to his seat.

 

Jaskier watches him curiously. "What is it?"

 

"White Gull. Witcher liquor." Eskel's lips twitch. "And don't ask to try any. It'll melt your liver."

 

"I've had enough of that, thanks," Jaskier says. He pulls the wine bottle closer, since if Eskel's not having any, Jaskier might as well save himself the trouble of reaching. Then he waits, watching Eskel take another drink and then sigh, rubbing a hand over his face. His fingers linger, briefly, on the ridges of his scar.

 

"Alright," Eskel says, after a long moment. "Renfri and Geralt. And Blaviken." He exhales hard, sitting back in his chair. "Yen told you the basics?"

 

"As much as she knew," Jaskier says, then amends, "or at least, as much as she was willing to share."

 

Eskel snorts. "Yeah, that's Yen." He gives the bottle of White Gull a considering look, then seems to think better of another drink. "I'll tell you what I know," he says. "Mind, most of it's third-hand--Geralt only knew so much about her himself. But her story...well. He knew I'd heard it before."

 

Jaskier frowns. "You'd heard of her?"

 

"No. But I knew…" He takes another swig from the bottle. "You know that Ciri's Geralt's Child of Surprise?" Jaskier nods, and Eskel's lips twitch in a smile that doesn't reach his eyes. "I had one, too. Claimed the Law without thinking, like a fool, and didn't stay to find out what I was owed."

 

There's grief in his voice, old regret. Jaskier holds his cup of wine and waits. Even he knows when to be quiet. "Her name was Deidre. She was born under the same eclipse as Renfri. She…" He goes silent again, his eyes distant. Hesitantly, Jaskier reaches across the table and curls his fingers over Eskel's. Eskel seems to bring himself back from some deep memory, drawing in a deep breath. "Don't know what might have happened to her, if I'd claimed her as I should have. By the time we met, she wasn't…"

 

"Eskel," Jaskier says, heart sinking.

 

"It was my own fault," Eskel says, smiling without humor. "Shouldn't have run. I deserved what I got, in the end."

 

His fingers brush over the scar again. A lump rises in Jaskier's throat. "Eskel," he says again. "Of course you didn't deserve--"

 

Eskel squeezes his hand. "I really did," he says. "But it taught me a lesson I wouldn't have learned otherwise." He lets Jaskier go and picks up the White Gull again, taking a long sip. "Point is, I knew what Geralt meant, what he was up against. Those Black Sun girls--it wasn't their fault, what happened to them. Those that were found, what those mages tried to do to them…" His lips twist. "Even a Witcher will go half-feral, if you provoke us enough, and we're trained in meditation as soon as we're old enough to sit still. Human girls, with no one in their corner?" He shakes his head. "They didn't stand a chance."

 

Jaskier feels more than a little sick. He drains his wine and refills his cup. "Okay," he says. "So Geralt runs into this wronged, feral princess, and he...what? Falls for her? That doesn't seem like him."

 

"Doesn't it?" Now a spark of humor does flicker into Eskel's warm amber eyes. "Beautiful and fierce and resilient and brave? Sounds exactly like Geralt's type to me."

 

He's teasing, though not unkindly. Jaskier flushes all the same, ducking his head. "Can't be that much his type," he mutters, petulant in spite of himself. "He seems to be pretending I don't exist."

 

Eskel's smile dims. "Well. That's to do with what happened next."

 

Jaskier sobers as well. "Yennefer said they fought, and she died."

 

"Yes." Eskel picks up the bottle of White Gull, looks at it thoughtfully, then puts it back down. "There was a mage who had hurt her, and Renfri wanted him dead. She threatened to cut her way through the town until he came to meet her. Geralt didn't care about the mage, but he wasn't going to let her slaughter the whole town." He scrubs a hand over his face. "Problem was the rest of the town didn't know she was threatening them. All they saw was a Witcher, cutting down twenty men and a woman in the middle of the street."

 

"Gods," Jaskier says. Eskel snorts.

 

"Understatement, bard."

 

"So the name," Jaskier says. "The Butcher of Blaviken."

 

Eskel winces. "That followed him for years," he admits. "No one was ever happy to see a Witcher, back in those days, but things were worse than usual for...a long time. Most people don't make the connection, between Geralt of Rivia, the White Wolf, and Geralt of Rivia, the Butcher of Blaviken."

 

Jaskier forces a smile. "Too bad," he jokes, though his heart's not in it. "Might have made conquering Kaedwen a bit easier, if people already knew to surrender on sight." Eskel gives another mostly-humorless snort, and Jaskier sips his wine. It's the good stuff, purloined from Yennefer's personal stash, but even still, he can barely taste it.

 

They sit together in silence for a few minutes, the weight of Eskel's words heavy on both of them. Jaskier feels cold, even with the fire that crackles brightly in the hearth.

 

He breaks the silence. "I want to write a song about them."

 

Eskel looks up at him sharply, his eyes narrowing. "Jaskier," he says, a warning note in his voice.

 

"She deserves better than to be a footnote in a story that painted Geralt a murderer," Jaskier snaps, and then winces. It's not Eskel's fault, after all, and he owes him for telling Jaskier anything at all. He takes a deep breath, steadies himself, and tries again.

 

"I love him," he says, and oh, the words feel strange in his mouth when said aloud, no matter how many times he's thought them, alone in the dark. He hasn't told anyone else. Yennefer knows, he's sure, and Triss, and Ciri probably suspects because she's more perceptive than her years, but he hasn't said it. He swallows, and this time, when he repeats himself, the words are sweet on his tongue. "I love him. I wouldn't write anything that would hurt him."

 

If Eskel's surprised by the declaration, he doesn't show it. His eyes are gentle as he picks up the wine and the cup he abandoned earlier, pouring himself a cup. "I don't think you're going to hurt him," he says. "I think that he's afraid he's going to hurt you."

 

Jaskier shakes his head. "He wouldn't."

 

Eskel laughs, a short, sad sound. "Jaskier," he says. "He's afraid because he already has."

 

 

A week later, Jaskier corners Geralt in the hot springs.

 

He would like it on record, if anyone is taking note of such things, that it was hardly his first choice. But Geralt, as if sensing that Jaskier has started to run out of new material for his songs--which he is, since the ballad he's working on about Blaviken is being a bitch and a half to write--has gone from casually avoiding Jaskier by pretending he can't see or hear him anytime they're in the same room to actively avoiding Jaskier by literally leaving anytime they're in the same room, including when that room is Geralt's own office. The only exception is the main hall, because even Geralt can't leave in the middle of supper every night without causing a scene, and Jaskier is hardly going to eat in his rooms just to indulge Geralt's tantrum of misplaced guilt.

 

He draws the line, though, when he slips down to the hot springs for a late-night soak--who could blame him for reveling in no longer being cooped up in his rooms at night?--and, instead of finding them predictably empty at this hour, sees Geralt shoulder-deep in one of the Witcher-hot pools, his white hair a beacon in the dim caverns. Geralt sees him at the same time, and he gives a full-body flinch, his eyes going wide as he starts to rise to his feet.

 

"Oh, absolutely not," Jaskier snaps, and stomps across the cavern to stand beside the pool, effectively pinning Geralt under his gaze. Geralt might be the White Wolf of the North, but Jaskier has taught first-year music students at Oxenfurt, and he'd rather wrangle a keep full of Witchers than a classroom of noble fourteen-year-olds away from home any day of the week. "If you put one toe out of that tub, Geralt, I will climb in there with you and you'll have to just listen while I boil myself into bard soup. Then you'll actually have something reasonable to feel guilty about."

