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Of Feathers and Bone

Chapter Text

Jaskier’s fist slammed into an old cypress tree hard enough to crumble the bark off it and leave a faint dent in the wood, but he was too upset by Geralt’s tirade to notice the imprint he had left.   His eyes were clouded with suppressed tears of rage and sorrow and a broken heart.  He sucked in a painful breath, trying to hold himself together enough to continue down the mountain without stumbling off a ravine or something equally ridiculous and pitiful.

“Fuck,” he breathed out harshly to himself.  Maybe he should take a moment to calm himself before he recommenced trudging down the mountain path.  The tree he had just assaulted proved sturdy enough to take a punch; it could hold him up for a few minutes while he got himself back under control.

But it burned.  By the Gods, did Geralt’s words burn him to the core.  They clung to his insides, shredding and tearing all that he was, all that he’d made himself into, undoing all the work he’d put into leaving his broken and bloody past behind.  It made him wonder if he’d made the right choice, giving up his life from before.

The crux of it all was that Jaskier knew the words hadn’t been meant for him.  Not really.  Geralt had spoken them to him, but when he’d talked about life’s one blessing, he hadn’t been talking about Jaskier.  No, Geralt had been talking about himself.  About having to live with himself and all the things he’d said and done; not just to Jaskier, but to Yennefer, and Renfri, and his Child Surprise.   For all his strength and fortitude, Geralt was a broken man filled with one regret after another, and Jaskier had tried to help.  He had.  But it’d been too little, too late, it seemed.

Or, maybe, Geralt hadn’t wanted to be helped.  Maybe Geralt wanted to wallow in the only emotions he seemed to know; misery and loneliness.  Perhaps, even after all these years of Jaskier showing Geralt he was allowed to have more, to be more, the Wolf just didn’t want to believe it.  Or he had been too scared of his feelings to chase after them and allow them to flourish.

Bitterly, Jaskier wondered why he had even tried.

No, that wasn’t true, he knew why.  He had tried to help because Jaskier had known what it was like to be Geralt.  To have been forced onto a path he had not chosen; a bloody and lonely path filled with longing for something more.  Something that would fill the gaps in his heart during long, cold nights and keep him from breaking every time a villager cursed at him, a lord shortchanged him, or a whorehouse refused his coin.  If he’d been really lucky, all three could happen within the same week, if not the same day.

And something within Jaskier had broken, then.  He just…couldn’t do it anymore.  Nearly fifty years on the Path and he was fractured and flawed.  Beyond repair, he had thought.  It had made him sloppy and slow.  He’d ignored the warning signs and had nearly paid the ultimate price for it.

He reached a hand up to trace along his throat where a scar would have been had he not been wearing such an effective glamor.  Or was it even a glamor when it had changed his whole being?

The point was, he’d nearly let himself die and if it hadn’t been for the timely intervention of a brother from another School he probably wouldn’t be here now.  On this mountain, nursing his heartache and trying to gain some semblance of control over himself.  Perhaps the trade-off wasn’t that great, after all.

No, that wasn’t true.  The witcher that had saved him had been from the Cat school and had made a very practical observation that had led to Jaskier scrimping and saving every last coin he could to buy himself a new life.  He wasn’t exactly sure what he wanted, but he was sure he’d figure it out or die in the pursuit of it.  At least his life had a purpose again.

Eventually, Jaskier had found that something for himself.  It had taken a lot of time, money, and favors, and he’d walked away from the Path poor, but in possession of his greatest treasure; a chance to choose his life, to start over.  The glamor he had procured from the sorcerer was strong enough to fool even another witcher, tied to his sense of self and own innate magic so that it would not break until he wished it so.  It was technically more of a curse, repurposed and reworked for a witcher’s wish to experience life as a human.   

It constantly drained his energy, making his senses dull and almost constantly in need of sleep, especially in the first few years.  Over time he had been able to direct where the spell pulled the energy to power itself from first, leaving his five senses and heart rate near human-normal, but keeping some of his old strength and agility so that he did not tire so easily.  One too many run-ins with bandits had facilitated the necessity of such focus.

When he had first met Geralt, all those years ago in Posada- after he’d left Oxenfurt, but before he’d managed to finely tune the glamor- he’d recognized the look on the other witcher.  It was the look of a man where his best hope was to be left to drink in peace, to soak up human companionship by proximity- but never in actuality- before continuing on the Path alone again.

He had recognized the look, and without really making the decision, approached the man.  He cringed to remember his first words to Geralt- bread in his pants, really? - but the look on the witcher’s face, to have a human approach him fearlessly, had been a thing of beauty.  He had made up a reason to keep talking and watched as, against his obvious better judgement, Geralt reached back out.  Spoke back; took Jaskier’s question seriously though he was obviously bemused at the young bard that invaded his space and asked for his thoughts.

They spent years together, on and off.  And, somewhere along the way, Jaskier had fallen a little in love with Geralt.  He was enamored with the taciturn man that protected him from monsters even as the witcher cursed him for tagging along.  He’d been charmed by the man’s unbeatable will to keep going, no matter how much it pained him.  He became infatuated with Geralt and everything the man stood for, even when the man was threatening to leave him behind on the road.

And it never left.  Every time Jaskier separated himself from Geralt he told himself that this would be the time he’d get over him.  And every time, the love would come right back when he saw the witcher again.  He was in love with Geralt.  Desperately so.

And look where that’s gotten me, Jaskier laughed quietly to himself.  Yelled at and blamed for every bad thing that had ever happened in the other man’s life.  Geralt would probably have blamed him for the tragedy of Renfri, too, even though Jaskier had been nowhere close to Blaviken at the time.  Even though, to Geralt, Jaskier would have been child when Stregobor forced that impossible choice upon the White Wolf.

Coming back to himself, Jaskier realized he’d fallen into a light meditative state while standing; compartmentalizing his emotions with his eyes closed and his fist still pressed into the tree.  Old habits died hard indeed.

Slowly, he pulled back into himself, blinking his eyes clear and standing up straighter.  He winced as he pulled his hand away from tree, splinters embedded in scrapes across his knuckles.  Carefully, he pulled them out, hissing when a particularly deep one drew blood.   

Once he had finished ridding his knuckles of the debris, he took a deep breath, shouldered his lute and the scant few belongings he’d brought up the mountain with him, and continued down the path.  He had a long way to go before he reached the area where they had left Roach and not much daylight left.   If he wanted to beat the group to the horses, he’d likely have to sacrifice his strength for the sight and stamina needed to keep going through the night.

Left behind, shining in the late afternoon sun, was an old cypress tree with a hollow dent and blood drying into it.

*

By late morning the next day, Jaskier had made it back to the corral where they had left Roach and the other horses.  It had exhausted him, but he’d been able to outpace the rest of the party and made it down the mountain first, probably by a good half a day or more.  He thanked Melitele for small favors as he set about gathering his things from the packs left behind with Roach and saying goodbye to the faithful horse.

“It’s not your fault,” he said, feeding her his apple core.  “Geralt has made it clear, several times over, that he does not want for company.  Especially mine.”

He brushed a hand over her soft nose as she nibbled at his hand.  “I didn’t listen before, but I’ve got the message loud and clear now.  It’s time we parted ways, at least for a while.”

With one last rub at her ears and mane, Jaskier took the reins of one of the now abandoned Reavers’ horses he had packed his gear onto and mounted up.  He didn’t look back.

It wouldn’t have mattered even if he had.  There was no one coming for him.

*

Some time later, a white-haired man with two swords slung across his back frowned at an indent in a tree and drops of dried blood on the ground.  Briefly, he wondered what had caused the damage to the old cypress.   He did not stop long, however.  He had more important things ahead of him to look towards.

The man settled his swords a little more comfortably on his shoulder before continuing down the mountain path, the sun setting in the distance.

Chapter Text

6 Years Later- After the Fall of Cintra

It was with a twinge of pain great enough that it caused him to wince that Jaskier felt the last of the spell fall away.  He stopped in the middle of the road, bringing Pegasus to an abrupt halt as well, to mourn his former life as a famous bard.  He had loved the adventure and freedom being a simple human had brought him.  And, as a bard, he had been welcomed most anywhere for his music and talent.

But that was over now.  A few weeks after Cintra’s fall, Jaskier had been made aware that being known as the White Wolf’s bard had become more of a hazard to his person than a boon.  And so, with great reluctance, he had begun the process of undoing the glamor.  Not all at once, that would have been foolhardy, but slow enough that anyone who had seen him could say that they had seen the famous bard heading south and east away from Cintra.  In the opposite direction that he knew Geralt would take the princess, if he found her.

Jaskier had to believe that with the fall of Cintra and death of Calanthe, Geralt wouldn’t sit idly by while his Child Surprise was missing and in danger.  That wasn’t the type of man Geralt was; he wouldn’t shirk his responsibility, no matter how unwanted it may have been.  He would seek her out, probably before Nilfgaard reached Cintra, if he’d been able.

And, if Jaskier had learned that Nilfgaard was looking for the witcher known as the White Wolf and any of his known compatriots, it had to be for a good reason.  The only reason that made sense was that the Cintran princess was still alive, and that Nilfgaard knew of Geralt’s association with her, and suspected she was either looking for Geralt or was already in his company.  Being far away from Nilfgaard and the most likely place that the witcher would take the princess was all the help Jaskier could offer.

Which is how Jaskier found himself just outside a tiny village near the northern border of Toussaint, the sun near to setting.  It is here, he thought, that the famous bard Jaskier will disappear and the witcher, Julian of the Griffin School, will be seen again after more than twenty-five years.  Gods, but he hoped that he didn’t run into Coën any time soon.  He’d never live down the outrage from the other man at disappearing with no word and when their School had been exterminated down to almost nothing.  The Griffin witcher was sure to be furious.

Better to avoid Coën for now.

At least he could head north again, away from the Nilfgaardian occupying force.  A random blue-eyed witcher from a different school than the White Wolf’s would garner less attention from Nilfgaardian soldiers than a well-dressed bard.  But still, there was a chance he could be recognized by someone, especially if someone care enough to look past the scars.  He didn’t look that much different as a witcher than from when he’d been tottering around as a human. 

He still wanted to look for Geralt and his Child Surprise, despite the danger.  He wanted to make sure they had met, that the princess was safe, and then be on his way.  Hopefully, without Geralt realizing he had even done so.  He wasn’t sure he could explain why there was a witcher with Jaskier’s face out in the world; that Jaskier had been a witcher all along.

Not without swords being drawn, at any rate.  He’d rather not try to take Geralt on in a fight right now, unless it was with wits.  While he had an abundance of talent in the latter, he wasn’t too proud to admit that he’d let his sword skills rust over the years.  He’d be no challenge for a fully prepared witcher that trained nearly every day.  Jaskier would rather not die by his former…acquaintance’s sword, thank you very much.

Besides, as much as he had tried to forget the emotions the other witcher had evoked in him all those years ago, Jaskier wasn’t keen on testing himself by actually having to converse with Geralt.  He had a feeling that making his anger and hurt known to the other man would be a useless endeavor anyway.  Geralt was just as likely to grunt at him in ire for annoying the witcher with Jaskier’s icky emotions.  It was unlikely the man had changed in that regard.

Better to be as unassuming as possible and not draw attention to himself; from Geralt and Nilfgaard.  How, exactly, he would find them and accomplish his goal of ascertaining their overall state of being, Jaskier was unsure.   It had been over six months since Cintra’s fall, the princess could be anywhere.  However, he just could not, in good conscience, possibly leave a young, scared girl to the tender mercies of an invading army.

So, no more famous bard and poet extraordinaire.

With that in mind, Jaskier led his horse to the side of the road and rooted around in his saddlebags for some spare clothes in more somber colors than what he was currently wearing.  While he had plans to take up his witchering duties soon enough, he wasn’t quite ready to head back on the Path again.  He wasn’t exactly kitted out for it for one thing.  And, for another, he wasn’t sure he could survive taking on even the simplest contract as he currently was.  He did, however, carefully pick apart the seams of his lute case to pull out his medallion.

He would have to hide it, for now, under his shirt and hope no one saw it.  However, he couldn’t deny that there was a sort of comfort in having the Griffin pendant hanging about his neck again, ready to warn him of impending danger.  It was a small comfort, but still a welcome one.

The spell and the advanced glamor had mimicked human aging as well as masking his other witcher biology quirks and some rather notable scars.  With the glamor gone, Jaskier appeared younger than when he’d last been seen in a public performance.  His skin had also been smooth and without scarring, something many of his admirers had appreciated.  And then they had endeavored to leave their own marks upon him.

Hopefully no one would link a young, no-name bard with unfortunate scars on his face and neck- like someone had tried to cut his throat and failed halfway through- to the famous poet Jaskier, renowned cad and oft described as ‘pretty.’   The faded, white line through his right eye and the ugly raised slash on his neck from his chin to his left ear rather ruined that effect.  Well, maybe not the ‘cad’ part, but he definitely wouldn’t be considered pretty anymore.

To that endeavor, he would need a costume change.  He stuffed his more colorful doublet and trousers in the saddlebags and pulled on the clothes he’d bought a few towns back for when his glamor had finally left him.  Perhaps in the next city he found himself in, he could sell them for a decent price.  The fabric had been rather high quality and he doubted he would be needing anything that fancy again any time soon.

In sturdy plain linen under layers with a wool tunic and breeches in shades of green over top, Jaskier entered the village, lute strapped to his back and leading his horse.  He found the local tavern easily enough, stabled Pegasus, and after speaking with the proprietor, he was able to negotiate a simple, free meal if he could bring in more business along with keeping any coin he was given. 

He set up at a table in the corner and introduced himself as Dandelion, a young hopeful that had been on his way to Oxenfurt before being cut off by the war and is now a traveling, untrained bard trying to earn money for his family.  He smiled broadly, careful not to show his teeth, which were a little sharper than strictly human.

It was a shit cover story, but it would only need to hold for a few days at most.  He couldn’t use Jaskier here, not with his different looks, and it would be too suspect to have a bard named Julian appear in one area and then a witcher of the same name surface in the exact same location.  Best to cycle through a number of aliases and muddle the details as much as possible.  Once he had enough coin to purchase armor, he could drop the bard persona altogether and just be Julian the witcher once more.

He was going to miss being a famous bard, though.  The banquets, the finery, the willing bed partners…no more.  It was such a shame, really.

Pushing back his melancholy, the newly named Dandelion channeled all his energy into giving the little tavern the best performance it would ever see.  This place had yet to be touched by the war, but the people here were simple, hard-working folk. 

He settled on playing lively tunes meant to bring people together and helped them forget their struggles for a time.  He danced and stomped his feet along to the rhythm.  During the short breaks he took, he talked and laughed with the people, asking if they had any requests.  He played some of his own songs, but not as Jaskier, famous bard and lyricist. 

It was one of his best performances, and no one knew who he really was, all credit going to an unfortunate lad named Dandelion.

And, at the end of the night, after collecting his coin, when a comely woman spoke to him about how lonely the nights were since her husband had passed away, he found a bed for the night that he did not have to pay for except in shared pleasure.  Maybe he hadn’t lost the knack for acquiring willing bedmates, after all.

The next morning, after he left the woman’s bed, he headed into the town proper to see if they sold anything close to leather armor, and if not, where he might be able to purchase some on his way north.  He found out that they had no call for leatherworkings of such a nature there, but if he were to ride a day or so north to Belhaven, across the border into the Slopes region, he might have some luck.

Jaskier collected his horse around midday after stocking up on a few provisions for the journey and tipping the stable hand well.  He had made enough coin last night, and saved even more on bedding, that he thought he could afford it.

The bard known as Dandelion to the small village left humming one of his favorite songs and the smell of spruce trees in the air.

*

It didn’t take as long as the small shop proprietor had said it would to reach Belhaven.  Jaskier made it to the outskirts of the town by late evening but decided to save his money and camp out before entering Belhaven in the morning.  The proprietor had been right in that the town was bigger than the one he had come from; he was hopeful that his search would bear fruit.

Early in the morning, he wandered along the main road through the town until he came upon the leatherworker.  He haggled back and forth with the man.  When all was settled, he walked away not only with a sturdy dark brown and black studded leather vest, but also a set of black leather arm wraps that went up to his elbows and covered his knuckles to go with it.

Next, he went to the blacksmith to check the selection of small swords.  His daggers were all well and good, best suited for his style of fighting, but having something with a longer reach and more heft wouldn’t go amiss.  It took a while, but eventually Jaskier settled on a one-handed steel sword with a double-edged blade a little longer than the length of his thigh.  It was well-balanced and the grip was comfortable.  A matching sword in silver would have to wait as they were considerably more expensive and difficult to make.

He went back to Pegasus to store his new purchases, his purse considerably lighter than it had been when he'd entered the town.  He stroked the horse’s nose for a moment, considering his options.  He had very little coin left over from his purchases and while he was now better outfitted than he’d been before, Jaskier still wasn’t equipped to handle more than a few drowners or other single, small monsters.

“Perhaps one more performance as ‘Dandelion the bard’?”  He spoke contemplatively to the gelding.  Pegasus nickered at him softly before pushing against him with his head.  “All right, all right, figures I can’t hold out on you,” he said before producing the apple the horse was trying to get at.

Making up his mind, he took out his lute and made his way to a tavern.  He asked the tavern owner if he could play and the woman agreed heartily.  He set up in a corner and surveyed the room a moment before quietly tuning his lute.  This time, he did not introduce himself, just started playing quietly. 

Eventually, he gave in and indulged himself in playing his first well-received song that had propelled him towards the renown he’d enjoyed for the last two decades.  It might have been a little self-serving, he thought, if anyone were to realize that he was a witcher.  But the song had been more about Geralt, anyway.   

It had been for Geralt, if he was being honest.  Even back then, in Posada- after Geralt had tried to protect him and the elves had let them go- Jaskier had been falling in love with the witcher.  He hadn’t recognized it then, but he knew the signs now.  As much as he might have wished for it later, there had been no stopping the slow tumble of Jaskier’s feelings for the other man.  Geralt had been noble and kind, in his own way.  And that was all Jaskier needed.

Until Yennefer, and with her, the realization that his feelings would never be returned.  Geralt cared, yes.  He’d shown that by riding out to the closest healer, and then the closest powerful magic-user, to save Jaskier’s life.  Lilit, even Geralt’s excuse for going back into that crumbling building was because he couldn’t repay the effort of saving the bard’s life with apathy towards the one that had done the saving.

And, so began the dismal ballad of Geralt and Yennefer.  Forever drawn to each other and yet, each pushing the other away.  Jaskier contented himself with being Geralt’s friend.  Surely, after all the effort Geralt had put into preserving the bard’s life, Jaskier meant something to him.  Perhaps not what Jaskier hoped to mean to the other man, but a deep, true friendship could be just as fulfilling as any relationship with a lover.  Jaskier could be content with that. 

He could.  He was content; until Geralt lost the love of his life to a desperate wish and poorly worded explanations for his decision.  And then decided Jaskier was to blame for his perceived misfortunes.  He told himself, then, that Geralt didn’t really mean it.  That Geralt was angry at himself for losing the one thing that meant everything to him and didn’t know how to deal with his feelings.

But that didn’t mean Jaskier had to stay.  It was one time too many, one word too harsh, for Jaskier to keep putting himself in the way of Geralt’s particular line of poisoned barbs anymore.  He could not- would not- be there for the witcher to verbally abuse when things went wrong and to tear down when things were going well for Jaskier.  Because, no matter what he did, he could never do anything right.

So, he walked down the mountain by himself, stole a horse, and rode to the nearest inn where he spent three days drunk off his arse and furiously writing.  Part of him hoped that Geralt would find him and apologize; a part of him had still loved the taciturn man (and probably always would).  Another part hoped Geralt fell off a cliff.

It was during this drunken haze that he wrote ‘Her Sweet Kiss’.  He took the song that he’d been working on, flipped it around, and wrote out his heartache, sorrow, and frustration.  He wrote of how he gave everything to Geralt only for the man to judge him harshly at every turn.  He sung of his desperation to be what Geralt wanted him to be and never measuring up and yet, all the while, the man was being drawn towards Yennefer.  He cried at how Geralt became his “garroter, jury, and judge” for everything he’d ever done or tried to do for the other man.  He was never right, always wrong, and Geralt had counted his sins like the judging Eternal Fire itself.

It was probably one of the greatest ballads he’d ever written.  But it wasn’t the only one he’d written about his feelings for Geralt and his heartache at being so soundly rejected without ever having even confessed.  Tonight, he’d end his performance with a song he’d written and then never performed.  It was something he’d kept close to himself, too much hurt written into the song to ever sing to an audience.

But, fuck it.  If this was to be his last performance as a bard, he wanted to sing the songs closest to his heart, giving voice to his greatest heartache even six years after walking away from that mountain and the man that professed to hate him.  He strummed an opening chord and began to sing.

How can I say this without breaking?
How can I say this without taking over?
How can I put it down into words?
When it's almost too much for my soul alone

Jaskier was surprised by the strength of his emotions as he played the song.  He thought he’d gotten better at handling that particular sting over the years.  Then again, he had mostly tried not to think about Geralt at all for these past six years.

I loved, and I loved and I lost you
I loved, and I loved and I lost you
I loved, and I loved and I lost you

And it hurts like hell
Yeah, it hurts like hell

He may have, perhaps, been in a particularly rancorous mood when he’d written these lyrics.  The bitterness of being told that he was to blame for everything wrong in another person’s life when he knew damn well it was Geralt’s own carelessness that had brought the man misfortune had wrung from him words of hurt and maybe just a touch spiteful.

I don't want them to know the secrets
I don't want them to know the way I loved you
I don't think they'd understand it, no
I don't think they would accept me, no

I loved, and I loved and I lost you
I loved, and I loved and I lost you
I loved, and I loved and I lost you

And it hurts like hell
Yeah, it hurts like hell

He had amassed quite a pile of coin by the end of his performance.  He thanked his audience and then used a few coins to pay for a hot meal and a room for the night before scooping the rest into his purse.  He put his lute away while he waited for his food, examining the strings and pegboard for wear before he put it carefully away into its case when the barmaid delivered his stew.

He had just started to tuck in when the door to the tavern flew open, banging loudly against the wall and startling the patrons.

“Help! Please!” Called a young voice.

Jaskier dropped his spoon.  He knew that voice.  He’d heard it the last time he’d visited Cintra’s court, before Nilfgaard had invaded, over a year ago. He looked up towards the door to a shock of pale blonde hair and bottle-green eyes.

“Oh, fuck me.”  He swore soundly, burying is head in his hands.

Chapter Text

“Please,” the young voice pleaded again.

“What is it, girl?” The tavern owner asked, not unkindly.

Jaskier watched the princess go up to the woman, whose expression was a careful mixture of concern and wariness.  He listened as she explained that her guardian- a witcher- had gone to fight the monster that the alderman had hired him to rid the town of, but he had been gone for hours.  Much longer than he should have been.  So the girl, sensing something had gone wrong, but unable to track where the witcher had gone, had run back to the town to find help. 

As Jaskier listened, all he could think was- nonsensically- well, sing of the devil.  Why was Geralt- and it had to be Geralt- even here?  He should have taken Cirilla north, further away from Nilfgaard’s conquering army.  Not south, closer to Black Sun's impending line of devastation.  Even as a feint, it was a stupid idea to risk it.

When he found the big oaf, he’d be sure to give him a piece of his mind on the matter.  It wouldn’t do to let that sort of idiocy stand.  Especially not when there were lives on the line.  It was all well and good for Geralt to risk his own life; he’d been trained for it, but to risk a young girl’s life on the Path was inexcusable.  He should have had her safe in Kaer Morhen or one of Yennefer’s purloined mansions by now.

The old woman shook her head.  “I’m sorry, girl.  But if the witcher didn’t come back, then it is unlikely he survived.  There is nothing we can do.”  She reached out towards the girl’s shoulder.

“There has to be something!”  The princess of Cintra demanded, sidestepping the touch.

“If we were able to take care of the monster ourselves, we wouldn’t have needed the witcher in the first place,” said the owner, a little more forcefully.

Cirilla’s face started to scrunch up, on the verge of tears.  “Please!  He’s all I have!”  Jaskier could see the water collect in her eyes.  “There has to be someone that can help.”  The tears were flowing now.  “Please!”

“Do you know what the monster is?” Jaskier would have said he surprised himself by speaking up, but he tried not to lie to himself too much.  He’d already made the decision when he realized who was in danger.  And honestly, even if he hadn’t been so sure it was Geralt out there, he still would have gone.  He never had been able to disregard a child’s tears or someone’s desperate plea for help.

Once a witcher, always a witcher, it seemed.  Damn mutagens getting in the way of rational thought and behavior.  No wonder humans believed that witchers were insane and bloodthirsty.  Who would willingly go looking for a monster to fight?

Insane people like Jaskier, apparently.  Someone who’d been raised to run towards danger without fear.  Someone who had enough emotional intelligence to sympathize with a young, scared girl who was all alone but for one man.  He could imagine-knew, really- what it felt like to believe that very man invincible, only to see him fall.  He’d seen the humanity in Geralt even when the man himself had believed it torn out of him, bloody and visceral.

The princess’ eyes found his in the dark, surprised and hopeful even as she shook her head.  “I’m not sure.  He said something about a type of plant.  An arch-something.”

Shit. An archespore wasn’t impossible alone, but it could be difficult, especially for a witcher that was used to brute-forcing his way through a fight instead of dodging.  He could see how Geralt would have a problem battling it if he wasn’t able to sneak up on the thing.  He’d have to avoid the poison darts to get in close enough range for Igni to be effective.  Fire was the only way to kill them, at any rate, but why carry a torch when the witcher had a built-in fire source?

The problem for this particular hunt, was that Geralt tended to rely on his superior strength and endurance in a fight, seeming to believe he could weather any blow and keep going.  Or smash through his opponent’s defense and finish them off in one decisive strike.  Dodging the poison darts while working one’s way closer to the plant required a certain amount of dexterity and forbearance. Patience was not exactly a virtue Geralt was known for when it came to a fight, Jaskier had observed over the years.

Jaskier, on the other hand, would have had no problem with dodging around the plant’s darts and vicious vines, watching for an opening.  He’d honed his reflexes past even what most witchers were capable of and didn’t mind biding his time, waiting for the perfect moment to strike.  There was something rather poetic in wearing down his opponent’s stamina until they made a mistake; like they had penned their own defeat.

If he’d been in his prime, that is.  Sadly, he was nearly three decades out of shape, had only one silver dagger to do any actual damage with, and some leather armor for protection.  If the fight dragged on for too long, he’d slow and eventually his body would give out.  It wasn’t only his sword skills he was out of practice with, but also his amplified senses.  With the glamor only having worn off the other day, he was still getting accustomed to the heightened awareness his sense of hearing and smell brought him.  At times it was disorienting and distracting; a poor combination to go into a fight with.

On top of all that, he wasn’t even sure he could perform any of the Signs properly anymore.  He had no idea if he had enough magic to create the basic ones, much less the more complicated forms he’d preferred at his best.  Even before getting to the fight he was at a severe disadvantage, but…

“Will you help?” The princess asked, softly.  She was closer to his table, now.  Her cheeks glistened from the tears that had spilled down from her eyes.  He could smell the salt of them even over the odor of unwashed bodies and roasted meat.

Of course, Jaskier was going to help.  At the very least he owed it to Geralt to try.  Despite how things had gone on that cursed mountain he owed the man his life several times over.  The question was, how?  If Geralt had been hit with one of the darts and was poisoned and passed out, that meant Jaskier also had to get close enough to it to be in range of said darts to get to the other man.  He wasn’t strong enough or fast enough to drag Geralt out faster than the plant could react.  That meant he had to take it out completely before being able to get Geralt’s heavy carcass out of whatever situation he’d found himself in.

But could he administer an antidote to the poison before the plant noticed him?  Geralt’s survival might depend on him getting the in him potion sooner rather than later.  It would be best to administer a Golden Oriole before having a potentially long, drawn-out battle while Geralt’s life faded away.  But getting the potion to the witcher might be what drew the plant’s notice.  Did Geralt even have a Golden Oriole for him to give to the white-haired witcher?

Ugh, this was one aspect of a witcher’s life that he very much did not miss.  Trying to plan for every eventuality when it came to a hunt was mentally exhausting.  Then again, this wasn’t just a simple hunt; it was a rescue. There was really just no way to know for sure what he would find.  In the space of a few moments, he had thought up and discarded several plans.  Really, all he could do was try to assess Geralt’s state when he got to the scene of the hunt and make his decision from there.

If he could even find Geralt and the archespore in the first place.  Again, those pesky senses of his liked to play havoc every so often when he lost concentration.  It wasn’t quite second nature to him anymore to be able to filter through all the input he received in order to find what he was looking for.  It hadn’t been quite been in the realm of overwhelming when he gained them back, bit by bit, but it had been a near thing in some of the more populated areas.  How had he ever dealt with the smell before?  No wonder Geralt insisted on baths as often as possible.

“Can you take me to where you last saw him?”  He stood and started to gather the things he had brought with him into the tavern.  No matter what, he needed to prioritize saving Geralt’s life, everything else was secondary.  It made it easier, in a way thinking about it like that.  Either Geralt was mostly fine- maybe just unconscious- in which case Jaskier would confront the archespore first, or Geralt was nearing Death’s door and Jaskier would need to get Geralt stabilized before setting the plant on fire.

“Yes!”  Cirilla bounced, hope shining in her eyes.

“Are you mad?!”

Jaskier turned toward the voice that had spoken.  “Excuse me?”

“Are you mad,” the man repeated.  “Why go look for a dead witcher?”

“Because he might not be dead,” Jaskier said simply.  “Won’t know until I find him.”  He settled the lute case strap over his shoulder.

“It’s suicide.”

Jaskier smiled grimly.  “Good thing you’re not going then, isn’t it?”  He turned to Cirilla.  “I need to get my horse from the stable and then we can be on our way.”

“I’ll go with you,” she said, immediately.  “It will be faster to head out from there.”

“Don’t haunt us when you die, bard,” called the man snidely as they headed for the door.

Jaskier held the door open for Cirilla, gesturing for her to preceed him into the cool night air. “Ghosts only haunt those with a living heart,” he said before letting the door swing shut firmly behind him.

*

“Um, I didn’t get your name,” the princess said hesitantly as they walked to the stables.

Jaskier hesitated for a moment.  There was a chance Cirilla would recognize him; even with the scars and age regression, he didn’t look that different from when he had last visited Cintra.  Then again, it was dark out, the tavern had been poorly lit, and she hadn’t paid that much attention to him when he’d been at the palace.

“My name is Julian.  And you?”

“Fiona,” she said, without hesitation.  Jaskier smiled internally.

“And your guardian is a witcher?”

She hesitated at that.  “He found me and took me in after my parents passed away.  He knew them from before I was born.”

It was technically the truth, Jaskier mused, though lacking many details.  Easy to remember because of it, though.  A good cover story as to why a witcher would keep company with a child, however Jaskier made note to tell her after his rescue of Geralt was all over that she might want to come up with a disguise of some sort.  How many witchers with children following them around could there be out there?  Nilfgaard was on the lookout for exactly this type of situation.  And even more specifically, young girls with ash-blonde hair.

As Jaskier thought on this, he opened the stable doors, and searched out Pegasus.  He set his lute case and pack down against the side of the stall before beginning the process of saddling his horse.

“Thank you.  For doing this.”

Jaskier gave her a bemused smile.  “Don’t thank me, yet.  I might not be able to save him.”

Cirilla looked down at her feet.  “I know, but at least you’re trying.  Everyone else…they looked like they just couldn’t give a fuck.”

He turned to look at her fully after cinching the saddle on tight, seizing upon the opening.  He couldn’t help himself.  It had been such a Geralt thing to say.  “Tell me, your witcher guardian, he wouldn’t happen to have white hair, golden eyes, two very scary looking swords and a propensity for saying that word a lot, would he?”

Jaskier already knew it was Geralt.  It had to be, there could be no one else.  What other idiot witcher would have a twelve-year-old girl in their care?  Still, it was amusing to see the look of surprise on the girl’s face.

“You know Geralt?”

Jaskier gave a small laugh that had very little to do with amusement.  “We’ve met.”  He turned back to his packs.  “I’m not sure anyone can really claim to know Geralt.”  He took out his new leather armor and dagger set, along with the new sword.  Steel wouldn’t do much to hurt the archespore, but he could use it to block attacks.

“You’re not just a bard, are you?” She asked shrewdly.

Here, Jaskier’s laughter was a little more amused.  “No, I guess I’m not.”  He did up the buckles on the left side of the vest and then laced up the leather wraps over his chemise.  He secured his silver dagger to his left hip, the steel one to his right, and the sword went across his back.  Then he led his horse out of the stable, the princess following behind.

“Tell me, did Geralt take his horse with him when he went out?”  He swung himself up on Pegasus first before pulling Cirilla up in front of him.

Cirilla shook her head.  “I had to leave her by the road and run back.  I couldn’t pull myself up on to her.”  She sounded decidedly upset at that.

He gave her a consoling pat on the shoulder before nudging Pegasus into a canter.  “Does he still name his horses ‘Roach’?”

The girl in front of him gasped.  “You do know Geralt!”

Jaskier smiled before urging his horse to go a little faster.

It was almost ten minutes later when Jaskier spotted a blood bay mare standing just to the side of the road calmly tugging at a patch of grass.

“There’s Roach,” yelled Cirilla at almost the exact same moment.  Jaskier stopped Pegasus a few paces from the other horse before helping the princess down and then dismounting himself.

He approached the mare slowly, a niggling feeling in his mind that was confirmed when the mare raised her head.  “Well, I’ll be damned.”  The mare’s ears perked up at the sound of his voice and he reached out to rub his fingers softly over her nose.  “It’s the same fucking horse.”

Roach pushed her head into his chest, nickering softly.  “Hey, beautiful girl.”  Jaskier smiled.

“She likes you.”

“She remembers me and the gifts I used to bring her,” Jaskier corrected softly.  “Sorry, girl, no treats today.”  He gave her one last stroke before moving on to the saddlebags that were tied to Roach’s back.  He went directly to the one that Geralt used for his potions, flipping it open and digging into it urgently.  Knowing the idiot, he likely failed to consider taking the appropriate potion with him, in case he did get hit with a dart. 

If he had it at all.  Geralt had a propensity for keeping the potions that bolstered his already unnatural abilities well stocked but let ones that helped deal with the aftermath dwindle.

“Remembers you?”  The princess stood off to the side, watching him curiously.  “That’s the bag Geralt keeps his potions in.”

 Jaskier hesitated for a moment.  Giving the princess more information about his travels with Geralt would lead to more questions about his identity, but this wasn’t really the time to be cagey.  The white-haired witcher was possibly hurt out there somewhere and the girl was scared, with a right to be cautious.

“I may have understated the amount of time I have spent in Geralt’s company earlier.”

Cirilla seemed to accept this, for now.  “What are you looking for?”

“Golden Oriole.  It’s for poison.  If Geralt encountered what I think he did, he may need it.”

The princess wrung her hands worriedly.  “Do you think he’s alright?”

Jaskier gave a small cry of triumph at finding what he needed and then turned to Cirilla.  “I’m fairly certain that man is nigh indestructible.  And besides,” he went on to say with a small smile, crouching down to Cirilla’s level, “he has you to come back to.  He’ll be fine.”  He laid a hand gently on her shoulder.  “Now, I need you to stay here with Roach and Pegasus, alright?”

“Can’t I go with you?”

He shook his head.  “I’m sorry, but no.  I’m going to have a difficult enough time concentrating on saving Geralt without worrying about you as well.”  He squeezed her shoulder in what he hoped was a comforting manner.  “Do you understand?”

The girl nodded; eyes wide, still frightened but calmer than she had been when she’d burst into the tavern only half an hour ago.

“Alright.  Which way did he go?”  Jaskier asked, standing.

Cirilla pointed into the thicket behind Roach.  “He was heading towards the woods.”

Jaskier adjusted the sword on his back and patted the pocket where he tucked the potions he had taken from Geralt’s stores.  He was sure Geralt wouldn’t mind him borrowing a Blizzard in the name of rescuing his imbecilic arse, but Cirilla might ask some uncomfortable questions about the extra potions.

Questions like why he was taking multiple potions for one witcher.  And why one of them had nothing to do with healing or stopping the effects of poison.  No point in raising uncomfortable questions where he’d have to lie about the answer to them.  So far, everything he’d done could be explained away as just having spent some time in the company of witchers.  Or, at least, one specific witcher.

It would be rather awkward having to explain that he was also a witcher who, for some reason, was posing as a bard.  And had been doing so for twenty-six years.  For no apparent reason other than because he wanted to.  No, not strange at all.

He gave her shoulder one last pat.  “I’ll bring him back,” he said, before heading towards the trees.  Or die in the attempt.  At least I wouldn’t have to worry about Nilfgaard finding me anymore.

“Be careful!” 

He could hear the worry in her voice.  “I will,” he replied, before disappearing into the thicket in the direction Cirilla had pointed out that Geralt had gone, following the silver-haired witcher into danger one last time.

Chapter Text

It wasn’t long after getting to the edge of the woods that Jaskier picked up on the same scent that Geralt must have.  It was a swampy, decayed and cloying sort of smell, sticking to his throat and nostrils terribly.  It nearly overwhelmed him with its distinctive odor.  Definitely an archespore of some sort, though Jaskier wasn’t sure what sub-species it would be.  His nose wasn’t as discerning as it used to be.  As he got closer, he started to pick up on another scent, something acrid and acidic; the smell of a witcher’s enhanced body working overtime to process chemicals that no human could have ever survived.

He was getting very close if he was able to pick that particular scent out of all the decay.  He stopped for a moment and took out one of the bottles he had pocketed from Roach’s saddlebag.  It had been almost thirty years since he’d felt the effects of a witcher potion.  He wondered if it would still affect him the same or if his immunity to the negative effects would have worn down over the years.

Well, only one way to find out.

Jaskier uncorked the bottle and downed a Blizzard in one large gulp, then shuddered.  They still tasted almost literally like shit, that was for certain.  Jaskier very pointedly did not think about how he was so familiar with that particular flavor.  He had a job to do and a witcher to save.

He gave the potion a minute to work its way into his bloodstream, his slow heartbeat making the process feel interminable.  All at once, he felt his veins burn, pupils expand, and his world both narrowed into sharp focus and widened considerably; the potion still felt the same as it had since the last time he’d taken one.  That was a good sign, at least.

With his sharpened senses, Jaskier was able to navigate the forest faster as details became clearer and he was able to react quicker.  Soon, he came upon a clearing with a large, carnivorous plant on the far side and a still body with a glint of silver next to it near the center.

Geralt.

Jaskier took a slow, deep breath as he surveyed the scene, the scent of decay causing his eyes to water with how pungent it was.  The scene was as he had suspected it might be.  Geralt had been hit with not one, but two poisoned darts to his leg.  One, he might have been able to push through, but two was enough to put most witchers out of commission if they weren’t prepared with an anti-poison concoction.

This…was not good.  But also, not the worst scenario he could have come upon.  He couldn’t tell for sure from where he hid at the tree line, but he thought Geralt was still breathing.  Barely.

Slowly, he reached into his pocket where he’d stored the second potion he’d taken from the saddlebags.  It would negate the poison, but only if he could get it in Geralt.  And he dared not wait long enough to kill the archespore before administering the antidote.  If Geralt was still alive, he didn't have long.

That meant he would have to sneak over to Geralt, make him swallow some of the Golden Oriole, and get him out of there before the plant noticed him.  Easy.  Oh gods, he was going to die in the middle of a swampy forest because of a murderous plant.  Jaskier swallowed past the lump that had formed in his throat.

Even if the archespore- as he could see now that he was in sight of it- was a coccacidium, the most aggressive of the archespore species.  He could do it.  He had to, or both he and Geralt would be dead and Cirilla would be alone and vulnerable to Nilfgaard.  Which meant also probably dead if they got a hold of her.

No pressure, Jaskier thought to himself before starting to ease his way forward.

