“I'm so sorry,” Jaskier said, nervously tip-tapping his feet like a hound promised walkies, “Mother says that the other guest rooms aren't in service – something about new furniture, or winter-proofing, I'm not quite sure. She does prattle on. This is all we really have--”
“Jaskier.” Geralt smiled, and laid a warm hand on Jaskier's shoulder. “I've slept in far, far worse conditions. You expect me to scoff at an old maid's quarters? Bed's clean, roof's not leaking. Your family is kind to put me up.”
“Yes, well, 'kind' is a stretch,” Jaskier murmured, “you really didn't have to come, you know.”
“How long have we been walking the Path together?”
“Um,” Jaskier frowned, “five years? Six?”
“And every year your mother invites me when you are due to visit, too. My contract is not far from here. I am given a warm bed and a meal without having to spend coin, and I can sate her parental curiosity. I see no downsides.”
“Her curiosity is what concerns me.” Jaskier said. “They're going to ask you obnoxious questions at dinner, Geralt. Everyone is.”
“Ah, never had that happen to me before.” Geralt raised an eyebrow.
“You're my friend, Jaskier,” Geralt squeezed that shoulder, reassuring, “and the best man I've met. It is no hardship for me to meet your family.”
Jaskier exhaled, long and weary, and seemed to droop in acceptance. “Very well. I'd invite you to share my quarters, you know, but my father... well, he'd probably draw, uh, untrue conclusions. As I've said, they are not the most forward-thinking folk. Nobility is a hobble upon the mind's mobility.” He suddenly perked. “Hah, a brain with legs. Have you ever seen such a thing?”
“Not yet.” Geralt snorted. “Perhaps we'll happen upon one together sometime.”
Such a bright thing was Jaskier's smile; he shames the sun, and Geralt lets himself be warmed. “Perhaps we shall.”
“Oh, you must tell us again,” Lady Gabriela enthused, bent over the sorbet that broke up the third and fourth courses, “truly, how big was the griffin? Julian's song puts it over thirty feet from snout to tail, but that cannot be right!”
It wasn't right, Geralt thought; the juvenile they'd hunted was not mated, nor fully grown, and couldn't have been larger than eighteen feet in length. Geralt briefly glanced at Jaskier, who was all glossy glacier eyes, begging, and he lowered his gaze. Trying to remember how to hold his spoon correctly, he prodded at the 'palette cleanser' – Jaskier had whispered between courses two and three – and wondered why the sorbet was nearly tasteless. Seemed pointless to him.
“Yes, my lady.” Geralt said. “It was a fearsome beast.”
“Oh!” Lady Gabriela clapped her hands together. “How marvelous. A fine story it makes – but are you certain my Julian was not endangered?”
“Mother.” Jaskier hissed, the tips of his ears reddening.
“I never let him get too close, my lady,” Geralt answered honestly, “and I'd lay my life down for him, if it came to that.”
Jaskier made the smallest sound, but it was interrupted by Lord Wiktor's harrumph. “As any good witcher should do. It's what you were made for, after all.”
“Indeed.” Geralt said, before Jaskier could open his mouth. The bard focused intently on the melting ice in front of him, mouth in a tight line. “Your son is very brave, my lord, but I would not sacrifice his safety for the sake of a song.”
There was no lie there; in fact, it often stood as a point of contention between the two. If Geralt deemed a threat too dangerous, he'd find a way to leave Jaskier behind and fulfil the contract alone. Geralt would rather listen to Jaskier's endless complaining than patch his wounds up after a battle.
He would not even entertain the thought of losing Jaskier carelessly.
“Well, that is good to hear, is it not, dearest?” Lady Gabriela said. “Julian has said much of the same, but it's nice to hear it from the source.”
“The horse's mouth, as it were.” Lord Wiktor smirked into his brandy. “Is there any horse in your blood, witcher? I've heard your kind carry all sorts of peculiar mutations.”
“I wouldn't know.” Geralt smiled as politely as he could manage. “I do like horses.”
A whirl of servants broke up the conversation as the final course was served. Geralt was stuffed with fare rich and filling, and he was grateful for it. However, he certainly wasn't disappointed that their dinner was coming to a close. For Jaskier's sake, he had remained civil and direct, but the constant prodding was tiring.
