Chapter 1: Goodbye to All My Darkness
Lambert is on his way to Kaer Morhen for the winter when he hears an odd sniffling from the trees. He's fairly sure it's human, and weighs the pros and cons of checking it out. He can't abide a crying woman, something about the tears and the red face and it's never been particularly beautiful to him in any sense. If it's a crying woman, he's going to turn right back onto the road and keep going.
The source of the mysterious noise is not, in fact, a woman at all. A man dressed in red and white hovers over the remains of a dying fire and shivers. He sniffles again, coughs, and moans. Lambert can hear weakness in the voice, and the straining of overworked lungs. An illness, he decides. He smells sputum and salt, and something familiar. Horse. Roach. There's no horse in sight, just a lump of a bedroll and something that might be a musical instrument, and then he knows who he's seeing. This is Geralt's bard. He thinks a moment about how best to approach, and then his horse whinnies. The bard shoots a hopeful look at him.
"Gera-" their eyes meet. "Hello," says the bard. "I don't think we've met." He's hoarse, there's tear-tracks on his face, and his clothes are ripped and dirty.
His heart rate is entirely too slow and languid for a human. The effort of speaking takes the last of his waning energy, and Lambert moves just fast enough to keep him from falling face-first into the embers. With his arms full of unconscious bard - he still can't remember the name, although the song is now stuck in his head - Lambert swears. If he leaves the man here, he will die. The first heavy snow of the year is not more than a week away. They're too far from the nearest town to get there and allow him to safely finish his trip to Kaer Morhen for the winter.
"Fuck," he says again. If he leaves the bard to die, Geralt may never forgive him. He might never forgive himself. "Alright. You're coming with me." He hoists the man over his horse's withers and sets about breaking the erstwhile camp. He can't figure out what to do with the lute at first, and then swings it over his own shoulder. It twangs musically, and settles beside his swords as if it's meant to be there. His horse, which came to him with the unlikely name of Peaches - and unlike Geralt, he's unwilling to change the name, it's said to be bad luck - stands there with the bard draped over its back like a blanket. Lambert mounts, readjusts the smaller man so he can ride comfortably, and sets off.
The sensation of being slung over the back of a horse is, regrettably, not unfamiliar. Jaskier is only vaguely aware of his surroundings, and he has no recollection of how he got here or whose horse, exactly, he's been heaved over. He's aware of the scent of horse, thick in his nostrils and very familiar after years of trailing after Roach. There's a hard thigh digging into his ribs, too, and for a long while, he's distracted feeling the muscles shift and play beneath leather trousers as the man - it must be a man - not Geralt, never Geralt again - rides easily, posting along with the trot which is, now that he's not unconscious, beginning to become very uncomfortable . He must make some sort of noise or maybe shifts, because suddenly the horse is being reined in and the horrible sea-like heaving has stopped. It takes a long moment for his head to catch up to the lack of motion.
"Alright down there?"
The voice is dreadfully unfamiliar. True fear starts winding it's way through him.
"Relax. We're almost there. Would you like to sit up?"
Jaskier groans something monosyllabic, and nods. Nausea wends its way through him and he swallows it down, feeling saliva flooding his mouth in anticipation of the vomit churning in his stomach. He swallows again and again until the sensation fades. He's heaved upright, one steel-strong arm wrapped around his stomach, and he wiggles until he's seated more firmly in the saddle. The chest he's held against is armored and uncomfortable, but it's more settling than hanging like a sack of potatoes.
"Almost where?" He manages, and is surprised by the gruff sound of his own voice. There's a long pause.
"Kaer Morhen," and Jaskier suddenly realizes that the vision of a Witcher he'd had just before passing out wasn't actually a dream at all. It's frigid, and he can see his breath unspooling in the frosty air before his face; if he panics, he'll be left in the cold and surely die. He swallows again until the fear fades. It's not Geralt behind him, and there's nothing he can do about their destination. The arm about his middle flexes, and the horse resumes it's steady trot. "What's your name, bard?"
A dozen sarcastic replies rise to his tongue, but Jaskier bites them all back. "Jaskier," he says, as calmly as he can. "Yours?"
"Lambert." The voice rumbles through his back and in his ear, but it's not unpleasant. He's saying something else but Jaskier is too dim and far away to hear it, and he gratefully sinks back into darkness.