Silently, with the potion bottle clutched in one hand and his silver dagger held forward in the other, Jaskier inched his way towards Geralt’s prone form.  He did his best to breathe shallowly and sparingly, willing his vision to clear as he crept along.  It wouldn't do to trip over a random piece of detritus because he couldn't handle the smell of putrefied animal carcasses.  And other caracasses.  And he really needed to stop thinking about what the fetor was made of before he added to it.

Luckily, the archespore was turned away from him, as much as a plant with no true back or front could be turned away from a person.  As Jaskier got closer, he was able to make out that it seemed preoccupied with something.  From the crunch that he could hear, Jaskier guessed it was whatever it had caught as a meal.

Slower than he would have liked, but still fast enough that it surprised him, Jaskier made it to Geralt’s still form undetected.  He could hear, now, his labored breathing and Jaskier let out a small, silent breath in relief.  The big idiot was still alive after all.  Now, to keep him that way.

Still holding his silver knife in his left hand, Jaskier used his teeth to uncork the bottle before plugging the opening with his thumb to bring it over Geralt’s slightly parted lips.  He pulled his thumb back slightly to allow the liquid to trickle out of the vial and into the other man’s mouth.  He was relieved to see that Geralt was able to swallow subconsciously.  That made things a lot easier.  And meant that the situation wasn’t as dire as he’d feared, if Geralt's autonomic responses were still functioning.

Potion administered; he went to work on the root-he laughed in his head at the pun-of the problem.  Namely, the barbs that were potentially still pumping poison into the unconscious witcher.  He would need to be quick.  The pain from pulling them out could wake Geralt and that would be…unfortunate, if he made any noise at his awakening.

He put his dagger back in its sheathe before wrapping one hand around the barb, bracing the other on Geralt’s leg, and pulling sharply.  The barb came out easily enough and Jaskier placed it on the ground next to him.  He let out a slow breath before reaching for the next one.

That was the moment Geralt chose to groan.

Without conscious thought, Jaskier picked up Geralt’s discarded silver blade in his left hand and swung around, cutting down the three barbs the coccacidium had sent racing towards them in mid-air.

“Shit.”  At least he’d gotten Geralt to drink the potion first, he thought vaguely before dodging out of the way of the plant’s roots when they tried to impale him.

He rolled away from Geralt and closer to the archespore.  Now that he had the thing’s attention, he had to make sure he kept it.  As long as it thought Jaskier was the bigger threat, it wouldn’t try to harm Geralt.  “Alright you overgrown herb, let’s play.”  He grinned.

Whip sharp vines came at him next and he used the sword to block again, reinforcing the block with his right arm behind the sword.  He was pushed back a few feet before he managed to stop the slide of his boots against the slick grass.  Jaskier whirled the sword up, cutting the vines easily.  He heard the plant sizzle and burn where the silver met it.

Archespores were sensitive to silver, but only fire to the root could kill it.  He had to get closer.  He was still too far away to use Igni effectively.  Jaskier used the brief reprieve that cutting into the plant had given him to launch his counterattack.  He ran as fast as he could towards the coccacidium, the Blizzard thrumming through his veins, making time slow.  He could see the opening.  He was almost there.  He readied the Sign.

“Jaskier?”

He stumbled, concentration lost as extra stimuli bombarded his senses again, making him lose his equilibrium.  That was all the time the plant needed to regain its lost ground.  It shot darts at him again and he barely managed to dodge back in time to avoid being hit.  Vines whipped towards him at almost the same instant and this time he was too slow to get the sword up all the way. 

One of the vines struck him low across his right hip, digging in under the leather vest.  Letting out a pained grunt, Jaskier swung the sword down and cut off the vine.  The monster plant retreated at having another limb cut off. 

Jaskier pulled out the archespore remnant that was stuck in his side before drawing his silver dagger.  He shook his head, trying to refocus his senses back to solely on the plant in front of him.  Side aching, and still a bit off kilter from being jarred out of focus, he rushed in.

It seemed the overgrown weed was ready for him this time.  Jaskier dodged a barrage of darts, roots, and vines, swiping at anything that got too close.  Steadily, he made his way closer to the main stem of the coccacidium.

Just a little…more, Jaskier thought desperately.  He hadn’t fought anything more challenging than a chicken in the last twenty-five years, excepting the odd bar brawl, which barely counted because Geralt was usually there to intimidate his opponent into backing down.  Or he carried him off if it looked like the other person wasn’t withdrawing.  Which, in retrospect, was a shame because Jaskier could have desperately used the exercise, as evidenced by how poorly this battle was going.  He was wildly out of shape and already bleeding heavily.  He had to end this quickly.

He stepped left, ducked down swiftly, and then he sprung into a forward roll that brought him nearly on top of the archespore.  Now! He dropped the dagger and thrust his right hand forward and let loose as powerful of an Igni as he possibly muster.  A large fireball erupted directly into the heart of the coccacidium and quickly engulfed it in flames.

Jaskier sprung back away from the scorching remains of the plant.  He swore he could hear the thing shrieking in pain and anger as it burned.  Breathing heavily, he turned to look at the man he had been tasked to save, finding gold eyes staring at him hazily.  He gave a little wave with the hand that held Geralt’s sword.  “Fancy meeting you here,” he said, cheerily.

Geralt continued to stare at him as if not sure he could trust his eyes as to what he was seeing.  Which was fair, Jaskier supposed.  Seeing someone that looked a lot like you that useless bard you used to know take down a giant carnivorous plant that you had failed to defeat was probably rather jarring.

“Right. Let’s say we get you back to your charge, yeah?”  Jaskier picked his dagger up and wiped the swamp water off on his pants before sheathing it.  He gave Geralt’s sword the same treatment before walking over to the man.  “Can you sit up?” He knelt next to the man, reaching for him.

The other witcher blinked at him.  “Jaskier?”

“You said that already,” Jaskier stated, amused.  “Let’s get you sitting up for a moment.”  He hooked a hand under the pauldron on Geralt’s shoulder, pulling him up into a sitting position.  Carefully, he sheathed the sword back into place.  He would give everything a thorough cleaning later; right now, expedience was key.  “Think you can stand?”

The other man didn’t answer.

“Geralt?” 

 Still no answer.  It was then that Jaskier noticed that the man’s attention was caught by something down by his feet.  “What…shit.”  He’d forgotten about the second barb that was still in Geralt’s leg.

“Hm,” Geralt said before falling back, unconscious once more.

Jaskier sighed.  “Well, nothing for it then.”  He worked the second barb out of Geralt’s leg quickly and nearly threw it away before pocketing it. Geralt might need it for later.

When no more sound or movement was forthcoming from the witcher, he realized he was going to have to carry him back to the horses.  “This is certainly an interesting turn of events,” he muttered to himself as he hoisted Geralt over one shoulder.

“I hope you appreciate all I’ve done for you, Geralt.”  Silence.  “Well, yes, alright; you have saved my life numerous times in the past.  I guess this is just me paying it back, a little.  To be fair, though, you are much heavier than I am.  What is the princess feeding you?”

Continuing his one-sided conversation, Jaskier made his way through the woods.   "However, I did save your reputation- and by propinquity, witchers in general- so perhaps we're even now." He was reasonably sure Geralt wasn’t in danger of dying.  The witcher’s heartbeat was slow and steady, as it should be.  The faint traces of poison that he’d been able to smell had dwindled to being near undetectable.

As he got to the tree line, he felt the last of the Blizzard wear off.  He closed his eyes a moment to resituate himself, letting a brief moment of disorientation pass.  He wasn’t used to coming down from the hyper-aware state the potions kept him at anymore.

 At least I won’t scare the shit out of a little girl that I just met.  Appearing as a walking corpse isn’t the best look on anyone, he thought as he pushed his way through the thicket.  He was tired, covered in mud and all manner of nasty things that had been festering in said mud, and drenched with sweat that plastered his hair to his forehead.  He shifted Geralt, resettling the other witcher's weight on his shoulder, and trudged onwards.  He still had a ways to go.  There was no time for fatigue now. 

He came out on the road about twenty or so paces from where he’d left Cirilla, Pegasus, and Roach.

“Julian!”  Cirilla’s eyes went large and round when she saw the burden he was carrying.  “Is he okay?!”

Jaskier tried to smile.  “He’ll be fine.  Got a double dose of poison, but I gave him the antidote.  It just needs time to work all the way through his system.  More than likely, he’ll be up again within the next few hours.”

Carefully, he settled Geralt across Roach’s saddle. 

“You’re hurt.”  He looked to the princess, who was staring at his side, now.  Oh, right.  He’d been stabbed through his side by a murderous plant.  Somehow, that had gotten pushed down to the bottom of his list of physical ailments.

He settled a hand on the girl’s shoulder.  “I’ll be fine.  The wound bled a lot, but it is relatively small.  I mostly just have a few shallow cuts.”  He turned back to securing Geralt to Roach.  “Now, do you want to ride Pegasus or walk along with me?  I need to lead the horses and make sure Geralt doesn’t fall off.”

For a moment, there was silence, and then he heard a quiet sniffle.  Alarmed, he turned back to the princess.  “Fiona, what…?”

“Thank you,” she exclaimed, throwing her arms around his waist and sniffling loudly.  He winced as she caught one of his tender spots, but hesitantly brought his arms up around her anyway.  “You brought him back.  Thank you.”

She gave one last loud sniff before pulling away.  “Is it okay if I ride?”

“Absolutely.”  Jaskier smiled down at her and gave her a small pat on the back.  “Let’s get you back to the inn.  Some rest in a real bed will do you both some good.”

He helped her onto his horse’s back.  “What about you?  You’re still hurt.”

Jaskier gathered Roach’s reins in one hand and Pegasus’ in the other.  “I’ll take care of it then, too.  It really isn’t bad.”  He looked up at her, catching sight of her disbelieving stare.  “Truly.”

The rest of the ride back to the town was quiet.  Cirilla was tired from the high emotions she’d gone through, Jaskier was tired from the fight, and Geralt was still unconscious.  Though, Jaskier noted, it wasn’t like the man would have been much livelier even if he had been awake.

He sent the girl in ahead with enough coin to purchase a room for herself and Geralt before unloading the witcher and the horses.  Cirilla came back to help him finish putting the tack away.  He’d give them both a good brushing out after he’d gotten Geralt and the girl settled in.  For now, he made sure they both had feed before hefting the larger man over his shoulder once again.

“They didn’t have any rooms left” she said, apologetically.

Jaskier shrugged the shoulder that Geralt wasn’t currently occupying.  “That’s alright.  You can use mine.  It has two beds.  I can make a pallet on the floor.  Pretty sure I could fall asleep in a ditch right now, anyway.”  He looked down at himself.  "Besides, I'm rather filthy as it is.  I doubt the proprietors of this establishment would take kindly to me dirtying their linens."

He led the way up to the room, then set Geralt down on one of the beds, keeping him upright to divest him of his sword and armor before laying him down.  Once he had the other man settled, he checked him over for any other injuries, but it truly seemed as if the poisoned barbs had been the worst of it.

“Your turn,” he heard from behind him.  He turned to find Cirilla staring at him sternly.  “I can see the blood stain on your shirt.  It’s huge.”

Jaskier nearly laughed at her seriousness but held up his hands in surrender instead.  Swiftly, he undid his leather wrist wraps and then unbuckled the vest.  He pulled his chemise out from the waistband of his pants to examine the hole the coccacidium had left in him.  The blood was only seeping a little.  A few more hours and it would probably stop altogether.

He watched as Cirilla gathered bandages and some salve.  He took the salve from her and gave it a sniff first, finding it to be the one Geralt always kept on hand that was good for both humans and non-humans alike.  He gave Cirilla a small nod.  Gingerly, he dabbed a small amount on the wound, front and back.  The dull ache that he hadn’t noticed before receding quickly.

Next, he took two small pieces of gauze to put at both sides of the wound.  He looked up at the girl.  “I’m afraid you’ll have to help me with this next bit, if that’s alright?”

Cirilla nodded firmly and took a length of bandage to wrap around his lower torso.  She did a rather good job of it; neither too loose nor too tight.  Jaskier had a sneaking suspicion she’d already helped Geralt with this exact scenario more than once.

Finished with tending to the worst of the wounds, Jaskier got up from the bed.  “I’m going to give Roach and Pegasus a quick brush before I turn in.”

“Do you need any help?”

Jaskier smiled at the girl.  “I’ll be fine.  Try to sleep.  I’ll be back soon.”  He left the room, closing the door carefully before leaning against and letting out a small sigh.

Phew, what a day, he thought to himself.  He let himself rest against the door for a few, slow heartbeats before pushing himself upright.  He really needed to see to Pegasus and Roach.

When he got back from tending to the horses, he found the princess still awake, staring at Geralt.  “Fiona?”

She turned to him.  “Sorry, I-“

“It’s alright, but you should really try to get some sleep.  It’s been a long day.”  He motioned to the bed.  “You should have the bed.  I can take the floor.”

He went on to set up a pallet on the floor, in front of the door.

He waved the girl off when she tried to protest.  “It’s fine.  I’d prefer it this way, honestly.  And besides, I did promise you a bed.”  He summoned enough energy to smile charmingly up at the girl.  “Who knows when you’ll get the chance to sleep in a real bed again, eh?  Enjoy it.” 

And with that he settled onto the pallet and pulled Geralt’s gear towards him.  “Also, I need to clean our weapons so I’ll be up for a bit anyway.”  He flashed a grin at the girl.

There was a huff of amusement before there was a shuffle of bedclothes as a small body climbed into the bed.

Besides, Jaskier thought, this way it will be easier to sneak out before Geralt wakes up.  He would get an hour or two of rest after he cleaned up and then be on his way.  With that thought in mind, Jaskier pulled out a rag and other cleaning supplies, listening to the sound of the girl’s breathing as he wiped down the sword and his daggers.  He went through the motions methodically, nearly falling into a sort of trance as he performed the familiar steps while inhaling the scent of fresh pine.  It had been a long time since he’d felt safe enough to be so relaxed.

He was going to miss it.

Chapter Text

Geralt awoke to gray, early morning light.  This surprised him as he had not thought that he would wake up again at all.  He’d been stupid in that fight against the coccacidium, he could admit to himself now.  He thought he’d be able to push through the effects if he got hit by a poisoned barb.  That had been his downfall.  One barb, he might have been able to keep going…the second barb had pumped in enough poison to knock him unconscious.  Without having taken the Golden Oriole, he should have been dead.

So, how had he survived?  And where was Ciri?

At the thought of his Child Surprise he sat up quickly, looking around frantically.  She was there, in the other bed, soundly asleep.  There was dirt on her face, with tear tracks running through the grime, but otherwise she appeared unharmed.  He felt something ease at the sight of her, even as a sense of guilt for causing her to worry welled within him.

He looked around the room, noting that all his belongings were there, even his silver and steel swords.  An impression floated up to him at that moment; a slender figure with chestnut brown hair crouched in front of him, silver sword flashing.

That couldn’t be right.  What kind of person would go out of his way to save a witcher?   Or maybe they hadn’t meant to save Geralt at all and had just had the unfortunate chance to stumble into that clearing with his unconscious body.  Whomever it had been certainly seemed to know how to wield a sword, if his memory could be trusted and he hadn't been having some sort of fevered dream.

Shaking his head, he swung his feet over the side of the bed and onto the floor.  He sat with his head in his hands for a moment, willing any more memories to come to him, but there was nothing.  Just faint impressions of being upside down, the ground passing by in jolting flashes, feeling vaguely nauseous, and bright blue eyes.

His stomach rumbled, and he decided he wasn’t going to remember anything else useful, so he would see about securing some breakfast for himself and Ciri.  It was just light enough that someone in the tavern might be up.

After he dressed and made his way down the stairs, he found the tavern owner setting up for the day behind the bar’s counter.  He dug out a few coins and laid them down on the worn countertop.  “Any chance of a breakfast this morning?”

The owner looked between him and the coin before smiling.  “You’ll have to wait a bit.  I've only just put the porridge on.  And keep your coin.”  She pushed the coins back to him.

Geralt was perturbed.  “What?”

“The bard from last night paid extra this morning.  Said to pass it on to the girl and her guardian for use of their wonderful healing salve.”

Something in Geralt started clamoring.  “Bard?”  Blue eyes flashed through his memory again, though this was a far older reminiscence than from just the day before.

The tavern-keep nodded.  “Sweet boy.  Shame about the scarring on his neck and eye.  Would have been a rather handsome bloke, otherwise. Brought me good business last night before he went out with your girl to bring you back.”

“This bard…what did he look like?”

“Brown hair, blue eyes.  And the scars.”  Here the woman frowned.  “Looked like someone had tried to slit the poor boy’s throat.  Young, but not too young?  Seemed older than his years.  Not sure why He seemed so.  He played the lute.”

It couldn’t be, but…Blue eyes and chestnut hair flashed into his mind again, sharp, clear, and familiar.  Geralt didn’t believe in Fate or Destiny or any of that other bullshit, but something was telling him the bard could have been Jaskier and he had just been here.  “Did you get the bard’s name?”

She shook her head.  “No name.  Just started playing.  Played a lot of fan favorites.  ‘Toss A Coin’ and such.  ‘Her Sweet Kiss’ too.  Played one of his own making, too, I reckon.  It was a good ballad; poor dear sounded absolutely heartbroken though.”

Geralt’s fingers had tightened into a fist without him noticing.  He made an effort to relax his hand out of its tight clench.  “How long ago did he leave?”  At her suspicious look, he said, “I wish to thank him for saving my life.  I didn’t get the chance to last night.”

“About a half hour or so ago.  He was down here almost the same instant I was.”

He scooped all but one of the coins back into his pouch.  “Do you know which way he was headed?”

The tavern owner shook her head.  “He asked about the nearest city to here, and I told him of Riedbrune unless he wanted to head south into Toussaint, but that’s no guarantee he headed either way.”

“Thank you.  I’ll take two servings of the porridge when it is ready, and then we’ll be on our way.”  He nodded to the woman and then went back upstairs to wake Ciri.

The description the tavern keeper had provided certainly sounded a lot like Jaskier, except for the scars.  Although, Geralt grimaced, a lot could have happened in six years, especially without Geralt there to protect him from the consequences of his runaway mouth.  Enough so that maybe the bard no longer wanted to be recognized under his famous mononym; Jaskier had certainly been vain enough for it.

Gently, he woke up Ciri and coaxed her from the bed.  He packed their belongings quickly, trying not to rush and only partially succeeded.

“Are we in a hurry?”  Ciri asked as she watched him finish packing.

“A little,” he replied.  “You remember the man that helped save me yesterday?”

“Julian?”

Geralt frowned.  “Is that what he said his name was?”  At Ciri’s nod, he continued.  “He left for the next city already.  I want to catch up to him.”  A pause, then, at the look Ciri gave him.  “To thank him.”

She smiled sweetly at him, clearly proud and pleased that he was doing the right thing.  Geralt almost felt guilty at the small lie.  Though, he thought to himself, it wasn’t really a lie.  He would thank the man, just as soon as he assuaged his curiosity about the person that had saved his life.  And why it sounded so much like Jaskier but couldn’t have possibly been the bard.

“Oh!”  Geralt looked up at her tone, alert.  “Julian left this for you,” she said, pulling a coccacidium barb out of her pack from next to the bed.  “He said you might need it.  Wasn’t sure if the contract you’d taken specified a need for proof.”

He did need it.  Or, at least, it was always better to have proof than not.  In his haste to pack and catch up to the mysterious man that had saved his life, he’d forgotten about the contract.  He took the barb from Ciri and wrapped it in a piece of cloth.  He’d present it to the alderman on their way out of the town.

They ate quickly and, after a quick visit to the alderman which left them one hundred-sixty crowns richer, they were on the road towards Riedbrune.

*

The city of Riedbrune was only about a day’s travel by horse.  In the interest of trying to catch up to the enigma of a man that had been presented to him, Geralt pushed them harder than he normally would have.  He checked several times to make sure Ciri was handling the pace alright, but each time he asked she just pressed her lips together and insisted it was important that they find the man and that she was fine.

They made it to the city just before sunset.  It frustrated Geralt that they hadn’t run into his mysterious savior on the road, especially at the pace he’d been pushing.  He’d seen some tracks that led into the forest, but he couldn’t be sure it wasn’t just a local’s route to the road, so he didn’t follow them.  He didn’t want to waste any of their precious time on what might be a dead end.  Ciri assured him that the few travelers that they had passed had not been the man they were searching for.  That left searching the city itself.  If he had gone that way at all.  Otherwise, he was more than a day behind the man and any hope of finding him would be lost.

But searching the city would have to wait until morning.  Ciri was clearly tired, as was Roach.  Geralt headed to the nearest inn and set about getting hot meals for him and Ciri, and oats for Roach.  He tipped the stable boy handsomely to take good care of the horse after he unloaded their belongings and brought them to the room he’d rented for the night.

Once they finished their supper, Geralt herded Ciri up to the room.  She had almost fallen asleep into her boiled vegetables.  Even he was tired after the long day of riding, though that may have been due to the lingering effects of being poisoned the day before.

He would find him tomorrow, Geralt promised himself as he fell into a light doze.

*

Geralt woke early the next morning, restless and eager to search out the man who had saved his life.  He roused Ciri out of bed and, after a quick breakfast of bread and cheese from their packs, they were out on the streets, heading for the market area.

He’d questioned Ciri on the ride to Riedbrune, and every answer she had given him raised more questions than answers.  The people from the tavern she’d run to had addressed him as ‘bard,’ but his apparent skill with a blade and the leather armor she described said he was something else.  Or had been something else.  Ciri hadn’t heard him play, so she couldn’t attest to his skill, but he had carried what appeared to be a lute case.  He had a white gelding he called Pegasus.  Something about the horse tugged at a memory, but Geralt couldn’t quite place it.

Suffice to say there were three places around the market that this potential bard-warrior might visit that Belhaven had been lacking; a music shop, an armorer, and the weapons-maker.

Since the man seemed to make a living as a musician, Geralt decided to find a music shop first.  It was relatively easy to follow the familiar scent of string oil and carved wood to a small building that showcased a beautiful cittern proudly displayed in its front window.  Geralt pushed the door open, making the little bell attached to the door frame ring, signaling to the proprietor that he had customers.

Geralt asked his questions while Ciri studied the instruments set out with interest.  Sadly, the man had not seen anyone matching the bard’s description the night before, or yet this morning, though it was still early.  Thanking the man, Geralt lingered for a moment, watching as Ciri looked at a display before turning back to ask the man one more question.  A few crowns were exchanged for a small, hollowed out piece of wood with tiny holes carved into it, carefully wrapped, and then Geralt was calling for Ciri, telling her it was time to move on.

The next stop was the armorer.  From the what Ciri had described, the man only had a vest of hard leather and sturdy wrist wraps, which was less protection than what most fighters were comfortable with, unless they were rogues.  It was the same there, however; no one by that description had come by that day or the day before.  That left one option; a blacksmith that specialized in weaponry.

He had considered that one the least likely as, according to Ciri’s description, the man had been rather well outfitted in that regard.  Especially for a bard.  It was then a flash of memory hit him; the man, grasping his silver sword, easily deflecting a set of barbs.  The man had wielded the weapon like he’d been born to it, or more to the point, made for it.

It was then that Geralt had a flash of inspiration; he wasn’t looking for just any weapon-maker, but one that specialized in the type of weaponry witchers used most.  He’d gone about this all wrong.  He assumed that the person he was looking was a human with an unusual skill set.  He had not considered that perhaps he was looking for a witcher with an unusual penchant for music.

How the man passed as human was a concern for another time.  Geralt knew where to go now; there was only one weapon-smith in Riedbrune that specialized in silver, if they were still in business.  It had been some time since Geralt had been out this way.  They would have to head more towards the jewelers’ section, if he remembered correctly.

Calling Ciri back from where she’d been studying a chainmail tunic intently- he made a note to look into getting her a leather cuirass to start, chainmail would be too heavy- they hurried toward the other end of the market.  As they passed a tavern, he heard Ciri call out to wait.  Impatient, he turned to tell her they had no time, but she was already making her way over to the lean-to that served as shade for the horses tied to it.

“Pegasus?”  She approached a white horse cautiously.  The gelding looked at her and snorted, as if in answer.  “Geralt!  It’s Pegasus!”

“What?”

She was petting the horse now.  “Julian’s horse.  He must be nearby somewhere!”

Time seemed to still as Geralt stared at the horse.  All sound fell away, and for a moment all he could do was stare in disbelief, hardly daring to breathe.  He recognized that horse.  It had been six years, but he clearly remembered the gelding as being one of the Reavers’ horses.  Specifically, that idiot Boholt’s.  The horse had been missing by the time he’d gotten back to Roach; after Jaskier had disappeared down the mountain and all that had been left of him were traces of his scent on Roach.

And attached to that horse was a familiar lute case.

Geralt stepped closer to the horse and inhaled, deeply.  From the horse came a scent so uniquely Jaskier’s it made him ache with longing.  The aroma was so distinctive that Geralt could recognize it even six years later.  It was mixed with something else now, something that was not-Jaskier, something Geralt thought he should recognize, but all he could focus on was the unique combination of oils and soaps and fir tree that was distinctive to the bard.  Jaskier was here, he knew, and Geralt was going to find him.

What he was going to do after that, he wasn’t sure.

Immediately, he headed for the tavern.  If the bard’s horse was tied under the establishment's lean-to, it was reasonable to assume that he would find the man in said establishment.  And there was definitely at least a trace of the scent coming from that way.

He burst through the tavern doorway, pushing the door hard enough to bounce off the wall behind it and back into his face if he hadn’t caught it on its way back in.  All of the patrons looked up at the loud bang, squinting their eyes against the sudden light.  Stomping his way through the room, Geralt scanned the other faces quickly, frowning when he did not see the one visage he sought.

At the bar, he waited impatiently for the barkeep to acknowledge him, before speaking.  “I’m looking for a man, light brown hair, blue eyes, bard by trade.  Seen him?”

The man behind the bar finished wiping the cup he held before setting it down and answering him.  “What’s it to you?”

Geralt felt his hand flexing into a fist and forced himself to relax.  “The man is…a friend.”  Oh, the irony.  Calling the bard a friend after denying it for so long right when said ‘friend’ probably wanted nothing to do with him.  “We were supposed to meet earlier at another tavern but missed each other.”  When the man was still silent, he added, “his horse is outside.”

“I don’t know if he was a bard,” the man said, finally.  “But a man fitting that description was here.  He came in for a drink and directions to a weaponsmith that dealt with silver.  Told him he was almost there, just a little further down the road.”  He picked up another cup.  “He left maybe ten or so minutes ago.”

That was all Geralt needed.  “Thank you.”  He left the tavern calmer than how he had entered it.

As he strode out, he called for Ciri, who was still petting the horse.  “Let’s go!  Barkeep said he was here only ten minutes ago.  He went to the weaponsmith.”

Ciri hurried to his side, clearly excited at the prospect of seeing the man again.  They walked quickly, hurrying against the bustle of people out on the road.  As they got closer to the forge, the scent of fir trees and sea salt became stronger.  They were on the right path.

Then, the crowd parted, and he saw a familiar mop of chestnut hair.  The unique scent of the bard was the strongest it had been since they had parted ways, six years ago, though it was tinged with something acrid.  Something quiet thudded in Geralt’s chest, and he realized, dimly, that it was his heart.

“Jaskier,” he rasped, not quite believing it.

The man looked up and Geralt found himself staring into wide blue eyes that he’d missed without even realizing it.  Or, maybe he had realized it; he had just never let himself acknowledge it.

Jaskier had changed, he noticed.  There was a scar through his right eyebrow that ended just under the corner of his eye and another nasty cicatrix that started an inch or two from under his left ear and went halfway around his throat.  It was then he also noticed the other man’s expression.

He didn’t look pleased.  Geralt hadn’t expected him to, honestly, but he also hadn’t expected him to look so horrified at seeing him.  Had he really broken things so badly with the bard?  Or, was there another reason behind Jaskier’s obvious discomfort.  The bard didn’t smell like fear, precisely, but something close to it, with a lot of nervousness thrown into the mix.

It was then that Ciri stepped around Geralt, breaking the stare off.  “Julian!”

Immediately, Jaskier’s expression smoothed into something more pleasant, though it didn’t quite reach his eyes.  “Fiona, how pleasant to see you again.  And I see your guardian is up and about as well.”  His eyes flicked to Geralt quickly before focusing back on Ciri.  “Do you have business with Torrik as well?”  He asked, gesturing to the dwarf who owned the forge.  They had obviously interrupted him in the middle of conducting business with the forge master.

“Jaskier, what the fuck is going on here?”

Chapter Text

Yes, ‘what the fuck,’ indeed, Jaskier thought to himself.  Briefly, he had thought he’d gone far enough, fast enough, that even had the witcher wanted to hunt him down, he wouldn’t be able to track him.  But, then again, he hadn’t really made it especially difficult for Geralt to find him.  Hell, any normal man asking the right questions would have been able to figure out where Jaskier had gone.

He’d left later than planned, yesterday morning.  He’d fallen into actual sleep, lulled by the safety and comfort of bedding down in the same room as the other witcher, something he hadn't felt in years.  Jaskier had woken to the pre-dawn light silently cursing himself an idiot before leaving the inn room as quietly as possible.  He bought some bread and cheese from the innkeeper on his way out, giving her a few extra coins for her troubles and leaving instructions to make sure that the two upstairs got a good breakfast.

Then he’d saddled Pegasus and rode hard for the next hour before slowing him down to a walk so that Jaskier could eat while riding.  He stopped only once to give Pegasus a break and drink some water before riding again at a moderate pace, using a little path he’d discovered many years ago that had been forged by the locals and was still in use to that day.  One had to ride into the forest a bit to find it, but it was still there.  His hope had been that if Geralt did try to catch up to him, he'd be disheartened by the lack of any sign of his erstwhile savior, and take it as a sign that Jaskier had not gone that way after all.

It meant he had arrived in Riedbrune later in the day than he would have liked, but he couldn't ignore the potential to throw Geralt off of his trail.  Provided he looked for him at all.  The man was just as likely to shrug at his good fortune and continue on the Path, dragging the princess along behind him.

But that had been that had been what made him stupid.  He hadn’t expected the man to follow him, so he’d been careless about asking for information about the next city from the innkeeper in the last village.  He asked about a weapon-smith that dealt with silver in one of only two taverns in the town.  He hadn’t been expecting Geralt to follow after him at all.  He’d never done so before.

He hadn’t expected it, but maybe, he had hoped the man would anyway.  Just like how Jaskier had followed him for all those years.  It made something in his chest quiver, just a little, that he had.

And now, here Geralt was, princess in tow, and Jaskier was…anxious.  He knew what he looked like now, and it was only a matter of time before Geralt figured him out as being another witcher, and then the questions would come.  Usually, when the other man was confused, he defaulted to anger, and Jaskier wasn’t sure he could deal with that right now.  He wasn’t sure what to do.

So, he did what he always had done before, and played the fool.  “I’m not sure what you mean, Geralt.”  He smiled widely, trying on an air of faux-innocence, as if he was unaware that he had just been haggling with a silver weapon-smith of good repute.  It probably wouldn’t deceive the witcher, but he felt the need to try anyway.

Geralt growled, stepping closer until he was only a few inches away from the bard.  “What is going on with you?  The last time I saw you, you couldn’t even pick up a sword, let alone wield one well enough to defend yourself and another.  Or seek out a place to purchase one,” he added, nodding to Torrik.

The smile Jaskier sported died rather quickly.  “The last time you saw me, Geralt, you made it very clear you didn't think very much of me at all,” he retorted.  This is going well, Jaskier thought, anxiously.

Geralt grunted, obviously frustrated by the lack of a real answer.  “And what about these scars?  It looks like someone tried to slit your throat,” he reached out towards the bard.

Jaskier sidestepped the hand reaching toward his neck neatly before replying, voice pitched low so that Fiona couldn’t hear.  “Someone did try.  A long time ago.”

The hand that had reached out clenched around empty air.  “I ask again, what happened to you?”

“Do you really want to do this here?  Now?”  Jaskier cut a glance to the young ashen-haired girl that had accompanied Geralt pointedly.  He wanted to rip into Geralt just as much as the other man seemed to want to do to him.  But now was not the time or the place.  When the other man looked ready to continue arguing, he added, “it’s not just us here.”

Geralt startled, looking for all the world like he had forgotten about the princess and townspeople surrounding them.  He glanced over at the girl, guilty, before eyeing Jaskier again.  “We need to talk.”

Jaskier let out a rather inelegant snort.  “That’s rich, coming from you.”  Amber eyes glared at him, their gaze never wavering.  He sighed.  “Fine.  Meet you back at the tavern where I left my horse?”

“You promise?”  Geralt stared intently at him, capturing Jaskier’s blue gaze with gold.

“Yes.”  He nodded.  “Let me finish my business here and I’ll meet you in the bar.  I shouldn’t be long.”

Geralt backed away, towards the girl.  “Alright.  I’ll see you in a bit.”  He turned and put a hand to the girl’s upper back, gently guiding her away.

“It’s good to see you, Julian!” She called over her shoulder.  He smiled and waved. 

Jaskier watched Geralt and Ciri walk away, anger and frustration clear in the man’s gait.  Once they were out of sight, he ran his hand through his hair and sighed.  “Shit.”

“Lover’s quarrel?”

Jaskier whirled around.  “What?!”

Torrik nodded sagely.  “Me and the wife had them all the time when we were young,” he sighed.

“What.”  It wasn’t a question.  Jaskier was fairly certain he didn’t actually want to know what the dwarf was implying.

“Those flare-ups led to some of the best nights of making up, though, if you know what I mean.”  The dwarf grinned at him, winking.

“I don’t think I do.”  Jaskier said, somewhat bewildered at the turn the conversation had taken.

“Ah, well,” Torrik sighed, consolingly.  “You’re young.  You’ll learn.  Now, how big do ye be wantin’ your sword?”

*

Business concluded, Jaskier headed back to the inn where he’d sent Geralt and the princess.  He tried to make the walk last as long as possible, dreading the talk he was about to have with the other witcher.  He tried to think of anything other than the truth, but he didn’t dare to presume he would be able to hide his true nature from Geralt; especially not with Princess Cirilla identifying him as the man that had saved the senseless lump from the carnivorous plant.

There really wasn’t much to be done except tell the truth and hope that Geralt wouldn’t be too angry with him.  Perhaps, with Cirilla nearby, the man would be able to rein in his anger at having been lied to.  And besides, it wasn’t like Geralt was the only hurt party going into this conversation.

Sure, Jaskier had…omitted the truth about his true nature, but everything else about him had been genuine, including his feelings for the other witcher.  Not that Geralt knew the true depth about said feelings, but Jaskier had considered Geralt to be a good friend, had treated him as such, and he had thought the other man had felt the same.  The scene at the mountain had proved very soundly for that to be untrue.

At first, Jaskier had thought that Geralt was just lashing out.  His friend had been hurt, badly, by the love of his life and he was reeling from it.  Jaskier understood; having what you considered to be one of the few good things in your life deny you had to be excruciatingly painful.  And so, Geralt had done what he thought he should and pushed the last good thing in his life away before it could leave him, too.

He had pushed Jaskier away with a few well-chosen words and then turned his back on him, ensuring that the bard would not want to stay.  Even then, Jaskier had known what Geralt was doing, and decided to give the man some space. 

So, he went down the mountain by himself, stole a horse, and rode to the town that had started everything.  He figured he would wait there a few days, a week at the most, and Geralt would show up, grunt in an apologetic manner- because, when it came to these sorts of these things, Geralt’s words tended to fail him- and they would travel on together.  They would be close travel companions once again.

Except, Geralt never came.  And Jaskier was left to face the fact that maybe Geralt really had meant the words he had said.  That, maybe, what Geralt said was true.  If it hadn’t been for Jaskier, Geralt wouldn't have been at that betrothal party and saved a cursed knight.  If it wasn’t for Jaskier, he wouldn’t have met Yennefer and made those wishes of the djinn.  If Jaskier hadn’t encouraged it, maybe they wouldn’t have been in that tavern and gone up that mountain.

There were so many things that had happened to Geralt because of Jaskier it had made him wonder if maybe he had been placed in the world just for Destiny to use him as her bitch and bring misfortune upon the other witcher.  So many times they had run into each other, even when they hadn’t been seeking the other out, that what else could it be?

As if to affirm the answer to his question, Jaskier didn’t run into the witcher again for over six years, like Destiny was done using him to punish Geralt and now had no need of the bard.

Until now, when a desperate princess had begged someone to do something and he was the only one imbecilic enough to volunteer.

Blearily, Jaskier realized that he’d arrived at the inn and had been standing outside the entrance for some minutes.  Taking a deep breath, he reached for the door and pushed it open.

He stood just inside the door for moment, letting his eyes adjust to the dimness of the room.  He didn’t really need to pause for as long as he did.  His eyes, while suffering from the partially botched mutation of all those years ago, were still better than a human’s.  It was just habit.  He’d spent nearly thirty years being human, or as close to one as he could possibly be, that it was difficult to remember that he didn't suffer from the same frailities any longer.  He kept forgetting that he could rely on his other senses to tell him more about the world around him.  Although, even that was not without peril, as evidenced by his struggle with the coccacidium.  Besides which, since he hadn't kept up with his training, he had lost a lot of the edge he once had when he was a fully trained witcher.  Perhaps a little caution was not unwarranted.

It was easy enough to spot Geralt and his Child Surprise; two bright heads of hair bent over bowls of stew in the gloom of the inn’s bar.  Hesitantly, he made his way over to them, still trying to delay the inevitable conversation that needed to happen.

Geralt noticed him right away, looking up from his bowl and focusing his golden gaze on Jaskier.  Cirilla was still deep into her stew, eating as if she hadn’t had a good meal in ages.  Which was probably not far from the truth, Jaskier mused, if she had been traveling with Geralt for any length of time and staying out of populated areas.

Jaskier took a deep breath and sat himself opposite of Geralt and the girl, smiling when the princess looked up at him.  “How’s the stew?”

“It’s really good!”  Cirilla enthused before digging back in.

“Mm,” Geralt added in his approval before going back to his own bowl, watching him warily.

Jaskier blinked, amused despite himself.  “I see.”  He tried to hide a smile behind the hand he was using to prop up his chin, but from the look he caught from Geralt, he wasn’t successful  “Once you two are finished, we can go up to my room and talk things out.”

The sentence was barely out of his mouth before Geralt’s spoon clattered into his empty dish, followed shortly by Cirilla’s doing the same.  “…Well, alright then.  Follow me.”  He got up from the table and moved towards the stairs, confident that Geralt would follow, princess in tow.

He was proven correct when he heard the slide of two chairs and the faint clinking of two swords being slung over a shoulder.  He led them towards the stairs.

“Fiona,” he heard from behind him.  “Go to our room.”

“But, Geralt, I want to talk to Julian, too!”

There was sigh, barely audible even to his ears.  “I know, but this is a conversation for adults.”

Jaskier could almost hear the pout the princess made at that.  He wanted to out himself.  He'd really been hoping to use the girl as a buffer between himself and the surly witcher.  “Adults only say that when they think kids won’t understand.  Besides, I’m almost an adult!”

There was amusement in Geralt’s voice when he replied.  Jaskier was surprised to hear it.  “You're right, Fiona.  I promise you can talk to him later, but I need to speak with him first.  Alone.”

A sullen silence followed Geralt’s words.  Jaskier decided to intervene.  As much as he hated to admit it, Geralt was probably right.  The words that they had to say to each other likely weren’t fit for a child’s ears.  He turned to Cirilla once they were at his door.

He glanced at Geralt before kneeling in front of the princess.  “Fiona, Geralt is right.”  She pouted fiercely.  Jaskier fought not to laugh.  “There are some things he and I need to say to each other.  And they need to happen without an audience.  It’s not because you’re a child.”

She bit her lip, obviously debating whether she believed him or not.  “You promise?”

Solemnly, he met her eyes.  “I promise.”  She nodded and moved to the next door down, glancing at Geralt before closing it softly.

Jaskier said nothing as he opened his door and let Geralt in ahead of him.  As he closed it, back to the other witcher, he heard a faint ‘snick’ of a sword being drawn and turned to find Geralt’s silver sword pointed at his neck.  “Silver?  I don’t know whether to be honored or insulted that you think me some sort of monster.”

