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Thicker Than Water

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Jaskier never got an apology after the mountain. He’d never gotten the rest of the story from the others either, but after everything it didn’t seem all that important. Maybe it never had been.

Twenty-two years.

It wasn’t so long, not when Jaskier knew he had an entire lonely eternity to look forward to. But to be fair, he hadn’t known that twenty-two years ago. He hadn’t even known it last week. It turns out having a very pleasurable liaison with a high priestess who had just so happened to be the mortal vessel for a minor goddess, has its perks. He’d seen her in a bar three nights ago and she’d bought him a cup of milk and asked him how immortality was going.

Of course, he’d thought she was joking. He was pretty heavily into his sixth? seventh? pint of the evening. It was strong stuff and she’d bought him milk to sober up. He just told her his skin care must be working and she explained that, yes, it was, his skin looked very nice, but no, that wasn’t why he still looked twenty-three.

Then a fan had bought him some rather nice gin and after that he doesn’t remember the evening. He hoped he’d bid the priestess goodbye.

He’d been drinking more lately. Jaskier had never actually had much of a head for drink, preferring to sip a light wine than down things more akin to paint thinner. Now, though, well. It was the mountain, wasn’t it? He’d never taken rejection well. Oh, sure, a potential lover turning him down was one thing, admittedly it stung, but he would never force unwanted affections, and he’d always had a mobile heart, ready to fall in love with someone new. Criticism on his music? That depended, the reasoned, encouraging criticism of a good professor was fine. Nothing else was. He poured his heart and soul into everything he sang, even if it was just a nonsense song or a ditty plucked out on the road. Having it criticized cut straight through him, especially by those he cared about.

The hurt ran deeper though. The youngest son of a minor noble, with two big, strong, fighting brothers and one sickly but pretty younger sister, Lotte, he’d always been a bit of an odd duck. His brothers had heckled him, but they hadn’t been home often. His father had beat him, but that pain at least was only physical. His mother ignored him. That had hurt. It still hurt, when he thought of it. Lancing through him like a knife of ice. And then Lotte, who had loved his stories and music, had died. A fever took her suddenly in the night and after that Lettenhove held no more light for him. So he left and his father was happy to see him go.

Some things you bring with you. His family had never given him any gifts, but left him with a lifetime of baggage. Their voices in his head telling him he was never good enough, a weakling, a burden. A shit shoveler.

Sometimes a much smaller voice, that sounded a little like Lotte piped up. He was good at music. He brought people joy. But it was so much weaker than the constant barrage of hate.

And now Geralt.

Jaskier wanted to believe that Geralt didn’t hate him, that twenty-two years of grunts and silences meant at least a glimmer of friendship. But how could it? Jaskier’s own family hadn’t wanted him, and here he was, forlorn that after he’d inflicted himself on Geralt for two decades he’d finally been thrown aside. Like the garbage he always had been. He tried not to let himself think about it too much, but somehow the thoughts always found him. Usually at the bottom of a bottle. Or three.

There were no doubts in his mind about Geralt. Jaskier could never believe Geralt a cruel man, not after years of watching him fight dreadful monsters for less coin than chimneysweeps earned. Years of him patiently bearing the worst of people and cleaning up their messes and saving lost baby birds. Jaksier never would have believed it, if not for the testimony of his own two eyes. Geralt had scooped the downy thing up in one massive hand and examined it with such tenderness in his honey-gold eyes that Jaskier wanted to cry. A part of him wished, if only for a moment, that he was the bird, to be cradled in a strong, gentle hand and be the focus of such attentive care. He didn’t wish to be the bird later, when it died. Lost, injured baby birds often do, and Jaskier had played a sad little tune as Geralt buried it carefully.

A man, a witcher, who buried and mourned a baby bird, was not bad. Not a monster or cruel, although sometimes a bit unkind.

At the bottom of bottles and pints Jaskier wanted to hate Geralt, wanted to think him a monster, a butcher, he even wrote it into his songs, a garroter. He couldn’t do it. He found plenty of room to hate himself though.

Every sore point in Geralt’s life, at least those within the last two decades, had indeed been Jaskier’s fault. The banquet? Jaskier had insisted, practically dragged Geralt into a messy political situation, even if it looked like a party on the surface. The djinn? He’d provoked a sleep deprived Geralt and then pouted like a child when his singing was mocked. For Melitele’s sake he’d called Geralt butcher when they’d met. He wondered sometimes why Geralt hadn’t left him to the tender mercies of the djinn. He knew why.

Because Geralt was kind. Not a gentleman, not with the talking to his horse, and the growling, and the (admittedly not that bad) smell. Not a gentleman, but a gentle man.

Geralt had been kind enough to put up with a troublesome bard. A bard who, young and green as he’d been in Posada, would have had his neck slit by bandits or thieves before his twentieth year. He’d pitied Jaskier and let him stick around, putting up with him as no one else had. Not his parents or his brothers, not Valdo, his first love, who’d subsequently cheated on him and laughed at his tears, not even his various dalliances put up with him. A night of pleasure was all he could offer, out the door (or window, or over the hedge) in the morning, lest he burden them with his presence too long and be stabbed by their rejection. Everyone had their breaking point though, and Geralt had reached his after twenty years, as well as a breakup, a dragon man, and Jaskier asking to run away together all within twenty-four hours.

That left Jaksier, lost in a forest with no money and only sad songs to sing, which don’t bring much coin in a world that already knows enough sorrow, two months after the dragon hunt.

Things were bad. For Jaskier and everyone else. He had no money for warm clothes or new boots, and winter was fast approaching. Nilfgaard’s soldiers were looking for him, they stormed everywhere, searching for the White Wolf and his charge, or anyone who might know something. Cintra had fallen, and it’s lioness with it, and Jaskier could only hope that the child surprise, whose name day banquets he’d missed not one, had met her destiny at last.

He hoped his destiny wasn’t skewered on the end of a Nilfgaardian blade.

He couldn’t go to Oxenfurt. They’d look for him there, and he had too many friends whose lives he would endanger as well. Here, on the road, he was anonymous. His fine clothes were dulled with dirt and wear, and his hair was longer, curling at the ends and bout his ears as it was wont to do when he went without a hair cut. He hadn’t shaved in a couple days either. Jaskier hoped he looked dashing, but he suspected he just looked scruffy.

He certainly didn’t look like the famous bard Jaskier, herald of the White Wolf, though, so perhaps it was all for the better.

And then, in the middle of a forest, with the first frosts of autumn on the ground, he met the amethyst eyes of a sorceress.

Fuck.

Chapter Text

Of all the eyes he could have met, purely by chance, in a forest while running from people who wanted to kill him, Yennefer’s were not the one’s he would have chosen. He wasn’t sure who he’d like to see right now. Geralt definitely, but also not. It was only a small mercy Geralt wasn’t with his witchy lady love right now.

She met his eyes, intense and unexpected, like heat lightning. She looked him up and down, lip curling, disgusted and pitying, but somehow not as unkindly as he’d expected. She turned.

“Geralt,” she yelled. “I found your pet.”

Shit. Shit shit shit.

He was about to turn and…run? Hide? What could he do? But then a pale face peeked around a tree. White blonde hair, bright, cautious eyes.

Then the girl gasped and ran forward.

“Dandelion!” The rising cry of delight frightened birds from the trees and a blue blur rushed at him. He was slammed to the ground by a rather bedraggled princess and he had never been so glad.

Of all the people he had burdened, he’d never felt like one around Ciri. Her arms were a vice around his neck. He hadn’t been hugged like that since his sister had passed away and he sat up in the cold, damp leaves, clutching her to him. She looked up at him with a face like a moonbeam.

“I found the white wolf, from your stories,” she said. Her eyes were big and trusting and she seemed to expect Jaskier to be pleased and proud. And he was. He had no doubt that Geralt and Ciri would be good for one another. The issue was that now he had to deal with–

“Jaskier.”

Shit. Geralt.

He stood, setting Ciri gently down and brushing himself off. He turned.

“Hello Geralt,” he said evenly. He hoped it was evenly. Don’t yell at me, he thought. Don’t tell me I’m a burden again, as he stared into impassive golden eyes. I know I’m a burden but just let me leave, I won’t bother you again but I can’t bear it.

“Dandelion can come with us, right Geralt?” Ciri said. The White Wolf raised one eyebrow.

“Dandelion?”

Ciri clutched Jaskier’s hand in one of her mittens. “He played at my name day banquets, all of them, but Jaskier’s hard to say when you’re a baby.”

Geralt met Jaskier’s eyes and it felt like a physical blow.

“Hmmm,” he said.

“Little highness,” Jaskier said sweeping his most over the top bow. “I am afraid I cannot stay, and shall have to part from your delightful company.”

“Is Nilfguaard not looking for you,” Yennefer said cooly.

“They’ve yet to find me.”

“Yet,” Yennefer said. “Isn’t good enough.”

“If they find you they’ll know our secrets,” Geralt said. That hurt. Jaskier would rather die. That Geralt thought Jaskier would give him up, even if they hadn’t parted as friends, stung like salt in an already gaping wound.

“Jaskier you have to come with us,” Ciri said, dragging on his hand. “Please I’ve seen so few people I know come with us.” He couldn’t resist that. He was strong but not that strong. He looked to Geralt hesitantly.

