Lambert scoops the shivering bard up into his arms anyway. The little princess giggles as Jaskier squawks at the undignified sprawl, and clings to him. It's good, in a very strange way, to hear the laughter of a child, and to have a warm body tucked in close to his chest. Jaskier's scent is a muddled mix of emotion and the wood oil he uses to clean his lute, and from this close, he can feel as well as hear the thunder of the bard's racing heart. Ignoring the harangue to put him back down immediately, Lambert takes the musician back to his room.
"You realize you were supposed to stay here in the first place?" Jaskier sniffs again, and decides it's easier to go along with being carried like a woman. "You'll get your things back when you're over the illness. It nearly killed you, you know."
There's a sudden salty-wet smell in the air.
"Better if it had, perhaps," Jaskier says softly.
He's not equipped to deal with emotional outbursts, and reacts accordingly. "None of that," he admonishes, and tosses the bard back into the pile of furs on the bed they've designated for him. The outraged shriek makes him laugh all the way back down to the kitchen, where the others have gathered to eat and catch up.
Geralt considers himself an uncomplicated man. He wants nothing, and he needs nothing, and anything he requires to continue functioning is the bare minimum. He was in the wrong to chase away the only actual friend he's ever made that wasn't forced proximity, and he's well aware that Jaskier's continued presence in his life is a mortal danger - for the bard. Words said in anger can't be recalled, but he's managed, in the months since, to convince himself that it's for the best that they part ways.
Seeing him now is a shock. He's thin, pale, jutting collarbones telling a tale of too much walking without enough food, and the idea that the man was sick enough to be near death - alone in the woods, with no one to care for him - gives rise to something that borders on fear. If Jaskier had perished, how would he know? He would have lived the rest of his very long life believing that Jaskier spent his days in the comfort of a court or manor, idling away his time writing courtly love ballads and spending his nights with someone who wouldn't get him killed.
There's an ache in his sternum that feels a little like guilt.
Cirilla is chattering happily at Eskel, who is listening patiently but with a faint air of a trapped animal. The sight of the girl warms him a bit, and Lambert's return to the kitchen brings with it another whiff of Jaskier's familiar scent.
He's missed it. It seems to blend with the rougher, horsey smell of the other witchers, and the idea of having everyone under one roof where he can keep an eye on them is exceedingly comforting. He spares a thought for Yennefer, wishes she was with them, and resolves to find a way to contact her. He needs her to help him with his Child Suprise anyway.
Lambert is ladling some more broth into a mug, and Coën sidles up beside him, drawing Geralt's attention back outward.
"I'll take care of that," says Coën, and Lambert actually hesitates before handing the mug over. A smug, grim sort of smile flashes over Coën's face as he moves confidently towards the rack of spices and herbs, and begins doctoring the broth for Jaskier to drink.
Jaskier has formed a nest of sorts out of the blankets and furs, and is examining the wall with more interest than bare stone deserves. The door opens with a creak, and the footsteps are a familiar sound.
"If you're coming to apologise, I want you to know that it won't be accepted," he tells Geralt without turning.
"I didn't realize I'd done anything to warrant an apology," says the unfamiliar voice. Jaskier turns at last and sees one of the other witchers who'd been in the hall. "Coën," he says by way of introduction. "I've brought your next round of medicine."
Jaskier flushes. "Sorry, I thought you were Geralt. And I don't need another round. I've only just finished the first."
Coën leaves the mug on the table and collects the old one. "Drink it anyway," he says. "A sickness in the chest can be fatal, especially high up in the mountains like this." He turns to leave, and then lingers in the doorway. "Drink," he says again.
Jaskier huffs, but obeys, feeling yellow eyes heavily on him as he swallows. It tastes bitter and medicinal on his tongue, and roils in his stomach.
There’s something awful chasing him. He can’t make out what it is, doesn’t dare slow down enough to turn around and find out. He’s gotten a glimpse of inky dark fur, dripping fangs, and vicious scarlet eyes and that was enough. Panting, he runs for his life, dodging tree limbs and roots with equal ease, right up until he's not. A root snags his ankle, sending him sprawling. He barely has time to scream before he feels fangs sinking into his neck. Blood rushes hot and wet over his hands, coppery and -
He wakes screaming. The door flies open and Geralt rushes in, white hair loose and flying behind him. A silver sword flashes in the light of the fire. "Where is it?" He demands. "What's happening?"
More witchers crowd in, all of them armed, although Geralt is the only one actually wielding his sword. They fan out, examining the room, while Jaskier struggles to get his breathing under control, clutching at his neck and feeling the skin still whole, his shirt unbloodied.
Eskel is the first to actually approach him. "Are you alright? What happened? Did you see something?"
The adrenaline is wearing off, leaving him weak and trembling. "Ni-" he gasps. "Nightmare?"
The tension in the room drops several degrees. Jaskier clutches at his back, convinced he can still feel talons ripping at his spine.
"Guess it's a good time for this, then?" Coën is in the doorway, holding a tray with a plate of steaming food and another mug. Jaskier sees red eyes glinting in the dim light and his breath hitches on another scream, drawing the attention of Lambert and Geralt, who are both prowling around the room. Eskel puts a hand on Jaskier's ravaged (perfectly fine, he's fine ) shoulder, and nods.
Coën brings the food, and the others file out of the room. Jaskier can hear voices in the hall - Vesemir is comforting Cirilla, and shit he woke everyone up with that little scene - and he pretends not to see Geralt lingering in the doorway, determined to say nothing until he gets the apologies he's owed.
The food tastes off somehow, slightly bitter, but he's grateful enough to have something that isn't broth in his stomach that he powers through it. It's probably just that witcher tastes are different, or the available herbs are unusual. Geralt has never said anything, and it suddenly occurs to him how little he actually knows about witcher physiology.
Weeks pass and Jaskier's cold lingers like an unwelcome guest. He sniffles, coughs, and aches his way through the days, even as Cirilla blossoms under Vesemir's watchful training eye. They all take turns, teaching her what they can with most of their training equipment buried under several feet of snow in the courtyard. She spends her evenings learning to play his lute, and he teaches her what he can about proper breath support and projecting her voice so that people can hear her over even the most noisy of crowded taverns and dining halls. Jaskier holes up in his room when he's not with Ciri or Lambert, composing songs he can't sing while his voice sounds like the croaking of a dying frog. On more generous days, he allows that Geralt hasn't apologised yet because Jaskier has never given him the opportunity, but mostly, he does his level best to avoid the other man, and begins to know the witchers on a more personal level. Lambert has a gift for metaphor that leaves Jaskier weak with laughter, and Eskel is prone to fits of maudlin when drunk. Vesemir reigns over them all like a proud and regal father, and somehow isn't afraid to get into an arm-wrestling contest with Coën over a wager. It's...nice. Familial. The easy rapport is shattered at midwinter by the arrival of the sorceress.
Yennefer opens a portal directly into the keep, and steps out looking like a queen. Geralt is more relieved to see her than words can convey.
"I thought I'd find you here, but I wasn't expecting the bard," is the first thing she says to him when they find a private moment later that night.
Geralt swallows thickly. "Lambert brought him," he says. "Yen…"
She arches a delicately curved eyebrow and murmurs, "Lambert?" The topic of Jaskier is forgotten a moment later when Ciri bounds over and begins a new conversation regarding the things she's learned since they saw one another last, and the powers of chaos that are growing ever more unmanageable.
"Now the whole family is together," Ciri says, and Geralt is helpless to do anything but agree.
The next morning, Jaskier and Coën have vanished from the keep.