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When He Comes Tell Me That You'll Let Him In

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Geralt is falling.

At first, he thinks it's the kind of fall from the edge of sleep, where you fall without ever leaving your bed, and wake up when you land. But it goes on too long for that, and there's no snap back to consciousness. He tries, pinching his eyes closed and then opening them wide. But he doesn't wake up. Around him is only darkness, cold and muffled, no bed, no room – no nothing. The only light is above him, a circle like the sun, but not the sun at all. The edges are lined with waving green grass. As Geralt falls, the hole gets smaller, the light dimmer. Above him, riding the border of the hole's shadow, another person is falling too.

Geralt tries to reach up for them, but he can't feel his body, can't tell it to move. He only knows he's falling because his hair is above his face, his amulet rising off his chest, the light above him fading. Eventually, the light is just a pin-prick, then just a memory.

He keeps falling.

He falls for so long he can't remember where he fell or why, or who falls with him, if they're even still falling, somewhere up above him. He feels his spirit loosening from his flesh, drawn above him like a kite, barely tethered to his body. He has no voice to call it back, or hands capable of gripping it. He can only fall and hope it keeps falling with him.

After a second or a year, the darkness begins to shift. The change is subtle. Where it was full, oppressively dark before, now there's a shimmering, velvetine quality to the darkness. Geralt thinks he can see stars around him.

He's still falling, but not so quickly anymore. His hair stops whipping around his face, and his amulet finds its home against his chest again. Instead of snapping, his spirit sinks back into him like a kiss. He still can't move, but he becomes aware that he's flipping. Slowly, like he's in deep water, his head goes down until he's falling belly-down in this new lush dark. Below him, there's a grey place in the dark, wavering like an aurora. Geralt falls toward it. It isn't until he falls through it that he realizes that it's a tear between this world and the one below.

*

Geralt comes to belly-down and sure he's still falling until he opens his eyes. His vision is jagged with long grass and it takes a minute before he can lift his face to try and get a sense of where he is. He's in a field with forest on either side of it. The air is still and the light greyish. When Geralt sits up his body feels distant and numb, how it feels after a long winter's walk. He gets to his knees as smoothly as he can, aware someone might be watching him, although he can't sense anyone or anything around him.

He remembers falling like an old dream. Scraps of darkness and light, the body above him, the tear he fell through. He looks up reflexively. The sky above him is clear like mid-afternoon, but everything is tinged greyish, as if Geralt's looking up through a piece of smoky quartz. The air is mild on Geralt's hair and face, but the light lends a chilly look to the world. It reminds him of the summer when fires burned through Dair Forest. He inhales deeply, scenting for smoke, but finds none. In fact, the air is so clear and empty it alarms Geralt. He brings his hand to his face to check for injury. There's no blood, which is a relief, and the very faint smell of his leather cuff moreso.

He gets up on shaky feet and tries to orient himself. There are no footprints leading to this place; Geralt fell here. He looks around for another patch of flattened grass where the other person fell, but the grass is uniform, waving in the light wind. Geralt turns, trying to orient himself. He looks up again at the strange sky, shielding his eyes to see the sun. It glows pallidly. Geralt watches it for a minute, frowning. It appears to be on its way towards the horizon, but it’s setting to the east instead of the west. When he realizes it, cold grips Geralt's insides.

Years of training and knowledge of life on the land war with sheer animal wrongness of what's happening here. The sky, the sun, even the flat patch of grass Geralt woke up in, it's all wrong. To tamp down the panic, Geralt draws his silver sword and holds it steady even though there’s no threat he can see.

Geralt's so focused on the field and the forest that he almost misses what's rising above the trees. It isn't until a sharp-winged bird takes flight that Geralt lifts his eyes enough to see the spires rising in the distance. They're tall and thin, a gleaming white, creamy like the inside of a seashell. From where he is, Geralt can see no banner. But they're the only non-natural markers he has to go by, and currently his only hope of sorting this mess out, so Geralt takes a tentative step away from his resting place, and when his knees hold, another, towards the forest, the spires.

He keeps his sword in hand though.

*

If Geralt thought the field was strange, then the forest is downright unnerving. The trees are close together and large enough around to need two or three men to embrace them, so the canopy blocks out most of the smoky grey skylight. Even during the day, that might mean it's difficult to see the surroundings. But in among the dense floor of moss and ferns are things that glow. Cerulean mushrooms, delicate pink bulbs, orange lilies. The forest floor is alive and twinkling with colour. Geralt steps lightly around everything that isn't green, and prays he isn't inhaling poison with every step. He still can't smell very well, no matter how deeply he breathes, and he’s still unsettled in his own body. He wonders if he lost part of his soul in the fall.

The forest is quiet, no water trickling, only the faintest sound of small creatures scurrying in the undergrowth or the occasional rustle of little birds' wings. It feels to Geralt as if the forest is holding its breath, waiting for him to pass through. He takes no offence. The less time he spends wandering through this cramped, eerie place, the better. His amulet is humming against his chest, has been since he woke up.

There are no trails to follow so Geralt has to pick his way over the carefully through the trees, his boots sinking into the spongy moss on the forest floor. He tries to move from tree to tree, wanting the safety of cover even though he still can't sense anything larger than a mouse.

That changes when he has to turn sideways to fit between two enormous, white-barked trees. As he steps through the gap, a branch snaps and Geralt's head snaps to the noise. Some twenty paces away, an elk's head rises from its feeding. It's the biggest elk Geralt has ever seen, shaggy brown fur tipped with teal, the four antlers on its head shining like polished bone. Black eyes blink at him, unafraid, but it does snort to warn him against coming closer.

If Geralt couldn't see the thickness of its fur and how its long legs have disturbed the ferns it’s standing in, he'd assume what he's seeing is a spectre, it’s so unreal looking. But it must be real, biting off another mouthful of ferns before it slowly picks its way west of Geralt, knocking leaves off trees with its tall rack as it goes.

“What,” Geralt breathes, watching the creature disappear into the trees, no sound to mark its footsteps. Geralt walks to where it stood, and sees almost no disturbance from its hooves. He crouches, inhaling hard, and can't catch the scent of the beast.

Another branch breaks, behind Geralt's back this time.

“Here it is,” a rough voice says, and before Geralt can stand up out of the moss and ferns, the owner of the voice clubs Geralt in the back of the head and he falls face-first into the damp, dark undergrowth.

*

Geralt comes to again, this time being dragged by his armpits down a dark hallway. He tries to twist but his head is pounding and even just jostling himself in his captors' hands causes an explosion of pain at base of his skull. He tries to push with his feet instead, but the floor is smooth and his boot soles slip like they're greased. He raises his hands, and finds them shackled with dark metal cuffs at the wrists and his fingers bound straight with waxed rope that keeps him from casting any of his signs.

“Fuck,” he says, tongue struggling in his mouth.

“It lives,” one of the people holding Geralt says, in a fine voice with a delicate, crisp accent Geralt's never heard before. “I thought you had killed it.”

“Me too,” says the other, with a rougher voice, the same one who hit Geralt. “Glad not to have. Be a pain to explain to the Captain.”

“Mmm,” the second guard hums in agreement.

Geralt knows he's tall and dense with muscle, even stripped of his armour and weapons, but the two figures drag him like he's a child’s doll, and about as important to them as one. They drag Geralt around a corner into a new hallway, and somewhere ahead, a door opens and a new voice, female this time, says chidingly, “Otho, did you kill it?”

“No,” the rough voice says. “It lives. It spoke.”

Geralt coughs obediently, and then groans when his skull nearly splits. He shuts his eyes against the pain and the light as he's dragged out of the hallway and into a room. He’s dropped onto the to the floor like refuse, and, too weak to catch himself, hits his head on the stone. The pain is terrible.

The third voice says, “You can leave now,” in a disgusted tone.

“But, Healer, what if it attacks you?”

The healer crouches next to Geralt. “Do you doubt the strength of your cuffs or your club?” Fingers probe underneath Geralt's head, turning the backs of his eyelids white with pain when they find the lump there.