Geralt wouldn’t want him along. He was a shit shoveler and a burden who would only eat their food and make them move slower. But as Geralt had pointed out, Nilfguaard wanted him dead too. They could just kill him here and now. Geralt could have his life’s blessing, but he wouldn’t because he was a good man.

Geralt nodded. “Come,” he said in that rough rumble that Jaskier had missed.

He was coming along. But this time was going to be different. Jaskier wouldn’t be a nuisance or a burden. He wouldn’t talk too much, or get into trouble. He wouldn’t use up rations. He wouldn’t complain. Jaskier set his teeth like steel agains words falling out and nodded.

 

They slept that night in the forest. It was cold and winter was reaching icy tendrils towards them. Yennefer had a magical tent, but it could only sleep two. She and Ciri claimed it and Jaskier could see why. Yennefer was strong as always but her posture drooped sometimes. She was exhausted. Jaskier had heard of the battle at Sodden, and could only image. Ciri of course needed somewhere warm to sleep. Geralt and Jaskier just pitched tents on either side of the fire.

Jaskier hadn’t eaten with them that night, telling them instead that he’d eaten earlier.

He hadn’t, and his stomach burbled unhappily as he set his tent, but he hummed low so that Geralt wouldn’t hear it. Between risking annoying Geralt and using rations that the others needed, Jaskier would be annoying. It hurt to think of though.

His one man tent was little more than cloth draped between some sticks, but it could be folded up and it was light. He’d patched it so much that it looked like a quilt, but it would keep some of the rain off. He glanced at the moon, almost totally obscurred by clouds. It looked like rain.

Ciri begged for a song and a story but he told her he was too tired.

It was partially true. He hadn’t been eating well lately, preferring to drink his meals, and he’d been walking for days, but he was never too tired to perform, simply too wary of fraying Geralt’s nerves.

It did rain that night, and the pitiful tent dripped freezing water onto him, and the ground was cold and damp and he woke up soaked and shivering before dawn.

No one was up. That was rare, Geralt slept like a tree. As in, he didn’t. Half winks and meditation were most of his sleep schedule, the occasional deep sleep left him snoring and out for at least nine hours, but Jaskier had seen that perhaps a dozen times in twenty years.

Now, though, the mosring was still and the light was dim, causing grey shadows to lurk on the edge of vision, and yet somehow it wasn’t ominous. His body ached and he was cold. Not a patch on him wasn’t damp and clammy, and an acorn or a rock had dug into his back all night.

Regardless, he packed up his tent and gear, changing into some, only mildly dryer, clothes, and then he went in search of firewood.

Jaskier had to stray much farther from the camp than he would have liked to find dry wood, but he found enough to soon have a small fire crackling merrily. He’d even found some berries he recognized for breakfast. If he foraged now, he wouldn’t eat the much needed rations.

Geralt crawled out of his tent and hummed appreciatively at the fire. That felt good. Jaskier had done something right. Not a burden.

“Look at all this fog, Geralt. Like a blanket don’t you think?” Jaskier said, poking the fire into a better arrangement. “Reminds me of that time we…” He trailed off. Geralt was scowling, face like a thundercloud and eyes like lightening. Jaskier hadn’t seen that much anger on a face since…

The mountain.

Right.

And here he was prattling on right after he told himself he wouldn’t be a burden.

“Well, you remember,” he finished lamely. Did Geralt remember? The fog in the glen, when they’d crawled from their bedrolls into a morning made of clouds? If he did remember, did he remember it fondly? Jaskier had spent most of the day coming up with rhymes for fog and bugging Geralt for his opinions.

Another time he was a nuisance, probably.

Jaskier huddled in on himself, wrapping his worn traveling cloak tighter around his shoulders. The berries really hadn’t been enough, and he wondered if he should have some of the horrible traveler’s loaf from his pack. He decided to save it. If he could wait until lunch, or better yet dinner, the food would last longer. Less of a burden.

He wanted to play his lute, the sexy girl had been languishing for days now, but his fingers were too cold and stiff to play. And he’d annoy Geralt. Even worse, he might wake Ciri from her much-needed sleep.

He pulled his girl out anyway, not to play, but he carefully tended to the strings, plucking each quietly once or twice to check the tension, then he brought out his cloth and carefully waxed and polished the wood.

It wasn’t unusual for a good lute to last twenty years. But twenty years on the road through dust and mud and rain was different. Constant care and an oilskin cover were his saviors. It might not have been worth it for any other instrument, but this was Filavandrel’s lute. Somehow it seemed like the only instrument worthy of singing about the White Wolf.

He put it away.

He didn’t sing about the White Wolf much, since the mountain. He didn’t want to break his own heart again every night, and a low profile had been to his advantage.

Somehow though, it made him sad, and he thought of Professor Fredegar, the master of poetry at Oxenfurt, or he had been.

Fredegar had been an old man. He looked like he’d been made out of parchment and had somehow ingrown his clothes, like a turtle in a shell of thick woolen sweaters. He had been quiet and his hands shook, and Jaskier had liked him. He’d been kind and had wonderful stories to tell if a student came to his dusty office and sat with him a while.

There had always been something sad in the back of those pale eyes, though.

He’d been a great poet, still was, but in his prime he’d written the Saga of the Flame, a trilogy of epic poetry. The stories individually in the saga were well known about the Continent, but the whole tale…

The first part told of a young man, engaged to his blind ady love, but without money for marriage so he traveled to foreign places. Many smaller adventures were had and the first book was pretty jolly.

The second book was him seeking fame along with fortune, and forgetting his lady love for the sake of his pride, wanting someone grander than a blind village girl. Then he lost a battle of wits and was greatly humbled.

The third book found the man stumbling home, getting lost along the way. He returned to his village almost twenty years after he’d left, and his love had died, succumbing alone and uncared for to a return of the illness that had cost her her sight in her youth.

It was a true tragedy, and one that didn’t advertise itself as such until the last moment. It hooked a reader into emotions so deep they could drown. And there was a quality, something heavy in the story, that told Jaskier that at least some of it was real. He would look at Fredagar, sometimes, the way his eyes were so sad and faraway, and think about how the man had written a masterpiece and retired in barely middle age, rarely writing more than a sonnet here and there. There was a harp hung on the wall of pale wood, like that of the man in the saga, but Fredagar never touched it.

And then the man had died. He’d been one hundred and two, according to the chancellor of the university. He was buried by maybe a dozen faculty members and half as many students. And Jaskier had stood there, on that bright summer day at the graveside, and sworn that he wouldn’t live his life inside a university, to be buried and mourned by no family or friends besides some half-grateful students.

Yet, lately, it didn’t seem so bad.

He’d finished Her Sweet Kiss, and it was a true hit. He’d raised the reputation of Geralt, and witcher’s as a whole. Whatever happened, Jaskier’s name would be remembered forever. He could retire. Put Filavandrel’s lute in a glass case in a tiny office and teach ungrateful, hungover brats about meter for the rest of his life. It sounded nice, in a way. To settle down, and leave all thoughts of witchers and monsters and magic and wars behind him.

He couldn’t though. He’d been dragged into this and he’d have to see it through.

His stomach burbled unhappily and he glanced over at Geralt to see if he’d caught it. The witcher was staring at the ground, glowering like he would turn it into ash if he could.

Then he looked up and caught Jaskier’s gaze.

Jaskier was too slow to avoid pale gold irises, but looked away anyway. Geralt crossed to him from around the fire, boots crunching on leaves and frost.

Don’t break my heart again. Jaskier thought. I’m trying.

Geralt placed a hand like an anvil on Jaskier’s shoulder and he looked up.

“Ciri is glad you are here,” Geralt said. Then he continued to Yennefer’s tent to wake them up.

Ciri is glad, Jaskier could read between the lines. I will tolerate you for her sake. She is glad you are here. I am not.

Chapter Text

Traveling with Geralt, Ciri, and Yennefer was hard. They went slow for Yennefer’s sake, and for that Jaskier was thankful, but his entire body ached.

He’d woken up cold and damp, body sore from lying on the ground in his cheap bedroll, but he didn’t complain. He drank heavily from his water skin to keep his stomach from growling, unwilling to use up precious food for himself. He was being brought along on this journey against Geralt’s -and his own- wishes, but he would not be a burden.

He forged ahead, even, at one point, taking a bag from Yennefer. She didn’t have much to carry but he recognized the full body exhaustion on her face. She didn’t smile at him or thank him, but she nodded gratefully.

Jaskier reflected on that. He had wanted to hate the witch, especially back then, after the djinn, when he’d seen her and Geralt...playing hide the sausage. He found that he couldn’t. He was an artist, he appreciated beauty and pain and the use of words and an excellent storyline. Yennefer checked those boxes. Jaskier felt ashamed to want to dislike her. She’d held back forces at Sodden, she was strong and good with Ciri and cared for Geralt. He appreciated all these things.

It was just...she and Geralt and Ciri were all together. A powerful sorceress, a twice-made Witcher, a hero, and their adopted child with untold power and a regal birthright. It made a family. And just like with his own family, there was no place for Jaskier.

It hurt.

But he wasn’t supposed to be part of the family. He wasn’t there to share in the chatter Ciri directed at Yennefer and Geralt. Geralt even talked back a little, answering in one or two words the stream of questions. He answered them though. Jaskier wished he’d ever answered him.

