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The tavern is warm and smoky and dim by the time Jaskier stills the strings of his lute and leans heavily against the wall at his back. He picks up the ale that an admiring fan left at his foot half an hour ago, sniffs it appraising, and when it smells marginally less like piss than the rest of the alcohol in this place, he takes a mouthful. It’s warm, which is less than pleasant, but it buzzes through his empty stomach—he hasn’t eaten since breakfast—so it’ll do for now. He sips again.

Tonight’s audience has been subdued, much like the audience the night before and the night before that. There are still a dozen or so people in here, some locals, some soldiers, and there’s an uneasy peace between the two. There’s talk around the tables, Jaskier knows, that the village two valleys over was burned to the ground by Nilfgaardian troops – and here they are, bold as brass, sitting with mugs of the local piss-ale and ignoring the black looks cast their way. Jaskier peers into his purse: the take has been light, and that’s with several rousing renditions of “Toss a Coin to Your Witcher” – that one’s usually a surefire moneymaker.

But not tonight.

Jaskier secures his lute back into its case, giving the strings one last affectionate pluck before he hides it away. He gets to his feet, pauses to finish off the rest of his drink—the piss-taste only intensifies with volume, which is unfortunate—and saunters through the tables to the bar. “What have you got by way of food?” he asks the barmaid.

She looks at him, clearly unimpressed by his ballads. “Got some bread and cheese,” she offers.

“That sounds splendid,” Jaskier says brightly. “And an ale, if that’s not too much bother.”

Her eyes are flat. “That’s extra.”

Jaskier figured it would be. He slides a few of his hard-won coins across the bar, and offers the barmaid his most winning smile. Hopefully that will mean that the bread he gets is the least stale piece and the cheese he gets is the one with least mould.

He glances back over his shoulder as the barmaid takes his money, trying not to make it too obvious that he’s scoping out the Nilfgaardians. There’s five of them, still wearing their armour and their insignias, and they’re just… sitting there, talking, laughing, drinking ale and pulling the tavern’s whores onto their laps. They’re much like the rest of the tavern’s clientele, to be honest, and Jaskier turns his back on them, fairly confident that they’re no more likely to mug him for his sparse gold than anyone else in here.

When the plate is put in front of him, he abruptly realises that their bread must be very stale and their cheese must be very mouldy. He picks up the cheese, picks off the worst of the rot, and takes a bite. “Thanks,” he says to the barmaid who’s still watching him. “It’s… delicious.”

She shrugs. “It’s the war,” she says.

“It’s always the war,” Jaskier answers, and settles in to eat his bread.

It’s been months since Cintra fell, months since Nilfgaard started rampaging through the north. Jaskier mostly keeps his nose out of it: he’s a bard, not a warrior, and he’d half-hoped that these troubled times would boost his earnings, that people would want the distractions of love ballads and songs about the exploits of the great Witcher, Geralt of Rivia. That has turned out not to be the case, and, as a consequence, his purse has been lighter and his stomach has been emptier than usual. And in all those months, the fighting has shown little signs of stopping.

And in all those months, he hasn’t seen Geralt once. Which is something he’s been choosing not to think about.

Jaskier finishes his meal, flashes another winning smile to the barmaid, then slings his lute across his back and heads upstairs to the room he’s been renting for the past few days. It’s small and poky, the mattress is thin and hard, and it’s disgustingly hot even in the middle of the night, but it’s a place to sleep that isn’t a muddy puddle and that is mostly free of bedbugs. So it could be worse.

The door closes behind him with a thud, and he carefully props his lute in the corner. He opens the small window, peers out briefly across the dark little shithole village that is only the latest in a long line of dark little shithole villages, then sits on the edge of the bed to take off his boots.

He’s… tired. More tired than he would expect. And a bit woozy.

Jaskier frowns, and kicks off his boots. He tries to focus on the rough curtains, tries to make out the colour—a particularly hideous shade of off-purple, if he remembers rightly—but he can’t. His vision is… fuzzy.

“Oh, shit,” Jaskier mutters, then raises his hands to his face, studies them as they blur more and more before his eyes. “Shit.” He was drugged enough times over the years that he spent with Geralt to know what it feels like, and he surges to his feet, catches himself against the wall as his knees wobble – but he only gets a step or so away from the bed before he crumples, staggers, falls. He lands on the floor, hard, and groans. “Shit,” he says again, because his legs are pretty much useless now and, well, there’s blackness eating at the corners of his vision.

Jaskier’s head lolls back against the edge of the bed, his mouth dry, his lips numb. “Who the fuck is drugging me this time?” he mumbles, then passes out.

 

Jaskier is woken by a bucket of icy water tossed straight into his face. His shout of pain is already out before he can think to hold it in, echoing back at him from blank stone walls, and shivers take a rapid hold of his body, wracking through him with a violence that’s almost painful. “Shit,” he bites out, feeling his hair flop heavy and wet against his forehead – and then he opens his eyes, looks up, and finds himself under the unwavering stare of a man that, judging from the uniform, is a high-ranking Nilfgaardian commander. “Shit,” he says again, faintly, and tries frantically to remember what he’s managed to do to piss the bloody Nilfgaardians off.

The man steps closer. “Do you know who I am?” he asks, his voice low, almost sibilant.

“Someone very important and worthy of respect?” Jaskier tries. His voice squeaks on the last syllable, jumping up higher than he can sing on a good day, and he winces. His awareness of his surroundings is coming back to him in bits and pieces, everything still a little bit drug-foggy, but the gist of it seems to be: he’s chained up by his wrists in a stone-walled, stone-floored dungeon, chains sunk into the ceiling which is a good several feet above his outstretched arms; there’s a Nilfgaardian officer standing way too close for comfort, with two more guarding the narrow doorway; oh, and he’s naked.

Brilliant.

“I am Commander Cahir,” the Nilfgaardian says, and Jaskier figures he should probably try to look like that means something to him. “I am the leader of the Nilfgaardian forces in the north. I sacked Cintra, and I will sack the northern lands if they stand in my way.”

What the fuck.

“Very impressive,” Jaskier says, nodding quickly. “Nice to meet you, Commander. I’m—”

“You,” Cahir interrupts, and Jaskier shuts his mouth as fast as he can, “are a companion of the Witcher Geralt of Rivia.”

And the bottom promptly drops out of Jaskier’s stomach. “I’m a what now?”

“You are the bard who goes by the name of Jaskier,” the big scary Nilfgaardian warrior says, and Jaskier has never wanted to be less famous than he does right now. “For many years, you have been the companion of Geralt of Rivia. You have travelled with him, and you have sung his songs in every tavern and inn across the continent.”

Jaskier coughs. “I haven’t seen Geralt in half a year or more,” he says, because he can see where this is going and he figures he should probably nip it in the bud right now. “And we didn’t exactly part on the best of terms, you know, so—”

“You know him,” Cahir interrupts, speaking over Jaskier like he never said anything in the first place. “And you’re going to tell me everything about him that I want to know. He he has something that belongs to Nilfgaard, and Nilfgaard will get her back.”

Her?

Jaskier shouldn’t ask. He really shouldn’t ask, he should just pretend he didn’t hear and focus on how exactly he’s going to get out of the torture that he is well aware is very much looming on his horizon. But, as always, he can’t help himself. “What exactly has Geralt got?” he asks, feeling the tremble start in his stretched-out arms already.

“A girl,” Cahir says, flat and emotionless.

Jaskier should keep his mouth shut. “Did he steal your girlfriend?” he asks, light, skipping, joking, and then abruptly remembers that he’s naked and chained to the ceiling and probably shouldn’t be running his mouth quite as much as usual.

Cahir’s eyes flare, and, no fuss, no warning, he takes a step forward and drives his fist into Jaskier’s exposed stomach. The blow sends pain shocking through Jaskier’s gut and drives the wind out of him, leaving him panting for breath, and what he wants to do is curl in on himself, protect himself, but there’s the whole chained-to-the-ceiling issue which really puts a halt on that plan. “The girl,” Cahir says, apparently ignoring the fact that Jaskier is currently wheezing and spitting, “is Princess Cirilla of Cintra. She is the spoils of war, and she will be returned.”

“And I’m assuming that Geralt is getting somewhat in the way of the whole spoils of war thing?” Jaskier asks, testing out the soreness in his stomach. His voice is hoarse.

Cahir doesn’t answer the question. “You know the Witcher,” he says, intent on Jaskier. “Tell me where he is.”

Jaskier blinks. “Did you miss the part where I said I haven’t seen him in months?”

Cahir gutpunches him again, as casual as before. Jaskier doubles up instinctively, but all that does is drag his feet off the floor and thud all of his weight onto his shoulders. He groans, spits saliva onto the stone floor, tastes the metallic copper of blood from where he’s bitten his tongue. “Where does the Witcher hide?” Cahir asks. “Monsters like him have lairs and dens and holes in the ground that they use when they go to ground. So tell me, bard: where does the Witcher go to hide?”

“Geralt doesn’t hide,” Jaskier says, blurting it out before he can stop himself. “And even if he did, I don’t know where he would go.” Bitterness sluices through him, because he’s spent the last six months hiding from the memories, hiding from the life that he used to have, hiding from the fact that Geralt ditched him. “I can’t help you, Commander,” he says, feeling bloody spittle drooling from his lips. “I wish I could.”

Cahir’s eyes flash. “We’ll see,” he says, and Jaskier tenses for the blow that he knows is coming, closes his eyes, tries to prepare as best he can.

Except nothing happens.

Jaskier opens one eye, then the other. Cahir is still watching him, a sneer masquerading as a smile smeared across his lips, and Jaskier doesn’t know what he’s thinking but he knows for a fact that he’s not going to like where this is going. “This is Aehon,” Cahir says, and one of the Nilfgaardians Jaskier assumed were guards steps up to stand beside his commander. “He is my most experienced interrogator.”

Jaskier’s mouth goes dry. “You don’t need to interrogate me,” he says quickly. “I’ve told you, I don’t know. I don’t know where Geralt is – and I swear, I would tell you if I knew.” He laughs, high-pitched and frantic and born of the terror that’s flooding his lungs – but even as he says it, he knows in his heart that it isn’t true. Whatever Geralt’s got himself into now, Jaskier isn’t about to jeopardise it. The damn Witcher has saved him enough times over the years. Maybe it’s time to repay the favour, even if that does mean a spot of light… torture.

Which is all well and good until Jaskier sees the spark in Aehon’s expression and the long, slim blade in his hand.

“Whatever you know or don’t know,” Cahir says, eyes black and blank, “Aehon will discover.”

Jaskier’s quick tongue and sparkling wit seem to have beat a hasty retreat. “Please,” is all he can manage, because he’s not a hero, he’s not a fighter, he’s not strong. “Please don’t.”