“No, Healer Arden,” says the second voice, reluctantly demure.

“Then you can go. I'm sure the Captain wants your report.”

Through the wall of pain, Geralt hears the two figures - guards - leave the room and close the door behind them.

The healer snorts like an elk, and begins the work of turning Geralt on his side so she can see the back of his head better.

“I'd put you on a table,” the healer murmurs, fingers careful over where Geralt's spine lays, “but I don't think I could lift you alone, and Healer Jerra is busy with the other human.”

Geralt lifts his head, although his skull screams at him for the movement. He doesn’t risk opening his eyes.

“Where,” he does his best to say. Finding who he fell with is important. They may have answers to how they got here, how they can get out. Geralt wants to see them safe.

The healer leans over him, cupping her cool hands on his cheeks.

“In the other room,” she says. “He's fine. Only hurt his arm.”

Geralt swallows, which is difficult. “Need to see...” he says, but keeps his eyes closed. The darkness inside his skull is hard enough to handle, pulsing and hot. He doesn't dare open his eyes to let in the light.

“Mmm,” the healer soothes softly as she parts his hair over the lump. “In time. I need to take care of this first.” One hand leaves, coming back with a wet cloth to dab where the guard clubbed Geralt. She tsks as she works. “I would say Otho doesn't know his own strength, but he certainly does. He can be such a brute. I'm surprised this burgol egg is all you have.” Another pause, as she concentrates on wiping the blood out of Geralt's hair and he tries not to vomit each time she grazes him with the cloth.

Finally, the healer finishes the torture of cleaning Geralt. She gently lays his temple on the stone floor, which is gritty but solid under Geralt, a blessing after his fall and the hit. She rises.

“I have to get a salve,” she tells him, as if he cares. He breathes through his nose. Still, the air is dead to him. He can hardly smell his own blood, and that's on the back of his own head. When the healer returns, he can't smell her either, not the skin of her hands, nor the salve she coats the lump with. It goes on greasy, but immediately dulls the pain a little.

The healer waits until his breath steadies, and then begins to turn him onto his back again. She keeps a careful hold of his neck so the wound doesn’t touch the floor.

“That should help,” she says, “although you'll be in pain for days to come. I'm not...familiar with dosing humans with potions. I won't try...Perhaps Healer Jerra will do it.” She pauses again, and then carefully pushes his hair away from his face, feeling his temples and scalp for any other injury. When she's finished with that, she says, apologetically, “I have to check your pupils. In case there's blood on the brain. I'll be fast.”

Geralt groans. It feels like the shield of his eyelids is the only thing between him and crippling pain. But he's been hit on the head enough times that he knows she's right. If his skull is filling with blood, then the only way he's getting out of here is in a box. He signals his compliance by not shying away when the healer puts a careful, cool thumb over his left eyelid.

She peels it up and he catches a glimpse of her. She's doubled, out of focus, but he sees the white robe and hair covering of a healer, surrounding a face that's too angular to belong to a human, high knife cheekbones below large round eyes that are very pale, set in a face with skin that’s luminous, otherworldly. She takes a sharp breath and drops his eyelid. Sick from even the low-burning light of the room, Geralt can't ask if blood's about to start leaking out of his ears.

The healer takes a deep breath to steady herself, and opens his other eye. He sees the same vision: the inhuman healer, concern dawning out of confusion, swimming in front of him for a second before she lets his eyelid fall again.

She carefully, very carefully, lays his head back on the stone.

“Jerra,” she calls, unable to hide the worry in her voice.

*

They cover his eyes as they lead him away from the healers' rooms. Whether it's to protect his still-throbbing skull, or keep Geralt from accurately tracking where they're taking him, Geralt doesn't know, but the leg manacles they put on him give him a good enough idea.

The guards don't drag Geralt this time. They hold his elbows in a vice grip, but let him shuffle along on his own two feet. That should make it easier for him to count his steps and start constructing a mental map of this place, but with the cloth over his eyes and the dull pounding in his brain and the sheer amount of steps and turns they take, he's lost before long.

The guards don't speak the whole time, not to Geralt nor to each other. Their armour clanks, swords swishing, a set of keys jangling on one's hip, but that’s the extent of what Geralt hears from them.

Finally, they come to a halt, and the guard with the keys takes them from his belt and unlocks the door in front of Geralt. The other pushes Geralt in with a broad hand on the back. It's a cell. Geralt knows that without the use of several of his senses. He's been in enough to recognize them. He feels the air move behind him, the door starting to close, and turns.

“I'd like to see,” he says, hopefully facing the guards. “If only so I don't trip and make this lump on my head even worse.”

The door stops. Geralt waits through the silent conversation the two guards have, weighing whatever risks they think might come from having his sight versus him cracking his skull on the stone.

Eventually, Geralt feels something hook the blindfold, tugging it up. The guard steps away as soon as it clears Geralt's forehead, and the first thing Geralt sees when he opens his eyes is the cell's thick wooden door closing in his face. It locks decisively. Through the rounded, barred window, the guards split off, one to each side of the door.

“Thanks,” Geralt says faintly, blinking. The salve has dulled the worst of the pain, but it still costs him to keep his eyes open. He must though. He's out of the helpful hands of the healer, and clearly these people view him as enough of a threat to lock him up until they figure out what to do with him.

The hall outside is lit with torches, but there's little to see, even when Geralt presses himself to the door. Even the guards are standing too far away for Geralt to see more than the sides of their gold helmets.

He turns to face the cell. There are no torches in here, no light at all except for what comes through the window in the back wall, smaller than the one in the door, barely a slit, and barred. Geralt would have to be twice as tall to get a proper look out it. The light that comes in is that of the late afternoon, deep and gold despite the quartz haze in the sky.

It illuminates nothing of interest. Except for the piss bucket in the corner of the cell, it's bare. Not even a cot to rest on. Geralt shuffles a circuit of the room, looking for loose stones, but this is a well-maintained prison, so there’s nothing of the sort. Tired, his pulse beating in his skull, he lowers himself to the floor in the farthest corner from the door, and settles in to wait.

*

The thin light coming in from the window has turned to a berry sunset red and Geralt's arse is numb from the stone by the time anything happens. In the distance he hears footsteps approaching: the rhythmic, clanking ones of guards, and another pair, offbeat, softer.

“I don't think this is necessary, I mean, what have I done wrong? I can't apologize if you don't-”

“Quiet,” someone commands, with the same accent as all the others.

The first voice stops.

The footsteps all stop next to the door of Geralt's cell.

“Here,” someone asks, “or the next?”

“Here,” one of the guard’s at Geralt’s door says, keys rattling. The door unlocks, opens, but before Geralt can consider levering himself off the floor and rushing it, the guard pushes the second prisoner through the gap and snaps the door shut. The keys jingle in the lock.

Geralt looks twice, but both times it’s Jaskier before him. He's got on the same wrist shackles, wax string-bound fingers, and linen blindfold as Geralt, but no leg irons, and someone wrapped extra cloth between the shackle on his left wrist and the binding going from his knuckles halfway up his forearm to cushion whatever wound must be there.

“Oh!” Jaskier squeaks in alarm, wheeling around towards the door. “Wait! You can't leave me here! I can't see anything.” He lifts his wrists to his eyes, scraping the blindfold up until he can shake it off. Then he presses his nose between the bars on the window and demands, “You can't just put a person in a cell without reason.” He bangs his fists on the wooden door and then winces at the contact with his wrist.

“Of course they can,” Geralt says.

Jaskier yelps and wheels around to face Geralt.

His expression runs through several emotions when he spots Geralt sitting in the dark corner. Fear turns to recognition turns to a mixture of annoyance and relief.

“You scared me!” Jaskier takes a deep breath, and relaxes away from the door and towards Geralt. “How did you - how did we get here?”

Geralt doesn't know. He can only remember falling, not how – or why – he fell. Jaskier must have been the one falling above him. He can't remember that, but it feels right to place Jaskier as the limp body above his. They fell together.

