Snow came early to the Manor House that year, but no-one was around to see it. Geralt had felt the changing weather in his joints and smelled the slicing, white tone in the air, so they’d packed up for Kaer Mohren early. Better to leave sooner rather than later else they might never make it up the pass into the Blue Mountains.
It also so happened that the Emperor had taken Yennefer aside and suggested they lie low for a while after the fall out with Cahir and his conspirators. Geralt usually felt fed up with the Manor House by the time the first frost traced crochet patterns across Yennefer’s impossible berries and apricots, but this year he was experiencing a distinctly new emotion. He was excited to show Jaskier Kaer Mohren.
Since all five of them were going, they borrowed Lady Ewa’s coach for the winter, packed it up with all the books and instruments that Yennefer and Jaskier insisted they could not do a moment without and set off. It was a long journey in a rattling box and Ciri didn’t shut up the whole way, but Geralt thought only of all the baby-babble and childhood nonsense speak he’d missed before she’d been his, how every day he saw more of the resolute woman she would become, how soon she might no longer want to share her every passing thought with them. He tried not to let on that he was committing her aimless chatter reverently to memory, lest Yennefer make fun of him for being maudlin.
“And, I know you said you’ve been in the mountains before,” Ciri prattled on, hanging half out the window and letting her fingers catch on the sharp tips of pine needles furring the evergreens they passed on the narrow trail. “But you’ve never seen ridges like this, Jas, they pierce right into the sky, and you’ll never have seen snow so deep, It goes right up over your head–”
“I have seen heavy snowfall, Ciri, the Dragon Mountains are the most–” Jaskier tried to defend his traveller’s honour in vain, but Ciri had no need of his input into the conversation and carried on right over the top of him.
“And the castle is so fascinating, Jas, it’s definitely, definitely haunted. It’s haunted, isn’t it, Geralt?”
“Ghosts aren’t really known for remaining in quantity where a large contingent of Witchers make their–”
“Well, what does he know anyway, last year I stayed in one of the rooms that used to be a dormitory for kids who were gonna be turned into Witchers and I swear I saw this little boy running down the hall and when I called out he just disappeared! So mysterious! So this year I’m going to–”
“You’re not going to try a ghost summoning ritual, Ciri,” Yennefer said, with a firm tone Geralt could only dream of mastering.
“Oh, Yen, why do you have to ban everything that ever sounds fun?”
“If you try to summon something, Ciri, Gods know it just might actually work. And who knows who or what could come visiting.”
“Eskel promised me he’d stay with me the whole time just in case it does work! What’s gonna happen that he can’t handle?”
“Finding out the answer to that particular question is the exact reason you are definitely not going to set up a summoning circle in one of the most ancient continuously occupied buildings in the whole Empire.”
Ciri crossed her arms over her chest in a huff. “Fine,” she said. There was a brief moment of silent respite. Jaskier was looking out the window at the pine trees in their thousands. His breath clouded in the air and a little shiver ran through him. Geralt wrapped one arm around him, settling them into place more comfortably.
“What’s that you’re fiddling with?” Jaskier asked, turning his attention away from the world passing by sedately out the window.
Geralt shoved his hand into his pocket. His face felt suddenly warm. “Nothing!” he said, too hasty.
“Come on,” Jaskier crowed. “If you’re going to be like that, I have to know.”
A brief tussle ensued. Ciri egged them on and Yennefer threatened to get out and go sit with Angoulême in the driver’s seat. Eventually Jaskier won, since that was how things usually went between them.
Jaskier sat up, brushing dust off his knees as he caught his breath and settled back into his seat. He held up one hand triumphantly to reveal... a button.
He stared for a long moment, expression fixed in confusion. Maybe he wouldn’t even recognise it?
“Wait a minute,” Jaskier asked – his eyes went wide. After a lifetime without it, luck wasn’t exactly about to kick in now, was it? He definitely recognised it. “This is my button, isn’t it! It’s the one off my good dinner jacket. I lost it that night everything–” His gaze shot up to meet Geralt’s but Geralt was busy looking out the window with a sudden and firm attention.