Cahir’s expression twists into disdain, and he leaves without another word. The door to the stone cell closes behind him with a sonorous thud, and then it’s just Jaskier and Aehon the interrogator and the final remaining Nilfgaardian soldier who’s either actually a guard or maybe, judging from Jaskier’s current run of luck, the continent’s greatest poisoner. Jaskier’s heart is doing its level best to beat its way out of his chest, and he clears his throat, stands as tall as he can manage, smiles at Aehon as winningly as he can and says, “Come on, this isn’t necessary. I’ll tell you whatever you need to know, you don’t need to come at me waving that… thing…” He tries not to look at the slender dagger in the Nilfgaardian’s hand.

“Then tell me what my commander wants to know,” Aehon answers, his voice surprisingly mellifluous, and for one distracted, hysterical second Jaskier wonders if the man’s ever considered a musical career change. “Tell me where Geralt of Rivia is hiding the girl.”

“I didn’t even know there was a girl until your commander told me about her,” Jaskier points out, but that’s clearly not the right answer because Aehon’s dagger flashes out and carves a thin, bloody line down his ribs. “I don’t know!” Jaskier yelps. “Geralt’s never shown much of an interest in babysitting before.”

The dagger flashes again, opens a bleeding slash in Jaskier’s cheek. “Your jokes won’t help you,” Aehon advises. “You would be best to tell me all you know sooner rather than later. There is only so much blood a man can lose.”

Jaskier can feel the blood oozing from the wound in his face, from the wound on his chest, warm and thick, and for the first time the realisation settles cold and heavy in his gut that there’s a very real possibility he’s going to die here. “Geralt left me behind,” he says, as blunt and bare as he can manage because maybe if the Nilfgaardian torturer hears the emotion in his voice, the hurt, then maybe he’ll believe him. “Half a year ago at least, maybe more. I don’t know where he is. I’m not even sure I knew him at all, frankly, because I did not see it coming. At all. Which means my previous estimations of his character were probably a tad off the mark. So, all in all, I’d love to help you, Mr Scary Torturer Man, but I can’t.”

Aehon studies him in silence for a long moment, but his dagger doesn’t flip out and cause any more damage so Jaskier is going to fervently hope this is a good thing. “Tell me, Jaskier,” Aehon says finally, gaze bright, expression curious. “And answer this question truly, if you please. Even if you did know where Geralt of Rivia was hiding the Cintran princess, would you tell me willingly?”

There is an obvious answer to this question. The obvious answer is also a lie, and for some strange reason, Jaskier can’t lie right now, not about this. Oh, he’ll embellish and extrapolate as much as he can, he’ll drag this out, he’ll make a break for it if he ever gets a chance, but he can’t lie. He might have been a curse around Geralt’s neck while he was alive, a drag and a bore and an inconvenience, but he’s not going to be one in his death.

Jaskier raises his chin, meets the Nilfgaardian’s gaze. “No,” he says honestly. “No, I wouldn’t.”

Aehon studies him a moment longer, then nods, seemingly satisfied. “Good,” he says. “I appreciate the truth. Now, little bard, I am going to hurt you until you tell me everything you know about the Witcher. When you have told me, and when I am satisfied with the answers, the pain will stop. Do you understand?”

“I know how torture works,” Jaskier says, trying to sound confident and brash (like Geralt would) – but his voice breaks midway through the word ‘torture’, which sort of spoils the whole effect.

Aehon doesn’t answer. Instead his razor-sharp dagger lashes out, digging deep into the meat of Jaskier’s inner thigh, and then the moment the blade has gone, Aehon’s clenched fist slams hard into the wound. His knuckles come away bloody, and Jaskier chokes out a scream. “Tell me,” Aehon says. “Where would the Witcher hide?”

Jaskier closes his eyes and breathes through his nose, but that doesn’t help because apparently Aehon doesn’t appreciate his silence and the dagger comes flicking back out again, his shoulder this time, hot and biting. Tears are beading in Jaskier’s eyes but fuck no is he going to cry. He forces his eyes open, shows Aehon the craziest grin he can manage, and he does what he always does when he has to force himself to keep it together. “You want to know about Geralt of Rivia?” he asks, his voice slipping from terrified to musical as fast as he can manage. “The White Wolf? The Butcher of Blaviken? Slayer of monsters, despoiler of virgins, hero among men? I’ll fucking tell you about Geralt of Rivia.”

And he sings.

He sings about werewolves and ghouls, drowners and striga. He sings about witches and sorcerers and just generally shitty people, and he sings about how Geralt defeated them all. He sings all the songs he can remember, all the songs he’s sung before, and, when the pain gets too much, when the agony is like ice and fire sliced together through his body, he sings ballads, love ballads, erotic ballads, the ballads he saves for the raunchiest of audiences on the drunkest of nights. Aehon seems mostly amused by all the singing, and none of it stops him at his work: he slices and cuts and strains, putting pressure on parts of Jaskier’s body that were never meant to be pressured like that, hurting him with a bright, malicious glee that chokes Jaskier’s breath in his lungs.

He screams through the songs, occasionally, but even when his mind is addled with pain and fear he can still remember the lyrics to “Toss a Coin”.

Aehon pauses, eventually, his knife dripping blood to the stone floor beneath their feet. “Have you been tortured before, Jaskier?” he asks, forehead furrowed in query.

It takes Jaskier a long moment to understand the question. He’s slumped in his chains, hands numb, shoulders screaming at every jolt, body littered with bruises and cuts and all the other shadows of Aehon’s work. “Emotionally or physically?” he manages eventually, his tongue sluggish. “Emotionally, plenty. Physically? This is my first time.”

Aehon hums to himself. “This singing technique,” he says. “It’s really quite effective. I assumed it came from practice.”

Jaskier shakes his head, then forces back a whine at the crunching pain that sends through his shoulders. “Nah,” he says, with serious effort. “You’re my first serious torturer.” He manages to angle his head up, meets Aehon’s gaze. “I hope this experience is as special to you as it is to me.”

Aehon laughs, and Jaskier blinks because it’s not exactly what he expected. Another punch to the jaw, maybe. Another dislodged tooth, not laughter. “You are perhaps unique,” Aehon says. “But, then again, I’ve never tortured a bard before. Maybe this is how all of your profession would cope, by singing every song that came into their heads.”

Jaskier sort of wants to shrug, but his body definitely can’t manage that manoeuvre right now. “I’m just doing what you want,” he slurs through the pain. “I’m telling you all I know about Geralt of fucking Rivia.”

Aehon raises an eyebrow. “Your last song was about screwing a beautiful woman on a moonlit night.”

Jaskier lets his head fall back down, resting his chin on his chest. Switch the pronouns around and that song’s about Geralt, too, but even in his beaten, broken state he realises it’s probably not the best plan in the world to tell his torturer that particular titbit of information. Anyway, he’s tired. He’ll catch what respite he can.

Absently, he realises that he’s standing in a puddle of his own piss. On reflection, that seems like the least bad part of this whole situation.

“We’ll take a break,” Aehon says almost conversationally, and when Jaskier manages to look up he sees that he’s slowly cleaning the blade of his knife with a bloody cloth that Jaskier is confident came from the doublet he was wearing for that last performance. “Rest while you can, bard. I’ll be back.”

“Take your time,” Jaskier says hoarsely. “Happy to wait.”

Aehon glances back at him one last time, an amused smile twisting his lips, then leaves him to stand in his puddle of piss in peace. The door closes behind him and the guard thuddingly loud, and then Jaskier’s alone. He’s alone.

For a long moment, he just stands there, unmoving. The cell is cold, bare stone walls and bare stone floors not exactly keeping in the heat, and the fact that he’s been stripped head to toe doesn’t help: he gets cold at the best of times, but now he doesn’t even have the thinnest of silk and linen to keep out the breeze. His feet are the worst, flat against the cold stone, wet with his own urine – but they’re not, actually, because he hurts everywhere, his body crisscrossed with bleeding gashes, his shoulders feeling like they’re stuffed with broken glass, his breath snapping agony across the gaps in his gums. And the shackles around his wrists are digging into his wrists, bruising and cutting the skin, cutting off blood to his hands which are alternating between tingling and numbness – which is somehow actually the worst part of this, because he needs his hands. He thinks about the feeling of his fingertips against the tough strings of his lute, comforting and familiar in his grasp, and, fuck, no, what if he never feels that again?

Jaskier takes a shuddering breath, then another. His eyes are filling with tears again so he presses them shut, clenches his jaw tight, breathes sharply through his nose. “Toss a coin to your Witcher,” he starts, his voice shaking. “O valley o’ plenty.”

His voice echoes off the stone walls, bouncing back and filling his head with the sound of absence.

 

It seems like no time at all has passed when the door to the cell swings open and Aehon reappears. Jaskier’s not much more composed, if he’s honest with himself, but he’s managed to drag himself back from the edge of breakdown and is instead belting out the filthiest song he can remember, embellishing with all the unlikely sexual positions that spring to mind. He’s not sure if it’s helping, per se, but Aehon raises an eyebrow when he gets an earful of the lyrics so Jaskier’s going to count it as a win.

“I thought I told you to rest,” Aehon comments when Jaskier comes to a grating halt, his abused throat struggling with those last high notes.

“I thought I told you that I don’t know where Geralt is,” Jaskier snaps back, “but you don’t seem to be listening, so I thought I’d follow suit.”

The guard follows Aehon back into the cell, pushing something that Jaskier can’t quite recognise for a moment – but when it hits him, that low, heavy feeling of fear starts settling over his gut once more. It’s a brazier. The guard is wheeling in a brazier, full to the brim with glowing red coals. And there’s a poker thrust into the heart of all that… heat.

Jaskier thinks he might vomit.

“I actually think I might believe you,” Aehon says, slowly drawing the poker out of the brazier. It’s tip glows white hot. “I’m not sure that you do know where the Witcher is right now. But I really do believe that there’s a lot of information you can give me that will be of assistance – if, that is, you stop singing.”

“Don’t you like my songs?” Jaskier asks, rasping it out over the terror that’s mounting in his gut. “A lot of people would pay very highly for this kind of private concert.”

The tip of the poker darts out and presses firmly to one of the cuts that Aehon’s dagger left on Jaskier’s hip. It’s only there briefly, just for a second, but the smell of scorched flesh surges through the cell. And Jaskier screams, of course, but that’s sort of a given at this point. “What kind of places would the Witcher frequent, for example,” Aehon says, as calm and blasé as if he hadn’t just seared a burn into Jaskier’s body. “Does he prefer villages or towns? Would he hide out in the woods, or would he go to friends or allies for help? Where does he usually hunt? You may not think that these questions are significant, but put them together and they will help us close the net.”

“And what makes you think I’ll help you close your fucking net?” Jaskier rasps.

