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Of Feathers and Bone

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Geralt was halfway up the stairs to his room when a sword came flying at him.  Luckily, it was sheathed, and he was able to catch it before it met his face.  He looked down in the direction the sword had come from to see Eskel scowling up at him.

“Outside.  Now,” his brother growled before stomping away.

He glanced at the sword in his hands then back the way Eskel had gone, puzzled.  He thought about ignoring him, but Eskel had the crazy-eyes going, a sign he was truly upset, so he turned back down the stairs and followed his brother out into the courtyard.  He passed by Lambert in the main hall on his way out.

“Shit, what’d you do?”  Lambert whistled.  “He’s got the crazy-eyes.”

Geralt shrugged.  “Guess I’m about to find out.”

The later afternoon sun was still shining, though it would only be another hour or so before the it set.  Eskel took a stance in the middle of the courtyard and unsheathed his steel sword, tossing the scabbard to the side.  “Arm yourself,” he called, before lunging.

Geralt barely got his sword up in time.  Shit, Eskel was serious.  He parried the next blow and swung back, trying to create some distance.  “What the fuck is this about?”  He dodged another strike, rolling across the frozen ground and almost into the low wall.

“You know,” Eskel replied, swinging again.  Geralt couldn’t completely dodge the blow, earning a bloody strike across his upper arm.  He managed to twist away, behind Eskel, and skipped back, not wanting to hurt his brother.

“Pretend I don’t.”  He and Eskel circled each other, waiting for the next opportunity to attack.

“You hurt him,” Eskel growled.  He lunged and Geralt made to parry again but cursed instead when the lunge turned into a feint and he gained another cut, this time across his thigh.  Blood spattered the ground.

Geralt backed away.  “Hurt who?”

“Jaskier!”  Eskel ploughed forward, raining down blows.  Geralt desperately tried to block them all, but even if he wasn’t tired from riding hard then walking for several hours, Eskel had always been the better swordsman.  Blood started to litter the yard in colorful splashes.  “You hurt him!  He told me you hurt him.”

Geralt frowned.  “I mean, I jabbed him in the side a bit but-“

“He said he didn’t have a choice!”

That caused Geralt to freeze and earned him another strike.  He barely noticed the new cut across his chest.  “No,” he denied softly.  “That wasn’t…”

Eskel pressed in closely and hooked his foot around Geralt’s ankle, sweeping him off his feet.  The tip of his sword buried itself next his neck.  “He told me what you did.”  He leaned down closer.  “I could smell it on him.  On you.”  Disgust crawled across his face.

Horror dawned.  “I didn’t,” he mumbled.  “I thought-“  He cut himself off and made himself look up at his brother.  “I thought he wanted it.”

Eskel sneered down at him.  “Did you even ask?”  He leant in closer.  "Or did you do what you always do and bully your way into what you wanted?"

"I didn't..."

"Of course you didn't."  Eskel gaze was fierce.  "You never do.  And this time, Jaskier paid the price for your thoughtlessness."

Geralt opened his mouth to answer but was cut off by a voice well-used to projecting.

“Stop!”  They froze.  Eskel glared down at, his face an ugly grimace.  “Eskel, get off him.”

Jaskier.  He shouldn’t be here.  He shouldn’t have to be in Geralt’s presence.  Geralt deserved what Eskel had done; what Eskel was willing to do.  Still, there was a tiny- guilty- part of him that was relieved when Jaskier convinced Eskel to let him live.

He didn’t deserve this kindness from someone he’d wronged so terribly.  All he had to offer was a paltry apology and the promise to never break Jaskier’s trust like that again.  He was relieved when the bard accepted, and not surprised when he requested distance from Geralt.  He understood.

He wouldn’t want to be near himself either.

Geralt stayed out in the snow for a time, letting the cold absolve him of his transgressions.  It didn’t work, didn't come anywhere close to it, but after a time he was able to get up and make his way back into the keep.  He trudged down to the baths, where Eskel had taken Jaskier only a few hours ago, and soaked just long enough to clean himself and clear the chill from his bones.

