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For the most part, Jaskier liked cities, but Vizima was fast becoming the exception.

It had none of the charm of Oxenfurt. In the place of pretty wooden houses surrounded by miles of green fields, Vizima was a squalid collection of run-down stone buildings clinging to the only solid ground in the midst of a swamp. According to Geralt the sewers flowed into ancient elven ruins. The was doubtless something there about human excrement and the death of elven civilisation that would have the Scoia'tael rabid with rage, but at least Temeria had figured out not to shit in their own drinking water.

In Novigrad, artists abounded. There was scarcely a single corner in the city not occupied by musicians, actors or acrobats. It was a city where one could slake any thirst and indulge in any sin, provided you had the coin. Vizima, meanwhile - well. Even Jaskier would think twice about expanding his list of sins under the watchful eye of the Order of the Flaming Rose. The Cult of the Eternal Fire was bad enough under ordinary circumstances. The last thing they needed was to become a holy army, but in Vizima, they had done just that, bravely slaughtering drowners and herbalists alike. Worse still, they killed the drowners for free. How, Jaskier wanted to know, was a witcher meant to find work in a city filled with religious martyrs killing monsters for free?

Geralt had not given him a straight answer. All he would say was that a friend of his had asked for his help. He would not give his friend's name, leaving Jaskier with a horrible suspicion he was being taken to see Yennefer. It really would be the icing on the cake, Jaskier thought, because there was little else that could make a trip to Vizima even worse.

The market district was by far the nicest part of Vizima, but not even the sight of art and culture could lift Jaskier's spirit. He trudged after Geralt with a scowl on his face. When Geralt knocked on the door, he banished it, unwilling to show any sign of weakness.

The woman who answered the door greeted Geralt with a warm smile. Her hair fell in delicate spirals around her face, and her dress was a brilliant emerald green. Most importantly, she was not Yennefer. Jaskier stood up a little straighter and bowed.

"My dear lady, it is an honour to meet any of Geralt's friends, and doubly so for one as fair as you. I am Jaskier, master bard and renowned -"

"Master pain in my ass," Geralt grumbled. "Triss, this is Jaskier. Jask, this is Triss Merigold."

"It's a pleasure to meet you, Jaskier. I've heard a great deal about you," Triss said. She held the door open and stepped aside, gesturing for them to come in. Bookshelves lined the walls, filled with texts in languages Jaskier couldn't read. A large fireplace took up the centre of the room, which split the space into sitting and dining quarters. Jaskier followed her to the sitting room with a spring in his step.

"Geralt's been gossiping about me?"

"Yennefer mentioned you a few times," Triss said, a twinkle of amusement in her eyes. Jaskier deflated. Was there anything in life Yennefer had not polluted?

"I'm glad you came, Geralt. I've been picking up strange magical signatures. It's coming from the Temple Quarter, but I can't get an exact location."

"And you want me to figure out what's going on."

"Something is going on, Geralt and I don't like it. Every herbalist I know has been sold out of poppy and wolfsbane for at least a month, and there have been rumours of disappearances. I talked to the guard, but they couldn't care less, because - "

"Because it's the Temple Quarter," Geralt surmised, disapproval rumbling in his tone.

After a few more minutes of discussion, Geralt and Jaskier left for the Temple Quarter. The closer they got, the more Jaskier noticed the signs of poverty around them. Fine silk dresses gave way to brightly coloured cotton and finally drab, dull rags. Sex workers plied their trade in the streets, looking scarcely better fed than the desperate beggers around them.

They started their investigation at the Hairy Bear Tavern. The smell of beer and piss hung heavy in the air, and Jaskier's shoes squelched as they walked through years worth of spilled drinks stuck to the floor. A group of amateur bards performed at one end of the tavern, mere steps away from a violent fistfight. Geralt made his way directly to the innkeeper and gave a nod of acknowledgement.

"Heard a rumour people have been disappearing around here."

The innkeeper looked up from where he was wiping down the filthy bar with a slightly less filthy rag. "Might be. What's it to you?"

"I'm investigating," Geralt said, leaning against the bar. "Tell me what you know. Customers disappearing can't be good for business."

"Aye, you're right about that," the man said with a sigh. He pointed out one or two customers to approach, then added, "The minstrels lost their lead luteist, too. And you might want to try the Eager Thighs. Carmen's on the warpath over missing girls."

Geralt nodded. He turned to Jaskier and gestured to the performers. "Go, do whatever it is your lot do. Make friends. Ask about the dead luteist."

"That's not how you make friends, you know" Jaskier said, but he walked over to his fellow artists with a spring in his step. They may be dreadful, but given they'd plainly had no training, he couldn't hold that against them.

He introduced himself to the musicians with an elaborate bow, asking if he might join them for a song or two. They had a brief debate about tip distribution, in which Jaskier cheerfully agreed to a dreadful deal. He then joined them, quickly bringing a new energy to the performers. Their audience picked up on the new energy and began to listen more closely. Before long, Jaskier had the violent and depressed drinkers singing and clapping along to his music. What little coin the patrons had quickly got tossed up to the performers. After half a dozen songs, the group stopped to marvel at their income.

"We haven't seen coin like this since Marcy snuffed it."

"We didn't see this even then," the drummer said, shaking his head.

"Who was Marcy?"

Marcy, the group explained, had been their luteist. She had been a short woman, but filled with energy, and she had loved music more than anything else. She had vanished two weeks prior.

At Jaskier's insistence, they told him where she had last been seen and provided a quick overview of her usual habits. When he explained he was helping a witcher hunt whatever had stolen their friend, they exchanged worried looks.

"Forgive me, sir, but are you sure that's safe?"

"Safe?" Jaskier echoed. Anger flared in his gut, but he forced it down. This was for a contract. Geralt would want him to be patient. He forced a laugh and put an arm around one of the musicians. "My friends, I don't know who you've been listening to, but witchers are our friends. Especially Geralt of Rivia, whom I have the honour of travelling with."

"The Butcher of Blaviken?" the drummer quavered. Jaskier reconsidered his resolve to avoid violence.

"Come here," he said, fully intending to sucker-punch the poor fool in the gut for the insult. As the man approached, Jaskier looked over his shoulder and searched for Geralt. Golden eyes met his, and Geralt gave a slight shake of his head. Jaskier pouted. The next shake of Geralt's head was sterner, and Jaskier let out a sigh. He knew a punch in the gut was a damn effective deterrent to using that name, but he would have to improvise. Instead of hitting the man as he had planned, he put a friendly hand on his shoulder and looked him in the eye.

"I swear to you that witchers are not a threat. Geralt of Rivia is one of the most honourable men I've ever met."

"It's not like we haven't heard your songs. Marcy loved them, scarcely let us play anything else," the man said, wringing his hands. "But we've also seen the pamphlets, and everyone's heard the rumours. Your witcher already lost control once. How long until he does so again?"

Jaskier's eyes narrowed. "Pamphlets? Rumours?"

The troupe all began speaking at once. Several hands thrust pamphlets at once, and one person produced a poster with a cartoonish caricature of a witcher. Jaskier stared at it with disgust. The artist had gotten the golden eyes right, and the bulging muscles, but that was about it. Yes, Geralt's canine teeth were sharper than a humans, but the witcher in the drawing could scarcely close his mouth around his huge fangs. Human corpses surrounded the witcher, and his hands were drenched with blood. Jaskier made a show of holding up the poster beside Geralt and tutted.

"Well, they got the nose all wrong," he declared, earning a nervous titter from the group. "And the only place I've seen fangs like that is on a katakan. Believe me, I've seen the White Wolf bare his teeth, and it's not half as intimidating as you'd expect."

"A katakan?" one musician asked, and Jaskier grinned. They'd taken the bait. He launched into a dramatic retelling of a recent contact involving a katakan. He worked the crowd as he did so, pulling faces and gesturing and even bursting into song when the moment called for it.

"When I felt the beast wrap a hand (one hand, mind you, it's that big) around my waist, I thought I was done for. I was going to be sucked dry and tossed out with all the care a drunk shows to an empty wine bottle.