Geralt lifts his hands, chain rattling, to press a finger to his own mouth. Their captors likely don't know what's going on either. They put Jaskier in here with Geralt in hopes that they'll talk.

Jaskier makes an exasperated face until Geralt nods to the door and raises an eyebrow pointedly. Jaskier turns to look out the window again, but the guards aren't visible. All of their shuffling and armour-adjusting has ceased. They're listening closely.

“Come here,” is all Geralt says. They’re safer together, and once the sun sets fully, it’ll be cold in the cell.

Jaskier obeys without commentary. He sits next to Geralt against the back wall, pressed against him from shoulder to knee. He puts his shackled hands in his lap and flexes his left wrist gingerly. Geralt’s relieved to see there’s no blood on the bandage, and that the wrist looks to be the only place Jaskier’s hurt.

Jaskier sees Geralt looking, and opens his mouth just enough to murmur, “It's only a sprain. I...” His eyebrows knit together for a second. “I guess I landed on it?” He doesn't sound sure, but if that's the truth then it’s a better alternative than what happened to Geralt. He peers Geralt over as best he can in the quickly fading light. “Are you hurt?”

Geralt shakes his head, which hurts like hell. The less injury he admits to, the less the guards will have on him in a fight.

“Glad to hear it,” Jaskier says, and then opens his mouth to speak more. Geralt shakes his head again, and Jaskier closes his mouth tightly as he looks towards the door, the flickering torchlight in the hall, the straining ears just out of sight, and subsides, leaning his shoulder on Geralt’s.

*

It comes to Geralt slowly, while he's staring at the far wall of the cell. He's nearly meditating, running back over everything that's happened these last hours – every step he took, every strange thing he's seen, the weightless fear that came with falling – when he takes a breath and catches it. Honeysuckle soap, sweat, skin. Geralt lurches back into awareness, and is, for a moment, uncomfortably reminded on how he nearly separated in two during the fall. He draws another breath, and gets the scent again. He opens his mouth to get it better. There's fear and tiredness and hurt there too. It's so intensely familiar Geralt's mouth waters.

He turns up to the window, where the light is moon-bright now. But the air isn't moving well in the cell, not ruffling their hair or clothes. Beside him, Jaskier hasn't noticed anything. He's still tucked against Geralt for warmth, now resting his forehead on his own bent knees. Seeing the exposed nape of Jaskier's neck, Geralt realizes the smell is Jaskier, how he smells after a long day that's only getting longer. He sighs and Geralt can taste his breath, thick and dry after hours with no water or wine.

Relief floods Geralt. He's still out of touch with his body, and he can't smell any of the other things he should be able to smell, but being able to smell Jaskier is a good sign. Geralt inhales deeply, glad to have this one good thing back.

*

They're left in the cell for long enough that Geralt expects to see dawn before an open door, but he's wrong. He's half-asleep and Jaskier's fully so when the door swings open, light from the hall torches spilling in. It's blinding after hours of darkness. They must look pathetic to these creatures, Geralt thinks, huddled together in the dark corner in their rumpled clothing, blinking at the fresh light. The guards are in magnificent gold armour, accented with pearl, polished to a high shine with an insignia on the chest of a tree, its leaves reaching towards the throat and the roots going to the belly. Geralt hasn’t that insignia in any kingdom he's been in.

He only has time for a glimpse before guards fill the room, blindfolding them and hauling them to their feet.

“Ouch,” Jaskier complains as they're pulled into the hall. “Where are you taking us?”

The guards, of course, say nothing, only drag them along.

For a time, they travel back the direction the guards initially brought Geralt. Once they reach the top of a winding set of steps, they turn a different direction, and Geralt is lost again. He tries to listen and count steps, but the noise from all the boots and Geralt's leg irons all make it nearly impossible for him to track their trail. Eventually he gives in and focuses on keeping his footing.

Wherever they are - this castle or fortress - is quiet for much of the walk aside from the noise their procession makes. After they pass through an open-aired walkway where the sound of their steps echo, Geralt starts to hear a clamour in the distance. They move toward it until there's nothing between them and all the noise but a door.

“Isn't it late for this?” a new voice asks, with an air of put-on refinement. Not a guard. Someone else then. “Punishments are mid-day business.”

“Captain told us to bring the prisoners to the court,” someone answers. “Said nothing about punishment.”

“Very well,” the refined voice says, and the door, heavy and to the ceiling by the sound of it, creaks open.

All the voices inside the room die. They're replaced by rustling clothing, the sounds of heads turning, intrigued inhales taken. Geralt can’t see a damn thing, but he feels the judgemental, hungry looks of all the courtiers, and decides he already hates these people, this mysterious land.

One of the guards thumps him between the shoulders, and he stumbles his way into the room. His boots sink into plush carpet, depriving him of the sound of the guards’ footsteps and Jaskier’s.

A breathless murmur builds in the corners of the room, working its way inward as they're led to the front of the room, where Geralt would bet there’s a dais. By the time the guard behind Geralt clamps a hand on his shoulder to stop him, Geralt can hear some of the whispers of those gathered. Humans? There are humans here? I haven't seen one in a hundred years. Where did they come from?

A man from the right of the room clears his throat to say, “Presenting the two prisoners, captured in the eastern part of the Shade Forest, Your Majesty.”

The murmur in the room quiets again.

“I'll address them directly. You may remove their blindfolds.” Out of all the new voices with their lilting unfamiliar accents Geralt has heard today, there's no mistaking that this voice belongs to royalty. It's a woman's voice, speaking with clarity and gravitas. Around Geralt, the guards stand straighter at the sound of their regent's voice.

The command of the Queen doesn't make for good treatment though. Geralt's blindfold is yanked off from behind, and he blinks hard, blinded by the light.

When he can see, his eyes find Jaskier, ahead of him, several guards separating them. Jaskier's already looking back at Geralt, his eyes wide with wonder and fear as he takes in the room.

It's a great hall, larger and grander than any other Geralt's been in. Long, low tables line the floor, every seat filled by a courtier or guest. Everyone is dressed in dinner finery, pastel silks and jewels, and although they're different shapes and sizes and skin tones, each person has the same ethereal sharpness to their face and frosted-glass skin as the healer. He can see, through the hair of some of those sitting closest to where he stands, pointed ears. A shard of knowledge surfaces in the back of Geralt’s mind, but it’s indistinct, outweighed by Geralt’s attention on the present.

To escape the hundreds of large, curious eyes watching him, Geralt turns his attention to the dais that is, in fact, in front of him. Sitting on a tall-backed throne of wood and pearl and silver, carved in the likeness of a great tree both rooted to the floor and reaching to the ceiling, is the Queen. She appears to be a woman of middle years, in a gown of pale blue. Her hair is covered by a veil of the same colour, which serves to highlight the inhumanness of her face. She looks back at him with vague curiosity, as if he's a bug wandering in front of her foot and she may yet crush it. Geralt looks away first.

The Queen's is not the only throne on the dais. Beside the Queen is another throne, this one less grandiose. There are branches carved on this one too, haloing the woman seated there. She's some years younger, slim and tense as a bow. She has the same piercing eyes as the Queen, although her hair is uncovered, long and red and studded with pearls. Her long fingers in her lap fidget with the silver rings she’s wearing as she looks them over. Beside her throne stands a young man, wearing a gold and pearl pauldron on one shoulder, and gold vambraces on his wrists. His auburn hair is braided back from his face for battle, not for dinner. He has one hand resting on the hilt of his sword.

Last in the line beside him, stands a woman, her youth marked by her simpler gown, her bright red hair left down, but she's out of girlhood, almost at tall as the man beside her. Her mouth is open, looking them over with barely concealed excitement.

“Well,” the Queen says, “Do you know where you are?”

Jaskier glances back at Geralt, who shakes his head minutely.

