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Another Time, Again

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It is typically nasty Witcher business. A sorceress and the terrorized villagers who live in the valley below her, the enchanted beast she set among their numbers, ripping them limb from limb. The beast—and whatever it had once been was impossible to tell, so knit together by her magic—had its heart kept in a small filigreed box in the sorceress’s castle. Geralt could kill it as many ways and times as he could—and he did—and as long as the heart was in the box, the beast could not die. It would simply knit itself back together and attack again. The closer he got to the castle, the more viciously the beast tried to drive him away.

He spends half a night crouched in a tree, sharpening a broken-off branch and sullenly wiping rainwater from his eyes, listening to the beast whining piteously, almost like a dog, somewhere beneath him as it paced. It is good to know it could not climb. It is good he had left Roach down-mountain, far from the beast’s claws. That is about the only good that Geralt could see in his current situation.

There had been a time, only a year before, when Geralt had something to look forward to after a hunt, not that he had ever admitted to it. Jaskier would be waiting at a tavern for him, mid-performance, or maybe hunched over a tankard and his journal, ink splashed across his knuckles, composing something new. When Geralt returned, he would leave off, bring him upstairs to the room he’d taken, a bath waiting with the water still warm. He’d tut over Geralt’s injuries and call him an old man, that his reflexes had gotten slow (Geralt’s reflexes were still fast enough to, sometimes, drench Jaskier with a wave of water for that, and to tuck his smile away by the time Jaskier was done sputtering up soap bubbles). Jaskier would keep up a deliberately light, calming kind of chatter as he’d sluice the grime and gore from Geralt’s skin, catalogue any injuries needing treated. Sometime later, maybe the morning, Jaskier would press for details about the hunt, make careful notes of what Geralt said. Geralt pretended he didn’t care for that, either, and maybe he once hadn’t. Not many people had ever asked Geralt questions, listened to what he said, thought it was important enough to write down. They were too busy moving in the opposite direction.

Jaskier wouldn’t be there after this hunt because Geralt had driven him away. Because even though he could ignore Geralt’s gripes and general complaints, he did that—listened to what Geralt had to say when he meant it. And Geralt had meant it, at the time. He had wanted to be completely alone after what happened with Yennefer on the mountain, and he made it so.

The problem is that, with time, the empty place in his chest that came from losing Yennefer was able to quietly knit itself back together. It was like a wound that hadn’t quite healed right—he could still feel a painful tug sometimes, a soreness he couldn’t wish away, especially when it came time to seek Yennefer out, for Ciri’s sake. But he could live with it.

The problem is that the empty place in his chest that came from losing Jaskier hasn’t done the same thing. He hadn’t expected that.

Geralt had thought maybe he would encounter Jaskier again, somehow. They had met often like that, especially in the early days—crossing each other’s path by chance on the road. Now that Ciri is spending the winter with Yennefer, to train, Geralt’s alone again and free to resume the path across the continent. But there hasn’t been even a whisper of Jaskier since that day on the mountain. He still hears his songs played by other bards, in other inns and waysides. From one of them, he had purposely eavesdropped and heard the tail-end of a comment about Jaskier at Oxenfurt, and he wonders if that means the bard is teaching there.

He isn’t sure what to do with that information just yet. It isn’t like Geralt to seek anyone out, unless he has a grisly reason to. It is even more unlike him to seek someone out in order to apologize. The one time he ever had tried to do such a thing—when Jaskier had drank four ales and then could have sworn he saw Geralt tapping his foot along to another bard’s song at the inn—Geralt had rolled his eyes and followed Jaskier up their room and then knocked on the bolted-shut door many times. And then removed it from its hinges. Something he never understood about Jaskier—how he didn’t always react like he was supposed to. When Jaskier had seen Geralt glowering at the threshold, holding the door in his hands, he had burst into laughter, and that was the end of it. Geralt, watching Jaskier laugh at him, had been pleased.

Geralt knows that the tree he’s sitting in, the beast below, and the sorceress’s castle are not more than a half day’s travel from Oxenfurt. The jobs he’s been taking recently have led him closer and closer to there, instead of Kaer Morhen, where he should have headed weeks ago for the winter. It’s something he chooses not to think about too closely, even though—with the newfound silence that came from not having a travel companion—he had nothing to do In between hunts but think.

When dawn comes, he’s ready. He waits for the moment the sun first breaks cloud cover, the beast below temporarily blinded. Then he jumps down and rams the stake he spent all night sharpening through the beast’s side, pinning it to the ground. The stake isn’t enough to kill it, and because of that, it can’t knit its body back together and begin the hunt anew. The beast thrashes, caught, and its snarls follow Geralt as he goes. From there, it is simple. He gains access to the castle. The sorceress is her own nasty bit of work, using a pulse of magic to pin him to the wall. From not far off, the beast howls—free and seeking retribution. Geralt breaks free, dives for the filigreed box. The sorceress shrieks as he plunges his sword through the heart beating within, and then both she and the beast, as it came snarling into the room, drop dead to the floor.

He returns to the village with the beast’s head and the filigreed box with its heart inside—proof it is dead and will stay dead. It’s too late to wake the alderman and take his reward, so he retrieves Roach and sets up camp with her. Roach snuffles at the grass while he builds a small fire.

When he traveled with Jaskier, they could almost always afford a room. It is one of the reasons he misses the bard, but not the most pressing.

Something poetic about the sorceress and her beast, so bound together by magic that their fates were sealed, to live or die the same. He wonders what Jaskier would do with that in verse, and then wonders why he can’t go a day without finding some reason to think of him. He lets the fire go to embers and sleeps.

**

In the morning, a scared shopkeeper, stammering in his fear, directs Geralt to the alderman’s house. Once there, the scared maid who opens the door seems to want to prevent him from coming further—he has a guest—but something prevents her from finishing the sentence. Perhaps the beast’s head in Geralt’s one fist. Or the box with the skewered heart in the other.

He shoulders into the house. There’s a half-open door off the hall, and he smells something familiar, like ink, like wood polish, like unnecessarily expensive lavender water daubed behind ears and to the wrists. Whoever smells like that is saying—

“I think she would be an excellent addition, provided she can audition before the masters with both a traditional ballad and an original composition—”

Geralt enters the room then, and Jaskier’s words cut off. There are other people in the room—the alderman, the alderman’s daughter, holding a lute across her knee—but he only has eyes for the bard, who is staring at him in shock, a rare moment of being at a loss for something to say.

Several things happen at once, then. That strange, empty place he’s been carrying around in his chest ever since Jaskier left suddenly awakens with a hunger. It pulses with want. It all becomes clear to him, then. This is simple, as simple as Geralt can allow it to be. Of course he can’t go a day without thinking of Jaskier, and he will tell him so, even though he’s useless with words, because, because— And then there’s a feeling like warm fire coursing up his arm, and he realizes it’s coming from the box, and that his medallion is vibrating a warning, and he tries to repeat it. He says Jask—but before he can finish the name, the world turns to water, and he sinks.

**

He is in a bed, which he should not be. The last time he was in a bed was weeks, months ago. There’s a strange grogginess in his head, too, that he can’t attribute to drink alone. He may have been poisoned, or otherwise impaired. He is on guard as he opens his eyes. His shoes are gone. His sword is there, but placed out of easy reach. His eyebrows draw together. He seems to be in someone’s bedroom, someone young—there is a stuffed cornhusk doll on a chest by the door.

He does not know why he is here, only that he is not supposed to be here, and that makes him suspicious.

The door opens, then, and a man walks in. He is about as tall as Geralt, lithe, and is wearing a flashy outfit of an unnatural blue. His eyes very nearly match it.

“Oh, you’re awake, then,” this man says. He pauses on the threshold, as if deciding whether he should come in further. He seems nervous, trying to hide it. “Really, Geralt, what was that all—”

Geralt stands up. The man does not seem to be an obvious threat, but he is standing between Geralt and his sword.

“Who are you?” he growls.

For some inscrutable reason, the man blushes, as if caught out.

“Very funny,” he says, sounding piqued. He lifts his hands to fingercomb impatiently at his hair. “I decide I might need a change, try to part my hair to the other side just once, and this is what I get for it. Stupid, I know.”

He drops his hands from his hair, then, seeing Geralt’s grim expression.

“I said, who are you,” Geralt says. “And how do you know my name?”

“Why, you’re—” the man says. He pales. “Don’t you remember anything?”

“I have,” Geralt says, enunciating slowly, “little patience for this.”

He has to give it to this man—he smells little fear coming off of him. It’s mostly apprehension, confusion.

The man’s mouth opens, closes. “I don’t understand.”

Geralt bares his teeth. “That makes two of us.”

“But you knew me, yesterday morning! You said my name.” The man is talking quickly, now.

“Yesterday?”

Geralt tries to remember the day before. It is like reaching into the water trying to scoop out a reflection you see there. It immediately distorts, rippling away. He can’t grasp it.

He refocuses on the stranger.

“You really don’t remember me at all?” It’s hard to get a read on the man’s tone. His face is purposefully blank, giving nothing away.

Geralt’s silence says enough.

“Oh,” the man says. Then he laughs quickly, but Geralt thinks there might be an unpleasant catch to it. “That works out for everyone, I suppose. What’s the last thing you do remember?”

“What does that mean, that it works out for everyone?” Although his guard hasn’t been down, it has relaxed. He hadn’t thought who else everyone might be. There could be others beyond the door, with worse intentions than leading Geralt on this horribly repetitive, needless conversation. He’d rather get to the point.

