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In a Little Corner That We Call Home (I Loved You From the Start)

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Jaskier is eight years old when he first falls in love.

It is with the girl who lives nearby. She is older, only by a year, and Jaskier sees starlight in her eyes and sunshine in her hair. She looks like she was spun from fairytales, woven from the sky itself and created with magic in the very tips of her fingers. She giggles when she says his name, back when it was still Julian and he was still the Viscount's son; back when he thought that he would marry a fair maiden and they would have their happily ever after.

It is childish infatuation and, when they play together, Jaskier makes her a crown out of woven daisies. She blushes, her cheeks a pretty pink, like candy floss clouds in sun-risen sky, and she wears it until the petals wither and the flowers die; and then he makes her another one and another one and another one, until his fingers are green-stained and he can make them with his eyes closed. 

She has beautiful hands and she always wore sparkly bracelets, a silver one that her grandma had given her for her birthday and a bronze one that she thought was pretty. They would clink around her slim wrists, little melodies woven in her like threads of fate. 

She smiles and she glows and she was the sun, Jaskier orbiting around her. He is drawn to her like a moth to a flame, his tiny hands held in her own equally small ones. They play at happy families together and Jaskier, young and naive and innocent, thinks that this is the happiest he will ever be. 

She kisses his forehead and they promise that, when they're older, they'll get married. They make their vows in a chain of flowers, link their fingers with dandelion stems. Till death do us part, they say in their high-pitched voices. Forever and ever and long after that.

They seal it with their pinky-fingers intertwined and their faces solemn with all the severity that young children can muster. Jaskier imagines her in a pretty white dress, his daisy chains woven in her golden hair. He kisses her on the cheek and she giggles as they run back home, hand in hand. 

He thinks that she is his future, she is his fairytale princess. Like the ones in his storybooks that he reads to himself late at night. She is the gold and the light and the sun and she is his destiny.

And then she leaves and Jaskier's heart breaks in two. 

His mother comforts him with a gentle hand on his shoulder. She has kind eyes, not blue like Jaskier's but dark green like the leaves on trees and the grass in summer. Delicate like the waterlilies floating on the river-surface, his mother is made of fragile white lined with fire of pink. She has Jaskier's smile though, and like ripples through water Jaskier sees his own face reflected in that of his mother's.

Jaskier cries, tears spilling from his eyes, tracked in raw red down his cheeks. She holds him close, holds him until the tears stop falling. She is always there; for the rest of his childhood. She grows quieter as she gets older; 'learns her place', as his father had put it. However, she never once leaves him. Forever, his mother stands beside him like a comfort of shadow, something so deeply intertwined with his identity that he does not realise her true worth until she is there no longer.

He asks her why people fall in love, if it hurts so much. Her answering smile is painted in that quiet sort of sadness as she tugs him against her. Her hands shake and Jaskier thinks of his father; of how he is always distant even when he is right beside them, for his home was no longer here. He had made it somewhere else, somewhere different, and with it, he had stolen the pieces of his mother; the parts she had given him oh so long ago. Taken them when the world was different and when things had been painted in blacks and whites and the greys had yet to exist. 

He had bruises on his neck that made Jaskier's mother cry. He always came home late with a stumble to his steps and the smell of flowery perfume lingering to his coat. Money would vanish without a trace and all that would remain were the smears of red and pink and purple stained around his father's lips.

"You have a good heart, Julian." She whispers into his hair. She pulls back, looking at him in the way that all adults do when they think he won't understand. "Never think that is a weakness." 

His heart soon heals like the scrapes on hands and the bruises on his knees, but he can no longer make daisy chains with his eyes held shut and he no longer wants his fairytale princess.

x

As Jaskier gets older, love comes easier and as school grows tougher he begins to rebel against the confinements of his nobility, he longs for a simpler life where there is freedom and hope and he can fly away on wings of fire.

He falls in love with a merchant's daughter. He kisses her under the starlit sky and they too make their promise for forever. He is still young, still carefree. His love is pure and sweet, innocent. He holds bouquets of wildflowers in his hands as he meets her in secret; he makes her crowns of daisies and she wraps her hands around his. Her hands are warm and his are clammy but she never seems to mind. She kisses the marks on his knuckles, the vertical lines of where a cane had been struck hard. She is smart and intelligent and she helps him read when he cannot understand and it is her who shows him the constellations at night and it is her who tells him stories from lands far away. It is her who gives him the bracelet, the one that hides pointed ears and the light that glows from within. "In case you ever need to hide." She had said and he had never understood, not until he was much older and he realises that, viscount or not, his blood is a thing to be hated.

But she moves on, eventually, and they break it off under the pinkened sky. Forever is a long time, he comes to realise; and it is a thing that cannot be promised so easily. 

He falls in love with a farmer's daughter next. Her skin is dark and her eyes are bright and she captivates Jaskier with the accent of her voice and the curve of her smile. He finds her and they play games together. She is clever and witty and she makes Jaskier laugh, but she works hard and she is always tired and when the harvest seasons approach she does not have the time to waste in idleness. That is when Jaskier realises that there are different kinds of freedom. She envies his easy life in his grand house, his fine clothes and his father's wealth. He envies the way she can speak her mind, coarse and brutal but honest in a way he was not permitted.

She ignores the welts on his skin, the beatings from sticks and canes and hot-fired pokers. He pretends that she is not worked to the bone, fatigued beyond her young years.

They both ignore how neither of them are truly free. Their blood is tainted and they will not be safe in the world outside, not amongst men and monsters and all that awaits. The bracelet from the merchant's daughter is hidden under old wooden floorboards in Jaskier's bedroom. He pretends that the farmer's daughter has her chance of freedom, but he knows that she will live here until the humans find them and their houses are burned to the ground.

They too split, for she grows to detest his frivolous ways and he cannot understand her serious nature; they bicker like the children they are and eventually they boil over, sizzling like fat in a frying pan. They shout and argue and he storms off and she never comes back. 

But he is still young, not yet older than a young child, and his heartbreaks are easily healed. His mother holds his hands when he is upset and the world is simple, his heart is true. 

His father does not speak to him anymore and he does not care. It is him who enrolled him at that school, he is the reason why lessons are beaten in with a cane and his mistakes are punished with blood.

"Follow your heart." His mother tells him, wiping away the tears from under his eyes. "Do what makes you happy." 

And he does.

x

Jaskier finds a body on one of his birthdays. It is a young man and there is blood on his head and crimson on his lips. His skin is pale and he does not breathe, but it is his eyes that haunt Jaskier's dreams.

Lifeless and dull, devoid of all that made them alive.

He learns much later that he was attacked. He hears his father talking about it in his study. Jaskier listens at the door, ears trained on the keyhole. "He had it coming." His father repeats, over and over again. His companions laugh. 

"Queer." He hears, repeated in cruel cackles. "Immoral." 

And perhaps the worst, "He got what he deserved."

x

He gets much older and the years fly by. He reaches adolescence and he falls madly in love with a girl of midnight hair and dark brown eyes. He smiles at her but she does not smile back and, for the first time in his life, Jaskier finds his love unrequited. This, perhaps, hurts more than heartbreak.

But Jaskier watches her from afar, his soul singing to her from beyond her reach and he watches her watch another. His expression is mirrored on her own face, her dark eyes doleful and sweet upon the blacksmith's son, who is tough and strong and large and not like Jaskier who is skinny and is yet to hit his growth spurt. 

Jaskier watches her with the blacksmith's son. Looks at him and feels something like jealousy burn in his chest.

The son has eyes like storm clouds and his laugh swirls in madness like a hurricane. Jaskier watches him too, and feels himself drawn closer. 

But he remembers cold skin and lifeless eyes and he discards the pieces of him that grow warm when the blacksmith's son smiles.

He likes her and he is envious of him. That is all it is.

But it hurts. No matter what, it hurts.

He tries not to let it bother him, however, and he focuses on the girl with midnight hair, lets that darkness swallow out the hurricane laugh and grey-sky eyes. He waits for whatever he feels to pass. He waits for his heartbreak to disappear and he prays that he will find another, one who is not already entangled in matters of the heart. One who is not male.

It does pass eventually, as always, and Jaskier's attentions are once more captured by another.

But he finds his eyes can never quite tear themselves away from the boys who laugh and shout and run through the wind like they are the storm and the hurricanes and the flashes of lightning that hit the ground. They upturn Jaskier's life, pull him up by the very roots until he is left with nowhere to hide.

But hide he must, for the boy with blood on his temples and red on his lips would be him if he did not.

x

He hits puberty and he grows, upwards and outwards and his muscles harden and his voice deepens. The girl of midnight hair looks at him, now. The blacksmith's son had not been what she was looking for, and she had not followed him when his family had moved away. He says he is thankful that he is gone, for now she wants him; but he knows that he is lying. He worries about the blacksmith's son, sometimes. Wonders if they managed to get to their golden palaces of legend, or wonder if humans had found them first and cleansed the earth of their filth. 

But he pushes these feelings aside and instead focuses on the girl who's eyes begin to meet his own, who flushes and smiles and twirls strands of her hair around long fingers. Apparently she has found what she wants within Jaskier. She kisses him in the rain, her hair wet and bedraggled and Jaskier thinks she is the most beautiful creature on earth. All thoughts of hurricanes and storms are wiped from his mind until all that remains is long, starless nights and the silver glow of moons like laughter in bright eyes.

They find one another and perhaps - when concerning all the strings of relationships Jaskier has had and the ones that are still yet to happen - it is this girl who he remembers with a fondness. He thinks this is his first true love. The one that is not just childhood naivety and unkeepable promises, this is deep and long and he and her find their true comfort in one another. 

Her lips taste of rose petals and Jaskier feels as if he is standing on the edge of the moon. He falls into the blackness of night, wrapped in her midnight hair.

They have sleepless nights where they simply sit and talk. She glows under the stars and Jaskier finds himself captivated by her ethereal beauty. She kisses him and he kisses her and he tangles his fingers in her hair and she looks at him under her long, dark eyelashes and he thinks that his heart could never be fuller than this. 

She is his first. An awkward tangle of limbs, noses bumping and teeth clashing. She touches him and it is too hard, then too soft and he doesn't know where to put his fingers or his hands and they try and experiment and some things work and others don't. They explore one another for the next year, careful touches and tentative strokes, growing surer and surer as they become familiarised with the shapes of one another, the contours and highlights and the bits of them that shiver and burn when they're touched just right.

They learn everything about one another, until she is no longer the girl with the midnight hair and he is no longer the boy with the cornflower eyes but they are one in the same. Jaskier gives his whole heart to her and there are words that swirl around in his mind, pieces of the world that beg to be described. 

He thinks of his wings of fire, the ones he always longed to fly away on. They glow bright, of vibrant oranges and yellows. She sets him alight and together they soar. 

She is his first muse, too. His first piece of inspiration.

He writes poetry until his hands hurt and his eyes grow sore. Under flickering candlelight, the ink flows onto yellowed pages. It feels natural, the words becoming like an extension to himself, and from the pen comes sentences that are translated from the very beating of his heart.

He reads it to her the next day, while they sit in spring sunlight along a river's bank. Butterflies fluttering above her head in a technicolour rainbow.

When he is finished, she kisses him and they make love on the water's edge. Later that night Jaskier writes about the softness of her skin, the curves of her body. He writes about the gasps that slip between parted lips, the culmination of two hearts becoming one.

They become their language, their own secret tongue. He reads her the poems, their own personal secrets scrawled out in scarlet ink. He traces the words on her skin and she giggles as his fingers trace the lines of their language. Love, he writes. Sweetness, happiness.

Forev- he stops. 

He looks at her, feels her against him. Her midnight hair is smothering and its darkness blocks out the fire of his wings. She contains him, she keeps him grounded when all he wants is to fly.  

And Jaskier learns that it is just as easy to fall out of love as it is to fall in.

x

He breaks it off a few weeks later and she cries. 

She tears up his poetry, leaves his written words in torn-up shreds. They blow away in the wind, disappearing until it was as if they never existed at all.

But Jaskier does not stop writing. He moves on and he writes of things that have gone. He writes of sunsets and ever-nearing autumns. He writes of the leaves on trees and the turning of green to gold to brown. 

He writes and writes and soon there is not enough room for him and his words in the village. 

Pressure grows and he can see the impatience of his father, the edge to his words as he speaks of marriage and love and convenience. "No more farmer's daughters", he hisses and Jaskier's blood burns hot. "You've had your time to dream away your days. Now you must face the real world. Take the responsibility you were born to carry." And his father takes his papers, takes his words and throws them away. " This is your destiny ."

But Jaskier cannot accept that. This cannot be all there is.

"Do what makes you happy." He hears his mother's voice in his head. He is older now, he is almost an adult. She will understand.

But now she says other things. "Never give all of your heart away. Only pieces, bits that can be glued back together." She looks at his father with tear-stained eyes. "When you give someone everything, you give them control."

And then, voice so quiet it had been like the whispering of wind, she says; "They can take you, every little piece that you've ever been, and stamp on it until there's nothing left."

He can only apologise for the fact that she cannot do the same. But she is trapped, tethered to the land like a dog on a leash. She is property, a prize that his father can have hanging off his arm, another trophy in his endless cabinet. He cannot live like that. He can't follow in those shadowed footsteps. 

So he leaves; leaves the only thing he had ever known behind him.

The bracelet, the gift from the merchant's daughter, slides around his wrist. And although he is now free, there is a whole new set of chains that shackle him.

x

He is almost eighteen (as he tells them, although really he is much older) when he first picks up a lute and it fits in his hands as though it was meant to be.

He has become learned, well-read. Had professors who had nurtured his writing, watered the seeds and saplings until they blossomed into spring daffodils. Of new beginnings he becomes and the strumming of a lute is what changes him. No longer are words beaten into him with welts and scars. When his words will not come and his eyes grow tired, he finds that there are people who he can fall back on, both his equals and his highers who give up their time to help him grow. 

He learns of destiny, of the red threads that intertwine them all. The connections he forms, the impact that he has. He is told that he inhabits a corner, that in the vastness of the world he is given a room in which he must live. The people who he will know, the people who he will meet, are only a tiny portion of all that there is. He has a torch that he can set alight to, he has the tools to create light in his little corner. And maybe he will not go down in history and maybe he will not be remembered, but the light that he will bring will burn even when he is gone. People will remember the act, for the heart never forgets kindness.

His love for poetry and writing, of the power of spoken language and the influence of words written onto parchment grows and swells like the lilt of his voice as he strums his lute.

He discovers that he has a talent. That he can see the spaces between the world, the pieces that others might miss. His voice is a gift and he can create life within the lyrics of his songs.

So he finishes his studies and he stays in a place that seems to want him. The city is big and bustling with people and he thrives in Oxenfurt, his words overflowing and the world around him just waiting to catch them.

When he is done, he finds himself yet reluctant to move on. So instead he begins to teach children who were much like him. He speaks to them of the words that people do not see, the daisies underneath the sunflowers, the stars around the moon. He teaches them of details, of the things that people miss and the things that go unnoticed.

That is our job, he says; as someone had once said to him. We see what others do not, we can write about the world in ways that many will have never even bothered to look for.

His students are good. They are smart, intelligent. They have strong wills and they fill up their little corners with bright fire. They burn and Jaskier feels that he could truly be happy here.

He is a good teacher, he takes joy in what he can give to others. But there is an ever-growing itch in the very depths of his mind. For now he ignores it, but he knows that his little corner of the world is not yet big enough.

He wants more

x

He begins to sing in pubs and bars and anywhere he can find.

People like him. They praise his voice, praise his lyrics. He sings of painted skies and torches of fire. He sings of a girl with midnight hair, of her heartbreak and his loss and the falsehoods they shared that would never come to fruition. He sings of a girl with daisies in her hair, of hands held in his as they run and stumble through grass fields. He sings of a merchant's daughter and the destiny that pulled them apart and he sings of rough hands and dark skin, the laughter of a farmer's daughter who would work herself until there was nothing left.

He sings of all those who he loved, of all those who he loves now. He sings of them all and pretends that the shadows of their touches and the remnants of his memories is enough.

And he sings of a little boy called Julian who wrote poems in his bedroom and let his mother wipe away his tears. He sings of the little boy he no longer is, for Jaskier is his name now and with it the remaining shreds of Julian are shredded like snakeskin. He emerges as a new person. No past. No title. No destiny.

He shapes his own fate and he sings of freedom and happiness and the light in his corner that burns brighter than it ever had before.

But he has given away pieces of his heart for free. He has loved and lost and his affections have not always been returned. There are gaps, echoless voids where parts of him have never come back. There are parts of him that he can never reveal and the song of the blacksmith's son is one that never gets sung.

Sometimes, when it all feels like too much, he sings of loneliness.

x

That is when his habits start.

Jaskier loves easily and he no longer seeks for the emotional comfort he once had. People are not like him, people do not fall in love like he does. They cannot give away pieces of their heart and take it back, not like him. His heart is strong and it heals and he revels in his temporary pleasures, his bouts of infatuation. Yet others are different. 

He is not a child anymore, matters of the heart are not given away so freely by the cynicism of adulthood. People trust less, they care more.

They fear love and they fear the weaknesses it can bring. The vulnerability and heartache. Jaskier thinks of his mother, thinks of how her love for his father destroyed her from inside out.

Love is dangerous, a double-edged blade. 

So, instead, he turns to physicality. He beds those he loves and they will share something for maybe a night or maybe a week. Nothing long, nothing permanent. They share their bodies and they give and take their pleasure and Jaskier gives them his heart. They do not want it, however, and they always leave. More and more pieces of him are taken but Jaskier cannot stop it. He loves freely and he loves with all he has. When he feels empty, when the loneliness worms its way into the gaps of his heart, he finds himself longing for that comfort once more. Love turns to lust and he pretends that they are one in the same. 

So he returns day in, day out. Down to the moonlit bars, he flirts with any woman who strikes his fancy and again and again and again he falls. Always with women. Always.

But as it goes on for longer, as his love grows tumultuous like the very waves of the ocean, he realises that he has been falling for a long time and he is yet to be caught.

And the bracelet around his wrist itches and the laughter of men captures his heart and he's so sick of hiding; but hiding is the only thing he has ever known and he does not know what to do without it.

x

Jaskier does not remember all those who he beds with. He can recall pieces of them, their little parts that had captivated him so. For he loves them all, each and every one, and their touch was like the song of birds and the cacophony of a thunderstorm, loud and sweet and deep in his bloodstream. Their faces may blur together and their voices become one; but he can see grey eyes and red hair and sharp smiles clear as though he's looking through glass. 

They are not like the girl of so long ago, with daisies in her hair. They are not the merchant's daughter of stolen kisses nor were they the sharp wit of the farmer's girl who had laughed like honey and treacle on cold winter mornings. They are not the girl with midnight hair who had touched him so tenderly by the riverbed.

They are a means to an end, as is he to them.

He is their bedmate, their plaything. An excitement for those betrothed to another, a dirty secret, a lapse of control. He is their guilty pleasure, the bard with the delicate fingers who sings of loss and loneliness and destiny. They play him for a night, make him sing loud and clear for their own private performance and then they are gone. Like the calluses on his fingertips from strumming his lute, these personal songs leave their own marks. Bruises of where hands had once grasped, the crescent moons of teeth and the purple of hickeys. They are his trophies, his lasting rush. He traces their shadows come morning; when he sneaks out of cold beds and tumbles out of half-opened windows. He pretends that this is enough.

Those remnants of a night now gone are his comfort, his moment of connection. They touch him and he pleasures them and he convinces himself that this is love, this is what he is looking for.

But it is not what he wants. 

x

Jaskier remembers the first time he ever bedded a man.

He had promised himself he would never do such a thing, never succumb to his own heart. The dead body lay in shadows amongst the very depths of his dreams; the boy who was killed and the boy who deserved it.

He promised himself he would not be like that. He would not risk it, he would not dare.

Yet here he is.

It was a happenstance that was tolerated amongst the city-folk, less backwards than outer villages and smaller settlements - certainly they were filled with less contempt of the thought than that of his father - but tolerance and acceptance are completely different things and Jaskier had spent his entire life trying to be accepted, trying to be loved. Laying with a man was a risk, something that could put it all on the line. Everything he had worked tirelessly to build.

Homosexuality was better done behind closed doors, under a cloak of low light and in the utmost secrecy. People would not say it aloud, they would not shout hatred and disgust and anger and wear it like jewellery for all to see. But they would make comments, snide jokes, lingering glances. 

Falling in love with a man would mean secrecy. Longing glances and fleeting touches. Like playing hide and seek, but everyone can see his feet from beneath the curtains. Never quite invisible, never quite gone; but ignored.

So Jaskier had never once thought that a man was an option. Or, more accurately, he never thought it was an option that he could have.

x

That all changed, however, when a proposition is put forward.

His name was Fain and he sat in the pubs, bathed in the shitty low glow with his tankard clasped in his hands. He would watch Jaskier sing, clap along and belt out the lyrics to the tunes he knew. Jaskier knew it was him for his voice was high and reedy, slightly out of tune. He had a loud laugh, a cackling sort of explosion that reverberated around the room and always managed to catch everyone's attention.

He became a regular and, whenever Jaskier performed, a part of him would be always keeping an eye out for a flash of that bronzed hair, or a hint of that infectious laughter.

Every time, their eyes would meet. His eyes were dark, almost black under the lights. He was handsome, a strong jaw and high cheekbones. His nose would perhaps be considered too large and his voice a bit too high, but Jaskier thought it was all utterly charming.

He does not realise that he is in love until much later. But he supposes that this was the beginning of something new and, if Jaskier has learned anything in his many years of living, (almost nineteen, he says when asked, but that is a lie and the metal of his bracelet feels cool against his skin as he says it) it is that people are always resistant to change. 

It is after one of Jaskier's performances, when he flags the bartender for a drink and finds a quiet corner to sit in, that the stranger approaches him to keep him company.

He had asked, polite and nervous and nothing like the brutish sort of men that frequented these establishments. When he smiled, his eyes would crease at the edges, the beginnings of crow's feet woven in soft lines. He is older, mid-twenties, Jaskier thinks. Perhaps some would consider him too old for a nineteen-year-old, but Jaskier is not really nineteen. So he agrees and he smiles and he pretends that the thumping of his heart is the rush after a performance. He pretends that he does not fall in love with ease. He pretends that he does not fall in love with men.

They talk and they drink and they laugh and Jaskier tries to think nothing of it.

But as the days pass and they grow closer, seeking one another out in the twilight evenings, Jaskier feels the empty spaces of his heart gradually get filled.

He stops looking for the companionship of women, he stops seeking their admiration and he no longer preens under their advancements.

Instead he smiles at Fain from across a scratched-up table, ale in hand and a laugh caught high in his throat.

It is the beginning of something new, only he does not quite realise it yet. Or perhaps he already has. Maybe he is not quite ready to accept it. 

x

They kiss in the back alleys of an endless street, a few months after their first meeting.

Jaskier cannot remember how it happened, or who was the one to lean in first. What he does know is that there had been a spring in their steps, a loudness to their voices and a weightless, fuzzy feeling in both of their heads; no doubt a culmination of slightly too much to drink and the lightness of soaring hearts enjoying good company.

They walk under the darkened streets, cobbles uneven beneath their feet and lampposts casting down their ghostly glow. Close enough that their shoulders would brush, that Jaskier could smell Fain's cheap cologne and the scent of smoke and tobacco that lingered underneath.

They slip into their shadows, hide amongst the darkness of buildings and shuttered windows and then Fain's lips are on his own and Jaskier's heart swells and a symphony of song crashes against his eardrums.

It is different from kissing a woman. Harder, the lips are rougher and the hands that touch him are calloused and large and square. The taste, however, is no less sweet and Jaskier becomes intoxicated with the flavour, left starving and hungering for more. 

Fain looks at him with dark eyes and Jaskier can hear his mother's voice.

Do what makes you happy.

He thinks of the shouting, the screaming and yelling and sounds of smashed crockery and slammed doors that had haunted his childhood. The clinking of coins and the strange women who his father would bring home. He hears his mother's muffled sobs, quenched with rags stuck into her mouth and her teeth biting on clenched fists. He thinks of the dead body, the one he had found with their lips of crimson and the blood on their temples. His father's words ring out loud and clear. "He deserved it." 

He looks at Fain. Looks at those dark brown eyes, so dark they are very nearly black. Looks at the pinkness of his lips, the high flush on his cheeks.

His heart swells and he realises that he has been taking risks his whole life. Sometimes, it is simply worth it. 

The danger is intoxicating and Fain is simply himself and Jaskier wants this like he wanted the blacksmith's son and he thinks of storm clouds, of hurricanes, and of all the men who had swept up his heart with shouts of laughter and eyes crinkled at the edges.

He thinks of the leap he had never dared take, the happenings that had stopped him and the words he had cowered from.

The metal clinks around his wrist, the golden bracelet always shimmering against his pale skin. He's tired of keeping all these secrets, keeping all these pieces of him locked away.

With a smile, he takes him by the wrist and pulls him home.

His bed is no longer cold, no longer vast and endless and empty. 

For a while, there is somebody to fill it.

x

That becomes the norm. Perhaps for the first time since the girl of midnight hair, Jaskier finds someone who wants to take his heart. No longer is Jaskier falling down and down, but now strong arms have caught him and all he can smell is smoke and tobacco.

It makes him dizzy.

Fain is a delicate sort, slightly shorter than Jaskier with soft eyes but a loud voice. He is unexpected, he has an eye for the arts and he takes pleasure in the words that spill from Jaskier's lips. 

They laugh and kiss and the first time they make love it is under the blanket of stars; the glow of constellations unblinking far above them.

Written in the stars, Fain had said in the aftermath; when both were sated and sweaty and pleasantly drowsy. Do you believe in destiny? He had asked and Jaskier had frozen.

He thought of his mother, her streaks of water-lily pink washed away and washed out until only faded white remained. Thought of his father and his old tutor, the cane and the fire and the burns and the beatings. His knuckles hurt and his eyes sting. This is your destiny, he hears and he tries to hide the panic building up in his throat.

He does not answer and Fain does not ask again.

Instead, Fain shows him lots of things. He teaches him the hidden language, the art of glances and touches and the right things to say. It is how people like them have to live, it is how they stay hidden. Jaskier learns how to guess, how to read people and make judgments. A smile here, a subtle flirtation there. It is all the art of reading, the art of a secret proposition. "How did you know I was like you?" Jaskier asks Fain one night, for he too takes pleasure in the company of both men and women. He traces the puckered line of a scar across Fain's ribcage. "How did you know I wouldn't turn out to be one of them?" And them is the men with their clenched fists and bloody knuckles, them is the ones who had killed that boy of so long ago. Them is dangerous and them is who they must hide from.

"You learn." Fain answers and there's a hint of strain in his voice. "You learn and sometimes that way isn't always easy." Jaskier's fingers suddenly feel clumsy and heavy, like lead against the edge of that scar.

He pulls away but Fain grabs his hand with his own. "It's fine." He says. "That's just how it is."

x

When he thinks of Fain he thinks of the girl with midnight hair. They were both his first, in different ways. They were both gentle and kind and never rough or cruel. They were both clumsy and uncertain and they stumbled and laughed and they held onto each other like they were lifelines, a raft lost in the blackness of the endless sea. 

But Fain was darker. There was an edge to him, the harsh lines of age and experience, that the girl of midnight hair had always lacked. Fain teaches him more and more and when Jaskier asks him why, all he says is "this won't last forever, you know." And it hurts and hurts but Jaskier knows that it is true.

He loves Fain but sometimes that is not enough. Sometimes there are too many things and factors and conflicts that, no matter how hard they try, cannot be smoothed over. It is like a jigsaw puzzle with missing pieces, only they have found another puzzle and tried to substitute the gaps. The pieces don't fit right and the colours don't match and while it had once seemed beautiful in its own mismatched way it is now not working.  

Jaskier's wings of fire are still burning, but they are beginning to fade out. He falters and they turn to ash. 

Fain is still. He is rigid and he does not change. Like the old brick buildings and the roots of gnarled oak trees. Jaskier is like fire, like water. Never stagnant, he is always moving, always wanting to change. He flows and follows the world as he pleases, whereas Fain is more than content to stay put; watch it change around him while he stays the same. 

As time passes it grows apparent that they are too different.

Fain is content with his corner, he has filled it with friends and family and they all burn bright. His life is contained and he likes it this way; he does not want to leave and he does not want to see the rest of the world. 

They are not the same and they do not want the same things and that perhaps hurts the most.  

Jaskier does not know what his destiny is, but he is certain that it is not here, not with Fain. He is restless. He runs and escapes and leaves what troubles him far behind. They do not work together. This is not working.

Once again, Jaskier is taught a lesson he had learned so many years ago. Nothing is forever and it is foolish to think that it ever could be.

x

Fain ends it on an autumn morning, when the air is crisp and the spiderwebs hang like frosted glass under golden light. 

"It was good while it lasted." He says and Jaskier wonders if it was all worth it. If the happiness he had felt was worth the heartbreak now. "You're a good man, Jaskier." And he wonders if that is supposed to soften the blow. As if those words are supposed to mend the shattered pieces of his heart. 

For this is a new experience. Jaskier learns of love that cannot be, love that cannot work. They are too different and they tether each other to a fate they do not want. 

But they are both hurting, they both do not want this, but they know that it must happen. It is simply how it must be. Their destinies had intertwined for over a year, their threads only stitched together for the briefest of moments. Yet in the grand scheme of things, this was for the better.

There was no use in holding on to something that was doomed to fail.

The pieces of Jaskier's heart heal. It takes longer than it once had, longer than when it was him and his mother, tears caught amongst his eyelashes as he had mourned the loss of the girl with daisies in her hair. He is older now and his injuries do not heal like they once had.

But he still heals. He still gets better. He and Fain part with lightened hearts and they remain friends. 

When Jaskier looks for the company that will fill the gaps in his heart, Fain is there to guide and help and protect. He beds both men and women and he learns their secret language, learns how to detect and read and understand; learns about who he must watch out for and the red flags of men with glassy eyes and ale on their breath.

A friendship is sparked and they grow closer because of it. They work better this way, it is easier and Jaskier no longer feels smothered and trapped and his ashen wings rise once more to burning flame.

Jaskier still sings his songs and writes his poetry. He still teaches and he laughs and he sleeps with those who want him and the cracks of his heart are gradually filled once more. Him and Fain drink together and share tales and stories and secrets of themselves, the ones that they had not shared as lovers but can now share as friends.

Jaskier does not tell him of the bracelet, however. He does not tell him of the magic that runs through its golden threads, the pointed ears that it hides and the glow from within it puts out. 

And the hiding and the deceit and the lies still itch from under his skin. He finds himself wanting to get away, to see new faces and new people and to find himself as nobody somewhere else.

He wants the world to know his name, wants the world to praise his music and sing his songs and he wants his legacy to burn bright all across the Continent for centuries; but he does not want to be known.

He wants to be a mystery, a figure that the world cannot quite grasp. His corner is bright and filled with people but it is still not enough. He wants the Continent to be his corner, the world itself to be his canvas. 

He needs to leave, he needs to see what else is out there. He needs to find what he is looking for, whatever that may be.

He feels pulled by red strings. He has dreams of gold and silver, of the clash of swords and a monster's howl. He does not know what they mean and he does not know why such things haunt his dreams in pleasant whispers, but he knows that he must follow their call. 

He has to get out of here. Leave the city and its stone walls far behind him.

So, once more, that is what he does. He wants adventure, he wants life. h e wants to see the unexpected and he wants to forge his own destiny in a path he creates for himself.

He hugs Fain goodbye, his heart no longer intertwined with his. They laugh and share one last drink. Jaskier sings him one last song and underneath all the metaphors and similes and words that don't quite say what he means, the song reads thank you; and Fain understands. 

Jaskier never sees him again. 

x

Life on the open road is hard.

Jaskier had experienced many unsavoury things in his countless years of living, but nothing could have prepared him for how brutal the life of a wanderer was.

It had been difficult, even before he had left Oxenfurt, to say goodbye. His students were good kids, he had friends and companions and, of course, there was Fain and there was no doubt that there were pieces of him that wanted to stay. 

But with things gradually growing more and more dangerous, with the increase of monsters roaming free and the rumours of Witchers turning up in more and more places, he could not have asked any of his many companions to travel with him. Besides, he feels as if he must do this alone. The road is dangerous and the path ahead is fraught with monsters beyond Jaskier's wildest dreams, but his path is being forged and Jaskier intends to see it until its end; wherever that may be.

One name that continues to pop up, however, as Jaskier travels; a name that is said under hushed whispers and fearful breaths, is the Butcher of Blaviken. Jaskier recognises the name, a story from his long youth. He is mad, dangerous; apparently. Slew countless people with not an ounce of mercy in his blackened eyes. The people who he spoke to were convinced he was a monster, convinced he was a demon beyond saving.

But Jaskier does not believe the rumours. The people who he speaks to would not be so forthcoming with their information had it not been for the bracelet around his wrist. Jaskier knows all too well the feeling of being an outcast within the boundaries of society. Had any one of those humans known that, behind a wall of magic, he hid pointed ears and sunlight glow; they would have beaten him to death. 

So their mindless warnings, their ruthless hatred that they spew off themselves in spouts of blackened sludge, go mostly ignored. Jaskier does not listen to a word of poison that is spewed from their lips and he instead travels through the lands in hope that someday he will find what he is looking for. He never stays in the same place for too long and his little corner of the world is ever-growing larger and larger, but it is still too small and he has not yet found what he is looking for.

(Yet he does not even know what he is looking for. He is holding on to the hope that, if he ever finds it, he will know and that will be that)

So he travels from inn to inn, sleeps rough when he cannot afford a bed and makes his temporary home in more stables and more forest floors than he can keep track of.

Across the Continent, he travels and his little corner gradually begins to expand.

He makes a bitter rival, that of opposing troubadour; Valdo Marx. And their hatred burns all across the lands and he scorns Jaskier's music and in return Jaskier insults him at every chance and every turn he gets. There is something fun about their hatred, something amusing about this dance of detest and, although Jaskier despises the man, there is no denying that he takes great enjoyment with their little feud; although that might have something to do with the fact that - if one were keeping track of such matters - Jaskier's insults and mockeries were certainly much more brutal; and much funnier.

From lover to lover he leaps and jumps and dances, he sings for them under the moonlight and waxes poetry about the feel of their body against his. He lets himself be touched and in return he touches, he becomes infatuated with the curls of golden hair or the emerald of green eyes. The women he beds, and the men too, who touch him so tenderly and whisper his name through well-kissed lips, are frequently besotted to another and he spends a lot of his time running away from furious husbands and livid wives.

He escapes the brandished fists and knives and pitch-forks. Runs off the adrenaline that his chaos brings.

He sings and he sings and he can never quite get the right notes, never the right tune or pitch or melody so his comfort becomes that of others and his enjoyment becomes the thrill of the chase.

Addicted, he becomes obsessed with the idea of love. He longs for it and he longs for companionship. His heart has been spread all across the Continent, countless numbers of both women and men have held him in their arms and whispered in his ears. He pretends that love and lust are one in the same, both as fulfilling as the other. But that is a lie.

He loves them all, every single one; but not one of them loves him back. Not like he wants.

Maybe that is why he moves from place to place, takes up partners with elusive strangers and falls in love with those he can never have. Maybe, behind it all, he is scared of what happened to his mother. The woman who had loved too hard and too deep and had found herself shackled to a man who was not what he had once said he was. 

So he moves and he travels and he sleeps with whoever he pleases and he drinks and drinks and he plays his lute and his songs are of things that are lost and things that cannot be taken.

He remembers the language that Fain had taught him, the ways of looking and speaking and touching. It is how men and women like him communicate. Learn their own sort of language and keep their private lives hidden in the corners of dusk where the torches cannot reach. 

And that is how his life continues. 

Until it changes. 

x

It is in a dark and dreary pub that stinks of piss and sells watered-down ale for five times its worth that Jaskier first stumbles across the Witcher.

He does not realise it, at first. He merely sees a man brooding in the corner and instantly his knees go weak. Love at first sight, he thinks with the voice of the romantic within him.

He sings his songs and the crowds do not appreciate his genius. Hunks of stale bread and half-eaten food is lobbed at him, jeers and shouts and thinly disguised insults. He bristles at their remarks but does not let himself take their cruelty to heart. In time, he will garner his fame. This is merely a dip in the path, a detour from the greatness that he is destined for.

Instead, he sits back down to his table and sips on his piss-water ale, strapping his dear lute onto his back once more and already planning his next move. Maybe he'll try and head for the coast, next. He'd heard it's especially nice during this time of the year. He picks up the food that still appears edible. Money has been short as of late and he will take what he can. 

And then he sees him.  

Silver-spun hair, eyes of gold. He's broad and muscular and he wears all black as though he wants to be hidden but Jaskier has always had an eye for beauty and the man glows in that little corner of the pub; glows like the moon trapped amongst a starless sky.

He is dirty and grimy and as Jaskier approaches he smells of a traveller's life, of long days spent walking and no time spent bathing.

He reeks of mystery and of the unknown and Jaskier can smell his destiny lingering about him like fogged clouds.

This man draws him in and Jaskier wants to learn his name, learn his story and sing.

So over he goes, Fain's lessons still in his mind. There's a way you go about this kind of thing, a way of testing the waters before you make your advance. Not everyone is as ignorant as one might first believe, but there are still many who would pummel Jaskier to the ground if they knew of his preferences and his… tastes in bedfellows. 

He approaches this man in the dark corner and he ruffles his hair and straightens his doublet. 

"I love the way you just sit in the corner and brood." He says and as those golden eyes meet cornflower blue, dizziness hits him.

The sun breaks over a blue sky and silver clouds float by.

His destiny swerves, swinging and spinning wildly and the path he was destined to follow changes forever. 

Chapter Text

Geralt of Rivia does not suit his nickname, Jaskier thinks.

The Butcher of Blaviken… Jaskier can't see it. There's a story behind there somewhere, details that have been cut off and missed and forgotten in exchange for a tale of fear and dread and death. He supposes much like the tales he weaves in his own songs, but instead of inspiring hope and honour and loyalty, these stories were formed with the intent to harm.

Jaskier is sick of it all. Sick of the darkness that spews from people's mouths and sick of the way that hope has become an elusive thing, that those who believe in what is good and pure and true are scorned for naivety. He is sick of the way that the shadows have taken hold of so many lives, that people no longer hold hope and instead grow fearful and angry at the world they think is set against them. The world is a cruel enough place without actions being stirred up through bland lies and blatant superstition. 

That is another thing he and Geralt have in common, although Geralt might not realise it just yet. Both are scorned for the blood in their veins; both are hated blindly without merit or reason. Alas, that is the way of the world. As fear grows and conflict rises in choking ash over the horizon, it is only natural that people will begin to point fingers. If there is one thing Jaskier has learned in his life; it is that there is always somebody to blame. Always somebody to hate and scorn and jeer, to use as a scapegoat to escape their own actions of lies and deceit and to pretend that the fear in their hearts does not exist.

And Jaskier's heart, with its endless pieces and neverending capacity for love, is drawn forward to Geralt. 

He wants to write songs about him, sing his adventures for all to hear. 

He cannot explain why, but he wants to change the people's perception of him. For he has only travelled with Geralt of Rivia for an hour and already he can see the softness that yields underneath the harsh exterior. There is light within this man, a shining pearl of pure goodness that is hidden. Jaskier wants to unearth it, reveal that touch of light and show the world that Geralt is a hero, a person who does not bend to the poison of the world and a person who has, despite the treatment he has faced, still risked his life to save these people who scorn him so.

He does not like this blinded hatred that so many seem to follow these days. He does not like the shouting in taverns, the slurs and swears that people place upon those who are different. There needs to be people who try and dispel this hatred, dispel these fears. Maybe Jaskier can have a try. Even if he fails, his lessons at Oxenfurt live on his mind. The heart does not forget kindness, and maybe one day that will be proven to be true. 

Jaskier walks beside Geralt and strums his lute, chatters endlessly about anything and everything that crosses his mind. Songs spout from his lips like smoke blown from a pipe, the lyrics coming easily from his throat as if they have always been there; merely waiting for their muse and inspiration to draw them out into tangible notes that the birds can sing along with.

Geralt's answers are short, non-committal hums or sarcastic complaints. He is coarse with Jaskier, he does not want him here and (as he makes very clear) he wishes Jaskier would leave him alone. Jaskier laughs at him and he feels his wings of fire reignite. He does not leave, does not even think about it.

Geralt is hard and closed off and he tries with all his might to dispel the incessant twittering of the bard strolling beside him, but their red threads of fate have been intertwined and Jaskier cannot leave him now. Attached, they have become. Like puppets on a string. No matter how far Geralt travels, no matter how fast Roach (a silly name for a horse, Jaskier thinks) gallops or how much he tries to shake off the cornflower eyes or beaming smile, Jaskier will always run into him again.

Or, at least, that is what it feels like. Maybe he's wrong and it's just the hopeless romantic in him; a piece of wishful thinking that Jaskier hasn't managed to squash. Regardless, Jaskier wants to stay here. He wants to follow this man to the very edge of the world and he can't explain why.

Destiny had always scared him. Always, he had felt like he was running from it. Perhaps he'd been a fool. Perhaps, his destiny had been leading him to this point all along. Right now, this does not scare him. Right now, he welcomes this development. (But later the gold of his bracelet will catch his eye and Jaskier will feel sick. Destiny is a trap and he is conflicted. He wants this more than anything, but a lifetime of running is a hard habit to shake. But that will come later)

So he follows the strong line of Geralt's back, takes in the breadth of his shoulders and the trim waist, the strong legs and frankly gorgeous arse. Witchers, or at least this one, are truly a beautiful species. Jaskier wonders if that comes with the trade; quiet, brooding, ridiculously attractive. He could believe it.

Then, in an action that he will later grow to regret, Jaskier gives his heart away once more.

What he doesn't realise then is that it would be the last time he would ever do so. 

There would be others that would follow, more people who he would love but never like this. Geralt would be his last and the ones who would follow were merely remnants of denial, the remaining fear that set his heart of the thought of permanent. 

He does what he promised himself he would never do, does what his mother had all those years ago. 

So it is on that fateful day, that coincidental meeting in an unlikely bar, when bard and Witcher stroll the same path, that an eleven-year pattern is broken. 

"They can take you, every little piece that you've ever been, and stamp on it until there's nothing left." His mother's voice rings loud in his ears. Jaskier thinks of risks, he thinks of Fain. How he had taken the leap. He is standing on the edge of a cliff, and if he jumps he will be falling and falling. He cannot see a bottom, he does not know if he will be caught. But Jaskier has his wings of fire and he can fly.

The pieces of Jaskier that he has given to others over the years come back. The girl who wore his crowns of daisies, the one of midnight hair, the men and women he has laid with and fallen for throughout his life. Those parts of his heart he had gifted away are no longer theirs.

His heart is made whole once more and he gives it all to Geralt. 

He stands on that cliff's edge, looks into the darkness below and sees a golden flash. He jumps and he falls and he falls and he falls; but he is not scared.

His wings of fire are set alight behind him.

If only it were always so easy. 

x

Love at first sight , Jaskier thinks of the fairy tales he had been told when he was younger. He thinks of the stories of true love that the merchant's daughter had spoken of, he thinks of how Fain had said everything was written in the stars. 

When they stop to camp that night, there are daisies sprouting amongst the bushes.

Jaskier picks them absently and, without even looking, his fingers weave them into a golden crown.

Geralt watches him from across the fire and he raises a dark eyebrow. Jaskier smiles.

x

He calls Geralt the Butcher of Blaviken, just merely out of instinct, and gets a punch to the gut.

He sees a flash of hurt cross Geralt's eyes, though. Just before the fist had collided with his stomach. 

He never calls him that again.

x

The quest, all things considered, could have gone much worse. 

The 'devil' had turned out to be nothing of the sort; in fact, Geralt had said that devils don't even exist, and - at the end of the day - the Sylvan (for that was what it truly was) had been pretty reasonable, really.

Not some evil monster stealing and killing for pleasure, not like the townsfolk had said.

No. Life was not so black and white; not out here in the great wide world where, as long as he stays beside this Witcher, anything could happen. Again, Jaskier is reminded of how hatred and fear twists the truth. How ignorance clouds clear skies and how words can mar what should be sacred. 

What is the point of lying if it only causes pain? But he already knows the answer to that question. It lies in secret gestures and golden bracelets. Fear, that is the true enemy. 

Sure, they'd gotten kidnapped, tied up and strung up like puppets or dolls, children's toys on a shelf for decoration. Sure, had Jaskier not been there Geralt's reactions might have been faster, quicker, he might have avoided their entrapment altogether. Sure, that was all true but - as Jaskier announced later that evening - this way made for a much more exciting tale. Which was true. It had. 'Toss a Coin' had instantly become a hit and, for the first time since leaving Oxenfurt, Jaskier finally felt like people were appreciating his presence, not merely tolerating it. So, really, their quest couldn't have gone much better. They both got away (mostly) unharmed, Jaskier got a beautiful new lute out of it and some brilliant ideas for even more songs and he'd gotten to do all this travelling by a Witcher's side. 

Of course, when Jaskier had seen the elves his stomach had dropped. Even if the story had made for a brilliant tale and a wonderful tune, it was still not a pleasant experience. 

It had been so long since he had last seen an Elf. The last had been his mother, her body weak and fragile and her eyes always rimmed with red and cheeks always raw with tears. At that moment, with two Elves of what he had once been, he had been fearful.

He did not recognise them, they did not recognise him. They were not from the same place, the same village. They had never met before; but still, Jaskier had feared that somehow they would know who he is, who he was. That they would see through the disguise, see through the magic when even Geralt himself had not. Maybe they'd recognise the charm, want it for their own safekeeping. If they were in possession of such a thing… maybe they could lead normal lives. Alongside the men who would burn down their homes, sure, but they would have a home. They could pretend that they belonged, even if they didn't truly. 

The metal around his wrist had burned and the gold had turned into crimson fire. They had punched him, beaten him, fists slamming against his jaw and feet ramming into his stomach. He feared that they would strike him and their fists would still, they would just know that he was one of them. Or perhaps they wouldn't even realise the true worth of the bracelet. Perhaps they'd just spy that gleam of gold, perhaps they'd tear it off him like bandits looking for some quick cash, remove the charm and reveal him for what he truly is.

But they had not realised. They had done nothing of the sort. 

Had they, Jaskier wonders what would have changed. Maybe it would have been easier if they had found out. They would not kill one of their own kin; not out of choice. But then Geralt would know and Jaskier didn't want that. Not yet, not now. The Witcher was a fine companion, and Jaskier did trust him, but not like that. Not right now, anyway. 

They had broken his lute though, and with it had fallen Jaskier's dreams. He'd almost cried then, tears springing behind his eyes as he watched the very thing that had given him worth, forged his identity, be shattered to a million pieces of broken strings and splintered wood. It was embarrassing, how such a thing had affected him so. The lute was his livelihood, though. It was the one reminder of his past, of where he had come from and where he had first truly felt like he had meaning amongst the great vastness of the Continent. His lute was what drove him, his music was the reason he could leave and travel to wherever he wished. Without his lute, there would be no coin, no money. He would have to settle; scrape up enough to buy his own little settlement and gone would be his ability to travel the world and expand that tiny little corner of his. 

But then the elves, Toruviel and Filavandrel as they were called, had said that they would not leave here alive - which had quickly dampened Jaskier's tears. He supposed it did not matter at all what condition his lute was in, if he was not alive to play it. 

So he had sat with his back tethered to Geralt's, the taste of metal in his mouth and the pulsing of blood in his ears, and waited for the knife to slit his throat, the sword in his stomach. How would they do it, he wondered. Would they make it quick or painless? Or drag it out until Jaskier would be begging for them to finish the job? 

In some sick sort of guessing game, Jaskier's mind runs through all the methods, all the ways they could end his life. He almost laughs, huffing air from his nose. Hysteria, he thinks. That is what he must be feeling right now. Not fear, though. It was beyond that. Madness.  

He'd been surprised to hear Geralt try to defend him. To demand that he be let go, be allowed to walk free once more. He'd presumed that it would take many more days, probably weeks and months and maybe even years, for Geralt to ever truly warm up with him. Yet, if Geralt's words were anything to go by, maybe they'd formed a friendship quicker than he'd ever thought. 

Or maybe Geralt just didn't like seeing innocent people die. Maybe it was nothing to do with him, as an individual. Maybe, to Geralt, he was just another foolish human who perhaps needed a good deal more sense; but certain death was a step too far for such a lesson to be taught.

Alas, Geralt's attempts at bargaining were futile so his motives did not really matter. They would not be allowed to leave, not with the Elves at the very end of their ropes, their palaces destroyed and their livelihoods gone.

Jaskier almost wants to tell them there is hope, there are ways to escape the curse of pointed ears and the blood that glows within him. He does not, though. He is a coward at heart, truly, and he does not want to risk it. He does not want them to suffer, but he is selfish. He is scared. Is it wrong that he would rather keep his own secret locked away than give them hope for their freedom? 

Even if he knows that Geralt will not care, will not spread rumour and gossip like a farmer's wife or aimless barmaid, Jaskier cannot do it. He is not yet ready. (He does not know if he ever will be)

He'd had a good life, he supposed. A long one, if you were counting with human years. An abnormally long one. 

Of course, he was not human, not quite. So, really, his life had been quite short.

There was still a lot he wanted to do, many things he wanted to accomplish. But he supposes that this would be a better place than any to die.

At the edge of the world with the man who he thinks may be his destiny at his back.

So he is prepared; and while he whines and moans and complains and irritates all those around him with his ceaseless chatter, he is ready for death. The void is staring at him, shipwreck teeth smiling wide. He does not fear it. He just closes his eyes and waits.

Except death never comes.

Geralt speaks, soothes. His words are true and they spark something from deep within Jaskier. To leave is a powerful thing. To leave all of what you have known behind and to start again is hard; Jaskier knows this all too well.

But the elves set them free and he and Geralt leave the caves at the edge of the world with the sun setting behind them.

Filavandrel's lute is held in his hands and the music that rings out from their silver strings is perhaps the most beautiful thing Jaskeir has ever heard.

x

He and Geralt part ways after their little adventure but Jaskier's heart grows no heavier.

He already knows that the strings of their destinies are too closely intertwined. They will meet again.

And when Geralt looks at him, head tilted and golden eyes only slightly curious about this silver-tongued bard who has taken such a shine to him, Jaskier thinks that he knows this too.

x

He writes songs from that short period he had spent with Geralt and they catch on like wildfire.

He is offered places to stay, inn rooms that come cheap for the owners know that his voice will bring in more than its worth of patrons, who will cover the costs with drinks upon drinks upon drinks. People, ever so slowly, begin to learn his name. Sometimes he will visit a village and people will already know who he is. "My brother told me about you," they might say. "Told me there was a bard who'd travelled with a Witcher. Sing us a song, will you?" And every time he smiles and flushes and, if they are the sort he thinks might take him up on one of his offers, he will wink and give them a flash of his teeth, bite his bottom lip in ways that make their pupils dilate and their breaths quicken.

Take that, Valdo Marx, Jaskier thinks one day as he lays awake in bed, the warm weight of another curled up against his side. 

But he never stays. He does not linger in the same place, never for too long. The gold around his wrist burns more and more and more and he feels the need to escape. He does not want to get comfortable, he does not want to make a home. He likes being recognised. He likes the money that he brings in and the people who want to get closer. Although that soon becomes part of the problem. More than ever, his relationships become superficial. There are more who will take him, more who will touch him and he will touch and more who he will make sweet music to, sing to them under the sheets and from between their legs. But what do they want? They want him, but not what lies underneath. They want the bard who sings of adventure and fate and destiny, of long and winding roads and of the fair maidens who have taken him into his bedchambers and his wild escapades, his bravery and his loyalty and his reconstructions of events that never really went how he regales. They don't want him. They don't want his heart and they certainly don't want his shadows.

Sing for me, they say. There are words that go unsaid however, Jaskier always hears them. Sing of happy things. Sing of life and wonder and the vastness of the world. Then, even deeper, he can hear them. We don't care about your misery. We don't care about you. We all know what you're like, we all know that you can't commit and you can never stay in the same place. We know, and we don't care. Sing for me, sing for us, little bard. Sing and then go on your merry way.

He does not want to hide, and the more he moves around the less he has to pretend. 

He sleeps around, still. Finds his heart drawn to others, finds his mind captivated by a sway of hips or a giggle hidden behind hands. 

But it is always Geralt's name on his lips, always Geralt who is ever-walking in his mind.

Always.

x

He is proved right only two months later.

He stumbles across Geralt in a forest only a short walk's distance from a nearby settlement. Or, rather, Geralt stumbles across him. Bugger the details, all that matters is that they cross paths again.

Their fates have become one and their paths will cross and intertwine like embroidery on cloth. Their colours are destined to twist and join and part and leave, Jaskier knows this. He welcomes it.

But, at the furthest reaches of his mind, a seed of anxiety is planted. This is your destiny, his father's voice says and he feels sick. He wants to be here, he wants to walk beside Geralt and travel with the White Wolf and learn of his many adventures and the tales he has yet to tell.

He has spent his entire life running away, though. That is a hard habit to break.

Inner conflict cannot be solved with a flash of golden eyes and an uninterested grunt. Years of running, years of hiding, can't just be wiped away. Because Jaskier is still running, he is still hiding, even with Geralt. There is so much that lingers under the surface, so much that goes unsaid; so much that is ignored.

At first, Jaskier revels in this. He loves this. Their companionship is free of ties, free of shackles and chains and ropes that tether them down and leave them weak and open and vulnerable. Yet, as time's arrow marches forward, Jaskier realises that this too is not what he wants. Whether he likes it or not, his heart has been given to Geralt. There are pieces of himself that he has lost and he will never get back. Closeness is a risk and it will cost him greatly, but this distance pays just as much of a price. It hurts. But how can it be any other way?

A year he spends with Geralt. It is not a long time, not for either of them, but it is one of the happiest periods of Jaskier's life, so far. For the future is yet to happen and while Jaskier has many talents, fortune-telling and prophecies are not amongst them.

In that year, some things change, some things don't.

In the grand scheme of things, they are still acquaintances. Friendly, perhaps, but not friends.

Geralt is too closed off and Jaskier is not used to spending so much time with one person. There are many things that go unsaid, secrets that are kept and parts of their lives that remain hidden. There are fears that they do not want to unearth. Geralt cannot afford to rely on somebody else, the path of his life is fraught with danger and all those around him are too vulnerable to last. Jaskier cannot stay in one place, Jaskier has too many secrets and too many things that he tries to hide. He wants them to stay under wraps, under cover, but the closer he gets with Geralt the more the guilt paws at him, a dog keening for attention. The two of them have spent so much of their lives building up walls that neither are sure what lies behind it all. Who is Jaskier, beneath it all? Is he Julian, the boy of so many ages ago, or is he somebody else entirely? 

Despite all of this, the golden bracelet around Jaskier's wrist stays on and Geralt does not suspect anything.

Although he looks at Jaskier strangely sometimes. Geralt cannot read him as well as other people, he cannot detect the shift of moods and the changing of atmospheres. It is the smell, Jaskier thinks. He wonders if it is part of the bracelet's charm that causes such a thing. He does not want to say magic like he had once thought, because that does not seem like the right word.

Perhaps the bracelet is like a film, a silvery drape. It covers and hides what wants to be hidden, but a silhouette is always visible. Not everything can be wiped away, not everything can be forgotten. 

But Jaskier thinks his secret is safe. 

(Years and years later, Geralt would sit alone and wonder how he hadn't realised. He will miss what is lost and wonder why he never asked for more)

x

The year ends far too quickly and Jaskier and Geralt take different paths once more.

It is only when Geralt is long gone, the broad lines of his shoulders no longer visible over the golden haze of sunrise, that Jaskier realises that nothing had changed between them. Fear had held them both back but now that he was gone all Jaskier could feel was strangely hollow, and that emptiness was a million times worse than the fear.

He had still not been allowed to touch Roach.

He vows that, if they ever meet again, next time will be different.

For he is pulled to Geralt, strung along like metal to a magnet. There are only so many maidens, so many men, that he can sleep with before his heart grows heavy and he longs once more for the shadows of white hair and the glint of daffodil eyes. 

The fear is there and it will never leave him but maybe, next time, they can learn to trust.

x

His life without Geralt becomes dull.

He loses the colour, loses the light and he throws himself into hopeless relationships with more vigour, more passion than ever before. He tries and tries and tries to fill the gaps but he can't and no matter what he does he is never content, he is never happy.

So he keeps on trying. He gives himself away to anyone who wants him. He gives and gives and gives but never does he take anything back.

He fucks women with husbands and then there's a knife in his gut and a hand around his throat. 

He escapes, leaves, runs away. Then the cycle repeats.

He thinks of Fain and Oxenfurt and the corner that he inhabits. He wonders if he should have ever made the decision to leave. Not just the city, but his village of so long ago.

He thinks of his mother who was tethered to that old house like a dog on death's door. He thinks of the way she cried and the way his father shouted and how nothing in that house was ever good enough. 

But he had belonged back there. Even if he was not happy, even if he would fall into the same fate as his mother, as his father. Even if, back home, his destiny was to become a viscount for a dying village of a dying race in a home that was falling apart but they could never afford to repair. He had belonged. 

The bracelet had seemed like an escape when the merchant's daughter had smiled at him. She had worn one too, her and her mother. This is how we live, she had said. They are not common and they are not easy to come by, but there are more out there who are like us. More who hide so they can live.

But she was wrong. This wasn't living. 

His corner is bigger, yes. His corner is like a banquet hall, spread far and wide and much, much larger than the little room he had once inhabited; but he is only one man and he only has two arms and his torches do not burn bright enough to light it all up anymore.

He sings and sings and people learn his name. But that too is dangerous; for now, there is a name to put to the face that husbands and wives see leaving their homes under moonlit sky. He sings of Geralt and he sings of their adventures and he sings of lost love and happiness and the things that he can't reach. He loves it but a performance is temporary and it cannot erase the heaviness of his heart nor the weight upon his soul.

His wings of fire are faltering and he begins to fall.

It is on a late night when the moon is shrouded by darkened clouds that Jaskier realises he had never truly belonged anywhere. Always, he had hidden something. 

So he had ran. Fled from his problems, never stayed in one place long enough; never waited for his misery to catch up. 

Women and men alike touch him, he moans their names but always Geralt lingers on his lips. He pulls at their hair and wishes that it were white he held between his fingers, not gold and bronze and auburn. Like an addiction, he seeks out company. He needs that touch, he needs the climax and the temporary relief that it offers him. But always, he is left with that hollowness; that emptiness. No matter how many times he fails, no matter how many partners he takes up and no matter how much he wishes that they were somebody else, he cannot stop.

He searches and searches and searches for the light that will make him whole once more and he knows that it is not with these people, the men and women who use him for their night of pleasure and their night of sin, their excitement from a stale marriage or their release from a hard day's work. There is nothing like love that mingles between their breathy moans and their biting kisses. Only lust, always lust. Jaskier wonders that if he pretends they are one in the same, maybe one day he will actually believe it.

So he runs and he runs and he runs, he escapes when it all grows too much and he sings and he smiles and he sings some more and he does exactly what he's supposed to. Exactly what everyone wants him to do. 

He's tired now. So damn tired of running, but he doesn't know how to stop.

x

The next time he sees Geralt, he is perhaps at his lowest.

Ambushed by a group of mercenaries; the deed paid for by furious partners who had stumbled across him one too many times with his lips on their love and his hands touching and feeling and  searching for that spark of happiness. They had recognised him, put the voice to the name to the face and then paid for the dirty work to be done. The cost of fame, he jokes to himself. He laughs a short, nervous barking sort of laughter that has the mercenaries raise their hackles and their lips curling in cold sneers.

Jaskier is defenceless. All he has is his lute and some coin; but it is not enough to pay them off. He can't fight. Maybe, as a last resort, he could smash his lute over one of their heads. Of course, there were far too many of them. A lute was a delicate instrument, one hit and it would be shattered to smithereens. Besides, even if he could escape the bandits, a broken lute would make him useless. Without his music, there would be no money. Without his music he would spend his days wallowing in his own pity, starving and dirty and then eventually he'd die.

So, no matter how he looks at this situation, he's pretty fucked. 

This is where it ends, he thinks. Geralt won't be here this time. He's not his knight in shining armour or whatever other fairytale shit he might spout in his songs. It is not Geralt's job to save Jaskier. They're barely even friends, regardless of what Jaskier tells himself when he feels at his most isolated. 

There's a knife in his gut, he twists away. slashing at his shoulders, a fist to the wound that burns like fire. It hurts like a bitch, the pain almost so bad that he can't even feel it. Like his body doesn't know quite what to do with it all, like it's shutting down. Giving up. He wants to fight but he's tired to the very marrow of his bone. His nerves are roaring with pain but it only feels like a dull thud in his temples. He's coughing, gasping, screaming. There's laughter and there's another burst of pain, another wound pressed deep into his gut. It all seems like it's so far away, as if he's trapped on a distant island, already up amongst the clouds and instead he is watching from a great distance away, watching as the breath leaves his lungs and the light leaves his eyes. "Queer", somebody says. He does not know who. He thinks he might be laughing now, or maybe he is crying. He can't tell. Everything is swirling and mixing and all blurring together until it's just one big mess.

He's reminded of when he used to paint, back at Oxenfurt. He was never very good at it, but he had found it fun, something to pass the time when lyrics would not spring to mind. He remembers how you could pick the most vibrant colours, azures and chartreuses and daffodil yellows and dahlia pinks. You could pick the brightest colours the world has ever seen, but once you mix them all together they all end up the same. Murky brown. Lifeless, cold. Like a swamp that sucks you in, down and down. 

That is what this feels like. It's as though someone has taken all of his colours and mixed them together. The blue of his eyes, the green of his doublet. The red of his blood, the white of his skin. Together, he has made quicksand and he is sinking down and down, further and further away from the land of the living. 

His vision is fading, world around him burning at the edges until only blackness remains.

The forest is on fire. His wings of fire are ash.

The last thing he hears is a thunder of hooves, muffled shouts as if the noise is travelling through water.

He sees a flash of white hair, woven like stars through the ashen forest.

He passes out.

x

The next time he awakens he is in unbearable pain. His stomach hurts, burning and writhing and painful and he can't breathe, he can't fucking breathe and it hurts so bad-

He is on Roach's back, his body slumped against Geralt. They are riding through the forest, hooves thumping and Geralt's hands gripped bone-white around the reigns. 

His blood coats Geralt's back and hair, thick red, crimson clotting to brown. It's clumped and it smells and all Jaskier can taste is copper pennies and death . But Geralt's got it all over him and it's his blood and it's his fault.

"Mmm… s-sor… ry." He spits out, blood splattering from his teeth. Geralt stiffens and he passes out once more.

x

His eyes filter open, dusked sunlight dappling on his face. He is warm, comfortably so, but there is a numbness to his skin and his side itches.

He shifts and pain burns hot. With a yelp, that only seems to worsen things, he splutters. He gasps and chokes and he can feel warmth on his lips, see crimson on his fingers when he reaches up to wipe at them.

His eyes are wide, panicked, like a startled deer. He feels almost animal, feral, as though he has been backed into a corner that he cannot escape from. He reverts to instinct, the most basic of primal urges. He doesn't know what to do, he doesn't know where he is and he doesn't know how he got here. 

The bracelet, he realises with a start. His wrist is free of the flash of gold. His bracelet. He needs it, they can't see him, he can't be seen with-

It's on his other hand. Of course it is. 

He tries to breathe deeply, tries to calm himself, but the blood is still spattering from his lips and his entire body is writhing in an agony like no other. He feels almost feverish and his skin goes from warm to hot to burning, hot ice and cold fire. He wants to be sick. There's bile in his stomach, a whirlpool of acid that crashes against his insides, burns at his heart and his lungs until he's left gasping and shaking and struggling to catch his breath.

He moans, a pitiful whine that escapes him before he can stop it. He digs his teeth into his lower lip, willing himself to come to his senses, but all that does is make him dizzy under the taste of metal. He heaves, feeling as if his organs themselves are being pulled up through his rattling gasps. It hurts and he still does not know where he is.

He's lying on something warm, something soft. That he can figure out at least. Although his eyes are open, he cannot see what lies before him. It is blurred, like a photograph that has been left in the rain. The ink has spread and the image has distorted under the crumpled paper. Each time he blinks, however, the image grows that much clearer. He blinks and he blinks and he blinks until he's almost certain that he knows where he is. He can see it! There's a desk in the corner, aged mahogany; covered in sheets and sheets of paper. Some of it has been wadded into tight balls, strewn about the room in haphazard disarray. A bottle of ink lies horizontally on the table, spilt with the black ink dripping down and down. It bleeds darkness onto an ornate rug; one that might have once been expensive but now only looks old and faded, a relic from the past. 

Breath stopping, he closes his eyes. He knows where this is. 

It's home. His old one of so many years ago. 

He is a young boy once more. His eyes of cornflower blue are blurred with tears, filling up like the ocean and it tastes of salt and stings like nettles. He is sitting at his desk, hands clenched around his quill, fingernails digging into his palms until crescents of red, bright like the blood moon, drip with crimson. It spreads down his wrists, it mixes and he presses in tighter, deeper. Onto the spilt ink it drips, red turning to black and then he's drowning under it. The room is filling, the bottle is never-ending and more black ink spills, more and more and more and soon he can't see the carpet, the scratched wooden floors. It rises and rises, up to the chair legs. It touches his shoes and he feels swallowed whole.

He's falling and falling and he's never going to stop. Everywhere, the black ink lingers. 

Anxiety is bubbling at his throat. He can't breathe and he can't focus and he can't read.

He doesn't understand but he has to. 

He hears the crack of a cane, feels the fire of wood rapping against his knuckles. Words beaten in until they stick and scar and do not disappear. 

His father is there and he shouts and shouts and shouts, his mother cries and her waterlily-pink is gone. She is white and frail and like a wedding-veil she keeps things hidden, she is chained and shackled and they all are, they're all trapped under a title that means nothing in a village that is being held together by tethered strings. They are made of paper. Thin and delicate. The window is open and the sunlight shines straight through them.

The ink is rising higher and higher and it doesn't stop. It spreads from up their tissue-paper legs, rising and rising until it reaches their necks. His mother falls first, collapsing in the ink in a tumble of soggy paper. Jaskier watches her sink. Her hands scrabble to the surface, bone-white china fingers, long and delicate. He can save her, he can grab her hand and pull her out.

But as he had so long ago, he watches her suffer. He leaves her there and all he does is watch as she sinks. Down and down, she disappears. 

He cries and he screams until his voice is raw. He doesn't want to go back, he doesn't want to be here. He doesn't want to see this. He can't- 

He can't. 

He has to escape, he has to get away. 

He tries to stand but he can't move. There is warmth on his skin, red down his chest. He's choking and coughing and spluttering and screaming at his parents, at his tutors. The girl with the daisies in her hair is laughing at him, giggling with the flowers held in the palms of her hands. She crushes them and their petals wither to black. Between her fingers they turn to liquid, black ink dripping from underneath her nails.

The girl of midnight hair, the blacksmith's son. They watch as he screams and writhes and his skin is hot, it's so hot and he can't think

The dead body, blood on their temples, red on their lips.

He looks at the body and it is him. It is him with the blood and the death and those cold lifeless eyes are his own.

He screams and he screams and he can't stop, but no sound comes out. 

"Jaskier." They chant, the people of his past. "Jaskier."

The bracelet around his wrist is heavy like lead. It cuts into his skin, raw wounds left in the burn of its touch. But instead of blood, blackness seeps out. The ink. Words mark their way onto his skin. Like spiders, beetles, it crawls up his veins and across his arms, over his shoulders and around his neck. Into his mouth they crawl, he can feel them sliding down his throat. He's drowning and he can't breathe and he doesn't know what is happening, it's all- 

"Jaskier. Jaskier! Jaskier!"

He blinks and it all disappears. He breathes and Geralt is sat beside him, hands around his own and holding them tight.

He gasps and the world spins, but Geralt does not let go.

"You- my parents, they… I-" And Geralt looks at him with those yellow eyes and he is blurry and the image of him does not stay still, but he recognises the expression.

That sadness. That knowing sort of expression, the one that his mother had worn all those years ago when his heart had been broken for the first time.

Jaskier opens his mouth and promptly throws up.

x

The wound is infected, Geralt later tells him; once he has calmed down and he no longer feels the bile resting in his stomach. He barely understands what is going on around him, only vaguely aware of the hand on his shoulder and the yellow eyes that loom above. There is white in his vision. It must be the clouds, he must have fallen asleep again, outside. He needs to get home soon. His mother will be worried. She's been so tired recently, more so than usual. Perhaps he should pick her some flowers. She would like that. She always loved the spring. 

It's not real, a voice amongst the clouds whispers. You're hallucinating.

But still, he tries to push against that weight on his chest, fight the burning in his skin and his lungs and his head. "I'm late." He whispers, over and over again. "I need to get home." 

You are home, the voice says.

He knows it's not true, but there's something about that voice… he cannot place it, can't quite put a name to that deep rumble; but it feels safe. He is reminded of warm fires, sitting under a sky of silver constellations. He can taste rabbit, stew. Smell the smoke of a log fire, hear the whinny of a horse.

The voice is soothing, calming. He trusts it and sits back down.

He sleeps, safe in the knowledge that the owner of that voice is watching over him. 

x

The fever breaks a week later and the infection clears.

Jaskier awakens with a clear mind and Geralt is beside him.

"You're awake." He rumbles and his voice is deep and soothing and peaceful. He looks… relieved. Like a great weight was lifted off of his shoulders. 

"I am." Jaskier responds and he smiles.

Geralt looks surprised, uncertain. His brow furrows and he opens his mouth, but whatever words he was meaning to say don't come out. 

Instead, he looks down at Jaskier, golden eyes molten and soft and like sunlight on his skin. He brings a large hand up to Jaskier's face, Jaskier can feel the calluses on his fingertips rough against his cheek. 

Geralt smiles back, a proper one; teeth and all. 

x

"What were you thinking?" Geralt asks him later that evening, when Jaskier had eventually managed to stumble out of bed and hobble about, his tired legs still getting used to a week of bed rest. They're in an inn, a nearby village Jaskier assumes. Geralt must have found him in the forest, the hooves in the dirt he heard must have been Roach. The details are still fuzzy and he's struggling to piece together exactly what happened that night but if there's one thing he knows for certain it is that, had Geralt not been there, Jaskier most certainly would not be alive today. 

It takes Jaskier a moment to comprehend the question. His brow furrowed, his lips pursed, he looks up at Geralt. "What?"

"You! What were you thinking? Why didn't you fight back?" 

"I can't fight."

"You didn't even try."

"No. I didn't." 

And that is all that needs to be said, really. The answer is harsher than Jaskier had meant it to be, words hollow, words empty. He winces at his tone, wishes he could take it all back with a snarky comment and a sly smile. It is the truth, though. Jaskier didn't try to fight. He'd given up long before Geralt had gotten there. Long before the mercenaries had even bothered to attack him. 

Geralt looks at him with that strange expression on his face. He's thinking, Jaskier can tell from the way there's a crease in his brows and a twitch to his bottom lip. It's the expression Geralt makes when he wants to say something but doesn't quite know how.

The bracelet burns against Jaskier's wrist and he wonders if he knows, but Geralt makes no mention of it.

"I'll teach you how to fight." He eventually says, words growled out so low Jaskier almost didn't hear him. "When you're healed. I'll teach you." 

x

The lessons go slow. Jaskier is not good with a sword, nor with knives. He tries rapiers but they don't fit in his hands, he can't manage their weight and he can't hold them right. Short swords and longswords are a failure. The axe wasn't even worth trying and the knife, he supposes, would work in a last measure of defence. But only if it was life or death.

He doesn't like blood. He doesn't like gore. The thought of stabbing anyone, monster or human, makes his stomach turn. Even if Geralt had bought him a pretty sort of knife, in a morbid fashion. It was silver with ferns and flowers engraved on the hilt. It felt right, held in Jaskier's hands, but he does not think he will use it often. Not if he can help it. 

Geralt looks fed up with the whole thing, to be honest. Not that Jaskier can blame him. They've been at this for almost a week and the only thing Jaskier has to show for it is the fact that he can hold a knife somewhat correctly. He thinks he might be a lost cause and he can't help but feel like he's wasting Geralt's time.

"What about a bow and arrow?" Jaskier asks one day after he spectacularly fails to defend himself against Geralt's mock-attack. Once again, he's fallen on his arse, kicking up a dust cloud of dry dirt and sand. He coughs, hands wafting about in the hazy air as he peers up at Geralt. It's supposed to be a joke but Geralt freezes and he frowns, mulling over the idea with a shifting of his jaw.

"What are you, an elf?" Geralt asks and he too is joking but Jaskeir's blood runs cold.

Geralt looks at him strangely then. Watches as Jaskier instinctively fiddles with the gold bracelet on his wrist. Something crosses his face, an unreadable expression, but he doesn't say anything. 

"I'll see what I can do about it." He continues and Jaskier wills the thumping of his heart to slow. 

The next day Geralt chucks him a parcel. He looks at Jaskier intently; watching as, with trembling hands, Jaskier carefully peels away the parchment paper.

A bow stares back up at him. Dark wood, simple and plain and certainly not the nicest looking weapon Jaskier has ever seen, but functional.

"See how you manage with that." Geralt grunts as he leaves. 

With a start, Jaskier leaps up and follows a few paces behind him. 

x

He learns how to use the bow with embarrassing ease. He is perhaps sliding uncomfortably close to all manners of elvish stereotypes, but he had grown up making slingshots out of sticks and string and a bow and arrow is not the same but it is close enough.

He practices with it and, at first, his arrows go shooting wildly off mark. Roach rears up and Geralt swears but Jaskier sticks at it; still aiming at those makeshift targets and willing himself to prove that he is useful. There has to be something else he can do. By some sort of miracle, his lute had survived his attack under the mercenaries, a small blessing really, but he needed something else that he could do. He didn't want to be a burden. He didn't want to hold Geralt back. But even with the bow and arrow, which he is much more adept at than any other weapon he'd previously tried, he's still utter shit at it 

Then, one day, he hits a bullseye and he hadn't even been paying attention. 

He almost missed it, he almost didn't see it coming. But he had laughed and cheered and whooped with joy, boasted in good jest and knocked shoulders with a reluctant Geralt. But there had been a matching smile on his face, too; and his golden eyes had been softened into something much more gentle, an expression Geralt had been wearing more and more as of late.

"Now I won't be such a burden then, huh?" The words are said before he can even think about them.

Geralt frowns. He opens his mouth to say something, but Jaskier has already quickly scurried away to retrieve his wayward arrows.

It isn't brought up again, but that evening, for the first time in all the years they have travelled together, Geralt asks Jaskier to sing. 

x

They leave the settlement not long after that, return to the wilderness.

Jaskier had sung once more, his songs dancing and twisting and spinning in the piss-scented bars and down the lyrics trickled into the ears of drunken patrons and tired barmaids. His name was spread far and wide and soon it was no longer the Witcher and his bard, but it became the bard and his Witcher. He was the one who changed how people thought, how people felt towards Geralt. As he sang more and more of the White Wolf's triumphs, of his valiant heart and endless heroics, perspectives began to shift and things, ever so gradually, began to change. People still feared Geralt, no doubt, but it was not the same as it had once been.

People were nicer, more forgiving. No longer were their words so coarse nor their manner so derogatory. Children no longer ran and hid from him when he walked past and drunken men no longer heckled after him, shouting all sorts of profanity behind his back.

This spurs Jaskier on. He writes more songs, more ballads and more tunes all about the White Wolf, Geralt of Rivia; but never the Butcher of Blaviken.

He writes a song of a saviour with golden eyes, of life starting anew and hair like clouds in a sea of nightmarish thoughts. He writes songs of friendship and companionship and of a relationship that knows no bounds. He writes of the edge of the world and of questions that go unasked but don't need to be answered. Of running away and escaping and leaving one's troubles behind, of finding the thing you have been looking for in the unlikeliest of places.

Of feeling like you belong for the first time in decades.

He sings and they travel together and this time it is better.

Geralt lets Jaskier ride Roach now. Lets him touch and stroke her and lets him groom her when she grows dirty. When they sit by the fires in long nights, it is no longer at opposite ends. Geralt comes down beside him, a silent offering that Jaskier takes.

They eat with their shoulders almost touching, their knees only a hair-width away from one another. When they sleep Geralt is always close by and he always waits until Jaskier is fast asleep before he rests. He watches and Jaskier waits, they grow to understand one another - slowly.

Geralt does not speak and Jaskier learns to read the silence. 

Jaskier talks and talks and talks but it isn't until much later that Geralt realises that it all lacked substance. There is still fear and uncertainty that marks the edges of their companionship. Geralt; who fears closeness and reliance and dependency and who will do anything he can to stop it. Jaskier; who wants nothing more than to belong, but hides and runs and can never stay in the same place for long.

But the two grow closer as they travel side by side. Perhaps they understand one another. They both have the fear; although it manifests in different ways. Where Geralt pushes people away, Jaskier overcompensates. Where Geralt is rough and coarse and abrasive Jaskier is keening for approval and desperate for attention.

But Geralt fears dependency and Jaskier fears his secrets coming undone. There is an edge to their relationship, one that won't go away. But it lessens through time and maybe, one day, there can be no division, no walls built up high to keep the other out.

But not right now. Not for a long time. 

Jaskier gets better with his bow, learns how to kill deer and rabbit and boar and he finds himself eventually feeling useful. He manages to defend himself a couple of times, although Geralt still ends up doing most of the work.

They fall into a sense of normalcy and there's almost something domestic about the whole thing, in a unique sort of way.

Jaskier is perhaps the happiest he has ever been.

But storm clouds brew over the horizon and the fear is yet to set in. This will not last. Things like this never do. 

x

He weaves flowers into Roach's hair one evening and he can feel Geralt's eyes on him. 

He does not know what this means.

x

Jaskier thinks that he might be in love with Geralt.

He always has been, really. He knows this, but now his wrist burns and the gold feels like fire. Geralt keeps looking at him like that and Jaskier needs more. 

His heart has been given away and Geralt is yet to return it.

He sleeps around more and more, he drinks more and he sings more and his fingers callous and harden and begin to bleed where the strings cut into his skin.

Geralt watches him, always. He looks concerned, worried. Jaskier brushes it off with a laugh and a wave of his hand, talks endlessly of other things and moves the conversations far, far away from what needs to be brought up.

He is in love and he keeps waiting for him to fall out of love. He keeps waiting for the pennies to drop and for his feelings to fade, like they always do, but it does not happen.

His heart is gone and Geralt has it and no matter how much he wants it back, you can't choose who you fall in love with.

His mother is in his head once more. The woman who gave everything she had to his father, the woman who lost it all. Love is dangerous. It can create, it can build; but it can also destroy and Jaskier is scared. He is scared that, one day, his feelings will be revealed and that Geralt will not return them. What happens then? How can he recover from that? He doesn't know and that is what terrifies him. The unknown, the void that lies in wait. 

But he sleeps and he sings and he laughs and he speaks of nothing and everything all at once.

He is happy, here with Geralt; and that scares him. Forever doesn't exist, he remembers, a lesson of his long-gone youth. 

He knows that, if Geralt ever breaks his heart, it will not mend this time.

x

Geralt has built walls up high about him. Castle walls, barracks and watch-towers and moats filled with water and mud that you sink right into. 