"But then! A flash of silver tore through the beast. It let out the most awful shriek I've the heard. I ended up on my knees, trying to cover my ears, but not Geralt. He put himself between me and the katakan and fought until its bitter demise. It howled and scratched and bit at him, but my friends, Geralt did not flinch. He stood stalwart between me and certain death. If not for him, I wouldn't be here to share this story with you today. I owe Geralt my life."

The group had many questions for him. Some of them wanted more details of the fight, or how Geralt had defeated the katakan. Others argued it was only proof that witchers were capable of great violence.

"Capable? Of course. A horse could kill you with a single kick. A soldier could decide to cut you down. Even I could hurt you, if I really wanted to," Jaskier said, with a smile that very much suggested he wanted to. "I've learnt some marvelous tricks on the road. But I shan't, of course, for the same reason Geralt wouldn't."

The reason being, of course, that Geralt wouldn't want him to.

They spoke a while longer. In the time, Jaskier heard more anti-witcher propaganda than he had ever wanted to hear. He also managed to dispel much of it working to convince his audience that witchers were friendly. He pulled the same trick twice more, dropping the name of a monster and explaining it through a story that painted Geralt in a positive light. By the time he was done, he had won over the hearts and minds of his audience.

As he wrapped up the story about the selkiemore, Geralt walked up behind him. Jaskier watched as his audience's eyes shifted from Jaskier himself to Geralt looming behind him. They did not look frightened, not yet, but they would undoubtedly start at any threat. Well aware they were being watched, Jaskier beamed and twisted so he could wrap an arm around Geralt's middle.

"You're done?"

At Geralt's nod, Jaskier bid farewell to the musicians. As they left, he took care to fuss over Geralt's hair and his cloak, even though both looked perfectly fine. No matter how terrifying people thought Geralt was, it was hard to fear a man who let someone like Jaskier play with his hair without even a grimace.

Once outside, Jaskier said, "Thank you for rescuing me, that was simply the most dreadful conversation I've had in years. Someone had been trying to undo my hard work! Years of effort I've put into convincing people you're an overgrown puppy at heart, and they've gone and ruined it. And not with clever arguments, no, just by producing reams and reams of bullshit!"

"Hm."

"I mean, just look at you! Who could be scared of you?"

Geralt raised an eyebrow. Reluctantly, Jaskier conceded he may have a point. Some people didn't know what was good for them. Anyone with eyes and attracted to men should be too distracted by the overwhelming lust to be afraid.

"Yes, okay, some people are idiots, but sensible people aren't scared of you. Look at me. I was ready to climb into your lap before I even knew what you were like."

"Hmm."

This, Jaskier thought, was what he hated most about Geralt. Jaskier would bear his heart (or at least his libido) and all he got in return was a thoughtful hum. Geralt looked at him, considering, but Jaskier could not even be certain he had understood the advance, let alone if he was interested.

They stopped by the brothel the innkeeper had mentioned, speaking briefly with the owner before plodding back into the street. There they paused so Geralt could thumb through the pamphlets Jaskier had collected. As he did so, Jaskier rambled about how ridiculous they were. Words like "vicious" and "monster" jumped out from the pages. Anyone reading them would think a witcher was nothing more than a collared beast. One pamphlet depicted them as just that, citing Blaviken as an example of what would happen when they were unchained. Jaskier, of course, knew better. He'd seen Geralt drunk enough times to know what he did when his filter was removed, and that it involved a lot more hugging and compliments than most people would expect.

(Three times while drunk, he had told Jaskier he loved him. Jaskier had yet to find the courage to ask how.)

"Flattering stuff. Most people don't go out of their way to make pamphlets."

"It's connected," Jaskier said. "Only someone monstrous would do something like this."

"We should talk to Triss."

"Why, yes, thank you, Jaskier, what an astute observation," Jaskier said, pulling a face at Geralt's back as he followed him. "Truly, I would be lost without you. You truly are the brains of our operation."

Triss, it turned out, proved herself invaluable. As a permanent resident of Vizima, she was able to estimate how long it had been since the anti-witcher propaganda had first appeared. The first person to disappear, a sex worker, had vanished less than a month after the first pamphlet appeared. Shortly after, someone started a rumour that she had been killed by a witcher losing control in the throes of passion. Geralt closed his eyes and leaned back in his chair. Sounding very, very tired, he said,

"Jaskier was right."

"I knew it," Jaskier said, punching one fist in the air in celebration. "I'm going to treasure this moment. The time Geralt of Rivia, grump extraordinaire, conceded I was right. Shh, Geralt, give me a moment. I'm composing. This is worthy of a ballad. What was I right about again?"

"Eager Thighs don't turn away witchers. The mercenaries I spoke to hired a witcher to deal with a spectre."

As golden eyes turned to him, Jaskier's heart sank. His hand returned to his lap, and when he spoke his voice shook.

"Marcy loved my songs. The ones about you."

"Everyone who disappeared had something to do with witchers," Triss concluded. Geralt nodded grimly and asked her,

"You'll look after Jaskier until I'm done?"

"Hey," Jaskier said, snapping his fingers under Geralt's nose. "I can speak for myself, you know."

"They're after people who - "

"Shush, yes, I know, which makes me perfect bait," Jaskier interrupted. In the silence that followed, Jaskier could have sworn the sound of his rapidly pounding heart was loud enough to fill the room. He wondered if Geralt could hear it. He'd never figured out exactly how sensitive Geralt's senses were.

"No."

"Do you have any better leads?" Jaskier asked, mostly to force Geralt to say no. Jaskier was not willing to sit this one out. One woman had already died because of him, and that was a thought that could only be processed once they had dealt with the murderer.

"Geralt, it's not the worst plan I've heard," Triss said. "You could track him. And if I put a tracing spell on him, we'll be able to find him no matter what."

"And you'll be watching me, so you'll be able to charge to the rescue if they try anything funny," Jaskier said, a triumphant note in his voice. He crossed his arms over his chest and fixed Geralt with a stern look. Between him and Triss, Geralt had to know he didn't stand a chance.

"You're putting a tracing spell on him," Geralt said, looking like he'd bitten a lemon. "And he doesn't leave my sight."

Triss and Jaskier exchanged a smile. "I knew you'd see it my way."

In the end, Triss did one better than a tracing spell. In addition to tracking Jaskier, she produced a xenovox. The small metal box looked utterly mundane. Without her word it was magical, he would have mistaken it for a fisstech box. The xenovox was a long-range communication device, allowing Triss to speak and Jaskier to reply. Only Triss could activate it, however, meaning Jaskier would be unable to ask for help until she contacted him. They agreed on a contact time and put their own into action.

Less than an hour later, dressed in his brightest outfit, Jaskier found himself singing his heart out on a street corner. He sang song after song praising witchers, and Geralt in particular. As he did so, he drank water from a vodka bottle, being sure to act increasingly drunk as the afternoon wore on. He prattled on about witchers to anyone who approached him. It was not hard to wax lyrical about Geralt, after all; the hard thing was making sure it was purely professional hero-worship, and not the deep ache of unrequited love.

After a few hours, he slurred something about needing a piss and stumbled into a dark alley. He spent a few minutes stumbling about the back alleys of Vizima, trying to look like a walking victim, until at last something hit him in the back of the head. He crumpled at the knees, and a second hit knocked him unconscious. His last thought was that he hoped his attackers were their target, and not simple thugs about to have the worst day of their lives.

Jaskier woke slowly, clutching his head with a groan. "That is the last time I volunteer to be bait."

"Bait?" an unfamiliar voice asked. Jaskier's heart sank. He sat bolt upright, ignoring the way the sudden movement made his head pound. The spinning of the room made him nauseous, and before he knew what he was doing, vomit forced its way up his throat. Someone shoved a bucket between his legs and pulled his hair back out of his eyes.

"There, there, get it out," a woman's voice murmured.

When he finally stopped retching, Jaskier breathed deep and took stock of his surroundings. He was in a small, windowless room with a single narrow pallet acting as a bed. There were no pillows, sheets, or blankets in sight. The door to the room was a heavy wooden door with no handle on this side. His only company was the young woman by his side, watching him with concern.

"Did they hurt you?" she asked.