The poker lances through the gash down Jaskier’s cheek, and the heat is so intense it burns half of Jaskier’s eyebrow away. “Because,” Aehon says, lodging the poker back into the blazing brazier, “then the pain will stop.”

Jaskier doubts that very much.

Aehon meets his gaze. “Do you have anything to tell me?” he asks.

“All I have is my songs,” Jaskier says, croaky and hoarse. “I can sing them again, if you’d like?”

Aehon tilts his head to one side. “Do you still have the voice?”

“I’m a professional,” Jaskier says, dangling from his chains, bleeding freely, feet puddled in piss. “I always have voice to sing.”

“Well then,” Aehon says, retrieving the poker. “I’d start singing, little bard.”

 

After, when Jaskier’s wounds have been thoroughly cauterised and he’s sung-screamed his way into voicelessness, Aehon orders the nameless guard to take him down from his chains. Jaskier’s brief flash of relief is abruptly ruined by the agony that fires through his shoulders—broken glass, shattered teeth, and an unceremonious kick in the balls all rolled into one—and then when he’s dropped unceremoniously to the ground, another bucket of water is thrown over him. He kneels on the ground, arms limp and numb, shivering and panting as water drips into his eyes, runs down his chest. He can’t think. His whole body is just cold and pain.

“I’ll be back in the morning, bard,” Aehon says. “Get some sleep if you can.”

Jaskier wants to say something snappy in response, but he’s shivering so much that he can’t control his teeth.

Aehon studies him a moment longer. “Rethink your priorities, Jaskier,” he says finally. “You yourself said that the Witcher abandoned you. You have no loyalty to him.” He pauses, just for a second, then says in a low voice, “There are things worse than me, Jaskier. Save yourself.”

“Loyalty to him is all I have,” Jaskier forces out, and it isn’t the tactical answer, isn’t the answer that’s going to keep him safe and alive – but it’s the truth, and Aehon said that he appreciated the truth. Plus, he’s too exhausted and in too much pain to moderate his words right now.

Aehon just looks at him, and leaves.

It takes a while for Jaskier to be able to move at all without feeling like his body is about to fall apart. Once he’s cold enough that most of him is numb enough to move without the pain being agonising, he crawls to the driest corner of the cell he can find, curls up in a ball, and passes out.

 

The next day is much the same.

 

So is the day after.

 

On the fourth day, Jaskier is woken by the customary splash of ice-cold water. He’s so used to it now—and, frankly, so generally exhausted and abused and hurting—that he doesn’t even make a sound.

A new guard—there’s been a new guard each day, although Aehon hasn’t changed—shoves a piece of bread and a cup of water down his throat, and when Jaskier’s managed to swallow most of it down without vomiting it back up again, he’s dragged to his feet and strung back up in his chains again. He stands there on shaking knees—well, if he’s honest, he’s more hanging than standing—and does what he does each morning: he takes stock, as best as he can. One black eye, one broken nose. A couple of broken ribs, he thinks, and shoulders that are probably by this point fucked beyond repair. A numbness that’s settled heavy over most of his body. Cuts, burns, bruises everywhere he can think of. Missing toenails, one missing toe. A couple of missing teeth, come to think of it. A haze of pain that never leaves him, no matter how much rest he gets. And one thankfully still complete set of heavily abused genitals.

Nothing he can’t cope with, so he sets his chin on his chest, closes his eyes, and starts summoning up lyrics. His lips move silently in preparation, the only part of him that actually seems to work like it used to. Although, actually, he forgot about that: his bottom lip is split.

The door opens, and straightaway Jaskier knows that something is different. The swish of skirts rather than the tramp of boots. The smell of magic rather than the stink of blood.

Eyes still closed, Jaskier takes a long breath in. Shit.

“Look at me.” The voice is soft, female, and rich with authority.

Jaskier doesn’t have much of a choice but to look.

The mage is watching him with that particular inscrutable look that mages seem to wear when they look at Jaskier: it’s somewhere between disdain for this bug they seem to have found on their shoe, and disgust that the bug has troubled them so much. He saw it on Yennefer’s face more than once, in the early days of her whatever it was with Geralt, although his continued acquaintance seemed to eventually wear her down to just the usual annoyance. The other mages that they’ve encountered on their travels, though, have been less… accommodating.

“I am told,” the mage says, “that you have been proving stubborn in your silence.”

For the first time, Jaskier notices that Aehon is here, too, standing just inside the door alongside the guard. He holds Jaskier’s gaze for a brief moment, then looks away. Jaskier licks his lips as best he can, then tries to offer a winning smile. “Actually,” he says, his voice crack and hoarse, “I’ve been very vocal. My good friend Aehon can tell you – he’s had a three day long private performance. It’s been a very special time for both of us.”

The mage doesn’t dignify his ramblings with a response. She just looks at him, inscrutable but somehow judgey at the same time, then lifts her hand. Jaskier flinches instinctively even though she’s not holding anything, then relaxes – but then he glances at Aehon over the mage’s shoulder, and the expression in the Nilfgaardian’s eyes cuts straight through him. He’s afraid. The man who burned him, beat him, wrapped a rope around his neck and choked him halfway to unconsciousness, he doesn’t want to see what the mage is going to do to him.

Fuck.

The mage touches two fingertips to Jaskier’s temple, and his world pretty much explodes. The pain is worse than anything he’s ever experienced, like lightning in his blood, in his eyes, and he can see black veining through his skin, staining him, marking him with its touch even as the sensation builds, and builds, and builds. It goes from pain to more pain to agony to indescribable agony, and he’s long since gone past the point where he knows he should have passed out but he can’t, he won’t, there’s something keeping him conscious.

It hurts so much he can’t even scream.

And, all of a sudden, the mage laughs. “Well that’s something that his songs won’t tell you, Aehon,” she says, glancing back at Jaskier’s previous torturer – who, if Jaskier could think for the pain, he’d probably reflect that he’s missing right about now. “He’s in love with the Witcher.”

Jaskier somehow manages to push through the pain and make a strangled noise at the back of his throat.

The mage looks back at him, and there’s interest in her eyes, now. “I can’t see everything,” she says, “because the pain obscures a lot of the deeper thought, so right now most of what there is in his mind is just instinct – but that emotion is strong, very strong. It shines through.”

“Love?” Aehon echoes. “For the Witcher?”

“That is what I said,” the mage says, suddenly icy. She takes her fingers away from Jaskier’s skin but the pain continues, thick and biting and riven through every nerve in his body. “It would be helpful,” she says, folding her arms as she watches Jaskier keenly, “to know if the feelings are reciprocated.”

“Witchers can’t feel,” Aehon says.

“Superstition and fear,” the mage says dismissively. “Witchers can feel, just differently to humans.”

“He said that the Witcher abandoned him,” Aehon offers, after a moment. “That wouldn’t suggest that he feels the same way.”

Jaskier manages another croak, and amusement darts through the mage’s eyes. “No,” she says reflectively. “No, it wouldn’t.” She pauses, thinking, then reaches back up to Jaskier’s black-streaked, breaking face. He tries to move away but the pain keeps him prisoner, and she runs one fingertip down his burned cheek. “I know how to make you sing, little bard,” she says, intimate, almost sensual. “Although I don’t think you’re going to enjoy it.”

Aehon’s jaw is set.

Jaskier wants to make some kind of sarcastic comment about how he’s enjoying all of this so much as it is, but he doesn’t get the chance because his tongue is still frozen by the pain. All he can do is watch as the mage’s hand rises to his forehead, heart thudding faster, faster in his chest, bile rising in his throat, afraid, afraid, afraid.

Her fingertips press against his forehead, and Jaskier blacks out.

 

Jaskier wakes to silence.

He hangs in his chains for a long moment, eyes closed, listening and waiting for something to come along and cause him even more pain – but all he can hear is the rasp of his breath and the thud of his heart. He risks opening one eye, muscles clenched, ready to push all of his emotion and fear back down, hide it, suppress it – but the cell is empty.

He lets out a long breath that he almost didn’t realise he was holding in.

The cell is dark and empty. The only light comes from the crack underneath the locked door, but Jaskier can work with that because, to be honest, he’s not sure he wants to see the state that the mage’s magic has left him in. Black lines staining his body, worming underneath his skin, and he doesn’t know exactly how that kind of sorcery works but he’s fervently hoping that it doesn’t leave marks behind. If it does, it’s going to be difficult keeping up such a public profession as he does: he wants them to stare at him for his music, not his freaky black veins.

Which is all assuming that he’s ever going to get out of here and be able to perform again, but that’s an assumption he’s not willing to question right now.

They’ve left him chained up, this time, instead of letting him curl up like an animal in the corner – but his shoulders hurt so much by now that he’s sort of learned to phase out the pain. That’s the thing about torture, he’s come to realise. After a while, strangely enough, you get used to the pain. Not in a good way, definitely not, more in a will my body ever work again kind of way, but it does mean that it gets easier to bear. Although whatever it was the mage did was… something else. Jaskier is going to hope and pray that he doesn’t have to go through that again.

He glances down as much as he can, shuffles his feet around a little on the cold ground. Yep, the piss-puddle is still there.

The mage said she knew how to make him sing. The memory seeps into his consciousness unbidden, and that familiar tang of fear slicks itself across the back of his tongue – because while most people know how to make him sing, it just involves a couple of coins and a mug of ale, he’s pretty sure that the kind of singing she had in mind is a little more… painful.

Jaskier huffs out a breath, then tilts his head back as much as he can, looks up at the dark ceiling. “Geralt,” he says, little more than a whisper. “You bastard.”

He’s been trying not to think about Geralt. Mainly because he’s the point of the torture, of course, but also because if he thinks about Geralt, he has to think about the last time he saw Geralt, about the fact that this is the longest time in, oh, a the few decades of their acquaintance that they’ve been apart, about how his heart has been smaller and quieter and more painful in his chest ever since that day on the mountain. The mage said He’s in love with the Witcher like it was nothing, like it was obvious and unimportant. It’s been the most important thing in Jaskier’s life for a long time, actually, and now it’s gone. Now Geralt is gone, and apparently he’s having more than enough adventures without Jaskier traipsing along behind.

There’s a crash in the corridor outside.

Jaskier peers through the darkness at the line of light underneath the door. There’s no noticeable disruption there, no obvious change, so he looks away. Maybe he’s hearing things. He’s been in here long enough that a bit of mental breakdown wouldn’t exactly be surprising.

Another crash sounds loud, and this time Jaskier recognises the distinctive sound of an armoured body hitting the floor.

Hope curdles in his stomach, sickly sweet.

The thread of light across the bottom of the door is broken, footsteps casting shadows, and Jaskier’s heart leaps at the noise of a key being inserted into the lock. The door opens quickly, slamming back against the stone wall, and it’s dark enough that Jaskier can’t see the face that’s looking at him – but he’d recognise the silhouette of those shoulders anywhere.