Jaskier loves him but right now he can't. 

He has been feeling weighed down, recently. Heavier, as if there is lead in his feet and steel in his blood. He has dreams of home and he thinks of Fain and daisy chains and golden bracelets. He struggles to sleep at night and his thoughts do not leave him alone.

His wrist burns and it won't stop and he's tired but he does not know why.

Geralt makes him happier but Geralt pushes him away.

He had thought they'd grown closer, become true friends. But Geralt had looked at him one day, watched him with the flowers in his lap and his fingers weaving chains and crowns and necklaces, and then he'd changed.

Closed off, his walls had gone up. Jaskier had spent so long chipping away at them, burning brick and rubble and stone only to find more underneath. He'd thought he'd been getting through, making change. He'd thought that maybe, in due time, the matters of his heart would eventually be returned.

They split up after three years of companionship. It is Jaskier who leaves this time but Geralt does not stop him.

He knows they will meet again; knows that they will cross paths once more.

But his heart is heavy and his eyes sting and he needs time alone, time away from the man who holds his heart in his hands without even realising it.

Love makes you fragile.

He'd always wondered why his mother had stuck with his father, put up with him when he'd treated her like shit and cheated and lied and shouted and screamed.

Now he understands.

He's too far gone, now. He can't step back. 

He's fallen and there's nothing he can do to stop it now. 

x

The time in between their next meeting is strange.

Jaskier had always wanted to find his destiny, find the person who would bind him; mind and heart and soul.

He had done that, now. He had found it and then realised that with it came danger.

He is scared, he thinks. He has spent so long running and hiding and leaving when things get too real, but now he wants Geralt but he does not think he can have him.

So he tries to forget. His patterns return and he throws himself at anyone who will have him. He does anything they want, does it all and tries to believe that this is what he wants. He tries to forget before he falls in too deep.

But he has already fallen and he can't run now.

At some point, he will have to accept that.

x

But Jaskier can't forget him and as they meet time and time again over the next decade, he realises that he can't run away from this. He can't abandon what he so truly wants.

Take the risk, he tells himself.

Geralt isn't his father and he is not his mother. 

Do what makes you happy, his mother whispers in his ears. He misses her, sometimes. Misses her and Fain and all the other people he had left behind. He doesn't want to keep running. He's tired. He needs to stop fighting what he wants, stop pretending that this isn't what he's been dreaming of for so many years.

He embraces the wind that rushes past him, lets himself relax as he tumbles down and down and down. 

He hopes that Geralt will catch him.

He hopes that Geralt will never let go. 

Chapter Text

Another milestone in their lives happens before the betrothal party.

Geralt lets Jaskier wash him. 

It is after they meet once more another piss-scented bar. The patrons had been convinced that the Witcher was dead, but Jaskier had smiled and sat there and waited. It was their first meeting in six months. Their paths had not crossed once since Jaskier had left and, now that half a year had gone by, Jaskier was willing to try again once more.

He's not running this time. Not again.

He's in the bar, a huddle of customers gathered around him with the owner's eyes flickering every so often to the lute held in his arms. He's regaling yet another tale of the White Wolf and his companion, the Master Bard. (a title that has slowly been catching on, much to Jaskier's utmost joy) This one is perhaps more exaggerated than the others, maybe because in this particular fight Jaskier had been more of a hindrance than a help, but what're a few changed details, here and there? He's making his legacy here. The truth can afford to be… extended, if only in his favour. 

He's reaching the climax of his story, his voice lowering just the right amount and he can feel some of the younger patrons, the one who dream of travelling the world like he once had so long ago, rising to the edge of their seats.

And then in walks Geralt, covered head to toe in the innards of a selkiemore. He fucking stinks. He smells of rotting flesh and shit and guts and it's absolutely awful. Someone nearby starts to heave, Jaskier can hear coughing and spluttering and the intake of choked breaths. He's a bit miffed that his story has just been interrupted, especially since he was reaching the most interesting part, but he supposes that seeing Geralt again after these past few months is a fair trade-off.

He catches Geralt's eyes and amusement twinkles in them. 

"Well," He says, voice loud and clear and ringing with a lightened heart. "Look who it is, back from the dead." 

Tensions begin to rise in the bar. Jaskier can feel it like the edge of a storm, the calm before the pin drops and chaos rules the roost. There's a man who's had perhaps a bit too much to drink, if his ruddy face and glassy eyes are anything to go by, and Jaskier had heard the harshness in his tone when he'd dismissed the tales of heroics surrounding the Witcher. He was moving to stand and it was if the entire tavern took in one deep breath, they could feel the rising conflict, feel the lightning that was just begging to strike.

Not that such things bothered Jaskier. He was, after all, a rather fine entertainer; and he had devoted his life to changing such opinions surrounding the White Wolf, so with practised ease he rises to stand.

Wearing a bright smile and with a joyful strum of his lute, Jaskier bursts into the familiar tune. He dances upon the tabletops, feet swinging from chairs to the floor, thumping a beat that matches the rise of his voice. The people join in, hesitantly at first, but then they too are belting out the song.

The tension dissipates and it isn't long before ale is flowing and coins are, as the song so implies, tossed Geralt's way.

Jaskier is still dancing, still twirling amongst the low lights and his voice mixes and swirls with the shouts and cheers, angelic and high and soaring. He can feel Geralt's eyes like sunlight on his skin and it spurs him on. Louder and louder he grows, feet stamping and it as if the world itself joins in. A symphony of drunken voices and wild cheers, the wind rustling through the trees from outside and the whistling tune of birdsong that whispers underneath it all. The music spills from his lips and his fingers and his feet as if it was woven in his very soul, as if he is made of nothing but song. The lyrics are a piece of him, he becomes one with the world until it cannot be said where he begins and ends.

Jaskier is not magic but in moments like these Geralt always thinks there is something not quite human about him. His eyes are drawn to the glinting gold around Jaskier's wrist, but he is unable to dwell on such thoughts for long. 

The last notes are strummed, his fingers plucking at the final strings and then he grows quiet. The silence that follows after a rainstorm, of thunder and lightning and blustering winds. It is as if Jaskier controls it all, every single thread that builds up the universe itself. When he stops, everything stops with him.

He hops over to Geralt, springs in his feet and light in his voice. Eyes of cornflower blue, reflecting in them the clearest of skies and the deepest of oceans. His cheeks are flushed red like the budding roses, cheekbones high and angular and reflecting the low-lantern light back in technicolour glow. From the dullness of the tavern, the lifeless greys and dreary browns, Jaskier glows like he is the sunlight itself. 

"You need a bath." He laughs as he comes to Geralt's side, picking up the wayward coins from the floor. Geralt doesn't respond for a moment, eyes still trained on the curve of Jaskier's back as he bends down, the colour of his skin and the gracefulness of each and every movement. He moves like he was born to do so, every gesture, every action, crafted in an artist's masterpiece. 

"Come on," he rises and with a pat on his shoulder, followed by a muffled "eww, gross." Jaskier heads towards the owner stood behind the bar with a grubby rag held between her hands. Geralt watches him walk away for a moment. There's a fondness swelling in his heart, an uncontrollable song that swells and rings out in the very depths of his soul. He ignores it, pushes it down. He must be more worn out than he'd originally thought. 

Jaskier asks for two rooms, waving about the sack of coins, now fat and heavy with gold. He pauses, glancing at Geralt before he also asks for hot water to be brought up, or a bath prepared, or anything that could possibly be used to clean the guts and blood and whatever else he's got on him off. The bartender eyes it greedily, hands stilling and mouth turning up at the edges. She catches sight of Geralt and her expression momentarily stiffens, but her grey eyes glance from between the smiling bard and the scowl of the Witcher and an expression akin to amusement crosses her face. 

"There's only one room left." The owner drawls, voice accented in a country twang. For all accounts, she looks mind-numbingly bored but Geralt can detect the smallest hint of a smirk at her lips, the scent of amusement that rises as she looks between the two unlikely companions.

Jaskier freezes, turning to look up at Geralt in a silent question. He looks unsure, uncertain. It's a testament to how much Geralt has pushed him away. Last time they'd been together, that three-year stretch, they'd shared more than half of their rooms. But now… Jaskier is doing a good job of hiding it, but Geralt knows that he'd tried to push Jaskier away and Jaskier had detected it. Jaskier had changed .

"That's fine." He growls, low and deep and Jaskier winces at the edge to his voice. Geralt is so used to the awful treatment he used to receive that he forgets that things are different now. The owner, to her credit, seems completely unbothered. Instead, she looks at them with a glint in her smile.

"There's only one bed, too." And her voice is like a challenge. Her eyes flicker from between Jaskier and Geralt and it's like she knows what Jaskier is thinking, knows what Geralt is thinking. 

"I said that's fine." Geralt repeats, tone forceful. Jaskier eyes widen and Geralt gets the briefest whiff of surprise before it disappears altogether. He leans in closer to the bard, only the slightest shift of his body but Jaskier, an expert of noticing the little things, understands what it means. I'm sorry, it says. I trust you, even if I'm bad at expressing that.

The barmaid puts her hands up in mock surrender and she laughs, tossing them a set of keys. "Just warning you. I'll have some warm water sent up as soon as possible." 

And then Geralt is leading Jaskier away, up the stairs in the back and towards what is now their room. Jaskier wrings his hands, long fingers twisting and jittering in a nervous gesture he's never quite managed to shake.

"I don't mind sleeping on the floor, or even outside if you don't want-"

"Jaskier..."

"me to be there. You've probably not had proper rest in days so it's only fair that you get the bed and, to be honest Geralt, you look like you need it-"

"Jaskier." 

"because gods do you stink, and not just of guts and blood and shit, you smell tired. I didn't even know that was possible, but here you are. When was the last time you slept? And I don't mean whatever that shit meditating thing is you lot do, I mean properly sleep-"

"Jaskier!" 

"and not- huh?" He breaks off, voice cracking as Geralt eventually manages to interrupt his tirade.

"We can share a bed." Geralt says and Jaskier shakes his head from side to side, eyes widening in disbelief. "W-we can… Share a bed?" He jumps up to grab Geralt's arms, faltering when he remembers about the selkiemore guts and then settles for a hesitant pat on the shoulder. The scent of uncertainty comes back but, like always, it is muted. Geralt has to concentrate to catch a whiff of it and even then it's faded, as though something is locking it away. Jaskier quickly recovers, however. The furrow in his brow parts like clouds from over the sun and a mischievous grin slides across his face, his white teeth flashing from between rosy lips. "Falling under my charms, are we? You were a tough nut to crack, I'll admit that, but it was only a matter of time before you surrendered under my wily charms and irresistible personality, not even counting my gorgeous looks." He says with a flirtatious wink and Geralt's lips twitch upwards at the edges. He'd missed this in the six months they'd been parted. He'd missed Jaskier. 

"Fuck off." Geralt replies with, but his words lack the bite.

Jaskier, for all his jokes and laughter and vibrant smiles, has allowed himself to fall for Geralt and if this is what it will be like… well, he'd gladly fall for the rest of his days. 

(Later, this memory will hurt, but right now it is beautiful. Right now, it is perfect)

They enter their room, bronzed key clacking against the weathered old door. It's small-ish, no surprises there; as it is really only intended for one person. The bed is a double though and it smells clean-ish and the furniture, although obviously well-used and old, is quite tasteful. There's a musty aroma over the whole room, as though it needs airing out. Jaskier quickly bounds over to the window, parting the closed curtains and flinging them open, wincing at the loud screech of protest their rusty hinges let out. 

The sunlight pours in, bathing Jaskier in golden hue. Geralt, still standing in the doorframe, watches from the shadows. He steps in the room and clouds of cotton drift over the light.

There's a large bath in the centre of the room, an iron tub that is much bigger than the last inn Jaskier had stayed at. It's clean enough, perhaps only slightly rusty, but it's certainly a much finer tub than either of them are used to. And, as they begin to settle their things, Jaskier spies a whole array of salts and scents and oils laid against the back wall. He's quite jealous, really; he's always been fond of a nice long soak; Although maybe this is his chance to prove to Geralt that cleaning is an option, a nice option at that. Geralt's always been content to walk around with his oniony smell and he's always showed reluctance to wash and bathe; only doing it when it's absolutely necessary. It's something that Jaskier can never understand. Perhaps it's the remnants of his once-noble upbringing of so long ago; for all his wandering and for the countless times he has slept rough, slept out under the open skies or in barns or ditches or anywhere that is protected from cold night winds, he has never managed to get used to feeling dirty. Always, he wants to be clean. Even if that source of cleanliness is a river or even if he has to break his back pumping water from a well. As long as he can just be clean, he is willing to do pretty much anything. Geralt… does not think like that. Not at all. He's more of a… 'I'll only wash when I smell so bad that it physically affects my ability to pick up other scents' kind of guy. Which, Jaskier supposes, in a job as gritty and unpredictable as a Witcher, is a fair enough point. Taking the time to clean and wash yourself when you're just going to get coated in monster guts and blood and gore the next day does seem like a waste of time. But now, they have a royal audience and there is no way on earth that Jaskier will allow Geralt to come if he's looking like that.

Well, unbeknownst to the Witcher, Jaskier has more talents than just his music. While his nose may not be as sharp as Geralt's, he has the penchant for the finer things in life; a perfectly drawn bath being one of them. Jaskier is determined that Geralt will have the best wash of his life. Maybe, if he's being hopeful, it will be so good that he might consider washing more often. The onion smell can be a bit too much sometimes, if Jaskier is being honest. 

As the hot water is brought up Jaskier distracts himself with all manner of mixing oils and lotions and salts until he is content with the mixture of scents, he tries to ignore the fact that Geralt is stripping down right beside him.

Sure, he's seen Geralt naked before countless of times but he never gets used to it. He doesn't know if he ever will.

And he turns around to Geralt, the bath ready and the room infused with the heady scents of chamomile and lavender. The aroma is almost smothering, thick and dizzying and altogether consuming. It makes Jaskier's head spin and his knees weak, although that might just be because he's looking at Geralt. Even though Geralt is coated in blood and guts and shit, Jaskier's heart stops in his chest. He's… well, he's Geralt and Jaskier doesn't think that anything or anyone could ever be more beautiful.

Pale skin, white like the snow that lies upon the very tips of grey mountains. Under the crimson and brown of monster guts lies hair much whiter than that, like light itself in its purest form. He's lined with hard muscles, strong and straining against scarred flesh. Lines like those etched on maps dot his skin, lighter and darker in colours of pink and white, raised and flat, jagged and smooth. It hurts Jaskier's heart to see them sometimes, to see the wounds that will never truly heal and the marks that will never truly fade. He knows that, underneath that powerful body, there lies scars that cannot be seen. The ones beneath the skin, ones that mar the heart and the brain and the very soul.

Jaskier knows that he cannot wipe them all away, he cannot erase the pain and the torture and the stories of sleepless nights and the tales of monsters beyond all redemption. He does not want to, though. Although it is bad, although it is painful to see, these experiences have made Geralt. They have shaped him into who he is today, formed him into the man before him who seems to have the energy sucked right out of him, who's golden eyes are hidden by lowering lids and whose skin is coated in the aftermath of his battles. 

Wipe them away he cannot, but he can be there to help. To help them heal, to always be there when they never truly fade, to soothe when it is all too much and to speak when Geralt's words will not come.

This is love, he thinks, and it terrifies him. There's a part of him that wants to bolt, to run and run and leave all this tenderness behind. The part of him that hides, the part of him that escapes when things grow too much. The fear of commitment looms, the fear of secrets being spilt and what is hidden being uncovered.

He fights it, though. He wants to be here and he doesn't want to run. Not anymore. 

Geralt looks bone-tired, beneath all the dirt and grime, and Jaskier, much to Geralt's chagrin, guides him towards the steaming bath. 

Jaskier is by no means a dainty person. He's slender and svelte, he supposes. He's got a trim waist and long legs, but he's also got broad shoulders and a whole load of hair that most definitely proves he's what is considered more masculine than others might believe. He's tall, top; taller than most, but compared to Geralt…

Well, he feels quite small and weak, to be honest. Which is to be expected. Geralt's built like a brick wall. All tough muscle and rough scars, he's strong and brave and ridiculously talented; with endless stamina and strength that never seems to run out.

But now, here, he is weak. He is tired and he has not rested for what is most likely days. He was trapped in the belly of a monster, he's been swallowed whole and torn himself free once more. He's been through things that would have left most people dead, all in one night.

So Jaskier lets Geralt lean on him as he walks him to the bath; for once not kicking up a fuss at the guts that will have completely ruined his clothes nor the blood that now coats the arm he's wrapped around Geralt's waist.

Only with Jaskier does Geralt let himself be seen like this. Only with Jaskier does he let his guard down, lower his hackles and abandon the poisoned spikes he lays about himself for safety.

He lets Jaskier in and he lets him get closer like no other. They trust one another, completely.

But Jaskier can feel the metal of his bracelet, no doubt digging into Geralt's skin, and feels guilt settle like ash in his lungs.

Tonight, he tells himself. After the ball, he will tell Geralt. He will stop running. Stop hiding. He will be free.

But now is not the time. There is a Witcher he has to clean up, lest he be without a bodyguard and find himself on the receiving end of another furious noble's blade and - more than all of that - he's been quite looking forward to this evening.

No longer is he the bard who people threw rotten food at, the bard who people would shout and jeer and heckle and dismiss his music like he was a mosquito suckling at their skin. He's not the bard who shoved bread into his pants, unsure of when his next meal would come and unwilling to spend another day starving. He remembers those days, the days of picking bits of mould off of old pieces of bread, of drinking nothing but ale because it was cheap and there was never any clean water to drink. The days where he mended his clothes with scrapped threads, dug through the general waste of market stalls and shops; scavenged anything he thought could have proven useful for later.

The days when he'd been nobody. When he'd been trying so hard to expand his own little corner, but nothing he did was ever good enough. 

That wasn't him, though. Not any longer. This evening would be proof of that. This was not him singing in a tavern of piss-stains and blood spatters. No, this was a royal performance. Tonight was proof that he had succeeded, proof that he had spread his lyrics to the furthest reaches of the earth.

Jaskier thinks of his corner, the little one that he had spent so much of his life trying to expand. He thinks that he has done that now. Maybe this means that he does not need to run, he does not need to leave. He had always thought there was nowhere to go but up, but what happens when you reach up? Do you keep on going? Keep on climbing, even if there might not be anything else above the top? Or do you stop? Stay where you are and hope that what you already have is enough?

He thinks of Geralt and all that he still has yet to know. His life has changed much since he was the young adult at Oxenfurt. Back then he had wanted fame, he had wanted legacy. He had wanted to be a name in a song that would be sung for generations, a piece of history that would be passed down long when the humans of this era were gone. 

Dreams, however, are not stagnant. They are fluid, like puffs of smoke that can never remain in just one place. They shrink and expand and disappear and come back, always changing but always beautiful. This is one dream he has reached, but now he looks at Geralt and dreams of something else.

He has put his whole heart into Geralt's hands and he is happy. Maybe not completely happy, but he is on his way there. His corner was big and there was only so much light that his two hands could bring, but now he felt as if Geralt was by his side. And maybe the two of them wouldn't be enough, and maybe there were still beasts in the dark and secrets that remained hidden, but it was better.

No longer did he feel trapped; no longer did he feel the need to escape, and tonight would be proof of that.

He helps Geralt lower himself into the bath, not able to stop the fond smile that works its way across his face as Geralt lets out a soft hum of pleasure.

He lets him soak for a minute, preparing a pitcher of water that he will later use to try and sort out the gory tangles of Geralt's hair. From here, you wouldn't be able to tell that gleaming white hid beneath that clumped up brown and red and pink. But Jaskier knew. He knew Geralt like the backs of his hands, each hum and each sigh and each raised eyebrow and twitching of lips.

And as he unceremoniously dumps the warmed water over Geralt's head, he looks down at him with cornflower eyes as Geralt pathetically tries to clean out the thick fishermen-net tangles of his hair. He looks as if his arms are too heavy for his body, as if he is so fatigued that merely lifting them up to his head is far too much of a hassle. It's… endearing. Geralt would probably try to glare him to death if he said such a thing out loud but it's true. He looks sweet, soft. 

Jaskier knows that Geralt is independent. Someone who refuses help at every turn, someone who has been content to face the world alone.

But Jaskier was here, now. And maybe they were both more scared of what they had than they would ever let on, maybe they both held the same fears that this couldn't last forever; that one of them would inevitably fuck it all up and they would never be able to have this again, but Jaskier is willing to take that risk.

He takes off his shoes and socks, rolls up the legs of his trousers and easies his feet into the water, legs resting beside Geralt's arms. He pushes Geralt forwards, ever so gently, and lets his fingers get tangled in the gory mess.

Carefully, he works out the knots and clumps and pulls out strings of intestine and innards that have woven themselves between white like some sick, twisted braid. He alternates between pouring more warm water over the mess, this time careful to shield Geralt's eyes, and his soft, circular movements that he hopes come as soothing. In a gentle massage, he eventually manages to shift away the caked-up grime. The water runs a distilled red down Geralt's body, lightning to pink as more and more of it is removed; revealing the brilliant white of his hair.

Jaskier applies oils, soft-scented ones that he knows won't irritate Geralt later on. He picks orange blossom, after some deliberation. Orange blossom for the hair and… Chamomile for the rest of him. They're soft scents, quiet. Not like lavender, which is nice like this but can become strong and overbearing and it a smell demands to be breathed in. No. Quiet and soft, Jaskier wants. Like Geralt himself, sometimes missed and sometimes overlooked but a soothing and familiar presence that seems to calm the very soul.

And Jaskier rubs it in and Geralt relaxes, not unlike a cat Jaskier thinks with a huff of laughter. He stretches out and his harsh edges soften, tilting his head back and pushing against Jaskier's gentle touch. He melts against his palms and for all his muscles and scars, Jaskier has never seen someone look so… soft.

It's nice. He quite wishes every day could be like this.

(Maybe, one day, it could be)

Geralt's hair is washed clean and then Jaskier moves on to the rest of his body. Geralt makes a noise of protest, a half groan of discontent as he tries to push Jaskier's hands away. "I can do it myself." He mumbles out, voice half asleep. Despite himself, Jaskeir smiles. "Go on, then." He says, lobbing the flannel at him. Geralt moves to catch it but he is too slow and it hits the water with a splash.

Jaskier can't stop the snort of laughter that bursts from within. Geralt looks up at him, brows furrowed but there's a soft glimmer in his eyes that speaks of fondness that remains unspoken.

For a few moments, Jaskier watches Geralt struggle with the flannel, limbs too tired to do any form of cleaning. He waits.

There's a pause, the flannel slips through Geralt's sleep weary hands once more and he hisses out a curse. He looks up towards Jaskier, gold meeting blue before he turns away with a huff. 

"What?" Jaskier asks, smiling wildly.

Geralt sighs, long and suffering. "Help. Please." 

With a mock gasp, Jaskier returns to the bath's side. " What? Geralt, the famous White Wolf asking for help? Now this is a day that will go down in history, maybe I should write a song about this - can't have such a thing being forgotten, you know-"

"Shut up and help." Geralt hisses and Jaskier laughs, throwing his head back; revealing the long line of his throat. His adam's apple bobs as he swallows deeply and he takes the flannel from Geralt. An almost nervous expression flashes across his features before it is quickly flattened out, a childish sort of mischievousness replacing it. 

The next few moments are spent in silence as Jaskier methodically wipes off the grime coating Geralt's skin. But then…

"Hey… Geralt?" Jaskier asks, turning on the charm. All he gets in response is a grunt and a slight incline of the head, a gesture that Jaskier has learned to read as either 'go on' or 'please shut the fuck up', he hasn't quite decided yet.

"I have a favour to ask of you…" 

And Geralt sighs.

"Look, okay! I just need you to be my bodyguard!" He punctuates his words with a flick of the cloth, splashing water against Geralt's face. "Turns out, when one possesses such charms as me-" Geralt makes a choked sort of noise that sounds suspiciously like a laugh, Jaskier pouts, but continues on, voice steadily growing louder and louder. "you end up making a lot of enemies…" He tilts his head downwards to Geralt, eyelashes fluttering in a mockery of bashfulness. 

Geralt's cheeks flush pink. The water must be too hot.

"I thought my only nemesis was the absolute bastard that is Valdo Marx, the useless cunt, going around saying that I 'pander' to the masses, what does that even mean? At least I make music, last time I checked he was too busy trying to find the gold at the bottom of his glass to even bother picking up an instrument-" Geralt clears his throat, impatience clearly lined in the hardening line of his jaw. Jaskier clears his throat. He's got a certain… passion for talking shit about Valdo Marx. Fucking bastard. 

" Anyway! Turns out there are a lot of nobles who have it out for me. Something to do with me sleeping with their partners, I think. Maybe. Who knows, really? Maybe they're just jealous of my dashingly good looks and charm. In fact, I think that might be it. If I wasn't myself, I'd certainly be jealous of me, I'd probably try and kill me too; if I looked like half of those bellends and I met someone as… perfect as me." 

"How many people have you slept with?" And Geralt is smiling, (or his version of smiling anyway) but it doesn't quite reach his eyes. There's a strain that lingers under the surface, a tenseness that Jaskier can't quite explain. 

"Um… a few? A lot, maybe. I don't know, you lose track after a while." Geralt huffs, rolling his eyes, but his lips are curled up at the edges and Jaskier laughs at his disgruntled expression, loud and free.

Geralt remains silent, but Jaskier can hear the laugh that he hides behind. Yet still, there's an air of tension that remains. Only rising when he had spoken of his other partners. It's not worry, it's not concern; Jaskier knows what they look like. This expression… it's something else entirely. 

"And why should I help you?" Geralt asks, tone gruff.

"Why, because we're best friends! Also... " Jaskier trails off, turning his head. "This is kind of a big deal for me, you know? I'm performing in front of royalty, Geralt. I just… I could use the support, really. I guess. A familiar face in the crowds, even if you say you don't like my singing." 

"I've never said that." Geralt whispers back, voice so quiet Jaskier isn't sure if he'd said anything at all. "I've called it annoying before, but I've never said I don't like it."

Silence follows and Jaskier doesn't know what to say. He does notice, however, that Geralt had only protested to one half of that sentence. He hadn't denied that they were friends. 

"I'll come." Geralt eventually says, and there's a look in his eyes that Jaskier thinks he's supposed to understand but he has no idea what it means. He's much better at reading Geralt than he once was, but there's still so much he has to learn; meaning there's much more time they'll have to spend by one another's side. Jaskier is a scholar at heart; his many studies at Oxenfurt a testament to that. He enjoys the study of the world and all that lingers in it. And, as anybody will tell you, the best way to learn is to experience it. 

"Thank you." Jaskier responds, and he means it.

There's a pause, a moment of quiet where the room itself seems to fill with something warm and fuzzy and sweet, a feeling which has nothing to do with the scents of chamomile and orange blossom. It is… nice. A safe feeling, as though an unspoken friendship has overflowed like water from a bathtub. Feelings from the mind have filtered out, filling the air with incense that smells like hope and happiness and safety. Out from their hearts and their souls, a softness that the two have always tried to quell that has somehow managed to break free. The feeling swirls together, their separate fondness joining and dancing until it is a whirl of colour, mixing and mixing until it cannot be said where one ends and the other begins. 

The moment, however, is broken as Geralt tries to get out of the bath.

His limbs are still sore, still tired, and Jaskier instinctively runs over to help him. With a hand around his waist, pulling up from under his armpits, Jaskier helps heave Geralt out of the cooling water, leading him to the bed. 

Without even bothering to dry or dress himself, Geralt lands on the bed with a huff, burying his face amongst slightly musty pillows. 

During the briefest of moments, Jaskier takes the time to admire the body before him. Strong, muscular. Hard and pale, as if it was carved from marble or stone. He really does look like a statue, though. The noble sort that royalty gets commissioned, the ones of long-gone heroes and knights and men and women who saved the world itself. 

Also, Jaskier also notes with a hotness to his cheeks, that arse is even better unclothed. Gods it's a nice arse. Jaskier had always thought his own was pretty decent but he's got absolutely nothing on Geralt's. And he's the only one who gets to see this. Not Geralt naked, plenty of whores in brothels and other such establishments will have been treated such a view, but not many will have witnessed this kind of vulnerability. Geralt has his back turned to Jaskier. His swords have been laid at the other end of the room, he is completely devoid of weapons.

Jaskier is sure that Geralt could still kill him with his bare hands, if he so desired, but his entire body has gone lax and still. He's melted into the mattress, sunk into the duvet and pillows. He trusts Jaskier. He lets Jaskier see him like this, see his rawest and most vulnerable pieces.

Back to the task at hand, though. Jaskier grabs one of the towels - only slightly scratchy - and carefully begins to pat Geralt dry. There are fresh wounds on the skin of his back, although they have been washed out and cleaned and they're not deep enough that they'll need stitches; all the same, Jaskier still treats the areas with the utmost care.

Maybe some would laugh at the way he touches Geralt; the way he treats him as if he is something fragile and soft and a thing that must be handled with care. But Jaskier isn't trying to imply Geralt is weak, or in need of coddling. Instead, it is more of a… protective kind of thing.

Jaskier wants to look after Geralt. He wants to keep him warm and well-fed and safe and it's so utterly ridiculous because Geralt is a Witcher and he lives in danger, but Jaskier just wants him to be safe. He wants to be there, by his side, whenever he is hurt. Tend to his wounds and wash his hair and give him massages when his muscles are tense. He wants to sleep beside Geralt, be the person who he can relax around; be the person who Geralt feels safe within their companionship.

He wants everything with Geralt. He wants the world and he wants his heart and he wants to put all of this into words, compose a song made only for their two ears. 

He does not, however. Instead, he gives Geralt that massage.

And if he does rub chamomile onto that lovely bottom, who's to stop him? Geralt certainly hadn't minded, if his soft groans and hums of appreciation were anything to go by.

Once he had finished, undone all the tightly wound muscles in Geralt's back and shoulders and arms and legs, Geralt is fast asleep.

It is a testament to how much things have changed that Geralt does not stir once when Jaskier shifts about on the bed beside him. Once, he would have shot upright with his hands reaching for his swords and his eyes wild and darting, searching desperately for danger.

Now, however, his brow furrows slightly and he shifts about in his sleep.

They've got a few more hours until they'll have to get ready for the banquet and a nap wouldn't hurt. 

So Jaskier climbs in beside Geralt, resting close enough that he can feel the heat from their bodies intertwining into one. He closes his eyes, levels out his breathing, but just before sleep claims him; he feels the mattress shift from aside him.

Geralt moves, his arm lying over Jaskier's waist.

He snuggles into the embrace, pleasantly dozy and it isn't long before he too is fast asleep.

x

When Geralt awakens only two hours later, it is to the feeling of warm breath on his shoulder and a slight weight at his side.

He shifts, ever so slightly, and looks over at Jaskier who sleeps peacefully beside him. 

His hair is tousled, tawny curls tightly wound and strewn over his face in a halo of woodland thorns. His eyes are shut, eyelids hiding the cornflower blue that lingers underneath, shining like the clearest skies on the clearest days. He has long eyelashes, a dark brown that flutter over his cheeks and leaves shadows like butterfly wings on his high cheekbones. His lips are left slightly agape, a streak of darker red on the bottom one where he'd picked the skin off earlier - a habit he's never managed to break. His shirt is half unbuttoned, revealing the sharp line of collarbone dusted with curls of dark chest hair. 

Geralt breathes in the scent of him and wonders.

It is only recently that Geralt has begun to truly question his strange companion. He feels as if he knows anything about Jaskier at all.

He smells of the chamomile and orange blossom he had so carefully tended Geralt with and there's a whiff of pine trees and sage and pollen that lingers under it all; a scent that Geralt has come to recognise as Jaskier.

But there is something not quite right about it all. Something that blocks. Geralt's senses have never failed him before but he struggles to read Jaskier. On the open road, when he's got a knife to his throat or a monster's claws racing towards his ribs, Geralt can see the fear in his eyes. He can hear the panic in his voice, the mania in his screech.

But he can't smell it. 

Jaskier is hiding something. Has been hiding something, for as long as they have known one another. Geralt had never really paid any notice to it. He'd spent so long pretending that he did not care about the bard, trying to convince himself that he'd be better off without his company, that he'd never stopped to think why. 

Yet somehow Jaskier has managed to worm his way into Geralt's heart; through his ridiculous songs and his voice of an angel, his incessant chatter and the way chaos is drawn to him like a moth to a flame. 

Everyone has their secrets, Geralt supposes. He is no stranger to keeping things under wraps. It would be hypocritical of him to complain, hypocritical of him to judge. He will not push Jaskeir for answers, will not badger him with questions or accusations. Instead, he will wait. Instead, he will hope that there will soon be a time when Jaskier will tell him of his own volition. 

Maybe, one day, there will be nothing hidden between them. Maybe, one day, they will stop trying to run and instead enjoy what they already have. 

But Geralt thinks of a human's lifespan. Short and fleeting. It had taken them over a decade to get this far and Jaskier won't be around forever.

Still, as Jaskier stirs, Geralt notices how he still looks the same. They had first met when Jaskier was only eighteen years old, barely an adult alone in the wide expanse of the Continent. He's twenty-nine now, but he does not look a day over their first meeting. 

Perhaps there are a few more wrinkles around the eyes; tiny little lines etched in crows feet. Or maybe those are the marks of someone who smiles a lot more than they once did. Not all wrinkles come from age and Jaskier does not seem to have aged at all.

Maybe he's just lucky. Maybe he's just one of those people who will always look young. He might just age slowly and then once he reaches his older years, he'll age all at once. Geralt has seen people like that before, ones who don't look a day over thirty until their fifty. 

Or maybe it's something else. Once again, Geralt finds his eyes instinctively drawn to the bracelet on Jaskier's wrist. But it does not smell of magic and he does not know why. It seems to glow against his skin, shimmer in the gloom of the room. It must be a trick of the light. Geralt pushes his thoughts away. 

(Later, these thoughts will resurface and he will wonder how he could have been so foolish) 

As blue eyes flutter open, Geralt wonders how he let himself become so dependent on one person. Jaskier brings his hand up, rubbing the sleep from his eyes with a dozy smile.

The gold of his bracelet shimmers around his wrist and Geralt watches it grow brighter and brighter and brighter; but he thinks nothing of it.

x

They arrive at the party with their (or rather, Jaskier's) hopes set high.

Geralt had allowed himself to be cleaned up, allowed Jaskier to do something nice with his hair for once ('you've got all this lovely hair that you just shove into a ratty bun when you need it out of the way! I don't care if it's practical or not, this is an important event and my bodyguard is going to look the part!') and he'd even let Jaskier pick out his clothes, or rather dress him in an entirely new wardrobe considering all of Geralt's clothes consisted of the raggedy 'I slay monsters everyday' kind of outfits. It's… strange. Jaskier certainly has a taste for the finer things of life - another thing which Geralt still doesn't know why - sometimes, with the way that Jaskier speaks to nobles and mingles so effortlessly with those of the highest classes, Geralt wonders how he got so good at it. This… it feels like events like this are Jaskier's element. As though he was born to be here, standing with the highest of all society. He knows what to say, how to act, the subtle ways that one holds themselves and the art of charm and wit and humour. It's as though he was trained for moments such as these, but he couldn't have been. When Geralt had first met Jaskier he'd been scavenging from garbage and eating food that barely counted as food anymore. If he'd been a noble… surely he wouldn't be out here, out travelling with Geralt, living a tough life out on the road.

Well, whatever it is, Geralt does not focus on it for too long. He's more concerned with the hush that spreads across the room as people pretend to not look at him. He knew he wouldn't fit in here. He's not made for all this fancy shit. He's not comfortable around so many people, with all these unspoken rules and all this etiquette that everybody seems to already know apart from himself. 

So they had entered the hall, Jaskier's lute strapped on his back and his hands trembling with a bout of nerves. This is it. This is the peak of his career. This is what making it looks like. Right here, right now, performing in front of what feels like every goddamn noble in the land, performing in front of royalty. It doesn't get much bigger than this. 

"I think I might be sick." He hisses into Geralt's ear as they walk in. "Seriously, Geralt. I can't be sick in front of the Queen, I- what would that do to my reputation? I can't even bear to think-"

He's cut short as Geralt, voluntarily, places a hand on his shoulder. The pressure is heavy, warm. Geralt's hands flex, squeezing softly and as Jaskier turns up to him he's smiling. A subtle quirk of the lips, barely perceptible by those who did not know Geralt; but Jaskier knows Geralt and he's actually, genuinely smiling. It comforts Jaskier like nothing else in the world could. Perhaps Geralt knows that, perhaps that is why he did it.

And Jaskier has been falling for Geralt for years now. Falling and falling and falling but, maybe, Geralt has caught him. His heart is full, so full , and all he wants to do is sing. There is music rumbling in his chest, the hum of gentle thunder on a warm summer's eve. Geralt holds his heart in his hands and he cradles it like it is the most precious thing he has ever known. 

"You'll be fine." And his voice is low and gruff, a murmur from deep within his chest, but it's soft and gentle and caring and nothing like the coarse, abrasive tone he uses with so many others. "I'll keep a lookout for any nobles who might want to chop your dick off." He says, voice deadpan but there's an amused glint in his golden eyes and he gives Jaskier another pat on the shoulder, before pushing him to other musicians who are playing a lively jig that has the guests swirling and laughing and spinning on the ballroom floor, faces pink and voices breathless as they take up partner after partner after partner.

Jaskier smiles and laughs along with them and as his fingers begin to pluck at his lute, fingertips pressed against the familiar length of silver strings, he sings his songs that are spun from the very threads of his soul.

Of course, as it always tends to be when Jaskier is involved, things didn't exactly go to plan. Geralt was almost instantly recognised as a Witcher; because, of course, even if he has cleaned up properly for what might be the first time in the last few decades, there's nothing to be done about the shock of white hair or the feline eyes of gold. He's recognisable. Hiding a Witcher in a ballroom is like trying to hide a cat in a birdcage. It's simply impossible. 

But it's okay. Geralt sits beside the Queen, a stoic shadow of monochrome against the lively colours of the party. As Jaskier performs, hands strumming his lute in pure instinct and voice soaring and rising amongst the symphony of instruments, his eyes are constantly pulled towards that black and white and grey in the sea of technicolour.

Geralt is beautiful; sitting there. Regal, proud. His eyes are gold and they shine brighter than even the most sacred of jewels and his hair, intricately braided by Jaskier's own talented hands, frame his square face in an almost ethereal beauty. He doesn't look real, he doesn't look as if he belongs here; with all these boring, plain, faded-paper humans. He belongs somewhere else, somewhere much better than these royal halls. As their eyes meet, Jaskier can catch the fond twitch of his lips, even from all the way across the room, and his voice raises and swells like the sound of birdsong amongst forest trees. A nightingale in the dark, he sings for the room but not once do his eyes leave Geralt's.

And at that moment there, everything is perfect.

Perfect, that is, until it all goes to shit.

x

It first starts when a noblewoman grabs Jaskier around the throat.

He'd been drinking, his inhibitions were lowered and he'd completely forgotten why he'd been so adamant that Geralt come as his bodyguard. Fuck. He'd failed to keep an eye out, failed to remember just how many nobles he's managed to piss off and just how many of their lovers he's fucked.

You'd think with the number of people he's slept with, he'd learn how to sneak out without getting noticed. But Jaskier appears to be living proof that practise doesn't always make perfect, and these furious nobles is just further evidence that he might want to work on his stealth skills. 

In a flash, Geralt is there. He towers above the woman, golden eyes ablaze and mouth twisted into a scowl. 

"This is the bastard who fucked my husband." She hisses, hands tightening their hold. "I'd recognise the little slut anywhere." Her voice is pointed and Jaskier can imagine her tongue becoming forked, slithering out between those thin lips like a serpent ready to strike. Her fingers are pushing down on his windpipe and he chokes, trying to gulp in the air he so desperately needs, but his actions are to no avail. She wouldn't kill him, not here. Not now. Would she?

"Leave him alone." Geralt says, voice short and commanding. The noblewoman's hold loosens ever so slightly and Jaskier can feel the tremor in her hands. However, she doesn't let go. He still can't breathe. He wills himself not to panic, Geralt won't let him die, certainly not here of all places, but it's hard to override the natural instinct to kick and writhe and try to scream when someone is genuinely trying to strangle you to death.  

"Did you not hear what I said?" Geralt continues, tone darkening into something brittle and cold, like long mournful nights under a sky with no stars. He clenches his fists, knuckles bone white as he shifts on his feet, back straightening and jaw tightening. The noblewoman tightens her hold for the briefest of moments before she loses her nerve. She lets him go with a huff, pushing him forwards. Jaskier stumbles, only stopping when Geralt reaches out to steady him. 

She spits at the ground, eyes trained on Jaskier as she storms off. "Be thankful that your precious fucking Witcher is watching over you. Don't always think you'll be so lucky." And she laughs, turning her head to look at them once more. Her laughter is dead, mirthless and bland and only filled with deceit and darkness. She flounces off and her heels click on the stone floor. 

" Thank you." Jaskier breathes out once she's gone, hands rubbing at his throat. It will probably bruise. Oh well, it can't be helped. "See, this is what I have to put up with! A bunch of psychopaths all out to get me! It's not my fault their partners come seeking out a more exciting bedfellow, maybe if they-"

"I didn't know you slept with men." 

Jaskier freezes. "Huh?" 

"The woman. She said 'husband'. I didn't know." And Geralt looks like Jaskier like he's supposed to understand what he wants to say but won't, because it's Geralt and he rarely says what he's truly thinking, but Jaskier has no idea what he's trying to insinuate. It's not disgust, though. It's not horror, or hatred or any of the other emotions that Jaskier has come to fear when it comes to his own personal tastes.

"I- uh, I thought you already knew." He stutters, at a loss for what to say. It's a lie and they both know it. A look of hurt flashes across Geralt's eyes, although the expression is so fleeting that Jaskier cannot be certain he saw it at all. "How much do I really know about you?" Geralt asks. But the answer lingers in the air. You've never bothered to get to know him before. How did you manage to miss something as obvious as this? How didn't you realise?

Jaskier doesn't reply. 

Then there's a shout and the conversation is momentarily forgotten and that's when everything truly goes to shit. 

x

It's an utter disaster, the events that follow. Jaskier loses Geralt in the chaos and he does not find him again.

When everything has calmed down, Geralt is gone. 

He knows that they will meet again, he is certain of it. Geralt still holds his heart in his hands and they are still intertwined by the very threads of the universe, but Geralt has only been gone for a few minutes and Jaskier already misses him. 

Jaskier pretends it does not hurt as much as it does. 

It is only much later when Jaskier has escaped and returns to the empty inn room that he catches sight of the gold around his wrist. He never got the chance to say anything. He never got the chance to stop running.

Next time, he tells himself; but even to his own ears that sounds like a lie. 

Chapter Text

The next time they meet it is under the orange glow of twilight; when the world is bathed in crimson flame and the lines between the light of day and the darkness of night become blurred into a golden time-space that's quiet beauty transcends that of all others. Delicate, evening grows. A fragile and fleeting part of each day, when the sun and the moon intertwine their golden light with silver, when the unlikeliest of companions - two opposites within the vastness of the world - are joined, momentarily.

It is a strange time of the day. A strange happening where it seems as if anything could happen, yet it is beautiful in that uniqueness; beautiful in the rarity of its contrast. 

It is like any other normal evening, really. Or rather; there is nothing particularly special about this summer's evening, no event to be held nor day that should be celebrated. It is… dull, unexciting. It is simply a day of monotony, the dreariness of normalcy that is simply forgotten about; pushed aside for the more exciting and interesting.

Jaskier is making his way to the next village; hands strumming aimlessly on his lute as he hums and murmurs half-formed lyrics. It is another song based upon a story, a tale woven by the people of the last settlement who had caught a glimpse of the White Wolf. They had promised him good money for a Warg in the woods, one that had been growing braver and braver and sneaking into the village under a cloak of darkness, taking those who stayed out past sunlight away to a place where they would never be seen again.

The Witcher had killed the beast, its gruesome head had been on display at the Town Hall; a sick, twisted kind of trophy that proved the beast would haunt village bounds no longer. Another heroic act completed by none other than the Geralt of Rivia; it was only natural that Jaskier had scoured the village for details, taking every possible piece of information, factual or fictitious. All essential for the weaving of artistry, for the creation of a new song that will be remembered for years to come. A tale does not have to be true for it to be remembered. All it needs to do is inspire hope, and that is what Jaskier has chosen to do with his corner - now so large it expands across the entire Continent itself. If he can inspire others, hand over more torches of light to all those who he sings to, then maybe he can make the dreary world just that tiny bit brighter. A smile while you're doing the washing, a hummed tune as you feed the cattle. All of it adds up, all of it means something, eventually. 

Jaskier sings and sings and his voice seems far too loud in the stillness of twilight. Usually, no matter the time of day, his songs are always joined by a chorus of wildlife. The chatter of a sparrow like a flute in the wind, the drums of a woodpecker against birch trees. Sometimes the mournful howl of a canine, wolf or dog, like the hum of a violin; a lingering sense of loss and sadness that croons deep beneath all of his songs. A flute of birdsong, percussion of horses hooves, tune of distant voices and raucous laughter. It is usually there, always in the background. Something you have to listen for, something that the likes of Valdo Marx will never achieve. There's a reason he's called the Master Bard and Valdo is… well, he's around. Somewhere. 

But now there is nothing. It is silent, strangely so.

Hands stilling on his lute, voice wavering into the golden glow, Jaskier comes to a halt.

The stillness comes as unnatural. There has been a disturbance in these woodlands, something that has happened, something that is still happening. He does not trust it. 

He straps his lute to his back, hands reaching to the dagger at his side. The silver one that Geralt had given him oh so long ago. He traces the embedded edges of ferns and flora, traces the familiar grooves and dips and rises with the very tips of his fingers. His bow and arrow would be better, but the light has grown too low and his eyesight is not sharp enough. It would be foolish to try and shoot in the ever-growing darkness, a missed arrow could alert whatever lingers beyond the shadows, a missed arrow could spark his death. Besides, he is better with the knife than he once was. Not… brilliant, but it had certainly helped him out in a pinch multiple times over these past few years. 

So he grips his dagger, knuckles turning white at the bone, and treads as quietly as he possibly can through the forest grounds.

His feet crunch on the fallen autumn leaves and he winces, body crouched as though that will make him less visible, as though the closer he is to the ground the less likely he is to be seen. But he knows all too well that many monsters who roam the earth at night do not need sight, they have their ears and noses that do the work for them. It does not matter how quiet he is, nor how much he tries to hide, he might as well be walking around in neon lights, shouting at the top of his lungs. He feels like there's a mark over his head, a huge sign that stands high above the trees. 'Jaskier is here' it says, 'easy pickings for any monsters looking for a quick snack'.

Obviously there had been more than Wargs just plaguing this village. Whatever else it was, they were stronger, more secretive. More dangerous. There were many different types of monsters that plagued all countries on the Continent and many of them had learned how to go unnoticed, how to kill under darkness and remain undetected. The Wargs were merely a scapegoat. The true beast was still here, still living. 

Unless, of course, Geralt has gotten to it first.

He walks and walks and the forest grows ever-quiet. It is as if noise itself has been sucked out of the land, leaving only a dark void of silence. It is strange how an absence of sound can pull the very life out of a place. The trees wave in the wind, flowers darkening under the rising night. They are living, yet they seem dead. There are no birds amongst the branches, no insects amongst the leaves. Life has been drained from the area, like poison in a swamp; the silence has infected all that lies around it. A shield of twilight that blocks out the very life and living, a thread of the world that has come undone and pulled Jaskier down with it. Suddenly the dusk no longer seems so beautiful. The fire of the sky is no longer trapped amongst the clouds. Jaskier feels as if it is right here, right now. As if the world is on fire and the ever-rising darkness is ash. Smothering, thick smoke. One that will block out the moonlight, the shimmer of stars. 

Then, he hears it.

A scuffle. A battle. He can hear the clash of a sword, the slicing of flesh. It rings out in sick symphony; no longer is it the hum of his gentle tune, the cry of a lute's delicate strings. This is orchestrated death, the very darkest sounds of the earth ringing out in peals of hysteria, laughter in pain and smiles through tears.

And it's getting closer.

The sounds grow louder. The music swells, grows heavier and deeper and with it the twilight begins to fade. Dusk has fallen and past, the remnants of sunlight become swallowed by black light. 

The curtains are drawing, the stage is set. All that they are waiting for is the show.

Jaskier is the audience. He realises this with a sinking in his stomach, his lungs constricting and panic crawling at his throat.

He is the audience to this sick music, this twisted play. There is no way he can escape, nowhere he can run. He cannot determine from where the sounds rise from, he cannot figure out which direction is safe and which one is danger. All he can do is tread carefully, slowly, hope for the best.

He has a feeling though that - considering his own track record - things will not go as smoothly as he hopes. A magnet to calamity, Jaskier seems to be. Destiny follows him like a storm cloud and touches all those who he is with. (The Child Surprise has not been forgotten by him. Although he can only imagine that Geralt, who thinks of destiny as a thing that can be run from, is probably doing everything in his power to pretend that the events at that banquet had not taken place. Jaskier can't blame him, not really)

But the performance has only just begun and with the sound of cracked branches and rustling leaves, the sounds of trees screeching in the blackness of night, a monster charges into the clearing. It's an Alghoul, if the mottled skin and beady eyes are anything to go by. There must be swamplands nearby, or perhaps a long-forgotten cemetery. Jaskier doesn't know and, to be honest, right now he's not entirely concerned with the logistics of this beast, nor worried about where exactly this hellspawn has come from. He's more concerned over the very precarious position of his life. Which, as time passes, seems to be growing shorter and shorter.

Basically, he's fucked. 

The creature rears its ugly head, (and it really is ugly. Truly an awful, disgusting creature) letting out a ferocious roar. With its mouth held agape, Jaskier can see the fleshy insides that surround jagged teeth, like pieces of broken glass stuck inside bleeding gums. The entire monster looks infected, a plague that was never cured. It's hideous, vile. 

Jaskier can't help but pity it. Truly, what hope did a creature like that have on this earth? It was made to be evil, it was made to feed on the living. All it is is a killing machine. That is its purpose, that is its life force. 

The world is cruel, Jaskier thinks. The world is a dark, dark place when creatures like this exist. What had this once been, he can't help but wonder. A grandfather, perhaps. One that his children hadn't even bothered to bury properly. Perhaps a child, for Alghouls did not age like humans and they certainly did not take the same form. It was common, when a child died. Maybe it was unwanted, or maybe it was simply too hard for the parents to say goodbye.

Either way, Alghouls were creations of negligence and there was no redemption for that. 

It's larger than average. They are by no means common creatures, certainly a rarity out among the Continent, but Jaskier certainly recalls seeing them around before. They were dangerous creatures with a taste for living flesh, particularly that of a human's and they were certainly not a threat to be taken lightly. There had been rumours of them growing in numbers, or at least beasts that had certainly sounded much like them. It was proof of the worsening of the world, of the unrest that spread and the pain that was seeping into every crack, every corner that each person inhabited. Jaskier knows this for he had spread his life everywhere, he had travelled far and wide and the space he inhabited was so large that he could no longer see the walls, but he could see the darkness that avoided the torch's light. Feel the shadows that grew from its depths, that expanded and twisted and grew bigger and larger, more powerful with each passing day.

There's purple and blue bruising its skin and it seems to have fashioned a weapon of sorts out of scrapped metal and old bits of rope. A yellow, puss-like substance oozes off it, Jaskier cannot tell what it is, but it does not look good. It looks like disease, looks like infection. If that got into one's bloodstream… Jaskier does not want to think upon such things

Its breaths are heavy, rattling against a deformed ribcage, as though there is no heart, no lungs that are hidden underneath. It is not human, not normal, and its breaths are echoes of the emptiness inside. Drool drips from its mouth, fleshy tongue reaching out to catch it, teeth dripping with old blood, a feeding from some time ago. Jaskier remembers hearing of a daughter that had gone missing. He feels sick. 

It sniffs, flattened nose facing the air and its eyes are searching. It is searching and searching and it won't take long for the creature to find him.

Jaskier takes a few hurried steps backwards, the leaves crunching loudly against his feet. He couldn't have been louder if he'd tried. 

Fuck.

Like a magnet, the Alghouls eyes fixate on him. Drawn slowly, he can see the black of its irises swivelling towards his own, boring into him through the thicket. 

Again, that sickness-flesh of pink tongue hangs out from those bruised lips. There's a smirk twisting the creature's ugly face, a hideous smile that pulls at the skin spread over sharp bones; tight and translucent like a drum. It's as though there's not enough skin, not enough to cover and hide and Jaskier can see the blood underneath, pulsing. At the temples of its skin there are ripples like waves in the ocean, live flesh living and breathing, turning like the cogs of a wheel.

Jaskier grips his dagger impossibly tighter, hands hurting with the effort. Fuck. He could try to shoot it, maybe. But Alghouls are fast creatures; he'd be dead before he could even draw the string of his bow. All he can do is stay alert, dagger in hand, and hope that whatever had been fighting this monster before was of a friendly sort. Geralt, he thinks. Please let it be Geralt, and let him be okay.

The Alghoul is moving closer, Jaskier can smell the putrid scent of its rotting flesh. He wants to be sick. His blood is roaring in his ears, a resounding thud like the smashing of symbols in his head. It feels like madness and fear, the cruel spinster that wraps her bony fingers around his heart. Loneliness, isolation, death. All-consuming, smothering like the darkness of night. He feels suffocated under its eyes, choked under the stench of its flesh. 

He steps backwards, backwards and backwards until his back lays flat against a tree. Branches dig into his back, hard and uncomfortable. There is nowhere for him to run. He cowers like a lost lamb, legs turning to jelly. He was not prepared for this. Even if he were to be brave, to run in and attack, Jaskier knows that he cannot defeat this kind of beast. He is a better fighter than most but this creature is superhuman, it is not of the living.

Jaskier can't kill what isn't even alive in the first place. That's a job for a Witcher. 

He closes his eyes and prepares himself for death. He can only hope that he won't be reanimated as one of them.

But then there's a shout and a flash of white hair, two sharp swords glowing like stars in the night.

It's Geralt.

He looks worn down, tired. There's blood on his face and on his sword. There must have been more Alghouls. It's certainly rare, but not unheard of, for them to travel in packs. There's a cut on his cheek, crimson on white, dripping down the stubbled line of his jaw. 

If Jaskier was wagering any guesses, he'd say that it was the Alghouls who had been terrorising the village. The Warg would have just got caught amongst it all, for their mournful howls in the dead of night would put none of the weak-hearted racing thoughts to rest. It was this who had been taking the locals, this who had been stealing children from their beds, stealing lovers from their midnight strolls. And this? This was much worse. This was truly a monstrous creature, through and through. There was no sense of redemption for these beasts, no regret nor no mercy in their glass-eyed stare. They were gone of everything that had once made them human, destroyed from the very inside out.

Geralt fights it, sword silver under moonlight. His eyes are endless pits, a darkened void where the potion has worked its magic. Veins spout from those holes, deep black and grey that coat his skin like fissured cobwebs. Spider's silk, woven in blackness under the ivory of his skin. Obsidian in a seabed of clouds, shadows amongst the pearly gates of above. This is a Witcher. This is what they do, this is what they look like.

He is dangerous, he is perhaps one of the most powerful creatures on the earth. Others who see him like this may fear, may step back in shock and horror. Monster , they will call him. That is the Butcher of Blaviken, that is the monster who slew that village without even a moment's thought.

Geralt believes this too. For as long as they have been travelling, he has tried to keep this part of him hidden from Jaskier. Telling him to stay back, leaving him in their camp while he goes and fights. 

But Jaskier knows otherwise.

In this form, Geralt is truly terrifying. He is the thunder, he is the lightning. He is the sea-waves that beat against chalk-cliff rock. He is the very tremor of the earth, the explosion of starlight and the trees that are felled under blustering winds. He is fire, explosions, all that kills and destroys. He is dangerous, an unstoppable force. He is a Witcher and this is his job, this is his duty.

He is beautiful.

Perhaps it is unusual, perhaps it is only Jaskier who can find the beauty in what is supposed to be monstrous. But Geralt is beautiful. He always has been and he always will be, when looked under the blue-sky gaze of Jaskier's eyes.

Beauty is in the eye of the beholder and Jaskier has never beheld something more gorgeous than this.

It is still Geralt. Underneath the obsidian and ivory, painted in monochrome like the keys of a grand piano. Dark and contrasting and so different from the rest of the world, but a piano rings out pure and true and its melody touches the very soul with songs of old and new. Geralt is still there, Geralt is fighting.

Geralt is saving his life.

So Jaskier watches from the sidelines. He could not help too much to help, his aid would only serve as a hindrance. The best thing he can do for now is try to stay hidden, try to stay as far out of the way out as possible. If he gets too close, there is a risk that Geralt himself could hurt him. He does not want to hinder his offence, hinder his movements and the strength of his attack, for that could spell both of their demises. 

He hears something behind him and his heart catches in his throat. Whipping around, dagger raised and eyes wild, he searches the darkness. Roach, a new Roach, stares back at him. He sighs in relief.

He holds her bridle, steadies her when she looks ready to bolt (she's obviously not been with Geralt for too long. The newer ones always take a while to settle in) but he also keeps her close as comfort. Geralt obviously has the upper hand, there's no way he'll be losing this fight, but Jaskier cannot stop the spiking of anxiety in his throat. He simply cares about the man too much, something which he's been trying so long to fight.

They battle, and the Alghoul, looks to be on the very end of its tethers, which is good because the obsidian of Geralt's eyes is beginning to lighten. Jaskier can just make the two out in the gloom and he is certain that the potion is beginning to wear off, Geralt's adrenaline beginning to droop and his body beginning to tire.

Then, just as Geralt is about to raise his sword for what would have been the finishing blow, the Alghoul manages, somehow, to twist itself out of the way. With a monstrous cry, it flails around its weapon, the yellow-pus substance dripping off it like bile. It's a last attempt at survival, anybody could see that, and it's only by sheer luck that the blade manages to nick Geralt, in the exact spot where is tough leather gloves end and the sleeve of his shirt starts. It's pretty much one of the only points that isn't covered by thick armour, one of the only points that such a weak offence would have had any chance of damaging.

But, naturally, a comparatively small wound (compared to the collection of scars that grace Geralt's body) on the wrist serves as not nearly enough of an injury to stop what is coming.

Geralt gets the Alghoul, sword whistling through the air as the creature of the dead's head is sliced clean off. It flies through the air, floating on the sheer force of Geralt's strike before it lands in the shrubbery a good few feet away.

The headless body scrabbles about for a moment, as if the motion of beheading had been so quick that the rest of the creature hadn't quite got the rest of the memo. It falls to its knees, rotten flesh peeling away as it succumbs to death. Jaskier almost feels sorry for the thing, seeing its hands clamour so desperately Geralt's way; as if it is calling for help, but then he remembers what a vile creature it had once been.

He supposes that, in a way, no matter who or what it was; death could never be a good thing. There was always sadness within it, no matter what it was. It is only natural for people to pity those who are weak, those who are doomed to their fate, even if they are completely deserving of it.

Geralt is breathing heavy, chest heaving unusually hard with the motions. Jaskier takes no notice of it, hands soothing at Roach's flank, who's eyes have gone wide and white and nervous. 

But then Geralt falls to his knees and Jaskier feels a panic like no other.

He runs over to him, momentarily forgetting Roach as he comes to kneel beside Geralt, whose hands are laid flat against the ground, fingers digging into the earth.

It's sodden with blood and his hands are clawed, like a vulture sitting on the arm of a barren tree. His bones are pulled painfully white under translucent skin and Jaskier can see the veins across his knuckles, the lines of scars and cuts and bruises.

Blood is pouring from his wrist, but it is not red. Instead, it is a dark purple, bruising into sludge black. Jaskier grabs his wrist without thinking, mumbling out panicked 'sorry's as Geralt hisses at the movement. With more care this time, he turns it over. The flesh is pale where the effects of the adrenaline potion haven't quite worn off, but as Jaskier lifts the fabric of his undershirt to reveal the wound underneath, it takes all his willpower to not recoil in horror. The cut has grown mottled yellow, the pus-like substance that had been coating the makeshift weapon seems to have embedded itself into the puckered skin on Geralt's arm. The flesh has become raised, infection obvious. The sickness seems to be spreading, too. The shadows seeping from the wound spreading further and further across the expanse of Geralt's skin.

He's in pain, Jaskier realises. Geralt is gasping, swaying slightly on his knees, eyes struggling to stay open. His breathing is laboured, each breath coming in a great heave of rattling effort. 

"Jaskier…" He groans, spat out between clenched teeth. He shifts, arm moving as if he is attempting to reach out to the man before him, but he slips, the rest of his body tumbling to the blood-soaked ground. Jaskier catches him, breath caught in his throat. 

Geralt… he's in a bad way. There must have been poison on the blade; that's what the dripping yellow must have been. Witchers are naturally immune to many types of poison, considering that such things come with the trade, and the ones that they aren't they usually have an incredibly high tolerance to. But this poison, it must have been strong. Ridiculously so, if it's left Geralt like this. 

"Geralt…" Jaskier whispers, hating the waver that mars his speech. "Geralt, I- I don't know what to do." And he's panicking. Geralt's eyes are slipping shut, each blink taking longer and longer, the golden of his eyes turning milky and faded. " Geralt." Jaskier gasps, voice breaking into a sob. "Please, just please… What do you need? I- there's got to be something. Geralt!" 

Beneath that lucid gaze, those half clouded eyes, there is still light that pools beneath. Geralt shifts again, lips parting and breaths coming in deep and rattling. "R-roach." He gasps out. "Pack. A-anti...dotes, Roach . The purple one." And Jaskier is leaping up, running as fast as he possibly can to Roach, willing himself to move even faster. He grasps at the pack on her back, movements needy and desperate as he flings items haphazardly out from it. Spare clothes, leather flasks of water, non-perishable food, it is flung aside without a care. 

He moves like a hurricane, a thoughtless whirl of manic that upturns the contents of Geralt's bag into a higgledy-piggledy mess. His hands root around in the bag, his mind barely even registering what he's doing; just searching. 

He finds the vials, after what seems like an age. He feels as if he's been too slow. It's as though Geralt is trapped in an hourglass, Jaskier an observer from the outside. Sand is pouring from the upper half, time is ticking and it is filling and filling and filling.

Jaskier remembers the night terrors he had experienced during that week of infection. But no longer is it his family who are sinking, the girl of midnight hair and Fain are long gone. It is Geralt who is trapped, Geralt who is sinking. Geralt who is spiralling down and down, drowning under an endless sea of black ink.

If Geralt doesn't make it, there will be nobody to blame but himself.

Move quicker. Be quicker. Just… fucking find it.

It's dark and it's too fucking dark to see and Jaskier can't tell which vial contains blue and purple and yellow and orange. He doesn't fucking know and he's panicking. He needs to concentrate, needs to steady his breathing. He needs to focus but he can't.

It's your fault, his brain whispers, traitorous thoughts clouding his mind. The rational pieces of him know that this is not true. It can't be true, in fact; if Jaskier were not here Geralt would have had no chance. He would certainly die. He'd done everything right, he'd stayed out of the way, ensured that he was not a nuisance. 

But it still feels like it's his fault.

The mind twists and turns and contorts things until they are no longer seen through clear eyes. Fog surrounds Jaskier's world, thick mist smothering over the truth. He needs to hurry up. He needs to be faster, stronger, better.

If Geralt doesn't make it, he does not know what he will do.

His heart burns and his eyes are blurred with tears, breaths marred by gasping sobs that shake him to the very core. He tries to focus, tries to will the tornado of his thoughts to slow, to stop its uprooting of trees and houses and the world itself. Everything is spinning and everything seems so loud, he can taste his panic in his mouth. It tastes sour, like gone-off milk and spoiled bread. Mould and mildew and soot and ash. He wants to be sick, he can't breathe. His breaths are fast, his lungs burning, he's breathing and he's breathing but none of it is going in. Blood rushes to his head, lightheadedness making him stumble on his feet, waver on his legs. 

Focus. Geralt is gasping behind him. Jaskier can feel the tremors as though they are thumping through the earth itself. Like blood, roaring, pulsating, pounding against his ears. It's just his imagination, such a thing is impossible, but Jaskier's lungs hurt and his wrist burns as though it is him who is injured, as though he and Geralt have become one in the same. As though their injuries have been shared, as though there is poison running through his own veins. Poison in his touch, death in his fingers. 

Purple, purple, purple. Focus! Come on, you have to do this. Keep calm. Keep fucking calm. Geralt is going to die and it's your faul- no, no, no! Yellow. Green. That one is blue. Come on! Orange. You need purple. Stop fumbling with them you fucking moron. Can't you even do this one thing right? Purple. Purple. Find it, fucking find it. 

He finds it. He fucking finds it and if he hadn't already been crying he would have burst into tears right then. Instead he lets out an ugly choking sound, sobs wracking his whole body and shaking his very bones, his very organs about his insides. He feels as though he's been lobbed upside down, picked up and thrown and dropped and kicked around like a ball. He cannot tell which way is up, which way is down. All he knows is that there is the vial in his hands and Geralt slumped on the floor. That is all he can see, that is all he is aware of, the rest of the world falls away like burning paper, floating off into smoke and ash. His corner is fading until it is only them and the world around had burned to nothing.

It is just them, only them. They are the only ones left. 

He runs to Geralt, free hand coming to rest against that sharp jaw. Once, he would have dreamt of such a touch, of trailing a finger across the sharp line, feeling the roughness of stubble against his fingertips. But this is not what he imagined, this is not what he wanted. He feels cold, his skin has become impossibly white. More so than the potions, more so than the Witcher's pale skin, this is sickness, this is death. His eyes are gold, no black lingering, but they are fogged and cloudy like a cold winter's morning. He's slipping, falling. His hands are on the edge of a cliff, the abyss looming far below. It is not the one that Jaskier jumped from so long ago, it is not the one where wings of fire will lift you high. At the bottom of this cliff is death and there is no escape, there is nothing that can be done.

Geralt needs to hold on. Jaskier cannot catch him if he sleeps; nobody can catch him if he slips. It is all up to Geralt, but his grip is fading; his strength is waning.

"Jaskier…" He murmurs, voice barely a whisper over the wind. He sounds… surprised. As though he wasn't expecting Jaskier to be here. As though he wasn't expecting anyone to help him. As though he was expecting for this to be faced alone. 

"You're… here." And Jaskier's heart fucking hurts. The disbelief in that voice, as though he feels as if he is not deserving of such a thing.

Jaskier wonders if Geralt had thought of death, if he had imagined what it would be like. He must have dreamed of it, Jaskier knows that he has nightmares, that there are dark thoughts that swirl in mist behind his eyes.

Jaskier wonders if, in his dreams, Geralt dies alone. 

"Of course I am. We're friends . You're… you… just drink this, please. You have to. It's the antidote. The purple one. I found it and why am I talking you need to drink this, you're dying. Oh fuck, you're dying and I'm just-" And then Geralt's lips twitch upwards. He smiles at Jaskier as the light fades from his eyes. He smiles at him and looks at him with a fondness Jaskier thinks he is undeserving of. He's fucking dying, he's on death's door, and he's smiling at Jaskier like this is the happiest he's ever been. Jaskier cries harder. 

"Fuck, I- just, drink it. Please." And, with his hand cupping the underside of Geralt's jaw, he tips that head backwards, angling it upwards. Geralt's mouth is half-open, eyes fading and fading and fading until it's as if he doesn't even see Jaskier any more. He looks right through them, like Jaskier is a ghost, invisible. A figment of his imagination. 

What kind of fucking poison is this? 

With fingers that won't stop trembling, Jaskier pulls the cork off the vial. He raises it to Geralt's lips, pouring it into his mouth. Some of it simply trickles out from the dark corners, faded purple turning to lilac dripping down Gerat's chin, coating the skin in silvery film that wanes under the low moonlight. Jaskier places his other hand against the line of Geralt's throat. He stiffens, but his eyes clear momentarily. He sees Jaskier, actually sees him, and he relaxes once more. Jaskier massages his throat, helping him swallow when he cannot. 

The vial is emptied and now all they can do is wait. 

Geralt's breaths are still harsh, still gasping and empty and not enough to fill his lungs. His hands are shaking, his skin unearthly pale. Jaskier sits beside him, rests the palm of his hand against his back. Jaskier hums in a broken tune; tries to create a happy song, one of hope and life and laughter, but instead it comes out choked and broken and not right. It is off-tune, disjointed. Like an instrument that is out of tune, the notes twang in shattered spells and the noise rings out in shadows. It is wrong, it is dark. There is no hope, only hopelessness.

And Jaskier can't stop crying.

For what feels like hours, years, centuries, the two sit there on the ground. It's bloodsoaked, there's red staining Jaskier's knees and he can feel the damp seeping through the fabric. It's warm but it soon turns cold. Blood is of the living, it carries that heat until there is life no more. Life is fading, snuffed out by the coldness of shadow. 

Cold. It's all cold and Jaskier can't stop the tears that fall from his eyes. A river of salt-stained silver, pouring down his cheeks like shooting stars. Geralt is still looking at him, his brow furrowed and his fingers twitching. He looks as if he wants to wipe it away, wipe away the moonlight on his cheeks, wipe away the salt-tracks that rub raw red into white. But he does not, he can't. He watches and his lips form half-letters and half-words. He watches and Jaskier waits and they sit there, together. 

Geralt shifts beside him, eventually. Geralt is moving, raising his head and lifting his hands. He flexes his fingers, flexes the muscles in his arms, hesitant. It's a check, as if he's surprised that he's still here.

"Jaskier…" He says and no longer is his voice that lifeless rasp. It is weak, deep and hollow and without the low rumble from his chest, but it is there. It's growing stronger, he's growing stronger.

He won't die. Not tonight. 

"You... '' Voice uncertain, he shifts about with heavy limbs. His hands are on Jaskier's own, large and calloused and broad against his own smaller ones. Jaskier can feel the roughness of scars against his knuckles, he can feel where skin has hardened and where jagged cuts have never truly healed. The hands are warm. They're warm, they're warm, they're warm.

Perhaps not as warm as usual, perhaps not as warm as they had once been, but there is heat in those palms and life in those veins. Geralt is still alive. Geralt is living .

"You saved me." It's either the feeling of Geralt's warm hands so gentle on his own, or the brush of warm breath against Jaskier's cheek, or the surprise in Geralt's voice, as though this is unexpected and he did not think there would be anyone to save him, or perhaps it is a combination of all three and so, so much more that makes Jaskier howl. 

Geralt recoils almost instantly from the noise, hands withdrawing as he sits back. He looks nervous, scared, unsure.

Jaskier is still wailing, voice like a banshee in the night, but he can't bear to see such a helpless expression on Geralt's face. With another howl, he flings himself at Geralt, burying his face in the crook of his neck and wrapping his arms ridiculously tight around Geralt's middle.

He sobs and he sobs and he sobs. There's snot pouring from his nose, drool pours from his lips, tanging in the matted locks of Geralt's hair and each breath is punctuated by a heaving cry, a pained gasp. He's hysterical. His entire body shaking with such force that he himself feels as if he is dying. 

Geralt is frozen in place underneath him, all his muscles tensed to tight it's a wonder he hasn't turned to stone.

Then he relaxes. Ever so slightly, so slowly at first Jaskier hadn't even realised. But then his arms had returned the embrace, gingerly. With great hesitance, but it was there

Geralt was holding him, limbs relaxed and body melting against Jaskier's own. 

One of his hands trails up to brown curls, fingers tentatively running through it. Jaskier sobs harder and Geralt's fingers retract, but Jaskier only holds on tighter, buries his face deeper.

"I thought you were going to die." He says, voice muffled and slightly nasally, his nose pushed into the divot of Geralt's armour. He breathes in deep, breathes in the scent of sweat and blood and the ever-present onion. Underneath it all, he can smell snow at the tips of mountains and pine trees deep within dark woods. Something soft and sweet and like spice, not cinnamon or ginger, but a scent that is just uniquely Geralt. He breathes it in and in and in like a life force, as though the scent itself can save him, as though there is nothing else in the world but him and Geralt, here on the woodland floor. 

"If you'd died… Geralt, oh gods. Geralt. I couldn't... " he breaks off, squeezing his eyes shut tight. Geralt's hand returns to his hair, soothing strokes. It's the same sort of movements Jaskier had done oh so long ago, back when Geralt had been bone-tired in the bathtub, with Jaskier's soapy hands massaging at his scalp.

He must have liked it, back then. He must have found the motions soothing. He's trying to do the same thing for Jaskier, now. Trying to comfort, trying to soothe. He doesn't know how, though. His touches are too rough then too light, to hesitance and unsure; but he is trying and that is all that Jaskier needs.

"You saved me." Geralt says again, repeating his words in a low hum. He still sounds shocked, still with the surprise lingering in his deep tone. As if he can't believe what has happened. As if he doesn't think he was worth saving. 

"Of course I saved you." Jaskier says, and he means it.

Because I love you, he wants to say. Or even because you're my friend, even though it is much more than that. It would have been a start, at least.

But he does not.

He remains silent and there they sit until the sun turns gold over the eastern sky. Together, huddled on the floor, Roach stood a few feet away.

The sun rises, turns the trees gold and the sky blue, and still they sit.

"I have to go." Geralt eventually says, when Jaskier's cries have lessened and his breathing has begun to level out. Jaskier pulls away, eyes still lingering with tear-stained pink, hands still trembling from the very core. "No!" He shouts before he can stop himself, tone forceful.

He stutters, spluttering, averting his eyes. "I mean- you almost fucking died Geralt. You… you need to rest! I get that you're this 'big bad Witcher' or whatever, but you can't just keep going. You need to rest, you need to recover."

"I'm fine."

"Of course you'd say that! you're always 'fine'. You'll always be fine until you find yourself speared by some sword, or eaten by some monster and then the only reason you won't say 'I'm fine' is because you'll be fucking dead! Just… stop. There's a village not too far away. Stay there, you can't just go on forever-"

"Damn It Jaskier! I'm fucking fine!" 

It's the tone in his voice that makes Jaskier stop. It's anger, it's fury.

It's defensive. I don't need you, it says. I don't need anybody in this world. 

"There's a job. I've got to finish it. I don't have a choice."

"Then let me come with you!"

"No."

And his tone is final and his eyes are harsh but Jaskier is always pushing, always chipping away at those iron shields. 

" Please?"

And Geralt sighs, long-suffering. He looks at Jaskier like he can't quite believe he is real, as though he doesn't truly think Jaskier is from this earth. The defensiveness leaves, the fire in his voice fades out. The looks resigned and maybe not just to Jaskier's words.

I don't want to need you, his body language says. I don't want to care. Yet here they are, on the woodland floor with the sunlight rising around them. 

"It's too dangerous."

I don't want you to get hurt.

Jaskier opens his mouth to protest, but Geralt raises a hand in warning.

"Two weeks. In two weeks, we'll meet in the village nearby. The tavern."

And then before Jaskier can even think of a response, Geralt has stood up, clambering onto Roach's back.

Jaskier, still sat on the ground, looks up at him. Geralt opens his mouth, as if to say something, but then thinks better of it and closes it. 

All that he offers is an incline of his head and then he's gone, off into the depths of the forest. 

Jaskier sits there, alone in the clearing, and the events of the night gone past catch up with him.

This is it, he realises. Tonight had proven that, no matter what happened in the future, his heart completely belonged to Geralt. There was nothing that he could do now, no take-backs, no returns. He'd known this, sure. But now he knew. Now there was no denying, no hiding from the truth.

Even though his eyes sting and his throat is already rubbed raw, he cries again.

There is no Geralt besides him this time and he sits there, alone.

Two weeks, he thinks. Just wait two weeks. 

But he is vulnerable. He is weak. He is wanting . Love has turned him inside out and upside down. He doesn't know what to do with it now. Never before had it ever been like this. Never all-consuming, never like this. 

All he can do is hope.

x

Two weeks pass and, exactly as had been promised, Jaskier spies Roach trotting up to the tavern's front, Geralt on her back. Jaskier was stood outside the inn, had been for the past few hours. He'd said it was for the fresh air, but a fool could have seen the way his eyes were trained on the road that dipped of the horizon, the way he shuffled and tapped and murmured things to himself, running a nervous hand through his hair and fiddling around with his lute, yet never once playing it.

Geralt is filthy, definitely not quite as dirty as he had been back with the selkiemore, but he's certainly by no means clean. He could do with a wash, which is his usual state of cleanliness, to be honest, but all Jaskier can think of is the night before the banquet, where his fingers had been running soothing shapes into the crown of Geralt's head. He blushes, looking down at his own feet.

He'd wanted to trace words in Geralt's skin, back then. Like he had done so long ago with the girl of midnight hair, but his fingers play with forever, and he knows that such a thing will not last.

He still fears the closeness, still fears what his feelings might entail.

He needs to restrict himself, he knows this, but when Geralt stands before him it seems as though all logical thought is flung from his mind. As though he cannot control what he is saying, what he is thinking. Caution is flung from his head and he finds himself wanting forever once more. 

When they pay for rooms that night, Jaskier insists he covers the cost since he'd managed to turn the events of a fortnight ago into an absolute hit of a song, about heroics and bravery and certainly nothing to do with crying on a forest floor all by yourself. So money was flooding in, it was ridiculous really; there was almost so much that he didn't know what to do with it. (Certainly, Valdo Marx would have no idea what this is like. He knows he keeps bringing him up, but what can he say? He's still not over those comments he made about his music all those years ago and he will continue to complain about the bastard whenever the opportunity arises)

There is only one room, but it is a double - to Jaskier's relief. He wants to be with Geralt, he wants nothing more than to be by his side, but sharing a bed… it feels fake, dirty. As though they are pretending to be something they are not. It is too much, too close to what he so dearly desires. 

The gold around Jaskier's wrist burns. He's had enough of pretending. He's sick and tired of this game of hide-and-seek.

Tonight, he tells himself. tell him tonight, but even to his own ears the words sound like lies. He can't. He just can't do it. He wants to, but that voice in his head warns him against it. Always, he second guesses. Do you really think that Geralt won't leave you, eventually? Do you really think that this will last? 

He shakes the thoughts from his head, but still they stir; locked deep underneath. A monster in a lake, hidden in the watery depths, but always creeping, always lurking.

It can't stay hidden forever. 

He pays for a bath too, without even thinking. One for late this evening. Geralt looks at him strangely, something akin to conflict swirling in those golden depths. Jaskier does not know what it means. He does not know what he is supposed to do with such a look, but he takes it, locks it away in the depths of his memory.

(Later, he will look back and wonder if any of it really meant anything. Or if it was all just in his head. Wishful thinking is an illusion and maybe what he thought he had seen was never really there. He was always looking beyond, always reading between the lines, but sometimes there are no lines to read between. Sometimes things are simply as they seem and there is nothing that he must search for)

After a night of song, with Jaskier bringing in more coin than he has in a while; his singing spurred on by the shadow lingering in the corner, the flash of gold under a sheath of white, the two head up to their shared room.

One of the barmaids is leaving their room as they go to enter. "Hot water." She says, as means of a response and then scampers off, withering under Geralt's stare. They enter together, Jaskier entering first with a pleased sigh, flopping down on the bed, fingers still strumming aimlessly at his lute.

Geralt follows and he looks down at him with a fond smile.