“Yennefer is coming, do you remember Yennefer?” The man is not answering the question.

“No.”

“She’s a treat,” the man says. “You’ll enjoy seeing her, I suspect, and she’ll magic you better. And then this poor girl can get her room back, and we can all go on our way.”

“Hm,” Geralt says. His boots are by the foot of the bed, he sees. He reaches for them. “I’ll actually be going on my way now.”

“But Yennefer—”

“I don’t care,” Geralt says shortly. The man gapes at him, and then, as Geralt puts on his boots, the man lets out an exaggerated sigh.

“No one’s ever going to accuse you of being a good patient,” the man says in an aggrieved tone. “Look, you have to stay. Something obviously happened—I mean, between you fainting on the spot, and this box just bursting into flames right there, there’s—”

Geralt tries to walk around him for his sword, but the man moves in the same direction, purposely blocking his path.

“Move.”

“You can’t leave here, Geralt.”

“And you’re going to stop me?” Geralt lets the unsaid threat settle in the air.

Beyond the half-open door behind the man, he senses the house is empty but for them. Strange. Up close, the man smells like lavender. He can’t parse what the other scents are, but they seem somehow familiar, too. The sensation of reaching into water and coming up empty-handed returns.

“You wouldn’t hurt me,” the man says simply. Like he believes it.

“You know what I am?”

“A witcher,” the man says. He dances a step to the left, mirroring Geralt as he makes another abortive grab for his sword.

“So you know what I’m capable of.”

To Geralt’s annoyance, the man rolls his eyes. “Spare me.”

Geralt pauses, taking in the man again. For all his flamboyant attire, his boyish looks, there is something steel in him. Yes, he is nervous in Geralt’s presence, apprehensive, but at the same time, calm. He lifts his chin and meets Geralt’s eyes as if to underline that point.

“Who are you?” Geralt asks again, lowly.

“Julian Alfred Pankratz,” the man says promptly. The name means nothing to Geralt. And then, unwillingly, like Geralt is forcing it from him, “But I go by Jaskier.”

Dammit, Jaskier—Something much more powerful than a headache comes on then, like a star flaring to life. He winces and reels back a step.

“Geralt?”

“Shut up,” Geralt says roughly. He senses, rather than sees, that the man had come forward to try to help him, and that he’s now quickly backing away. The painful star behind his eyes kindles up one last time and then slowly ebbs away. When he can see again, they are no longer alone. There is a woman there, beautiful, dressed in black, and she is staring at him with a heady mix of curiosity and hostility.

The man, Jaskier, is standing next to her, his hands raised in the air defensively. “Hey, I didn’t do this to him—” he is saying.

The woman smiles. There’s an edge of dark humor to it. “Actually,” she says, “I think you did.”

**

They all sit in silence while Yennefer examines a filigreed box, badly scorched. There’s nothing inside of it. Geralt can’t help staring at her. He also can’t help noticing Jaskier furtively looking at him, noticing Geralt’s fixation.

The woman puts the box to the side, crosses her arm.

“Tell me, Geralt, do you remember me?” Her voice is level, her purple eyes direct.

He shakes his head.

“And the fall of Cintra, do you remember that?”

Geralt raises an eyebrow. “Cintra fell?”

“Just what is this accomplishing?” Jaskier interjects. He’s sitting apart from them, over by the window, where he had went as soon as Yennefer had remarked to the room at large that she was not used to being summoned like a dog, and that this had better be worth it.

Yennefer answers without looking at Jaskier. “I am trying to ascertain just how large this gap in Geralt’s memories is. Do you care to help, or will you just be staring at clouds?”

Jaskier glares. After a moment, he asks, “Do you remember about the Butcher of Blaviken, Geralt?”

Geralt shrugs. “Is that a specific monster?”

There’s a long, strange moment of tension that then diffuses.

“Some people think so,” Jaskier says finally. “I never did.” Then he turns and looks out the window again.

The thing is, Geralt can remember plenty. If they asked him about his childhood, about Lambert and Eskel and all the others, about his first kill—he could easily remember the details. But there’s an uncanny feeling that the long thread of his life has frayed somewhere. He couldn’t say what his last definitive memory is, what he was doing last before he woke up in this room. So for now, he stays.

“This box was overlaid with several different spells, each with their own directives,” Yennefer says, turning the box over in her hands. “It’s powerful work. This sorceress, she bound a monster to her. Whatever it was, she needed it loyal to her. So there was a spell of forgetting, so it could remember no one, have no one, aside from her. She further enacted this by placing the monster’s heart in this box. Its life, but also its histories, its desires, were all subjected to these parameters—the dark interior of her box. The box was also never meant to leave her castle, so, within a certain time frame, the magic would have it self-immolate, killing the thief who took it.”

Geralt has a fleeting memory of smoke, his arm burning, because--. But everything else is gone again, grasping at water.

“Wouldn’t that just be killing herself and her monster in addition to the thief?”

Yennefer shrugs. “For some, it is worth dying rather than let someone else take their power. You slayed the beast, though, and broke the magic binding the box. However, there were still remnants of its purposes left here, and the remnants combined to become something else. And what is magic if not—”

“Chaos,” Geralt finishes, and they smile at each other for a moment.

“At any rate, the different magical properties of the box were muddled, but did what they could. And that’s where Jaskier comes in.”

Jaskier’s head jerks up. “Me?”

“You said the box went up in flames as soon as Geralt saw you, bard. And, given the nature of your relationship—”

Geralt first notices what Yennefer just called Jaskier—a bard—before understanding the rest of what she’d said.

“My relationship?” Geralt repeats. He turns to stare at Jaskier. “I—with you?”

Jaskier’s mouth works soundlessly for a moment. “What? Is it because I’m a man?”

“No,” Geralt says. “No. It’s because you’re—” He doesn’t know what he’s trying to say. Jaskier had not once intimated, since Geralt woke up, that they were lovers. He waves a hand at Jaskier, trying somehow to encapsulate the lavender water, the ridiculous outfit, bard.

Jaskier looks past Geralt to Yennefer. “Well now I’m just insulted,” he says. “That’s worse, isn’t it? I think that’s worse.”

Yennefer looks like she’s suppressing a laugh.

“Anyways,” Jaskier says, “It doesn’t matter. I was never your lover, Geralt. She was.”

For the second time in so many seconds, Geralt finds himself looking at another stranger to him in a new light.

“We were?” he asks. He wishes she would meet his gaze. But she only sighs, her humor gone.

“Yes,” she said. “A while ago. What I’m trying to say is, the very same thing might have happened if it was me you saw first, after taking the box, not Jaskier. But regardless, there is a history you have with the bard, and a long relationship, even if not romantic. Years of it. The remnants of the magic tried to destroy that, just like it once did with the beast. This is serious stuff, Geralt. The longer you go without your memories, the more permanent the loss will likely become.”

She gestures to Jaskier. “I think he could help you. If seeing him set the magic off, he might also help you undo it. Otherwise, I am not sure how to counteract what’s left of this sorceress’s magic. Like you said—chaos.”

Jaskier shoots to his feet. “Yennefer,” he says tightly. “A word?”

They both glance at Geralt.

“Stay here,” Yennefer says. He chafes a bit at her command, but he stays. He is beginning to realize the magnitude of what he has lost. Yennefer seems to be saying that he traveled with Jaskier for a while, and there was time enough for Yennefer and him to come together and apart again, and he doesn’t remember any of it, doesn’t remember either of them. How many years have been erased?

But there is also a part of him that wonders why it should be important to him, let alone these two strangers, that he does regain the more recent past. After all, nothing has changed his ability to hunt and kill monsters. Isn’t that the most important part?

Some strange, empty-feeling part of his chest seems to clench at this thought, rejecting it.

Yennefer and Jaskier are somewhere beyond the other side of the door, perhaps just down the hall. It is not far enough that he can’t still overhear them, and he wonders if they realize this.

“—Called you here to magic him better, not to drag me deeper into this mess—”

“Did I not come to heel the way you would like, bard? I’ve done what I can. Besides. You’re the one who was happy to be as deep in his mess as possible, from what I remember.”

“Well your memory’s shit as your magic, apparently—ow, alright, alright.”

There’s a short silence then.

“What about taking him to Kaer Morhen?”

“Because it’s impossible to portal into Kaer Morhen, and the winter makes it impassable by road besides. The other witchers can’t help us.”

Another brief silence.

“You know what you mean to him, Yennefer. Give me one good reason why I’m the one who has to be tasked with this.”

Yennefer’s response is short. It doesn’t make sense to Geralt. It sounds like sear-ee. It must mean something to Jaskier—he makes a surprised sound.

“I worried, after Cintra fell—he found her, then?”

“The other way around, I would say. They already mean very much to each other.”

“Fine, give me one other reason—”

“She’s been with me since the start of winter. He wanted it that way. I can’t leave her alone long, and I’m also not going to have her present and subject her to another loss. Can you imagine, after all of this, the pain of Geralt not caring for her?”

“He could learn to again,” Jaskier says, but he doesn’t sound convinced of himself.

“Or he could not. This is not the same Geralt as he once was. It was a very specific Geralt who found Ciri, who traveled with you, who knew me. That’s the one we need back—for her sake, if not yours.”