 

Geralt has the decency to wince at that, but he still looks poised to bolt for the exit. "Jaskier," he begins, putting a hand on the edge of the pool.

 

Jaskier jumps in feet-first, still in his robe. The water is hot, far past the point of discomfort and edging into painful, but Jaskier only has half an instant to register it before an arm like an iron bar is wrapping around his waist and yanking him bodily back out, the usually warm, steamy air practically cool on his overheated skin.

 

Seconds later, he's plunged into one of the human-safe pools. He comes up sputtering, spitting lukewarm water out of his mouth, finds himself face-to-face with a furious Geralt, and thinks, good.

 

"What the fuck," Geralt says, waist-deep in the water, clearly trying to regulate his tone, and only mostly succeeding, "were you thinking?"

 

Jaskier tosses his head to get his hair out of his face. It slaps wetly against his forehead, which is unfortunate; he has to work hard enough to get it to have any volume when it's dry, head-to-toe soaked is not his best look. "I was thinking," he retorts, "that you've been avoiding me for weeks. I understand that we were put into a spectacularly shitty situation and that you needed some time to have some emotions about it, but Eskel and Yen both said you're being weird because you feel guilty, and this is just getting ridiculous. I'm not upset with you. No one's upset with you. Why are you torturing yourself like this?"

 

Geralt scowls. "I'm not--" Jaskier stomps his foot, which is an absolutely useless thing to do in the bath, but it gets his point across. The furrow in Geralt's brow gets, if possible, even deeper, and his lips thin as he presses them together. He lets out a sharp breath through his nose and says, "I could have killed you."

 

"Pssh," Jaskier says, crossing his arms over his chest. His robe is sopping, but he can read the room well enough to know that Geralt won't take kindly to him stripping it off, even if he does think another good fuck would probably do wonders to smooth this whole mess over. "Maybe. But you didn't. And besides, I could have killed you!"

 

Geralt gives him a look that suggests he finds that to be immensely unlikely. Jaskier decides to let that go.

 

"Look," he says, gentling his tone. It's a bit odd to talk to the White Wolf the way he would a skittish horse, but, well, needs must. "I understand if we can't get back to...to where we were. But I'd like for us to be friends again. At least friendly."

 

Geralt hesitates. Jaskier goes for the jugular. "Ciri told me she hates that we're not talking."

 

And bullseye. Geralt visibly cringes, then sighs. "Fine."

 

Jaskier smacks his arm. It's more tactile than he'd have dared to be before, but Geralt's being so skittish around him, so clearly convinced that Jaskier's afraid of him now, that he apparently needs to hammer the fact that he's not directly into the man's skull. "You don't have to look so miserable about it," he says, and then gives an exaggerated leer. "I seem to recall you rather enjoying my company."

 

Geralt turns his gaze briefly towards the ceiling, as if Melitele Herself might descend to give him patience. "I'm going back to my bath," he says.

 

"You do that," Jaskier says, and then shimmies his way out of his own robe, letting the sodden fabric pool around him in the warm water. Geralt's eyes darken for an instant before he hauls himself out of the pool and stalks away back towards the hotter end of the cavern.

 

Jaskier shamelessly watches his backside as he leaves. After all, it's been a long day. He deserves a treat.

 

 

True to his word, Geralt eases back on the overt weirdness and seems to return to his baseline of relatively normal, subtle weirdness. He lets Jaskier pester him for story details and run song lyrics by him and even offers the occasional bit of commentary, if changing the pitch and intonation of his grunts counts as commentary.

 

He doesn't touch Jaskier, not ever. The closest he comes is catching Jaskier's collar when Jaskier nearly falls down a flight of stairs because he's talking with his hands and not looking where he's going, and even then he lets go like he's been burned the instant Jaskier is back on his feet. In return, Jaskier, half out of genuine affection and half out of spite, touches Geralt more than he ever has. He brushes imaginary lint off Geralt's armor and leans over his shoulder when he's showing Geralt lyric drafts and smacks at Geralt's arms or shoulders when he's trying to get his attention--anything to make it abundantly clear that he's not afraid of the White Wolf, no matter how much Geralt thinks he should be.

 

(Playing Red and the Huntsman at supper, a catchy little folk tune about a maiden who befriends a wolf in the woods, who saves her from a lecherous hunter and sees her safely to her grandmother's cottage, might be a little on the nose, but Jaskier has never really gone in for subtle, and he's not about to start now.)

 

If Geralt gave the slightest hint that he didn't want to be touched, Jaskier would leave him be in a heartbeat--well, not leave him be, but certainly keep his hands to himself--but despite his own reticence to touching Jaskier, he never flinches away. If anything, he leans into Jaskier's touches, his breath nearly catching whenever Jaskier's fingers brush his skin instead of the leather of his armor. Jaskier still catches him looking at him sometimes, as well, those golden eyes hot and intent when he thinks Jaskier isn't paying attention, and Jaskier will carry the heat of that gaze all the way up to his bedchamber and between his sheets. He's sure that Geralt can smell the wanting on him, can tell from the way Jaskier's pulse jumps and his blood worms under his skin that Geralt could have him back in his bed with little more than a crook of a finger.

 

But Geralt doesn't ask, and Jaskier, who has no interest in setting himself up for rejection, doesn't ask either. He writes more songs, and sings them, and never once fails to look Geralt in the eye when he bows at the end of his sets.

 

People are talking about it, Jaskier is sure. Witchers, for all their imposing glaring, are gossips of the worst sort. Geralt had probably been right when he said that half the keep knew they were about to fuck before Geralt had even gotten Jaskier into his bed, and he can't imagine that no one has realized that they are decidedly now not fucking. He gets his fair share of sidelong looks any time he touches Geralt and Geralt doesn't flinch back, and he's willing to bet that there has been money exchanged at some point.

 

There's probably still an ongoing betting pool, honestly. Winter in the Blue Mountains doesn't lend itself to much by way of entertainment, so Jaskier supposes they have to get it where they can.

 

(That said, if he finds out that Yennefer has her hands in the pot, they are going to have words.)

 

But Jaskier plays and smiles and flirts, and Geralt treats him with impersonal courtesy and watches him when he thinks Jaskier isn't paying attention, and Ciri rolls her eyes at them and Yennefer keeps him well-supplied with wine for his frustrated ranting. And Jaskier writes more songs, and watches the snows fall over Kaer Morhen, and tries not to notice the passing of time.

But time passes, all the same.

 

Spring comes slowly to Kaer Morhen, high in the mountains as it is. The days grow longer, the nights shorter, and while it's still bitterly cold even at high noon, Jaskier finds that he can bear to be outside for longer than a few minutes at a time. He takes Ciri on walks along the battlements, watching the Witchers train--Ciri herself has been training indoors since the first snows began to fall, Geralt unwilling to risk his heir getting frostbite, though she'd complained about falling behind her few friends among the Witcher trainees--and along the grounds, trodding through the slushing snow to visit the stables and feed the goats.

 

(Mistress Anya probably despairs of the state of their boots and the hems of Ciri's clothing, but she's as wrapped around Ciri's finger as any of them, so that's all right.)

 

When the snows start to melt, the first Witchers begin to brave the Trail, clearing the worst of the snow and ice to make it passable again for horses and wagons. Maja saw to it that the keep was well-stocked before the pass was closed, but by the spring equinox, Jaskier's starting to feel like he would commit a murder if it would get him fresh lettuce. Not that greens will be in season for a few more months anyway, but still. He misses crunch.