(Later, Jaskier will wonder why. For there are always lines to be read when Geralt is around, always things that are not seen and must be looked for. But later there will be nothing. There will be no more fond glances, no more tentative touches. There will be nothing but the sound of the ocean and even that will sound hollow and empty to Jaskier's ears)

x

The bath is drawn, Jaskier had done it (Geralt was useless at these kinds of things and, besides, Jaskier quite liked this . It felt like… he was taking care of Geralt, or something. It made something warm and sweet and fuzzy blossom in his chest. Made him feel all soft and goopy and sickly inside, as though he was being melted. A good feeling, though. Strange, but good)

This time the scents are white jasmine and celandine. Again, soft scents. Always soft scents. Jaskier had always preferred the stronger scents, ones like rose and lavender, the ones of citrus like orange and lemon, the ones that smelled heady; that made your head spin and your eyes burn. He'd always liked those dizzying sorts of senses, how they made your head go funny, your body feel like air, as if you had become trapped in a dream-space, a partition of time where everything was fairy-soft, all made up of candy-floss light. The ones that shouted in your face, demanded your attention. But now he has grown a fondness for the elusive, the quiet. Since meeting Geralt, really. Sometimes he misses his old perfumes, the one that had smelled like a rose garden in summer-heat, the one that smelt of spring lavender and of zested orange. It is a worthy sacrifice, though, for no longer does Geralt wince when Jaskier gets closer; no longer does his nose scrunch up and his senses become muddled.

It is worth it. All sacrifice, no matter how small, is worth it for Geralt. 

But not your safety, a voice in his head whispers. A traitorous, nasty little thing. You still won't tell him the truth. He blocks it out but already he can feel the weight around his wrist.

Tonight, another voice responds, kinder, lighter. Tonight, I will tell him.

Geralt, as usual, doesn't talk much. He watches Jaskier in a solemn sort of silence, Jaskier can feel the touch of his golden eyes; like sunlight on a cold winter's day, and it sends shivers down his spine. Usually, Jaskier would fill these empty silences with ramblings of all sorts, of anything that popped into mind, he might poke questions at Geralt, ask for a new story he can turn into a song. However, this time, Jaskier doesn't pry.

Instead, as Geralt clambers into the bath, he sits on one of the beds, the one closest to the window. It's light outside still, the sunlight shining in from the dirtied window. A path of gold is made, illuminating the bedspread, however it falls past Jaskier; resting on the space behind him. Just out of reach. 

He looks at the gold around his wrist, eyes drawn to it once more. Tonight, he says. Now's your chance. And he puts his hands around it, fingers at the clasp.

He thinks of his family, Elves; of course. But not quite. Not truly. There was some distilled blood, as it was with all Elven nobles. They'd tried to integrate themselves, slowly; after the Great Cleansing. They had their little settlements, far out of the way, but they were not like humans. They did not have the power, the wealth. And he was not human enough. Not like some who could pass, the girl with daisies in her hair had been one of those. One of the lucky ones. Many elves with blood like hers ended up deformed, disfigured. She'd been lucky, she'd been safe. 

Not all of them could say that, though. Not all of them held such fortune in their hands as she did. 

Jaskier had been a viscount in name. He had lived in the finest house in the village, had the finest clothes and the best education. He had been raised as a noble, raised to think he were better than others, better than those below them. It was ironic, really. Elves were already considered the very scum of the earth by many. They were mould at the bottom of the barrel, mildew staining abandoned walls. Yet, regardless of that, they had held tightly onto their class; held onto the remains of their hierarchy like it would be that that would save them, wipe away years of genocide and death. Elves were proud creatures. Perhaps that was their biggest downfall.

Even when the pitiful remains of their race lay in almost absolute ruins, status and kin still ran thick and heavy through their destroyed lands. Any dregs, any scraps that still resembled something of the life before, they had held on to. And for what? 

Jaskier did not even know if his homeland still existed. Not once had he tried to go back. It was too risky. Someone could follow him, someone could find their village and burn it to the ground.

Or perhaps it had already been found.

And Jaskier feels shame curl in his gut. He had left them behind, left them, all those who were trapped just like him, and abandoned them for grand dreams and schemes. He had wished for a life of freedom, a life where the Continent would speak his name for generations to come. 

All with the gold around his wrist. 

All hiding, all pretending. He's been playing hide and seek for years now and sometimes he feels like everyone can see his feet from behind the curtains. Everyone can see what he tries to hide, everyone knows. 

But they can't and this is perhaps what hurts most.

Geralt shifts in the bath, the noise of rippling water thunderous in the silence of Jaskier's mind.

How much does Geralt truly know him? How much does anyone know, truly? Will there ever be a chance in hell that, one day, Geralt could return his affections? Sometimes, on days when he catches Geralt watching, when there's that twitch to his lips and the fondness to his eyes, Jaskier thinks that it could happen. But then he wonders, how? How could Geralt love him when he does not know him? Not truly, anyway. (Later, he will realise that there is much more to the world than a story; that his past is not who he is, even if it has shaped him to become who he is. By then, it will be far too late to matter)

How has he not figured it out yet?

His fingers are on the clasp and he closes his eyes, wills himself to let it drop and let the charm fade.

"Jaskier." Geralt says, voice shocking him out of his thoughts. He drops his wrist, hand gripping at his elbow as if for support.

He turns to look at Geralt and there must be something still lingering in his eyes for a flash of concern flashes across Geralt's face. Geralt doesn't say anything, however, just merely stares at Jaskier. He's clean, aside from the unruly tangles of his hair. He makes a gesture, an awkward shifting of his hands and a subtle shake of his head. He averts his eyes, staring at the expanse of wall next to Jaskier instead. 

Jaskier's breath catches in his throat.

"D-do you want me to help with that?" He says, trying to keep himself unaffected, as if he really doesn't care whether or not Geralt wants him to wash his hair. Which is, of course, a lie. He really wants to wash Geralt's hair. 

Geralt grunts, neither a yes or a no but Jaskier can see the words unsaid in the thin line of his mouth. He wants to make a joke, make a funny quip or scathing line that will have Geralt rolling his eyes and hiding a smile.

He doesn't though. 

And when he is later carding his fingers through the snow-white tresses of Geralt's hair, he finds the focus of his eyes constantly drawn to that of the gold around his wrist. 

"Geralt?" He asks, voice soft. 

"Hmm?" 

"I- uh, never mind. It's nothing." 

Tomorrow, he says. Tomorrow, tell him.

x

They spend a week in one another's company, before they part ways once more, and Jaskier says nothing.

But it is not only him who is hiding from something. The Child Surprise is not brought up either, not for a long time.

x

Jaskier is walking alone along a riverside when they next run into one another.

Sometimes Jaskier wonders how he has run into Geralt so many times in such a short time period. How, considering the vast size of the Continent, he has never gone more than two years without spying a flicker of white hair and fire-yellow eyes at least once.

He's certainly never run into any other Witchers on his travels. Only Geralt, and (most of the time) their meetings are pure coincidence.

That is, Jaskier doesn't purposefully seek Geralt out - not always, anyway.

Jaskier does not think for a moment that maybe it isn't coincidence. He doesn't stop to think that now he has become famous, with his name spread far and wide across the reaches of the world and his little corner now as vast as the lands itself, that he and Geralt run into each other much more frequently.

(Later, he will connect the dots. But what does it matter, then? It is far too late for it to be of any importance. Far too late for it to make a difference)

Jaskier has been camping in an old grove, an ancient shrine of some sort that has since turned to ruin. 

Still, his habits of running have not left him completely. He still does not linger in the same place for too long, he does not make promises to those who he meets and he rarely returns. 

The only place he feels truly safe and welcome is when he is by Geralt's side; but with that comes a whole new slew of other thoughts. Guilt has been plaguing him, as of recently, and the gold around his wrist burns and glows ever-brighter.

With each rising of the new sun, with each day's golden beginning, he promises himself that next time, he will say something. Maybe Geralt has already figured it out, maybe he realised a long time ago. Maybe Jaskier is just being ridiculous.

But that doesn't stop the fear.

So he sits in the desolate grove, with the ruins of long-gone history surrounding him.

Human company has proven too much these past few months and he has found his inspiration for songs running dry. He has always found love in nature, however, and there is something about this particular scene that sets his heart alight with hope.

He has been thinking of home more than ever now, with his guilt growing and manifesting into a beast that claws at the depths of his mind. He has become nostalgic, perhaps. It is strange how, even though his childhood had been something he once ran from, how the mind eventually forgets pain.

Good memories last. Sometimes they can wipe out the bad, the negative, and leave you longing for something that would have killed you, had you still got it.

Spring has just risen, the world being reborn once more under light mornings and starlit nights. Gone is the cold breath of winter, her icy chill that plagues the lands with crystal ice and diamond snow. Now the gentle touch of spring has returned, his gentle touch of cherry blossom, of pink and yellow and blue that swirls between the blossoming of green. Life beneath his fingers, trees no longer left bare and vulnerable in their stick-brown limbs, bare fingers silhouetted against greyed skies.

Jaskier sits on what had perhaps been an old plinth, now broken and rotted with only the shattered remains of ancient marble left. Intricate carvings swirl around those bits that have not been lost to nature, ivy and moss crawling in dark greens over the faded white.

Wildflowers bloom all around. Snowdrops and lily-of-the-valley, crystal white lost amongst the earthy tones of the shrove. Bluebells, arrayed in their various shades of sky-blue, their delicate lilac and quiet mauve glint like comets amongst the night sky, sparks of gentle colour that would be looked over by a clumsy eye. Other flowers too, linger. Coralroot, as pink as a sunset-sky, fox-gloves and their poisonous trumpets, beautiful in their danger. Fat bumblebees with their black and yellow stripes, the whites of their round little bottoms, clumsily jump from one flower to the next, coated in sticky pollen as they go about their innocent business, the hum of their wings a quiet symphony that melts with that of birdsong and rustling wind.

Sunshine of dandelions, daffodils. Even buttercups, the ones that children would play with when they were younger, would pluck their tiny little stems and hold them under their chins; look in wonder at the reflection of yellow light that would dance against their soft jaws. Clover, too; amidst long stems of fern and bracken, green plantlife with delicate leaves like fog shrouded over the horizon.

Love-in-the-mist, fragile blue, swirls like seawater below Jaskier's feet, their intricate little petals creating great shadows along the green-tipped ground, hidden sapphires amongst the overgrowth of a time long forgotten.

Daisies, too; and Jaskier's heart hurts.

He remembers the girl of so long ago. The one who had said his name, Julian, a name that no longer belonged to him; a name he had forgone when the gold slid onto his wrist. He does not want to go back, he does not want to return to the times of his boyhood, nor renounce the life he has now. While the path here has been tumultuous, filled with the storm clouds and hurricanes that he had once seen in the blacksmith's son's eyes of oh so long ago, he could not change it.

His life is perhaps not quite where he wishes it were, not quite as happy, nor is he as fulfilled as he would have once hoped, but it has made him. 

Unusual, his life may be described as. Although his heart remains stolen and his feelings remain unreturned, although the person who he has been drawn to with red strings of fate is yet to return what he so desires, he would not change a thing.

He regrets and he hopes for a better future. There are things that need fixing, things that need to be nurtured and cared for; not left to grow wild like this abandoned wonderland. 

But he thinks of the girl with daisies in her hair, the one who had worn her sparkly bracelets and held his hands. The one who, so long ago, he had wanted forever with.

Back then, he had thought she would make him happy. That love would wipe away all sadness, all pain. That if he could have his happily ever after, live his fairytale dream, then everything would be alright in the end.

But now all he wants is golden eyes and white hair. He wants danger, he wants life.  

Yet there is a fear that stirs in his heart, a sense of foreboding that later he realises had perhaps been a warning.

He finds himself, after all these years, wanting 'forever'.

Stories of the coast come to mind, of the endless sea and saltwater. Of the gulls that roost in their white cliffs, of the fisherman that sail out to sea.

In his mind's eye, he sees himself, lute in hand at the edge of the seawater. Besides him, stands Geralt. So close their shoulders are touching. He looks over at Geralt, he can feel the swelling of his heart as if he were really there, and Geralt looks back at him and Jaskier knows.

That is love. That is his forever. That is what he wants.

(Later, he will dream of the same thing. He will wake up with tears pouring down his face and scratches against his wrists and he will wonder why he was ever so foolish. Years ago, he had learned that forever didn't exist. But now, when it all comes to pass, that lesson had been learned twice)

x

It is while he is making the final touches to his newest song, this one about the things that one can remember, of events that have long passed but still shone in the heart in white spots of memory, that he hears the familiar sounds of hooves against the ground.

He doesn't even look up as the noise gets louder, as the trees and grass and shrubbery rustle and as the shadow of a horse and its rider appears amongst the thicket.

Instead, he finishes his song; fingers weaving magic amongst the ancient shrove, lyrics woven from history itself, sombre yet happy; nostalgia as if put into words. He finishes, voice quieting as his fingers slow, the echoing strums of his lute delicately fading out until only birdsong and the tune of the careful wind remains. 

It is only then when he looks up. He sees Geralt, their eyes meeting, who's looking at him with a half-smile formed on his face. He grins back, wide and face-splitting, eyes the spitting-image of joy as he stands up.

He reaches up to stroke Roach's muzzle, laughing as she nuzzles closer to him, headbutting the palm of his hand when he tries to pull away. This new Roach is friendlier than the last, but Jaskier can't stop the pang in his heart when he realises that even Roach, who many perceived as the only constant in Geralt's life, was not truly so. While Geralt's geldings tended to all be that honeyed chestnut colour, the colour of burnt caramel and autumn sky, they were not one in the same. Horses had fleeting lifespans, even when compared to humans. When compared to a WItcher, their lives were spent all too fast. Too many times had Geralt faced loss in his life, too many times had he lost those who he held close. But Jaskier was not so easily gotten rid of.

Jaskier was the only constant left. 

"I think she likes you more than me." Geralt grumbles, stepping down from Roach. He holds his hand out, freezes, and then places it hesitantly on Jaskier's shoulder, something he's been doing more in their frequent meetings, ever since the incident with the Alghoul. He's become more forward. He still lacks the finesse, the tact, to be giving away such gestures like Jaskier does; but it is a start. And, perhaps when it is from Geralt, the little things seem much bigger than they would appear from any other hand. Jaskier laughs in response, cheeks flushed pink and rosy. "You look well." Geralt says, awkwardly.

Jaskier has noticed that, as of recently, Geralt has been more open, not just with his actions, but more forthcoming with his own thoughts and opinions. While he could never be called 'chatty', not like Jaskier who could make a conversation about anything, he'd certainly began to open up more.

Jaskier wonders if Geralt, much like himself, has stopped trying so damn hard to run away.

He hopes so.

Jaskier does not respond for a moment, but he grasps Geralt's forearm, squeezing it in a friendly manner, a gesture that comes to him with practised ease. Geralt has long-stopped flinching from the touch, or shoving it off with a growl and a scowl. Instead, he seems to revel in it; to enjoy such contact while it lasts. Jaskier tries not to think about the fact that Geralt has probably not been touched in such a way since he became a Witcher. Certainly the prostitutes he laid with would never treat him with such care and Jaskier can't imagine that Geralt would have had an easy childhood.

"I wish I could say the same about you, my friend; but I'll be honest, you smell like absolute shit. When's the last time you bathed, anyway? And I mean properly, by my standards, not yours!" He leans closer to Geralt, trying to hide the involuntarily scrunching of his nose as he gets that familiar whiff of stale blood mixed with that ever-present onion. 

Geralt tilts his head, that familiar, fond sort of gesture he seems to do so often around Jaskier. It reminds him of a dog; fitting, he supposes considering one of his (many) titles. He doesn't answer, just offers a half-smile.

"Please don't tell me the last time you washed properly was at the inn?" There's a twinkle in Geralt's eyes. "Oh fuck, that's grim! I don't know how you do it. Does all your… witchering business make you immune to feeling gross, or something?" 

Jaskier continues, stepping away from Roach and Geralt as he waves his hands about in a huff. "Well, lucky you! There's a river nearby. I've already washed in it because I value something called hygiene. So… do that. Please. As your closest and most dearest friend, it is my duty to be honest with you, and honestly, Geralt? You literally smell like you've rolled around in pigshit." 

With a push towards his back, moving his fingers to poke in the divot of Geralt's shoulder blades, Jaskier forces him forwards. "Wash. Now." He says.

Geralt looks at him. He looks like he wants to laugh and there's the smallest of smiles quirking at his lips. "I won't talk to you until you're clean!" 

"Why would I wash, then?"

"Oh, fuck off! Just wash yourself! Please! Look! I'm even begging you!"

Geralt rolls his eyes and lets out a small huff, a sound which Jaskier realises is laughter. His grin broadens. "Off you go!" He says, waving his hands, shooing Geralt to the nearby river.

"I promise I won't look! Well… perhaps just a quick peek, but-" Geralt flips him off, disappearing amongst the thicket. 

Jaskier laughs after him, voice soaring amongst the gentle bluster of wind. 

x

Jaskier has never been one for sitting around and doing nothing. He gets bored quickly and easily and he likes to be on the move. He… can't just sit there and stay still. He has to talk, or sing, or do anything. Something . Usually with his hands.

But he doesn't want to sing. He doesn't feel like playing his lute. He'd already finished working on his newest ballad and he doesn't have the inspiration for anything new, not right now anyway. He doesn't want to overwork his songs; something which he has always claimed is the biggest flaw of Valdo Marx - talentless sack of shit . Sometimes a song is just finished. There's no point in adding more, more music, more lyrics, changing the pitches and tune in an attempt to reach some musical nirvana. An unpolished song is not necessarily unfinished. Rough and ready is not bad. Perfection is not a thing that should be strived for.

Perfection is not real and neither are the songs about it.

So Jaskier sits, fiddling with the gold around his wrist. Thinking.

Tonight , he says. Take it off tonight.  

He fiddles with it some more, fingers playing at the clasp. Roach whinnies from beside him, pushing her face into the crook of his neck. He laughs, stroking at her soft muzzle. She's certainly in a better condition than Geralt, a fact which makes Jaskier both warm and cold.

It's nice to think that Geralt takes the time to look after Roach, to clean and brush and care for her. Roach, no matter which one or how many he gets, is perhaps one of his closest companions and Geralt treats her like royalty.

She'd obviously been washed recently. In fact, where the clumps of her long mane reach their thickest, there's a dampness that still lingers.

Which means that Geralt had washed Roach, but not bothered to wash himself. 

Jaskier shakes his head. If he brought it up, Geralt would simply say that washing both of them would take too much time, time that cannot be wasted. But Jaskier just wishes that Geralt would look after himself more, treat himself like he treats Roach; like he treats Jaskier.

Yet as Jaskier sits in the glade, with the flora swirling beneath his feet and Roach still nuzzling against his cheek, he gets an idea. 

x

When Geralt returns, clean and thankfully no longer stinking of onion, he is stopped in his tracks. 

Under the dapple of sunlight betwixt the canopy far above, Jaskier glows like a star.

Occasionally, Geralt will catch a glimpse of light from deep within. Something sharp, something pointed. A rush of scent. Not very often, but it's enough to make him wonder.

Jaskier stands there, not a second older than the day they first met fifteen years ago, and he glows.

But it is not that that stops Geralt in his tracks.

Instead; it is what he is doing that has Geralt's breath catch in his throat.

Jaskier is stood next to Roach, slender and svelte, light against the deep-rooted chestnut of Roach's coat. Geralt can see the dexterous flex of Jaskier's fingers, long and slender and soft, calloused on the very tips where his fingers have been worn down over silver strings. He is humming a tune, one that Geralt recognises from earlier. A new song, he hasn't heard it before today.

There is something quite sombre about the tune. Forlorn.

It reminds Geralt of snow-tipped mountains, of dark eyes and potions forced down his throat. It is nostalgia that Jaskier sings of. Tune of what is now gone and what can never come back, whether we are wanting it or not. 

And held in his hands are wildflowers, technicolour against pale skin.

He weaves them, an artist lost in his craft, into tightly wound braids. Fingers combing through the tangles of Roach's hair, soothing and loosening clumped curls, replacing them with a sprig of ferns or a bundle of bluebells. He is almost finished, from the looks of things, and Roach is decorated in a coat of flora grander than any noble steed, even those who sit in palace stables and wear drapery of silver and gold and diamond. There is something more beautiful about this, something more dear and sweet than all of the fineries across all the land. This is real, there is no pretence. No farce. It is neither boast nor pride, it is simply Jaskier with his head for nature and his eyes for all things beautiful.

A long time ago perhaps, Geralt would have bristled at such a thing. He would have hated it, he would have never allowed it. Nobody was allowed to touch Roach, nobody other than him. 

But here was Jaskier, weaving braids fit for royalty in his horse's hair; his face painted so gentle and serene in the low light. There were rules that Geralt had changed a long time. Rules that he had upheld for decades upon decades. Rules that had all been broken when a blue-eyed angel with a voice sweet like honey had waltzed into his life, with a smile brighter than the stars and a laugh that uprooted Geralt's entire world.

He does not know how long he stands there, just watching, but it feels as if years slip through his fingers. As if time flies on around them but all Geralt can do is stand here, fixated as if frozen in time, and watch. 

Jaskier is dear to him. Dearer than anyone else has ever been in his long life. 

He thinks of Renfri, of days long gone. Where he had cursed himself to that nickname, that reputation of bloodlust and cruelty. Of deceit and betrayal and something that had felt like love. Something that had broken down, something that had rotted and twisted and manifested itself into hurt that bled and pain that would not heal.

Jaskier, though. He had never once shown fear towards him, never once stepped back, never once ran for him. They had parted, had their paths change and their lives split, but forever Geralt would find him.

Now, more than ever, he would hear word of the Master Bard travelling nearby, serenading the entire world with his songs of adventure and danger and excitement, his songs of love and lust and of finding yourself in a world that was far bigger than the space you took up. He was renowned, his name spread far and wide. A far-sight different from the man who had looked at Geralt from across a dingy tavern room, shoving half-rotten bread into his pants and nursing a wounded ego. So, now that Jaskier's name was known across the entire Continent, if Geralt coincidentally took jobs that were closer to those places, followed the rumours and whispers in lackadaisical interest that hid keen ears that searched and searched for news of blue eyes and a voice like birdsong, well that was nobody's business but his own.

Jaskier had once seemed so naive to him. Someone who had yet so much to learn about the world. Childish and ridiculous, nothing more than a fool.

Perhaps he would still be correct to describe Jaskier with such words; but now there was something more. Intelligence, a love for history. An eye for detail. He noticed things that many others would miss, he would walk in the woods and the trees would bend to his will, answer him back in foreign whispers and careful embraces. He had a connection to the very ties of the world, something not quite human about him. Maybe he had always been like that, though. Maybe he hadn't changed a bit; maybe Geralt just hadn't been looking hard enough. 

Geralt still couldn't figure it out, couldn't figure out what drew him to Jaskier, what made his eyes follow him around a room or what made his heart swell every time the other laughed or made a crude joke or pulled lyrics and melody out of thin air. 

But there was something else that drew him in Something beyond the lightness and frivolity, beyond the jokes and songs and everything else.

Jaskier was closed off, too. He was cautious, nervous. Scared, of something.

Not in the typical way. He was as foolhardy as the best of them, always finding himself in difficult situations that Geralt constantly had to worm him out of, but he was cautious with himself . Geralt had known for years that there was information he withheld, things he constantly kept hidden. There were secrets that he did not wish to divulge, facts that he kept under wraps. 

It had never bothered him before, but now with Jaskier standing there, life in his hands and flowers in Roach's hair, he feels a twisting, stabbing pain in his chest. 

He quells it, squashes it down, and pretends it was nothing. 

Instead, he watches and wills the whisperings of his thoughts to quieten.

He cannot afford to love somebody else. Not after Renfri. It is too much, too hard. There is too much risk.

But still, he watches.

Jaskier turns to him, jumping in fright. "Oh! Geralt, I, uh- didn't realise you were back. I hope you don't mind the whole, uh," He gestures to Roach. "Flower thing. And I know you don't care about your appearance, but Roach is beautiful and horses have feelings too! They deserve to have that beauty shown off." He leans against Roach, friendly and sweet and free with his touch, hands warmly stroking her flank. In return, she nuzzles against him.

Geralt is still watching, still silent.

He shifts on his feet, averts his eyes. If Jaskier didn't know any better, he'd say Geralt was acting… nervous.

"Would you…" Geralt starts, breaking off and turning away. He gestures to the picked flowers swathed around Jaskier's feet, the unused daisies and bluebells and buttercups. 

Jaskier smiles.

x

For the next month they spend together, that is how it continues.

There are people who laugh, people who snigger, when the bard and the witcher walk side by side. Jaskier humming and bouncing and strumming at his lute, Geralt and his horse; stoic as ever. It is amusing, perhaps, to see the flowers in his hair. Decorations of bluebells and love-in-the-mist one day. Dandelions and crocuses the next. 

But all too soon the month comes to an end and Jaskier and Geralt find themselves longing for different paths. Jaskier is needed down south, a performance he has been paid handsomely for. Geralt needs to remain here, where monsters are running rampant and human villages are plagued by death and disease.

The night before they split, Geralt watches as Jaskier weaves him a crown of daisies.

He does it without looking, fingers moving as if he has done it a million times before. He does not stop talking once, his eyes do not leave Geralt's.

The next morning, as they leave, Jaskier pulls Geralt's head down, the crown of daisies held in his hand.

He weaves it into Geralt's hair, streaks of yellow and pink running through the white strands like a midnight aurora, the splitting of the sky into luminous colour.

And then, with surprising speed, he places a kiss against the crease of Geralt's brow.

Then he is gone, a flash of orange and brown disappearing over the horizon.

Geralt stands and watches. Waits in silence until sun has fully risen and the sky breaks into blue.

x

It takes a week of travelling before the daisies are dead.

Geralt pulls them out of his hair, withered stems cracking and breaking and petals shrivelled and brown. Rotting.

He throws them to the ground and all his heart twists painfully in his chest.

x

They meet, on and off, for the remainder of that year.

Every time Jaskier thinks of the gold around his wrist, but every time he chickens out.

Regardless, he and Geralt grow closer and closer. More than friendship perhaps. He weaves flowers into Geralt's hair every chance he gets and when it turns to winter and there are no longer flowers to be picked, mistletoe and holly berries, sprigs of rosemary and crowns of willow-branches. Anything he can find. 

But still, they say nothing.

x

It's about three in the morning when Geralt next runs into Jaskier. 

He'd heard news of the Master Bard, the famous troubadour Jaskier giving a triumphant performance in the city of Beauclair. Geralt hadn't originally planned to travel there but… well, he'd changed his mind. For absolutely no reason at all. Simply coincidence. Sightseeing, or something. Definitely absolutely nothing to do with Jaskier's performance.

He is late, when he arrives. The sky is dark and mostly quiet, save for the few drunken stragglers who are yet to stumble home. Some sleep outside, on benches, in bushes, on the floor. No doubt too drunk to even remember where their own houses are.

Geralt steps past them. He'd forgotten how much he hates cities, how much he hates all these big towns.

He pays for a room, pays for a stable where Roach can stay. It is late and the man who hands him the keys eyes him with distrust. Yet even still, it is perhaps testament to how much Jaskier's songs have improved things that the man doesn't outright refuse. 

But speaking of the bard, Geralt has a feeling that he's probably got himself in some sort of trouble. It's just a hunch, and he debates ignoring the ill feeling that takes ahold of him, but eventually decides against it. It's just a hunch, but Geralt's hunches tend to be right and; if it's anything to do with Jaskier, Geralt's hunch will be saving the bard's cock and balls. 

And as he's walking through the picturesque streets (even under the cloak of darkness Beauclair is perhaps one of the finer cities on the Continent) he hears a shout.

And then, from the glow under the streetlights, he spots Jaskier.

An incredibly drunk, incredibly naked Jaskier. Who is crawling out of a second story window. 

Oh. This is… new.

And then, in his drunken stupor, he spots Geralt. With a shout and a laugh, his middle finger raised to a shadow in the window, he runs to him. 

"Geralt!" He shouts, voice slurred. He stumbles, almost falling over, but manages to catch himself. "Fancy seeing you here!" And he's laughing and he turns around and actually sticks his tongue out, like a fucking child, at the open window, which is now occupying a man, brandishing a fucking knife who is also climbing out.

Geralt's confusion must show on his face because Jaskier grabs his arm, pumping it up and down. "Husband." He giggles, eyes unfocused, looking in Geralt's general direction blearily. "His wife was pretty." He says with a shrug and, as the man draws nearer, Jaskier sidles behind Geralt; manoeuvring him so he stands in between the two.

Geralt could have easily resisted this. He was stronger than Jaskier anyway, but when Jaskier was this inebriated (he smelt like he'd been fucking marinated in alcohol) it took almost no effort for him to stay standing strong. But still, he let himself be moved, looking down at the red-faced man before him.

He looks furious, spit frothing at his lips as he curses and shouts at Jaskier. But he stops short as he gets closer to the Witcher, eyes widening as he withers under that icy glare. 

The knife glints in his hand and Geralt takes a step forward. 

He shrinks back, grumbles something and, with a reluctant, furious glare at Jaskier, he is gone.

" Wow." Jaskier breathes from behind him. "Did you see that? He just took one look at you and he basically pissed himself." He laughs again and he's tugging on Geralt's forearms, spinning him so they're facing one another. "See, people think you're scary but I-" He pauses, placing one extended finger against the tip of Geralt's nose, tapping it. "know that really, you're just a big softie." He grins and his smile is so large Geralt fears he might split his face in two, his eyes wrinkle at the edges and his teeth flash bright in the gloom, the canines glinting where they're slightly pointed. Geralt's blood grows warm.

But there's still one thing he can't quite understand.

"Jaskier, why the fuck are you naked?" 

And Jaskier, the little shit, has the audacity to laugh at the question, as though it's the most obvious thing in the world. As though it is Geralt who is the idiot for being confused over all of whatever the fuck is happening right now. "Well, I was having a grand old time with this absolutely gorgeous lady, and we were right in the middle of things when her husband storms in! You saw the knife! And there was no way I was going to stick around for that, so out I went."

"And… your clothes?"

"Still in there, I think. Oh well. No point crying over spilt milk." Then he begins tugging Geralt down the street, back in the direction he'd come from. He stumbles more than once and each time Geralt has to steady him, has to studiously ignore the glow of his skin and the heat that emanates from his body. 

"What about your lute? The rest of your belongings?"

"Huh? Oh, they're at the place I was performing. Don't worry, they'll all be safe. I, uh… you'll have to get them in the morning. Considering I'm…" He trails off, gesturing down to himself; before he starts singing about some other time he'd been caught in a situation like this, trapped with his pants down and a knife to his throat. He doesn't appear to be too concerned about the whereabouts or safety of his other belongings and Geralt hopes that whoever he's left them with is of a trustworthy sort. He supposes he'll find out in the morning. Somebody is going to have to get Jaskier his clothes back, even if the alternative is… tempting. 

They walk for a while, Geralt studiously following Jaskier around, letting himself be pulled along. 

"Uh… Geralt?" Jaskier asks, tilting his head back, looking at Geralt from upside down. His hair flops from his forehead, the long line of his back arched. Geralt's mouth goes dry. 

Like this, Jaskier's entire body is almost luminous under the lamplight glow. The hard lines of his muscles accentuated by the yellow cast, shadows deep and dark in the divots of his skin; his cheekbones, the dips of his collarbone and the ridges of his spine. His muscular arms and legs, his toned stomach - strong but not overly so. Jaskier turns fully around to face him, arms spread wide, revealing the rosy pink of his nipples, hardened under the cool night breeze. His chest is covered in thick, curling hair. Dark, glinting with sweat. There's a trail of it running down to his navel, then lower- Geralt tries not to look at it. Just… hanging there, flopping about as Jaskier waves his arms. He truly is entirely naked, aside from the golden bracelet, always clasped around his wrist. 

Fucking hell. Why can't he stay still? Doesn't he have any sense of modesty? Geralt already knows the answer to that question. He's just going to have to focus on keeping his eyes raised straight ahead. Or looking anywhere but down. Yes, Jaskier is very attractive and very naked, but he is also absolutely pissed, and if that doesn't dampen the whole situation then nothing will. 

"Do you have anywhere to stay? Only I kind of forgot to find an inn, you know, beautiful gentlemen and ladies and all that, so I… uh, don't have anywhere to stay. I think. Maybe I do, I can't remember. Who knows?" And he's laughing again as though he's said something particularly funny and Geralt feels slightly concerned.

He's seen Jaskier drunk before. At this point, the whole world has, but never like this . Never so… completely gone. 

He's still coherent, still babbling on, but he doesn't stop, and he talks about anything that comes to mind. Quite like sober Jaskier really, but there's an edge to it all, a slur to his words that sets Geralt on edge. 

It's in silence that he leads Jaskier back to the inn, key jangling in his pocket.

The same man is standing behind the counter when they enter, looking utterly lifeless and exhausted. He'd obviously pulled the short end of the stick, being on night duty, although perhaps the sight of the grim, severe-faced Witcher leading the world-renowned Jaskier, Master Bard, who was both incredibly drunk and as naked as the day he was born, to his own room made the whole ordeal rather worth it.

Of course, come morning nobody would believe such a tale. But he'd seen it, he swears he had.

Regardless, Geralt leads Jaskier up to his purchased room, hand still resting between his sharp shoulder blades as he unlocks the door. He pushes Jaskier inside, pushes him onto the single bed (looks like he's sleeping on the floor tonight) and Jaskier falls unceremoniously into a heap of long, tangled limbs, instantly nestling into the collection of pillows and the duvet. 

Geralt settles himself on the floor, readying himself for an aching back come tomorrow. He lies there in silence, listening to the familiar and comforting sound of Jaskier's breaths. He's not sleeping, he can tell.

He thinks. Thinks of Jaskier and all he has learnt about the man for the past decade-and-a-half. It doesn't really amount to much. He knows Jaskier as he is now, but he does not know his past, he does not know who he was before. It does not really matter but Geralt wonders if, like himself, there are things that haunt Jaskier. Demons from the past that refuse to leave him alone.

He thinks of the drinking. Of the women and men he takes to his bed. Of how he gets restless, of how he doesn't like to stay in the same place for any longer than necessary. He thinks of Jaskier's conflicts. Of how his demeanour and attitude can shift, of how he seems to have a face of glass; one that clearly reflects every emotion that he feels, and how on late nights around an open fire Geralt will see his face crease and frown and smooth out again, all in a brief few seconds.

"Why do you do it?" Geralt asks before he can stop himself. 

"Do what?" Jaskier responds. He's still drunk, words still slurred, but there's an alertness to his voice that had not been there before. 

"You know what. Why?"

There's a long pause. So long that if Geralt hadn't been listening closely, he'd have presumed Jaskier had simply fallen asleep. Jaskier shifts amongst the duvet, rustling against the pillows.

"Because I love them." He says, His voice is tired and it's not from the alcohol.

"But they don't love you." His words are harsh and he winces at the tone. He wonders if that was a step too far.

Jaskier laughs again, but this time it is hard, free of all humour. It sounds pained, choked, as if it's gotten caught in his throat. "No. They don't. They never do." 

Silence. Again.

"Then why?" 

There's another long pause.

"I don't know." 

And maybe it's because Jaskier is drunk and he probably won't even remember this conversation in the morning, and maybe it's because Geralt hasn't had a good night's sleep in days, or maybe it's because it's a question he's had on his mind for a while.

"Are you happy?" He asks.

Jaskier doesn't respond, his breathing levels out and it sounds as if he's eventually fallen asleep. Geralt rolls over hands rubbing at his temples. He can feel a headache coming on.

And then, so softly, he hears a whisper.

"Yes. When I'm with you."

x

They spend two months together, after that.

Every night, without fail, Jaskier falls asleep in the same room as Geralt. 

Not once does he seek the company of another. 

Chapter Text

It is their sixteenth year of companionship when Jaskier almost dies.

It is their sixteenth year of companionship when plans, unknown for now, are set in motion.

It is their sixteenth year when a heart is broken.

But it is their seventeenth year when that heart is fixed once more.

(And then it is much, much later when none of that matters)

x

Geralt is fishing. 

Well, fishing is the wrong word to use. Fishing implies he is searching for fish and he most certainly is not.

No, what Geralt is looking for is something called a Djinn. Also known as a genie, or even a spirit in some places around the world. Although none of that matters, really. All that matters is that this is very important and he needs to find it, preferably sooner rather than later. 

But turns out that is proving to be harder than he first thought. He's been here for hours, 'fishing', he's gotten next to no sleep and his hands hurt and his back aches and he's got a headache and he can't fucking find it.

For the past few months, he's been able to wipe any thought of that destiny shit from Cintra completely from his mind. It might have had something to do with Jaskier's prolonged company, as it always seemed that, whenever the bard was involved, Geralt's usual thoughts would be bungled up and locked away in replacement of the whirlwind of emotion that Jaskier brought with him. But certainly, the events at the banquet had been temporarily forgotten. Child Surprise? The Law of Surprise? He'd almost convinced himself that he'd dreamt that evening up, that if he never thought upon such a thing; then it would never actually happen.

It had been easy, with Jaskier around. It was harder to hold fear about all this destiny shit when Jaskier was around, laughing and talking and his hands always touching, always coming to rest on Geralt's shoulder or his hands, always grabbing and leaning into and smiling. Always, it was always Jaskier; and Geralt feared that connection. He wants it, wants it like he's never wanted anything else before, but he fears it. 

Well, regardless, despite Geralt's ever-growing… problems with Jaskier; it turns out he most definitely hadn't dreamt it up and, if destiny could be called anything, it's tenacious and he's certainly not the happy-go-lucky sort that will manage to escape its clutches.

So, yes. This whole Law of Surprise shit has been keeping him awake for the past few weeks.

All he wants is for destiny to fuck off and leave him alone. Is that really too much of him to ask? Life had already taken the pleasure of kicking him in the balls at every opportunity and now this?

He doesn't want his fate tied to anyone, he doesn't want anyone to need him. Let alone a child.

He wants to be left alone, he doesn't want all of… this.

He doesn't need anyone. He doesn't want anyone.

And then, from across the wind, he hears a familiar sound. It's Jaskier. Because of course it fucking is. Why would it not be? The one person who embodies everything he's been trying to run from in years just happens to arrive when he's at his very lowest, when all he wants is some peace and quiet and to not have to care or worry about anybody else.

The sound of footsteps, the raised tune of voice growing louder and louder. Birdsong-voice, a lark in the wind. Soft and beautiful and lilting, melding like an orchestra amongst the wilderness. Jaskier, as he always is. Perfectly imperfect. His voice is dispersed with a groan, a sigh, when the lyrics don't quite meld together, a muttered curse when the melody escapes him or the tune is carried off into something he's not quite searching for. A laugh when he perfects it; when a new verse is formed and the words from the very depths of his soul spout from his lips, running like water from a kettle, and the birds sing along with him. Symphonised beauty, spoken from the deepest parts of the heart.

It is always beautiful, always magnetic in the way it draws Geralt in; breaks down the walls of his heart and pulls him closer and closer. Like water, the crash of waves against chalk-cliffs, Jaskier is eroding years and years of self-preservation; the stone towers Geralt has built around himself growing weaker and weaker. Right now he doesn't want this. He can't want this, but he does.  

"Geralt!" He shouts. "Running into one another again? How long has it been this time? A month, maybe? Two? What is time, anyway?" He scrambles into view from behind the thicket, stumbling over tree roots and tangled branches. Holding his hand up in a strange sort of half-wave, his eyes light up. "Are you following me?" He asks between a snort of laughter, with a raised eyebrow, a smirk toying on his lips. His tone is mocking and light but he looks at Geralt like he knows that not all of their meetings are shaped of mere coincidences.

This one is, though. This meeting is pure chance because once again fate and destiny have decided that their sole purpose within the fabrics of the world is to ruin the life of solitude Geralt has built up for the past century. So far, destiny had done a good job of doing this without Geralt even realising what was going on, but now he's had enough.

But it's Jaskier and if there's one thing that Geralt knows for certain is that there's nothing on the entire Continent that stirs up more conflict in Geralt's mind than the minstrel, the poet, the singer; the famous Master Bard who found beauty in the forgotten cracks of the universe and had unearthed something locked deep away in Geralt; something that he is scared of, truthfully.

But by the gods is Jaskier beautiful, here. Even if Geralt wants nothing more right now than to be left alone, to not have to worry about what he wants and what he deserves, to not have to think about how he needs Jaskier. He needs nobody, that is how it has always been. That is how it should remain.

But here they are. 

The sunlight hits him, illuminating the sharpness of his high cheekbones, the tip of his upturned nose, the bow of his upper lip. He looks… good. He always looks good, but here; with the sun on his skin, pale tanned to a soft brown that glows from within; he looks ethereal. Not quite real, as if he isn't from this earth. He is not like others, made from the dirt and the ground; he is made from the sky and the clouds and the stars. Jaskier is from far above, high above the peaks of mountains. Geralt is on the ground, far below. Geralt shouldn't be looking to the stars, shouldn't be getting swept away with all this fantasy, but Jaskier is here and he is standing in front of him and he is smiling and all Geralt wants is him.

His hair is fluffed; he'd probably bathed not too long ago, and it rests in fine curls just below his ears. It flops over his eyes, every so often, and he'll flick his head with an annoyed huff, blowing up at the offending strands of hair, plush lips pouting as he does so. The blue of his doublet is bright, but his eyes shine even brighter. Like cornflowers in endless green meadows, the petals of forget-me-nots; like the ones Jaskier would weave into his hair. There's laughter glinting in that colour, light and happiness and amusement. It makes something warm and fuzzy curl in Geralt's chest. He pushes it down. It rises and it rises but he does not stop pushing.

He can't have this. He is not allowed to want , not like this. Build up your walls, he tells himself. Build them up higher and higher. Protect yourself from the hurt that will follow. 

(Later, he will come to the realisation that it was not Jaskier who he should have been worried about. It was himself. Always himself. He was the problem, he had pushed and pushed and pushed until Jaskier was on the cliff's edge and still, he had pushed further)

"Hmm." Geralt eventually responds with, when he realises the silence has stretched on for far too long.

Jaskier throws back his head, revealing the length of his throat, and laughs. A deep, throaty chuckle that resonates from far within his chest. His throat bobs with the movement and Geralt can see his teeth, the sharpness of his canines white against the pink of his tongue. He shifts on his feet, weight going from one leg to the other. "I definitely missed your excellent conversational skills." He says between chuckles, leaning forward. The unbuttoned fabric of his shirt slips, allowing Geralt a glimpse of paler skin, where the sun has been blocked out, spattered with a curling of dark hairs. Geralt feels blood pounding in his ears. But then he's standing up straight once more and the glimpse is gone.

Geralt feels as if his insides are melting, turning to goop. It's an emotion he's now linked to Jaskier, for it only ever seems to happen when he's around. He doesn't want to put a name to it, but he's pretty sure he can guess what it is.

His mind returns to the Law of Surprise, the child that is bound to him by destiny. He feels anger rise in his gut.

Was this destiny's trick? Was fate playing him for a fool? He doesn't need anyone, yet here Jaskier is. Always showing up, even when Geralt isn't seeking him out. 

It's a defensiveness that strikes him next. He closes himself off, purposefully. Tries to block out the memories, the sixteen years of their lives that they have shared. It won't do anyone any good for him to act on what he's thinking.

He blocks out their shared tenderness, the fact that it is only Jaskier who is allowed to touch Roach, only Jaskier who would dare to weave flowers into her main and braid Geralt's own hair. It is only Jaskier who is allowed to sleep beside him, who is allowed to see him naked and vulnerable and weak, who will wash his body when he is simply too tired and will rub chamomile into his skin to soothe the tightened muscles. It is only Jaskier who sees him like this, only Jaskier who has caught glimpses of the true depths of his heart. He tries to wipe that all away, tries to forget that such a thing exists.

He pretends there is no connection, pretends that there is nothing between them. He thinks it will make it easier, if he tries to forget. 

(But such a thing is impossible and although he pushes and pushes and pushes, when he eventually gets what he apparently desires, he realises then that he had made a mistake so big he didn't know if it could ever be fixed)

For the first time Geralt thanks the gods for his severe case of sleep deprivation. It makes being a right arse and acting completely unreasonable a whole lot easier.

And Jaskier is doing what he does best, talking and talking and talking. Geralt ignores him, still throwing out that net, still pulling in nothing. He changes his body language, stiffens himself up and deepens his brow into a dark scowl. He builds his walls higher and higher but still, Jaskier is tearing them down. 

"Care to share a meal with an old friend?" Geralt catches, the words standing out to him betwixt the rest of Jaskier's mindless complaints and whines and nonsense. Friend, his mind focuses on. That word, so simple and innocent yet the connotations it carries leave unmistakeable fear swirling in Geralt's gut. Friend, because that is what Jaskier is. That is what they are, friends. He cannot deny that. 

He doesn't answer, he offers a half-hearted hum and turns his back from the other; looks away from the golden light that illuminates Jaskier like a star. Block it out, he tells himself. Ignore it until it is gone.

He tries not to focus on how his heart twists at the word friend, as though he wants more than that. He's being ridiculous. He wants nothing like this. He wants to be left alone. (But he doesn't. He really, really doesn't)

"Or are we going to wait another decade before we use the word 'friend'?" And the words are said in good jest, but there's an uncomfortable kind of hurt that lingers underneath it all. Geralt feels his skin crawl, guilt creeping up his arms like spiders. He ignores it. 

He throws the net out again. Again and again and again, focusing himself solely on this one task, trying and trying and trying to block out the hum of Jaskier's voice. 

But still, all he can hear is Jaskier, like a storm in his ears. He is rain pelting against glass, wind rattling against windowsills. Trying to ignore Jaskier is like trying to ignore the apocalypse. You just… can't.

"I'm not fishing." Geralt eventually settles on, voice sharp and hard like flint. But Jaskier is fluid and wild like fire and if he doesn't shut up then the two are going to mix. Gunpowder and an open flame; Geralt is eventually going to explode. "Ah, yes. 'Not fishing', that makes perfect sense. You know, because it… doesn't" 

Geralt hums, throwing the net out again. Still nothing. Where the fuck is this djinn?

"So…" Jaskier starts again, just when Geralt thought he'd eventually gotten the memo. "What are you doing then?" His voice is sing-song high, mocking and crude and he seems to be taking amusement in this whole experience, speaking to Geralt like he's a petulant child who needs his naptime. Which, to be fair, for the woodland creatures of birds and squirrels and foxes who lay nearby, watching silently with their luminous eyes, such a word was most certainly an accurate depiction of Geralt's demeanour right about now.

"I'm looking for a Djinn." Geralt grinds out, shoving past Jaskier as he continues up the riverbend.

Jaskier trips but manages to catch himself, trailing behind Geralt as he winces at the boggy surface of the riverbanks. His shoes will be a bitch to clean later.

"A Djinn? Like a… genie? One of those big, angry magic people? With the wishes?"

Geralt nods sharply.

"Ooh! Wishes! Now there's something I can get behind. Where's this Djinn supposed to be then? Somewhere in the river? How about I help? If I find it, do I get the wishes? Ooh! A competition! Geralt of Rivia, the White Wolf, pitted against the mighty Jaskier, Master Bard and the Continent's most renowned troubadour! So, where should I-"

"Shut it!" He hisses, momentarily taken aback by the hard spikes lain clear in his voice. Jaskier flinches, withdrawing back and Geralt's heart does something quick and painful in his chest. He ignores it.

You don't care. You don't need Jaskier. You don't need anyone.

But all he can think about is the flowers that Jaskier braids in his hair, the way he doesn't wear his old perfumes; how he's switched to softer scents and more quiet smells, the sort that don't interfere with Geralt's sensitive nose. He's been changing himself to make Geralt more comfortable, to offer comfort and stability. He's made sacrifices, he's changed. He's done it all for Geralt. For someone so loud, so obvious and intending, it is the simple things that Jaskier has done that mean the most. In a silent manner, one that somehow had slipped under Geralt's notice, Jaskier had made a promise that this was not temporary, that he would not walk in and out of Geralt's life, that he would remain.  

And what have you done? Really, what have you done? You won't even admit he's your friend. 

There are two voices in his head. Sleep deprivation, in its cruel tones. The part of Geralt that fears fate and destiny and fears reliance on others. The part that had been created on the highest snowy peaks of Kaer Morhen, that had been fused in with pain and torture and trials that burned his soul from the very inside out.

Then there's the other half of him. Geralt, or what lies underneath it all. There is the boy who was abandoned for the wait of certain death, the one who had closed himself off to the world when he realised the only thing left for him now was the cruelness of white hair and golden eyes. There was the boy who had first travelled the world with wide, curious eyes; not yet realising that soon his innocence would be stripped of him; when he encountered humans who would spit on his face, humans who would give him coin and work but would laugh and drink when one of his kind was found dead. 

These two halves of him are conflicted. The part he has created, the armour that he wears to hide the softness underneath, tells him that he does not need Jaskier. The other half, him as he truly is, fights against that.

He almost thinks that what lingers underneath will surface, that the pearl hidden by the oyster's shell will shine through.

But it does not. The battlements are weakened, they are growing fragile, but still he cannot accept that this is what he wants.

"Geralt? Tell me, what's wrong?" And the concern in Jaskier's voice hurts. It is like an insult, like barbed wire cutting into his flesh. He bristles, the walls rising and rising until even Jaskier has no hope of ever tearing them down. 

"You should be more grateful that anyone puts up with you. The talking is bad enough but the singing-"

He cuts himself off as Jaskier splutters with horror. The hurt expression still lingers although there is something else coming into play now. Geralt pulls the net back in, scowling when it once again turns up empty. 

"W-what are you implying there, Geralt? Was that an… an attack on my music?" He's puffing himself up, now. Chest pushed out and eyes flashing with something that might be anger. Not true anger, not fury and hate and spite, but gentle anger; annoyance and offence. "We are so having this conversation right now." 

He tugs on Geralt's shoulder, tries to get him to face him. But Geralt stays put, ignoring the scrabbling hands at his chest. He hardens himself, lets his anger bubble and boil and not once does he try to quell it. He's done with being reasonable, he's done with whatever this is. 

Jaskier eventually gives up, not before letting out a mighty puff of air and folding his arms across his chest.

"Tell me then, Geralt! How's my singing?" And there it is. There's the question.

Geralt has three choices here. Three very distinct choices. He could say nothing. Simply just remain silent. Jaskier would be irritated, of course. He's all puffed up like a bluetit, all pomp and honour and pride. He'd be obnoxious company, but it wouldn't cause any lasting harm. He'd simply roll his eyes and move on. It would be easy to do that, easy to let the world slide by without him making choices. It was what he liked to do, after all. Stay out of things, never get attached. Lie to himself.

He could be honest. Tell Jaskier what he truly thinks of his singing, what he truly thinks of the man as a whole. He could be truthful and say that Jaskier's singing is perhaps one of the most beautiful sounds he's ever heard. How, even when the lyrics are bawdy and Jaskier is prancing around taverns with his shirt half undone and his trousers slipping lower and lower, stinking of ale and bloated with pride like a sack of piss, he still somehow manages to be one of the most beautiful creatures Geralt has ever laid eyes on.

He could say that, or he could pick the last option.

Lie. Not lie in silence, not hide the truth under a cloak of quiet; but completely and utterly talk out of his arse. Spew up shit from out of his mouth, make things up. Protect, put those barriers up. Keep himself safe from this. This vulnerability, this want for another person. This want for Jaskier.  

The hardened battlements around him have risen. His stone walls are built up high. Higher than they've ever been before. He lets the lack of sleep catch up with him, the annoyance of his destiny, of the Child Surprise. He lets it rise within him like a river, filling higher and higher until it is overflowing, until houses are flooded and crops are ruined. Until there is nothing left but the water, until the ground below is submerged and his feet can no longer touch the bottom. Until all that awaits is the watery depths below, of lungs empty of oxygen and the heart abandoned of all love. Until everything, every last piece of him, has been washed away. 

He throws his net back out into the river and, with a coldness to his voice that he hasn't used since he'd first met Jaskier, he makes his choice.

"It's like ordering a pie and finding it has no filling." 

And Jaskier points and prods and struts about like a rooster, clucking and dipping his head in outrage. He is melodramatic, loud and offended and his pride greatly wounded. The words are perhaps joking, but Geralt knows that they will sting. Like a slap to the face. Never once had Geralt directly insulted Jaskier's singing. Not once. His lyrics, perhaps; his loudness; the way Jaskier manages to irritate everyone around him with his endless chatterings and complaints. But never had he once directly insulted Jaskier's singing. Not like this.

But more than that, he is hurt. Truly hurt. Geralt can see the pain in his eyes, he can smell it; even though Jaskier's scent has always been something he's never quite managed to pin down. Only when Jaskier's feelings are at their rawest, at their strongest, can Geralt usually catch a whiff. Now, it is all he can smell. 

Geralt debates apologising, debates taking his words back, but he is distracted when out he pulls a strange-looking bottle.

He has found the Djinn. 

And Jaskier grabs it.

He wraps his hands around it, fingers tensed where he's gripping so hard it's a wonder the bottle doesn't shatter beneath his hold. "Take it back!" He shouts and his blue eyes turn red with fire. "Take back what you said about my singing!" He shakes the bottle, trying desperately to loosen Geralt's hold on it. "Take back the comment about my filling-less pie and then you can have your Djinny-Djinn-Djinn!" 

At this moment Geralt could have killed Jaskier where he stood. Jaskier was by no means weak, but he was not a Witcher. He was a human. (Although, Geralt was starting to have his doubts)

Had Geralt wanted to, he could have broken all his fingers. One by one, snapped and cracked each digit until nothing remained but bone-dust and blood-loss. He could have shattered Jaskier's wrist, fractured his arm. Strangled him, thrown him aside. Flung him against a tree, cracked his back and had blood spilling from his lips. Turned him blue, beaten him until there was nothing left of him but blood and guts and pain. Sliced him up, butchered him like the monster he is. He could have done all of that and much, much worse. 

The voice in his head, the one that is tired and sleep-deprived and scared (although he'll never admit it) tells him to do all of that. Or, at the very least, to not take back his insult. To keep those walls built up and to treat Jaskier like scum on the bottom of his shoe. To forget, to abandon the connection he had made and to pretend that it had never existed in the first place. 

"Let go of it! You, h-horses arse…

With a loud pop , the stopper of the bottle is pulled off. Geralt holds it in his hands and he looks at Jaskier with panicked eyes. Fuck.

Jaskier is oblivious. He shakes the bottle, tips it upside-down, closes one eye and peers into it. He hums, he ahs, he looks at every inch and every crack as if somewhere he will find a little genie, a red one or a gold one, like the ones from children's tales, sitting there looking up at him. 

Geralt, however, knows otherwise.

The sky darkens and thunder ripples across the land. Water spirals, splashes, disturbed by the sheer rush of magical power that has been set free.

Jaskier smiles.

Before Geralt can even think to stop him, before Geralt even gets the chance to throw a hand over that damn bard's mouth, Jaskier is holding his arms wide, fingers raised skyward, as though in his hands he is cupping the very powers of the earth; as though he can control the wind and the sky and the land itself, as though he has become a god

"Djinn!" He announces, hurt vanishing and pride coming back. "I have freed thee and as of this day I am thy Lord." If it weren't for the severity of the situation, Geralt would have been thoroughly amused. Jaskier's entire demeanour had shifted into one of pomp and prestige, words transforming into faux-formality and the very language he used taken straight out of a faded old fairy-tale. 

But Geralt isn't amused. Geralt isn't smiling, he certainly isn't laughing. He needs that Djinn, he needs those wishes.

"Firstly; may Valdo Marx, the troubadour of Cidaris, be struck down with apoplexy and die." 

Fuck.

"Secondly," but Jaskier doesn't get to finish what he's saying. The call of the Djinn is growing louder, the lakeside growing darker. Geralt grabs him by the back of his collar, thrusting their faces together. Their foreheads are pressed tight against one another and Geralt growls. Jaskier's eyes flicker down to his lips in a movement so quick Geralt is certain he imagined it. Tension thrums between the two and Geralt feels something stir from deep within his chest. He digs his teeth into his bottom lip, fights the softness in his heart that begs him to close the distance and instead continues to build those walls. Anger, he tells himself. You hate this man. You do not care about him, not one bit, but even to his own thoughts, he knows such words are a blatant lie. 

"There are only three wishes." He growls out from deep within his throat. 

Jaskier bristles, as if he were a disgruntled bird ruffling his feathers. "Well, I'm sorry!"   He pushes Geralt away, hands still wrapped tightly around the bottle of the Djinn. "How was I supposed to know that you'd want all three wishes to yourself!" He's shouting now and Geralt has never seen Jaskier this fired up. Never so angry, never so defensive.

It is then that Geralt realises that, in ways, he and Jaskier could be alike. This was it; this was their fight or flight response. Their most primal urge as a living creature on this world. When they feel cornered, stressed; when they do not know what to do, when conflict pulls them apart and hurt twists at the strings of their heart, they turn to this.

Geralt is a fighter. Anger, fury. Rage. It is what he is doing now, what he is always doing. Protect, he tells himself; but Jaskier is a runner. He flees from his problems, he flees from his issues.

(Perhaps it is this moment that Geralt remembers, much later. When he realises this, out on the lakeside, he should not have later turned it into his own advantage. What happened here, today, was a fluke. He was lucky that he was forgiven. He was lucky that this forgiveness only took a year. But then he forgot and in some sense of self-preservation he threw it away all over again)

The comment about his singing had obviously hurt and Jaskier is backing away from Geralt like prey in a corner. His hackles are raised, he's ready to bolt. Always running, always trying to escape. 

But both of them, always lying. Always hiding.

"You always say you want nothing from life."

"I just want some damned peace!"

"Well, here's your bloody peace!"

And then Jaskier hurls the bottle onto the floor. It shatters, thousands of tiny pieces of ceramic coating the marshland floor.

It is then that Geralt realises that the wishes did not lie with Jaskier, but with himself. He had broken the seal. He had…

The Djinn shifts, dark shadow swirling in the air. 

I just want some damned peace. It's heading Jaskier's way.

Geralt feels sick to his stomach. This is what happens. This is what he does to those he cares about.

Jaskier begins to choke. His breathing ragged, pained. He's gasping, hollow and parched as though the insides of his throat have dried to sand. 

"G-Geralt!" He gasps and his voice is hoarse. "Geralt, I- I can't… b-breathe."

The Djinn. 

He falls, feet slipping. His blue eyes rolling to the back of his skull. Geralt catches him. Fuck.

The Djinn is gone and Jaskier is fading in his arms.

He coughs, he splutters. There's a wet, squelching sort of sound and crimson bursts from his lips.

"Geralt… I can't, it… f-fuck… it hurts." His voice is trembling, no longer that twitter of birdsong that Geralt has become so accustomed to. Now it is hoarse, now it is dying.

This is what happens when people meet you. This is what you do to people. You hurt them and you hurt them and you hurt them. That is all you are good for. You pushed and pushed and pushed and now Jaskier has almost fallen. 

But Jaskier is in pain and there are tears glinting in diamond crystals on the darkness of his eyelashes. He scrubs his hands through his hair, knotting it up into tangles. He leans against Geralt. Gasps, sobs, chokes.

Geralt fights the urge to build, to harden his defences and to run from what is heart his telling him.

He needs to fight this. He has to accept that this is what he wants. This is what he needs. This idiot before him, Jaskier the Master Bard, the one who had devoted his life to song and music; who had spent the past sixteen years of his life trying to improve Geralt's. The one who runs and runs and runs and is always fleeing something, yet had pushed those fears aside and let him trust Geralt. The one who hides his sausage in more royal pantries than there are numbers to count. The idiot who drinks and sings and wears his heart on his sleeve yet also keeps pieces of him locked away so tight.

The person who has travelled with Geralt for sixteen years. Sixteen goddamn years.

Geralt heaves Jaskier up, supports him with a careful touch he thought he'd forgotten as he leads him to Roach.

Jaskier was eighteen years old when they'd first met. Geralt didn't know where he was born, where he'd come from, who he had been before that; but Jaskier had followed him about like a terrier yapping at his heels. Eighteen was barely an adult. Now he was thirty-four, well into his adult life, and still he had not stopped following.

Geralt realises by that standard, Jaskier had spent almost half of his life by Geralt's side. 

But then he looks down at the bard coughing up his own lungs in his arms. Really looks at him. 

He does not look a day older. Not a second older. 

Geralt has noticed this, of course. He has wondered why , many a time. He had always presumed that Jaskier would tell him. Always presume that eventually, one of these days, he'd find out.

But now Jaskier is dying in his arms and he still doesn't know.

Geralt doesn't have forever. Geralt doesn't have an infinite span of time to find out why , there is not the rest of the world for he and Jaskier to stumble down their paths, to simply wait for what they want to fall into place.

The time they share is limited. Even if Jaskier seems ageless, even if he never seems to grow a day older; no matter how long they spend besides one another, their lives are fraught with danger. Conflict is brewing over the horizon, there are rumours of war. There is barely peace now and that will not last. 

Geralt doesn't know and he never tried to.

He promises himself, right there, with Jaskier's blood coating his arms, that he will change. He will put in the effort, he will try. He wants this like he has wanted nothing else before, but nothing in life comes for free.

He can't expect Jaskier to just fall into his arms. He can't expect Jaskier to do everything for him. He has pushed Jaskier away, rejected destiny and fate and what his heart tells him he wants.

He has rejected it all and now he realises that he may come to regret that.

So he promises himself that he will change, that he will be better.

But promises are easy to make. Especially like this. It is all well and good to promise to be better, to say and do what you have always wanted when the only person you have ever wanted is dying in your arms. It is easy to be truthful when you don't think you have another chance.

But they do. Not that Geralt knows it now, but later, Jaskier will still be here. Jaskier will not die tonight. So for the next few hours he will let himself be free, take off his armour and break down his walls. But once it settles, once the ash falls and the smoke stops choking, the promise will be forgotten.

(And later Geralt will shatter his promise. Break it into a thousand tiny pieces that cannot be glued back together. He will destroy this. He will take it and break it until there is nothing left and he will only realise what he had when he has it no longer. The world is cruel. He will get what he had said he wanted. He will get his damn peace and quiet; but he will sit there, completely alone in the world, and realise that that isolation was something he had never truly wanted)

x

Jaskier sits, slumped behind Geralt on Roach's back.

Roach had whinnied and whined and reared in fright when she had seen Jaskier. This Roach, the second that Jaskier had met, (Geralt had had four, in total) was friendlier than the other. Friendlier than all of the horses Geralt had had, in fact. She had a certain soft spot for Jaskier especially, always had, ever since he had bought her apples and picked her flowers to munch on in the long evenings.

He had brushed her hair and washed her coat and woven flowers amongst her mane with such soft tenderness, the same tenderness Jaskier had used when he had braided Geralt's own hair, and Roach was fond of him because of this. Or perhaps it was more than just that, perhaps she was drawn to Jaskier the same way Geralt was. She liked his songs, she would nuzzle into the crook of Jaskier's neck whenever he stood close enough and she always sought his company out in the evenings beside the fire. 

Geralt was still her favourite, but Jaskier was a close second, and she was so obviously worried about the bard. People might laugh at such a thing, claim that 'a horse can't be worried' but Geralt has spent the vast majority of his life with only horses to keep him company and he knows that they are compassionate, sensitive creatures. Strong, silent. Always watching and always feigning indifference, but underneath those glassy eyes they were intense, flooded with a sensitivity that they tried to hide.

Jaskier had once said that Geralt was similar, in this way. Geralt remembers it clearly for he had bristled at the comment that Geralt reminded Jaskier of a horse. But back then he had bristled at everything that Jaskier had said, because that was how he himself hid from the things he was not yet ready to admit. That was how he kept himself locked away, feigned indifference until he could pretend that there was nothing that lingered underneath.

That was what he'd been trying to do for years. That's what he'd been trying to do with each and every second he spent with Jaskier. But you can't just pretend something isn't there when it is. You can't just growl at your problems and hope they will go away. 

He is concerned. He is worried, and so is Roach.

Geralt could see it in her eyes, large and bulbous and darker than the largest of shadows. Only a rim of honeysuckle orange could be seen around the pupils, the whites of her eyes bright as she stared long and hard at the half-conscious Jaskier held in his arms.

She had stilled, almost frozen in place, as Geralt had heaved Jaskier up behind him; wrapping his arms around his middle, even though Jaskier's grip was frail and weak. Like a statue, Roach had become, as though she feared that any little movement could hurt Jaskier further.

Eventually, they had sat in place, Jaskier's arms held loosely in Geralt's lap and his head pressing against the small of Geralt's back, drooped down low, as though he was too weak to have the energy to keep it upright anymore. 

Every time he is shaken with another rattling cough, Geralt can feel the movement deep in his spine, tremors across his very bones. He can feel warmth, too, the heat of blood seeping deep into his clothes.

It spurs him on faster, his feet digging into Roach's flank (not too hard, of course) as she breaks into a racing gallop.

Desperately they look for anywhere, horse and owner temporarily one as they both turn their heads this way and that, looking for any other form of civilisation that could help them.

Eventually, they find what they are looking for. A little village on the outskirts of the forest. Upon arrival, it is all Geralt can do to not outright burn the village to the ground to try and find a healer. His words are harsh, barked orders in frenzied panic as he demands that he be taken to a healer.

He clambers off of Roach, carefully bringing Jaskier down too, who is somehow still conscious but certainly not all… there. There are tear tracks running down his face, his eyes and kin turning blotchy red as blood continues to splutter from out of his mouth.

It is an elf healer who eventually offers to help them and as the two of them both help a stumbling Jaskier make his way towards the building, the elf freezes at the sight of gold on Jaskier's wrist.

He doesn't say anything, however, and he simply introduces himself as Chireadan. 

It is when they are sitting down, when Jaskier is slumped up against a wall, head tilted forwards as to ensure he doesn't choke on his own blood, that he begins to gain some clarity.

"Will he be okay?" Geralt asks, voice betraying his own sense of nervousness. Chireadan has the gall to smile slightly, but there's a frown that soon slides over his brow. He shakes his head and Geralt's heart plummets.

"I don't know. This is… beyond my expertise." Jaskier startles at his words and Geralt instinctively places a soothing hand on his shoulder. "I can lessen the pain, slow it down, but there's not much else I can do." The elf begins to collect various herbs from various jars, mixing all sorts of different types of plants into a strange, purple-ish paste. 

"What will happen to him?" Geralt asks, Jaskier gasping beside him.

"He'll lose his voice, first." Chireadan says and Jaskier lets out a half-deformed howl. Geralt jumps at the sound, unsure on how exactly to comfort him, but he too feels Jaskier's fear. Singing is his livelihood, it is his passion. Geralt feels guilt pool in his stomach. All of this is his fault, this is what he wished for. "Which won't really matter all that much, because he'll be dead soon after." And then Jaskier is truly panicking.

The more he panics the more blood that spills from his lips and then the more panicked he gets because of that, it's an endless cycle of fear and it does nothing to slow the own thumping rate of Geralt's heart. He's grabbing onto Geralt's shirt, fisting the fabric between tightly clenched fingers, like a fearful child. He's crying and crying, the whites of his eyes showing and drool dripping down his chin, mixing with the blood already there. It's spattered onto his clothes, onto the collarbone revealed by his unbuttoned doublet. Mixed and dried and hardened against his chest hair, tufts of dark brown clumped together with red.

"Don't worry." Geralt eventually settles on saying. "I won't let that happen." But his words don't seem like enough . They are empty and meaningless but he's never been good with words and he's scared. How can he say to Jaskier what he's been meaning to say for years? How can he put his true feelings into words that can be heard and listened and understood? It's too much and he's spent too long trying to fight it, but if things continue at this rate there might be nothing left to fight. Jaskier will be dead and his last memory of Geralt will be an insult. An insult he used to deflect, to hide his own true feelings behind. An insult he manifested into the world to pretend that he did not care, but he does care and now Jaskier's life is slipping through his fingers like finely grained sand. Golden and soft but all he can feel is the roughness of each particle, the stones and glass that cut into his skin that have yet to be eroded by the sea's gentle tide. 

Jaskier looks up at him and tries to smile, but the image is distorted by the blood staining his teeth and by the painful swelling of his throat. He begins to choke on his own blood, keening as Geralt forces his head down, forces him to spit out the clumps and clumps of blood held in his mouth. 

"It'll take longer than it would with a hum-" Chireadan begins to say before Jaskier cuts him off with a pained shout. He's shaking his head rapidly, hair flinging from side to side, but it's too late; Geralt can piece together the words that went unsaid.

"What do you mean? 'Human'? He is a human." 

Chireadan laughs nervously, mixing the paste into a liquid. He averts his eyes, looks at the floor. The definition of shifty. "Sorry, I just- I don't really treat humans, uh, all that often. A mistake, sorry." But Chireadan's eyes, again, are focused on the gold around Jaskier's wrist. Geral is certain he's missing something here, something blatantly obvious that he will look back on and wonder how he could have possibly been so dense, but right now he's stressed and tired and he doesn't want Jaskier to die and he wants to change. He wants to be there for Jaskier, to be better. Change the path he once trod, form his own destiny and let Jaskier know the truth. All of it,

"I, uh… he needs to drink this." Chireadan continues, voice still high and nervous.

Geralt wants to ask more questions, wants to prod and probe and understand because Chireadan is an absolutely awful liar and there's obviously something he's missing here, but there's not enough time. There never seems to be enough time. Geralt had fooled himself into thinking he had all the time in the world, as if he had forever. But he doesn't and why had it taken him so long to realise that? Why had it taken this for Geralt to realise that he can't keep fighting everything forever. 

"That will help." Chireadan continues, voice slipping back into trained professionalism, as if his slip-up had never happened. "He'll need a mage, though. A powerful one." 

Jaskier takes the glass out of his hands, holding it between his own trembling ones. He raises it to his lips, obviously struggling to swallow as some of the mixture escapes from his mouth and drips down his jaw. He gulps it all down, almost greedily in his speed. He's desperate for anything that might help. He hadn't even stopped to check the liquid he'd been given, sniff it and look at it and deduce if it would really help him. He had just trusted. He had trusted Geralt's judgement, trusted that - if this was the healer that Geralt had found - that there would be no chance of foul play at hand, that he would be safe and looked after. That he would survive.

Jaskier has almost died plenty of times over the years. But never like this. Never, has it seemed so inevitable, so close. And never before has Geralt felt like this. Never had he realised the true extent of the lies he had told himself.

He had kidded himself that he did not care, but this was blatant proof that he did.

For the first time in his life, he does not push it down. He lets it expand and swell in his chest and then, under his breath he whispers "I want him to survive. I want Jaskier to live." And there goes his second wish. 

Nothing happens. Jaskier finishes the potion and Geralt cannot determine whether the following changes are from the Djinn's magic (which seems to have completely vanished) or if it merely the antidote of sorts that Chireadan had given him. 

Whatever it is, it seems to have done something for almost instantly Jaskier appears calmer, his pain lessened and his hysteria quenched somewhat. 

"Where can we find a mage?" Geralt asks, watching as Jaskier's eyes cloud over in drowsiness. Whatever had been in there was certainly having a fast effect. He can't rely on his wish, he can't solely hope that the Djinn will heal him. 

He's not leaving everything up to destiny. 

"There's one in the village, but she's dangerous- " Geralt stands up, "She's locked in the mayor's house, you should go somewhere else. There's no telling what she would do-" 

But Chireadan's warnings fall on deaf ears. Geralt slings the half-unconscious Jaskier over his shoulder and walks out, Chireadan trailing nervously behind them; wringing his hands and muttering out several more warnings that go ignored. 

Geralt makes his way to the Mayor's house and it is from here that things between them change.

x

Jaskier is still conscious, if barely so, and Geralt realises that this is their last shot. If anything goes pear-shaped here, Jaskier will not make it. 

Even if he has wished for it, wishes are complicated things. They do not always manifest in the way that you wish them to. They are not always as simple as a snap of the fingers and a flash of golden light. The Djinn might have already ensured that Jaskier will live, but there might be steps that must be taken. His condition doesn't seem to have improved, although the pain has lessened.

Geralt wants to be certain. Even if going to the mage ends up being a waste of time, even if Jaskier is to make a full recovery without their intervention, he doesn't want to risk it. 

He breathes in deeply, steels himself. The two parts of him are battling with each other once more. The sleep deprivation, the tired parts of him; the ones that had been created through pain and loss and hardship. The half of him that he had built to protect, to bar himself from the real world and the pain that connection brought with it. The other half, the one who holds this half-dead Jaskier against his shoulder and feels fear like no other. The one who wants and wants and wants and who has never taken, not in those years since Renfri. The weaker part of him, the portion of him that has been broken and replaced by spikes of iron and barbs of poison.

This time, however, against all the odds; it is the real Geralt that comes through. The one behind all those walls, all those armaments. 

"Jaskier." He says as they trudge along. He shifts Jaskier in his arms, holding him instead like a blushing bride, his forearms resting in the crook of Jaskier's bent legs, the other in the centre of his back. Jaskier blinks up at him, eyes dozy and bleary. 

He might not remember this, Geralt realises with a pang in his heart. If he doesn't make it, his last memory of Geralt might be that damn comment about his singing.

He doesn't want to be remembered like that. He doesn't want that pain to be Jaskier's last memory, his last waking thought.

"Jaskier." He repeats and the man in his arms tries to smile once more. His eyelashes are fluttering, the pink of his cheeks nothing compared to the bright scarlet of his lips.

Geralt gets a sudden urge to place his lips against Jaskier's own, to taste the copper of blood and to clean it all away. To kiss away the pain, kiss away the hurt. He doesn't however, and fear crawls at his heart for the mere thought of doing such a thing. He is trying to grow, he is trying to change, but still he fears this closeness. He feels the raw, tenderness of their relationship. It is an open wound. He fears that he will do something, say something that will infect it.

He fears that he is poison, that he will destroy what he touches with his hands that kill and his eyes that turn black like the very pits of death. 

But, still. These are words that he must say; for there might not be another chance. 

"What?" Jaskier whispers, voice still hoarse and fleeting. He keeps trying to smile but he's in too much pain and it comes out forced. He tries to laugh but it just makes more blood spout from between his lips.

"You're my friend." Geralt eventually manages to spit out the words. Even to himself, he sounds ridiculously infantile and foolish.

Jaskier's eyes soften and for a moment Geralt can pretend that he isn't in pain, that he isn't knocking on death's door and facing possibly the most precarious situation of life and death in all his years of living. 

Jaskier looks… fond, sympathetic. As though he knows how hard those simple words were for Geralt to spit out.

"I know that." His voice is growing weaker as he responds, but it is still there. 

"No." Geralt responds. "No. I know you do, I-" cutting himself off to gather his next words, he steels himself for what lies ahead. "I've just never said it before. I- I wanted to say it. Out loud." 

Jaskier is looking at him, bleariness shocked away from those cornflower eyes and it's all Geralt can do to keep his eyes trained on his, to not avert his own gaze when everything within him is telling him to stop, to fight, to raise his hackles once more and bite.  

"Because it's true and… and I should have said it much earlier."

There it is. There's the truth, spoken out in words.

Fifteen years, that had taken. 

It had taken exactly one year for Geralt to realise that maybe Jaskier was a friend. 

It had taken him fifteen years to say that out loud. 

But a lot can change over fifteen years and what might have been true then was no longer the same now.

Jaskier was still his friend, of course. But you want more than that, his mind whispers to him. Don't you? 

He's not really just a 'friend'. That's not what you really want.

But you can't have it any other way and it's time that you accept that.

They reach the Mayor's front door and Jaskier is looking up at him like he's hung the stars and the moon in the sky. 

He'd fulfilled his promise, he'd admitted his feelings, but that was only half of it. 

But still, he was lying to himself.

He kids himself into thinking that was enough. That that was all he needed to do and then, later, he destroys the very foundations he had laid.

(Then, much later, he will wonder why. And it is then, that he will know the answer. Because it was easier. That is it, that is why. He gave up everything because it was easier. And, really, what else is there to say?)

x

When they enter the mayor's house things are… unusual. Well, 'unusual was probably the wrong word to describe it. Perhaps a better explanation would have been more along the lines of bat-shit crazy.

The mayor himself, for starters, was completely naked.

Just… standing there, in his house, as naked as the day he was born. Which, fair enough to the bloke, it is his house so you can't really knock the guy for doing what he wants.

Only Geralt doesn't think the mayor particularly wants to be meeting guests completely naked.

It might have been something to do with the vacant expression in the listless man's eyes, or perhaps it was the overwhelming stench of magic that flooded the place, but Geralt was pretty certain that all of this probably had something to do with the infamous mage.

Well, Geralt's senses have never failed him yet (except when it comes to Jaskier, of course; but that is an outlier and should be counted as such) so he merely does what he does best; follows the scent of danger.

So that is how that Geralt and a half-dead Jaskier find themselves stumbling into a full-blown orgy consisting of the rest of this half-abandoned town. 

It's quite surreal, really. Seeing so many people completely drawn under another's spell, entirely unaware of their own actions; entirely unaware of what they are doing.

Geralt is immune, the heady aroma of the mage's aphrodisiacal magic completely sliding over his head. Jaskier, however, is not so lucky. He clumsily rolls out of Geralt's grasp, weakened body desperately sliding towards the heated bodies like a man parched of water. 

Geralt feels something uncomfortable curl in his gut. This magic doesn't sit quite right with him. It is… wrong, he thinks. To make people do this when they cannot control themselves. None of this is consensual; none of them have any idea what they are doing. None of them are truly themselves.

And then, from across the expanse of the room, gold meets periwinkle. 

Between the shifting bodies, from over the breathless moans and needy gasps, Geralt sees the mage.

She is… beautiful. Slender, tall, delicate yet powerful. Her hair is dark, her skin caramel brown. And eyes of violet, of deep purple that distend to black as she fixes her gaze upon Geralt.

Her eyelids are painted dark, charcoal smokey, elongating the shape into something sharp and feline. Fitting, Geralt thinks. She is the cat and this village is her ball of yarn, toyed between her claws, batted from one paw to the next. This is amusement. She is doing this merely because she can .

Her lips are stained red. Blood-lust, like Jaskier's own. Danger, it warns. And she is. This woman is dangerous. She is powerful, strong, ridiculously so, and she knows it.

She smiles at Geralt from across the room, lifting one pointed finger. Her nails are long, filed into a sharp point, painted a silver that shifts from white to black in the light. Like a dagger. She curls it in Geralt's direction, beckons him closer, before moving that digit to the red of the lips. The gesture is almost shy, fingers toying with her bottom lip, but her eyes are hard and cold, the plushness of her lips lined with a mocking smile. Her nails become tipped with the red of her lipstick. A blade with blood, a life lost.

She smiles with her teeth and they are sharp.

Geralt moves towards her, closer and closer. Stopping only when they are a breadth width apart. 

"You are immune." She says and her voice is deep and rich, like velvet in her throat. "I suppose it makes sense. You are a Witcher after all." She laughs and it feels expensive, as though she is made of gold and silver and dark rubies and glinting sapphires. "I can sense it on you. Feel the power." And the way she speaks, the way she sounds the words out behind those scarlet lips, her words exude desire, her eyes flickering from Geralt's own down to his lips. There is a want that thrums between them. A need. It is not like Jaskier, soft and sweet. This is all-consuming, dangerous.

It is something different. It is intoxicating, it is lust, not love; but Geralt suddenly understands why Jaskier lays with all those who smile at him, why Jaskier gives away his own body so freely; to anyone who will have him.