“I don’t want to.” Geralt isn’t offended by Jaskier’s obvious unwillingness to be around him; he can’t pretend he isn’t used to it. Most humans would prefer not to even pass him in the road, share the same table at a tavern. But it’s surprising from a human who does not seem to fear him.

“Why the apathy, bard?” Yennefer’s tone is sharp.

“Believe it or not, you and Geralt falling apart on the mountain was not the end of that whole horrible affair. The finale was me being blamed for everything that has ever gone wrong in his life, and he seemed very assured of that fact. And that’s the last I saw of him, until yesterday.”

“So you—”

“So it’s not apathy,” Jaskier snaps. “I’ve been blamed for enough already, and if I can’t help him I don’t need this to be my fault, too.”

There’s a rustle of fabric, Yennefer’s footstep. Her voice comes softer.

“Bard, don’t make me say it—”

“Yes, which threat is it this time—”

“Despite your glaring flaws, you have a good heart, and you care about him. Are you really going to leave him when he needs you?”

“Geralt doesn’t need anyone, remember?” Jaskier mumbles.

“You’re wrong.”

It’s clear to Geralt that Yennefer has had her way. It must be clear to Jaskier, too.

“Oh, by Melitele’s—” Jaskier says, and lists an impressive amount of curse words in only a couple seconds. Then, footsteps returning to the door.

Yennefer enters first, looking unruffled. She’s carrying a rolled-up parchment in her hand, and ignores both Geralt and Jaskier, slinking in behind her, as she unrolls it on the floor. Jaskier is avoiding his eyes, he can tell. He thinks back to what Jaskier said—about a mountain, about him blaming this man for everything wrong in his life. It is hard to believe, looking at him, that this man could have that much power over Geralt’s life. Or, that’s not it. Even if he’s all but a stranger, It’s hard to believe this man could truly have done so much wrong by Geralt. He frowns, uneasy, but decides he won’t question the bard about it, at least not yet. It is obviously a subject the man feels very sore about, so he doubts he’ll get any answers that are true.

“This is a map of the continent,” Yennefer is saying, gesturing over the parchment. “What with Nilfgaard no doubt searching for you both, and time running short to restore Geralt’s memories, this will work best. I’ve spelled it so that you can press your finger to any desired destination, and it will portal you there. Jaskier, you’ve traveled with Geralt for all these years. Think about what locations might be sites of important memories. That may be key.”

She stands, rerolls the map, and tucks it down the front of Jaskier’s doublet. “It can take you to five locations, maybe six. That’s as much power as I could pour into it without draining myself. And if you lose it, you’ll not be the most famous bard on the continent, but the most famous eunuch. Do you understand?”

Eunuch. For no reason Geralt can discern, he suddenly feels a wave of protective instinct, mixed with fond humor. Kicked in the balls by an ox— The painful star feeling swells up behind his eyes, and then recedes, before anyone else can notice. When he tries to remember more, he can’t.  

Jaskier gives Yennefer a forced, cheerful smile. “Clear as glass, Yennefer.”

“Then I need to be going,” Yennefer said. She turns to Geralt, her face serious. “I hope you can remember, Geralt. Best of luck.”

Before he can respond, she opens a portal in the air, steps through it, and is gone.

**

The room is silent after Yennefer leaves. Jaskier nervously twiddles his fingers together, puts his hands on his hips.

“Alright, well, should we begin? Where should we go first?” Jaskier asks.

Geralt stares. “I don’t know.”

“Ah, right,” Jaskier says. He laughs. “Right. Hold tight, then.” He exits the room, returns soon after with a pack and an instrument case slung over his shoulder, the latter which he leans against the wall. Geralt watches as he sits down on the edge of the bed, pulling the bedside table closer. He pulls the map from down the front of his shirt, pins the curling edge down with his elbow, and then rifles in his pack for a quill, an inkpot. His movements are graceful, with a slight flourish, like the slight toss of his head to flip the hair from his eyes, or the easy way he balances one leg across his knee. His tongue pokes just slightly from his lips as he brings the quill tip just above the map. Geralt wonders if he’s noticing too much already.

“That woman, Yennefer,” Geralt says. “Things didn’t end well between us?”

“Understatement,” Jaskier raps out promptly, slightly sing-song.

“But she still came to help me regain my memories,” Geralt says. “Why?”

“Yes, you certainly came around to the idea once she showed up, didn’t you?” His tone is light, almost teasing. Still, Geralt realizes, Jaskier is again avoiding the question.

“Jaskier, why—”

“I can’t believe I have to say this to you, Geralt, but hush. I need to concentrate.”

Geralt crosses his arms, but he doesn’t say anything else. Jaskier’s quill darts down and makes a quick circle. Then another, and another. Finally, he lifts his head, scanning over the rest of the map.

“I believe those are the most important—well, we’ll see, won’t we? Jaskier, use this enchanted map to help cure Geralt of his magical amnesia. Sure, Yennefer, I do that kind of work every day—”

Geralt cuts him off, looking over his shoulder at the map. “These are all places we’ve been to together?”

Jaskier nods.

“We’ve been all over the continent together,” Geralt observes.

“Yes, nearly, and now for another time again,” Jaskier says carelessly. “Grab your stabby stick, Geralt, and anything else you might need. I think we’re ready to go.”

“Hm.” Once Geralt’s equipped with his sword, he comes to stand by Jaskier, who has packed his quill and ink away and his instrument case over his shoulder again. Then they walk outside the house, Jaskier leading the way, to where Roach is standing just outside the front door, ears flattened and looking mutinous. To Geralt’s surprise, the horse perks up at seeing Jaskier.

“You, uh, do you know that this is your horse? Are introductions necessary?” Jaskier asks, stopping next to Roach. He, too, looks surprised when Roach nudges at his shoulder with her nose.

“Yes,” Geralt says. “A little older than the last I saw of her.”

He grabs her reins, nods to Jaskier.

“Nothing to it,” Jaskier says nervously, and presses his finger down to a point circled in ink on the map. For a moment, nothing happens, then the circle widens, widens, until it’s the size of a door in front of them. On the other side, there are cliffs, a tall, misshapen building springing up from the rock. Geralt steps through it, immediately buffeted in the face by a cold wind, with Roach alongside him. A moment later, Jaskier is there too, and the portal behind them closes, disappears.

“Very convenient, that magic is,” Jaskier remarks, tucking the map into his pack.

Geralt is examining his surroundings. There is no one outside on this dreary day; the place looks practically deserted. The few people outdoors take one look at Geralt and skitter away. “Posada?” he asks. What he remembers of the place is not much—it is isolated, small. “Something important happened here?”

“I think so,” Jaskier says. “Maybe. Come on, then.” He turns away from the town, toward the road leading off between the cliffs.

Geralt starts to turn away from the sight, but his gaze catches and holds on the tavern. Three words or less—annoyance, and then surprise, at the lack of fear—he winces at the sudden pain behind his eyes.

“Did something happen there?”

Jaskier turns back, follows Geralt’s pointing finger.

“Not really,” he says. He hitches his instrument case further up his shoulder. “We met there, I suppose, but that’s not the important part.”

“No?”

“Geralt, honestly, I think I would know—”

He relents and walks after Jaskier, Roach nodding along slightly behind him.

“How long ago did we meet?”

“A couple decades, if you believe it,” Jaskier says airily.

Geralt glances again over the tall, slender figure in its flamboyant blue, Jaskier’s face in profile, nearly untouched by age. “And you were what, then… seven?”

“A little older than that,” Jaskier says. “They say it comes from my mother’s side. Youthful features, longevity. Better than taking after my father’s side—you should see the noses on some of them. Like geese. That is, if a goose’s beak is its nose. Which I think it is, actually, but also—isn’t.”

“And your mother’s side is—human?”

Jaskier gives him a puzzled glance. “As opposed to what? And since when do you care about how old I am, anyways?”

“I don’t,” Geralt growls. “Care. I’m just trying to piece some things together.”

“Nothing about that needs to be pieced,” Jaskier says testily, skirting a large rock in the road.

They walk in silence for a few minutes. The wind, blowing over the cliffs, makes a strange whistle.

“Why did we travel together, after leaving here?”

“Oh, that’s easy,” Jaskier says. “I was looking for a muse, of sorts. Adventure. Drama. The typical things for a young bard starting out. And you came along, with some much-needed image rehabilitation, and we went from there.”

“What else?”

“How do you mean?”

“I wanted that? To bring you along, just so you could write songs about what I did?”

Geralt has to admit, that doesn’t sound like him. He prefers to travel light, alone. A chattering bard with brightly colored clothing does not sound like something that would appeal to him then, or now, for any extended length of time. Yennefer, with her magic, he could better understand.

“Sometimes I paid for our lodgings,” Jaskier says tightly. Geralt can see he’s blundering into something the other man would rather not talk about, but doesn’t feel like being tactful.

“And that’s all?”

“And we were friends, of a kind,” Jaskier says, his face averted. He sweeps an arm out. “Now. Here we are.”

Here is a small collection of rocks, taller than either of them. The setting sun throws their shadows forward over bare earth, tilled for winter.

Geralt looks around, unimpressed.

“Anything coming together in the old brain, Geralt?”

“Nothing,” he says. He squats down, cocks his head to look over it again. “Care explaining why it should?”

Jaskier walks a few steps away, kicking at the dirt. “Subject matter for the continent’s most famous song. You came here to take care of a devil, but it was really a sylvan. He was quite kind, actually. And the elves were involved—really, humanity had not been treating them well. But it was better after—better for you, at least, or I like to think so. You became famous. The white wolf, they called you, like it says in the song.”