“Father, tell us of the crops this spring,” Jaskier piped up, neatly slicing through the cheesecake on his plate, “the rain has been good, has it not?”
“Hmm?” Lord Wiktor held up his glass, and a steward refilled it. “Oh, yes, yes. Should be a fine year. What of you, Julian? Where do you plan to go tomorrow?”
“In such a hurry, too,” Lady Gabriela sighed, “you usually stay a few days.”
“My fault, I am afraid.” Geralt admitted, forgetting to swallow before he spoke. When his mouth was clear, he tried again. “I seek a contract north of here.”
“More adventure, lad?” Lord Wiktor chuckled, waggling his eyebrows at Jaskier. “What sort of song do you plan to make out of this one?”
“Don't know, Father,” Jaskier licked his lips free of crumbs, “we suspect it's a rather nasty wraith. Won't know the details until we've spoken to more people.”
“Ooh, how very fearsome.” Lady Gabriela shivered. “Nothing like that has bothered Lettenhove. We are a devout community, though. Make our offerings properly. Treat our dead with respect.”
Geralt held his tongue. Monsters could be made anywhere; he'd fought on the holiest ground and the murkiest mire. Let the woman keep her comforts, he thought.
“I shall have Geralt to protect me.” Jaskier lifted his chin. “There is nothing for me to dread, Mother.”
Wisely, Geralt did not bring up the subject of Jaskier's many and varied anxieties. He simply nodded his confirmation. When the last of his ale was sunk, he politely dabbed at his face with the napkin in his lap.
“Right,” Lord Wiktor stood, brandy sloshing from his lofted cup as he did so, “to the study, Julian? Family matters, you know.”
Geralt did not need to be told to leave directly. He rose, inclining his head politely to both the lord and lady. “Dinner was very good. I thank you for your hospitality.”
“Quite.” Lady Gabriela raised a sharp eyebrow. Lord Wiktor grunted, already wobbling off to an adjoining room. With a tight smile, his wife followed.
Jaskier squeezed Geralt's wrist. “Thank you. I'd apologise for the fact that you can't join us, but Father is simply going to bang on and on about courtly scandal and Lettenhove gossip. I rather envy the fact that you may retire for the evening.”
Geralt smiled, bumping his forehead against Jaskier's. “The maid's room is looking rather luxurious now, isn't it?”
Groaning, Jaskier nodded. “Rest well. I'll bring breakfast to you in the morning, and then we can be gone from this stuffy place.”
With a rueful smirk, Jaskier walked off in the direction his parents had left.
Cautiously, Geralt ascended the wooden steps to the maid's quarters, trying not to think too long on the complaint of the structure beneath his feet. He made it to his room without destroying part of the manor, and gratefully fell backwards onto the straw-stuffed mattress. It was lumpy, but it was better than the ground. The night was temperate, and he reached up to open the double windows, letting some of the late summer air in.
Voices drifted up from below him. Geralt's eyes opened as he recognised all three in chatter, and inwardly winced. As luck would have it, he was positioned above the lord's study, and his sensitive hearing would guarantee that he had a private audience with the Lettenhove gossip whether he wanted it or not. He shut his eyes and tried to focus on the sound of the wind feathering through the trees outside.
“...got him better trained than you said, Julian.” Lord Wiktor's voice. “I doubted you, but that creature seems to think you put the very stars in the sky.”
“It's rather amusing, is it not?” Lady Gabriela giggled. “I think it thinks you're friends.”
Geralt's eyes flew open.
“It is funny.” Jaskier said. “Me, friends with a freak like him? I told you I had him to heel, Father.”
Slowly, Geralt sat up, crouched on the edge of the bed.
“Did you see the way he held his silverware? Has he even used a fork before in his life?” Lady Gabriela scoffed. “I am not sure how you put up with such barbaric behaviour, Julian.”
“I make do.”
“Yes, and you must. He's making you famous, boy. Keep him fooled, and you've a free bodyguard. Genius, I think. Think of all the coin you've saved!”
“But don't lead him too far on.” Lady Gabriela chimed in. “Beasts like that, well. I doubt he'd say no to buggery. You keep a knife on yourself at all times.”
“I do, Mother.”
Geralt felt nausea tighten his stomach.
“Good. Oh, do tell me another story. He's just as hideous as you said he was.”