“What are you?”  Geralt snarled, pressing the sword closer.

Jaskier reached up and gripped the sword in his hand just hard enough to draw blood.  “Not the type of monster you seem to think I am,” he said to Geralt’s startled face.  “Tell me Geralt, what do you smell?  Hear?  Use your senses.  You know what I am, you just don’t seem to want to accept it.”

Slowly, Geralt drew his sword back.  Jaskier released his grip on it.  The other man kept it angled up between them, clearly still wary.  “You smell…Like Jaskier.  Like fir trees and the oils you use for your hair.  But you can’t be Jaskier.”  His eyes darted around quickly, studying Jaskier’s form.

The bard lifted his eyebrow in response.  “And why not?”

“Because there’s another scent under it that wasn't there before.  Acrid.  Cloying.  Stinging.  And your heartbeat…is slow.  Like mine.  A witcher's heart.”

“Bravo,” Jaskier replied with a touch of sarcasm.

Geralt lowered his hand to his side, the sword pointed at the floor now.  “I don’t understand.  How did you keep this from me?  Why?”  There was an edge of desperation to his voice.

Jaskier sighed and moved slowly over to the bed, leaning against the bedpost.  While Geralt seemed to be less wary of him, he still didn’t want to startle the man and end up with his head separated from his body.  He crossed his arms over his chest.  “A long time ago, I paid a sorcerer a rather handsome amount of money for a very advanced glamor and a spell.  The glamor hid my less than ideal physical features.”  He motioned with one hand to his face, indicating his scars and oddly shaped eyes.  "The spell helped hide the internal biological ones."

There was a moment where Geralt seemed to process this.  “You hid this from me?  Why?”  The anger was creeping back into his voice.

Jaskier narrowed his eyes at him.  “For what reason would I have told you?”

“All those times I worried about protecting you and you could have protected yourself,” Geralt spat.  Jaskier watched as his grip on the sword tightened.  “Every time I jumped in front of a monster’s claw because you were too oblivious to get out of the way.  Every time I risked the ire of a town to shield you from a cuckolded husband.  Every time I failed to defend you and I thought it was my fault; it was all for naught,” Geralt snarled.  “You played me for a fool.”

Jaskier tightened his own grip on his arms.  “I don’t know why you’re complaining, Geralt,” Jaskier replied, a touch of amusement in his voice.  “You got what you wished for on that mountain, didn't you?  And in a rather elegant fashion, too, I think.  The ‘Jaskier’ you knew no longer exists and will never come back.”

Geralt blinked and for a moment Jaskier could have sworn the man looked gutted before he smoothed his expression back into impassivity.  It was obviously not the response he’d been expecting from the bard.  If Jaskier thought about it, he figured Geralt was waiting for him to cower at his anger, to stumble over himself trying to appease his wrath.  Well, Jaskier was no longer that bard and hadn’t ever really been in the first place.  He’d let himself be abused by Geralt because he had thought the insults had been meant in comradely way; he’d thought that they had an understanding.

Apparently, they did not.  He'd been rather thoroughly disabused of that notion six years ago.

“The Jaskier I knew never existed.  It was all a lie you created to escape your duty.”  Geralt said coldly, face an icy sheet of righteous judgement.

“And what is so wrong with that?!”  Jaskier threw back, straightening up from the bedpost, his hands forming into fists at his sides.  “What’s wrong with wanting something for myself?  What was wrong with taking a little break from the grind of being hated and feared wherever I went?  What is wrong with learning to love and be loved?”  Suddenly, he realized hot tears were streaking down his face.  Geralt looked horrified.  He’d probably never seen another witcher be so expressive.

“They say witchers don’t feel,” he continued, quietly.  “But that’s not true.  You know that’s not true.  The first day we met, you punched me in the gut for calling you by a moniker that you hated.”  He held the amber gaze across from him.  “Anger is an emotion.  And if we can have one, we can have others.  Simple as that.”

Geralt looked stunned.  Jaskier took a deep breath.  “I wanted to help you.  I wanted to prove to you that you were deserving of wanting things; of having them, too.  Instead, you snarled one derisive comment after another at me, insulting my values, my profession, and my demeanor.” 

He sank back down onto the bed, suddenly more tired that he’d ever felt before.  “And still, I stayed with you.  I told myself that you were hurting, that you’d never had a human friend.  You needed time to adjust.  I told myself that you cared; that it was in the little things you’d do.”  Jaskier snorted derisively at himself.  “Obviously, that was shit.”

For a moment, all was still and silent but for their breathing.  Then, slowly, Geralt put his sword away.  “Why did you hide it?”

“What was I supposed to say?”  Jaskier gestured to himself.  “The spell used left me all but human in name.  It drew from my own power.  The bit of chaos infused into us that make us what we are.  If it had been performed on an actual human, they would have died, been drained dry of their energy.  That spell wasn’t even originally meant for something like this.”

“That doesn’t really answer the question,” Geralt said, voice tight.

Jaskier sighed and shook his head.  Gods, but he felt drained.  “What would the point have been?  So that you could tell me sooner how I was abandoning my duty?  I wouldn’t have been able to help you, anyway.  Not unless I released the spell.  I wasn’t going to do that.”  He looked up at Geralt.  “I’d worked too hard for it.”

“Even if it meant you or I dying?”

“I don’t know,” Jaskier answered honestly.  “There were some close moments when I thought about it, but you pulled through in the end, so I never had to make the decision.”

Geralt took a seat in the rickety chair across from the bed.  It creaked ominously at his weight.  “Why let it go now?”

“Cirilla,” he said immediately.  “Nilfgaard seems to know she is alive and likely with you.  I heard rumors that they were looking for any of your former associates.  Including yours truly.”  He made a short, awkward bow.  “She’s a child, with no say in what is happening,” he added.  “You and I…we made our choice, years ago, such as it was.  We were made to put our lives on the line.  She just wants to be a kid."  He sighed.  "It was the only thing I could think to do to lead them away from you.  They’re looking for a famous bard, not another witcher, and one from a different School, at that.”

A pensive quiet settled over them.

“Your eyes…They’re still blue.  Mostly.”

Jaskier looked at Geralt, surprised.  “Ah, yeah,” he stumbled.  “Botched mutation.”  He hesitated before adding quietly, “they kept me in the chair for hours, after, trying to figure out why.”

“Hm.”  More quiet. 

Jaskier stood up from the bed, unable to handle the tension any longer.  “I need a drink.  You?”  He was already heading for the door when Geralt nodded.  “Be right back.”  He could hear the strain in his own voice.  He needed to get away, just for a few moments.  He needed to regroup.  He should have run when Geralt found him.

He got as far as the bottom of the stairs before he leaned against the wall, willing himself to breathe slowly and his heart to stop beating so heavily, keeping the salt of his tears at bay.

Chapter Text

Jaskier returned with two mugs and a pitcher of ale several moments later.  His body was still tensed, as if prepared to fight or flee, even though he knew he’d be no match for Geralt; not in strength or speed, not when he was nearly thirty years out of practice.  He sighed heavily before starting his trek back up the stairs.

When he got to the top of the steps, he saw the door next to his cracked open and a small, pale face peeking out.  “Are you guys done?” Cirilla whispered.

Jaskier shook his head.  “I don’t think so.  Not quite yet.”

“There was yelling.”

He tried to smile at her.  It was difficult to summon the energy for it.  “Geralt and I both have a lot of hurt stored up with each other.”

Cirilla squinted at him.  “He was an arse.”

Jaskier couldn’t hold back his snort at that.  “Yes.  But I did lie to him for over twenty years.”

“Not about what mattered.  Not really.”  She looked down, gaze focusing on where her fingers were picking at the splintered wood of the doorjamb.  "The man who helped me and saved Geralt, even though he has no reason to do so, is a good man.  The bard that Geralt described that would defend him with words is a good man, too."  She looked up at him, gaze fierce and determined.  "That doesn't change just because you kept a secret."

He sent her a sharp look, ignoring the twinge in his heart at her kind words.  He wasn't sure how much  more upheaval he could deal with in one day.  “Exactly how thin are these walls?”

A sly look crept across the princess’ face.  “Thinner than you’d hoped.”

He sighed.  “Close your door before Geralt comes out to yell at you.  One of us should have at least a semi-peaceful afternoon.”

The door closed and Jaskier could hear the girl shuffling around behind it.  Damn, the walls really were thin.  How had he not noticed before?  Too preoccupied with how Geralt would react to the revelation of his biggest secret, most likely.  Nothing he could do about it now, however.  He went to the door to his room.  It opened before he made it all the way there.  Geralt backed out of the doorway to let him in.

“I could hear you,” Geralt explained when Jaskier looked at him.

“I figured that out already.  Thank you,” Jaskier answered.  He placed the mugs and ale on the table before pouring himself a cup and taking it back to the bed.  Let Geralt pour his own.

Silence reigned once more.

Most of the way into his cup, Jaskier decided he should be the one to break it.  It was only fair, he supposed.  Geralt had broken the last one.  “Is…is there something else you wanted to say to me?”

“I don’t know,” Geralt said, running the mug between his hands.  “There is a lot going on right now.  Not just with you, but with Ciri and the war.”  A pause.  “I’m angry.”

Jaskier snorted.  “So am I.”

“I know.”

The bard settled his cup on his knee, looking at Geralt intently.  “Actually, I’m not sure you do.”  That caught the other man’s attention.  He stared at Jaskier, gaze pensive and face tight.  “I spent nearly twenty years with you, Geralt.  I cared for you, as best as I could.  I-“ loved you. Jaskier cut himself off before he could voice that particular thought.  He shook his head.  “And you repaid my friendship with harsh words at every turn.  On your less kind days, you left me behind and even hit me once.”

“You lied to me.”  It sounded weak to Jaskier’s ears.

“What are you doing here, Geralt?”  He asked, tiredly.  He felt drained.  Dealing with Geralt's emotional constipation had always taken a toll on him, but back then he'd been able to take comfort in the small considerations the other witcher had given him.  Now, he just wanted this conversation to be over with so they could part ways.  “I gave you what you asked for.  One might even say permanently so.  Why did you track me down?  Some part of you had to know it was me.  Why bother?"

Geralt was staring at his cup, seeming determined to avoid Jaskier’s gaze.  “I wasn’t sure it was you.  The details…they didn’t add up.  A bard who played the lute?  But one that wielded weapons?”  He poured himself more ale.  Jaskier silently held out his cup for more.  Geralt obliged.  “I was getting a gallimaufry of descriptors that were apparently all about the same person,” he continued.  “There was the bard and there was the would-be warrior.  I knew it couldn’t be you.”  He frowned to himself.  "I thought I knew it couldn't be you."

“You hoped it was me anyway?”  Jaskier could hardly breathe.

“Yes.”  Geralt looked up at him.  “I regretted what I said up on that mountain.  Deeply.”

Jaskier took a sip from his cup.  “And now?”

Geralt heaved a sigh and leaned back in his chair.  “And now, I don’t know what to think.  You lied to me about who you are.  What you are.  And it’s making me rethink so many things that happened with us.  There were so many times that knowing you could take care of yourself could have saved someone else from getting hurt.”  Jaskier stared into his own drink.  Geralt...might have had a point there.  “I know you may not think it, but I always prioritized your safety in a fight, Jaskier.  Always."

"You had a funny way of showing it," Jaskier pointed out bitterly.

The white-haired witcher smoothed a hand down his thigh.  "I don't know what to say.  You know we're taught not to care for people.  Not to get involved.  That humans revile us."  He gave Jaskier an appraising look.  "You've experienced it yourself."

"Yeah."  Hundreds of times.  And one of those times nearly killed him.

"I was afraid that if someone saw that I cared for you too much, they might harm you, to get to me."

Jaskier looked up at Geralt, perplexed.  "What are you saying, Geralt?"

He watched as Geralt tightened his hand into a fist around the cloth of his trousers before relaxing it.  "I'm saying that I pushed you away.  Deliberately."

“I see.”  Jaskier drained his mug and got up from the bed.  “I won’t bother you any longer, then.”  He headed for the door, not looking at Geralt.

“Jaskier.”

“What, Geralt?”

There was a pause.  “This is your room.” 

Jaskier blinked.  “Oh, right, well then.”  He turned around and gestured towards the door.  “If you would-“

“Also, I think you got the wrong idea.”  Geralt stood, stepping closer to him.  “I pushed you away because I was afraid of you getting hurt.  Knowing what I know of you now... I wish I had never said those things to you.  Treated you that way.”

“Oh.”  There was a long pause.  "You know that doesn't make it alright, yes?  Treating anyone that way just because you're scared they'll get hurt is just plain cowardice on you're part, Geralt."  He crossed his arms over his chest.  "I'm an adult.  Which means I make my own decisions and live with the consequences, good or bad, and you have no right to make that choice for me."

Geralt huffed a sigh.  “I know.  And I can’t promise that it will be smooth sailing or that I won’t fall back into old habits with you, but I want to try to be better.  I have Ciri to protect, now.  I can't afford to make the same mistakes with her that I did with you.”

Jaskier slithered around him.  “I see.”  Geralt grabbed his forearm, grip tight, but not painful.

“I still think you’re missing something."  He waited until Jaskier gaze met his before continuing.  "I want you to come with Ciri and I.  I want to get the chance to know you again."

The bard looked up at him in naked surprise.  “What?”  Jaskier felt stunned, hardly daring to believe that it was Geralt saying these things.  He thought he'd have to beat the man over the head with what he'd done wrong; instead Geralt was laying it all out himself, leaving Jaskier feeling wrong-footed.  

Seemingly satisfied he had the other man’s full attention again, he released Jaskier’s arm.  “I’m upset, yes, but I don’t want to leave you again.  I didn’t show it, but you were an important part of my life, before I fucked it up.”  Before that outburst on the mountain, Jaskier gathered.  “I’d like to be part of your life again, I think.”

“You think?”  Jaskier repeated, vexed.  At least it was a more familiar emotion for when dealing with the witcher.

“Well,” Geralt said, a little bit of the old irritation creeping back into his voice as he grabbed up his mug again.  “I don’t really know you, do I?”

Jaskier’s eyes narrowed.  “Tell me, Geralt, is sticking your foot in your mouth a special skill you learned all on your own or do they teach it to all of the Kaer Morhen Wolves?”

Geralt huffed.  “I’d say it was my own, but Lambert also likes to dig himself into holes.  Though, I think he usually does it on purpose.”

“So, just you then,” Jaskier concluded.

“Mm.”

A brief pause.  “Do you want try again?”  Jaskier offered, magnanimously.

Geralt took a deep breath before speaking.  “Would you help me escort Ciri to Kaer Morhen?”

“That’s where you’re taking her?”

The other witcher looked offended.  “It’s fortified and hidden.  It’s the safest place I know,” he defended.

Jaskier waved a hand at him.  “I wasn’t criticizing you.  Merely making sure you thought it through.”  He poured himself some more ale.  The pitcher was almost empty.  “Are you sure you want me there?  It will be winter by the time we make it up the pass.”  He offered the remaining ale to Geralt, refilling his cup silently.  “I’d be stuck there until spring.”

“It’s fine.  The keep is big; even if we decide we hate each other, we can avoid one another, for the most part.”

Something about that statement stung.  “Already planning on how to keep me away from you so I don’t annoy you too much?”  He tried to ask humorously.

There must have been something off about his voice, because the other man looked up at him, stricken.  “No, of course not.  I thought it more likely that I would upset you.”

“Would I even be welcome there?”  Jaskier asked instead, sidestepping the topic.  “By the other Wolves?”

Geralt nodded.  “Yes.  There’s too few of us to be picky like that anymore.  We’ve had witchers from other Schools before.  Had a Cat, once, and a Griffin spends most winters with us as well.”

Jaskier’s interest was piqued.  “Another Griffin?”

“Yes, his name is Coën.”

Jaskier cursed.  Considering that Coën will probably flay him alive for disappearing on him for nearly thirty years, he wasn’t looking forward to a reunion.  “Well, it was a good life, I had,” he said, dramatically, swooning.

“What is it?”   Geralt looked concerned.  “Bad blood between you two?”

“Only so much that there can be between two men who were like brothers and then one disappears for over twenty-five years and didn’t tell the other he was alive the whole time.”  Jaskier paused in thought.  “Though, I haven’t gotten to the telling him part yet, so technically, the answer is ‘no’.”

The other man’s eyes reflected a soft sort of amusement, though his face was almost as stoic as ever.  If Jaskier were a more daring man, he might have mistaken it for affection of some sort.  Maybe fond exasperation.  “Hm.  Maybe you aren’t so different after all.”

Jaskier shrugged.  “The Trials changed my body, not my personality.  And besides, you’ve only ever known me post-Trials.  Why would my personality as a witcher be any different from when I was human?”  There was a weighted silence.

“I don’t know.”  Geralt swirled the little bit of liquid left in his cup around.  “It’s difficult reconciling the harmless bard with a man capable enough to take on a coccacidium even when he’s nearly thirty years out of the game, by his own admission.”

“Is that a compliment?”

“If you want it to be.”

Jaskier grinned at him.  “I’ll take it as one then.”

“Hmm.”

Jaskier watched as Geralt drained his cup.  “Falling back into monosyllabism now?”

The other witcher shook his head.  “It’s been a long day.  A long six months, really.  Will you go with us?”

“I'll think about it."  Jaskier hedged.  "Should we table our discussion for now and bring in Cirilla?”  Jaskier was feeling the effects of the emotional stress of the day.  He’d been tense for a good portion of the last two on top of everything else.  And the last six months before that.

And while things between him and Geralt weren’t resolved, not by a long shot, they had a starting point.  This wasn't something that could be solved in one day, Jaskier knew.  It would take time, as these things always did.  Besides, they had larger issues to worry about than who had been the most wronged party in their former relationship, like protecting Ciri.  They could work more on their mutual trust issues another time, Jaskier hoped.  If they continued their discussion now, he had a feeling they'd just be circling the same topics and not getting anywhere useful.

Geralt nodded.   “Might as well.  There is another favor I want to ask of you, but it would be better with her here, I think.”

“Oh?”  Jaskier was curious.  “Need to make use of her puppy eyes?”

The other man gave a small huff of amusement.  “Something like that.”

He disappeared out the door, briefly.  Jaskier could hear a light knocking and the other door opening.  Two sets of footsteps made their way back to his room.  Geralt settled himself back on the chair he’d taken up residence in earlier, while Cirilla seated herself on the opposite end of the bed with Jaskier.

“Right,” he said, lightly clapping his hands together, once the witcher and the princess had settled themselves in the room.  “I think some introductions are in order.”  He turned to the princess.  “I introduced myself as Julian, before- and that is one of my names- but I am more famously known as Jaskier, travelling bard extraordinaire!”  He stood and bowed, court-perfect in the Cintran style.  “And you, my lady, are Cirilla, Lion Cub of Cintra, correct?”

She glanced at Geralt first, waiting for his nod before speaking.  “Yes!  You can call me ‘Ciri’. And…I think I recognize you?  You played at a celebration Eist held for my grandmother last year, right?”

Jaskier smiled at her.  “Yes.  I’m honored you remember me.”  He took back his seat on the bed.

“I didn’t know you went back to Cintra after the betrothal feast.”  Geralt looked in askance at Jaskier, voice low, elbows on his knees.

“I was invited back from time to time to play.  Usually at the behest of Eist, though I was told not to sing of any White Wolf exploits.  I think he mostly extended the invitation when he was upset with Calanthe.”  Jaskier smiled softly

Geralt folded his arms across his chest.  “Hmm.”

“At any rate,” Jaskier said, ignoring Geralt’s regression back into hums and grunts.  “You may call me either way, I’m comfortable with both names.  Though, ‘Julian’ might be better when we’re not alone.  The moniker ‘Jaskier’ stands out a bit.”

Ciri nodded seriously.  “I understand.”

Jaskier smiled, a little sadly.  “Yes, I suppose you do.”  He turned to Geralt.  “So, what was this favor you wished to ask of me?  Besides going with you and Ciri.”

The princess gasped.  “You’re really coming with us?  Will you play for us?”

He smiled at her again, this time a little less forced.  “Yes, I’m coming with you.  At least for a little ways.  And yes, I’ll play, as long as it won’t be too annoying.”  He glanced over at Geralt as he said this.  The other man didn't seem displeased at the notion.

“Yes!”  The princess exclaimed in excitement.  And, wonder of wonders, there was a smile tugging at the corners of Geralt’s mouth.  If Jaskier hadn’t already been looking at him, he might have missed it.  The softness on the other man’s face as he looked at Ciri tugged at something in Jaskier’s heart.  He pushed it away.  This wasn’t the time for his foolish heart to try to get involved in matters.

Once Ciri settled down, Jaskier asked his question again.  “Actually, why are you this far south at all?”  He added, “if you’re headed for Kaer Morhen, you were kind of going in the wrong direction.”

There was a heavy pause before Geralt answered.  “I found Ciri a day or so’s ride outside of Sodden Hill.  Not too far off the banks of the Yaruga.”

“Where the mages beat back the Nilfgaardian armies.”  It wasn’t a question.  Jaskier had passed by the edges of that battle, months after.  It was still a partial wasteland of destruction.

Geralt gave him a nod.  “We were heading east before turning north.  It’s almost a straight shot up to Kaedwen along Mahakam that way.”  Geralt paused, seeming to consider his next words carefully.  “We heard some rumors.”

“Rumors?”  Jaskier twisted his cup in his hands.

“One of the mages at the battle was Yenn.”

For a moment, Jaskier felt his heart stop.  “ …Yenn?  Yennefer?  Yennefer of Vengerberg?”  Geralt nodded.  “What about her?”  There was no love lost between him and the sorceress, but neither did he wish her ill.

“She disappeared after the battle.  No one has seen or heard from her since she burned down half the forest and the Nilfgaardian invading force with it.”

“We need to find her,” Ciri interjected.

Jaskier looked at the girl.  “You do?”

Ciri nodded.  “I need her.  Like I need Geralt.”

Something in Jaskier went cold.  “Right.”  Of course, Destiny.  Once again, he was just a foil for the bitch’s grand cosmic plans.  There was no room here for a bard-witcher.  Or was he a witcher-bard?  No, that wasn’t important right now.

Pushing down the sick feeling in his stomach, he asked, “So, what’s the plan then?  If no one has heard from her, how are you going to find her?”

“Triss was there, at Sodden.  We ran into each other...here, actually.”  Geralt smiled, wryly.  “She was going to Kagen to speak with a lead she had on Yenn's whereabouts.  I took what I thought was going to be a quick contract to gather some extra coin before heading back west as well.”

“Who is Triss again?”  Jaskier asked.  “The name sounds familiar, but I can’t place it.”

“She is the mage of King Foltest.  I did a job for them.  Remember the striga?” 

Jaskier nodded and set his cup down on the floor.  "Did Triss have an idea of what happened to Yenn?"

Geralt nodded.  “Triss thinks Yennefer was captured, along with a few other sorcerers and taken to a Nilfgaardian stronghold in Brugge.”

“Seems a bit risky to take a child into enemy territory.” At the offended look Ciri gave him, “no offense, Ciri.”  He smiled winsomely.

“Triss is meeting us in Kagen to take Ciri through a portal to Maribor.  Nilfgaard hasn’t been able to get past Brokilon Forest, so Temeria is still safe, for now.”  Geralt set his mug down on the table next to him.  “I’d like you to go with me, if you’re willing.”

Jaskier froze, surprised at the request.  “Go with you?  Aren’t I already going with you?”  He must be misunderstanding the other man.

At this, Geralt seemed a little uncomfortable.  “Normally, I wouldn’t ask, but with recent developments,” he gestured at Jaskier in what the bard assumed was to encompass Jaskier’s recently revealed competent fighter status.  “If what Triss said is true, I need to get Yenn out of Brugge.”

Jaskier sighed.  “Of course, I’ll help.  I'm just surprised you’d trust me so much, so quickly, on what amounts to a rescue mission.”

“I wouldn’t call it ‘trust’ exactly.”

The bard raised an eyebrow at him.  “Oh? What would you call it?”

“Not having much of a choice,” Geralt said bluntly.

Jaskier grinned at him.  “You could leave me to guard Ciri and take this Triss of yours.  A sorceress might be more useful than an out-of-shape witcher.”

Geralt shook his head.  “I'd prefer Ciri be as far away from Brugge as possible.  And Triss is no fighter.  Or well, she’d prefer not to use her magic to hurt people, but she'd keep Ciri safe.”

He slumped in his seat.  “I’m not exactly a fan of hurting people either.  Chose to be a bard for over two decades, remember?”

“You lied to me, you mean,” Geralt apparently felt the need to point that out, again.  And he'd been doing so well, Jaskier thought.  Such a tragedy.  "For over two decades.”

“And you’re still a sanctimonious arse.”  Jaskier said sourly.  “Only one of us has had some personal growth over the last six years it seems.”

Their glaring was interrupted by a giggle, quickly stifled.  They both turned to look at Ciri.  "He's got a point, Geralt."  She shrugged apologetically.  "You're always grumpy, but Jaskier doesn't seem any different now than he did at that feast for Grandmother last year."  A thoughtful expression crossed her face.  "Maybe a little more serious.  But still nice."

Jaskier smiled imperiously at the other witcher.  "Thank you, princess."

Geralt’s expression, if possible, grew even more dour.  “Will you come with me or not?”

For a moment, Jaskier thought about saying ‘no’.  Then he made the mistake of looking at Ciri and her pleading eyes and found that he couldn’t disappoint her.  “Ugh, yes.  Fine.  But you’re going to have to train with me every day to help me get back into shape.”

“Done,” replied Geralt, easily.  “Never thought I’d hear those words coming out of your mouth.”

“Considering how often you told me to shut up, I’m sure there are a lot of things you didn’t imagine coming out of my mouth,” Jaskier threw back.  Geralt really knew how to bring out the best in him.  Maybe getting to something resembling an actual friendship would take more work than he'd thought.

They glared at each other, both wanting to continue the argument, but not wanting to do so with Ciri in the room with them.  Besides, Jaskier thought, he didn’t really have anything different to say.  They would just be circling the same dead horse.  “Do you have a plan?”  He asked instead.

Geralt shifted in his seat a little.  “Not as such.  Triss was going to try to have more intel for me when we met in Kagen.”

“Right.  Well, to Kagen on the morrow then?”

Ciri nodded enthusiastically.  “Thank you!  I was worried about Geralt going alone.”  She said the second part quietly, like it was a secret.

Jaskier couldn’t help but smile at her.  “Anything for a friend.”  He was surprised by the sincerity in his voice.  By the look on Geralt’s face, he was surprised as well.  But it made sense, if Jaskier thought about it. 

As mad and hurt as he still was with the other man, he still didn't wish the other man ill.  Ciri needed Geralt.  And it seemed they both needed Yenn.  If freeing Yennefer helped both of the people before him, then Jaskier was more than ready to put his life on the line to make it happen.  Even if it did make him Destiny's lapdog once again.

“Let’s go get some dinner and then I'll see if I can convince the proprietor of this establishment to let me play for a while before we retire,” Jaskier said, gathering his cup up off the floor and standing.  Ciri stood as well. 

After a moment, Geralt collected his cup and the jug and followed them to the door.  “We just ate, Ciri,” he reminded her, gently.

“You did,” Jaskier answered.  “I didn’t.”  He looked down at the princess.  “I wouldn’t mind some company, though, even if you’re not hungry.”

Looking sheepish, Ciri replied, “I could eat again.”

He opened the door for her, giving a slight bow that made her smile.  “After you, my lady.”  When Geralt got to the door, he remained slightly bowed.  “And you, sir,” he said with slightly less enthusiasm.

The other man gave him an odd look but nodded his thanks before heading out behind Ciri.  Taking a deep, steadying breath, Jaskier followed them both down the steps.  This adventure was going to challenge his every nerve, Jaskier could feel it.

Chapter Text

Before they went to their separate rooms for the night, after supper and Jaskier had played a set of songs that earned him a few coins, Jaskier reminded Geralt that he’d need to stop by the forge before they left to get his sword.  He’d gotten there early enough that day, and Torrik already had a sword suitable enough, to start the silvering process.  It needed to rest overnight to harden, but the dwarf had assured him it would be ready for him when the market opened the next day.

They parted for the night with plans to breakfast together in the morning, get Jaskier’s sword, and then depart for Kagen by late morning.  The journey should only take them about day; they were likely to get to the town a little after sunset as long as they didn’t stop too often.  Triss should still be there, waiting for the White Wolf and his charge.  Geralt was only about a day late for their rendezvous, at this point, but he had made it clear to her that it wasn’t easy to make exact plans on the Path.

So, with that in mind, they all went to bed.  It took a long time for Jaskier to fall asleep that night.  Worries plagued his mind.  He worried about getting back in fighting shape and being an asset in the upcoming rescue.  He worried about finding Yennefer, and if they did, what shape she would be in.  And he worried about what he was going to do when Geralt and Yennefer inevitably got back together again.  And then he wondered why he worried about that at all.  He and Geralt were still working on being in the same room together without snapping at each other.

Maybe they were already back together, Jaskier thought.  Six years was a decent amount of time, even to witchers and sorceresses.  Perhaps even enough time had passed to heal some of their emotional wounds.  He wondered why he still cared.  Sure, he’d been a little bit in love with Geralt when he’d first met him- and the subsequent twenty years after that- but Geralt was an obmutescent arse.  The man had been quite clear about his feelings for Jaskier; six years ago and today. 

Well, actually, today had been a little confusing.  Geralt had seemed both so certain of what he wanted, and yet, incapable of following through on his promise to do better with the bard.  Then again, the other witcher was fighting against nearly a century of repressing his emotions.  Jaskier couldn't really expect Geralt to be perfect on the first try, could he?  It sent his thoughts spiraling again.

Fuck.  Jaskier rolled onto his back and figured he needed to start practicing meditating again anyway.  He focused on his breathing, counting his breaths in and out.  He found the rhythm easier to find than he’d expected and slowly sunk down into it, pushing all the thoughts that were troubling him off for the morrow.  He could deal with his turbulent emotions again when he was better rested.

*

Jaskier awoke the next day to faint dawn light and a vague sense of pressure between his eyebrows.  If he’d been human, he suspected, he would have had a headache.  As it was, as he got up and ready for the day, the pressure receded, and he took himself and his pack down to the main area of the tavern.

Geralt and Ciri weren’t downstairs, yet, so he took a seat at the table from the night before.  A woman came over to him, the inn keep’s wife, Jaskier suspected, and told him she could have porridge and honey out to him in a few minutes.  He nodded and mentioned that two others would be joining him shortly and to please have theirs' ready as well.

The woman disappeared into the back of the inn and Jaskier settled in to wait; for both his porridge and his companions.  He pulled out a thick, leather-bound notebook, a quill, and some ink.  Opening the notebook to the next blank space, he began writing.  Not lyrics, as such, but the shape of an idea for a song.  A ballad, perhaps.  Not that anyone would ever hear him sing it, but writing was a habit and one he didn’t mean to lose.  If nothing else, it helped him sort his thoughts.

A few minutes later, he heard the scrape of a chair being pulled out and then sat upon next to him.  “What are you writing,” asked a young voice.

Jaskier looked up to Ciri staring at him curiously.  “Where’s Geralt?”  He asked instead of answering her question.  He stoppered his ink well and took a cloth out of his bag to wipe his quill.  The pages he’d been writing upon would need a moment to dry.

“He’s getting the rest of our belongings together.  He told me to come down first and see if you were here.”  Ciri leaned forward, putting her sharp elbows on the table.  “What are you writing?”  She asked again.

He waved a hand over the pages, hoping the moving air would help them dry faster.  “Just notes about monsters and such.  It’s useful for witchers to keep journals of such things.”

The girl frowned, her nose wrinkling.  “But you haven’t fought any monsters recently.”

“I fought that coccacidium,” Jaskier objected.  The pages were dry enough, he decided.  He closed the notebook and carefully bound it closed.  “There’s something rather poetic about the White Wolf’s former bard saving him again, don't you think.  Though, this time it was his life instead of his reputation.”

There was a heavy ‘thunk’ as Geralt set his a Ciri’s pack down next to the table.  “I could have done without the first one,” he said as he sat down.  "My reputation was fine.  Kept people from bothering me."  He looked at Jaskier, a slight furrow between his eyebrows.  "Most people," he amended.

“Oh, tosh.”  Jaskier put his writing supplies back in his bag.  “It wasn’t just for you, Geralt.  That song paved the road for more than one witcher.  Made things a little easier.”

Geralt leaned forward, gold eyes intent on Jaskier.  “How would you know?”

“I met others, a few times, when we weren’t travelling together.  And I saw change in how you were treated over the years as well, when we did travel together.”

The golden eyes narrowed.  “What others?”

Jaskier rolled his own blue orbs at him.  “Other witchers, of course.  One from the Bear School and one from Viper.  Lovely chaps.  Especially the Viper.”  He smirked a little, remembering.  The Viper had been intrigued by the human that wasn’t afraid of witchers and rather keen to explore Jaskier’s willingness to…associate with someone like him.

It was at that moment that their porridge arrived, breaking Geralt’s intense gaze.  There were a few quiet minutes of everyone getting themselves situated and digging into their breakfasts.

“I don’t think I’ve ever heard anyone describe a Viper as ‘lovely’ before.”  Geralt sounded strained.

Jaskier looked up at him, blinking innocently.  “Weren’t you just telling me the other day that you let a Cat stay at Kaer Morhen for the winter?  They're reputation is nearly as bad as the Vipers.”

“Aiden is…different.”  Jaskier nearly dropped his spoon.

“Did, did you just say that the Cat’s name is ‘Aiden’?”

At this, Ciri interrupted them.  “Geralt, you have a cat?”  She seemed excited at the prospect.

For moment, there was silence as Jaskier stared at Geralt, then looked at the girl’s earnest face, then back to Geralt.  Then, he burst out laughing, dropping his spoon into his bowl to slap the table.  Faintly, over the sound of his load guffaws, he could hear Geralt trying to explain.

“No, Fiona, they’re the names of witcher Schools.”  He sounded amused as well.  “There are several different ones.  I’m from the School of the Wolf.  Aiden is from the School of the Cat.”

“What about you, Julian?”

“Hmm?”  Jaskier struggled to get himself back under control.  It was getting hard to breathe.  But, Geralt.  With a cat.  Petting it.  Cooing at it.  Going ps ps ps, here kitty, kitty, like every other person on the Continent when it came to cats.  And, oh dear, what name would he have saddled the poor creature with?  Something equally majestic and ridiculous, he was sure.  He started laughing all over again, tears starting to collect in the corners of his eyes.

“What School are you from?”  Ciri repeated, sounding irritated that he wasn't listening.

He reached inside his shirt to hold up his medallion.  “Griffin,” he managed to squeeze out while wheezing.

She studied his pendant for a moment before asking, “is Geralt with a cat really that funny?”

“Yes,” answered Jaskier, before Geralt could say anything.  “Not just because it’s Geralt, though, the prickly bastard that he is.”  Ooh, he could feel that glare.  “But, also, because cats don’t like witchers in general.”

“They don’t?”  Curious green eyes stared at him.

“Hiss every time we pass by one,” Jaskier confirmed.  “I think they can sense the mutations and are unnerved by it.”  He shrugged.  “Other animals don’t seem bothered though.”

The girl seemed to consider this.  “That seems kind of sad,” she mused.

Jaskier picked up his spoon and started eating again.  “How so?”  He asked around a mouthful of porridge.  It was worth the disgusted look Geralt shot him.  Jaskier grinned at him.

Ciri fiddled with her own spoon, twisting it back and forth between her fingertips, staring down at her breakfast.  “It just seems sad that something doesn’t like you just because of what you are.”

Blue and gold eyes met over her head.  After a moment, Geralt spoke.  “Fiona, it’s not just cats that dislike witchers,” he said, gently.  “Many humans do not care for us, either.  You know that.”

“That’s just because they don’t know you!”  Ciri sounded upset.  “If they did, they’d know how amazing you are.”

Jaskier smiled sadly at her.  “I appreciate the sentiment, sweetheart, but it’s a known fact that humans don’t like what they fear.  And they fear what they don’t understand.”  He set his spoon down into his empty bowl.  “Witchers know that better than anyone.”

He could see tears gathering in her eyes, and his heart ached for her.  To learn the harsh lessons of reality at such a young age.  It was unfair.  She'd already lost her family and had her entire world tossed upside-down.  She didn't need more of the harshness of reality thrust upon her.

“It’s not fair,” she whispered, unknowingly echoing his thoughts.

Jaskier carefully avoided Geralt’s gaze when he replied.  “There isn’t much to life that is.”

*

After they finished their breakfast, Jaskier headed to the forge to retrieve his sword.  He’d paid Torrik half his requested amount to start the job, with the rest to be paid once quality of the work was determined.  He was pleased to find that Torrik was, indeed, a master of his craft.  He paid the dwarf the rest of the coin he was owed, plus a little extra in gratitude for the expediency of his work, and went back to the inn to meet up with Geralt and Ciri.

When he arrived at the stables, he found Geralt loading up Roach.  “Where’s Ciri?”

The white-haired witcher nodded his head towards the inn.  “Outhouse.”

“Ah, good idea.”  He went to the stall where Pegasus was stabled.  “Hey, boy,” he said softly, stroking the horse’s soft nose.  They worked in companionable silence for a few moments.  Jaskier relaxed as he went through the familiar motions of tacking up his horse.

“You got your sword, then?”  Startled, Jaskier looked over to where Geralt had finished cinching the last of Roach’s saddlebags closed.

“Yes?”  He looked at where he’d secured it to Pegasus’ side in a holder with his steel small sword.

Geralt snorted.  “You don’t know?”

The bard frowned at him.  “It’s more I’m not sure why you’re asking.  Yes, I have the sword.  Good quality work, too.”

The witcher shrugged; a short, tense motion of his shoulders.  “Just wanted to make sure you’re properly outfitted.  May I see it?”

Not sure what to make of the request, but having no reason to refuse, Jaskier frowned, then picked up his new sword, still in its scabbard.  He held it out to Geralt.  “Here.”

The other man accepted it carefully, holding it in two hands before switching his grip so that he could draw the sword with his right.  He studied it for a moment.  “It’s smaller than I thought it would be.”

Jaskier huffed in indignation.  “Excuse you, it’s not small!  It’s perfectly normal-sized for someone of my stature.”

Geralt stared at him.  “Jaskier, you’re only an inch or so shorter than I am.  You have the height for a longer sword.”

“Yes, but unlike you,” Jaskier checked the girths on the saddle before straightening up.  “I try to avoid being impaled to win fights.”  He was silent for a beat.  “Except in certain, very specific circumstances,” he smirked.  "But then, I'm still winning in those, too."

The witcher rolled his eyes at him.  He sheathed the sword and handed it back to the bard.  “Is everything a joke to you?”

For a moment, Jaskier considered saying ‘yes, most certainly’ but something about the look in Geralt’s eyes made him think better of it.  He answered seriously.  “No, not really.  Humor helps me cope, for sure, but I am taking this seriously.  I’m taking Fiona’s life seriously.”  He wanted to assure the other man that he had his back and would protect Ciri no matter what.  “I wouldn’t have dropped the spell if I wasn’t.”

They held each other’s gaze for a long moment before light footsteps broke them apart.  Ciri was on her way back to them.  Geralt took a step back, creating some distance between them, shaking his head.  "That was uncalled for of me," he said, turning towards where they could hear the footsteps getting louder until she was in view.  Geralt helped her mount up onto Roach, then grabbed the reins to lead the horse.

“It’s a good sword,” he heard Geralt mutter as the man walked by him.

“Thanks,” Jaskier returned before following after.

They rode in silence for nearly an hour before Geralt spoke to him again.  "Did you know Aiden?"

"Hm?"  The sudden question had jarred Jaskier from his thoughts.  "Oh, yes.  I met him a long time ago."  He peeked over at Ciri, who seemed to have fallen asleep against the cradle of Geralt's body.  "It was when I got this."  He tapped his neck where the scar on his throat was.