Then he felt silly. He was jealous of Ciri, who was a child. A brave child, but a child nonetheless, who’d lost her home and her family and everyone she knew in a very short time. Of course Geralt would answer her questions, he was a good man.

He also liked children, Jaskier knew. He let his memory drift to a happier time.

It had been a summer fair in a tiny, agricultural village, tucked among wheat fields like a lost button beneath a patchwork quilt. The sun had been warm and the whole world was amber. Jaskier was playing music with a scratch band of anyone who wanted to join. Lighthearted jigs and reels had unfurled beneath his hands. He played The Willow Wedding and The Flowers of Fairside and other simple country songs that his fellow musicians might know. All around them people were dancing and laughing. Flower crowns were made. Young women shyly offered them and young men shyly took them to indicate blooming romance, but almost everyone in attendance had one, old and young.

Geralt had been standing, looming without intention, at the edge of the crowd, near Jaskier. In the shadows, in his black outfit (Jaskier had insisted he leave the armor back at the in) he looked out of place, like a thistle in a bouquet.

Then a little girl in a neat yellow pinafore, dyed with weld, probably, and carefully embroidered with little yellow roses at the collar stopped by the musician. She was perhaps four years old, and she looked at the dancers and then just sat down and began to cry.. It had been a sight to bend even the hardest heart and Jaskier had been just about to stop playing when Geralt crouched in front of her.

“What ever is the matter?” Jaskier had heard him say, softly.

“Everybody’s dancin,” sniffled the little girl. “An nobody wants to dance wif me.” She reached up and took the dandelion and daisy flower crown from her dark, bushy hair.

Jaskier’s heart just melted and he wanted to cry in sympathy as one big, blobby tear rolled down a round cheek. She scrubbed it away hastily but more were hanging on lashes all around her big, brown eyes.

“Nobody wants to dance with you?” Geralt said, affecting a wide eyed look of surprise. The girl sniffled again and pointed to the edge of the dancing, where a group of kids, a little older than her, where all wheeling about together.

“Not nobody,” Geralt said, gently putting her flower crown back on her head. “You haven’t asked me if I want to dance, have you?”

She sniffed the last of her sniffles and looked up, a slow smile starting. “Do ya wanna dance wif me?”

“Of course,” Geralt had said, then he’d very carefully lifted her so her tiny feet were safely away from trodding, and he’d set her feet on the tops of his big, black boots. Then Geralt had danced, a little awkwardly, but holding her little hands in his large ones and taking big steps so she bounced on his boots, which resulted in her shrieking with delight.

Eventually an older girl had pulled her away to go spin about with the others, but the memory lived in a quiet, warm place in Jaskier’s chest. He thought of it often, and the way the little girl had offered a tiny daisy from her flower crown. It had remained in Geralt’s fingers as he returned to his place, brooding in the shadows, spinning it between thumb and forefinger occasionally.

“Dandelion,” Ciri said, pulling him from his reverie. “Jaskier, can you tell me a story?”

Jaskier glanced back to see the look on Geralt’s face, but then wasn’t sure why he had, the witcher’s expression held no answers, it never did. The story that leapt to mind was, of course, Geralt dancing with that child in the sunshine, but he didn’t tell it. Instead he leapt into a tale, a long one, of the son of a king who wanted to marry the lovely daughter of an evil enchanter.

It was a good story, very long with lot’s of parts, so Ciri could ask for more again and again, and there were amazing characters with strange tales and true love and magic and wishes. Everything a good story needed. Jaskier prided himself on doing the voices for each new character.

Ciri traipsed along beside him, hanging on his every word. She was a good audience, making surprised noises or saying ‘oh no!’ at just the right points. Jaskier even noticed Yennefer listening, occasionally smiling to herself at a joke or a good part of the story.

Geralt walked on ahead. Jaskier had no way of telling if he was listening, but he probably wasn’t. The story was fantastical to the extreme and if Geralt were listening he would probably be scoffing and complaining about how that ‘can’t be done with magic’ and ‘there aren’t river dragons, there’s only water serpents, they’re different species entirely’.

It was funny, though, when they stopped for dinner-Jaskier picking at the rations offered, reluctant to use up supplies but unwilling to worry Ciri- he continued the story, and Geralt, who had been sharpening his sword, stopped.

Of course, it was probably simply that the blade didn’t need much sharpening, or that Geralt wanted to allow Ciri to listen. Still, Jaskier felt good. He hadn’t complained, he wasn’t eating too much food, and he wasn’t much of a burden.

And Ciri liked the story.

They kept walking after dinner, so long as they still had light, relying on Geralt in the dim twilight to find a spot to camp. Jaskier told more of the story, not even a third of the way through, and occasionally Ciri asked questions.

“Why did the king’s son not want to marry the oldest sister?”

“Because she was too cold,” Jaskier said, inventing, because the story didn’t say. “She was beautiful, but she could not love, so her heart turned to ice and everything she touched froze.”

“And the middle sister?” Ciri asked, wide eyed.

“She was too warm, she was angry, all the time, and so her heart turned to fire and all she touched melted or burned.”

As the story he told progressed, Jaskier used his additions in the story. The king’s son, fleeing with his soon-to-be bride, the youngest sister, had to escape the sorceror’s wrath, but the sisters tried to stop their youngest sister leaving, melting the chains of the drawbridge so that the couple couldn’t escape.

Ciri gasped and wrapped one hand in Jaskier’s traveling cloak, hanging on to him as tightly as she held to his words.

Then the eldest sister in the story sent a blizard after the couple, who had escaped the draw bridge just in time. Yennefer, who looked a little better after their meal and short rest, sent a tiny swirl of snow, a miniature blizzard from her finger, letting it play a moment with Ciri’s hair before dissappearing.

Ciri laughed with delight and Jaskier sent a smile to Yennefer, who nodded at him surprisingly warmly. A good story made everyone happy, he supposed.

They stopped for the night in another clearing. Ciri begged for more of the story before bed. Geralt sat, setting the fire so it could burn through the night, while Yennefer brushed out Ciri’s hair. It was a perfect, domestic little scene, and Jaskier felt odd, seeing it from the outside, but also in the spotlight of Ciri’s focus.

He plucked his lute quietly as he told the story. In truth, there were many little poems buried in the tale, and he’d long ago made little tunes for each so that they could be sung. When he came to one, though, he didn’t sing it. He just plucked out the tune as he talked, and when the poem passed he continued through the story, letting his music be the background.

Hopefully it was less annoying that way.

He wasn’t about to offer this perfect family a fillingless pie.

As he finally lay down to sleep though, he quite felt like a fillingless pie himself. Ciri and Yennefer had once again bedded down in the magic tent and Geralt was rolled up in his bedroll in his tent, across the barely glowing fire. Jaskier lay awake.

His bedroll was thin and his ribs fairly ached with hunger, but Geralt had said they were but a day away from a town. Jaskier could buy supplies there, he still had a little coin, and that way he wouldn’t use up the others’ food.

He could play in the town too, earn more coin. They wouldn’t stay there, he knew, not with half the continent searching for a white haired witcher and his child surprise. But the others needed supplies too, and Yennefer said she had enough magic for a small glamor to hide Geralt and Ciri’s hair and her eyes.

Jaskier settled in for the night. Earning coin made him useful, and therefore not a burden, so he would earn coin.

He made a list in his head of things he should buy to prepare for the trek up to Kaer Morhen. Gloves, his only pair had worn out last year. A thicker cloak, his was practically threadbare. Grapeseed and linseed oil. One for the beard he was growing and the other for his lute. New lute strings.

He rolled over on his bedroll, trying to avoid the root digging into his spine. He’d need to make quite a bit of money. He wasn’t sure he’d be able too. It wasn’t safe to sing about the white wolf, not too much, or someone might recognize him as himself, rather than just some bard singing Jaskier’s songs.

Country ditties then, but they made less money. It wasn’t just his supplies he needed to buy, either. Jaskier didn’t want to just not be a burden, he wanted to help.
They would all need thicker clothes and lots of food to make it to Kaer Morhen. He wasn’t a good hunter so he could really only help by supplying money to buy what they needed. He had little right now, and he felt shame rise in him. He’d had no way of knowing he’d meet up with Geralt and his child surprise, but if he hadn’t drunk so much of his money than he could be a better help.

He could sell his lute.
The thought came into his mind like a knife, and it turned his stomache. He could sell his lute, but the beautiful girl was the only physical thing he had to remind him of Geralt. Filavandrel’s lute. It would be worth a fortune, of course. Elven made, everyone knew they made the best instruments.

It was just...he couldn’t bear the thought of letting the lute go. He loved how she played, loved the memories he had. He knew the story behind every shallow scratch and scuff, and who could love her the same? And when the danger was passed and Geralt never had to see him again, what would Jaskier have then? A handful of memories, turned bittersweet, then bitter. Nothing concrete. He’d go back to Oxenfurt, maybe even Lettenhove. And there would be nothing for him to hold to remind him.

He couldn’t sell his lute.

The thought ate at him as he tried to sleep though. He had in his hands the means to help them all so much, and he was too selfish to do so.

Sleep eventually claimed him, and he dreamt of a mountain, wind whipping about his ears and carrying words to him.

Shit shoveler. Burden. If life could give me one blessing...
He awoke sore and badly rested, tears dried on his face.