“Well, um. His eyes, they glow in the dark. Like a cat's.”
“Fascinating!” Lady Gabriela chirped.
“Bizarre, more like.” Lord Wiktor said. “I thought witchers were meant to be clever, with their funny little powers. How has he not figured out that you're using him for your art?”
Jaskier snorted. “I'm a good actor, Father.”
“Ah, that you are. I knew that Oxenfurt education wasn't for nothing...”
Geralt could stand to hear no more. On fleet, silent feet, he rose. He shouldered his bag, and stole out the open window.
Roach nudged Geralt's shoulder as he entered her stall, the whuff of her warm breath a comfort. He tangled his fingers in the rough hair of her mane to ground himself. All these years, all this time, he'd thought--
Lord Wiktor was right. Geralt wasn't very smart, clearly. He thought back to all the recent times he'd tried out the word – friend – and winced. Jaskier had seemed so sincere, so interested in Geralt's stories and his life, never hesitating to share his food or pay his way or cheer Geralt with one of his bawdy ditties. Before Jaskier, there had been the Path, Roach, and silence.
Maybe Geralt had just wanted a reprieve from his loneliness so badly that he'd imagined everything. Jaskier made it no secret that he wanted to become famous for his music. At first, Geralt had kept him at arm's length, but the constant company had dropped his guard.
Geralt touched his sternum with a shaking hand. He could still feel the heat of Jaskier's hand there, the cuddle of his body when they'd share a bed for warmth. Friends did that, didn't they?
“I'm a good actor.”
The echo of Jaskier's emotionless tone brought Geralt to his knees in the stable. Roach shuffled uneasily, but he paid her no mind. Jaskier just wanted adventure, and Geralt had practically forced himself upon the man. How utterly pathetic.
It would have been easy to take Roach and leave then and there. Unfortunately for Geralt, he was a creature of loyalty. Jaskier didn't care for him, that much was now clear, but he still felt the need to say goodbye. Numbly, he pulled some parchment from his bags, and scrawled out a letter.
Three scrunched-up notes later, he had something rife with mistakes and smeared with charcoal from his clumsy fist, but it'd do. Geralt tacked it to a nail in Roach's stall. Then he methodically saddled his faithful mare – his only fucking friend – and lead her out of the manor, and away from Lettenhove.
“Well!” Jaskier laughed, a little too forcefully, “The hour is getting late, I must say.”
“So it is.” Lady Gabriela agreed, stifling a yawn. “It is good to catch up, though.”
“Indeed.” Jaskier cleared his throat, straightened his spine. “Forgive me for turning to terribly dull matters, Father, but might I take my yearly allowance now instead of in the morning? I should hate to awaken you if you wish to sleep late.”
“Ah, yes.” Lord Wiktor muttered, opening a drawer in his desk. He slotted a key into a wooden box, and withdrew a pouch. “Here we are, my boy. Soon you shan't have to ask us, I think, given the traction of your compositions!”
“That's the hope!” Jaskier smiled, cheerful as anything, taking the pouch. Just by holding it he could tell it was fatter than the year before. Still, he'd put Geralt through such a rubbish dinner. “Father, my lute could use a new case. And, well, I suppose I could make do--”
“Nonsense, nonsense!” Lord Wiktor waved his hands, opening the box again, hefting another sack at his son. “No son of mine shall want for anything, not whilst you're wandering so rough and brave. Here you are.”
“Delightful. Thank you ever so much.” Jaskier rose, legs stiff from sitting still for so long. He bent to kiss his mother on the cheek, and offered his father a firm handshake. “If I don't see you in the morn', I shall visit soon. How pleasant it was to stay.”
“Sleep well, darling,” Lady Gabriela trilled, “thank you for the entertainment. We shall be talking about it for weeks!”
“Welcome, Mother!” Jaskier's cheeks hurt from grinning, and as he exited the study, he nearly moaned in relief as he dropped the façade. Geralt would be asleep by now, no doubt. Jaskier glanced up the rickety servant's stairs, sighed, and walked down the hallway to his room.
It was late, but he still called for a bath. Even though he scrubbed himself pink and brushed his mouth out with mint and salt, he still felt foul. Sleep did not find him for hours.