It is easier. Love and lust are merely two sides of the same coin, opposites but similar enough that you can pretend. It is easy and there is nothing that comes with it. Nothing that is lost, nothing that is gained. 

"And that is…?" She drawls, as though she is entirely bored with the situation, extending her red-tipped fingernail Jaskier's way. "I know that you didn't come here just to meet me." She smiles again and it is not warm like Jaskier's, it is cold and hard and there is a sharpness there that lingers underneath it all. She is calculating.

She is not like Jaskier who gives and takes freely with no thought, who is fire and water and merely follows the wind where it takes him. This woman is something else. Nothing she does is without meaning, not one of her actions is done without thought beforehand. She has planned this. Ever since Jaskier and Geralt first stepped into her domain, she has been planning. Thinking of what she can do, what will benefit her. She is selfish but Geralt cannot blame her. She merely looks after herself, does what will make her stronger, more powerful. And truly, there is nothing wrong with that. Nothing.

But she is not kind. She is not soft edges and bright smiles. She is rough and hard and made of sharp pieces of glass that will never be filed down.

There are shadows in her eyes. Geralt recognises them. They are the ones he sees in his own, the ones he sees in Jaskier's.

Shadows of the past, shadows that have formed her today. It is strange, how pain changes people. This woman is alike to Geralt. She has built up her walls and built up her battlements, but she seeks strength; she seeks a way to control it all. She is a defier of fate, a scorner of destiny. 

She is not like Jaskier who still holds the light of the land in his heart. She is calloused, she has hurt and she has felt pain and now she is making sure that it never happens again.

Geralt can understand this. He can understand her. She is like him. Not simple, but something he knows, something that is familiar. And that is easy, it is easy to find someone like yourself. It is easy to read and to understand when someone is like you.

She is not like Jaskier, who has found darkness and only seeks to bring light. She is not like Jaskier who is stumbling his way through life, dipping and falling but always rising once more.

She has made a bridge far above the hills. She has crafted a world for herself where everything can be straight ahead, where she can move forward and never once worry about falling. She knows what she wants and she wants what will help her. 

But right now, Geralt needs her. He needs her to save Jaskier and so, therefore, a transaction must be made.

An exchanging of goods. An exchanging of favours. He does not know what this will be, not yet, but he already knows that this mage will not do anything for free. 

"He needs your help." Geralt says and she raises one finely plucked eyebrow.

"Hmm, Geralt of Rivia; here with a friend?" Again, with the cruelness in her eyes. She knows his name, because of course she does, and she seems to take clear pleasure in that small measure of power she holds over him. She likes the control, she revels under the way she has them all wrapped around her fingers like puppets on a string. What Geralt will learn about her will be on her own terms. She will only say what she wishes and all her words will be planned; there will not be one piece of information that is dropped without intent. "I am Yennefer. Yennefer of Vengerberg; the mage of Rinde. And your friend is…?" 

"Jaskier." Geralt grinds out. He is growing impatient, now. "He needs your help." He repeats, voice strained.

Again, she raises that perfectly shaped eyebrow. Again, she looks pleased. She enjoys the power, the control she has in this situation. It is why she has made this, why she has created this orgy; it is a reminder. A reminder that she is in control.

Geralt thinks that maybe it is for safety, too. That if she surrounds herself with her own power then nothing can hurt her.

She has been hurt before. He can tell. He can see it. He doesn't know how or why or when, but he knows.  

"What happened to him?" She says and this is where the goods are laid on the table. This is where Geralt must bargain. There is a price here, something that must be traded if she is to help.

"He was attacked by a Djinn," and that is all he needs to say. Yennefer's eyes light up, violet glowing almost neon under the candlelight and a smile spreads across her face. She is thinking, she is planning. Geralt knows this.

There is something she wants, something she is seeking. 

"Ragamuffin." She hums, voice almost musical, and the illusion is dropped. The people lose their bleary-eyed gaze, lose their loss of themselves. Find who they are once more. Yennefer turns to leave. "Follow me," she says over her shoulder, "and bring him with you. But please, tell me more about this Djinn." Her eyelashes lower, eyes darkening as she gazes at Geralt. "I want to hear everything."

x

Jaskier is laid flat out onto the bed, pale like a banshee. He looks dead, although Geralt knows that he is not. He is merely sleeping. A forced sleep, sure. But it is a sleep that will heal him, a sleep that will make sure he lives. 

Geralt hovers over him, nervous. 

"Do you not have faith in my abilities?" Yennefer asks him, violet eyes holding a measure of irritation.

"I do. I'm just worried. He's a…"

"A friend?"

Geralt nods.

"I said some things to him. I'd like them to not be his final memories."

"They won't. He'll be fine, he'll make a full recovery."

She grabs him by the arm and he flinches. Her gaze is unimpressed, she rolls her eyes, gives him another cruel smirk. She is cold, she is not warm and sweet and soft like the man on the bed. But there are no promises, nothing that Geralt has to unpick. What she says is merely as it is, there are no metaphors in her words, not like Jaskier's songs. Geralt does not need to know anything about her and she does not need to know anything about him.

The Djinn was merely their first transaction. There are more things they can have. More things that they can get from one another. A pretence, a farce. Something easy and safe that they can pretend is something more.

It is stirring in the wind itself, growing and swelling and expanding until it is all Geralt can think about.

You have a choice. One is hard, one is simple. Which one do you want?

But more than that, which one will you pick?  Because the answer to both those questions is not the same.

"Have a wash. Clean yourself. You stink, Witcher." And her teeth flash, sharp and dangerous. She digs them into her bottom lip, flutters her eyelashes. All with intent, all with purpose.

Geralt looks over at Jaskier, looks at him laid on the bedspread. Geralt is reminded of fairy-tales of long ago. A prince who kisses him damsel awake. The idea is foolish. Geralt is no prince and Jaskier is no damsel. Things are more complicated than that.

He looks back at Yennefer. That is easy. He can understand that. He can understand her, because there is nothing that lingers underneath. Nothing that needs to be said out loud, anyway.

"He'll still be here when you get back. Go. I won't have you stinking up this place with your stench." 

So he leaves, Jaskier still lifeless on the bed. 

Yennefer is dangerous. He shouldn't trust her, he shouldn't leave her alone with Jaskier.

But he does.

Because he has a choice. He had made his promise but Jaskier is no longer dying, Jaskier's life is no longer at risk.

The hard choices don't have to be made any more. The hard choices can be pushed aside, forgotten about.

That is; until they can't.

(But that will happen much, much later. For now, what is easy is what he chooses. Only he will eventually realise that what is easy now is not easy later. He will regret and she will regret what choices they make, for easiness does not exist. Things are never so simple and, in the end, it is that that makes it all the more complicated)

x

It is much later when Jaskier eventually awakens.

Geralt has been banished to the outside, Yennefer had kicked him outdoors after whatever had happened in that bath. Geralt's lips are still tingling and his mind is still trained on the ruby red of those sinful lips. She is easier than Jaskier. Yennefer is simple, forthcoming. There is no love, no connection. Only desire, so he had taken the chance; taken the plunge. He could understand her and she could understand him. They were both a means to an end, there was lust but there was not love. There was an urge to touch and to feel and to taste, to have what was simple and plain and to take what would not hurt.

What Yennefer could give him, what he could give her, was easy. There was nothing that needed breaking down. No walls that had to be burned, nothing that had to be revealed. Softness was not needed, tenderness was not there. They simply did it because they could and because, maybe, they could pretend that there was something. 

Nothing had come from it, not yet, but now there was a promise, a promise for something later. Something that is not real, is not soft and tender and sweet, but it is something. It is fire and power and magic all stirred into one dangerous potion, a ticking time bomb just waiting to implode. It is real enough that Geralt can pretend. 

But then Jaskier awakens and Yennefer is there.

Half undressed, hands squeezing against his cock and knife against his throat.

"You're not human." She hisses, her lips against Jaskier's ear. He shivers under the coolness of her breath, the rich velvet of her voice. She is truly beautiful, hips swaying with each hissed word and her lips pursed, tongue trapped in between her teeth. She is threatening, she is powerful. She is in control and Jaskier has something that she needs. He has the wishes, she thinks. He is what she needs. Or not him, but the power she thinks he wields.

"You're an elf." She lets go of his cock, earning a sigh of relief from Jaskier that only tightens when she comes to tug at the gold bracelet around his wrist. "Where'd you pick this up from? Hmm? Artefacts like this are rare, hard to come by."

The knife presses into his throat, drawing blood. She's looking at him with an unreadable expression on her face. Jaskier feels at a loss. She knows and he does not. There is something that she is not telling him, something that connects the two in weathered string. Something that makes them one in the same, reflections in a mirror. Complete opposites, but still similar. Still… something. "Merchant's daughter." He gasps. "It was a gift." 

She hums, fingers playing with his bracelet before she eventually lets it drop.

"I bet it's nice, to have that freedom. To live and pretend like you are one of them. Not all of us are so fortunate." There's a harshness in her words that Jaskier can't quite gather the meaning behind. Again, there is something that only she knows. Something that she will not reveal. She leans closer into Jaskier, increasing the pressure on the knife steadily until Jaskier truly fears that she will slit his throat. 

Instead, he asks the only question that has been burning on his mind since he awoke. "Does Geralt know?" 

Yennefer laughs.

"He has his suspicions, I think. But, somehow, he hasn't figured it out yet. For all his many talents," her words whisper low and sultry in his ear, "he seems to be rather dense around you. "

And that is all Jaskier can get from her before her hand is back around his cock and the knife is pushing deeper and deeper against his throat.

"Use up your wishes, little bard. Two left." 

So he wishes. One, to get out of this place.

And two, he mutters under his breath so quietly that Yennefer almost doesn't hear. "I want to be happy." He says. "I wish for happiness." 

What he wishes for does not come true, for he never had such a power in the first place.

x

He escapes from the clutches of that insane woman and runs outside. 

Geralt is there, waiting for him, and he sighs in relief. So is Chireadan, standing from a distance, watching.

"Geralt!" He cheers, jogging up to him. "You saved my life!" He says, all smiles.

Geralt looks down at him, a pained kind of expression flashing over his face before it is smoothed into something disinterested. Jaskier is almost fooled into thinking it was just a mere trick of the light.

"I see you've got your voice back." He says and his words are cold but there is an underlying tone that undeniably speaks of relief. 

There's an awkward pause, a moment of silence where neither knows what to say.

Then, Jaskier, taking a deep breath as if to build up his nerve, says low and quiet; "Did you mean what you said, earlier? About me being your friend?" 

The question hangs in the air for a moment, an oppressive silence settling over the scene as Jaskier waits with bated breath for an answer.

Geralt pauses and the pained expression returns. He's holding his breath, Jaskier realises.

"Where's Yennefer?" He asks, instead. 

"What? The insane witch lady? She's still in there. Painting some weird amphora thing on her chest when I left her. I don't know, I wasn't really paying attention, I was more bothered about trying to get out of there alive. "

And Geralt runs in to help her.

All Jaskier can do is look after him forlornly. He will not risk his life for that mage and he will not follow Geralt into what can only be described as death's maw, gaping and ready and thrumming with a lust for bloodshed.

When the building collapses only a few minutes after, Jaskier sinks to his knees.

He thanks the gods, if they're out there, that he's still not entirely recovered from his magically-induced sleep. The pain in his chest feels like death but Jaskier knows that he could feel much worse.

x

When Geralt enters the Mayor's house once more the magic hits him like a brick wall. It's coming from the bedroom, rolling off Yennefer in thick, suffocating waves. He can sense the power of the Djinn, too. It is stronger, it is winning.

When he finds Yennefer, she is lost in a whirlwind of mindless chanting. He can see the strain in her body, the rigidness of her back, the tightness of her spine. Her hands are clenched into fists and her voice is growing louder, higher. She is trying to remain calm, trying to keep her control, but she is losing it. She is slipping. 

She thinks the Djinn has no more wishes. She thinks that Jaskier has used them all up.

But she's wrong. Jaskier never had the wishes in the first place. Those wishes belong to Geralt and he has used up two. Both by accident.

He had wanted the Djinn to rid himself of this damn Law of Surprise. He had wanted to raise his middle finger to the laws of destiny and tell it to fuck off.

But Yennefer saved Jaskier's life. Yennefer was risking it all, here on the bedroom floor, having her soul split apart; trying to gain more power for herself. She has lost something, Geralt realises. He does not know what; but he can see it in her eyes, when that violet gaze; lowered and darkened, meets his own. 

He has to save her. 

He tells himself that he loves her, that this is the person who he could be with, this is the person who he wants, but that is a lie.

Yennefer is merely like himself. Strong, powerful, a lone wolf in a world where people besmirch them. He has not known her long, but already he does not fear that he will hurt her; he does not fear that he will break her. Not like Jaskier who is tender and sweet, who holds the very world in his hands as he sings. Not like Jaskier, who he had almost killed with thoughtless words.

Not like Jaskier, who he feared because he could feel his inhibitions slowing, feel the walls around him crumbling.

This is Yennefer and she is different. 

She will not let herself fall under someone else's spell. She is too closed off, too withdrawn to ever give her heart to Geralt.

And he wants that. It is easy, it is safe. 

So he does the only thing he can think to do. He closes his eyes and wishes. 

x

Jaskier and Chireadan peer in from the outside of the rubble, looking through the distorted remains of a broken window.

Geralt is there. Yennefer, too.

They are both very much alive. In fact, there probably couldn't have been a better way to show just how alive the two were.

And Jaskier should be happy, and he is happy.

But he's not.

Geralt is there, with Yennefer, his lips on his neck and… (To think Geralt had insulted all the places he'd stuck his own cock! Of all the nerve-)

Jaskier panics. He… he doesn't know what to do. So he does what he knows best, he turns around and leaves. 

Fight or flight. That's what it all comes back to.

So Jaskier does what he does best. He runs.

He'll return, eventually. He will soon be by Geralt's side once more, but for now this is what he must do. He will run and he will sleep with those who will have him and maybe he'll write a song. He doesn't know, but he does know that he has to leave. He has to get out of here. 

Chireadan follows behind him, nervous. He does not say anything, but his presence comes as a small comfort. Jaskier grabs his things from Roach's sack, grabs his lute and he feels sick as his fingers press down on the strings.

"What will I say to him?" Chireadan asks. "When he comes out, I mean." 

Jaskier just looks at him for a long moment. He sighs.

"Tell him I had to go. A…" He's not too great at thinking of excuses on the fly. The only thing that comes to mind is leaving his cat on the stove. Which, in itself, is ridiculous; never minding that Jaskier owns neither cat nor stove. "An emergency. That he shouldn't worry, we'll run into each other soon enough." 

And then he's gone, walking his own path. Alone.

x

When Geralt eventually leaves the house, Jaskier is nowhere to be seen.

His heart does something painful, something twisted and gross in his chest.

He ignores it and looks at Yennefer, stood by his side.

This is his choice and they are now bound. It is ironic, really. He's spent all this time running from fate and now he has made it between him and Yennefer.

This is easier, he tells himself. This is what you want.

But it isn't true.

it isn't what any of them want. Not Jaskier, not Yennefer, not Geralt.

It is lies, all of it. But sometimes lying is easier. 

Chapter Text

Jaskier and Geralt do not meet again for a year. 

Instead, Jaskier spends some time at Oxenfurt. He has returned for brief spells throughout the years; for various performances and even the occasional lecture, but this time he rents out a house; settles down for a few months.

At first, when he returns, he searches for Fain. He has not seen him since they were separated all those years ago. He had heard news of him, heard words in passing. Apparently, he'd become a knight. Joined the ranks, found something to do in his life. 

Last he'd heard, Fain had been happy.

And Jaskier wants to find him. Wants to see him again. He misses him. He wonders what his life would have been like, had he stayed. Would he have been happy? Could he have been happy? Because Geralt had made him happier than he'd ever been, but so had Fain - a long time ago.

So maybe if he finds Fain again, Fain who was strong and reliable and honest; who knew what he wanted in his life and never spoke in riddles and rhymes and had made Jaskier feel wanted for the first time in his 'human' life, maybe he will find what he is looking for. Fain had always been good at advice, he'd always known what to do.

But he's not here now. He's gone. Missing. Jaskier had searched and searched and searched, asked his friends and family, asked all those who he had once known. They all said the same thing. He'd gone, left. Knighthood had called and he's been sent out into the wide world. He'd never come back and, if the rumours were anything to go by, he never would.

Jaskier fights the urge to leave because where would he go? Right now, he doesn't want to see Geralt. Or, more accurately, he doesn't want to search for Geralt. He… he needs to let go. It is time. He needs to take his heart back.

But, just like his mother, Jaskier is finding out that you can't just take something back. When you give, it is no longer yours. When you give, all you can do is ask for it back. But how can you ask for something back when the person who has it doesn't even realise you'd given it away.

He just has to hope that, eventually, the part of his heart that Geralt holds will wither away. Like it had with all of his other lovers. You fall in, you fall out; that is how it has always worked. 

But not this time. 

So Jaskier doesn't run. He stays. He rents out a little cottage, lives in his little house on the outskirts of the city. He has neighbours, he has a structure. Life is boring, methodical, but it clears his head. 

(Later, he will be glad of this; because right now he has not lost everything. Right now, there is still hope. But, not that he realises yet, this part of his life is practice. It is practice for what is yet to come. It is practice for mending the pieces of a heart that has been shattered into a million pieces. It is practice for learning to live alone)

He sings in taverns, in bars. On stages where people know him, where they request which tune they would like and he sings and sings and sings. He writes new songs, he sings old ones. He makes new tunes and he fixes old ones; he changes words and he keeps some the same and the stories are altered and he fills his life with lies upon lies.

Happiness is easy to fake, once you get the hang of it. 

Back into old habits he falls. 

A stranger in his bed when he awakens each morning. Or sometimes, he is the stranger. He is in their bed and he leaves through half-open windows and sneaks past other lovers, hiding in closets and under beds.

He uses the language that Fain had taught him so long ago. Hides and runs and returns to his empty little house. Men and women and anybody else who will have him. He falls in love again and again and again but still, there is the gaping hole where Geralt lies. He can't fill it and he doesn't know why. 

He doesn't really know what to do with himself. He's being ridiculous. He doesn't know why it had hurt so bad, to see Geralt with Yennefer. It shouldn't have. Geralt wasn't his and he wasn't Geralt's. 

He needs to grow up. He needs to stop wanting things he can't have.

But when he and Geralt inevitably find one another once more, he wonders what Geralt wants, if Geralt knows what he wants.

Because it sure as hell doesn't feel like it. 

x

He is just finishing a performance when he spies Geralt from across the inn's main room. 

He's sitting in a dark corner, covered by shadow, almost invisible but Jaskier would remember the feel of those golden eyes on him any day. Geralt has been imprinted on his mind, embalmed in his head. He could never forget, not even if he wanted to.

Besides, Jaskier always knows when Geralt is near. Always, his eyes are drawn to him. For Jaskier notices what is beautiful, he sees the world beyond what others can see, and Geralt is by far the most beautiful part of this earth; even if admitting such a thing hurts Jaskier cannot deny the truth to himself. Not for any longer.

There's something quite ironic about the whole situation, really. Gives Jaskier a real sense of deja-vu. He smiles. All that's missing is the rotten food being thrown at him, the bread shoved down his trousers. 

Things have changed now, however. Twenty-one years does a lot to someone and Jaskier is not as naive as he once was. Yet. still, he has not learned to resist the temptation of Geralt's presence. Always, he is drawn to that danger.

And here, with their eyes meeting across the room, it is as though Yennefer doesn't exist. As though she never had.

Jaskier knows that such a thought is cruel, callous. It is not fair. He cannot blame Yennefer for capturing Geralt's heart so. He cannot blame anyone. Jaskier knows all too well that the heart does what it wants, that there is no way to stop such a thing from taking place.

Yet he wants to imagine that it is he who has the key to Geralt's heart. He who holds it in the palms of his hands, he who will love and cherish it for the rest of his days.

(And all it would have taken was some confidence, for that first step to be taken, for something to be said out loud, and maybe things would have changed. Maybe it would have all been easier. Maybe what felt easy now would soon turn out to be not so)

Part of him wants to ignore Geralt; pretend he hasn't noticed the man brooding in the corner.

But the weaker part of him is drawn once more. He must be a masochist, or something. He knows how this will end up. He knows that Geralt doesn't want him, he wants Yennefer , but even still… Perhaps he is just a lovesick fool, but he has missed the excitement. He's missed the challenge, the danger. He's grown complacent over the last eighteen months. He wants the thrill of adrenaline, the blood-rush of life and death to flow through his veins once more.

He wants Geralt, too. 

And he's weak, but what's wrong with that? 

So up he saunters, lute still held in his hand, hip cocked as he comes to stand before Geralt. He shifts his weight onto one leg, leans over the length of the table. 

"I love the way you sit in the corner and brood." He says, a line from oh so long ago. 

Geralt smiles.

x

"Why did you leave?" Geralt asks, almost under his breath, as he and Jaskier leave the inn, side by side. 

"Hmm?" Jaskier feigns confusion, but he already knows exactly what Geralt is talking about.

"After the Djinn. You left. Why?" 

And this is where Jaskier could crack a joke, make up some shit excuse, lie. Do anything that isn't tell the truth.  

"I saw you with Yennefer." He says, voice uncharacteristically sharp. Geralt winces but Jaskier doesn't stop. "Imagine my surprise when I thought you had died in that building, and I was so fucking worried but no-o! I go to check out the rubble and instead I get my own little show! Couldn't even take a minute to let me know that you were alright before you got into her pants, huh?" And the words are out before Jaskier can even think to stop them, pouring from his mouth like water, but they are not smooth and graceful and careful. They crackle like a log fire, hiss out sparks like a cat turned savage. They trickle out into the open air, vaporise under the heat of his tone and Geralt averts his eyes. Guilt, and a sick part of Jaskier twists in joy at the sight. 

"I'm sorry." He eventually says, voice low and caught in his throat. Jaskier wasn't expecting an apology. Not at all. He stumbles in his steps, trips over his own feet. "I meant what I said." He continues and Jaskier blinks, eyes wincing in confusion, brows furrowed deep. "You asked me before I went to Yennefer if I'd meant it. What I said to you when you were-" He cuts himself off, clenching and unclenching his hands. Jaskier watches the movement, square fingers dusted with fine hair, covered in thick scars and calluses. As if he can't bear to say the word, like his lips refuse to sound it out. Dead , as though the thought is too painful to bear.

Or maybe that's just Jaskier's imagination.

"I ignored you. I… shouldn't have done that." 

And there it is. An apology. A real apology. No excuses, no dodging the root of the problem. It is perhaps a bit flat, a bit dull; but with it comes weight. A weight that Jaskier will not take lightly.

It won't fix everything, sure. It won't change how Jaskier feels, it won't… make him fall out of love with this bastard, but it will make things easier. They are friends, at least, and Jaskier couldn't have hoped for anything more.

So Jaskier smiles, knocks his shoulder against Geralt's. "Well, then. Where to next?" 

x

They meet Yennefer after only a week of travelling together.

From the looks of things, it seems as though - over the past year or so - Geralt and Yennefer have had many meetings such as this. A thing which strikes Jaskier as odd, just like his and Geralt's own frequent meetings.

There is no way this is a coincidence, no way the two of them (who Jaskier has surmised are both over a century old) have only just started running into each other after that first meeting. Someone must be searching, but it is not Geralt and Yennefer does not seem like the type who would trail after a lover like a forgotten puppy. 

Jaskier wonders if there is something larger at play here. Something big and powerful and unstoppable, like the wish of a Djinn.

(Of course, little unbeknownst to him now, Jaskier had actually managed to hit the nail on the head. Maybe, if he'd pushed for answers sooner… asked Geralt about those extra two wishes, what would soon come next could be avoided)

She is as cold and calculating as Jaskier remembers her being. Just as hungry for power, just as hungry for bettering herself. Looking for a bargain, a deal. Searching for control. She plans everything and not one action goes by without a thought. She is an actress of the highest command, someone who lies and fakes and worms their way into any situation they wish.

But she is funny, too. 

Sharp, witty. Not goofy, not silly, but clever. Sometimes Geralt will do things, say things, and Yennefer will give a side-eyed glance to Jaskier. Perhaps roll her eyes, shake her head, just give a look , and Jaskier will be left hiding a laugh behind the palms of his hands.

There is a kindness to her, too. Not very often, but occasionally something will happen, something will take place, and a glimpse of the softness underneath will seep through. There had been children, bullies, picking on a small boy, tall and skinny and gangly. She bought him an iced bun, a sugary treat, one she must have seen the lad eyeing in the bakery earlier.

Jaskier had watched her do it and she had looked up at him, a scowl twisting her features. The warmth was gone and all that was left was her harsh, outer remains.

She reminds him of Geralt, sometimes. Sharp, barbed armour to keep what lays within hidden away. They are similar, the two of them. Something which might have worked, had they both not been lying to themselves. 

They argue, too; her and Jaskier. She's much more fun than Geralt, in that respect. She's louder, she talks more, she's more free with her opinions. Her and Jaskier have heated conversations over anything under the sun and anything over the moon. Sometimes Jaskier will simply disagree with her out of principle, just to rile her up as she does to him. When they stay at inns and taverns, they'll chat shit over the various patrons who stroll about, the man who's eight glasses in who's desperately trying to get his hands on the barmaid; who's quicker and smarter than him and simply strolls on by with a sway to her hips. They laugh and they snigger and the two of them both share a taste for the finer things in life and together they conspire to try and get Geralt to take more fucking baths because Yennefer is just as sick of the onion smell as Jaskier is.

Yennefer is fun to be around. Jaskier still doesn't necessarily trust her, still doesn't necessarily like her, but they become friends of a sort.

Of course, Jaskier is still… well, he doesn't want to say jealous but that's what he is. Like a schoolboy, a child , Jaskier finds himself being ridiculously jealous of Yennefer because every goddamn night she's there, with Geralt and Jaskier can fucking hear them.

No longer do Geralt and Jaskier share an inn room, not when Yennefer is around. No longer do they sit close by the fire with their shoulder's brushing and their knees touching. Yennefer sits where Jaskier once had and she and Geralt will exchange short words over the ember of logs, every so often glances in Jaskier's way; who's talking to Roach instead because he doesn't want to sit there in silence but he knows when he's not wanted. 

Yennefer never stays for long, however. A few days at most.

She is there for the briefest of spells, upturns Geralt's world like a whirlwind and mixes around Jaskier's feelings like the torrent of an ocean's storm, and then she departs for bigger and better things. 

When she is there, Jaskier is content with the place he has in this world. The loyal sidekick. The fool who sleeps around, who drinks and sings and brings only lightheartedness and joy. When she is gone, Geralt is different. The fleeting touches, the lingering glances, they return and Jaskier does not know what to do.

Geralt is confused, Jaskier thinks. He does not know what he wants.

Jaskier shouldn't get caught up in it. He shouldn't hope, he shouldn't think that there might be something more between them.

Geralt has Yennefer. Why would he want him?

But still, he wonders.

x

Yennefer has just left them, disappeared in some weird vortex-magic-thing that Jaskier doesn't even want to try and wrap his head around, when they stroll up to the nearby village. Geralt, as always, on Roach and Jaskier walking alongside, chattering away and fiddling around with his lute. He's just made a new song, another hit he hopes; this one about a nasty group of Drowners that Geralt had taken down only the other day. Geralt interjects the fiction with fact, rolls his eyes when Jaskier's own role in the adventure is far more grand and heroic, but he is smiling; ever so slightly, as if he doesn't quite want to be but he can't help it.

It is almost like old times, very nearly. Or it is close enough that Jaskier can pretend it is.

In the tavern, they enter; almost on instinct. They pay for the stables, pay for Roach's care, and then they pay for a room.

In true, coincidental fashion; the gods decide that today is not their day.

Because, once more, the inn only has one room left. The frequency this sort of thing happens is ridiculous, at this point. In fact, Jaskier is almost convinced that every inn across the continent has unanimously decided that, if a Witcher and a bard stroll in, they should instantly sell all their other rooms and ensure there's only the one left. It happens so often now that Jaskier is certain it can't just be chance or bad luck. (or good luck, depending on how you look at it)

Then, to rub salt in the wound, there's only one bed.

This has happened before. Multiple times with alarming frequency. Usually, they're only staying in the village for a day or two, so they simply take turns. One on the bed, one on the floor. Occasionally they'll share; when it's a double bed. They'll sleep at separate ends, shift away from the warmth that the other brings. They'll have to do that this time, too.

They're staying here a few weeks (this village has a fucking tonne of monster issues, it's a bit ridiculous, to be honest) and Jaskier isn't going to spend that time sleeping on the floor and neither is Geralt. They're short on money and they need the jobs, Jaskier can only charm so much money out of peasant farmers and down-on-their-luck drunkards, so they can't exactly leave. They've run out of provisions, Jaskier needs more arrows and there's no way they can afford all of that unless they suck it up and stay here; have Geralt slay some monsters and Jaskier use his silver-tongue to worm some extra coin out of the locals.

"It's a single bed, too." The owner drawls and fuck.  

So Jaskier pretends he hasn't heard that and instead occupies himself with taking the requests of various patrons, singing loud and clear and desperately trying to quell his nerves from the coming night.

Geralt, as always, watches from the corner. 

His fingers are tapping on the scratched up table. Square and strong, still covered in his leather gloves. As Jaskier's voice dips lower and lower, then rises to reach the very highest of notes; Geralt's fingers thump along to the tune.

He's smiling, too. A subtle thing but Jaskier can tell. He can always tell.

And, every so often, when the light hits Geralt just right, Jaskier swears that he is mouthing the lyrics, humming along ever so quietly to the tunes he knows. 

When Jaskier finishes and the crowd cheers, throw coins his way and offer to purchase drinks upon drinks upon drinks, Jaskier catches Geralt's eyes and the rest of the room seems to melt away like hot wax.

Geralt holds his hands together in applause. The claps are slow, small, quiet; but the sound is thunderous in Jaskier's ears. It drowns out the cheering, drowns out the shouting until all Jaskier can hear is Geralt . The golden eyes consume him, dripping like honey, sticking his feet to the floor; holding him in place. 

Then Geralt stops and the spell is broken. Jaskier shakes his head as if to dispel such thoughts.

That was nothing. He loves Yennefer.  

And yet, he doesn't quite believe that. 

x

Jaskier isn't entirely convinced that the bed in their room even qualifies as a single bed. More like a… half-single bed. A… half-bed? 

Well, whatever it is it's fucking tiny . So's the rest of the room, too. It's more like a box than a room, with one shitty little window that's covered in grime and doesn't even let any light in. It's gloomy and sad and gross and there's one tiny little wardrobe that takes up almost the rest of the floor space so there's no way that one of them will be sleeping on the floor.

They're just going to have to share that very little, very tiny bed. 

Looks like Jaskier is going to be sleeping around a lot for the next few weeks. He doesn't know if he can manage… this for more than one night.

"Well." He says and Geralt looks at him, an unreadable expression on his face. "This is… nice." 

Geralt snorts. Shaking his head.

"You first." Jaskier gestures to the bed, hands dithering about in midair, as though he isn't quite sure what to do with them. 

And then Geralt is stripping down, taking off the layers of his armour and his tough leather gloves and steel-toed boots. He stops, frowning at Jaskier. Oh fuck . Hurriedly, Jaskier begins to take his own clothes off, trying to look anywhere in Geralt's direction, as he strips down to just his underclothes. He's burning a bright pink, heavily flustered at the fact he got caught staring. As in, he's always staring at Geralt, in some way or another, but this time - since Yennefer - it carries a lot more weight. And right here, tension thrums between them, pulled taut like a string. The vibrations burn through Jaskier's skin, melt him like a waxwork until he can't quite remember who he is.

Then they stand there, simply staring at one another for a moment. Jaskier tilts his head towards the bed and Geralt climbs in.

Oh no. Oh dear. Oh fuck.

Geralt is a… big guy. Height-wise, he's only a few centimetres taller than Jaskier. Breaths-wise, he's definitely a lot bigger than Jaskier; which is saying something.

Sure, Jaskier is slender, but he's by no means small. Next to Geralt, he might look so, but he's certainly grown strong enough to hold his own ground. He knows he's quite slim and svelte, but he's not tiny. He's not weak and frail and fragile, he's got broad shoulders that lead down to a narrow waist, long legs, toned with muscle. Scars, too. Not as many as Geralt but enough to show that he hasn't lived the cushy life that some might believe.

He's by no means as strong or powerful as Geralt, but there is a reason that he's managed to survive all these years. Geralt's bailed him out plenty of times but when you get into the amount of trouble that Jaskier seems to get into, you eventually pick up a few self-defence tips. 

So Jaskier isn't small and neither is Geralt.

And single beds are made for one normally-sized person. 

And Geralt is… well, he's Geralt-sized. The bed's barely big enough for just him as it is.

His feet are hanging a good few inches off the end, something which Jaskier has grown used to over the years. Beds obviously weren't made with tall people in mind, but that's not the issue. Geralt is lying flat on his back and Jaskier almost laughs half-hysterically because where is the bed? Geralt is literally the bed.

There's a slither of space at either end, but it's certainly not a Jaskier-sized slither of space. So where the fuck is he going to sleep? 

On Geralt? 

"Uh…" Jaskier begins.

"I can sleep outside." They both say at once, in perfect synch. Blinking at one another, they avert their eyes.

"No!" Jaskier says. "I mean, it's fine. You stay in here, I'll… uh, find somewhere else. I can probably find someone who'll put me up, use my wily charms-" he bats his eyelashes but trails off as Geralt's entire body stiffens.

"There's no need." He says and his voice comes out painfully strained, as though he's holding something back. There's a shadow that flickers across his face, Jaskier can see it even in the gloom. It looks like an expression that Jaskier has worn so frequently on his own face, ever since Yennefer… 

He must have imagined it. There's no way… it's just wishful thinking, distorting the way he sees things.

"I don't mind." Geralt continues and Jaskier almost wants to continue arguing, almost wants to simply leave and find some beautiful person who will let him warm their bed. Almost.

But there's something.... vulnerable in Geralt's gaze. He looks nervous, as though this has been a proposition. As though something has been put on the table. Like a sea captain sailing his new boat for the first time, rocky and tentative and always looking for leaks. 

"Only if you're sure…" Jaskier says, voice betraying his own nervousness. However, he manages to crack a smile. "Usually people buy me a drink before something like this." And his grin is sharp and feline and his eyes darken to something that he can't hold back, no matter how hard he tries. His voice deepens, words turn coy. 

Geralt swallows. Jaskier watches the movement intently, watches the way his throat moves up and down with the gesture. 

"But aren't you a lucky boy…" Jaskier continues, trying to keep the whole scene light and airy, something jovial. A joke. But his voice wavers and the laugh that bursts from him comes out far too loud and squeaky. "Getting all of this ," he gestures down at himself, swaying his hips as he nears the bed. It's supposed to be a joke and all of this was supposed to be funny but gods Jaskier feels himself getting drawn up in it all. "without even complimenting my music." And his voice fucking cracks like he's a prepubescent child once more. He doesn't even know why he's continuing with this whole thing. It's embarrassing, he's making a complete and utter fool of himself.

Geralt's eyes are wide and dark, darker than the deepest shadows. He's swallowing again and when he speaks his words are low and husky. "Shut up and get into bed." 

Jaskier flushes. Geralt turns his head away, a faint pink blush rising to his cheeks. And Jaskier knows that Witcher's can't blush, not really. Geralt must be mortified if there's colour rising to his cheeks.

Oh dear.  

But what else is there to do? Jaskier can't not get into bed with Geralt now, and there's not exactly anywhere else he can go to sleep, unless he wants that strange expression on Geralt's face to come back and he really doesn't want that because he thinks he knows what it is and if he's right with that assumption then he doesn't know what to do about it all.  

So he climbs into bed.

Or more precisely; he climbs on to Geralt.

There's not much room left. No more space on the mattress. Perhaps a slither, with Geralt lying on his back like that.

So when he tries to slide onto the mattress, tries to stay as far away from Geralt as possible, he realises that his attempt to do so is simply in vain. He can't not be touching Geralt in this situation. There's no way he can avoid this contact, no way he can pretend this isn't happening.

He can't even pretend this is normal.  

He knows that Geralt can't read him as well as 'other humans', because; well, he's not. But more than that, the bracelet has so far done a superb job of hiding his scent, hiding the dip and rise of his emotions; but it doesn't block it out completely.

The bracelet might smother some of the more subtle emotions, hide the mysteries underneath with a veil of frosted glass, one that you can see shapes and colours from behind but can never quite grasp and understand. But it won't hide his nervousness, it won't hide the thumping of his pulse, the heavy beating of his heart.

It pitter-patters in his chest like rain on the rooftops. Splashing about his chest, wild and torrential and uncontrollable. 

"Sorry." He whispers as he tries to figure out where to lie. His slips, hands splaying on Geralt's chest in an attempt to steady himself. Geralt's own hands wrap around his forearms. The grip is tight, warm. Jaskier's face is hot under the touch.

"Here," Geralt whispers, shifting on his side moving Jaskier so his back rests against Geralt's chest.

The touch itself is warm and burning. Geralt feels like fire against his skin. All consuming. 

Jaskier is reminded of his wings of fire. The ones that had burned out all those years ago, the ones that had turned to ash and smoke. He'd been falling. Falling and falling and falling.

But Geralt had caught him. He'd let go, temporarily, but right here, right now, he is in Geralt's arms once more and Geralt is fire. He reignites those wings, lets Jaskier soar like his voice in the wind. 

Their legs are tangled, Geralt's breath warm on the back of Jaskier's neck. His hair stands on end, electricity thrumming through his very bloodstream. 

This, what they have here, feels real.

But Jaskier already knows that it will not last. This… it only feels like this because Jaskier wants it. This is a reconstruction. It is not truly how it seems. The world does not work in the way Jaskier wants it to.

Just like the wishes. They were merely an illusion, a broken thought, a broken hope that Jaskier held on to because he wants. He wants what he can't have.

He falls asleep to the feeling of Geralt behind him. To the breaths on his neck and the hands on his skin. Their legs are tangled, their breathing synched. Their hearts beating as one. 

The gold on Jaskier's wrist glints in the gloom and he is reminded that this is not real.

This is an act. A farce. 

Because the truth is hard. The words that need to be said do not come with ease, they do not pour from the mouth like tea from a teapot. They are bitter and harsh and sour and they pucker Jaskier's lips up like the acidity of lemons. 

They will wake up tomorrow and this will not have happened. They will wake up and the daylight will wash away what lingers underneath. Delicate things don't do well in sunlight and this is what they have. Delicate, fragile. Fading.

Yennefer will return, soon. They will cross paths once more and Jaskier will be reminded all over again that this is not something he can have. This is not his. This is impossible.

It is fake. It is false. It is a reconstruction of the world that Jaskier so dearly desires.

But here, intertwined like this, curled up as if they were simply one; Jaskier has never felt anything more real.

x

They sleep like this, together, for the next two weeks.

Jaskier tries to flirt, tries to worm his way into somebody else's bedchambers; but each time he lays on his charm thick like treacle and overbearing like lavender, he catches a glimpse of gold in his peripheral vision.

Geralt is always there, silently observing.

And every time, Jaskier will leave that person, leave whoever had captured his eyes with their smiles and their laughter and he will remember that there is only one person who truly holds all the contents of his heart.

He returns to Geralt.

Tries to ignore the way that Geralt holds his very heart in the palm of his hands. Tries to ignore the way that Geralt doesn't realise this.

Tries to ignore the way Geralt looks at him when he thinks Jaskier isn't paying attention.

But he's always paying attention. Always, whenever Geralt is there.

And each and every night in that damned village, Jaskier lies curled up next to Geralt. Skin warm, rough, comforting, held against his own.

And every night he wonders why. Why is he doing this to himself?

But Geralt is fire and Geralt is light and Jaskier has always been attracted to things that are beautiful. He is the moth, the one who hides from the light with that veil of gold around his wrist. He is the moth who hides, who runs. Who flitters about from place to place, who is drawn to light like danger.

He is drawn to Geralt, pulled to him. Geralt is the open flame, Geralt has captivated Jaskier and it is the golden of his eyes that relight Jaskier's wings once more. Dull black, dull brown, burns to orange and red and yellow. The moth dies and the butterfly blooms out.

But Geralt is an open flame, Geralt is wavering. His fire is strong and powerful and far too bright and it is all Jaskier can do to try and not get too close. Sparks burst out, spitting embers like the white froth of seafoam. Unexpected, loud and crackling and dangerous. Jaskier needs to be careful, needs to keep his distance.

But already it is too hot, already he has taken the plunge.

Already, he is falling toward that flame and he can't stop. He can't stop and forever he will continue to fall, to come closer and closer and closer until there is nothing he can do but be engulfed by the fire.

Moth's wings are delicate. They fracture under light as bright as this.

And Jaskier has been fractured for a long time. Broken pieces, scattered together. All the remnants of his heart are held in one man's hands. 

But still, it is not enough.

He is burning and burning and every night hurts but he can't step back.

He can't and he knows the risks, knows what might go wrong. He knows what happened to his mother. He knows what happens when someone has that power over you, someone has that control. He knows the danger of such a thing when they don't even know it. Because Geralt is holding that vase, holding that delicate sheath of glass, and he has no idea.

They can take you, every little piece that you've ever been, and stamp on it until there's nothing left.

He hears the warning, hears his mother's words when the world was different and he was only a child. Back when things had seemed so easy.

Do what makes you happy, he also hears.

But what is he to do, when both of those things overlap? This makes him happy, even if it hurts. This is what he wants, or something like this. But there is a risk. There is a fall he must take.

He needs to be careful.

But the fire draws him in and Geralt holds him in those nights like he is soft and tender and beautiful. Like he loves him and that is enough. It is that alone that makes it worth the pain.

Jaskier's wings of fire are back once more, but they will not stop burning.

And away his flesh comes with it.

x

If this is his fate, if this is his destiny, then the world is crueller than Jaskier could have ever imagined.

He's sporting a bloodied lip, a bleeding nose. All he can taste is copper, like pennies in his mouth. His eye hurts, it'll be black and blue in the morning.

When he stumbles back to the inn, Geralt is there. 

They've got separate beds, this time. But still, always , the one damn room. 

He doesn't want Geralt to see him like this. With blood pouring down his face, bruises marring his pale skin like some sick cosmos twisted in a daylit sky.

"Fuck, Jaskier. What the hell happened to you?"

Geralt's reaction is instantaneous as he enters the room. He flinches away from the honey-glaze of those golden eyes.

"Got into a fight." He mumbles. "Don't want to talk about it." 

Something like this hasn't happened for a long time. He rarely makes mistakes, not like this anymore.

But the man had smiled at him and his eyes were a light brown… they had glimmered gold in the sunlight and Jaskier had thought… well, he'd thought that those smiles had meant something. He knew the language, that man. He knew how to play it but he was one of them. People were learning, it turned out. People were learning and if Jaskier didn't keep his instincts intact, he could be that body of so many years ago. 

He knew it and he knew exactly how to play Jaskier into his hands. 

The world is dangerous and it keeps on getting worse. Jaskier needs to keep his head about him, not be distracted by light hair and brown-gold eyes, to not fall in love with those who are mere reminders of what he so desperately wants.

He's been getting clumsy, getting sloppy. He needs to be better, he needs to take control of himself once more. 

But Geralt is a problem that just won't go away. He can't quit it. A drug, an addiction, he keeps convincing himself there's more; that there's something that could be there. 

Geralt watches him from the corner of his eyes as Jaskier blots at his cut lip, wincing at the pressure.

Then, without warning, he walks across the room. "Let me help." 

He does not ask Jaskier why there are tears running down his face, silver trails that mix with the blood. 

He merely wipes away the red, cleans out the cuts and bruises and says nothing. His touch is soft and gentle, tender. He holds Jaskier as if he is precious, as if he is something that must be cherished. 

Jaskier thinks he might cry all over again.

His hands linger on Jaskier's face, still cupping his jaw. Geralt feels an immeasurable amount of anger surge up in him. He had left Jaskier in the tavern when he'd spied the bard hanging onto some man's every word. He'd been sidling closer to the figure, hands inching closer and closer to his wrist. Geralt had stood up and returned to his room when the man had pulled a pink-flushed Jaskier from the bar-stool, led him outside; no doubt to have his way with the bard in his own bed.

Yet Jaskier was back. Here and now, with blood dripping from his nose and a busted, swollen lip.

He drops Jaskier, suddenly, and storms out of the inn.

He comes back at nightfall and does not say a word.

But when the next day rises and Jaskier tentatively makes the journey downstairs, the brown-eyed man who'd shone gold in the sunlight is sporting his own shades of blue and black. 

Geralt says nothing but he glares daggers at the man until he leaves.

x

Geralt does not understand why it bothers him so when Jaskier takes up the company of others.

He has Yennefer. He is in love with Yennefer.

But a wish can't make magic out of nothing. A wish can only go so far and a wish is not a choice. 

Bound by fate does not mean love. Bound by fate does not mean Yennefer loves him back.

Yennefer never had a choice in the matter. The Djinn is magic but it can't create from nothing. It can only push and push and push, but pushing can only get you so far.

But still, he fucks her and she fucks him and they do not make love under the stars but they mark each other with teeth and tongue and leave scratches down one another's backs that burn the next day. Scratches, bruises, marks of teeth and shadows of fingerprints. Echoes of what is not there, reminders of touch. But no shadows of love remains, no fluttering hearts and no pinkened cheeks.

Always physical, always seen. There is nothing that lingers underneath.

When they are done, they do not talk. They simply lie there in silence and neither knows what to say.

It's not like this with Jaskier.

But he knows what Yennefer wants and she knows what he wants and it is easy. He can understand and it makes sense.

But pretending is difficult and with each new partner that Jaskier takes up with, the more Geralt understands this.

Things may seem easy but the world does not work like that. There is always a price, always a push and a pull.

Easy is growing harder and Geralt does not know what to do.

x

Jaskier thinks of telling Geralt about the whole Elf-thing.

But, without exception, every single time he works up enough courage to think he might, Yennefer just happens to run into them.

If Jaskier knew any better, he'd say that Geralt had tied his fate to her, or something like that. They've never run into one another before, not like this. Never so often, never with such frequency.

Even with Geralt, even though Jaskier had crossed paths with the Witcher countless times, it had never been like this. Never so often. 

He knows that it was Geralt who had the three wishes. It didn't take him too long to figure that out, and he already knows what one of them was. (Occasionally, he'll get a hoarseness in his throat that he never used to, just as a reminder of that incident) Yet he still has no idea what the other two were.

Either way, the longer Jaskier puts this off, the longer this spiral of lies continues; the harder it is to tell the truth.

He doesn't know what to do.

He doesn't want Geralt to find out of his own accord, but how do you explain to someone that you've been lying to them for twenty years? You… you can't do that.

Jaskier can't do that.

Not to Geralt.

x

"Where were you from?" Yennefer asks him one night, when Geralt has left their makeshift camp to hunt for food. 

Jaskier doesn't register the question for a moment, instead blinking owlishly at her. This is the first time they've spoken like this. Usually, the only time they communicate is when they're making some half-arsed jokes about somebody else - usually Geralt and his wide range of 'hmms' and 'fucks', they've spent many an evening having fun coming up with new translations for them. The two of them interpreting their meaning in perhaps the most bizarre ways, merely for their own enjoyment. (Jaskier gets bored easily and Yennefer gets irritated with his dithering, so they'd compromised into collectively taking the piss out of Geralt when he gets to Geralt-y. He doesn't seem to mind, as far as Jaskier can tell, and he's pretty certain a couple of times Geralt ends up biting back a laugh)

But this is a real conversation. This is one that Jaskier will look back on and remember.

This is when, perhaps, he and Yennefer step into the boundaries of friendship. True friendship, not whatever they had before this.

"What do you mean?" Jaskier responds, fiddling with his lute. It's winter, now, and the cold air makes it fall out of tune quicker than it once had. He needs to replace the strings, really, but he keeps forgetting. He's just had a lot of other things on his mind as of recently. Things like beautiful mage-ladies with hair darker than the vastest expanse of the night sky and very handsome Witchers with hair whiter than the peaks of snow-tipped mountains. 

"I mean, where are you from?" She asks again, impatience growing in her voice.

Jaskier answers her almost instinctively, his mind instantly jumping to Oxenfurt, but he knows that isn't the answer she is looking for. She means before, when he was still Julian. When he was just a child and there was no gold on his wrist. When he weaved crowns of daisies with his eyes closed and he had his promises of forever. "I don't know. It didn't have a name. None of them did." 

"The Elven villages, you mean?" 

Jaskier nods.

Then, with a great deal of hesitance, he laughs. "I was a viscount, you know. Or a son of one, anyway. Fat lot of good it did to me, but I guess in another time I would have been rather important."

Yennefer looks at him strangely then and just as she's about to reply, Geralt walks back into the clearing.

Her mouth snaps shut and she sends a coy smile Geralt's way, winking. She stands to greet him, to take the rabbits he'd caught off of his hands, but as she rises, she grabs Jaskier's wrist.

Her fingers tug at the bracelet and she whispers into his ear. "You can't keep running forever, you know. You can't keep lying to yourself."

And then she's up, sauntering over to Geralt, flicking her hair of midnight behind her.

Later, Jaskier will realise how ironic her words had been. Lying, isn't that what this is? Isn't that what they've been doing this whole time?

Lying is easy, he supposes. 

That is, until it's not. 

x

When Jaskier looks over at Yennefer and Geralt, he's struck by a strange sense of nostalgia.

Yennefer has hair darker than the very darkest of nights. Pure black, like a cloak of night over her tan skin. Like coal and ash and the deepest and darkest of shadows. The corners that never see the light and the parts of the world that are yet to be discovered.

Geralt is no blacksmith's son, but the parallels are there. 

x

The next time he and Geralt travel alone, it is during perhaps the coldest winter the Continent has seen in years. 

Geralt had let Jaskier ride Roach once the snow had started falling down thick, taking pity on the bard whose boots had holes in that he'd forgotten to repair; who was also simultaneously being buried in a good few inches of snow.

But soon that inch grows to a foot, then two and still the snow falls in a white torrent from the thick grey clouds.

They'd been trying to reach the next village before sundown but now that seems impossible. With the snow showing no signs of letting up and Roach quickly tiring of not only the added weight but also the slow trudge of her hooves through such thick snow, Geralt makes the smart decision to stop for the night.

They manage to find a mostly covered part of the woodlands, protected from the majority of snowfall through the thick canopy of clustered evergreen trees. Even still, Jaskier watches as Geralt makes a small-ish den of sorts, collecting dead leaves and fallen branches to create a half teepee; one that will double as their shelter for tonight. Wonderful, Jaskier thinks sarcastically. Life out on the road isn't glamorous, despite what his songs might have some believe.  

Jaskier sets to work on trying to start a fire; a task which is much harder than it sounds once you realise that everything is either frozen or damp and nothing seems to be wanting to actually catch on fucking fire.

Eventually what can only be described as the most pitiful fire to ever grace the world is set up and Jaskier sits as close as he possibly can to it, fingers almost directly in the flame as he desperately tries to warm up his aching hands. He won't be playing his lute tonight, that's for sure. The chilblains burn like a bitch but he'd rather suffer through that than get frostbite or something. He doesn't think it's technically cold enough for him to get frostbite, but he's not taking the risk.

Geralt sits opposite him, perched upon the ground and eyes watching Jaskier with (again) that same unreadable expression on his face.

He doesn't seem to be bothered by the cold, with all his magical Witcher-gene shit that makes him immune to all of this crap, but still; he stares at Jaskier.

He's fiddling with his hands, a gesture he only does when he wants to say something but is too embarrassed to. Usually, Jaskier would fill these slightly awkward silences with mindless chatter, but he's too cold to even think right now, let alone actually have words come from his mouth. 

Geralt looks at him for a moment longer, lets out a huff and stands up.

Jaskier looks up at him from chattering teeth, arms rubbing up and down his arms in an attempt to return any warmth to them. 

Then, without even a moment's warning, Geralt plops himself down right next to Jaskier, pulling him into his lap.

"Geralt! Wh-what?" Jaskier says and he definitely does not squeak. But his protests are cut short because gods is Geralt warm. He's warm and he smells a bit (because he always does) but then underneath all of that Jaskier gets the familiar whiff of soft spices and pine trees and he melts into the touch.

"Oh. You're warm." He's been spending too much time around Geralt, speaking like that. Not that it matters because he can feel his hands again and oh wow is that his nose? He snuggles deeper into the all-encasing warmth, sighing in pleasure as the feeling gradually slips back into his limbs.

And maybe it's just because of the cold and Jaskier is half out of his mind, but he finds himself nuzzling into Geralt, bringing his arms around Geralt's waist and burying his head under Geralt's chin. 

Geralt holds him back and his touch is tender, his touch is soft.

The weight on top of Jaskier's head increases as Geralt lets himself relax, lets himself sink against Jaskier's embrace.

Something stirs from deep within Jaskier's chest. 

What does Geralt want? Because, in moments such as this, Jaskier isn't sure what he wants at all.

x

When winter ends and spring arrives once more, Jaskier picks his flowers anew.

Once again, Roach's main is decorated in a sheath of flowers fit for royalty, bold colours woven amongst that silk-soft mane. Jaskier brushes her down, washes her, cleans off the dirt and grime with practised ease.

When Yennefer is with them, in the months where Jaskier can hear the breathless moans and the silenced gasps, he sits with Roach. Braids her mane, looks after her. He talks to her too and perhaps he is just a fool but he truly thinks that she understands.

Geralt and Yennefer argue, sometimes. Their personalities clash and Yennefer is hard and standoffish and Geralt is reserved and quiet. Jaskier shouldn't be judging, but their personalities do not mix. They rub up against one another, cause friction. It does not look like love, not to Jaskier. They are too similar, yet too different. They would make good friends, Jaskier thinks.

But right now it feels as if they're holding on to something that doesn't exist. But aren't they all? 

Yet again, how would he know? He's been in love plenty of times, he's fallen in and out of love with hundreds upon hundreds of people. Everyone who he sleeps with, everyone who he shares a bed with. And most of them had never loved him back.

So maybe he shouldn't be sitting out here, spouting out his feelings to Roach.

Maybe he should stop judging, stop trying to pretend that Geralt and Yennefer aren't working.

Because maybe they are. Maybe it's all in Jaskier's head.

But Jaskier can't help but notice that the only time Geralt and Yennefer seem to enjoy one another's company is when they're touching, when there's physicality. When Jaskier can hear them from the room next door, when he hears a rustling of branches and a smothered laugh. Their relationship survives on sex. It relies on the burn and the glow and the warmth that such contact brings.

Sex can only bring so much, though. It makes for fun, makes for release, but sex and love are not one in the same thing. You can't pretend that it is forever, because eventually it will all come crashing down.

It is when Yennefer leaves, however, with sharp words and biting tone. She storms off, hands folded across her chest and her eyes spit fire. There are marks on her neck, marks on Geralt's. She covers them with her palms as she walks on by, glaring at Jaskier from the corners of her violet eyes.

Geralt does not try to go after her.

Instead, he sits by Roach; watches Jaskier weave the flowers into her hair.

The harshness of his eyes disappears and instead that unreadable expression returns.

He watches and watches and watches and he doesn't say a word, not until the final flower has been weaved in Roach's hair and the final strand carefully brushed through.

Jaskier looks over at him, their eyes meet. No words are exchanged but Jaskier knows the question that goes unasked.

He also knows the answer.

x

"Flowers?" Yennefer asks with one arched brow the next time they meet. One long finger is pointed Geralt's way. " Cute." She says, reaching up to the crown of forget-me-nots. She plucks one out, holds the blue petals between her fingers and Jaskier watches as they wither.

Magic, chaos. Always a sacrifice, always something that is lost.

She throws it to the ground, stamps on it. 

When Jaskier sees the two of them the next morning, the flowers in Geralt's hair are slightly crumpled. He pretends he does not care.

He does though and he doesn't know why.

x

Yennefer sits beside him at the tavern.

As per usual, she looks completely out of place. She simply exudes power, exudes finery. She looks as if she belongs in a royal parlour, the head of the table at a fine banquet. She looks rich, expensive; far too beautiful for the washed-up likes of this shit-stained tavern.

She takes a sip of her ale, wrinkling her nose. Jaskier hasn't tried his own yet but he can smell it and it stinks of urine, he can only imagine it tastes the same.

Geralt is out, off killing some monster. Alone, as he'd demanded. He and Yennefer were at odds with one another once again and Jaskier had been ordered to stay behind. He'd almost argued but the look Geralt had sent him had any objections dying in his throat.

So here he is, sitting next to Yennefer. The woman who is fucking the man he's given his heart to.

Great.

"Here's an interesting fact, bard." She says, rolling the vowels in her tongue in such a way that Jaskier can understand just why every man (and woman) seems to just stop functioning every time Yennefer walks past. Because she's absolutely mind-numbingly terrifying but gods is she gorgeous. Ridiculously so. 

"Witchers are sterile." 

Jaskier blinks. He… he did not know what he'd been expecting, but it certainly wasn't that.

"Ensures they don't have any… cross-breeds. Any half-witcher children running around, all… mutated." And her words are spat out, twisted and harsh and they burn with something else. She rubs at her wrists, pinching at the faint trail of scars that linger there. 

"We won't have children. Even if I-"

She cuts herself off, stands up without a warning and walks out.

She doesn't come back that night. Nor the night after.

Geralt… looks relieved. 

Jaskier doesn't know what to make of it all.

x

"So...." Jaskier asks, sing-song voice, as he braids pastel-shaded peonies into Geralt's hair. "You and Yennefer, hmm? Trouble in paradise?" They'd had another row, more harsh words exchanged. Jaskier knows it will be temporary. They argue, they fight, Yennefer leaves; then a month later they stumble upon each other once more and they make up.

Loudly. 

"Hmm." Geralt responds, articulate as ever. 

"What's it like?" Jaskier sighs, fluttering his eyelashes. Geralt stares down at him, unimpressed. "Being in love?"

Geralt stiffens, he does not answer.

He does not speak to Jaskier for the rest of the evening.

x

Jaskier has a strange dream. A recurring one. 

The one on the beach, out by the sea.

He used to stand with Geralt, always by his side, but as of recently that has changed.

Now, he is always standing alone.

x

It is only after Jaskier and Geralt get to the village that Jaskier realises something.

His pack is gone. It's not with him and he has no idea where on earth it could be.

He's got his lute, still; and his dagger. The same can't be said for the rest of his clothes or his bow and arrow.

It doesn't make matters any better considering that he and Geralt had just spent all their coin on a room. They'd been running short. There hadn't been too many jobs as of recently, apparently, there's a powerful mage whos been travelling around; taking care of monster issues and was, as this 'mysterious sorceress' had stated when they last met, "doing your job for you.", because that's what you do when you have an argument with your lover. You… do their job for them?

Jaskier doesn't know. He doesn't understand their relationship at all. He's completely given up trying to make heads or tails of it; all he knows is that the sex must be really good; if the noises are anything to go by. 

But they have no money so all they can afford is the one room. And, of course, that one room only has one bed.

So their penniless, Jaskier has no other clothes and they have to share a bed.

But, of course, things can get worse.

Because, as chance would happen it, Jaskier's clothes are filthy. Covered in monster guts. He refuses to sleep in them. He refuses to lie in this monster shit. He can't. It fucking stinks. 

So Jaskier does the only thing he can think to do.

He takes Geralt's clothes.

And when Geralt returns to their shared room, sees Jaskier sitting on the bed, swathed in black fabric, his breath catches in his throat.

Jaskier is not much shorter than Geralt, but he is much slimmer.

The undershirt comes quite baggy on him, slipping off one shoulder and revealing the tantalising expanse of Jaskier's chest. 

Geralt gulps.

He holds himself back, fights the heat that runs through his blood.

Yennefer he understands. Yennefer, he knows. Lust is easy, lust is simple. It is not complicated, it is not full of twists and turns and unexpected nooks and crannies. It is as it seems, lust does not take thought, does not take care. It simply is.  

And Yennefer is. She is gorgeous, she is smart, she is witty.

She deserves better, really. She deserves much more than what Geralt can offer. So does Jaskier. 

They both deserve the truth.

But that is hard. It is stepping into the unknown, it is heading towards the darkness where no light lingers.

Heading down a tunnel. Endless, deep, pitch black. There might be light at the end of it, there might be a soft glow that makes it all worth it. But first, the journey has to be made and the journey is the hardest part.

Jaskier he does not know . With Jaskier, what he feels, it is not so simple. 

But in moments like these, when Jaskier is sitting there with his hair ruffled and his eyes so goddamn blue, sitting in Geralt's clothes, perched on the end of the bed with his lute in his arms; Geralt thinks that it could be easy.

He just has to take those first few steps. That's all he has to do.

But he doesn't. 

x

That night, they lie together. Jaskier is fast asleep and he has huddled closer, moved to the warmth.

His breathing is deep, his eyelashes fluttering.

Even in sleep, he is still talking. Muttering, murmuring. 

Geralt pauses. He shifts and then, ever so carefully, he places a gentle kiss against Jaskier's brow.

He pulls back and tries not to think about what that means.

x

That is the last time things are like that.

That is the last time things are good.

Because only a few days later, it all turns to shit. 

Chapter Text

They meet Borch on a dusty road at the very foot of the mountains. 

He, and his two beautiful Zerrikanian companions Téa and Véa, had stumbled across Jaskier just as he was running into a bit of trouble, something which Jaskier is eternally grateful for because he was beginning to fear that he'd have to resort to violence to get rid of the two morons attempting to make off with Roach.

If Geralt left anything unattended for more than three seconds people seemed to always think that he'd died and wouldn't be coming back for it and therefore his belongings were now theirs to take and Jaskier doesn't have the… presence to stop them from doing exactly that. 

He can handle himself in a fight but he supposes he doesn't really look the part. Maybe it's the whole singing about heartbreak kind of thing he's got going on, it doesn't really do wonders for his image as a valiant and brave fighter. Whatever it is, him telling people to stop what they're doing tends to only be met with laughs and jeers and rolled eyes. So the two clients-turned-thieves blatantly ignore him and continue on their quest to try and steal a very disgruntled Roach.

He's much better at conniving and convincing, offering favours and frivolities to worm his way out of trouble. A skill which is completely and utterly useless here. 

But then along came Borch and Téa and Véa and then a neck was snapped with bare hands and Jaskier kind of zones out, because; you know, a woman just snapped a man's neck with her bare hands. And oh wow, when he eventually has enough sense to actually look upon these strangers, he's gobsmacked all over again because they're absolutely gorgeous. Tall, strong, dark skin and even darker eyes, decorated in gold and orange and green, bright colours that bring out the deepness of their skin and the bright sparks in their eyes.

Maybe one of them (or both!) would be interested in Jaskier, or any propositions he will most definitely be sending forwards for the remainder of their time together; but then Jaskier remembers the stiffness of Geralt's jaw, the shadows of his eyes whenever Jaskier desperately tries to worm his way into another's bed, and he decides against it.

For now, that is. 

Then Geralt returns and Borch seems to be intent on recruiting the Witcher for a job, so they follow him to a nearby tavern. Money is a bit short as of now, they've never spent enough time in a town do more than pay for food and there have certainly been no opportunities recently for Jaskier to brighten a dampened crowd with his tunes to bring in what they're so sorely lacking. Besides, looking at the gold of Borch's beautiful jacket, (Jaskier would like one himself, although he doesn't think that shade of gold would be all that flattering on him) their newest clients look as though they might have a deepness to their pockets and Jaskier hopes that this coming payment is a good one. He'd like to treat Geralt to a proper bath sometime in the future, rather than settling for all the quick dips in lakes and rivers that they've had to get more and more used to over the past few weeks. 

The tavern is almost overflowing with bodies, brimming to the very rooftop with people of all different kinds. The entire place stinks of sweat and dirt and grime, of mingling bodies and piss and vomit and ale. The walls seem to be seeping with the stuff, seeping with the stench of too many people crammed in too small of a room. It's dark and gloomy and as they make their way to one of the back tables, hands grace over Jaskier's shoulders and he's flung into strange bodies, getting a mouthful of wiry hair when he turns one way and a hand on his arse when he turns the other. 

It's… uncomfortable. Usually, Jaskier would thrive in a place like this. So many people could only mean good things for their wallets. A song or two to loosen up the crowd and then the coin would be pouring in.

But the mood is different here. There's a raised kind of tension, hackles that are pointed and teeth that are bared. Competition thrums through the room and Jaskier has the sneaking suspicion that any of his attempts to liven up the room will be met with more than just rotten food being thrown at him. (He'd seen a particularly sharp set of throwing knives earlier and he really doesn't want to find out how good the owner's aim is) So he stays close to Geralt's side, looks away from the lecherous grins sent his way and taps his fingers against his side in comforting, grounding rhythm. 

They sit down, ale in hand (only slightly watered down) and it is then that Borch makes his proposition.

To slay a dragon. For a competition.

Jaskier almost wants to laugh because really? A fucking dragon? That's what their next job is? To slay a dragon; like some fairytale knight from some shitty old storybook? What's next? A damsel in distress? A locked tower and a pile of gold?

But, ridiculousness aside, Jaskier thinks this might actually be a lot of fun. Sure, that might have something to do with Téa and Véa's incredible necks, because oh wow Jaskier didn't know necks could be that attractive but here are two women, decorated in gold jewellery that glows against their dark skin and reflects technicolour lights onto the sharpness of their features, who are living proof that yes, necks can be ridiculously attractive.

What isn't as attractive, however, is Jaskier's compliment for them. To be fair to himself, he'd just seen Geralt take a huge gulp of his own ale in his peripheral vision and his entire brain had been temporarily sidetracked because Jaskier came to the sudden realisation that he'd never taken the time to appreciate Geralt's neck and oh fuck it might be even more beautiful.

So Jaskier accidentally called two gorgeous women geese and now he's suddenly found out that he's got a fetish for necks (Geralt's in particular) so the beginning of this journey is already off to a wild start.

It'll be fun, probably. And, even better, they haven't run into Yennefer for a good few months. So, all in all, Jaskier really thinks they should do this because there's no way Yennefer is going to be out here, slaying a fucking dragon, and Jaskier seriously doubts that there's any chance of them running into one another again when they're out who-knows-where halfway up a mountain's side.

But Geralt refuses and Jaskier tries to persuade him because gods he just wants a few weeks where he can be certain that he won't have to nurse his broken heart while simultaneously pretending that there isn't a broken heart at all while he watches Geralt and Yennefer dance around each other like fucking animals (because they shag like goddamn rabbits) and argue and bite and spit at one another but always make up with incredibly loud sex. 

Destiny, however, is a bitch. 

That is what Jaskier decides on this day. He decides that destiny can fucking burn because just as Geralt is preparing to leave, just as his hand rests on Jaskier's forearm to haul him up, he spies something across the length of the room.

He stops short, swallowing deeply, golden eyes widening almost imperceptibly before darkening.

Jaskier follows his gaze, lifts his eyes from betwixt the mass of bodies and men who stink of piss and then, sticking out like a sore thumb, is Yennefer of Venengberg. 

Because of fucking course  it is.

Of course Yennefer is here, because why would she not be? 

And of course it is Yennefer who changes Geralt's mind. Of course, now, he wants to be doing… this.  

Great. Fan-fucking-tastic. Jaskier can't wait. It's going to be a good few days, maybe even weeks, up on those mountain tops and his only company is going to be those very angry Dwarves, those creepy Reaver people and Yennefer. 

It can't get much worse than this, surely? 

But, of course, it can. It can always get worse, Jaskier realises; and to think it can't get worse only tempts fate.

x

As their rag-tag group of dragon-slayers (because Jaskier supposes that is what they are) heads out, Jaskier can't help but notice how Yennefer truly sticks out like a sore thumb. Gold against silver, black against white.

She's always dressed impeccably, always looking like she's halfway to some fancy ball or banquet or an evening spent with royalty and Jaskier can appreciate that. Him and Yennefer, they have similar kinds of tastes when it comes to fashion. High end, fancy, expensive. They both take pride in their appearances, which is something (Jaskier decides with a sniff) that a few other people here could learn to do. Brushing your hair once in a while or, perhaps, washing your face; isn't nearly as dangerous as one might be led to believe. 

Although Jaskier is convinced she's using magic to keep that light grey fur clean because these mountains are made of fucking dust and he's absolutely covered in it. The red of his doublet, fabric pressed and sewn with a delicate eye for beauty, is taking on a half-grey veil of kicked up dirt. He'd picked out this doublet especially once he'd heard about the dragon-slaying because not only is it perhaps one of his favourite outfits he's pieced together, but the jacket is gorgeous, lined with spikes that Jaskier can only imagine match the knobbled spines of a proud red dragon. But now it's covered in dust. Everything is. The air itself is dry and smothering with it, like thick ash burned in the sky. It floats up from the ground, lifted by the thumping of shoes and the clanking of boots, springing up into the atmosphere and settling all over Jaskier. His hands are constantly caught in his hair, brushing out layers upon layers of the dry dirt, his hands constantly brushing at the sleeves of his doublet and the panels of his trousers.

Everyone else seems to be in the same boat as him, at least. Geralt's hair is looking more grey than white and one of the dwarves keeps coughing up a storm every so often, but - as always - Yennefer is pristine.  

It's as if the elements themselves don't want to touch her. As though she commands such power in her very fingertips that the world is content to leave her be. Maybe she has made a deal with the mountains themselves, whispered to the rock and stone and requested that they leave her free of their dust-death that settles like smoke over a fire. 

Whatever it is, the pale grey of her fur coat, thick and fluffy and ever so soft-looking, stays perfectly pristine. Not a spot of grey lands in her hair of midnight, not a streak of mud settles across the smooth planes of her face. She turns back to Jaskier every so often, a half-smile toying on her lips, the dark shadows on her eyelids shimmering coralroot green in the sunlight. She watches him dither about in the clouds of dust, watches him whine and complain and cough and brush sheaths of grey out of his tawny hair. She watches and she smiles and she continues walking.

She flicks her wrist, though. Jaskier can see the movement of her fingers from under the fine hairs of her coat. She mutters something under her breath and Jaskier does not know what she is saying, he cannot hear her clearly under the bluster of wind.

But when he looks down at himself, the dust is gone and the ruby red of his clothes shines bright.

Later, she grasps the cuff of his sleeve with her pointed fingers, brings Jaskier's ear close to her mouth. "It's a nice outfit." She says. "It would be a shame if it got all ruined." And then she continues walking, as if nothing had ever happened at all. 

Jaskier stops in his tracks momentarily, before he is pushed forward by an impatient Geralt; leading Roach alongside him. 

He comes to his senses, picking up the pace once more. 

Yennefer is weird. A strange friend. 

But that is what she is, he supposes. A friend.

x

"We can't take Roach?" Jaskier whines, hands tangled in the mare's hair as he looks at Geralt with pleading eyes.

Geralt rolls his eyes, shaking his head, but again that fondness softens his upper lip. "No." 

"Why not?" He moans, dragging out the vowels of his words into an obnoxious, petulant whine; not unlike that of the spoilt children of the wealthy and noble. Geralt grinds his teeth.

"The path isn't suitable." Is all he says and Jaskier gives one last pat to Roach, pulling a face that has Roach snorting as though with laughter, before he's bounding over, tugging on the Witcher's sleeves.

"Couldn't they have told us that?" 

"They did. If you'd been listening. But you were more interested in your fucking 'goose necks' to be paying attention."

Jaskier pouts at that but doesn't miss the way Geralt has completely tensed up, gold eyes hard like dried sap on trees. Blood, of sorts. Red. Maybe that's what he's seeing, red. Anger, irritability. Before Jaskier can make heads or tails over this, he's sidetracked by the sounds of leaves crunching underfoot.

Yennefer approaches, tilting her head so the light catches the shimmer on her eyelids just right. Jaskier wants to ask her where she got it from; that charcoal black that turns to vibrant green like snakeskin under light. He thinks it would suit him. He's always been a fan of the kohl-lined eyes and the crimson painted lips, but it's not very practical for life out on the road. There's shimmer on her cheekbones, too. Silver, icy blue. It sparkles on her upper lip, the bowed blush that leads down into a plump lower one that she sinks her teeth into. She is just very pretty. Beautiful, gorgeous, radiant. Other synonyms for very fucking attractive.

"How is it that I've walked this world for decades without coming across a Witcher, and then the first one I meet I can't get rid of?

Jaskier's response is instantaneous, cutting. Always sharp edges between the two, always barbed and cruel; but never malicious. It is their fun. The kind that Geralt doesn't really understand and, to be honest, Jaskier doesn't either. But it works and it's amusing and it keeps Jaskier on his toes, his brain always whirring for a new insult, a new jibe. It is not a conventional friendship but that does not make it any less dear to Jaskier. It is a love-hate sort of deal, he supposes. Like siblings who bicker and argue and whine but who, underneath it all, might , just maybe , love each other. Just a tiny bit.

"I'd say something strange was afoot, but then Witcher's are bound to bump into monsters eventually." Yennefer raises a brow, smirks. Her eyes are bright, sparkling. They capture the sunlight, almost white where the lilac fades into pink and brighter. 

"Hmm… Jaskier…" She drawls, taking a step towards him. "The crow's feet are new." 

Jaskier bites back a laugh, feigning offence as Yennefer grabs his wrist, fingers surreptitiously tugging at the golden bracelet. It has become almost an inside joke between the two, growing old. Jaskier still felt guilty that he hadn't told Geralt yet, but when he had confided this Yennefer had laughed. 

"It's his fault." She had said. "You're supposed to be, what, forty now? He should have figured it out years ago." Which was… well, true. Jaskier had not said anything but Geralt was a Witcher and, over the years, he'd definitely realised that there was something not quite right with Jaskier, not quite human. He must have made guesses, he must have made theories, but not once has he asked.  

But Yennefer had.

Which is strange because he and Yennefer have this in common. Their blood, the parts of them that are not human. Jaskier does not know much about Yennefer's past but he has gathered she was not always like this. Somewhere, along the lines, a sacrifice had been made.

"I'm half-elf." She'd told him one night and Jaskier has the sneaking suspicion she was not one of the lucky ones. Not like the girl with daisies in her hair, the one who had left Jaskier all those many years ago. No. Jaskier thinks Yennefer was one of the other ones, the children who had to pay the price for the mixing of blood that had grown cursed and plagued as fire had swept through their lands. Whether it be the twisting of their bones or the twisting of their minds, those of mixed blood usually had something that would be changed, something that would be different, Not normal. The world was cruel to those children. The world is still cruel to those who are different. 

Yennefer looks at him with those dark eyes and Jaskier thinks that she has grown accustomed to cruelness. She knows what it is like, to be abandoned by all those who should love you. 

He wants to ask, wants to put a hand on her shoulder and tell her that she can always come and speak to him. But they do not have that kind of friendship, not yet.

He does not pry for answers, however. Just like she does not pry them from him.

But now he is trying not to laugh at Yennefer's joke, trying not to smile and to keep the faux-frown plastered on his face. Geralt is looking at him strangely and Jaskier feels suddenly self-conscious. He glances between Yennefer and Jaskier, brow furrowed. He looks as if he's going to say something but is cut off as Yennefer moves towards him, a hand resting on his sternum.

Jaskier turns away. He does not want to see this.

x

Introductions are made and everyone is strangely… cordial. 

Well, at least to Jaskier. It probably has to do with the fact that nobody here takes him seriously, like, at all; which is fair enough because he'd never bothered to replace that lost bow and arrow and all he has is that dagger hidden in a pocket on the inside of his doublet. So, on the surface, he looks completely harmless. His young face probably doesn't help with matters, he doesn't really look hardened by the outside world, especially considering he's a travelling bard who sings songs for a living. Many of their companions have staked their lives on violence, on war and death and protecting with swords and shields and axes and such. Jaskier, just like Yennefer, sticks out. He is not the same, he does not fit in.

Although Yennefer seems to be getting similar treatment. Underestimated. Which Jaskier ends up taking some measure of pride in; he presumes it stems from their appearances, the way they are dressed. They're certainly the cleanest of the bunch and they're obviously the only ones who truly care about how they look. So maybe this underestimation deal is almost a backhanded compliment of sorts, a kind of 'you're dressed too nicely to look as though you can hold your own end in a fight' kind of deal. And the flowers woven in Geralt's hair had gotten some strange looks, although no comments had been made. 

Although, saying that, Borch's jacket is rather nice. The gold scaling that lines it, Jaskier might ask him where he got it from. He's been debating doing so since they first met, although the opportunity to ask has yet to arise. It would suit him in perhaps a shade of sky blue, although perhaps he should break into a teal colour, it's been so long since he'd last worn something like that...

Regardless of their treatment from others, Jaskier is introduced to lots of various people with lots of names. Téa and Véa and Borch, he remembers with ease. He sort of… loses it when the rest of the groups introduce themselves, but he decides on focusing on remembering the most important people of each group - perhaps their greatest competition in this little contest. There's Eyck, Yennefer's cuckold of an escort. (He makes Jaskier's skin crawl. He can't explain why but he's just… the very sight of him makes Jaskier uncomfortable) There's Yarpen, the leader of the Dwarves who is incredibly loud and terrifyingly aggressive, but he's a far-fucking-sight better than Eyck so Jaskier supposes he's okay. Then there's Boholt, the leader of the Reavers, who in general just gives Jaskier the heebie-jeebies. He swears they keep staring at him. He can feel their eyes against his back and he doesn't like it, not one bit!

So that makes the four teams, their strange rag-tag band of companions for the next few days. 

Geralt and Yennefer walk together, side by side. Jaskier trails behind, the lyrics to his newest song flowing to him like water down a riverside. He spends his time flirting with Véa and Téa, who are obviously not interested in what he's offering, but they seem to take amusement in his actions and Jaskier is always one for a performance.

After all, that's what he is.

Cliché. The sidekick, second best. The one who trails behind the true hero, trails aimlessly behind the one who saves the day and gets the girl and all that fairy tale shit. He's the comic relief, he supposes. A moment of lightheartedness when everything is going to shit.

Although it's him who's going to shit right now, really. His insides are all twisted and Geralt's hands on his heart are careless and rough. He feels as though he's been turned inside out, twisted from the inside until all of his organs lay open and weak and vulnerable. His wings of fire have burned so bright and now his skin has gone. Melted, turned to ash. His bones are growing charred and his lungs are made of smoke and he can't breathe.

But this is all part of the show, all part of the performance.

It is not running, in the literal sense of the word. He's not running, physically. But this, now, is a different sort of running. A show that goes on, even after the curtain has fallen. Always running, always hiding.

He is a reconstruction of what he is supposed to be.

Because he's supposed to be happy.

And he's not.

x

He stumbles into the thicket with the promise of berries for the two very uninterested but highly amused Zerrikanians. 

The sun is hot, bright, blinding. White light in the sky, covered by a thick mist of white clouds. But even their shadow does not hinder the shimmer of sunlight, still it pierces through their cotton mass and shines all the brighter.

Jaskier peers up at it as he scrambles further amongst the bushes. He wonders what it would be like, up in the sky. Amongst the clouds and the stars and the sun. Away from it all.

He knows that clouds are not as they seem. They are not bundles of sheeps' wool flung high into the sky. They are not swathes of soft fabric and gentle cotton, they are not warm like blankets and comforting like the heat of low-fire, they are merely water. Illusions of softness trapped in biting cold. If he were to get what he wanted, to see the stars and the clouds and the birds in the sky right before him, so close he can touch, he would be smothered by the substance, water in his lungs and stones in his pockets. He would drown. 