Chapter Text

He awoke sore and badly rested, tears dried on his face.

Jaskier made it through the next day. He ate a little of the food Ciri offered him, only because when he tried to decline the first time her eyes got large and her bottom lip showed just the barest hint of a tremble. He couldn’t bear it. The dry horse bread that was usual for traveling rations crumbled in his mouth. He was so hungry, it was one of the best things he’d ever tasted.

Jaskier couldn’t bring himself to even unsling his lute from his shoulder during their trek. His fingers itched to play, of course. He continued his story for Ciri and in his mind he played music for the background, he just couldn’t do it. He wouldn’t sell his lute in this next town, but before they reached Kaer Morhen he would have to. It would give them money, and he wouldn’t be a burden. He swallowed down the lump in his throat and continued telling Ciri the story.

He noticed a bit before mid day that Geralt was watching him. That wasn’t out of sorts, of course. Yennefer and Ciri were watching him too, he was an excellent storyteller and the tale was enthralling. Geralt didn’t seem to be paying attention to the story though. He was staring-- glowering--brow low and furrowed, at Jaskier.

Jaskier felt hurt lance through him and he almost staggered, avoiding Geralt’s gaze. He knew Geralt didn’t want him along, didn’t want him at all, but he couldn’t even pretend? He couldn’t go back to their relationship before? Not the warm, almost companionable silences that had been nurtured between them, but the grunts and stone faced silence of the beginning of their acquaintance.

Jaskier breathed through the pain in his chest. Twenty years of silences, all kinds of them, stony and friendly and sleepy and painful and quietly nice. But they were back to the beginning, or worse, Geralt angry and Jaskier’s voice filling in places it didn’t belong.

“Jaskier?”

That was Ciri, and Jaskier realized that he’d actually trailed off mid-sentence.

“Sorry little highness,” he smiled and gave a funny little bow. “I’m but a simple entertainer, a poet and a fool, sometimes my mind runs away from me.”

“Fool is right,” Yennefer snorted. It wasn’t totally unkind, but it still stung. It stung even more when Geralt, so taciturn all day, snorted with laughter at her comment. Jaskier felt his ears burn and his chest ache.

“Now, where was I?”

“The king’s son met the North Wind,” Ciri said, matching Jaskier’s steps. “And he has to beat him in a game of wit to gain knowledge of where the sorcerer’s daughter was taken, that’s what you said, but you didn’t tell us what game yet.”

At least someone treasured his words, Jaskier thought. Although they weren’t worth much, he threw one out after the other.

Like garbage, whispered the back of his mind.

“Ah yes,” he said instead. “the North Wind sat before the king’s son, and laid out a chess set made of ice and wind.”

“How can chess pieces be made of wind?”

Jaskier smiled, Ciri asked questions at all the right places. “The North Wind wanders, he goes everywhere, blowing cold breath across The Continent. When the North Wind is present and we breath our breath can be seen.” Jaskier smiled here and added an aside, “My little sister used to call it dragon smoke. But by the same magic that gives the North Wind a body to walk the world, he can take our frozen breath and turn it cold and solid as glass.”
Jaskier let himself tell the story on autopilot. His feet ached. He’d been darning the socks he was wearing for a year or more, but he wasn’t good at it and the lumps were rubbing his toes raw. Worse than that, the soles of his boots were almost worn through. Just one more thing he’d have to buy.
He felt ashamed of himself. His boots had been going thin for a while, and instead of saving his coin and getting them repaired or just buying new ones, he’d drowned himself in drink, feeling sorry. Oh, he hadn’t known he would be making a trip up a mountain, but he needed boots regardless. No wonder Geralt had always been upset with him, he always put pleasure over sense, couldn’t even spend coin sensibly.

Couldn’t darn socks, couldn’t budget his coin, couldn’t shut up. A fool.
He stumbled on a tree root and nearly swore. Couldn’t even walk right. One of the blisters building on his foot had burst, he was sure. It was easy to tell, the pain had gone from a rubbing ache to stinging and warm. Only years of practice and performance kept him from interrupting the story.

Something must have shown on his face though, or his scent changed or whatever because Geralt was staring at him intently. That face, always so unreadable.

Jaskier wasn’t going to give him anything else to scowl about. He kept walking, keeping the story rolling and his voice light. His bones ached. He had to stop for just a moment when a button, long past hanging loosely on his doublet, finally pulled free. He picked it up and the head rush nearly took him to the ground. He’d eaten little, slept poorly, and the only food he’d had in a long time before this was ale. He blinked the grey from his vision, trying not to let the panic show when it didn’t go away as quickly as he’d have liked.

It was okay. It was all going to be okay. They’d make it to the village by nightfall. They wouldn’t sleep there of course but he could get proper food. Maybe even slip away and catch a quick nap in a stable or hayloft or something. His whole body was buzzing with a sort of exhausted energy and his heart was pounding.

Jaskier reflected that he hadn’t been well before meeting up with Geralt and his little family. He’d been sick with drink and heartache and had not enough food then too.

Smile through the pain.

This wasn’t even bad as performances could go. Once he’d actually broken a finger just before a set at Oxenfurt. Simple clumsiness, he’d closed his index finger in a door, but he’d played his whole set, with a perfect score from his professor.

It grew darker, the sun just setting when they reached a field at the edge of the town. There was a large open field and, in warmer months, it was likely home to fairs and large market days. Probably in these rural areas people traveled for a week to bring their goods and livestock to this town. It didn’t matter now, mid autumn settling into late autumn. To Jaskier the town was nameless.

They set up camp in the field. It left them exposed to being seen, but plenty of people would camp in a field like this, so it wasn’t unusual. Still, Geralt seemed on edge. Jaskier wasn’t sure it was about the camp. Geralt kept looking over at him with his eyebrows pressed together. Whenever he did that it formed this little crease right between his brows that Jaskier wanted to kiss away.

Jaskier bit his lip, hard, to focus on anything other than that.

The three of them sat, too tired to talk much more. Jaskier had finished most of the story and decided to leave the rest for the next day they were traveling a lot, to give Ciri something else to think about. She was definitely Calanthe’s blood. They traveled all day and she never complained, but also told them when she needed to stop, advocating for herself in no uncertain terms. It was the princess herself who interrupted his thoughts.

“You said you had a sister, do you have lots of siblings?”

“Not really,” Jaskier said, settling down on the ground and feeling his bones pop. His blisters were definitely bleeding inside his boots too. “Two older brothers, Henrik and Teodor, and I had a younger sister, Lotte.”

“Had?”

“She was sickly, always too small for her age,” Jaskier said quietly. “I learned the lute for her, at first. She liked music and was often bedridden. A fever took her when she was about your age.” Jaskier looked down at his battered boots.

“I’m sorry,” Ciri whispered.

“It’s allright little highness, it’s been almost thirty years now. Time flies.”

“I didn’t know you had siblings,” Geralt said. It was growly, but Geralt always used that tone.

“You never really asked.”

Dinner was a quiet affair. Jaskier ate the last of the rations in his pack, waving away Ciri’s offerings and showing her his food as proof that he had some. It didn’t really settle the hunger that had been eating him from the inside out all day, but at this point he figured he could eat a mountain and still have room for dessert.

“Tomorrow,” Geralt said gruffly once dinner was cleared away. “We don’t all enter the town at once. Yen and Ciri go together. I go alone. Jaskier goes alone.”

Jaskier nodded, so did Ciri and Yennefer.

“If we see eachother, act as though we don’t know eachother,” Geralt said, then he turned his gaze on Jaskier. “Don’t attract too much attention.”

Jaskier bristled at getting his own private reprimand. “I’m a bard, Geralt,” he said. “How am I supposed to earn coin if I don’t play.”

Geralt grunted. “I didn’t say don’t play just no... don’t do the whole...” he gestured a vauge hand.

“The whole...me?” Jaskier said sarcastically. He was pulling at the lion’s tail he knew, but he was in pain and tired and hungry and Geralt had no right to be so cruel.

“The whole bright colors, loud and annoying thing. Country bard, not court bard, got it?”

Loud and annoying.

“Got it,” Jaskier said, looking back down at his boots. He didn’t say that none of his clothes could have passed for courtly anymore anyway.

They set about getting ready for bed. Ciri gave him a quick hug before she and Yennefer disappeared into their magical tent. Jaskier sat and pulled off his boots, not letting a single flicker of pain show on his face. He knew Geralt would be able to smell blood, but Geralt had gone to get water from the nearby river. He had to peel his socks off and yes, there was blood there, by now stuck into the threadbare fabric. He let himself wince then. He rinsed off the wounds but he was without bandages, so he just dried off the area and put his other pair of socks on. He only had the two pairs anyway, but at least the blisters would stay dry.

He rolled himself into his bedroll and thought of tomorrow. At least there were no tree roots here.

The next day dawned slowly, instead of bright pinks and oranges it was a kind of runny yellow that just leeched into the sky before fading into early morning blue. Jaskier watched in admiration as Yennefer changed Geralt’s hair to short and dark, and then gave herself brown eyes and a slightly different bone structure. To look at both of them was odd, because Jaskier could see the similarities. Yennefer’s nose was changed and her cheekbones were a little different, but it was still her, and Geralt just looked like a different, although quite handsome, version of himself. Ciri was simply given mousy brown hair and some extra freckles.