 

As the days get longer and warmer, though, Ciri's mood starts to darken. She's been back training outdoors, which Jaskier had thought would have her bright-eyed and cheerful again, but she's moody and sharp-tongued during their lessons, snappish when he gently pushes her through her lessons and sullen when he tries to coax her to talk about whatever's bothering her. Jaskier, who has never been a particularly patient person to begin with (though at least he's self-aware, which is more than he can say for any of his instructors), finds himself feeling like he's teaching a decidedly cranky wall.

 

"I may drown her," he tells Yennefer over a bottle of wine one night. "Is she acting like this miserably with you?"

 

"Not particularly," Yennefer says. Without a trace of sympathy, the utter shrew.

 

"She is a thirteen-year-old girl," Triss notes, because she's a delight and they don't deserve her. "They are prone to fits of drama."

 

Jaskier makes a face. "As someone prone to fits of drama myself, I resent that," he says. "And this has been going on for weeks now." He gives Yennefer a pleading look. "Has she talked to you at all?"

 

Yennefer shakes her head. "No," she says. "I think this is just a you thing, little bard."

 

"Ugh." He knocks his head against the back of his chair a few times. "Maybe she's taking cues from Geralt," he sighs. "They are connected by Destiny, after all. For all I know, that extends to broodiness."

 

"If that makes you feel better," Triss says, patting his arm.

 

It doesn't.

 

He puts up with Ciri's moping for another week or so, just to give her the chance to snap herself out of it in her own time. When she doodles a very unflattering picture of him on the arithmetic she's meant to be solving, though, he gives up.

 

"Cirilla," he says, sharper than he's ever been with her, and the surprise of it is enough to make her look up, green eyes wide and shocked. "What has gotten into you?"

 

Ciri scowls at him. "Why do you care?"

 

Gods help him. This is why he never had children. "Why would I not?" he says. She just glares, and he sighs. "Ciri, love. I can't help you if you don't tell me what's going on."

 

Her lower lip quivers. She shoves her parchments away and hunches over, hugging herself and looking resolutely down at the table. Jaskier waits, trying to channel some of Triss's eternal calm. Finally, Ciri sniffles and looks up at him with tears in her eyes. "You're leaving."

 

Jaskier's heart cracks in two. "Oh, sweetheart," he says, a lump coming to his own throat. He moves his chair closer to hers and puts an arm around her, and she melts against him, clinging to his doublet, all sullenness forgotten. "Darling, you knew I was only here for a year."

 

"I thought you'd change your mind," she says, her voice muffled into his shoulder. She sniffs, loud and miserable, and picks up her head. Her face is tear-streaked, her nose already red. "Especially when you and Geralt were--" She flushes, and wipes at her eyes. "But now he's being awful to you and you're barely speaking to each other even though he loves you and--"

 

"He what?" Jaskier says, a bit higher than he intends. "Ciri, no he doesn't."

 

She gives him a look that's so like Yennefer he nearly laughs. "Yes, he does," she says, slowly, as if speaking to a very small child. Possibly one that doesn't speak her language. "Jaskier, of course he does. He doesn't look at anyone like he looks at you. Not even Yennefer." She hesitates. "He looks at you like my grandmother used to look at Eist, when she thought no one was watching."

 

Jaskier opens his mouth, and then closes it. Calanthe and Eist, for all Calanthe's bloodlust and Eist's irreverent humor, had a love story for the ages, the kind that inspires all sorts of ballads--and Jaskier should know, having written three of them himself. He knows he's in love with Geralt, has been able to admit that to himself for months now, but the idea that Geralt might feel the same…

 

But Ciri has her grandmother's keen eyes and keener wit. If she says she sees even a shadow of that kind of love in the way Geralt looks at him…

 

No. The weeks are winding down on his time here, his year of sanctuary coming to an end, and Jaskier has had more than enough heartbreak. He's a bard, and sorrow is good for songwriting, but even he has enough self-preservation to know when he's just setting himself up to be hurt.

 

As if reading his silence, Ciri sighs, quiet and sad. "Will you come back to visit, at least?" she asks, so hopeful his heart nearly breaks all over again.

 

"Feral Witchers couldn't keep me away," he promises, and she buries a wet, tearful laugh in his shoulder.

 

...

 

By and large, the Witchers of Kaer Morhen don't particularly observe the seasonal festivals as anything other than ways of marking time. From what Jaskier has picked up here and there, that's changed slightly since the Witchers united under the White Wolf's banner, less out of any newfound religion and more out of deference to the humans who now live in the keep, servants and warriors alike.

 

Samhain had gone mostly unmarked this year, for obvious reasons, and Imbolc had been greeted with extra feasting as if in apology, the bonfires roaring long into the night and Kaer Morhen's halls shining with candlelight. As spring begins to bloom, even in the mountains, talk turns to Beltane. Jaskier is asked for more stories and ballads about the fae folk and nature spirits and the dryads of Brokilon Forest when he plays in the evenings, and half the keep seems to be flirting in one way or another, from the servants' children and pages and trainees exchanging flowers to a few more lurid affairs.

 

Jaskier marks the approach of Beltane with his own mixed feelings, even as he teaches Ciri to weave newly sprouted dandelions into crowns and garlands. He's still not sure of the exact date, but it was near a fortnight before Beltane that he was captured last year, which means that the festival is as good a date to mark the end of his year in Kaer Morhen. His song cycle isn't perfect, but he has all the material, and the few songs that haven't been written yet are at least sketched out well enough that he can finish them up without needing to go back to his sources for more information--which is good, since it would be quite the hike just to double-check his facts.

 

"You could stay, you know," Ciri says a week before Beltane. They're sitting with Yennefer and Triss, weaving garlands to hang on the posts of the summer pastures, where the sheep and goats will be moved after the festival. The pastures are all well-warded against even the bravest wyverns, but it's tradition to hang them, and for all Jaskier knows, maybe the garlands do have a bit of Aretuza magic woven in to help. "It's not like Geralt would throw you out."

 

"It has been nice having a bard," Triss says, a bit wistfully, plucking another stem from the pile of flowers between them. "I'd forgotten how much I enjoy having music with supper."

 

"You may portal me back for a private concert whenever you wish, my lady," Jaskier says, rising to his feet just to sweep her a courtly bow, and she laughs. He takes his seat again. "And I'm sure he wouldn't toss me down the Trail, but I don't really want to overstay my welcome." He picks up the garland he's been working on, finding his place in the plait again. "Besides, if I wanted a permanent position as a court bard, I could have had one years ago. I like travelling, and meeting different people, and hearing the newest stories and songs."

 

He gives Ciri an apologetic look, knowing his smile is crooked. "As much as I love you all dearly, I'd get a bit stir-crazy before long. All my charming personality goes a bit out the window when I feel I've been cooped up too long."

 

"I'm aware," Triss says dryly, which is probably true, given how much time she's spent having to keep him in a sickbed he doesn't want to be in.

 

Ciri still looks sad, but she's gotten over her sullen moodiness since their talk in her room a few weeks before. "But you will visit?"

 

"I will," he promises. "Before next winter, if you think your father will allow it."

 

She gives him a fierce look, as if baring fangs. A proper wolf cub. "I'll make sure," she says, and Jaskier laughs, leaning down to kiss the top of her head.