He blocks out the light with his hands, shields his eyes as he trips forwards, boots snagging on the thicket of undergrowth that swathes beneath him. 

Thistles scratch at him, sharp thorns catching his hands where there is nothing to hide them from harm's way. He ignores it, continues.

Moss is soft under his feet like the seabeds of the great oceans and as he stumbles through butterflies spout from the underbrush, tens of them fluttering up to the sunlight. As if set free by hands of stone, they shine their fantastical colour down over Jaskier, painting his skin in emperor blues and royal reds. 

But as the butterflies fall in light's stead, the colour of their wings is turned translucent. Grey, they become. Monochrome.

The light has washed them out. Taken it all away. The sun is hot and it burns and there is no way to hide.

But still, Jaskier continues. Under his breath he begins to hum, the works of his tune flowing to his mind with ease. There is no absence of inspiration, that is for certain. A song about love and loss and heartbreak is quite simple as of right now. 

So he hums and hums and steps further forward, eyes trained on the crimson glow of a bush blooming with berries.

They stand out from the green like a beacon. The light at the top of a lighthouse, fire burning bright in dark logs. They glisten in the light, sparkle as if they are not merely berries but great jewels; fat rubies just waiting to be plucked by Jaskier's eager fingers. 

However, he is stopped by a noise. Just as his fingers are about to pull the berries from their stems, he hears a low growling sound.

"Wait!" He shouts across the horizon, head turned to the retreating bodies of his companions, settling their belongings down to make camp for the night. "I think there's something back here!" One of the dwarves moves to stand but Jaskier waves him off with a careful flick of his hand. Even from this distance he can feel the piercing gaze of Geralt's golden eyes, watching him. Concerned. He shivers under it, but still continues.

Amongst the thicket, the thorns and brambles and bracken and ferns, there is something brown. At first, Jaskeir thinks it is merely a rock. A plain, old, boring rock, but then it shifts. Moves about. The growling grows louder, a deep rumbling that no doubt comes from the curled-up creature.

Then two ears appear, a little snout; a tiny black little nose. Two eyes, deep chocolate brown flecked with strands of gold and silver, open wide.

"I think it's a fawn or something!" Jaskier shouts over again, crouching down to take a better look at the creature.

It blinks up owlishly at him, tilting its head. Jaskier feels his heart melt. "Well, hello!" He says, ignoring the faint laugh that rises from camp. ("He's not talkin' to the fuckin' thing is he? He's a bloody odd one, that bard o' yours.") He places his hands on his thighs, lowering himself as to not crowd the creature's space but to also appear less demanding, less powerful. The creature looks terrified and Jaskier doesn't want to cause it any more fear.

"Aren't you the cutest thing?" He coos resisting the urge to make kissing noises, as though he's a mother with her newborn baby. The creature yawns, revealing a sharp set of teeth and the most adorable little pink tongue. Jaskier's heart is just a puddle at this point. A melted, soggy puddle. He almost debates asking Geralt if they can keep it, but then it rises to a stand.

"Oh fuck. No, you're not. You're terrifying ." Its limbs are disproportionate to the largeness of the rest of its body and while there had been a full head of hair on it's face, it grows patchy and mismatched on the rest of the creature's body. Gingery hair coats pallid skin, chunks missing and falling away revealing the ragged flesh that lays underneath. The creature, at its full height, stands a good head taller than Jaskier and it raises its claws, sharp taloned things and Jaskier does what he does best. He runs away. "Fuck! Geralt! G-Geralt!" Instinctively, he shouts, stumbling his way back through the thicket.

His feet won't cooperate and he feels himself slipping and sliding. He wobbles about, hands raised outwards to try and balance himself before he falls.

The creature hums from behind him and Jaskier tries to go faster. Fuck, fuck, fuck.

Geralt has instantly risen to a stand and once Jaksier gets ahold of the dirt-worn path once more, he leaps behind him.

Pushing Geralt between him and the creature like a barricade, he rests his hand on Geralt's biceps, rambling on and on in his nervousness.

The rest of the camp has moved to stand too, many scrabbling for their weapons and others, like Téa and Véa, already drawing them. But Geralt raises a hand of warning, shakes his head. 

"W-what is it?" Jaskier asks, looking at the beast over Geralt's shoulder. It's standing there, watching them, and the eyes that had once seemed so cute and innocent now seem luminous like lanterns in a dark cellar, ghostly and large and not quite right. They look too large for the rest of its body and, now that Jaskier looks closely, he can see the ribs of the beast, the bones. He can count them, see the hollows where flesh should fill but instead only air does.

"It's a Hirrika. It's… starving, but it won't be a threat to us." 

Those who had not yet sheathed their weapons did so. the only sounds in the campsite are the clanking of metal and the brush of weapons against steel.

And then Eyck decides that that simply isn't good enough. 

He strolls up to the beast, despicable casual considering what he is about to do. With his sword raised high, he doesn't just kill the creature, he slaughters it.

Jaskier can't bear to look. The sight makes him sick to his very stomach. Eyck chops an arm off, first. The Hirikka yowls in pain, voice screeching across the mountaintops. It echoes amongst the landmass, dips under the valleys and soars over the peaks, reverberating in a sick chorus of agony. Jaskier puts his hands over his ears, but even that cannot block out the screams.

Limb by limb, the Hirikka is dismembered. Then the head, one clean sweep and it sails off; lands somewhere in the thicket. Its lifeless body tumbles to the ground but still, Eyck does not stop.

The sound of metal piercing flesh rings out under the settling dusk. Squelching, slicing. Skin chopped and crushed and mashed under steel blade. Still, he keeps on going. Stabbing and stabbing and stabbing, blood oozing and stench overbearing. 

Jaskier thinks he might be sick. He disturbed the creature. All it wanted was some food, it wasn't even attacking them. He had found it, he had led it back to camp and now it was here, dead. But even that wasn't enough. Even in death its body was tortured, disfigured until it barely resembled the animal it once was. 

Only then does Eyck stop and Jaskier must make a sound of some sort because Geralt turns to look at him. 

He fiddles with his hands, toys with his fingers but his eyes burn and he feels small and pathetic and stupid. Geralt reaches out to him, but it is too late. His back is turned and he has made a show of laying his own belongings down for the night, as if to challenge anyone who dared approach.

He hears Eyck's voice. Loud and pompous and burning with a sense of self-righteousness. The Hirikka head is found and stuck on a twig, planted in the earth for all to see.

Eyck is the knight that will slay the dragon. He is the one from storybooks, the hero who will save the fair maiden. But those stories are lies, they are not true.

This is the truth, this is the reality.

Jaskier feels sorry for the dragon; if these are the kind of monsters who wish to slay it.

x

They are sitting around the campfire. late at night, just Geralt, Borch, Téa and Véa. Their team.

The Reavers were keeping their distance, had been for the entire journey, and Jaskier could not say he was displeased with that arrangement. They still creeped him out, Jaskier still expected them to snap , to kill or hurt or to ready their weapons and cause only death. Eyck had fucked off somewhere, bowels protesting whatever vile piece of the Hirikka he'd consumed just to make a point. (some fucking men, Jaskier thinks with venom. Always trying to show off, always cocking around like some proud peacock) Yennefer had gone for her 'beauty sleep', as had the Dwarves (although perhaps 'beauty' was the wrong word to use in this case) so now it was just the five of them once more.

They spoke of dragons, of their dying race, their fading bloodline. Jaskier still can't believe such creatures exist, it seems so strange and fantastical and even though the Continent is bursting with things beyond even the wildest of imaginations, dragons just seems like a step too far. 

But no, they exist. Truly. Red and green and black and gold. 

But they're dying out and Jaskier feels something tighten in his chest. Why would they be killing something that is dying out? The creature wasn't even violent. It had attacked others, for certain, but Jaskier is certain there's another side to this tale. Stories are never black and white and Jaskier, who has staked his entire livelihood on the telling of tales, knows this to be fact. 

So he listens to Borch talk of the dragons, the golden ones that had once flown high above the skies in technicolour rainbow, who had swooped amongst the woollen clouds of water and rain and reached the very stars and the blankets of midnight and morning and twilight. Once again, Jaskier finds his eyes being drawn to the gold of Borch's own outfit. That burnt yellow, sienna in shade. Tarnished but gleaming, glowing with light from within. Jaskier has never seen a dragon before but he imagines that their scales would look something like that. He wonders if that is what the coat is made of. 

He almost asks but even to his own ears the question seems foolish, so he stays quiet.

He half-listens to the conversation around him but as the night grows longer and the air grows colder, he finds himself instinctively shifting closer to Geralt for warmth.

Borch notices the movement and he makes eye-contact with Jaskier for a few beats, a half-formed smile lighting up his face, but he says nothing and continues talking.

Eventually, the three others go to their own bedrolls for the night and all that remains is him and Geralt, sitting beside a dying fire underneath a carpet of constellations. 

They sit for a moment in silence, Jaskier's knee bouncing (he can never stay still) and his fingers twisting at his new ring. (a bit flashy, perhaps; but he'd had the money and he'd always had a fondness for jewellery) He hums under his breath, whispering new attempts at new lyrics, still trying to settle the formation of his newest song into his mind. Lost in his own little world, he almost forgets that Geralt is there before a hand is placed upon his knee, stilling the incessant trembling. 

"New song?" Geralt asks, voice gruff and deep. His eyes look inquisitively at Jaskier and his tone is light, almost uninterested. 

Jaskier realises with a start that he's been making more of an attempt, recently, to talk. Geralt had always been adamant that small-talk was a waste of time, a waste of words and a waste of energy that could be better spent by doing other things. But Jaskier does not enjoy long silences and he loves the mindlessness of small-talk, of how people can connect - if only for a few moments - over such simple things, like the weather or the day or simply the quality of a brew. It is connection, it is company, and Jaskier loves it.

Geralt is trying , Jaskier realises. He's been talking more, speaking his mind, filling long pauses and empty silences. 

"Yeah." Jaskier responds, fingers twitching as if he held his lute in his hands. He hums some more, shifting his fingers as if finding the right notes, the pitch of his voice changing and melody swelling. 

"What's it about this time?" Geralt continues and he's got a brow raised as if expecting Jaskier to go on a mindless spiel of destiny and heroics and loyalty, all woven into events that have half-happened and details that are only half-true.

Perhaps it is because Jaskier is tired from the journey, or perhaps it is because Jaskier is tired all the time, but his tongue is loosened and without thinking, he responds. "Oh, you know, the usual. Heartbreak and the likes, unrequited love. Imagine a crooning ballad for a lost lover, one you can never have but want so badly. It'll be a hit, if the mood is right, I'm sure." He laughs, tone deceptively light. Geralt looks surprised, as if the answer given was not one that was expected, although he does not say anything more about it.

There's a long pause, interrupted only by Jaskier's continued humming. 

"How old are you?" 

There was a question Jaskier wasn't expecting.

"Excuse me! It's rude to ask a gentleman his age, you know." Geralt cracks a smile, but still he waits for an answer. 

Jaskier dithers, twisting his hands about. Geralt stares at him.

Jaskier sighs.

"Forty." 

Even to his own ears, that sounds like a lie. By a human's standards, he barely looks thirty. He'd left for Oxenfurt when he'd just turned into an adult, by Elvish standards, and still he remains a young adult. He's certainly not the middle-aged man he's supposed to be. Not a wrinkle in sight, not a day has he aged since he first met Geralt those twenty-two years ago.

Geralt is still staring at him, still looking at him. "You don't look it." He eventually says and Jaskier can hear the meaning beneath the words. What are you?

This is it. This is the perfect time to tell him. Never have the stars aligned so, never has the world given him a more suitable time to just admit the truth.

And yet… he does not. One of these days, he tells himself. But when? When will the day be? Because it's certainly not now. It's certainly not been the last twenty-two years of his life.

It's not because he doesn't trust Geralt, either. Not anymore. A long time ago, that was why. Of course he hadn't trusted Geralt at first; he's an Elf , mistrust in others has become a part of them. Keeping secrets is what all like him learn to do, that is how they live. It is safer to lie when your blood gets you slaughtered, when there are men who wave around their weapons, silver and steel and iron, and they want to cleanse the world, purge it of your blood. 

Jaskier is used to running, used to hiding. He's been like this so long sometimes he forgets he's not human, sometimes he forgets he's even running from anything at all.

If he tells Geralt, then it becomes more… real. Then it becomes fact, something he cannot hide from. Like it is with Yennefer, where he feels naked and vulnerable and lost.

It is nice, though, to not have to hide.

But there is a step he must take and maybe, deep inside, he's hoping Geralt will take it first.

This is how it is between them. A cavern, a bottomless pit that divides them. But there is a bridge, one tethered with robe and logs that crosses the expanse of the void below. It is rickety but strong, built and hardened over years and years and years.

Piece by piece, they have made this connection; made this path that leads to one another. Now it is finished but, still, they are yet to cross.

All it takes is one step, but neither wants to be the first.

What if the bridge breaks? What if it does not hold? What if they take the first step and away it falls? 

So they wait. Always, they wait on opposite sides of this chasm. They look and they want and they need but never do they take. 

And then there is Yennefer, besides Geralt. One who rests on the same side, one who is easy. There is no abyss, no chasm with its maw wide and waiting. All there is is the ground beneath their feet.

Jaskier is left to watch and still, the bridge remains. Weaker, perhaps. Failing; but always there.

Still, no first step is taken. 

"I just have superior genetics." Jaskier ends up saying.

Neither of them believe it.

x

It is the same night when Jaskier gets ready to settle down that he feels a hand clasp around his wrist. He makes to shout, but another hand is slapped over his mouth.

"Peek-a-boo." A very familiar voice whispers.

"Holy fuck Yennefer, don't do that! You scared the ever-living daylights out of me! What the fuck do you want at this time, a sacrifice for your ritual?" 

Yennefer rolls her eyes. 

"Geralt's been asking after you." She says. "He wants to know if you're okay. He says you've been acting… distant."

Jaskier scoffs, turning away.

"Well, next time you run off together you can tell him I'm fine."

He feels a hand rest upon his shoulder.

"Are you though?"

"What?"

"Are you 'fine'?"

"What does it matter?"

He turns away from Yennefer, turns to his bedroll, and she doesn't stop him.

He can feel her gaze on his back for a few moments longer, but then it is gone. Then it is only him.

Jaskier's dreams are troubled that night. The coast lays before him, seafoam horses frothing on the pearly sands. The wind blusters all around him, strong and biting and he can taste the salt on his tongue. The water laps at his feet, growing deeper and deeper as the tide comes in.

He looks to his side and there is nobody there.

He is alone.

x

The next day rises and with it Eyck is dead. 

Yennefer is upset, visibly so, and Geralt follows her. 

Jaskier… doesn't really care, to be honest. He's more bothered about what this means as opposed to Eyck actually being dead. 

As in, sure there's a bit of pity there, too; mixed in with the almost sick satisfaction that the bastard had gotten what he deserved. Jaskier can still hear the screams of the Hirikka, embedded in his mind as if branded there by a hot iron.

Even still, being murdered while revealing your bowels... It's certainly one of the worst ways to go. Not very heroic, not very impressive. In fact, once this is all over and word travels, he imagines Eyck's legacy will become more of a joke, something to laugh about over pints of ale and good food, as opposed to the long-lasting lineage of a noble dragon-slayer. That was the fairy-tale dream, the title. The riches, the prestige, the stories. All of it, the cliche.  

But fairy-tales aren't real and there is nobody who fits smoothly into these cookie-cutter moulds. All of it is fake, all of it is a reconstruction. Only what is here now, right before them, is real.

Reality is getting your throat slit while taking a dump.

Is nothing truly sacred anymore? He says as much over the cliff, looking down at Eyck's bare arse, head tilted back and mouth still open in a silent yell. Geralt snorts from beside him, shoving him lightly. He's shaking his head as Jaskier turns to look at him, but the severe expression on his face has lessened to something that could be likened to amusement. 

This whole debacle makes problems, however. There's been no signs of monsters, other than the harmless Hirikka, and there's been no sign of any other form of life aside from themselves.

Basically meaning that it was one of them who killed Eyck. There's a team who aren't playing fair, somewhere, meaning that none of them are safe. Their companions can't be trusted. They have to watch their backs.

As Geralt and Yennefer become sidetracked, temporarily stepping off the path, Yennefer looking pained and Geralt looking concerned, Jaskier is left to his own devices at the very back of their ragtag group. 

The mood is heavy, oppressive. Weighing down from the very skies. Air of lead, heavy in lungs and choking in throats. 

It is then that Jaskier brings out his lute, strumming familiar chords in a gentle song. The lyrics are cheerful but the tune is mournful and Jaskier's voice travels on the wind. Nobody tells him to shut it though and Borch turns momentarily to look at Jaskier. He smiles and the corners of his eyes wrinkle.

Jaskier isn't exactly the most useful companion, but this he can do.

x

The shortcut is perhaps one of the worst ideas Jaskier has ever agreed to be a part of and considering that Jaskier has a lot of questionable ideas, that is really saying something.

Yarpen is adamant that it is the Reavers who they cannot trust and Jaskier is inclined to agree. While the Dwarves may appear brutish and uncouth, they were certainly much better company than that of the silence of a Reaver. The Dwarves had perhaps held a few unkind words for Jaskier, a few laughs and jeers and sharpened tongues, but they were all intended in jest - even if sometimes they fell beyond what was funny and what became cruel.

Dwarves are just very outright creatures who do not mince their words with fanciful lies and language. They are unbothered about hurt feelings, they speak only the truth and they always say exactly what is on their minds. It was refreshing, sometimes. Although they perhaps could do with learning a modicum of tact, Jaskier has taken great amusement in Yarpen's commentary of the whole journey, his joked complaints and his none-too-subtle thoughts on the others travelling with them.

So when they're given a choice of either staying with the Reavers or travelling a shortcut with the Dwarves, it's not that much of a choice, really. The answer is infinitely clear.

Which is why Jaskeir finds himself standing on the very edge of a ravine with only a thin wooden plank and a chain for him to pull himself along by.

He's absolutely shitting himself.

He can't see the bottom of the damn ravine, only blackness that rises in grey dust that settles as a thick fog that lingers far below. A misplaced foot or a stumbled step would result in a very quick death, Jaskier surmises.

"When you said shortcut I didn't realise you meant a shortcut to death! " Jaskier hisses to Yarpen, voice rising higher and higher in pitch, bursting out of him in a nervous squeak. Yarpen merely rolls his eyes, completely unbothered. "It's fine for us Dwarves. Not our fault you're all so goddamn big." And Jaskier really can't argue with that logic.

And, of course, he's the first person to go. As in, the Dwarves go first but apparently they don't fear shit because they stroll across it like it's the most natural thing in the world. So Jaskier is next and he actually feels his soul leave his body because holy fuck this is terrifying.

Yennefer follows behind, then Geralt, with Borch, Téa and Véa last.

Jaskier's foot goes through a rotting plank and he prepares himself for the end. 

Yennefer reaches out a hand to steady him and he manages to catch himself on the iron chain, fingers cramped from how tightly he grasps it. 

His breaths are thunderous in his ears. It's a wonder the pounding of his heart doesn't start an avalanche from above, the thumping of his blood so loud and so tumultuous that Jaskier feels as if the sheer power of it could shake the ground to its very deepest foundations. It doesn't, of course, for such a thing is just an invention in his mind, but still he fears it. 

He manages to calm himself, manages to continue, but still the wind blows a gale in the ravine and the wood shakes creaks and the chains rattle.

This is not safe. They won't all make it, Jaskier tells himself. Someone will die.

He was right. He was fucking right and Jaskier hates himself for it.

Borch falls. Téa and Véa too. They meet their demise on this mountaintop and Jaskier can do nothing but watch as they fall into the abyss.

It had all happened so quickly that Jaskier still isn't quite sure how.  

One minute they had all been there, terrified for their lives, sidling across the mountainside path. The next minute all Jaskier could hear was the roar of splintering wood and the cacophony of falling rocks.

He turns just in time to see Borch, Téa and Véa hanging on to the rusted chain for dear life. Geralt is holding it, keeping them steady, but even he is not strong enough to haul the three of them back to safe land. They are there and Geralt is doing all he can but it is not enough.

He must let them go but he won't and Jaskier can see the strain in his muscles, see the tortured tightness of his jaw. There is pain in his eyes, fear that he will lose more, that more will die and he will have been powerless to stop it.

But he can't hold on and there is nothing he can do.

Jaskier watches as Borch lets go, hands slipping off the chain free of his own accord. Téa and Véa fall after him.

There is no fear in their eyes, only peace. As though they were ready, as though they knew what would be waiting for them on the other side.

They are brave, fearless. Or rather, they were.  

Because they are no longer. It is the past, now, when they lived. It is the past when things were different. But still, the future does not stop for the rest of them.

They continue their journey, their team of five shortened to two once more. 

Still, they walk the path to slay the dragon. Jaskier wonders if it will really be worth it. What's the point, now? Why must they continue?

If only they could leave. Go somewhere else for a bit.

Jaskier tastes salt in his mouth but he does not say anything as he crawls along the ravine's edge. There is tension brewing behind him, a storm that rises and swirls and expands. 

The storm clouds thicken and their shadow lies over Geralt.

x

Geralt sits alone, perched on an isolated rock as he gazes out over the sunlit peaks of the mountains. Yennefer had tried to speak to him earlier, but had left rolling her eyes and a sigh on her lips. She'd shaken her head at the rest of the group, bottom lip tethered between her teeth. 

Jaskier had tried, later.

He was not sent away.

At first, he is silent. Merely comes to rest by Geralt, perching himself close enough that Geralt can feel the heat from his body, but not close enough to touch.

On instinct, Geralt stiffens beside him. Jaskier merely waits and soon his tension melts away, his shoulders relax and then, ever so subtly, Geralt shifts himself closer.

Their knees touch, just the faintest mark of contact, but it is still there. Jaskier leans into it hesitantly, waiting for Geralt to react. But he does not, he merely leans back until their shoulders are knocking.

"It wasn't your fault" Jaskier eventually says, breaking the silence. His words carry more weight than he could possibly convey and he hopes Geralt understands . He can see the other's guilt lined in the grooves of his face. Not physical scars, not pink and puckered and raised, but deeper. Scars that don't show but scars that Jaskier can still see. You just have to look harder for them, that is all. Jaskier is always looking harder, he's always noticing things about Geralt. He has been for years.

Geralt merely hums in response. Noncommittal. Jaskier knows his words have been heard but he does not know whether Geralt will believe him.

Always taking the weight of the world on his shoulders, always trying to bear the brunt of the pain. Bottle it up, that is a Witcher's motto. Pretend you are fine until the very end.  

Geralt is strong but he cannot carry his guilt forever. He cannot blame himself for the wrongs in the world and he cannot try to be someone he is not. 

"We could get away for a while," Jaskier says and all he can think of is his dream. "Head to the coast. Take a break from it all. That is, if I've proved myself a worthy travelling companion" 

He laughs although nothing is funny about this situation. Nothing at all. "Life can be short, even if you're supposed to live forever." He knocks his shoulder purposefully against Geralt's, turning to face him. Geralt does not look back, his jaw is tightened and still, he stares over the horizon. His eyes, though. They are unusually bright but Jaskier does not comment on it.

"Do what makes you happy while you still can." Jaskier continues. "I sound like Borch now, but… it's true." 

The words spill from Jaskier's lips, curling from his mouth like steam. It lingers in the air, hanging like a puppet on strings between the two. His words are dizzying, swirling about them in thick mist. It is a chance, a choice. 

It is a proposition.

"Composing your next ballad?" Geralt eventually responds.

Rejection. It stings.

"No." Jaskier half-laughs, although his tone is pained. Geralt stiffens beside him, a shadow flickering across his eyes. "I'm just trying to figure out what makes me happy."

And that is it.

Not outright, not spoken plainly, but the message has been conveyed.

It's a jigsaw puzzle, all you have to do is put the pieces together.

Going to the coast with you would make me happy. Going anywhere with you would make me happy.

Jaskier has done it. He has made the first step.

The chasm is back, the void that divides them so clearly in Jaskier's mind. He has taken the first step onto the rope bridge. Only rotting planks of wood hold him above the void now, only ragged rope and tethered edges. 

Geralt looks at him from across the void, he sees the step, he sees the push for something more.

He looks and Jaskier turns him, leans further into the warmth beside him. 

But Geralt pulls away and he makes no steps forward.

The wind is howling and their bridge is shaking. Geralt's leg twitches, as if a step wants to be taken, but it is not. 

Instead, he turns his back. 

x

When Jaskier next awakens, he is alone.

The Dwarves are gone, Yennefer is gone, Geralt is nowhere to be seen. 

He has been left behind.

He tries to pretend that this doesn't sting, not even a tiny bit, but it does.

Obviously, something had happened and obviously, nobody had thought it worth it to wake him up.

The Dwarves, he doesn't really mind. They barely knew each other anyway and a few days of travelling doesn't exactly make for starstruck impressions. Yennefer, well, it's Yennefer so - in all honesty - Jaskier would be more worried if she'd woken him up in the first place.

But Geralt? That hurts.

He knows he's not exactly the most useful travelling companion, in fact, he's probably more of a hindrance than a help, but he's not completely useless. He could hold his own in a fight and even if he couldn't, Geralt had agreed to him tagging along.

Sure, at first Jaskier had kind of just… followed Geralt around, heedless of all the groans and threats and glares thrown his way, but that had stopped years ago. Now, if Geralt truly didn't want Jaskier around, all he'd have to do is tell him to fuck off. But he hadn't, and he hasn't.

Yet, now, he'd left Jaskier behind. 

He'll have to go and find them then, he supposes. 

x

He sees the Dwarves first. Frozen in place, as if time had simply stopped moving around them. They shock back into action at the sight of Jaskier stumbling down the mountain's side and together the group of them enter a cavern of sorts.

The bodies of countless Reavers litter the floor and there, stood in the thicket of it, is Geralt and Yennefer.

Borch, Téa and Véa. Jaskier rubs his eyes in disbelief. It is them though, truly. Back from the dead, stood there, as if they hadn't fallen down into the misted abyss of the ravine. 

Then he spies the green dragon. Or, more accurately, the corpse of the poor creature.

Even in death, the dragon is gorgeous. What would have once been vibrant green scales have now been dulled to a rust-brown and the glow is dull, devoid of all life, but still its beauty remains. In a sad, melancholy kind of beauty. The sort that makes one's heart twist painfully in their chest.

The Dwarves are paid off with a cluster of dragon's teeth and Borch is revealed to Jaskier as a golden dragon.

Later, he will look back on the experience with disbelief. The events had blurred together, twisted and shifted and everything had happened so fast that Jaskier struggles to make heads or tails of it.

All he remembers clearly is what happens next.

He doesn't think he could ever forget that.

x

Geralt wished for Yennefer to be bound to him.

That is what he hears over the wind, their raised voices spitting fire into the twilight. 

Yennefer is furious and Jaskier does not blame her. 

It makes sense, though. Geralt's loyalty to Yennefer, his searching for something that he thinks is there.

He had not bound Yennefer to him out of choice, he had done it to save her life, but that does not change that they are bound by a wish, bound by magic.

It is not real. 

Yennefer is hurt but she does not look surprised. She looks… resigned, as though she knows there was nothing there, as if there was never a spark of true love in the first place.

Geralt tries to hold on but there is nothing left. He is scrabbling at air, at threads that have already been pulled apart. He is holding on to nothing and he is falling.

Borch is there, between them, and he watches with solemn eyes.

Then Yennefer leaves and she does not look back.

She walks past Jaskier, grabs him by the wrist. Her violet eyes stare into his own, a smile toys at her lips. "This is it, then." She says and her fingers pull at the golden bracelet on his wrist. "Stay safe."

"You never know," Jaskier replies, "We might run into each other again." 

Yennefer tilts her head. "Maybe." She gestures back to Geralt. "Good luck, buttercup. He'll be in one of his moods now." 

She laughs and there is no joy in it, but she squeezes Jaskier's wrist once more and then she is gone.

Jaskier looks at the space where she had once stood for a few beats before he runs closer to Geralt, stumbling over his own feet. 

He keeps his voice light and airy, his tone happy in the hopes that it could possibly lessen the storm of Geralt's mind. Borch stands to leave, he speaks to Geralt in a tone that he can't quite pick up, but he offers a short smile to Jaskier as he passes by. Jaskier returns it and he means it. 

"Geralt! What a day! I imagine you're probably-"

He's cut off as Geralt whirls around to face him, a fury like no other burning in his eyes. "Damn it, Jaskier!" He roars and not once has Jaskier felt such anger from Geralt directed at him. He instinctively takes a step back.

"Why is it whenever I find myself in a pile of shit these days, it's you shovelling it!" 

He's practically frothing at the mouth, spit flying from his lips. The whites of his eyes glow and his face is contorted in pure fury. 

For the first time in twenty-two years, Jaskier is scared of Geralt.

"T-that's not fair…" Jaskier tries to say but he stutters, his voice wavers. He sounds weak, pathetic, but the fear won't leave him alone.

Geralt looks at him like he is nothing, like he has never been anything. Like all these years they have spent together has been for nothing. It burns and Jaskier's fear grows tenfold.

The fear grabs ahold of him, the great beast. The one that twists your insides out until nothing is the same. Eats at you from the very depth of your soul, bites away at your skin until your flesh is gone and nothing human remains. 

Even with the bracelet on, the fear rolls of Jaskier in waves. Poring as if from a waterfall, the scent of his fear wavers into the air. 

"The child surprise, the djinn, all of it!" 

Geralt raises his hand towards Jaskier and he flinches.

Suddenly, he feels like a young boy again. Back in his childhood home with his father roaring at him, his tutor cracking the wood of his cane against the floor. 

His knuckles burn and his skin feels as if it's on fire.

This is it, this is the end.

Jaskier waits. It's all he can do.

"If life could give me one blessing, it would be to take you off my hands." 

And there it is. The crux of the matter. It's all been unloaded now.

Jaskier fights the tears that sting at his eyes. He will not cry, not here, not where Geralt can see him. He will not give him that satisfaction.

He almost laughs. He wants to laugh. 

He's just watched the man who holds his very heart in his hands destroy it.

He is his mother. He has followed in her footsteps. All this time, he had been running from his past and yet, without realising, he had ran right into it.

That is the problem, he realises. You can spend all your life running but the world is only so big. Eventually, you will come full circle. Eventually, you will end up where you had left and this time there will be no escape. 

They can take you, every little piece that you've ever been, and stamp on it until there's nothing left. A warning from what had felt like another time. 

Jaskier remembers how his mother had been like water lilies, always floating on the surface, surviving even when drowning had seemed inevitable. She had once shone with her streaks of pink but soon they had faded until all that was left was the delicate white. Then the winter had come and it had never ended, and with it she had withered. 

This is Jaskier's winter. This is his end.

Geralt has done it. He has taken Jaskier's heart, taken his everything and Jaskier has watched him as he threw it to the ground. He has stamped on it, shattered it until nothing remains.

He is older now and the pieces do not mend themselves so easily. This time, it will never be fixed. It will never be whole once more. He is missing. Geralt has taken pieces of him that he will never get back.

The flowers are still in Geralt's hair, the crown of daisies he'd woven so carefully only a few days ago. But the petals are withered and the flowers are dead. Geralt scrubs his hand through them, pulls them out and crushes them beneath his clenched fists. 

So Jaskier leaves. He heads West, where the sun dips over the horizon and the darkness rises from behind him.

He leaves and he does not look back.

But once night has fallen and once darkness has spread over the sky, Jaskier lets himself break down. 

He cries and he cries and he cries and it is salty. 

Salty like the sea he sees in his dreams, The pearl of the sand and the blue of the ocean. 

Just like in his dreams, Jaskier is alone.

Chapter Text

The road down the mountain path is lonely and Jaskier walks it in silence.

He knows how to finish his song, at least. A silver lining on a stormy day, he supposes. A cherry on top of a steaming pile of horse shit. He doesn't know whether to be pissed off or thankful that this is the only thing that's come out of twenty-two goddamn years of his life. 

Thanks to this experience he's done more than finish that song, though. Now he's got a whole new set of ballads he can write. He's not written any poetry for a while, with his career so focused on his music. He might return to it, publish his newest series in a long line of heartbreak. He's certainly not going to be short of any inspiration. A novel, he could write. A soliloquy of his own heartbreak. All the sonnets he can spit out, all the lyrics he can manifest the shattering of his heart into.

Pain is beautiful, in a sick sort of way. He can take what is lost and make it into something new. 

A fresh coat of paint hides the cracks underneath but it does not heal them. 

He doesn't need healing, though. He just needs to forget.

He heads back to their abandoned camp, grabs his scant belongings. His lute and his pack. That is all he needs, all he has ever needed. Now it is just him and this is his entire life. Everything he has ever done, everything that belongs to him, is held in his arms.

He's lived for years and years and years and all he's got to show for it is a pack full of clothes and a lute that wasn't even his. 

It is all he needs to make a path on his own. All he needs to escape. He can wear his clothes and play his lute and sing, he can pretend that everything is fine even when it isn't.

He's always worn his heart on his sleeve, always fallen in love with all those who he meets and now he is paying the price. This is it.

He must leave, he has to keep going forward. There is no point in looking back. Behind him is nothing. The world behind him has gone and he needs to accept this, he needs to move on.

But fuck does it hurt. 

Down he heads and this time no shortcut is taken. He follows the unfamiliar road, the long route that the Reavers must have taken, until he reaches the path where they had originally split. Back when the biggest concern in Jaskier's life was where Geralt was sticking his cock. That had hurt back then but this was much worse.

Maybe he should have been counting his blessings, these past few months. Maybe he should have been grateful that although he could not have Geralt in the way he so desired, at least he had Geralt. At least he was wanted, at least they were friends.

But now they are nothing and Jaskier is alone. 

Further he goes. Further and further away from the rotting carcass of that poor dragon. Further and further away from where his heart lies in pieces, further and further away from the man who had shattered it until it could never hope to be mended. Never fully. 

He could heal, one day. He could feel better, he could get over this, but it would scar. It would always scar and there will always be a piece of him that is missing. No matter what he does next, no matter what he tries to fill his life with, there is a gap in him that has been taken. There is a space in him that will always hurt, that will always remain empty.

Maybe one day that space will eat him from the inside out. Poison him until there is nothing left, make him wither away and die. That's what it feels like right now. 

He had stood by Geralt's side for two whole decades. Stood by him through thick and thin, been the only constant in his life. He had put up with the growls and the grunts and the anger, the way Geralt would lash out when he felt uncertain, when he felt scared. He had put up with it all and he had stuck by Geralt and he had loved him. He had fallen in love with the man and now this was what it had all led to. This is what he has gotten. 

He wants to cry. He wants to scream, he wants to fucking wail until his voice is torn to shreds and the world around him burns to ash. 

He wants Geralt, even now, and he hates himself for it.

He spies the thicket of daisies amongst dried out grass, the very same daisies he had woven into Geralt's hair only a few days ago. The one that Yarpen had bitten back a sharp laugh at when Geralt had glared at him with eyes sharp as knives, as if daring him to make a comment. 

But those flowers in Geralt's hair were now dead. They were gone and shrivelled and dried-out and it did not matter. |

Everything has its time, Jaskier supposes. Beauty is fleeting and eventually that will wither and then there will be nothing. 

Well, here it is. This is his nothing.

He's had his twenty-two years of beauty and now this is all that's left. His winter is coming and he does not know where it will end. 

All he knows is that he is lost. He does not know what to do next, he does not know where to go next. His entire life had been Geralt. He had done other things, sure; he had wasted his time with the frivolities of others and he had sung his music and played his lute. A long time ago, that is what Geralt had been. Another one of his escapades, another story to write in his songs.

It was different now. Or, at least, it had been. Geralt had become more than a story to sing about, more than a chance for adventure, more than just a bit of fun.

Geralt had been his dearest friend. The person who he had loved more than anyone in the world. The person who he loves more than anyone in the world.

He wishes he didn't. He wishes he could throw it all away, forget that any of it ever happened. He wishes he could go back to before Posada, before he ever left for Oxenfurt. Back when he was a child and things were bad and awful and horrible but it was simple. Because now it is complicated, now it is a series of twists and turns and dips and hills and they are all things that Jaskier cannot forget.

The past has always haunted him. The gold around his wrist is proof of that, the way he had never learned to stay in the same place. The way he was always moving, always running, always hiding. The past has always been a fearsome beast, one that Geralt had been helping him fight off for years.

But now there was Geralt, feeding it. 

He continues his trek down the mountainside. Ignores the urge to turn back, to cry and beg and plead with Geralt that he let him stay. He will not return. He will not ask Geralt to forgive him. It is Geralt who needs to apologise, this is Geralt's mess and no matter how much Jaskier wants to be by his side, he will not let Geralt's actions go unexcused.

This hurts but he will not be walked over. He will not allow himself to be treated in such a way, to be screamed and shouted at and blamed for everything. 

It hurts and it hurts and it fucking hurts but Jaskier has to move on. 

It is the only thing he can do, now. He doesn't have a choice.

He comes to the path where he'd met the Hirikka, walks past the rotting body of Eyck, walks past the stinking flesh of the Hirikka's dismembered head. The remnants of a fire long burned out lays scarred in the ground, a shadow of what had once been. 

A shadow of things that could have been changed; things that could have gone differently.

Maybe, if he'd pushed, if he'd taken more than just one step forward on that bridge that crossed the chasm then none of this would have happened.

Or maybe he should stop blaming himself. Maybe, this isn't all down to him.

It is not his fault. The Child Surprise, the djinn, Yennefer. These are things that can be traced back to him, consequences of the world that revolves around Jaskier but they are not him. He was there, a bystander. He was not the catalyst nor did he intend to cause these events.

He was just there, caught up in it. Floating alongside Geralt, being swept up into a thunderstorm of destiny.

Maybe this isn't all his fault. Maybe, Geralt should take some responsibility for his own actions.

It is their differences returned once more. The fight, the flight.

Jaskier has gone, he has left, and Geralt fought tooth and nail to scare him off.

Well, Geralt's gotten what he so desired now. He'll be happy, probably. Or he thinks he will be. He thinks this is what will make it better, this is what will make it all go away.

But it won't. It never will, because Geralt doesn't know what he wants. Not one bit.

He'll realise that soon enough but Jaskier won't be around for him to fix things.

He'll realise what he's lost when he can never get it back, because Jaskier does not intend to return. This is it now, this is the dividing of ways. 

Looks like he has a new thing to run from now. The little lark, fleeing from the white wolf who broke his heart.

Sounds like a good theme for a song.

This is what Jaskier thinks as he makes it back to the clearing, where Roach sits there; waiting. She has been brushed down recently, fed, watered. True to their word, the owners of the nearby tavern had cared for her and all of the other animals left behind by the travellers. 

She looks at Jaskier with her big brown eyes, so very dark and black but with a ring of honey gold that glows bright like the sunlight. She watches him and she paws at the ground, swishing her tail this way and that. She snorts, shakes her head, and Jaskier breaks once more.

She senses that something is wrong, she knows that something is not quite right. She looks around for Geralt, paws at the ground once more, and Jaskier breaks.

He bursts into sobs. Loud, choking, ugly. He wraps his arms about Roach's neck, buries his face in the softness of her mane. He can feel the roughness of withered petals against his cheeks, the flowers he'd weaved in all those days ago, before the dragon had been a thing and before the mountaintops had ever been a destination in mind. Back when everything had been good, back when he and Geralt had not been exactly what he wanted but they had still been friends.

He feels stupid, foolish. He needs to reign in these emotions, grab ahold of himself once more but the tears won't stop.  

Roach nuzzles into him, comforts him in any way she can. She is just a horse but Jaskier has always had a connection with animals. Roach was no exception. She knocks her head against his shoulder and it just makes Jaskier cry harder. He wails, voice high and gasping and broken and he can't breathe but he can't stop.

It is only when his throat has been rubbed raw and it burns like fire and his eyes are pink and stinging that he runs out of tears to cry. He can feel the rough edge of thirst taking over, it had taken him almost the entire night for him to get back here once more and he had not stopped to eat or drink. He had not even thought about it. Not once had he stopped to think of his health, of what he needs to survive. His mind was a whirlwind and there had been no time for him to take a moment to himself. He had just needed to get off the mountain, leave his life with Geralt behind and start anew.

Actually, he's quite good at starting anew. He's done it so many times now, over the years. He tells himself that this time will be no different but he knows that this is a lie.

He's got enough coin to stay at the tavern though, the one where everything had started. He'd rather go somewhere else but he doesn't know where. He doesn't know what to do now, or where to even start. He needs to rest, though. he needs to sleep and eat and drink. Gods he needs a fucking drink. 

But his hands are lost in the softness of Roach's mane and all he can feel is the roughness of withered petals and he pulls them all out, disentangles them from auburn strands and throws them onto the ground where they are forgotten. He removes them all until there are no remnants of the petals that had once decorated Roach's mane in rainbow light. He brushes them out until the strands are silky and smooth and there isn't a single tangle in sight. 

Roach looks strange without anything in her mane. Jaskier has become so accustomed to his life with Geralt, so accustomed to their little traditions, that this just doesn't seem right.

He knows he should leave, say his final goodbyes to Roach and never come back. But he is a fool and he can't help himself.

He picks new ones. Fern and bracken and twined leaves, forget-me-nots and dandelions. There are daisies, too, but his fingers ghost over them and move on. He does not want them. 

So, for what might be the last time in his life, Jaskier sits there and weaves flowers into Roach's mane. As he works, as his fingers shift and flick and pull and tug, he catches sight of the gold on his wrist.

He feels sick to his stomach but not once does he stop. He weaves and weaves and weaves until all the flowers are gone and Roach is decorated with a garland of green and blue and white.

This is the horse who carried his half-lifeless body from the riverside to the fateful town of Rinde. It is this horse who has kept him company on so many long nights and endless evenings, listened to him talk and complain and offered no words (for horses cannot speak) but offered a comfort in a way so many others cannot. This is the horse who he bought apples for at the market, when he was transported to boyhood once more as he was forced out of a farmer's orchard with pitchforks and fire for scrumping their apples. Roach is his friend. A silent friend, but a friend nonetheless. 

But now this is the end. He probably won't see her again. Even if he runs into Geralt out on the road, there is no telling that this will be the same Roach. The life of a Witcher is dangerous and a horse, although strong, is still mortal. She might not be around the next time they cross paths; if they ever cross paths again. He gives her a pat goodbye and Roach nuzzles into the crook of his elbow. He smiles and tears spring to his eyes once more, but this time he does not cry. He wants to, though.

With one final pat, he leaves Roach standing there. Waves goodbye and walks away.

He does not turn around until he is certain that he is long gone.

And, with that, his old life with Geralt is left far behind him.

x

It is only after the events upon the mountaintop that Geralt stops trying to escape destiny.

You cannot escape the inevitable and all of Geralt's attempts to fight back have only made things worse.

Now he knows what the ultimate price for his foolishness is. Everything he had loved, everything he loves is now gone. Yennefer should hurt more. 

But it is Jaskier who he mourns for the most.

He knows what love is and he knows that what he had with Yennefer was not it. There was love there, between them, but Geralt has realised far too late that love comes in many different forms. He and Yennefer had had a connection, a lust and a want and a desire; but it had not been soft and sweet and gentle. It had been wild, like fireworks and fire and the crackle of lightning in night sky. 

He had tried to convince himself that it was her who he loved, her who he wanted; but it was not. He had lied and lied and lied and tried to convince himself that it was her who would make him whole but all this time it had been Jaskier.

All this fucking time he had been in love with Jaskier and now he's fucked it all up beyond repair. 

He sits on the mountaintop, completely alone once more, and wonders if any of this was worth it. 

When he eventually makes the journey down, all by himself, he finds himself missing the twitter of a voice, the hum of song and the strum of a lute. He had always said it was annoying, always told Jaskier to shut up but he'd never really meant it. But now he's got it but he never wanted this, not like this, not now.

He needs to block these feelings out. Pretends they do not exist. He is fine. He does not care.

But when he returns to Roach and sees the freshly woven flowers in her hair, something blocks his throat. There's an itch there that he can't scratch, a lump that he can't swallow. He runs his hands through his own hair, feels the dryness of withered flowers as they tumble to the ground. 

He closes his eyes, takes in one deep breath.

When he is atop of Roach once more, he knows where he must go.

Cintra is all that is left for him now. It is time he checks upon the Child Surprise.

The road ahead will be lonely and Geralt wishes he could go back in time, but what's done is done and there is nothing he can do to change that. It will hurt, though. It will be hard.

But he brought this upon himself and now he must live with the consequences.

x

The tavern is no less grimy than Jaskier remembers it, although it is certainly nowhere near as busy after the ending of the quest to slay the dragon. A small blessing, really. Jaskier does not want to be surrounded by strangers; not right now. 

It still stinks, though, and the very atmosphere of the place makes Jaskier's skin crawl. He does not want to be here, he does not want his life to be like this. He'll just have to suck it up, though. Accept his reality and get on with it.

He ignores it the discontent swirling in his gut, however. Instead, he sits and orders a drink. 

The owner is eyeing his lute, people are whispering his name. They want a song, they want him to play. He might as well put on a show.

He performs his old songs, the ones from a time before he met Geralt. He sings of the adventures he has had when Geralt was not there; when it was just him. His story, something that he owns all by himself. He has a life outside of the Witcher. He's been in fights, even slain a few monsters all by himself. He's not as strong as Geralt but he's not weak. He is more than a sidekick, he is more than a tagalong and he wants people to know this. 

He doesn't want to be the bard and the Witcher anymore. He doesn't want it to be Jaskier and Geralt. He wants it to be just him, just Jaskier, just the bard. Nobody else. 

He sings of the time he got caught in a noble-daughter's bed, when he was chased out by her furious father who demanded that his cock pay the price. He sings of the mothers he has fucked, the sisters, the cousins and nieces. He sings of the sons and the fathers and the brothers but never does he mention 'he'. Always them, always her. It is safer that way. This is his life and it is his story and nobody can change that. It does not matter what has happened and what is yet to take place, this is him and no amount of heartbreak will change that.

He sings of his 'conquests', of all those who he has laid with, of all those who have a tiny piece of his heart.

Then, he sings of Geralt. 

It is his new song. The one he had just finished, right there upon the mountain's peak. The lyrics had risen to him like froth upon a tumultuous sea and like water they spill freely from betwixt his lips. It is a soft ballad, a slow one. Perhaps unsuited for this sort of establishment. But still he sings it, still his fingers strum the melancholy chords and his voice wavers and dips, swells with emotion until it cracks right at the end.

It is a hit. Perhaps too slow, perhaps too crooning, but the people do not seem to mind. The money pours in and with it Jaskier can buy more ale, more drink. More and more and more.

So that's what he does.

Drowning your sorrows is easy, he realises.

Because it is. It is easy to drown, all you have to do is let go. Relax. Close your eyes and lean back, let the water rise and let it take you.

The hardest part is trying to survive, trying to stay afloat. The animalistic urge that plagues every single creature upon this land, the primal instinct to survive. That is the panic, as you flail and gasp and shake for a breath of fresh air. But once the water enters your lungs, once it infects your very bloodstream, it becomes peaceful. it becomes easy. Right now, this is his storm. But soon that will pass and soon it will all be calm, it will all be better.

Jaskier had always been a fantastic swimmer but all it takes is one storm, one whirlpool or riptide, and even the strongest swimmers can be sent under.

So he drinks and drinks and drinks.

He drinks until the room spins and he can't remember his own name. People's faces blur together in a whirl and he is certain that he continues singing, that he continues drinking, but the memories of his evenings become a blackened whirlpool of nothing. There is a void in what happened that evening, an empty space where Jaskier cannot recall anything.

This soon becomes normal. Soon, it is most nights where memory is replaced by void and Jaskier wakes up with his head pounding and the taste of vomit on his lips. 

This is his drowning. He is still kicking, still screaming, still hurting.

But he is waiting for it to all go quiet. Waiting for him to be able to let go. 

x

Time passes and Geralt nears Cintra. 

He plans a meeting with Mousesack. He needs to take responsibility for his fate now. He can't keep fighting against it.

He only wishes he'd realised this sooner. Perhaps, if he had, Jaskier would…

He shakes the thoughts from his mind, tightens his hands upon Roach's reigns. Now is not the time for such thoughts. He was right to get rid of Jaskier, he was a nuisance and an unneeded distraction.

But even as he tells himself that, guilt stabs at his heart. 

x

Jaskier is slipping downwards. A spiral, an endless one, is pulling him down.

Like quicksand, he is sinking but he does not care enough to stop it.

He becomes reckless. He becomes careless. He sings and drinks and fucks and pretends that he is happy and every so often, it works.

x

He gets into a relationship. A new one, with a girl named Priscilla. She too is a bard and she too has a natural talent for music. 

She uses a stage name. That of Callonetta, and she plays her lute alongside Jaskier in dark taverns that stink of piss and ale and vomit. She tells him her real name when he fucks her, looking up at him with well-kissed lips and glossy eyes. They sleep side by side and when Jaskier wakes up the next morning, she is still there.

She is strong, but nervous. A tad shy when she is not hiding under her outlandish stage persona. Her hair is long and blonde and silky smooth and, when they lay in bed together, Jaskier runs his fingers through it, carefully sorts out the clumps of tangles and knots and curls that form as they go about their nightly activities. He braids her hair sometimes, too. But never once does he weave flowers into it.

She is lovely, gorgeous. A wonderful woman. Jaskier enjoys her company greatly. 

Unlike Geralt, she is predictable and he revels in that at the beginning. There are no grand adventures with her and she does not like to travel. Instead, she has made a name for herself in the grand city of Novigrad and that is where her and Jaskier stay. They move in together, into a cramped cottage that was only meant for one. It is too fast, too quick, but still they jump into it. Jaskier wants to pretend that this makes it all better, that this will glue back together the shattered remains of his heart. She overthinks, she plans and makes lists and knows exactly what she wants in her life. Jaskier becomes her wildcard, her lapse of judgement and her period of fun.

They live a comfortable life for a good few months. Jaskier learns many things about her, the way her lips taste of honey and beeswax from the gloss she slides over them, how her eyes darken and her eyelashes flutter when Jaskier touches her just so. She bites her lips when she is nervous and she pulls at hangnails on her fingers when she is uncomfortable. 

Beautiful does not quite cover Priscilla, the word does not seem like enough to truly convey just how wonderful she is. She treats Jaskier with nothing but kindness and while she can be harsh and brusque and occasionally she will say things that she does not mean, she helps him.

He writes songs about her and she writes songs about him and they perform in taverns and soon the whole city praises their names. Jaskier no longer sings alone and they become a double act, two partners that people travel across the continent to hear. 

He drinks less when she is around. He says it is so he remains alert. Life is dangerous for all bards in general, more than one might usually think, but it is increasingly so for a woman. There are drunken men in bars who reach out and grab. Jaskier has been on the receiving end of a few loose tongs and greedy fingers more times than he'd like to admit, but it is harder for a woman. The men do not need to hide their tendencies when they're reaching and grasping and pulling at the girl with the lute who sings in birdsong and dances like an angel. There is no need to hide when it is a man and a woman; Jaskier is lucky in that retrospect. He still receives his unwanted advances, from both men and women alike, but it is the men who are the most violent and it is the men who have to be careful with Jaskier. Priscilla, they do not have to worry. They try to do what they want and (as Jaskier later learns) many had gotten away with it.

So Jaskier tries to drink less, if only to make her more comfortable, to offer himself as a defence for when hands get particularly grabby and eyes begin to wander, and the two of them share a short period of peace. 

Jaskier loves her but it is not like Geralt. It is not the same. 

It is when they are laying in bed with one another, when Priscilla is curled up at his side, blonde hair ticklish against his bare ribs, that Jaskier realises this. Her eyelashes flutter and she breathes deeply, completely and utterly lost in the world of sleep. She looks peaceful like this. 

She is younger than Jaskier, in both his actual age and his faux-age, only in her mid-30s and her eyes are lined with faint little lines, marks of days spent smiling and evenings spent laughing.

She deserves more than this. She deserves more than Jaskier.

He cannot love her in the way she wants, in the way she needs. He keeps trying to pretend that he is over Geralt, that he doesn't need Geralt, but he is just lying to himself. No matter what he does, no matter how hard he tries, he can't let go.

He and Priscilla break it off on amicable terms. They still perform together, whenever the time calls for it. They remain friends, close ones at that. She helps Jaskier home when he has drunk too much and she sits with him sometimes, lets him simply cry.

She does not judge him for that and Jaskier is thankful for her. 

When he takes leave of Novigrad, finds himself feeling tethered once more, he tries to keep in touch. It is a hard thing to do, when he never stays in the same place long enough, but they manage. She sends him letters and he sends letters back and for a while, she is the only constant in his life.

She keeps him grounded and that is what Jaskier needs.

All he wants to do is float away, disappear on the endless blue of sky, but she reminds him that there are still things left for him here.

x

Jaskier remembers his lessons at Oxenfurt, remembers how he had once taken such enjoyment in teaching. He debates going back there, to take his position as professor once more but he eventually decides against it. 

He drinks too much and he's too irresponsible, he forgets days at a time and he sleeps around for weeks. His life is chaos, uprooted by a storm and whirling like a hurricane. He cannot handle the judgement of others, he could not bear to return to Oxenfurt; a reminder of a place where he had structure, of the city where he was a piece of something much bigger.

He had left Oxenfurt over two decades ago to look for something bigger. He had wanted to expand that tiny little corner that he inhabited, grow it into something much larger and much more vast than anyone could have ever imagined.

Well, he has done that now. He has made it. The entire Continent knows his name and the entire world sings his songs for all to hear. His tiny little corner, the one he had once lit up bright with just his two hands, is now so big that he cannot see one end from the other. It is teeming with people, bursting at the seams with all the threads of the world and Jaskier feels trapped.

It is too big and Geralt is gone and his torches of fire are distinguished, his wings of fire are gone and he has fallen. No longer can he light up the darkness, no longer can he stop the spread of shadow in his corners.

He has never been a fan of small spaces. Things that constrict, things that force you into submission. But his corner is too full, there are too many faces and too many things he tries to run from. The walls are endless but they are closing in, he can't breathe and he can't escape but still he keeps running.

And the problem he now faces is the fact that the world is not endless, even if it feels that way. Although the space he now inhabits spreads far and wide and touches almost every corner of the Continent, it is still not big enough.

Jaskier keeps running, he keeps trying to hide, but he has already been everywhere. There is nowhere left for him now, nowhere left for him to go.

He does not know what to do. 

He is lost.

x

The following period of his life is absolute hell.

The world is crumbling around him and he doesn't know what to do. He tries to live a normal life but his wrist burns and the gold against his skin makes him feel dirty. He does not fit in amongst the humans but he cannot return to the Elves. He abandoned them, he gave up the right to his blood when he first slid the bracelet over his wrist, when he first tried to hide the very threads of his identity.

He struggles to come to terms with who he is, with what he wants. He is conflicted. He burns with hatred, with anger, for Geralt. He detests him, he is furious with the way he was shouted at on that mountain, the unfairness of it all. But more than that he is furious with himself. He is furious with himself for being so bothered by all of this, for caring so much about Geralt. He is furious because he misses him and he knows he shouldn't. He is furious because, despite it all, he still loves Geralt but he doesn't want to.

He wants to be free, he wants to disappear and start all over again but he can't. He can't keep running forever.

Again, he throws himself into old vices, falls down the trap of addiction. In a cycle he becomes trapped, a riptide that pulls him in and pushes him out, spins him in circles until he is dizzy and disorientated and until there is no hope of his escape. He forgets where he is and who he is and what he is doing and still he slips deeper, downwards and downwards until left is right and north is south. 

He drinks and he drinks and he drinks more than he ever thought possible. He sings and he still sings of Geralt, even though he knows that it will not make a difference, that his songs will not make everything that has happened disappear. But still, he sings. Still, he pretends that everything is all right.

Eventually his reputation shifts. No longer is he the proud companion of the White Wolf. the strange bard who had travelled behind the witcher with sparkling eyes and bright smiles.

Now he is the bard who sings of love and loss. He is bawdy, he is sad, he sings of virtues and vices and he is still just as popular but it is not the same. 

He becomes 'easy', that is what people call him. He is a good lay for a few nights, a good shag. People fuck him and he fucks them and always he wakes up alone. He stops paying for rooms at inns. He does not need to, not now. There is always someone who is willing, always someone who will take him home with them. 

But when he wakes up, slips out in the quiet of morning, the beds are always cold. 

The connections are brief and he tells himself that is all he needs. He does not need anything else, he does not want anything else. Lust and love, the age-old battle. The conflict he thought he'd freed himself from. But here he is, back to the world where they are one in the same and he tries to pretend that these mindless flings make him happy.

But no matter where he treads there is always a memory. He and Geralt had travelled the expanse of the world together. There is rarely a village or path that he treads upon that does not bring back some kind of memory. 

He starts filling his waterskins with alcohol now. Anything he can find, strong and cheap. He never used to risk getting drunk on the open road, not if he could help it, but now he needs it. he needs this, he needs to numb it all; just for a few hours.

He wakes up hungover but he just drinks more. He drinks through it and his clothes get torn and he buys new ones but he still looks fucked up, his eyes become shadowed with black bruises and his lips are bitten down, bleeding and chapped. He loses weight, he doesn't eat as much anymore. But still he manages to hide. He mends his clothes and smiles brighter and brighter and although they never meet his eyes, nobody is looking at his eyes anymore. 

It is the effort he makes to hide, the mask he wears to pretend he is okay. 

When the bags under his eyes grow too dark, he takes makeup from the women he lays with. Not too much, not enough that they will notice it, but enough that he can cover it up. Pretend that he is fine.

And that is how it continues for much of the following period of his life.

He walks the earth only half-coherently, only half-sober, and he pretends he is fine.

But he is always asking about Geralt, always questioning the whereabouts of the White Wolf. When he hears that he has been sighted West, he moves East. When Geralt is up North, he makes his way down South. 

He avoids Geralt for he fears that if he sees him again, he will not be able to live with it. He is scared that the sight of him will break him. That the pieces of him that he has so precariously taped back together will fall apart.

He's barely managing as it is and he can't risk falling again. 

But for now, he pretends and he nurses the broken remains of his heart with his meaningless fancies. 

He is fine, he tells himself. He will get better. This is all just part of the process. He just has to wait it out, wait for the water to enter his lungs and for everything to calm down.

This is the stage before you drown, he reminds himself. This is the storm.

But soon it will pass and all that will be left is the quiet. That is what he must wait for, that is what he must hold on to.

Eventually, it will come. Eventually, this will pass. Eventually, he will be able to let go.

But he fears that he won't. He fears that his heart has been broken beyond repair. He fears that he will end up like his mother. That he will fade and wither and die with each passing day until eventually there is nothing left. 

He is angry at himself. Angry at himself for getting so attached. Angry at himself because he'd been convinced that there was something more that lay between him and Geralt. He's angry because he wanted more

He's angry because Geralt blamed him for everything. He's angry because Geralt had no right to treat him like that, no matter how bad his day had been. He's angry because he had put up with it, because he had let Geralt shout at him like that and he had done nothing.

But most of all he is angry that he misses Geralt, because he shouldn't.

He fucking shouldn't.

Yet here he is. Missing him.

x

"Jaskier!" He hears from behind him. A familiar voice. It can't be…

He turns and there she is.

"Yennefer." He responds and she smiles back at him, although it doesn't quite meet her eyes.

"You look like shit." She says and Jaskier laughs. 

"I could say the same thing about you." 

And it's true. Yennefer looks a farsight better than him, in all honesty, but she's certainly looked better. 

She's still gorgeous, still ridiculously beautiful, but she too has bags that rest under her eyes and a tightness to her jaw that was never there before. There's a raggedness that had never been there before, an essence of weakness that she has let slip. No longer does she seem untouchable, no longer does she appear like the untouchable sorceress; the one who can walk the world unaffected by all that goes on around her. This roughness is a reminder that she is alive. That she is made of flesh and blood and she still bleeds even if she does a damn good job of hiding it. 

This is another thing they have in common.

Jaskier takes another gulp of his drink, but Yennefer stops him. Her hand wraps around his wrist and she pulls the glass from him. "I think you've had enough." She says and her tone brooks no argument. 

It reminds Jaskier of the night before the banquet, so many long years ago. When he had washed those selkiemore guts out of Geralt's hair and he had looked at him with softened eyes, gentle and sweet in the candlelight. Such an event seems like it took place in an alternate dimension, certainly not here. It does not feel like it actually happened, it does not feel like something that Jaskier experienced.

But this is different. There is no banquet and there is no Geralt. It is Jaskier who is drinking and it is Yennefer who is trying to stop him. It is not the same. There is none of that tension, the faint thrum of desire that had always permeated the areas that Geralt and Jaskier inhabited.

Instead, it is two old friends who have both been fucked over by the same man. This is their solidarity, this is their peace. 

His head is spinning and his eyes are burning and he really wants his drink back. He wants to numb it, to forget. To drink enough that his mind is scattered and his thoughts don't make any sense, become so inebriated that it doesn't matter what happens to him because he certainly won't remember it come morning.

"Gods, Jaskier," Yennefer says, looking at him. She takes a sip from his glass, wincing at the taste. "He really fucked you up." 

Her words are harsh, her tone biting, but Jaskier can see the truth in her eyes. She looks at him not with pity, not with scorn, but with empathy . Yennefer understands. She always seems to understand him. Once, he had hated it. Once, he had hated that she could read him like an open book, how she knew the secrets of his life, the things he had kept hidden for so long. He had hated how she had known, how she had known so much of him without him even saying a word.

Now, he is thankful for it.

"What happened?"

And Jaskier tells her. 

Yennefer is a good listener, it turns out. She is hard and cold and she has built up her walls to protect herself from harm, but deep down she will always carry her past with her. She will always be the hunchback girl of so long ago and she will always bear her scars. No amount of hiding, no amount of magic or power or strength or control will ever take her past away from her. 

She listens and at first Jaskier feels foolish, talking to Yennefer of all people about these issues, but he finds that he has been missing someone to confide in. Someone who knows.  

He has missed Yennefer, he realises. He had missed her sharp wit and her cutting remarks. Even if her presence had always seemed like a stab in the back, a blade with two edges, she knows things about him that nobody else knows.

It is strange, he thinks. Geralt had known him, as he stood by his side. He had known Jaskier and the life he had built for himself. Yennefer knows Julian, or what he once was. 

Now, however, she is getting to know Jaskier and a part of that hurts, because Geralt will never get to know Julian. Not now. 

But as Jaskier finishes, speaking of the final words that had been said upon the mountaintop, Yennefer lets out a long sigh.

She finishes Jaskier's drink, looks at the bottom of the empty glass. She flags the bartender for another two. 

She looks tired, worn down. Her eyeshadow is smudged, uneven. The rouge on her lips is sloppily applied, as though she was in a rush, as though she did not care enough to perfect it. She is still beautiful beyond all words, still stunning in her power and her prestige and still perfect in her poise and grace and essence, but she is waning; ever so slightly.

The drinks are given to them, coin is exchanged for more booze and Yennefer raises her glass.

"Fuck Geralt." She says, holding out her glass. Jaskier clinks his own against it, taking a long, deep gulp. He swallows it and it settles like lead in his stomach.

"You don't mean that." He eventually responds with, voice quiet and subdued.

Yennefer looks at him, long and hard. 

"No. I don't." 

She shakes her head, clenches her fists. "But he fucked us both up," and there's a sharp edge to her voice, an open wound that hasn't quite healed. "and now here we are." 

x

It is much later, on that same long night when he and Yennefer sit beside one another. Jaskier is completely and utterly pissed, as he so often is these days, and even Yennefer is not as steady on her feet as she might have usually been. He stinks of ale and smoke and his eyes are red and he's still hurting but when he is like this, it is easier to forget.

They sit outside, under the blanket of stars. Yennefer's hair is darker than the expanse of sky, so dark that Jaskier thinks he could fall right into it, fall into that deep, dark chasm of long black hair. Have it wrap around his ankles, tendrils of midnight curling around his torso until he can't breathe. 

Yennefer is dangerous and it is in moments such as these that Jaskier remembers that.

She observes him with those violet eyes, a periwinkle blue sometimes, if you can catch her in the right light. But now it is dark and her eyes are almost black with it.

"You loved him, didn't you." Her words are questioning but her tone is not. She already knows. Jaskier's betting half the entire Continent have figured out the meanings of his songs, pieced together the broken-hearted caterwauling and figured out just why the Master Bard no longer travels alongside the White Wolf.

It seems like everyone bloody knows. Yet Geralt…

" Love ." Jaskier absent-mindedly corrects. "I… fuck, I still love him. Even after all that shit, even after he blamed everything on me. He f-fucking tossed me out like garbage and I still love him." 

He thinks he might be crying, now. He can't really tell. But his eyes are wet and he can taste salt and all he can think of is the sea. Maybe he should go there, alone. Maybe it will be good for him. He feels like a moron, a fucking idiot, but there it is. That's the truth. He still loves Geralt and he doesn't know if he can ever stop. 

"He loves you." Yennefer says and Jaskier chokes.

"Don't say that. Not now, just-" 

"It's true, though. He's… if it's any consolation, I've heard he's not doing too great either."

Jaskier laughs, but it is bitter and empty. 

"I thought he loved you." 

Yennefer tenses.

"He thought so too."

There's a pause. Jaskier knows that Yennefer wants to say more, he can see it in the tightness of her jaw, the way she rubs her lips together, licks them as if they are going dry. 

"I've never… I don't go in for that kind of thing. Love. I don't think I ever loved him, not like that. In a different way, perhaps, but not how he wanted it." She swallows. "Even if I had loved him, how could I be sure if any of it were real?" There are different kinds of love , she doesn't say, but Jaskier knows. He knows what she means. Geralt had made him good at reading the words that go unsaid. 

She tightens her hands into fists, her nails digging into her palms. She has shifted them onto her knees, the fabric of her dress slipping down to reveal the expanse of her wrists. Her skin is dark, smooth. But there are the light patches of scars that run down her wrists, ones that have healed but ones that Jaskier recognises. He knows how they got there, or he can make a good guess. 

Here, right now, Yennefer looks weak. Vulnerable. 

"I spent all my life making sure that I had the choice, that I had the power in what I said or did or- and then he wishes for our fates to become one. He…" 

She turns to look at Jaskier, really look at him, and there is a measure of desperation in her eyes.

"He took that away from me. I know he didn't mean to, I know his intentions were good, but still he-"

She cuts herself off, shakes her head with a derisive laugh.

"And yet, in a strange sort of way, I still love him." 

Jaskier shifts closer to her, knocks their shoulders together. She looks surprised, almost affronted by the touch, but soon she shoves him back. Like siblings, old friends, and that is what Yennefer is. That is what he is to Jaskier. 

"I'll drink to that." And they laugh.

x

He does not see Yennefer again. Not for many years.

But always he will cherish what they had. An understanding, empathy for the other's sorrows. 

He hears of her. Hears of the mage who is willing to do anything for what she wants. A powerful, beautiful mage who is alone. 

He seeks her out a few times. He wants to speak to her again, see her again.

But, always, she is gone.

x

Geralt and Yennefer continue to cross paths at an alarming rate. The Djinn's magic has not faded, it seems, and their constant contact hurts.  

They do not speak, they completely ignore one another. Yennefer is cold, dismissive. She turns her back on Geralt when he catches her eye and if she catches him first, she will stop what she is doing and leave.

Geralt can smell the anger on her, the annoyance. But more than that he can smell the hurt.

You lied, it says. You knew what that wish meant. You knew that it was your wish that brought us together and you let me believe it was something more.

But more than that, you used me because I made things easier. You could accept loving me. You let me be your second best and pretended that I wasn't. 

You hurt him and you hurt me. 

When they had first met after the incident on the mountain, Geralt had tried to apologise. Tried to say anything that could perhaps lessen the tension riding between them. But Yennefer had wanted none of it. She had looked up at him, expression deadpan and her eyes cold. 

"Fuck off, Witcher." She had said and Geralt had never tried to talk to her again.

x

"You really fucked him up." A familiar voice drawls from his side.

Geralt looks up. Yennefer stands there, looking beautiful but perhaps a bit dishevelled. Her arms are folded and her eyes are hard, cold. Like steel. This is the first time they have spoken in months. She still stinks of anger, still stinks of hurt. Geralt knows that, as a mage, Yennefer can mask her scent; but she has not been doing so. She wants Geralt to know, she wants Geralt to feel the guilt for what he has done. She wants to make things worse, make things harder for Geralt.

It is what he deserves, after all.

Yet, as she speaks to Geralt now, there is another scent lingering under it all. Resignation. 

Geralt has the urge to apologise again, has the urge to try and amend what had gone wrong but, as if sensing this, Yennefer raises a hand; shoots him a glance of warning. "Save it. I don't want to hear it. The only person you should be apologising to you is him."

"Who?" Geralt grunts but he already knows. He doesn't want to talk about Jaskier. Not here, not now. It… it hurts and he doesn't want to think about why it hurts so much. 

"Don't play games with me, Witcher." Yennefer growls, sitting across from him. She always sits with such elegance, with such perfect poise, but there is poison dripping from her lips and venom pouring from her eyes. 

"He told me what happened on that mountain." She continues. "You had no right to treat him like that."

"You saw him?" Geralt asks, a key of desperation in his voice. He had tried to find Jaskier, tried to seek him out, and following the trail that he left in his wake was not difficult. It was hard to find a person who didn't know who Jaskier was, the Master Bard.

But then, he supposes, Jaskier had also made him famous.

It is easy to know one's whereabouts when the entire world knows your name. It is just as easy for Jaskier to run as it is for him to follow. 

Geralt feels sick to his stomach. He's being avoided. He knows he deserves it, Jaskier has every right to be as furious with him as he no doubt is, but it hurts.

He caused this. He hurt Jaskier and he hates the fact that there is nothing he can do about it. 

"How is he?" Geralt asks because he wants to know. He regrets what he did back on that mountain but he doesn't know how to make things right. He pushed Jaskier away because he was scared that he would hurt him. He never wanted to hurt Jaskier, he never wanted to cause him pain but ironically he had just made it all worse. 

"He's alive," Yennefer says, slowly, teeth digging into her bottom lip. She blinks, long eyelashes creating dark shadows across her cheeks. "His songs are doing well." 

"But what about him?"

Yennefer looks at him and Geralt feels strangely vulnerable, lost. He feels young, a child once more. He's stumbling through this situation like a bull in a china shop. He was made for fighting, made for killing monsters, he doesn't know how to do this . He's not suited to subtleties and friendship.

He thought he was used to being alone. 

But now he needs Jaskier. He spent all his time pushing and pushing and pretending all he needed was himself but now here he is. Lying to yourself, hiding from the things that scare you, does not change the truth.

It just makes it all the more hurtful that Geralt has lost everything and the only person he can blame is himself.

"I'm not telling you that." Yennefer eventually responds. "He wouldn't want me to."

And that hurts.

"But Geralt," Yennefer's voice softens ever so slightly. "Listen to the songs." 

And then she is gone and Geralt sits alone.

x

Even if Geralt cannot find Jaskier himself, his songs are sung everywhere across the continent. None are quite as talented as Jaskier, none can sing quite so beautifully nor play their instruments with such starstruck passion. None can compare and Geralt wonders why we only realise how important things are when they are gone.

But he listens .

He listens and he understands.

He feels like a goddamn fool.

x

Jaskier makes a pass at a man who he thinks is interested in him.

He was wrong.

He tastes copper in his mouth and his ribs burn.

He thinks of the body, the one he had found all those many years ago. 

He wonders when that will be him.

x

The years go on by and tensions across the continent seem to be rising.

There are rumours that Nilfgaard is making advancements. Small villages are being ravaged and little towns are being burned to the ground.

There are rumours that they are heading to Cintra. But what could Nilfgaard do to such a kingdom? People laugh it off. They do not worry. Why should they? For years Nilfgaard had been the laughing stock of the Continent, a city so ravaged by the wars of old that there was no reason for anyone to take their growing threats seriously. 

But Nilfgaard is growing stronger and stronger, day by day. They have been biding their time, growing in numbers and hiding in dark corners where the light does not shine and they can swell and rise and burn in peace. 

They are coming. The warnings are all there and more and more villages are falling under their armies. 

Yet still, they go unignored. 

x

Calanthe can be a right bitch when she doesn't want something to happen.

Geralt finds this out the hard way.

But still, he perseveres. He will not fight destiny, not this time. 

x

During his travels, Jaskier meets Countess De Stael.

She is a noble, but her wealth is slowly fading. She is the old that is dying out and the life of luxury she had once lived is gradually coming to an end. Not that such a thing bothers her. She'd been an upstart in the noble world, apparently, someone who had always disobeyed the rules set out for her. Perhaps, in another world, Jaskier would have been much of the same breed. Has his title meant anything, outside the confines of a dying elf village, he'd like to imagine that he'd have caused his family just as much grief. 

Jaskier meets her in dusty taverns and old bars, places most unbefitting for a lady of her status. She doesn't seem bothered, however. In fact, the Countess does not care what anybody thinks of her. She is bold and brash and independent and she laughs and loves and genuinely does not give a fuck what other people may say about her when her back is turned. 

She likes his music. She sings along to the songs she knows, shouts and laughs and swears at the men who make passes at her, who smile lecherously from behind shark-like grins. She drinks like a goddamn sailor and she can throw a punch strong enough to knock a man clean out. (Jaskier knows, he had watched her do it) 

She reminds Jaskier of Fain, actually. The way she sings aloud slightly out of tune, the way that her laughs light up a room and everyone's attention is ever-steadily drawn to her happiness. She is charismatic and bright, she demands attention and she revels in living under the spotlight. Although she is rougher than Fain ever was, she is harder and more callous, but she is older. Perhaps is Jaskier found Fain now, if he was still alive, he would have been something like this. 

She is honest and brutal and says what she thinks. Never does she mince her words and she has little time for those who try and tell her how she should live her life. She is not like any other noble that Jaskier has met and, ever so slowly, he falls in love with her. She seems to be able to mend his heart with the way she shouts out the titles of his songs, requests another one of his bawdiest tunes and laughs freely and openly. He watches her as she flirts and smiles and winks her way into men's trousers, the way that she too is a performer, although in a very different way.

She is just as broken as Jaskier, just as filled with chaos and anger and sadness and that is what brings them together, that is what draws them to one another like a moth to a flame.

It is easier to feel better about yourself when you can be with someone who is just as bad as you. 

She is older, in her late forties, but she is no less beautiful because of it. She has wrinkles where she smiles and frowns, tales of a life she has lived and a life she has both laughed and cried in. 

Jaskier writes songs about her instead, captures her beauty in lyrics and words and tune and sings them for the world to hear.

She is hurting too, however, and their relationship is built on bad ideas and poor decisions but goddamn does it work. 

She is a widow. Her husband died young, an illness that had gotten infected and by the time anyone had realised the severity of his condition, it was too late. She had lived her life confined in her title, wasted her years trying to conform to what was expected of her and now she has given up. She wants to be free, wants to live how she deems fit and she does not care.

She is hurting and perhaps she and Jaskier do not truly love each other but both fill a gap, both fill a hole that was left by something more. They fill in one another's broken pieces, glue cracks back together and the two of them combined make something strange and chaotic and beautiful together.

They are like a jigsaw puzzle where the pieces don't quite fit but still you can force them in. They're not right and they don't make an image that is clear and clean and pretty but neither of them care. it works and maybe it isn't normal or healthy or what either of them needs but it is what they want. Both of them had spent their lives running from what they want, unable to take what they so truly desired and now they are doing it; regardless of what might be best for them.

They are similar. They drink a lot, far too much probably. They laugh and they cry and they shout and Jaskier sings and she paints.

They are both artists, both workers of the craft. They take what they see and turn it into something more, something else. They can take parts of the world and create it in their own image, share it for the very world to see. 

So she paints and he sings and together they create a world for one another where they think they might be happy.

They stay together for a few years and this marks Jaskier's longest relationship ever.

He thinks he is in love with her as she sleeps by his side. She is beautiful and wonderful but she is still not what Jaskier truly wants.

At the beginning, he hadn't been what she had wanted either but times are changing and slowly, there are things that are shifting about.

They have found one another amongst the darkness and this is what they share, this is what blossoms between them and Jaskier no longer sleeps alone and no longer is his heart so broken. 

He is healing, slowly.

But this cannot last forever.

It is a few days after her forty-seventh birthday that she notices something. She had been getting dressed, brushing her hair in the length of the mirror and then she had found a grey hair. She had looked self-conscious about it, turned away from Jaskier who did not look a day older than thirty. But he had kissed her, told her that she would be beautiful no matter how old and grey she grew and he had meant it.

But as her hair grows more and more silver, as the brown fades to grey, Jaskier is reminded that, for as much as she loves her, his heart still belongs to another.

But he pretends, he doesn't want Geralt to have his heart, he doesn't want to be in love with the man who hurt him so. He forces himself to think that the Countess is all he needs.

Her hair gets greyer and greyer, however, and Jaskier is reminded that he cannot have this forever.

x

She ends things early in the morning.

The two of them were curled up in bed, her hands on his chest, idly playing with his chest hair. Jaskier had kissed her and she had sighed, smiling into it. 

But then she had stiffened, then she had pulled away.

"I can't do this anymore." She whispers and Jaskier freezes.

"Why?" He breathes, his voice breathless. He sounds weak, vulnerable, broken. He hates it.

"I can't be your second best."

Nothing more needs to be said. 

Jaskier packs up his things that very morning. He grabs his lute, fills a bag with spare clothes and he prepares to leave. He will travel again, it has been a while since he's lived out on the road. 

"Jaskier…" She says, grabbing his wrists just before he leaves. She turns him around, hands resting on his jaw, forcing his face to look at hers. She smiles and her eyes crinkle at the edges, wisps of grey escaping the braids Jaskier had woven in for her only a few nights ago.

"I love you." He whispers and his throat feels tight. She smiles up at him, captures his lips with her own for one final time.

"I love you too." She says, before pushing him out the door.

"Find him." She tells him. "Find your happiness, Jaskier."

She lets him go.

x

The White Wolf is a name that all know across the vast expanse of the Continent and it doesn't take long before Jaskier has pinned down his location.

Cintra. So that is where he heads.

The path is dangerous, however. The world has changed so much in the few years he has spent away from it. The woodlands are no longer safe and Nilfgaardian soldiers seem to be crawling everywhere.

But still, Jaskier continues on to Cintra. 

He does not make it there, however, for the war breaks out and the city falls.

x

Geralt has found his destiny, he has found the Child Surprise.

The cost was great, the fall of Cintra has left her scarred and shaken and the journey that she has taken is one that no child as young as her should have had to endure.

But, eventually, Geralt found her. 

Cirilla. The princess of Cintra, a kingdom that had burned and died and existed no more. Cintra, the kingdom of ash. 

x

After the flames of Cintra have settled and the scars of war slowly begin to heal, Jaskier cannot find Geralt anywhere.

He has gone, he has disappeared.

Jaskier does not know what to do.

x

Geralt's life becomes one of exile. He and Cirilla have found one another, but she is the crown princess and the whole world is searching for her.

Fiona, she becomes, and she is now Geralt's daughter.

Gone are all the remnants of royal blood, gone is her title and her prestige and her name.

Now, all that is left, is the remains of a kingdom torn to shreds by the threads of all creation.

But he must protect her, he must ensure her safety. It is his duty.