"How long have I been here?" Jaskier asked.

"Six hours, give or take."

Jaskier shook his head. A little leftover vomit dribbled past his lips, and he could feel his heart pounding in his chest. He wiped his face and tried not to panic. Six hours. "That can't be right."

"Why not?"

"He should have come by now," Jaskier snapped. He jumped to his feet, pacing up and down the tiny room. "If they've hurt him, they'll pay for it. I'll..."

He trailed off, feeling abruptly foolish. What hope for he have of hurting a group capable of hurting Geralt? Then his eyes hardened, and he knew exactly what he'd do. He'd get in contact with Yennefer. There were very few things they saw eye-to-eye on, but he had no doubts that they would be in complete agreement about the exact amount of pain to inflict before killing whoever had hurt Geralt. They would die screaming. In the meantime, all he could do was wait. He dropped his hand to his side and patted his thigh where the xenovox sat in his pocket, a silent promise of rescue. He turned on the spot and bounced on the balls of his feet.

"Not to worry, dear lady. We'll be out of here soon enough."

"You're him, aren't you?" the woman asked, staring at him with astonishment shining in her dark eyes. "The witcher's bard."

Jaskier bowed. "Indeed I am."

"I can't believe I actually get to meet you," she breathed. The admiration made Jaskier's chest puff out with pride.

"It's always a pleasure to meet a fan. I – wait. Marcy?"

At the woman's tiny nod, he grinned. "Brilliant. I met your troupe. They'll be delighted to know you're still alive."

The smile on Marcy's face fade. "We shan't be for long, I fear. None of the others lasted long, the mage needed them for some kind of spell."

"None of the others had the White Wolf tracking them down," Jaskier said, with more confidence than he felt. "You'll see. Geralt will be here any minute."

Nearly an hour passed before the door opened. Three men stepped in, a man in robes and two armed guards. The man in robes (a mage, Jaskier assumed) looked at him with disdain.

"You are the bard Jaskier?"

"I am. If you wanted to hear me perform, you could have just asked."

The mage slapped him. "Idiot boy. Cavorting around with witchers is bad enough, but convincing others they're not savage beasts? Do you have any idea how many people will have died for your naivety?"

"No, I don't know how many people you've killed," Jaskier said. This time, he was ready for the slap, and met the man's wrist with the outer edge of his forearm with enough force that he withdrew his hand and cursed. Jaskier smirked. If they didn’t want him causing problems, they should have been smart enough to tie him up.

"Bastard. I came here to give you a choice, but if you can't be civil, I'll make the choice for you."

"Did you practice that threat? Because honestly, it could use a little work."

"Tell me, bard, what is a witcher?"

Several answers floated through Jaskier's mind, ranging from "friend" to "attractive” to “human, mostly". He suspected none of those were the answer he was looking for. Even if they had been, Jaskier was in no mood to comply. He opened his mouth, ready to blurt out an antagonistic answer, but out of the corner of his eye, he saw Marcy shake her head. His bluster left him. Bringing retribution down on himself was one thing, but he could not risk them taking out their anger on someone else. In the end, he settled on the closest he could get to a neutral answer.

"Monster hunters."

"Wrong, boy. They are the monsters."

Jaskier snorted. "I'll be the first to admit Geralt's table manners are obscene when he thinks he's alone, but -"

"They're savage beasts, barely kept under control by over a decade of training. The thin veneer of civilisation they present is a lie. One only needs to scratch the surface to see what they really are. We're offering you a choice. If you're smart, you'll sign a declaration condemning the Butcher of Blaviken, and write a song about his crimes. In return, you'll be hanged."

"Tempting, I'm sure. And if I don't?"

There was an unpleasant gleam in the man's eyes. "Then we'll leave you to the witcher."

Jaskier furrowed his brow. "I'm sorry, is that supposed to be a threat?"

"Control is a funny thing. The right drugs, the right spells can shatter it. Your witcher is exposed for the bloodthirsty monster he really is. Tomorrow, the whole city will see the truth."

"And how's that?" Jaskier asked, guarded. The mage smiled.

"For now, he's caged. Tomorrow, we let him out."

"Well, obviously, I choose the witcher," Jaskier said. He let out a nervous little laugh, wondering what the catch was. He did not at all like the way the guards exchanged nervous looks.

"Sir, the poor bugger doesn't understand. Isn't it cruel -"

"One more word, and you can join him," the mage said coldly. The guard shut his mouth with a sharp clacking sound as his teeth snapped together. To Jaskier, he said, "There is something poetic about it. I wonder what the world will think when the butcher's bard is one of his victims."

"Well," Jaskier said cheerfully, "no point delaying the inevitable. Marcy, it's been a pleasure."

He took a moment to collect his lute and sling it over his shoulders before holding his hands up and pulling a face at the guards.

"Chop chop. I'm hardly going to execute myself now, am I?"

They led him down three sets of stairs, leaving Marcy locked in her room. Jaskier walked with a spring in his step, peering into every room they passed and winking cheerfully at the guards.

His good cheer vanished when they opened the door to the basement. Beyond the glowing blue shield separating then from the basement was a scene of carnage. Severed limbs scattered the floor. A man in the livery of the king stared up at him, his neck twisted 180 degrees, his jaw entirely missing. When the door opened, something within began to growl. It was a low, menacing sound that set the hairs on the back of Jaskier's neck standing. In the darkness, he saw the gleam of golden eyes. He took a deep breath and stepped forward through the glowing shield.

"Geralt?" he called. The steps beneath him were slippery with blood as he descended. Before he could make it even halfway down, something slammed into his side. Jaskier yelped. His things went flying, and his lute clattered to the ground. Whatever had charged into him scooped him up and carried him deeper into the basement.

"Gods, I can't watch," one if the guards said, and the door shut behind him.

The darkness around them was absolute. Jaskier's heart pounded in his chest. He had never been afraid of Geralt, but this was different. Without sight or verbal confirmation, he had no way of knowing if the thing in the basement was even a person, let alone Geralt.

A few seconds later, Jaskier found himself placed on the ground with surprising tenderness. Hands patted him down, and he heard someone sniff the air. The person in front of him shifted, and in the darkness he saw the gleam of golden eyes almost fully eclipsed by pupils.

"Geralt?"

The witcher (and of that much, at least, Jaskier was sure) vanished. He heard the sound of something breaking, and after a short pause, there was a blinding burst of light. Jaskier lifted a hand instinctively, shielding his eyes. When he lowered it, he found a campfire blazing on the basement floor, fed by broken wooden crates.

Beside the fire stood Geralt. His pupils were dilated large and round, leaving only the sliver of gold Jaskier had seen earlier. Small cuts covered his left arm, and there were bruises around his jaw. Blood splattered across his face and stained his hands crimson. Worst of all was the large, jagged cut running down his right bicep. Jaskier scrambled to his feet immediately. Geralt stepped forward, holding his hands out and stopping him from advancing. Unbidden, the mage's warnings leapt to mind. Whatever had been done to Geralt, he was plainly not himself. Jaskier held up his hands, showing Geralt his empty palms.

"I just want to help you. Is that okay?"

Geralt gave no response, but he did not stop Jaskier from advancing. He clucked his tongue when he saw the state of the wound, pulling out a handkerchief and gently wiping away the blood and grime surrounding the wound. There was not a lot he could do trapped in a basement, but he could at least clean and bandage the wound. He narrated his actions as he did so keeping up a steady stream of soothing nonsense.

Once the wound was clean, Jaskier looked around for bandages before sighing. He pulled his doublet over his head and began to rip it into long strips.

"I liked this doublet, you know. It was my favourite," he told Geralt. "I only wore it to show up that dreadful witch of yours, and we weren't even going to see her."

He paused, waiting for the usual defence of Yennefer. When none came, he leaned back to look Geralt in the face. His eyes were fixed on Jaskier's chest, no matter which way he moved. Jaskier snorted.

"It's a bit late to develop a sense of modesty. Besides, you've seen me in less than this," Jaskier told him. He tied off the bandage before stepping back. It wasn't his best work, but he was pleased with it given the circumstances.