"Someone tried to slit your throat."  It wasn't a question.

Keeping a careful eye on Ciri in case she woke, Jaskier answered anyway.  "They mostly succeeded.  Aiden happened upon me while the alderman was sawing away at my neck."  His voice took on the distant quality of old, faded memories brought back to the fore.  "The knife was dull.  Strange how I can remember that, but not what any of the people watching it happen looked like."  He shook his head, as if trying to physically clear the memory from himself.  "It's a good thing Cats tend to carry crossbows," he added lightly, hoping that would be the end of the topic.

"Hm," Geralt said.  "A good thing indeed."  There was a warmth to Geralt's voice that Jaskier couldn't ever remember being directed at him before.

They spent the rest of the morning mostly in silence save for hoofbeats and the occasional murmur of a question.  In the afternoon, they stopped to give Ciri and the horses a short break.  It was then that Jaskier decided Geralt should start training with him; even if it was only for a few minutes with some decently sized sticks.

Jaskier lunged forward again, aiming low, trying to trip the other witcher up.  His only advantage, he thought as he breathed heavily, was that he’d watched Geralt’s sword work for years and already knew the other man’s weak spots.  He was fairly certain it was the only reason he was holding his own.

The other man parried the blow, sweeping Jaskier’s stick to the side and circling his own bough up and around, aiming for the bard’s neck.  Quickly, Jaskier leaned back, away from the blow and it passed harmlessly by his face.  He hadn’t gauged it quite right though and over balanced, stumbling to catch himself from falling over.  Geralt, sensing the opening, launched his own attack and whipped his branch back towards Jaskier’s side, tapping him at the ribs.

Holding up a hand to stop him from pressing further, Jaskier bent forward, hands on knees, and wheezed.  “I’m so.  Fucking.  Out of shape,” he gasped.

Geralt merely hummed contemplatively.  “You’re not doing as badly as I thought you would.”

“Fuck you.”  Jaskier was going to die on this escapade of Geralt’s, he knew it.  He could barely keep up with one witcher; a whole fort of trained soldiers was going to be impossible.

Meanwhile, the man in question had nary a hair out of place.  He wasn’t even particularly winded, though they had been going non-stop for nearly twenty minutes.  It made that funny thing in Jaskier’s heart squeeze again, thought this time it was accompanied by a small flutter in his stomach.

 Dammit, Jaskier, he thought to himself. Now is not the time to find Geralt’s overwhelming physicality intriguing.  In fact, never is there a time for such things concerning Geralt.  He straightened from his crouch and held his branch up.  “One more go?  I want to try it slow this time and get a feel for the openings that I’m leaving.”

Geralt nodded and readied his own weapon.  They recreated their last exchange with Geralt commenting on any openings he saw and what Jaskier could do to improve them.  At every suggestion, the bard tried out the correction and redid the move, trying to make sure he was undoing any bad habits he'd picked up from the years he’d spent not practicing.

A few minutes later, Geralt called an end to their session, nodding in approval.  “You’re really not bad.  The form and basics are there.  You’re just rusty.”

Jaskier smiled at him, surprised but pleased at the praise.  “And to think, I didn’t even normally fight with a single one-handed weapon in the first place.”  He threw his stick down into the grass and went to check on Pegasus.

Geralt frowned at him.  “What do you mean?”

“Oh, I picked up fighting with dual blades from a Viper.”  He said airily.  “Ah, from before I went bard.  Not long after I started out on the Path on my own.  They’re much better suited to how I prefer to fight.  My Signs were always on the weak side, for a Griffin.”

“Hm.  Probably why you keep leaving one side open when you go to attack.”

Jaskier looked over at him.  “Most likely.  I just need to get used to the weight and feel of a sword again, for now.”

The other man shook his head at him.  “You should train as you mean to go on.”  Jaskier thought to protest, but Geralt plowed on.  “I don’t mean you also shouldn’t know how to use just one sword.  It’s good knowledge to have in case you lose a dagger, but it would probably be best to do what is most comfortable to you.”

Jaskier could hear what the other man wasn’t saying; I want you at your best.  You’re no good to me if you can’t fight effectively.  So, he just nodded and changed the subject.  “Are we ready to go?”  He gestured with his chin towards Ciri, who’d been dozing against a rock while they’d done their impromptu fencing lesson.

Quietly, Geralt went to Ciri and shook her awake.  She smiled at him.  “Sorry, I dozed off.”

The witcher smiled back at her, small and soft.  “It’s all right.  You needed the rest.  We need to get moving again though.”

“Okay.”  While Geralt helped Ciri onto Roach, Jaskier mounted his own horse.  Once Geralt settled in behind the girl, they were off again.  Having already crossed the Newi, they were following along the Yaruga, which would lead them to Kagen.  “Oh!  I know!  How about I play some music for us?”

Jaskier glanced back at the princess.  “Play music?  On what?”

From a pocket in her cloak, Ciri produced a thin wooden instrument with several holes.  It was a recorder, Jaskier recognized immediately.  A favorite of noble and peasant children everywhere.  He smiled widely at her.  “I didn’t know you played the recorder!”

Ciri’s answering smile was just as wide, happy and carefree.  “Geralt got it for me!  I only learned a little bit during music lessons before..."  She trailed off, but it wasn't hard to guess what she was going to say.  "I can play ‘The Lady’s Heart Goes On’.”  And with that, she raised the recorder to her lips and began to play.

Quickly, Jaskier turned around to hide his wince.  ‘Play’ might have been a bit of a stretch.  To give Ciri some credit, the song was recognizable as ‘The Lady’s Heart Goes On’.  Sort of.  If one were to have an open interpretation of the composition.  He immediately felt bad for thinking it, but Ciri’s playing landed somewhere between ‘wheezing cow’ and ‘dying cockatrice’ in both breathiness and shrillness.  Jaskier would know, he’d experienced both of those things.  Numerous times.

And if it hurt his ears while he was several horse-lengths away and downwind of her playing, he couldn’t imagine it was doing Geralt any favors, being right behind her.  Something about that put a smile on his face.  He might be enjoying the thought of Geralt reaping some slight comeuppance at the hands of his Child Surprise a little too much.  Or not.  Twenty years was a long time after all.

He snuck a look behind him, eager to see Geralt’s pained face, but was surprised at what he saw instead.  There was a slight wince when the princess hit a particularly painful high note, but underneath that was affection.  Pure, unadulterated affection for the child in front of him trying her best to play him a song.  It loosened something in Jaskier’s heart, to see such an expression on Geralt’s face.  It almost made him want to forgive Geralt for his treatment of him over the years.  If Geralt apologized.  Properly.  And even then he'd have some very intense groveling to do.  Then, maybe, he'd consider letting Geralt be his friend again.

The moment was broken when Geralt caught him looking and frowned.  Jaskier turned to face forward and had to jerk the reins in order to guide Pegasus around a sudden dip in the road.  Returning to his previous thought, he had to laugh at himself.  Geralt would never care for him the way he cared for Ciri or Yennefer.  They were, all three of them, linked by Destiny.  There was nothing in the world that could compete with that kind of bond.  He hunched over his horse’s neck, curling into himself, suddenly bitter.  He was just an interloper.  Or, at best, a tool of Destiny to bring them all together, but never to really be a part of their fate.

There was no place for him in this little family.  Once they had Yennefer back, there would be no use for him.  The thought hurt more than he thought it should.

"Should I play next?"  He called back to them once Ciri had finished.

"Yes, please!"  Ciri shouted excitedly.

"By the gods, yes," he heard Geralt mutter.

Jaskier carefully pried his lute out of its case.  "What shall I play?"  He tested a few chords, plucking at the strings and adjusting any pegs when he found one out of tune.  He listened with half an ear as Ciri listed all the songs she wanted to hear.  Many of them were ones he'd written.  There were, however, a few that were not.  He grinned when she named a tune that had become popular amongst younger nobles recently.

Strumming, he began to sing.  "You are...my fire..."

By the time he finished the song, he'd counted no less than seven cringes from Geralt at the terrible lyrics, but not once did the other man complain about the music.

"That was amazing, Jaskier!"  Ciri clapped.  "Will you sing another?  Maybe one of yours?"

Jaskier hesitated.

"You should," Geralt said haltingly.  "I...didn't realize how much I'd missed your singing."

"Even though I sound like- ah, what did you call it?- a filling-less pie?"

Ciri gasped.  "Geralt!  You didn't!"

He watched with no small amount of pleasure as Geralt winced.  "I was having a bad day," he said to Ciri.  Then, to Jaskier, "please continue."

There was a part of Jaskier that wanted to continue baiting the other witcher.  To react derisively and throw other insults that Geralt had paid him over the years in the man's face.  But there was another part, a larger part, that was tired of being angry and sad all the time over Geralt.  Besides, Ciri didn't deserve to hear them bicker all the time.  She'd been through enough already.  He could let it go this time, for Ciri.  Jaskier resettled his lute across his stomach and began strumming again, filling their journey with well-worn traveling songs intermixed with some of his more popular compositions. 

He did, however, play 'Toss A Coin.'  Twice.

Chapter Text

They made good time to Kagen, reaching the small, open gates that demarked the large town’s boundaries just as the last rays of the sun disappeared over the horizon.  Geralt led them to the inn he and Ciri had stayed at only a few days ago.  It was here that he was also supposed to have met Triss two days past.  Hopefully, she wasn’t too upset over his tardiness; he could hardly be faulted for being injured.  He had told her to wait no more than three days before either looking for them or moving on by herself.

He flicked a coin at a stable boy that came to take their horses, grabbing his swords and other belongings from the saddlebags before letting the boy lead Roach away.  He had learned the hard way long ago not to leave his things with the horse.  They didn’t always all make it back to him.  He handed Ciri her own small pack before turning to Jaskier, intending to ask him if he had anything he needed carried, but was brought up short by the sight of him.

It still startled him, the sight of the bard’s- or was it former bard?- face, scarred and serious now, where it had once been smooth and relaxed.  Jaskier already had his things in hand and was reaching into his rather emaciated coin-purse for another crown.  He smiled at the boy and handed over the reins of his gelding.

The smile made his slow heart beat just a tad faster.  It was the same smile that Jaskier had when he was being genuinely friendly and not just putting on a show; a small, sincere thing shown only outside of his performances and stage persona, when he was truly enjoying an interaction with someone.  Geralt had always preferred it to his wide performance smiles since the bard had hardly seemed to show them to others.  Those smiles had felt like they belonged to Geralt.  That they were for Geralt.

Not any longer, it seemed.  Now, they went to stable boys.

Geralt scowled, calling himself all kinds of fool for being jealous of a boy that couldn’t be more than twelve winters old.  Jaskier had shown the same smile to Ciri and he hadn’t felt that way about it then.

Actually, Jaskier had shown that smile to several people recently, and not once had it been directed at Geralt.  The realization hurt more than he thought it should.  He turned abruptly and headed for the door to the tavern, guiding Ciri along with a hand to her shoulder.  He hoped Triss was there already and that their conversation would be short so that he could get a hot meal and some rest.  He listened to Jaskier’s steps as the other man followed them.

Luck was on his side this time, it seemed.  When he pushed open the heavy, wooden door he immediately spotted bright, curly red hair near the far wall, lit by a single candle on the table.  He made his way towards her, shouldering his gear and guiding Ciri forwards by a hand on her upper back.

“Hello, Triss,” he greeted the woman before dropping his bags on the floor next to the table.

The red-haired woman looked up from her drink.  “Geralt!  You’re alright!”  Her gaze moved to the girl next to him.  “And Fiona, too!”  She smiled widely, her obvious delight brightening her already beautiful face.  Then she caught sight of the bard looming behind them.  Her smile dimmed a bit, obviously bemused at this new addition to the group.  “And who is this?”  She inquired politely.

He guided Ciri into the seat next to Triss before sitting across from her, leaving a spot open next to him for the bard.  He gestured to the other man as he sat down.  “This is...Julian.”  He'd almost forgotten the name Jaskier had been using for his public performances.

Triss’ eyes narrowed a bit as she studied the man.  “I think I know you…the bard, right?”  Her expression lightened once again, welcoming.  “You played for King Foltest of Temeria once or twice, yes?  You also wrote that delightful song about Geralt all those years ago.”  Her smile hinted at a certain mischievousness.  "Didn't you go by a different name?"

Jaskier grinned at her, clearly pleased at being recognized.  “I did.  Always happy to meet a fan.  Though, I’ve had to step back from the barding a bit, recently.”

“Oh?”  Triss seemed disappointed.

He leaned toward her.  “I’m sure you’ve heard of some of our mutual friends and their… unique predicament.”  His gaze wandered from Geralt, to Ciri, and then back to Triss.  “I got the impression that the famous bard of the White Wolf would not be spared.”

Triss nodded.  “You’re right.  It isn’t safe for them right now.  And that bard was known to travel with the Wolf for quite some time.”  Her gaze slid over to Geralt, eyes twinkling.  "Though, not so much in recent years."  Geralt shifted uncomfortably as a hint of a smirk played across Triss' face before she turned her attention back to the bard.  “Still, it’s a little disappointing that we won’t be able to hear those famous songs from their original composer.”

Jaskier returned her gaze.  “I could be persuaded to give a private performance, if you so desire, my lady.”

Geralt scowled at the contemplative look on Triss’ face.  “No performances,” he said.  “Of any kind,” he added when Jaskier opened his mouth to protest.  “Especially not in front of Fiona.”

The bard huffed.  “Well, of course not in front of- What do you take me for?”  He stared at Jaskier, eyebrow raised, silently reminding him of the number of times he’d either had to rescue him from angry cuckholds or caught him in the midst of a tryst, out in the open.  “Hmph.”  Jaskier turned away from him and back to Triss.

“Why can’t Julian perform?”  Ciri asked.

“Yes, Geralt,” Jaskier drawled.  “Why can’t I perform?”  He winked at Triss.  “Because I assure you, my lady, I can.”

It was at this moment the serving girl stomped up to their table, saving Geralt from having to answer.  She took their orders for some roast chicken and potatoes, along with ale for the adults and water for Ciri.  “Eist let me have ale,” she grumbled, when Geralt remained firm on the matter.

Geralt thought of and discarded several answers to her pouting.  The deaths of her grandparents were still a sensitive subject.  “Eist was from Skellige.  We’re in Riverdell.  Different laws,” he settled on.

“Besides,” Jaskier interjected.  “You won’t be able to fully enjoy my performance with the gut-rot they likely serve here.”

“So, you are playing?!”  Ciri asked, delighted.

Geralt felt the scowl his face had already settled into deepen.  Was the man insane?  He voiced his very serious question, following it up with “what if someone recognizes you?”

Jaskier grinned and hefted the lute in his hands.  “Good thing I won’t be singing any of my songs.”  His expression became more serious.  “We need the coin, Geralt.  Or at least, I do.  I spent nearly all I had on replacing all the gear I’d lost.  And you didn't complain in the last town.  So, unless you think we have time for a contract..."

Metal cups were placed on their table with resounding ‘thunks’.  “Food will be another moment,” the serving girl from earlier muttered before stomping off again.

Geralt glared at Jaskier.  “We’re not here to fill our coin purses.  We’re here to talk to Triss.”  He tilted his head towards the redhead.  "And I had reservations about it then, as well."  He eyed each of then in turn; Triss with her bright, red hair, Jaskier with his scars, and Geralt with his own distinctive features.  "We're not the most inconspicuous group.  And Triss has already proved you're recognizable."

“True,” Jaskier admitted.  “I doubt this will be the sort of conversation we want to have out in the open, though.”  He turned to Triss.  “Correct?”  He took a long pull from his cup and made a considering face.  “Not bad, actually.”

A frown marred her face as she replied.  “You’re right.  We’d best talk in private.”  There was a brief hesitation before she continued.  He probably wouldn’t have noticed it if he didn’t know her as well as he did.  “I have some questions of my own, as well.”  She glanced at Jaskier.  “It seems some things have changed over the years.”  Her gaze lingered on his scars and eyes.

He smiled at her.  The genuine one that did funny things to Geralt’s insides while it also frustrated him because yet again it was being turned towards someone who was decidedly not Geralt.  “I’m sure I can allay any fears you might have, my lady.”

Platters were placed in front of them, rather unceremoniously.  Three of them dug in, ravenously, while Triss picked carefully at her own supper.  It didn’t take them long to pick the chicken clean and spear the last of the potatoes.  Geralt gulped down the rest of his ale and considered asking for another, but Jaskier was right; it wasn’t just his coin purse that was getting a little on the light side.

Food finished, Triss led them to her room on the second floor.  She shut the door and then whispered something in Elder, encasing the entire room in a silvery sheen.  “Privacy spell,” she explained when she saw the questioning look on his face.  “We won’t be overheard.”  She crossed her arms over her chest.  “So, let’s start with what happened to you.  You’re late.”  She glared at Geralt.

He raised his hands in surrender.  “I got caught up in a contract,” he explained.  “Injured.”

“Jaskier saved him!”  Ciri added, clearly wanting to give the bard his due.

Triss turned her green gaze to the other man.  “A bard saved a witcher?  I find that hard to believe.”

“Ah, well,” Jaskier started, rubbing at the back of his head.  “I’m…not exactly human?  As I'm sure you've noticed.”

Her gaze narrowed.  “Then what are you?”

“A witcher,” Geralt growled out.  He was, perhaps, still a little sore that Jaskier hadn’t chosen to tell him sooner.  That he hadn’t trusted Geralt.  “Now that we’ve got the introductions out of the way, can we get to what you know about Yenn?”

Triss turned her glare to him.  “Explain.  I’m fairly certain a witcher becoming a bard is not a normal occurrence.”  Her expression softened almost immediately as she addressed Jaskier.  "Please understand, Yenn saved a lot of lives that day in Sodden Hill.  Mine included.  It would be a poor repayment if I carelessly shared information with someone I don't know and caused her more harm."

“Know a lot of bards then, do you?”  Jaskier quipped.  He should have left Jaskier in the stable with the horses.  "I do understand.  It's just... Not a comfortable thing for me to speak about."

Triss' smile was understanding, but she remained firm.  “I've known plenty of bards.  I’ve also met a few witchers in my time.  I’ve just never seen the two cross before.”

Jaskier smiled at her, bright and insincere.  Geralt hated it.  “Well, now you have.”  There was a tense moment of silence before Jaskier sighed and slumped heavily onto a chest at the foot of one of the beds.  “Well, I suppose I did say I would allay any fears you had.”  He looked at Geralt then, something considering in his blue eyes before he turned back to Triss.  When he spoke again, his voice took on a detached quality, like he was telling a story,

“The Path is difficult and rarely do any of us actually choose it.  I certainly didn’t.”  Jaskier looked over to Geralt, as if asking his thoughts on the matter.  He nodded, and gestured for Jaskier to continue.  “We’re…not really given a choice, even though there is a formal part where we’re asked.  But by then, it’s all we’ve known for years.  Almost since before we can remember, for most.  What else would we do?"  He shrugged as if it wasn't a terrible burden; to be given away and have fear and every other emotion beaten out of you.  Except, they weren't ever really gone, the children just got better at hiding it.  Until the Trials, where everything was dulled for them so that they could run towards horrors no human could ever dream of without flinching.

Lilit, no wonder humans were terrified of witchers.  And really, it wasn't so hard to believe that Jaskier would have wanted to escape that.  He'd been right in what he had said to Geralt several days ago.  Witchers could still feel.  It was the fear that was mostly dulled.  That, combined with the inhibition of normal autonomic responses humans had to stimuli, made expressing emotion for a witcher difficult.  But that didn't mean they didn't feel it.

That didn't mean Geralt couldn't feel.  It just meant he was shit at expressing it physically.  Which left using his words and he'd demonstrated numerous times already how abysmal he was at that.  Still, he meant to keep trying until he got it right.  He owed both Jaskier and Ciri at least that much.

Ciri went to sit beside the bard, gently grasping his hand in her own.  Geralt wished he could do the same.

Jaskier smiled at her, pained.  It tugged at Geralt’s heart to see the bard with such an expression.  He’d rarely seen true melancholy on the bard’s face.  In fact, the only other time he could remember was…well, the less said about that particular incident, the better.  He was trying to be better than that.  He would be better than that.

“Depending on how you look at it, I was either particularly lucky or very unlucky.”

“What do you mean,” Geralt worked past his dry throat to ask.  He had a feeling he wasn't going to like the answer.

Jaskier looked down at his hands, where he was rubbing his fingers together.  “I came into witchering later in life than most children.  I was nine when I was given to the Griffin School.  I could still remember what it was like to be human.  To have a family.”

Geralt was horrified.  Most children that were given to witcher Schools were young, usually under six.  Geralt himself hadn't been more than five when his mother had left him.  He could barely remember anything about her.  He’d always thought it a kindness, in a way.  He knew he was missing something, but not what, not really.  He had flashes of her warmth still, sometimes, but rarely could he remember more of her than that.  His earliest, and most vivid memories, were of training with the other boys at the School.

But Jaskier…he’d been old enough to know his family.  He could remember them.  He’d had a taste of what could have been.  “Why?”  He barely recognized his own voice; it was so hoarse.

“I was the youngest son of the Viscount of a small holdfast in Lettenhove.”  He smiled at Geralt then, wry and painful.  “I actually didn’t lie about that.  I’m the only Pankratz left alive and Lettenhove still exists, though only as a small collection of broken-down buildings.  And so, I am Julian Alfred Pankratz, Viscount de Lettenhove.  Technically.”

“Why?”  Geralt nearly growled.  Why were you given away so late?  Why did they take you?  Who would do this to someone as bright and beautiful as Jaskier?

Jaskier bit his lip, clearly reluctant to answer.  Finally, he sighed.  “It's a fairly common story.  Lettenhove was barely holding on even a hundred years ago.  They had a monster problem, but no coin to pay.  When a witcher came through, he deemed me acceptable enough payment.”  He closed his eyes, clearly pained by his memories.  “I didn’t understand at the time.”

No, Geralt thought, what child would understand being given away to a stranger?  And to a mutant at that.  A monster.

"That's horrible," Ciri whispered.  "I didn't know."  She looked almost guilty.

Jaskier opened his eyes and squeezed her hand.  "That's alright.  No reason for you to have." 

He avoided Geralt’s gaze, and focused on Triss instead.  “I struggled.  It was a miracle I survived the Trials; I hadn’t had as much time for training as the others had, even though they did put it off an extra year for me to catch up.”  Geralt could see Triss’ face softening in sympathy.

He wanted to reach out to the other man; offer support.  But, would Jaskier want it from him?  He’d chased the bard away at every conceivable chance and then he’d thanked him for saving his life by treating him with suspicion so that he could nurse his own hurt at being lied to.  He really was the monster humans had accused him of being.

“After I went on the Path, it was difficult, to say the least.  I went from a family where everyone in the nearby village treated me as a son, to being treated like a disposable cog; useful, but easily replaceable.  Something to be reviled and feared.”  Jaskier stroked at the scar along his neck.  Geralt didn’t think he noticed himself doing it, but it drew attention to the fact that Jaskier had very obviously narrowly escaped having his throat slit.  He'd have to thank Aiden the next time he saw the Cat.  He didn't want to imagine what his life would be like now if he hadn't met Jaskier.

"You're not replaceable," Ciri said fiercely, taking his hand in her own small one.  Privately, Geralt agreed.  Maybe someday, he'd be able to tell the bard that.

Jaskier smiled down at her.  "Thank you, dear."  He squeezed her hand gently.  “Eventually, it got to be too much.  I saved up some money, begged a sorcerer to help me, and he produced a very convincing glamor and a spell based around an old curse.  Once it settled, it was undetectable as foreign magic because it had become a part of me, fueled by the very magics that created me in the first place.”  Jaskier was obviously glossing over some events, but Geralt supposed he was allowed to keep some secrets.  He didn't have the right to ask for more than what he'd already given.  “And that, as they say, is that.”  He smiled, but it didn’t reach his eyes.  “Satisfied?”

Eyes suspiciously bright, Triss nodded.  "It makes sense.  I'd be interested in knowing what curse he used.  It's an interesting application for something of the sort."

Ciri, however, was not so reserved and threw her arms around the bard, sniffling.  Surprise flashed across the bard’s face before he wrapped his arms gently around the girl.  “It’s alright. It was a long time ago.  I’m okay.”

Ciri looked up at him.  “Promise?”

Jaskier’s smile became more genuine.  “I promise.  I have you now, after all.”  Ciri hugged him tight once again.

And me, Geralt thought, but didn’t have the voice to say.  He’d been a shit friend this entire time.  Jaskier had obviously been hurting from the mountain and everything that had come before it, but he’d still gone out and risked his life for Geralt.  The least he could do was be a friend to the other man.  A real one.  No more pushing the other man away because he made him feel things he didn’t think a witcher should able feel.  Things he didn’t know a witcher could feel.

But, first, he had to get his friend to trust him again.  He just had to figure out how something like that was done.

“Right, I think it’s Triss’ turn now.”  Jaskier’s eyes were focused on Triss.  “Tell us what you know of Yennefer, please.”

Triss frowned.  “Not much, honestly.  She’s being kept in the prisons of Brugge, that I can tell you for sure.  More than that…”  She held her hands apart, as though illustrating before her a barren space of lackingknowledge.  “She used very powerful magic in Sodden.  It weakened her, considerably.”  Her eyes took on a faraway gaze.  “It was like she made Chaos into wildfire.  Directly.”

Geralt’s heart seized.  “Magic has a price.  You’re sure she’s alive?”

The red-haired woman nodded.  “As sure as any.  My source said that Nilfgaard had a violet-eyed sorceress held captive and that she was near catatonic when brought in.”

“You trust this source?”

“I do,” Triss replied firmly.  “They couldn’t go back in after that first report to confirm, though.  Nilfgaard closed the gates to the city.  No one in or out unless on official business.”

Geralt grimaced.  “Can you portal us into the city?”

Triss shook her head.  “I’m sorry, but no.  Fringilla is there and she’d catch wind of that sort of magic in a heartbeat.  It would do more harm than good.”

“And portaling us to just outside the city?”  Jaskier asked.

“Sorry, again,” Triss said ruefully.  “I don’t know the area well enough to make a safe portal anywhere near there.”

The bard leaned back and frowned, obviously thinking.  “Do you know how long she’s been there?”

“It can’t have been very long after the battle of Sodden.”

“So, a few weeks at most…”  Jaskier bit his lip in thought.

Geralt narrowed his eyes at him.  “What are you thinking?”

“I’m thinking,” Jaskier said slowly, as if testing out his thoughts before actually saying them.  “That they probably aren’t in a hurry to get rid of the one connection they have to the White Wolf and therefore their best chance at finding Ciri.”

“And?”  Geralt wished he’d get to the point.

Jaskier scowled at him.  “So, we have time…probably.  It sounds like Yennefer used a lot of Chaos and that has consequences, usually physical.”  Something in Geralt’s chest shuddered at the thought of Yenn suffering.

Ciri gasped.  “Do you think she’s okay?”

Gently, Jaskier smiled at her.  “Yes.  Nilfgaard hasn’t made any moves since Sodden and I think it’s because they’re waiting.”

Waiting? Geralt wanted to ask, but Triss was nodding along.

“You could be right.  They haven’t made a move because the best lead they have isn’t able to, well, lead them.”

It dawned on Geralt.  “You think they’re waiting to question her.  Which suggests she’s alive, but in no fit state to answer said questions.”

Jaskier snapped his fingers.  “Exactly…Which is good and bad, I suppose.  It means she’s alive, which is great!  But what state she'll be in...“ he shrugged, hands splayed wide.

Geralt tapped his fingers impatiently against the small table he’d seated himself at.  “What do you suggest we do then?” He growled.

“I’m not sure, exactly.  It’s four days hard ride to the border, and another half day to the city itself.”  Jaskier stroked his thumb across his bottom lip.  Unconsciously, Geralt followed the motion.  “Brugge has no natural waterways.  Their sewer system is entirely man-made.  Which means small tunnels, so probably not going to be able to crawl through there.”

There was a brief pause before Geralt closed his eyes.  “We’re going to have to find a way over the walls, into the cells, and back out without being seen, aren’t we?”

Jaskier grinned at him.  “It seems so.”

“That means sneaking.”  Geralt grumbled.  “And waiting for patrols to pass.”

The bard patted his shoulder consolingly.  “I know you Wolves like to brute force your way through everything, but lucky for you Griffins are taught patience.”

“Hm.”

“I know the city well enough to get to the prison,” Jaskier offered.  “Or, no, hmm.”

Geralt eyed him.  “No?”  He said dangerously.  The other man had better not be rethinking this venture.  There were going to get Yennefer out of Nilfgaard’s hold.  If only because Ciri needed her.  And, well, he and Yenn had their differences, but he'd always considered her a friend.  She'd saved Jaskier's life, after all.  He wouldn't leave her there if he could help her.

Jaskier waved at him distractedly.  “I was just thinking, if they consider Yennefer as important as I think they do, they won’t keep her in the general prisons.”  Ah, it was that kind of rethinking.  “She’ll likely be in the dungeons of the castle itself.”  A grin began to form on the bard’s face, sharp canines glinting.  And, fuck, Geralt wasn’t sure he’d ever get used to the glimpses of danger his former bard kept showing.  It was rather…invigorating, if not also jarring.

“And that’s good?”  Geralt asked, mostly to distract himself from examining that thought any further.

“It is!  King Venzlav was a huge fan of mine!”  Geralt snorted and was immediately smacked on the arm.  “Keep your comments to yourself.  It’s good because I’ve been to that castle so often I know nearly every nook and cranny like the back of my hand.”  He held up a scarred hand and wiggled his fingers as if to demonstrate.

“That’s certainly fortuitous,” Triss interjected before Geralt could comment on why Jaskier likely had to learn the castle so well.  “But not really a plan.”

Jaskier shrugged.  “There’s too many unknowns to really make a solid one.  We don’t know for sure where Yennefer is being held, how many men are guarding the castle, patrol schedules, etc.  We can probably guess they closed the city in part because of hosting such a powerful sorceress, but that could mean anything.”  He waved a hand, emphasizing his point.  “All we really have are guesses, conjectures, and really good knowledge of the layout of the city and castle.”

“We can do some scouting once we get there,” Geralt added.  “We’ll have a better idea of what we’re up against then and plan accordingly.”

Triss looked between both witchers before settling her gaze on Ciri.  “And what are you going to do with Ciri?”

Here, Geralt had the decency to look embarrassed.  “Ah, well, Triss…if you could- I’d be grateful if you…”  He trailed off, not knowing how to ask for this favor without being condescending, or even if he was overreaching their friendship.

The sorceress looked unfazed.  “You want me to watch her, don’t you?”

Geralt gave her a small smile.  “I’d be grateful,” he repeated.

She held his gaze for a moment before sighing.  “I’ll portal us to Maribor in the morning.  Is that alright, Ciri?”

The girl nodded.  “I don’t like it- not you, Triss- leaving Geralt, but I understand.”

Jaskier clapped his hands together.  “Excellent!  On that note, I think it’s past all of our bedtimes.”

Geralt gave the bard a wry look.  “I thought you wanted to play some songs.”

“Ah, yes, well, that was before being told I have to get up early tomorrow to ride for long stretches of time for days on end and then infiltrate a castle and rescue a sorceress.”  Jaskier smiled winningly.  “Have to get my beauty sleep.”

“Hmm.”  Geralt crossed his arms over is chest.

Triss went to the bed that Jaskier wasn’t sitting beside.  “Ciri and I can share if you want to take the other bed.”

Geralt shook his head.  “Jaskier can have the bed.  I’ll meditate.”

“But-“ Jaskier started.

“Don’t argue.”  Geralt cut him off.  “You’re still relearning how to use your senses.  You need to rest properly as much as you’re able.  The ride and infiltrating the castle will be taxing.”

Jaskier crossed his arms over his chest.  “It will be taxing to you, too!”

Geralt nodded, not wanting to disagree and argue.  “But I’m not also relearning how to be a witcher.  I’ll be fine.”

They stared at one another for what felt like minutes before Jaskier sighed, and Geralt knew he had won the argument, such that it was.  The bard took off his boots and crawled onto the bed.  Triss and Ciri had settled themselves already while Geralt had been wearing him down.

As Geralt settled into a comfortable position to meditate there was chorus of goodnights and then, with a snap, he doused all the candles in the room.

Chapter Text

They set out early the next morning after a disappointing breakfast and a tearful goodbye on the princess’ part to Geralt, who remained true to his stoic self.  Though there might have been a softening around his mouth when Ciri wrapped her arms around Geralt’s waist and tried to bury her face into his shirt. 

Ciri had even hugged him tight and made Jaskier promise that he wouldn’t let Geralt do anything stupid.  Jaskier had manfully repressed the urge to tell her ‘too late’ and instead agreed he’d keep an eye on the other witcher.  Geralt’s scoff at the promise had been loud enough for him to hear, but not enough for the princess to catch.

Jaskier decided to be magnanimous and ignore that as well.  He watched as Triss escorted Ciri through the portal to Maribor then turned to Geralt.  “To Brugge?”

Geralt nodded and swung himself onto Roach’s back.

They rode through most of the morning, stopping briefly only to dig into saddlebags for a snack before continuing.  An hour or so after midday, Jaskier had to call for a break.  He wasn’t used to riding for such long periods of time, and natural witcher stamina only went so far when it hadn’t been used in so long.  In recompense for the break from riding, Geralt had him go through Wolf School forms with his steel sword.  It was becoming easier to handle the weapon; it felt more comfortable in his grip every time he picked it up.

It was well past dark before Geralt called for another stop, ostensibly so that the horses could rest, but Jaskier had a feeling it had more to do with him almost falling off his own horse twice.  He laid out his bedroll and immediately fell into an exhausted sleep.

He was awoken after what felt like only a few minutes later by Geralt gently shaking him awake to a sky lightening to pre-dawn.  The other witcher handed him a couple pieces of jerky and then, after he finished his few mouthfuls, bade him to pick up his daggers and run drills with him.  The jerky had helped wake him up, but Jaskier still felt muddled and sluggish.  He kept missing parries that he’d gotten a few days ago and it was frustrating.  He could see that Geralt was disappointed in him as well, his mouth tensed at every easy block that was ineptly done.

Once the sky had lightened to just past true dawn, they tacked their horses and rode on.  They were just under halfway to Sodden Hill as far as Jaskier could tell.  They repeated the same cycle as the day before, though this time, in Jaskier’s case, with muscles sore from all the extra physical exertion.  When they stopped next, Geralt didn’t even pretend that they were doing so for the benefit of their horses.  Jaskier was asleep almost before he hit his bedroll.

The next day started nearly the same way that the one before had, though this time Jaskier felt better rested and less like he hadn’t slept at all.  He was better at the drills, as well; his reflexes were starting to come back to him.  His body was adjusting quickly.  Almost disturbingly so, if he'd been human.

Geralt seemed pleased with his progress.  He gave a hum of approval when they finished their morning drills.  When Jaskier climbed back onto Pegasus, it was with an ease that hadn’t been there the day before.  It was late into the afternoon when he asked for a short break.  In fits and starts, his witcher stamina was returning.  He nearly sighed in relief.  Perhaps all was not lost.  It had only been about a week since the spell that had kept him human had dropped after all.

There was, however, one thing that had not changed and that was the tension between the two men.  The argument they’d had a few days ago was still on their minds, unresolved.  Jaskier was still waiting for Geralt to apologize for his words on the mountain.  Even knowing that Geralt hadn't really meant them didn't mean they didn't still hurt.  And that wasn’t even considering how Geralt had treated him all those years before the disastrous dragon hunt.

So, really, Jaskier had a lot of tangled up emotions regarding Geralt.  He’d loved the man for a long time for his strength of character and the gentleness in his soul that not even the harsh training of a witcher was able to quash, even as the witcher tried to hide it.  But rare was the time when Geralt treated Jaskier as anything more than as a mild annoyance.  He’d taken hope from the small things, though, like Geralt’s easy acquiescence to a side trip, or bodyguarding duty, or even stopping Roach and waiting for him when Jaskier had wandered off the path to investigate something that had caught his fancy.

He’d understood, to a point.  The Path was difficult and witchers were discouraged from seeking company amongst humans, no matter how much they all craved it.  The chance of the human doing something to hurt the witcher, to compromise their Path, was great.  Humans had the capacity to do a great deal of damage if one formed an attachment to them.  So, he understood Geralt holding him at arm’s length when Jaskier had been nothing more than a young bard eager to prove himself.  That didn't necessarily excuse some of the things he'd done to Jaskier.

The incident with the djinn had been what made him reconsider his place in Geralt’s life when he'd almost given up.  While it was clear it was an accident that Geralt had wished a bloody tumor into his throat, the man had pushed Roach hard to the nearest healer- and then the nearest sorceress- for help, and he had seemed relieved that Jaskier was going to be all right.  Well, and then he'd gone and fucked the sorceress in the middle of rubble of the mayor's home, but Jaskier was willing to give him a pass of temporary insanity on that one.  Especially after the wish Geralt had made to save her life had come to light.

He’d started treating Jaskier a little differently after that incident as well.  He’d been a little softer in his comments; a little more considerate of Jaskier’s supposed humanity.  There were more breaks.  He walked Roach more often.  He stopped in towns a little more than he'd been comfortable with doing before.  Jaskier had long suspected that Geralt had started doing these things out of a sense of guilt more than any real care for the bard himself.  Still, Jaskier had let himself hope that the man at least considered him a friend.

And then there was Yennefer.  While Jaskier would always be wary of the sorceress considering how their first meeting had gone- first impressions were everything- he had nothing against her personally.  Except for the way she blew into Geralt’s life like a thunderstorm and left only devastation behind.  Geralt was noticeably more irritable and non-verbal after an encounter with the violet-eyed tempest.  

Jaskier had hated every encounter with the sorceress after the first (though he had not been particularly pleased with that one either, excepting that she’d saved his life).  He had hated the sadness he could see in the man’s golden eyes every time they fought, every time she ridiculed him, and every time she left.  But it hadn’t been his place to say anything.   The one time he had tried the witcher had snarled at him; what would he know?  Jaskier changed lovers as easily as he changed doublets.  He kindly didn’t mention that Geralt and his various near-death experiences were part of the reason why Jaskier had to change clothes so often.  He didn’t bring it up again after that.  The best he could do was be there and distract the witcher from his heartache while he hid his own.

With the sorceress in the picture, no matter how tempestuous and destructive the relationship was, Jaskier knew he had no chance of Geralt returning his affections.  Hell, even before the sorceress it was unlikely that Geralt was suddenly going to develop a deep and abiding love for traveling bards.  Or, one bard, specifically.  So, he’d buried his feelings, put on the guise of a true and carefree friend, and continued to love Geralt quietly.  Or, well, maybe not so quietly.  He had written a lot of complimentary songs especially for the man, after all.  Geralt never seemed to have picked up on it, at least.

It hadn’t been a hardship, really, to be the witcher’s friend.  If Geralt had no interest in him as a lover, he’d gladly take his friendship.  It was just difficult to watch someone else have what he wanted and treat his friend like a particularly useful and amusing sideshow attraction.  Geralt deserved more than that.

It was one of the reasons he’d tried to stop them from going up the mountain once he’d discovered that Yennefer would be traveling the path as well.  He had tried, though with no real amount of force, because he didn’t want to see the storm play out again and watch Geralt suffer silently for his love of the sorceress.  As soon as he’d seen Yennefer, he’d known nothing but grief lay at the end of their trip.  And he’d been right.

In the end, it had been Geralt’s own inability to keep his head that had led to that disastrous quarrel with Yennefer.  It was the same reason he’d made that foolish request of Duny and Pavetta.  And it was what had led to his poor wording for a wish that was meant to save a life, not bind it.  It was that hurt that had made Geralt lash out at the only other person he knew cared for him and ensured that Jaskier lost any belief he'd had that Geralt cared for him.  He could use his words to surprising effect when he wanted, Jaskier had learned.  Geralt could be remarkably calm and clearheaded when facing a monster but throw in some human emotion- or lack of sleep- and the man stumbled over himself worse than a drunken sailor on land.  Whether Geralt would see, or admit to it, remained to be seen by Jaskier.