More than that, however, he feels a fondness for her that he has not felt for a long time. He wants to protect her, wants to make sure she is safe. Make sure she never gets hurt.

It is similar to how it was with Jaskier, but still; it is different.

Love comes in all different forms and slowly Geralt is accepting this, slowly he is accepting that he needs this connection, he needs these threads that tie him to others.

But his love for Cirilla is like that of a parent. 

His love for Jaskeier is something else entirely. 

x

As they travel through the lands, it becomes harder and harder to stay hidden.

Geralt wants to take Ciri (as he has fondly started calling her, when it is just them two and Roach) to Kaer Morhen. It is the safest place for her. Witchers are many things and while they may not perhaps be the most pleasant of people, nor the kindest or most forgiving, Geralt trusts them. He trusts those who stay at Kaer Morhen to never reveal the princess' location. He thinks that such a place will be the safest for her, the only place where she can hope to have a childhood that somewhat resembles normal. Even if that childhood will be spent around Witchers, who are certainly not the best role models for an impressionable child, it is still better than this dangerous life on the road.

He wants her to be happy. To live in a place where she doesn't have to hide, where she can use her real name and run and explore and laugh as a child should.

He wants her to look back on these days and find some happiness. He knows there will be scars that will never heal, horrors that she will never recover from, but he wants there to be silver in her storm clouds. He wants her to remember how, even when things are bad, there is always some good left in the world.

He doesn't want her to be like him. He wants her to learn to trust and care and for her to have hope.

But Ciri cries and she has horrible dreams and she sees things in her sleep, hears monsters in her thoughts. Geralt tries his best to comfort her but still, he is not good enough. He cannot look after her all by himself, he cannot be everything she needs.

He wishes Jaskier was here. He'd always been good with children. Much better than Geralt, anyway. 

Geralt misses him. Geralt misses him so goddamn much but there is no time to try and find him. They cannot afford to be distracted on their journey North. It is too risky and there are far too many things that could go wrong. They must continue and Geralt has to have hope that Jaskier is still alright.

The path north, however, is slow. There are Nilfgaardian soldiers everywhere, eyes always watching. They have to be careful, they have to stay on their toes. They can never be in the same place for too long and they must cover their tracks, ensure nobody knows where they are going. 

Ciri is curious, however. She is young and innocent and although she has seen horrors beyond the depths of the world she is still just a child.

She asks lots of questions. At first, Geralt is reluctant to reply but eventually he begins to open up. Eventually, his roughened edges begin to soften.

x

"Who are you?" Ciri asks with her wide eyes, a pale blue that catches the light.

Yennefer stands above her, hands resting on her hips. She leans down, looks at Ciri and never before has Geralt seen the mage look so gentle.

"Yennefer," she says. "My name is Yennefer."

And although Geralt cannot change the mistakes if his past, nor can he give Yennefer the freedom of her fate once more, he can give her this.

Their little family expands by one and Yennefer has the chance for the child she has always wanted.

Her womb cannot come back. Never will she be able to bear her own child.

It does not matter, though. If there's one thing that Geralt has learned it is that blood is no thicker than water. Families don't have to be made, they can be found.

Yet still, there is a gap in Geralt's heart. A wound that has never quite healed. 

He knows who it is and with every song that is played in every tavern, with each lyric and tune that has been repeated far and wide; across the furthest reaches of the Continent, Geralt misses him more and more.

He hopes that, wherever Jaskier is, he is doing alright.

x

"Those songs," Ciri stars, voice slow and quiet. She is timid, a little mouse lost in a world that she is unfamiliar with. But steadily her confidence has been growing. She is more comfortable with Geralt than she once was, more comfortable with Yennefer too. It makes something warm and sweet burn in Geralt's chest. Softness, fondness. He wants Ciri to trust him, he wants her to feel safe and ever so slowly that seems to be happening. 

"They are about you. Who wrote them?

Geralt's heart hurts. He cannot bear to face Ciri for he knows the guilt is worn plain upon his face.  Instead, he turns away from her, closes his eyes.

"A friend." He says, "No." He swallows, clenches his fists. "He was more than that."

"What happened to him?"

"He left."

She tugs on the corner of his sleeve, worries her bottom lip between her teeth and looks down at her feet.

"Do you love him?" She questions and Geralt's breath gets stuck in his throat.

"Yes." And that had once seemed like such a hard thing to admit but it had not been. The admittance had been easy, natural. It was true and he wishes he'd said something while he still had the chance. 

He struggles to get to sleep that night, and the night after and the night after that. 

Ciri has softened him, she has broken down the walls surrounding his heart and he has let her. Now he is vulnerable, now he is weak.

Now he is wanting.

x

A package is hand-delivered to Geralt on one cold winter's evening.

A box, heavy and large. There is no name listed, nothing that gives a hint about who it is from.

He opens it.

Inside rests a lute, a bundle of brown hair and a note. 

Come and get him, it says and Geralt feels sick to his very stomach. 

Chapter Text

Jaskier had left the bar with the company of a man with dark eyes and a sharp smile. He'd bought Jaskier a drink, then another one and then some more after that and Jaskier had caught him staring, caught him watching. So now they've found themselves in a deserted part of town and Jaskier's got his hands shoved down the other's pants and his mouth on his throat when the dizziness overtakes him.

It's sudden, instant. Nauseating. Most certainly something unnatural, a drug or poison of the likes.

He stumbles, unsteady on his feet. Black spots cloud his vision, thick tar seeping into the edges of the world until he's left bleary-eyed and confused. He coughs, splutters. His stomach burns and his throat feels sore and rough. He tries to say something but no words come out, he tries to yell but all is silent. His eyes flitter about, constantly moving, unable to stay still and he thinks he might be sick. 

The stranger grabs him, holds him up as he collapses. He doesn't look worried, not at all, and he's got the broadest grin on his face.

There must have been something in his drink. 

Fuck.

x

When he next wakes up, he is slumped in a moving carriage. It is dirty, it smells of horseshit and hay and blood that is not his own. His head is pounding and he cannot place where he is or where they are heading. All he remembers is dark eyes and the dizziness. 

He was drugged, he realises with a start. He was drugged and now he's in a random cart going to god knows where and he feels like shit. All in all, this is a very poor situation to be in right now.

If Jaskier knows anything about this world, he knows trouble has always managed to find him and this seems to be no exception. 

He's always been good at worming his way out of these situations, though. All he needs to do is keep a clear mind, make sure he doesn't panic. The second he panics it's all over.

He feels sluggish, washed out. His arms are stiff and his legs won't move. He bites down the fear that instinctively rises within him. A perfectly normal reaction when one realises they can't fucking move but he desperately needs to keep his wits about him.

It is then that he realises there is something heavy around his ankle. A coolness is wrapped around it and it weighs him down, keeps his leg from moving freely. Keeps him from having his chance of a quick escape.

His eyes flutter open, swollen and dry and heavy. Dark iron, grey like granite, is shackled around his ankle. 

He's been kidnapped. Fucking hell. He's being imprisoned, somewhere. People want him and they seriously do not want to let him go.

This is far more dangerous than he originally thought but still; he cannot allow himself to panic. He has to remain calm. 

"Morning, sweetheart." A low voice coos from above. 

It's the man from before, the one who'd smiled at him and plied him with drinks until he was drunk and willing; until he was out of his mind and would follow anyone who made the right propositions. Dirty bastard.  

Although, in this light, he looks different. There's a coldness to him that Jaskier had not noticed the night prior. A frostiness that begs for a distance to be kept, an aura of danger about him that makes the hairs on Jaskier's arms stand on end. He's wearing a dark uniform too, emblazoned with a very familiar-looking emblem. 

Nilfgaard. 

This is worse than he thought. Much worse.

There's been rumours going around, spread like wildfire amongst the people. Ever since Cintra's fall, people have been going missing. Anyone who has a link to the princess, anyone who could know her whereabouts. Others, too. Those who had connections, those who had power and prestige and a place in the world.

Jaskier had heard what people were saying. How they were taken in the night and they did not come back.

Fingers that had been cut off sent back to family members, ransoms being offered; gold in exchange for your loved ones. There were parts of Nilfgaard that were utterly ruthless, parts that would stop at nothing to find the information they so craved and it seems as if Jaskier has stumbled right into their little trap. 

Jaskier's stomach is churning and his head is pounding. He can't make sense of this now, not when whatever he'd been drugged with is still running through his veins. 

 

The world begins to spin and nausea takes over. Dizzy, disorientated, he feels the bile rise in his throat and he is utterly helpless to stop the inevitable. He's sick, coughing up the past few days' worth of meals and drink, mostly sickly looking ale with a few meaty lumps floating around in it all. When he's sicked all that up it is still not enough. Still, his stomach protests. He coughs up bile, coughs up phlegm, yellow and white and absolutely putrid. His lungs burn and his chest heaves but still he gags; still, he chokes.

It fucking stinks and it burns at his throat. His lungs ache and it feels as if they are being spat out with the rest of him, rising further and further up his throat with every single gasping, retching cough that shakes him to his very core.

His clothes are damp with sweat, damp with vomit, and they cling to him uncomfortably. He needs a piss and he doesn't want to go here but he doesn't know how much longer he's going to be kept here, how much longer this journey will last. He doesn't know how long he can hold it and he'd really rather not piss on himself right now. Not with that guard watching.  

He tries to answer the man who stands above him, the Nilfgaardian soldier who smiles down at him with such cruelty, ice in his dark eyes. His tongue, however,  is like a brick of lead in his mouth. It won't move and it won't work, it refuses to cooperate. The only sounds he can make are his coughs, his heaving, his gasps and groans and cries. Whatever drug they gave him was made to silence him, stirred up to ensure that their ensnared victims would not be caught. 

He cannot scream, he cannot shout. There is no way he can call for help. He is alone.

He doesn't know why he's here, he doesn't know what they want with him.

But whatever it is, it can't be good.

x

They reach their destination just as nightfall is settling. It is raining, it has been for hours. Jaskier can hear the pounding of fat raindrops on the canopy above him, it had been the only sound for hours. He still could not speak and the soldiers guarding him seemed to be in no mood to fill the silence. 

The rain is heavy, thunderous. Flashes of lightning lighting up the outside sky, lighting up the canopy of the cart like a glowing ember. Rolling thunder, cantankerous and brash, shaking the very core of the earth with its growling tremors. 

He's come to his senses now, become more alert and more aware. While he still cannot use his throat, whatever drugs or poison he had been dosed with is finally beginning to wear off. He can move now and he sits up straight, back leaning against one of the carriage's walls. But still, he cannot go far. Still, he is shackled. Still, he is trapped.

The soldier is watching him, a sword at his side and his face set grim. His eyes have not left Jaskier once. It is unnerving, the emptiness in his eyes.

It sparks worry for the intentions of his captors. If their henchmen are like this, he does not want to see what kinds of people they are. 

Jaskier desperately wants to do what he does best. Talk, sing, distract. But still, his tongue is heavy; still, his throat is raw. So he sits in silence, tries to ignore the chills that creep up his spine as the soldier watches him, hand always resting on the hilt of his sword. It is a silent warning. Disobey and we will kill you.  

The threat might be empty. They might need him for something, they might still need his voice, but Jaskier does not know that for certain. As much as he dislikes this, he knows that he must play it safe if he wants any chance of making it out of this mess alive. He sits still, he tries to make as little noise as possible and he tries not to fidget so goddamn much. 

There is no escape for him. Not now, not yet.

He must wait, he must be patient. Two things Jaskier has never been very good at. He likes things to be quick, things to be speedy. Sitting around like this, in silence with nothing to whittle away the time, it is simply boring but he also realises he really doesn't have the luxury to complain about the silence. If anything, he should be grateful that they have not hurt him properly. Not yet, anyway.

Eventually, however, they reach their destination and Jaskier need not wait any longer. 

He is lifted none too carefully from under his arms, pulled up like a ragdoll and removed from his chain. 

He's dragged out in the pouring rain, one that soaks and smothers and seeps into his skin like ice. It burns and it hurts and he knows that this may be his last chance to make a break for it. He tries to fight back, tries to defend himself against the soldiers who drag him out, but they are quicker, stronger, faster.

He is helpless, he can't do a thing.

He tries to see where he is, tries to gather his bearings and understand his surroundings, but a blindfold is wrapped around his eyes. He says blindfold , it is a rag of cloth and a dirty one at that. It's warm and damp, it was - judging by the fabric - probably once an old shirt. It's stained red and it stinks of piss. 

Jaskier doesn't want to know who it last belonged to. 

He has the sinking suspicion that the next person who they capture might be wearing one of his shirts as a blindfold. Things are looking worse and worse for him as the time passes and his chance of escaping this unharmed is rapidly dwindling.

He will have to simply survive. He is given no other option. 

He's blinded, he can't see a thing, and he's pulled forwards by the arms around his shoulders. There's someone pinning his hands behind his back and when he tries to kick his feet, to drag them against the earth and to ground himself, he is lifted off the ground and carried instead.

The guards talk but none of them speak to him. It is easier that way, Jaskier knows. If they do not interact with him, if they do not talk to him, then it is easier to pretend that he isn't a living creature. He can't talk to them, the drugs have made sure of that, and that is how they do not go insane.

As long as he is the enemy, as long as they do not view him as an individual, they can justify their actions. So they will ignore him, they will interact with him as little as possible.

And slowly that will drive him insane. 

Still, he can't speak. He tries to scream but it is silent. 

He is dragged away and there is nothing he can do about it. 

x

His blindfold is eventually removed and he winces at the sudden light. While he is still disorientated, eyes adjusting to the light, he is thrown into a cell of sorts. It is dirty and it stinks and there is what looks like piss and shit and blood covering the floor. There are rags of clothes, torn from someone's body and Jaskier sees something fleshy and rotting on the ground. It looks like skin, a part of the body that has been hacked away. 

It smells of decaying flesh and Jaskier gags. 

This certainly isn't a luxurious stay. It's dark and gloomy and there's a low light coming from the guard's lanterns but there is nothing natural. No sunlight can filter through the thick stone walls and mildew drips from the ceiling. It's cold, the air itself is chilly and hollow as if they are underground. 

"Look at you, a room all to yourself." One of the guards sneers. "Maybe you'll last a bit longer than the last." The man's grin is sharp, feral. He does not look human or elf or dwarf or like any other creature Jaskier has ever seen. He looks like a monster.

Perhaps he is one.

"Don't be too rough with him." Another voice pipes up, a female voice. She speaks in singsong lightness, her voice would have been airy and pleasant had they not been in this situation and while maybe in the outside world she would seem most pleasant, here her demeanour only makes her all the more terrifying. She sounds like a child playing with their brand new toy, not like a woman talking about another person's torturing methods.

She steps forward, long hair pulled back into a severe bun that pulls at the skin on her face. "We need him alive, we need him to talk." Then she walks up to him, grabs him by the chin and forces his face into hers.

Jaskier can feel her breath on his face, see the smile that twists her features and see the coldness of her dead, dead eyes. 

There are scissors in her hands, silver and rusted with red and brown. She raises them and instinctively Jaskier flinches. She snorts with laughter, a frozen sort of sound that makes Jaskier's skin crawl, and cuts off a clump of his hair. 

Then she is gone and Jaskier is left alone. The swinging gate of his barred cell locked shut and then the barred door is bolted and clamped until he truly is completely alone. There must be guards outside, somewhere, and he is locked in tight. He cannot escape.

But why had she taken some of his hair? What do they want from him? What did they mean, 'we need him to talk'? What could he have? What information could he possess that they need?

Then he realises.

He is leverage, he is something that must be bargained for. He has information and he has ties to the White Wolf. The Witcher who had disappeared along with the Crown Princess of Cintra. Or so they think. 

They are using him.

The only comfort he finds in all of this is that at least he must be kept alive. They cannot let him die; with the ending of his life comes the ending of information, the ending of their supposed leverage.

But they must not know about him and Geralt. They must not know how things ended. They don't realise he's useless for them, not yet. They think he has information. They think he knows but he doesn't. He doesn't know anything about Geralt, not anymore, and once they realise that they won't need him alive, they won't need him to still be talking.

They can use him as bait, and bait does not need to speak. 

There are worse things than death, Jaskier realises. 

Much worse. 

x

There are no windows in the room and there is no way for him to check the time. He cannot tell when the sun has risen nor when it has set. He cannot see the sun, he cannot feel its warmth on his skin. All he can feel is the empty coldness of this room, the death that swirls around him, the metal tang of blood in the air. 

He cannot tell how long he has been here, how much time has passed. He could stay here for years or months or days or minutes, he would not know. He does not know.

This is where he could be for the rest of his life. This could be where he dies and he will die in darkness. The sun's rays will not shine on him. Not down here.

He needs to distract himself, he needs to do something to stop the panic that bubbles up inside him.

He might as well familiarise himself with his surroundings. Look for any weaknesses, any points that he might be able to plan an escape from. Or make himself at home; he can't imagine he'll be leaving this place any time soon. 

It is an old holding cell, he thinks. An abandoned one from long ago, an old relic of forgotten history. He still has no idea where on the Continent he is but it must be somewhere hidden, somewhere he will not be found. Help will not be coming for him, not for a long time anyway.

His cell is surrounded by thick stone walls, the uneven sort that lay jagged and sharp and stick out in odd directions. Made for functionality, not for looks. Made without a care for the conditions inside. Dirt lays in the gaps; thick, clumped soil that smells old and stale. There are iron bars, too; leading to a heavily barred door. There won't be any escape from there, not unless he gets lucky. 

From between the bars, there is a hallway of sorts, one that runs the length of the cell and then leads to a steel door, locked.

Occasionally he hears muffled shouts from outside, footsteps and heavy boots against stone floor. The outside of the door must be guarded, but not the inside. 

They are locking him away. He does not even get a guard's company. There is nobody to talk to, nobody to irritate and shout and jeer at. Not even a face to look at, or a creature that is living to keep him company. All he has is himself. His own thoughts, his own mind.

In that way, he is trapped with his worst enemy. Himself.

That is their plan though, isn't it? Trap him with his own thoughts, give him nothing but his own sense of guilt and fear to eat away at him until there is nothing left but bone. 

He's sick again. He coughs and retches and still nothing comes up. His clothes are crusty, yellow-stained, and they stink of vomit. He can't do anything about it but they itch at his skin, the dampness irritating and they rub and burn and feel like fire on his arms. He debates just taking it off, just for a tiny bit of comfort, but then he will be naked and that is worse. He doesn't want to give them any more power over him, he doesn't want to be left unclothed and cold and shivering.

He's still got some of his dignity. Not much, but it's there and he won't let go of it. Not until he has no other choice. 

But still, he wears the bracelet. They missed it, by some miracle it had managed to remain hidden under the sleeve of his shirt. He doesn't know how long that will last. It's only a matter of time before one of the guards sees it, sees the shimmer of gold that they can pawn off for a pretty penny.

Then they'll know and then he'll truly be naked. Unclothed for all to see. What he has hidden for so long will eventually be revealed and once more he will be that timid child, the one who felt the crack of a cane on his knuckles and cried in his mother's arms.

He does not want to go back to that. He does not want to be that boy, not anymore. He ran and things changed and he won't let himself be vulnerable like that, not ever again.

But he doesn't really have a choice. Maybe he never did. Maybe, all along, this was his destiny.

No wonder Geralt hated it so much , he thinks with a huff of laughter. Maybe this is all there really is. 

He does not know how long he is in there, how long he remains completely alone. It must have been a good few hours; or enough time to make himself at home - in the most ironic sense of the word. Home is perhaps a stretch too far. Familiar, maybe, although that too implies there is something positive in this situation.

Aquaintenced, Jaskier settles on. Reluctantly so.

He tries to sort himself out. He runs his fingers through the tangles of his hair, scrubs at his face and tries to pick some of the dried vomit off of his clothes. He does not know why but it makes him feel slightly better. He is still not clean, he is still covered in filth and grime and god knows what else but it is better.  

His skin itches and he craves for a bath he knows he will not get.

He designates a corner where he will relieve himself. He doubts he'll be receiving anything as luxurious as a toilet and he'd rather have an area for all of… that from the beginning. He'll be living in his own piss and shit but he might as well make it easier for himself. It will lessen his chance of dying from disease, at least. Although he wonders how long it will take for something to get infected in this place that reeks of doom and gloom and misery.

Now all he can do is play the waiting game.

They want answers, they want information. They have his hair and they have his lute. When they grow bored of his answers, grow tired of what he says, they will no doubt be sending those items Geralt's way. They will not do it now, they will not do it right at the beginning. They will do it when they are desperate, do it when Jaskier cannot tell them anything about the lost princess nor Geralt of Rivia.

They do not know that he and Geralt haven't travelled for years. They do not know that Jaskier has no idea about Cintra, no idea about any of these new developments. They think that Geralt will come for him, Geralt will drop everything to save him. That is their final plan. If Jaskier cannot provide them with the information they so desperately need, they will call for the Witcher himself.

When they realise that Jaskier does not know anything, they will send away his hair, his lute, and wait for Geralt.

If they realise that he and Geralt have not spoken for years, he does not know what will happen.

Right now, they need him alive to talk. Later, he will need to be alive for a dead hostage is of no use to anyone. 

But if they know the truth, if they know what took place on that mountain top, he will be of no use to them.

They could kill him, perhaps. Although Jaskier does not think these people are kind enough. Whatever death he has at their hands, it will be slow and he will suffer for it.

That is what he is scared about. He does not know what is worse.

If Geralt comes to his rescue, he is risking everything. He is risking the very fate of the Continent, all to save him. Jaskier does not want to be an inconvenience, he does not want to be someone who needs saving. But if Geralt does not come… If he leaves him here to rot away… 

Well, that would hurt just as much.

x

Hours upon hours pass, or maybe it is only minutes - Jaskier does not know, he can't tell, and then the door opens. 

A man comes in, one Jaskier has not seen before. He wears the emblem of Nilfgaard proudly, the symbol emblazoned on his chest and his arm and his belt. A bit overkill, Jaskier thinks to himself, trying to make light of the situation.

He's been putting up the charade of happiness for years now. He can do this , he can make it through whatever is coming to him. He has to, there is no other choice. This is survival. 

"Can you speak yet?" The guard asks, holding a lantern that illuminates his face in ghostly pallor. His voice is deep and scratchy, creaking like trees amongst a storm. His face is old, weathered. Two scars run down his cheekbones, a diagonal line from his ear to the corner of his mouth. They are pink and puckered and the skin around them is wrinkled and dry. His lips are pulled thin and tight and they are blistered, red in the middle where the skin has been torn off. Jaskier half wants to offer the man some lip balm, or some self-care tips. Ironic, considering the state he's in, but ridiculous thoughts like this will have to keep him sane. These thoughts will be the memory of what he is. He cannot lose sight of himself. No matter what they do, no matter what happens in here, he cannot forget. He has to remember.

He is all he has left. If he loses himself, he has lost everything. 

He does not actually know the answer to the man's question. He hasn't tried to speak, not since he'd been thrown into the cell all those long hours ago. His throat still feels raw and fresh, like an open wound, but as he opens it, sound pours from his lips like water. 

He drowns under it, drowns under all the words that bubble to the surface. There is so much he wants to know, so much he wants to ask, but he needs to keep his wits about him.

He can't panic. He has to play this smart. He needs to survive, he needs to get himself out of here.

He does not want to rely on Geralt, he does not want to risk compromising Geralt's own quest for his safety. But most of all, he does not want to find out whether Geralt comes for him or not. 

He has to do this alone.

"I can speak." He slowly says and his voice is weak and it wavers and it cracks but it is there.  

Jaskier does not have his lute. He does not have his money or clean clothes and his piss is up the wall and he's covered in his own sweat and vomit but he has his voice.

And that is the most powerful thing he has ever had. Speech.

But now that he has spoken, now that words have bled from his lips, he is useful once more.

He has information and they must get it out of him.

He will not give it over. He will not shed light upon a single thing. They will not find out what he knows, they will not find out what he doesn't know. All his life he has been chatting shit now this is his chance to prove himself.

Keep talking. Talk about nothing, talk about nonsense. Waste their time.

It is a dangerous game but it is one that Jaskier will have to play. 

And so it begins.

The man steps forward, steps closer to Jaskier. "You can call me Herwyn." He grins.

It makes it worse, knowing his name. Having words to put to the face. It makes him more human and that makes him all the more monstrous.

"Let's have a look at you, then." His tone is sharp and he looks at Jaskier expectantly. When Jaskier merely stares back up at him, he snaps his fingers. They crack like a whip in the gloom. "Stand." He orders. Jaskier scrambles to his feet, trying to still the pounding of his heart.

Herwyn shifts closer. He has a slight limp in his left leg, one that makes him hobble ever so slightly. He's inspecting Jaskier, leaning closer and closer to his face. He smiles and his teeth are missing, the ones that remain jagged and shattered and the gaps they leave behind rotting.

"You're a handsome thing, aren't you." He brings a hand to Jaskier's cheek, roughly rubs his thumb across the curve of Jaskier's cheekbone. "Some of my colleagues will have fun with you, I bet." His voice is a hiss, low and dangerous like a serpent.

He pulls away, still smiling and begins to inspect the rest of him. He pats him down, no doubt searching for any concealed weapons - Jaskier had already been checked but Herwyn's hands linger, they stay on his skin far too long and Jaskier feels sick.

His hands are on his wrist when Herwyn freezes. His fingertips rest and the end of Jaskier's cuffed sleeve and he is carefully tracing the delicate bump of something underneath.

It's the gold bracelet. He knew it would get found eventually, but he desperately wished he could have had it for some time longer.

"What do we have here?" He says, voice low and thick and the pitch of it sends shivers down Jaskier's spine.

Herwyn grabs ahold of the cuff and, without warning, pulls hard. The fabric tears away with a loud rip, coming away from the bend of Jaskier's elbow; leaving his forearms bare.

Against his pale skin and the light spattering of dark hairs on his arms, the gold of the bracelet is blinding.

Herwyn's eyes flash greedily and his smile splits his face. 

"Look at that. Who's that from, hm? One of your conquests?" He pulls the bracelet up, pulling it until it digs into Jaskier's wrist. "I bet it will sell for a pretty penny, although I don't think you'll have any use for it."

He pulls harder and the bracelet snaps. 

Jaskier flinches, closes his eyes. The urge to run is strong, stronger than it has ever been, but he cannot go anywhere.

He is trapped, here, there's nothing he can do, 

There's a faint glow to his skin, now that the bracelet is gone. He knows his eyes will be wider, bluer. They had always been bright but the bracelet had dampened them, made them seem more human. But now there is no hiding the truth, there is no hiding the points of his ears. 

Herwyn laughs.

"Is this your dirty little secret?" His voice becomes dangerous, hard.

"You're an elf and you're a coward." He spits out the words, phlegm hitting Jaskier, spattering across his face. 

"I know what these bracelets are. I know what they do. They're for cowards, for frauds. For pathetic little whelps like you."

Jaskier wants to retort, wants to fight back with anything but his words are caught in his throat and fear bubbles in his stomach. 

"You ran and you left your people to die." 

And there it is. The truth. The truth that Jaskier has been running from for so long.

He knows, deep in his heart, that his childhood home is no longer standing. Out of the way it might have been, hidden and well-protected, but humans are always expanding, always searching for something more. 

His village is gone. His family is gone, yet here he is. 

Tears prick at his eyes but he will not cry. He refuses to.

The guilt stings, though. It will not go away. 

Herwyn continues speaking, continues talking. His words cut into Jaskier's flesh like sharpened daggers, each and every sound that passes Herwyn's lips chosen with the intent to kill.

Jaskier trembles, he gasps and shuts his eyes tight, as if he can block it all out; as if he can escape.

But there's no more running, not for him now.

Herywn leaves and Jaskier doesn't even realise. Still, his head is clenched in his hands and his entire body is shaking.

It is only when he realises he is completely alone once more that he allows himself to cry. The room is silent, cavernous, empty. Save for him. There is nothing, now. Nothing but the sound of his own cries, echoing around the room. His guilt, bouncing off the walls and burrowing into the furthest depths of his heart.

Herwyn had not raised a fist to him, not even thrown a punch. But sometimes that is not needed. Sometimes all you need to hurt are words. 

x

It is a game of cat and mouse. The guards are the cats, they have their sharp claws and their bared teeth, they hiss and they spit and they scratch and they bite. They wait outside the little mousehole, wait with their claws sharpened and their mouths watering.

Jaskier is the mouse and he is trapped, but he must not let this dampen his spirits. He has to remain strong and he has to keep fighting.

"What do you know about Geralt of Rivia?" He is asked first. Herwyn grins at him and he is missing teeth, fleshy gums glowing like food gone bad. The whites of his eyes are yellow and he looks like sickness, he looks like cruelty.

Jaskier steels himself.

"Well, it depends on what you want to know." He begins, and this is where the real game begins.

A mouse is smaller, faster, than a cat. They can dart about, slip under and over and behind places that the cat can't even hope to reach. Their game is fraught with danger but Jaskier is faster, he is smarter. All he can hope to do is to keep running, keep darting, throw everything he has at them and distract them.

He can wear them down, tire them out. That is all he can do.

The cell is opened, the lantern is placed upon the ground and Herwyn hauls Jaskier up by the collar of his shirt.

His mouth is frothing, his eyes wide and wild and inhuman. 

"Don't play games with me, little bard. You know what we want and you better start talking." 

This man is dangerous. This man is not sane. There is a reason he has been sent here, a reason that he can do this and live. There is a part of him that is lost. Although he lives inside human flesh, there is something not right with him. He is a monster encased in the living. He cannot be human, he can't be.

Only someone who does not care, only someone who has nothing left in their heart, could ever do something like this.

These are the monsters that Jaskier should have been worried about. These are the monsters under the bed and the ones in the deepest darkest nightmares. These are killers, they do not care and they will do anything to get what they want.

Herwyn throws the first punch and Jaskier is sent flying across the room. He lands in a heap across the floor, his jaw pounding and his skin split. It is warm, his face is burning and as he raises his hands to it, he pulls away red. 

"Speak." The man orders and his voice is chilling, tendrils of winter creeping up Jaskier's spine.

"You want to know about Geralt, then? I- uh, I know plenty about Geralt. Everything there is to know. There are so many things I could talk about," the man advances towards him, fists clenched and arms flexed. "Where to even begin? I-" He's cut off as Herwyn lifts him up once more, like he weighs nothing - no small feat in itself because Jaskier is certainly not as light as one might presume at a first glance. 

He spits in Jaskier's face and hurls him against the wall.

Jaskier digs his teeth into his bottom lip until he can taste blood, swallowing the scream that begs to be drawn from his lips. the uneven surface of the wall, the rocks lining the cell, they are sharp and they cut and bruise and stab. As he collides with the wall, the back of his shirt is torn, his skin pierced and his flesh screams in raw pain. 

He slides down to the floor, unable to catch his bearings. But still, he talks and gibberish falls from his mouth with ease.

Herwyn kicks him, hard. Directly in the ribs. He coughs and blood comes up. 

Another punch to face, the jaw this time. Jaskier spits out a tooth, one of the back ones. Oh well, he tries to joke to himself. At least it won't ruin his pretty face. 

Still, he says nothing. He just keeps on talking and talking and talking, saying nothing and any questions he is asked he responds with the same old shit.

Herwyn grows angrier. With each punch comes more force, with each kick more blood is spilt from Jaskier's lips. His ribs crack, one then two then three. Jaskier can feel it, feel each bone break and splinter and this time he can't hold back his screams.

His head is bashed against the wall and blood pours from his temples. 

For hours it seems like this continues; but still, nothing is said.

He becomes almost numb to it all. The pain doesn't lessen, the burning of his flesh doesn't lighten, but he gets used to it. Always, it is just as bad, but he learns to accept it. He's still babbling about nothing. He doesn't even know if he's speaking sentences anymore, he doesn't know what language he's speaking or what he's even saying; but he does know that the contents of his words are meaningless. That he is giving nothing away.

This is his job, now. He had always wanted to prove himself to Geralt, always wanted to be useful. This was his way. He would not give away anything. He would not put Geralt at risk; even if it killed him. 

"If you won't answer that , then what is your name, bard?"

Herwyn has his hands around Jaskier's throat, his fingers against his windpipe. Jaskier gasps, wheezes. "Jaskier." He croaks and Herwyn presses harder.

"Your real name."

Jaskier freezes. Tears spring to his eyes. The man pushes harder and Jaskier knows that he will not kill him, will not crush his windpipe; not yet, not while they still need him, but he is terrified .

But still, he does not say. He will not.

His name is the one thing that nobody knows. There is perhaps nobody left in this world who knows his true name, the one he was given by his parents. Only him.

But Julian Alfred Pankratz is nothing more than a string of words, a fancy title laden over something else.

Julian is not him, not anymore.

So he does not say anything and Herwyn pushes and pushes and pushes until Jaskier swears he can hear his windpipe creaking. The edges of the world burn to black and his lungs explode into fire; but still, he says nothing.

Eventually, it comes to an end. Eventually, it is over.

The man leaves and Jaskier is left there, slumped over. Alone. 

x

He does not sleep. He couldn't, not even if he tried.

He is given food later on. Stale bread and water, a real prisoner's meal. Jaskier makes a joke about it, laughs even though nothing is funny. He gets spat on by one of the guards and he laughs harder and then he is left alone once more.

He forces himself to eat it, even if he does not feel hungry. He has to eat something, he has to take what he is given. Even if he throws it back up later, even if it won't stay down, he has to try. If he wants any chance of surviving this ordeal, any chance of leaving here alive, he has to keep going. Even when all he wants to do is close his eyes and forget. There is no choice but to continue the fight.

It is perhaps not as grand or as noble as the fights of a knight, of those iron-clad heroes who would no doubt be sung about in songs and written in stories for years to come. Nor is he like Geralt, who's escapades have been recorded for all to hear by Jaskier's own hand.

Those battles he wrote about, those stories; there not real. They didn't happen, not how he retells them. There are bits and pieces sewn from fact but it is all swimming in fiction, in pretence and lies and the threads of light that are woven in to bring hope.

The truth doesn't make history. The truth doesn't make happiness. The truth is too hard and too dark and people do not need to know reality because reality is bleak and reality is cruel. 

But this, right here right now, is reality.

And this will never be recorded in song. 

He desperately needs a piss but he can't move, he can't stand up. He's slumped against the wall, legs splayed out and back roaring with pain. There is no way he can stand, no way he can upright himself and walk.  

He has to though. He won't piss on himself. He refuses to do that, not while he still has the strength to do something about it. He turns himself instead, aims it as far away as possible. It still smells and it fucking reeks because he's only had one glass of water in two days but at least he still has some of his dignity.

Then, later, he's sick over himself again and he wonders why he even bothered.

x

Jaskier does not know how many days pass but the man does not stop coming and he only gets worse and worse with each visit.

They begin to blur together and Jaskeir cannot place when he is there and when he is not. It is all one neverending nightmare, one that he cannot escape from. 

He sleeps now but he is plagued by nightmares. Even in his own sleep he cannot find peace. Sometimes he cannot distinguish the reality from the fiction, he dreams that his arms are broken but then they are not, he dreams that all of his teeth are pulled out one by one but next time he checks he is only missing two. He dreams of many a thing being done to him and sometimes they are and sometimes they are not. There are times when he thinks he dreamt it all; when he thinks he dreamt his broken leg or the black bruise on his ribs (the one that his shirt no longer covers because that now rests in tatters) but then it is still there. Or maybe it isn't there and he is still sleeping.

He does not know and he cannot tell and he feels his grip on what is real and what is not starting to slip. 

He has to hold on but he does not know what he must hold on to. His grip is weakening and his hands are tired and no matter where he looks, he cannot find what he must cling to. He is lost and he is sinking and he does not know.  

There are other dreams too, different kinds. The ones of Geralt. Sometimes he dreams that Geralt is standing there, from outside the cell, watching. He dreams that Geralt does nothing, that Geralt turns his back and walks away, leaves him here forever and ever. He is left alone and he dies here, in this cell, all by himself.

The dream he has the most, however, the dream that is the worst, is the one by the coast.

Sometimes he is alone, but more often than not he is beside Geralt. They are waist-deep in the ocean's water and it is warm, the sunlight is hot on their skin and Jaskier is happy.

Then the clouds overhead darken until they are blacker than the very depths of the world. Everything turns grey, everything turns cold. Except for Geralt. His eyes glow golden and the sunlight still reaches him.

Every time Jaskier holds his hands out, begs to be taken under the light where things are warm and happy and good. But the storm is brewing and the sea is angry. The tide is pulling him out and no matter how hard he tries, Geralt is always out of reach.

The sea is black. Spilt ink dripping onto the carpet. Jaskier is drowning in it and Geralt is always there. The light, the stars, the sun. Watching.

He wakes up screaming, choking on his own tears.

Always, he is alone.

x

Jaskier overhears one of the guards, talking about him. Apparently he has been here seven days. 

It feels like a lot longer.

x

"What do you know about the Witcher?"

It is always the same question. Perhaps in a different order, perhaps under a different name - sometimes he is Geralt, sometimes he is the Butcher of Blaviken and sometimes, on days like today, he is simply the Witcher - but the question always means the same thing.

They want answers but still Jaskier does not break.

He will not crumble, he will not fall. He would rather die than let them get anything worthy from him. He would rather die than put Geralt at risk.

Even after those awful things that had been said on the mountain, even after the years of hell that Jaskier went through afterwards, even though his heart is still broken and he is still angry, Jaskier will not let himself succumb to their questions. No matter how much they try, no matter what they do to him, he will not break. He will tell them nothing of Geralt, nothing of use anyway. Even things that don't seem important may turn out to be the catalyst to their discovery, so Jaskier always keeps it superficial, always jokes and always dodges their questions.

Because as time passes, the more time Jaskier spends alone with his own thoughts, the more he thinks. The more he thinks, the more he thinks of Geralt and what he might be doing. That's when it hits him. Although he has not spoken to Geralt in years, he had known the Witcher and if there's one thing he's always known it that Geralt trusts nobody. Or almost nobody. He had trusted Jaskier, later Yennefer. But before either of them had come along, before he had even met either of them, there had still been people who he trusted. 

The other Witchers. 

If Geralt wanted a safe space, somewhere he knew that the princess would be kept hidden, there was no better place than the old school, the safe house where many would return for the winter. Kaer Morhen. Jaskier knows that is where Geralt is heading.

This realisation makes his situation more dangerous, far direr than it once had been. Now there is true information he can digress, now there is something he must try to keep secret.

So, no matter how hard Herwyn tries, Jaskier does not break. His answers are much of the same, always crude comments and rude jokes. Remarks that mean nothing, or he stays silent. 

"What do you know about the Witcher?" The question is repeated and Jaskier smiles, coughed-up blood spilling from between his parted lips. 

"Well, for one, he's got the most fantastic arse." 

It is always the same man who is with Jaskier, always the one with the yellow eyes and rotting gums. Herwyn is always there and he is a monster amongst men.

He has put aside his humanity, he has lost everything that makes the world good and pure and bright and he is made of hatred, he is made of poison.

He terrifies Jaskier but he will not stop talking, he will not give in. He will fight, even if that means he will die here; in his own piss and shit and blood. 

"I'd always secretly watch him when he'd climb onto Roach, or when he'd bend over for something. In fact, I used to knock his things onto the floor just to see him bend over. Truly, he has the most glorious behind on the entire Continent." Jaskier laughs, only slightly hysterical and narrows his eyes. "Herwyn," He tuts. "Don't tell me you're jealous?"

That was the wrong thing to say, but Jaskier does not regret it. Herwyn growls, more furious than Jaskier has ever seen him, and grabs his arm. Jaskier cries out as he pulls it, holds it straight. Herwyn is looking at him, those dark eyes unblinking. Then he is the one smiling, he is the one laughing, and his mouth is rotten. He grasps Jaskier's arm and snaps it. 

The bone breaks and Jaskier screams. 

"Not so funny now, eh?" He whispers, toxic breath ghosting over Jaskier's cheeks. 

Jaskier spits on him, bares his teeth and growls.  

Herwyn flings him aside, throws him atop of his broken arm and Jaskier can't breathe. The pain… he's never felt anything like it. He doesn't even remember to scream. He can't, it's as if all the air has been knocked out of his lungs. 

And it's only going to get worse from here. 

x

One day, Herwyn isn't there. Jaskier does not know where he has gone or what he is doing, but he is worried. His tongue had been growing looser as of late and he has been letting things slip that he did not want to reveal. He'd mentioned his stay in Novigrad, tried to distract Herwyn with tales of all the beautiful women he'd met there. He must have let too much slip, let something spill from his mouth that he did not intend to be heard, for Herwyn had left swiftly and suddenly with a smile broad on his rotting lips. 

So Herwyn isn't here and Jaskeir does not know where he has gone. This time, it's somebody else who enters his cell. Someone younger, someone who hasn't done this all too often.

Jaskier can tell because they leave the door open behind them and, when they unlock his prison cell, they leave that open too. 

This is it. This is his chance.

The questioning continues as normal, although this one is more hesitant, less sure. They do not beat Jaskier, not like Herwyn does. They wait and they pause but when Jaskier continues to laugh, continues to make jokes and talk about the softness of Geralt's hair after it's been washed and how he once rubbed chamomile into that lovely bottom of his, they step forward.

Jaskier is weak. He is malnourished, he is starving. His arm is broken and his ribs are cracked. He's covered in his own vomit, he's been living in his own piss for more than a week now and everything hurts. But he does not have many open wounds. So far, they have only been using their fists, using their steel-toed boots to kick and using their hands to snap bones and to bruise. He thinks it is because of the risk of infection. They need him far too much right now to risk that. They have to keep him alive, just for a bit longer. Infection can be expensive, they would need strong medicine or a good mage and Jaskier thinks that this group of soldiers are acting outside of their positions. He thinks they are going against orders and that this setup they have hidden here is secret. Not just to the enemy, but to everyone. They cannot afford to keep Jaskier alive if he is injured too badly, so they still have to be careful.

But Jaskier can't keep stalling forever and soon he will either let something slip or they will decide that he is useless and they do not need him anymore.

Soon they will use knives, soon they will use whips. Soon, they will torture him simply because they can. They can't set him free, they can't let him leave after all of this. His only means of getting out of here are escape or death and, right now, one of those options seems about a million times more likely.

If they find out what happened to him on that mountain, it won't matter whether he lives or dies. He knows they have been growing more and more desperate, he knows that his lute and hair have been shipped off, sent through a series of townsfolk and mercenaries in the hope that it might eventually come Geralt's way. But if Geralt does not react, if Geralt does not care, then Jaskier is a dead weight to them. Jaskier will become theirs to do whatever they want with, dead or alive. 

But he won't back down. Not now.

He has an idea.

The person comes closer, bares their fists and readies to strike, but they hesitate.

This is his chance.

Jaskier howls, leaping at them. His body screeches in protest and burns like fire but he ignores it. This is the only chance he may ever have for escape. This is it, this is his one shot. He grapples onto their shoulders, claws at them as they stumble around.

They try to get ahold of the situation once more, try to push him off but Jaskier has the upper hand, his legs are clamped tight around their arms, rendering them useless against their sides.

They shout and scream, call for backup and Jaskier knows he does not have long.

He moves on instinct, in a blind panic. He forces his hand over their mouth, scratches his nails against their face. They've been growling longer, growing sharper and he digs them into their face until it draws blood. Still, they scream and Jaskier thinks he is screaming too.

He's panicking and they're flailing around and he doesn't have enough time. His legs slip and their arms break free and Jaskier claws at their face. He digs his fingers into the socket of one of their eyes. He squeezes hard, feels the squelch of moisture against his fingertips. They scream, they yell. They're hysterical. He clenches harder, nails digging underneath the eyelid and he pulls as hard as he can.

There are more guards now, having heard the cry of their partner.

They pull him off the other, hands pressing against his cracked ribs and pulling at his broken arm. He screams and cries but does not let go of the eye.

He is flung to the back of the room, the eyeball still in his hand. It rips from the guard's face with a sickening squelch and Jaskier squeezes it harder until it pops. Liquid, clear silvery but laced with the pink and reds of blood, drips down his bruised wrists. It is sparkling on his skin, seeping into his very pores.

He looks at it. It is crushed, crystal goop in his palms and it is bleeding. The mashed-up grey of their eyes, the pupil. All crushed by his own hands. 

He looks up at the guard who is screaming and yelling and choking. They have their hand pressed over the wound, blood slipping between the cracks of their fingers.

For the briefest of moments, Jaskier is happy. They deserved it, he thinks; but then he feels sick at the very thought. He throws up, coughs and coughs and coughs and blood pours from his mouth.

He's sick. They've tainted him. At that moment, right there, he had lost a part of himself. 

Feral, animalistic. Whatever had taken ahold of him then was not human. It was desperate, it was primal, it was the need for survival.

He's hauled up from under the armpits. A woman whispers into his ear, "You've done it now, bard. Things are about to get a whole lot worse." 

x

They string him up to the shackles on the wall. His feet barely touch the floor and they are chained to the wall behind him, ensuring he cannot kick. He can't even move them, not one bit.  His arms come next. They are shackled above his head, bound either side. He is raised just enough that his arms must take most of the strain of his body, raised just enough that the longer he hangs there the more it hurts, the number he grows as the endless pain dulls his senses. 

The shackles are too tight and it is agony on Jaskier's broken arm. He shifts and pulls and pushes and tries to free his arms and he does this until blood pours down his wrists, down and down and down until it is dripping onto the floor. His skin is rubbed raw, layers upon layers of it torn off as Jaskier pulls and pushes and flails against his confinements. All of his actions are done in vain. All of them. He is well and truly trapped.

They leave him like that, just hanging there, and it appears as if the punishment is indefinite.

He is fed, now. Bread is shoved into his mouth, too much too fast and he chokes on it but they force it down his throat with more and more water. His legs burn, covered in welts and sores from being stuck in his own piss-soaked trousers, the urine and shit that puddles at his feet. 

But he is left alone for a while. For the longest he has ever been.

There is nobody to talk to aside from the people who feed him what he thinks is twice a day. He determines that this marks the morning and night, although he does not know which is which. He has not seen the sunlight for so long. He has not felt warmth on his skin and he is fading.

Like a flower, he needs the sunlight. Now he is withering, he is dying; slowly.

They do not talk to him. Nobody talks to him and it is only for those ten minutes each day that he has any form of contact with others. 

There are times when the guards who feed him, the ones who never seem to be the same, will leave lingering touches, cruel glances. One of them had spat in his food, forced him to eat it. Another one had pissed in his glass. Bright yellow, dehydrated.

He'd had to drink it. He'd tried to spit most of it out but they had forced him, poured it down his throat and forced him to swallow. Humiliation, anything they could do to belittle him more.

That is bad, that is awful, but at least they are people. At least they are something. When they leave, there is nothing.

He is alone and nobody speaks to him and his only company is silence.

He thinks he is going mad.

At first, he says nothing but that is awful. Only his thoughts keep him company and his thoughts are dark and fearful and dreadful and he cannot bear to be inside his head any longer.

So he starts to sing. He sings all of his old songs. Sings about the all women and men he's fucked and the people who he has fallen in love with. He sings of Geralt and of their adventures, he sings of a mage with violet eyes and of a golden dragon and a fragile little egg. He sings of love and loss and heartbreak, of fate and destiny and the threads of the very world.

Tears roll down his cheeks as he does it and his voice cracks, it breaks and snaps and wavers but it is all he can do.

It is all he can do to keep sane. 

x

Herwyn returns and that is when Jaskier realises they know.  

He is smiling as he walks in and behind him is the woman who had strung him up, tied him to these shackles. Her name is Shainfein, he later learns, or at least that is the name she divulges to him.

As Herwyn approaches, looks at him with ice-cold eyes, he wrinkles his nose. It is the stench, probably. It must stink in here, it must be awful. Jaskier can't smell it though. He's long since been immune to all of that. He's been here so long now.

"Oh, little songbird," Shainfein croons. It is what she calls him. She likes how it makes Jaskier flinch, how it makes his very skin crawl. She's smiling every time she does it and her eyes are dead and cold. "I've got a question for you…" Her voice is singsong, mocking. Her eyes are cruel and Jaskier wants to scream. There's something wrong, there's something different. She knows something.

"What happened on that mountain top, hmm?"

Jaskier's blood runs cold.

"We've sent out some… items of yours that we hoped might draw the White Wolf to us, he has been so hard to pin down these days lately, but imagine our shock when it gets back to us that you've not been seen travelling with him for years?" 

Herwyn laughs.

"All it took was a few days away, a bit of digging - you don't cover your tracks too well, bard." 

Shainfein steps forward. "In fact, another little songbird told us everything we needed to know, your little fling… Priscilla, was it?" Jaskier freezes. "Of course, she wasn't willing to give up the information so freely, but all it took was a little persuasion…"

She frowns, pouting her lips and tilting her head. "A shame that she won't be able to sing anymore… her poor throat." And she laughs, tilts her head back and laughs until tears sprinkle from her eyes.

Jaskier makes a sound of protest, a whine. Her eyes light up like flickering candles. "Oh darling, don't look like that. It was all thanks to your little slip-up that we were able to find her, after all."

She steps closer to him, presses her lips to Jaskier's ear. Her tongue darts out, traces the shell of it. It's warm, wet. Awful. "It's your fault, songbird. You're the reason she'll never sing again." 

Her voice is low, chilling, and when she draws back she is laughing once more. A high-pitched squeal, a burst of madness.

Herwyn shoves his hand against Jaskier's neck, squeezing until he can't breathe. He is anger and she is glee. Jaskier wants to scream but his voice will not come to him. 

"You haven't spoken to Geralt for years. "

He grins.

"You're useless, you're nothing." 

His fingers loosen their grip and he trails his hand down Jaskier's chest, fingers tracing the blood and vomit tangled in his chest hair. 

"But still, you're bait. He might come and rescue you, he might not. We might as well make the most of it."

"Sleep well, little songbird," Shainfein adds on, the two turning to leave. "This might be your last chance." 

x

The next day it is Shainfein who enters his cell, alone. 

In one hand is a whip, the other a knife. It's Jaskier's knife. The one Geralt had given him so long ago. She grins. 

She steps closer to him, looks at him, her smile grows wider.

She is the cat and Jaskier is the mouse. 

She is toying with him now. They all are.

All that Jaskier can wait for is the time when they will go too far, push too hard, and then he will be dead. It doesn't scare him now, death. It would be an escape, a release. It would be better for all of them because all he can think about is he knows. He knows where Geralt is heading, he knows what he will do next. But there are things he does not know. He doesn't know how much longer he will last in here, how much longer it is until they break him completely and he loses himself. He is a risk, he is calamity. He can't stay alive, he can't be the person to ruin it all. 

She brings the knife up to his cheek, just below his eye, and then slashes it. His teeth dig into his bottom lip, he won't cry out. He won't!

He can feel the blood dripping down his jaw, taste the metal of his lips. He does not make a sound.

Then, ever so softly, he starts to sing. 

She punches him, right where she had slit across his cheekbone. She catches him in the gut, punches and punches him until each of his singsong syllables are punctuated with the splattering of blood.

He does not stop singing, though.

He sings louder and louder until he is just screaming in tune. He sings of the world itself, of every single thing he has ever written. The lyrics he'd scrunched up and thrown away, the poems that he never finished and the songs that never saw the light of day.

He sings them all now. 

She cuts him, she lashes him. His clothes are torn and they hang off his body and there's piss and blood running down his legs and he can't hide, not anymore, but still he does not stop.

He sings until his throat is raw and his voice grows hoarse. He still does not stop. When the words won't rise and when the pain is too heavy, too thick and he can't tell up nor down or left from right, he hums his tunes instead.

All of them, every piece of his life, all the stories and tales that he has woven over his many years alive, he screams and bellows and yells and they are all parts of this; all parts of him.

He is shaking and the blood won't stop, on and on it pours and his head is pounding and she is punching and kicking and biting but still he does not stop.

Eventually, she does. 

She leaves him with one last kick to the chest and then it is quiet once more.

Jaskier is left strung up, wrists worn red and raw against his shackles. His arms hurt and his bones are broken and shattered and all he can smell is his own blood, his own vomit.

His own death.

He is left there, hanging. 

But tonight he sleeps.

x

He wakes up to the sound of muffled shouts, the faraway noise of clashing swords. Somewhere, there is a battle going on.

He takes no notice of it. His face has swelled up and he can barely see, his arms burn like fire and still his bones are broken and his ribs are cracked. 

He can feel the eyeball, dried up and hard, under his fingernails still. It makes him retch, makes him vomit.

His clothes are hanging off him, he's practically naked. He doesn't care though. Not now.

This is how he will die, he thinks. This is where it will all end.

At least he doesn't have to hide anymore. There is some freedom in that, some relief. No longer is he under this pretence of a human, no longer is he acting under watchful eyes.

At least he has been given that much.

Then there's a shout and the door is burst open.

A body goes sailing past down the hallway. It lands in front of Jaskier's cell. The body of a solder.

Their throat has been cut, straight and clean, and their oesophagus has been pulled out. Their eyes are milky white, rolled to the back of their skull and their mouth remains open in a silent scream.

"Jaskier," He hears, a voice he didn't think he'd ever hear again.

He looks up and there he is.

The White Wolf, the Witcher, Geralt of Rivia. He is standing there. Face streaked with blood and dirt and grime, hair tangled and shoved into a ratty bun. It needs a good wash and a good comb. Jaskier used to do that, he thinks. A long time ago. 

He can't really remember, it was so long ago.

"Jaskier!" Geralt says again and his voice is raised n a way Jaskier has never heard before. He runs to the cell, forces it open with a bang, and then his hands are on Jaskier.

He does not flinch, something which strikes him as odd. He should be flinching. He… he would flinch. He hadn't felt a gentle touch in so long. He hasn't been touched with anything other than clenched fists or steel, not for what feels like weeks and weeks and months.  

But he doesn't. He lets Geralt touch him, lets Geralt cup his face in his hands.

"I'm going to get you out of here." Geralt says but his voice is strange. It is how Jaskier remembers it but it's not quite right. There's something about it that is off. 

"Y-your face…" Jaskier groans, eyes wide and panicked.

Geralt's eyes are gold, his hair is white. But the rest of him is… blurred. As though he's not in focus.

"Jaskier…" Geralt says and suddenly he sounds so far away.

There's a noise in Jaskier's ears. The sound of rushing water, the sound of the sea.

He's waist-deep in it. It's rising and rising and rising and it is black.  

"Jaskier," Geralt says again, only it is not Geralt. Not really.

It is his memory of Geralt. One that is fading. 

He is in the ocean and he is being pulled out to sea. He tries to grab on but the blackness grows. It stinks of ink and it pulls him further and further away.

He is sinking, he is drowning and there is Geralt, watching.

He wakes up with a start. 

Shainfein is standing right in front of him, smiling. 

x

It is only Shainfein now. Herwyn does not come anymore.

Jaskier had always thought Herwyn was a monster, but if Herwyn is a monster then whatever Shainfein is, is much worse.

x

"Oh such a pretty face, little songbird." Shainfein giggles. "Why, I could eat you right up…" and she's leaning in close, always invading his personal space. Her breath is on his cheeks and her lips are so close to his skin, he can feel the brush of them against his cheekbones.

She talks more than Herwyn ever did. She talks and talks and talks and Jaskier tries to drown her out with his singing but she is always louder.

"He's left you here to die," She tells him. "Just like you left him on the mountain." 

Always, she is talking and always her words cut deeper than any blade ever could.

"Nobody is coming for you, songbird," she giggles, "You can scream and cry and sing and shout but you will still die alone." She traces the points of his ears, smiling wider and wider until her face is split in two. "You're a liar and a fraud. Nobody cares about you, Nobody will rescue you."

She leans into him, rests their foreheads together and looks up at him through hooded eyes.

"You love him but he never loved you."

She kisses him then, forces her lips against his own.

Then she bites. 

All Jaskier can taste is blood.

x

The wounds get infected. 

It is only natural, it is only what one would expect. 

Jaskier still sings but he has forgotten all his lyrics. 

His nightmares plague him but with the infection comes the day-horrors, the hallucinations.

He sees his father, one day. He is standing opposite him and his face is old and weathered and scarred. He has the cane in his hands and he is raising it. Again and again, he beats him. The wood splinters at Jaskier's skin and it peels away flesh until he can see bone. Over and over again, the cane cracks and the air wails behind it.

Then he blinks and it is no longer his father but Shainfein with her whip. Always, she is smiling.

Always, she is talking.

And never does she stop. 

x

Another time, in a dream, he finds a body. He is young once more and he is running home with flowers held in his hands. A bouquet of ferns and dandelions and snowbells, a bouquet for his mother. She didn't leave the house much anymore and her eyes were always red, always so sad. Jaskier - or Julian, as he had been then - had always thought that maybe, if he brought her enough flowers, that she could be happy once more. Maybe if her bedroom was filled with buttercups and primroses and forget-me-nots that she would smile at him again and her eyes would crinkle at their tired edges. So always he brings her flowers, puts them in vases when he runs out of them he moves them to teacups and wine glasses. He fills them with water but she only stares at them blankly. They die a few days later and Jaskier has to throw them out.

But still, he picks more. Still, he brings her more and more colours, more and more flowers. She's not happy because he's not picking enough. He's not doing enough. He has to get more, he has to make them nicer, he has to make her happy.

So he is running and laughing and as he turns down one of the streets - empty. The streets were always so empty back home. Everyone was always leaving, everyone was always disappearing. Nobody ever stayed for long. However, he is stopped in his tracks when he spies a shadowy figure down the alley, hunched over, lying on the floor.

He remembers this as if it was yesterday, remembers dropping his flowers and running to the man slumped over.

He remembers touching his hand, finding the skin of his wrist and checking for a pulse. He remembers how cold the skin had been, how just the merest touch seemed to suck the life right out of his own hands.

Then he turns the man over. It is exactly how it happened all those years ago. It is the same. Exactly the same.

He turns the man over and he knows what he will look like. He could never forget the lifelessness of those brown eyes, the absence of light that had pooled in those dark depths. 

He turns the man over and drops him with a scream.

This is not the same.

The man who stares back at him is himself.

Blue eyes are lifeless. Pale skin sallow and faded.

He is dead. He is the dead man on the floor. He is the body with the void eyes and the cold skin.

He deserved it, he hears.

He had it coming.

He screams and screams and screams but still, he will not wake up. 

x

The hallucinations get worse and worse and more and more time passes and still he is beaten, still he is whipped red and raw and bleeding and still he does not stop singing.

But always, the same hallucination.

Not exactly the same. Different enough that he might think it real, but so frequent. Always happening.

Geralt comes to him, Geralt saves him.

There are times when Jaskier realises this is just a dream, times where he knows straight away and he simply watches and cries and wills himself to wake up. There are times when Geralt's voice is not right and his face is faded and blurry, as though he has been dipped in water and the inks of his skin have spread and blurred until he is clear no longer. There are times when it is easy, when he knows that this is not real and all he must do is endure.

But it is more often than not that he believes them. More often than not, he thinks these dreams are real.

Sometimes he even leaves the prison cell. Sometimes Geralt carries him out and he sees the outside world once more.

They feel so real too, sometimes.

He can feel the sunlight against his skin, the warmth of it. The wind against his cheeks. He is lifted onto Roach and her hair is silky smooth under his fingers. She neighs and whinnies and whines and it sounds real, it is real; except it's not.

It's all so vivid, as he escapes. All so vivid as he leaves this hell behind.

He can smell Geralt and he smells of pine trees and winter mornings and always he smells of fucking onion. When Geralt holds him Jaskeir can feel the roughness of his scars against his own skin. He can trace the paths of calluses and lines and divots that he remembers so well. He can feel it and never before has anything felt so real.

Sometimes Geralt kisses him. Sometimes, Geralt's lips are on his own and it is everything he had ever dreamed of.

But always he wakes up.

And always, Geralt is not there.

But he is never alone, because every single time, Shainfein is right there.

And every single time she is smiling. 

x

"I've been thinking, little songbird," Shainfein hums as she slashes crisscrosses into his arms. Always, she uses his old silver dagger. "Of what you're worth." 

She stops then, looks up at him and she grins. Her lips are dry and they split, but she only licks the blood away.

"If anyone ever rescues you…" She raises her free hand to his chest, trailing her fingers across his collarbone. "Which I seriously doubt, but just in case," she has a habit of speaking to Jaskier like he is a naughty schoolboy. She infantilises him, makes him feel small and weak and pathetic. Makes him feel useless. "I want to make sure that you never forget this."

She laughs then. Emotionless, blank. "Every time you do something you love, I want it to be this you think of. This that haunts your mind."

She's stepping back now, her fingers leaving his skin and her hands playing with his old knife.

"So I've been wracking my brains for the things that make you happy…" She holds the dagger to her lips, pushing the point against her cupid's bow. "And I was thinking… wouldn't it be a shame if you lost some of those pretty little fingers." 

She's insane. She's a psychopath. There's not even a single piece of her which is good or kind. She's rotten.  

"Not all at once, of course. Where's the fun in that? But one by one… But the real question is which one first?" She pouts, lowers her voice to a simper. "Nobody is coming for you, little songbird. We have all the time in the world."

She holds up her keys, jangles them in front of Jaskier's face. 

She unshackles his right wrist, lets it drop and Jaskier lets out a cry. He's been hung from his arms for so long, for weeks maybe. She grins. "Oh, it hurts, doesn't it? Don't worry though, this will hurt a lot more."

She continues talking and Jaskier tries to block it out, tries to think of anything else but he can't.

"I thought I'd go for your right hand, first. You don't need all your fingers to strum, anyway. So, really, I'm doing you a favour. You don't need all these pesky little digits. Not here, songbird."

She brings her hand to her mouth, kisses the palm, her eyes lidded. "I'm thinking the pinky finger first. Just to start it off. Then… hmm, perhaps your index finger. Then we'll go to the other hand. You won't be able to play the lute at all then, will you? You won't be able to press down the strings… oh well, it can't be helped." 

And then she's holding the blade against his little finger, digging it in ever so slowly.

He almost thinks she won't do it, that this is her limit, but he's only trying to convince himself so. She will do anything, anything at all. She does not care, not one bit.

The blade digs in slowly, in a way that will cause the most amount of pain. She's probably done this before. So many times she's lost count. 

Blood pours down his wrist and she holds it in front of his face, gives him nowhere to look but there.

He shuts his eyes tight and she stops. 

"Open them, little songbird." Jaskier keeps them shut.

"If you don't open them, I can go for something a lot worse." She grabs his cock, squeezes it hard. With a gasp his eyes fling open and she, like always, is smiling at him.

"Now there's a good boy." 

So he sits there and watches. Watches as the blade cuts in, cuts deeper.

Watches as it slides all the way through.

His little finger is sliced off and it falls to the ground.

It doesn't make a single sound but Jaskier swears as it hits the ground his entire world shakes.

She takes his hand, looks at the bleeding stump and puts it in her mouth. Jaskier can feel her tongue pulsing around it, feel the movement of her mouth as she sucks. It makes him feel ill. Then he feels the edge of teeth, he cries out and she bites. 

Day by day, she'll cut them all off. 

Even if he doesn't die, he will have nothing to live for.

"What happens when they're all gone?" He asks, despite himself.

She bellows with laughter, wiping tears from her eyes. She has Jaskier's blood coating her hands and crimson is smeared across her face.

"Then I'll take your voice."

And with that, she is gone. 

She leaves Jaskier and he can't help it; he cries.

x

The next day Jaskier wakes up and he is being carried somewhere.

He's collapsed in someone's arms and his entire body is screaming in pain.

he lets out a low moan, weak and pitiful. Someone is saying something but he does not know what, or who. It sounds as if he is trapped underwater, the sound muffled as though he is somewhere far away.

He feels his grip on what is real and what is fantasy fading. He moans again and he thinks he is crying because he can taste salt and it stinks the wounds on his face and lips. 

He can't open his eyes, he can't see anything.

His breaths are ragged and rattling but he can smell something.

It smells of pine trees and the cold. Fresh snow on a winter's morning.

He passes out and knows no more. 

Chapter Text

Perhaps one of the worst things about this whole situation is the fact that Geralt has no idea when Jaskier was abducted. He does not know how long he has been trapped in this confinement and that is terrifying. It could be anywhere from a few days to a few months and the longer Jaskier has been there the more likely it becomes that he is dead. 

That is a thought that terrifies Geralt. 

The 'gift' - for lack of a better word - of Jaskier's lute and hair is obviously bait. They have sent that with the intention to draw Geralt in, to bring him closer to their lair. Whether they are confident enough to think they can fool or overpower a Witcher is anyone's guess. It's the most ridiculously moronic attempt to bring him their way. It is a blackmail of the cruellest kind. The kind that cannot be taken back and cannot be recovered.

However, this method shows something else. The risks they are taking by drawing him closer mean that they must be reaching the end of their ropes. They must be getting desperate for answers. 

It means Jaskier is putting up a fight. It means that, if he is still alive, he is fighting. He has not given anything away.

Geralt feels a small measure of pride in that. Jaskier has always been strong, much stronger than anyone has ever given him credit for, including himself. Both physically and emotionally, Jaskier could truly be terrifying, certainly a force to be reckoned with. 

Geralt wishes he'd told Jaskier that. Wishes he'd said something, anything , to Jaskier when he'd had the chance.

It is too late now.

But there is something else that rests in shadows at the back of his mind. If Jaskier has put up a fight, if they have been getting desperate enough to call Geralt himself to their base, then - even if Jaskier is still alive - he will be most certainly in a bad way. He cannot imagine the Nilfgaardians have been kind or courteous to Jaskier during his stay with them.

Yet Geralt is no fool and there is guilt that settles within his gut for he can take a guess at why Jaskier has been abducted. Why he has no doubt been beaten and whipped and tortured for answers.

The whole Continent knows about the Master Bard and the White Wolf, the poet and the Witcher, the two unlikely companions who travelled the very breadth of the world together. They had become immortalised in song, in story. As Jaskier had foretold, they would become a part of history. Even if the stories were not exact and the tales full of half-truths and lies, it was their names that were spoken; their names that would be read by parents to their children, it would be their names that would be passed down long into the expanse of this world and beyond.

Jaskier's songs were known everywhere. In every tavern, in every corner of the earth, Jaskier's golden voice had seeped in and spread its light. They had made their mark in the world, spread their fire that brought hope and glory to all those who listened.

An idiot would be able to realise that he and Jaskier had a connection, had a friendship that had spanned decades. There were many who had seen what Geralt had tried so desperately to hide, too. There were glances and looks that people would give him every time one of Jaskier's songs was belted out in a tavern. There were comments and whispers that Geralt would hear as he walked on by. People were always speculating and humans have a tendency to be more observative than they are given credit for. They had figured it out long before he had, they had known what he was trying so hard to fight, what he had fought tooth and nail to dispel and by the time he realised that Jaskier was all he wanted it was far too late. 

But not everyone knew that their companionship had ended. People would ask Geralt, sometimes, if he was recognised; which - thanks to Jaskier's songs - happened frequently. They'd look up at him with nervous eyes and question where the bard with the voice of birdsong was, where he'd disappeared off to. 

Every time Geralt had grunted, ignored them, continued walking; but still people asked.

That was another thing about humans; they were nosy creatures. Curious, always wanting to know more. It's how half of them met their deaths, wandering into forests where they had heard peculiar noises, searching for their own death-wish just to sate the desire for adventure. 

But it was commonplace knowledge that Jaskier and Geralt were close friends, or had been anyway. And that is why they chose Jaskier. That is why they took him and that is why he is gone.

He could be dead and it would be Geralt's fault. He brought Jaskier into his life and then pushed him away at his most vulnerable. He had allowed himself to care, made promises to Jaskier of something more, and then he had abandoned that for what was easier, what was safer. He had thrown Jaskier aside for his own sense of selfishness and not once had he thought of the repercussions of such an act. Not once upon that mountain top had he stopped to think how unfair he was being, how ridiculous he was acting. Not once did he stop to think that maybe Jaskier was hurting just as much as him.

And then he had thrown it all away and by the time he had realized what he had done, realised what he had lost, it was too late.

The thing is, Geralt has no obvious connections with others. Yennefer and Ciri and Jaskier. That was it, that was the true extent of those who knew him beyond the superficial. 

But Ciri is in hiding, the entire reason behind this shit-fest is because those bastards want Ciri, they want to get their hands on the last remaining monarch of the royal family of Cintra. They think Jaskier knows where she is, or where Geralt plans on taking her. 

Yennefer? She's a mage. She can hide anywhere and everywhere. The guards would have been a fool to try and go after her and they knew that. She was far too powerful, far too dangerous. 

Jaskier? He's just a human. Or something like a human. The longer Geralt has been away from Jaskier, the more time he's had to think and remember and to miss what he has lost, the more he has realised that Jaskier was not quite who he made himself out to be.

But the point still stands. Jaskier is not magic, he had no protection, when they had caught him. He was by himself and, although strong, he is not artificially so. Unlike Geralt who had paid the price for his mutations with a curse of white hair and golden eyes, Jaskier is normal. Even the strongest of men will fall if they are caught at the right time and Jaskier had been caught.

It did not help that he was still nursing a broken heart, still angry and hurt at Geralt; and rightfully so. 

It was only natural that the only person they could find who was linked to Geralt would be Jaskier. 

They want to know where Ciri is heading, where Geralt will take her and keep her out of harm's way. Of course they would think Jaskier would know. There had been a time where Jaskier had once known far too much about Geralt. So much that Geralt had grown scared, so much that Geralt had pushed Jaskier away. Pushed and pushed and pushed until that rising of dusk upon the mountain top, where Geralt had pushed too much and too hard and Jaskier had fallen.

So now they have taken him. They have taken him to find Ciri because of course they had.  

Part of Geralt's mind tells him that all of this is his fault. Had he not thrown Jaskier away on those mountain tops, discarded him like he wasn't even worth the dirt on his shoes, then none of this would have happened.

He and Jaskier would have stayed together. They would have found Ciri alongside one another and Geralt would have never allowed those bastards to harm a single hair on Jaskier's head.

But what is done is done. There is nothing to do now but move on. Geralt is not a time traveller and he cannot erase what has happened, he cannot rectify his mistakes of old. He must simply accept that this is where his choices have led him, this is how things have turned out. 

He cannot afford to waste time focusing on the past. He has to get moving, he has to act.

He has to find Jaskier.

x

He entrusts Ciri with Yennefer, who he has been travelling on and off with ever since Ciri has come into his life. He makes Yennefer promise that, no matter what, she won't let a single thing harm her, not that he needed to; Geralt thinks Yennefer would let the world crumble at her feet before she'd ever let anyone harm even a single hair upon Ciri's head. It is not right that a girl as young as her, who has already been through so damn much, should have to suffer any more. Who has lost her parents and her grandparents and her people and her home. Who had found a new family, one that she had thought she could rely on but now situations beyond their powers must separate them once more. But Geralt must leave. There is no way upon this earth that he'd even think about taking Ciri along with him, despite her own wishes. He'd have to be a fool of a whole new ilk to take Ciri right to the very people who have been looking for her. 

Ciri is young, not yet ten years old. However, she is still old enough to understand why Geralt must go, why he must leave, but she is tired and scared and she is lost. She cries as he leaves, hugs him tighter and he buries his face in her tangles of hair. Sometimes Geralt forgets just how young she is. She has been through so much, battled against such hardships that she can appear much older than she actually is. In situations such as these, however, she becomes her own age once more. Small and frightened, someone who just needs a family to care for her. 

She pulls on the ends of her hair, a nervous habit of hers. It is raggedy and tangled, although it had been brushed. It needs tying up, or cutting, to keep it out of the way. Maybe, when (not 'if') they get Jaskier back, he can braid it. Weave flowers into it like he once did for Geralt and Roach. In fact, Geralt had tried to do it for Cirilla himself, but he lacked the talent. He couldn't make it flow, he couldn't make them look beautiful and graceful and whimsical, not like Jaskier could. He didn't have the touch, he lacked the talent. 

He tells Ciri this as he hugs her goodbye, wipes the tear tracks from underneath her eyes. She has taught him to let himself be gentle, she has taught him to care.

Part of him wishes he had met her sooner. Maybe he would have learned that opening up his heart was not such a bad thing after all. But, deep in his soul, he knows that had he met Ciri earlier he would have pushed her away too, just like everybody else. 

But now he is different, now he has changed. He has accepted his fate, accepted his destiny and accepted the ties that bind him to others.

But always a part of him has stayed with Jaskier. Always, his heart has remained there. Even though Yennefer and Ciri now hold their own pieces of him, it is not the same. It is love of a different kind. Jaskier is different. Jaskier is something else entirely.

This might be his last chance, his only chance, to ever see Jaskier again. There is still the niggling thought in the back of his head, the one he tries so hard to ignore, that tells him Jaskier is dead. 

Ciri smiles up at him, tears still sparkling behind her reddened eyes but she looks happy. 

She knows all about Jaskier by now. Yennefer had told him bits and pieces and she had asked for more, pestered Geralt until eventually he had come clean. 

She had been furious at Geralt when she had found out what he had done. She had slapped him on the arm, barely hard enough to leave a mark, and called him an idiot. Yennefer had laughed, ruffled Ciri's hair and nodded in agreement. Geralt hadn't argued her words, nor had he tried to deflect her anger. Ciri was right. He was a fucking moron. 

"Save him." She says, voice light and bright but still wavering slightly. "You've got to." She says, taking his hands in hers.

She is so small compared to him. So tiny and fragile. Both of her hands are smaller than just one of Geralt's and she is slender and skinny, underfed. But they cannot get more food than they already have. Life is hard out on the open road and although they make do with what they can, this is no life for a child as young as her. She is short too, smaller than most other children her age. They need to get to Kaer Morhen as soon as possible, they need to ensure that Ciri has stability, a constant in her life that she can rely upon once more. 

Geralt feels a lump in his throat as he looks down at her. 

"Promise me you'll save him?" She whispers.

Geralt doesn't trust himself to answer, he just nods instead.

"Promise me you'll come back alive?" 

That is not a promise that can be made. It is a dangerous sort of promise, one that cannot be kept. By convention, Geralt tells himself to deflect, to ignore or not answer. That is what he would have done, but he is changing, or he is trying to. Sometimes convention should not be followed, sometimes rules need to be broken and promises need to be made.

It is for hope, this promise. Even if he cannot guarantee it, Geralt is learning more and more about the impact of words. He had always been a man of few words, he had rarely used them unless absolutely necessary, but he is changing. He will always be quiet, always be gruff, but no longer will he lock away his thoughts, trap them in steel cages where they will never be set free.

Connection isn't dangerous, he reminds himself. No matter what you have been told. Connections make us who we are. They are a part of our soul, a part of us that can never be disentangled.

"I promise." 

Then Ciri raises one of her hands, extends her pinky finger outwards. The age-old tradition of children, the pinky promise. The binding of words that cannot be broken.

Geralt raises his pinky finger to hers and they shake on it. 

He prepares to leave, then. Hugs Ciri goodbye one last time and says his farewells to Yennefer. They are staying in an abandoned farmhouse, only a little ways off from a nearby village. Ciri and Yennefer will stay here, they will wait for Geralt and Jaskier's (hopeful) return and, depending on what state Jaskier is in, they will continue their journey towards Kaer Morhen as soon as possible. Before he can climb atop of Roach, however, Yennefer stops him with a hand on his forearm.

"You've heard about the people going missing, right?" Yennefer whispers to him, low enough that Ciri can't hear.

Geralt nods, short and curt.

"Just… keep that in mind," she pauses, struggling to find the right words. "Jaskier might not… even if you find him alive, there's no saying what they've done to him."

Geralt swallows. He knows this, it has been the one thing on his mind ever since he saw that damn lute and lock of hair. 

"I'll look after him." Geralt eventually manages to say, not looking at Yennefer. "I won't leave him. Not again." 

Yennefer pats him on the shoulder.

"Good luck." She says and then Geralt is off.

The sun is rising as he travels East, he sees the golden light peeking over the horizon. 

There is still hope. 

x

It does not take long for Geralt to learn what has happened to Jaskier. It is almost pitifully obvious. There can be no other captors other than the Nildgaardian soldiers, the ones acting out of orders and taking their so-called justice into their own hands.

It is them who have caught Jaskier. 

The hard part is finding where they are keeping him.

Geralt spends two weeks searching the abandoned buildings spread far and wide across the Continent. They have covered their tracks well, but they are not invisible. There must be a way to find them, they must have left some sort of trail.

The longer he spends looking the harder it gets. This is why he feared connection, this is why he feared opening up his heart to another.

It makes critical thinking harder, it makes it harder to stay rational and keep your wits about you. Geralt wants to tear the bastards who took Jaskier apart, limb by limb, tear them into tiny little pieces until not a single part of them remains. But he can't concentrate, he can't think.

The longer he spends looking the more frantic he gets, the more panicked he gets.

He had known, ever since that dusk spent on the mountain, that Jaskier meant more to him than anyone ever had. He loved Ciri and he loved Yennefer, but it was a different sort of love. The love of a father, the love of a friend.

His love for Jaskier is something different. Something that sets his chest aflutter and his blood on fire. It is burning and all-consuming and right now it hurts because Geralt doesn't know where he is. He doesn't even know if Jaskier is still alive.

But each morning the sun rises, there is always a new day that appears in golden daze.

There is always hope and Geralt has to hold on to that.

x

On the fifteenth day of his search, he finds out.

He knows where Jaskier is.

x

He is directed by concerned townsfolk. A town, irritatingly, only a few days travel from where he had left Yennefer and Ciri. If he had left west instead of east, he would have perhaps found Jaskier's location far sooner; but it cannot be helped now.

A young girl who reminds him very much of Ciri is the one who tells him. Her eyes are bright hazel, a technicolour swirl of blue and green and brown. 

She had come to him with a small bundle of coin in a raggedy purse, barely enough to buy one meal. It was a child's savings and she had looked up at Geralt with wide, frightened eyes. 

"'Scuse me, mister," she says, voice high and sweet and slightly frightened. Her words are accented by a country twang and her skin is streaked with dirt. "There are monsters in the woods." She whispers, voice barely audible. "Can you get rid of them for me, please?" 

Geralt almost thinks of refusing, telling her that he has another job that he can't put down right now. But she looks up at him with wide, innocent eyes and if there's one thing that Geralt has learned over these past few years is that sometimes it pays to listen, sometimes it pays to slow down and to stop fighting everyone and everything.

So he agrees and he asks her to tell him everything.

She says they are people who look normal, look like anybody else. All across the Continent, far and wide, but they stay around here. Near the big cities, but not too close. Always there, always watching. 

They come and they smile and they don't always look the same but, she tells him with a waver in her voice, their eyes are always cold and dead. No matter what they do, no matter how they act, there is no warmth that lingers in their gaze. Only ice, only death.

Every time they come, every time they are seen somewhere, someone grows missing. 

She tells Geralt of the nobles who have disappeared out of their beds in the big cities, the ones that everyone has heard about. The rumours that have spread like wildfire across parched lands. He tells her of the people that are forgotten about, a farmer, a blacksmith. People who may seem like no one, but always there is a link back to Cintra. Always, there is something that they are known for, a connection they have had.

Eventually, she tells him of a man who had sung like the birds in the trees.

Geralt freezes. 

He asks for more about him, asks for her to describe him. Who was he? Where was he from? Geralt is certain he already knows the answers, already knows what she will say, but he wants to be sure.