 

The evening of Beltane is clear and starry, crisp as the first apples of the harvest. Supper is late, as they light the bonfires and indulge in a proper hour of dancing before they move inside for the feast. Jaskier drinks a bit more wine than is probably wise, given that he still plans to sing and has quite a long walk tomorrow to get down the Trail, but by the time he catches Geralt's eye and receives a small, permissive nod--don't think about how he'll barely look at you, Jaskier tells himself firmly, just don't--he's well and truly tipsy. Flushed and smiling through the tears threatening at his eyes, he swings his lute around to his front and strides out into the center of the hall, beaming at the roaring cheer that greets him.

 

Striking a chord, he leads the hall in song. The Witchers know most of the White Wolf cycle by now, but it's no less flattering when they roar along with him through some of the more uptempo songs and fall into hushed silence through the softer ones. He finishes with the song he composed about Nilfgaard's attempted attack on Kaer Morhen, calling out a number of Witchers by name, and when he finishes, the applause is loud enough that he does cry, laughing through the tears.

 

"Thank you," he says, when the noise has died enough for him to speak without shouting. "My friends, thank you. No bard could hope for a better audience, and no man could ask for more honorable companions. It has been--" His voice catches, and he swallows hard, flexing his fingers against the strings of his lute to steady himself. "It has been my honor and my privilege to live among you this year, to hear your stories and tell them. It will be the great joy of my life to spread the songs of your valor through the Continent."

 

More cheers, and a few whistles. Someone shouts an innuendo about valor, and then is clearly elbowed or kicked by several compatriots, if the resulting thumps and yelps are any indication. Jaskier laughs. Someone else shouts for an encore, even though Jaskier has already done three, but the answering cheers make him flush and set his fingers back to the strings, playing a quick, energetic scale. "Alright, alright," he says, laughing. "One more. Let's see."

 

He knows what song he'd like to play. The ballad he wrote for Geralt and Renfri has taken him longer than any other song he's ever written--the story, so corrupted by hate and mistelling, is so precious, so delicate at its core that Jaskier has worked and reworked it again and again, careful and tender like he's midwifing a birth, not writing a song. He's proud of it, though proud feels like the wrong word. He's yet to play it for anyone but Yen, who had listened with her eyes closed and her hands clasped in her lap, and when he'd finished she'd said nothing, only kissed  his forehead with tears in her eyes.

 

It's as close to approval as he thinks he'll get.

 

Taking a breath, he turns to face the high table, Geralt at its center. He catches Geralt's eyes. "A final debut," he says. Quiet, but he knows Geralt can hear him. "With your permission, my lord."

 

Geralt holds his gaze, the slightest furrow in his brow, and then inclines his head. Permission.

 

Jaskier returns the gesture, and then turns back to the hall. He closes his eyes, just for a moment, savoring the expectant silence, as if the room is holding its breath, waiting just for him.

 

The Wolf and the Shrike begins, not with a chord, but with a delicate series of notes, played high and light, like the fluttering of a songbird's wings. It's joined, then, by a deeper melody, the White Wolf theme that runs through the entire song cycle.

 

He was careful, writing this song. It's wrapped in metaphor, a songbird who loses her voice and, in her anguish and rage, becomes a vicious hunter, merciless in her butchering. And then she meets a wolf, a silent predator, who sees her not as prey but as a kindred spirit, as broken and violent and lonely as he is himself. They circle one another, hunters both, but there is a connection between them, and as night falls, the shrike settles against the wolf's side, and in their dreams the shrike can sing once more, and the lone wolf runs again with a pack, the shrike flying at his side.

 

And then he shifts, the melody turning haunting and ominous, danger looming. He introduces a crow, who has hunted the shrike since her first flight from her nest, who stole her voice and twisted her to violence. The crow plants lies, twisting the shrike's story and pitting the wolf against her, stealing the choices from them both, his teeth against her talons. Jaskier sings the battle, pours the pain and frustration and reluctance into the chords, fingers moving higher and higher on the neck as the fight spirals as high as the songbird can fly, and then--

 

He plays a sharp chord, discordant against the mounting tension, an absence of resolution. For a beat, he lets the silence hang.

 

There is not a breath of sound in the hall.

 

Slowly, gently, Jaskier resumes the song. The shrike's theme along the frets, mixed now with the wolf's motif. The wolf prowls, alone once more, but there is a ghost of a shrike who flies beside him now, and her voice, sweet but haunting, whispers to him each time he bares his teeth. A reminder, that not all butchers are monsters, that sometimes the monsters carry shiny trinkets and sweet words. She holds the wolf's ear, and in his dreams she is flying, singing, and he runs beside her freely with the wind in his coat.

 

It's not a heroic ballad, not a battle cry. It's a love song, unmistakable and sad and true.

 

After so many months spent agonizing over every note, every word, finally singing the song feels like an exhalation. Tears come to his eyes and Jaskier lets them spill as he sings, and it's a release, to let the words flow out. Through blurry vision, he sees that his aren't the only tears in the room--a number of the humans in the room are openly weeping, and even a few of the Witchers look a bit glassy-eyed, something Jaskier wasn't even sure was possible.

 

And Geralt…

 

Geralt, when Jaskier risks a glance, is staring, his eyes wide with something that looks very much like shock. He's not angry, not ready to charge forward to ask Jaskier how he could dare to write such a song--no, he looks stunned, lips parted and his gaze locked on Jaskier. Ciri has her head on his shoulder, her arm looped through his, but Geralt seems barely to notice her.

 

For a heartbeat, it feels as if they're the only two souls in the room.

 

But Jaskier's hands are professional, even if his heart isn't. They move, almost without his instruction, into the transition chords that blend The Wolf and the Shrike into The Fork in the Path, now with the shrike's lilting theme weaving through the melody that most of the keep now knows by heart. And then, because if this is to be his last performance at Kaer Morhen he can't possibly end it on a somber note, he shifts into another reprise of The March on Ard Carraigh, popular and rousing and triumphant.

 

When he finishes at last, the hall roars approval, Witchers on their feet and slamming tankards on the tables. Jaskier bows, laughing through fresh tears, and turns to face the high table once more. Ciri is standing on her chair, Eskel is whistling through two fingers, Triss and Yennefer openly smiling through tears. And Geralt, his but not his, is smiling, small and soft and tender, golden eyes shining in the torchlight. 

 

"Thank you," Jaskier whispers, and means it, to the depths of his soul. "Thank you."

 

 

It's past midnight by the time Jaskier makes it back to his rooms. He's sobered up somewhat, the flush of alcohol replaced by the pleased warmth of a brilliant performance and a good, cleansing cry. His hands are steady as he gently places his lute in its case, setting it by the door, and he makes his way into the bedroom to finish gathering up the clothing he's planning to take with him when he leaves tomorrow. Eskel promised that these chambers were his now, and that he could leave behind anything he liked--as clear a claim as any that Jaskier had a home here, whenever he wanted one.

 

Jaskier may have cried a bit after that conversation. It was one thing to promise Ciri he'd come back to visit, very much another for the White Wolf's right hand to promise him a permanent place. Eskel, to his credit, had given him a manly pat on the shoulder and handed him a handkerchief to blow his nose, and hadn't made fun of him even a bit.

 

(Lambert had, of course, but then, Lambert mostly shows affection through taunting, so Jaskier had taken it for the gesture it was.)