Just like that, the perfect and all powerful family looked like two normal people and one witcher who was still clearly a witcher but not the white wolf. Jaskier shouldered his lute. He’d cleaned up the scruff he’d been growing into a more respectable look and with his longer hair and tatty cloak he looked like any poor traveling musician. If he’d traded the lute for a shortbow he could have looked like a woodsman, totally nondescript.

He was entering from a different direction, so as not to arouse suspicion, and so was Geralt. Jaskier began walking around, so that he could enter from the east. Yen and Ciri would walk into town the closest direction, and Geralt was entering from the west. This early, it was unlikely they would have been seen all together.

Jaskier made his way to the eastern edge of the town and walked in, scanning the streets. If this were a farm people would be up and awake long before now, farmers wake well before dawn, but this was a town, and so few people wandered the streets. Shop keepers were just beginning to open up. Jaskier bought a couple pears, slightly overripe but cheaper because of it, off of a fruit seller and had breakfast. He tried to lock into his mind all the shops around so he could find his supplies easiest later.

His mind was resisting him though. In spite of the softer ground, Jaskier had still slept badly last night. His body ached and he wished he could find somewhere warm to lay for an hour or two. Instead he found the well.

As wells should be, this one was right in the center of town. He set down his lute case beside it, tuned his lovely lady, and began to play.

In his very first few months after leaving Oxenfurt he had learned this trick, and used it often. If you get into a town early, play at the well. People get their water first thing in the morning and there you are.

A few young women with yokes and buckets smiled at him and he nodded in return. The day brightened a little further as the sun crept above the buildings and more people came to gather in the town square. They weren’t there to hear Jaskier, not at first, most of them came for water, or to chat with neighbors, or discuss business. Many of them gathered around him though.

Coins clattered into the case. Mostly coppers, but in a little town like this that was quite normal.

“As sweet Polly Oliver lay musing in bed,
A sudden strange fancy came into her head.
"Nor father nor mother shall make me false prove,
I'll 'list as a soldier, and follow my love,” he sang.

 

“So early next morning she softly arose,
And dressed herself up in her dead brother's clothes.
She cut her hair close, and she stained her face brown,
And went for a soldier to fair Rinde Town.”

Sweet Polly Oliver was one of his favorites, a simple country song about a girl and her lover in wartime. This town was far enough north that with luck Nilfgaard wouldn’t attack, but the anxiety threatened.

Jaskier gave a good performance, perhaps not his best, but he was tired and cold and the flagstones beneath his feet were very hard. He danced about, playing sweet folk songs and jigs and reels, delighting in the people who swept up and danced along. Still, though, he felt his feet bleeding inside his boots. He played from just after dawn until perhaps an hour after noon before bowing away and taking his coin.

He’d done better than he’d expected, but there wasn’t nearly enough coin for all the things he’d need for Kaer Morhen, and extra food to help Geralt and Ciri. He’d buy what he needed now, and they’d stop again in Ard Carraigh before the keep. He’d sell his lute there, it was a large city, and he’d get a good price. The thought still made him ache, though.

It wasn’t just his emotions causing him pain, he realised. The aches he’d been experiencing were in his chest lately, and both physical and emotional. He just needed more rest.

Jaskier slipped through back alleys and bent streets. He’d seen a stable on his way into town. He stepped in quietly, startling a stable hand, no more than a boy, who’d been quietly talking to a horse.

“You’re the bard,” he said. “Saw you in the square jus’ this morning.”

“That’s right,” Jaskier said, bowing a little. “I’m afraid I’ll be moving on this evening and--”

“And you want to have a kip in the stables,” said the boy. “Yeah lots o’ musicians and peddlers do that. Rule is though, I got to get a coin off ‘em first as payment. I’m sorry, but I get a beating if’n I don’t.”

“No worries,” Jaskier said, he’d expected as much. He handed the boy two copper coins. “There’s pay, won’t have you getting beaten for my sake, the second coin is to wake me in two hours.”

The boy gave him a lopsided grin. “You got it sir, thanks.”

Jaskier snuggled up in the hay loft. He’d often done it, it was pretty common, if you couldn’t buy a stay at an inn or especially if you just needed a ‘kip’ as the boy had said, during the day. He’d slept in haystacks once in a while on the road too. They were sort of comfortable and surprisingly warm and, best of all, robbers didn’t get you if you kept yourself mostly under the hay.

The scent of hay and oats and horses lulled him to sleep.

He dreamed about haystacks. For some reason Roach was in the haystack with him. Geralt and Ciri too, even Yennefer. It was a crowded haystack indeed, and it grew smaller and smaller until Jaskier had to leave it and sleep on the ground so that the others weren’t squished.

He awoke to the stable boy nudging him.

“Pardon me mister,” he said. “But it’s been two hours.”

Jaskier thanked him and brushed off his clothes.

The shops were doing a good trade this afternoon and he’d be sure to be a face in the crowd. He bought a small cooking pot and plenty of ground oats and barley for porridge at one shop. They were light to carry and owner packaged them nicely, first in one cheap, cloth drawstring bag, and then in another such bag, but with the drawstring on a different side, so he was unlikely to lose food.

In another stall he bought plenty of nuts, walnuts were cheap here and would keep well. Good for traveling and they had protein. Some dried jerky, dried peas, and dried lentils finished his food shopping, and also most of his coing.

It was three days to Ard Carraigh, another week to trek up to the keep. The food would sustain him for that long, and they’d probably just pool their food to make sure everyone was fed. Still, he wasn’t being a burden, not too much.

He couldn’t afford new boots, gloves, or a cloak right now, but with the last of his coin he bought a new pair of thick, warm socks, a small roll of bandages, and a couple pieces of candied ginger in a little paper twist. He tucked them all away and left the town, disappearing back to the field and their little camp well before the sun set.

Jaskier’s heart sunk to see that he was the last to arrive. Everything was packed up, they couldn’t risk staying in the same place two nights in a row. Geralt grunted at him, but didn’t unleash any thoughts on Jaskier being a burden, so he counted himself lucky.

He hung his head a little at having delayed their parting and trekked after the perfect little family, his pack much heavier than it had been. Ciri slid her hand into his and they walked on in silence. The hand was nice though.

In an odd way, it hurt, too. He wasn’t part of the family, so he didn’t really deserve this, but it was painfully good to have just a taste of being wanted.

What would happen, he wondered, when the winter was over. He was a danger to Geralt and Ciri if Nilfgaard found him. He wasn’t wanted by Geralt at all. Jaskier was reminded once again that it would be so much easier for Geralt to kill him, or for Yennefer to wipe his memory. Maybe he could fake his death to get Nilfgaard of his trail.

“Jaskier?” Ciri asked. “How did you become a bard?”

Jaskier looked down at her, maudlin thoughts interuppted. “Oh, well, it’s not as though you have to register, you just become one. Walking into an inn and saying ‘let me play for you pretty please I need food’ is a good start.”

“No,” Ciri giggled. “I meant, you said you learned the lute for your sister, but you write your own music and stuff too.”

“Oh, well, anyone can write music if they have an instrument and a good enough memory,” Jaskier said. “Indeed, many of the greatest bards had little education at all, I, however, studied at Oxenfurt.”

“Did you like it?”

“Sometimes. It was school, and some parts were dull but I learned much.”

“I heard some of the maids giggling once about a young scholar who’d come to stay with us,” Ciri said, matter of factly. “He was always in the library and was kind of snooty with me when I asked questions, but the maids were saying he cetainly had a lot of ‘carnal knowledge’. Did you study that too?”

Jaskier was choking on thin air.

“I, um, no it was more of a hobby,” Jaskier said before his head could catch up with his mouth. “Little Highness, I suspect you weren’t supposed to hear that conversation, and no, I studied the seven liberal arts.”

“So it was about sex, I was never sure,” Ciri said.

Jaskier coughed awkwardly. “Yes, princess.”

“It’s okay, I know about that stuff, Grandmother explained it.”

Jaskier let out a breath, at least he wouldn’t have to be the one to explain anything to her.

“When you went to school were you scared to leave your family?” Ciri asked.

“No, pet, I was excited to go,” he wasn’t about to get into all his trauma with her, she had enough of her own, poor thing. “I couldn’t wait to learn about music and poetry.”

“Grandmother said all poets were silly romantics and dreamers, but I think that sounds nice. Do you have a moose?”

“A what?”

“I read it in a book, a moose, somebody you love and you write about it.”

“Oh, that’s one of the trickier words Ciri, it’s said ‘muse’, and yes, I had one or two.”

“Only one or two? In the book the poet had hundreds,” Ciri sounded almost dissapointed.

“I only ever needed one,” Jaskier said quietly. “One that mattered anyway.”

“And your Countess still left you,” Geralt said, rather coldly. He was doing his annoyed face and Jaskier could have kicked himself. He’d been talking too much. The reminder that the Countess de Stael had left him too hurt, but Jaskier wasn’t going to risk Geralt’s ire to say that she wasn’t the muse he was talking about. That was maybe something he should keep to himself.

“Do muses often leave?” Ciri asked, wide eyed. “If somebody was writing me poetry I wouldn’t want to.”