"Now all we can do is wait for Triss," he said. Geralt did not respond to the words, but he did keep staring at Jaskier's body. Perhaps it was a trick of the light, but Jaskier could have sworn his cheeks looked less deathly pale than usual. Jaskier sat down and patted the ground beside him in invitation.

Instead of sitting, Geralt crouched in front of him. He stared very plainly at Jaskier's chest, especially where there was a smattering of chest hair visible through his chemise. After a few moments, he looked up and made eye contact. Jaskier smiled, a little uncertain.

"You in there, Geralt?"

Geralt's eyes dipped down to Jaskier's mouth. Jaskier felt his breath catch in his throat. Instinctively, his own eyes dipped down to Geralt's mouth. In the blink of an eye, Geralt closed the distance between them and kissed him. The movement was faster than any ordinary human, but when he pressed his mouth against Jaskier's his touch was gentle. He felt one hand tangle in his hair, tilting his head slightly to improve the angle. A startled sound slipped out of Jaskier's throat. Without thinking, he threaded his hands through Geralt's hair and kissed back. Geralt's mouth was warm and eager against his own, and Jaskier could not get enough of it. Desire thrummed through his veins. Geralt's second hand ran up the outside of his thigh and over his belly, dipping under his chemise in search of bare skin.

Gods, he wanted this so long, but he'd never seen any sign of interest from Geralt.

The thought was as good as being dumped in a bath of icy water. Geralt's hand roving over his chest abruptly felt repulsive. No matter how badly Jaskier wanted this, Geralt wasn't in his right mind. He broke the kiss, tilting his head back. Rather than taking the hint, Geralt trailed his lips along his jaw and down his neck, kissing and biting as he went.

"Geralt, no," Jaskier said. He pushed lightly on Geralt's chest. When there was no response, a bolt of panic ran through him, and he pushed harder. Geralt shifted back obediently, watching Jaskier with hungry eyes. Jaskier swallowed heavily. It would be a lot easier to say no to this if it didn't look like something out of one of his fantasies.

After a short pause, Geralt leaned in again, clearly intending on giving it another try. Jaskier lifted one hand so he could shove a finger under Geralt's nose and shake it at him.

"Oh no. I told you, no kissing."

Geralt whined and leaned in a little more, but when Jaskier did not lower his hands and cooperate, he sat back on his heels. His lower lip jutted out in a pout, and he watched Jaskier with a wounded expression. He looked crushed. It was oddly endearing, or would have been if Geralt had not been sulking about a lack of sex.

The words of the mage upstairs drifted through Jaskier's mind, and he snorted. "Savage animal, what a load of bollocks. Just look at you."

If Geralt understood his words, he gave no sign of it. The pout on his face eased when Jaskier smiled at him, and he edged closer. He did not try and crawl into Jaskier's lap this time, instead sitting by his side. The movement was almost comically slow, and he kept a close eye on Jaskier the entire time. When he stilled, Jaskier beamed at him.

"That's better. Now, Triss promised to contact us at midnight, so it looks like we've got a bit of a wait. But at least we're together."

Despite Geralt not understanding speech, Jaskier prattled all night long. The entire time, Geralt watched him with a tiny smile on his face. He did not leave his side except to feed the fire. When he did, he returned to his previous position and leaned a little weight against him. Jaskier felt as if his heart might burst. What wouldn't he give for this sort of casual contact from Geralt in his right mind?

The medallion on Geralt's chest hummed as Triss' voice came from everywhere and nowhere at once. "Jaskier, are you alright?"

Geralt kept leapt to his feet and drew his sword. He stood with his back to Jaskier, glaring into the darkness around them. The entire time, he let out a feral sounding growl.

"They've done something to Geralt," Jaskier said. He got to his feet and put a hand on Geralt's shoulder. The growl ceased immediately, but he did not lower his sword.

"Something?"

Jaskier swallowed. "The mage said something about reducing him to animal instincts. He can't talk. He recognises me, but I don't think he understands when I speak. "

There was a pause before Triss spoke again, this time in a terribly gentle voice. "Are you okay? Has he hurt you?"

"As if he would," Jaskier scoffed. "They expected him to butcher me, you know that? They thought if they set him loose like this, he'd massacre half the town, destroy witchers' reputation."

Triss cursed. "Hold tight. I need to get some help. Can you keep him calm a little longer?"

"We're fine," Jaskier told her. "Just make it before dawn, please. They're planning something tomorrow, and I'd rather not know what."

"We'll be there. Just keep Geralt calm."

The steady hum from Geralt's medallion stopped. Jaskier breathed a sigh of relief.

"Come on, then, let's settle back down," he coaxed. He slid a hand along Geralt's bicep and pressed gently on his forearm. "Put that sword away and come sit with me."

While Geralt did not lower the sword, he did glance back at Jaskier. Jaskier gave him a winning smile and sat down. He held a hand out towards Geralt, palm facing outwards. Geralt turned his head back again, staring into the darkness.

With a sigh, Jaskier lay down and closed his eyes. The cheer he had felt at hearing from Triss had faded leaving him with the grim reality of the situation. He was cold. He was tired. He was hungry, too, when not so wracked with worry that his stomach turned. Was Geralt himself simply locked away? Did he know what was happening, or was his usual self unconscious? Or worse, had the mage done permanent damage? Jaskier did not look forward to decades of trying to teach Geralt how to talk again. However much he fantasized about settling down (especially when sleeping rough in late autumn), he liked their life on the road. He liked singing, and performing, and arguing with his best friend.

The rumbling of his stomach broke the silence. Geralt turned, and Jaskier could only shrug in response. "I haven't eaten since breakfast. What do you expect?"

Without a word, Geralt sheathed his sword and prowled off into the darkness. No matter how hard Jaskier peered after him, he couldn't see a damn thing beyond the light of the fire. He sat up, debating following Geralt, just as he reappeared. In his hand were four dead rats, dangling from their tails.

Looking inordinately pleased with himself, Geralt dropped two rats in Jaskier's lap and sat next to him. Jaskier looked at the rats in horror. As much as he loathed comparing Geralt to an animal, he could not help but compare the gift to those from a stray cat he had taken in in college. The cat had been vicious at heart, biting anyone who came close, but by the time he graduated, it had taken a liking to Jaskier. He and he alone was allowed to pet it, and in return, it brought him all kinds of little dead animals. He got used to waking up to a half-dead bird at his doorway and took it as the sign of affection it was.

A crunching sound pulled him from his reverie. He looked up just in time to see Geralt swallow. Jaskier's eyes shifted to his mouth, stained red with blood, and then to the remainder of the rat in his hands. Heedless of his audience, Geralt bit off another large chunk of rat and began to chew. He repeated this several times until he had devoured the entire thing, fur and bones and all. Jaskier could only watch in horror. He had known, on an intellectual level, witchers could eat like this. Left to their own devices, most witchers would eat anything not immediately dangerous, no matter how revolting. In company, most of them avoided it. The few times Geralt had been forced to resort to it in his company, he had carefully hidden himself away and refused to see Jaskier until he had wiped himself clean.

"I take back every rude comment about your table manners," Jaskier said faintly. "Compared to this, your etiquette is unimpeachable."

Geralt looked at him, then frowned. He gestured to the rats in Jaskier's lap. As horrible as the situation was, Jaskier felt hysterical laugh bubbling up from his chest.

"I'm not a fan of, ah, rat. Especially raw," he said. When Geralt did not respond, he painted a smile onto his face and held the dead rodent out for him. "You have it."

For reasons Jaskier did not entirely understand, Geralt's expression fell. He ate his own rats happily enough, but he refused to take back those he had given to Jaskier. When Jaskier tried to move them away, he handed them back to Jaskier with a furrowed brow. This time, the smile on Jaskier's face was genuine, if small and sad.

"Oh, that's really not fair. You're trying to take care of me, aren't you?"

After the meal, Geralt vanished again, this time in the direction of the stairs. When he returned, it was with Jaskier's lute in hand. Jaskier accepted it with trembling hands, swallowing down a sob. How many nights like this had he spent with Geralt? Each night on the road, he played after dinner. Sometimes it was just scales and songs he already knew, but sometimes he used the time to compose. The combination of a warm fire and good food tended to put Geralt in a good mood, making it an excellent time to get feedback.