“Everyone I saw in Posada today was scared of me,” Geralt observes.

“Alright, so maybe they’re not running up to offer you their firstborns in thanks. But they’re not throwing rotten produce at you anymore, shouting abuse. I have always assumed that you preferred that.”

“Hm.” He tries to concentrate, let something return to him, but no memory of this place resurfaces. His mind remains blank. He opens his eyes. “You sang the song.”

A complicated array of emotions cross Jaskier’s face, too fast to follow. “You remember it?”

“No.”

“Oh.”

He rolls his eyes. “It wasn’t hard to piece together, Jaskier. You said you followed me to write songs about me. And then said this place is important because there’s a song about me here.”

 “Fine, then,” Jaskier says. “You know, I was trying something new called being modest. Shall we move on? I sense that Posada is a bust.”

Geralt stays squatting on the ground. “It’s practically nightfall. Let’s camp the night, continue tomorrow.”

It is too dark, now, to see Jaskier’s face. But again, there’s apprehension coming off of him. Geralt remembers that Jaskier had not wanted to do this in the first place. Perhaps he was hoping it would be over quickly. No such luck.

They make camp swiftly. Geralt notices that it’s like they’ve done this before—and then realizes, belatedly, that they have. Many hundreds of times, not that he could remember any of them. In short time, he’s built up a fire, and they sit close to it, watching it waver in the wind.

“Ah,” Jaskier says. He rummages in his pack. “Just remembered. Bread, cheese, dried meat. It’s not much, but should tide us over.” He splits each item in half, edges Geralt’s portions around the fire toward him. “Meant it for lunch on the road on the way back to Oxenfurt, before all this happened.”

--You should have seen Valdo Marx’s face, Geralt, when I was named the winner—a foreign feeling of pride, although he’d never show it—a night quite like this, sitting by a fire, settling in for a long retelling—with a starburst of pain, these snatches blur into focus, and then recede again, like something pushed in and out by the tide.

“Oxenfurt.”

“I teach there. It’s—”

“I know what it is,” Geralt says. He remembers Jaskier’s words to Yennefer—And that’s the last I saw of him. “Why were you there, instead of traveling with me?”

Jaskier, who was about to bite into his portion of cheese, took it away from his mouth. “Oh. Well, we weren’t together all the time. Just on some of our, er, mutual travels. I never saw you in winters when you went to Kaer Morhen. And sometimes I went away—gave lectures, or played in competitions or—as is now the case—taught at Oxenfurt.”

“Or also visited family?”

Jaskier, again about to bite into his cheese, sets it to the side somewhat dramatically. “Are you trying to make me lose my appetite?”

Geralt quirks a brow.

“I don’t see my family, and my family doesn’t see me,” Jaskier says, his voice light. “And suffice to say, nowhere I go on the continent is far enough in their minds. Now, have you had a chance to try this dried meat yet? I probably paid too much, but—”

“Do they not like you being a bard? Traveling with a witcher?”

“I believe their issue is with me as a person,” Jaskier says, clipped.

Geralt leans forward. “What’s wrong with you as a person?”

“It’s not—it’s—why all these questions?” Jaskier bursts out. He stands up, his aura of unconcern falling away. “You’ve gone two decades without asking, why the sudden urge? I don’t know why no one ever wants me to stick around—why don’t you tell me?”

Geralt sits very still.

“I’m going to sleep,” Jaskier says abruptly. He leaves his food, picks up his pack, and strides off into the dark. Geralt can hear the sounds of him settling down somewhere under one of the rocks. After that, silence.

Geralt had thought that he would need to learn something about this stranger traveling with him. It hadn’t occurred to him that the Geralt of before had not done the same. How could a man travel with Jaskier for years and never ask the questions he just had on their first night? He sits up longer than he should, until the fire dies and takes the light with it.

**

In the morning, Jaskier is chipper, talkative. He keeps up an artless patter about a woman he knew who raised swans for their feathers, and was attacked by them, and the weather, and a strange twinge he’d felt in his back, and a word he’d been struggling to rhyme—

This is all even before they break camp. Geralt at first is annoyed by this, until he realizes Jaskier doesn’t seem to actually expect him to attend to his words. His talking is more meant to function as a shield—how could Geralt ask him any questions when Jaskier is talking unbrokenly about something else?

Perhaps Geralt had been wrong, in his first observation of Jaskier—lavender water, flamboyant outfit, bard—and thinking that was always the same thing as unserious. Jaskier was obviously adept at letting people think that about him, perhaps even encouraged that view. Geralt knows better than to believe that, now, but the question is—why would Jaskier want him to?  

“—And here’s the map,” Jaskier is saying. “On to the next attempt, I suppose. Are you ready?”

Geralt nods.

“I warn you, Geralt, this next destination may be dangerous. We’ll have to be careful. We might need to portal out fast, even.”

“Fine.”

“Alright, then.” Jaskier comes to stand a few feet away from Geralt and Roach, and his finger comes to hover over Cintra. In a moment, that spot in the map flowers open. They step through, onto a low hillock. Geralt takes in the view of the city below, surprised. The Cintra he knew is gone. It is reduced to rubble.

“It used to be beautiful,” Jaskier says, in a sad voice. “I haven’t seen it since the fall. Now, it’s… dead.”

“Who did this?”

Jaskier opens his mouth, and then promptly is kept from talking when Geralt puts his hand over it. He flails for a second, and then realizes what Geralt had picked up on first—the sound of approaching hoofbeats.

“Is that what you mean by dangerous?”

Jaskier quickly nods. They make fast work of it, diving to the side of the road, where there’s a copse of trees. Roach resists, stubborn, having just begin to nose at the grassy hillock, and Jaskier and Geralt have only just pushed her rump into the cover of the trees before a group of soldiers thunders past on their horses. 

“Nilfgaard,” Jaskier whispers, his breath warm on Geralt’s ear. “They sacked Cintra. And their soldiers would be very interested in finding you… or me, again, I guess.”

“Why?”

“They… think you have something that they want,” Jaskier hedges. Geralt’s about to push for more, but then his thoughts redirect. He turns to look at Jaskier full-on, their faces only inches apart in the gloom of the trees.

“What do you mean, again?”

Jaskier’s mouth tightens. “They’ve come after me a few times. Probably because we traveled together, they think I could give up your whereabouts. I’ve mostly been safe holed up in Oxenfurt, but they caught me on the road.”

“What happened?”

“Nothing happened,” Jaskier says. His eyes look very gray in this light. “One of them followed me into an alley, and then my knife followed him into his heart. But there were more around, so I had to strip his armor, pretend to be a Nilfgaard soldier helping to search for that pesky bard until I could get free of that town.”

Geralt feels a smile tug at the corner of his mouth at the image. “Smart.”

Jaskier’s face does something funny in response to that, and he looks away.

“What, did you think I wasn’t?”

“Jaskier, when we met the other morning, I think there was a moment you really believed the reason I didn’t recognize you was because your hair was combed to the other side.”

“Well,” Jaskier begins, and then stops. “Never mind about all that.”

They wait a few minutes more to be sure they’re safe. It’s colder here than in Posada, and Geralt can hear Jaskier’s teeth chattering. Figures, given the impractical clothing. When they exit the copse, Geralt reaches to Reach and tugs free the dun-colored horse blanket.

“Here.”

Jaskier recoils. “Ugh, why would I want that?”

“Do you want Nilfgaard to see you from three miles away? Because they will, in that outfit.”

Jaskier looks down his front, considering, and then reluctantly takes the blanket, tossing it around his shoulders like it’s a cape.

“It smells like you,” he says. “Which is to say, it smells like Roach.”

Geralt has to turn away to hide his smile. No, this bard might not be as helpful of a travel companion as Yennefer might be with her magic. But he is definitely… something.

“Come on, then,” Jaskier says. “There’s a certain place I want to show you.”

They pick their way down the slope to the deserted city below. If there are other Nilfgaard patrols, they don’t see them. The husk of the city yawns open—black holes where doors were, belongings dumped out of homes and ruined by rain and flame.

“Calanthe wouldn’t let this happen,” Geralt murmurs.

“Oh, so you remember her,” Jaskier says, his foot sliding out beneath him. Geralt grabs him by the arm and hauls him up. “She’s dead, they say. That she jumped from her own window.”

Geralt is discreetly pleased that he remembers something from a near timeline at all. The Calanthe he had known of was a young queen, warfaring, deadly. And now he knows her end.

“Jaskier,” Geralt says. “Are we going to the palace?”

“We are,” he replies. “That’s where it all happened. It’ll be perfectly safe once we’re not out in the open.”

In response, Geralt unsheathes his sword.

They manage to enter the castle still without seeing anyone. It is dark, the walls scorched by fire. There is nothing beautiful left behind now. Roach’s hooves are loud on the stone floor.

“Lady Roach,” Jaskier says. “It’s not every day a horse finds herself in a palace.”

“Hm.”

“Here we are,” Jaskier says. His voice echoes in the large room they walk into. It must have been the banquet hall. The tables have been reduced to piles of wood. The light is the color of dishwater, coming through the broken windows.