"Well, fuck." They're still miles from the keep, and Jaskier is clearly too sick to hold himself up. Lambert tightens his grip around the bard, and spurs Peaches on. He rides through the gates just behind Eskel, and they meet in the stables.
Eskel turns to greet him and doesn't get a single word out before one eyebrow lifts nearly to his hairline. "Bringing home strays, now?"
"Geralt's bard," Lambert explains. "Found him dying in the woods."
The other eyebrow raises to meet the other. "Alone?"
Instead of answering, Lambert motions for Eskel to take the unconscious man and dismounts as soon as he can. Jaskier hangs loose and limp in Eskel's arms, looking very small and pale in the flickering light of the stable lanterns. He unpacks Peaches without another word, then takes Jaskier back so Eskel can unload his own horse. Roach isn't in evidence yet, which means Geralt hasn't returned. Lambert tastes the air and decides he's got a few days yet before the passes close with snow, and waits patiently while Eskel rubs down both horses and shakes up the hay in both stalls.
Vesemir is waiting for them when they finally head indoors, and has much the same reaction to the unconscious man as Eskel.
"He's the one behind that damn song," Eskel explains. They all know which one; Lambert had laughed for days when Geralt returned one winter and bitched about a bard who wouldn't take a hint. The following year, the song seemed to travel with them, and in some places, people would suddenly shout, "Hey witcher!" And toss coins at him. Lambert stopped laughing after that. Things had been... difficult, after Geralt's actions at Blaviken. "Butcher," they called him, and "Murderer." Witcher became synonymous with killer. After Jaskier, he'd been hailed as a hero in places. "Friend of humanity!"
That damn song.
"I couldn't leave him to die," Lambert defends himself, although neither of them have accused him of anything. Vesemir glowers a moment, and then nods his assent.
"Bring him inside; we'll see what we can do."
There's a fourth already waiting in the main hall, long fingers wrapped around a mug of ale. Lambert's heart lifts to see him. "Coën!"
Coën rises, then pauses when he sees the bundle in Lambert's arms. "Look what the wolf dragged in!" He grips Lambert's shoulder in greeting, and then examines the bard. "Isn't he Geralt's? He sang that song."
"Toss a Coin," Lambert and Eskel say in unison.
To his surprise, Coën shakes his head. "Something about a poisonous kiss, I thought." He hums a few bars of an unfamiliar tune, then fills in the words. But the story is this, She’ll destroy with her sweet kiss. Her sweet kiss . Lambert puts together what he knows about Jaskier, Geralt, and the sorceress, and huffs.
"Jackass put his foot in it this time," he mutters.
Chapter 2: And the Creature Creeps Inside
Jaskier in the keep.
Chapter title from the Amazing Devil song "The Unwanted Animal."
(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)
Jaskier awakes in a warm, soft bed, piled high with furs and smooth blankets. For a long moment, he can't decide where he is or how he got there. The last thing he remembers is being frozen in the woods somewhere, although there's a vague memory trying to surface of riding a horse. That still doesn’t answer the question of where he is, and he sits up with effort. The first thing he sees is a roaring fire in a frankly huge fireplace. It illuminates a bare stone room, empty shelves, and a lone table holding a steaming mug of - something. He’s somewhat aware that it's not a good idea to eat or drink things in dreams, or fairyland, or wherever he is, but he’s hungry and his throat hurts and it can’t get much worse than things already are. At least he’s warm.
Carefully cradling the mug with both hands, he inhales the scent of a meaty broth flavored with herbs. It doesn’t seem enchanted, although he’s admittedly a bad judge of magic. Geralt is the one with the superhuman nose. The thought of Geralt brings to mind the other witchers. He’s pretty sure there was another one recently, unless he dreamed that, too. This is when he becomes aware that he’s being watched from the doorway. Looking over the curling tendril of steam rising from his mug, he realizes it’s a complete stranger.
“Lambert,” the man says, coming further into the room. “In case you forgot.” His eyes are witcher citrine, one hip cocked jauntily to the side as his eyes flicker over Jaskier’s fur-covered body. Fur-covered, he realizes belatedly, and nothing else.
“You saved me in the woods,” Jaskier says, steadfastly ignoring the blush rising in his cheeks. He looks around again. “This is Kaer Morhen?” And he can breathe clearly for the first time in days, and he’s feeling energetic enough to babble. “It’s livelier than I expected, somehow, from everything I’ve heard about it, I was expecting a ruinous hovel, not a standing wall in sight,” and belatedly, it occurs to him that offending the people who are the only ones who know the way out of the fortress is perhaps not the wisest course of action.