Jaskier put his hand gently on Geralt’s arm. Geralt could feel the precise calluses on Jaskier’s guitarist fingers resting against the pulse point of his wrist. “You kept it?” he asked. “All this time?”
Geralt cleared his throat and resisted putting his hand over his face as he turned back to the crowd in the coach. Yennefer and Ciri had busied themselves with paying attention to something out the other window on the far side, Yennefer’s distraction appeared convincing, Ciri’s not so much. “I... thought I could track you with it, if push came to shove.”
“With my button?!” Jaskier asked. “I barely took anything with me, you could’ve used one of my books, or some of my bedclothes or something, surely?”
Geralt was absolutely certain that he used to be good at lying. “It has a strong magical signature,” Geralt said. “Since you were wearing it when you–” he mimed playing an instrument in a mystical manner. They didn’t really have a good shorthand for Jaskier’s particular skill set yet.
“ Bull,” Jaskier accused him. “That is bollocks. You are a sentimental prick, just admit it.”
“Yen,” Geralt cast around desperately. “Back me up here. We could’ve used the button to track him! You suggested it when I was–”
“When you were crying your eyes out in the abandoned music room?” Ciri directed this barbed comment quite meanly at Jaskier, but peace had long since been made between Geralt and Jaskier, so this only served to feed Jaskier’s fire.
“You did not cry,” he gasped in disbelief.
“He didn’t,” Yen agreed. “But he might as well have. As for the button, I did suggest we use it to track you, but why it’s still in his pocket months later, well, I think you’ve got the right end of it, Jas.”
Jaskier took Geralt’s hand fully, wiggling smugly in his seat. He leaned over and showily tucked the button back in Geralt’s pocket. “I’ll get you something better later,” he promised. “Maybe a nice monogrammed lace handkerchief that I’ve worn against my skin. You’d like that, wouldn’t you?”
Geralt was mortified to realise that he would. Jaskier read the truth right off his face, but thank the Gods, at that moment Kaer Mohren came finally into sight and they were all suitably distracted.
The keep grew out of the mountains that surrounded it like it had been born there, part of the ancient rocks that reached to dizzying heights. All around, the pines painted a perfectly still, black forest against the snow-white sky and the grey rock.
“It looks like something out of a novel,” Jaskier said, voice reverent. He leaned across Geralt bodily, so he could stick his head out the window into the icy air, breath clouding like the steam that escaped the Roaches’ nostrils up ahead.
“I know it looks daunting,” Ciri said, aiming for the reassuring tone of a wise woman of the world. “But you’ll like it. It’s got all kinds of interesting old bits in it. It’s got some weird medieval instruments! There’s one that’s kind of like a guitar, even.”
“Oooh,” Jaskier said, enthused. “It must be a lute. Has it got a crooked head?”
“I think so,” Ciri said. “Didn’t you say you played a lute at university? To learn The Bard and the Witcher properly? You can finally teach it to me! Last time she came visiting, Lady Ewa told me it’s got naughty bits and it’s not for a gentlewoman’s ears. Please, Jaskier, you did say you would!”
“Sure,” Jaskier said. “Why not? You know, now that I think of it, that song...” his voice trailed off and a lost look came onto his face. He shook himself, like he’d fallen into a dream for just a moment. “Hmm, nevermind.”
“Are you alright?” Geralt asked. He glanced warily at the stone towers of Kaer Morhen. There was something about them that sometimes seemed outside time. It was a feeling that didn’t sit well with everyone.
“This place gives some people strange turns,” Yennefer added.
“No,” Jaskier said. It had begun to snow, fat flakes that fell down slowly, few and far between. They caught in Jaskier’s hair, lacy-edged and melting little-by-little, like sugar in a hot pan. His eyes, blue as summer, were fixed on the distant castle. There was something about him that held onto warmth in any weather. “You know, it’s funny but it almost feels familiar to me.”
“I always think it feels like home,” Ciri suggested, catching a snowflake on her outstretched palm.
“Maybe that’s it,” Jaskier said, softly. He retreated from the window and pressed his cheek to Geralt’s shoulder for a brief second. “Like home.”