 

He falls into a reverie of sorts, going through his wardrobe and the stacks of books and parchments and trinkets he's accumulated over the year, choosing what he'll bring with him in his traveling pack and what he'll leave behind. He should go to bed, he knows--even though he's not planning to leave until mid-morning, when there will be plenty of sunlight to make the trip down the Trail--but he's still thrumming with the energy of the hall, and he knows he won't sleep.

 

The knock at his door takes him by surprise, startling him out of the distracted bustling he's fallen into. "It's unlocked," he calls automatically, since he can't imagine anyone other than Triss or Yennefer coming by this late.

 

There's a pause, and then, after a moment, another knock. Jaskier blinks at the door, a little confused that whoever it is wouldn't just walk in, then puts down the stack of parchment he's been sorting and goes to open the door.

 

Geralt stands alone in the hallway, dressed only in a black shirt and his usual breeches, having lost even the lightweight leather armor he wears around the keep, unarmed save for whatever small throwing knives he might keep in his boots--Jaskier's spent enough time with the Witchers of Kaer Morhen, by now, to know that even when they look weaponless, they probably aren't. His hair is caught up, swept into a loose knot instead of his usual half-tie, and his lips are flushed, redder than usual, like he's been chewing them.

 

Jaskier is currently very much aware that he's only in his trousers and his chemise, the laces undone, his feet bare on the cool stone floor. He clears his throat and tries to pretend he's fully dressed and utterly composed, not halfway ready for bed. "Geralt?"

 

"Jaskier," Geralt says, and then stops. He presses his lips together, his hands flexing at his sides, shoulders tense. He takes a breath and then says, "You wrote that song for me."

 

Jaskier blinks at him. "I...wrote an entire song cycle for you."

 

Geralt shakes his head. "You wrote a song cycle about me," he says. "That song--that was for me." He meets Jaskier's gaze and holds it, golden and intent. "Wasn't it?"

 

Not trusting his voice, Jaskier nods.

 

"No one…" Geralt swallows visibly. "No one has ever told it like that. Told her story."

 

"It deserved to be told," Jaskier says, and means it. "And it wasn't just her story. It was yours."

 

Geralt closes his eyes briefly. When he opens them, he looks almost frustrated. "I don't--I don't know how to treat you. If you know what happened to Renfri, then you know--"

 

Jaskier cocks his head to one side. "What? That you're dangerous?" A muscle jumps in Geralt's jaw, and he nods curtly. "The entire Continent knows you're dangerous."

 

"And what," Geralt says tightly. "You like dangerous men?"

 

Jaskier knows better than to take that bait. "I don't dislike dangerous men," he says, and then, because it's his last night under this roof and he's got nothing to lose, he steps closer to Geralt. He doesn't really need to tilt his head up to meet Geralt's eyes, but he does it anyway, exposing his throat. "But more importantly," he says softly, "I like good men."

 

Geralt huffs out a breath, but his hands come up to rest on Jaskier's hips, as if out of his control. Jaskier can feel the heat of his skin through his clothing. "And you think I'm a good man?"

 

"Oh, my White Wolf," Jaskier murmurs. He wraps his arms around Geralt's neck, and Geralt lets him. "I know that you are."

 

This time, it's Geralt who closes the distance and kisses him, deep and hot and desperate, his fingers flexing on Jaskier's waist like he's afraid Jaskier will run if he releases his hold. Jaskier drags him closer until their bodies are flush, biting down hard on Geralt's lower lip because the man deserves at least a bit of punishment for being such an absolute ass, but he licks the bite to soothe the sting all the same and then groans when Geralt shifts his grip just enough to lift him, stepping all the way into the room and kicking the door shut. Geralt presses him back against it, bracing him with one arm and rucking Jaskier's chemise up with the other as he breaks away to bite a line of marks down Jaskier's neck, and Jaskier nearly brains himself throwing his head back to give him more room.

 

"Geralt," he gasps, tugging at Geralt's shirt, and then, when that doesn't get him any results, at his hair. "Geralt, there's a perfectly good--oh, fuck--bed right in the next room--"

 

Geralt groans against his neck, sucking another biting kiss into the probably already-purpling skin of Jaskier's collarbone, and then hauls him off the wall, tossing Jaskier over his shoulder. Jaskier yelps in surprise and then, because he's there anyway, takes the opportunity to squeeze Geralt's magnificent ass. Geralt drops a pointed slap to Jaskier's in response, and Jaskier laughs.

 

"That's not the deterrent you think it is," he says, and Geralt snorts.

 

"Why does that not surprise me." Jaskier makes an offended sound, but Geralt is already setting him, with surprising tenderness, down on the bed, kicking off his boots and sliding over him, setting his mouth to Jaskier's skin once more.

 

"Fuck," Jaskier sighs. He reaches up and tugs the tie out of Geralt's hair so he can run his hands through the moonlit strands, tangling his fingers into it as Geralt switches sides to make sure Jaskier has a matching set of marks on each side of his neck. "You know it's not winter anymore, I can't go out in a high collar and pretend it's for the cold."

 

Geralt makes an almost feral sound, biting down a bit harder than before. "Good," he says, lifting his head, golden eyes blown dark. "I want my mark on you."

 

The heat in his voice makes Jaskier shudder. "Yeah?" He runs his fingers down Geralt's chest, pulling his shirt free of his trousers so he can slip a hand under it and feel Geralt's muscles jump under his touch. "I seem to recall you leaving a different sort of mark, last time."

 

Geralt flinches like Jaskier has struck him, and Jaskier realizes, too late, how that must have sounded. "Oh," he says quickly, and sits up, crawling into Geralt's lap and wrapping him up, arms and legs both. "Darling, no. That's not what I meant."

 

"I hurt you," Geralt says. He brings one hand up, and Jaskier is stunned to see the slightest tremor in his fingers as he traces the line of Jaskier's right forearm. The bone still aches sometimes, when there's a storm coming, but the skin is unmarked. "Jaskier, I--"

 

"Shh." Jaskier leans and kisses him again, gentler this time, as tender as he thinks he can get away with. "That's over now. It's just you and me here. No one in my head. No bad memories." He rests his forehead against Geralt's. "Be here with me," he murmurs. "Can you do that?"

 

Geralt's throat works as he swallows, and then he tips his head to kiss Jaskier back, soft and surprisingly sweet. "Yes," he says. He presses his face into the crook of Jaskier's neck, breathing in deep. "Fuck. Your scent is…" He shudders, and Jaskier feels, very intimately, just how affected he is by whatever he can smell. "Jaskier."

 

His name, in that voice. Jaskier bites down on a moan, shifting in Geralt's lap. He reaches between them, trying to get a hand on the lacings of Geralt's breeches, but Geralt catches his wrist, fingers gentle but firm. "No," he says, and Jaskier freezes, looking up at him. "I--Let me take care of you, this time."

 

"You took quite good care of me last time, if I recall," Jaskier says, putting a teasing note in his voice just to make it extra clear this time what he means.

 

Geralt rewards him with a twitch of his lips, very nearly a smile. "And yet," he murmurs, sliding a hand beneath Jaskier's chemise, his touch burning over Jaskier's ribs. "You only let me take you to pieces once. I believe that I told you I would do better, the next time."

 

Jaskier opens his mouth, a bit stunned, and then feels his face flush. "I," he says, feeling a surprising flood of anxiety. "Well. I'm not quite so young as I used to be, Geralt, and I'm not a Witcher--"

 

Geralt hums and presses a chaste kiss to the hinge of Jaskier's jaw.

 

"Trust me," he says.

 

His breath is hot against Jaskier's skin. Jaskier shivers. "I do."