Then he climbed the tower to his room and sat by his cold fireplace.  His mind whirled.  He had hurt the most precious person in the world to him, next to Ciri.  He had to make it right.  But what could he do?  Jaskier had said he was forgiven, but the other man didn’t trust him, that much was clear.  And he shouldn't t.  Geralt had hurt the bard in numerous ways over the years, telling himself it was for the bard's own safety.  He didn't have that excuse anymore.

He had to show the bard that he could be trusted.  That he would never do something like that to Jaskier, or anyone else, ever again.

But how?

It pained him, but he knew how.  He closed his eyes and tipped his head back to rest against the armchair he was seated in.  He had to stay away from Jaskier, just as the bard had requested.  The only way he was going to regain any trust was to do exactly as Jaskier had asked.  And then, maybe someday, Jaskier would let him be his friend again.

He didn’t dare hope for more.

*

Geralt kept himself busy, and out of the way, in the days following the fight with Eskel.  He took on the more dangerous roof repairs and volunteered to hunt more often than the others.  He trained Ciri with swords.  He trained with Lambert.  Eskel refused to have anything to do with him.  When he wasn’t doing any of those things, he was with Yennefer, helping her with potions to soothe her burnt magic.  He saw Jaskier only at mealtimes and when they occasionally crossed paths within the keep while on their way to their various duties.

It was torture.

Where he’d once had Jaskier’s undivided attention, years ago, now the other man barely glanced in his direction.  He barely spoke in Geralt’s presence.  He didn’t play his lute.  He didn’t sing.  At least, not where Geralt was likely to hear him.

It was after a week or so of this- and Geralt was beginning to consider skipping meals to escape the unbearable silence- that a new face showed up at the keep.

There hadn’t been any more snow since that fateful day; it was still a little early for the big snows of true winter.  What had come still mostly lay on the ground, however.  The days had been gray and promised a true storm soon. 

There was the clop of hooves over the lowered drawbridge and a familiar voice called out to him where he perched on a curtain wall.

“Geralt!  Well met!”

Geralt nodded to the dark-haired man, his eyes strange, even for a witcher.  “Well met, Coën.”  He watched as Coën led his mount to the stables then heaved himself off the low wall to go help him unburden the beast.  Distantly, in the upper bailey, he could hear the ring of swords against one another and a high-pitched voice.  It seemed one of the other witchers had taken it upon themselves to train with Ciri today.

It was as he was helping Coën carry his packs to the keep that he recognized the voice of the witcher training with Ciri.  And then he remembered the conversation that he had with that witcher less than three months ago, though it seemed like a lifetime had passed since then.

Unfortunately, Coën was in front of him, and he could only watch in horror as the scene unfolded in front of him.

“What the fuck is this?” Coën stared at the small girl and witcher in front of him.

Jaskier froze, letting Ciri score a hit across his thigh.  “Ha!  Got you,” she cried, triumphant.  The bard didn’t look at her; his gaze was focused on the witcher that had just walked into the upper bailey.  “Jaskier?”  She frowned at him then turned to see what he was staring at.  “Who’s that?”

“Coën.”  The bard sounded gutted.  He stumbled past Ciri and towards the other Griffin witcher.

Coën growled.  “You pox-ridden son of a whore.”  Jaskier stopped in his place.  “You lily-livered skamelar.”  The witcher advanced towards the other, fingers twitching as if he wanted to reach for something.  “Twenty-six years I believed you to be dead, and instead I find you in the keep of the Wolf, playing with children.”

“Uh, just the one child, actually.”

“I mourned you!”  Coën yelled before leaping at the man in front of him.  They went down with a loud thump, the darker-haired Griffin on top.  He pulled back a fist.  “You crooked-nosed knave!”  The fist flew, landing squarely on Jaskier’s cheek.  “One simple note!”  Both hands curled into the collar of Jaskier's shirt and shook him.  “A ‘hey, Coën, I’m going to disappear for a while, no need to worry’!”  Coën drew back again.  “But no!  You just disappeared!”  He made to hit Jaskier again.