Satisfied with his conclusion that Geralt had a lot to apologize for, Jaskier nodded to himself.  It was then he realized that enough time had passed that the sky had darkened to an almost inky black.

“Um, Geralt?”  Jaskier ventured into the dark between them.  “Don’t you think we should stop for the night?”

“Hm.”  And…that wasn’t a very positive sound.  More like an acknowledgement that Jaskier had made noise, but not that he’d been speaking real words.

“Geralt?”  He tried again.

“What, Jaskier?”  A little better, but now the witcher sounded irritated.

The bard hesitated only a moment before speaking.  “I think we should stop for the night.  I know your sight is better than mine, but I can hardly see a damn thing.  It’s not safe.”

He heard Geralt let out a soft growl and then barely avoided Roach as she was pulled to a sharp stop.  “We’re not stopping,” he said when Jaskier drew up beside him.  He made to press Roach forward, but Jaskier grabbed for one of the horse’s reins, halting him.

“Wait, what?  Why aren’t we stopping?”  He tightened his grip on the leather as the other witcher continued to try to push forward.

After a moment’s struggle, Geralt threw down the reins and turned to Jaskier, wild-eyed.  “We need to keep moving!” He nearly shouted.

Jaskier struggled to remain calm.  He knew that look.  It was the same look that had preceded Geralt making stupid wishes for peace.  Dammit, he’d known the other man was stressed and not resting properly, but he hadn’t realized how bad it had gotten.  “Geralt,” he said carefully.  “It’s dark out.  I can barely see.  Which means the horses can barely see where they’re going.  We’ll risk them breaking a limb.”  Hopefully reminding the witcher that he was risking Roach’s health would make him see reason.

“Then we’ll lead them,” the man growled.

Apparently not.  “Geralt, you’re exhausted.”

“M’fine.”

“The horses are exhausted,” Jaskier continued as though the other man hadn’t spoken.  “I’m exhausted and I’ve gotten the most rest out of all of us.”

Geralt’s upper lip curled.  “Maybe if you weren’t so fucking out of shape you wouldn’t need so many gods-damned breaks and we wouldn't be so far behind.”

Jaskier struggled to remain calm, but he couldn’t deny Geralt’s accusation.  He was nowhere near what he’d been before his extended break from the Path.  He was slow and his stamina was shit.  But he was trying.  He wanted to defend himself, but there was a woman being held in a castle dungeon.  There was a woman being held in a dungeon, potentially being tortured for information, that Jaskier knows and whom Ciri needs, so he swallowed down the urge to yell back.

Likely taking his silence for meekness, Geralt continued.  “Yennefer is being held by Nilfgaard, who likely want to question her about Ciri.  We can’t afford any delays.  Yennefer is in danger, which puts Ciri in danger, and that danger grows every moment we tarry!” 

Ah, fuck it.  He’d tried.  “I know!”  He yelled back.  “You think I don’t understand what’s at stake?  You think I don’t feel ashamed that I can’t ride for days straight like I used to?  If you’re so concerned about her, then ride ahead.”  He drew himself upright, meeting gold eyes.  “You can infiltrate the fortress by yourself.  I’ll get there as fast as I can, clean up any stragglers, help cover up the escape, and delay pursuit of you and your fair sorceress.  Does that satisfy you?”

That seemed to draw Geralt up short.  “Attempting to hold off an entire fortress of soldiers by yourself would be tantamount to suicide.”

“Yes, well, we’ve already decided I’m next to useless as it is.”  Jaskier retorted bitterly.  “Perhaps I can be useful to you at least once in my miserable life.”

Geralt was silent for a moment, expression stricken.  “I’m sorry, Jaskier.”  He shook his head, as if he was coming out of some sort of fugue state.

“What?”

The other witcher continued, downcast.  “You’re not useless.  I’m just…worried.  I was being unreasonable.”

Jaskier waved him off, not wanting to hear anymore.  “Yes, yes, I know.  You’re worried about Yennefer.  You’re worried about Ciri.  I’m not going to leave just because you yelled at me, Geralt, if that’s what has got you concerned.”

“You left before.”

“That’s because there was no reason for me to stay.”  Jaskier frowned at him.  “I know this is important, Geralt.  And I know a second sword, even one as out of practice as mine, would be of help.  I won’t leave before the job is done.  Like a good witcher.”  He nudged Pegasus forward, no longer wanting to take a break.  The sooner they go this over with, the sooner he could get out of Geralt’s hair.

“That’s not-“

“Leave it, Geralt.”  He cut the other man off harshly.  He didn’t think he’d ever used that tone with Geralt before.  Likely out of surprise at the biting note to his words, the witcher stayed silent.

They rode for a little longer before Geralt called for a break, citing the excuse that Jaskier was right and the horses could use the rest.  He said nothing, just got down from his horse’s back, unsaddled him, and laid out his bedroll.  Knowing he had no chance of getting any real sleep, he attempted to meditate instead.  He fell into the rhythm of his breaths with surprising ease considering his emotional state.

He was pulled from his meditation some time later by Geralt softly calling his name.  He felt neither rested nor unrested.  Jaskier felt himself exist in some state of being between awareness of the world and being disconnected from it all.  He went through his drills with Geralt, completing them with an ease that had been missing from their practices before, though he was still a bit on the slow side.  They even had a short practice bout that Jaskier didn’t do too terribly with before they saddled their horses and continued towards Sodden Hill.

They passed through the site of the landmark battle between the North and Nilfgaard just before midday.  They were making decent time.  If they continued at the same pace, they’d make Brugge by the same time tomorrow.  Apparently pleased with their progress, Geralt called for a break.  They had another practice bout, trying to get Jaskier used to the cadence of real combat again.

And still, Jaskier had not spoken.  He could sense Geralt sending him odd looks when he thought Jaskier wouldn’t notice, but he had nothing more to say to the man.  He wasn’t sure if there even was anything to say.  Geralt had made it clear that his priority was to get to Yennefer, which was understandable considering the circumstances.  Jaskier was expendable to the furthering of that goal.  He understood that as well.  That didn’t mean it didn’t hurt a little that Geralt knew that and felt the same way.

The rest of their journey continued to pass in silence.  Jaskier remained reticent unless directly asked a question that needed an answer.  For once, Geralt spoke the most, calling for a break, or correcting a stance, or asking a question.  In fact, if Jaskier didn’t know better, he’d almost think that Geralt was trying to fill the silence by asking him questions about the city and castle.  The man had spoken more words together over the last day than Jaskier had heard from him in all the years they’d traveled together before.

That night, when Geralt called for them to stop to rest the horses, Jaskier settled down to attempt meditating again.

“You should try to get some real sleep,” Geralt rumbled.  Jaskier opened one eye to glare at him.  “There won’t be any time for it after tonight.”

“I’ll be fine, thank you,” Jaskier huffed.  He closed his eye.

“Jaskier…”

“Leave it, Geralt.”  The tone he used was much softer this time, more weary than angry.

“Please.”

And, fuck, but Jaskier wasn't sure he'd ever heard Geralt's voice take on that tone before.  Geralt sounded like he was on the verge of pleading. 

He sighed.  “Fine.”  Without opening his eyes, he flattened his bedroll out more and laid down on his back, fingers laced across his stomach.

“Thank you.”  He heard, before succumbing to his exhaustion.  For some reason, he felt like he was being thanked for more than just complying to Geralt’s demand.  Before he could think on it further, he was asleep.

*

The next morning, he woke not to Geralt calling his name, but because the light was far too bright to sleep through.  He sat up abruptly, worried that Geralt had left him in the night.  But no, there the other man sat, still in a meditative pose.  “Geralt?”

“Hm?”  The reply was immediate.

“It’s late morning.  Why didn’t you wake me?”  Jaskier stood and started collecting his effects.

Geralt opened his eyes, watching him.  “You needed the sleep.”  He seemed to hesitate a moment before admitting.  “I needed the rest as well.”

Jaskier turned to stare at the amber-eyed man.  “Oh.”  He looked down at his bedroll that he’d been packing away.  “At this point we won’t make the city until almost sundown.”

He watched as Geralt heaved himself up from the ground.  “Probably for the better.  Easier to scout the area under the cover of darkness.”

Jaskier snorted.  “For you, maybe.  Your eyesight is much better than mine.”

Geralt frowned at him.  “You can still see in the dark at least a little, surely?”

The bard shrugged.  “A bit better than a human, I suppose.  At around sixty or so paces in dim lighting I can see what's going on fairly clearly.  Beyond that…”  He shrugged again.

“Hm.  Should be good enough.”

As soon as they finished their packing and a small breakfast, they headed out.  “No sparring?”

“We should conserve our energy for when we get to the city.”

They continued on in silence.  As they rode, Jaskier noticed that they passed fewer and fewer people going the opposite way.  When they’d first started out, the road had been nearly overrun with refugees, but now it seemed only the odd traveling merchant or straggler were making their way away from the Nilfgaard invasion.  Those they passed threw them odd looks, but then quickly averted their gazes when they realized that the two men journeying towards the invading force were witchers.

Melitele, but he didn’t know if he’d be able to get used to that again.  He was a social creature at heart and having people avoid him now that he knew what it was like to have their attention and positive regard was going to be difficult.  Hopefully, some of the friends he’d made as a human would still welcome him…perhaps after they got over their surprise at his unorthodox career change.

As predicted, the walls of the city came into sight just before sunset, backdropped by the brilliant orange glow.  They came to a stop in tandem as they had what Jaskier assumed was the same thought.  ‘Oh fuck, this might be harder than they anticipated.’

Brugge was ringed in tents with banners of the Nilfgaardian sun.  Scores of men in black armor wormed their way around the tents.  There was a line of carts at the main entrance and from what Jaskier could tell, each one was being thoroughly searched before being allowed into the city, papers of some kind handed to them after approval to enter was given.  Along the walls, patrols of two moved past regularly.

Triss was right, getting into Brugge was going to be difficult.

Luckily, Jaskier had an idea.  “C’mon,” he said, steering Pegasus off the path to the city and towards its east side.  “I think I might know how we can get in.”

Behind him, Geralt silently turned Roach to follow.

Jaskier led them in a wide berth around the city, careful to keep behind the dip in the valley’s hill to stay out of sight.  Here a small forest grew nearly to the walls and, just as Jaskier had hoped, because it was such a difficult spot to get to, the wall was not as well maintained.  By the time he indicated that they should stop, night had well and truly fallen.

“So, what’s your idea then?”  Geralt questioned him, once they’d dismounted.

Jaskier grinned.  “We’re going to make use of our unique skill set, just as you suggested we should.”  When Geralt just raised an eyebrow at him, he continued.  “You noticed the patrols, right?”

The other man nodded.  “Pairs.  Spaced about fifteen minutes apart.”

“And also, conveniently, in full armor.  With helmets.”

He saw understanding bloom across the other man’s face.  “With the face plate down, no one would be able to see our features.”

“Exactly.  And, just as I’d hoped, this section of the wall is still in disrepair.”  He rubbed his hands together eagerly.  “So, all we have to do it scale the wall, timing it just as a patrol happens by, take them out quietly, don their armor, and we’re in.”

Geralt did not look entirely convinced.  “And how do we get to Yenn?”

Jaskier had thought of that as well.  “Once we’re at the point closest to the prison, one of us will feign illness.  The barracks are located near there as well.  We’ll tell one of the patrols we pass that we think one of us ate something to make us sick and ask if they can cover for a bit.”

The other man looked more hopeful, but still dubious.  “And you think this will work?”

“That’s where my time as a bard and all-around troubadour will come in handy.  I’ll be the one acting sick.  You just be your surly self.”  He grinned, knowing Geralt would be able to see him in the darkness.  “Also, guards get sick all the time from the shit they inadvisably ingest.  Besides, do you have a better idea?”

Geralt scowled.  “No.”  He admitted.

“Then, by default, I have the best plan.”  Distantly, he heard a clanking heading in their direction.  “And it seems like we have some volunteers to lend us their outfits.”  He headed for the wall, finding cracks to fit his fingers into.  “Ready?”

Geralt sighed but came up beside him.  “Let’s go.”

Chapter Text

The climb up the wall was easy enough for the two witchers.  At the top they clung to the battlements, listening closely as two armored men drew nearer.  Jaskier clutched his dagger in his left hand, waiting for them to pass by.  Geralt had already signaled that he would go first and take out the far man.  They would have to move quickly and quietly, taking out their targets almost simultaneously.  Jaskier hadn’t felt this much adrenaline rushing through him since the last time he’d accompanied Geralt on a hunt.  And by 'accompanied' he meant 'rescued'.  He was never letting Geralt live that down.

Just as the men in clanking armor passed them, Geralt sprung into action.  Jaskier followed close behind.  Near silently, the white-haired man slid his dagger into the small gap between helmet and cuirass, directly into the brain stem, killing the man instantly.  Jaskier’s target was slightly ahead of the man Geralt had just dropped so neatly.  The first had been speaking when Geralt’s dagger was plunged into his neck, and at the abrupt silence, the second man started to turn towards his companion.

Slipping slightly on some loose gravel, Jaskier raised his dagger in his left hand, keeping to the man’s blind side.  He could see the man register the scene behind him, eyes wide.  Just as the man might have opened his mouth to let out a shout, the dagger Jaskier held plunged into the side of his neck, cutting off his airway.  Arterial blood spurted from the wound as the bard withdrew his dagger, spraying onto his arm and face.

“Ugh,” he complained.  “That’s one thing I don’t miss about being a witcher.”  He wiped his hand on the armor.  "Splash zones."  For a moment, they stood together, silently watching the men bleed out.  A thought occurred to him.  “Do you think anyone else will notice the blood?”

“Their armor’s black.”  Geralt knelt and started stripping his target, quickly and efficiently.  “And it’s dark.  The rest should blend into the shadows of the stonework.”

Jaskier moved to do the same to his own mark.  “Fair point,” he conceded.  They made quick work of the complicated pieces, both familiar with how the buckles worked.  In a matter of several minutes they were each wearing a Nilfgaardian set of armor and were hoisting the bodies of their victims over the side of the battlements.  They finished not a moment too soon as Jaskier could hear the faint clanking coming in their direction again.  “Well, onward and upward.  Though, not so much up as down.” 

He and Geralt fell into step with each other, heading in the same direction the men had been going before they’d been interrupted.  Their walk was fairly uneventful.  They passed the next patrol with Jaskier leaning heavily on Geralt, feigning illness.  After letting the patrol they passed know where they’d be going- with surprising ease and sympathy from the other soldiers- they made their way towards the barracks. 

Out of sight of the patrol, Jaskier straightened from using Geralt as his crutch, pulling away from the other man’s grip.  Pausing to take stock of their surroundings, he turned left before the barracks to a small side door.  “This should lead us to the dungeons,” he said, pushing the door open slowly.  There was no one on the other side.

Quickly, they slipped inside the door and then paused to listen.  Jaskier could hear a distant clink and the murmur of voices, three or four at most.  Glancing at Geralt, he held up his fingers indicating the number of guards he could hear, and the other witcher nodded to confirm.  Silently, they slipped down the corridor to a set of stairs Jaskier remembered from the last time he’d been there.

The voices got louder, and Jaskier was able to confirm his initial guess of four guards.  It seemed Nilfgaard always liked their guards to be in pairs.  Not a bad idea, Jaskier thought.  Always having someone to watch your back was practical, especially in a foreign land.  He glanced over at his own partner-in-crime and tilted his head towards the door the voices were coming from.  Unfortunately, they were going to have to go through them.  Fortunately, if they were very quick, none would escape, and they’d be at the holding cells for important prisoners of state.  The fact that it was currently guarded was a good sign for it being occupied.

Jaskier drew both his dagger and the purloined sword, indicating to Geralt that he should be the one to cast Aard while he’d run in and to the right once through the door.  He watched as Geralt squared himself with the door hand out before catching his eyes.  He nodded and posted himself to the side, ready to spring into action.

It happened quickly.  Geralt cast the Sign and, almost before the forceful push was finished, Jaskier was through the doorway.  Inside sat three guards around a table, with the fourth standing at another side table pouring himself a drink.  Clearly, they had not been expecting any sort of trouble.  A mistake.

Jaskier dispatched of the first guard seated to his right with the dagger firmly embedded in his neck.  He didn’t even need to look to know the man was dead before he slumped in on himself.  Taking advantage of the surprise making the standing guard fumble at his belt for his sword, Jaskier swung his own steel blade around in a back hand that took off the man’s arm at the elbow.  He screamed.

Distantly, he was aware of Geralt entering the room and dispatching of his own enemies.  These men were not as heavily armored as the ones on the wall, probably because by the time trouble would have made it past said wall, they would have had time to get the rest of their gear on.  Another stroke of luck for them.  It made it easier to find soft spots to stab.  He pulled his backhanded swing back from the arc it had gone in to swipe straight across the guard’s throat cutting off the scream.  There was a gurgle of blood as the man fell and then it was silent.  The whole affair had taken less than thirty seconds.

It made him ill.

Pushing down his queasiness, he turned to see Geralt already searching the bodies for keys, having taken his helmet off to see better.  There was a small hum when he found them on the second man.  Jaskier gestured for him to take the lead through the door.  If Yennefer was here it would probably be best if she saw Geralt first.  Didn’t want to make the sorceress think she was going insane.  Well, more insane than she already had been, Jaskier mused to himself.

In the end, it was rather easy to find her.  She was in the second cell on the right-the first looked to have a broken door- and the only prisoner in those dungeons.  He stayed several paces behind the bigger man as he unlocked the door.

“No.” He heard a feminine voice murmur, raspy and cracked.  “I won’t.  I can’t.

He watched as Geralt knelt next to the thin form wrapped in black, covered in dirt and straw.  He listened as Geralt quietly shushed the figure, murmuring softly to the woman.  And, as the woman was gently propped into a sitting position, he smelled it.  Lilac and gooseberries, barely there but distinct.  Yennefer.

“Geralt?  What?”  She raised a hand to her head, rubbing thin fingers across her brow and smearing dirt across it in the process.  Around her wrists were dimeritium shackles.  Unfortunate, but not unexpected.  Jaskier backed out of the room and into the one they had come through, intent on searching for a second set of keys.  None of the ones on Geralt’s were for the shackles as far as he could tell.

“We’re here to get you out.”  He heard the rustle of fabric and the scrape of boots on stone as if someone was helping another stand.  “Can you walk?”

“I think so.” A wobbling step, another scrape and rustle.  “Though perhaps not unassisted.”

“Lean on me.”  Geralt’s voice was soft and rumbling.  Jaskier’s heart ached a little to hear it.  It was a tone that had never been directed at him, not matter how guilty Geralt had felt after Jaskier had been hurt and he had felt at fault for it.  Not even after the djinn had Geralt used such a voice with him.

He listened closely to the stumbling footsteps led by steadier ones as he searched the other bodies in the room for another set of keys.  He found them on the third one, letting out a small “aha” as he bounced up and turned toward the doorway just as the other two stepped through.  Geralt’s arm was wrapped about Yennefer’s shoulders, holding her upright.

They really did make a rather stunning tableau together, Jaskier thought.  One pale and fierce, the other dark and passionate, their coloring nearly exact opposites and enriched because of it.  They balanced each other out; they belonged together.  There was no room for a Witcher-cum-bard there.

“Geralt, did you know your bard followed you into a well-guarded Nilfgaardian fortress?”  Yennefer seemed rather nonplussed at seeing him.  “That seems a bit ridiculous, even for you,” she added.

“Excuse you, I planned this excursion!”  Jaskier huffed, only partially feigning his outrage.

Yennefer lifted an eyebrow at him.  Jaskier crossed his arms and lifted one back, the keys dangling in his hand.  Which reminded him.  “Here,” he held out the keys.  “Hopefully one of these is to those shackles.”

The sorceress held out her hands but made no move to take the keys.  Getting the hint, Jaskier selected one at random and tried slotting it into the keyhole on the shackles.  Luck was with them, it turned easily, unclasping a thin wrist.  He made quick work of the second and tossed them aside.  Yennefer rubbed at her freed wrists, smiling grimly.  “That’s better, though unfortunately, it’s going to be a while before I’m powerful enough to do anything useful.  What was the plan to get out?”

At this, Geralt looked at Jaskier.  They hadn’t discussed a plan to get out.  That didn’t mean Jaskier didn’t have one.  Gracefully, he leaned down and swooped up an abandoned helmet.  “Good thing there’s already a precedent for a sick guard being escorted around by his comrade.”  He waved the helmet at them.

He saw Geralt’s eyes widen.  “Jaskier,” he murmured.  “You planned this,” he added, watching as Jaskier stripped out of the armor he’d been wearing.

“I know I give off the appearance of being airheaded, but really, Geralt, one would think you’d have learned by now.  Excuse me, my lady,” he said before ripping off Yennefer’s skirts, leaving her in her trewes and hose.  He started buckling the armor pieces onto Yennefer careful of her wounds.  “Sorry for the added weight, but I think you’ll find it preferable to being recognized on the way out.”

“And exactly how are you planning on getting me out of here” the sorceress drawled.

Jaskier grinned at her, inadvertently flashing sharp canines.  He heard her gasp.  “Geralt is going to take you to a healer.  A local one.  The North is home to various plants that cannot be found further south.  You ate something you thought you recognized.  Now, you’re not so sure.” 

He finished with the last gauntlet then picked up the helmet again, rolling it between his hands.  “You’re going out to look for a local healer in hopes of them recognizing the plant you ate and having a cure.”  He looked up at them, though he kept his gaze focused on Yennefer.  “Once you’re out, get to where we left the horses and ride for Maribor.  Simple, no?”

“And what about you?”  Surprisingly, Geralt sounded concerned.

“I am going to lead the Nilfgaardians on a bit of a merry chase around the grounds, hopefully keeping them from noticing that their dear prisoner has escaped.”  He smiled and shoved the helmet over Geralt’s head before the other man could growl at him.  Quickly, he picked up the second helmet as well and handed it to the sorceress before hurrying from the room, sheathed sword in hand.  “Give me five minutes to get a head start then move out,” he called.  Behind him, he could hear Geralt growl.

“He’s not just a bard, is he?”  He heard the sorceress ask, voice faint but amused all the same.

He didn’t linger to hear Geralt’s answer.

*

In the end, it was actually rather simple to annoy the Nilfgaardian patrols just enough to be distracted, but not enough to seriously try and kill him.  His knowledge of the grounds came as a great help as he hid in dark corners and threw rocks at black-helmeted heads, then ran away to another corner to do it again.  It got significantly more serious, however, when they eventually got frustrated enough after several hours of this to call for a formal search of the grounds.

Eventually, he was able to make his way to the same piece of wall he and Geralt had used as their entrance.  Instead of climbing down, he flung himself at the nearest tree branch, grasping desperately before finding his footing.  He made his way through the treetops, the sound of the search going on behind him for some time before he felt far away enough to clamber down to firm ground again.

By the time he had found the road, it was nearly dawn.  And now he had to consider what to do.  While he had given Yennefer and Geralt a good head start, they wouldn’t have been moving very fast.  And it was only a matter of time before the Nilfgaardians realized they’d lost their prized prisoner, if they hadn’t already.

The best thing to do, he decided, was to keep being a distraction.  Luckily, he was excellent at it, having had years of practice as a bard.  Briefly, he considered not meeting up with them in Maribor, but quickly discarded the idea.  While Geralt and he still had their issues, the other man also had his lute, his horse and his swords.  He was going to need those back.  Sooner rather than later. 

Decision made, he turned down the road, back towards Brugge.  There was a small town nearby; it would make a good place to start a false trail.  He’d need a lute.  Perhaps he’d see about purchasing a horse as well.

It was early afternoon by the time he reached the town.  It was close enough to the capitol city to have a decent sized community and bustling market.  Unfortunately, Jaskier had no money.  Only the clothes on his back, his daggers, and the sword he’d stolen from the Nilfgaard fortress. 

Hmm, well, that might fetch a decent price.

He made his way to the smithy, following the sounds of metal striking upon metal.  While the owner might not be the type to deal in weapons, he would likely be able to point Jaskier in the right direction.  The blacksmith was, indeed, also the town militia’s armorer and was very interested in Jaskier’s sword.  And how he’d gotten it.

Devising a story about being set upon whilst on the road, managing to get away but not before all his worldly possessions had been stolen, and then finding this beauty next to an unfortunately dead soldier, the man seemed sympathetic.  He bought the sword, giving Jaskier a few hundred crowns for it, and said something about putting a new handle on it to hide the Nilfgaardian make.  Pleased, Jaskier inquired if anyone nearby made musical instruments and was directed to a shop several rows down.

At the shop, he picked out a lute of only fair quality, not wanting to spend money when he already had a far superior instrument and more purchases in mind.  After, he wandered the market a bit until he found an old farmer trying to sell his old cart horse.  He inquired to the man if the horse had been saddle-trained and asked to check when the man said that the horse had been, though was rarely ridden.

The old man pulled out a rather worn saddle and bridle, handing it over to Jaskier.  “’Fraid I’m not as spry as I once was.  You’ll have to put it on yourself.”

Nodding, Jaskier went about tacking the horse.  She seemed to take to it well enough, and while she seemed uneasy about having someone on her back, she didn’t throw him.  Plus, she was a beautiful chestnut color with a small white mark on her forehead and a white forelock.  Really, Jaskier couldn’t have asked for better.

His purse was considerably lighter by the time dusk came to claim the sky, but he thought he had just enough to stable his horse and spend a night at the inn.  Especially if the inn keep was willing to let him play for his supper.  He straightened his clothing, drawing the neck of his tunic up as high and tight as he could.  There wasn’t much to be done about the scar over his eye, but hopefully it gave him more of a rakish look than a ruffian one.

He entered the inn and made straight for the bar.  After ordering an ale and supper, he inquired about the possibility of playing for part of the night.  The innkeeper looked him over.  “Don’t look like much,” he said, taking in the rather drab clothing and sub-par lute.

“Ah, yes, well- I had some trouble on the road.”  He gave the same story that he had used with the blacksmith.  The man seemed to buy it.  He gave Jaskier permission to play and keep any coin he might make.  If there was enough business, he’d discount a room as well.

“Then I’d better play well,” he smiled impishly, keeping his mouth closed around his teeth.

He set himself up a little off-center of the room at an empty table and tuned his new lute.  Like he had discovered at the shop, it wasn’t terrible, but it really couldn’t compare to the one Filavandrel had gifted him all those years ago.

Once he felt ready, he began with something light and silly, trying to gauge the mood of the crowd.  It was always best to start on a positive note in new places, though current events made things like love and battle seem rather trite now.  The crowd seemed pleased enough, so he continued in the same vein until he got his first request for something a little different.

For a moment he thought, then strummed his lute.

I’ve been waiting for you to get your mind right
Pour yourself into my skin until I can’t see
I’ve been waiting for you to get your mind right
Woah, woah, woah
.”

The melody was faintly haunting.  It was a bit of an experimental song Jaskier had written a few years ago and only performed a few times, but it seemed to fit what the person had requested of him.

You’ve been running from yourself for a while
Waiting for the whole thing to catch fire.

You think that if you burn down you’ll be fine
And maybe I’d forget all the times you lied
.”

He’d written it in a moment of weakness, missing Geralt and their friendship fiercely.  He’d been filled with regret as well, for the things he hadn’t said to the other man- things he’d likely never get to say, considering how upset Geralt seemed to be with him.  He'd also been filled with rage at how unfairly he'd been treated by the other man.  All he had done was love Geralt and try to be there for him?  Why couldn't Geralt love him back?

I’m sick of awaiting your vacancy
I hope that you choke on your vacant teeth
No space in your broken veins left for me
I know that you’re empty, I know that you’re empty.

It seemed particularly fitting again after the last week and half he’d had.  Finding Cirilla and Geralt, getting dragged back into travelling together with the other Witcher, and now saving Yennefer.  And through it all, after all he’d done to help, he knew Geralt would never look at him the way he’d looked at the sorceress in the cells below Brugge.

Even knowing that, he couldn’t help but love Geralt.  He’d probably always love the man, at least a little.  At his core, Geralt was kind.  He had trouble showing it, but Jaskier knew it was there.  He saw it every time the witcher got involved when he shouldn't trying to protect those weaker than himself.  He wondered if it would have been easier if he didn’t.

You don’t even look the same with your brand new eyes
And you drained the light out of yourself and now you can’t see
Well, I’ve been waiting for you to get your mind right
Woah, woah, woah

He strummed the last notes to the song and realized there was a wetness on his cheeks.  The inn was silent.  Worried he had upset his audience, he looked up, and saw there was nary a dry eye in the place.  From somewhere in the crowd, a clap started.  It was quickly taken up by others and coin was tossed to him.  Dazedly, it occurred to him that he’d never had one of his songs bring an entire crowd to its emotional knees like that before.

And then, in the very back, he saw him.  White hair, golden eyes, two swords.  Geralt.

Quickly, he gathered his coin, announcing the end of his performance to the satisfying grumbles of protest that he should play some more.  He carried his belongings through the crowd, heart thudding hard in his chest.  He wasn’t ready to face Geralt after that song.  And, oh gods, what if Geralt had heard him?  Would he know it was about him?

It was hard to judge the other man’s expression.  It wasn’t neutral or passive; there was something there.  Something that looked a bit like the heartbreak Jaskier had teasingly said he could smell on the man all those years ago.  He pushed his panic down, though.  He had bigger concerns at the moment.  First among them, “what are you doing here?”  He hissed as he got close.  “You’re too close to the city.”

At once, Geralt’s expression became shuttered.  “So are you,” he said petulantly.

Jaskier frowned at him.  “Yes, but I wasn’t escorting an injured sorceress.”  He led the way back out the door and towards the stable where he’d left his new horse.  “Where is she?”

“Safe, for the moment.”  Geralt followed him closely.  “I came to find you.  Followed your scent from the forest to here.”

“You just left her by herself?!”  Jaskier whirled on him, incredulous.  He might not like the sorceress at the best of times, but even he wouldn’t leave a wounded woman by herself.

Geralt shrugged.  “She insisted.  Said she’d be fine.  There isn’t much to be done about her injuries until we meet up with Triss.”

“Hm, well, thank you, but there was no need.”  He opened the stall with his chestnut mare.  “As you can see, I’m fine.  I was planning on meeting up with you closer to Maribor.”

There was a pause, so minute that Jaskier might not have noticed it if he hadn’t known Geralt better.  “Were you?”

Jaskier turned to look at him.  “Of course,” he said, all false brightness.  “Why would you think otherwise?”

The other man gestured towards the horse.  “You seemed to have already acquired a new horse.”

The bard looked to the horse then back to Geralt.  “Oh.  Oh!  No!  This is a decoy horse.”

Geralt arched an eyebrow at him.  “Looks real enough to me.”

“I meant for Nilfgaard, you arse,” Jaskier said, slapping him on the arm.

Geralt sighed, and for a moment, everything felt like it had before the mountain.  The banter, the casual touch, it was like they had gone back in time.  It made Jaskier ache.  “I was going to lead them in the opposite direction for a while.”

“And you were going to come back?” 

“Yes, I was going to meet back up with you.”  He grinned.  “You have my lute, after all.”

“Right.”  Geralt uncrossed his arms and something like defeat crossed his face.  “Your lute.”

Jaskier turned from where he’d been petting the mare and feeding her bits of apple.  “It’s one of my most prized possessions.”  He gave the horse one last pat before stepping out of the stall.

“I know.”

There was something in Geralt’s voice that Jaskier almost wanted to call fond, but he thought better of it.  “So, want to let me in on your plan?  What were you going to do once you found me?”  He led the way out of the stable and back to the inn.

Geralt shrugged.  “Bring you back with me to where Yenn and I are holed up for the night and then continue on.”

“Mm, no, I don’t think so.”  He pushed the door open and stepped inside.  As soon as the patrons saw him there was a rousing cheer before they went back to their food and drink.  “I like my plan better.”

There was a snort from behind him.  “Of course you do.”  He made his way back to the innkeeper.  “We’ve done nothing but follow your plans, Jaskier.”

“And it’s worked out very well for us, hasn’t it?”  He signaled for the man’s attention.  “A room, please.”

“Aye, you bloody well earned it with that last song,” the innkeeper complimented him.  “Five crowns.  Will your, er, friend be staying as well?”  He eyed Geralt suspiciously.

“No,” Jaskier answered quickly.  “We’re just going to be doing some catching up and then he needs to be on his way.  Contract a little ways down the road,” he added, waving vaguely.

He handed over the money easily enough- he had almost a full purse again- and accepted a key and directions to his room.  Geralt followed him, keeping silent until the door was shut behind them.

“I don’t like the idea of splitting up again.”

Jaskier set his lute down before turning to look at Geralt.  “I can appreciate why you might not like it, but I think it’s necessary.”

“How so?”

He stared at the man for a moment, wondering how he had fallen in love with someone so dense.  And then stayed in love with them.  Fuck.  “They’ll know someone helped her escape” he replied instead.  “And who do you think the most likely suspect would be?”

Understanding dawned on Geralt’s face before he grimaced.  “Me.”

“Exactly.  We-I need to lead them off in another direction.”  He huffed, crossing his arms over his own chest, mirroring Geralt.  “I guess it’s a good thing you found me after all.  It’ll lend credence to us meeting here and you being in the area.  Now, which way are you heading out of town tonight?”

“East.  Why?”

Jaskier sat down on the head and proceeded to pull off his boots.  “To help fool your pursuers, silly.  I’ll head that way in the morning as well, then veer south for a while.  I assume you’ll be heading north after retrieving Yennefer from wherever you stowed her away?”

“Hm.”  A beat.  “I still don’t like the idea of splitting up again.”

Something about the tone of Geralt’s voice made Jaskier stop what he was doing and look at the man, gold eyes catching speckled blue.  “I know.  But this isn’t about what you want.  It’s about keeping Ciri and anyone that could be used to get to her safe.”

Geralt’s gaze narrowed.  “You should include yourself in that as well.”

“I do.”  He looked down at his lap, tangling his fingers together.  “I’m well aware that if they capture me, and I break, I’ll be leading them right to her last known location and possibly to where you plan to hole up.”

“That isn’t-“

“So, you’d best make all haste for Maribor while I lead Nilfgaard by their noses.”  He smiled at Geralt, aware that the expression likely didn’t reach his eyes.  “I’ll catch up.  I know you won’t believe me, what with how I am now, but I was one of the best trackers Griffin School ever produced.”  His smile became a little more genuine, and self-deprecating, as he added, “as well as the best at disguising myself when I don’t want to be found.”

Geralt held his gaze for a moment before looking away, grumbling “you almost sound like a damn Cat or Viper.”

Jaskier laughed.  It was a sad thing.  “Coën always said I was in the wrong School.”  Silence reigned in the room for a moment.

“Alright,” Geralt said, nodding.  “We’ll split up here.  For now.  We’ll meet in Vespaden.”

“In northern Kaedwen?”

“Hm.  It will give you time to lose any pursuit while leading them the wrong way.”

Jaskier shrugged.  “Sounds fair.”

“Good.”  The white-haired man straightened from where he’d been leaning against the door.  He turned toward the door but paused just before opening it.  “And Jaskier?”  He looked over his shoulder at the bard.

“Yeah?”

“When we get to Kaer Morhen, we’ll have a talk.  A proper one.”

Jaskier tried to contain his disbelief at Geralt’s words.  “Alright.”  He had been fully planning on meeting up with them, retrieving his horse and lute, and disappearing into the world again.  Well, not like Geralt needed to know that.

The other man frowned at him, like he could hear Jaskier’s thoughts, but didn’t push.  Instead, he gave the bard one last nod before opening the door and stepping out of Jaskier’s room and back to his sorceress.

Chapter Text

Jaskier ran into a patrol three days later.  He was just south of Kernow when they caught up to him.  He was leading his mare along, giving her a break from his weight, when an arrow whistled through the air and landed slightly ahead of him at his feet.  He wasn’t surprised, but he had to keep up the appearance of ‘harmless bard’ so he gasped dramatically and looked around wildly.

There were six of them.  Jaskier almost laughed.  Six men for a witcher?  They must really have underestimated Geralt.  The first man that approached him died quickly.  The second and third weren’t far behind. 

The fourth man managed to parry one of Jaskier’s daggers and score a hit along his forearm.  Instead of backing away, as the man had clearly expected, Jaskier dove forward, driving his other dagger into the gap in the armor behind his knee.  Quickly, he had to duck out of the way of another soldier’s sword as it swept towards his unprotected back, leaving the dagger stuck in the man he’d stabbed with it.

He dodged a few more swipes before he was able to pirouette around the soldier and drive his remaining dagger into the back of his head.

And then there was one.  Well, there were two, but the man with a dagger to his knee wasn’t going to be walking anytime soon.

The sixth man had obviously learned from his comrades that the bard they had run down was not what he appeared to be.  He approached cautiously sending out testing thrusts and swipes, trying to draw Jaskier in.  This worked against him in two ways.

The first was that while Jaskier was not wearing armor, the Nilfgaardian soldier was, which made him heavy and cumbersome.  Jaskier had the better range of movement.  And the second, following on the first, was that Jaskier wasn’t human.  Where a normal human would have slowly started lagging from constant dodging, Jaskier was barely out of breath.  The soldier, on the other hand, was swinging around a large sword while carrying almost his entire weight again in armor.

Unfortunately for that man, he realized this too late.  It was just the barest little dip, but Jaskier saw it when the point of the man’s sword dropped.  He moved in swiftly, stabbing up under the soldier’s sword arm into the pit, making the sword drop from a suddenly useless hand.  He quickly retracted the dagger and finished him off with a slash across the throat.

Only one soldier was left alive.  Slowly, Jaskier made his way over to the hobbled man and crouched in front of him.  “You’re no human,” the man sneered, accent thick.  “What are you?”

Jaskier smiled at him.  “I am but a humble bard.”  He stabbed the man through his eye, driving the dagger all the way into his brain, killing him instantly.  He retrieved the dagger that had been stuck in the man’s leg and stood.

He was practically drenched in blood.  “Ugh, need to find some water.”  In the distance, he thought he could hear a stream.  He gathered up his mare and continued in the direction they’d been going.  The sound of the stream got louder as they walked.  Soon enough, he was standing in the shallow water, stripped to his smallclothes, and sluicing water all over himself.  He tried to wash his clothes of the blood, but without a proper detergent all he could really do was rinse out the worst of it.

He was halfway through washing when he started shaking.  His hands trembled and no matter how much he told them to, they would not stop.  He’d killed again, his thoughts kept circling.  He’d killed six men like it was nothing.  No wonder humans called them monsters.  It didn't matter that they would have killed him.  Or that they would have hurt Geralt, or Yennefer, or Ciri if they had found one of them instead.

His legs felt too weak to hold him upright longer and he collapsed onto his knees in the shallow stream, cold water pooling almost up to his waist.  He clutched his shirt in his hands and trembled some more.

Eventually, the shaking stopped.  Shock, he was dimly aware, was the name for it.  He hadn’t felt anything like it in a long time.  For a witcher, it was shameful to lose control of one’s body and mind like that.  But there was no one around to see him, no one to see his weakness, so what did it matter?  He had a job to do, though; a child to keep safe.  He couldn’t let something like some spilled blood keep him from doing what he needed to do.

By the time he was done at the stream, the sun was heading towards late afternoon.  He gathered up his mare again and led her away.  He needed to put some more distance between himself and the bloodbath he had left along the road.  At least he was able to get some nice swords out of it.  And some crowns.

Two weeks later, he was heading north again, near Spalla in Lyria.  He’d followed the Yaruga east for a time, stopping at nearly every town along the way to announce his presence as the witcher’s bard.  He’d run into four more groups of Nilfgaardian soldiers, each as unsuspecting as the last that the bard was the true threat when cornered.

It seemed he’d been playing his part as harmless bard taking care of the witcher’s horse, while said witcher waved his sword at things, rather well in the past.  He was getting better at avoiding getting blood all over himself.  He was disturbed to find himself pleased with this.

One of the reasons he had wanted to stop being a witcher was because he hadn’t really enjoyed killing things.  Monsters that killed people were, of course, one thing.  But having to kill humans to protect his own life, just to have the story twisted into another tale of how witchers were beasts was another.  He rubbed at the twisted scar on his neck.