 

He lets Geralt strip him out of his clothes, his hands steady once more, and when he's bared all of Jaskier's skin he presses him down into the pillows, mapping out every dip and curve and mark of him with his fingers and his mouth. Jaskier lets his head fall back and his hands tangle in Geralt's hair, trying--usually without success--to steer Geralt to his most sensitive places, but Geralt is intractable, moving with his own agenda. He's slow but Jaskier doesn't think he's teasing--he's just methodical, intent on drawing out every pleading, desperate sound Jaskier knows how to make.

 

Jaskier is just about ready to start yanking on Geralt's hair when he lifts his head, one hand curving over Jaskier's bare hip, absolutely ignoring his cock where it's leaking against his stomach. "Turn over for me," Geralt says, his voice rough and hoarse.

 

"I--" Jaskier hesitates, his face somehow heating even more. He's had his fair share of unwashed rolls in the hay, but almost always in roadside inns or sometimes literal haylofts, not in a proper bed where his partner might have expected a bit more care. "I haven't, ah--"

 

Geralt glances up at him, and quirks an amused little smile at whatever he sees in Jaskier's expression. "Jaskier," he says, lower now, with just a hint of a command. "Turn over for me."

 

Well then. Jaskier pushes down any lingering embarrassment and flips onto his stomach, then has to muffle a startled squeak into the pillow when Geralt hauls him up onto his knees. He widens his stance when Geralt nudges at him, arching his back slightly because he knows it makes for a very pretty picture, and grins into the pillow at Geralt's soft, answering growl.

 

Then Geralt's hands are back on him and he loses track of time for a few moments. His touch spreads heat over every place his fingers make contact with Jaskier's bare skin, the Witcher-hot core of him sending sparks across Jaskier's body. He follows his hands with his mouth, kissing and sucking and biting, and Jaskier is going to be littered with marks after this, will be able to feel every delicious ache and know that this really happened, that Geralt really came back to him.

 

He whines, needy and a little shameless, when Geralt curls his hands over Jaskier’s hips and then sucks a mark into the delicate skin at the base of his spine. He scrapes the mark with his teeth and Jaskier whimpers, feeling exposed in the best way, and then shudders all over as Geralt mouths his way up his back, leaving a trail of bites as he goes.

 

Then, quite suddenly, he stops.

 

Jaskier cranes his neck to look at him. “Geralt?”

 

Geralt’s expression is unreadable as he sets a hand between Jaskier’s shoulder blades, the tips of his fingers just brushing the circle of new skin where Nilfgaard’s brand had been cut away. “I didn’t know it scarred.”

 

Oh. Jaskier props himself on one elbow. “It doesn’t hurt,” he says gently. “Not anymore.”

 

“You...” Geralt’s touch is tender, careful, as his fingertips trace the edge of the scar. Jaskier shivers, the skin surprisingly sensitive. “You were so fucking brave, that night.”

 

Jaskier laughs, humorless and a little wistful. “I was so scared,” he admits. “Not of you. But I—I felt so out of control.”

 

“But you trusted me.”

 

His voice is tinged with wonder, as if he still doesn’t quite believe it. Jaskier closes his eyes. “Yes,” he says quietly. “I always trusted you.”

 

Geralt lets out a slow, trembling breath. He’s still for a long moment, and then, with a terrible sort of tenderness, presses a kiss to the scar. “I don’t deserve it.”

 

“I don’t think you’re a good judge of what you deserve,” Jaskier says, opening his eyes to smile at him.

 

A soft huff of almost-laughter, and another kiss pressed to his skin. “Maybe not,” Geralt murmurs. He makes his way back down Jaskier’s back, pressing kisses down his spine as he goes, and then bites, very gently, at the curve of his ass. “I want to take you apart,” he says, breath ghosting over Jaskier’s skin and making him shiver with breathless anticipation.

 

“Don’t let me stop you.”

 

Geralt hums, the vibration of it sending a wave of sensation up Jaskier's spine. Jaskier curls his hands into the pillow, steadying himself, but nothing prepares him for Geralt spreading his cheeks with his thumbs and then the wet heat of his tongue sliding over his hole with no preamble. "Geralt," Jaskier chokes, and Geralt hums an acknowledgment, licking into him, shifting to hold him open with one broad hand so that he can dip the fingers of the other over Jaskier's perineum and tease around his hole.

 

Jaskier has never been rimmed tenderly before, but Melitele above, that's what this feels like; like Geralt is kissing him open, sweet and wet and filthy. He's not quiet, either, rumbling groans into Jaskier's skin and murmuring praise every time Jaskier gasps or moans or cries out. It's so much, Geralt's hands and mouth and voice and the iron-steady pressure of the hand holding Jaskier open, and Jaskier can't do anything but cling to the pillow and beg and try without success to grind down against the blankets. He's close, he's so fucking close, but--

 

"Geralt," he gasps, risking taking a hand from the pillows just enough to reach down and grasp at Geralt's hair. "Geralt, fuck, I'm so close, please, I don't want--"

 

Geralt pulls back, but doesn't let him go, replacing his tongue with two thick fingers, sliding in almost without resistance and making Jaskier keen at the sudden pressure and stretch. "I told you," he says roughly, "to trust me."

 

Jaskier groans, smashing his face into the pillow. "I want you in me when I come, you impossible--fuck."

 

Geralt hums, curling his fingers against Jaskier's prostate with unerring accuracy. The pleasure of it coils deep in Jaskier's groin, tight and building towards release. "We'll get there," he says, low and deep with promise, and Jaskier whines, unable to stop himself from pressing his hips back into Geralt's hand. "Need to hear you say it, Jaskier."

 

Oh, perfect, infuriating, wonderful man. "Yes," Jaskier gasps, and Geralt, who must have been teasing up until now, sets about taking him to pieces with devastating efficiency, his tongue and his fingers working in tandem, and he doesn't even need to get a hand on Jaskier's cock before Jaskier is coming with a sharp, keening cry, clenching hard on Geralt's fingers and spilling untouched across the blankets, so hard his toes curl.

 

Geralt gentles him through it, pressing kisses into the base of Jaskier's spine as he shakes, and the sweetness of it sets Jaskier to trembling all over again. Jaskier reaches back, desperate to touch him, and his hand finds fabric instead of skin. Fuck, Geralt is still dressed. Jaskier gets a hand on his collar and yanks at his shirt with a whine, and Geralt rasps a chuckle against Jaskier's skin before drawing back.

 

"What do you want?"

 

"Fuck me," Jaskier says immediately. Geralt doesn't respond beyond a hum and a sweep of one broad hand over Jaskier's bare skin, but Jaskier can picture the look on his face, skeptical and a little uncertain. It's a look he's gotten from lovers before. "Please."

 

"Mm," Geralt says. His lips touch the scar on Jaskier's back again, soft and chaste. "Don't want to hurt you."

 

Jaskier shakes his head against the pillow. His hair is sweaty and sticking to his face. "I like it, when I'm sensitive."

 

Geralt's hands, which have drifted back to Jaskier's hips, tense and tighten. Jaskier shivers, pleased, and Geralt lets out a shaking breath. "You'll tell me if it's too much."

 

Jaskier twists to look at him, one eyebrow cocked. "Have you ever known me to be quiet?"

 

Geralt snorts. He trails his fingers down between Jaskier's legs, where his spit is starting to dry. "Do you have anything?"