“No, usually the poet does the leaving,” Jaskier said. “After his muse asks him to go. There’s a shelf life on a bard, you know. We only have so many stories and songs before we’re used up and no one wants us around anymore. That’s when we move along.”

“I’ll hear your stories again and again,” Ciri said. “I won’t ask you to go.”

Jaskier’s heart curled up and whimpered inside his chest. He’d have to go sooner or later, he’d have to leave her. Geralt would get sick of him, too sick to bear even for Ciri’s sake. Or Jaskier would just have to leave of his own volition, lest he shovel shit into her life too.

If he could give her life one blessing...

“This’ll do for a campsite,” Geralt said. It was a tiny, clear area. Jaskier almost groaned. It was surrounded by oak trees, with dropped acorns that would dig into his bedroll and mottle his back with bruises come morning. He’d had a good rest in town, though, so another bad night of sleep wouldn’t be too bad, he told himself.

The others had eaten in town. Jaskier said he had too, so he wouldn’t waste rations. He had plenty, but strangely, he wasn’t so hungry lately. Anyway, always best to save.

He pulled off his boots and his freshly bloodied socks. Ew. Ciri retired to the magic tent early, exhausted from their long days of walking. Jaskier listened to Yennefer and Geralt talk.

“We’ll need lots of supplies in Ard Carraigh,” Geralt was saying.

“We don’t have any money,” Yennefer replied.

Jaskier had his back to them as he cleaned the wounds on his feet, but he could picture grave expressions.

“We’ll get some, I’ll do a quick contract there, something. We’ll need a cart and pony to get Ciri up The Killer, it’s too much for her, it’s too hard for some witchers even.”

“That’ll cost,” Yennefer said. “But you’re right. I wish I could portal us but--”

“Tracking, exactly. There’s always plenty of contracts in cities, it’ll be fine.”

Jaskier looked at the blisters on his foot, they’d opened more with his long performance that day. It was no matter, he wound the bandages around them and put on his new, thick socks. At least his feet would be warm.

Not too warm, though. He spotted a hole in the bottom of his boot that he hadn’t noticed before.

And they needed lots of money for Ard Carraigh. No matter. He knew how to get some.

He pretended his eyes filled with tears from the pain of blisters, not from heartache, as he pushed his feet back into his boots and opened the lute case. He pulled out his beautiful girl. He wouldn’t play her, it would annoy Geralt. He’d always hated Jaskier’s music, although he hated to hear Jaskier sing even more.

Pie with no filling.

Jaskier wished he could play her, though. It was going to break his heart to part with her, and he didn’t think he’d ever played another instrument as fine. If he could he’d play her every second until he had to sell her.

Probably for the best, though, if he was going to fake his death. She was distinctive.

He brushed a hand over the beautiful wood work on her front. There was a little bit of linseed oil left, and he poured it on the rag he kept in the case and began to work over his girl lovingly. His eyes teared up again, but he fought it back. He would have smashed his lute if it meant helping Ciri. And Geralt.

Jaskier longed for Geralt to forgive him, to take him back and let him stay by his side, but he’d meant what he’d said, bards have a shelf life, and Jaskier’s time was up.

He wished Geralt would at least speak with him, though. His heart was aching. In a completely different sense, so was his chest.

“Play us a tune, bard,” Yennefer said.

Jaskier turned around. Yen and Geralt were sitting beside eachother, close together. She looked so beautiful in her fine cloak that Jaskier wondered how he ever thought he could catch Geralt’s eye when beings like her existed.

“You know,” he said. “It’s late and I wouldn’t want to bother Ciri.”

“Tent’s soundproof,” Yennefer said, waving her hand.

“I mean, really,” Jaskier protested weakly. Disobeying Yennefer’s request/command was like bathing your brain in lava, but Geralt was looking angry again. Some would say there wasn’t much change from Geralt’s normal expression, but Jaskier knew his face better than he knew his own. Something had made Geralt angry or upset. The only possible answer was Jaskier. It was always Jaskier.

“Play us a song, bard,” Yennefer said. “You’ve been so quiet other than stories, I’d almost think you were a doppler, Melitele knows no one could have taught you to shut up.”

Jaskier swallowed the lump in his throat.

He began, slowly, to pick out a gently tune on his lute. It was a song about winter and home, and he knew the lyrics well. Yennefer had only asked him to play, so he would. His music was at least less offensive than his voice.
He reveled in the feel of his lute beneath his fingers, letting the feeling wash over him, committing it to memory.

When he was finished Yennefer said, “I suppose your voice was tired from your performance, I heard in the town how the bard had played such a long set.”

Jaskier smiled grimly back at her. “Just earning my keep.”

He went to bed, feeling the cold seep into his bones.

Chapter Text

The three days to  Ard Carraigh were torture for Jaskier, and yet they were almost numb. He’d finished his story for Ciri and was talking less. Part of his brain delighted in it. Talking less would make Geralt like him, he was being good, not being too much. He knew, though, he was just too tired to talk. 

It seemed that a weight had taken up residence in his chest. Many weights had, the feeling of being a burden, the constant ache of rejection, but this was a new feeling, cold and heavy and hot all at the same time. He was slower too. Jaskier tried, he tried so hard, but he needed a new cloak and better boots and even with them he got the sense that his body just...couldn’t go any faster.

Since only Geralt had a horse, he’d taken to walking alongside Roach, rather than riding her. Ciri was happy to skip ahead and come back and walk all around so that she probably walked twice the distance Jaskier did. Sometimes she took Jaskier by the hand as if trying to pull him along, and he’d smile at her and trot a few paces to the front of the group, but he just couldn’t manage more.

He wondered if it was because he wasn’t eating much. Jaskier knew he needed food, but he just wasn’t hungry, and wasting food on someone who wasn’t hungry for it wouldn’t get him into Geralt’s good graces.

They day before they reached Ard Carraigh the first snow had fallen. It was tiny and wet and gone by the time the sun was fully above the horizon, but it crunched underfoot and set a chill into Jaskier’s bones. He’d eaten a little more heavily than he had lately at breakfast that day, and he wondered if that was why his body felt so heavy.  He was unable to stop himself from falling to the back of their little group, even with Ciri’s coaxing. 

Once, when she tugged at his hand he chuckled and jokingly said, “Little lady, please spare an old man such exertion,” with a funny little bow, then exaggeratedly put his hand on his back, as if he were too geriatric to straighten fully. When Ciri giggled at that he mimed hobbling along with a cane, and moving his lips as though he were toothless and gumming at something. She laughed, bright and clear, and even Yennefer smiled. Geralt’s eyebrows lowered, though. It wasn’t an angry face, but it wasn’t a happy one and Jaskier couldn’t parse it out. 

As the day wore on Jaskier felt the cold. His traveling cloak had seen too many winters and wouldn’t bear another one. It was patched and dirty and worn so very thin. The wind bit at Jaskier, feeding off of him, feeling like it was freezing the very air inside his lungs. No matter how he tucked his cloak around him, no matter that his doublet was buttoned all the way to his chin, Jaskier felt frozen. 

He slowed down, feeling panic rising in his throat. He was too slow, he was going too slow. His mind hurtled backwards in time. Those times that he’d woken up to an empty camp, with Geralt packed up and leaving while he slept. Waking up in inn rooms that had held two people when he fell asleep, only to find himself alone, all of Geralt’s posessions gone. 

He was going to get left behind again.

His legs were lead, though. There was very little that hurt more than Geralt leaving him behind, but maybe it would be for the best. He felt like he’d just fall forward onto the frosty ground and stay there. The little family could go on and he could just stay, dissolving into the leaf mold. 

Ciri would worry though. She’d come back and take his hand and he knew if he stopped he couldn’t get up again and she’d worry. She might even cry. Making Ciri cry, those big green eyes filling up because of him, that would be worse, even than being left behind. Hurting Ciri would be worse than anything. 

Jaskier found a few more steps. 

It was like turning a crank handle that never did anything, or riding a horse all day, but every time he thought of Ciri, lip trembling, he could continue. 

When it was almost evening he slowed further. He was maybe twenty paces behind Yennefer and Geralt. Yen, despite looking much better, was still not healed, and walked slower than her standard, brisk pace. Geralt, of course, walked at her side. Jaskier considered that twenty paces was good enough. The wind was behind them and it almost seemed to push him forward, digging icy fingers through his cloak. 

Part of him fretted for his lute in the cold weather, even inside the case, but what did it matter. He would sell her in less than a day. 

He wasn’t going to cry about it. Tears prickled at his eyes but he wouldn’t let them fall. Not one. Because there was Ciri, up ahead, so bright in her Cintran blue cloak. She’d found a stick and was stabbing at imaginary villains. Jaskier would do anything for her. He would make it to Ard Carraigh, he would make it up the mountain and to the keep. He would even sell his lute. 

His body had other ideas. 

Jaskier stumbled on a root, hidden under fallen leaves. He fell, one knee down, the opposite hand catching him against the ground. It was like Atlas, carrying the world, as if a weight was pressing him down. He couldn’t stand back up. 

Ciri trotted over and took his other hand. His fingers were stiff and going blue, but he wrapped his hand around her mitten, which was slightly too big for her hand. He stood, Ciri tugging him slightly.

He smiled wanly at her and she grinned back. 

It happened again, though, only a few more paces along. Bumps and ditches that would normally mean nothing overrode his weakening limbs and shaky balence. He stumbled and fell, catching himself again and feeling the cold ground ache his knee where it hit. 