"You make it very hard not to love you, you know," Jaskier told him. He began to play, and Geralt settled down beside him. The first few notes were out of tune and made Geralt flinch violently, but once Jaskier brought the instrument back into tune, he lay down and shut his eyes. Jaskier might have thought he was asleep if he had not opened his eyes and glared every time Jaskier paused in playing. It was the most encouragement Geralt had ever given him, so Jaskier played until his fingers ached.

When he set the lute aside, Geralt sat up and shuffled over. He leaned in towards Jaskier, looking very pleased with himself, and tried to kiss him. Jaskier leaned away and swatted him lightly on the shoulder.

"Oh no. I didn't kiss you before, and despite what you may think right now, the rat entrails on your mouth are not remotely alluring."

Geralt snorted. Just as Jaskier started to relax, Geralt reached out and picked him up. He held himself stiff as Geralt placed him in his lap, dreading what might come next. Geralt pressed his nose behind Jaskier's ear and sniffed him. Whatever he smelled made him growl, and he rubbed Jaskier's back. As baffling as the gesture was, it didn't seem like Geralt was trying to initiate anything sexual, so Jaskier relaxed. The growl stopped, and Jaskier felt fingers run through his hair. After a moment of internal debate, he let himself lean back against the witcher and rested his head on Geralt's shoulder. Geralt's arm slipped around his waist, holding him close. As strange as it was, this felt nice. It was so rare to get to touch Geralt, and even rarer to be allowed this close. Jaskier let out a sigh of content. If cuddling made Geralt happy in his current condition, Jaskier was all too willing to oblige.

He was, in fact, so comfortable in Geralt's arms that before long he began to doze. He felt his eyes grow heavy as he let his weight slump fully against Geralt. Surely he could justify a nap, he thought. If anything happened, Geralt would keep him safe, even wild and unpredictable as he was now. Even when a peculiar rumbling noise started, Jaskier could not bring himself to open his eyes. Once again, he found himself thinking of the cat in Oxenfurt, and how it would curl up on his chest in the middle of the night and purr. A few seconds later, he realised there was a reason for his comparison. The rumbling originated somewhere deep within Geralt's chest. Jaskier looked up at his friend in astonishment.

"Are you purring?"

There was, of course, no answer. Still, Jaskier wondered why he had not heard the sound before. Either Geralt had never felt happy enough to purr before, or he deliberately hid it. Neither option pleased Jaskier. He was well aware Geralt was not human and accepted him for who he was – rat entrails and all. The idea that Geralt might feel the need to hide something as benign as this stung.

Three hours before dawn, they heard shouting from upstairs. A few seconds later, there was an explosion so powerful it rocked the ground itself. Geralt snarled. He lept to his feet, once again positioning himself between Jaskier and the stairs. He drew his sword and waited.

"Jaskier, where are they keeping you?" Triss asked, voice echoing from the xenovox.

"Basement. There's a woman trapped upstairs, too. Be careful, Geralt's… not himself."

"We've dealt with her. Don't worry, we're prepared for Geralt."

'We', Jaskier thought, that was a good sign. He got to his feet, swinging his lute over one shoulder. He stepped up behind Geralt, putting one hand on his shoulder.

When the door to the basement opened, Geralt tensed. Three figures stepped in, one man and two women. The growling grew louder, and Jaskier squeezed his shoulder.

"It's alright, Geralt, they're our friends. See, it's Triss, and – oh, bloody hell. Of course it's fucking Yennefer, this day wasn’t horrible enough as it was. Don’t worry, you’ll like her. For once, you're intellectual equals."

"Bard. Get away from him," Yennefer ordered. Jaskier poked his tongue out.

"This isn't a joke, Jaskier. We know what's been done to him. Until we reverse it, Geralt is dangerous," Triss warned.

"Especially to you," Yen added ominously.

Jaskier rolled his eyes. "Dangerous? Please. Just hurry up and lift the spell, please."

"We can't. Not yet. But we have a solution."

"Vesemir and Lambert are waiting at Kaer Morhen for him. We can look after him while the sorceresses do their work. All we have to do is get him through a portal," the man said. Jaskier looked at him, trying to decide if he trusted him. His face was horribly disfigured, marred by a scar from a wound that should have killed him. Despite being a stranger, the golden gleam of his eyes reassured Jaskier. He may not trust sorceresses, but he did trust witchers.

"Well," Jaskier said, trying to inject some cheer into his voice. "I've always wanted to visit Kaer Morhen.”

"You won't be coming," Yennefer said coldly.

"I'm sorry, was I asking you for an invite?"

"Geralt has had his mind locked away. He acts on impulse. Whatever he wants, he does."

"And?"

"Do not think he will be gentle, bard. He no longer knows the meaning of the word." Yennefer said, and the words were almost apologetic. The change in tone was so abrupt and uncharacteristic that Jaskier actually listened to what she said next. “Once he is somewhere familiar, he will take you, whether you want it or not."

Jaskier opened and shut his mouth several times. Wordless, indignant noises came out. "Are you implying he'd rape me?"

"In his right mind? Never. Like this - "

"Geralt's been a perfect gentleman," Jaskier said. Even if Geralt was not in any state to take offence, Jaskier did it on his behalf. He was pleased to see his indignance earned a small smile from the strange witcher.

"I'm sure he has, but he'd never forgive himself if he hurt you. Let Yennefer take him."

No matter what Jaskier thought, it was three against one. He sighed, defeated. As usual, when it came to Geralt, Yennefer had won.

"Excellent," Yennefer said curtly. She stepped forward, and Triss opened a portal. Yen walked up to Geralt with a sway in her hips, showing no sign of fear or hesitation. Once just out of range, she held out her hand, looking at him with the sly, inviting look that caused so many men to think with their cocks instead of their brains. After a pause, Geralt took one step forward. He stopped after the second, turning back to look at Jaskier.

"Go on, " Jaskier said, trying to sound encouraging. Geralt looked back to Yennefer, then back to Jaskier.

"Geralt, come along now," Yennefer said. She walked towards the portal, glancing back over her shoulder to check Geralt was following. When he advanced further towards her, she stepped through. There was a pause as Geralt debated his options. Then, faster than any human could move, he darted back to Jaskier and picked him up. Jaskier gave a shout of surprise. The last thing he saw before plunging through the portal was the other witcher bearing down on them at full speed.

"See? I told you he'd follow me," Yennefer said. Once through the portal, Geralt skidded to a halt. The ruins of Kaer Morhen rose around them. The courtyard they were in was surrounded by crumbling walls covered in vines and flowers. Two witchers stood waiting for him, both armed and ready. Jaskier gave them a cheery little wave. He felt Geralt's muscles tense, but to Jaskier's relief, he did not start to growl.

"You must be Vesemir and Lambert," he said. Yennefer turned and snapped at him.

"You were supposed to stay with the others."

"Geralt didn't exactly give him a choice," a voice said from behind him. The other witcher had followed them through the portal.

"Look, I'm fine. As long as he lets me get something to eat, Geralt can be as clingy as he wants."

Apparently sick of conversation, Geralt set off in the direction of the keep. Yennefer raised her hands, but before she could get even a word out, the eldest witcher said,

"Leave him be. He's a witcher. We'll handle things our way. Come back when you know how to lift the spell. Lambert, get some food for our guest. Eskel, keep an eye on Geralt and his bard."

The witcher from Vizima, Eskel, followed them as Geralt carried Jaskier through the entrance hall, up a spiralling set of stairs and into a large bedroom. A large bed stood in the centre of the room, piled high with pillows and furs. Geralt dumped Jaskier onto the bed without ceremony. Before Jaskier could get his bearings, he crawled on top of him, straddling Jaskier's lap. Yennefer’s warning flashed through Jaskier’s mind.

"Um, Geralt, we've covered this," Jaskier said, panicking, but instead of kissing him, Geralt tucked his face into the crook of Jaskier's neck and breathed deeply. The fear eased, and Jaskier resigned himself to his fate. He patted Geralt lightly on the bicep and waited for him to grow tired of sniffing him.