“Shall we set the scene?” Jaskier says, walking out into the middle of floor. “You were up sitting at the right-hand of Calanthe herself. An honor. And she was trying to find poor Pavetta, her daughter, a proper man to marry. There was a hedgehog man—it’s all a lot better set to song of course—but he was her true beloved. Calanthe wanted him dead on the spot, but you stepped in of course—”

Geralt stops listening. He narrows his eyes, studying the room as he turns, but nothing about it brings out a single spark of familiarity.

His vision swims, moves like a wave–I’m helping the idiot free of his coin—a fond protectiveness that he hides beneath a smirk—And he’s the idiot?—somewhere, the sound of singing—

He jerks his head, as if to rid himself of a fly, and the pain behind his eyes recedes.

“Were you here?”

Jaskier frowns. “Yes. That’s not the point—”

“Why? What were you doing that whole time?”

“Barding,” Jaskier says. “As I was saying, this is where it happened. Where you claimed the Law of Surprise. And no one knew about Pavetta. She was—” he spreads his hands elaborately—“in the family way.”

Geralt is listening now. “She was pregnant?”

“Yennefer probably didn’t want me to tell you, but this might be what you remember, Geralt. More than anything. This is the Child Surprise.”

Him? With a child? It sounds nothing like him, like nothing he would ever plan for himself. But then, it doesn’t sound like he had planned for it then, either.

“Don’t worry,” Jaskier says, examining his nailbeds. “She’s not a hedgehog.”

“What?”

“Ciri,” Jaskier says, like Geralt is slow. “Your human child.”

“Where is she? Did she—in the fall?”

“Oh, no. She got away. She found you. I don’t know much about it, I’m afraid. We weren’t, uh, traveling then. But you took her to Yennefer, who has her still. She says you’re very fond of each other, Geralt. That you mean a lot to her.”

“I see,” Geralt says. It’s still hard to imagine.

Jaskier steps closer. “Do you remember any of it now?” His face is half-hopeful, half-afraid.

“No.”

He sees something out of the corner of his eye, a flicker of silver. He moves like he’s been trained to, on instinct, and a second later an arrow flies through the space where his face was. He hears another come singing, not aimed at him, and his sword moves like a whip, sending the arrow that was flying toward Jaskier skittering across the floor.

“Jaskier—”

Jaskier’s eyes are wide. “Map, map,” he yelps, digging frantically in his pack. “Ah, here it is—Geralt--!”

Geralt’s got one hand fisted in Roach’s reins, the other with his sword. He dives for Jaskier, the portal opening before them. They fall through it, and it winks shut behind them. They lie very quietly on the ground for a few minutes more.

“So,” Jaskier says. “I guess that’s that on Cintra.” He sits up, looks around. “Oh, this is nowhere near where I wanted to be in Rinde!”

“Be glad you’re alive,” Geralt points out.

Jaskier flaps a hand at him. “Time for the next act, I suppose,” he says.

They go on. Geralt rides Roach, but seeing that Jaskier makes no effort to try to join him, he assumes that is not something they do in their travels. Perhaps they take turns. Jaskier talks about their near escape, about whether anyone at Oxenfurt has noticed his absence yet, the particularly vivid plumage of a bird in a nearby tree, a lovely woman who once hid him in the chimney when her husband came home. Geralt listens, and notices, for the sheer volume of what Jaskier says, volunteering information on all matter of things,  none of it is particularly personal. He doesn’t give out the important pieces. His talk might seem to show him as an open book, but it is a clever way to mask how little Geralt actually knows of him.

Why would the Geralt of before know as little as Geralt does now? He can only guess that was the old Geralt’s way of enforcing distance, keeping Jaskier at arm’s length. He wouldn’t ask for more, and Jaskier knew better than to give it. What kind of travel companions go about together for two decades, though, and intentionally know so little of what really matters about each other? Maybe, he wonders, that was at the root of their final separation, the one that—after hearing Yennefer and Jaskier talk outside his room—he knows better than to expect answers about.

They stop to eat after Geralt finds a couple apples hidden in Roach’s saddlebags. There, stretching out their legs, Jaskier gives him a furtive glance and pulls a journal from his pack, an inkwell, a quill. He balances the journal on his knees and begins to write, quickly filling a page.

Geralt looks at the ink splattered across Jaskier’s hand from the speed of his writing. –You always write your songs in those silly colors, you were running low—he’s embarrassed, gruff, in the face of—Jaskier’s happiness, an unbelieving grin—a new inkwell? For me? Geralt—

The pain is manageable. He shifts, sits up further.

“That song you mentioned yesterday, the famous one about me. Would you sing it?”

Jaskier looks up, his tongue poking between his lips. “You—want me to sing?”

“You don’t?” He had assumed that bards lived to do just that—burst into song at any moment.

“Well, well,” Jaskier blusters. “I’d have to do some vocal warmups, some scales. The voice is a delicate instrument, you know—”

“Are you bad at it, then?”

“I beg your pardon?”

Geralt shrugs. “Seems like you don’t want to. Even if…” he coolly meets Jaskier’s eye. “It helps me remember.”

Jaskier points his quill at him. “You’re a menace.” But he stands up, unlatches his instrument case, and brings out a lute. Geralt hadn’t seen it until then. It is obviously well-cared for.

“It’s a very nice lute,” he offers.

Jaskier cuts him a sideways look. “Yes. Filavandrel’s lute.”

“Filavandrel?”

“After we were captured by the elves in Posada. A better sort of apology, I would say, to give this as a gift.”

“You didn’t tell me we were captured by elves in Posada,” Geralt says.

A lute string makes a twang. “You do realize I am trying to condense twenty years into the most important bits, don’t you? Forgive me if I don’t mention every time a life was put in danger. It gets tiresome.”

Before Geralt can reply, Jaskier launches into song. He is good. He is better than Geralt expected him to be, and he already knew that Jaskier was considered to be the best on the continent. His hands move skillfully over the lute, his voice effortless and clear, rising and falling with an ease that belies his talent.

The pain is not so manageable, this time.

--Toss a coin to your witcher—the stench of selkiemore guts—Jaskier laughing, delighted, at the sight of him—

Jaskier’s singing cuts off. “Oh, come off it, I’m not as bad as that!”

Geralt realizes he’s wincing, his fingers pinching the bridge of his nose. He lifts his hand away.

“It’s not that,” he says, but it’s like the bard doesn’t even hear him.

“And here I thought fillingless pie was the worst insult I had to weather on that,” Jaskier is saying, glaring murder all the while.

“It’s not that,” Geralt says again, although he doesn’t know what the other man’s referring to. “I’ve been having headaches. This one was bad, but it’s gone now.”

Jaskier’s glare dims slightly. “Headaches?” he says suspiciously. “Since when?”

“Since I woke up without my memory,” Geralt says. “I don’t know what sets them off. They seem to be happening more often.”

“That might be bad, Geralt,” Jaskier says. “Especially since we only have so much time to fix this in the first place.”

“I’m fine,” Geralt replies. “Are you ready to go?”

Jaskier looks concerned, but he puts his lute away and joins Geralt and Roach on the roadway.

“Want your turn?” Geralt says, nodding his head toward Roach.

“Oh, ha, ha, Geralt. Very funny.”

“What?”

“Acting as if I—wait. Are you seriously offering to let me ride Roach?”

Geralt sighs. “Should I not be?”

“Has the sun fallen from the sky?”

Geralt senses an affronted speech coming on, but Jaskier is interrupted by a wagon passing them in the road. Its driver sees Geralt, doubletakes, abruptly stops. Geralt knows that look.

“White Wolf!” The wagondriver says. “I am mightily happy to stumble across you here.”

“See, he probably likes my song.”

“I must ask you to help—”

“Pass on,” Jaskier says, and makes a movement as if to shoo him back into his wagon.

“But, White Wolf—”

“Say your piece,” Geralt says.

Don’t say your piece,” Jaskier also tells him.

The wagondriver looks between the two of them, perplexed. Jaskier wheels to glare again at Geralt.

“We are up against time here, Geralt. Hunting a monster has to wait.”

“These kinds of things tend not to wait,” Geralt says. He takes a step toward the wagon.

“Geralt, no.”

“It’s fine.”

He knows how to do this. No matter if he gets his other memories back or not, he will always know how to do this. It is what he is meant for.

“Geralt, no.”

He does anyways.

**

It is typically nasty Witcher business. A kikimora, based on the description, and three dead from the same family, including a little boy no more than four. Geralt leaves Roach with a thin-lipped, annoyed Jaskier, and enters the swamps the wagondriver had directed him to. It is very quiet there, very still. Not even a bird. He paces through the muddy outer reaches of the swamp, sword out and ready.

With a startling burst of sound, the kikimora emerges from the water. It is large enough to fill Geralt’s entire field of vision. He feels a sharp tug at his feet, and then he is violently pulled into the depths, and it begins.

He knows that he can slay this monster. He has slayed many others like it before. He also knows that he can survive it, even if it hurts him, and he knows it will. So much of a witcher’s life is pain. Still, though, he doesn’t expect how bright the pain is, when it comes, blooming forth from his side. If his pain was a sound, it would be a scream. It if was a color, it would be redredred. His pain is all that and more.

**

He is relaxed, when he wakes. Strangely loose-limbed. It is almost akin to the state he enters after having sex. Remembering the kikimora, the pain, he is not sure he should feel like that at all.

He opens his eyes.

You,” Jaskier hisses. “You absolute block of a man. Like a rock came to life, or a dead stump. Do you hear me, Geralt? You have less sense than a swarm of midges, and only thanks to me do you not have a similar lifespan.”