It had been over a week since the last group of Nilfgaardian soldiers had tried to overtake him.  Spalla was as good a place as any to start heading north again, he figured.  There was a fat lot of nothing along the border of Rivia and Lyria, and even a little bit into Aedirn before any major town was to be found again.  And, considering he was now pretty firmly in Northern territory, it was unlikely Nilfgaard would be able to send any patrols after him.

Unlikely, but still possible, Jaskier knew.

Plus, it was starting to get cold again.  If he didn’t hurry, he was going to lose his chance of getting his horse and his supplies before winter set in.  So, north he would go.  If he traveled fast enough, he should be able to reach Vespaden in just under two weeks.  Unless they portaled there, Jaskier should only be a few days behind Geralt and company, assuming they were travelling slower than the witcher normally would in deference to Ciri and Yennefer.

Decision made, Jaskier turned in for the night.  He’d enjoy one last night indoors, on a real bed, before he had to rough it for the next two weeks.

*

He reached Vespaden just after noon on the twelfth day.  If everything had gone according to plan, Geralt and his companions should already be in the town.  He headed to the tiny inn near the center of the village, nearly sighing in relief when he got to the stables and saw a familiar blood bay mare and his own white gelding.

He stabled his newer chestnut horse before going to greet Roach and Pegasus.  “Hello, lovelies.  I’ve missed you,” he said softly.  After he gave them some treats, as well as one last one to the mare that had carried him so far and so well from Brugge, he went into the inn.

It seemed, here, the inn also served as the local tavern.  As it was late afternoon, it wasn’t particularly full.  The three people seated around a table in a corner were somewhat conspicuous because of it.

“Julian!”  Ciri saw him first.

The two adults at the table turned to look at him as well.  Yennefer gave him a tired wave.  Geralt nodded to him as he got closer.  Ciri ran around the table, throwing her arms around his waist.  “I’m so glad to see you!”

He smiled down at her.  “And I, you, little cub.”

“Come sit.”  She dragged him back to her side of the table, forcing him to sit down before plopping herself next to him.  “How was the journey?”

Jaskier looked at her, amused.  “It was fine.  A little trouble, but nothing I couldn’t take care of.”  He saw Geralt tense at the admittance.

“Patrols?”

The bard nodded and shrugged.  “Seems my ruse worked very well.  Never suspected anything until I pulled out my daggers.”

“You do give off a rather harmless air,” Yennefer drawled.  “These are new,” she reached out towards his face.

He grabbed her hand before she could make contact and gave her his biggest grin, showing off his sharp canines.  “I feel like they give me a rather rakish countenance.”  He let go of her wrist and waved a hand at his face.  “And they’re not new, actually.”

Yennefer narrowed her eyes at him.  “You’re a witcher.”  He nodded.  “You’ll have to tell me the story, sometime.”  He felt her gaze move from the scar over his eye to the one on his neck.  He clenched his hand into a fist below the table to curb the urge to rub his fingers over it.

“Not much to tell, really.”  He unclenched his hand.  “Same story as just about any other child given to a witcher School for training.”

She frowned at him but seemed to realize she wasn’t getting a better answer than that.  “Very well.”  She turned to Geralt.  “You’ve been rather quiet since your bard returned.”

“Is there something you want me to say?”  The white-haired witcher looked at the sorceress.  “He did as he said he would.  And tomorrow we can start up the trail for Kaer Morhen.”

For a moment, Jaskier debated saying something about not joining them but, looking at Ciri’s excited face, he thought it would be better to not.  She seemed so happy to see him again and he didn’t want to ruin that.  He’d tell Geralt tomorrow.

“So, uh, any chance of a bite to eat?  I rode Myrtle pretty hard to get here as quickly as possible.”

*

It was decided that they would head up the trail early the next morning.  The others had already been in the town for two days and had bought what supplies they’d need.  They’d only been waiting for Jaskier.  It made the bard feel a little guilty that they’d wasted time waiting for someone that wasn’t making the journey with them.

He still hadn’t told them.  He just couldn’t seem to make himself do it.  Jaskier knew it probably wouldn't go over well to say something when they were all ready to head out, but he couldn’t bear to taint the last few moments he got to spend with the princess and Geralt with melancholy over his imminent departure from their group.

Geralt.  There was another problem in and of himself.  The man kept looking at him.  Whenever he thought Jaskier wouldn’t notice, he stared at the bard.  Every time Jaskier turned to look at the witcher, Geralt would turn his gaze away, but Jaskier knew he’d been staring.

He knew, Jaskier was certain.  The other man knew Jaskier did not plan to join them on the journey to Kaer Morhen and was just waiting for the bard to say it.  Why he didn't confront Jaskier over it, the bard couldn't say.

By the time they turned in for the night, Jaskier was nervous and wracked with guilt, even if he knew it was for the best.  Luckily, there was only one room with two beds and Geralt seemed disinclined to start a conversation with Yennefer and Ciri in the room.  They piled into the room, Yennefer and Ciri sharing one bed, and he and Geralt arguing over the other.

“You take the bed,” Geralt said.

“I’m not taking the bed, Geralt.”  Jaskier repeated for the second time, tiredly.

Geralt glared at him.  “I’ve slept in a bed for the past two nights-“

“Which is why it’s your bed!”

The witcher frowned harder at him before continuing.  “And you look like shit.  You need some decent sleep before taking the trail.  Take the damn bed.”  With that, he unceremoniously pulled out his bedroll and set it on the floor before dropping himself onto it.

Well, I guess that’s one way to win an argument, Jaskier thought to himself, amused.  Carefully, he sat upon the edge of the bed closest to the door.  Feeling eyes on him, he looked up to see Geralt still glaring at him.  Holding his hands up in a gesture of surrender he pulled off his boots and swung his legs onto the bed.

There was a moment of silence.

“Are we all settled in now boys,” came Yennefer’s acerbic voice from the other bed.  “I’d like to sleep some time tonight.”

Jaskier couldn’t help the grin the crawled over his face.  “Yes, Mother.”

“Ugh!”  She lifted a hand and waved it casually, speaking a soft word in Elder.  The candles flickered out.  “Goodnight.”

A chorus of ‘goodnights’ came from the other occupants of the room and then all was silent except for steady breathing.  Jaskier focused on the sounds and found himself dozing off.

Maybe Geralt was right; I could use some sleep before going back on the Path in the morning.  He was fast asleep moments later.

*

Jaskier decided he’d escort them to the actual trail head into the mountains before making his goodbyes.  There were several reasons for this, he told himself, but mostly it was because he was a coward and didn’t know how to leave without disappointing Ciri.  The excuse he would give for leaving, however, was that someone needed to keep an eye on Nilfgaard’s movements and who better than a witcher?

He rode Pegasus, Myrtle having been gifted over to Yennefer and Ciri to use, along with a good deal of the supplies that had been purchased to take to the keep.  The old cart horse was used to carrying heavier loads and plodded along easily, despite her age.

The town was just out of sight when Jaskier felt a prickling at the edge of his senses and pulled Pegasus to halt.  He looked out of the corner of his eye to Geralt, who was tilting his head to the side, like he could just catch a sound that wasn’t quite right in an otherwise peaceful forest.

Slowly, Jaskier raised his hand towards the swords on his back, not quite sure yet if he’d need the silver or the steel.  That was when he heard the whistling of a fast-moving object coming toward him and grabbed his steel sword, barely clearing the sheathe in time to redirect the crossbow bolt that had been aimed at his head.  Bad move, aiming for such a small target, but lucky for him that he hadn’t needed to move his sword far.

Almost as soon as the bolt hit the ground, men emerged from the trees.  There had to be over a dozen of them, all armed to the teeth.

“Fuck,” he muttered before swiftly dismounting his horse.  He drew one of his steel daggers as well, twirling it into a comfortable forward grip.  He had a feeling he would be needing it.  He heard another set of feet hit the ground behind him.

One of the men stepped forward.  “Leave us the girl and the witcher and we’ll let you go,” he directed his statement towards Jaskier.

Jaskier stretched his mouth into a feral grin.  “I’m afraid you’ll have to specify which witcher.”  He made sure his sharp canines were on display.

The man did a double take at Jaskier’s statement but recovered well.  “We only want the girl and the Wolf.  You and the woman can go.”

“Sorry,” he said, raising his sword up, perpendicular to just below his eyes.  He slowly circled his foot behind him, presenting a smaller target to the group of men.  “I’m afraid I can’t do that.”

“Don’t have much of a choice.”  He motioned the men forward.

Jaskier started forward as well.  “Geralt!  Get them out of here!”

“Jaskier,” he heard the witcher growl.

The bard risked a glance over his shoulder.  “Your job is to protect your Child Surprise.”  He said fiercely.  “Go.  I’ll be fine.”  He faced front again.  Another bolt whistled forward, but not aimed at him this time.  It went towards the white-haired witcher, who parried it easily.

“I won’t leave you behind again.”

The first man to reach the bard was slightly ahead of the rest of the group.  Jaskier was quick to dodge around the man’s wild swing.  He pirouetted, bringing his sword up and around before slashing down through the man’s neck, beheading him cleanly.  Quickly, he turned and cast Axii with his dagger hand on Myrtle urging her to run down the road, still carrying Yennefer and Ciri, towards the trail.

“Jaskier!  What the hell are you doing?!”

He had a moment to see Geralt’s eyes widen in surprise and anger before he turned to face the next man.  “Go!  You need to lead them.”  The second man met the same fate as the first, though via dagger to the heart.

“Fuck!”  He heard Geralt curse behind him.  There was another clang and Jaskier assumed the witcher had parried another bolt sent at him.  He really needed to find that archer before they became a problem.

“Geralt!  For once, get your head out of your arse and listen to me.”  He parried a one blade and dodged a second.  “Protect Ciri!  That is your Destiny.”  He dropped to his knees as another man rushed him, stabbing up into the man’s femoral artery while using his forearm to brace and flip him over his head.  He risked one more glance back at Geralt.  “I’ll follow when I’m done here.”

There was a moment of tense silence as the men from the woods pulled back a bit, obviously not expecting such ferocity from someone they had considered just a bard a few moments ago.  Apparently, Jaskier still hadn’t registered as much of threat even when he’d outright told them he wasn’t human.

Geralt caught his gaze and glared at him fiercely.  Another arrow whizzed by, this time right in front of the witcher’s face, breaking their staring contest.  He gave another sharp glance at Jaskier before muttering.  “You had better, bard.”

Jaskier stood and faced the men again.  Three down, only about ten more to go.  He heard Geralt mount Roach.  “I’ll be waiting for you at Kaer Morhen.  Don’t make me come find you.”  With that, Jaskier heard him click his tongue at the horse, urging her into a gallop.

“You’re going to regret getting in our way,” said the man that had first spoken.  “There’s more of us and a big payout waiting on the delivery of that girl.”

Ah, so that was why they had attacked their little group and with so many bodies.  It seemed Nilfgaard was getting desperate for the capture of the princess.

Jaskier shifted back into his defensive stance, balancing his weight evenly.  “The only ones who are going to regret this encounter aren’t going to live long enough to dwell on it.”  He grinned, savage and fierce, blood from the last man running down his neck.  “Come on.  Let’s get this dance over with.”

With a shout and a wave of his sword, the man he assumed was the leader sent his men forward.  Three attacked him at once.  The first had mace that he swung at Jaskier’s side.  The bard simply sidestepped it and let the weapon pull its owner around, the swing too heavy for the man to control.  The move brought him in close to the second, where the long sword he had was ineffective for swinging.  Jaskier simply drove his dagger up through the man’s throat.

The third got a cut in with his estoc as he grabbed the man he’d just killed and used him to knock the third away from him.  Unbalanced, the man stumbled back and swiftly the bard leapt forward and drove his sword into his adversary’s gut.  By this time, the first man had righted himself and took another swing at Jaskier’s unprotected back.  The attack just barely grazed him, glancing off his ribs, and Jaskier turned with it, backhanding the man across the face with the pommel of his dagger.  He reversed his grip on the blade and drove it down into where neck connected with shoulder.

His next four opponents met similar fates as Jaskier blocked, dodged, and stabbed his way through the next wave.  He was starting to breathe heavily.  While his stamina had improved over the last month, he hadn’t fought such a large group in some time.  It was because of this that the archer got such a good shot in, Jaskier thought.

He was panting and sweat was dripping down his face, dodging around man number ten’s short sword, and he didn’t hear the whistling of air that signaled the incoming arrow.  All he felt was the brought blossom of pain in his ribs on his right side.  He slashed across the face of the man he’d just dodged around and looked down.  The bolt was deep, and luckily, plugging the wound and slowing the bleeding.  Unfortunately, Jaskier knew if he moved too much, the arrow would shift and tear into him more.

He didn’t have time to contemplate more than that as the man that seemed to be the leader of the group whistled and several more men came out of the trees, including one holding the crossbow.

Fuck.  Jaskier closed his eyes, just for a moment, to gather his strength.  He needed to end this.  Quickly.

He whipped his dagger forward into the throat of the man holding the crossbow.  He jerked in reflex, loosing the bolt, but it went wide into the trees behind Jaskier who was already running towards his next closest opponent.  He swung his small sword slicing up the man’s torso from hip to shoulder before the man could bring his own weapon into a guard.

Jaskier paused a moment, sighting for his next target.  He could tell the arrow had shifted a bit and he was bleeding more.  He ducked a swing from another combatant, barely getting out of the way of the blade.  He swung his own sword wildly, causing the man to stumble back, but he wasn’t quick enough to follow up on it before the man righted himself and thrust at Jaskier again, this time connecting along his left shoulder.

The bard hissed in a breath of pain before driving forward swinging hard and fast.  On the fifth swing, he knocked the blade out of his opponent’s hand and took his arm at the elbow.  The man screamed and fell to the ground.  Jaskier continued forward.

The next man had a spear.  Jaskier spent some minutes trying to get close enough to stab his foe, dodging around the tip of the weapon and not always completely making it out of the way.  He garnered several more cuts along his arms and torso before he was able to grab the spear and rip it out of the other man’s grip.  He whipped his sword hastily across his throat.

There was another pause in the fight as the remaining four men sized up their opponent.  Jaskier was under no illusions as to what he looked like.  He was bleeding heavily from several cuts, even as his mutations worked to close the smaller ones, and that damn arrow was still in him.  He was covered in blood.  With the way he was breathing, he must have seemed on his last legs.  That didn’t feel entirely inaccurate.

Two rushed him at once.  He dodged one and blocked the other, feeling the force of the swing up through his arms.  He kicked out at the man’s knee hard enough to break it, twisted his sword around the other’s, and drove it straight into the man’s eye.  He ripped the sword out and brought it up in just enough time to block the strike from the first of the pair.

He felt movement behind him and ducked, a blade passing harmlessly over his head.  He stabbed down into the foot of the man in front of him before turning on his knee and whipping his sword around through the other’s gut.  He used the momentum to keep turning and stood, bringing his sword down again through the back of the one he’d stabbed in the foot.

Only two left now.  He nearly breathed a sigh of relief.  It was almost over.  His vision was starting to fade at the edges.  He was fairly certain he’d lost too much blood and the arrow had shifted enough that it may have nicked a lung.  He had blood in his mouth, but he couldn't tell if it came from inside him or if he'd managed to splatter the blood of one of his opponents across his face.

The leader of the mercenary gang had picked up the spear of the dead man from earlier.  At his side was another man with an axe.  Great.  Two weapons with two very different styles of use being held by people that looked like they knew how to use them.

The men circled each other, the man with the axe trying to get behind Jaskier while the one with the spear kept the bard’s attention with little testing jabs.  He parried each strike, knowing the man wasn’t using his full strength; he was just trying to gauge how much Jaskier had left in him.

Eventually he seemed to tire of the game and lunged forward with a yell.  Jaskier dodged under the spear and nearly got his arm taken off by the man with the axe.  He rolled to the side, putting some distance between himself and the two men.  Shit, they actually knew how to work together instead of just wildly swinging at openings.

The exchange went on for several minutes.  The man with the spear used the longer reach to keep Jaskier occupied while the one with the axe took swings at him while he was distracted.

I need to end this, Jaskier thought, struggling to breathe.  He was almost certain now that the arrow had nicked his lung.  He could feel the blood bubble up his throat and into this mouth.  That gave him an idea.

Gathering a mouthful of blood, he dodged another swipe of the spear then darted in as close as he could and spit into the eyes of the leader.  The man suitably distracted, he swung around and took a swipe at the axe-man.  He backed away quickly and Jaskier followed, slashing left and right, eventually catching and locking their weapons together.  By that point he’d worked up another mouthful of blood and spit again, this time only hitting one eye, but it proved suitably distracting enough as he was able to take one hand off the sword and punch the man in the gut.

The man wheezed but kept his grip on the axe.  Jaskier hit him again, lower.  This time the grip loosened, and he stumbled back, cupping his abused groin.  Jaskier grabbed the handle of the axe before it could drop, flipped it, and buried it into its previous owner’s skull.

The tip of a spear burst through his abdomen.  He wheezed and turned, wildly swinging his sword, spear stuck through his body.  He felt the jolt as the handle of the spear was ripped out of the hands of the one that had been holding it with the force of his body twisting.  His sword struck the other man across the closest shoulder.

Jaskier swung again, catching him across the back.  The leader stumbled from the force and fell to his knees.  Jaskier looked down at the point of the spear sticking out of his stomach and then back to man struggling to get to his feet again.  The wounds Jaskier had inflicted were deep but not life-threatening.  It was time to finish this.

He stumbled forward.  The leader of the former mercenary gang stumbled back, hands up, eyes wide.  “How are you still alive,” he gasped.  “No one can survive wounds like that.”

Jaskier grinned at him, feeling the blood drip out of his mouth.  “Maybe no human could.”  He edged closer.  “But I already told you I’m not human.”

“You’re a monster.”  The man’s eyes darted about, clearly looking for a weapon or way around the witcher in front of him.

Jaskier shrugged.  The movement brought with it a great deal of pain and he had to grit his teeth to keep from screaming.  “So some say.”  He lunged forward, swinging the sword up into the abdomen of the other man.

He pulled the sword free and stumbled back away from the body.  Behind him, he could hear a few groans from the few men that he hadn’t outright killed.  He’d have to take care of that, but first…he looked down again at the spear point.  He needed to break the haft of the spear as well as the arrow.  Pulling either one would probably kill him, at this point.  Better to get them to a manageable size and tie them off to keep them from rearranging his guts any more than they already had.

He broke the shaft of the arrow first as it was easier to reach.  He tore a shirt from the cleanest looking member of the gang and used pieces from that to tie around the wound, holding the arrowhead in place.  Next was the spear.  The head, and therefore the widest part of the weapon was almost all the way through his stomach.  He found a sturdy tree, grabbed the haft behind himself as well as the head of the spear, and backed himself up against the trunk, pushing the spear through until the handle was flush with his back.

It was easier the break the haft this way.  He grabbed it in both hands and wrenched, gritting his teeth against another scream.  By the time he was done tying off the wound he was wheezing horribly, and his vision was nearly more black than clear.

There was still one more thing he had to do.

He went around to each body and made sure there were no survivors.  He couldn’t afford to leave anyone alive.  Not when Ciri’s safety was at stake.

After he’d finished, he hobbled back to Pegasus.  Gently, he guided the horse to the ground.  Once Pegasus was laying down, he patted him for a moment, letting the horse settle in the vulnerable position before swinging a leg across the saddle and urging the horse back up onto its feet.

He had a choice to make.  He could risk going back to town- where some of these men had possibly been from and where more could be waiting for him- in search of medical help, or he could try to make it up the trail to Kaer Morhen.

It wasn’t really a choice at all.  He couldn’t risk Ciri, no matter how small the likelihood was that there were more back in Vespaden.  He’d have to chance the trail.  If nothing else, if he died on the way, no one would know until after winter thawed into spring and Ciri would be safe.

Chapter Text

Five days had passed, and there was no sign of Jaskier.  Geralt didn’t want to say that he was worried about the bard but, well, he was worried about the bard.  The trail should only take three days in good weather and it wasn’t yet cold enough for snow to make the going treacherous, though it was only a matter of time.  The air had been getting colder and colder lately.  The first snowstorm would likely come soon.

They had been at Kaer Morhen for two days now and Jaskier had not shown up yet.  Part of Geralt wondered if Jaskier had simply chosen not to come.  He’d known that the bard had been considering it.  He’d seen it the way Jaskier had been quiet and refused to look at anyone directly, seeming to bask in Ciri's presence.  He hoped that was all that had happened; that Jaskier had just decided not to come to the keep after all.

The alternative did not bear thinking about.

He was training Ciri on proper sword forms on the morning of the sixth day, in the lower bailey, when he heard the slow clop of hooves on the road alongside Kaer Morhen.  He signaled Ciri to stop and went to the gatehouse, coming to a stop at the drawbridge.

It didn’t take long for the rider to come into sight, but the first thing Geralt noticed was the scent of blood.  The smell was almost overwhelming for how heavy it was.  The second thing he noticed was that he was fairly certain the horse underneath all of that red was supposed to be white.

And then it clicked.  Jaskier.

Having now recognized the form astride the animal, he ran to the horse.  He reached the gelding in moments and held up a hand to touch the still body’s arm.  “Jaskier?”

His head turned to face him.  “Gerral’?”  Jaskier’s voice was slurred.  When he touched the skin of his wrist, he found him to be burning.

“Shit.”  Carefully, he pulled Jaskier off the horse and into his arms.  “Hold on, Jaskier.  I’ve got you.”  He ran through the gatehouse, yelling to Ciri to grab Pegasus from the bridge.  Then he yelled for Yennefer and Vesemir.

They met him just outside of the main keep proper.

“What is this?”  Vesemir asked gruffly.  “What’s going on?”  Then his gaze landed on the bloody form in his arms.  “Is that…?”

“It’s Jaskier.  He’s injured.”  He stormed past Vesemir, who held the doors open for him as he carried the bard into the keep.

“More like almost dead,” Yennefer remarked, though Geralt could hear the worry in her voice.

He set the bard down on Eskel’s worktable.  He set about cataloging the other man’s injuries.  Jaskier was covered in cuts and scrapes, the worst of which seemed to be two in his abdomen that had been tied over with bloody cloth, though that wasn’t saying much as Jaskier appeared to be drenched in red from his chest down.  Carefully, he peeled away the blood-crusted material, nearly hissing at what he saw.

Yennefer was a little more vocal.  “Sweet Melitele, how is he still alive?”

It was terrible.  In his lower abdomen, Jaskier had what appeared to be the haft of a spear stuck through him.  Higher and to the right, an arrowhead had wedged itself just deep enough that Geralt suspected a nicked lung, especially with the blood that seemed to bubble up every time Jaskier breathed.

“Vesemir, get our potions.  He’s going to at least need a Kiss and White Rafford’s Decoction.”

The older witcher raised an eyebrow at him.  “The added toxicity could overload his system and finish him off.”

“We’ll give him the White Rafford’s first then,” Geralt nearly snarled.

Vesemir eyed him for a moment before nodding.  As he left to get the potions, two more forms burst into the keep.  Eskel and Lambert had finally made their way back.

“We heard you yelling,” Eskel said, approaching them.  He looked at the body on his worktable.  “This your bard?”  Geralt nodded.  “Shit.”

Lambert peered over Eskel’s shoulder.  “Damn, even for a witcher, how the hell is he still alive?”

Geralt snarled.  Lambert held his hands up.  “I just meant he must be pretty strong.  I’m sure he’ll pull through.” 

Geralt went back to gently feeling out the arrowhead and the chunk of wood stuck in Jaskier’s torso.  They’d need to be removed before Jaskier could truly start healing.  He’d probably been reopening the wounds as his accelerated healing tried to close around the debris.  It was a wonder he hadn’t bled out.

Vesemir came back shortly with several bottles, including White Honey.  He shrugged when Geralt looked at him.  “If the toxicity is too much, it might be better to cancel the effects of the potions than try to heal him all the way.”

“Hm.”  Geralt considered the potions in front of him.  Jaskier needed to be stabilized first before they could pull out the offending debris.  He’d probably need the extra boost to his vitals before they pulled them out and then, if he was doing well, they could administer Kiss for the extra help.

First, White Rafford’s Decoction.  “Help me get this into him.”  Vesemir reached over to hold the bard’s mouth open.  Carefully, Geralt tipped the potion in while Yennefer stood nearby, ready to massage his throat if it didn’t look like he was swallowing.

Luckily, it seemed Jaskier was just conscious enough to recognize the potion.  He swallowed it all.  “Ugh. Hate tha’.”  He muttered, trying to lift a hand and wave it.

“I know,” Geralt murmured.  “Stay still.”

“Mm.”

Firmly, he grasped the small piece of shaft still attached to the arrowhead.  He looked to Yenn, who stood ready with clean cloth in hand to help staunch the bleeding.  She nodded to him.  He looked back down at the bard under his hands, took a breath, and yanked.

It came out easily enough, and behind it, a well of blood.  Quickly, the sorceress pressed down onto the wound, as hard as she could.  Next, was the hunk of wood in the bard’s lower abdomen.  This time it was Eskel that stood at the ready with a clean cloth.  He held it up.  “Ready when you are.”

The spear haft was a little tougher to remove.  It had gone in at an odd angle and seemed to have started to heal into Jaskier.  However, after a few moments of tugging, it too came free and Eskel jammed the cloth into the wound.

Collectively, they held their breaths.  For a few moments, things seemed to be going well.  Jaskier’s breath started to even out and less blood seemed to seep out of him.  Geralt nodded to Vesemir.  “Give him the Kiss.”  If the White Rafford’s stabilized him enough to have a spear haft violently pulled from him, he could probably handle a little more.

Carefully, Vesemir administered the potion.  Again, they waited for it to take effect.  After a few moments, Yennefer peeled back her cloth.  The wound was no longer actively bleeding.  No sooner had Eskel peeled back his own cloth than did Jaskier start seizing, black spreading rapidly through his veins.

“Fuck!”  He grabbed Jaskier by the shoulders and held him down.  “Give him the Honey, the toxicity is killing him.”

Vesemir didn’t hesitate, just forced open the bard’s jaw and poured the potion straight into his throat.  Geralt could see Jaskier swallow reflexively.  Almost immediately, he stopped seizing and the dark lines receded.  He also started bleeding again.  Luckily, none of it seemed to be coming from the lung that had been nicked.  It seemed the potions had been in effect just long enough to close that particular internal wound.  Thank the gods.

He sent Lambert for alcohol to sterilize the wounds scattered along the bard's body.  The spear and arrow wounds would need stiches.  After finishing, he nearly sighed in relief when it seemed Jaskier was breathing easier and losing less blood than he had been when he had first shown up on the road to Kaer Morhen.  “We probably shouldn’t move him for a little while,” he looked apologetically to Eskel.  “Going to have to borrow your table for a bit.”

Eskel crossed his arms over his chest and sighed.  “Well, I suppose it’s for a good cause,” he waved imperiously at the prone body.  “Want me to stitch him up?”

Geralt hesitated, then nodded.  “You’ve probably got the best hand out of all of us.  I’d be grateful.”  And then he remembered.  “Shit.  I left Ciri with his horse.”  He hesitated.  He didn’t want to leave Jaskier’s side, but he’d left his child with a blood-covered horse and no explanation.

Eskel must have sensed his indecision.  He waved at Geralt to stay where he was.  “Lambert, go see to the horse.  Poor thing is probably in need of a good wash and food.”

“What?”  Lambert protested as Eskel pushed him towards the door.  “Why do I have to go?”

“What else were you planning to do,” Eskel sniped at him.  “Stand around watching the unconscious person, too?”

Lambert shuddered.  “No thanks.  One Geralt is enough for this keep.”  He turned and hauled open the door.  “And the Continent.  I’ll tell the pipsqueak what happened.”

Vesemir made his excuses as well.  “I’ll start on some soup.  Maybe we can feed him the broth in a little while.”  He made his way to the kitchen, muttering about blood loss and replacing valuable nutrients. 

Eskel went to see what was taking Lambert so long after he finished stitching the worst of Jaskier’s wounds and the other witcher had yet to make a reappearance.

Yennefer stayed with him.  He dragged a bench to the side of the worktable, and they sat together, her hand holding his, listening and watching for even the slightest change that might indicate distress from the bard.

“I’m sorry I couldn’t help more,” she said, after they’d been watching the unsteady rise and fall of the bard’s chest.

Geralt shook his head.  “It’s not your fault you were held prisoner for weeks, along with having almost all your magic burnt out not long before that.”

She squeezed his hand.  “Still, I want to do something for him.  I detest being useless.”  She said it imperiously, like there was no greater insult.  To Yennefer, there might not have been.

They stayed that way for some time.  Eventually, Eskel, Lambert, and Ciri came back in from cleaning Pegasus and feeding the horses.  Soon after that, Vesemir called for an early dinner, rightly guessing that the stress of the day and missing lunch had made them all rather ravenous. 

Geralt did not leave his vigil, though he encouraged Yenn to go get herself something to eat.  She promised to bring him something once she’d finished.  He thanked her and returned to contemplating Jaskier’s still form.

It was rather unnatural, to see the bard so quiet and prone.  Usually, even in his sleep, Jaskier would mumble and twitch.  If Geralt hadn’t been watching him breathe so closely, he’d almost swear the bard was dead.  It twisted something inside Geralt to think that Jaskier might not have made it and that even now he wasn’t out of the woods.

A little after night had fallen and Geralt had finished his bowl of soup and set it aside, Jaskier’s breathing started to even out.  Geralt breathed a sigh of relief.  He reached out to touch the bard’s skin and found it still rather too warm.

Still fighting off the infection then.  They could probably afford to give him a Swallow now and move him somewhere a little more comfortable.  Carefully, Geralt lifted Jaskier’s head and tipped the potion into his mouth and encouraged him to swallow it down.

A few minutes later, Vesemir came over to him with a bowl of cool broth.  Together, they got the food into the bard.

“We’ll put him in the room at the base of the tower near you,” Vesemir told him.  “I imagine you’ll not want to be far from him for the next few days.”  The old man gave him a knowing look.

Geralt looked away, not ready to acknowledge that particular trail of thought.  He grunted instead and went to get Eskel to help him carry the bard, leaving Vesemir to watch over Jaskier.

Once they’d settled the bard into the lower tower room, he took a seat in the armchair by the low fire.

“You’re staying then?”  Eskel asked.  “You’ve barely let him out of your sight.”

“Hm.”  He didn’t know what to say to his brother.  He was still worried about a relapse.  The Swallow seemed to have gone over alright, but the bard was still too warm.  Especially when witchers were supposed to be resistant to infection.

“Alright.”  Eskel closed the door behind him.

*

Sometime over the night, the fever had broken.  Geralt heaved a sigh of relief when he felt the back of the bard’s skin the next morning.  He checked the bandages, pleased to see that the bleeding had stopped and that Eskel’s stitches were holding well.

After he cleaned and disinfected the wounds, he rewrapped them then went to go find breakfast.  The bard was out of the woods he was fairly certain, but just in case, he ate quickly.

He was back in the Jaskier’s room in less than a half hour.  Apparently, that was a half hour too long as he walked in on Jaskier trying to stand from the bed, sheet wrapped around his waist.

“What do you think you’re doing?”

From his position by the door, he watched as Jaskier gasped, slipped, and fell back into the bed.  If it wasn’t for the pained groan that followed immediately after, Geralt might have been tempted to laugh.  As it was, he was furious.

He stomped up to the bard.  “You were almost dead yesterday.  You were barely conscious when Pegasus carried you up to the keep.”  He lifted Jaskier’s legs and turned him right ways back into the bed.  “The horse had more of your blood on him than you did in your actual body.”

Jaskier huffed a small laugh.  “Hullo, Geralt, nice to see you, too.”

Geralt frowned at him.  Perplexingly, this only made Jaskier laugh more until he groaned.  “Ow.  Don’t make me laugh.  It hurts.”

“I wasn’t aware I was being funny.”  Geralt stood over the bard, hands on his hips, scowling even harder.  “Let me see if you pulled your stitches.”  He tugged at the sheet wrapped around the bard’s waist.

Hesitantly, Jaskier let him pull the sheet low enough to see the wound just above his hip.  “That’s when you’re at your best, Geralt,” the bard said. 

He tugged the bandages gently out of the way to peer at the stitching.  Still intact.  He did the same with the one higher up, though he’d been less worried about that one reopening.  When he looked up, Jaskier had a strange look on his face; it was a soft look with a touch of confusion mixed in.

“You didn’t pull your stitches.”  He fixed the sheet back into place.

“That’s a relief.”  Jaskier settled back into the pillows.  He blinked his eyes and Geralt could tell he was fighting the pull of sleep.  “I think you might have been right about the almost dead thing.  ‘M tired.”

Geralt patted the sheet down around the bard.  “Go back to sleep.  I’ll be here when you wake.”

“Promise?”  The bard was almost out.

Geralt felt the corners of his mouth lift.  “Promise.”

A soft breath answered him and Geralt felt his smile grow a little more.  He got up from the bed and went back to his armchair.  Slowly, the smile left his face as Geralt finally recognized the full force of his feelings for Jaskier.  He tipped forward, face into his hands, elbows braced on knees.  “Fuck.”

He was in love with the idiotic bard.

*

Jaskier’s condition improved by leaps and bounds after the first day.  Being a witcher probably had a lot to do with it, but Geralt also thought it might have something to do with all the attention the bard got while in his sick bed.

Geralt kept his promise and was there when Jaskier woke a second time.  This time he was able to stay awake longer and took some more of the broth that Vesemir had made the day before.  After that, he left the bard to sleep while he took care of his own necessities like food and bathing.  When he went to dinner that night, he told Ciri and the others that Jaskier could probably have visitors tomorrow when he woke, so long as she didn’t disturb him while he was sleeping and didn’t keep him up for too long.

He went to sleep in own bed in the tower that night.

The second day after Jaskier had woken up, they got the story of what had happened.  The bard regaled the others with the tale of how he single-handedly took on eighteen men.  He kept the story light and short, brushing off the injuries he’d gotten as nothing more than the usual fare when Ciri was listening.

Geralt knew the truth, however.  Jaskier had relatively few scars from his life as a witcher before he’d become a bard.  The fight had added nearly double the amount of new wounds that would leave their mark on his body.  Jaskier nearly hadn’t made it.

The thought circled his mind all day and into the night.   Late that night, he found himself in front of Yennefer’s door.  When he knocked on her door, she answered almost immediately.  “Something told me you’d be visiting me tonight,” she murmured before standing aside and letting him in.

“I-“ he started but couldn’t finish.  What was there to say?  ‘I think I’m in love with the bard’?  ‘I was scared he was going to die’?  “I need to not think.”

She placed a hand on his cheek.  “Are you sure?”  She didn’t need to ask what he meant.  Over the past six years they’d repaired their relationship enough that when they met, they’d occasionally enjoy each other’s company.  They didn’t try to go further than that.  Yennefer had been right on that mountain.  They couldn’t know if what they felt for each other was true and the feelings he seemed to have developed for the bard lent credence to her argument that they were not.  The fact that she’d asked that question meant that she’d already known where his affections lay.

That didn’t mean they couldn’t find comfort in each other.  “Yes.”

Softly, she kissed him.  He kissed her back, gently at first, and then with more hunger as the kiss deepened.  He slid his hands under the robe she’d put on to answer the door, pleased to find her bare underneath.  He groaned into the kiss and slid his hands down her smooth back and over her buttocks before picking her up and carrying her over to the bed.

Gently, he set her down upon the mattress before leaning back and shucking his own clothes.  Once he was fully nude, he climbed back over her, pulling the robe completely off and running his hands over her soft skin before cupping a bare breast in one hand and putting his mouth on her.

It wasn’t long before he was fully hard and she was guiding him into her.  He sank into her wet heat and lost himself in her welcome.  Where things had once been stormy and complicated, it was now easy and simple.  It was unfettered.  Here, there was affection and comfort, but no lasting entanglement.  No complications.

After, he lay next to her, breathing hard and covered in sweat.

She turned on her side, facing him.  “That was the last time, wasn’t it?”

He looked at her.  “Yenn…”  He felt contrite, suddenly.  Even if he wasn’t in love with her, she would always be a dear friend; he didn't want to use her.

She smiled at him.  “Geralt, I’ve known you felt something for that bard since we first met.  I was just waiting for you to figure it out for yourself.”

He turned his face back towards the ceiling.  “You’re not mad?”

“Mad?”  Yenn repeated.  “No.  Maybe a little sad that things didn’t work out between us, but I think it’s better like this anyway.”

“You’ll always be dear to me.”  He needed her to know that.

The sorceress smiled and laid a hand upon his arm.  “And you to me.  I don’t think we’ll ever be rid of each other, wish or no, but I think we’ve found the balance we need.”

“Friends?”  Geralt asked, grinning a little.

He more felt than saw her nod.  “Friends.”  The bed bounced as she settled in.  “Goodnight, Geralt.”

“Goodnight, Yenn.”

That night, he fell asleep more relaxed and with clearer insight to his feelings than he had in some time.

*

The next morning, he awoke before Yennefer.  He dressed quickly, pressed a kiss to her forehead, and went directly to check on Jaskier.  The keep was quiet, dawn only just lightening the sky.  Silently, he opened the door to Jaskier’s room.

The bard was still asleep.  Quietly, he took the chair that he’d been using for the past few days and settled in to wait for Jaskier to wake up.

He didn’t have to wait long.  It couldn’t have been more than an hour before Jaskier stirred then yawned himself awake.

“Good morning.”

For a moment, Jaskier froze, a strange look crossing his face before he smoothed it into a pleasant smile.  “Good morning, Geralt.  To what do I owe the pleasure of your company this early in the morning?” 

There was a strange note to the bard’s voice, but otherwise he seemed his usual upbeat self.  Geralt shrugged and answered.  “Thought I’d ask what you want for breakfast.”

“Oh?”  The bard’s voice was nearly devoid of emotion.

“You’ve only had broth the last two days.  Feel up to something more solid?”

Jaskier’s expression cleared.  “Ah.  I see.  Sure.  Maybe I can even make it to the breakfast table.”

Geralt eased himself up from the chair.  “No.  You’re staying in that bed for at least another day.”

“You’re not my keeper, Geralt.”  The bard eased himself up into a sitting position.  Geralt reached out to help, but Jaskier waved him away.  “I can do it myself.  I’m a witcher, too, remember?”

Ah, right.  Geralt had sort of forgotten that bit.  He sighed.  “Let me check the wounds after breakfast, and if they look mostly healed, I’ll get you some clean clothes and help you to the bath.  If you’re still adamant after that, you can sit with us at dinner.”

Jaskier looked away from him.  “You don’t have to help me with every single little thing, Geralt.”  He twisted the sheet covering his legs in his hands.  “I’m sure Eskel or someone would be willing to help me as well.”

“I want to,” Geralt assured him.  While the baths were public and no one was shy with their nudity, Jaskier might still need help washing himself off and that was something that Geralt did not want to leave to someone else.  Not if he could help it.

He headed for the door.  “I’ll be back in a little bit with some porridge.  We’ll start bland and if that goes over well, we’ll get a little more adventurous for lunch.”

“Yay.”  Jaskier said, looking anything but excited at the prospect of plain porridge.

“I’ll bring some honey and fruit up with it as well.”  He let the door swing closed behind him and set about procuring some breakfast for his bard.

He was only in the kitchen for a few minutes before Lambert wandered in and immediately wrinkled his nose.  “You couldn’t have taken a bath first?”

“Hm?”

“You smell like the witch’s personal perfumer.”  He looked over Geralt’s shoulder, nose still wrinkled.  “For the bard?”

“Yeah.”  Then what Lambert said hit him.  “Shit.”

“Uh-oh, what’d you do now?”  Eskel pushed open the door to the kitchen.

Lambert was polishing an apple on his shirt.  “Geralt fucked the witch then went to go see his bard smelling like cunt.”  His grin implied he meant that more as an insult than fact.  “I think he forgot his bard is one of us.”