"Huh. That would explain it," Eskel said from the doorway. A hysterical laugh forced it's way out of Jaskier's mouth.

"Of course, this situation makes perfect sense."

"You were afraid a minute ago. I could smell the sweat three floors down."

A wave of affection rushed through Jaskier. "Oh."

Geralt had stopped because he was unhappy. All of Yennefer's dire warnings had hinged on the idea that Geralt would neither know nor care about his emotional state. And yet here Jaskier was, being sniffed within an inch of his life as Geralt tried to discern what he wanted. He carded his fingers through Geralt's hair, making soothing noises as he did so.

"It's alright, you great oaf. You just startled me."

Apparently satisfied, Geralt climbed off him. He removed his swords, placing them by the bed, and began to strip off his armour. When he turned to put it away, Jaskier began to inch his way towards the door, thinking about bathhouses and kitchens. He did not even make it to the foot of the bed before Geralt turned on the spot, staring at him. He did not relax until Jaskier shuffled back up the bed. From the door, Eskel laughed.

"He used to give me the exact same look when we were kids," he said, a note of wonder in his voice. "I haven't seen it since… since a long time ago."

Once he had removed his armour, Geralt returned to bed. He settled down and reached out for Jaskier. When Jaskier did not immediately respond, he pouted and wrapped a hand around Jaskier's wrist. Without any further warning, he pulled, with enough force that he went crashing into Geralt's chest. Jaskier glared up at him.

"There's no need to be grabby. You could have asked."

Once again, Geralt sniffed him, then adjusted them so that Jaskier was sitting in his lap. Across the room, Eskel began to snicker. Jaskier fixed him with a glare. Even under ordinary circumstances, Jaskier would be hard-pressed to intimidate a witcher. Now, with Geralt wrapped around him and literally purring, any dignity Jaskier had had gone flying out the window.

A voice came drifting up the stairs. "Eskel. Geralt broken his bard yet?"

"Come see for yourself."

The young witcher from outside poked his head in. Jaskier grinned sheepishly.

"Hello."

"The witch says he's probably going to kill you, you know," he said casually. He brought two plates of food with him, which Jaskier stared at with open hunger.

"Lay off it, Lambert," Eskel said.

Once Lambert was in reach of the bed, Geralt began to growl. Utterly fearless, Jaskier tapped him on the nose and said,

"Enough of that. Just because I wouldn't eat the rats you caught doesn't mean I'm going to turn down food."

The growling stopped abruptly as Geralt furrowed his brow, staring at Jaskier in bemusement. Jaskier used the opportunity to slip over and grab the food and retreated back to Geralt before he could begin to complain. He lifted the bowl of stew and took a spoonful, groaning with delight at the taste. Someone at Kaer Morhen knew how to cook. He hadn’t hoped for more than bread and cheese, but it seemed Jaskier would not go hungry during his stay.

"He brought you a rat?"

"He brought me two rats," Jaskier said through a mouthful of food. "He was very put out when I refused to eat them."

He looked similarly put out now, crossing his arms over his chest and sulking. Eskel watched him with a thoughtful expression, his head tilted slightly to one side.

"Lambert, Jaskier, try to get close enough to touch," he said, after Jaskier had finished eating.

"Why don't you do it?” Lambert wanted to know.

"Because Geralt's already pissed off at you, and one of us needs to stay on his good side."

Grumbling, Lambert complied. At the same time, Jaskier shifted a little bit towards him. As soon as he was within arm's reach , Geralt shifted into a crouch. His hands were up, and the warning growl was back. Taking the hint, Lambert stepped back. Jaskier did the same, shuffling closer to Geralt and leaning against him. Geralt did not settle down until Lambert retreated past Eskel. Even then, he kept a close eye Lambert, and he did not recline against the bed again.

"Happy now?"

"We're idiots," Eskel said.

"Maybe you are, but -"

"The mage Yennefer disintigrated was, too. The spell did exactly what he said it would do."

"He said it would make him kill," Lambert said.

"He said it would reduce him to his base instincts. Even monsters don't kill mindlessly. Draconids are usually protecting their territory. Vampires need blood to survive. And you remember the griffin we ran into in Velen?"

"Had a nest, yeah. I see what you're getting at."

"If we knew more about the mutagens they stuck in us, we might be able to predict his behaviour," Eskel concluded, frustration creeping into his tone.

"Seems pretty predictable to me," Jaskier piped up. When both Lambert and Eskel turned to look at him, he shrugged. "He brought me my lute after the rats. I always play after dinner. The only part I don't understand is all the contact. Geralt tends to keep people at arm's reach."

The two witchers exchanged looks. Finally, Eskel shrugged. “It’s plausible. We should talk to Vesemir.”

“You should talk to Vesemir,” Lambert corrected. “I’d rather deal with shit-for-brains here than the old man.”

While the two witchers bickered, Jaskier took stock of the current situation. His desire for food and drink had been slaked, and he was in a rather wonderfully large bed with furs, blankets, and his very dearest friend. He yawned widely. If nothing else, he’d earned a nap.

"If it's alright with you, gentlemen, I haven’t slept in far too long for a humble human. Do you need me, or can I get some sleep?”

"Here?

The question seemed odd to Jaskier, but he nodded as he put his lute and boots by the foot of the bed before diving under the covers. Before he could put his head on a pillow, Geralt tugged him over so his head lay in his lap. A small smile appeared on Jaskier's face. He shifted so that his torso pressed against Geralt’s thigh, and above him, Geralt began to purr. As strange as this cuddling was, he couldn't deny he rather liked it. He only hoped no one would try anything stupid while he slept.

Over the next several days, Jaskier found himself effectively trapped in Geralt's room. They were never alone: each of the three witchers took turns supervising them, and kept them well supplied with food, drink, and clothes. But Geralt would not let Jaskier leave. Every time he inched towards the door, Geralt sulked; if he made it too close, he simply picked him up and dumped him back on the bed. It would take outside intervention for Jaskier to leave, and none of them wanted to hurt Geralt. And yet despite Yennefer's dire predictions, Geralt did nothing worse than punch Lambert for coming too close – and that, everyone but Lambert agreed, was perfectly understandable. While Eskel and Vesemir tried to work with Geralt, Lambert took great pleasure in baiting him and laughing at his irritation.

Left to his own devices, Geralt was largely content to eat, sleep, and cuddle Jaskier. He did try to kiss Jaskier, and twice tried groping his arse, but after the first day, he had learnt what was and wasn't allowed. He kept all touch strictly platonic, except for the occasional kiss, which was so slow and obvious that Jaskier had ample time to protest. And if Jaskier still caught him staring – well, if he kept his hands to himself, Jaskier would be content.

By the third day, both Jaskier and Geralt were restless. Geralt had dressed in his armour and collected his swords, only to find the door blocked by Eskel. With nowhere to go, he prowled up and down the length of the room. Occasionally, he would stop by the window and stare out of it, making a peculiar clicking noise in the back of his throat. After an hour of watching this, Jaskier said,

"There's nowhere around for miles. Surely you could let him out for a bit."

"And if he doesn't come back?"

"He always comes back," Jaskier said. "He just needs to let off some steam. Witchers are made to hunt, aren’t you? Keeping him cooped up without anything to chase seems cruel."

"Hm, I'll talk to the others."

Later that same day, Geralt bit him. The sudden sting in his shoulder made Jaskier yelp and scramble to his feet. By the door, Eskel drew his sword. Heedless of the threat, Geralt grinned savagely. There was mischief in his eyes, the same kind that Jaskier saw before Geralt shared one of his truly dreadful jokes. Recognising the look for what it was, Jaskier held up hand towards Eskel.

"Wait. Let me try something."

Throwing caution to the wind, Jaskier grabbed a pillow from the bed and swung at Geralt with all his might. The blow connected, and seconds later Jaskier found himself tackled back into the bed. Instead of keeping him pinned, Geralt rolled off him and grabbed a pillow of his own, swinging it at Jaskier's face. Jaskier laughed with delight. He and Geralt rolled around with for an hour until Jaskier began to tire, so he called in reinforcements.