Lambert, however, takes it in stride, and astonishes Jaskier by laughing. “We could hardly winter over in a keep that isn’t standing. There are parts of it that are falling down, and more areas that aren’t accessible than are, but it’s cozy enough when the snow is falling.” His head comes up like a dog that’s just scented a hare, and his smile turns wry. “This should be good,” he mutters to himself. Jaskier pretends he didn’t hear it. “Eat your broth. It’s full of good things a convalescent needs.” Lambert vanishes from the doorway, closing a solid wood door behind him. Jaskier takes in the room again, and realizes he doesn’t see his clothes anywhere. It’s not as if he had plans to go wandering through the fortress, but it would be nice to have the option of leaving the room. Instead, he sucks down the broth and snuggles back into the nest of blankets. He’s pretty sure that Geralt just arrived at the keep, and he doesn’t want any part of the welcoming committee.
Vesemir, Coën, Lambert, and Eskel are waiting for him when he rides up, which is the least surprising thing that’s happened recently. The small bundle of teenage girl in his arms stirs; somehow, Ciri has been able to sleep while Roach practically gallops the last few miles back home. There’s a familiar scent in the air somewhere, and for a long moment, he can’t place it. It’s just comforting and familiar and warm. Then he identifies the scent as sheep guts and wood oil, and chamomile. Jaskier.
He’s ashamed of how he treated the bard, taking his irritation out on the other man, and driving him away. He’s spent the last few months tracking down his Child Surprise, and making sure they’re not followed by Nilfgaardian soldiers. It occurs to him how much easier and yet simultaneously difficult it would be if he’d had Jaskier tagging along.
Ciri rights herself as Geralt leads Roach into the stables, and helps with the task of getting her settled. There's an unfamiliar horse looking over the stall at him, and he hides a small smile as Ciri introduces herself to it with a courtly bow. Soon, there's no more excuses to delay, and he clears his throat to get her attention.
"Ready to meet my brothers?"
The smile she turns on him is small but genuine.
He's warm, he's comfortable, he's fed, and he can't get comfortable. There's a dull ache in his spine that no amount of shifting can alleviate, and he's extraordinarily curious about how Geralt will greet him. If Geralt will greet him. There's no way he's going to be caught lying in bed if Geralt comes to see him, and with a gusty sigh, he throws the covers back and stands. His head feels stuffy and dull, but his lungs are clear at last. From the new vantage point, he can see a previously overlooked chest at the foot of his bed, and raids it, finding soft cotton trousers and a loose linen shirt. There are no stockings or shoes, and still no sign of his own things. He shrugs into them anyway, and exits the room. The hallway is just as bare as his room, revealing no tapestries or tables, or anything to break up and warm the cold stones of the keep. There's a cool draft coming from somewhere in the darkness on his right, so he turns left and follows the hall down some stairs. It's apparently the right way to go; he finds himself in the vast entrance, with a group of men clustered around the open door. He shivers with the chill until they part and reveal Geralt and a familiar blonde child. She sees him and her entire face lights up.
"Julian!" The overjoyed shout rings out in the open space, and Jaskier drops to one knee, opening his arms as Princess Cirilla of Cintra flies towards him.
He envelopes her in a hug, grateful that Geralt has brought his Child Suprise to safety at last.
Lambert scowls as the little girl flies past him into Jaskier's waiting arms. The two of them hug for a long moment, whispering to one another in tones too low for even his sharpened hearing to catch.
"Well, I wasn't expecting that," Coën says, baffled. At the same time, Eskel asks, "Who's Julian?"
Geralt and Lambert turn to watch the reunion between princess and bard. To Lambert's surprise, Geralt looks just as confused by this turn of events as the rest of them, although Vesemir's face is impassive. They all move towards the pair still kneeling on the cold flagstones, and Lambert can at last make out the conversation.
"I've missed you so much, Julian, you're never going to believe where I've been. Did you know Geralt is my father now? He's going to train me to be a witcher, just like him, and he's got a sorceress friend who can help me with magic. Did you know I could do magic?"
The little girl is talking a mile a minute, and it's almost heartwarming, the way Jaskier nods and smiles, listening intently, as though she's spilling state secrets.
Geralt interrupts them first because he's spent too much time alone on the road and has apparently forgotten how civilized people speak. "You know each other?"