Geralt had let this go on long enough.  “Stop!”  He couldn’t project like a certain bard, but he yelled at said bard enough that he was able to put a bit of command into his voice.

The witcher on top of Jaskier collapsed onto himself, like a puppet with its strings cut.  “I mourned you, Julian," he heard Coën whisper.

“I know.”  He watched as Jaskier raised his arms slowly, as if afraid of spooking the other witcher.  “I’m sorry.”  Gently, Jaskier folded his arms around the man on top of him and drew him into a hug.  “I’m so sorry,” he whispered again into the Griffin’s shoulder.

There was a tang of salt in the air and Geralt got the feeling he should leave them alone for a bit.  He motioned for Ciri to pick up one of the bags Coën had dropped when he’d tackled Jaskier and they made their way into the keep. 

The two men sat on the ground for some time after, arms wrapped around each other.

*

Dinner that night was a rowdy affair compared to the last week of near silence.  Geralt was glad to see it.  Things had been subdued since his fight with Eskel and then trying to stay out of Jaskier’s way, per the bard’s request.

Coën’s arrival seemed to herald an ease in tension for the bard.  He told stories of his time on the Path and even earlier from when the two had trained as initiates together, before the Trials.  He grinned the same grin that he’d used when entertaining fair maidens, at court or broken-down taverns, and laughed genuinely, something Geralt hadn’t heard in years.

He hadn’t realized how much he’d missed it until he had it back.  He’d do anything to keep hearing it.

The realization hadn’t hit him as hard as it might have, once.  He had accepted that he was in love with the bard.  Former bard?  It was difficult, even in the face of the overwhelming evidence to the contrary, to see Jaskier as anything other than that fresh-faced bard that he’d met in Posada.  He still spoke the same way, with the same flourishes and embellishments to his speech.  He still gestured with flicks of his long, elegant fingers and twists of his bony wrists.  He still smiled with a rakish curl to the corner of his mouth, like he was inviting you to share in a secret.

It made something sour, and tight, and aching curl in Geralt’s stomach to think he’d nearly lost that with his actions a little over a week ago.  Might still have, because while Jaskier was lively and lovely with everyone at the dinner table, he had yet to look directly at Geralt the entire night.

That realization caused another emotion to cut through the ache, hot and heavy.  Jealousy.  Geralt was jealous of the others’ gaining Jaskier’s attention; even Ciri, who was a daughter to him and saw the bard as an uncle.  He hated that the bard was touching Coën so easily, hand clasped on the Griffin’s shoulder.  He nearly saw red when something Lambert said caused Jaskier to tilt his head back and laugh, exposing his long throat with its twisted scar.  A sign of vulnerability.  He nearly crushed the mug in his hand.

He needed to leave this table before he did something foolish.

He stood abruptly, pushing harshly away from the table.  No one took notice.  He turned and walked away.

“Geralt?”  Jaskier’s voice.  He stopped and looked at the bard over his shoulder.  “Everything alright?”

The Wolf witcher stared into the eyes of the Griffin.  He nearly broke down in relief at what he saw there.  Concern.  Small, but genuine.  Perhaps not all was lost.  He felt his lips lift a bit at the corners.  “I’m fine.”  He nearly walked away at that but remembered how often Jaskier had asked him to use his words more often.  “It’s been a long day.  I’m going to get some rest.  Need to be up early tomorrow for the hunt.”

Jaskier’s returned the smile; the first true one that had been directed at Geralt in years.  “All right.  See you tomorrow, then.”

Geralt dipped his chin to him.  “On the morrow.”  He went to bed, heart feeling lighter than it had in over six years.