Geralt,” he rasps.

Geralt steps inside Jaskier’s cell, and as he does the light from the corridor somehow manages to glint off those golden Witcher eyes. “Jaskier,” he says in answer, something that might almost be relief in his voice, and then he closes the space between them, takes Jaskier’s face between his hands and stares at him, hauntingly intense.

“I didn’t think you’d come,” Jaskier says, and normally he’d be embarrassed about how much his voice breaks but right now he’s exhausted and he’s terrified and he’s spent four days strung up in a Nilfgaardian cell and he’d really like to leave now.

Geralt doesn’t answer, not in words. What he does instead, much to Jaskier’s surprise, is kiss him. His lips are chapped and his stubble catches in Jaskier’s scratty four-day beard, and Jaskier has thought about this before, of course he has, but he never thought it would actually happen – and definitely not like this.

It’ll make a great conclusion to a song, he realises absently.

Geralt is apparently done kissing him as abruptly as he started. He looks up at the manacles around Jaskier’s wrists, eyes narrowing, then back to his face. “How hurt are you?” he asks.

“I was tortured, Geralt,” Jaskier says, and he means it to be light and joking but it just comes out flat. “So pretty hurt.”

Geralt pauses, frowning. “Tortured? What for?”

“You,” Jaskier answers, and it’s so hard to say that he laughs. Hey, it’s that or starting to cry, and he’s wasted quite enough of his bodily fluids in this pit already, thank you very much. “You and the Cintran crown princess, Geralt. They apparently want her quite a lot.” He laughs again, feels tears welling in the corners of his eyes that he doesn’t think he can hold back much longer. “What the hell are you doing with the Cintran crown princess?!”

Geralt doesn’t answer for a long moment. His hand settles around Jaskier’s wrists, palms callused, fingers long. “What did you tell them?” he asks, his voice as soft as it ever gets.

“Can’t we have this conversation later?” Jaskier asks. “When I’m not… chained?”

But Geralt doesn’t answer. In fact, Geralt doesn’t even seem to notice that Jaskier’s spoken. “Tell me,” he says. “What did you tell them?”

Disquiet is starting to needle in Jaskier’s gut. “Nothing,” he says. “I just… sang at them. Which they didn’t appreciate nearly as much as you should do, if you ask me.”

“Did you tell them where we are?” Geralt asks, and his hand is tightening, now, squeezing tighter around Jaskier’s already abused wrists, digging the sharp edges of the manacles deeper into his torn flesh. “Where did you say I would be, Jaskier?”

Jaskier doesn’t understand. “Geralt, you’re hurting me,” he says, hating the fact that his voice sounds so weak.

Geralt growls, low in his chest, and his hand comes to Jaskier’s throat – not to caress or embrace, no, those long monster-killing fingers settle around Jaskier’s throat and they squeeze. “Where?” he grunts in that low, bitter voice that Jaskier sometimes hears in his dreams.

And, with a sickening flood of dread, Jaskier understands.

“You’re not Geralt,” he says. He tries to pull away, tries to move as much as his chains will allow, but not-Geralt is gripping his wrists and his throat so tight that there’s nowhere for him to go. “Get the fuck off me,” he wheezes, but all that does is makes the not-Geralt with Geralt’s eyes and Geralt’s hair smile. And it’s not a pleasant smile, either.

“Isn’t this what you wanted, little bard?” not-Geralt says. “The Witcher to rescue you? The Witcher to want you?” He pulls Jaskier closer, kisses him again, harder, fiercer, forcing his tongue into Jaskier’s mouth – so Jaskier bites down, tastes blood erupting into his mouth, sweet and metallic. Not-Geralt lets him go, a bitter sneer curling his lips.

“You’re not him,” Jaskier forces out, feeling blood that isn’t his for once dripping down his chin. “You’re the fucking mage.”

Not-Geralt laughs again, low and rumbling, and all of a sudden the world around him just… splinters. The dark cell is flooded with light. A guard stutters into place next to the door, and Aehon’s there, too, standing with his arms crossed and his face inscrutable. And then, of course, there she is: the mage, the sorceress, the witch. She’s standing in front of Jaskier with her fingertips still pressed to his forehead, and as he comes back to reality, she’s smiling the same sneer that was smeared across not-Geralt’s face.

“You’re in my head,” he says, breathy and harsh.

The mage doesn’t answer, just smiles that smile at him and sends him back to the darkness. And then he wakes up again. And he’s alone in his cell, darkness fluttering across the walls – and then there’s the sound of fighting out in the corridor and Geralt comes crashing through the door, enemy blood splattered across his face, sword in hand as he kicks the door down. “No,” Jaskier whispers even as Geralt comes towards him, seizes him, kisses him again, nuzzles his nose into the crook of his neck and inhales, his teeth bared against Jaskier’s throat. “No,” Jaskier says again, but his hands are still chained above his head, his body is still wracked with pain.

Geralt’s teeth sink into Jaskier’s shoulder, breaking the skin, smearing blood across his chin. “I missed you,” he says, little more than a rumble. “Tell me where to go, and we’ll go there together. Tell me where the girl is, and I’ll take you there.”

Jaskier closes his eyes, screws them tight, because he thought he was going to die here, he knew he was going to die here, and then for a handful of fractured, beautiful seconds he wondered if maybe he was going to escape. But it was a lie, a lie, and all of a sudden the tears in his eyes are slipping down his cheeks as this shadow of Geralt holds him pinned in place. This is a nightmare. But it’s a nightmare that he’s powerless to wake from.

“Get out of my head,” he says to the mage he can’t see. “Get out of my head.”

And the thing wearing Geralt’s face spreads its bloodstained lips and laughs in his face.

 

Jaskier loses count, eventually.

The mage plunges him in and out of this nightmare hallucination over and over again. Geralt comes crashing through that door dozens of times, and he says and does all the things that Jaskier’s most hopeless dreams wished he would – but he’s not real, and that question is always on his lips. Where am I, Jaskier? Tell me and you can be with me again.

And Jaskier thought his heart was broken before.

The phantom that isn’t Geralt hurts him, bites and slaps and chokes, but whenever he comes shattering back into reality, to the smug blankness on that mage’s fucking face, he’s untouched. No teeth marks gouged into his flesh, no bruises around his throat, no handprints dug into his stomach. The pain is all in his mind. The whole thing is all in his mind and on some level he knows that, but it doesn’t stop it hurting.

And the hurt is worst, of course, every time that Geralt kisses him. Sometimes the kisses are rough, biting his lips, straining at his jaw – but worse than that are the times that they’re soft, tender, almost gentle. In one nightmare, it feels like Geralt is there for hours, pressing soft kisses to Jaskier’s jaw, whispering sweet nothings in his ear – and if Jaskier wasn’t so sick to his stomach, so tired, so hopeless, it would almost be funny. Geralt? Sighing like a lovestruck youth? Jaskier has seen Geralt in love before, and it tends to manifest more in ill-advised djinn-wishes and a willingness to traipse along on pointless quests than overripe promises of sex and romance. This isn’t Geralt. This is a puppet of imagination and memory that the Nilfgaardians’ mage dances in front of Jaskier’s drowning eyes. This is nothing more than an excuse.

All the same, the kisses burn Jaskier’s heart.

Geralt comes for him and comes for him and comes for him, and none of it is real.

 

Jaskier opens his eyes to the mage’s face, and gasps for breath like a dying man. His first thought—Geralt.—is rapidly replaced by a frantic Is this real? – and he’s only a little disturbed when the mage looks at him flatly and says, “Yes, this is real.” She looks tired, not that Jaskier would say that to her face, almost worn out, like all this mental psychic torture is tiring for her, as well. Jaskier imagines that may well be true: he’s crossed paths with Yennefer of Vengerberg enough times over the years to know that magic takes a toll on its wielder.

That’s something Jaskier is very, very glad for right about now.

“Unchain him,” the mage says. “Let him sleep for now.”

The guard at the nods and comes to obey. Jaskier’s used to the pain of the unshackling by now so he just breathes his way through it, thinks of the prospect of sleep, doesn’t think of the prospect of his dreams echoing the parade of false rescues. He’s dumped on the floor at the mage’s feet, his shoulders on fire, his body aching, his heart and mind tattered and shredded – and all he wants to do is cry, if he’s quite honest, all he wants to do is curl up in a safe little ball and cry because he is so afraid, but he’s not going to give the bitch the satisfaction. He sits up as much as he can, tamps down the pain and the grief, and looks up at the mage’s face. “Same time tomorrow?” he quips.

Unsurprisingly, she doesn’t answer him.

Jaskier waits until his visitors have left, closing the door behind them. They leave him in that same darkness that the mage has been drowning him in and for a second his heart starts beating harder in his chest, his breaths start coming shorter – but then he stretches his unchained hands out in front of him, focuses on the lightness around his brutalised wrists, focuses on the reality of the stone underneath him and not the memory of Geralt’s teeth in his throat. There are no sounds of warfare in the corridor, no feet moving through the slim thread of light under the door. Geralt isn’t coming.

In the darkness, Jaskier closes his eyes and cries as silently as he can manage.

He doesn’t sleep, even though he really should and, frankly, he really needs to. He pushes himself back into one corner of his cold, stone cell, spreads his palms against the cold stone as best he can and tries to focus on his breathing. He half-thinks about singing, maybe that would raise his spirits, but he can’t bring himself to break the silence.

Where am I, Jaskier? Tell me.

Jaskier presses his forehead against his knees and breathes through it.

He must drift off at some point, despite himself, because the next thing he knows he’s woken by the muted sound of the midnight guard change. He sits in the dark of his cell and listens to the soft murmur of Nilfgaardian conversation, too exhausted and heartsick to try to eavesdrop, and then echoes the beat of the retreating guard’s footsteps in the rhythmic throb of pain through his body. The new guard paces for a few minutes outside the door, clearly settling into his uniform and his post, and then he stills, and the noise stops.

In fact, Jaskier abruptly realises, all the noise stops. Even when the guards are stationary they still make noise – the rustle of fabric, the snort of breathing, the surreptitious sip of ale. But now? Now, Jaskier listens, and there’s nothing.

Except the turning of a key in the door.

Bile rises in Jaskier’s throat, because the door opens and there he is, Geralt of fucking Rivia, broad shoulders, golden eyes, silver hair, a walking work of art in any other context but the last person Jaskier wants to see right now. “Don’t,” Jaskier groans. “Please, just let me sleep.”

Geralt ignores him, as he has every other time he’s appeared like a ghost in the night. He crosses the space between them in a few strides, then crouches down at Jaskier’s side, grips his chin and tips his face up. Something flashes in his eyes as the burned side of Jaskier’s face comes into the firelight, but the only emotion that shows on his face is the faintest tightening of his jaw. “Can you walk?” is all he asks.