 

Oh, right. "Um," Jaskier says, and pushes himself up onto his elbows to rummage through his bedside table. It's full of a few bits and bobs he hasn't sorted through yet, but he's pretty sure-- "Aha!" He holds up a stoppered bottle, victorious. "Chamomile oil. I normally use it as a moisturizer. You have no idea how many medicinal benefits it has, even just for your skin, it's--"

 

Geralt, who has used Jaskier's rummaging as time to pour a cup of water from the pitcher Jaskier keeps at the bedside, washing his mouth and spitting the water back into the cup, says, flatly, "Jaskier."

 

"Mm?"

 

"I don't care."

 

There's a growl in his voice, somewhere between exasperated and fond, a tone that Jaskier is very used to, and he laughs, passing the bottle over and settling himself back on his belly. His legs are a bit steadier now and he can get his knees underneath him without worrying he'll collapse in a puddle, though he still shudders with overstimulated pleasure at the first slick touch of Geralt's fingers between his legs. "Oh," he sighs, and closes his eyes, breathing through the delicious stretch as two of Geralt's fingers slide back inside him. "Yes. That's lovely."

 

Geralt makes a soft, almost pained noise. "Jaskier," he starts, and then breaks off. He slides another finger in, soon enough that Jaskier whines a bit at the feeling, coaxing him open. Jaskier presses back against him and Geralt squeezes his hip with his other hand. "How are you so tight."

 

Jaskier laughs breathlessly into the pillow. "I haven't exactly had a string of lovers here," he says. "And my fingers are smaller than yours--oh." The teasing pressure of a fourth finger makes him gasp, squeezing his eyes shut. "Geralt, fuck."

 

"Mm," Geralt says. He dips the fourth finger in, just enough to make Jaskier whine and shudder, and then pulls his fingers back. The head of his cock takes their place before Jaskier has time to whimper at the loss, slick from oil and burning hot, and Jaskier chokes out a garbled plea, trying to push back onto him. "Fuck," Geralt mutters, a tension to his voice that makes Jaskier muffle a grin into the pillow. He slides his cock over Jaskier's hole, spreading the slick around, and Jaskier feels it when he shudders. "Not gonna last long."

 

"That's okay," Jaskier says, twisting just enough to grin at him, shamelessly cheeky. "I have it on good authority that you'll be able to go again."

 

Geralt groans a laugh, almost reluctant, and sets a hand on the small of Jaskier's back to press him down as he pushes into him. The stretch is brilliant, deep and aching and so much, and Jaskier isn't close to getting hard yet but oh, oh, it's--

 

"Oh, my darling," he gasps, reaching back, and Geralt meets his hand, tangling their fingers together and pulling Jaskier up onto his knees, gravity dropping Jaskier onto Geralt's cock and his back pressed to Geralt's chest, their hands clasped over Jaskier's heart. "Please, please."

 

He doesn't even know what he's asking for, really, but Geralt seems to know, because he starts to move, long, slow strokes that Jaskier can feel in his throat. There's a tense sort of control to his thrusts, like he's holding himself back. Not going to last, he'd said. Jaskier squeezes his hand.

 

"You're alright, love," he says, letting his head fall back against Geralt's shoulder. Geralt makes a sharp, pained noise, burying his face in Jaskier's neck. "Come on. Let me feel you."

 

"Jaskier," Geralt groans, and snaps his hips, and Jaskier feels it when he comes, the swell and pulse of him, deep and hot inside him. Jaskier reaches back to hold Geralt's head against his shoulder and Geralt presses his mouth against his neck, not even sucking or biting, just breathing, open-mouthed and harsh as he shakes through his climax.

 

"There you go," Jaskier soothes, stroking his hair. Geralt shudders again, an aftershock or another wave of orgasm, and his hand clenches in Jaskier's. "You feel so good."

 

Geralt exhales a breathy almost-laugh against Jaskier's skin. "You're a menace, bard."

 

"Pathologically," Jaskier says, bearing down around Geralt's cock just to make him groan. He's still hard inside him, and Jaskier can feel himself starting to stir in response. "Do you need a break?"

 

Geralt makes an almost offended sound and pulls out, the resulting slickness that follows him making Jaskier squirm at the filthy delight of it. He rolls onto his back and drags Jaskier into his lap, lifting him like he's nothing, his hands steady on Jaskier's hips. His cock slides wetly between Jaskier's slick thighs as Jaskier straddles him and gives a testing, half-playful roll of his hips.

 

He's beautiful, Jaskier thinks, looking down at him. His hair is sweat damp and spread across the pillow like a wave of moonlight, his eyes dark and gaze heavy as he looks up at Jaskier with open desire. His chest is rising and falling with the lingering exertion of orgasm, the skin around his mouth red and flushed. "You're a vision," he murmurs, tracing his fingers over the raised line of a scar on his chest. "Gods. I want you so much."

 

"You have me," Geralt says, his hands flexing on Jaskier's waist. He already feels tender there, like there will be bruises in the morning. Good, he thinks, he'll wear the White Wolf's touch mapped on his body, and when they fade he'll have the memory of them, hot and sweetly painful. Geralt rolls his hips, his cock sliding between Jaskier's legs. "Jaskier."

 

"Yes," Jaskier says, even though it's not really a question. He reaches between them to position himself and then sinks down onto Geralt's cock, oil and come slicking the way until there's nothing but glorious fullness. "Gods," Jaskier breathes when he bottoms out, letting his head fall back. "The way you feel, Geralt."

 

Geralt groans, rocking up to meet every roll of Jaskier's hips. Jaskier doesn't let him thrust, wants him to stay deep inside him, and he leans down to brace himself on his elbows instead of his palms. He catches Geralt in a kiss and Geralt surges to return it, licking into Jaskier's mouth and wrapping his arms around Jaskier's waist, solid as steel. They're pressed chest to chest, so close Jaskier can feel that Geralt's heart is beating almost human-fast, and when he whimpers into the kiss Geralt pushes up into him, harder and deeper. Jaskier's cock is hard again between them, wet against the planes of Geralt's stomach, and that friction is enough to make Jaskier bite Geralt's lip and shiver.

 

"Tell me," Geralt rasps. Jaskier whimpers, questioning, and Geralt sucks hard on his bottom lip. "How it feels, what you want, what you need--"

 

"It's so good," Jaskier says, and once the floodgates are open, there's no stopping. "You feel so fucking good, Geralt, this is all I want, just this, just you, fuck, you're so--" He shudders at a particularly deep roll of Geralt's hips, Geralt's cock pressing just right into his prostate. "Fuck. I want--I want to keep you."

 

Geralt makes a punched-out noise, desperate and almost pained, and rolls them over on the bed, the weight and bulk of him pinning Jaskier to the blankets as he scoops one of Jaskier's legs up and onto his shoulder. The change in angle makes Jaskier sob, the intensity of it so fucking much, and Jaskier can't do anything but cling to him as Geralt starts to thrust in earnest, hard and fast and so rhythmic Jaskier could spin it into a song if he could think in anything other than breathless please.

 

"Stay with me," Geralt says, harsh and breathless. He kisses Jaskier, wet and sloppy and panting, more a frantic meeting of mouths than a proper kiss, and Jaskier whines into his mouth. "Stay. I want--"

 

Jaskier arches under him, keening, his nails raking down Geralt's back.

 

"I want to keep you," Geralt says against his lips, the words like a prayer.

 

Jaskier comes like a shooting star.