“Jaskier,” Geralt sighs. “It’s nice to see you, too.”

“Yes, how nice,” Jaskier seethes. Contrary to his tone, his actions are very gentle—a warm, damp rag, moving slowly over the bare skin of Geralt’s side. It feels so good he could nearly fall asleep again.

“What happened?”

“You killed the monster,” Jaskier says. “But the monster nearly killed you. I managed to get you on Roach and brought you back here.”

There’s a fire somewhere behind Jaskier, accounting for some, but not all, of the warmth in Geralt’s limbs.

“Hmm,” Geralt says drowsily. “It was bad?”

“Bad,” Jaskier confirms. “Don’t worry, though. It’s healing nicely already.”

Geralt feels a little less drowsy. He props himself up on an elbow, trying to look. His chest is bare, his armor and shirt gone. He can see the skin knit together on his side, slightly pink.

“How did you—”

“I traveled with you for years,” Jaskier reminds him, smiling faintly. “I know all your potions and have some of my own, besides, still rattling around in the bottom of my pack. Can even do some decent stitches without losing my lunch. Now lie back. This is supposed to help with inflammation.”

Geralt does unprotestingly. He doesn’t know why, but what he feels first is a strange sense of guilt. Only earlier that day, he had been thinking about how little they knew of each other, but he is wrong about that, too. Jaskier apparently knows all the dozens of potions in his bag, and their purposes and applications, which should be used when. Geralt knows himself—he wouldn’t trust just anyone with that information. That alone says that Jaskier knows plenty about Geralt, or has learned enough, and from sheer force of will. And if Geralt can’t say the same—well.

Jaskier carefully wipes the cloth, damp with poultice, up and down Geralt’s ribs, tenderly over his wound. His other hand, Geralt realizes, has been on Geralt’s shoulder this whole time—to keep him from moving when he was still unconscious, he thinks, but Jaskier could have removed it, by now, unless he is used to this kind of touch—warm, grounding touch—on Geralt’s skin. His face is patient, focused. Like Geralt is the only thing that matters.

--You usually just let strangers rub chamomile all over your lovely bottom?

“Did I hurt you?” The motion of the cloth stops. Geralt wonders what Jaskier sees in his face, because there had been a sudden headache, but another feeling, too, those words floating behind his eyes.

 Perhaps there is something else in Geralt’s system, something for pain, that relaxed him more than it should have, because he does not stop the words that come next from his lips.

“Did we ever—you know. When we traveled?”

Even in the darkness, Geralt can make out the deep flush that spreads down Jaskier’s neck. His breath hitches.

“No,” Jaskier says. “We—no.” He puts the cloth to the side. “There were a few times—I was drunk. But you weren’t. So we didn’t.”

Geralt turns his head to see Jaskier more clearly. “And if you hadn’t been drunk?”

“Then it still wouldn’t have happened,” Jaskier says flatly. “We need more firewood. I’ll be back.”

Time drifts in a strange way. Enough of it that Geralt’s head clears, and he wonders if he should be embarrassed, which is a new sensation for him, or, at least, one he can’t remember feeling for a while. Had he misread that? He manages to sit up, then stand. His side protests, but not enough to make him worry. He stumbles toward the trees. He’s able to find Jaskier relatively easy, his eyes piercing through the gloom, but he knows Jaskier is too far away to see or hear him in return.

He stands there, looking. Jaskier is sitting at the base of a tree. He is sitting so that his palms push into his eyes, his fingers lost in his hair. If he is crying, Geralt can’t tell—his shoulders too still, his breaths too even. But, then, maybe Jaskier knows how to cry too softly for a witcher to come investigate.

Geralt limps back to the bedroll by the fire. Lays down. He tries to stay awake for Jaskier, but the pull of sleep is stronger. He thinks Jaskier might prefer it that way.

**

“Here it is.” Jaskier’s voice is less enthusiastic than it had been when he’d shown Geralt the cluster of rocks in Posada, or the abandoned palace. Here, they’re at another half-destroyed building, a large house that has since mostly caved in.

Geralt stiffly swings down from the saddle. It had been about an hour’s ride from the campsite, and his side feels almost completely better. His side was still slightly sore, so he was happy to ride Roach, but less happy about the conspicuous silence at his back. Jaskier, trudging behind the horse, is less verbose than the past few days, aside from some pointed, polite questions about Geralt’s wellbeing.

Geralt has some pointed, less polite questions. Such as, if they both wanted to bed each other in the past, why hadn’t they? It would make sense, Jaskier’s testy answers about muses and money aside, that Geralt had Jaskier travel with him because they were bedmates. He knows other witchers—Lambert comes to mind—who do this to break up the monotony, the isolation. Geralt thinks he must have wanted to, too. Had he never shown these desires—why? What had stopped them?

“Well?” Geralt asks, and Jaskier jumps, obviously caught in his own thoughts. “What are we doing here?”

“This way,” he says, and leads Geralt around the corner to a particular window. He gestures in at a destroyed room. “That’s where it happened,” he says. “You and Yennefer, making the beast with two backs, you know the euphemism. The beginning of all that. I have to ask, is there actually a beast with two backs? Figured you would know.”

“Yennefer and I met here? Why?”

“There was a djinn. You needed help.”

“I can handle a djinn on my own,” Geralt says. “I could handle a djinn in my sleep.”

“Well funny you should mention that,” Jaskier says. “Never mind. You wouldn’t get it. At any rate, you couldn’t handle this one alone.”

--Fix it, and I’ll pay you, whatever the price—his own fear, concern, clouding out everything else—Jaskier’s blood bright down the front of the doublet—

Geralt leans over, massages his forehead.

“Fuck.”

“What is it?”

“Nothing,” he grunts. “Now, are you going to tell me your hand in all of this?”

Jaskier looks chastened. “I… was the reason you needed help with the djinn.”

Jaskier.” It’s frustration, more than anything, that the bard keeps shrinking away from telling the full stories of these places. How is that supposed to help him? Still, at Geralt’s tone, Jaskier sidles a few steps away.

“It’s a good story, that one,” says a new voice. A female voice. Geralt looks up, and there’s Yennefer—polished, perfect, not a hair out of place. “Shall we tell it over lunch?”

**

Lunch is a fantastic spread magicked up by Yennefer. They eat sitting on the grass in front of the ruins of the house.

“So,” Yennefer prompts briskly. “Any luck?”

“None,” Jaskier says. “Nothing. Is that why you’re here, to take over?”

“Not yet,” she replies. She pinches a cluster of grapes from a stem, passes it Jaskier. “Eat something. You look pale, unhealthy.”

--She saved your life, Jaskier. I can’t let her die—

“Thank you,” Jaskier says sourly, over the pain thrumming loudly in Geralt’s head.

“You know where you still have to take him, of course?”

Jaskier is scowling now. “Yes, I know where. It hasn’t slipped my memory.”

Geralt studies the two of them. There is a history between these two, but despite their antagonism, he doesn’t sense actual hatred. His gaze is drawn over to Yennefer—her perfectly red lips, her hair curling loose on her shoulders. He can understand why he would fall in love with her. There is a tension between them, a flame threatening immolation. It promises more danger in a lifetime made up of danger. He has been wondering what must have sidetracked Jaskier and Geralt from being bedmates. Now, he’s wondering if he’s looking at the reason.

For all that, it’s odd how he hasn’t thought much of her since he last saw her. It’s not that he forgot about her. That would be impossible. Nothing about her is made to be forgettable.

“Is that true, Geralt? You’ve been experiencing headaches?”

Geralt comes back to the conversation. “Yes. What do they mean?”

“Nothing good,” she replies.

“Jaskier told me about my Child Surprise,” he tells her. “Ciri.”

“Don’t worry,” Yennefer says, looking amusedly in the bard’s direction. “I’m not upset. If I wanted the bard to never tell, I could have easily silenced him on the matter. What are your thoughts on this revelation, witcher?”

“It sounds like nothing I’ve ever wanted in this life,” Geralt says. “But… I am curious to meet her.”

“You will,” Yennefer answers. She’s scrutinizing Geralt’s face, but she doesn’t seem displeased by his words. “When the time is right. And—well. Ciri’s actually the reason I’m here. She desperately wanted to know how you were.”

“I’m fine.”

“And I’ll tell her that. Geralt says, I’m fine. She’ll be riveted.” Yennefer laughs, shaking her head. It’s not an unpleasant laugh. Geralt’s eyes slide back to Jaskier, who is watching the both of them with a pinched look on his face.

Yennefer suddenly stands up, brushing down her skirt. “Jaskier,” she says. “A stroll around the grounds?”

“I would, but I’m feeling rather unhealthy,” Jaskier says. “Pale, even.”

“Now.”

Jaskier rolls his eyes, but stands up. A moment later, they are gone.

As with the last time the two went off together, they do not go far enough that Geralt is unable to hear them. This time, though, he wonders if this is Yennefer’s design. He’s seen enough of her so far to know that she is cautious enough—she could have magicked their conversation silent to his ears if she wished it.

“There’s nothing there, bard,” she is saying. “So stop looking for what doesn’t exist.”

“If you could not talk in riddles just once, please—”

“Geralt and I. You’re distracting yourself from the main focus. You, Geralt, the magic that made this happen. It’s a distraction you can’t afford.”