*

Deep into the night, he startled awake, not sure what had disturbed him.  He’d gone to bed in a relatively good mood, hopeful for the future in a way he hadn’t been in a very long time.  Ciri hadn’t crawled into bed with him, scared by a nightmare and the keep was the safest place he could be.

Then, he heard it.  The faint stirrings of lute strings.

Jaskier.  He hadn’t the bard play since they’d reunited in Riedbrune.  He’d seen the lute the man still carried, but he hadn’t seen him take it out of its case the entire time he'd been at the keep.

Quickly, he swung his feet to the cold floor and left his bed, swiping a shirt from the floor on his way to the door.  He creaked the door open slowly, hoping to keep the sound to a minimum.  He slipped out of his room and out into the cool hallway, heading towards the sound.

The plucking led him to an abandoned part of the keep.  Faintly, he started being able to make out words to go along with the sound of the strings.  It sounded as if Jaskier was working on a new song.

You read between the lines and don't stick… to the… scriptures.” A pause, the sound of pen to paper.  “Not bad.  Let’s try again.”

Geralt held his breath as the lute was strummed again.   Then, Jaskier began to sing.

“I'm sorry but your story isn't adding up
Think your religion is a lie to keep my mouth shut
So I won't testify the crimes you're keeping score of
Why don't you throw me to the wolves? I thought you were one”

Oh.  Geralt had a sinking feeling he knew exactly who this song was about.  Carefully, he worked his way closer to where the sound was coming from and peaked around the corner of the hall.  There, framed in moonlight, sat the bard in a broken window, his head resting on the stone behind him.

“You were standing there like an angry god
Counting out my sins just to cross them off
Saying that my tongue was too loud to trust
And that my blood couldn't keep you”

Geralt winced.  Yes, it seemed Jaskier still had some left-over anger directed towards him.  Well, he couldn’t really blame the other man.

“My dear, you're not so innocent
You're fooling Heaven's gates
So you won't have to change
You're no saint, you're no savior”

Fuck.  Geralt knew, without a doubt, what this song was.  It was the lancing of a boil.  One that had been building for six long years.  Perhaps even longer, really, considering how Geralt had treated the bard since they’d first met.

“Your revelations don't look nothing like the pictures
You read between the lines and don't stick to the scriptures
You only follow rules if others follow with you
That doesn't sound so holy only playing victim”

Jaskier sounded so…tired.  Hopeless.  It made something in Geralt rage and cry.  He wanted to go to the bard and comfort him.  An ache balled deep in the pit of his stomach, building and squirming to get out.

“You were standing there like an angry god
Counting out my sins just to cross them off
Saying that my tongue was too loud to trust
And that my blood couldn't
-“

Abruptly, the music stopped, and all was silent.  It was then that Geralt realized he must have made a sound in response to the ache in Jaskier’s voice.  And the bard had heard it over his singing and playing.  Fuck.

He hadn’t meant to interrupt the other man.  Slowly, he backed down the steps, but it was too late.

“Geralt?”  He winced at the high pitch Jaskier’s voice took.  “What are you doing there?”

The witcher hunched into himself a bit before turning around.  “I thought I heard something.  Came to see what it was.”

He watched as the bard fiddled with his lute.  “Ah.  Well, seems it was just me?”

“Hm.”

Jaskier straightened, a determined look on his face.  “Was there something else?”

Geralt shook his head.  “No.”  He turned to go again, but just as quickly, he stopped and went back to the bard.  “That song…”

“What about it?”  Jaskier crossed his arms over his chest, a strangely vulnerable look on his face.

“It was about me, wasn’t it?”

Jaskier looked shocked.  “Ah, well, no.  I mean, it’s not not about you, I suppose.”  He paused, then said.  “Bit presumptuous of you, though, isn’t it?  Not all my songs are about you, Geralt.”

“But this one is.”

“Well…”

“Jaskier.”

A mulish look came over the bard’s face.  “Geralt.”

“I’m sorry.”

Jaskier blinked at him.  “What?”