“Ah,” Eskel said, unconcerned.  “’Shit’ indeed.”  He picked up the kettle to heat some water.  “Although, I take that to mean you were actually meaning to do something about your stupidly huge crush on the bard?”

“Not my bard,” Geralt grumbled.  “And I don’t have a crush.”

Eskel set the kettle over the banked fire.  “Either way, it is kind of rude to walk around like that.”  He took the pot from Geralt’s hands.  “Go wash up, you stink.  I’ll keep an eye on the porridge.”

Geralt stepped away, muttering a thanks before heading up to his room.  He paused outside the door to Jaskier’s room, thinking to let the bard know that breakfast would be delayed, but Lambert and Eskel’s words bounced around in his head and he thought better of it.

He went to his room, grabbed fresh clothing, and then headed down to the hot springs that served as Kaer Morhen’s bathing chambers.

Chapter Text

As soon as Geralt shut the door behind him, Jaskier jolted up out of the bed, wincing at the pull to his stitches. He cast around for his clothes and eventually found some in the chest at the foot of his bed.  He dressed quickly in woolen trousers and shirt, then found a pack and began loading it up with whatever of his personal effects he could find in the room.

He needed to leave.  Now.

It amazed him how quickly things could change.  Yesterday, he’d thought he’d seen genuine affection for him in Geralt’s actions and demeanor, and had been contemplating telling the other witcher how he'd felt about him all those years ago.  And then this morning the white-haired man had come in smelling of sex and lilacs and gooseberries and he knew there was no hope for his love.

Lute and pack over his shoulder, he quietly opened the door to his room, senses stretched as wide as he could to check for the presence of another person.  Nothing.  All was quiet in his part of the castle, though he could hear a distant clanging that he recognized as pots being moved about in what was likely the kitchen.

Unfortunate, he probably wouldn’t be able to take any food with him, then.

Silently, he crept out of the doorway and down the hall going towards the slight breeze he could feel.  The clanging became louder and now he could hear voices.  It seemed that his way out was taking him past the kitchens.  A few more steps and the voices were distinct enough that he could make out Geralt’s husk and Eskel’s slightly lighter register.  He paused in an alcove, covered by a musty wall hanging, to listen.

“-About your stupidly huge crush?”  He heard Eskel ask.

“Not my bard,” he heard Geralt rumble.  “And I don’t have a crush.”  Well, that answered that then.

There was a small scrape of iron on iron and then Eskel was telling Geralt to go wash.  He held his breath as he heard the bigger man leave the kitchen, walking past the alcove.  He could still hear two people in the kitchen, but they seemed settled in so he crossed to the other side of the door and continued down the hall until he came to the massive doors that served as the front entrance to Kaer Morhen.

The great hall appeared to be empty for the moment.  Quickly, he grabbed a heavy coat and mittens from by the entryway and heaved on the door to open it just enough to slip out.  He let it shut as quietly as possible, straining to not let the heavy wood slam behind him.

It had snowed overnight.  Several inches of fluffy white covered the ground.  Another unfortunate occurrence, if any dared to follow him.  He made his way to the lower bailey where the stables were kept.  He wanted to say his goodbyes to Pegasus and Roach.

As he stroked his faithful gelding’s soft nose, he briefly considered taking the horse with him, but ultimately decided against it.  He’d be able to move more freely over obstacles if he were by himself.  Plus, the snow made it more treacherous for the horse’s footing.  And besides, he wasn’t planning to take the same path down that he’d come up.

After one last pat on the nose, he left the stables and made his way out of the keep’s outer walls.  He’d leave by the main path, he decided, and create a false trail down before doubling back and heading north where the snow would be deeper.  He could burrow in higher up in the mountains where game and evergreens would still be plentiful, but the snow deep enough to make a small cave.  If he was careful, he could live up there for months without anyone being the wiser.

The other witchers would never think to look for him where it was colder, and the snow was deeper.  They were Wolf witchers, not Griffins.  He’d been raised in the snowy peaks of the Dragon Mountains of Kovir where the highest elevations were always capped in white.  Part of his Trials to become a witcher had been to survive a winter out in the cold.

Taking a deep breath, he broke into a steady lope, eating up the ground quickly.  He wanted to be at least a few miles in the wrong direction before night fell.  Hopefully, they wouldn’t notice his absence for at least another hour, considering that porridge needed to sit a bit to soak up the water.

*

He was resting well off the path when he heard the rhythmic thunder of hoofbeats pounding into snow-covered ground, coming in his direction from the keep.  Immediately, he held his breath, willing his heart to slow further so he could hear better.  He wasn’t visible from the pile of rocks he’d chosen to sit behind, but he’d only been travelling a few hours and hadn’t had enough time double back for his false trail.

He thought he’d have more time before someone noticed his absence.  Apparently not.

“Jaskier!”  A rough voice called out for him.  Geralt.  He took a slow, silent breath and hoped that the witcher didn’t notice that the trail didn’t continue further but instead broke off into the trees.

The hoofbeats slowed then stopped just past his hiding spot off the trail and there was the sound of a rider dismounting.  Shit.

“Jaskier!”

Slowly, he eased back from his pile of rocks, picking up his pack and lute.  Perhaps, if he was very quiet, he could sneak away.  He stepped back and immediately his foot crunched through the snow and causing him to stumble over a previously hidden crevasse. He froze.

The footsteps below him paused as well before they started towards him, faster than before.  Well, that was the potentiality for sneaking away gone.  He turned and bolted up the hill.

“Jaskier!  Wait!”  He heard Geralt cry behind him.

Yeah, no, he thought as he continued springing up the incline, using larger rocks to propel himself up faster and further as well as to help keep his footing on the slick terrain.

“Please.”  He nearly came to a stop at that.  As it was, the unexpected word caused him to lose his footing and stumble.  A moment later, a large body hurled itself into him, knocking him onto the ground and pinning him into the cold snow.

He struggled.  And, while he was a slippery son of a bitch- Coën’s words- he was fighting against a bigger and stronger opponent while still weak from blood loss and a several hour’s journey on foot, all while still recovering from the cause of said blood loss.  It was the work of moments before Geralt had him pinned on his back, hands held above his head and the other witcher sitting on his torso to keep him from twisting his hips.

“What the fuck do you think you’re doing?”  Geralt snarled, face inches from his own.

Jaskier blinked up at him innocently.  “Leaving?”

Geralt did not seem amused.  “To go where?”

He pretended to look around him at the snow-covered flora and the witcher above him.  “Here?”

“You’re still injured.”

Jaskier looked down to where he’d had a spear haft shoved through him.  Geralt’s hips were dangerously close to his own.  “It got better.”

“Did it?”  The bastard asked right before jabbing a finger into his stitches.

“FUCK!”  Jaskier screamed.

He smirked down at him.  “Not that much better then.”

“What the fuck is your problem?”  Jaskier was panting heavily from the pain.  He could feel beads of sweat gathering along his temples and upper lip as he tried to breathe through the hurt.

“My problem,” Geralt growled down at him, “is that some injured fool just tried to take a trek by himself down a dangerous mountain path in the snow and could have gotten himself killed.”

“Don’t remember seeing anyone like that.”  He tugged at the grip on his wrists, but Geralt’s fingers only tightened around him.  He was going to have bruises for at least few hours after this.  “If I do see them, I’ll be sure to direct them your way.”  He tested the grip again.  “Are you going to let me up?”

“No,” Geralt said, before slamming his lips down on his.

What?  For a moment, Jaskier could only blink up at the amber eyes so close to his before the warm mouth moving against his own registered and he groaned.

He closed his eyes and pushed up into the kiss, trying to give back as good as he was getting.  From above him, there was an answering groan and then a hot tongue licked its way into his mouth.  As they gasped and moaned into each other, heat pooled low in Jaskier’s abdomen causing his cock to harden and he shifted, seeking friction.

There was a low growl and then Geralt’s weight was spread out more evenly over him, an answering hardness pressed against his hip.  He gasped and thrust up into the thigh that had wedged its way between his legs.  They rutted against each other that way, gasping and groaning into the other’s mouths and seeking friction through several layers of thick cloth.

Eventually, Jaskier’s pleasure peaked and he groaned, throwing his head back and arching up against the warm body above him.  A moment later, Geralt growled against his throat and gave a few last stuttering thrusts before stilling.

Jaskier wasn’t sure how long they lay there after, panting in the cold, wet snow.  He stared up into the sky.  It had started to snow again.  After a time, he felt the moisture seeping into his back as well as the uncomfortable stickiness at his front and shifted slightly at the unpleasant feeling.

“Come back with me,” he felt, more than heard, Geralt mumble into his ear before pressing a kiss there.  “Please.”

There was that word again.  Jaskier closed his eyes, helpless against it.  “Okay.”

Another kiss, this time to the line of his jaw, before Geralt pulled away from him to stand.  He reached a hand down to Jaskier and helped tug him up onto his feet.  He didn’t let go as they made their way down the embankment.  Jaskier scooped up his pack and lute from where they’d slid after he’d been tackled by Geralt.

“That’s how I knew you’d gone,” Geralt murmured.

“Hm?”

The fingers around his tightened.  “Your lute was missing.  That’s how I knew you’d left the keep.”  A smile tugged at the corners of his mouth.  “You’d never leave without that thing.”

The tone was soft.  The hand around his was gentle.  It felt like he was in a dream.  It had to be a dream.  There was no way Geralt of Rivia had ridden hard in the snow to track him down, tackled him when he tried to run away, and then rutted against his hip to completion.  Especially that last one.  The man had Yennefer of Vengerberg in his bed.  What could he want with one used up witcher-slash-bard?

But the snow coming down around them was wet, and heavy, and cold.  It wasn’t a dream.  It was real.  There had to be an angle he wasn’t considering, yet.  Something that would make all of this make sense.

He let himself be led over to Roach, who seemed to have taken being ridden hard in the snow rather well.  She was nosing at some low-hanging branches a few feet off the path on the opposite side of the trail.  Geralt whistled for her and she came immediately, walking over and stopping directly in front him.  Gently, he took Jaskier’s pack and lute from him and tied them to the saddle.

“Get on.”

Jaskier startled.  “What?”

Geralt peered at him through the curtain of his loose hair.  It was at that moment that Jaskier realized Geralt must have come for him almost directly after his bath and that his hair must have still been wet when he left the keep.  It was frozen into solid strands around his face.

Gently, the other witcher disentangled his fingers from Jaskier’s and instead slid his hand across his lower back, pushing him closer to Roach.  “You can ride.  I’ll lead her.”

“But-“

The gentle push nearly became a shove.  “Get on the horse, Jaskier.”

He hauled himself onto the saddle and then handed the reins over to Geralt.  The walk back to the keep was quiet, with only sounds being steady hoofbeats and slightly unsteady breaths.

*

It was only late afternoon by the time they made it back to Kaer Morhen.  Between Jaskier having traveled on foot and Geralt finding him faster than expected on horseback, he hadn’t gotten very far.  He helped unload Roach and brushed her down in the stable before taking his things back to the keep proper, Geralt dogging his steps the entire way.

When they entered the main hall, they were greeted by the rest of the witchers and the violet-eyed sorceress.  That was when another problem hit him.  He had dried spend clinging to the inside of his pants.  And, so did Geralt.  While it was through several layers of cloth, and hopefully further masked by the musk of horse, there was a very real possibility that the other witchers would be able to smell it and guess at what they’d done out in the snow.

And, if they did catch the scent, they might tell Yennefer.  Who was a very powerful sorceress and could probably kill him with ease when she was at full power.  Jaskier really hoped they couldn’t smell it on him.  Or, at least waited to tell her until he was very far away, if they could.  While he’d done his fair share of cuckolding as a bard, he wasn’t into home-wrecking.  Especially when said home was one he was expected to live in for the next several months.

He fidgeted with the strap of his pack as an awkward silence descended on the hall.  He wondered if it would be rude to just go to his room.  But Geralt had ridden out after him into freezing weather to bring him back.  Geralt, at least, deserved an explanation as to why he had left.

He opened his mouth to speak- though what he was going to say, he had no idea- but was interrupted by Eskel.  The witcher clapped him on the shoulder and smiled at him.  “Glad you made it back in one piece.  Let’s get you out of those wet clothes,” he says, steering Jaskier away from the group.

Eskel led him down, deeper into the bowels of the Kaer Morhen.  They were almost to the bottom of the stairs before Jaskier realized that it had been getting warmer, significantly so, and that the air smelled slightly of sulfur and minerals.

“A hot spring,” he breathed.

Eskel grinned at him.  “Kaer Morhen was built right over several natural pools formed in the mountain.  They chose this spot for that reason.  Helps keep the main building warm in the winter and us clean all year round.”  He led Jaskier into the first chamber, which seemed to be for changing and gathering bathing supplies.  “Get out of those wet clothes.  I’ll show you the pools and what each is for and then leave you to it.  I can grab you a change of clothes in the meantime as well.”

Jaskier didn’t hesitate.  He stripped easily, tucking his belongings into a small alcove that seemed designed for that purpose and picked up a basket with bathing supplies, including oils and a linen towel.  He followed Eskel into the main bathing chamber.

“This first pool here is for washing,” Eskel said, pointing to the one closest to the rough-hewn rock.  “See how the water swirls the fastest?  Cleans itself out.”  He pointed to another.  “That one is for rinsing.  We try to keep the worst of the grime to the first pool, but any lingering soap can come off in that one.”

There were still several other pools further into the chamber.  “And the others?”

“For soaking.”  Eskel grinned.  “Some are hotter than others, so be careful if you’re not one for heat, but none of them should be too hot for a witcher to stand.” 

Jaskier nodded his understanding.  “Thank you for showing me this.”

Eskel’s grin grew wider.  “Not a problem.”  He clapped the bard across the shoulder.  “I’m just glad Geralt was able to convince you to come back with him.  It would have been a miserable winter with him if you hadn’t.”

“I still don’t know why he came after me like that,” Jaskier admitted, shaking his head.

Abruptly, Eskel’s grin turned into a frown.  “He didn’t tell you?”

“Ah, no?”  Somewhat uncomfortable, Jaskier headed for the large pool for washing.  “He just kind of came flying down the path and demanded I return with him.”  He thought of what else had occurred and was glad he couldn’t blush.  No need to let Eskel in on that detail though.  “I couldn’t exactly say ‘no’.  Especially after he jabbed me in the stitches.”  He rubbed delicately at the garish red line on his hip.

Eskel’s expression turned stormy.  “I think I need to have a talk with my brother,” he said, turning abruptly and walking towards the entrance to the chamber.  “Enjoy your bath.  I’ll make sure no one bothers you while you’re down here.”

“Er, thank you,” Jaskier said, puzzled as to what had turned Eskel’s mood so sour, but grateful all the same for a chance to bathe in peace.

Eskel nodded once to him before heading back out and up the stairs.

Still confused by the sudden mood change, but eager to be clean, Jaskier eased himself into the washing pool, hissing as the water came into contact with his stitches.  It was warm, perhaps even hot to humans, and felt so good on his skin.  He selected an oil and began to clean himself, rubbing off days of dried blood and sweat.

Once clean and rinsed, he went around to other pools, testing their temperature until he found the one that suited him best.  He sat on the shelf that had been hewn into the rock and relaxed back into the pool of water and closed his eyes.

What a day, he thought to himself.  First, he’d woken up to Yennefer’s claim all over Geralt, decided he couldn’t stay at the keep for months on end with a man that couldn’t love him, and then had run away like a love-sick brat.  I’m an idiot.  He rubbed wet hands over his face.

He needed to apologize to his hosts.  Leaving without a word like that, it was rude, at the very least.  Even as a witcher, winter’s cold could be difficult.  Geralt and the others had no way of knowing that Jaskier had grown up in harsher conditions than this and would have survived just fine.  The man had practically been duty-bound to come after him.

Making up his mind to do the right thing and offer his apologies to the witchers of Kaer Morhen, he hoisted himself out of the bath.  He picked up his linen towel and set about drying himself brusquely then gathered up his bathing supplies to take them back to the first chamber.  It was when he was putting them back on the shelf that he realized he didn’t have a change of clothes with him.  Eskel had brought him down straight from the hall.

He spotted a bundle of cloth in the alcove next to the one he’d chosen to put his wet things.  It seemed Eskel had remembered to bring him a change of clothes.  Hastily, he dressed in the woolen shirt and trousers, relishing the feel of warm, dry cloth against his clean skin.

Slowly, he made his way back up the stairs, the wounds in his torso aching.  Maybe Geralt did have a point in him trying to leave too soon.  It would likely be a few more days before the worst ones healed all the way.  There was a reason Griffins tried not to get stabbed too much.  Their mutations had been designed for speed, agility, and hearing, useful for fighting creatures that flew.  They’d sacrificed having the accelerated healing of other Schools for the privilege.

Creaking up the stairs, he heard voices coming from the direction of the hall and beyond that he thought he could hear the ringing clash of metal against metal.  Cautiously, he made his way towards the voices, listening to the concerned tones as they became more distinct.

“Something wrong?”  He asked as he shuffled to where the commotion was coming from.

Yennefer raised an eyebrow at him.  “You tell us.  First, Geralt rides out into the snow like a man possessed, comes back with a half-frozen witcher-bard, and then a little after Eskel showed you the bathing pools, he came storming back here and dragged Geralt into the bailey.”  She crossed her arms.  “With swords.”

Jaskier shook his head.  “I don’t know what happened.  With Eskel, I mean.”  Yennefer continued to stare at him.  “Really!”  He held up his hands.  “I was telling him about Geralt bringing me back here and his expression went a little dark, but I don’t think I said anything that would have made him upset.”

“Hmm,” Yennefer shifted her gaze from him to the doors.

“Why did you leave,” came a small voice from his side.  He turned to look down at Cirilla.

“Ah, well, I felt well enough to travel and didn’t want to overstay my welcome.”  Which reminded him.  He turned to Vesemir.  “Thank you, again, for taking me in.”

The older man shook his head.  “It was the least we could do for a fellow witcher.  Especially one that fought to so fiercely to protect his own, if the wounds you had when you arrived are anything to judge by.”  He seemed to hesitate before adding.  “You are welcome to stay the winter with us.”

Jaskier nodded to him.  “It seems I’ll be taking you up on that offer.”

“Oh!  That had to hurt,” came a voice from by the door.  Lambert didn’t seem to be addressing any of them, though.

Jaskier made his way over to him.  The ringing was clearer now, and he could make out the sounds of grunts and the impact of flesh against flesh.  “What happened?”

Lambert gave him a quick glance.  “I think Eskel threw him into the wall.”

“What?  Why?!”

Lambert shrugged.  “Dunno.  Kinda pissed about not being able to watch, but Eskel had his crazy-eyes thing going when he told us not to follow.”  He paused a moment as he seemed to consider something.  “Normally, I don’t give a fuck what Eskel says, but when he gets that look I ain't takin' chances.”

Jaskier rolled his eyes.  “This is ridiculous.  It sounds like they’re trying to kill each other.”  He reached for the handle of the door and pulled.  “And besides,” he said, smirking at Lambert.  “He didn’t tell me to stay.”

The wind had died down and the snow had tapered off while Jaskier had been soaking in the baths.  The courtyard, however, was a mess.  Snow was kicked up in messy piles and spurts of blood littered the ground, the wall, and even part way up a scraggly tree, stark against the white.  In the middle of it all, Eskel had Geralt pinned to the ground, sword to his throat, growling something lowly to the man underneath him.

The wasn’t what made Jaskier call out to them, however.  It was the look on Geralt’s face.  He looked stricken; like someone had taken his world and flipped it over on him.  Whatever Eskel was saying had affected him deeply.  He made out his name in the growls and decided Eskel must have taken some issue with Geralt’s treatment of him.  What he’d done to get into the witcher’s good graces so well, he had no idea.

“Stop!”  The bodies in the snow froze.  “Eskel, get off him.”

Eskel’s gaze never wavered from the man under him, sword edge dangerously close to Geralt’s throat.  “No.”

Jaskier stomped over to them.  “What do you mean ‘no’?”

“He hurt you,” the witcher ground out.

That pulled Jaskier up short.  “Well, yes, but it wasn’t too bad.”

Eskel whirled to face him.  “Not too bad?!  He…”  His throat worked, like he was trying hard to force words out, but couldn’t make them come.

“I know what he did,” Jaskier said gently.  “And it wasn’t pleasant.  It even hurt a bit, I’ll admit, but I’ll get over it.”

“That’s not something you just get over!”

Jaskier drew himself up to his full height and crossed his arms over his chest, giving them him an imperious look.  “I’m a witcher, and for a time, I was a bard that sang nice things about witchers.  I’m used to violence.”

Eskel shook his head.  “Not from someone who’s supposed to be your friend.”

Jaskier snorted.  “Well, then I guess it’s a good thing Geralt has never claimed to be my friend.”  At that, Geralt made a low, wounded sound.  “Get off of Geralt, Eskel.  Please.”

Slowly, Eskel backed away, but not before threatening, “you hurt him like that again, you even look at him funny, I’ll geld you.  And that’s just where I’ll start.”  He turned and stomped back to the keep, not waiting for a response.

Jaskier stared after him.  “I didn’t realize Eskel took such a strong stance on friends not jabbing friends.”  Geralt made that choked, wounded sound again.  Jaskier glanced down at him.  “You’d best get up out of the snow before you freeze.  Night will fall soon.”  With that, he made to follow Eskel

“Jaskier,” came rough voice from behind him.  He stopped in his tracks, but didn’t turn around.  “I’m sorry.”  Geralt’s voice wavered, sounding choked and wet.  “I know it’s not enough, not nearly enough, but I want you to know that I am sorry.  I’ll never hurt you like that again.”

At that, Jaskier nearly turned around.  He wanted to go to the man.  Geralt sounded hurt, because of something to do with him, but that couldn’t be because Geralt didn’t even like him.  He shook his head instead.  “I forgive you, Geralt.”  He moved forward a few steps before pausing again.  “Just, maybe, give me some time to myself.  For a little while.  Until I can stand to be near you again.”

“Whatever you need, Jaskier.”

The bard gave one last nod before heading back into the keep, leaving the witcher kneeling out in the snow, sun descending behind him.

Chapter Text

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.

Chapter Text

As soon as the door to his room closed, Jaskier leaned back against it and sighed.  The last week and a bit had been exhausting.  First, there had been his disastrous and embarrassing exit from the keep.  Geralt had come into his room smelling of the sorceress and he’d felt suddenly claustrophobic in a way he never had before.

Time had given him the perspective to realize that he’d been reacting to a specific set of circumstances.  He got hurt, Geralt overzealously tended to him until the witcher absolved himself of whatever guilt he felt, and then he ran after the witch.  Jaskier recognized, now, that his overtaxed mind and body just couldn’t handle the idea of the fallout that normally occurred between Geralt and Yennefer that usually came next.  So, he’d fled.

That was what he tried to tell himself, at least.  Because the other option was admitting that after basking in Geralt’s attention, he’d been insanely jealous and hurt that Geralt had gone to visit the sorceress so quickly after he’d woken from being gravely injured.  Injuries he’d sustained from protecting the Trio of Destiny, as he’d taken to calling them privately in his head.  He’d thought, maybe this time, Geralt had seen him for who he really was and was finally ready to admit that Jaskier was a worthy companion.  He still wasn’t sure how Geralt felt for him, but he knew that if he wanted any sort of relationship with Geralt at all, he was going to have to keep his lingering feelings for the man under a tighter rein.

The week had just begun with that, though.  Next, he’d had to keep Eskel from killing Geralt. 

He had thought, at first, that Eskel had picked up on their indiscretion and was mad at Geralt for cheating on Yennefer with Jaskier.  But Eskel had specifically said how he’d geld Geralt if he hurt him again.  No mention of the sorceress.  Then again, the woman was more than capable of taking care of herself.  Geralt had even said so years ago in the Dragon Mountains.

But, Jaskier was just as capable of taking care of himself.  He was pretty sure he’d proved that by taking on nearly twenty men and surviving an arduous five-day journey with grievous wounds.  Even Lambert had been impressed, and he got the feeling that was a rather difficult feat to accomplish with the youngest Wolf.

His next thought had been that Geralt had regretted what had happened between them- because of course he did, he had Yenn- and that perhaps he hadn’t realized Jaskier’s feelings for him until Eskel had beat it into him.  Geralt must have thought that he had used Jaskier to vent some unnamed emotion out there along the trail and was ashamed for having potentially led the bard on.  Eskel had no way of knowing that Jaskier had wanted that kind of attention from Geralt for years.  He just wished it hadn’t happened the way it did.

The white-haired witcher had started to avoid him after that.  Though he had asked for space, he hadn’t thought Geralt would take it as him asking for the witcher to avoid him completely.  It was then he realized that as much as it hurt to be around Geralt, it hurt just was much to have him near and not interact with him, so he might as well just talk with the other witcher.

Which led to tonight, when Geralt had apologized to him. 

He couldn’t get his head around it.  The white-haired witcher had stood before him, expression genuinely contrite, and said the words ‘I’m sorry’ to him.  Unprompted and without any hint of expectation for forgiveness that Jaskier was almost inclined to believe him when he said he would do better.

Geralt had sounded so sorry after Eskel had walked away that day, too, but he’d been so hurt by what he thought had been another rejection that he hadn’t let himself believe it.  He’d had no idea that Geralt was apologizing because he thought he’d assaulted Jaskier.

He let his head thunk back against the oak door.

The dolt thought he had forced Jaskier to do something he hadn’t wanted and Eskel must have thought so as well to go after the other witcher like that.  No wonder the man had been so wild and fierce when he forced Geralt to fight him.  A man he barely knew had fought his brother over a perceived assault.  It was wonderfully noble of Eskel, but horribly misguided.  Or, at least, focused on the wrong person.

He buried his face in his hands.

It had been completely unnecessary. He’d wanted every little bit that Geralt had given him.  He wanted more even.  He wanted everything Geralt was willing to give him.  Mostly, though, he wanted Geralt’s love.

He pushed himself away from the door and started to prepare for bed.

But, Geralt had Yennefer.  Whatever had happened in the snow must have been an ill-advised relieving of tension.  Or something.  A temporary loss of sanity.  Jaskier knew that Geralt wasn’t completely emotionless.  One just had to see him with Ciri or his brothers or Yenn to know that.  Geralt had probably been coming down from a mixture of strong emotions and it had manifested into confused arousal and rutting into Jaskier’s hip before rational thought could catch up to his body.

If anything, Jaskier had taken advantage of the situation.  He’d known Geralt was with the sorceress, but he’d done nothing to stop the other witcher, determined to enjoy what was surely to be his only chance to feel the other man against him, hard and eager.

Jaskier sat down heavily upon the bed.  He was the worst.  He’d encouraged a man he’d once considered a friend to cheat on his partner.  A woman that could easily end him in a very painful manner if she decided to take offense.  Jaskier could be stupid when it came to love and sex, but usually he wasn’t that stupid.

But, hopefully, all was not lost.  Geralt seemed determined to be friends with him again, even after everything that had happened between them.  He seemed to have finally accepted Jaskier’s explanation for hiding away for over twenty years and was ready to give their friendship another attempt.  A real attempt as equals even.

Perhaps Geralt wasn’t planning on telling the sorceress about what had happened.  Possibly, it had not been as large of a misstep as Jaskier had feared.  He’d known many couples that did not mind the occasional addition of another partner in their bed.  Yennefer hadn’t struck him as the type, but he couldn’t claim he knew her all that well in the first place.  Geralt and Yennefer did spend a significant amount of time apart, after all.  Perhaps they had an understanding.

If that was the case, then Jaskier would be grateful and play along.  He knew not to be greedy in hoping for anything more.  Being Geralt’s friend was surely enough for him.  He would put what had happened that day behind him and focus on continuing to repair his tattered relationship with the other witcher.  If Geralt was willing to make the effort, so was Jaskier.

Satisfied with his conclusion, he sunk into his bed and fell into an uneasy sleep.

*

Weak light filtered in through the narrow windows as dawn made its slow approach.  Groggily, Jaskier pried open his eyes, winced at the early hour, and rolled out of bed.  He had made a promise to hunt with Geralt today, and he meant to keep it.  He wanted to start their friendship as he meant to go on with it and, for now, that meant spending time together.  They needed to relearn how to be in each other’s presence.  The hunt would be good practice for that.

He dressed warmly in wool and furs before heading down to the kitchen to break his fast before heading out for the day.  Geralt was already at the table when he entered the room, eating from a bowl.  Silently, the witcher gestured with his head to the pot over the fire filled with porridge.

After helping himself to a bowlful of the porridge and adding some of the nuts and honey that Geralt had left out when making his own, he sat across from the other man.  “Sooo…which way are we headed?”

“North,” Geralt grunted.  He’d never been at his best in the mornings, Jaskier thought fondly, more so than at any other time of day. 

“Further into the mountains?”

“Hm.”

“Just for the day?”

Geralt shoveled the last of his porridge into his mouth before answering.   “It’s still early enough in the year that there’s still game in this area.”

“Oh, good.”  He continued eating for a while before another thought occurred to him.  “You were going to go alone?”

“Mhm.”  Geralt went to the basin to clean his bowl before grabbing an empty pack and beginning to fill it with provisions.  “Usually only one of us goes at a time.”

“Isn’t that a bit dangerous?”  Jaskier finished his breakfast and went to clean his bowl as well.  “Wouldn’t it make more sense to go with a partner in case someone gets hurt?”

Geralt shook his head.  “It’s not any more dangerous than being on the Path.  And if anyone was truly late, someone would go looking.”

Jaskier shrugged.  It made sense, in a way.  And, really, he’d had to survive on his own for the Griffin Trials.  Having a partner on the Path for a hunt was a luxury few witchers ever experienced.

Less than an hour later, they were out on the trail, Geralt leading them northeast above the keep.  The snow was ankle-deep, just high enough to make walking a little more difficult.  It wouldn’t be long before a storm made the pass to Kaer Morhen impossible to traverse.

“It’s been a while since I’ve been this high in the mountains.”  Jaskier pulled his coat tighter around himself as they trudged by a copse of juniper trees, their indigo berries bright against the snow.  They’d been walking for several hours and the cover provided by evergreens at lower elevations was waning.  “Forgot how cold and thin the air gets.”

Geralt looked back over his shoulder at him.  “The Griffin School was in the mountains, correct?”

Jaskier nodded.  “The Dragon mountains, actually.  Though, ah, much further west than where we’d been last.”  He could have sworn he saw Geralt wince at the mention of the mountain range.  “You know, actually, you don’t seem to have much luck up that way.  Maybe you should stop going to the Hengfors League area,” he mused to himself, thinking of how many tragic things had happened to Geralt north of the Buina River.

The witcher ahead of him stopped walking and turned to face him.  “Jaskier, I want you to know…I am sorry for what I said on the mountain that day.”

Jaskier gaped at him.  He couldn’t have possibly heard him right.  Not so long ago, Geralt was upset at him for lying to him about his true nature and now the man was apologizing to him?  And not just the once over the last few days.  It didn’t make any sense.

“I…Geralt…”  Jaskier stumbled over his words.  What was he supposed to say?  The words Geralt had said to him that day had been devastating.  He’d gotten a great song out of it, but at the cost of questioning every choice he’d ever made that had led him there.  It had caused a hurt so great that he’d never really recovered from it.

Geralt must have read something more into his stuttering attempt at words because his face shuttered, expression becoming dark and serious.  “You don’t have to forgive me.  I just wanted you to know that I regretted ever saying those words to you.  Telling you that I wanted to you to go away was the single greatest lie I have ever told.”

For a moment, all Jaskier could do was gape at him.  Two sincere apologies in as many days, though only one had really been needed.  The witcher next to him really had changed over the last several years.

Perhaps the time apart had been good for them both.

“I do forgive you.”

The other witcher looked up at him, something cautiously hopeful stealing across his face.  “You do?”

Jaskier grinned at him.  “Of course, I do.  I forgave you the moment it happened.”

Geralt halted suddenly.  “Why?”  Jaskier came to a stop as well.  “After everything I’ve done, why would you forgive me for it?”

Jaskier shrugged.  “I know why you did it.  You were right about that.”  He contemplated against saying more, but really, it would be best if they aired their grievances directly.  Besides, Jaskier was tired of hiding his hurt.  “That doesn’t mean it didn’t hurt.  It did.  And I still don’t trust that you won’t pull something like that again.”

The witcher nodded, looking upset, though not at Jaskier.  “I understand.”  Haltingly, he added, “I can’t promise I won’t do something like that again.  I act before I think, you’re aware of that.”  Jaskier smirked, but refrained from saying anything, sensing that the other witcher wasn’t finished speaking.  “All I can promise you is that I will try to be more mindful of my words and actions.”

For a long moment, Jaskier stared at the witcher before him- a picture of contrition and sincerity and determination- and wasn’t sure what to say.  On one hand, he wanted to tell Geralt that it was okay, and he believed him, and they’d be alright.  He could even see it had started a little, with Ciri.  On the other hand… Geralt had hurt him quite a bit over the years.  It was difficult to believe that the man would change in regard to Jaskier himself.  Wanted to change, even.  Because of him.

Well, he had told Geralt last night that he was ready to try to be friends again.  And he was stuck here for the next few months.  He could give the man the benefit of the doubt one last time, and if it didn’t go as he hoped, he could go on the Path once winter was over and never see Geralt again.

He held out a hand.  “Alright, Geralt.  Let’s try this ‘friends’ thing, then.”  Slowly, the other witcher wrapped his fingers around Jaskier’s wrist.  “For real.”

Geralt looked up at him.  “You didn’t mean it when you said it last night?”  For a moment, his expression was downtrodden, before he looked down and away from Jaskier.  By the time he faced the bard again, he’d smoothed it back into something less vulnerable looking.

“Ah, there’s your first lesson right there.”  He waggled a finger at the white-haired witcher.  “No hiding your emotions, no matter what they are.  You push that sort of thing down all the time and then it just wells up out of you.  That isn’t good for anyone.”  He let go Geralt’s wrist.  “And I didn’t lie last night…I just believe you more now than I did then.”

“I…suppose that’s understandable,” Geralt said, frowning.  “I meant it then.”

This time, it was Jaskier that looked away.  “I’m sure you did, Geralt.  But just like you didn’t trust me when I came back, at first, it’s going to take time for me to trust that you mean what you say.”  He smiled ruefully.  “Especially when it’s something like this.”

Brow furrowed, Geralt nodded.  “I understand.”  He took a few steps, continuing in the direction they had been going.  “We should get going before it gets too late and we miss our chance.  It’s only a little further.”

He stared after the witcher trudging ahead of him.  That had been…different.  He’d never imagined Geralt could have such patience in him.  He hadn’t pushed for an explanation.  He hadn’t pressed for forgiveness or anything else either.  He was letting Jaskier set the terms of their interactions.

For the first time in a long time, Jaskier felt a little blossom of hope that perhaps Geralt had changed.  That this would be unlike the times where the other man treated Jaskier better for a little while because he felt guilty that Jaskier had gotten hurt.  Here Jaskier stood, unharmed and in relatively good health, having proven he could hold his own and was equal to any witcher.  Perhaps Geralt was finally learning that he didn’t need to keep Jaskier at a distance any longer and they could finally be the friends that Jaskier had always longed for them to be.

He didn’t dare hope for anything more than that.

*

Overall, the hunt was a success.  They managed to take down a deer after hours of sitting in the elevated blind that Geralt said had been there since he was a boy.  Jaskier had offered to carry the deer down the mountain, but Geralt had refused, stating that Jaskier was still recovering from his injuries and it didn’t make sense to potentially aggravate still healing wounds.

Jaskier found he couldn’t really argue with the white-haired witcher on that.  He was right.  Jaskier was still healing, though the wounds were mostly closed now, and Geralt didn’t say anything that made it sound like he thought Jaskier was in any way incapable of carrying the deer under normal circumstances.

In fact, Geralt had managed to go the entire day without insulting the bard.  He had even managed to pay him a compliment on his aim when he brought down the deer with the bow Geralt had lent him.  It was the most amiable the two of them had been since they had met.

It was a little pathetic, actually, Jaskier thought. 

He had never stopped to wonder what it was about Geralt that had left him so in love with the other witcher.  He’d known that part of it was that Geralt always tried to do the right thing, even when it wasn’t easy.  He had a kind heart.  He’d known that the witcher had enjoyed his company, as much as the man loathed to admit it. 

Ultimately, what had first drawn him to Geralt had been recognizing the same ache of loneliness and despair in the other witcher that he’d had in himself.  He’d seen it other witchers before he’d known what it was that he was looking at.  Having experienced it himself, and having found a way out, he’d decided then and there he would make it his mission to make sure this man knew he was valued.  Worthy of being loved and cared for.

He may have gone in a little too deep in trying to show Geralt there was more to life than monsters and death.  And now it felt too late to get back out of the deep well he found himself in.  He’d been drawn to the melancholy Geralt had seemed to exude from every pore and had stayed for the man trying to do his best in a world that was set against him.  Somewhere in there, he’d fallen in love.

And he couldn’t say it had been all bad.  Anger and bitterness had clouded his perception of their time together.  It had made him cynical of the kindnesses that Geralt had shown him over the years, sparse though they had seemed.  Geralt did have a point when he said he’d put Jaskier first when it came to any altercations.  He’d also put Jaskier first when it was too cold, or too hot.  And he never let Jaskier ride Roach unless Jaskier was hurt, but after a while he’d dismount and walk along beside the bard, leading the horse.

Now that he was starting to let go of those negative emotions from six years ago, he realized he’d let his hurt and anger take over.  Geralt still had plenty of things to make up for, but there’d been some good times as well, when Geralt wasn’t being a sulky grump.

They’d played Gwent by the fire.  Jaskier had never been very good at the game, but Geralt enjoyed it and he’d patiently taught Jaskier about the different factions and how to best use them to his advantage.  He’d gotten better over the years and was able to hold his own, even win sometimes, thanks to Geralt’s tutelage.

And Geralt might have complained about having to play bodyguard for Jaskier when going to certain courts, but he went every time without fail.  Jaskier couldn’t even fault Geralt for complaining because he knew how much the other man hated the pomp and circumstance of those parties; knew Geralt felt like he was being put on display.  But he asked anyway, and Geralt never outright refused to go.  So, Geralt complained, and he went, and he had probably saved Jaskier from the consequences of his own bad decisions nearly a dozen times.

There were other events as well, and they swirled through Jaskier’s head as they slogged home through the snow.

*

That night, after dinner, Jaskier took Eskel aside and thanked him for his gallantry but explained it had been unwarranted.  Not for the first time, he thanked Melitele that his unique physiology made it nearly impossible for him to blush.  It was bad enough that he had to tell a man that was essentially Geralt’s brother that yes, actually, he had wanted Geralt writhing all over him.

Eskel rubbed a hand across the back of his neck.  “Sorry,” he offered, obviously embarrassed as well.  “The way you talked about Geralt coming after you…” he shook his head.  “I shouldn’t have assumed something like that.  My brother can be a great big lummox sometimes, but he’s never been that kind of a bastard.”

“No,” Jaskier agreed.  “Geralt would never do something like that.  He’s too honorable.”

They shared a moment of silence, awkwardness still lingering in the air for several moments before it grew too great and Jaskier had to break it.  “He’s still an idiot though.”

Eskel let out a loud guffaw and clapped a hand on Jaskier’s shoulder.  “You’ll get no argument from me, bard.”

Jaskier grinned back at him.

And so, time went on.  The snow became deeper.  The witchers went out less and less for repairs to the roofs and walls.  Game became scarcer and hunting expeditions were less frequent.  As the days marched by, the Wolf and Griffin witchers found themselves with less chores to occupy their time, and so- naturally- they had to find some way to amuse themselves and relieve their pent-up energy.

It started with Lambert, because as Jaskier had come to learn, these things always started with Lambert, and a simple question.

“So, how good are your Signs?”

Jaskier looked up from where he’d been plucking out a tune on his lute strings.  “Eh?”

Lambert tapped his foot impatiently.  “Your Signs.  How good are they?”

Brow furrowed and wondering at the sudden question, Jaskier answered.  “Alright, I guess.  I wasn’t the best at them, but they hold well enough.”