Thank Melitele for the predictability of his family's alcoholism. Jaskier awoke at first light, aware that his parents would stay in their rooms until the middle of the morning. Hastily, he dressed and packed, and then scuttled down to the kitchens. Nobody was around to plate up breakfast, but Jaskier made do with wedges of yesterday's bread, ample hunks of pale cheese, and four fat cured sausages, all of which he tied up in a linen sack. As an afterthought, he grabbed two apples for Roach.
They could eat on the road. Jaskier suspected Geralt would not object to such a plan.
Provisions secured, Jaskier stole up the stairs, knowing precisely which board would creak and how much pressure to put on each step – muscle memory from childhood – and lingered outside Geralt's closed door.
“Geralt?” Jaskier hissed, knocking lightly. “It's me.”
No answer. Perhaps Geralt was hoping for a lie-in, and ignoring Jaskier. He'd make up for it later.
“I am sure you're all cosy, but I'd rather like to flee this rat's nest, dear witcher. Are you decent?” Jaskier knocked again.
When no reply came a second time, Jaskier huffed, and simply opened the door. He blinked in surprise at the empty room. The bed was slightly rumpled, the window open, but neither Geralt nor his pack were present.
“Probably seeing to Roach.” Jaskier muttered, smirking. “Least he's as eager to go as I am.”
With that knowledge, he weaseled his way down the precarious stairwell again and slipped outside. Squinting at the sun cresting over the horizon, Jaskier hefted his pack and entered the stables. His father's horse snorted at him in greeting, and Jaskier paused to scritch the stallion behind his right ear. Then he ventured further in, opening the door to Roach's stall.
A note fluttered on the wall, the only occupant of the space. Automatically, Jaskier reached for it. He pulled it from the nail and began to read.
Dear To The Honourable Julian Pankratz,
It was not my intention to overhear the conversation you had with your parents. My room sat above the study and my hearing is too acute. Forgive me my eavesdropping.
I apologise sincerely for my delusions. I had thought that
we were friends we were close. I understand now that I was wrong. Perhaps I have been away from humans for too long. I must not have realised.
You owe me no coin,
Jaskier Julian My Lord. Your company was instructing and made my days easier. I regret that this was not the case for you. I hope you can forgive me the misunderstanding in time.
I wish you success in your songs. They are already popular. I am certain you shall not have want for applicants to replace me. I am sorry that I can no longer guard you. I am too ashamed.
Yours From Sincerely,
Geralt and Roach Geralt of Rivia
P.S I would never have approached your bed as your mother suggested and I am very sorry that you slept with a knife and I am very sorry that I shared your warmth in autumn. I never sensed fear but I realise I did not sense a lot of things now. Forgive me this, too.
Jaskier stared at the words until the charcoal blurred together and his eyes stung. He gasped for breath, the wet slap of panic hitting him with ferocity, and he began to shake.
“No,” Jaskier whimpered, “oh, fuck, no.”
Geralt did not know how to define depression. It wasn't something witchers were supposed to suffer from. He was simply adjusting to solitary life again, that was all.
Perhaps he ate less, and perhaps he only went near human settlements when Roach needed something, and perhaps he didn't shave, nor untie his hair from the single, messy ponytail he'd scraped it into weeks ago, but all of that was of no consequence. Geralt had lived like this before. He was foolish to believe that his time with Jaskier would last.
That was the trouble. Geralt had gone soft, had forgotten who he was. What he was. The nightmares began to visit him again; babe to child to orphan. Boy to man to mutant. Flesh becoming weapon. Gods did not watch over witcher's keeps. Gods did not mourn at mass graves dug for forgotten, rotting children.
Neither did humans.
The worst dreams were the ones where Jaskier was with him again. They would be doing something so mundane; walking, or sharing a roasted fowl, or bickering over gwent strategies. In those dreams, Geralt would be filled with a sense of peace. When he awoke alone, cold and disoriented, he felt the fissure within him crack anew.
Sometimes he'd scan noticeboards for contracts. Sometimes he'd see something easy, quick coin; nekkers or ghouls, a handful of them. He knew he was supposed to take the jobs. That was why he'd been created at all.
He just kept walking.
The weather turned shit, bullet-rain that soaked shiver-cold through the exposed joins in his worn leather armour. His oil-hide cloak would have repelled the worst of the weather, but he'd draped it over Roach's back instead. Didn't matter if he was cold. Wasn't like he could get sick.