That’s not a question Jaskier has been asked before. “What?”

Geralt seems to take that as an answer in and of itself. He pauses, glances down at Jaskier’s naked, battered body, then gets to his feet again, goes out into the corridor. Jaskier just watches, not quite sure what to think, as Geralt strips the clearly dead guard of his armour, then comes back to Jaskier with a long, mostly clean Nilfgaardian tunic. “Put this on,” he says, brief and to the point, and kneels down to help Jaskier into it.

Jaskier stares at him stupidly. “Are you going to smell me?” he asks.

Geralt looks at him, forehead furrowed. “No.”

“Bite me?”

Geralt looks confused. “Why would I bite you?”

Jaskier’s heart hammers louder in his chest. “Why are you here?”

“To get you out,” Geralt says, and he’s clearly getting impatient with this conversation because he pulls Jaskier up towards him and tugs the tunic down over his head. The fabric is rough and it catches in Jaskier’s wounds, in his burns, but the pain is very much a secondary thought right now because Jaskier is just beginning to let himself believe that this might be real. This might be real.

Without a word, Geralt helps Jaskier to his feet. It rapidly becomes clear that Jaskier absolutely cannot walk right now, so Geralt slings him over his shoulder effortlessly, keeping one hand steady on the backs of his thighs as he carries him through the winding network of Nilfgaardian tunnels. There’s a trail of dead guards that they seem to be following and Jaskier searches their faces as they go, tongue frozen, heart still quite not believing. He doesn’t see Aehon, and he can’t tell if he’s disappointed or relieved.

Geralt sneaks them out of a side gate, manned by another two dead guards, and only a little way away, tucked into a small, dense coppice, is Roach. She snuffles at Jaskier’s leg as Geralt helps him up into the saddle before mounting behind him, and for the first time Jaskier can’t hold back a smile. He’s out. He’s out.

“Hold on as much as you can,” Geralt says, low and soft in his ear. Jaskier is propped up against his chest, Geralt’s arms on either side of him as he snaps Roach’s reins and sets her galloping – and Jaskier’s been here before, he’s been here several times before, as a matter of fact, he’s been here before and this feels real, this feels like it’s supposed to.

The wind and the leaves rush past in the darkness, so fast that they wipe Jaskier’s tears clean away.

They ride for what feels like several hours, keeping mostly to forest paths. Jaskier mostly dozes against Geralt’s solid bulk, his face curled inward against his neck, but in the brief moments he’s away he sees places he recognises: a familiar knot of trees on the bank of a stream, the high chimneys of a farmhouse he took shelter in once from a particularly bad storm, a fork in the path marked by an old, mossed-over statue of an elven woman. “Brockenwood,” he says suddenly, as the sun is rising and a small hamlet appears between the trees. “This is Brockenwood.”

Geralt doesn’t answer, but he pulls gently on Roach’s reins, slowing her to a walk.

“We came here, once,” Jaskier says, almost dreamily, because the pain is taking its toll, now, and the whole world sort of feels like he’s seeing it through a haze. “Those bounty hunters, the ugly ones – they were tracking us, well, tracking me, and you brought me here and told me to stay put while you sorted them out.” He frowns, comfortable in the scent of Geralt and Roach. “Can’t remember why they were tracking me. Did I steal from them? Did I have sex with one of them? Did they not like my singing?”

Geralt doesn’t answer. He turns Roach off the road and down a narrow trail through dense underbrush, under the spreading leaves of the trees overhead, and after a little while they come to a clearing, small and sheltered, with a clear stream dripping down the rocks on the north side and the remnants of a fire pit burned into the ground in the centre. Geralt brings Roach to a halt then dismounts, careful not to jostle Jaskier too much – which doesn’t really matter, in the end, because Jaskier basically falls out of the saddle anyway and Geralt has to catch him before he hits the ground. Which he does, of course, because his Witcher reflexes are more than enough to cope with one injured, clumsy, happy-to-be-alive wandering bard.

Geralt settles Jaskier on his bedroll and crouches down next to him, unrolling his pack with its veritable treasure of potions and salves and bandages. He reaches out, tilts Jaskier’s face so that the burn on his cheek is front and centre – and then slowly, carefully, deliberately, he presses his fingertips deep into the barely-healed wound.

Pain shocks through Jaskier and he flinches away. “Geralt, that hurts,” he hisses. Blood and clear fluid trickle down his neck into the neck of his stolen Nilfgaardian tunic, sticky and slick – but Geralt doesn’t let go. He just watches Jaskier, golden eyes blank and empty, his fingers stilled, and says, “Brockenwood.”

For a long moment, Jaskier forgets to breathe. This is real, he thinks, desperation clawing its way up his throat. This has to be real.

“Tell me, little bard,” Geralt says, lips spreading in that horrible, horrible smile, and no, no, this can’t be happening, no. “Where are we again?”

And the world splinters apart.

 

Jaskier opens his eyes to the cold, stone cell, to the face of the mage, to the puddle of piss around his feet and the broken glass in his shoulders. Nothing has changed, nothing is different, Aehon’s face is still wearing that same nervous, tense look – and the mage is only just taking her fingertips away from his forehead, an expression on her face that could only be described as smug. It’s been minutes, he suddenly knows, moments, and he’s been taken apart precisely and perfectly and he’s given them everything they want.

“Brockenwood,” the mage says. “That’s where his mind takes him. That’s where we’ll find the Witcher and the princess.”

“No,” Jaskier rasps, bile flooding his throat. “No, you can’t, no.”

The mage looks over her shoulder at Aehon, whose face is now unreadable. “You should have called for me days ago,” she says.

Aehon bows low. “I did not want to distract you from the war effort, my lady,” he says.

“This is the war effort,” the mage says. “And if these days of delay have cost us, there will be consequences for you, interrogator.”

“I understand, my lady,” Aehon says.

Jaskier does not give a shit about any of this. “You bitch,” he says, flat and angry and he’s a poet, he’s a singer, he should have more eloquent words than that but he doesn’t, he can’t. She just reached inside his head and took the knowledge from him, knowledge he didn’t even realise he had. “You fucking bitch,” he says again, and he doesn’t know what he’s doing but he knows he has to do something. He pushes forward as much as his chains and his ruined shoulders will let him but it doesn’t do anything, it doesn’t help. He’s betrayed Geralt. He’s given him up, and it doesn’t matter that he didn’t mean to, it doesn’t matter that he was tricked, that he was broken, that he was tortured, it means he failed.

“There may be more that he can tell us,” the mage says, unaffected by Jaskier’s impotent rage. “Stay with him, interrogator. Listen to what he says in his delirium. And call me if there is anything of interest.”

Aehon bows low. “Yes, my lady.”

The mage raises her hand and Jaskier shies away as much as he can, his nostrils flaring, panic sparking in his brain because, fuck, it’s happening again. “Goodnight, bard,” she says, and those fingertips press lightly to his forehead, and Jaskier is gone again.

 

Geralt comes, and Geralt mocks, and Geralt tears rents in Jaskier’s skin. Sometimes Jaskier is in chains, sometimes he’s curled in a ball in the corner of the cell – and sometimes when Geralt comes he doesn’t mock and he doesn’t tear, sometimes he’s just so like himself that it makes everything so much worse. Sometimes his hands wrap around Jaskier’s throat and squeeze so hard his vision blurs around the edges. Sometimes he’s all rough straightforwardness and practicalities, dressing Jaskier in stolen clothes and dragging him to his feet.

But Jaskier’s tears have dried up, by now.

He doesn’t whimper and moan and cry, no, he tried that and all it did was nothing. He fights. When Geralt’s hands close around his throat, he ignores the pain in his shoulders and kicks out, catches flesh between his teeth and bites down, snarls in the face of the man he called his friend – and when the kisses come, fierce and violent, Geralt’s hands dragging handfuls of his hair, Jaskier gives as good as he gets. Teeth, lips, tongues, all bloodied and battered by the end of it – and Jaskier knows this is all in his head, sure, he gets that now, but he can feel the blood matting in his week-long growth of facial hair, feel it staining his skin, feel it dripping down his throat. He fights. He doesn’t let Geralt touch him without a snarl. He doesn’t let Geralt drag him out of his cell. He doesn’t let Geralt rescue him, because he tried that before and all it did was make everything worse, all it did was tear the truth from his mind and spread it out for the world to see. Or, rather for the Nilfgaardians to see, which as it turns out is actually worse.

There are moments, here and there, when Jaskier opens his eyes to nothing more than the coldness of the stone floor and the darkness of the cell walls. In those moments there’s no Geralt, no fighting, no suffering – and those are the moments that Jaskier thinks might just be real. The mage can’t keep him trapped in his own mind forever, after all, she must let him sleep eventually, she has to let herself sleep eventually and surely she can’t keep him trapped like this while she’s not awake? Or maybe that’s just him making excuses, trying to find a way out, trying to find something that might resemble peace. Trying to trick himself. Trying to lie to himself.

In those quiet, maybe-false moments, Jaskier knows that if this goes on much longer, he’s going to lose his mind. It’s not a panicked thought, not a terrified thought, it’s a cool, calm, logical realisation that he doesn’t think he can get away from. He’s losing the ability to know what’s real and what isn’t. He’s spending every waking second in a nightmare of blood and betrayal. And there’s nothing he can do to escape.

Geralt comes and presses him up against the cold stone wall of the cold stone cell, pinning his wrists above his head with one impossibly strong hand. He kisses him, slow and languid, and then he sucks a bruise into the side of his neck, using too much teeth and too much tongue. “I’ve missed you,” he murmurs into Jaskier’s throat, and Jaskier takes the opportunity to knee him in the balls.

 

Jaskier sleeps, curled into himself in a corner of a cell that smells like piss and shit and blood, and a part of him desperately, desperately hopes that he doesn’t wake up again.

 

He does, of course.

This time he’s woken by rough hands shaking him and a familiar voice saying his name, tight and low. It’s Geralt, because it’s always Geralt, and Jaskier looks up at him with a sleepy kind of indifference that borders on the clinical. “Jaskier,” Geralt says, his forehead furrowed, his silver hair sparking in the light from the open door. “Can you hear me?”

Jaskier blinks, slow and lazy, and spits in his face.

Shock flickers across Geralt’s expression for a fraction of a second, and Jaskier smiles at that, frantic and victorious. “Fuck off,” he says. “Can’t you cocksuckers just let me sleep for five minutes?”

Geralt, apparently, is having none of it. He hauls Jaskier into a sitting position against the wall, spittle still smeared across his cheek, and takes a brief survey of his injuries. “I’ll have to carry you,” he says briefly.