“No,” Jaskier says. The room is so large that it nearly swallows the word. Jaskier shifts, and then says, “Your...Your Majesty,” a little bit louder. There's none of his usual bluster and charm, Jaskier's typical weapons when he finds himself in a predicament.

“Do you know how you got here?” the Queen asks.

The silence of the pause is almost deafening.

“No, Your Majesty,” Jaskier says finally. His shackles clank as he shifts his weight.

The Queen raises an eyebrow, but otherwise her expression doesn't change.

“Did Bartir deploy you as his spies?” Around them, the seated guests inhale and grip chair arms and forearms at the name. On the dais the man with the sword grips it tighter, ready to draw.

“No, Your Majesty. I know of no one by that name.” Jaskier licks his lips, his dry tongue raspy in his mouth. “We don't...We came here from the coast of Skellige, we were traveling to Vizima. If you could, please, Your Majesty, where are we?”

The Queen regards them coolly for a moment. She showed no recognition of the names of places from the Continent.

“You find yourself in the queendom of Kokiren. I am Queen Mavaena.”

Jaskier bows as best he can in shackles, surrounded by guards, and without ever taking his eyes off the Queen. Having come this far without losing his head makes him comfortable enough that a little of his guile creeps back into his voice.

“Your Majesty, although we're not familiar, we're nevertheless honour-”

“Who are you, trespassers?” The woman beside the Queen cuts in. She's holding herself very stiffly, with the exception of her still-fidgeting fingers. She's well-trained for royal duties, but they must not get guests in Kokiren often if she's upset enough to interrupt the Queen, although the Queen doesn't acknowledge the outburst.

Jaskier straightens up sharply. “I'm Jaskier - Julian Alfred Pankratz, Viscount de Lettenhove. And this is Geralt of Rivia.”

At the speaking of the name, it's as if the room is about to be caught in a lightning storm. Chairs scrape back, away from where they stand, and on the dais, everyone steels themselves.

It's the man's turn to speak. For a guard he has a smooth, cultured voice. “Named for that savage, blood-drinking witcher?” He spits the last word, disgusted.

“I am that savage, blood-drinking witcher,” Geralt says before he can help himself, and all hell breaks loose.

Courtiers scream, chairs clattering to the stone as people stand to flee. The witcher! they cry. He's not real! He's come to kill us all! On the dais, the man draws his sword, stepping in front of the youngest woman as the guards on the floor wheel on Geralt, swords drawn.

“Geralt!” Jaskier yells, just before a fist hits Geralt, right on the lump already on the back of his skull. Geralt could bet on which guard it was, if he wasn't retching from the pain and being beaten down. He tries to cast Quen or Aard, but the pain and the waxed rope binding his fingers make it impossible.

Geralt struggles, but in his current state he's easily subdued, and ends up on his knees with a boot pinning his leg irons, a fist in his hair exposing his throat, and swords circling him. Through his watery vision, Geralt can see one guard holding Jaskier back by the elbows.

“Enough!” The Queen bellows, her voice cutting through the commotion like a knife. Everyone freezes. All attention pivots back to the dais. The Queen has risen from her throne. She has one hand raised for attention, and the other gesturing for those on the dais with her to hold.

“Is this true?” she asks. “You came to my queendom, somehow you say, and have brought with you a witcher? One who would seek to destroy my kind and others?”

Jaskier wriggles against the guard's hold. “He wouldn't! He's here with me, not to hurt anyone. We were travelling.” All his courtly deference is gone. No more Your Majesty, or bowing, just his hoarse voice pleading.

The Queen steps forward, to the edge of the dais, to truly look down on them. She steeples her fingers. “I find this hard to believe, that after months of sly gestures to war from Ajax, a human and a witcher literally drop into my royal forest with no known purpose.” She gestures to the man who announced their entrance to the throne room, with his shining armour, golden curling hair, white cape, and pin marking him as the Captain of the Queensquard. The Captain steps forward, holding not a sword but a golden axe, carved with sigils that shine after years of soaking in blood.

“Wait!” A new voice in this sea of new voices calls. It comes from the youngest woman on the dais. She pushes her way out from behind the man guarding her, rushing down the stairs to stand next to Jaskier and the guard holding him. She holds her hands up in entreaty to the Queen, the court.

“Mother, no,” she says, her voice sweet and pleading, “you can't hurt him. He's here for me.”

The words provoke a visible reaction from the Queen. Her eyes widen, and she frowns. Behind her, the other woman bolts out of her throne, and the man with the braided hair makes a fist.

“Lyra! Explain yourself.”

The young woman, the princess, this Lyra, steadies herself in the face of her Queen Mother's anger.

“I called to him,” she says. “To...to someone. He came to my ring on their side of the mirror, picked my heart blossom. He answered, Mother. You can't hurt him. He's mine now, promised to me.”

That scandalizes the court into murmurs again, but none moreso than the woman behind the Queen. She stomps down to the first step of the dais, face livid.

“Lyra, does your foolishness know any boundary? You have a duty to this land, and your queen and queendom! You can't just play some silly game with a human to try and escape that! And look what you've done. You've brought a monster down with him, who'd happily slay us all where we stand!”

Lyra whirls to face her accuser, her face taking on a flush of anger, lavender instead of human pink. “I didn't know about the witcher!” she yells. “But that doesn't change the fact that the human promised himself to me, and,” her voice lowers, goes spiteful, “it doesn't make you the Queen, Avaline, so you can just shut up.”

The princess Avaline's face shutters, a mask of rage. Her eyes darken in anger, but she pinches her mouth shut as the Queen puts a hand to her shoulder.

“Both of you, no more,” she tells them firmly but calmly. “You're shaming yourselves in front of the court.”

Face still dark, Avaline retreats to the dais, where the man puts a hand on her arm. She shakes it off. Lyra stays where she is, between Jaskier and the looming Queen.

The Queen folds her hands. “So what, then, Lyra? Are you ready to face the reality of this choice? You'll happily marry this strange human you've coaxed to our world, at the cost of our possible alliance with Tellus?”

Lyra bites her cheek, glancing uneasily to Jaskier before looking back at her mother.

“Yes,” she says. “I will do so happily.”

Jaskier goes still in the hands of the guards. His bewilderment is plain for all to see.

The Queen shakes her head, but clasps her hands in front of her and lifts her voice to pronounce: “So you shall then. We'll begin preparations immediately.”

Another round of hushed whispers sweep through the court. A human? The princess truly can't be tamed. What will King Regnor say?

This time, the Queen doesn't cut the court off, the matter apparently settled. She beckons the Captain of the Queensguard close to her.

When she speaks though, it's pitched for all to hear, another pronouncement. “Take the human back to the cells. Kill the witcher and leave his body where you found it for the animals.”

Approval, excitement, and courtly bloodlust colour the crowd-noise. Cold fills Geralt's veins and his hearing and vision go distant. The sound of his own heartbeat is so loud now that he knows it's a finite rhythm.

Beside him, Jaskier goes wild, manners entirely forgotten. He thrashes so hard he bucks the guard off and crashes through the circle of guards surrounding Geralt. Geralt can faintly hear him begging the Queen to Just listen.

“What is it, human?” The Queen says mildly, not terribly interested now that she's decided their fates.

One of Jaskier's hands, clammy enough Geralt can feel it through the collar of his shirt, lands on his shoulder.

“He's...” Jaskier says. Geralt knows this voice. It's the one Jaskier uses when he's desperate for a plan, searching, stuttering. “He's not yours to kill. If I'm promised to your daughter then Geralt is promised to me.”

He squeezes Geralt's shoulder tight enough to bruise it.

“He loves me,” he says, “and I, I love him,” and the court erupts in scandal again.

*

The court will not calm, not even when the Captain of the Queensguard holds up his golden executioner's axe and threatens to arrest the loudest screamers. The royals have retreated to the back of the dais, even Lyra, although she looks as though she'd like to jump back into the fray. Finally, the Captain gives up and gives the order to have them both taken back to the cells.

“Separate cells,” he specifies. “I've no patience for this shit.”