“For being the cause of that song.”  Geralt swallowed past the lump in his throat.  “I treated you horribly for the entirety of the time that you befriended me.  I told myself it was to protect you, but I was really protecting myself.  If I could go back and do it again, I’d do so many things differently.”  He looked down at the stone beneath his feet.  He had to do this right.  He looked up at the bard.  “But I can’t undo the past.  All I can offer are my apologies.  And a promise to do better.”

Inexplicably, Jaskier smiled at him.  It was a small, sad thing, but it was precious to Geralt and just as meaningful as the one he’d received earlier that night.  “I think, Geralt, that it might be enough.  To start.”

Geralt didn’t want to, but he had to ask about what happened on the trail away from Kaer Morhen.  He didn’t want to drag Jaskier through it again, but he had to know if Jaskier could truly forgive him for something so heinous.  Harsh words on a desolate mountain were one thing, but what he’d done then was quite another.  He forced the words past his lips, quiet and tense.

“Even though I raped you?”

Jaskier heard him anyway.  “W-what?  Raped me?!”

Geralt hunched into himself further.  He shouldn’t have brought it up.  Obviously, Jaskier had been willing to forget the incident, and here Geralt was, dragging it up again.

The other man must have noticed tenseness in Geralt’s body.  He cut himself off and stepped closer to the other witcher.  “Geralt, look at me.”

Reluctantly, Geralt did so.  He didn’t want to see the anger and disgust on the bard’s face, but he knew had to.  It was the least he could do.

However, it wasn't anger or disgust that showed.  Instead, confusion pulled at Jaskier’s features.

“Geralt, you didn’t rape me,” he said slowly.

Geralt shook his head.  “On the trail, I held you down, hurt you- “

“If I had said ‘stop,’ would you have?”

He nodded his head.  “Of course.”

“Did you hear that word come out of my mouth?”

Slowly, Geralt shook his head.  “But, if you were afraid of me, maybe you wouldn’t have tried for fear it would be worse.”

Jaskier barked out a laugh.  “Afraid of you?  Geralt, I wasn’t afraid of you even as a helpless bard in Posada.”  He frowned.  “Granted, I could have dropped the spell and the glamor and taken you on, if I had to.”  He smiled at Geralt, then, and stepped forward to rest a hand on his shoulder.  “I was still pretty weak from the spell, back then, and I still trusted you to keep me safe.”

“Why?”  It was a question that had burned in the back of Geralt’s mind for the last twenty years.  Why would a helpless human put their life in the hands of a cruel witcher?  And even knowing now what he did, why would a witcher put his life in the hands of the Butcher?

“Many reasons.”  Jaskier grinned at him.  “You humored me by answering my question, for starters.”

“What?”

“The one asking for a review, you remember?  ‘Three words or less’?”  Geralt did.  “You stared straight ahead like you were enduring the worst form of torture, thought about it, and answered anyway.”

Geralt frowned at him.  “And that told you that I would keep you safe?”

“Well, you didn’t throw any bread at me, did you?”

“I didn’t have any,” he reminded the bard.   “And if I’d had any, I wouldn’t have wasted it by throwing it at someone.  And I punched you in the gut not long after that.”

Jaskier waved a dismissive hand at him before slipping past Geralt and heading down the steps, lute slung over his shoulder.  “Semantics.  All I really needed to know was that the big, scary witcher,” he raised his hands and crooked his fingers at the ‘big and scary’ part, “had patience for a young, annoying bard when none of the humans in that shitty tavern did.  And I kind of deserved that punch.”  

“Oh, so, you were self-aware then?”  Geralt winced.  It had slipped out before he could stop himself.

But Jaskier just grinned up at him again.  “I can admit I was pretty annoying back then.  I was nervous at being discovered and being out on my own without any weapons or potions.  I talked to distract myself and others.”  He sighed.  "And I can't really blame you for punching me.  It was a cruel moniker you'd been given and I threw it about like it was something you ought to be proud of when that couldn't have been further from truth.  I had no idea the heartache that name carried for you.  I was thoughtless and cruel."  There was a tense moment of silence before Jaskier shrugged.  "Anyway, you never hurt me like that again afterward."