“Right. About that, Yennefer. I think the magic is doing exactly what it was meant to do. It’s very simple, actually. Evil sorceress that Geralt killed, and then you—sorceress. Beast that forgets all its memories—and then Geralt, forgetting all his memories. And then me—just one more of those forgotten things. Isn’t that ringing familiar to you? It’s destiny. Destiny, binding the two of you together, just like it once bound the sorceress and that monster.”

“It’s not destiny,” Yennefer says flatly.

“Oh? And why’s that, because I figured it out first?”

“It’s not destiny, because I have a choice in this. And I don’t choose this. I didn’t and I still won’t.”

“But Geralt—”

“I don’t care,” Yennefer hisses. “Don’t you see? I don’t care what Geralt chooses. Geralt’s choices don’t dictate mine. And I resent you thinking anything otherwise.”

That was the part Geralt was meant to hear, he thinks. So he is surprised with what comes next.

“You shouldn’t presume what Geralt chooses, either.” Her voice is softer. “You know I asked him, when he brought Ciri to me. I asked him what became of his pet bard. You couldn’t know, how much he lost in losing you.” She pauses. “And he has lost you now, in more ways than one, unless you can help him otherwise.”

Jaskier isn’t responding, and Geralt can’t tell why. He leans forward, looks at his palms, waits for the conversation to finally end.

“It’s the mountain next, isn’t it?”

“Yes.”

“I think that could be it,” she says. And then, “Are you wearing a horse’s blanket, Jaskier? You smell like a whole stable.”

“I—”

“I have to get back to Ciri.” And then she’s gone.

A few minutes later, Jaskier walks back to Geralt, still sitting in the grass.

“Should we go soon?” Jaskier asks.

“Fine,” Geralt says. A beat of silence passes. “She was supposed to tell me about the djinn before she left.”

“It’s a very boring story,” Jaskier says lightly. Geralt thinks Jaskier might be one of the worst liars he’s ever met, and he’s in a position right now to not even remember the vast majority of them. “Not much to it at all.”

Once they’ve retrieved Roach, Jaskier removes the map from his pack. He lets out a long sigh, like he’s steeling himself, and then his finger presses down into the map. What opens before them is a mountainside, a vast view, bitter cold. Jaskier steps through last.

“Looks like nothing changed,” he says, looking around and rubbing his hands together.

Geralt looks around at the bleak beauty surrounding them. This is the place that Jaskier seemed unwilling to return to. The place he’d whispered about to Yennefer, saying, You and Geralt falling apart on the mountain was not the end of that whole horrible affair.

“What is it about this place, that you didn’t want to come?” His breath comes out white, like the ghost of the words he’d said.

Jaskier doesn’t answer right away. He walks a few paces nearer to the cliff’s edge.

“Yes, here,” he says. “I think it happened right around here.”

“Jaskier,” Geralt says flatly.

“I’m just trying to work out the exact scene,” Jaskier says. His voice is flat, too, affectless.

--Just trying to work out what pleases me—he’s not in the mood—Jaskier, like a bright sun beside him, radiating compassion, care, love

“Headache?” Jaskier asks.

“It’s fine,” Geralt growls.

“Right, then,” Jaskier says. “It was here where you and Yennefer ended everything. She was angry with you. Very angry. Because you didn’t want to lose her—you loved her. But not losing her meant magic, and taking away her choice. So she left you.”

No wonder Yennefer had wanted him to overhear that last conversation. No wonder she looked at him still with some hostility. Still, he knows now that there is more.

“And you?”

“I watched it happen,” Jaskier says. “I was there. And afterwards, you were still angry. So I left.”

“Angry with you?”

If you’ll give me another chance to prove myself a worthy travel companion—

“Yes, I suppose,” Jaskier says. He’s looking down the valley. “Yes.”

“Why?” Geralt is starting to feel desperate, too many headaches coming too close together, too many starbursts of pain, too many memories turning to water when he reaches for them. “What did I blame you for? What was your fault?”

Jaskier looks slapped, his eyes darting to Geralt. “You overheard that conversation with Yennefer, then?”

--A pile of shit these days, it’s you, shoveling it—

“For the djinn,” Jaskier says finally. “For the Child Surprise. Whatever all of it means—that, too.”

“I don’t understand,” Geralt says. If they had traveled together for decades, if he’d trusted Jaskier enough to let him know him, if they had felt the way he knows they felt, what betrayal would be deep enough for Geralt to cast him from his life? Jaskier’s explanation is no explanation at all. He still can’t see what Jaskier did wrong.

“What else?” he says. “There has to be something else to it.”

“I don’t know,” Jaskier says. His face looks colorless, bleached by the cold wind. His face looks young, unsure. “I don’t know what else there is to it.”

“I still don’t remember,” Geralt growls, pivoting back to look across the view again. “I don’t remember a fucking thing.”

There’s a long silence at his back. Then, the familiar sound of the map unrolling.

“I don’t know where else to go,” Jaskier says. He sounds like he’s talking to himself. “Blaviken? I wasn’t there. That tavern in Temeria? Important places, important—” he breaks off.

Jaskier’s footsteps crunch to a halt just behind Geralt. “Here,” he says. He is holding out the map.

“What about it?”

“Yennefer said there’s enough to portal you to one more place, maybe two. I think you should use it. Find her, or find your other witchers, while there’s still time. I think they could help you better.”

“What are you talking about?” he snaps.

“I told Yennefer from the start that I don’t want this to be my fault, too,” Jaskier says. “I’m sorry. It’s not working. I’m not able to help you. So find someone who can.”

--That’s not fair—

“It’s not that bad of an idea,” Jaskier says, while Geralt waits out the starburst.

“It is,” Geralt grunts.

“It might be the only idea left,” Jaskier says. He pokes the map against Geralt’s hand, but he doesn’t move to take it.

“And what are you going to do? Stay here and freeze?”

“I know my way down a mountain,” Jaskier says. His mouth quirks humorlessly. The map pokes against his hand again.

“Try to give me that map one more time, Jaskier—”

--If life could give me one blessing—Jaskier’s face crumpling open—he must use this knife, his words, he must sever it all, because—

“You would want this,” Jaskier says. He sounds frustrated, exhausted. “I’m telling you that I know you, you with all your memories, and you would have no problem with this. You would know better than I do that I can’t do anything else. So go, alright?”

Geralt kneads his forehead. It feels like something’s thrumming just below his skin, like a heartbeat.

“I’ll go when you stop being a self-sacrificing idiot, thinking I should leave you here with nothing but a lute and a horse blanket.” When he can see again, he glares at Jaskier. “Come with me.”

“No.”

“No?”

“Go with you, and what? Resume our travels, act like the last twenty years never happened? I’ll do many things for you, Geralt, but no.”

“Why not?” he grits out.

“You know why,” Jaskier says, his voice rising. “I’ve waited for you for twenty years, Geralt. And in the end that was all you felt for me. I’m not going to wait twenty years more for the same result.”

--Take you off my hands—hollow, hollow—he has made it this way—

This time, by the time the pain clears, he sees that the map has been jammed into his unresponsive hand,  and Jaskier is already several paces away from him.

“Jaskier, this conversation isn’t done.”

“It is, though, because I am done with it,” Jaskier says.  He wipes his hand roughly down his face. “I hope it works, Geralt. With you, with Ciri. With everything.”

“Don’t—”

Jaskier shakes his head. “See you—”

--Around, Geralt.

The star in his head explodes. A white fire spreads through his head. It’s enough to drop him to his knees, panting. Following the fire is the rush, a deluge, everything he had lost returning with the force of a tidal wave. Everything. Almost everything. There is still an empty-feeling place in his chest, behind his ribs, because—

His head snaps up. Jaskier is not close, but not so far that he can’t catch up to him. He stumbles to his feet, following Jaskier’s retreating back.

“Jaskier,” he rasps out. The bard’s shoulders hunch up beneath his ears, but he keeps going. Geralt quickens his pace. His hand finds Jaskier’s elbow, jerks him around. Jaskier’s face registers surprise, confusion.

“It wouldn’t have taken another twenty years,” he says, and then he palms the back of Jaskier’s neck, keeping him there, and crashes their lips together.

Jaskier’s lips are cold and, at first, unresponsive. Then Jaskier gasps like a man coming up from water. He fists Geralt’s collar and kisses him back. Geralt crowds him closer, bruising their mouths together. Lavender water, wood polish, ink. Jaskier.

“Fuck,” he says, drawing an inch away. He gets an impression of wide blue eyes, a red, wet mouth. “Jaskier, I’m sorry.”

“Sorry?”

“I remember this place,” he says. “I remember everything. And I’m sorry.”

“But—how?” Jaskier breathes out. This close, Geralt can see the tip of his nose is pink. He makes a sudden decision.

“I’ll tell you everything,” he says. “Except, not here. Wait.” The map is still in his free hand. He snaps it open, and Jaskier helps hold it flat. Geralt’s eyes scan over the contours of the map. He is not looking for the places Jaskier circled in ink; not for places they’ve already been. He finds a likely spot, and lowers his finger.

The place where his finger was widens, widens. They look through. A gust of warm, salted air hits them in the face, the sound of water hissing sand.

“Ah,” Jaskier says. His cheeks turn red. He looks oddly pleased, shy.

“What?”

“It’s nothing, it’s, ah,” he says. “I was always embarrassed about that, after. That I’d laid it all out, and then you went to Yennefer’s tent. But—shall we?”