Without Jaskier, he was always cold, anyway.
His demented forest-wanderings were taking him further inland as the days marched on, unremarkable. Autumn herded him nearer to Kaer Morhen, and he let memory guide his path. He needed a bath. He needed a hot meal. He needed a new pair of boots.
Such simple luxuries were for men. Deserving, human, fragile. Geralt was none of those things.
He hadn't realised how dire he'd let his appearance become until he staggered into a peasant's hovel near Daevon, and the blacksmith had paled, promising to re-shoe Roach for a fraction of the cost if Geralt would just spare his life.
Geralt caught his reflection in the horse's trough. Dirtied, snarled, the dead-eyed stare of a predator. He felt a bubble of hysteria pop high up in his throat. Stupid monster man. Act like a beast, might as well look the part.
Still, he paid the smithy a full and fair price for the work he did on Roach.
The only reason he stopped before the hike up to Kaer Morhen was to spare himself a barrage of questions. Last time he'd looked this rough was after Blaviken. Eskel would know something was wrong regardless of how Geralt appeared, but at least he could save himself Lambert and Vesemir's scrutiny.
Even if he wasn't a good actor.
Before he reached Ard Carraigh, the last decent populated place before the climb to the keep, he washed the worst of the dirt from his face and hands in a freezing river. With a straight-razor, he hacked away the matted clumps of his hair. He tamed his beard into something less bushy and wild. Doing so would improve his chances of getting a place to sleep and properly wash.
His armour also needed cleaning and mending. Some of it was beyond salvage. Vesemir was going to chew his ear right off.
The first inn he came across seemed as good as any to Geralt. He saw Roach taken care of, and then he entered, prepared to beg and barter. As he hit the door, a familiar scent blindsided him, turned him stone where he stood. The assault was furthered by a haunting song he'd not heard before. But he'd know Jaskier's voice anywhere.
Search the past for redemption
Broken glass, no reflection
Take me to a place I believe in
Lost my way, lost all reason
Geralt should have turned around and left. His brain was screaming for it, but his muscles were locked up with cold and fear. Even drawing breath felt too risky.
Give me something
To hold onto
I've got nothing
Since I lost you
Who had Jaskier lost? A lover, perhaps. Exhaustion and hunger blurred his mind, made him sway in place. His spaulder clattered noisily against the door. Geralt heard a discordant strum, and felt eyes upon him; the innkeep's, the few patrons.
With the music gone, the spell seemed to snap, and Geralt whirled on the balls of his feet. He was outside in the snow-laced air, gasping icy lungfuls of it, staggering towards the stables. Truly he was losing his mind, because he thought he heard Jaskier call--
Clearer, directly behind him. Geralt did not want to turn around and see the man he'd unwittingly tormented for years. Selfishly, he didn't want the bard to see that he'd become the savage thing that Jaskier's family had laughed about months ago.
“Sorry.” Geralt ground out, voice splintered from lack of use. “I'll find another inn.”
“No, Gods, Geralt, please--”
Geralt shambled into Roach's stall, blindly fumbling with her tack. He heard Jaskier's footsteps behind him and curled tighter into himself.
“I humbly beg a moment of your time, Geralt.” Jaskier sounded tearful.
“No time,” Geralt muttered, “I must get to wintering.”
“That's why I waited here. I hoped you'd pass through. Geralt, I must speak with you—”
“You owe me nothing, Jaskier.”
“I owe you everything.” There was a shuffle behind him. “Foremost, my deepest apologies. And then an explanation. I beg of you, Geralt.”
For the first time, Geralt chanced a glance over the curve of his shoulder. Jaskier was kneeling in the straw and snow, hands clasped. His face was gaunt, cheekbones violently pronounced, and the shadows beneath his eyes rivalled Geralt's own.
Just get on Roach and run, he thought. But Jaskier looked so very imploring. The rupture within Geralt's chest throbbed in warning.
Inside, it was warm, but there was no comfort for Geralt. He felt many eyes upon him, the scraggly witcher – more dog than man – and he was grateful that Jaskier chose the shadows of a corner booth. Two pitchers of piss-weak ale were plonked down before them.
“I heard you, Jaskier.” Geralt broke the silence, although his voice was barely above a whisper. “It was no illusion. I heard what you said.”