His head spun. 

Ciri was tugging at his hand but his ears were ringing. Something big and warm wrapped around him. It was slightly rough fabric, and it smelled like horse. Geralt’s cloak was sturdy enough to block the wind and the hood over Jaskier’s head warmed his ears. 

Jaskier’s eyes were open but he wasn’t seeing anything. He could feel, though. There were arms around him, warm, big arms, cradling him as easily as if he were a sack of flour. He recognized the feeling, too, from more than a decade ago, when blood had welled from his throat and Geralt had held him. Jaskier felt the lift as Geralt mounted Roach, settling  his head into the crook of Geralt’s neck.

“We’ll stay in an inn in Ard Carriagh,” Geralt was saying. Jaskier didn’t care. He was too tired to care even that he was being a burden, because his eyes slid shut and Geralt was holding him as though he were something precious.

As if Jaskier were something to be cared for.

-- -- -- -- -- --

Jaskier woke up in an inn room. Alone. 

His heart raced, tears welling in his eyes. He’d been a burden. He couldn’t keep up and they’d left him in some inn and moved on. The blankets were suffocating and he kicked them away, getting tangled in them. He could hardly see for the tears in his eyes. They’d left him. He hadn’t been good enough, not fast enough or strong enough and they’d gone. Even Ciri.

“Jaskier?”

Geralt was standing in the doorway. 

“Uh, Geralt, hi, wasn’t expecting you here.” It was the truth.

“...I heard your heartbeat.” 

Of course, his heart had been beating out of his chest, it was only now calming down.

“Oh, well,” Jaskier said, trying to play it off. “Woke up in this room and I didn’t recognize where I was.”

“Hmmm,” Geralt said. “You passed out.”

Jaskier hung his head and fought tears again, feeling hot shame seep down his neck. He’d failed. He’d really failed. All that work to not be a burden and it was all down the drain. 

“I’m sorry,” he said, looking down at his hands. I’ll do better, he thought. I can do better please don’t leave me behind. Please don’t take me off your hands.

He didn’t say it. It was battered and broken and worth very, very little, but he still had some pride.

“You’ve been eating little,” Geralt said. There was an undertone there, a soft undercurrent of something else. Jaskier didn’t know what it meant but he wanted to sink into it and wrap it around himself.

“I just haven’t been hungry,” he said. “I’m sorry, I didn’t realize I would faint, I just truly wasn’t hungry.”

Geralt shrugged awkwardly. “We would have stopped here anyway, Ciri needs it.” 

“Is she alright? You’re not disguised, is that safe?”

Geralt shook his head. “I am disguised, you can just see through it.” Geralt shook his head again, a little more dramatically, and just for a second it was as if the magic needed time to catch up, and his hair and eyes were dark, a full beard covering his face.

“Woah,” Jaskier said. 

“It tired Yen out,” Geralt grunted. “So don’t annoy her.”

Right. With the almost easy companionship and tentative worry Jaskier had almost forgotten. He was just an annoyance.

Jaskier stood, fighting his spinning head. “Right,” he said, glancing out the window at the water light. “Morning, and I have things to do, so...” He picked up his lute in her case and...

And they were in Ard Carriagh. Where Jaskier needed to sell her. 

“I might just tune up this lovely lady,” he said, sinking back onto the bed and cradling the case. 

“Yen is consulting on an apothecary’s question,” Geralt said. He was standing awkwardly in the middle of the room, like at any moment he would either sit down or leave.

“Good for her,” Jaskier said, not looking up from the lute case as he flicked open it’s latches, savoring the familiar click. 

“Ciri is with her.”

“That’s good, she’s safe then.” Jaskier dragged his fingers over a scratch on the wood, it was thin and long, but had no effect on her sound.

“So you have to stay with me.”

“Why?” Jaskier let his index finger curl over the lovely inlay work on her front. In his opinion, it was unmatched, but what did he know of wood working?

“To be safe,” Geralt said, still in his odd posture.

“I can take care of myself.” Jaskier, looking down at his lute, felt, rather than saw the skeptical eyebrow raise. “I’ll just eat something and be right as rain, promise.”

“I’m going with you.”

“Fine.”

Jaskier strummed one sweet chord and closed the case. No need to torture himself further. He stood and adjusted his clothes. He’d slept in them, but there was nothing nicer for him to wear. Then, he proceeded down to the taproom on the first floor of the inn. Geralt followed like a shadow. A very tall, broody shadow.

They ate in silence.

The taproom was well packed, but early enough that no one was rowdy. Between the spaces of their unhappy silence, Jaskier could hear the inkeeper complaining about the maid going off to get married and leaving him shorthanded.

It was a while since Jaskier had been to Ard Carriagh, but he had a good memory, and walked quickly through the winding streets to the luthier. His breakfast wasn’t sitting well, it was too much and too little all at once and he felt sick, but he said nothing. Any bard was an actor and Jaskier was the best. He was fine. The luthier’s shop was between a ladies clothing store and a jewelry store, tucked in and not as well kept as the shops on either side.

There was a bell above the door and it jangled as Jaskier stepped in, Geralt just behind. 

“Lute strings,” Geralt said, looking around. “Can you afford that.”

“No,” Jaskier said simply. “I’m selling my lute.”

The words burned like acid. The pit of his stomach rolled like he’d swallowed one of Geralt’s disgusting potions, but he knew his face was totally impassive.

Geralt’s however, twisted. It looked like panic, anger, and pain all at once. It looked like Jaskier felt. He almost looked to check that Geralt hadn’t dropped something heavy on his foot to make that face.

“Ooh, you wish to sell,” said the shopkeeper, next to a display of gitara picks. “The case looks very good but let’s see...”

He reached forward. His hands were pale and sweaty, fingers grabbing and outstretched and Jaskier wanted to step back, yearned to clutch his lute case to his chest rather than relinquish his beautiful girl to this man. 

He set the case on top of a glass display case instead. The clasps clicked under his unwilling fingers. The lid creaked.

“Oh, what a lute,” the shopkeeper said. He stroked the strings and Jaskier noticed his dirty fingernails. “rather mediocre condition, though...”

Jaskier wanted to audibly scoff. His lute was in mint condition, apart from the single scratch, and he knew it.

Geralt snapped the lid of the case shut, nearly catching the shop owner’s fingers. “He won’t sell it.”

“I didn’t say I wouldn’t buy it,” the owner protested. “Beautiful lute. Elven made?”

Jaskier nodded grudgingly. It wasn’t fair, but he didn’t like this man.

The shopkeeper hummed. “I thought so, I would probably have the frontal piece,” he opened the case again and traced the wood with the inlay. “Removed. For use on a different lute.”

Chop her up?

Geralt shut the lid again, more carefully this time, but somehow the slower closing felt angrier, rather than calmer. 

“He’s not selling. We’re leaving.”

He lifted Jaskier nearly off the ground, taking the case in one arm and gripping the bard by the back of his collar with the other hand. Jaskier spluttered as he was frog marched out of the shop.

“I was going to sell it!” He protested, back out in the watery sunlight. He clutched at his lute case, though, as Geralt pressed it back into his arms.

Geralt’s jaw was tense and his lips were thin. 

“No.”

“What do you mean, ‘no’?”

“You aren’t selling your lute.”

Jaskier felt guilty and relieved all at once. Here was Geralt  saying he didn’t have to sell his lute. He was free of that burden, but they also needed to purchase a cart and supplies. He himself needed a cloak, boots, and gloves. Probably a hat and scarf as well. The pair ambled, unhappily silent yet again, to the center of town. Jaskier glanced at the notice board. 

“Ghoul problem,” he noted.

“No.”

“You need a contract, they have a harpy issue too, looks like. Two contracts, Geralt.”

“You have to stay with me--”

“And you won’t take me into danger, blah blah,” Jaskier rolled his eyes. He knew he was being a pest, but two contracts would likely solve their money problem. Hopefully. Not for sure.

“You should go back to the inn,” Geralt said. “I would do the contracts, they’re quick, then get you.”

An idea glimmered in Jaskier’s mind. He yawned. “Yeah,” he said. “That sounds good, I’m pretty tired still.” It wasn’t a lie because Geralt could basically smell those. Going back to the inn did sound good, and Jaskier was definitely still tired.

Geralt huffed, and they walked back to the inn. It was too late for breakfast and early for lunch, so the little taproom was basically deserted. Geralt hummed again, pressed one hand onto Jaskier’s shoulder as if trying to stick him to the floor, then left.

Jaskier walked up to the inkeeper. 

“Hi there,” he tried. He was too tired to really flirt, but the inkeeper put down his barcloth at least.

“What?”

“I couldn’t help but overhear that you’re a little short handed at the moment...” he let the sentence linger. 

The inkeeper scoffed. He was a big, red faced man with red hair to match, and when he scoffed his whole torso moved with it. “You want to do a little work for some coin, then,” he said. He didn’t sound opposed to the idea, though, so Jaskier beamed at him.

“Absolutely sir, I’m a very helpful--”

“I’ll not have you around food,” the man cut in. “That man brought you in half dead and you still look pale. Bad business getting customers sick.”

Oh. Jaskier deflated. 

“Got a water barrel needs filling though, so’s long as you don’t cough in the water. Privies need cleaning too.”