There's no time for the blindfolds, so Geralt gets a view of all the faces of the courtiers as they're marched past. Some are disgusted by what they've heard, but many are clearly delighted by the juicy show they've been treated to on this night. This is gossip for the ages. The jeering mixed with excitement has Geralt almost deaf by the time they make it back to the stone hallway. He can hear it even after the pages close the doors to the hall.

Geralt tries to keep track of the path through the castle, but the hallways are dim and nondescript and the guards march them at a brutal pace. Jaskier, stumbling, protests, and receives a shove for his troubles. Geralt keeps his mouth shut. He's cheated death once tonight. He'll not try for a second time.

In the dungeon, the guards push Jaskier into a cell first before taking Geralt back to the original cell. One of the guards trips him by the shackles in the doorway.

As he crashes to the floor, the guard, Otho it must be, swears, “If you make a noise, I'll have your head, witcher. The bawling-out from the Captain would be worth it.”

Geralt says nothing, pushing himself up to his knees. The door bangs shut behind him, the keys clattering heavily.

Dragging himself back to the cold corner of the cell, Geralt listens for Jaskier's distinctive indignant yelling, but hears none. Perhaps he got the same warning Geralt did, despite his newly discovered bethrothed status.

Above Geralt, the clear, bright moonlight comes in the little window. Geralt sets his eyes to it, the one source of light he has, and waits for the new day to come and bring more trouble with it.

*

Geralt hasn't moved, but he's wide awake when the guards come for him again. He expects to be brought up to whatever courtyard or square is used as an executioner's ground, or hustled out a back entrance so the guards can take their time killing him, but instead he's brought into Jaskier's cell. Jaskier's alive, although he looks weak and weary. His wrists are shackled to the wall now, no slack in the chain. There's another set of shackles on the wall beside him. Geralt obliges the guards by sitting next to Jaskier and raising his arms to the shackles. He flinches when more wax string is wound around his fingers to keep him from making signs. If they keep it tight enough, they soon won't have to worry about him having fingers to make signs with at all.

A guard comes into the cell and places two wooden stools on the floor, far from where Geralt and Jaskier are chained.

Jaskier looks from the stools to the guards. “What's going on?”

Some mockery of a trial, Geralt bets. They'll have a magistrate or marshal come in here, pretend to listen to their story, sentence them to death, and then they'll be on their way to the executioner's ground. That way, the court's conscience can be clear.

Jaskier's pale and worrying his lip, likely thinking the same thing.

“Please,” he says to the closing door. And then, “Gods,” to himself once it's closed, hanging his head.

They’re close enough that if Geralt tips his knee, it just touches Jaskier's.

“It'll be quick,” he murmurs. For you, he thinks. Jaskier's only crime is associating with Geralt. They'll hang Jaskier or let the Captain of the Queensuard use that golden axe of his, and it'll be over. Geralt doubts he'll be so lucky. But this is one of the hundreds of deaths he's prepared himself for over the years. The true pain will be if they make him witness Jaskier's death before his own. Even after years of trying to dull himself to the thought, it still makes Geralt's mouth feel ashy and his heart heavy to think of life after Jaskier.

Fortunately, they're not kept waiting long. Two sets of footsteps come down the hall, lighter and less rhythmic than the guards' boots. There's murmured thanks, and then the door opens to the sight of the princess Lyra and that guard of hers from the previous night. They’re dressed down from last night, Lyra in a simpler dress and warm cloak to protect against the dungeon chill, and the guard is in a shirt and trousers, no pauldron on his shoulder or braids in his hair. He’s still armed, sword at his side, hand on the hilt.

“You can close the door,” Lyra tells the guards posted outside. “Nothing will happen.”

“Princess...” One of the guards tries.

She holds up a slender hand adorned with rings. “Please. We'd have privacy.”

The guard reluctantly lets the door swing shut. Lyra looks back to make sure it's closed and then waves the hand she raised in a downward fluttering. Geralt senses the magic hush fill the room. Some sort of silencing spell.

Room quieted to her liking, Lyra goes to one of the stools and promptly drags it across the room, so close that when she sits on it, her skirts cover Jaskier's boots. She looks them over with critical eyes.

“Mard,” she says to the man, “these chains are too tight. Come loosen them.”

“It's not safe,” Mard argues. The disgust is back on his handsome face.

Lyra rolls her eyes at Jaskier and Geralt, as if they're in on the joke.

“After all your hours of sword practice the Captain of the Queensguard himself, and you don't think you could beat two unarmed souls if they manage to free themselves?” She rearranges her skirts. “Some fighter you are.”

“One of these...souls is a witcher, Lyra,” Mard says, but he's doing her bidding, giving the chains enough slack that Geralt and Jaskier can lower their hands to their laps. “They make them for no purpose but killing.” His hand returns to his sword. He doesn't bring the second stool over, preferring to loom over them from a distance.

“That can't be true,” Lyra says up to Mard, and them lowers her eyes to look at Geralt. They're the colour of the ocean on a sunny day, large in her pretty, sharp face. She purses her pale mouth at him. “Is that true, witcher? That you don't care for food or drink or music, and only wish to spill blood?”

She seems genuinely curious. She leans forward to see him better, examining his hair and eyes with unbridled curiosity.

“No,” Jaskier says with vehemence.

When Lyra turns to him instead, Jaskier goes on.

“That's not true,” he insists. “Geralt is not a monster-” his eyes cut to Mard. “He's trying to live, same as any of us. He doesn't deserve to die.”

“Jaskier-”

“He hasn't hurt anyone here! He just - he just, came here with me. He shouldn't be here. You can't kill him.” Jaskier stops himself on the verge of yelling. He swallows. “Please.”

Lyra plays with her skirts again. “I've no wish to kill the witcher. People,” she nods her head toward the ceiling, the castle above, the court, “say you'd kill us all though.”

Jaskier, not quite so passionate, but still in poor control of himself, blurts, “Why? Who are you?”

Lyra tucks some of her red hair behind her ear, reveal how it comes to a point. “We're fae.”

*

Jaskier's mouth shapes the word twice. Instead of repeating it though, he says, “Geralt?”

The knowledge sweeps Geralt like a fever. Suddenly, things make sense. The ethereal look of these people, the suffocating haze surrounding him, even the fall into this upside-down world. He remembers the stories told to him, of beauty and deviousness.

“I didn't,” Geralt says, pausing to clear his dry throat. “I didn't think fae were real. The fae were only spoken of as tales to me.”

Mard laughs once, harshly. “We thought the same of you. Witchers, nightmare creatures, stories for bad children.”

“Humans hardly come to our realm,” Lyra says. “Let alone a witcher. What luck, right, Mard?”

Mard snorts.

Jaskier frowns at that, but resettles his chained hands in his lap and asks, “How did we get here? You said you...called for me?”

Lyra brightens. “Yes! I've always wanted to call a human. Especially now.” She picks at something unseen on her skirts. “But no one has ever stepped into any of my rings.” She lifts her face, grinning. She has the pretty smile of a human woman, not the pointed teeth grimace Geralt has been told about. “But this time you did!”

“And now...we're to get married?”

“Yes,” Lyra says, with relief in her voice. “You answered my call and bound yourself to me by plucking the heart blossom I grew there.”

Mard takes his hand off his sword to bring it to his forehead in consternation. “Lyra, you cannot be serious! This is madness and you know it. Mother only said yes to this last night to keep some semblance of peace in the hall. You cannot keep this human. Avaline was right. You have a duty.”

Mother. Mard referred to the Queen as Mother, same as Lyra. He's no personal guard then. It's a princess and a prince arguing in front of them. Now that Geralt knows, he can see the resemblance. The prince has a broader nose and his hair is a darker red, but he has the same mouth as his sister, even more obvious with them frowning at each other.

“Rich of you to say, Mard,” Lyra says, gesturing angrily. “It doesn't matter who you marry in what province. You'll just keep carrying on with Alyx no matter what.”