“...But I hurt you in other ways.”

“The name-calling and proverbial cold-shoulder did start to wear on me after a while, I'll admit.”

Geralt shook his head before resuming their walk down the stairs.  “I wanted you to stay away from me.  You know why- knew why- and you stayed anyway.  Why?"  That was the thing about Jaskier, he was always causing Geralt to ask 'why'.  There were so many things the bard had done that made little sense to Geralt, but choosing to travel with him and then staying by his side even after Geralt had gone out of his way to be intimidating, had to be the biggest one of them all.

Jaskier stopped and turned to look at Geralt.  "Because I'd been where you were before.  Alone and desperate, barely clinging to sanity.  I could see it Geralt."  His left hand was tight around the lute strap, the right was shaped into a fist at his side.  "You were losing yourself, heading into a downwards spiral.  How long do you think it would have been before you 'forgot' to dodge a monster's claw?"

Geralt stared at the bard, wide-eyed.  He hadn't realized at the time, but he'd been very close to it, indeed.  "I don't know.  It didn't register to me like that at the time."

"No?"  Jaskier looked thoughtful.  "I truly don't know if that's better or worse."  He turned back down the steps.  "At any rate, I'd like to think I annoyed you back into life by singing at you."  He threw a quick, mischievous grin over his shoulder.

"Your songs grew on me, actually.  After a while.”  It was getting easier, Geralt noted with some small amount of surprise, to say nice things to Jaskier.  “You always had a nice voice, but your composition was a bit lacking, at first.”

Beside him, Jaskier froze.  Geralt continued on for a few more steps before he realized the bard wasn’t following him.  He turned to look up at him.  “Jaskier?”

“I think that’s the nicest thing you’ve ever said to me.”

Geralt grimaced.  “I’m sorry-“

“Don’t.”  Jaskier cut him off.  “You don’t have to keep apologizing.  I value honest criticism.”  He closed the distance between them until they were even again.  He gave Geralt a long, considering look.  “I think, if you’re willing, I’m ready to try to be friends again.”

Geralt didn’t even need to think about it.  “Yes.”

Jaskier smiled at him.  “Good.  I’m glad.  I can’t promise it will be smooth sailing the entire time.  There are still some things that I need to work through, but I’m willing to try.”

“Whatever you need, Jaskier, ask it.  If it is mine to give, you shall have it.”

“Thank you, Geralt.”  The bard yawned.  “Right now, I think I need some sleep.”

Geralt could agree to that.  It had been a long day, week, month- years, really.  He walked the bard to the hall where his rooms were located.  “We’ll talk tomorrow?”  As tired as he was, he wasn’t quite yet ready to leave the bard’s presence.  “Er, actually, I’ve got that hunt, but…”

“Perhaps I could join you some time?”

“On a hunt?”  Geralt asked reflexively, disbelieving.  Then, at the look Jaskier gave him, he shook his head.  “Right, I keep forgetting.  Sorry.  I’d like that."  He hesitated before asking, "would you want to go with me tomorrow?"

Jaskier nodded his assent.  “Sure. I’ll see you then.”  He headed towards his room.

It wasn’t until Geralt had crawled back into bed, sleep tantalizingly close, that he realized that Jaskier had all but outright stated that he’d wanted what had happened between them in the snow along the trail.  His eyes popped open, staring unseeing at the stone ceiling above his head as the implication ran through his head.  Jaskier had wanted him.  Possibly still wanted him.

“Fuck.”

Well, there went any chance of him getting a good night’s sleep now.  He had to work out how to seduce a bard.  And how to admit his feelings out loud to the aforementioned bard.  But first, he had to learn how to be a friend to Jaskier.  Unless he could rebuild the trust between them, there would be no hope for anything more.