“I will not dishonour you by disputing that, Geralt. I did say the things you heard. Horrible things. I say them every year that I go to that wretched place.”
“Why?” Geralt did not look up from the table.
Jaskier took a deep breath. “Five years ago. I was... just twenty, I think. Stumbling foolishly in the print of your footsteps, drunk on the idea of the untamed wilds and adventure. That autumn we spent together – I've never been so cold. Never been so hungry.”
“No, please.” Jaskier flinched forward as if to take Geralt's hand, but thought the better of it. “You gave me the last of the preserved venison. I remember that you had a handful of dried apple slices. You should have eaten them, but you gave them to Roach. I remember hearing the echo of your stomach that evening. It'd get better when we hit town, I thought. We'd find work. But there were no contracts, and nobody knew my music.
I felt so fucking helpless. Came close to selling Filavandrel's lute, actually. And then it dawned upon me; there was a way I could help. I'd have to swallow my pride and put on a performance, but I could help. I could make it so we'd never be in that situation again.”
Geralt frowned. He drank some of the ale. It sat uneasily in the void of his stomach. Jaskier continued on in the absence of any comment.
“My parents have always been bigoted, self-righteous pieces of shit. When I left for Oxenfurt, I had hoped never to see them again. But that winter, I paid them a visit. I played the part of a genius, tortured son, and they reveled in it. I could stomach no more than three days, but when I left, it was with a heavy purse.
When the snow thawed and we met up again, I said nothing. How could I confess such ghastly sins to you? But when Roach's bridle wore down and snapped, I had coin to replace it. Every time it seemed as though we were on the bones of our arses, I... I'd find the money. And you were never hungry again.”
Geralt was silent for a long time. “You said you acted. You are an actor.”
“To them, Geralt. Gods, all you heard were lies. I can understand that you wouldn't believe me. Please, I just... please know that I did it in service of you, however backwards that must sound. I play their little games, I sell my horrid, two-faced soul. I take glee in draining my wretched father's coffers. I'm a cad, Geralt.” Jaskier wiped his face with the back of his sleeve, and then produced a pouch. It clinked merrily with coin. “This is yours. It was earned at your expense. I will understand if you never want to see me again, but I beg of you to take it.”
“That time,” Geralt spoke slowly, “that I lost one of my bags with my favourite socks and shirt in it, and you bought me new ones, and a new bag. Said you'd gotten good tips at your set.”
“It was the emergency fund, yes.” Jaskier blushed, looking at the bag. “Nobody tips that well. Not yet.”
“And when Roach needed her teeth looked at...?”
Jaskier bit his lip. “Yes.”
Again, Geralt lapsed into silence.
“I will never set foot in Lettenhove again. I will, I shall reject my title and my claim. Geralt, I'll do anything for your forgiveness. For you to believe that it's not about my fame, nor about my songs, nor even wanderlust. It's always been about you. I wanted to care for you.” Jaskier's tears slid down the pale planes of his cheeks, patting wet against his doublet.
“We... are friends, then?”
Jaskier choked on a cry. “You're my best friend. You're my only friend. I am so sorry, Geralt.”
Geralt nodded. With hesitance, he reached across the table, a silent request. Jaskier met his hands, clasping, eager.
“Next year,” Geralt said, “tell them about the time I ate a raw deer's heart. How much do you think that is worth?”
“Or that I don't sleep. Tell them I perch in trees like an owl.”
Jaskier made an ugly snort-sob. “Are you serious?”
“People have said worse things to me. I don't give a fuck about what your parents think. Let's relieve them of their coin, if they are so eager to part with it.”
Pressing his forehead against Geralt's hands, Jaskier shook his head. “I don't deserve your forgiveness. I don't deserve you.”
“Jaskier.” Geralt caught his companion's chin, forced their eyes together, blue on gold. “I ask for your honesty, that is all. I would spend a thousand hungry autumn nights by your side, if they are in truth."
In his haste to throw his arms around Geralt, Jaskier nearly knocked both of their drinks over, but neither man cared. They embraced fiercely. Geralt wondered why Jaskier was quivering so violently, until he realised they both were.
“I've never slept with a knife.” Jaskier whispered. “I never would. You're the best man I've ever known, Geralt.”
Geralt closed his eyes. In Jaskier's grip, the beast retreated, tame. Once more, he became human.