Mard sputters. His colouring is deeper than his sister's but he flushes the same lavender as Lyra had last night. He doesn't have time to get a word in before Lyra speaks again.

“And all Avaline's ever wanted was to be Queen. She doesn't care who sires her children as long as she sits on the throne. I don't want to marry Titus so that King Regnor will hold with us against Ajax! I want to do what I want!”

“You're a Princess of Kokiren, Lyra. You don't just get to do what you want,” the prince argues back. He pushes his hair behind his ear, a family gesture.

Lyra stands up so suddenly her stool tips over.

“Just watch me,” she says, and makes a bursting motion with her hand. The silencing spell breaks. “Guards!”

*

Once the princess has stormed off, the prince on her heels, and the door is locked again, Jaskier thunks his head on the stone at their backs. He lifts one chained hand to rub at his mouth. His face is dry and dull with dehydration and exhaustion.

He lowers it again, wincing at the clanking of the chains.

“Do you,” he asks, “do you remember coming here?”

Reflexively, Geralt glances at the door, the barred window there just the same as the one in his cell. The guards must be listening, but they already know who they've got, and Jaskier's got them arse-deep in a mess, so it probably doesn't matter if they hear this now.

“Barely.” Geralt closes his eyes for a moment to try and picture it better. It happened literally yesterday, but it feels as though it happened years ago in a dream. “We...fell.”

Jaskier nods, licking his dry lips. “I thought I was dead.”

With his eyes closed, Geralt remembers the silhouette above him, fading with the light. “I think I could see you. Above me. I fell first.”

Jaskier fiddles with his fingers as best he can, given the binding, his nervous habit. “If I'm the one who answered the princess's call, why did you fall at all?” He shakes his head. “I don't understand. Are faeries real, Geralt? I thought that faerie rings and all that was make-believe.”

Geralt rattles his own chains. “Apparently not.”

Jaskier rubs his face again. “And I'm to marry one.”

“Apparently so.”

Jaskier pinches his nose. Sadness sweeps his scent, but he says nothing further. Unable to provide better comfort, Geralt can only watch him suffer and suffer alongside him.

*

They're alone in the cell long enough for a new level of discomfort to set in. There's only so many ways to sit with a short leash of chain keeping your back to the wall. And this cell has no exterior window to let them track the passage of the day, but time stretches on. Jaskier brings his knees up to his chest, but even that can't completely muffle the sound of his empty stomach.

“They seem a civilized people,” Jaskier murmurs, “do you think they'll starve us?”

Geralt shrugs. He's in better shape than Jaskier, but it's hard even for him to ignore the needs of his body. His tongue is sandy in his mouth, his belly sour with hunger, and the back of his head hurts with every movement.

“You can't marry the princess if you waste away.” Geralt means it as a joke, but Jaskier lifts his head sharply.

“I don't want to marry the princess. She's a child. I – I didn't know when I-” He stops speaking for a moment, frustrated, face pinched. “We were, I was just trying to amuse you. Nothing was supposed to happen, Geralt. I didn't want this to happen. I'm so sorry.”

The distraught on his face is too much for Geralt to handle. He tips his knee out to touch Jaskier's again.

“I know,” he says. “It's alright.”

Jaskier brings his bound and shackled wrist up to press over his eyes, but he pushes his knee against Geralt's, taking the little comfort.

Steps come down the hall, even softer than the ones from before. The princess' voice rings out outside the door again, requesting entry. This time the guard puts up a fight.

“You've no protection, Princess. Where is Prince Mard?”

“My brother stayed with the Queen and crown princess,” she sniffs. “I've spoken to the prisoners. They won't hurt us.”

The guard chuckles. “All prisoners promise that, Your Highness.”

“Then...we'll keep the door open,” she says, annoyed. “If the witcher starts choking me with his chains, then you'll have no problem getting in there and running him through, alright?”

There's a pause.

“All the way open,” the guard clarifies.

“Yes,” the princess agrees impatiently.

The door swings open for the princess a second time. Trailing behind her is a handmaiden holding a tray, her knuckles tight on the handles and her big grey eyes fixed on Geralt. The princess marches into the cell and rights the stool she knocked over before and gestures to it.

“You can put it here,” she tells the maid. She gets the other stool and brings it over while the maid nervously sets the tray down, never once looking away from Geralt. She looks to be about the same age as the princess, with a turned-up nose and purplish-brown hair escaping from her bonnet.

Geralt makes a point of not looking directly at her. She looks like she'll come out of her skin if he so much as blinks at her. He turns his attention to the tray instead. On it is a clay pitcher and a stack of three cups, all intricately carved, and a platter of cold foods, bread and cheese and fruit.

The princess ignores the stool she brought over, and instead sits directly on the floor, folding her skirt underneath her as a barrier against the stone. Her face has the look of someone recently upset. Her eyes are sparkling, her fine eyelashes still wet, and the remnants of a bruisy flush linger on her throat and cheeks.

Still, she sounds calm when she pats the empty stool and says, “It's alright, Mona. Be brave. They cannot harm you.”

The handmaid sits as she's been bid, and the princess takes her hand and squeezes it once before turning her attention to Geralt and Jaskier. The handmaid fills one of the clay cups from the pitcher and hands it to the princess, who gestures with it.

“I'm sorry,” she says formally. “We've not treated you well. Your arrival has surprised us. I extend our apologies. Please,” she gestures to the cup the handmaid is filling with water from the pitcher. The handmaid holds it out to Jaskier with a hand that's still shaking a little.

Jaskier takes it from her like it's a precious stone.

“Oh, thank the gods,” he says, lifting it to his mouth.

Half of a memory comes to Geralt's mind, words in a low voice spoken in front of a fire, and Geralt reacts to it instinctively, knocking the cup out of Jaskier's so hard it hits the wall. The clay shatters, water spraying, darkening the stone. The handmaid screams and the princess flinches back. A guard rushes to the doorway, sword raised to Geralt.

Jaskier turns to Geralt with wide eyes. There's water spilled over his throat and the front of his doublet.

“You can't,” Geralt says. It had just come over him, the memory of Vesemir, grinning, saying, It's how they keep you. Magic in the food and water. One sip, one bite, and you'll never leave.

He'd been joking. Geralt had been much too old for those kinds of tales, but Vesemir told them sometimes in the evening, as if they were children in need of calming. It wasn't meant to be true, but none of this is meant to be true, but here they are, in front of a fae princess in a fae world.

“You'll...if you...” Saying it out loud seems so foolish, so childish. Geralt looks at the blade aimed at his throat, the horrified handmaid, the princess watching with narrow eyes. “If we eat the food, we're bound to this place.”

Jaskier's expression of horror matches the handmaid's but the princess smiles, then grins, then laughs outright. The guard's sword wavers at the sound, and the handmaid looks ready to burst into tears.

“That's not true,” the princess says. “Did you hear that at the knee of some old crone, witcher?”

Geralt clears his throat, embarrassment making him murmur, “Something like that.”

The princess gestures for the guard to lower his weapon. “Our magic is too precious to waste like that. We'd all be dust if we spread it so thin. Our food and drink are both delicious and restorative though. You'll feel so good you may not wish to leave after you have it, but you'll not be trapped here.”

“So I can have a drink?” Jaskier asks, eying the pitcher on the tray.

“Yes, of course,” the princess laughs. The handmaid pours more water into the last clay cup and hands it to Jaskier, who takes a deep swallow, and then another, eyes closed in bliss. He stops himself there though, and opens his eyes. He extends the cup to Geralt.

“I feel alright,” he tells Geralt, water shining on his bottom lip, dripping onto his chin. “Here.”

Geralt takes the cup from him. He has to hold it carefully with the wax string still binding his fingers into blades. He tips it, but the clay is too dark for him to see much. He inhales, but still can smell nothing where usually he'd be able to smell the clay, the minerals in the water, and the handmaid's skin where he touched the cup. There's no knowing if the princess lied about the fae magic, or if the water's been poisoned by more typical means. The sight of the half-full cup is too tempting for Geralt though. He clumsily lifts the cup to his mouth and drains it. Once the water is in his mouth, he can taste it. There's the heaviness of the minerals, and the earthiness of the clay cup, but there's also a faint fizz to the water, more a sensation than a taste. It doesn't taste quite like magic, but it's similar.