Roach comes snuffling down the path, sensing warmth, something to graze other than rock. All together, they go through.

Once they have, the map disintegrates apart in Geralt and Jaskier’s hands. A fine powder drifts away on the wind. Yennefer’s magic, used up.

“I loved that map,” Jaskier pouts. “Now how do we get around--walking?”

Geralt shakes his head. “Guess we’ll have to stay on the coast a while,” he says, a smile in his voice, “until we know where we’re headed to next.”

**

The coast is empty for miles in any direction. Roach leaves them, finds a scrubby tree that, in its shade, has a few tufts of grass poking through here and there. That leaves Jaskier and Geralt, standing together, facing the sea.

After a minute, Jaskier sits down on the sand. He pats the space next to him, and Geralt sits, too.

“So,” Jaskier says, squinting out across the water. “Everything.”

“Yes,” Geralt says. “Everything.”

Still, it isn’t easy to make the words come right away. He has to think it through.

“I know you don’t want to hear it,” Geralt says mildly, “but you didn’t go about this in the right way.”

Jaskier cocks his head, frowning. “Alright.”

“You took me back to places you thought were important to my memories,” Geralt continues. “And you did choose the right places, but not for the right reasons.”

“What were the right reasons?”

Geralt turns, digging a knee into the sand, to look at him. “Why did you take yourself out of all those memories, Jaskier? It was like you were trying to make it seem you weren’t even there at all.”

Jaskier’s fingers fiddle together, a nervous habit, Geralt knows, now that he remembers everything. He reaches over, puts his hand over Jaskier’s to still the movement.

“I think I know why,” Geralt continues. “And then I have to blame what I’ve done to make you think you weren’t important to me.”

“It wasn’t just… that,” Jaskier says. “It was selfish, I suppose. But I didn’t want to draw attention to my role in the djinn, or Ciri. Not when it’s what made you so angry.”

Geralt shakes his head. “It wasn’t true anger— I wanted to be alone, after Yennefer, and I made that happen. I had to say what would make you leave and not come back. I was thinking about my own pain, without caring how it might hurt you. You weren’t being selfish. I was.”

Jaskier nods after a moment. His fingers slot through Geralt’s. “It’s alright.”

“It’s not alright,” Geralt says. Jaskier’s mouth quirks. “Twenty years is a long time. It’s not alright to make you think I resented you that whole while. It’s not alright that things changed for us, in that time, but I never acknowledged it, never treated you any different.”

Jaskier nods. “Our roles were familiar to us,” he says. “I do understand that, Geralt. After so long a time of the same, a change can sometimes seem like… disaster.”

“But I don’t want to be like that anymore,” Geralt says. “Not with you.”

Jaskier opens his mouth to speak, but Geralt goes on. He’s finding the words, now, they’re spilling over.

“I want you to know—in Posada, when I saw the inn, I remembered meeting you there. Almost. I kept almost remembering you, everywhere we went. Even when you were trying to make me remember something else instead. The memories were gone, but there were still…certain words, feelings. I couldn’t control them.”

“Your headaches,” Jaskier says, in understanding.

“What I was feeling,” Geralt continues, “wasn’t what I should have been feeling for a stranger. Only a couple days, and I was already asking you to be my travel companion just then on the mountain—does that sound like me?”

“No,” Jaskier laughs. “Not in the slightest.”

“I wanted you,” he says bluntly. “I wanted you in my life because there was a part of me that knew I’d lost a life with you already.”

Jaskier shifts closer, knocking their knees together. Geralt thinks he’s forgiving him rather too easily. Not that Geralt doesn’t want to be forgiven. But if these past few days have taught him anything, it’s that it is all the better that it comes down to choice.

“What now?” Jaskier wonders aloud. “After this? I’m assuming you need to get back to Ciri, and the road. But I’ll be happy to join you, whatever the path.”

“Hm,” Geralt says. It’s easy to lean over across the warm sand, push Jaskier unprotesting onto his back. There is still time to be unserious, especially given the threat of Nilfgaard, future violence, the wars to come. The last few days. He leans on an arm over him. “Let’s not get too far ahead of ourselves.”

He could get used to Jaskier’s pleased smile, the happiness that leaks from his pores.

“No?” Jaskier asks.

“What about today, the next few hours?”

“You want to know what I think?”

Geralt nods, serious. This will be part of what he’s choosing, he thinks. He wants to ask Jaskier questions. He wants the old walls to fall away. He wants to know everything he can about him—Geralt thinks that Jaskier could keep surprising him for years.

“In that case,” Jaskier says thoughtfully, “I think I want to swim. And then I think we should probably eat something. And then I think you should bed me, somewhere between two and five times.”

Geralt leans down, his hair curtaining over Jaskier’s face, and kisses him. “Then we’ll do that.”

They strip out of their boots, leaving them upside down on the sand. Jaskier shrugs eloquently out of his doublet, less eloquently out of his trousers, hopping one-footed. He doesn’t wait for Geralt; runs naked down into the water.

“Ice cold!” he shouts gleefully, after being nearly bowled over by a wave.

Geralt comes to a stop with the water at his ankles, dubious.

“You’re not coming?” Jaskier shouts.

“I don’t swim very often,” he says. “I sink.”

Jaskier splashes closer. “All those muscles, of course you do,” he says. “You’re probably about as buoyant as an ox.”

It’s easy for Geralt, then, to go deeper into the water, his hands circling Jaskier’s wet waist, and throw him out beyond the next wave. Jaskier sputters, only laughs more.

They return to the shore when Jaskier’s lips go blue. He huddles in the horse blanket while Geralt finds a net in one of Roach’s saddlebags. The sun has nearly set by the time Geralt hauls in a couple fish, and Jaskier has a fire going in the dunes. They fry the fish, lick their fingers clean. Then Geralt spreads the horse blanket over the sand and pulls Jaskier down onto it beside him.

“How do you want me?” he asks.

“Everywhere,” Jaskier replies, already panting for breath.

He licks the salt from Jaskier’s skin. He tongues down over his cock, takes it to the back of his throat. Rubs the seams of Jaskier’s hipbones, holds him down. When Jaskier babbles, sings, he slides two fingers into his mouth. Pushes those wet fingers to Jaskier’s entrance, just slightly in, enough pressure for Jaskier to roll his hips up, and shudder, and pulse in Geralt’s mouth.

“One,” Geralt says, lips sliding down Jaskier’s thigh.

“Oh, lovely,” Jaskier hiccups, spreading his legs wider.

They have all night, and a vial of oil. Geralt takes Jaskier on his back, first, with his hips off the ground, and his legs tight around Geralt’s waist. His fingers make red scores down Geralt’s back when he opens him first with fingers, then pushes in full, and when Geralt fucks him then in earnest, steady thrusts, and when his teeth come down on the lobe of Jaskier’s ear, with just the edge of bite.

In the night, he pushes Jaskier onto his stomach, finds him still loose, leaking him. Jaskier moans into the blanket, happily lets himself get held down by the solid bulk of Geralt’s chest, the punishing snap of his hips. Makes a sound like a sob when Geralt pulls out, nudges his thighs wider, and then guides himself back in by the slow inch, until they’re fully flush together again.

“Just like this,” Geralt rasps in his ear, and he rocks himself in unhurried, barely-there thrusts, hardly drawing out, just letting Jaskier feel the stretch of him, until there’s nothing but the sound of their skin coming together, and the sea nearby, and Jaskier hoarse with begging.

And again, in the false dawn, gray light, when Jaskier shudders in his lap, oversensitive, and Geralt grinding into that spot deep inside him, tortuously thorough. He buries his face in Geralt’s shoulder when he comes, his cock rubbing wetly between their stomachs. Presses a tired kiss to the underside of Geralt’s chin.

Jaskier sleeps late. Luckily, they are in the shade of one of the scrubby trees, so he is protected from the weak sun. The morning still carries a chill. Geralt dresses, walks a little further down the beach, sits facing the sea. It is deceptively easy to think he’s always been here, with Jaskier, that he’s never had that empty feeling in his chest now that it’s gone. He wants to keep this. He wants to keep Jaskier in his life, and Jaskier to keep him. He thinks they will.

He looks up at the sound of footsteps in sand. Jaskier is approaching, wearing just his trousers and chemise, which is billowing out in the wind. The horse blanket is over his arm.

“Morning,” Geralt says, when Jaskier is close enough.

“Good morning,” Jaskier says, giving him a sly, sideways smile. He sits close, opens the blanket around the both of them. Geralt was not cold, but he is warmer with Jaskier.

“What are you brooding about over here all alone, hmm?”

Geralt shakes his head. “Wasn’t brooding,” he says. “I was thinking about—this. You, me, here.”

“I was, too,” Jaskier says. “There’s a trick I can do, bending over backwards, that I think you’d rather like. Shall we try it sometime after breakfast?”

Geralt raises his eyebrows, nods consideringly.

“But that’s not where your thoughts were, dear witcher,” Jaskier says. “I’m soiling your pure contemplations. What were you thinking about?”

 “More—the unlikelihood of it all. After twenty years, and Yennefer, and Ciri, and losing you and then my memories. That after all of this we would find ourselves on the coast, just like you said we should.”

Jaskier smiles, his face lit up by sun.

“Very unlikely—” he begins.

--And yet—

The words come easily to Geralt, like words almost never do. He reaches over, uses a knuckle to push the hair from Jaskier’s eyes. “Here we are,” he says.