Jaskier gathers what little strength he has left and headbutts him in the face. See, this is why he knows that this isn’t the real Geralt because there’s no way the real Geralt would be slow enough to let Jaskier of all people hurt him like that – but here they are, with blood spilling from Geralt’s clearly broken nose, dripping down to spatter across Jaskier’s naked thighs. “You’re not carrying me anywhere,” he says. “I’m not going anywhere.”

Geralt sits back on his haunches, blood and spit splattering his face, and if Jaskier didn’t know better he’d think he saw fear in those golden eyes. “What are you doing, Jaskier?” he asks, low in his throat. “I’m getting you out of here.”

Jaskier laughs, even though it comes out as more of a sob. “We both know that’s not true,” he says, anger rich in his voice. “You’re not even Geralt. And, to add insult to injury, you’re not even a good Geralt.”

“Jaskier—”

Jaskier snarls as Geralt makes a move towards him, and in the tiny fraction of his mind that’s still clinging to sanity he knows what he must look like, animalistic, bestial, filthy and broken, but he honestly can’t bring himself to care. “Get out,” he rasps.

Decision settles across Geralt’s face. He reaches into a pocket and comes out with a tiny potion vial which he uncorks with his thumb. Jaskier has no intention of letting himself be fed whatever’s in that vial so he fights when Geralt takes hold of him, scratches and kicks and spits and bites, but Geralt is, of course, a fucking Witcher. He pins Jaskier to the ground with his fucking thighs, trapping his arms with his knees, and then holds Jaskier’s head and jaw still with his free hand as he empties the vial down his throat. He holds Jaskier’s mouth and nose closed until he’s forced to swallow, and it doesn’t take long for the sedative to start kicking in: Jaskier’s body goes numb and faraway, and blackness starts eating at the edges of his vision. “Geralt,” he manages to say, and hates himself because he can feel tears starting to bead in his eyes – why does he have to cry so fucking much?

Geralt’s hand rests gently against his cheek as he slips into unconsciousness. He doesn’t speak.

 

Jaskier sleeps.

 

The next time he wakes, he’s cradled against Geralt’s chest on Roach’s back. He grabs at Geralt’s neck, scratches at his throat and face, rams his elbow back into his stomach, and generally causes so much ruckus that the normally-imperturbable Roach throws them both.

Geralt sits on him on the dusty cart-track until he gets another potion down his throat, and the last thing Jaskier sees before he blacks out again is fear in Geralt’s eyes.

 

Jaskier hangs in his cell, and Geralt comes for him, and comes for him, and comes for him.

 

The air is warm against Jaskier’s skin, warm and heavy with the scent of honeysuckle.

He stirs slowly, warily, peering through slitted eyelids. He’s in a house, by the looks of it, a wooden-beamed house with small, high windows and simple, workaday furniture. Except he’s not, of course, he’s in a cold stone Nilfgaardian cell, but whatever illusion the mage is dancing before his eyes now makes it look like he’s in a carved wooden bed with a soft mattress and cool sheets. A brief assessment shows that his wounds have been dressed and bound—that’s a nice touch—and that, oh, that’s new – he’s shackled to the bed.

Jaskier lets his head fall back against the pillows. Some things don’t change.

“He’s awake.”

It’s a voice he doesn’t recognise, the voice of a young girl. He follows the voice, and there she is, sitting on a chair next to his bed, blonde hair and innocent face, looking at him with a distinctly curious expression. It’s a nice touch.

“You must be Princess Cirilla,” Jaskier says, conversational and relaxed. “A lot of people are looking for you, do you know that? And sincerely, Princess, I have a request, if it’s not too much for a lowly musician like me to ask: please kindly fuck off out of my head.”

The girl’s eyes go wide, but she doesn’t get a chance to reply. “Jaskier,” Geralt growls, striding across the quaint little rural bedroom with all his usual thudding grace. “Stop it.” His hand lands on the girl’s shoulder and shepherds her away from the bed, surprisingly gentle. His gaze is hard, unflinching, and it almost looks like he might be afraid – but Jaskier knows better.

“Geralt,” he says, bright and breezy. “What a surprise to find you here. The scenery’s new, isn’t it? Going for a new tactic? Got bored of the same old, same old?”

Geralt studies him for a moment longer, then says, “See? There’s something wrong with him.”

Jaskier had been so focused on Geralt that he somehow managed to miss Yennefer, standing with her arms folded beside the door. She comes to stand beside Geralt, her footsteps silent on the hardwood floor, and slowly rolls her filmy, diaphanous sleeves up to her elbows. “Hold his head still,” she says.

Geralt does as she asks wordlessly, settling at Jaskier’s side on the bed, planting his elbows on his chest even as Jaskier kicks away from him, gripping his head in his hands, pinning Jaskier in place. Yennefer takes her place on his other side, exchanges a look with Geralt, and reaches for Jaskier’s forehead.

Fear rockets through Jaskier’s lungs. “No,” he says, bravado slipping away, “no, please don’t,” because he hasn’t seen the mage for so long now, he can’t, “please don’t do this”, he can’t see her again, he can’t take the pain, “please stop.” Except she doesn’t listen and Geralt doesn’t listen and Yennefer’s palm—the mage’s hand, it has to be—lands on Jaskier’s forehead, warm and soft.

And all of a sudden, Jaskier can feel Yennefer inside his mind.

He freezes, because it is Yennefer. He doesn’t know how exactly he knows but he does, it’s Yennefer of bloody Vengerberg and she’s stepping carefully through the ruins of his sanity. Memory flashes before his eyes, unbidden, and he knows she can see it, too, can see the Nilfgaardians’ mage, the cell, the torture, the Geralts, all of them, what they did to him, what he did, what he gave up, how he betrayed them.

Yennefer sighs. “Shit.”

“What is it?” Geralt asks, and Jaskier hears his voice in his bones, feels his hands on his skin, his weight on the bed next to him. “Can you help him?”

“I can,” Yennefer says, “but it’s going to be messy.” She looks down at Jaskier, and he feels rather than hears the question: There will be more pain. Can you bear it?

Jaskier can.

Yennefer nods, satisfied, then looks back over her shoulder. “Ciri?” she calls. “Fetch a bucket.”

“What’s wrong with him?” Geralt asks, and there’s anger in his voice, so much anger.

“It’s a curse, of sorts,” Yennefer answers. “A curse of the mind.” She shakes her head. “It is… cruel. Very cruel. I have heard of it before, but they would not teach us to it at Aretuza.”

The girl reappears, carrying a bucket that Jaskier’s pretty sure is almost as big as she is. Yennefer takes it from her and looks back to Geralt. “You will have to hold him down,” she says. “Otherwise he will hurt himself. Can you do that?”

Geralt grunts his agreement.

Hold on to my mind, Yennefer says in Jaskier’s head. Remember that I am real.

And the pain starts all over again.

Black lines foam and writhe under Jaskier’s skin, mapping the network of his veins across his body, twisting and dragging and sparking with so much pain, so much hurt. Jaskier feels his body arch off the bed, head thrown back into the pillows, mouth open in a scream that isn’t silent, this time, no, it’s loud enough to make the roots of the mountains tremble. Geralt’s weight is crushing him down and the shackles around his wrists and to be honest he’s glad, because whatever that black is, he can feel it burning in his veins and he wants it out, he wants it gone, he wants to scratch it out with his fingernails, he wants to cut through his flesh and see it bleed out along with his lifeblood.

Yennefer makes a pained noise, and twists Jaskier’s head towards the bucket just in time to catch the black ooze that vomits out of his mouth. It burns the back of his throat like acid, and Jaskier’s pretty sure that there’s blood in that bucket, too, before long. His stomach heaves and his veins empty and abruptly it’s done, it’s over, he goes slack against the bed and looks up at the ceiling with its wooden beams and he knows that this is real.

“Is it done?” Geralt asks, his voice somewhere between gruff and alarmed.

“It’s done,” Yennefer says, tiredness thick in her voice – and Jaskier tries to add his voice to hers, to thank her, to swear, to shout, to do something even though he’s not entirely sure what, but there’s no sound when he opens his mouth. She shakes her head at him, keeps her hand pressed to his forehead. “Your voice will return in a few hours,” she says. “Removing the curse this way is… taxing for your body, especially your throat. But it is the safest way.”

Jaskier nods, accepting, and then, because he knows she can still hear him this way, he thinks, Thank you.

Yennefer’s eyes are solemn. Don’t thank me yet, she says, and with a flick of her fingertips the shackles around Jaskier’s wrists disappear.

“What was it?” Geralt asks, and he’s sitting back, now, no longer leaning most of his bodyweight on one skinny bard, but his hand is still resting on Jaskier’s chest, warm, almost comforting. “And what’s that stuff in the bucket?”

“By-product,” Yennefer says drily. “It shouldn’t be dangerous now, but I wouldn’t touch it just in case.” She lifts the bucket off the bed, and Jaskier watches the girl—oh shit, the crown princess of Cintra—peer inside and study it intently. “The curse removes the victim’s ability to distinguish between fantasy and reality,” Yennefer says, and Jaskier can feel her question: How much do you want me to tell him? And the image that she holds in front of him is Geralt, kissing him with violent fervour, and then the mage—Fringilla, Jaskier now somehow knows—saying He’s in love with the Witcher.

Jaskier flinches. Not that. The rest is fine, just not that.

Yennefer nods, just slightly, and he feels her reassurance spread through him like water.

Geralt is looking between them, frowning. “What are you two talking about?”

“He saw you, Geralt,” Yennefer says calmly, and Jaskier feels Geralt’s hand tense against his bare chest. “He saw you come to rescue him over and over again, but it was never you. And you… hurt him.” Geralt’s teeth buried in Jaskier’s neck, biting deeper. Jaskier sees Yennefer flinch at his memory, but she doesn’t remove her hand from his forehead. “He saw you take him out of there, he saw you rescue him and take him to a place of safety – but that was a lie, too. That’s how they found out where you and Ciri were, they broke his mind and then they took it from him.” Jaskier can feel Geralt’s gaze on him now, heavy and solemn, but he can’t meet it so he just keeps watching Yennefer, keeps staring at her violet eyes and full lips and, fuck, why couldn’t he be in love with her instead? He hasn’t betrayed her. He hasn’t disappointed her.

Yennefer looks at him sharply, her lips twisting in irritation – which is such a familiar sight that it hurts Jaskier’s heart. Pay attention, she says, and shows him one of her memories, bright and clear as if it were one of his own.

Geralt, coming to her in the dead of night with blood on his face and Ciri in his arms. His face, half-mad, eyes full of rage. Leaving the girl with her, telling her to protect her, and when Yennefer asks him why, where he’s going, what he’s doing, all he can say is, They have Jaskier. The fucking Nilfgaardian army, they have Jaskier. – and there’s fear and guilt and need in his voice, all tangled up together. Hands clenched, shoulders tight, nostrils flared. Stinking of blood and revenge and fear.