Lambert looks back to the unlikely pair, and sees the way Jaskier pointedly does not look at Geralt, focusing on Vesemir and Eskel instead.
"He used to come sing for me," the child suprise says. "Every year, on my birthday."
To Lambert's eternal amusement, Jaskier looks faintly embarrassed, but it's Geralt's astonished bewilderment that makes him laugh aloud, especially because none of it shows on his face. A strange sort of warmth suffuses him as piercing blue eyes settle on him at last.
"Yes, speaking of singing, where are my things? I'm assuming you didn't leave them in the woods?"
"They're safe, bard," Lambert assures him. "Tucked into a nice warm bed, like you should be."
Jaskier sniffs haughtily. "Can't sleep." He sounds like a prince. Through it all, Coën is watching silently.
The response to this is great. Thank you all so much for taking a chance on me.
Chapter 3: Farewell Wanderlust, You've Been Ever So Kind
Jaskier has a nightmare, and they settle in for winter.
Chapter title from the Amazing Devil song "Farewell Wanderlust."
A bit of a longer chapter as I get more familiar with actually writing again.
(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)
Lambert scoops the shivering bard up into his arms anyway. The little princess giggles as Jaskier squawks at the undignified sprawl, and clings to him. It's good, in a very strange way, to hear the laughter of a child, and to have a warm body tucked in close to his chest. Jaskier's scent is a muddled mix of emotion and the wood oil he uses to clean his lute, and from this close, he can feel as well as hear the thunder of the bard's racing heart. Ignoring the harangue to put him back down immediately, Lambert takes the musician back to his room.
"You realize you were supposed to stay here in the first place?" Jaskier sniffs again, and decides it's easier to go along with being carried like a woman. "You'll get your things back when you're over the illness. It nearly killed you, you know."
There's a sudden salty-wet smell in the air.
"Better if it had, perhaps," Jaskier says softly.
He's not equipped to deal with emotional outbursts, and reacts accordingly. "None of that," he admonishes, and tosses the bard back into the pile of furs on the bed they've designated for him. The outraged shriek makes him laugh all the way back down to the kitchen, where the others have gathered to eat and catch up.
Geralt considers himself an uncomplicated man. He wants nothing, and he needs nothing, and anything he requires to continue functioning is the bare minimum. He was in the wrong to chase away the only actual friend he's ever made that wasn't forced proximity, and he's well aware that Jaskier's continued presence in his life is a mortal danger - for the bard. Words said in anger can't be recalled, but he's managed, in the months since, to convince himself that it's for the best that they part ways.
Seeing him now is a shock. He's thin, pale, jutting collarbones telling a tale of too much walking without enough food, and the idea that the man was sick enough to be near death - alone in the woods, with no one to care for him - gives rise to something that borders on fear. If Jaskier had perished, how would he know? He would have lived the rest of his very long life believing that Jaskier spent his days in the comfort of a court or manor, idling away his time writing courtly love ballads and spending his nights with someone who wouldn't get him killed.
There's an ache in his sternum that feels a little like guilt.
Cirilla is chattering happily at Eskel, who is listening patiently but with a faint air of a trapped animal. The sight of the girl warms him a bit, and Lambert's return to the kitchen brings with it another whiff of Jaskier's familiar scent.
He's missed it. It seems to blend with the rougher, horsey smell of the other witchers, and the idea of having everyone under one roof where he can keep an eye on them is exceedingly comforting. He spares a thought for Yennefer, wishes she was with them, and resolves to find a way to contact her. He needs her to help him with his Child Suprise anyway.
Lambert is ladling some more broth into a mug, and Coën sidles up beside him, drawing Geralt's attention back outward.
"I'll take care of that," says Coën, and Lambert actually hesitates before handing the mug over. A smug, grim sort of smile flashes over Coën's face as he moves confidently towards the rack of spices and herbs, and begins doctoring the broth for Jaskier to drink.
Jaskier has formed a nest of sorts out of the blankets and furs, and is examining the wall with more interest than bare stone deserves. The door opens with a creak, and the footsteps are a familiar sound.
"If you're coming to apologise, I want you to know that it won't be accepted," he tells Geralt without turning.
"I didn't realize I'd done anything to warrant an apology," says the unfamiliar voice. Jaskier turns at last and sees one of the other witchers who'd been in the hall. "Coën," he says by way of introduction. "I've brought your next round of medicine."