"Eskel, put that sword away and join us."

After a moment of hesitation, Eskel did so. Instead of hitting him with a pillow, Geralt tackled him to the ground. The two of them rolled back and forth as they fought for a dominant position. Jaskier rushed to the edge of the bed, peering over and praying no one would get hurt. But despite the vicious growls coming from both witchers, neither man seemed to want to hurt the other. Geralt was quite willing to throw his weight to one side and land forcefully on Eskel, but he did not follow up with a strike as he might have in a real fight. Similarly, Eskel passed up countless opportunities to punch Geralt in favour of bucking his hips or using his legs to destroy Geralt's balance. The tussle ended with Geralt pinning Eskel to the ground using his own torso.

"Alright, let's say you win," Eskel said, and tapped him on the shoulder with his free hand. Geralt let him up immediately, looking incredibly smug.

"Glad to see you still remember something from training," Eskel said, groaning as he got to his feet. To Jaskier, he said, "Tapping is how we signalled we'd had enough. Normally you'd only do it if you were being choked, but he's in no state to tease me for giving up now."

"He's too busy preening," Jaskier said. Geralt did look especially proud of himself, puffing out his chest and standing tall and proud. Every few seconds he glanced at Jaskier, and after a few seconds, Jaskier indulged him, saying, "Yes, I saw. You're very impressive."

The smile that spread across Geralt's face was so bright it took Jaskier's breath away. He hadn't known it was possible for Geralt to smile like that. It transformed his face, easing the ever-present tension in his forehead. But then the smile turned predatory, and he moved forward with a familiar gleam in his eyes. Jaskier shook a finger at him.

"No, we've covered this. No kissing, no groping, no sex."

Suitably chastised, Geralt settled down a little way away from Jaskier. He knew exactly what would happen now. Over the next thirty minutes, Geralt would edge closer and closer. He would watching Jaskier's every reaction until Jaskier was trapped in an embrace. For a man who avoided contact at all costs, Geralt's impulses involved an awful lot of cuddling.

Geralt prompted several more fights throughout the day, either with pillows (with Jaskier) or rolling on the ground with Eskel. When tackling the latter, he often gave no warning. He moved so quickly that Jaskier could not track the movement, and soon learnt to accept the sudden blur of motion as warning the two were about to begin rolling about.

The next day, Eskel announced that he convinced the others to let Geralt out. Eskel would follow him and make sure he avoided trouble, while Jaskier was free to use the time to do as he wished.

"Yennefer said she'd portal you out of here if we can get you away from him, but I'm pretty sure Geralt would tear the place apart if we tried that."

"Do you have a bath house?" Jaskier asked hopefully. Eskel gave him directions with a grin. When Geralt began to pace up and down once more, he opened the door and held it open for him. Geralt stared at the opening. He looked to Eskel, then back to Jaskier, who gave him an encouraging little smile. Then, without warning, he bolted. Eskel was off like a shot after him, leaving Jaskier alone for the first time in days.

After waiting a minute to give Geralt time to leave the keep, Jaskier made a beeline for the baths. He was delighted to find not just baths but natural hot springs so scalding hot he could barely stand the coolest pool. The hot water eased the ache in his muscles from days of disuse, and by the time he had scrubbed his skin clean he felt like a new man. Dressed in clean outfit and satisfied he smelled off nothing but soap, he left with a spring in his step. He spent three hours exploring the keep before he stumbled across the kitchen. Lambert raised his eyebrows.

"Bard. Eskel not back from exercising Geralt yet?"

"Do you have any idea how good it feels to be out of that room?" Jaskier said with a happy sigh. "Don't get me wrong, it's a lovely room, but it's been days. The last time I spent that long in bed it was because I was maybe dying."

"Maybe?"

Jaskier grinned and launched into the story. He talked all through lunch and as he helped with clean-up. He did not pause for breath until they heard a spectacular crash, followed by Eskel's voice.

"Geralt, put that down now!"

Seconds later, Geralt burst into the kitchen. Black blood stained his face, and he looked more than half feral. He skidded to a halt, looked at the assembled group, and dropped a severed head in the middle of the table. Jaskier recoiled, making a disgusted sound.

"Damn, you took down a cockatrice like this? Lambert asked, leaning on to inspect the head. "A young one, but still."

Eskel appeared in the doorway, breathing heavily. "He carried the damn thing from the old watchtower. When I tried to take it from him he growled at me."

"He growls a lot," Jaskier said, watching Geralt pick up a large keg and wrap his mouth around the spigot. "Should, uh, should he be doing that?"

Eskel groaned. "Geralt, no. The last thing we need is for you to get drunk."

It was a testament to Jaskier's hard work over the past several days that Geralt paused, looking at Eskel in askance. While he was distracted, Lambert wrestled the keg away from him. Geralt growled and raised his fists, ready to start a fight.

"Oh, no you don't," Eskel said, and Jaskier slipped in between Geralt and Lambert. He put a hand on top of Geralt's fists and pressed down lightly, praising Geralt when he allowed him to push his hands down.

"Come on, let's get you cleaned up."

With nothing more than a hand on Geralt's bicep, Jaskier steered him from the kitchen and back towards the bedroom. To the astonishment of everyone present, it worked. Geralt allowed himself to be led upstairs without any fuss.

They repeated the experiment the following days, with similar results. Geralt would bolt out of Kaer Morhen at full speed and return without prompting in the afternoon. Every time, he brought evidence of a hunt with him, which he dropped proudly in front of Jaskier as soon as he found him.

On the fourth day they allowed him out, Yennefer portalled into Kaer Morhen.

"Where is he?"

"Hello to you too, you sour bitch," Jaskier said cheerfully. "Figured out how to help Geralt yet?"

"We need to get him to our laboratory. The mage that did this used an extraordinary amount of power to cast his spell. Triss has qualms about killing a dozen men to cast the spell, so we need particular equipment on hand. The difficult part will be getting him to the lab and into the amplification chamber. He has to be conscious, or we may not be able to perform the procedure safely. "

"Just stick the bard in there," Lambert suggested. "Easy."

"I'd rather not expose him to further risk. Where is Geralt?"

"Out," Lambert said, looking utterly gleeful at the horrified noise Yennefer made.

"It's fine. He'll come back when he's killed something," Jaskier soothed. Just at that moment, they heard Eskel's voice echoing through the hall, as it did every time Geralt tried to bring in one of his trophies.

"Geralt, no, I promise, Jaskier does not want to see the nekker warrior, and you're getting blood all over the floor."

"See?" Jaskier said. Lambert snickered.

"You're looking smug for a man about to end up covered in nekker guts."

"You imbeciles let Geralt out of the keep?" Yennefer hissed.

To Jaskier's eternal delight, Geralt ignored her completely when he entered the room. Instead, he made a beeline for Jaskier. Eskel had managed to wrest only half the nekker corpse from him, leaving Geralt with the head and part of the spine, various organs dangling from the neck. He placed it on the table in front of Jaskier and then wrapped an arm around him, pressing his nose into Jaskier's hair.

"Oh, lovely," Jaskier said. "This will look charming next to the endrega you brought me yesterday. I was just saying we needed more monster corpses around the place. Who needs flowers when they can have necrophage innards?"

"As sweet as this is," Yennefer said, in a tone that very much implied it was not, "we need to get him to the lab. Gentlemen?"

She opened a portal and raised an eyebrow at them. Both Eskel and Lambert looked to Jaskier, who gave them a sunny smile. He took Geralt's hand and led him over to the portal, then stepped through it without even a glance at Yennefer. Geralt stepped through a second later. He tugged Jaskier closer to him once he registered the unfamiliar environment, scanning the room for threats. When Yennefer stepped through the portal with Lambert and Eskel, he began to growl.

"Jaskier? Is everything okay?" Triss asked.

"We're fine. He's just adjusting to a new place. Where did you need us?"

Triss gestured to the centre of the room. A large, ornate golden cage occupied the space. Wires from around the room fed into the cage at the top, connecting it to eight plinths bearing what looked like ordinary objects. Jaskier squared his shoulders and stepped into the cage. As soon as Geralt stepped into the cage beside him, the gate swung shut. Geralt turned on the spot, throwing himself against the golden bars.