Geralt’s sitting at Jaskier’s side, now, and he hasn’t stopped touching him.

Do you understand? Yennefer asks, and Jaskier thinks he just might.

“But it’s gone now?” Geralt asks. “It’s out of him. It’s finished.”

Yennefer looks away from Jaskier, and her jaw is tight. “There will be consequences,” she says.

Ominous, Jaskier quips.

“What kind of consequences?” Geralt demands.

“That remains to be seen,” Yennefer answers. “This is powerful, cruel magic. It leaves traces of itself. But he will survive. That is the important thing here.”

Why are you being so nice to me? Jaskier asks.

Yennefer’s lips curl, just a little. My sister did this to you, she says. And for that, I am in part responsible.

“I’m going to put him to sleep,” Yennefer says out loud. “Just for a little while, to rest. It will be dreamless.”

Wait, Jaskier stutters, but Yennefer listens to him about as much as her bloody sister does, apparently, and she pulls sleep over him like a blanket. The last thing he feels before he’s lost to blessed, empty blankness is Geralt’s hand, heavy and warm against his chest.

 

His sleep isn’t dreamless.

Jaskier dreams of the cell, the mage, the Geralt who isn’t Geralt coming and tearing his throat out with his teeth – and it’s just a dream, he knows that, but at the same time that question sits at the back of his mind.

 

Jaskier wakes with a gasp and a retch, his stomach roiling and flooding his mouth with bile. He’s saved from vomiting all over himself by the bucket that’s promptly shoved into his lap, and strong hands hold him in place as he violently empties his stomach. There are streaks of black in the bucket when he’s done, but most of it is just bile, yellow-green and stinking.

It’s dark outside, he realises. He must have slept the day through.

“Yennefer said you might throw up,” Geralt says, and all of a sudden Jaskier realises who the hands on his bare skin belong to. He flinches away—teeth in his throat, hands in his hair—but then he remembers. He’s safe. It’s okay.

Geralt approaches him slowly, like he would a wild animal. “She said to drink this,” he says, holding out a cup of something that smells just as bad as what Jaskier just vomited into the bucket.

Jaskier takes it anyway, takes a mouthful and pulls a face. It helps, though, soothes the burning in his throat, and he offers Geralt a smile, says, “Thanks.” He rubs his throat, feels the bruises that are there but still fading, and silently thanks whichever gods are listening that he can speak again.

“Lie back,” Geralt says, his hands hovering a little way away from Jaskier’s skin.

“It’s okay, Geralt,” Jaskier says, hoarse and scratchy. “You can touch me, it’s fine.”

Geralt’s expression tightens. “I can’t.”

Jaskier settles back against the pillows and drinks another mouthful of Yennefer’s concoction. He doesn’t think he’s ready to have that particular conversation just yet, so he just pulls the blankets higher so he doesn’t have to see his own scarred, beaten body. “How did you find me?” he asks, quiet and soft.

Geralt seems happy for the change of subject. “A couple of Nilfgaardian patrols found me and Ciri,” he says. “I fought them off, but took one of the captains alive. Made him talk. He told me that they had you, told me where they had you.”

“And you didn’t think about just leaving me?” Jaskier says, as lightly as he can manage.

“No,” Geralt grinds out.

“Ah, of course,” Jaskier says, nodding. “Couldn’t risk me giving them anything else, could you?”

“That’s not why,” Geralt says, but apparently this is a conversation that they’re going to have to have now because Jasker’s heart is pulsing with shame and disgust in his chest.

“Geralt, I’m sorry,” Jaskier says all in a rush, his voice broken, his body a mess, and he doesn’t want to say it, doesn’t want to admit it, but he has to. “I gave you up. I told them where to find you. I put you in danger – I put that adorable little girl in danger.”

“Ciri can take care of herself,” Geralt says, dry and opaque. “You were tortured, Jaskier. Badly.”

“I broke,” Jaskier says bitterly.

“Everyone breaks,” Geralt answers.

“You wouldn’t.”

“I’ve never been subjected to what you have,” Geralt says. “I don’t know how I’d react.”

“Fuck off,” Jaskier says peevishly. “We both know that that’s not true.”

Geralt is silent for a long moment. “You were in that position because of me,” he says eventually, not looking at Jaskier, his gaze on the bedspread knotted in Jaskier’s lap. “If you had been with me, they wouldn’t have taken you. If I hadn’t said those things to you in the mountains—”

“Geralt,” Jaskier interrupts gently, scratchily. “I think we’re a bit beyond that, don’t you?”

They sit in silence for a long moment.

“Geralt,” Jaskier says, at basically the same time as Geralt rumbles “Jaskier” deep in his throat. Jaskier clears his throat, sips his drink, gestures for Geralt to continue.

“I thought you would be safer away from me,” Geralt says, his jaw tight. “With Ciri, and the war, I thought that you would be safer just… living your life. Away from me.”

Maybe it’s the exhaustion, maybe it’s the torture, maybe it’s the black in his vomit. “Geralt, you fucking idiot,” Jaskier says, flat and wry. “You are my life.”

Geralt looks up, golden eyes flaring in the low light. “I thought I would find you dead,” he says, and it’s that same voice of anger and fear and guilt that Jaskier heard in Yennefer’s memory. “I thought I was too late. I thought I’d lost you.”

There’s a rawness in that statement that Jaskier can’t examine right now.

“They used you against me,” he says, fingers white-knuckled around the cup. “You were in every one of my nightmare hallucination things. But you weren’t just… hurting me.” He clenches his jaw, digs his fingers into the blankets. Geralt is watching him but he can’t meet that gaze, not yet, not yet. Jaskier has kept this hidden for far too long. “I mean, yeah, okay, there was a lot of biting and choking. It was kind of disgusting, even by your standards. But that wasn’t all.”

“Jaskier, you don’t have to,” Geralt says, quiet, soft.

“You kissed me,” Jaskier says, his voice briefly jumping an octave or two before he can get himself under control. “Every time, pretty much. Or maybe not every time, but a lot of the time. And that was the worst, because that’s what I wanted. And the mage knew it and I knew it and her fucking Nilfgaardian minions knew it and you didn’t.” He’s breathing heavily and he can’t look at Geralt.

“Do you still want that?” Geralt asks, brusque, gruff. “Do you still want me like that?”

“Of course I fucking do,” Jaskier snaps. “I’ve wanted you like that for years, Geralt, I’m not about to let some stuck up sorceress change that.”

“I can smell your fear whenever I touch you,” Geralt says flatly.

“Which is both unsurprisingly,” Jaskier says as positively as he can manage, “and something that I’m sure more touching will overcome.”

Geralt studies him frankly.

Jaskier licks his lips. “And, just to be clear, here,” he says, “am I supposed to take it as understood that you’re not exactly adverse to the whole… kissing thing either?”

Geralt grunts, which Jaskier learned a very, very long time ago means I suppose.

They sit there a moment longer, just watching each other, and neither of them really seems to know what to do. Fortunately at that point the door opens and the girl comes padding in, a steaming bowl in either hand – which is the point at which Jaskier remembers that Geralt is babysitting the crown princess of Cintra, and then he remembers that he told the crown princess of Cintra to fuck off.

“I brought you food,” the girl says, handing the first bowl to Geralt then turning to Jaskier, holding the second out to him. “If you’d like some?”

“I’d like some,” Jaskier says, and carefully takes it from her. It’s some kind of generic stew, but to Jaskier it smells delicious. He’s bloody starving, but he figures he should probably actually apologise before he—

“Are you feeling better?” the girl asks him.

Jaskier blinks. “Yes,” he says. “Thank you for asking.” He pauses. “And thank you for the bucket.”

“You’re welcome,” she answers. “I’m Ciri.”

“I’m Jaskier.”

“I know,” Ciri answers. “Geralt has told me about you.”

Jaskier looks at Geralt, who flushes. “Oh, has he?” He looks back to Ciri, conspiratorial. “And what exactly has he said about me?”

Ciri cocks her head, her eyes bright in the firelight. “That you talk too much,” she says, voice bright and dancing.

Geralt snorts, and spoons down his stew.

“Is that right?” Jaskier asks, and it’s like something’s released inside him, some tight-wound tension that’s been there for so long, born of fear and pain. He transfers the bowl to one hand and pats the bed next to him. “Did Geralt also tell you that I like to tell stories? Specifically, stories about him?”

Ciri sits on the bed next to him. “He told me that you make things up, too.”

“Geralt says a lot of things,” Jaskier says dismissively, and tucks her against his side. “Has he told you about how we met?”

They stay there like that, the three of them, Jaskier wrapped in blankets, Ciri curled against his side, Geralt sitting on the chair at their side. Jaskier regales Ciri with stories of their adventures—well, Geralt’s adventures—and she treats them with the appropriate level of scepticism until she doesn’t, until she just goes along with the stories and enjoys them for what they are because she’s just a child, just a girl, and Jaskier doesn’t know the full story of how she ended up in Geralt’s care but he can guess that it’s not a happy one. She dozes off, eventually, her head in Jaskier’s lap, and Geralt picks her up and takes her to her own bed.

By the time Geralt comes back, Jaskier is already mostly asleep. Geralt takes the empty bowl out of his lap but Jaskier catches his hand before he can move too far. “Stay,” he says.

Geralt nods. “I will.”

“Sleep with me,” Jaskier says, and then sleepily corrects himself. “Not like that. Not yet, at least. Just… stay in the bed with me?”

Geralt pauses. “Are you sure?”

“I’m sure,” Jaskier says.

Geralt nods, strips off his shirt and his boots, and slides into the bed beside Jaskier. He doesn’t touch him, doesn’t crowd him, doesn’t do anything but lie in the dark with him and breathe.

Jaskier sleeps.

 

Stone walls, stinking of blood. Wrists locked into heavy, cutting shackles, hanging from the ceiling. And Geralt, golden eyes and white-silver hair, hands wrapped around Jaskier’s throat until his lips turn blue.

 

Jaskier crashes awake in the middle of the night, wakes to the darkness and the feeling of Geralt’s arm slung carelessly across his waist in sleep, and thinks he’s going to burst out of his skin. He scrambles away from Geralt, falls out of the bed, vomits across the floorboards – but he’s still itching, still on fire, and he scratches at his arms, rends his own skin because it’s in there, that black sickness, it’s still in there and he needs to get it out.

“Jaskier,” Geralt rasps, wrapping around him, taking firm grip of his hands and holding him steady as he writhes, as the panic fills him up and floods through his eyes. He doesn’t speak, doesn’t whisper sweet nothings, doesn’t say anything at all as Jaskier sobs and vomits again and pisses himself in his desperation and his fear. He just stays there, holding him until he calms, until Jaskier sags back against his chest, spent, and then he cleans him up, carries him back to bed, and sits beside him until he sleeps.