She tells him of the bard with the blue eyes and pretty lute. The one who had woven his tunes into the very fabric of the earth and who had smiled at everyone as they walked past. She had spoken with wide eyes of the stories he had told, the fantastical tales he had crafted with his hands and mouth, the worlds he had created from the depths of his mind.

"He was sad, though." She had said with the eerie observance that all young children seem to possess. Geralt had asked her what she meant by that, although he already knew the answer.

"His eyes. He smiled a lot and his songs seemed happy but the words were always sad. He looked lonely. I think he needed a friend." 

Geralt had swallowed then, turned his head. "When was he here?" He asks, dreading the answer to this question.

"Last month. Maybe a bit longer" She whispers back and Geralt's blood runs cold. 

"Do you know where they took him?"

She hesitates, then nods. 

x

It is then that she takes him to the heart of the village, takes him to the Town Hall where there sits a huddle of adults who eye him with mistrust. She takes him to a man with the same hazel eyes, it is her father and he is not fond of Geralt, but he is willing to help.

They're stationed in an old prison, Geralt is told. The ones who have taken Jaskier. One that had been abandoned years and years ago. The entire area is swarming with guards, far too many for the village to do anything about it. Besides, the village, at first, had tried to do something, but they were no army. Simple farming men and women stood no chance against soldiers and they had paid dearly for their protests. Now they were trapped under their thumb, being threatened to stay silent with the information that they knew. There has been no one who they could turn to, no one who they could ask for help. That is until Geralt arrived. Now they have a chance.

So they tell him where it is. A day's travel on horseback from here, three days on foot. Southwest, he must head, and eventually, he will come to a clearing.

That is where Jaskier must be.

Dead or alive.

x

He reaches the clearing just as the sun is rising over the horizon.

There is something symbolic in that, Geralt thinks. Something important and poetic and profound that Jaskier would have woven into one of his songs. Constantly, throughout the years, Geralt has stumbled upon moments such as these where all he wished for was to hear Jaskier's voice, to see what he would say about such things. He misses his company greatly, misses the mindless chatter that he had once sworn annoyed him. He misses the hummed tunes and the gentle songs, the strumming of a lute and the free laughter that rung out from Jaskier in the peals of golden bells. 

But now, this could be the end.

He could storm this place, kill the guards and rip their monstrous hearts from their human bodies and make them suffer a pain like no other. This, what they are doing here, is not sanctioned by the Nilfgaardian army. This is part of their seedy underbelly, the dirt that hides corrupt under the surface, the one that the monsters are drawn to. They have taken their law into their own hands, decided that they will use other means to find the princess and they will take innocents from their beds, torture them until they receive the answers they need. 

Everyone who is a part of this has lost something in them. The steel sword is used against humans, but Geralt draws the silver one. Monsters are slain with silver, and that is what these people are.

This is the part where he finds out. This is the part where Jaskier is either alive, or dead.

But no matter what, things will be different.

Even if Jaskier is alive, there are wounds here that will take far longer to heal. There will be scars that will last and not all of them will be physical. But more than that, Geralt had hurt him. Geralt had wounded Jaskier deeply and he does not expect to be forgiven, not until he has earned it.

But this time he will be there, this time he will not fight it.

He will stay with Jaskier and he will wait. Wait for forgiveness, even if that day never comes. 

Always, he will be bound to Jaskier and nothing will change that. No longer will he try and fight it, no longer will he hiss and kick and spit against the pull of destiny. Instead, he will let it draw him in. Like the tide of the sea, he will follow where he is drawn and no longer will he try to leave it all behind.

Not anymore.

As he nears closer to the ruins and as the sun begins to peek betwixt the forest's bare winter branches, he gets a clearer idea of what he will be facing next.

It is certainly an abandoned prison, lined with a broken wall about ten metres high. The peaks of the wall are still tipped with sharpened iron spikes, a barricade against any escapees, however much of the wall has fallen and given away to the passage of time.

From this point now, he can only see one entrance into the ramshackle building of the prison. It is small, only perhaps one or two rooms, but Geralt is familiar with structures such as this one and he knows that many of them run for miles below the surface of the earth.

There are two guards stationed outside the rusted gates, wearing the familiar emblem of Nilfgaard. Their faces are shrouded by iron helmets, their bodies covered in thick chainmail armour. 

Geralt knows that this place is prepared for him. They sent that lute, that lock of hair and that note with the expectation that Geralt would find him.

They should be ready for his entrance, should be on the lookout for him.

But that girl back in the village said that Jaskier had gone missing over a month ago. Geralt does not know exactly when the items were sent. The guards on watch appear strangely lax, lackadaisical in their movements and sloppy in their work. It has taken a long time for Geralt to find this place, something that he is all too aware of, and if any of the soldiers had found out about the event on the mountain top…

Geralt's blood turns to ice. A shiver runs through him.

They might not be expecting him at all. They might think that he has abandoned Jaskier, left hi here to rot.

Jaskier might think that. If he is even still alive.

Geralt swallows; adjusts his grip on his silver blade.

It means, however, that he has the upper hand. There is no way he is losing this fight. 

x

Witcher's are physically superior to a mortal in many ways, one of those being their excellent ability to hide . Lightening his footfalls, stilling his breathing, these methods of staying hidden come naturally to Geralt. They are as simple as blinking' the actions of secrecy come as a necessity for any Witcher to master; considering many of the beasts they will face will rely solely on senses other than sight to find their victims. It is of great use here, where there could be eyes watching from anywhere. Humans, comparatively, have poor senses. Their hearing is not too great and, in light such as this, their eyesight is almost useless. In almost every way, Geralt has the upper hand.

He is driven, he is furious and they do not know he is here. The element of surprise is always a strong one and the guards have no idea what is yet to come. 

He gets close to the first solder, hidden behind an area of dilapidated wall, covered in a thicket of poison ivy. He holds his breath, waits for the right moment. 

At this distance, he can see the guard's armour more clearly. It is a cheap sort, well-made but that does not cover for the quality of the metal. A good hit from his sword and Geralt will easily pierce through the material. He is easy pickings, really. 

With the sun rising higher and higher it will not take long before one of them notices him. At the moment he has been taking advantage of his own heightened senses, his ability to see clearly in the darkness. But soon it will be light and everything will be laid bare.

Geralt had promised himself, after the infamous event that had left him with the even more infamous title - the Butcher of Blaviken, that he would no longer intervene with the lives of humans. He made himself promise that he would keep out of it, form no connections; form nothing that would give him attachments to others.

But he is here now, and these bastards have kept Jaskier locked underground for who knows how long. He can't stay away, he cannot say he does not care. He cannot keep lying to himself, he cannot keep pretending something does not exist even when it does.

What had happened with Renfri had hurt him. It had wounded him deeply, left scars that will never truly heal. But he had had no choice, there had been no other way. He had been given an ultimatum and there were no other paths he could have trodden.

Here, however, he has a choice. But much like Renfri, there is really only one answer.

He will save Jaskier, no matter the cost. 

He knows these people are monsters, it is why he uses the blade of silver. He has killed lesser men before, thieves and bandits and other sorts. If he could have killed them, then he will have no qualms at killing these beasts hiding amongst human flesh. 

Still, though. Geralt does not want to do this. He does not want to slaughter these people. He does not like killing, despite what people may still think. (Although much less think this way, now. Another thing Jaskier has done for Geralt, another thing he had never thanked him for) He does not take up his sword lightly and even here, he does not want to do this.

But are they truly people anymore? They have been kidnapping and torturing anyone they can get their hands on. Not just Jaskier. There are many more, many more who have been hurt and many more who have been slain by their hands.

They are not people. They lost that a long time ago. They are monsters.

That decides it then. He bolts around the corner and before either of the guards can even react, they are both dead. One, powerful slash from his sword. That is all it took to have the two of them skewered on the end of his blade.

They don't even have time to scream and as Geralt pulls his sword out of their lifeless bodies, their fingers still twitch and their eyes are still open. Crimson soaks their skin and it bubbles out of them, a witch's brew overflowing, drowning them. Red on his sword. Blood, warm and thick and of the living. Soon, however, it will grow cold and they will be dead.

Geralt kicks them aside and enters the dilapidated prison. 

There are more guards inside, the place is swarming with them - as the village had warned - and they leap up to attack. But they are clumsy, slow. They had grown foolish in their own sense of confidence and presumed that they would be safe here. They stink of fine food and drink, of smoke and ash and tobacco. They were not prepared and Geralt has the upper hand.

No doubt they were no longer expecting him.

Geralt makes quick work of them. They are poor fighters and it is then that Geralt realises that they are just soldiers. In times of war, soldiers are not trained. They are shown how to use a sword, shown how to use a bow, but they did not need to be masters of their craft. An army lied in its numbers, it was how Nilfgaard had caught Cintra off guard after all. These people are not made for direct contact, they are not made for hand to hand and certainly not against a Witcher.

The people they kill, the people they hurt, are weak and vulnerable. Strung up in chains and shackles, already weakened from whips and blades and fists. 

Geralt kills them all. He has to. It is the only way. Their resistance is pitiful, their attempts at fighting back almost laughable. 

These are not people, he reminds himself. They are monsters. They have killed and tortured innocent people without a second of remorse. They have built their lives upon the mistreatment of others.

But still, Geralt feels dirty. The sword is tainted and he does not enjoy this. Not one bit.

He has to do it, though. For all those who had died at the hands of Nilfgaard. For Jaskier.  

They all lay dead on the floor, Over a dozen of them. Men and women and more, old and young, scarred and smooth. But they are all of the same creed, the same cut. They are all killers. But Geralt is too.

What makes him so different?  

But he does not stop, he cannot stop. He must keep going, he has to find Jaskier. 

As expected, the prison is built around a staircase that leads down into swallowing darkness. Moss hangs down from the ceiling, shipwrecked teeth leading into the gaping maw below. Geralt follows it downwards, treads the path until the sunlight no longer falls on him. Treads the path until only darkness remains.

But still, he can see. The dark is illuminated under his eyes and he can see it all. 

But it is cold. There is no warmth, there is no life down here. Only death awaits.

Somewhere, far down here, is Jaskier.

x

The underground of the prison is a labyrinth of cells. A maze with no end, one that seems to go on forever and ever.

However, he has no trouble entering each cell, entering each cage that bolts people, living people, inside like feral animals. They are not locked and any guards that stand outside, waiting, are killed swiftly. The glow of their lantern, the artificial firelight that brings no warmth to Geralt's skin, is extinguished and the darkness travels. He enters each cell, but there is yet to be any sign of Jaskier. 

Geralt checks them all, each and every one. There are rotting bodies, left there. All sorts of people, all sorts of different races. Even some of their own kind, even Nilfgaardian soldiers lay there, lifeless. Traitors, they must have been. Or perhaps they found out what was taking place here, perhaps they wanted to put a stop to it. Not all of Nilfgaard is as bloodthirsty as many might presume. A soldier is only a tool used by their leader and there are many, such as this poor, dead soul, who oppose such cruelty.

This is where they end up. This is what happens to them. They are betrayed by their fellow men, tortured until they know themselves no more.

There are more bodies, too. So many dead, so many lifeless. 

There is one that sticks with Geralt long after, however. One of a young boy. He couldn't have been over sixteen years old. He is still alive, as Geralt approaches, but barely so. His stomach has been slit, not enough to expose his internal organs but enough that he will bleed out, slowly. Painfully. One of his ears has been cut off, Geralt can see the fleshy remains of it on the floor beside him, the bleeding hole where the curve of his ear would have once been. The ghostly shadow, stained in crimson. 

He is not shackled, not bound to anything. He can't move, there is no chance of his escape. He has been left here to die.

He looks up at Geralt and flinches, something wild and animalistic in his eyes. He is rocking, ever so slightly, and even that small movement causes blood to splatter from his lips. His eyes are rolling, he is in immense pain and he looks up at Geralt with wide eyes.

"K-kill me…" he moans, voice barely audible amongst the deep rattling of his breaths. "Please… j-just, kill me," He coughs, moaning in pain. Many of his teeth are missing, he is trembling all over. He is broken. Down to the very centre of his core, he has been shattered. He can never come back, not from this. 

He will die here. Even if Geralt does not kill him here, he will die slowly. He will suffer.

There is nothing that can be done. No healer on earth could save this boy's life. This is his end. This is his final request.

Geralt steps forward. He grabs his steel blade, the one for humans. This is no monster.

"What's your name?" He asks, a question he would not have bothered with many years ago. He is different now, though. The world has changed and he is no longer the same.

The boy (because that is what he is, nothing more than a boy) blinks blearily up at him."Glenn…" he manages to grit out. 

Geralt raises his sword and Glenn does not move again. His sword grows heavier in his hands and he hopes with all his very being that Glenn can find peace, wherever he ends up. 

He leaves the cell, heart weighing him down. He has to find Jaskier.

x

There are guards dotted about the underground and Geralt kills them all with little to no issue. They put up a fight, and they bite and growl and swing about their weapons in haphazard fury but in the end, they are no match for Geralt.

Yet Geralt is running out of rooms to search and he still hasn't found Jaskier. Knowing his luck, chances are the last room he will check will be the one holding him; but with the more lifeless bodies Geralt finds, rotting away in their desolate cells, the higher his anxiety spikes.

Then he hears a scream.

High pitched, a mournful wail that catches upon the gloom like a siren's song. One of the doors has been left open, slightly ajar, and as Geralt nears the screaming grows louder.

When he enters, there is a woman. She can't have been here long. Her face is gaunt and there is blood dripping from her lips, but she is still very much alive. Very much fighting.

She has spirit, a fire in her that is yet to be put out, but spirit will not save her from pain. Spirit will not stop what is happening to her. 

Then there's the man, the blade held in his hands, pushing into the skin of her arms. 

Geralt snaps. He yanks the man by the cuff of his shirt before he can even react. He opens his mouth in a silent scream but it is too late, Geralt has already snapped his neck. 

His maw hangs open, showing off a row of broken teeth, rotting gums. Monstrous, it stinks of death itself. His eyes, the whites an infected sort of yellow, roll to the back of his head. He is dead.

The woman flees before Geralt can even open his mouth to speak to her. Like a frightened deer, she has run. Made her escape. 

Geralt only hopes she can make the journey back alive. 

He wants to help her but she is gone. He can pick up her scent, ever fading as she runs from this place. It is strong enough that Geralt thinks she will be fine. Her injuries had been severe, but they did not spell her certain death.

There is one person he has helped. One person who has managed to escape. But there are so many people in here, so many people who Geralt missed. He was too late and now they are dead. 

Onwards, he continues. He must, but he feels anxiety boiling in his chest.

He was too late for all of these people.

What if he is too late for Jaskier, too?

x

He hears the footsteps before he sees the shadow rising round the corner.

A woman stands there, pale skin illuminated by a broad smile on her face. The sight of her instantly sets Geralt alert, puts him on edge. There is a scent of magic to her, power that stinks of unhinged. Madness bleeds from her, each breath punctuated with a bite of instability, a spark of unpredictability. 

She looks at Geralt like she knows him and the sight of her pale eyes on him makes his very skin crawl. 

"Took you long enough, Witcher." She says, smile growing larger. Her voice is spoken in half-song, as though she is speaking to a child, humming a soft lullaby. Instantly, Geralt can smell the edges of insanity, seeping off her very flesh in waves of rot. She acts as if this is one big game, one big joke. She smiles as though she enjoys this, as though she revels in the hatred that pours off of Geralt in ferocious seafoam waves. 

"I thought you'd left your little songbird behind," she laughs, "so did he. Poor little songbird, on his own in there for weeks and weeks and nobody came to help him."

She steps forward, swaying her hips as she moves in rhythm. 

"But you're here now and look what you've done." 

She stops, spreads her arms wide.

"You've slaughtered us all."

Geralt readies his sword, silver blade shining in the gloom. Her eyes brighten and she leans forward, pivoting her hands on her hips.

"You're a monster, " she whispers. "And nothing you do will ever change that."

Geralt slits her throat and she falls to the floor, still twitching.

The smile is still on her face, her eyes are still wide open and they glow.  

Eventually, the coldness seeps in. Eventually, death claims her and she grows slack.

But the smile does not leave her. The smile stays and Geralt swears he can hear her laughter, swelling amidst the shadows.

She is dead, but she is not gone.

Her and so many others who had died tonight will not fade. They will live on and they will be preserved in memories. They will become the shadows behind blue eyes and they will grow into sleepless nights and screaming nightmares. Tears, scars, spots of darkness on sunny days.

They will live on, even if their bodies are dead. 

Life is not so kind and, although Geralt does not know it yet, Jaskier does not forget. 

x

It is the one of the last rooms that Geralt eventually finds Jaskier in.

His breath stops as he enters, his heart catching in his throat.

Fuck.

x

Jaskier looks like he's been through hell and back.

Even from here, Geralt can see how pale, how thin he looks. Malnourished. He clearly hasn't had a good meal in over a month. It's… horrendous. Geralt knew it would be bad but he had not imagined how. It is easy to tell yourself that you will be able to deal with something, that you will be able to manage, but here is Geralt, divided from Jaskier by thick iron bars, and he is most certainly not ' dealing with it'.  

It is the stench that hits him first. The entire room fucking stinks . The smell of blood in the air is so thick that Geralt can taste it on his tongue, the unforgettable flavour of copper and iron that settles in Geralt's stomach like steel. It's mixed amongst the stench of stale vomit and urine, sweat and shit. 

It's awful.  

And it's worse, coming from Jaskier. It sets something within him alight, a spark of gunpowder ready to explode. He wants to burn this place to the fucking ground, destroy this entire prison until not a single shadow of its touch remains on the Continent. He wants to kill everyone in this damn place all over again. He wants to make them suffer, make them live through what their captors had to. Make them pay.  

But they are already dead. They are already gone and, no matter what Geralt had done to them, none of that would have erased time. There is nothing that Geralt can do to stop this, to erase what they have done to Jaskier. All he can do is keep walking forwards, hold on to hope.

Even when the world is at its very darkest, there is always a new day. Always, the sun will peek over the horizon. Geralt must wait for his sunrise, wait for the breaking of dawn, the start of a brand new day.

But first, he must suffer this; the darkness. 

As he nears, however, he can sense something else.

Another scent. One that smells of fresh spring, of dew sparkling on blades of grass. Of pollen and flora and the buzzing of bumblebees. He recognises it as Jaskier's scent, the one that has always been a wisp of light, hidden below the surface of something else. But no longer is it hidden, no longer is it locked away. It swells from Jaskier in full force, the scent of spring that brings hope to the wintry stink of blood.

Yet fear clings to it all. The scars of fear, of hysteria. It lingers in the room like a dark cloud. Jaskier's eyes are closed, he is not awake and the fear has temporarily abandoned him. But it spikes, it hisses out as Jaskier shifts and moans and whimpers. It is a curse, one that lingers in his thoughts whether he is asleep or awake.

Yet it shows that Jaskier is still alive. He is still breathing, he is still here. Geralt was not too late. Although he reminds himself, he very nearly was.

Still, as he nears Jaskier there is something else, something that lingers and grows and swells. Something natural, not of blood and fear and shame, but something that is woven into Jaskier's very soul. Something that had been locked away for a long time. 

Jaskier's skin has a faint glow to it. Unearthly, barely noticeable, but bright in the darkness of his cell. Even like this, even when he's barely breathing, Jaskier still carries light within him. A star in the night sky, a firefly floating within thick mist. Geralt has never seen a human glow like this before.

Then it hits him. The scent underneath, the hint of pointed ears that he can now see under Jaskier's raggedy hair. 

He's an elf.  

Of course he is. Of fucking course. All the signs were there, and Geralt had missed them. Or, more accurately, he had pretended they were not there. 

He had ignored Jaskier. Tossed him aside like garbage, pushed him away until there was nowhere left for him to stand. Jaskier had never told him. Jaskier had never trusted him with this. He had spent all those years fighting against what he had felt for Jaskier that he had pushed him away, made him feel as though he needed to hide from Geralt. No doubt he had kept the secret too long, kept himself hidden from Geralt that showing him had become too hard. Geralt could have guessed, in fact; looking back it was so fucking obvious, but never once had he said anything. Never once had he tried to comfort Jaskier, show him just how much he had meant to him, just how much he still means to him. 

He can't focus on that now, though. There isn't enough time. The life is fading from Jaskier, seeping out of him like a festering wound, and it won't take long until it is all gone. Geralt will not be able to heal him, not here and not now, but he can slow the course of infection, stem the bleeding wounds and clean the grime off of him. 

He can help.  

He kicks open the door of Jaskier's cell, slashes his sword at the shackles that bind him and catch him as he slumps forward, half-dead.

His skin is warm and feverish, the instant sign of infection, and everything is damp. Moist and wet and ruined, no doubt itchy and no doubt horrifically uncomfortable. Geralt almost thinks it is a small blessing that Jaskier is asleep, but his brow is furrowed and his lips twitch in silent sentences and Geralt realises that there are different demons that haunt him in sleep. 

His clothes are completely ruined. They lie in tatters, the only fabric that still covers him soaked in piss and blood and vomit. All across his body there are cuts, welts, sores, bruises, gashes. Everywhere. Decorated like stars in a sky on fire. 

Geralt holds Jaskier against him, lifts him up in his arms, heedless of the grime that coats him, and pulls him towards his chest. Jaskier murmurs and moans, eyes fluttering open and shut, pupils never managing to focus. He whispers half-formed words that make so sense, voice incoherent as he lets out whimpers and cries. He moves his arms, shifts them to Geralt's chest with a moan. His eyes are a brighter blue, now that the elf within him has been revealed, but they are clouded over like a winter's morning. Covered in a glassy layer of smog.

He is fading away, ever so slowly. His grip on reality is faltering and soon he will fall, soon he will be swallowed by the darkness of the abyss and he will never return.

Geralt cannot let that happen. 

Then, with shaking hands, he grabs the fabric of Geralt's shirt. He holds it tight between his fingers as if it is a lifeline, pulls it closer to him. Like a child with a blanket. A lost and lonely child, so scared of the rest of the world. So alone. But not now. He has Geralt, here with him now. There is Yennefer too, and Ciri. They are holding on, they are hoping.

He will never be alone again. 

There is blood dripping down his hand. So much blood.

He's missing one of his fingers, Geralt notices with horror. On his right hand, his smallest finger. 

Geralt is not a squeamish person, but this makes him feel sick.

He wonders, if he'd gotten here perhaps a week later, if Jaskier would have had any fingers at all.

But he can't think about that now. Jaskier needs help . Serious help. He needs to be taken back to the village, he needs medical attention as soon as possible.

But as he moans and groans and twists in Geralt's arms, he does not know if the townsfolk will be able to heal him.

He needs something stronger, something far more powerful.

He needs Yennefer, Geralt realises. He needs to be taken to Yennefer and as fast as possible. 

x

He does all that he can to help Jaskier in the situation. He has bandages, gauze, in his back that he uses to stem the bleeding. When he runs out of that, he rips up his own clothes without any hesitation. He will do anything and everything to try and lessen Jaskier's pain. He will tear the very earth to its centre if it means Jaskier will survive.

He is desperate and his blood roars in his ears, a pounding drum that shakes him to his very core. A neverending beat that spirals him into madness, into panic. He needs Jaskier to hold on. He can't die. He won't let him.  

Jaskier desperately needs food and drink. In Geralt's arms, he hangs limp like a sack of bones. The skin is pulled tight around the hollowness of his cheekbones and Geralt can see the taut lines of each and every one of his bones, count his ribs with his fingers. Skeletal, almost. Painfully starved, painfully thin.

He has to stabilize Jaskier before they can risk moving ahead, but he is still not responding.

He is awake, alive. Geralt hears his breathing, count the thumpings of his heart. It is weak, it is faint, but it is there and Geralt must hold onto that. 

He carries him out of the prison, cradles him in his arms as he makes his way through the sea of the dead he has left in his wake. Jaskier does not stir but he relaxes slightly as they reach the outside. The sunlight shines upon his skin and he looks even worse in this light, but still, he glows. The furrows of his brow, dug in deep like the graves of the dead, lessen slightly. The severe strain of his face softens and, now that he is outside once more, it is as if nature itself bends to his will. The trees seem to curl around him, their branches parting to let the sunlight fall down on his sallow skin, they whisper in the wind and Geralt can hear the concern in their rustling voices.

Jaskier had always had a connection with nature, a connection with animals, but it seems now that he is no longer wearing that damn bracelet, that power has swelled and grown. Not all elves carry a connection such as this; only those of more noble blood would have had such potent energy as this. Jaskier always had had a taste for the finer things and Geralt wonders if that was why. If, had things turned out differently, Jaskier would have grown up in royal courts and noble banquets, rather than stinking taverns and musty inns. 

As he nears Roach, she rears up on her hind legs, whinnies and shakes her head in distress. She noses desperately at Jaskier but does not touch him. She keeps her distance, cautious yet worried. 

From his pack, provisions are collected. There are vials of potions, ones to dull pain and heal the more minor injuries, but none will be strong enough to overcome the infection and none will be strong enough to restore Jaskier's missing finger. They will have to do, though. They will keep him alive and that is all Geralt can hope for. 

Geralt carefully sits Jaskier down, holds him against himself as he raises the flask of water to his lips. His eyes are open but he does not know what he is doing, he does not have the control required to open his mouth, to take the water in. It dribbles uselessly from the corners of his lips, drips down his chin and onto his bared stomach.

He needs to drink, though. He has to drink and eat but he can't.  

Geralt takes a swig of the water himself, holding it in his mouth and carefully tipping Jaskier's head back. He's always been useless at this kind of thing and he's certainly never had to do this before but he's going to have to learn if he wants Jaskier to survive this ordeal.

It feels wrong, doing this. As though he should ask for permission first. He can't though, there's nothing else he can do and he knows that this isn't wrong, that this is fine, but it doesn't feel like it. It feels invasive and Geralt doesn't want to do it. Not when he and Jaskier had departed on such awful footing. Jaskier can't consent to it and even though there should be nothing romantically charged about this situation at all - it is merely survival, not love, after all - this is Jaskier. It is always Jaskier and Geralt doesn't want to do this, something so close to what he wants; when Jaskier isn't even coherent enough to grant his consent

But he has to do it so, tentatively, he places his lips over Jaskier's own.

Jaskier is weak and complying, he doesn't put up a fight and he lets Geralt part his own lips with ease. Geralt carefully massage his throat, dispelling the water into Jaskier's mouth until it is all gone. He eventually swallows it and Geralt repeats the process. 

Jaskier moans, gasps and groans and whines as Geralt continues, eyelashes fluttering and eyes rolling. He has no idea what is happening, no idea what is going on.

It all feels so wrong.

Jaskier had always been so full of life; ao vibrant and bright and colourful. Now, however, he is here. He is here like this and there is barely any life left in him.

He gives Jaskier water in this way until the waterskin is empty and there's nothing left. 

The food is next and this one is decidedly more disgusting but there's no other way to do it. Jaskier puts up more of a fight against this one and the chewed up food is harder to get him to swallow. Geralt realises he should have probably done it the other way around, food first then water after, but he's not good at this kind of stuff. He doesn't know what he's doing and he doesn't know how to do it. This will have to do, though. He hopes he has done enough, he hopes desperately that Jaskier will make it through the next few days. He can't die, not here, not now. Geralt won't let that happen. 

He really needs to clean Jaskier up, wash away the months worth of dirt and grime, but there's nowhere to go. He needs to get him back to Yennefer, he needs to get him healed.

He has to move quickly.

He heaves Jaskier up in his arms once more, careful not to jostle him as he settles him upon Roach. He slumps over the broadness of her back, hands losing their hold but Geralt's hands are on his hips, keeping him balanced. He sits behind Jaskier, not trusting him to hang on from behind in this state, and he wills Roach to gallop faster than she ever has before.

He can feel the ridges of Jaskier's spine against his stomach, the bones that just out and dig into Geralt's skin. He slips from one side to the other and it is all Geralt can do to hold him upright, make sure he does not fall off. He is completely out of it, completely unaware of what is going on. Asleep, but it is not peaceful. His teeth dig into his bottom lip, he shakes and mutters and tosses and turns his head and occasionally he cries out, incoherent mumblings that Geralt cannot make heads nor tail of. He tries to soothe him, tries to offer comfort in the minefield of Jaskier's thoughts, but he does not know how he can help. He hopes the little comfort he can offer is enough, he hopes it soothes him; if only the tiniest bit.

The trip, if they can keep up this speed, will take two days. Three at most. They will have to stop to eat and, if there is anywhere suitable, stop to wash. But Geralt will not be sleeping. Every second of his time that isn't spent helping Jaskier stay alive, he will spend trying to get back to Yennefer.

He can't slow down, he can't stop.

Time is running out.

He has to hurry up.

x

It is at the end of the first day of travel that Geralt finds a river, running clean water. 

Jaskier has not responded once for the entire journey, but life still clings to him; or he clings to it.

Geralt carries him down to the water's edge, cradling his head in his hands, and carefully strips him of the rest of his tattered garments. 

His skin is red, littered with the crimson of cuts and the brown of dried blood. There's vomit all over him, his own piss and shit. He needs to be cleaned.

Geralt lowers him into the water, as though he is handling glass, and begins his ministrations.

Just like Jaskier had done all those years ago, back before the banquet at Cintra, back before the Child Surprise or the Djinn or Yennefer, back when Geralt was fighting the world and protected his heart with poison spikes. When Jaskier had cleaned the selkiemore guts of Geralt with such care, rubbed soothing scents into his skin and smoothed out the tangles of his hair with orange blossom and chamomile. 

That had been his silent message, Geralt had realised years later. Looking back, he can see all the subtleties Jaskier had sent his way, every little thing he had done to show how much he cared.

Now he is doing the same thing but he fears that he is far too late.

The clearness of the water is stained red as the blood is washed away, revealing the slashed skin underneath. Cuts and wounds are cleaned, dirt and grime cleaned from their surface until the paleness of Jaskier's skin glows once more.

It is here, as Geralt does this, that he allows himself to think. To think about what has happened, just now and years upon years ago.

With the layers of dirt and grime now gone, Jaskier's skin glows. It is the elf blood within him, no doubt. The connection to the stars and the earth and the sun, a deep connection to the very threads of the continent woven deeply within his bloodstream. 

Even like this, he is still the most beautiful creature Geralt has ever seen. The sight of Jaskier like this makes Geralt's heart hurt. He is strong, stronger than he thinks, and this is proof of that. He had held onto life, risked it all, to protect Geralt.

He was loyal, ridiculously loyal, and how had Geralt repaid him? How had Geralt treated him? 

He had discarded him, blamed him for every single one of his own problems. He had made Jaskier suffer to protect his own feelings, for his own gain he had hurt Jaskier yet still, he had done this. He had succumbed to this sort of treatment for over a month, all for Geralt. The person who had held his hands in his heart and stamped on it until there was nothing left.

And never once had he tried to get to know Jaskier better. Never once had he appreciated exactly what he had had, not until it was gone. 

Jaskier was an elf, it is as clear as day now that his skin is clean and he lays, nude, in Geralt's arms. Never had he said anything, but the hints had been there. The eternal youth, the connection with nature. The way the world seemed to bend to his fingers, to his voice. 

And he had hidden it. Geralt tries to not let that hurt as much as it does. It was the smarter thing to do, to hide. No wonder that golden bracelet had drawn his eye, no wonder Jaskier's scent had always been hidden under a silvery veil. He had pretended a part of himself did not exist in order for him to survive.

Geralt had had his guesses, had his suspicions, but never once had he asked. He could have. He should have but he didn't.

Now, he might never get that chance again.

But as he lifts Jaskier out of the water once more, rips up another one of his spare shirts for excess bandages and tightly binds the deeper wounds, he realises he cannot lose hope. Not now. He dresses Jaskier in his own clothes and they are far too large. It is not surprising that they are baggy on him, for Jaskier had always been slimmer than Geralt, but this is too much. They are too big and Jaskier gets lost in the swathes of black fabric, slipping underneath the darkness until he is almost completely hidden. He sinks amongst the clothes, disappears amongst the darkness but Geralt is holding on to him.

Jaskier's grip is slipping, his hold is loosening, but Geralt will not let go of him. Not this time.

He has to believe that Jaskier will get better. He has to believe that Jaskier will be able to forgive him, sometime in the future.

If he does not, he fears he will break. 

x

They are only a few hours away from the abandoned old house that Ciri and Yennefer should still be living in - as long as their original plans had not gone pear-shaped - when Jaskier begins to talk.

It reminds Geralt so vividly of that time back with the Djinn, back when Geralt had first lost his ability to deny that he cared about Jaskier. He remembers the fear he had felt then, that had soon been replaced by anger when he desperately tried to fight everything his heart was telling him.

That is when he made his first mistake. When he convinced himself that he loved Yennefer, threw himself at the woman who he loved with his whole heart but could never love like that in some sick sort of method to try and pretend he was not already bound to Jaskier. It was when he hurt the two people who meant the most to him, when the lies built up and he - unwillingly - set the sparks for that catastrophe on the mountain that would take place years in the future. 

It was on that specific day that Geralt's destiny had swerved down a dangerous past. he'd spent all his time fighting what he thought he didn't want only to realise far too late that he'd ended up pushing away all those who he loved. That his ridiculous attempts to fight against what he felt had only blown up in his face, resulted in him being left with a path that he would face alone.

He will not make the same mistakes this time. Never again, will he fight what he wants. Maybe it makes him weaker, maybe it makes him more vulnerable, but it is worth the cost. It is worth it to sacrifice some things, especially when what he gains makes him happy. 

And perhaps Witchers have been wrong all along. Perhaps making these connections, forming these relations with the Continent itself, make them all the stronger. They have something to fight for, something to protect.

It is a risk, it is dangerous, but doesn't that make it all the more worth it?

But Jaskier is mumbling to himself, speaking in riddles and rhyme and none of it makes sense but Geralt can still pick out words, phrases. 

He whispers of other places, of another time. His father, his voice growing fearful and his hands twitching and shaking. He rubs his knuckles, the faint lines of scars that he has always had - the ones that Geralt had never bothered to ask about. He calls for his mother, lost and broken, and there are tears running down his face. Constantly, he whispers about flowers. The bouquet he needs to pick. I have to make her happy, he says over and over again. His voice cracks but still he does not stop and his tears glow silver. 

The most disturbing one, however, is the body. He keeps talking about someone. A dead man who he had found, slumped over with blood on his temples. Over and over again he whispers about it, growing more and more frantic with each passing second. "He deserved it." He says, voice wavering, voice murmuring. Repeating it like a mantra, he shifts himself, body flinching and almost sending him flying off of Roach's back. Geralt grabs ahold of him, brings Jaskier closer to him and holds him tighter. Something bubbles up from within him, a feeling he has been growing more accustomed to due to his time spent with Ciri. Protectiveness, a desire to keep someone safe; no matter how great the cost.

So he holds Jaskier as close as he possibly can and hopes that will cease his nightmarish daze, end the troubled storm of his mind. It does not, however, and he continues to talk. 

He recites poetry too, mumbles it under his breaths in puffed gasps. Something about a girl with daisies and a promise, a girl with hair like midnight. A boy who was like whirlwinds and a bracelet of gold.

It is his childhood, Geralt realises. Fragmented pieces of what has happened. He mumbles and sings and he cries harder and he does not know where he is or what is happening.

He still won't wake up.

Geralt urges Roach faster. They might be able to make it back before sundown. 

x

They reach the abandoned cottage just as the moon is beginning to reach its peak in the night sky. It had taken longer than Geralt would have liked, but they are here now. Eventually. It had taken far too long but Jaskier is still alive. He hangs over the void, the dark pit of death, but Geralt is still holding him, Geralt is pulling him up when his own grip fails. Now that they are here, there is both Ciri and Yennefer who hold Jaskier tight. His chances of slipping away are falling and Geralt feels himself eventually begin to relax for the first time since the events upon the mountain top.

The next few hours become a panic, a mad blur. As he arrives, Yennefer is already out there to greet him. Ciri peeks from behind her, hiding a yawn behind her hands. It is far too late for her to be awake now but there is no telling her to go to sleep, not after all of this.

She has never met Jaskier, but she has heard the stories. In the evenings she would sit with Geralt and ask him to tell her more about Jaskier. It had always hurt a bit, always pained Geralt to repeat the events and tales that had built up his life, pieces of him that he had thrown away and left abandoned, but he had done it for Ciri. 

She had grown fond of Jaskier, even if all she knew was what she heard from others, and she had constantly been trying to convince Geralt to find him, to reunite with him once more. She was a child, however, and Geralt had thought she didn't understand how complicated life could be; how things didn't fall into place so easily. Not like that, anyway.

Now, however, he wishes he had followed her advice. Even if he had found Jaskier and he had sent Geralt away with curses and anger and fire-eyed fury, at least he would have known. At least he would have tried. Instead, he had stayed out of Jaskier's life. He had tried to return, tried to find him once more, but he had never tried hard enough.

He had been scared of what might happen, what Jaskier might say once they met again.

But now he is here and everything is worse.

Ciri shouldn't be here. He should send her away, make her go back to sleep. 

He doesn't want her to see Jaskier. Not like this. She shouldn't have to see anyone like this. 

It is wrong. Not right. This isn't Jaskier, it's just… it is so strange to have Jaskier like this, so weak and vulnerable and quiet.

He also fears that Ciri will blame herself. The crime had been committed in her name, in the desire to find her. He hopes that she will not take that to heart, that she will not think it is her fault that Jaskier has ended up like this. But she is smart, too clever for her own good sometimes, and she will connect the dots, fit the puzzle pieces together and Geralt does not want her to feel guilt, he does not want her to feel shame. It is not her fault, none of this is, but the mind is cruel and it plays tricks. Ciri is too young to feel the burn of self-hatred that has worn away Geralt's soul for so long. She is too young to think of herself as dangerous, to think of her touch as poison.

She is too young to fear that she destroys everything she touches.

But he can't stop the two from approaching. Ciri's face is bright in open curiosity, but it soon darkens as she moves closer to Jaskier, truly sees the extent of his injuries. Yennefer's own face is severe, pulled tight and drawn as Geralt heaves Jaskier off of Roach's back. From Geralt's understanding, Jaskier and Yennefer had been friends, of a sort. They had been friends for years and years, Yennefer had told him rolling her eyes, and when Geralt had responded with "I thought you didn't like him?" She had shaken her head, rolled her eyes and mumbled something about 'emotionally stunted Witchers' that Geralt didn't care to hear repeated.

She comes to Jaskier now, rests the back of her palm against his forehead, still that feverish fire, and frowns. 

"Can you help him?" Geralt asks, almost begging. 

This is so reminiscent of their first meeting. The one of an age ago, when things had been so different. It is so similar, so close to what that had once been, yet simultaneously there is nothing the same about it.

Both Geralt and Yennefer are different, now. There are things about them that have changed, softened over the years they have spent apart. They have both grown, both parted and then come together once more under a whole different light. 

And there is Ciri too. This is different from the last time. There is no orgy surrounding them, (thank the gods) no overwhelming, heady scent of mingling bodies, no crimson lips and lust-filled gazes. 

It is not the same but, just like the last time, Jaskier is still dying.

Yennefer is looking down at Jaskier though, her brow furrowed. She bites the inside of her cheek and there is a flash of uncertainty that crosses her eyes. Jaskier is still mumbling, shifting against Geralt's thick limbs with little to no understanding of who he is or where he is. The situation is dire.

"I'll see what I can do." She slowly responds, not quite meeting Geralt's eyes. 

There is a tension that rises thick in the air, a great beast that smothers all. White eyes lurking in the gloom, luminescent like the moon.

Yennefer takes Jaskier off of Geralt's hands, holds him in her own arms (an easy task, for he is much lighter than he once was) and Geralt makes an involuntary sound of protest. She looks up at him, shakes her head. "He needs magic," her words are punctuated by a heavy sigh, like lead in water, it sinks down and down into the pit of Geralt's stomach. "Powerful magic. They… it's his mind too, Geralt. Even if I were to heal all of his physical injuries, there's... " She breaks off, choosing her next words carefully. "I don't think you should be there. Not when he wakes up."

There it is. The words are cruel and they sting but Geralt knows that they are nothing but true.

"You hurt him, Geralt. He shouldn't have to be worrying about you, not when he's had to deal with all of this."

Yennefer takes Jaskier inside and Geralt does not follow. He wants to. He desperately wants to sit by Jaskier's side, take his hand in his own and hold it tight, stay there for as long as it takes for him to awaken once more, but he doesn't want to make things worse. He doesn't want to hurt Jaskier but he knows that he already has. 

He busies himself with settling Roach for the night, feeding her and brushing through the tangles of her silken coat. She had pushed herself tonight, greatly. She had run faster than she ever had before. He takes his time, does it far slower than he needs to. The distraction is good, it takes his mind off of Jaskier; who will be lying in that spare room, half-dead and life-fading. 

Ciri stands beside him, watching in silence. But as Geralt finishes with Roach and he feels the pit in his stomach widen, a deep void that seems to pull him under, she puts her hands around his. Leaning against him, burying her face in Geralt's stomach, she speaks; words muffled. "He means a lot to you, doesn't he?"

There's a knot that tightens in Geralt's throat. His eyes sting, he feels the sudden urge to cry.

"Yes." He manages.

Ciri wraps her little arms around him. "He'll be okay," she says, but the words sound hollow, they sound empty.

She does not know that for sure. Nobody does. 

x

Yennefer sits with Jaskier and does what she can. She will need Geralt to gather supplies later, for potions and elixirs and tools for her magic, but right now she can keep him stabilized, make sure he does not die.

He is still mumbling, still tossing and turning and when Yennefer rests her hand against his forehead, it is burning hot.

She puts him into a healing sleep, but it is a risky move. In his current condition, there is a chance he won't wake up from it, but there is nothing more she can do. Not now. It is Jaskier who must do most of the work, now. It is up to him to recover. She will help, with her potions and magic and spells, but there is only so much she can do. If Jaskier lets himself slip, if he lets himself fall into the darkness of the void, then there is nothing she can do. He has to do it alone, by himself. 

She wishes there was something more she could do. Jaskier does not suit loneliness, he does not suit isolation. He does not suit death. But the world is cruel and it is showing just how truly nasty it can be. Everything seems to be collapsing around them, the fall of Cintra and the rise of Nilfgaard. The death and war and darkness that plagues the lands like festering locusts, greedy insects that suck the very happiness out of the earth with their hungry mouths.

But Jaskier must face this alone. He must survive and when he gets through this, when he wakes up once more, things will only get worse.

Healing will be a long and slow process. Jaskier is lucky he is an elf, he is more tolerant of magic than humans, but even still; magic is dangerous. It may heal, but it all comes at a cost. If she were to heal all his injuries now, the strain on his body would be far too great. It is a common misconception about magic, the idea that it can heal all free of charge. That is not the truth. It is slow and painful and it will leave Yennefer exhausted and weak and too much could send Jaskier's body into overdrive, it could ensure that he never wakes up again. it could make his body decay from the inside out, wither like those flowers that had paid the price oh so long ago, back when magic was something she had never imagined before and the chaos had trembled at her uncertain fingertips.

The magic has to take for it to give, and she must be cautious with herself. She does not want Jaskier to die but she fears about what will happen to Geralt if such a thing happens. She does not know if he would be able to continue, to deal with the consequences if Jaskier were to die tonight. 

It has to be taken slowly, carefully. Done with care and precaution. For now, this is all she can do. They have to hold on to hope. Pray that fate and destiny rest on Jaskier's side tonight. 

She leaves three hours later, returns to the dingy little living room where Geralt sits wide awake, Ciri curled at his side. She is asleep, peaceful for once. Her nightmares have been arising more and more frequently but Yennefer is hoping the exhaustion of today will have tired her out far too much for the pain of her dreams. 

"Is he okay?" Geralt sits up with a start as she enters, back rigid and eyes sharp.

Clenching and unclenching her fists, Yennefer shakes her head. "It's too early to tell. I need things for potions and-"

"I'll get it. Whatever you need." He interrupts, voice harsh and coarse and Yennefer can feel the tension that snaps it rigid, makes it so brittle and hard; yet simultaneously so weak and vulnerable. 

This is breaking Geralt, ever so slowly. What has happened to Jaskier is eating him from the inside out.

"I never got to apologise." He mutters out, voice low enough that Yennefer almost doesn't hear him. She doesn't reply for a few moments. There is nothing to say. She can't lie and tell Geralt that it will all be okay, that Jaskier will be fine and he will forgive him. She does not know that. Even if Jaskier is to recover, she cannot guarantee that the road to forgiveness will be smooth and easy. If she's being completely honest with herself, Jaskier should not forgive Geralt, not straight away. There is trust that must be re-earned, heartbreak that must be mended. Like the healing, it will be a slow process.

She hopes that Geralt will stick around this time. That he won't try and fight it, won't try and discard his feelings as he had done so long ago. 

But still, she thinks Geralt deserves forgiveness, eventually. He deserves to be happy. And so does Jaskier. They both do. They deserve happiness more than anything in this world. Perhaps she is getting too soft, too sentimental, but she would like to see the two of them happy once more; even if the road there is long and hard. 

She sighs again, deep, laced with thinly-hidden fatigue. 

"You should sit with him. I know what I said, but... " shaking her head, she looks up at Geralt. "Just go to him. I can't promise you he'll be happy to see you if-" 

"When." Geralt growls, interrupting.

" When he wakes up, but I won't keep you from him." She offers him a rare smile, one that doesn't quite meet her eyes but is genuine still. "Make sure you don't fuck it up this time."

Geralt looks at her, perhaps the most serious she has ever seen him.

"I won't," he says and Yennefer believes it.

x

Jaskier remains unconscious over the next seven days. He mumbles and tosses and turns in his sleep, shifts and twitches and cries but never once does he open his eyes.

Geralt stays by his side, only leaving when Yennefer calls for more ingredients or nature calls. He forgoes sleep, much to Ciri's chagrin, but he cannot afford to care. He wants to be beside Jaskier, he does not want to leave him. Not again. 

But still, his mind wanders to the inevitable. Always, he finds his thoughts being drawn to Renfri. He tries to tell himself that this isn't his fault, that that wasn't his fault either. Logically, he knows this; but still, the mind is cruel and it can twist things until you are your own worst enemy. He knows now that his whole heart belongs to Jaskier. Just like Jaskier's had once belonged to him. 

He does not know if Jaskier still loves him, if Jaskier could ever learn to love him again. Perhaps he has moved on, perhaps he had managed to heal the jagged remains of his heart and he will no longer want Geralt.

He would deserve that, he thinks. It would hurt, it would burn like the fire of a thousand suns, but Geralt would not resent Jaskier; he would not blame him if that is how he feels.

Geralt does not think he deserves Jaskier's forgiveness. Although he would like it, like it more than words can explain, he does not want to get his hopes up. He had hurt Jaskier. He had hurt him beyond belief and that is something that is hard to forgive. 

All he can think about is the fear that never again will Jaskeir open his eyes. That Geralt will never see the blue of his eyes, the clear sapphire that was brighter than even the clearest of summer skies.

He sits there, sleepless, a shadow beside Jaskier's bed and he waits.

Yennefer sits with him, healing him; and still, he watches. Yennefer always tries to get him to leave, always tells him to fuck off and let her do her job but he can't. He has to be here, he just has to be. Every second he is not by Jaskier's side he is fearful, he worries and worries and worries and all he can think about is how close it was. How they very nearly lost Jaskier, how he very nearly died.  

Ciri will sit there, sometimes, and even though she does not know Jaskier properly, she will talk to him. She will tell him about her day, laugh as she speaks about the spring flowers that are just beginning to bloom, the crocuses and snowdrops and daffodils that cut through the bleakness of winter like a hot-air balloon in blue sky. She has these one-ended conversations with Jaskier, asks questions that never get answered but still, every morning and every evening, she sits beside him and talks.

When Ciri is not there, when Yennefer is gone, Geralt tries it too.

At first, he feels like a fool. Jaskier is completely unresponsive to the world. There is no way he can respond, no way he can reply, but Geralt wonders if he can hear.  

He does not know but it is worth a try.

First, he apologises. It is easier to do when Jaskier is unconscious like this but, when he wakes up, Geralt imagines he will find it much harder. It will be harder for him to face the clearness of those eyes, for him to read the hurt so clearly worn on Jaskier's expressive face. But still, he apologises. Not just for the time on the mountain, but for before that.

He apologises about his filling-less pie comment. He apologises for being rude, being standoffish. He apologises for pushing Jaskier away, for hurting him because he did not dare face his own reality. He apologises for never washing properly, for all the times Jaskier had moaned and complained that he smelt like onion. He apologises for never getting to know him, for never asking about his childhood, never asking about his past. He apologises for lots of things, for everything really. All the little things, the tiny little things he had done that had annoyed Jaskier over the years. He builds it up and up and up until it is the things he regrets most, the things that cannot be mended with a simple I'm sorry, the things that will leave scars and wounds that will take a long time to ever truly heal.

I'm sorry for never telling you how I felt, he whispers and his voice cracks. I love you, he says. Please wake up.

But still, Jaskier sleeps.

x

It is on the ninth day that Jaskier opens his eyes. 

It is one of the rarer occasions when all three of them are there, Yennefer, Geralt and Ciri. 

Ciri had been talking to Jaskier about how pretty the sunrise had been this morning, how she thinks that he would have liked it a lot, when Geralt sees a slither of blue peeking behind long eyelashes. 

Jaskier groans, shifts, his eyes flutter open, then he bolts upright.

He crawls to the head of the bed, back pressing against the wall in his hurry. His hand rises to his stomach, as if to protect from an invisible blow, and his eyes are wide with panic. He looks around the room, cowers in on himself and screams.  

In one long breath, it pours out of him. He is rocking back and forth, hands clenched so tightly, his fingernails digging into the cuts on his hands. Blood begins to pool at his palms, dripping down his wrists, but he does not stop. He chokes and gasps and sobs and still the scream continues. 

Geralt reaches out to touch him but Yennefer slaps his hand away. "Don't." She warns and then she is chanting the incantation to a spell, shifting her hands about as she whispers.

The screaming stops and Jaskier passes out.

x

He sleeps for another two days.

x

The next time he awakens it is just Geralt and Ciri with him. Ciri had been talking about food, this time. She was telling Jaskier about the awful meal they'd had last night, the one that Yennefer and Geralt had tried to cobble together. She was laughing as she told Jaskier, even though he made no signs of having heard her. "Geralt isn't good at cooking. Everything he makes is so… bland, I don't think he knows what flavour is! And Yennefer gets too impatient. She doesn't like spending time cooking. She wants it to be over and done with as soon as possible."

Ciri's expression falters. "Geralt always said you were a good cook, better than him anyway. Maybe, when you wake up, you could teach me?"

The question is posed, left hanging in the air, but of course Jaskier does not respond. Ciri looks disappointed, an expression that falls over her face more and more often these days. She is sensitive, a soft soul that - despite the ordeals she has gone through - has not been tainted by the darkness that plagues the lands.

She is innocent and young and she hopes for the best. She wants Jaskier to wake up more than anything and each and every day, for every second that Jaskier remains completely unresponsive, her smile dampens just a tiny bit.

But then Jaskier shifts, mumbles something, flexes his fingers. His eyelashes flutter and a peek of cornflower blue glows from behind them.

His eyes flicker open and Ciri instantly leaps to her feet. Yennefer had ordered them that, if he were to wake up again, she would be called immediately lest there be a repeat of last time. The screaming had been harrowing and that night Ciri had struggled to sleep, plagued by her own horrible dreams. They don't want that to happen again. They don't want Jaskier to suffer and they don't want Ciri to worry.

Ciri leaves the room to fetch Yennefer, leaving just Jaskier and Geralt. Alone.

Once again, once Jaskier comes to his senses, he sits bolt upright, shuffles himself to the back wall. His eyes are wide and panicked, frightened like a scared hare, but this time he does not scream.

Instead, he looks at Geralt.

"G-Geralt?" He croaks out, voice so quiet and scratched. 

Geralt shifts closer to him but he flinches violently. 

"D-don't…" he whispers, "I can't-"

He vomits. Coughing, heaving, lungs rattling with each shaking breath. He sicks up water, the meal from last night. The one that Yennefer had made him eat with the help of some magic. It drips down his chin, coats his clothes but he does not seem to be aware of this. Instead, his eyes are fixed on Geralt and he looks terrified.

It is then that Yennefer enters, Ciri trailing behind her. She takes one look at Jaskier and her eyes flicker towards Geralt.

"Out." She tells them, voice brooking no argument. Geralt almost protests, but the violet of Yennefer's eyes darkens to stormcloud indigo and he leaves. He glances back at Jaskier and their eyes meet.

He's never seen Jaskier look so sad.

x

"He doesn't want to speak to you," Yennefer says when she leaves. 

Geralt closes his eyes, tenses his jaw. 

"Not yet, anyway." 

Geralt doesn't blame him. 

But there is something he must ask. Something he must know. It has been bugging him for a while now but he had never found the right time to ask. 

"Did you know he was an elf?" Geralt asks and Yennefer raises a brow.

"Yes."

"For how long?"

Yennefer shakes her head, dark hair falling in front of her face. In this light, she looks exhausted. Tired beyond her years. Healing Jaskier has been a difficult job and she has worked herself to the bone to do everything she possibly could to help him, to try and make sure he recovered. 

"Since I first met him, I knew."

The words hang in the air. They feel like a noose around Geralt's neck. Tight and constricting and uncomfortable.

"I should have known. I should have realised."

Yennefer does not argue with that, for what is there to argue.

Geralt should have known and yet he didn't. 

x

He doesn't see Jaskier until they have to get travelling once more. They have been in this place far too long and there is no way that they can risk staying here any longer, lest their positions be given away and the Nilfgaardian soldiers march forward with their swords and torches of fire.

It had not been hard to avoid Jaskier, considering he still struggled with his mobility,  but Geralt had heard him.

The screams in the night. Piercing, earth-shattering sobs. 

His laugh in the day, hesitant and never as free as it once was. He laughs with Ciri for she sits with him and tells him stories, but it is never how Geralt remembers it. 

He is reserved. He can tell by Yennefer's face when she leaves his bedroom. He does not speak as freely as he once had and he does not sing.

He is still hurting.

But then, on the day before they are preparing to leave, he asks to see Geralt. 

He is propped up in bed when Geralt enters, his eyes slipped shut. He is not asleep, however, and they open once more as Geralt steps in.

They look at each other for a moment, the tension seeping into the room. Jaskier smiles ever so hesitantly but it does not meet his eyes.

He is no longer so thin, so gaunt, but he is still skinny. There are cuts on him that have not quite healed and there are scars that mar the skin where smoothness lay before. 

Geralt's eyes are drawn to the hand in his lap, the right one. The stump where his pinky finger had once been stares back as if in mocking.

"I wanted to say thank you." Jaskier eventually says and his voice is honest and true, if a bit shaky. 

Geralt doesn't reply. He doesn't feel as if he has earned this.

"If you hadn't come for me back then… I would have- I don't think I would have managed much longer." 

Geralt opens his mouth to reply but Jaskier holds his hand up, stopping him.

"I'm sorry that I didn't tell you." He pauses, swallows. Gestures to the point of his ears. "About me." 

There's a pregnant pause, one that swells and settles and bleeds out into the room like a sky painted black. 

"Y-you…" he closes his eyes and silver is caught on the shadow of his eyelashes. Shooting stars in the night sky, a woven gleam that spills down his cheeks. "You really hurt me." He whispers. 

"Don't say anything. I can't- not now. I need… time. Or something. I- I can't, Geralt. I just wanted you to know that… well, I'm grateful and I'm sorry."

He closes his eyes then, says no more. His breathing deepens as if in sleep but Geralt knows he is pretending.

He leaves and his heart rests heavy in his chest. 

He wants to say everything, he wants to do everything, but that is not how this works.

He can't glue Jaskier back together. It is not his job to fix Jaskier, nor is it his job to decide whether he is broken. 

A long time ago, he would have pretended he did not care. He would have told himself he was unbothered, that Jaskier's feelings about him did not matter because he did not need anybody.

That has changed now.

But there is hope.

Jaskier needs time and Geralt has all the time in the world.

He will wait, for as long as it takes. 

But if that day never comes, he will not resent Jaskier for it. 

This is a situation of his own making. All he wants is for Jaskier to be happy.

So even though it hurts, even though it is painful that Jaskier cannot speak to him, cannot let him back into his life yet, he accepts this.

If the time ever comes, he will be ready. 

x

Geralt is preparing Roach and another mare; one that Yennefer had bought in a village not too far off, ("For Jaskier," she had said. "He will not be able to travel on foot, not for long.") one that does not have a name yet but he is sure Jaskier will soon name her, when he hears the shouting.

It is Jaskier, no doubt. His voice is high and keening and panicked and, without stopping to think, Geralt rushes in.

Ciri and Yennefer are there, standing opposite Jaskier who has his back pressed to the wall. Tears spill from his eyes and he rubs his wrist, where the gold of his bracelet and once shone, and he wails.  

" Please, " he says. "You have to." He babbles some more, cries mindless and incoherent. He wrings his hands and shifts his weight from one foot to the next, eyes darting left and right in rapid-fire.

"Jaskier…" Yennefer tries but he cuts across her.

"I don't care! Just… please do something. I can't… I can't go out like this. I can't be seen …" 

He gasps, digs the heels of his hands into the sockets of his eyes.

"Please," his voice drops to barely a whisper. " Please…"

Yennefer shuts her eyes, inhales deeply. She digs her teeth into her bottom lip, furrows her brow. 

Her lips move and she murmurs the words for a spell.

The room swells with magic and Jaskier's scent, the one of spring mornings and delicate pollen, fades.

The glow of his skin dampens and the blue of his eyes dull. His ears round out and he is a human once more.

Ciri's hand reaches for him and he looks down at her. Her eyes are rimmed with red.

"Why does he have to hide?" She asks him later, when they are setting up camp for the night far away from their old abandoned cottage, and Geralt doesn't know how to answer that. There are too many reasons, too many things that have made Jaskier feel unsafe in the world.

He doesn't respond to her. Instead, he pulls her closer hands running through the silver-blonde of her hair.

He catches Jaskier's eyes from over the low fire.

He turns away and continues talking to Yennefer.

Jaskier's forgiveness will have to be earned and Geralt is willing to wait for an eternity if he has even the slightest hope of ever gaining Jaskier's trust once more.

Chapter Text

The road to Kaer Morhen is long and tiring.

The travelling is convoluted, consisting of the much larger equivalent of taking two steps forward and one step back. Everything they do, every corner and twist and turn and path they follow, could be being watched. They have to be careful and they can't get too comfortable. There is a high chance that they are being observed and although Ciri - or Fiona, as she becomes known, has yet to have her true identity revealed, that is no reason for them to become lax. All it takes is one slip-up, one lapse in judgement or one clumsy mistake and all the years they have spent in hiding could be completely undone. 

Yet, still, the journey is slowed by unnecessary detours. Yennefer comments on it when she is travelling with them once more. They had taken a longer route, one that fell past the remains of what had been an old church. There was no need to travel here and certainly no need for them to stay the night, but the smile on Jaskier's face as he gazes at the broken remains of stained-glass windows, the light that refracts in spectrums of colour of pink and red and green and blue, may have something to do with it. 

If Yennefer raises her eyebrows at Geralt, who is totally staring at Jaskier while simultaneously doing a poor job of pretending he isn't staring at Jaskier, then that's nobody's business but his own. 

"Any reason we're taking the scenic route, Geralt?" Yennefer sniggers from beside him, looking over at Jaskier and Ciri, who poke and prod at the assortment of flowers that line the ruins of the old church. 

Geralt only grunts in response but that is the only answer Yennefer needs.

"Do you think he'll forgive me?" He asks Yennefer and he looks at him, a forlorn sort of light in her eyes.

"That's not a question I can answer, Geralt. You know that." 

She sighs, shakes her head.

"For all that it matters, though; a fool could see how ridiculously in love you are with him." 

Geralt grits his teeth; turns his head. He averts his eyes from Jaskier's tentative smile, tries to block out the sound of Ciri's vibrant laughter.

"It's too late, now." He says, "I should have realised it a long time ago." 

"But you didn't." 

"Hmm." 

Yennefer sucks on her teeth for a moment, choosing her next words carefully. 

"He still loves you, though. Even though you're a right arse. Just give it time."

Time. Always time. 

"But don't just sit around waiting. Take the first steps. Don't let him do all the work, not again." 

Then Yennefer stands up, leaves Geralt sitting alone and he watches as she knocks Jaskier with her shoulder, watches as the two of them bicker like the old friends that they are.

Ciri laughs at them, throws in her own insults where she can, and Geralt wonders when they settled into this sort of dynamic. Geralt's never had a family before and he wonders if this is what it's supposed to be like. 

He likes it, this, whatever they have here. He likes it a lot.

x

Travelling like this is hard. It is convoluted and it takes much longer than it needs to and it really doesn't help that Geralt keeps leading them off onto divergent paths just because it makes Jaskier and Ciri smile, but it's a thing that has to be done. They can't just stroll through the continent like any old travellers. Even if Ciri's identity has remained tightly under wraps, the travelling circus that consists of the Master Bard, the White Wolf and - on occasion - one of the most powerful sorceresses on the Continent, as well as a young girl that clings to Geralt like she's known him all her life is sure to capture attention.

So they have to remedy that. Quell the rumours before they can be started and ensure that they do not leave a discernible trail after themselves. 

They do not want to stay off of the paths for too long, they do not want to appear as if they are trying to hide, yet they cannot remain in plain sight for all to see.

To hide is difficult. Geralt must still take his jobs and Yennefer must return to her duties as mage and sorceress. Appearances must be kept and things must stay amongst the darkness, where other living creatures cannot see. Jaskier does not sing, however. No matter how much he is pestered by the locals, he is yet to take his fingers to his lute or raise his voice in song. It is worrying but Jaskier will not talk about it. Geralt wants to ask him, take that step, but he does not.

Instead, he completes his work, slays some monsters (not once does Jaskier ask to follow) and Yennefer leaves and comes back at will, travelling with them whenever she pleases. At first, this sort of arrangement had been difficult. Ciri could not be left alone and Geralt certainly wasn't going to take her along to the battleground, which meant that he could only work when Yennefer was there. It meant that money would grow tight and life would become harder and once again Geralt would be left wondering if he could do this; if he could guard and protect Ciri and make sure she was happy. 

Now that Jaskier is here, however, that becomes slightly easier.

Ciri can stay with him. He can look after her when Geralt and Yennefer are summoned to other duties, other quests that must be completed lest people begin to grow suspicious of their true intentions. Jaskier can sit with her and they can talk and laugh and it works because Ciri is instinctively drawn to Jaskier and Jaskier is a wonder with children. He'd make a shit parent, sure, because his discipline skills are non-existent, but he is fun and he talks more when Ciri is around and even though Geralt tries his best he is still too quiet and still too reserved and he's still not quite used to caring about people so damn much, yet here he is. So Jaskier fills that little gap, where Geralt is responsible Jaskier is wild and where Geralt is serious Jaskier is silly. 

It works. Maybe it's not the most traditional sort of family, but Ciri doesn't seem to mind. She loves them both, and Yennefer too, and together they make things work.

Although Geralt wishes things could be different. He wishes Ciri could be free to make friends with children her own age. But they never stay in the same place for long enough for such a thing to happen. Constantly, they are moving. They are on the run, although it may not look like it, and they must never draw too much attention to themselves. 

They can trust nobody on the Continent, as of now. Only themselves.

The eyes of Nilfgaard are everywhere and their plague runs sick and deep. There are many who would betray them in a heartbeat, reveal the location of princess Cirilla if it ensured their safety from the seedy underbelly of Nilfgaard, the ruthless monsters who still thrive like thistles; even if one part of them had been burned out.

So they travel and it is difficult. The life is lonely and hard and it is one that Geralt has grown used to but he wishes Ciri did not have to. She shouldn't have to suffer, she is far too young to have to deal with such things. 

Ciri has always suffered from night terrors, ever since Geralt had found her. Constantly, she would awaken with a scream locked in her throat and tears staining her cheeks. Such a thing was difficult to manage, especially when they took shelter in inns and other such establishments. It was difficult and suspicious, something that would attract unwanted questions and concerns, but they made do. They had to. They didn't have any other choice.

Ciri had begun to sleep curled up next to Geralt with ever-growing frequency. She would slip in beside him and bury her face in his chest, hold his hands in her own and furrow her brow as she would attempt to force the nightmares away. Geralt would stroke her hair, hold her closer and try and do everything he could to soothe her.

Now that Jaskier is here, however, that grows harder. The nights become disturbed once more and Jaskier too carries his own demons that resurface in dreams, leave him gasping and sobbing and crying out amongst the starless nights. 

He screams too, and his are louder. Jaskier is loud, with almost everything he does, and this is no exception. 

He screams louder and more frequently than Ciri and although both are as harrowing as one another there is nothing that can be done to quell Jaskier's cries in the night. Ciri is a child, she trusts easily. She is innocent and naive, despite her experiences, and this makes it easier. Jaskier, however, is not the same. He does not trust, he hides and runs and tries to fight all those who come near. When he is awoken by dreams, he is no longer himself. He becomes a shell, the outer-casing of himself, with the pieces of him shattered and lost to the void of dream-filled sleep. 

Every night, nearly, the night is split by screeching wails, coughing and gasping and retching. So frequently, so often, and with each night that passes, it is as if Jaskier loses a bit of himself. No longer is he safe, no longer is he sleeping in a warm bed or under a sky full of stars, he is once more in the grisly cells deep underground; shackled and chained and dying. 

That, however, comes to a change.

It is while they are camping amongst a cliffside, hidden in a cavern locked beneath tall stone mountains, that things begin to get better; in a way.

Jaskier is screaming. He has woken up again, yelling as if his entire life depends on it. In the darkness, his voice cuts through like an explosion of flame, hot and burning. Away it melts at Geralt's flesh, makes his skin turn to ash and it burns.

Lanterns are lit and their little cavern is illuminated, Roach rearing on her hind legs and Ciri rubbing at her tired eyes, face drawn in concern.

That is another thing about Ciri. She has endless empathy. Never does her kindness run dry and always she is trying to help, always looking to spread light and kindness amidst the world. 

Yennefer would usually calm Jaskier with a spell, when he gets like this, for there is nothing anyone else can do. He is completely lost from the world, trapped in his own domain of memories and he cannot tell what is going on around him. He can't distinguish the fact from fiction and he grows lost in the dark corners of his mind, unable to stabilize himself in the present day. He suffers for it and there is nothing that can be done.

The firelight from their lanterns illuminates the paleness of Jaskier's face.

He has gained some of his lost weight back; but still, he is far too skinny. His skin has lost so much of its colour. While Jaskier had always been pale, there had been a golden brown that glowed during the warmer months and even in the winter, when the sun is weak and cold, there had been life to him. A pinkness of blood and flesh and life, a rosiness that spoke of laughter and hope and brightness in the darkest of shadows. But now that is gone. 

That month locked away seemed to have stripped that light from him and his paleness is ghosty, unhealthy. But still, it is better than it once was. 

He is rocking backwards and forwards, a familiar motion that he seems to revert to every time he is awoken by his own nightmares. A child lost in the depths of the world. His hands rub at his wrists, fingers pulling at a bracelet that is no longer there. Then he moves his hands over his ears. There is nothing but silence, he stops screaming. He takes a deep breath then he opens his mouth once more and his voice seems to shatter the earth itself.

It echoes down the mountain's path. Thunderous, a raging storm that uproots trees and flashes of lightning that bring with it fire and destruction.

He's being eaten from the inside out. His memories, the things that had happened to him, they linger in his thoughts in flashes of smog. There is no light to part the thickened clouds and he cannot see the way forwards.

He carries his hurt with him, holds it close and keeps it all locked away. He can't do that forever, though. He can't deal with this on his own, he can't carry all these burdens. It will kill him, eventually. All of this.  

But he doesn't want to talk about it; not when he is awake. He doesn't want to speak of what happened, down there in that awful prison. He is weak and vulnerable and scared , yet Geralt does not think he has ever met anyone stronger. 

So he screams and screams and screams but the Ciri shifts, her pale eyes glowing under the lamplight.

She bites the inside of her cheek, hands trembling ever so slightly. Looking up at Geralt, head slightly tilted, she offers a hesitant smile. Then, ever so carefully, she comes to Jaskier's side.

She puts her hand to his face and she does not withdraw when he flinches violently. His scream is cut off in his throat and he turns wild eyes to Ciri but still she does not move.

Geralt can smell the fear leeching off of him, poison in water. It begins to fade, however. The blue of his eyes shines brighter and no longer does he scream. 

Ciri whispers something, so low even Geralt cannot pick it up, but he watches as Jaskier calms down, smiles. A true smile too, one that crinkles at his eyes and it sends Geralt jolting back years and years ago.

There is such fondness in that smile, such kindness in those eyes; but it is not that that hurts the most. It is the fact that Jaskier used to smile at him like that, long ago. Jaskier had once looked at him with such care in his eyes and Geralt had never realised. Not until now.

So Geralt watches as Ciri carefully rests against Jaskier, lets herself be brought in by a clumsy embrace. They hold each other close, Ciri burying her nose in the crook of Jaskier's neck and Jaskier's own face resting in her tousle of hair. 

They sleep like that for the night. And, when the nightmares come for them again and again, they are always there for one another.

Together, in a softness that can't be put into words, Jaskier and Ciri hold a light in one another's darkness. A torch that brightens up the corners, bids the monsters that hide in the shadows goodbye. 

Geralt wishes he could do the same. Maybe he should, maybe he could, but he is scared.

He is scared of the rejection he may face. He is scared that, if he pushes too hard, then Jaskier will not forgive him.

He had thought he would be able to wait as long as it took for Jaskier to learn to trust him once more, but Geralt is realising that he is impatient. He desperately wants to be with Jaskier. He wants to sleep beside him and soothe him when he is awoken by nightmares, to be the figure that keeps him company even in the darkest hours of his thoughts.

He knows that he will never be able to erase Jaskier's pain - he knows all too well that trauma never truly leaves us - but he can help. Because recovery isn't about fixing everything, it isn't about becoming perfect, as though such a concept even exists. Recovery is found in the smallest of steps, the smallest of changes, and each little step forward is invaluable. Each little step forward is worth the world.

Recovery is not about becoming somebody new, it is not about leaving the past behind or 'getting better'. It is about being happy once more, learning to laugh and love and be comfortable, learning to live with what has happened and learning to smile once more.

Geralt wants to make Jaskier happy. 

He wants it more than anything in this world.

x

Later, when they have met up with Yennefer once more, (for they always run into Yennefer at some point. They are still bound by the Djinn's wish and while Yennefer still resents this fact, it proves itself to be mighty useful on a journey such as this one) there is another instance where Ciri wakes up screaming. 

They have taken to sleeping separately - when they can. Geralt and Yennefer alone, Jaskier and Ciri together. Jaskier tends to sleep more peacefully when someone is nearby, but the only person he lets touch him when he awakens from one of his night-terrors is Ciri. Sometimes Yennefer, but never Geralt. Not yet. 

So when Yennefer and Geralt are awoken to the sounds of Ciri's shrieks late one night, they stumble awake. "I'll go." Geralt grunts, shaking Yennefer off. She rolls her eyes and shakes her head but does not argue, she looks absolutely exhausted. 

But the screams soon stop and as Geralt gets closer, he can hear something else. 

It is Jaskier, who is holding Ciri close. He runs her hands through her hair so naturally, as if he were born to do this, to look after others, and he is singing.

It is the first time Geralt has heard him sing since what had happened.

Yet there he is, eyes closed and his arms gently cradling Ciri, rocking her side from side in such a careful manner that Geralt's heart does something strange, and he is singing. A soft, gentle lullaby. His voice is barely a whisper in the night but still it seems to capture the very essence of moonlight and shine it back in rays of silver hope, his voice a lighthouse upon stormy cliffs, guiding Ciri back into a dreamless sleep. 

He looks up then, his eyes flicker open and blue meets gold. 

Geralt does not know what expression is worn on his face, but the longing that sets his heart alight must be registered somewhere for Jaskier's face softens. He smiles, then. The fondness is back, if a bit hesitant, and Geralt swears his knees go weak.

"Thank you." Geralt mumbles, gesturing down to Ciri.

Jaskier looks at him for a long moment then, tongue running over his teeth. "Go back to sleep, Geralt." He says,

His voice is soft and warm and Geralt almost wants to cry but instead he smiles back, inclines his head.

Jaskier looks surprised. The old Geralt would have never smiled so willingly but Geralt has been learning that hiding happiness does nothing but cause hurt, so here he is. Smiling at Jaskier as if he is the sun in the sky. 

Jaskier's cheeks are flushed pink, a slight dusting that reflects the sliver of moonlight that dances over his fair skin. He glows just a bit brighter and his eyes twinkle just a bit bluer. The colour lights him up, spectrums of bright that shine brighter than fire itself. It burns hotter, harder, and the imprint it leaves is scorched into Geralt's mind for weeks after. 

"Sleep well, Jaskier." Geralt mumbles.

Something catches in Jaskier's eyes, diamonds sparkling on shadowed eyelashes. 

"You too, Geralt." 

x

The next morning Geralt is awoken to the strumming of a lute. 

It is just hitting sunrise as he wakes up, the lands warmed by the spring sun and the light dappling through the leaves of the trees, the dust of the ground hanging like fairies wings in the growing bright. It should all be quiet, save for the twittering of birds high in the sky, yet there are the threads of sweet music swelling amongst the new day and Geralt awakens to a saccharine he had long forgotten.

Jaskier's voice accompanies his tune, just as beautiful as Geralt remembers. It is louder than it was last night and the world seems to sing along with him, bends to the rise and dip of his voice and intertwines with the tune until nature and song become one; until their edges blur and it cannot be said when one begins and the other ends.

Jaskier is sitting there, bathed in the embers of golden sunlight, and he glows like a creature far beyond this dirt and stone and wood. More than an elf, more than a creature of the land, he is something shone from the sky itself, from beyond that. Created from stardust, the swirls of the endless galaxies themself. Like constellations lost in night sky, he is the twists of tales and stories, beauty that cannot be pinned down by words and phrases but can only be felt, and what a strange feeling it is. Unlike anything Geralt has ever experienced before, as if he has fallen through time, fallen through the very fabric of the universe itself and become lost in simply Jaskier.

This is his world, his creation. His peace, his own lighthouse in the furious storm. He has returned to his light and the torch beams out once more. 

Moments like these are more precious than all the gold in the world. A moment where, despite it all, one can still find happiness. A testament to the kindness of the world; for while it can be cruel and hard and tumultuous, there are good days. Those good days make it worth it, no matter how insignificant they may seem.

Even if it is just a half-finished song sung in the early morning, lyrics clumsy and only half-formed, tune faltering and fingers stilling as they try and translate the thoughts into sounds, it is no less beautiful. Perfect in its imperfections. 

Sometimes it is hard to remember that the world can be just as kind as it is cruel. Sometimes it's hard to imagine that in the aftermath of such pain and suffering that the sun can shine once more. But the new days always rise, there is always something to hold on to. 

And this is that. The light in the darkness, the fire in the neverending cold. 

Jaskier sings and Geralt watches. 

Ciri sits beside him, looks up at Jaskier with wondering eyes, her fingers tapping along to the tune, her body swaying to the music pouring from Jaskier's fingers. A dance of the threads of the Continent itself, an ache that sings to Geralt's very soul, sends tremors across the strings that bind the world together. As if everything that can be seen is an instrument itself, the world a tool that Jaskier controls with his delicate fingers, that he strums and twists and spins and creates

There's movement behind Geralt and he shifts, eyes meeting with Yennefer's. She looks at him as though he is transparent, as though he is made of glass and she can see the whirlwind of his thoughts, read him like an open book. Like glass, his expressions are worn plainly on his face; he does not hold himself back and instead lets the tenderness flicker over his face like the rustling of the leaves in the wind. 

Her eyes flicker to Jaskier and she looks at Geralt, tilts her head. You should talk to him, she mouths.

Geralt wants to, more than anything.

But he watches Jaskier, watches him sit there and sing, strum his lute and tilt his head back, hide the blue of his eyes with lowered lashes and let the sun kiss his skin, a gentle memory brushing at his cheeks, and he does not want to ruin that. 

But later, when their eyes meet across their makeshift camp, Geralt gives him another smile, just a tiny quirk of his lips, and Jaskier smiles back.

x

Things begin to shift more and more. Jaskier is still struggling, he is still plagued by nightmares and he's still too goddamn skinny and pale and there are scars that grace his body that serves as sick, permanent reminders of the experiences he will never truly be able to shake off of him, but things begin to get better. Ever so slowly. Baby steps, tiny steps, inching forwards and forwards at a snail's pace, but it is no less worthy, no less important. The smallest steps are just as important. The road to recovery, the tiny changes that take place, may seem so small and insignificant when compared to the big picture, but it is the details that make art, that make beauty. The world is made up of little things, all working together. So Jaskier's steps to recovery, no matter how small, are important. And when he stumbles, when his feet lose their hold and the ground shifts beneath him, there are people who will catch him. 

He sits on his grey mare, Saffron, who holds her head high as she trots forward, always trying to outshine Roach. She is irritating, she is louder than Roach and she whinnies and snorts and shakes her head and sometimes she wanders off the path simply because she's bored and she wants to. Jaskier absolutely adores her. He laughs and buries her face in her hair, always brushed silky smooth and shining, and he talks to her, cooing and making stupid kissy-faces that make Geralt's heart pound in his chest. 

He sings to her, asks her about his lyrics, asks her which ones she likes more. He does the same to Roach too, and both of them stamp their hooves when they are especially fond of a new tune. It's ridiculous and strange and it is perhaps the sweetest thing Geralt has ever seen.

In the evenings, Jaskier will sit beside the two mares and feed them sugar cubes, (the damn fool had spent an absolute fortune on the damn things , with money that wasn't actually his, it should be added, with the promise to pay it back when he can) which makes it no wonder as to why he's becoming their favourite person right now. He brushes their manes, runs his fingers through the tangled leaves and twigs that get caught after a day's worth of travelling and, when the opportunity arises, he washes them with such meticulous care. He takes peace in the actions, it is something for him to do when the lyrics won't rise to him and he finds himself fidgeting for something to do.

Occasionally, Geralt will catch him staring down at his hands, looking at the stump that lies where his little finger had once been. Sometimes he touches it, the empty air, as if he can see a shadow where it once lay, the space where it would have once been. 

He'll look up suddenly, catch Geralt's eyes and the faintest scent of shame will fill the air. Sometimes it is stronger, when Yennefer drops the spell, but always Jaskier is adamant that she keep it raised for as long as it is comfortable for her.

It hurts Geralt, to see Jaskier so desperate to remain hidden. He knows why, though. He knows what would happen if he did not hide and he knows how the fear of being seen runs deep. All his life, he has spent hiding. That is a hard habit to break.

But as time passes he begins to ask Yennefer to drop it when it is just them four. He allows himself to be completely free for the first time in years and he laughs and smiles all the brighter for it. 

And spring is rising and the flowers are blooming and with them, Jaskier too begins to blossom. His bright petals curl out from him in rainbow light and he laughs and sings and when they visit villages, stay in taverns and inns and anywhere they can afford a bed and a meal and drink, he begins to perform once more.

His fame has not lessened in the months of his absence, if anything it has grown, and Jaskier has a whole new sheath of songs that he belts out into the sea of bodies.

Geralt cannot help but notice how he no longer takes up partners. There are advances, no doubt. There are both men and women who will sidle up to Jaskier, the men rising when they think nobody is watching, and they laugh and touch and look at Jaskier with lust clouding their eyes.