The Wolf witcher grinned.  “Excellent.”  He grabbed Jaskier’s lute out of his hands, and ignoring the bard’s squawk of protest, set it down carefully in its case.  “Come with me.”  Without waiting for an answer, he wrapped a hand around Jaskier’s bicep and pulled him along after him.

“Where are we going?”

Lambert grinned back at him.  It wasn’t pleasant.  “You’ll see.”  And with that ominous answer, he dragged Jaskier out to the crumbling east wall where the training course had been set up.  The snow drifts were particularly large here as well, since part of the wall had crumbled and no real attempts had been made to repair it.

Puzzled, Jaskier looked around.  Why in Melitele’s name had Lambert drug him out here in the cold?

As if in answer, there came a loud roaring yell from up high in the shattered building before a body flung itself out of the opening and into the air.

“What the fu-“ was all he had time for before the figure crossed his arms at the wrist and a shield of invisible energy impacted the snow ahead of the body, slowing its fall.  The figure landed in a controlled roll and popped back onto its feet.

Jaskier groaned, pinching the bridge of his nose between two fingers.  “This is all Coën’s fault, isn’t it?”  He recognized the game now.  Only, it hadn’t been a game as such when Jaskier was younger.  It was how the Griffin School taught young witchers to use the Sign Heliotrope.

Before Lambert could answer, another body flung itself out of the building, this one topped with white hair, glinting brilliantly in the sun.  Jaskier gaped.  “Is that Geralt?!”

This time, Lambert’s grin was much more friendly.  “See?  The big lug can have some fun, once he shakes that stick loose from his arse.”  They watched as Geralt waited until the last possible second before casting the Sign.  Lambert cursed.  “That’s gonna be hard to beat.”

Jaskier turned to stare at him.  Lambert gestured to the Tower.  “We’ve got a wager on who’s the least chicken.” 

The first figure had wandered close enough to hear them.  Jaskier turned to glare at his brother.  “This is all your fault,” he accused.  “You taught them this, didn’t you?”

Coën shrugged.  “Was bored.  Figured we could use something to do.”  They watched as who Jaskier could only assume was Eskel went next.  He, too, waited until nearly the last second, though the force of his Sign was great enough that he actually hovered for a few moments.

“Och,” Coën sighed.  “Man shoulda been a mage.  Power like that’s wasted at a School like this.” 

 “Hey!”  Lambert protested.  Then he shrugged.  “Yeah, you’re probably right.”  He watched intently as Eskel landed lightly on his feet.  “He doesn’t get bonus points for that, does he?”

Jaskier watched as Geralt turned to walk towards them, barreling through the deep snow.

Coën scratched thoughtfully at his thick beard.  “His Sign was very strong.  And it was a rather nice landing.”

Lambert cursed again.

“What’s his problem?”  Geralt asked, casting a questioning look at his fellow Wolf.  A smile played at the corners of his mouth, drawing Jaskier’s attention to their chapped nature before he resolutely told himself to stop staring.

“He’s upset because Eskel got bonus points for his landing,” Jaskier explained.

“We didn’t even talk about there being bonus points,” the youngest witcher whined.

Geralt slapped him across the back, grinning.  It looked good on him.  “Tough.  It’s your turn again.  Try not to land face first in a snow drift this time.”  He turned to look at Jaskier.  “Unless you want a go?”

Jaskier shrugged.  “Sure.  It’s been a while, but I think I remember how.”

Coën snorted.  “Don’t let him fool you.  Heliotrope is the one Sign he excelled at during training.”

“Shh, Coën,” he said, swatting the other witcher on the arm.  “Don’t give away all of my secrets.”  He turned to make for the parapet they’d been using as their launching platform.

“I’ll go with you,” he heard Geralt say from behind him.

They walked in companionable silence for a few minutes, pushing through the deep snow until they reached the entrance to the tower stairs.  Geralt gestured for him to go on ahead.

“So, Coën said you used to do this a lot as children?”

“Mhm,” Jaskier answered distractedly, trying to keep from slipping on the slick steps.  “Did he mention it was how we were taught to use that Sign?”

“He did.”  There was a slight scuffle and then a slap of flesh against stone, as if someone had slipped and caught themselves quickly before they fell over completely.  “He said you were unnaturally good at it.”

Jaskier turned to look back at Geralt just in time to see the man straighten up from the wall he’d caught himself against.  “You noticed how I like to fight with two swords?”  He turned and stepped up at the same time.  However, because he hadn’t been paying attention, his foot caught the edge of the stair and he flailed, off-balance.

A strong hand on his hip steadied him.  He looked back over his shoulder to see Geralt close to him, lips quirked in a small smile, golden eyes warm.  “I noticed.”

At that moment, something happened to Jaskier that he hadn’t been able to do since he was a boy.  He flushed.  It was barely there, but in the cold stairwell, Geralt’s hand still on his hip and face close to his own, he felt the skin of his cheeks warm with blood.  He gaped at the witcher before him for a moment, mouth slightly open, and wondered how this man could still have this sort of effect on him after all this time.

There was a change in Geralt’s expression as well.  His gold eyes took on a warmer tone and the smile went from teasing to something more affectionate.  Then, his gaze flickered down to Jaskier’s mouth and the bard had the sudden realization that he desperately wanted Geralt to kiss him, damn the consequences.

Luckily, he was saved from making that mistake when he heard a loud, obnoxious voice yell at them.  “Oi!  You pansies chicken out or what?”

Startled, they pulled away from each other.  Resolutely, Jaskier started his march back up the steps finishing his story as he went.  “I don’t like using Signs.  I’m not terrible at them, per se, they just feel awkward and clunky to me.  But Heliotrope…I can work that into a fight rather handily.”  They reached the landing.  “It’s versatile.”

Geralt raised a skeptical eyebrow.  Jaskier grinned.  “I’ll show you.”  And with that, he unceremoniously flung himself through the hole in the wall and out into the open air.

Unlike the witchers before him, however, he tilted his head back, flipping backwards so that his head pointed down and he faced the building.  Crossing his wrists, he angled himself just right, waited until he was closer to the ground, and then pushed them forward, away from his body.  The shield of invisible force bounced off the wall at such an angle that Jaskier was propelled up and out.  He used the momentum to right himself midair, catching sight of Geralt’s stunned face as he tucked his legs back under his body.  He crossed his wrists again, this time using Heliotrope as it had been meant, and cushioned his impact with the ground, landing almost daintily in the snow some thirty feet from the structure he’d bounced himself off.

He bowed to his audience.

When no applause was forthcoming, he tilted his head up and looked at the row of stunned witchers before him.  He straightened from his bow and tilted his head, considering the men before him.  “Er, no good?”

A slow clap started from above.  Jaskier turned and waved, grinning broadly.  When he turned back to the other three witchers that had been watching, it was to Eskel and Lambert begrudgingly slapping coins into the hands of a grinning Coën.  He squinted suspiciously at his brother.  “Did you have Lambert drag me out here to win a bet?”

Coën shrugged.  “They didn’t believe me when I said you could use Heliotrope bounce yourself off objects.  They should have known better than to doubt a Griffin when it comes to Signs.”

Jaskier stalked towards his brother, hand held out in front of him.  “Pay up then.  At least half of that is mine.”  When Coën merely stared at him, he crooked his fingers.  Sighing, the Griffin slapped some coins into his brother’s hand.  Jaskier smiled at him.  “Thank you.”

There was a crunch of snow behind him as another heavy body landed in the soft white drifts.  Though, as Jaskier turned to look at the man walking towards him, most of the snow in the area had been packed down now from so many uses of Heliotrope and people walking through it.  “What do you think, Geralt?  Do I get points for style?”

Geralt grinned at him.  “I think you beat the trousers off the rest of us.”  Lambert grumbled indistinctly under his breath.  Walking up next to him, the white-haired witcher lightly smacked his bother across the back of his head.  “Perhaps, if you ask politely, he’ll teach you how to do it, too.”

Lambert’s head shot up.  “Really?!”  He looked to Jaskier.  “Can you teach me how you did the thing with the wall?”  This time it was Eskel that cuffed him.  Lambert scowled as he rubbed the abused spot.  “Please,” he added grudgingly.

“Actually,” Geralt said hesitantly.  “I’d like to learn as well.”

Jaskier couldn’t help his slight startle of surprise.  He couldn’t remember Geralt ever asking him to teach the white- haired witcher something before.  It made him feel warm inside.  A smile crept shyly across his face.  “I’d be delighted to.”

Chapter Text

Jaskier had always done his best to stay out of the Yennefer's way even before the Mountain. After, and because of, what happened between him and Geralt, he’d tried even harder not to be alone with the sorceress in the same room.  She had cornered him once, soon after his return to the keep, to thank him for rescuing her and to apologize for being unable to help him heal.  He’d been surprised at her display of gratitude.  Yennefer had always seemed to be the type of person that would resent being helped by someone she considered inferior.

Kaer Morhen was much smaller than the whole of the Continent, however, and it was inevitable that he and Yennefer would end up crossing paths.  So far, whenever this had happened, they just nodded politely and went about whatever they’d been doing.  Rarely did they trade barbs like they had in the past.  If he wasn’t so sure he knew better, he’d almost think Yenn respected him a bit, now.  Maybe even liked him.

He was in the library when she found him.  Jaskier had been strumming on his lute, picking out a tune that had been drifting through his mind for the last few days.  Ciri had just left him for training with Eskel.  He’d been trying to teach her scales under the guise that it would improve her manual dexterity.  It wasn’t a complete lie, but his other, less altruistic purpose had been to save everyone’s ears from another squeaky rendition of the ‘The Lady’s Heart Goes On’.

“Jaskier?”  He looked up at the soft voice.  “May I speak with you?”

He fumbled his lute off his lap and set it down gently at his side.  “Uh, sure.”  He watched as the sorceress came to sit in an armchair across from him, her expression serious.  “Is there something wrong?”

Uncharacteristically, Yennefer fidgeted, twisting the material of one of her long sleeves around her fingertips.  “Not exactly.  Just…”  She took a deep breath and straightened.  “I wanted to apologize to you.  For how I treated you in the past.”

Jaskier stared numbly at the woman in front of him.  “…Are you a doppler?”

Yennefer glared at him.  The familiar venomous expression eased something in the bard’s mind. “Um, might I ask what brought this on?”

“I’ve recently come to the conclusion that I’ve misjudged you.  Enormously.”  She pulled her bottom lip between her teeth.  “I thought you were just a silly bard.  And that one day you were going to get Geralt killed because he’d be too focused on saving you and not protecting himself.”

That was a rather fair concern to have, Jaskier thought.  He’d always wondered what he’d done to have the sorceress hate him so; especially when he should have been beneath her notice.  Now, it made sense.  She cared for Geralt, even if she wasn’t good at showing it, she tried in her own way.

“And now?”  He asked warily.

She’d gone back to fidgeting with her sleeve.  “And now I’ve been made aware of just how important Geralt considers you in his life.  I don’t want to come between that.  I hope we can be friends.  Real friends.  All of us.”

Jaskier stared at her.  There was no way she could be saying what he thought she was saying.  There was no way in hell she was giving her permission to… Well, he wasn’t sure exactly.  Pursue Geralt?  Sleep with him?  Or did she mean both of them at the same time?  And did everyone in this Lilit-forsaken keep know about his feelings for the white-haired witcher?

Before he could ask what she meant, Yennefer stood.  “Well, that was all.  I just wanted to clear the air and all that,” she said, waving her hand vaguely and then she was gone.

He stared into the fire for some time after she left.  Why was everyone in this damn fortress so bloody confusing?

*

Dinner that night, as it had been for the last several weeks, was a rowdy affair.  Six witchers, a princess, and a sorceress made for a rather loud and opinionated bunch.  It had been Lambert’s turn to prepare the meal.  Surprisingly, out of all of them, the youngest witcher was also the best cook.  When Jaskier had expressed his shock at this unpredicted turn Eskel muttered about how it probably had to do with trying to please a picky Cat.

The witchers at the table roared with laughter as Lambert tried to beat his brother with a ladle.

Eventually, they all settled down and talk turned to how they’d have to start venturing out further soon if they wished to keep meat at the table.

“I’ll go to the valley next time,” Geralt volunteered.

Vesemir nodded.  “Probably wise.  Doubt there’s much of anything left around here now.”

“The valley?”  Ciri asked.

“Deeper into the mountains there’s a valley that’s protected from the elements.”  Geralt took a bite of his stew.  “Many of the animals that live around here during the warmer months migrate there for the winter.”

Eskel picked up where Geralt left off.  “It’s a full day’s hike to get there.  We usually take turns at going out there every few weeks because it’s difficult to get to.  The trip usually takes three to four days all told.”

“You go alone?”  Jaskier frowned.  That didn’t seem like a good idea.  Someone could get hurt and no one would know for days, long enough to die of exposure.  When he expressed his concern, Geralt shrugged.

“It’s no worse than being on the Path alone.”

Jaskier set down his spoon and wiped his mouth.  “I’ll go with you.”

The white-haired witcher stared at him, surprise evident on his face.  “You don’t have to do that.”

“I want to.”  He looked around the table, unable to hold Geralt’s golden gaze for long.  “Besides, I’ll need someone to show me where it is for when my turn comes up.”

Geralt opened his mouth but was cut off by Vesemir before he could speak.  “A fine idea.  You’ll both leave at first light then.” 

Jaskier grinned triumphantly at the witcher next to him while Geralt grumbled.  “Besides, us Griffins grew up in harsher conditions than this.”  He exchanged a sly look with Coën.  “I’ll bet there’s a thing or two I could teach you about hunting in the snow.”

And besides, Jaskier thought privately to himself, I get to spend time with Geralt.  Just the two of us.

They’d been doing well at becoming friends again.  True to his word, Geralt was more thoughtful in how he spoke to Jaskier.  They still teased each other, but it was with a gentler air.  There had been no outright criticisms or harsh words.  Jaskier truly believed that Geralt was trying to be a better friend.

Now, if only he could figure out what Yenn had meant when she had spoken with him earlier that day.  Maybe this trip would give him the opportunity find out.

*

The sky was just brightening with dawn’s light by the time Jaskier and Geralt were ready to head out.  They were dressed quite warmly, with snowshoes strapped to their boots, and a small sleigh with which they could haul their gear up the mountain to the valley and tow any game they caught on the way back down.

Everyone saw them off.  Ciri and his brother both hugged him and bade him to be safe.  The other witchers clapped him and Geralt across their backs.  Yennefer hugged Geralt as well and gave Jaskier a small wave with a smile.  And then they were off.

They spoke very little on the way up the mountain, but it was an easy silence and not one that Jaskier felt that he needed to fill with chatter, as he would have done once before.  They trudged through the snow, which had piled on over the weeks and would have been nearly thigh-deep if it hadn’t been for their snowshoes preventing them from sinking in higher than their ankles.

Geralt explained to him the path they would take to get to the valley.  They would travel north for some time until they reached a ridge.  Once there, they were to cut along it to the west.  It was the easiest way to get into the valley, Geralt told him.

They stopped for a break around midday.  Pushing through snow was hard work, even for a witcher.  And even though Jaskier had gained back much of his stamina, he still wasn’t quite at the level he’d been before he’d taken his extended break.

“We can’t stop for too long,” Geralt said as he pulled out some hard cheese and bread.  “We need to at least be most of the way over the ridge before stopping for the night, or we won’t have enough time to make camp before dark.”

Jaskier smiled up at him.  “Don’t worry.  I’ll be fine in a moment.”

Geralt frowned at him.  “I’m not questioning your capabilities, Jaskier.  It’s a hard climb even for me.”

“I know,” Jaskier said, his smile taking on a warmer tone at Geralt’s reassurance.  The other witcher had been doing that a lot lately, making sure the bard knew that Geralt didn't think less of him when he couldn't so something the other witcher could.  It was nice.  It reminded him of why he'd fallen for Geralt in the first place.  The other witcher could be surprisingly kind and thoughtful when he wasn't intent on pushing people away.

It wasn’t until they were trudging west along the ridge that Jaskier caught the shift in the wind.  Dusk was nearing and Geralt promised him they were almost to the campsite the witchers used when they made the journey to the valley.  He stopped abruptly and lifted his head, taking in a larger and more deliberate breath of air.  “Geralt,” he said hesitantly.  “I think we might have a problem.”

Geralt turned to face him.  “What is it?”

“There’s a storm coming.  A big one.”

The other witcher’s brows drew down, concentrated and serious.  “Shit.”  Despite the seriousness of the situation, it warmed him that Geralt didn't even question him on if he was sure.

Jaskier nodded.  “Indeed.  We need to get to the campsite right away.”   He looked up at the sky and spotted the clouds of the oncoming snowstorm.  “We’ve got maybe two hours.  Three at the most.”

Geralt wasted no time in asking Jaskier how he knew.  He immediately turned and started a quick, ground-eating pace; Jaskier followed closely behind.  They made good time, arriving at the campsite in under forty-five minutes, by Jaskier’s estimation.

Quickly, they set up camp. Jaskier immediately set out to pack down the snow near a small copse of trees.  Geralt started unpacking their gear, shaking out the tent and heavy oiled canvas that would be used to protect them from the cold and wet underneath them.  The snow was almost hip-deep here, so Jaskier was able to use it to build a low wall around the unprotected side of their campsite.

The first flakes started falling just as Geralt drove in the last stake.  They hurriedly threw as much of their gear as they possibly could into the small space.  Lined with the heavy canvas and furs, the tent began to warm as they sealed themselves inside.

“We’ll have to watch for the snow covering the tent completely, cutting off the air,” Jaskier said as they settled in, pulling a fur around his body.  “We’ll have to check it every few hours to clear it off.”

Geralt looked to him.  “You think the storm will be that bad?”

Jaskier shrugged.  “It built quickly but was slower than I thought it would be getting here.  If it continues with the pace it’s currently moving, there’s a chance it will linger in the area, dropping snow for longer.”

“Hm.”

“It could drop as much as a man is tall if it stalls for long enough.”

“Fuck.”

Jaskier couldn’t help but agree.  “We won’t be able to travel very fast on the return journey if it gets that deep.”

“No.  And there’s no other convenient outcroppings like this one for at least the first half of the trail back.  Might have to stay out here for a few days.”  Geralt sounded surprisingly unopposed to the idea.

The bard stared at the witcher.  “Have you never had to travel through the mountains during the great snows before?”

Geralt shook his head.  “Have you?”

“A few times,” Jaskier burrowed deeper into his blankets.  “The Griffin Trials include a week of survival alone in the dead of winter.”  He paused, deep in thought.  “It was the last test we went through to prove ourselves ready for the Trial of the Grasses.  A few boys froze to death every year.  I envied them, for a time.”

Geralt caught his gaze.  "I'm glad you survived.  I can't think of anyone else I'd rather be out here with." 

Jaskier smiled at the witcher across from him.  "Thank you, Geralt.  That means a lot, coming from you."  He was surprised at how sincere the sentiment felt.

A heavy silence settled over the tent, both witchers caught up in their memories of the horrific pain they’d gone through to achieve their mutations, botched or otherwise.  Jaskier could never decide if the agony he’d been forced to endure was worth it.  There were times he was grateful for his strength and speed, but the cost of never truly being a part of society, of always being an outcast no matter where he went, weighed heavily on him.

Unexpectedly, it was Geralt that broke the silence.  “Jaskier…”

Jaskier looked over at the other witcher.  “Yes, Geralt?”  He tilted his head curiously.  He could count on one hand the number of times Geralt had started a conversation.  Even in more recent days, the other witcher seemed hesitant to initiate contact.

He watched, fascinated, as Geralt shifted, looking distinctly uncomfortable.  “There’s something I’ve been meaning to tell you.”

The white-haired witcher seemed tense.  Whatever it was, Jaskier thought, a sinking feeling in his stomach, it probably wasn’t good news.  At least, not for the bard.  “Go on,” he encouraged, closing his eyes and bracing himself for Geralt to tell him that the witcher had noticed the bard’s affections and he didn’t appreciate them.

“I’ve been meaning to tell you…” Geralt trailed off into silence again.

Jaskier cracked an eye open.  He sighed at the miserable look on the witcher’s face.  “Geralt.”  He waited until the other man was looking at him before he continued.  “It’s alright.  I know.”

The other witcher looked stunned.  “You know?”

He nodded.  “I’ve known for a while how you’ve felt.”

“You have?”

“Well, you’ve been pretty obvious about it, don’t you think?”

Geralt looked unwell.  Did Jaskier’s feelings for him really upset him so much?  “I know you’ve been trying to ignore it,” he continued.  “It’s been rather good of you to put up with me for as long as you have, really.”

“Put up with…?”

Jaskier cut him off.  He had to keep going.  He couldn’t bear to hear Geralt say it himself.  “My feelings for you.  I know they make you uncomfortable, and I’m truly sorry for that, I’ve tried to get over them.”  He looked down miserably at his lap, hands limp on his thighs.  “I know you love Yenn.  I know that hoping for more than friendship between us is impossible.”  He hesitated before adding.  “Even if Yenn said she would be fine with it, I don’t want to come between the two of you.”

He felt a tingle build behind his nose; the burn of building tears.  The silence stretched on for long moments, gathering and building until it started to become unbearable.  Just as Jaskier opened his mouth to say something- anything- he felt large, gentle hands wrap themselves around his biceps.

The bard looked up, startled, into golden eyes.

“Jaskier…” Geralt husked softly.  “I love Yenn, true enough.”

It felt like a shard of glass had been shoved into his chest, directly to his heart.  He squeezed his eyes shut and gritted his teeth against the pain.

“But,” the other witcher used his grasp to shake Jaskier once, gently.  “But, I’m not in love with her.”

In that moment, it felt like everything stopped.  A brief fragment of perfect silence descended over them.  Something in Jaskier’s mind started to turn.  Memories of all the different conversations and misunderstandings that had happened over the last month played through his mind.

“What?”  The word slipped out from between Jaskier’s numb lips.

The hands on his biceps slipped up to his shoulders, applying an almost imperceptible pressure, like Geralt wanted to draw him closer, but didn’t quite dare to do so. 

“I thought I was in love with Yenn, but she and I met up again a few years after the dragon hunt, and we agreed we’re not good together.”

Jaskier felt faint.  He couldn’t possibly be hearing this right.  “Oh.”

“What I realized, and I’m ashamed to say it took me much longer than it should have, was that I’d let the best thing I’d ever had go that day.”  Jaskier felt, more than saw, Geralt shuffle closer to him.  “And it wasn’t Yenn.  The djinn’s magic only made me feel like it was the worst thing that could have happened to me.”

Warm hands had moved to cup his jaw.  Long fingers rested gently on Jaskier’s neck and threaded themselves into his hair.

“Jaskier, look at me, please.”

The bard was helpless against the plea in Geralt’s voice.  Slowly, he opened his eyes, and looked directly into gold.  The witcher’s face was as soft and serious as he’d ever seen it.

“I am so sorry for every unkind word I’ve ever said to you.  I am sorry for every time I hurt you or treated you like you were a burden.”  Geralt’s eyes stayed steady on his own, gaze never wavering.  “Nothing could be further from the truth.  Everything I did then was to drive you away from me, because I was scared.”

“Scared?  What in Melitele’s name could scare you?”

Geralt looked faintly embarrassed.  “You, Jaskier.”  A thumb was idly rubbing along a cheekbone.  Jaskier had a feeling that Geralt didn’t even realize he was doing it.  “I feared you getting hurt while traveling with me.  Of losing you.  But, most of all,” the witcher’s voice dropped down to a whisper.  Unconsciously, Jaskier leaned in.  “I was scared of my feelings for you.”

And then, so softly that Jaskier was sure he was dreaming it, Geralt placed his lips over Jaskier’s.  Warm, moist breaths mingled together for a long moment before the gold-eyed witcher pulled away.  “I don’t want to push you away anymore, Jaskier.”

Jaskier could only stare at the witcher in front of him, stunned.  Surely, he was hallucinating.  There was no way he was living in a world where the man he’d loved for nearly twenty years returned his affections.  That wasn’t how things worked for Jaskier.  He loved and he lost.  He never got to keep.  He never had anyone that loved him back.

“Are you sure,” he asked anxiously.  “Are you sure it’s me you want?  Um, that is what you’re saying, isn’t it?”  He flapped his hands nervously and would have smacked Geralt across his chin had the other witcher not pulled back just in time.  Still, the other man had yet to release his hold on the bard’s face.

The expression on Geralt’s face was a mixture of amusement and exasperation.  One might, Jaskier thought, even be so brave as to call it fond.  “That’s what I’m saying,” he said plainly.

A faint sense of panic began to overtake Jaskier’s senses.  He hadn’t been prepared for this.  He had never, in even his boldest of daydreams, thought Geralt would confess to having positive feelings for the bard.  Confess to wanting him

He started to babble.  “Well, um, good?”  Geralt scowled.  “Yes!  Good.  Very good.  But, really?  You’re sure?  Maybe you should take a few days.  Think it over.”  He couldn’t stop himself.  The words continued to pour out.  “It’s been a rather hectic time over the last few months.  A lot of changes.  Things are bound to be confusing during such a period of turmoil.  Perhaps you hit your head?”

Geralt’s scowl had changed into a look of hurt as Jaskier spoke.  “Do you not want to be with me?”  He withdrew his hands from Jaskier’s face but stayed close otherwise.  “I’d understand if you didn’t after all that I put you through.”

“No!”  Jaskier practically lunged at the witcher.  His hands landed on Geralt’s shoulders.  “I love you!  I’ve loved you since practically the moment I met you, Geralt.  I just didn’t think you’d felt anything positive towards me, especially after you found out that I’m…”  He gestured to his face and neck, where the ugly scars marred his skin.

Slowly, so slowly, Geralt leaned in, resting his forehead against Jaskier’s.  “I’m sorry.  Again.  I know it’s not enough, but it’s all I have at this moment.  I wasn’t angry about you being a witcher,” he explained.  “I was angry that you hadn’t trusted me.  Which makes no sense, since I gave you no reason to do so, pushing you away at every turn and all.”  Geralt’s lips twitched upwards for a moment in self-deprecating humor.  “I love you, Jaskier.  Can you ever forgive me enough to give me a chance to love you?”

Could he?  His ears still rang with Geralt’s proclamation of love for the bard, but was it enough?  He felt a gentle pressure around his fingers and looked down to Geralt’s hand curled gently around his own.  When had that happened?  For a moment, he studied the large, stained hands that cradled his own slightly smaller ones.  Their skin was of a similar, pale tone. Their palms were of a near size, but where Jaskier’s fingers were long and narrow, Geralt’s were thick and blunt.  His fingers rested lightly against the back of Jaskier’s wrist, not exactly holding so much as letting him know the other was there.

Did he forgive Geralt?  Was love enough of a reason to risk a chance on something more than friendship?

Jaskier took a deep breath and carefully disengaged his hands from Geralt, sitting up straight and putting a bit of distance between them.  There was a flash of hurt on the other witcher’s face before he smoothed his expression back into its neutral mask.

“There will be groveling,” he said, pointing a stern finger at the witcher before him.  “Lots and lots of groveling.  I expect to be waited on hand and foot when we get back for the entire winter.  And maybe for even longer.”  He waggled his finger imperiously.  “And there will be rules.  No more complaining about my music,” he started ticking off with his fingers.  “No more leaving me behind on hunts… I get to ride Roach!  Or well no, I have my own horse now.  Don’t want Pegasus to get jealous.  Never mind that one.  Um…”

The expression on Geralt’s face could best be termed as a mixture of hopeful and amused.  “Done.  Anything else?” 

And, hello, when had Geralt gotten so close to him again?  Determined not to let the other witcher off so easily, Jaskier struggled to think of another stipulation to add to his rather small list.  “And you must tell me you love me, whenever I ask it of you.”  He frowned.  “More often than that would be better.”

“Easy,” Geralt replied, catching the fingers of Jaskier’s wavering hand in one of his own and resting his other palm against Jaskier’s cheek.  Gold eyes caught blue.  “I love you.”

Jaskier drew in a short, sharp gasp of a breath.  It amazed him, how easily Geralt was able to say it.  He covered the hand on his cheek with his own.  “It won’t be easy, being with me.  I’ll annoy you.”

Geralt shook his head.  “Jaskier, being with you has never been a hardship.  Even at my most exasperated, I never wanted to be anywhere else.”  He smirked.  “And you do exasperate me.  Near constantly.”

“Why I never-“ Jaskier started, ready to work himself into a high dudgeon, but he was rudely interrupted by chapped lips covering his.  “Uhmm ma giff,” he tried to say through the kiss, but gave up when Geralt licked at the seam of his mouth, asking for more.  Gladly, he gave it.

It wasn’t long before hands began to wander.  First, down the soft skin of his neck to his shoulders.  Then across a broad chest to slim hips.  Calloused palms smoothed their way across muscled thighs, seeking out the warmth of the flesh beneath the cloth.  Before Jaskier knew it, he was on his back, legs spread to accommodate the bulk of the witcher above him.

They moved against each other deliberately, their pace unhurried.  Hands found gaps in clothing and explored what bits of warm flesh they could reach.  Trouser laces became undone.  Hot mouths and even hotter pricks rubbed firmly together, each movement flowing easily into another until they were gasping, and searing white danced across their vision, and then they lay still together.

Once Jaskier had caught a bit of his breath back, he huffed out a short laugh.  “At least this time we got out pricks out.”

He felt a puff of warm air against his neck and knew Geralt had been thinking the same.  He wrapped his arms around the other man and held him there on top of him, like a great, big witcher blanket.  “I could get used to this,” he said cheekily.

“So could I,” he heard Geralt murmur, nuzzling against his ear.

Jaskier shifted a bit.  Now that the haze of orgasm had left him, he could feel the awkward way the furs were bunched under him and that his groin was sticky.  “Ah, perhaps I spoke too soon.  Do we have a cloth?”

This time, Jaskier could hear and feel the snort Geralt let out.  Before he could say anything, the witcher heaved himself off the bard and dug through one of their packs from which he produced a clean cloth.  “Here.”

After they cleaned themselves and took a quick peek outside to check on the snow, they settled back into the furs again.  This time, Geralt lay on his back with Jaskier curled into his side.  Neither spoke.  Instead, they basked in their newfound closeness until they fell into a light doze, both too wary of the piling snow to truly sleep.

Chapter Text

The trip back took them almost a week.  They camped at the valley for two days.  The first night was spent keeping the snow clear from their tent so that it wouldn’t collapse and learning each other’s bodies.  Every time one of them woke, so did the other, and like magnets, they were drawn back to each other.

Jaskier couldn’t remember ever being so happy.  Or having so many orgasms in one night.

At some time during the night, the snow had stopped, and they slept curled together until late morning.  Geralt took him to the sheltered valley where deer and a few other animals gathered to weather the worst of the mountain snows and they spent the day setting traps for small prey and noting where the deer seemed to travel the most.

Then Geralt took him back to their tent, stripped them of all their clothes, laid Jaskier out on top of their furs, and proceeded to give Jaskier the most thorough fucking he’d ever received in his rather long life.  They spent the rest of the day talking, exchanging stories of their childhoods at their respective Schools and interesting contracts they’d taken.

By the end of the second day, they had several hares and a deer to haul back to the keep.  They did as much of the butchering as they could out in the snow, carefully packing the meat and furs into special bags they’d brought specifically for that purpose.

On the third day, they broke camp at dawn and began the slow trudge back down the mountain, tugging the sleigh laden with meat behind them.  It was difficult going, especially as weighed down as they were, but they persevered and made it nearly halfway back the way they had come before they made camp for the night.  Jaskier showed Geralt how to burrow into the deep snow, creating a warm cave with nothing but their oilskin and furs.

The next day dawned bright and clear.  Most of their journey would now be downhill and hopefully, if they made good enough time, they could make it back to Kaer Morhen a little after the sun set.

It was near midday when they saw a figure trudging up the mountain.  Fearing for the potential of an avalanche if they called out, they picked up the pace.  As they got closer, Jaskier made out the somewhat distinctive odor of goat.  He looked over to Geralt.  “Eskel?”

Geralt nodded.  “With the storm delaying us, they probably got worried and sent someone.  Looks like Eskel drew the short stick.”

He saw the figure wave as he drew nearer.  He waved back.  “Poor man, having to come out in this when we’re fine.”

They started walking again.  Eskel stopped and let them come to him.  No point in him walking further in the deep snow than he had to, Jaskier sympathized.

“Well met, Jaskier.  Geralt.”  Then he paused and took a suspiciously large sniff.  Jaskier felt the faintest bit of heat dust his cheeks.  He hadn’t planned on running into one of the others so soon.  His eyes narrowed and he focused in on Jaskier, expression concerned.  "Everything alright?"

Jaskier nodded.  "We, uh, talked."

Eskel grinned at them.  "Seems you did a fair bit more than talk."

“Shut up,” Geralt grumbled at his brother.

“Ah,” Eskel slung an arm across his brother’s shoulders.  “I’m glad you two worked it out.”  He grinned at them both.  “I’m happy for you.”

“Thank you,” Jaskier smiled back.

Geralt grunted at him before shaking off the arm.  “Come on, I want to get back to the keep before we end up having to spend another night out here.”

“Well, at least you found a way to stay warm,” Eskel joked.  He clapped Jaskier on the arm before moving ahead of them.  “And I’ve already cleared a path for you, so the going should be a bit easier.”

Eskel was right, the way down was much quicker since the witcher had already done most of the hard work from trudging up the mountain.  They made it back to the Kaer Morhen not long after dark, grateful to be back in the warmth of the keep.  The thudding of the heavy oak door must have alerted the others to their return, because they had only removed their heavy cloaks when Jaskier heard light footsteps running towards them.

He watched, amused, as Ciri launched herself at the white-haired witcher first.  “Geralt!  Jaskier!  You’re okay!”  She buried her face in the witcher’s stomach.  “We were so worried when the snow came.”

Geralt gently cupped her head to him in one large palm and settled his other hand on her back, rubbing soothingly.  “We’re alright, cub.  Just took us a little longer to get back.”

She let go of Geralt to give Jaskier a hug as well.  “I’m glad you’re back,” she said, muffled against the cloth of his shirt.

“Me too.”  He hugged her back.

Lambert came flying into the room next.  “I see the mountain didn’t kill you after all, Wolf.”  He stopped short of them and wrinkled his nose.  “Oh, for Huldra’s sake, couldn’t you have rinsed off a little before you came in.  You smell like a fucking broth- “

“Lambert!”  Geralt growled at his younger brother, then looked pointedly down at Ciri.

The younger witcher crossed his arms over his chest.  “Well, you do,” he said mulishly.

Eskel sighed.  “He does have a point, as much as I hate to say it.”  He reached for one of the packs containing the meat that Geralt and Jaskier had brought back with them.  “We’ll take these and put them away.  You two go to the baths.  You smell like Lambert’s feet after Vesemir’s made him run the gauntlet in the summer.”

Relieved of their burdens, they headed to their rooms to gather a quick change of clothes before meeting in the baths.  Swiftly, they stripped down and eased themselves into the washing pool.

Jaskier moaned.  “Oh gods, this feels wonderful.”  He grabbed one of the oils and started rubbing it over his skin, taking off the week’s worth of sweat and grime he’d accumulated from their adventure.

“Should I leave you alone?”  Geralt smirked.

Jaskier glared at him.  “Shut up.  It’s not like you don’t enjoy being clean either.”  He eyed the selection of bathing oils and tinctures Geralt had brought with him.  “I clearly remember you insisting I rub chamomile all over your arse.”

“It wasn’t on my arse,” Geralt protested.  “It was my hip.  And I had you do it because I couldn’t see the whole wound.”

“Because the cut ran over your entire right arse cheek,” Jaskier scoffed.

The other witcher growled at him but didn’t deny it.  They bathed in silence, both tired from their journey in the snow.  It wasn’t until they were in the rinsing pool that Jaskier broke the quiet that had settled over them.

“I’m tempted to ask if any of these oils are suited for uses outside of bathing, but I think I’m too tired for anything more than a good soak.”  The bard sighed.  “We’ll have to revisit the idea another day, I think.”

Geralt made a noise that sounded like agreement.  After a few moments in the rinsing pool, they skipped the soaking by mutual agreement, deciding they were both too hungry to put off dinner.  They gathered their belongings and headed back up the stairs to the main part of the keep.

By the time they made it to the kitchen, the smell of roasting meat had wound its way through the lower halls.  Jaskier followed his nose to the source of the delicious smell.  Vesemir stood guard over a spit, slapping at Lambert’s questing hands for tasty morsels.  The oldest witcher looked up at their entrance.

“Ah, you’re back.  And just in time for dinner.”  He turned back to Lambert and growled.  “Go set the table, whelp.  We’ll eat in a few minutes.  Surely your stomach can wait that long.”

Scowling, but clearly unwilling to push Vesemir any further, Lambert left to do as he’d been bid.  Soon, they were all seated around the large, heavy wooden table with trenchers of meat and boiled vegetables, all well-seasoned.  Yennefer asked after their delay, and Jaskier found himself recounting the trip, leaving out the parts unfit for young ears.

After dinner was done, Jaskier and Geralt were excused from the washing up that night as they’d just gotten back from a rather grueling hunting trip.  Personally, Jaskier thought that Vesemir was concerned that the bard might pass out and drown himself in the basin of water.  Geralt didn’t look much better.

They made their way to the tower where Geralt and Jaskier’s rooms were.  At Jaskier’s door, they came to a stop.  Awkwardly, Jaskier stood in front of his room, unsure if it was too soon to ask to stay with Geralt.

Before he could say anything, Geralt spoke.

“Would you, uh, like to see my room?”

Jaskier smirked.  “Really? ‘Would you like to see my room’?  That’s what you’re going with?”

Geralt scowled at him.  “I don’t see you coming up with anything better.”

The bard opened his mouth, ready to prove Geralt wrong, but shut it again just as quickly and shrugged.  “Yeah.  Alright.  I don’t really have anything.  I’d love to see your room.”

They trudged up the stairs, Geralt leading the way.  At the top of the stairs was a large, open room.  There was a set of doors along the far wall that led out to what Jaskier suspected was a balcony with a magnificent view.  The floors were covered in a mishmash of rugs and first.  Cedar chests stood against various walls and gave the room a pleasant, woodsy smell.  A fire crackled merrily on one side of the room and not far from that was a large, ornately carved bed frame with a rather plump and comfortable-looking mattress.

Geralt headed directly towards the bed, shedding clothes as he went.  Jaskier stopped a few feet from the top of the steps and watched as the man revealed a mouth-watering view of his muscled back.  Apparently realizing that Jaskier had yet to follow him, he glanced back over his shoulder at the bard.  “Coming?”

“Not yet, but I might soon,” Jaskier couldn’t help but quip.

Rolling his eyes at him, Geralt continued to strip until he was completely naked and then slipped under the covers.  Hastily, Jaskier pulled off his own layers and joined him.  They kissed for some time, hands roaming over warm skin, before Jaskier yawned widely into Geralt’s face.

He chuckled at the witcher’s slightly disgusted expression.  “Sorry, I don’t think I’m up for much more.  M’tired.”

Geralt turned so he was on his back and pulled Jaskier close.  “Not a problem,” he said, rubbing a hand soothingly down Jaskier’s back.  “It was a long trip.”

“Mm,” Jaskier rubbed his nose into the hair on Geralt’s chest, inhaling the unique and comforting scent of the other man.

“Besides,” Geralt continued.  “There’s always tomorrow morning.”  Then he pinched Jaskier on the arse.

“Oi!”  Jaskier slapped him on the stomach.  “Just for that, I ought to make you wait until this time tomorrow.”

“But you won’t,” Geralt said, settling down into the mattress more firmly.

Jaskier sighed.  “But I won’t,” he agreed.  “Mostly because I’d only be punishing myself as well.”

Geralt snorted in amusement.  “Good to know where your loyalties lie, bard.”

“They lie where they always have.”  Jaskier could feel sleep tugging at him now.  “With you.”

Just as he was about to be lost to sleep, he felt something soft brush against the top of his head.  And then so quietly he couldn’t be sure it was real, he heard, “and mine, with you.”

The soothing scent of cedar carried him to sleep.