Jaskier flushes. "Sorry, I thought you were Geralt. And I don't need another round. I've only just finished the first."
Coën leaves the mug on the table and collects the old one. "Drink it anyway," he says. "A sickness in the chest can be fatal, especially high up in the mountains like this." He turns to leave, and then lingers in the doorway. "Drink," he says again.
Jaskier huffs, but obeys, feeling yellow eyes heavily on him as he swallows. It tastes bitter and medicinal on his tongue, and roils in his stomach.
There’s something awful chasing him. He can’t make out what it is, doesn’t dare slow down enough to turn around and find out. He’s gotten a glimpse of inky dark fur, dripping fangs, and vicious scarlet eyes and that was enough. Panting, he runs for his life, dodging tree limbs and roots with equal ease, right up until he's not. A root snags his ankle, sending him sprawling. He barely has time to scream before he feels fangs sinking into his neck. Blood rushes hot and wet over his hands, coppery and -
He wakes screaming. The door flies open and Geralt rushes in, white hair loose and flying behind him. A silver sword flashes in the light of the fire. "Where is it?" He demands. "What's happening?"
More witchers crowd in, all of them armed, although Geralt is the only one actually wielding his sword. They fan out, examining the room, while Jaskier struggles to get his breathing under control, clutching at his neck and feeling the skin still whole, his shirt unbloodied.
Eskel is the first to actually approach him. "Are you alright? What happened? Did you see something?"
The adrenaline is wearing off, leaving him weak and trembling. "Ni-" he gasps. "Nightmare?"
The tension in the room drops several degrees. Jaskier clutches at his back, convinced he can still feel talons ripping at his spine.
"Guess it's a good time for this, then?" Coën is in the doorway, holding a tray with a plate of steaming food and another mug. Jaskier sees red eyes glinting in the dim light and his breath hitches on another scream, drawing the attention of Lambert and Geralt, who are both prowling around the room. Eskel puts a hand on Jaskier's ravaged (perfectly fine, he's fine ) shoulder, and nods.
Coën brings the food, and the others file out of the room. Jaskier can hear voices in the hall - Vesemir is comforting Cirilla, and shit he woke everyone up with that little scene - and he pretends not to see Geralt lingering in the doorway, determined to say nothing until he gets the apologies he's owed.
The food tastes off somehow, slightly bitter, but he's grateful enough to have something that isn't broth in his stomach that he powers through it. It's probably just that witcher tastes are different, or the available herbs are unusual. Geralt has never said anything, and it suddenly occurs to him how little he actually knows about witcher physiology.
Weeks pass and Jaskier's cold lingers like an unwelcome guest. He sniffles, coughs, and aches his way through the days, even as Cirilla blossoms under Vesemir's watchful training eye. They all take turns, teaching her what they can with most of their training equipment buried under several feet of snow in the courtyard. She spends her evenings learning to play his lute, and he teaches her what he can about proper breath support and projecting her voice so that people can hear her over even the most noisy of crowded taverns and dining halls. Jaskier holes up in his room when he's not with Ciri or Lambert, composing songs he can't sing while his voice sounds like the croaking of a dying frog. On more generous days, he allows that Geralt hasn't apologised yet because Jaskier has never given him the opportunity, but mostly, he does his level best to avoid the other man, and begins to know the witchers on a more personal level. Lambert has a gift for metaphor that leaves Jaskier weak with laughter, and Eskel is prone to fits of maudlin when drunk. Vesemir reigns over them all like a proud and regal father, and somehow isn't afraid to get into an arm-wrestling contest with Coën over a wager. It's...nice. Familial. The easy rapport is shattered at midwinter by the arrival of the sorceress.
Yennefer opens a portal directly into the keep, and steps out looking like a queen. Geralt is more relieved to see her than words can convey.
"I thought I'd find you here, but I wasn't expecting the bard," is the first thing she says to him when they find a private moment later that night.
Geralt swallows thickly. "Lambert brought him," he says. "Yen…"
She arches a delicately curved eyebrow and murmurs, "Lambert?" The topic of Jaskier is forgotten a moment later when Ciri bounds over and begins a new conversation regarding the things she's learned since they saw one another last, and the powers of chaos that are growing ever more unmanageable.
"Now the whole family is together," Ciri says, and Geralt is helpless to do anything but agree.
The next morning, Jaskier and Coën have vanished from the keep.
Yennefer appears! And Jaskier vanishes. Poor kid.