 

It happens twice more that night.

 

In the morning, Jaskier wakes to find himself alone in the bed and Ciri sitting in Geralt’s chair. “Hello,” she says, surprisingly solemn.

“Hello,” he answers, sleep-deprived and hurting all over. “Where’s Geralt?”

“He’s gone out,” Ciri says. “He told me to stay here, to watch you.” She nudges the bucket at her feet. “He said you might throw up again.”

Jaskier takes a moment to assess the state of his stomach, and decides that he’s safe for now. “Not just yet,” he says, pushing himself to sit back against the headboard. “Although I think we’ll keep it handy, just in case.”

Ciri nods. Her expression is solemn. “Geralt told me why this happened to you,” she says, and Jaskier feels himself stiffen involuntarily. “It was because of me.”

Jaskier’s heart twists in his chest. “No,” he says, shaking his head. “No, Ciri, it wasn’t.”

“They hurt you to find me,” Ciri says, her jaw tight and her lips pressed tight together. “It’s my fault.”

“It was nobody’s fault except the people who hurt me,” Jaskier says firmly. “Now come here and apologise to me for saying such horrible things about yourself.”

Ciri wrinkles her nose. “You don’t smell very nice,” she points out, which, now that Jaskier thinks about it, is fair. Notes of vomit and urine, all overlaid by a bouquet of sweat.

He wrinkles his nose, too. “Sorry about that,” he says. “But that doesn’t change the fact that none of this is your fault. None of it.

Ciri doesn’t look particularly convinced, but their conversation is cut off by the sound of a door opening downstairs and familiar heavy footsteps on the stairs. Geralt appears in the doorway, and despite himself a trickle of fear catches in Jaskier’s throat at the sight of him. “You’re awake,” Geralt says.

“Awake and ready for the day,” Jaskier says brightly, even though it’s patently untrue and he can barely move without help.

“If you’re okay to get downstairs, I’ve drawn you a bath,” Geralt says.

Jaskier blinks. “You’ve drawn me a bath?”

Geralt looks faintly embarrassed. “Do you want it?”

“He needs it,” Ciri says firmly. “Geralt, take him downstairs. I’ll change the sheets.”

If Geralt is surprised that he’s being bossed around by a little girl, he doesn’t show it. He does as she asks, wrapping Jaskier in one of the stained, dirty sheets and helping him out of bed, half-carrying him down the stairs to the main room of the little house where there’s a clunky looking metal vat full of steaming water.

Jaskier pauses. “That’s a feeding trough,” he says.

Geralt gives him a look. “We’re in the middle of nowhere, it’s the best you’re going to get.”

Jaskier flinches, instinctive and dark. “Don’t tell me where we are,” he says, shaking his head. “Just – don’t.”

Geralt doesn’t say anything to that, just unwinds Jaskier from the sheet and helps him climb into the water.

At first, it just hurts. Jaskier’s muscles are sore and tight, and his shoulders are strained beyond belief – and, to begin with, the heat just makes it worse. He yelps, screws his eyes shut and breathes through the pain, hissing breaths in through his nose, but then Geralt murmurs his name and he nods, gives his permission. Geralt washes him thoroughly and carefully, getting days and days worth of sweat and blood out of his hair, cleaning around the healing wounds scattered across his body, washing away the stink of his own bodily fluids and terror. He’s not exactly gentle, but he’s attentive in the same way as he is when he’s brushing Roach’s coat, getting the bristles and burrs out, picking stones from her shoes and combing her mane until it shines.

Geralt cleans his face last, and Jaskier watches him in silence as he does. The cloth wipes carefully over the healing burn down Jaskier’s cheek, and anger twists through Geralt’s face. “This will scar,” he says shortly, perfunctorily.

“They’re all going to scar,” Jaskier points out. “I’ll look like you by the time I’m all healed up.”

Geralt’s thumb brushes Jaskier’s cheek, and just for a second Jaskier remembers a clearing in the woods, an ashy fire pit, and Geralt’s fingers tearing into his bloody cheek. He inhales sharply and Geralt drops his hand, eyes shuttering – but no, Jaskier can’t go through the rest of his life being afraid of a memory, so he catches Geralt’s hand and brings it back, presses his palm to his burned cheek, ignores the shiver of fear that runs through him and laces their fingers together.

“I don’t like it,” Geralt says through gritted teeth.

“What in particular about this situation don’t you like?” Jaskier asks, focusing on the warmth of Geralt’s palm, on the feel of his fingerpads just pushing into his wet hair. “Because, if I’m honest, I don’t really like any of it.”

“The scar,” Geralt says.

“Personally, I think it’ll make me look dashing.”

“It’s a reminder,” Geralt grinds out. “Every time I look at you, I’ll see what I did to you.”

Jaskier gives him a sharp look. “You realise that your poor Child Surprise is thinking like this, too?” he says. “Blaming herself for me getting hurt? Except it wasn’t her, and it wasn’t you, and it wasn’t bloody Yennefer, either. So stop it. It’s not helping any of us.”

Geralt doesn’t look convinced, but, then again, Geralt never looks particularly convinced.

Jaskier doesn’t know why, but all of a sudden he becomes very aware of how close Geralt is, how warm his touch is, how keenly he’s watching him for any hint of fear, of apprehension, of pain. He licks his lips and sees Geralt’s gaze flick to that movement, drawn like a moth to a flame, and all of a sudden there’s a heat in his belly that’s got nothing to do with the temperature of the water. “I’m just going to try something,” he says, hoarse and throaty and not because of the screaming and vomiting and singing. “Please don’t hit me.”

Geralt’s eyes flare, part anger, part hunger. “Jaskier,” he says, and he’s probably about to say something else, something annoyed, something tetchy, but Jaskier leans forward and kisses him instead, only lightly, not much more than a brush of lips because what if it’s the same? What if it’s exactly the same as his nightmares, and then the world splinters around him and he’s back there, back in his chains?

But it’s not the same.

Jaskier lets out a little moan that’s more relief than it is arousal, and kisses Geralt properly, his hands cupping his face, tangling in his hair. Geralt is tentative, never pushing further than Jaskier does, never fully letting go of the tension that Jaskier can feel thrumming in his shoulders, but his hand slides to the back of Jaskier’s neck, his fingers warm and solid. And that’s when it hits Jaskier, the thing that’s different, the thing that’s not the same. He pulls back and he laughs, bright and shining. “Apples,” he says. “You taste like apples, Geralt.”

“There’s an apple tree outside,” Geralt says, almost wary of this abrupt change in subject.

“I hope you gave one to Roach before you ate the rest yourself,” Jaskier pokes.

Geralt snorts. “Didn’t need to. She’s already cleared all the branches she can reach.”

Jaskier laughs again, then he stills, his smile falling. “I think I’m really fucked up,” he says finally, almost apologetically. “That’s going to be a problem, isn’t it?”

Geralt regards him levelly. “What do you mean?”

“Like last night,” Jaskier says, trying not to let the bitterness in his heart spoil the memory of the apples on Geralt’s lips. “You can’t have me doing that on the road, especially not if you’re running from Nilfgaard. I’m a liability.”

“If you’re suggesting that I leave you behind, you can stop right there,” Geralt growls.

“I’m just being practical,” Jaskier says.

“When are you ever practical?” Geralt snaps, and his hand flexes on the back of Jaskier’s neck. For the first time, Jaskier notices with interest, the unexpected movement doesn’t send fear flooding through him. “No,” Geralt says before Jaskier can protest. “I thought I was keeping you safe by staying away from you, and it nearly got you killed. That won’t happen again.”

“And what if me staying with you gets you killed?” Jaskier asks softly. “What if it gets Ciri killed?”

There’s that wry smile again. “Ciri is better at taking care of herself than you are,” Geralt says. “More than you are aware. And I would rather suffer myself than have to find you in such a place again.” His nostrils flare and he breathes in sharply, angrily. “I thought that you might be beyond saving when I had to drug you out to get you out of there.”

Jaskier winces. “Sorry about your nose.”

Geralt shrugs. “It’s not the first time it’s happened.”

“True,” Jaskier says, and by way of another apology he leans forward, kisses Geralt again.

Jaskier gets out of the bath that’s actually an animal’s food dish after a while, and Geralt helps him dress slowly, carefully, in old, worn trousers and one of Geralt’s shirts – which is obviously too big and billows off Jaskier’s torture-starved frame, but it smells pleasantly Witcher-like, so he’s not going to complain. It’s a fairly pleasant day outside, mostly sunny, only a few clouds, so Geralt drags a chair outside and makes Jaskier sit in it, tells him in no uncertain times to sit there and not do anything for a while.

So Jaskier sits there, and lets the sun warm his stone cold bones.

Something—maybe sunbeams, maybe dust motes, maybe summer pollen—crackles and splinters at the edge of his vision.

Jaskier’s heart thuds loud in his chest and he shakes his head, blinks it away. He forces himself to take a breath, take another, calm himself. “Geralt,” he says.

Geralt is emptying the bath water down the side of the rickety cottage. He grunts his acknowledgement, looks up to meet Jaskier’s gaze.

“This is real, right?” Jaskier says, not quite able to hide the panic in his voice. “You came and rescued me?”

Geralt’s expression twists. “Yes,” he says, coming to Jaskier’s side.

“You broke into that Nilfgaard prison encampment guard station thing and rescued me,” Jaskier says, heart racing. “You killed lots of soldiers and terrorised the Nilfgaardian commanders on your way to me, right?”

“Yes,” Geralt says, surprisingly soft.

“And then Yennefer fixed me?”

“Yes.” Geralt lays his hand on Jaskier’s shoulder.

“And you’ve adopted an adorable little princess and you’re living with her in this cottage like something out of a fairytale?”

“The cottage is just a stopping point,” Geralt says. “Yennefer knew of it. She has hidden here before, and she offered it to us for as long as you need to recover.”

“And where is Yennefer now?” Jaskier asks. “Only because she saved me and then just… disappeared.”

“She stepped through a portal after she put you to sleep,” Geralt says. “I don’t know where she went.”

“And you… don’t hate me?” Jaskier asks, not quite sure how to phrase this new, tender thing between them.

“Yes,” Geralt says.

“So this is real.”

“It is.”

Jaskier doesn’t speak for a moment. His throat is full of something he can’t define, maybe fear, maybe dread, maybe hope. “Geralt,” he says, jaw tight. “Kiss me.”

Geralt kneels in front of his chair, takes his face between his hands, and kisses him. “This is real,” he says, his forehead pressing against Jaskier’s. “This is real.”

“Right,” Jaskier says, pasting a smile across his lips. “Of course it is.”

Tears gather in the corners of his eyes, and where they sting the most, the world splinters, just a little.