“See?” the princess says once he lowers the cup. “No harm done. Now, please, refresh yourselves...” she moves the stool with the tray on it closer to them so that they can reach the food there.

With every bite of food Geralt has, the taste is better, rounder. The food is having some effect on him, his strength returning preternaturally. Once he's eaten and drank his fill, he can almost smell the two women in the room. It's as if they're down the hall, just a few notes of soap and perfume, but he can smell them all the same.

“Thank you,” he says, carefully returning the cup to the tray.

“Yes,” Jaskier says. He looks better, less tired, skin plumper. He even smells better. Magic or not, the food and drink has done him well. “Thank you.” He clears his throat for a beat. “Now what, Your Highness?”

Lyra runs her finger around the rim of the cup for a moment. “I’d like to get to know you better, if we’re to be married. But first, Mother wishes to speak to you.”

*

There's still the guards and the shackles, but this time, there are no blindfolds as they walk through the castle. The bland greyness of the dungeon gives way to mid-morning light streaming in through windows and a bustling energy as people go about their business. There's no denying that, despite the harshness of the fae, their castle is beautiful. The stone inside the castle is grey, not the seashell-stone of the spires Geralt had first spotted, but even that is beautiful, shimmering in the sun coming through the windows Plush tapestries decorate the walls, depicting battles, festivities, and life in a wild forest. Geralt looks as closely as he can before the guard shoves him along.

The princess walks beside Jaskier – her arm through his shackled arm, as if they're courting. She promises to tell him everything as long as he promises to tell her about the human world.

“Of course, Your Highness,” Jaskier says demurely as his chains clank.

Geralt expects to be taken back to the great hall, to face the Queen as she sits on her tree throne, but instead they go into a wing of the castle that's more private, quieter. Here, rugs soften their steps and portraits of past rulers watch them walk by.

“My mother's rooms,” Lyra explains.

They go to the end of the hall, to a set of double doors carved with vines, sparkling black jewels dotting them like flowers. Lyra shoos the guards back with an impatient hand, and then, without waiting to be announced, pulls one of the doors open and leads them into the Queen's chambers.

There's a table in the middle of the room with enough places for twenty, although the table's almost empty. At the head of the table is the Queen herself. Her hair is still covered, but like her children, she's dressed in simpler clothing. But even without the gown and the throne, her air is pure royalty. The crown princess Avaline is at her right hand, Prince Mard at her left. Beside him sits the Captain of the Queensuard, dressed for service.

“Mother,” Lyra greets, and abandons Geralt and Jaskier to go sit beside the Captain.

“Your Majesty,” Jaskier says quietly, bowing.

Geralt dips his head, but chooses not to speak. He figures his aim of keeping his head is better served with silence.

“Human, witcher. I trust my daughter saw you refreshed.”

“Yes, thank you.” Jaskier bobs into a bow again.

“She insisted. Did she discuss with you the agreement you've made with her?”

Jaskier glances at Lyra, but she looks down at the table where she's gripping the edge of it.

“No, Your Majesty,” Jaskier says. Avaline, sitting at her mother's right hand, snorts and shakes her head.

The queen ignores her older daughter, fixing her cool gaze on Jaskier.

“Before your arrival here, an agreement was struck for my younger daughter to wed a prince of Tellus, Titus, to bind our two kingdoms in alliance against a mutual enemy. Titus is a fine young man and a good suitor, but my Lyra believes herself beholden to no choice but the one she makes for herself, even if it harms her country. So she reached out to your human world, looking for someone foolish enough to bind themselves to her. And that is you, Jaskier, Julian Alfred Pankratz, Viscount de Lettenhove.” The Queen tips a long-nailed finger at Jaskier.

Jaskier swallows. Geralt hears the apple in his throat bob.

“Surely, it's an honour. But…can, can she just not,” Jaskier asks uncertainly, “not wed me, and wed this fine young man instead? I never intended to interrupt an engagement. I was only...” He trails off, glancing at Geralt self-consciously.

Lyra lifts her head to glare at Jaskier. The prince and the Captain sneak looks at each other.

The Queen shakes her head slightly.

“Alas, fae binding magic is older and stronger than any of our more civilized traditions. To ignore it would be to deny our history, our very nature. It is a bond only broken by death.” The Queen looks to her younger daughter. “And Lyra has told me, quite forcefully, that we will not be killing you.”

“T-thank you,” Jaskier murmurs, paling.

“So, to save face and obey our oldest traditions, I must allow this to go forward. You, human, will wed my daughter, and commit yourself to serving this queendom and this land.” She rests her hand on the arm of her chair. “Or the bond will be broken by death.”

Still pale, Jaskier nods in agreement, nothing else possible given he's in shackles and she's the Queen.

He opens his mouth slowly, wrestling with himself.

“What about Geralt?”

The Queen's eyes finally move over Geralt, cold as a rolling fog.

“My daughter also tells me that we're not to kill you either, witcher. That you wouldn't hurt us.”

“I haven't tried to,” Geralt replies. He holds up his shackled wrists, his bound fingers. “Not even once.”

“Hold your tongue, monster,” the crown princess cuts in, sitting forward, red hair slipping over her shoulder, “or he’ll cut it out of your mouth.” The Captain of the Queensguard nods from his place beside the prince. “You're only still living because Lyra cried and screamed until Mother agreed not to have you dissected.”

Geralt tips his chin to Lyra. “Thank you, Princess.”

“Is it true, what you said?” The Queen asks Jaskier. “That you and the witcher have pledged yourselves to one another? The tales all say that what witchers do to themselves to gain the powers they have makes them incapable of love and compassion, or any true feeling that isn't bloodlust.”

Annoyance passes over Jaskier's face before he smoothes it away carefully. “Those stories plague our world too. People share these lies so freely the witchers themselves almost believe them.” He cuts a chiding look at Geralt. “But they aren't true, Your Majesty. What he does is not for himself, but for the people of the Continent. He protects them, at a cost to his own health and happiness.”

“And,” the Queen prompts, “he feels for you? How am I to know this isn’t some cheap trick to keep his head attached to his shoulders?”

Jaskier pauses, rubbing one finger over his thumb. A blush starts creeping up from his collar.

“Yes,” he says. “I've...We've known each other since I was barely a man and have spent many happy years together. He loves me well. His heart belongs to me, and mine to him.”

He looks so earnest Geralt almost believes his lie. He's red down the throat and to his ears, restlessly turning his injured wrist in its shackle, smelling of fresh sweat. Turning to Geralt, he smiles bravely, reaching out to touch Geralt's sleeve gently.

“Humans have no binding magic,” he says, softly, as if saying so pains him, “but...I'd marry Geralt, if I could.”

The Queen takes that in and then turns to Geralt. “And do you feel the same, witcher?”

A cold feeling, not unlike what he felt last night when the Queen announced his death, comes over Geralt. He can feel Jaskier's eyes on the side of his face, hot, and his knuckle pressing into Geralt's arm, begging him to say the right thing.

He says the right thing.

“Jaskier has my heart,” he admits, although it feels wrong to say it out loud, revealing the raw, secret part of himself to these strangers, to Jaskier. “I did not know true feeling until I met him. I learned how to love from him. I would...I would have us spend the rest of our days together.”

“Oh,” Lyra says from her place at the table. She's got a hand on her chest and her eyes are big with compassion.

It wasn't a grandiose confession, simple words, the minimum sentiment, but it's all Geralt can manage. And even so, he feels exhausted and unable to look Jaskier in the eye. Jaskier's finger strokes his sleeve once more before falling away.

“Mother,” Lyra starts, voice imploring.