They haggled a little over the pay, but Jaskier was a world class haggler. Finally the man slapped his hands on the bar top. “Fine,” he said. “And a meal for you thrown in if you get the privies really clean. One for the little lass too.”

“She eats a lot,” Jaskier warned. He felt it was only fair, considering he would be paid decently for his work. To his surprise the man grinned. 

“My youngest does too, eats like a lion and she’s only nine. I’ll have as many helpings as your daughter wants, no problem.”

Jaskier thanked him profusely and the inkeeper waved his hand. “Just consider playing something tonight at supper, brings in customers. And get that privy really clean, mind.”

Jaskier, figuring he wouldn’t find a better deal that day, hightailed it out of there to look at the water barrell.

It was a big barrel. It would need between thirty and fourty buckets of water to fill it, and it was empty right down to the bottom. The well was at the center of town, like wells tended to be, and the inn wasn’t close, but there was a pump in the inn’s yard.. Jaskier sighed, rolled his aching shoulders, rocked slightly on his aching feet, and began to pump.

One bucket at a time, Jaskier filled the water barrell in just under two hours, feeling blisters form on his hands from all the pumping. Then he filled two more buckets and went to the privies. 

Yuck.

He sloshed one bucket each into the men’s and women’s privies and went back to the inn to ask for some soap and a scrub brush. Then the real work began. Scrubbing the wooden walls and floors of the fetid outhouses was backbreaking, and of course he had to pause every time a patron wanted to use them, but the grime came off the wood eventually and Jaskier was willing to work hard sometimes. He wasn’t being a burden.

An unintended benefit of the work was that Jaskier’s mind was temporarily taken off of how miserable he felt. HIs chest still rattled a little, and he was tired beyond belief, but maybe all he’d needed was a full meal after all.

It was late afternoon when he fetched the inkeeper to inspect the privies, and the man nodded in approval at them. Then he gave Jaskier one last task.

“Fill that tin tub by the door with water and put it over the fire there,” he said, pointing to one of the two large fires the inn’s kitchen had. “Then haul it upstairs and bathe because you smell like a privy yourself.”

Jaskier grinned tiredly and took the offered coin before doing just that, wincing as his aching muscles protested. When the water was warm but not boiling he took the small tub upstairs to his room and washed what he could. It wasn’t a big enough tub to properly bathe in, but with soap and a rag he managed to at least get clean.

He tipped the tub out and replaced it in it’s spot then curled up in the inn bed in a change of clothes, dozing. He’d been there perhaps a quarter of an hour before Geralt tapped on the door.

Geralt looked at him. “You’re clean,” he said.

Jaskier shrugged. “Struck a deal with the innkeeper. Contracts done?” Geralt held up a bag of coin in answer. 

It was odd, he thought. It was like normal, almost. Walking along at Geralt’s side. Several times he had to bite his tongue to keep from commenting on this or that. It was so hard to remember that they weren’t friends, or at least travelling companions. Whatever they had been before the whole...dragon hunt thing. His brain argued that they were still traveling companions now, and it was true, but only in the literal sense. Geralt didn’t want him around.

It got easier to remember because Yennefer rejoined them, Ciri trotting at her heels.

“Julian,” Yennefer said, using his real, more innocuous name. “Cleaned up I see, and dressed in finery,” it was a jab, although not very sharp. His clothes were worn and badly patched. “Going to go cuckold some poor husband?” It was said lightly and Jaskier smiled. 

“How do you know I haven’t already,” he said. Yennefer laughed, but Geralt growled.

“Are you and your conquests going to get us thrown out of town?”

Jaskier startled, skittering a few steps away in shock at the low, angry tone. “I was only kidding,” he protested, but he cursed his stupid mouth, always running ahead of his brain. Just like that, it seemed, the brief truce had broken, and he was back to being a shit shoveler once more.

Ciri slipped her mitten into Jaskier’s hand. “Yennefer says I need a hat,” she said. 

“I need one too,” Jaskier confided. “Why don’t you and I go get hats and scarves while those two grab other supplies.”

“You aren’t going off on your own,” Geralt growled and Jaskier wanted to flinch, but then Ciri would notice.

“I’d be only a street away,” Jaskier said. “I’ll look after her.”

“Can’t even look after yourself,” Geralt snapped. Jaskier did flinch that time, just a little bit. It was true, though. He was kind of worthless, especially if there was a fight.

“We’ll all go,” Yennefer said, glaring pointedly at Geralt. Jaskier wondered what that was about.

They all went. Jaskier paid for his new cloak, hat, and gloves, and ignored Geralt asking where he got the money.

“Did you steal it?” Gerals said, quietly, so Ciri wouldn’t hear. Jaskier sniffed.

“I’m not a thief.” 

Geralt dropped it, but his expression was stormy. 

They bought a small cart, light enough for Roach to pull by herself, and some more supplies. Yennefer even bought Jaskier new boots.

“Just giving advice on apothecarial matters is worth a hefty fee,” she explained. “I have plenty of coin.” Pleasantly surprised, Jaskier thanked her. When he tried the boots on in the shop he made a show of how much he liked them, going over the top until he heard Ciri giggle. Mission accomplished, because he made Yen smile too. 

Geralt didn’t smile.

Back at the inn Jaskier ate a big dinner, even as his stomach rolled, and delighted in seeing Ciri do the same. They were all well fed, but seeing Ciri’s delight in getting a second helping was worth any amount of blisters, or privies. 

He played after dinner, although he barely felt up to doing so, and of course was careful to avoid all mentions of the white wolf. He winked at a few patrons and even the inkeeper just out of habit. Then he ended his set early.

“Any reviews?” he asked his table, cheekily. “Three words or less?”

“Tolerable,” Yen said, smiling widely. She looked younger when she did that.

“Great,” Ciri chimed in. 

“Should’ve sold it,” Geralt grunted. Jaskier felt ice slip down his spine.

“What?”

“Should’ve sold the lute,” Geralt growled, lowly. 

Jaskier’s fingers wrapped around the strap his lute hung from, feeling hurt well up like spring water.

“No,” Yen snapped. “You two go outside and sort that out, I’m not dealing with it. Ciri and I will finish our dinner while you idiots figure this out between yourselves.”

Jaskier obeyed, feeling the heat of shame and hurt in his face and longing for some fresh air. Geralt lumbered out behind him. 

The night was cold and felt icy against Jaskier’s burning face but he turned to Geralt fuming.

“What the hell,” he said. “You tell me not to sell the lute, then you make me sit at the inn all day like a child, then you tell me I should have sold it after all? Do you hate me that much or do you just like seeing me do things wrong?”

“Better you sell the lute than whore yourself,” Geralt growled. 

That was so far from what Jaskier was expecting that he actually stepped back. “What?”

“Struck a deal with the innkeeper? All that coin? And you move like your knees are bruised,” Geralt said, jaw moving tightly. 

“I didn’t have sex with the inkeeper!” Jaskier said, half amused. “I didn’t have sex with anyone. I thought we needed the money, so I cleaned the privies, that’s why my knees are stiff. My hands are sore too!”

Geralt took one hand and turned it over to see the red, irritated skin. 

“You--?”

“No,” Jaskier interrupted. “I don’t care what you have to say.” Even though he did, he cared so much. “First of all, don’t pretend that there is anything wrong with prostitution, we both know you visit those ladies from time to time. Second, even if I was having sex with someone, for money or not, it isn’t any of your business, and third, nothing about your assumptions gives you any right to be so...so rude!”

Jaskier was ashamed to feel tears leaking from his eyes but right now he was angry, so angry and hurt, so he just kept going. 

“I am sorry,” he said, softly. “That life couldn’t give you the blessing you wanted, but the least you could do is not make this worse for both of us.”

Jaskier turned on his heel and went back to his room, where he curled up and cried himself to sleep. 

He was awoken later by a tap on the door. It was Yennefer and Ciri standing in the hallway.

“She wants to be with you,” Yennefer said.

Ciri sat on the bed and looked up at Jaskier with wide eyes. Jaskier sat next to eachother.

“Dandelion,” Ciri said, using her special name for Jaskier. “Do you hate Geralt?”

Jaskier sighed and hugged her close. “Not at all,” he said, truthfully. “But it’s like I said, bards aren’t welcome forever, it’s just how it is, and I’ve overstayed my welcome a little bit.”

“No you haven’t,” Ciri said into his shoulder. “I think you’re welcome. I want you around.”

“Thank you, little highness.”

“Geralt doesn’t hate you, I’m sure of it, he was really worried about you when you fainted.”

“He worries about everyone, that’s just the way he is,” Jaskier said. Geralt had a big heart, even if those feelings came out gruffly, he was a real hero. He just couldn’t stand Jaskier so long as Jaskier was concious.

“When my grandmother was worried,” Ciri began. “She could seem sort of mean, she’d yell or snap and it was scary unless you knew that she was just scared. Maybe Geralt was scared for you.”

Jaskier wished it was so. Could almost believe it was true. Ciri didn’t know about the dragon hunt though. She didn’t know he was a shit shoveler. Didn’t know about Geralt’s unfulfilled blessing.

Jaskier curled on his side, letting Ciri bury her head into his shoulder until she fell asleep. Eventually, face solemn but eyes dry, Jaskier slept too.