 

Geralt follows him over the edge with a shuddering groan, burying his face in Jaskier's neck and spilling into him, his hips moving and moving until Jaskier thinks he's so deep he'll feel him there for weeks, and the thought tips him into another climax, dry and so intense it almost hurts. He's crying, he realizes almost distantly, sobbing into Geralt's shoulder as he shakes through it.

 

It's a long time before they move, their bodies heaving against each other and Geralt slowly softening inside him. Jaskier whines when he finally slips out and Geralt soothes him with a kiss, rolling onto his side and pulling Jaskier gently into his arms, stroking a hand through the slick skin of Jaskier's back.

 

Jaskier lets him, feeling heavy-limbed and sated, his heart still racing. The tears are drying tacky on his cheeks but he doesn't bother to wipe them away, just nuzzles into Geralt's chest and lays his head there to listen to the steady beat of Geralt's pulse.

 

Geralt's words come back to him, now that the adrenaline rush of climax has begun to fade. Stay with me.

 

He doesn't think Geralt is the type of person given to empty platitudes during sex. I want to keep you. But then, Jaskier had said that first, hadn't he?

 

Carefully, he tilts his head up. Geralt is watching him, his hair a tangled mess but his eyes as intense as ever, shining gold in what's left of the candlelight. Jaskier leans forward and Geralt meets his kiss, soft and tender, his hand still stroking Jaskier's back. Every time his fingers brush the scar between his shoulder blades, it sends a little shiver down Jaskier's spine.

 

He takes a deep breath. "You should know," he says, his quiet words startlingly loud in the silent room, "that I'm a little bit in love with you."

 

Geralt hums. He slows the movement of his hand and then lays his palm over the circle of scar tissue, his touch hot--hot as a brand, Jaskier thinks, but so much sweeter. He would wear the White Wolf's sigil on his skin, if he could.

 

"Just a little bit?" Geralt says finally.

 

His voice is warm and almost teasing, and Jaskier picks his head up to glare at him, affronted. "Oh," he says. "Is that not enough for you?"

 

"Mm," Geralt says. He cocks an eyebrow, and then leans in to kiss him, slow and deep and lingering and claiming, and Jaskier melts beneath it. "You're enough," he murmurs against Jaskier's lips. "More than enough. You're…" He bites gently at Jaskier's lower lip. "You're so much more than I deserve."

 

Jaskier huffs, twining his arms around his neck. "I thought we agreed that you don't get to decide what you deserve because you're a terrible judge."

 

Geralt chuckles, brushing their noses together, and it's so sweet Jaskier's heart leaps in his chest. "You'll have to remind me."

 

"Mm," Jaskier says, teasing. He snuggles closer, though, and lays his head back on Geralt's chest, closing his eyes. "I just might."

 

Geralt hums and tucks his nose against Jaskier's hair, his arms warm and heavy around Jaskier's waist. The beat of his heart under Jaskier's ear is steady as a metronome, soothing and safe.

 

Jaskier is just on the edge of sleep when Geralt murmurs, so soft it's barely a breath, "I might love you, too."

 

 

The sun is shining through the window when Jaskier wakes in the morning, warm and bright. He reaches out a hand and finds the bed beside him cool, and remembers, dimly, Geralt untangling from him in the early hours of dawn, murmuring about training and pressing a soft kiss to his cheek, chuckling when Jaskier had tried to pull him back into bed. Jaskier stretches, relishing the sweet soreness of his body, the ache deep inside him and the mild sting of the marks that litter his skin.

 

For a few moments he luxuriates in the sunlight, breathing in the scent of Geralt's skin that still lingers on the blankets. He winces when he finally sits up, deliciously tender, and stretches, arching his back. Geralt must have brought a cloth to bed at some point to wipe him mostly clean, because there's a bit of lingering slickness between his thighs but not nearly as much as he'd expected.

 

His stomach finally coaxes him out of bed with a rumbling reminder that he hadn't eaten since supper and had had a robust evening of activity. He pulls on a robe and gathers some clothing, heading down to the baths.

 

By the time he's bathed and scrounged a bit of breakfast from the kitchens, the sun was warm and high. Ciri was exempt from lessons today for Beltane, and anyway Jaskier had already passed most of his curriculum notes off to Triss, so there's little more for him to do than to pour himself a cup of tea and making his way through the keep, up the winding staircases and out to the battlements.

 

It's a beautiful day, the breeze gentle and the sun bright enough that Jaskier has to shade his eyes. This high in the mountains there's still a tiny hint of crispness to the air, but it's nearly eclipsed by the warmth of the sun. Jaskier finds a spot overlooking the training grounds, holding his tea in his hands and watching the Witchers at their exercises, the festival day no excuse for them.

 

He's not sure how long he stays there, watching, before he hears Geralt's footsteps behind him. The fact that he hears them at all means Geralt meant him to, and he doesn't bother to turn. Warm arms wrap around him from behind, and Geralt's head settles on his shoulder.

 

"You weren't in bed," Geralt murmurs. "I half thought you'd left after all."

 

He says it softly, casually but Jaskier hears the question in it.

 

Are you still going to go?

 

It's the question that Jaskier's been toying with since he woke this morning. His year of sanctuary is over, but even if it wasn't, he's a traveler at heart. He needs the open road, needs to move and mingle and feel the rush of new audiences. More than that, he needs the roughness of nights under the stars and lean days with little coin as he travels to the places where there's little music and fewer stories and he's greeted with surprise and delight--the reminders of why he does what he does.

 

He loves Kaer Morhen, from the heat of the baths to the cold flagstones of the halls. He loves the chaos of the Witchers in the hall and the sweet quiet of Ciri's chambers and Triss's stillroom.

 

He loves the White Wolf, a predator with a heart of molten gold, who holds him like he's something precious, his chin on Jaskier's shoulder and the scrape of his stubble rough against Jaskier's skin.

 

Jaskier closes his hands over Geralt's where they rest around his waist, running his thumb over the surprisingly delicate tendons of Geralt's wrist. "I wouldn't leave without saying goodbye."

 

"But you are leaving."

 

Jaskier turns his head and kisses Geralt's cheek, and doesn't answer.

 

Geralt is quiet for a moment, and then, hesitantly, says, "I'm sending Eskel down the Trail in a fortnight." Jaskier twists to look at him, confused, but Geralt doesn't meet his eyes, his golden gaze focused somewhere on the horizon. "He's meeting with the regent in Ard Carraigh. I…" He takes a breath. "He'd like some music, on the way."

 

It's quiet. Unassuming. Jaskier, who has made his living reading other people's cues, hears it for the question that it is.

 

Stay with me. Just a little longer.

 

"Well," Jaskier says. He leans more of his weight against Geralt's chest, squeezing his wrist. "I can hardly let Eskel travel in silence, can I?"

 

Geralt exhales against his neck, and Jaskier feels the tension seep out of him. He turns his head to press a kiss just under Jaskier's jaw, where Jaskier knows his skin is already cluttered with the White Wolf's marks. "Mm," Geralt says, and there's relief in it, and fondness, and something Jaskier might even think is love.

 

Jaskier hums in return. There's a song already coming together in his head, a sweet little thing about a lark and a wolf. He might not sing it, he thinks. Maybe he'll just keep it, tucked close to his heart.

 

"Composing already?" Geralt murmurs.

 

"Maybe," Jaskier says. He feels warm and safe and known, tucked into Geralt's embrace, the mountain wind soft in his hair. Geralt chuckles against his neck, brushing another kiss over the marks he's left, and pulls Jaskier closer.

 

Jaskier smiles, and turns his face to the sun.