"Ah ah ah," Jaskier scolded, waggling a finger at him. "None of that. Come here."

Geralt looked at him out of the corner of his eye. Tapping his foot impatiently, Jaskier held out a hand towards Geralt. After one last try shaking the bars, Geralt stepped over to him.

As the sorceresses began to chant in the Elder tongue, the cage began to shake. The objects connected to it started to glow, then disintegrated into piles of grey dust. Geralt clutched his head and let out a low groan of pain. As the rattling of the cage grew, so too did Geralt’s pain. When the noise and shaking stopped, he looked up and made eye contact with Jaskier.

"Fuck," he said. Then his eyes rolled into the back of his head and he collapsed on the spot. Jaskier dived forward, only barely catching him before he cracked his head on the marble floor.

"Oh, good. It worked," Yennefer said, and there was far more surprise in her tone than Jaskier liked to hear. Beside her, Triss had slumped against the wall, utterly drained.

"You're sure?"

"He can talk, and he's not screaming," Yennefer replied. She waved a hand. Nothing happened. She waved again, this time grimacing, and a portal opened. "Go."

Jaskier struggled to his feet, dragging Geralt's unconscious body with him. Before he could take more than a single step, Eskel appeared, lifting Geralt as if he weighed no more than a feather. Jaskier opened his mouth to thank him, but before he could, the world pitched upside down as Lambert threw him over his shoulder.

"Hey," he protested, hammering on Lambert's back with a closed fist. "I can walk."

"Geralt's told us the kind of trouble you get yourself into. I'm not risking it."

"You - he - hmph!" Jaskier said, and hit Lambert one more time, just to make a point. To his relief, Lambert set him down as soon as they were back in the courtyard of Kaer Morhen.

With Geralt safely sleeping, Jaskier had the luxury of true solitude for the first time in a week. He wandered the halls of Kaer Morhen in a pensive mood, humming to himself as he walked.

The past few days had thrown something of a wrench in his understanding of Geralt. For years now, Jaskier had assumed Geralt pushed everyone away and avoided touch because he disliked it. Perhaps his skin was too sensitive, or he was too used to assuming anything that close to him was a threat. And yet, as soon as he had been stripped of concepts like pride or shame, he had practically glued himself to Jaskier's side.

And was without bringing in all the kissing.

The autumn air was brisk and cool when Jaskier stepped outside onto the crumbling walls. He took a deep breath and looked out over the courtyard. Kaer Morhen really was beautiful, he thought. He only wished he had come here under different circumstances. As he walked, he let himself fantasize about a better introduction, where Geralt had brought him home for winter to introduce him to his family.

He was pulled from his reverie by the sight of a familiar figure crossing the courtyard. He beamed waving a hand in the air in greeting.

"Geralt! You're awake!"

In the courtyard below, Geralt began to move faster. Jaskier scrambled after him, pelting him with questions about how he felt and where he was going. When he came to a ladder, he descended and jogged the last distance between him and Geralt. By the time he reached the witcher, his cheeks were pink with exertion. Slightly out of breath, he said

"Hi."

Geralt stared at him, expression unreadable. Despite his faculties being fully restored, something about his posture put Jaskier in mind of a startled deer bracing to bolt.

"I'm leaving."

"What, now?" Jaskier asked, shocked. He'd expected Geralt to be uncomfortable with the situation, but he hadn’t expected him to run so quickly. He’d thought he’d have time.

"I spoke to Eskel. He'll take you as far as Oxenfurt, if you're comfortable with him."

"If," Jaskier echoed. He leaned his weight back on his left foot and tapped his right against the ground. If. Gods save him from stubborn witchers, Geralt had gone and drawn some completely nonsense conclusion again. He shook a finger under Geralt's nose.

"If you think you're getting away without talking to me, you've got another think coming."

"You're right, " Geralt said. Judging from the heavy grief in his voice, Jaskier suspected he did not, in fact, have the faintest idea what Jaskier thought, let alone agree with him. His suspicions were confirmed when Geralt continued, "I owe you an apology."

That was the last thing Jaskier had expected. "An apology?"

"I tried to bed you. Repeatedly. And I wouldn't let you leave."

"Okay, one, you say that like you ignored what I wanted. You didn't. Two, I didn't try to leave, not really. It would’ve been nice to go for a walk, but I wasn't going to leave you, especially not while you were cursed."

Geralt's brow furrowed. "You should have. I wasn't in control. I could have hurt you."

Jaskier laughed. He couldn't help it. "Geralt, really, do you not remember what happened?"

"I remember enough. You should be terrified of me. I kept you trapped in bed, refused to let anyone near you. I treated you like you belonged to me."

"Is that what that was?" Jaskier asked delighted. "You did sulk an awful lot whenever I was nice to Lambert."

Unable to meet Jaskier's eyes, Geralt looked to one side. "You accepted food from him instead of me."

It took a few seconds for Jaskier to process that, but when he did, he howled with laughter. His mirth was so great that he was forced to put one hand on Geralt’s shoulder and lean against him for support. "Geralt, you brought me rats."

"I know that now," Geralt scowled. Jaskier took a moment to look at him, watching the way his muscles tensed and he avoided Jaskier's eyes. He hummed to himself and said

"You've been spending too much time with that witch of yours. You should have heard her, prattling on like you were going to throw me against the nearest surface and take me then and there."

"Yen knows how I feel. She was right. I would have done it, if you hadn't been so afraid," Geralt said, finally meeting Jaskier's eyes. "Do you see now why you were in danger?"

"That's, that's really not the argument you think it is. 'I stopped because you didn't want it' isn't actually all that frightening," Jaskier said. His mouth ran ahead of his brain, which was just was well, as his brain was stuck back on 'how I feel'. Jaskier's mouth felt dry. His heart hammered in his chest, and Jaskier felt a deadly hope growing and expanding in his chest.

"Your heart says otherwise. I can hear it," Geralt said. Jaskier hesitated for a moment. He had thought he'd made his interest in Geralt very clear, but if the last ten minutes of conversation had taught him anything, it was that Geralt was even dumber than he gave him credit for.

"My heart is doing that because I'm thinking about how much I'd like to kiss you," Jaskier said. When Geralt only stared at him in shock, he followed through on his threat. After a moment, Geralt's hands came to rest feather-light on his hips.

"Jaskier?"

"You're an idiot," Jaskier told him, and kissed him again. "Years I've been trying to seduce you, Geralt, years."

"Jaskier," Geralt said again, a strangled note in his voice. "You can't -"

"Oh, but I do," Jaskier said. "I've been in love with you for a long time, now. So if you're going to run away, you're going to need a better excuse."

As he waited for a response, Jaskier began to wonder if he'd pushed too hard, too fast. Geralt looked terrified. He started at Jaskier in complete confusion, as if he'd stared speaking a different language.
They stood in silence for several seconds, Geralt frozen, Jaskier panicking. Then Geralt surged forward, pushing Jaskier against the wall and kissing him. Jaskier made a startled sound and parted his lips. His hands reached up and tangled in Geralt's hair. When Geralt broke away, he buried his face in the crook of Jaskier's neck and inhaled deeply. Jaskier huffed out a laugh. When Geralt lifted his head, his pupils were blown so wide they were almost round.

"You're not scared. You want this."

Jaskier nodded.

"You love me," Geralt said, with so much astonishment in his voice it broke his heart.

"I love you," Jaskier repeated, because Geralt needed to hear it more. Geralt cupped Jaskier's cheek in one hand.

"I," he said, but he choked on the next word. Jaskier smiled and turned his face to kiss the palm of his hand

"It's alright. I understand."

"I love you," Geralt said, so quickly the words ran together. He did not give Jaskier time to respond, kissing him and sliding a thigh between his knees. Jaskier groaned into his mouth.

"I can't believe I'm saying this, but can we go back to bed?"

He had just enough time to see a glint of mischief in Geralt's eyes before he felt himself lifted up. Jaskier grinned. It would take time, he knew, to convince Geralt he was loved, but it was time he was willing to take. At least now, they could talk about it.