Jaskier smiles back and entertains them, leans into their touch and embraces the warmth of their words, but never once does he leave with them. 

He could, if he wanted. Although there is Ciri to consider, there are two of them now, sometimes three (when Yennefer stays with them) and it is not Jaskier's job to care for Ciri. He is not her guardian, that is Geralt's job. He is allowed to be free, to take up with whoever he wants to and to spend the night with whoever catches his eye. 

He tells Jaskeir as such when he refuses the advances of a particularly beautiful woman, another bard who played the lyre and had dark skin and painted lips. 

Jaskeir had laughed, then. Looked up and Geralt and knocked his shoulder in that familiar language of old, the same action he had used to do back before the mountain top, and something in Geralt's throat constricts. 

"I don't want to." He says and, for the briefest of seconds, a shadow flickers across his eyes. "I would rather stay here."

Geralt also notices how Jaskier does not accept food and drink from others. If he has no choice but to take it, he does not eat or drink it. Instead, he gets rid of it. 'Accidentally' drops it, spills it. Knocks it over and off the table, lets it fall onto the floor. He used to take whatever he could get, revel in the idea that he could get as much ale as he wanted for absolutely nothing.

Now, however, he has become cautious. He watches the bartender make his drink, stays by the bar until it is handed directly to him, and even then he sips it with mistrust. 

It is different and Geralt wonders why.

He thinks he can guess, though. He imagines that whoever had captured Jaskier had done something. Jaskier would not go down without a fight, not unless something else had come into play. 

It is these marks, these small habits of change, that hurt the most to see. They are so little, so insignificant, yet it shows the way experiences can shape a life. How one thing can change the way you exist, change the place you inhabit in the world. 

From that day on, when unwanted advances are thrown Jaskier's way, Geralt stands beside him. Just his glowering presence is enough to ward most off and the thankful smile Jaskier sends Geralt's way makes it worth Ciri's giggles and raised eyebrows.

And although things are different, although Jaskier is changed and he will never return to the person he was before, that is not inherently a bad thing. Jaskier is different, he is changed. Older, more cautious, hurt and scarred. But underneath it all, he is still Jaskier.

No matter what happens, no matter how he changes, he will always be Jaskier and nothing can ever change that.

x

Jaskier comes back to their camp with his hair resting in damp curls, plastered across his forehead, and his shirt half unbuttoned, hanging off of him loosely. It reveals the expanse of his chest, the spattering of scars that now decorate his collarbone in half-healed pink and faded white. His chest hair stands out dark against it and as he walks back to camp, his hips sway with each careful step, the loose shirt slipping further and further down his shoulders.

His skin is still slightly wet, beads of water glistening on the broad expanse of his shoulders. He's eventually looking more like himself again, with summer almost upon them and that awful winter gradually falling behind them. (Although, always, it looms. While it has been placed behind them, its shadows will always linger) In his arms he holds a bundle of flowers. Early summer blooms, although Geralt spies some daisies and dandelions that have managed to cling on to the end of spring.

Cirilla's head perks up as he returns and her face is lit up with a broad smile as she spies the bouquet of flowers gathered in Jaskier's arms. She jumps up to him, halves the load until she too is lost amidst swathes of green and white and pink and blue. 

Jaskier and Ciri talk, as they do so frequently, about anything and everything.

Geralt and Yennefer are quiet sorts and although Ciri, at first, may seem shy and reserved, there's a spark that glows deep within her, a mischievous streak that can't be quelled. (She's definitely Calanthe's granddaughter) As Jaskier slowly grows comfortable with himself once more, his childish spark comes back full force.

The two are similar in many ways. Jaskier has always had a boyish charm to him that he's never quite managed to shake and the sight of it gradually returning warms Geralt's heart. He takes great joy in the fact that the bastards from Nilfgaard, no matter how hard they had tried, had not managed to break Jaskier from the inside out. They had left their mark, left their unshakeable scars and wounds and darkness, but Jaskier is laughing out those shadows, holding his torches and riding on his wings of fire. 

He finds happiness, despite it all, and Geralt thinks that might be one of the reasons he is in love with him. Because he is. He is completely in love with Jaskier and he hates that it took him this long to realise that.

He's been in love with Jaskier for years and years and now that he's willing to admit that, there's a very great chance that Jaskier will not want him. Not again, not after what he did. 

He tries not to worry about this, tries not to think about matters of himself. Instead, he watches as Jaskier and Ciri come to stand next to Roach and Saffron, the bundles of flowers gathered in their arms.

He can't stop the smile that spreads across his face as he watches Jaskier teach Ciri how to weave flowers amongst their manes. Even with his missing finger, his movements are no less swift and steady. He carefully guides Ciri, leads her through the series of ties and knots and braids that he so intricately weaves into the mares' silky manes. It isn't long until both horses are decorated in crowns of dog rose, the lilac sparkling like amethyst in Saffron's black mane. Honeysuckle, too. Deep orange that smells of summer itself, captures the headiness of heat and the sweetness of pollen in its orange blossoms. Wreaths of nightshade, their stems a deep forest green with sparkles of tiny white flowers dotted like stars amongst carefully woven braids.

Ciri's work perhaps is a bit skewiff, certainly not as fine as Jaskier's, (Geralt does not think anyone could do such a thing better than Jaskier) yet still it is just as beautiful in its own right. 

"Geralt tried to weave flowers into my hair." Ciri supplies, her words catching Geralt's attention. Jaskier glances over at him, an amused expression lighting up his face. Witchers cannot blush but Geralt feels the heat begin to rise to his cheeks. Jaskier raises a dark eyebrow, teeth digging into his lower lip and with his hands on his hips, he leans forward, still looking at Geralt. His shirt, already loose, slips lower, dipping so Geralt can see the line of Jaskier's chest, leading down to his stomach. "Oh, really?" His voice is low and he must know what this is doing to Geralt, with his voice pitched low and the blue of his eyes darkening into navy seastorm. 

"Yeah, although he wasn't very good at it. Not as good as you." Ciri continues and Jaskier smiles.

"Perhaps I should teach him, then?" He raises his voice, shifts his head, stretches out the long line of his neck. Geralt watches the movement, his mouth going dry. He stands up though, heads over to Jaskier and Ciri and lets himself be led into holding the stiff stems of cornflowers and pimpernels, with Jaskier talking and saying words but all Geralt can focus on is the movement of his lips; the way that, every so often, his tongue darts out to wet them and they glisten in the sunlight. 

Jaskier shows him what to do, takes the flowers out of Geralt's hands and shows him how to weave them in until there are sparks of fired orange and seafoam blue lost between the strands of Roach's and Saffron's manes. All Geralt can focus on is the way Jaskier's hands move. So careful, so graceful. His hands are long and thin, calloused on the tips and the stump of his right hand, where his pinky finger is missing, is stained in white scar, delicate tissue that hasn't healed quite right. Geralt watches their movement, he wants to take them in his own hands, run his fingers across the faded lines on his knuckles, to feel the softness of his palms and the roughness of calluses and scars. 

But it is over all too soon and then Jaskier is handing him his own bundle of flowers, looking at him expectantly.

Ciri hides a snigger behind her hands and Geralt shoots her a glare. Jaskier looks down at her, slightly bemused, as though he doesn't realise the effect he is having on Geralt right now.

Or perhaps he does. Perhaps he knows. Maybe he is just saving Geralt the embarrassing sting of rejection. Hoping he'll take the hint and move on.

But he's looking at Geralt and waiting for him to start weaving the flowers, just like he'd spent the last ten minutes meticulously showing him how to do, only there's a slight problem. Geralt wasn't paying attention. Like, at all. He pretty much missed the entire thing.

So he stands there for a moment, blinking, Ciri biting the flesh of her palm to try and stifle her giggles, and then he roughly tangles the flowers in Saffron's mane.

Jaskier lets out a pained sort of sound, rubbing at his temples. "No! No, no, no! Ciri said you were bad but I didn't think… Did you even listen to me?" Jaskier asks, voice rising and finger pointing accusingly. Geralt only hums in response and Jaskier's mouth opens in mock-shock. "H-how dare you!" He flaps his hands about, dithers on his feet. Ciri laughs harder, looking between the two of them with a strange fondness, yet a strange sense of forlornness, in her eyes. "I spent all that time trying to teach you and you were doing what? Brooding? Lost in that witcher-y mind of yours? Of all the insults- I- '' Jaskier breaks off into half-offended gasps, stuttering and shouting as he tries to hide the smile threatening to split his face in two.

Geralt laughs. He actually laughs and Jaskier stops short.

Red flushes to his cheeks and he looks away, averts his eyes. 

This is the canyon once more. The ravine that divides them, the tethered bridge that connects one side to the other. It is the one that Geralt had turned his back on oh so long ago, the place where he had chosen what was easy rather than what was right. When he'd convinced himself that he loved Yennefer but all that had done was hurt them, hurt Jaskier. When he's been so bothered about fighting destiny that he hadn't realised that he'd also been fighting everything around him, destroying all those who got caught in the rubble of his own self-destruction. 

He is here once more and there is their bridge. Their old, abandoned bridge. It's falling apart, ramshackle and destitute, but it is not broken. Not yet.

And, ever so slowly, it has been getting stronger. It has been healing, the rope re-binding itself and the fallen planks of wood growing back once more.

Jaskier is on the other side of the ravine, Geralt can see the outline of him, his face turned away. The silhouette of his body, tall and willowy and graceful, lined with hidden strength and hardened muscles, is a shadow against the smog-smothered sky. 

Geralt looks at the abyss that divides them, sees all the steps that he never took. Sees all the chances, all the things he threw away.

He takes a deep breath.

"Teach me again? I promise I'll listen this time."

He takes a step forward. Over that canyon, over that deep ravine and the thunder of wind that rips around them, his voice is barely a whisper.

Yet, still, Jaskier hears him. 

He lifts his head, tear-stained eyes, and turns to face Geralt.

Jaskier smiles at him. He does not take his own step forward, but he is there. He is watching and he is looking and, maybe, he is forgiving.

Recovery is a slow process and every tiny little step counts. 

So Jaskier teaches him.

He removes the scraggly tangle of flowers that Geralt had haphazardly shoved into Saffron's hair and he carefully smooths out the tangles. Then, he takes Geralt's hands in his own. The heat of his palms against Geralt's knuckles, the roughness of his fingers against Geralt's own. 

He guides him, then. Carefully pushes Geralt's fingers, moving them so delicately until Geralt himself is weaving the flowers amongst Saffron's mane. Jaskier's touch is a flutter of a butterfly's wings, tentative and uncertain, but he shifts closer to Geralt, close enough that Geralt can feel the warmth of his breath against his exposed neck. He shivers and Jaskier freezes for the briefest of moments but he does not stop.

Ciri is watching and she is smiling and before it seemed to have even started, it is over. Jaskier pulls his hands away and Geralt feels cold.

x

When Geralt awakens the next morning it is to the sound of Jaskier and Ciri's laughter. 

They sit, together, with Ciri in front and Jaskier's fingers lost amidst Ciri's golden curls. He is weaving a crown of forget-me-nots in her hair, with sprinkles of nightshade dotted around. Deep green, blue and rings of yellow and pink light Ciri's flaxen hair up like the aurora that splits the sky at night.

He is singing, humming. A silly kind of song, one that doesn't make sense and the two of them together try and think of the most ridiculous rhymes, the most ridiculous lyrics and Ciri dissolves into giggles as Jaskier puts on silly voices, contorts his singing until it is clumsy and out of tune. 

Geralt watches him. Always, he seems to be watching.

Jaskier is a natural with children. For his crass ways, his sharp tongue and love for cleverly strewn innuendo and bawdiness, he manages to reign it in around Ciri. He is not responsible, perhaps. He tends to let Ciri run wild, let her do what she wishes, but Ciri flocks to him like a songbird coming home. A child finding solace in a world that had changed, a world that did not permit her. 

Her relationship with Geralt is different. Geralt feels like a father to her, a guardian that must protect and care for. Jaskier… he's more like an older brother, really. Someone who she can laugh and have fun with, someone more similar to herself. It is her family. Her strange founded family that isn't like any others that Geralt has seen. But it works and it is beautiful and he wonders how, in the grand scheme of things, he got so damn lucky. 

Ciri spots Geralt from over their campsite and leaps up, running to him and flinging her arms around. "Morning!" She chirps happily. "Look what Jaskier did!" She steps back, giving a twirl, her hands pointing to the brightness woven into her hair. 

"Hmm," Geralt, ever eloquent, responds. Ciri giggles, grabs his hands in hers. "Maybe if you ask him extra nice he'll put flowers into your hair too!" 

Geralt looks over at Jaskier, their eyes meet.

Again, they are back on that bridge, far above that abyss of the ravine. Jaskier is looking at him, Geralt has taken the first step and he waits. Watches. This is the time, this is when Jaskier can turn away, take the tethered rope of the bridge and cut it. Throw it into the abyss far below. This is his choice, this is his time. Then, ever so hesitantly, Jaskier places one foot onto the bridge. It wobbles, shaking violently, but it does not fall. It holds and Jaskier takes his step forward.

Jaskier nods, beckons Geralt over. His fingers are trembling but his touch is soft when Geralt sits in front of him. 

His fingers are careful against his scalp, soft and tentative and sweet.

He weaves Geralt a crown of daisies, just like he had so long ago.

It is the first crown of daisies Jaskier has made since before the events upon the mountain top. 

He shakes and trembles and he hopes that Geralt knows what this means. It is not forgiveness, it does not erase what has happened and it does not heal the hurt, but it is a sign. A promise.

Things will get better. Things will change.

Despite it all, I still love you.

Jaskier doesn't know if Geralt understands, he doesn't know if Geralt knows what he is trying to say.

But when he is done, Geralt looks at him. Looks at him like he is the stars and the moon and the sky itself and Jaskier hopes.  

Geralt is waiting, patiently. He is not fighting. He does not want to push, he does not want to be alone, not anymore. 

Jaskier wants to forgive him more than anything. But it is too soon. 

Not yet. 

x

Ciri has gone to sleep and it is just Jaskier and Geralt, sitting across from one another. Night has fallen yet Jaskier glows brighter than the constellations sparkling in the sky. He is lit up from the flames of the fire, glowing in crimson light and he is the fire itself, an endless flame that will not burn out.

Wings of fire, bright behind him. Despite it all, he is soaring.

He looks over at Geralt and the tension permeates the air. Geralt can smell it on Jaskier, the uncertainty. He wants to say something but he does not know what.

But Jaskier is always the one talking. It had always been Jaskier who had led the way, Jaskier who had opened his heart and given it to Geralt.

That needs to change. Geralt can't sail by anymore, he can't pretend that the swelling in his chest is not love, he cannot fight the way destiny pulls him closer and closer to Jaskier. He should let the tide take him to where it wishes, let the words in his head flow from his mouth like the puffed smoke breaths of winter. 

"I'm sorry." Geralt says and the words aren't enough. They are weak and pathetic and there is nothing that Geralt can say, no words in the world that convey just how sorry Geralt truly is. Just how much he regrets the actions he took, the things he said and the things he did not do. 

"For everything. I'm so sorry, Jaskier." 

He wants to say more but he can't. The words are stuck in his throat, they won't come out of his mouth. His lips are sewn up with thread of stone, they get caught against his tongue of lead and the sounds will not spill from his lips, the breaths won't rise from his lungs. He is gasping, he is struggling, the words won't rise but the thoughts are there. They swirl, spin, but he cannot get them out. He cannot say them and they remain unspoken. Hanging in the air, in the fabric between thought and reality, a tear in the world itself that Geralt cannot access, cannot reveal. 

But Jaskier knows. He understands, and he smiles.

It is brief, however. The smile is fleeting and soon it is gone. Instead, it is replaced by a shadow. A ghost of the past that falls over his face, darkens his eyes until they are black pits that suck Geralt inwards and downwards. Open wounds bleed and the forest around them growls, alive with fury and anger and raw, unaltered pain.

"I thought I would die in there." 

The words are thrown out like shrapnel, they wound and they cut into Geralt's skin. Needles, digging at his skin. Thread to repair but all it is doing is pulling it further and further apart, the stitches are being unpicked and Jaskier is finally saying the words he has kept within him for so long.

They pour off him in waves, the call of the ocean that Geralt never went to. The place where Jaskier had offered release, where Jaskier had made his proposition, made his step forwards and confessed, and Geralt had turned away. 

"It was awful." His voice is deep, it cracks at the end. A fissure in rock. A break, the broken vase that will never be glued together. The flowers that wither in the winter, the ones that do not come back in spring.

The weeds that try so hard to flourish in the cracks of pavements and the edges of farmer's fields. The weeds that thrive and blossom but are killed by chemicals, dug out until their roots are laid bare and they will never grow again. The weeds that are burned, thrown on heaps of compost or used as extra kindling in a dwindling fire.

Jaskier has been uprooted. Geralt had thought things were getting better, and they were, but things don't disappear. Things don't change just because you want them to.

A good day is simply that. One good day. And as important as that is, it does not mean everything is better. It does not make everything perfect. 

Perfect does not exist. Perfect will never exist. But, sometimes, imperfections can be perfect in their own right. Beauty in destruction, love in pain. Jaskier sits there, glowing red under crimson flame, and Geralt loves him. Loves him harder and deeper than anything, but it hurts.

"And all I could think about… the one thing on my mind…" He looks up at Geralt, blinks away the tears that threaten to spill. "Was how I couldn't betray you." 

His fists clench and unclench. "No matter what they did, I wouldn't break. I wouldn't tell them anything."

He shuts his eyes, raises his hands to his forehead.

"Despite it all, despite everything that happened, I love you."

He stiffens.

"But you hurt me. You tossed me aside like I was nothing and you left me to wander. You ran because you were scared."

His voice is rising now, his eyes shooting open and they glow like fire.

"Did you ever stop to think that maybe I was scared too? That what I was feeling was just as goddamn terrifying? But you didn't, did you?" 

He rises to stand and he towers over Geralt. His hand is raised and his back is held straight. His eyes flash and lightning crackles. The world around him darkens, thunder bellows in the sky. 

"I was another casualty in your bid of 'self-defence'. I was another sacrifice, another thing tossed away so you didn't have to think about what it meant. What I meant. You… you took everything I was, you held every piece of me in your arms and I was yours and then you spat on it. You broke it, you shattered it into a million tiny pieces and you gave me no other choice but to leave."

He tightens his fists, voice rising and rising and turning into the cacophony of a hurricane, wild and untameable. 

"What was I supposed to do? Get over it? Move on?"

He's crying now, tears of anger, tears of fury. He digs his teeth into his bottom lip, working them with his sharp canines until they are red and raw and bloody. He overflows, molten lava spilling from his lips in unrestrained emotion. He lets himself float free, unties himself from his tethers and lets the words flow freely from his mouth. Uncensored, unrestrained. The truth. The harshness, the rawness, the brutality of reality. 

"I couldn't. No matter how hard I fucking tried. I couldn't let you go, I couldn't stop loving you and I hated myself for it." 

Then he deflates. The anger pours out of him until all that is left is hollow sadness. His face contorts, trying to swallow the tears that won't stop spilling.

"I still love you, despite it all. I still love you, y-you fucking moron."

There's a pause.

"But I can't forgive you. Not for that. Not yet."

x

Jaskier sings in the taverns once more. It makes the journey longer, means they have to be more careful, more cautious, for if Jaskier is a master of anything it is most certainly drawing attention to himself. But he only performs when Yennefer is there and he only stays in the villages under the illusionary magic. 

Geralt wants them to get to Kaer Morhen, make it so Jaskier will no longer have to hide himself. As autumn rises, they are growing closer, but still there is some distance yet to travel. 

The journey had been tiresome, ridiculously slow, they had backtracked and gone forwards and gone back again, trapped in some strange dance atop the lands, one intended to confuse and misdirect anyone who might try and follow them; but Geralt is certain they have not been followed. Not a single soul on the entire Continent will have any idea where they have gone. 

Ever since that night by the fire he and Jaskier have been… strange.

There is something there, something blossoming and turning into orange flame; just like the autumn leaves that flutter from the trees like paper kites, but it is still not tangible. It is like a thought in the wind, an energy that thrums between both Jaskier and Geralt yet there is a shadow that looms nearby.

As the weather gets colder, Jaskier gets worse once more. 

It will soon be a year since Jaskier's imprisonment. A year since the awful events that took place over those long months.

Jaskier suffers from it, for the memories appear to be growing too strong. 

He wakes up screaming and yelling and even Ciri cannot rest beside him any more, for he cannot remember who he is and he scratches and bites and spits at anyone who gets too close. When Yennefer is not there, the only way to subdue him is to restrain him, a thing which makes Geralt feel sick to the very pits of his stomach.

He has to pin Jaskier's hands behind his back, hold him still and wait for his nightmares to pass. But the panic in his eyes as Geralt holds him still, the feral expression that contorts his face as he tries to do anything to break free. But there is no other way to keep him subdued. In moments like these, he not only becomes a danger to those around him but a danger to himself. He becomes haunted, a ghost of his former self once more and it is all Geralt can do to keep him grounded, remind him of who he is and where he is and to remind him that he is safe.  

He gets antsier as the days grow shorter and the weather grows cooler. 

Geralt doesn't know what to do.

x

They reach Kaer Morhen as Autumn nears its end and Jaskier only seems to be getting worse. 

Chapter Text

Kaer Morhen rests in the heart of the valley, buried between the mountains of Kaedwen, or what is left of it.

The old school now lies in half-ruins, hidden amongst the stone precipices; partially demolished but no less impressive. Although resting between the peaks of mountains, rock giants that tower up to the very clouds, it does not appear dwarfed; nor does it become lost amongst its surroundings.

Dark stone, bold and brooding against the oranges and yellows of the cliff sides; ash amongst the mighty flames. Built tall and strong, to protect and keep safe, almost fantastical in its castle-like structure, the half-demolished defensive walls and the pointed square turrets and faded brick barricades, long since overrun by the invasive touch of ivy and the evergreen of honeysuckle. While in the months of winter and autumn, the burning of honeysuckle, a ball of flame on dark walls, is absent - instead replaced by fallen petals that wither into brown and grey - some of the ivy is toughing out the coldness; still lit up in deep greens and streaks of snow-white. 

It does not look real, not to Jaskier. Like a lost piece of history that was never supposed to be uncovered, never supposed to be viewed with his own two eyes. The place feels sacred, special. It is no coincidence that Geralt wanted to come here, no coincidence that - out of every location on the Continent - Geralt chose Kaer Morhen to reside in. This is safe, this is secure, and Geralt has revealed a piece of him that had remained hidden for so long. He is growing, he is changing. The harsh edges are softening and the blades he had once held at Jaskier's neck, the anger that burned and the fear that scratched, is beginning to lessen. Together, they are changing and together, things are becoming better. Ever so slowly. Ever so slightly, but they are. A step forwards is always a step forwards, no matter how small. 

The four of them steadily approach, Yennefer temporarily travelling with them once more until they reach their destination. She had been on and off with them, as always, constantly pulled this way and that by her own duties. She had always made time, however. She had always pushed and pushed away from the call, tried to spend as long as she possibly could walking besides Ciri. So there they walked, their strange little family of four - six if you count the two horses. Not conventional, not 'normal', but brilliant. 

It is mostly silent, save for the clacking of horse's hooves against the old path. Even Jaskier does not speak or sing or hum, instead he watches the ever-growing sight of Kaer Morhen loom far above them, the darkness of stone growing like a thunderous cloud in the sky. The entire place feels sacred, a sanctum of peace against the rest of the world. A tiny piece of salvation in a world filled with hatred. Jaskier supposes that is what it is; a home for those who have none. A home for the Witchers who are defiled as monsters, a home for those who are not welcome anywhere else. Although attitudes have been changing (thanks to Jaskier's songs, he's proud to admit) people still aren't entirely open to the concept of Witchers. The fear has been quelled but it is still there, just slightly out of view. 

This is where Geralt was raised, he thinks to himself. This is where he is from.  

There is something intimate, something personal, about Geralt letting them come here. This is a place reserved for Witchers, for others of their kind. Not elves and humans and sorceresses. Not strangers, travelling companions, no matter how close they have all grown. 

Yet here they are. 

Saffron trots beside Roach on the widened path, with Ciri and Yennefer walking some distance behind. Ciri is holding Yennefer's hand, swings their arms together as she talks about anything and everything. Of the games she used to play when she was younger, the strange dream she had last night, of the things she sees in her imagination; the fantastical images that only a child could conjure. Hesitantly, Yennefer is smiling. Still reserved, still slightly uncertain as though she doesn't quite believe that this is a part of her life now. It makes Jaskier happy, in moments like these, seeing Yennefer get to experience her wish. While she will never bear children of her own, blood does not have to be thicker than water. Sometimes what we find means a lot more than what we are given. And this family has been found, built from the rubble and remains and reformed into something far more beautiful than what had laid before it. 

As Jaskier rides beside Geralt, hands tugging fondly at Saffron's mane, decorated with a weave of red berries and garlands of herbs and evergreen plants, he tries to not let his mind dwell on the year gone past.

It is hard, sometimes. It feels like everything is getting better, that he can forget about what happened and only focus on the future. Sometimes, he thinks that his experiences can be erased, that the slate can be wiped clean and his memories can burn away like the withering of plants in winter. But that is not how it works. The mind is a tricky thing and while there are smiles that are never forgotten and laughter that will stay forever, there are scars carved into flesh. Ones that will not fade and ones that will never truly leave. 

Perhaps that is the hardest thing to accept. He desperately wants things to go back to how they once were, he grows obsessed with who he once was and he longs for a time when everything wasn't so damn complicated. 

But things have always been complicated, things have always been hard. There isn't a single point in his life where everything had been perfect, yet still, he had managed to be happy. Not always, there had been rough days and days where all he'd wanted to do was just disappear for a bit, take a step back from the sky and the wind and the eyes of others and simply dwell within himself, take a day where he could be, with no other worries. But there had been good days. So many good days. Sprinkled between the shit, sprinkled between the tears and heartache and numbing pain, the hollowness and the shadows. Yet always, there was light shining through the shutters. 

Maybe that is it. Maybe he needs to accept that he can't go back, that things will never return to how they once were. And maybe that isn't a bad thing. 

He's surviving, isn't he? And maybe he doesn't have to 'get better'. What is better anyway? Maybe he'll never be 'fine', maybe he'll never become 'fixed' and maybe he'll never be what everyone wants him to be; but maybe he'll be happy. 

And isn't that more important?

So as he rides beside Geralt, he thinks that maybe it is time.

He looks over at him and smiles. Geralt freezes for a moment, hands stilling on Roach's reigns, and then he smiles back. A proper one, with teeth. 

The sun is hidden behind the thickness of clouds, but Jaskier's skin feels warm. He glows and his wings of fire burn.

He soars.

x

They reach the gates of Kaer Morhen at dusk. Ciri sits in front of Geralt and her hands hold on tight to Roach's mane as she chatters happily to Jaskier. Who, Geralt has noticed, is having a good day today. A better one. 

That is what it is, now. Good days and bad days. Decent days and horrible ones. Geralt wants to be by his side for all of them. Stick with him through the thick and thin, hold him up when he stumbles and set him free when he flies. 

Up close, Kaer Morhen is even more impressive. Although much of it still lies in ruins, the scars of human fear that had driven them to attack it all those years ago still deep and raw, there is still a power that lies in its very foundations, a beast that slumbers far below, rumbles the very earth with its dormant strength. 

With dusk's arrival has arrived the coldness of night and with it the mist of clouds has begun to sink, to settle around the building like in a silver veil. It swathes around Saffron and Roach's legs, hiding their hooves in a sea of white that dances between their footsteps in swirls of velvet and lace. 

Yennefer has gone now, leaving only a few hours ago. With a hug and a kiss pressed to Ciri's forehead and a sharp smile at Geralt and Jaskier, she had left with a mock-salute until there were three once more. 

The ruins of Kaer Morhen do not make the place appear dilapidated. Instead, the crumbling walls and broken pillars speak of something hidden, something forgotten by the rest of the world. Like a secret, hidden under the surface. It feels special, a relic of the past that only Jaskier, Ciri, Yennefer and the other Witchers are partial to. Yet danger swirls here too, the long-dormant beast that sleeps underneath. 

Perhaps that is the remnants of the cruelness of this place. Although a home for the homeless, for the abandoned and destitute, it is the place that trials were held, mutations were forced and creatures of the earth were injected with elixirs and potions and anything in experiments for strength and power. For many, such a place would be viewed as a breeding ground for monsters. A place where evil and cruelness was formed and humanity was lost.

Jaskier does not think so, however. 

The danger does not feel aggressive. Not in the sway of cedar trees, ever-green and glowing, whisper amongst the wind that raises and howls and dips and murmurs. Instead, the danger rests in a feeling of solitude. In a feeling of sadness.

It feels like Geralt, sometimes. A place of power, a place of danger. Something that can be strong and ruthless and terrible, a sword that holds the power to slay and kill and destroy. Yet it is held in the hands of those who help, those who sacrifice their livelihoods to protect. The 'monsters' that aid. 

Jaskier feels strangely comfortable here. Safe, secure. Or maybe that is Geralt's presence beside him, the feel of his eyes watching. Always watching, always observing. 

The burn he once felt as he looked at Geralt is fading. The pain, the hurt. The trust has not yet been rebuilt; like the walls of Kaer Morhen it lies in half-ruins - but it is not broken. It is not gone. The rubble still lies there, the broken pieces still remain and they can be rebuilt; put back together. They will never be the same, never return to what they once were, but they can be just as beautiful; just as strong; just as wonderful. 

Forgiveness is a strange thing and Jaskier thinks that he has always been ready to forgive Geralt, ever since he sent him away on those mountain tops. But as time passes he feels his heart swell, the itch to let him back in once more grows. His desire to forgive had once felt like a weakness, a proof of how love had shaped him; of how it had made him feel lost and vulnerable. 

But he is still in love with Geralt and nothing can change that and he thinks he is ready. Or nearly ready. 

Maybe not just yet.

Geralt is still watching him and when Jaskier turns to face him, there's a softness in his eyes. A gentleness that calms against the dark edges, the sharp lines.

Soon, he thinks. Soon, but not now. 

x

Kaer Morhen smells like it has been forgotten. The stale sort of scent of a place that resists memory, that only very few can recall. Grand but in ruins, powerful yet crumbling. It is both beautiful yet sombre in its attractiveness; a relic of what is long gone. Like a wardrobe of a lost loved one, the space that has not been cleaned out, for nobody has dared. The remnants of memories that stir in the very depths of the mind. Always there, always lingering. Bittersweet in the dust that settles over them. 

Still, the scars remain from what looks like a battle long-gone. 

Jaskier does not know much about Geralt's past, nor about the school of wolf, but he has heard the rumours; he can see the aftermath, the scars that remain. He can piece what happened together. 

Part of him wishes he knew more about Geralt and another part of him hates that he feels guilty that he doesn't. Geralt was the one who pushed him away. Geralt was the one who tried to shoulder everything alone, keep his own pain and his own happiness and his own feelings all bottled away to save face. He shouldn't feel bad about not knowing this, not knowing truly what had happened to the place where Geralt was raised. He shouldn't.  

And this is where the crux of the matter lies. No matter how much he wants to forgive Geralt, he knows he is not quite ready for it.

There is so much that was hidden from him, so much that he tried to understand, so much that he questioned and asked and cared about but Geralt had just ignored him.

Sure, Jaskier had had his own secrets; but Geralt had never asked. He had never shown anything, not one spark of interest in Jaskier. Not a single one. 

Yet now Jaskier is here, feeling bad for something he had no control over, for something that wasn't even his fault, and he hates it. 

At that moment, he hates Geralt too. 

Part of him thinks that if he had never met Geralt, if he had never befriended him and never followed him around and tried desperately to rip the bolts off of those locked doors, then he'd never be here. he'd still have his fucking pinky finger and he wouldn't be waking up every night with his heart in his throat and his screams ringing in his ears.

Instantly, as soon as he's thought of it, he feels sick to his stomach. 

He can't blame Geralt for trying to protect himself, for not allowing Jaskier in because he thought it was safer. He certainly can't blame Geralt for what had happened, for all those years Jaskier had followed him by his side and what had come after. Geralt had never forced him to come along, Geralt had never asked him to. It had been Jaskier's choice. 

He realises this is another kind of running. Another kind of trying to escape. A sick, twisted one. Blame, guilt. 

He got here by his own choices. And maybe things had never gone how he planned, never gone how he wanted, but who would he be, otherwise? What kind of person would he have been if he'd never left Oxenfurt? If he'd never left his hometown? 

So he walks through these ancient halls of Kaer Morhen, Ciri's hand in his and Geralt's hand held in her other one. She swings her arms, alternating up and down between the two and Jaskier catches Geralt's eyes.

Geralt smiles at him, honest and true. A flash of a sharp canine tooth peeks out, a shimmer of those golden eyes. 

Jaskier realises that he is not the only person who has changed over these long years. He is not the only person who has lost and loved and grown.

Perhaps he needs to remember that. Perhaps he needs to think of Geralt as someone who has changed. Who is still Geralt, the man he fell in love with all those years ago, but is no longer the same.

Just like himself, Geralt is different. 

And, maybe this time, things will work out. 

x

Kaer Morhen is completely empty, aside from a wizened old Witcher named Vesemir. 

He is old, touched by the years. And he feels ancient, the shadows of his eyes speak of horrors witnessed and years spent awake far longer than these stone walls have ever been standing. Like an old oak tree. Roots plunged deep into the earth, something that has always been there, something that the world could not be imagined without. While Kaer Morhen had felt like a relic of the past, this Witcher feels like something from much longer ago. Jaskier feels the hairs on his arm stand on end when he gazes upon Vesemir; feels as if he has seen the world rise and fall and rise again once more, as though he has been for centuries upon centuries and he will continue to be here forevermore. 

With hair light like Geralt's, although not the crystalline white of snow-peaked mountains but instead the pale grey of ash billowed from volcanoes and smoke blown from between puckered lips, long and straight and not thick like Geralt's, but similar.

He too has pale skin, like frosted mornings and fractured glass. Translucent under bright light and dotted with the white and pink and red traces of wounds never quite healed. A scar bisects his left eyebrow, the silver hairs split where the puckered skin rests just above his eye. His skin is lined with wrinkles, the faint steps of crows feet at the corners of his eyes, the deep lines of furrowed brows and raised eyebrows, wrinkles dug in trenches across his forehead. 

Severe, he looks. Serious; as though he spent a much larger portion of his life scowling than smiling. 

He looks over at Jaskier with eyes darker than Geralt's; not the gold filter of sunlight through trees but instead the burning orange of fire and flame and fury. Amber, in colour. Just like amber, Jaskier feels trapped under his gaze. Like an insect trapped in tree sap, legs stuck and mouth frozen, unable to breathe under the stickiness of that gaze, the harshness of those eyes. Trapped and hardened, encased in an orange filter that never goes away. 

His gaze, that stillness of amber, grazes down to Ciri, looks at her with a curling of his lip that is not unkind in nature yet it does not feel pleasant. Then, with an unimpressed brow, his eyes flicker up to Geralt. 

"You've brought the princess I see… and an elf." Jaskier bristles at his tone, the deep rumble of his voice that rises like thunder on summer evenings; the one that brings the oncoming storm and washes away the humidity of sweltering heat. 

"Jaskier." Geralt grunts. Jaskier feels a sudden surge of gratitude for this, for the sternness in Geralt's eyes and the tightness of his jaw.

Vesemir simply raises his brow higher. 

"So this is the bard, then?" 

Geralt doesn't answer, only grunts and inclines his head in a silent yes. Although he cannot blush, his eyes flicker from Vesemir and Jaskier and he looks… flustered? Jaskier doesn't know. He most definitely looks uncertain, however. There's something between them, something that Jaskier is missing. 

Vesemir looks over Jaskier one last time and he can smell the danger, the age and the dormant power that rests underneath. In dazzling lights, dizzying scents, it swirls through the air like the breaths of a hurricane, the puffs of a dragon's roar and the fire spewed from pointed lips and forked tongues. The hiss of a snake from deep underground, the slide of body on stone and the crawling of bugs under skin. 

Then he smiles, ever so slightly, and the air lightens. "Welcome," he says, eyes alight with laughter. "I'm afraid we don't get too many guests of your kind, but I trust that you'll be comfortable here." Then, stepping towards Geralt and placing a hand on his shoulder, he whispers something low enough that neither Jaskier nor Ciri can catch. Jaskier, however, does not miss the way Geralt's brows furrow, nor the way his lips purse as he sucks his teeth.

But then Vesemir is gone, with a soft smile at Ciri and a searching look over Jaskier. That sticky amber all over again and Jaskeir feels strangely vulnerable under the gaze, but his eyes are warm and no longer can Jaskier feel the crawl of danger underneath his skin. 

With the sound of his steel-toed boots echoing across the stone floor, Vesemir is gone. He disappears around the corner and leaves the three alone. 

Then, with another noncommittal grunt, Geralt twitches his arm, a gesture that both Ciri and Jaskier instantly knows translates to follow me .

So they do, and deeper into Kaer Morhen they go.

Geralt gives them a tour of sorts. A really shitty tour, a tour of functionality , rather than one that is supposed to be enjoyed. They are introduced to various halls, various empty rooms gathering dust that Jaskier will never bother to remember. More important places. The mess hall, the kitchens. The larder which - as Jaskier notes - is surprisingly well-stocked considering the only other person in this whole place seems to be Vesemir. He supposes that winter is coming, however, and soon there will be more Witchers leaving the tiresome trudge of their Path and returning to home; or the closest thing they have ever had to one. 

There are rooms upon rooms within this vast stronghold, some that have completely fallen to ruin; grown aged and old and forgotten. Ones that still bear the scars of a battle long fought, of lives lost and people slain. Scars that nobody has ever bothered to heal, scars that have simply been left there to rot; left there to be forgotten about. 

Geralt does not bother with the finer things. There are gardens outside, vast expanses of land covered in trees with their stick-arms laid bare, or with the evergreens a spark of colour in the grey of ever-rising winter. There is history held beneath these stone walls, a long-forgotten path of culture and tradition and things that have gone that will never come back, half-broken statues and burned tapestries that Geralt does not even glance at. 

Jaskier wants to ask questions, feels the words that bubble in his throat, but he remains quiet.

Finally, they are shown to their rooms. There are many different bedrooms, tens of them, spanning a good few corridors. 

Jaskier knows that there are not this many Witchers. He knows that, even when counting those from the other schools, the other places, all of them together would probably not be enough to fill these rooms. 

He'd been aware that, at one point, there had been far more Witchers than there were now. He'd just never been aware of how many there had once been. 

He imagines a time when these faded old walls would have been blossoming with life. run wild by the technicolour paint of raised voices, of life and the warmth of breaths and the pulse of blood, slow heartbeats that thump out strong. 

But then, one by one, those children would dwindle.

The humans who could not handle it. The ones who would die, would be killed by the potions, by the trials. Would be forced into something they could not run away from, forced to change. And so many of them would die. So many.  

Their paint on the walls would begin to peel. Grow dry and cracked and away sheets of yellow and green and blue would fall until only the wallpaper-paste of grey would remain. 

"Who's Vesemir?" Jaskier asks, fearing the answer. It's completely out of the blue and Geralt stops in his footsteps, looks down at Jaskier with his eyebrows slightly raised. 

"He taught me everything I know." 

Jaskier's skin crawls.

"Oh." He eventually responds. "Okay." 

x

Jaskier and Ciri are given two rooms directly next to one another. They're old and musty and in dire need of a good cleaning out, but they are not dirty. They will do, for now, but they do not feel like home. They do not feel welcoming. They feel empty and cold and nothing like home but Jaskier is used to having no home, used to having nowhere to belong. Ciri, however, is not.

It has only been a few years since she lost everything, only a few years since she was forced to leave and forced to run. Traverse the world as just a young child, one who had yet to see the pain and suffering that had lied beyond Cintra's warming embrace. She deserved a place she could call home, a place that would feel warm and safe and comforting. Her rock, her lighthouse, amidst the raging seas. 

So Geralt leaves the two of them alone for the time being and Jaskier sits in Ciri's bedroom, shakes out the musty covers and opens the old, moth-eaten curtains; lets the light in and lets out the staleness of untouched air. Freshness replaces it and after only a few hours and the smile ever slowly begins to return to Ciri's face. 

That is when Jaskier gets an idea. He remembers when he was much younger, at his old home in his old village, back when his father had shouted and his mother had cried. The good old days, he thinks with a derisive snort. But he remembers what he used to do. How he'd bungle up all matters of blankets and duvets and pillows and make his own little kingdom. Write under the canopy of cloth, with his fingers ink-stained and his eyes growing tired under the soft candlelight.

When Geralt returns to them once more, much later in the evening, it is to the sight of them surrounded by countless blankets and pillows. They must have gone into the other rooms, gotten extra pillows and sheets and covers, and with that they have constructed a little den of sorts. 

Strung up from the bedposts, their den spans almost the entire length of the room and Geralt can see the silhouette of them through the bedsheets, the shadows of their figures huddled together. There is the sound of a lute being strummed, hesitant and uncertain. The notes twang and buzz, clumsy and stilted.

When Geralt peeks under the covers, it is to the sight of Jaskier and Ciri, huddled close together. Under the blankets, the air is warm. Humid, but not unpleasantly so. The musty smell of the room has vanished and Ciri and Jaskier's faces are illuminated by soft lantern-light. Jaskier is glowing, laughing. His eyes are soft and gentle and the curve of his smile is the most beautiful thing Geralt has ever seen. 

Ciri has her hands hesitantly around Jaskier's lute, fingers guided by Jaskier's own as she hesitantly strums. Jaskier hums with her, hums the notes until the strings match his tune. 

They don't notice Geralt and he leaves in silence. 

He's smiling, though. Smiling wider than he ever has before. 

x

It is much later when Geralt eventually pulls the two from their blanket-haven, tells them that they need to eat.

As they emerge their faces are flushed and pink and ruddy, no doubt from the heat, and Ciri's hand is slotted in Jaskier's. 

He looks the happiest he's been in days. 

And then Ciri slots her other hand in Geralt's, like it belongs there, and Geralt has never felt something more natural in the world. They walk down to the mess hall together and Ciri and Jaskier chatter happily. Geralt does not say anything, does not give whole answers in response, but he hums and grunts and nods and he feels like the two understand him; they can hear the words that go unsaid.

Jaskier's relaxed state, however, the crinkles at his eyes and the softness of his cheeks, tighten when they stumble across Vesemir. His very body hardens like stone, grows stiff and solid and distant and he gazes at Vesemir with coolness in his eyes, like the sting of ice hot against cheeks. 

Vesemir looks at him, confused. The stench of mistrust, of anger, rings out strongly in the air and Jaskier does not even try to hide it.

Geralt shakes his head, just as confused. 

x

They eat in what is mostly silence. 

Jaskier does not stop eyeing Vesemir, does not stop glowering over him and even Ciri can sense the distaste in the air, the mistrust pouring off of Jaskier in rolling waves, spitting like a savage cat.

Jaskier eats quickly - and not enough, Geralt notes with concern, and then he is gone. He whistles a tune as he leaves, but it is not merry. It is low and sinister and it sends shivers down Geralt's spine.

He is not surprised when, at the early hours in the morning, he is awoken to the sound of Jaskier's screaming.

x

Jaskier's good days grow shorter and more scarce as time passes. Winter is almost here, bringing the cool touch of frost, the diamond cobwebs caught between the trees and the blades of grass that mottle white under the cold. 

He spends most of his time in his room, only exiting briefly for meals and to care for Saffron, but soon even that slows to a halt. Meals are missed and while he always makes an effort to care for his horse, he grows faded and thin and there are days he spends sleeping and hours where he cannot remember who he is or where he is. He loses his sense of time, he cannot say what day it is and he cannot tell whether it is night or day, even when sunlight streams through his open curtains. It is as if he is lost somewhere else. While his body may be here, sat on his cotton sheets in the very heart of Kaer Morhen, his mind has gone wandering. Taken a trip down a lane to the past, travelled to the lingering darkness and the shadows, been pulled back by the cold that never quite left. 

Occasionally, Ciri will be able to drag him out and they will spend the day together. Go outside, explore. Tale a trip around the ruins of Kaer Morhen and go off on their own little adventure. Not too far, for Jaskier is growing thinner and the light within him is fading, he has grown weakened; shrunk like he had that last year when Geralt had first found him. But still, he manages to smile and laugh with Ciri and once again Geralt is struck by just how strong Jaskier truly is. Still managing, still surviving, despite it all. Geralt has heard him be called Dandelion by others. He thinks it is a fitting name. Stubborn, like a weed. Mistreated and pulled out, dug up and thrown away but never gone. Always, one will remain in the cracks of pavement. Like a weed, Jaskier is hardy. Resilient. Beautiful. 

Geralt will hear the faint traces of music from far off, Jaskier's birdsong voice and Ciri's wavering twitter. The clumsy strumming of a lute followed by notes played clearly and strongly, muffled voices and high laughter. Even as things grow worse, there are these good days. The good days that Jaskier spends outside with the sun on his face, the warmth seeping into his skin. Light in his eyes and laughter in his lungs.

But that does not last and soon even Ciri cannot get Jaskier to leave his room.

He stays inside there. Starts missing meals. Forgets to wash, forgets to sleep.

When Geralt does see him, his eyes are deep dark sockets. Blackened like a bruise, and always they are reddened, threads of pink running through the whites of his eyes, bloodshot and painful and sleep-deprived.

Geralt knows when he does sleep for they are woken by his screams. 

There is nothing that can be done. He won't let Ciri come close to him now. He eyes her with mistrust and she flees his room with tears in her eyes and her hands fisting against Geralt's undershirt. 

He won't let anyone touch him and Geralt doesn't know what to do. 

He spends his time with Ciri or catching up with Vesemir. He looks after Saffron, even though he knows Jaskier still comes out to brush and feed her, on the few remaining days when he remembers. He sits with Roach and talks to her. Asks her what she thinks. She doesn't have any answers, of course, but it still makes Geralt feel better. Makes him feel more secure. 

Ciri is worried. He can see it in the lines of her face, the frown that puckers her brow. She stands outside Jaskier's door, her fist raised in a knock, but she does not enter. 

Geralt does, however. 

Every morning he goes in. Every morning he stands and watches Jaskier, sat on the end of his bed. With his back to Geralt, his body stiff and straight and tense. Sometimes he doesn't even realise Geralt has entered the room. Other times he does, and he turns around and bares his teeth, arms scratching up and down his arms until he draws blood. His palms are stained with half-crescents, fading moons where his nails have dug in hard. 

His eyes are glassy and he looks straight through Geralt, as though he is not really there. As though he is seeing something else.

He mumbles things under his breath. His songs, whispers of them. Half-formed lyrics, amalgamations of all his most popular ballads. They don't make sense, they're out of tune and not right but still, he hums them to himself and not once does he really look at Geralt. He sings of flowers and of love and of death, of women and men and gold and silver. Spilt ink and washed out pages, forgotten lyrics and misremembered verses. Always, he is vacant. As though he is not quite aware of what he is doing, of who he is and why he is here. Vacant like he has gone somewhere far away. Like his feet no longer touch the ground, like his mind is no longer threaded with the strings of reality.

Dreamscape, he becomes lost in. The divide between fiction and reality. The ifs and buts and what has happened and what has never existed. Memories and nightmares and dreams and traumas, they all rise like the hungry ocean; the tide coming in and sucking away the sandy beaches. Leaving grey waves, monotone blacks and whites and greys where the colour once laid. 

He is distant and he flinches when Geralt touches him, flinches at the damp cloth that runs over his skin, the water that cleanses and washes away the dirt and sweat and grime. He is unresponsive, like a young child, as Geralt dresses and undresses him. As he brushes his hair, bandages the wounds on his hand and cleans out the scratches on his arms.

It has been over a week since Geralt has started doing this, been over a week since Jaskier has been almost completely unresponsive. The windows are open and the light is streaming in, the shimmer of tears on Jaskier's cheeks glow in moonlight under the sun's touch. His eyes are red and his lips are bitten and chewed.

Geralt wants to hold him close, to keep him nearby and to hold him through the night. Fight away the memories, the dreams that will not leave him alone. 

But Jaskier won't let him in. Jaskier won't trust him.

Jaskier isn't here, in Kaer Morhen. He's back in that prison, back in the cell. He does not know where he is and, sometimes, Geralt isn't sure if Jaskier knows who he is. 

Sometimes, he'll mumble his name. "Geralt…" He'll whisper, but he won't be looking at him. His eyes will be far away, long gone. He'll be staring off into the shadows, looking into the corners of his room that never get kissed by the sun's rays. "Geralt will come for me." He whispers. Over and over again, he says it. His voice cracks and his throat is raw and the tears spill from his cheeks but he does not respond. He says it like a mantra; until the words spin and hurls and the truth from them fades. Until it is simply something to say, not something that is believed.

Geralt wipes the tears from under his eyes and he flinches away, as though he has been burned. 

"Don't…" He cries. "I can't take it. Leave me alone. I don't want to be here! I… I have to - get out." He breaks off into unintelligible mutterings. 

Geralt doesn't leave him, however. he stays with him the whole night.

x

"Vesemir." Jaskier says, one day.

it's the first thing he's said to Geralt in weeks. And it is said to him. His eyes are clear for the first time in a while and he does not look through Geralt like he is made of glass. He looks at him. Right into his eyes. The mist over his eyes are gone and his vision is clear, strong. He becomes more like himself, the storm not passing but clearing. 

"Vesemir." He repeats, words thick and slurred as though his tongue is thick and heavy in his mouth. His voice is raw, both unused and yet used too much. "Did he do this to you?" With shaking hands, Jaskier reaches for a strand of Geralt's silver hair, pulls at it. Just a gentle tug. 

Geralt's heart catches in his throat.

That is why he had acted like that. The mistrust, the hatred.

Geralt's heart hurts. It yearns for Jaskier, desperately longs for him. 

He had thought… He had worried that it was Vesemir who had done this to innocent children. Forced potions down their throat and given them no other choice but to fight. Stripped them of their identity, forced them into a form that would be deemed demonic by the rest of the world. 

Still, he cared about Geralt more than he deserved. Still, after everything that had happened, he is Jaskier. Always listening more than he lets on, intelligent and smart and ridiculously talented. Wild and untameable, a force like the wind itself, yet thoughtful and self-aware. Always thinking, making the connections that others wouldn't even think to look for. Jaskier has always been like that. He has grown, matured so much since their first meeting, but still he has that eye for the things under the surface. The beauty in fear and the light in pain. He finds it and he takes it and he nurtures it, loves it. And he'd loved Geralt. He'd seen what had rested underneath and Geralt - like the absolute fool he was - had pushed that away. Even now, when Geralt felt undeserving of all that he had been given, Jaskier was still there. It was not like old times, not the same, but he was lingering there. A few steps behind, his back turned but his ears pricked. Always there and always thinking. 

"No." Geralt whispers, grasping his hands in Jaskier's own.

He traces the scar where his pinky finger once lay, traces the ghost of where it had once been. Jaskier does not flinch. Instead, he looks up at Geralt.

"Tell me about it." He mumbles, "Tell me about all of it… please." Biting his lip and averting his eyes, he furrows his brow. "Something else to focus on. Something else to think about. Please, Geralt."

Part of Geralt wants to refuse, wants to say no and to walk away. To leave Jaskier and go back to a time when everything wasn't so damn complicated.

But wasn't that what had got them in this mess in the first place? Wasn't his refusal to accept what he was feeling the catalyst for all this utter shit? His battle against destiny, his refusal to accept what was close and dear to him, his rejection of that had all come crashing down at his feet.

So he bites his tongue, chews the inside of his cheeks, and he talks.

It's the most he's said in a while. In years, in fact. He talks and he talks and the words at first don't come, they get caught and stuck and trapped and they don't sound right; but soon he becomes used to it. Soon, the memories fall like water trickling from cliffs high above. Like a caged bird just learning to fly, he is at first stilted and awkward. Cramped, not used to what is happening, not accustomed to the wind in his feathers and the light in his eyes. But soon he is soaring, his wings spread far and wide and with it his confidence grows. The fear is still there, niggling at the very back of his thoughts. The instinct to fight, to protect himself from all those who he knew, but he quells it. He ignores the itch, ignores the shadow that tries to take over. Instead, he lets the sunlight stream in and lets the truth pour out. A waterfall spilling from his lips, sparkling like diamonds in the daylight. A secret portion of the world, one that only very few will ever get to see. One that Geralt does not give away freely. 

His voice is lifted into the air and Jaskier listens to it, silent. But listening.

There is something ironic about this, a joke somewhere. As though their roles have been reversed. Geralt talking and Jaskier listening. Jaskier the quiet one, the one who sits and says nothing, only inclines his head and looks at Geralt like he is the world, like this is all he has ever wanted. It is Geralt who talks. Who, although not as eloquent as Jaskier, weaves his clumsy stories of a past long gone; of a life that he had inhabited and the experiences that had shaped him. 

He's a good listener, though. He makes Geralt feel calm, feel at ease. This is Jaskier goddamnit. His closest companion, the person who knows him better than anybody else. Yet, with a touch of sadness, Geralt realises that Jaskier does not know him all too well. Better than anybody else, most certainly, but he had kept himself guarded for so long, kept his secrets tressed up in bundles of rope and string, sewed the holes closed and darned the tears and rips that threatened to spill.

But if things want to get better, that has to change. 

Jaskier has to know that Geralt trusts him, that Geralt is still here; beside him. That he won't be getting rid of him any time soon. Not ever, if he can help it.

So Geralt talks.

He speaks of his mother, a figure who he has tried not to think upon for years. He had forced the sting of rejection that had once burned him from the inside out far away, surged it to the very depths of his mind. It had been hard, when he was younger. Hard to feel like you weren't wanted, like you were a waste of space. Disposable and replaceable. A boy with no name, left to fend for himself with nobody left to look out for him.

He did not know why his mother abandoned him. He never found out, he never bothered to. It could have been neglect, could have been hatred. He could have been unwanted or maybe she just couldn't look after him. Maybe she was scared, maybe a child was too much work, too much responsibility. But she had left him to die. He had been taken to Kaer Morhen, where all the forgotten children would end up sooner or later, dead or alive. He doesn't know. He doesn't know if he wants to know. The thought terrifies him, the idea of the truth looms far above him. Part of him wants to think that his mother loved him, that his mother loved him so damn much and she simply didn't have another choice. But he knows that not every child is blessed with a loving family, not every child gets their dear mother and their dear father, their grandparents and brothers and sisters. Not everybody gets what they're supposed to want, this idyllic image of family, this reconstruction of happiness. 

Geralt didn't get it, for sure. He didn't even have a chance.

Yet now, here, with Ciri and Jaskier and Yennefer; there is a chance. A chance for the family he never got. A strange family, a weird sort of group of all those who have been broken and put back together and broken again. A group of society's casualties. But they have each other and they are together and maybe, one day, everything will turn out alright. Not perfect, but enough that they can all be happy. Because that is all they need, really. To be happy. 

Jaskier sits there and listens, holds Geralt's hand in his, and he does not stop talking. 

He talks of the mutations, the trials. The potions and vials and injections that were forced into them, how they felt like animals in a cage. Failed science experiments, a step towards a greater being. The sacrifice to strength and the culmination of cruelty and negligence.

They were the unwanted, the abandoned. The ones who had no family, nobody who would care if they went missing. Nobody who would care if they were never seen again.

So up to Kaer Morhen, some were taken. To the school of wolf. Trained and mutated, pushed through trials where some died and some did not. Put through more and more until they were halved then quartered and then halved again. 

And then Geralt survived. He was one of the few. What had been a whole posset of young children had ended in barely a dozen. 

And then they'd done more. They'd forced Geralt to take more, to undergo more mutations. And it happened all over again. A resistance, he was told he had. A strength, a sort of resilience to the mutations that many others had lacked. They'd called him lucky, poked and prodded at him and forced him to undergo more , to face more and more and more until eventually they were satisfied. The little pet project of the world, the animal they tested on. The creature they would keep fiddling with until they had whatever they wanted. 

His hair changed from brown to white, the colour stripped until only the snow peaks of mountains remained. The healthy tan of his skin grew paler, grew whiter and whiter and he grew stronger but he was losing parts of himself, losing the bits and pieces that had once made him him. His eyes, too. He'd had grey eyes, once. A long time ago. Grey like the thunderclouds in darkened skies, like the puffed breath in cold winter. But soon they'd changed. Burned like fire and ended up gold, slitted like a cat's and luminous in the dark. 

Dark times, bad times. Shadows of his youth that had taught him to keep to himself, to trust only his own mind and his own thoughts. He had been taught that everything had its time; that, eventually, everything would perish one day. Those who he had once known, those who could not handle what had taken place, had been lost. Those who he had placed trust in were fading around him until there was nothing left. The pain had been immense, of losing one after another after another. Eventually, it had simply become easier to make no connections. To have no ties to those around him, to have no risks and no casualties and no attachments. 

But there had been good times, too. 

He talks of his old friend, Eskel, who will soon be breaking from the Path and resting here for the winter. He reminisces, brings up the antics they used to pull in their boyhood, things that drove Vesemir mad. They were children, of course, and no matter what was done to them, they had a spirit that was never quite broken. Children are strong, Ciri is proof of that. So is Jaskier, so is Yennefer. All of them had pulled through, in the end. Or all of them would. They are more sensitive, easy to manipulate, but they are smart and intelligent. They are curious, they are adventurous and they never take anything at face value. They do not think like adults, their thought is not contained in cages and boxes and they speak and think with a freeness that will later become lost. Naive they may be considered, but Geralt misses the optimism he once carried as a child. He wonders when that changed; when he stopped looking forward to the good days. When living simply became a chore, when he travelled and slew monsters and no longer found beauty in the threads of the world.

But Jaskier was bringing that back. He had been bringing it back, for all those long years they had spent travelling beside one another. He had reminded Geralt of better days, of when he was more innocent and the world still seemed so huge. Jaskier had made him feel young, made him feel like he hadn't spent a goddamn century walking the Path, stumbling across the very reaches of the Continent and discovering the darkest, most disgusting depths of every corner.

And here was Jaskier. Someone who was just good, someone who had suffered under society, someone who'd been broken and fallen down but was still here. Someone who, despite it all, survived.

So Geralt keeps talking. He tells Jaskier of everything. Of both the good and bad. He reveals everything until he is bare and vulnerable; until there is nothing left to hide.

He does not fear it, though. He is not scared. 

And when he runs out of words, when there is nothing left to say, he sits with Jaskier. 

His throat feels raw, feels tired and strained. He has been talking for hours, talking of anything and everything. Talking of the very threads that have been woven together, the strings of embroidery that make him up from head to toe and heart to soul. 

Jaskier is beside him, warm weight, and he looks at Geralt. He looks at him.

And then, ever so softly, "I'm sorry." 

Jaskier swallows. Geralt watches the movement, watches his adam's apple bob in his throat. 

"I'm sorry I can't be better." 

The words sting, bitter in their meaning. There is guilt hanging over Jaskier's shoulders, a weight that pulls them down, and Geralt wants to carry that burden instead. There is nothing to apologise. Jaskier isn't perfect, he never will be, but Geralt doesn't want perfect. All he wants is Jaskier, all he wants is for him to be happy. Geralt pulls him close, wraps his arms around him. Jaskier's face is buried in the crook of his neck and he can feel the dampness of tears that rests there. His own cheeks feel damp too, but nothing is said.

They simply sit there. Exist in one another's presence, their breaths evening out and their bodies intertwined. Just together, as one. 

That night, Jaskier sleeps peacefully. He does not scream once.

x

When Geralt awakens to the warmth of sunlight brushing against his cheeks, he finds himself tangled amongst a heap of long limbs. Jaskier is wrapped around him, still fast asleep. His eyelashes flutter and his brow is smoothed, the trace of butterflies wings rest in shadows upon his cheekbones. His lips are pouted, ever so slightly, held agape. A sliver of drool runs down from the side of his mouth, a dark patch on the pillow where he rests. 

He's shifted in his sleep, a goddamn octopus, and Geralt couldn't move - even if he wanted to. Jaskier is a warm weight on his chest, not as heavy as he would have once been and the point of his ribs and his hip bones dig against Geralt's stomach, but it is… nice. Comfortable. A spark of solace in a thunderstorm. Like they have found the eye, the very heart of the tornado. There is still the storm that rages around them, still so many things that are yet to be said and yet to be revealed, things that are still not right and things that they must try to heal, but for now it is calm. For now, this is all they need. 

Geralt watches him for a moment, then closes his own eyes once more and tries to get back to sleep. He can afford to sleep in, after all. Just this once. 

x

Jaskier leaves his room the next morning. He sits with Ciri and hums his songs, the echoes of his voice like light in the ruins of Kaer Morhen. He still does not eat as much as Geralt would like, although he eats more than he had once been. He jumps when people walk behind him and he is constantly looking over his shoulders, constantly flinching at noises and movements and the shifting of shadows in the corners of his vision. Yet there is laughter between it all, smiles shared with Geralt and Ciri and even Vesemir. crinkled eyes that shine brighter than the sun itself. 

He speaks to Vesemir now, he is kinder. No longer does he eye him with mistrust and no longer does he keep himself guarded. He gets on surprisingly well with Vesemir, the wizened old Witcher soon falling victim to Jaskier's charms; his way of irritating his way into people's hearts. 

This does not mean things are better, this does not mean things aren't getting worse, because they are. As winter follows the ending of autumn, Jaskier is decidedly not okay. But he is managing. Even if there are days when he does not get out of bed, days where he does not sing or smile and days when he struggles to eat, he carries on. He lives, despite it all, and maybe some days he trips and he stumbles but he is always standing up again, always pushing and trying and even when it seems like the impossible thing to do. And some days he simply rests, some days he does not fight the cold that seeps into his bones and that is okay.  

He carries on and continues and Geralt loves him for it. He is strong, so goddamn strong. Because sometimes the bravest thing you can do is just continue, face the new day and hope for the best. That takes courage beyond anything Geralt has ever seen and he will be here, for each step and for each stumble. Always, by Jaskier's side. 

So winter swells and the world grows cold. Kaer Morhen, while protected from the blistering winds by the towering mountains, soon grows freezing. The fires are lit in the halls, blankets are stolen from countless rooms and Jaskier and Ciri are always bundled up in something, always wrapped in umpteen layers of clothes and always hiding under cloaks and blankets and duvets. Snow falls from the sky and icicles hang from high above the arched windows, silver spun daggers, sharp and pointed and glinting with danger yet shining with beauty. White coats the lands and soon they become buried under the duvets of snow, thick and heavy and ever-falling, beautiful and smothering. 

It is on the second day of winter that Lambert returns from his journey upon the Path and takes rest at Kaer Morhen. 

And Lambert takes one look at Jaskier and bursts out laughing. 

"This is the infamous bard, then." He says, looking at Geralt with a raised eyebrow. "You really sang all those songs about Geralt?"  He laughs again, eyes crinkled at the edges. "I know all Witchers are supposed to be emotionally constipated but holy fuck Geralt is by far the worst." He knocks Geralt roughly with his shoulder, still laughing, and claps Jaskier on his back. Ciri shies away from him instantly, his loud and brusque tone. He either doesn't notice or doesn't care.

Lambert doesn't strike Jaskier as a guy who gives a fuck about what others think. He's certainly not like Geralt. In about five minutes he's already said more than what Geralt would usually say in a week. 

And for as rude as he is, how brash and bold and opinionated, Jaskier quite likes him. He's an absolute bastard, but he's funny. He genuinely doesn't give a fuck about what anyone thinks or what anyone says, his insults are free and his laughs are loud. 

Jaskier spends the afternoon with him, gets to know him better. It is one of Jaskeir's better days, a fortunate timing for Lambert's arrival, and he makes an attempt to learn more about these other Witchers; the people who Geralt had grown up with. He even gets a few good stories out of it, a few good shots of ammo that he can throw at Geralt whenever he wants something. Turns out that Geralt did a bunch of questionable things as a child and Lambert seems to have memorised all of them.

It's strange, though. Lambert already seems to know so much about him, and not just his songs. There's more and more that, while not secrets, are things that Jaskier has rarely divulged. Things that the average population would have no idea about. Jaskier knows that it is easy for a Witcher to read scents and body language, to see the hidden messages held in eyes and twitching fingers and flared nostrils; but it's not that. Jaskier can't help but wonder, when Geralt has returned here, if he's mentioned Jaskier more than once. 

So he sits with Lambert and laughs with him and he can feel Geralt's eyes on his back, feel an air of tension that rises through the air like a silver blade. Lambert slings an arm around Jaskier's shoulders, more tentatively than Jaskier would have thought, but the hold tightens when Jaskier doesn't flinch away. He must know, it seems. He resents the way people seem to treat him with such care, something they would have been less likely to do had last winter not happened, but he is also thankful for it. The intelligent part of him knows that people are just looking out for him, trying to ensure that he is as comfortable as possible, but the foolish part of Jaskier insists that they see him as weak. He ignores that part of him, ignores the whispers in his thoughts, and instead tries to focus on the half-hidden scowl spreading across Geralt's face. 

Lambert grins over at Geralt, raises his eyebrows once more and Geralt glowers.  

Jaskier feels like he's missing something here. 

x

"D'you think you'll ever forgive him?" Lambert asks that evening, when Geralt and Ciri have left to tend to Roach and Saffron. 

Vesemir is with them and he looks over, stopping what he's doing to listen.

Jaskier kind of wants to laugh at this whole situation. Two fearsome looking Witchers with their eyes trained on Jaskier, as if waiting for the newest scoop of juicy gossip. 

"I've never seen him like that before." Lamber hums, not even waiting for Jaskier to answer in his usual brusque fashion. He's never had the patience for tact, nor the inclination to even attempt to be remotely polite. "So… quiet. I mean, he's always quiet because he's Geralt but…" Lambert sighs, shaking his head. 

"He really fucked things up, huh?" 

And, despite himself, Jaskier smiles. "Yeah." He averts his eyes. "Yeah. he did." 

He pauses and the silence hangs heavy in the air. 

"I still love him though. The bastard."

Lambert laughs, knocks him with his shoulders. "You elf lot are weird folks, how'd you even fall in love with someone like Geralt anyway? You got a thing for grunting or something?"

Vesemir sits in silence, the smallest of smiles on his face. Lambert's smile dampens and his face grows serious. 

"You're decent, though. I can see why Geralt likes you so much." 

x

Eskel arrives two days after Lambert. 

He stands tall, taller than Geralt, and the scars that disfigure his cheeks, the hardness of his amber eyes, make him quite the threatening figure.

He's more like Geralt than Lambert is. Obviously, Lambert is more of an enigma amongst the Witchers. His mistreatment of politics and his utter lack of all diplomacy seems to be a rarity, at least when compared to the other three Witchers.

However, Jaskier notices that they are all more talkative than Geralt. They are softer than Geralt ever was when they first met, kinder. Jaskier does not know whether it is because they are more comfortable amongst the walls of Kaer Morhen, or whether it is because they are simply more free with their own minds. It seems to be a running gag that Geralt is the most emotionally stunted out of the four of them and Jaskier is certainly seeing the living proof of that. Although, as of recently, that appears to be changing. Ever since that night, Geralt has been more open with Jaskier. Friendlier, more honest. And with Ciri too. He seems to be hiding his emotions less, grunting and growling and cursing less, instead choosing to answer with short words or sentences. It's still not much, still not what one could describe as talkative, but it's an effort. Geralt is trying to open himself up more, he's trying to show that he has changed, that he is different; that he is no longer the person who had roared at Jaskier on that mountain top, no longer the person who bit and fought and scratched at anything that dare come close.

Things are changing and even the other Witchers seem to be picking up on it, if there none-too-subtle glances and comments are anything to go by. 

Eskel and Geralt are obviously old friends, as Jaskier can soon guess. Jaskier struggles to find Eskel threatening, despite his height and stature and scowl, when all he can be reminded of is one of Geralt's stories about him, the time they captured a huge forest bumblebee that one time. The stupid fights and childish arguments they had growing up, always bickering like siblings. 

There is a measure of appreciation, of understanding, that runs between the Witchers and Jaskier however. He does not know how much they know of him but he knows that Geralt has mentioned things, Geralt must have for they know things that while not necessarily secrets were things that only Geralt would have known. 

There is, however, a silent appreciation for his music. It is not outright said, but it is heavily implied that Jaskier's music has helped improve things for the Witchers. That, although still feared, they are no longer despised everywhere they tread. While there is always room for improvement, things are drastically better for them. 

Jaskier thinks of his corner. That one he had grown and grown and grown, spread the light as he had been taught back in Oxenfurt. He thinks of the space in the world that he inhabits, the pieces that he has touched with his voice and his eyes and his fingers, and he eventually feels at peace. 

For the first time in years, he does not feel overwhelmed. He does not feel like the shadows of his corners, the shadows of his space that had grown far too long.

Instead, he carries his torch and it burns brighter than ever.

Behind him, his wings of fire are reignited. Fire burns and it is warm, but no longer does it peel away at tender flesh. No longer does it melt away the skin like molten wax. Instead, it only brings light and warmth. Happiness.  

And there, in that darkened corner, stands Geralt. Illuminated under the firelight, glowing from within. 

Jaskier reaches out for him. He's just out of reach, but all he has to do is take a step forward. Just one step.

So he does.

x

Jaskier is sitting outside, bundled up in a mass of blankets and coats and clothes, as the twilight reaches its peak over Kaer Morhen. 

The caramelised sky burns brown and red and orange, as though the world itself is on fire. It is cold, though. A coldness that seeps through the layers of clothes that Jaskier is wearing, a cold that crawls under the very tissue of skin and leaves only emptiness in its wake. Freezing the life, sucking out the soul. 

He is alone and he is cold and he watches as the darkness bleeds through the fire, blackness swelling from the rising moon and dousing the fire in midnight cloak. 

Then, something shifts. Something of warmth moves, a breath, a slow heartbeat. Heat against his side. Close enough that he notices, close enough that he can feel the swelter of heat, but not close enough to touch. 

Jaskier looks over to Geralt and smiles at him. Geralt smiles back, only hesitating once. 

And so besides one another they sit and this all feels very familiar.

Back on those mountains, the dragon hunt. The proposition to the coast. The sting of rejection and then what followed.

Once more, they are given a choice. A place to step forwards, a time where things can be changed. 

Only Jaskier will not be the one taking the step. Not this time.

This is Geralt's choice. This is his chance. This might be his only one.

The silence drags on and on and the sky grows darker. The twilight begins to fade, fire into ash, and the dusk settles over them in greyed skies. 

Then, just as Jaskier is finally losing hope; on the end of his tethers and convinced that Geralt will never be making that first move, Geralt heaves out a sigh.

"I'm sorry." He says, voice gruff. 

"You've already said that before." Jaskier shifts about, drums his finger against the hard stone. He tries to hide the impatience in his voice, the shot of anger that swirls in his gut. He's heard these words before and 'I'm sorry' soon becomes empty. It is an apology, but for what? He wants Geralt to know what he has done wrong, to apologise for those things. To mean it and not just say those simple words. But Geralt is not yet done. Jaskier hears another intake of breath, a half-sigh, and then Geralt is talking once more. 

"I was wrong to treat you like that. I was wrong for all of it and I'm so sorry.

The air shifts, Geralt's hand twitches closer to Jaskier's knee. 

"I can't take back what I did or what I said and I can't change what has happened but I-" 

There's a pause. A long pause. A breath of silence that Jaskier does not dare interrupt. Instead he waits, waits for Geralt to collect his thoughts, waits for the words to rise from his lips.

"I'm sorry you couldn't trust me." 

Instinctively, Jaskier opens his mouth to protest, but Geralt raises a hand; effectively silencing him.

"You deserve much better than that. Much better than me."

There it is. The silence once more. The words hang heavy in the air, weighted like lead amongst the ever-growing dark. The shadows lengthen and the cold deepens but Geralt is warm and Jaskier moves closer. 

All those years ago Geralt had held Jaskier's heart in his hands. He had held it loosely, held it carelessly. His grip had always been slipping, never been strong enough, and then eventually he had thrown it all away. He had stamped on Jaskier's heart, used the power that he had to destroy. To break and scar and mar. To hurt.

But those pieces, those a thousand pieces of shattered glass; the windows of a home ransacked and burned to the ground, the remains of a village that no longer existed and a family that was long dead, Geralt still has them.

Bit by bit, piece by piece, he had searched for all those tiny little shards blown out to the wind. He had searched and searched and searched and maybe he had not found all of them, maybe there were some bits missing that he would never get back, but he had tried.  

A child breaking their father's favourite teapot. Finding all the little pieces on the floor, letting the china cut and scratch and bleed into the palms of their hands. Picking up all those tiny little pieces that they had scattered with their own carelessness. 

And there that child sits, upon the kitchen floor, with the remains of the teapot in their lap, a paintbrush and glue in their hands. Hours, they spend. Hours upon hours upon hours they sit on that cold kitchen floor, they sit until their legs grow cramped and their bottom grows sore. Their hands hurt and their eyes are tired but they do not drop that paintbrush, they do not discard the broken bits of china in their lap.

They sit there and, piece by piece, they glue it back together. A jigsaw puzzle, an old one that has been pulled from their grandmother's closet. The one that had gotten damp in that flood, the one that had faded pictures and warped pieces, that never quite looked right no matter how hard you tried to piece it back together. But still, that child tries; still, they glue those mismatched edges back together and soon they have the teapot once more.

It is wonky. The patterns don't line up and the paint has become chipped. When it is filled with water, out it pours through the cracks that haven't quite been filled. 

And there sits Geralt, right now, with Jaskier's heart. Like the teapot, it is scratched and chipped and wonky and not quite as it should be. There are pieces missing and cracks that won't be filled and never will be and it is not mended and it is not perfect but it is.  

It's perfect to Jaskier.

So there they sit, there they are. Geralt has taken that step; the step on that bridge over the gaping black void below. He has stepped and stepped and now he is standing in the middle. Waiting.

So Jaskier meets him halfway.

"I should have told you that I was an elf." Jaskier starts, averting his gaze. "I should have told you a lot of things." 

Geralt hums, tilting his head. "So should I." 

"Does that make us even, then?" 

Geralt cracks a smile, "I'd like that." He says.

Another pause. Another breath. Jaskier closes his eyes, shifts closer to the burning warmth of Geralt's side. His tongue feels heavy in his mouth but still he takes those steps forward.

"My real name isn't Jaskier," he begins, averting his gaze. "That's just a stage name. One I invented when I left. It means buttercup, you know."

" Buttercup." Geralt toys the word in his mouth, breathes it out low and soft. He's smiling and Jaskier can't help but smile back. 

"My real name is Julian," and once the words have been spoken he feels a strange sense of relief. He has not called himself that in decades, he has not said his birth-name out loud for many years. "Julian Alfred-Pankratz. I was a viscount, or his son anyway." 

Geralt raises his eyebrows, although he does not look entirely surprised. He'd always guessed that Jaskier - or Julian, he supposes - had had a finer upbringing than it may have seemed. His eye for fashion and his uncanny ability of flittering in and out of the nobles' bedsheets had certainly been a hint. 

"Should I call you that, then? Julian?" 

The name feels heavy on Geralt's tongue, as though it doesn't quite fit. Jaskier winces and shakes his head.

"I don't like it. It's not… it's not me, if you know what I mean." 

And Geralt does know. He knows the power in a name, and also the meaninglessness of it. His name was something he gave himself, he chose what he would go by, he chose the words that would spill from others lips, the sounds and letters that would make up a part of himself. Geralt of Rivia, although he was not really from anywhere. 

It is the same for Jaskier. Julian is merely a name he has been given, a name that somebody else had once called him. Jaskier is what he chose, Jaskier is what he wants. 

And Jaskier is talking to him. Talking to him properly. No longer are his words thick with metaphors, stuffed full of flowers and light and cotton but holding no weight and no honesty. No longer does he speak of nothing. This is real and this is trust and Geralt does what he should have always been doing.

He listens. 

And out it pours. A childhood long gone. A sick mother, a father who was there but always absent. Lessons and a cane and a beating against scarred knuckles. Songs and poetry and girls with midnight hair and daisy chains. A blacksmith's son and a merchant's daughter, a gold bracelet that promised freedom. 

This is Jaskier's life before it had ever begun. Before he had met Geralt, before he had become himself. These are the pieces that he ran from, the parts of him that he didn't want to stay.

Of Oxenfurt Geralt learns. Of how he was educated with books and kind words and no longer felt the sting of wood on his knuckles and no longer nursed bruises and welts from mistakes dearly paid for. He speaks of teaching and singing and growing, of learning the ways of the world and teaching others what he had been taught.

He speaks of a man called Fain and of the doubts that never left him.

He talks and talks and talks and Geralt listens. He sits there and listens under the canopy of starlight, the sky that has grown blackened like the ruinous breaths of fire. They sit there until the moon glows high above them, luminous in the sky and ever-watching. Owls hoot in the trees, wolves howl from distant mountain peaks. 

Jaskier does not stop talking. Just like Geralt had, he talks until there is nothing left to say. 

He speaks of his time down in those abandoned prisons. The humiliation he felt as he was strung up like meat in a butcher's shop, beaten and bled and whipped for answers that he would not give. 

He talks of how he has ran, he has always been running from something. How he had been scared of what he had with Geralt, of what he felt.

And then he says it. The one thing that Geralt doesn't want to hear.

"I thought I'd learned to trust you, I thought I'd learned to live with myself, live with what I'd been running from for so damn long," he tilts his head upwards, looks at Geralt with eyes rimmed red. "Then you told me that. I trusted you."

Geralt bows his head. He does not want to look at Jaskier. He cannot erase the past and he wishes more than anything that he could. But he can't. What has happened, happened. He must still live with that. He must still live with what he did.

But then Jaskier blinks away his unshed tears. He takes one of Geralt's hands in his, runs his fingers over the scars and callouses, swirls the very tips of his fingers over the deep creases of Geralt's palms.

"I want to trust you again. I think… it's not- I mean, everything isn't fixed and I'm still- well. You know. But- I mean, I- fuck it. I've missed you, you bastard. I've missed you and your stupid non-answers and all your bullshit. Gods, Geralt. I fucking hate you." But he's smiling, and he's looking up at Geralt with that softness that makes his heart melt. 

Jaskier huddles closer to him and Geralt shifts his arm, repositions it until it is wrapped around Jaskier's shoulders.

When they walk back inside, back into the warmth of Kaer Morhen, their hands are wrapped in one another's. Jaskier leans into Geralt, their footsteps timed in synch and their bodies pressed close together. It is warm, it is pleasant.

But still, there is something that needs to be said. Something that Geralt has had plenty of time to think about. Something which Geralt wants very much. 

"We should go to the coast." Geralt says ever so quietly. Barely a whisper over the night. But Jaskier hears it. He hears it and he looks up at Geralt, looks up at him with wide, hopeful eyes and Geralt wonders how he'd ever pushed him away in the first place.

"Really?" He asks and Geralt pulls Jaskier closer to him, bathes in the warmth of his body buried beneath those layers of clothes. He breathes in the scent of the earth, the whispers of pollen that cling to Jaskier's skin no matter the time of the year. He breathes it in and closes his eyes, imagines the taste of salt on his lips and the brush of sea air against his cheeks.

He imagines the coast, the endless breadth of those pale sands and deep blue sea. He imagines it and there, by his side, is Jaskier.

"Yes." He breathes. Yes, I want to be with you.