“Mother,” Avaline cuts in. She angrily tucks some hair behind her ear. “Are you swayed by such cheap words? It costs nothing for them to proclaim their love, and only a fool like Lyra would fall for it. A human has none of the strength or magic of a witcher. This one probably acts under threat of being gutted by the witcher's silver sword. I wouldn't be surprised if the witcher's managed to bewitch Lyra into serving his aims.”

“I am not bewitched. Just because you have no right to love doesn't mean you have to be so unfeeling,” Lyra retorts.

Avaline's cheeks go purple and she sits up straighter in her chair. “Oh, so you're willful in this then?” She turns to the Queen. “Mother, you worry endlessly about spies from Ajax, but it appears you harbor a traitor in your own court, raised by your own hand.”

Shocked, Lyra shouts, “I am not a spy from Ajax!” Her voice wavers, and tears gather in her eyes.

“Quiet, both of you.” The force of the Queen's voice chills the room. “I've endured more from both of you in the last few days than I have in two hundred years. Speak no more to one another until you can speak calmly. Avaline, watch what charges you lay, even in private. People have hung for voicing lesser accusations. Your temper serves you poorly.”

The crown princess must not see rebuke often, because she looks as if her mother has slapped her. “Yes, Mother. My apologies,” she says, wilting, twisting a ring on her finger.

Silence reigns for a few moments, the two princesses looking away from one another and the Queen watching them both. Then the prince clears his throat.

“What about Giftell?” he asks, speaking carefully under the wrathful eye of his elder sister. “It tells the truth of love. If their feelings are real, they'll pass the test.”

Avaline rolls her eyes, but the rest of those seated at the table take it under consideration, trading intrigued looks. Even the Captain of the Queensguard, who has held himself back from the siblings' squabbling, turns toward the prince, sharing a contemplative look with him.

Jaskier raises his eyebrows at Geralt, who shakes his head. All of Vesemir's evening tales about fae were about stolen children and dancing until your feet bled. None were about whatever is being spoken of now.

The Queen sighs. “Astute thinking, Mard. They may sit for Giftell and we'll know the truth.”

*

“Mother,” Lyra says before the Queen has a chance to rise. Her voice is soft, wheedling. “They are our guests now. Jaskier is to be my husband. Must we keep them in chains?”

The Queen settles back into her chair. She considers them from across the table for a moment.

“Human, how is your swordmanship?”

Geralt has seen Jaskier fumble a sword when one is tossed to him, but he's also seen Jaskier pick up a sword against a bandit or beast to aid Geralt. He fights capably, when called to it.

“I learned as a child, Your Majesty, but I much prefer to battle with words instead of weapons when given the chance.”

The Queen would be foolish to believe Jaskier, but she smiles at him anyway.

“Very well. Free the human.”

“And the witcher?” Lyra presses.

“Witchers are skilled fighters,” Mard warns. “And all of the books say they can cast hand-spells and use them well in battle.”

“Can't Jasper do something about that?” Lyra asks. “They're High Mage. Surely they can do something. I don't want to see him in chains if he won't hurt us.”

“Any further requests, daughter?” the Queen asks. “Would you like me to bring you the moon so you may take a bite? Shall we empty Uma Lake with a goblet so you can see the sand-crawling creatures close up? Do you wish to be crown princess instead of Avaline?”

Lyra dips her head at the chastisement, cheeks going pale purple.

“No, Mother,” she murmurs. “You've been most generous to me, and to them.”

“I have,” The Queen agrees sternly. “And know that you're responsible for them and their actions. I won't have any more chaos in my court. What they do rests on your shoulders. If one is trouble, the other will be killed. Am I understood?”

“Yes, Mother.”

“Good. I must go attend to the day's petitions.” The Queen rises. “Avaline, come with me. Alyx, take the witcher to Jasper's tower.”

With that, she leaves the chamber, followed by the crown princess. The Captain of the Queensguard takes Geralt's elbow in a firm hand to lead him out of the room. When Geralt looks back, Jaskier's watching him over Lyra's shoulder, too many emotions on his face to name.

*

They have to climb hundreds of narrow, rickety steps to the top of the High Mage's tower. Geralt moves slowly, not only hampered by the leg irons, but also cautious of putting his feet straight through the splintering wood. The Captain moves behind Geralt, sighing in impatience at Geralt's pace.

Geralt can't hurry, but he also doesn't try to. Let the fae waste their time.

The High Mage's chambers have the same cramped, dangerous feeling as the staircase. Aside from the fire in the hearth, the room is dark, shutters closed over the windows. Books line the shelves and most of the tables in the room. The entire room smells smoky and the magic in the air makes the hairs on Geralt's arms prickle and his amulet vibrate where its tucked under his shirt.

The High Mage is so old their beauty has wrinkled and greyed, but even with the stooped stature and trailing robes, Geralt can feel the power coming from them.

Still holding Geralt's elbow, the Captain explains that this is the witcher Geralt of Rivia, guest of the court, but he is too physically and magically powerful to be allowed free.

“Hmm,” The High Mage says in a creaking voice, “I had wondered when I would get to see the witcher the winds whispered of.” They peer at Geralt with eyes that are an emerald-black and very intelligent.

“Sit there,” they command, and then guides Geralt over until he's seated on the edge of the table. The Captain takes a post between Geralt and the door. Unlike the prince, he doesn't keep a hand on the hilt of his sword, too comfortable wearing one to need the reminder.

The mage takes their time gathering supplies: vials, a bowl with a spout and a lid, and from a drawer, something metallic-sounding wrapped in linen.

The mage takes a piece of kindling out of the basket by the hearth and lights the tip of it. They lift the lid from the bowl and light the loose herbs Geralt can see inside before replacing the lid. Within seconds, a thin pink smoke rises from the spout.

“Now,” the mage says, “if the Captain removes these,” they tap a stained finger on one of the shackles, “what will you do?”

The Captain shifts his weight on his feet.

“Nothing,” Geralt says. He's bound at the feet, possibly concussed, and he doesn't know where Lyra has taken Jaskier.

“Good answer. Captain, if you will.”

The mage moves to make room for the Captain to stand between Geralt's knees and unlock the shackles. His doing so permits Geralt to get a better look at him.

He has the same arresting beauty as the rest of the fae, his hair pale blond and his skin evenly tan. He has faint freckles across the centre of his face and on his jaws are shimmering gold scars, their chevron shapes too precise to be accidental. He's broad, likely from years of physical training, deft-fingered as he removes Geralt's shackles. If he was a human, Geralt would believe him to be in the prime of his life, no more than twenty-five.

Wrists free from the weight of the shackles, Geralt rubs at them as best he can with his bound fingers. “How does someone so young become the Captain of the Guard?”

The Captain steps away, setting the shackles on a cabinet.

“My predecessor died,” he says dryly. He keeps his eyes on Geralt's hands.

Taking the hint, Geralt drop his hands into his lap. “In battle?”

“He was a traitor. A spy loyal to Ajax, here to spread treason against Queen Mavaena.” If it displeases him to say so, then the Captain doesn't let on. He stands tall, and does not fidget or falter when he says, “I executed him myself.

“He taught me everything I know. But, to save the tree, you must sever the infected limb before it poisons the roots.”

There's nothing for Geralt to say to that. The mage takes one of Geralt's wrists into their hands and slips something around it, saving Geralt having to try. It's a metal cuff, pulled out of the linen wrapping, thinner than Geralt's smallest finger, and not large enough to fully circle Geralt's wrist. In the centre of the cuff, pressed to the underside of Geralt's wrist, is a perpendicular piece of metal. It's not long, but when Geralt bends his wrist, it digs in enough that he’s not likely to forget he's wearing it. A twin cuff goes around Geralt's other wrist. The mage slips a potion-stained finger underneath it to test the fit.

“What is this?” Geralt asks.

“Pure iron. This alone would be enough to contain any fae, but for you, more is necessary.” The mage pulls their finger away from the cuff, pausing to examine the burn the iron left on their skin, and then retrieves the covered bowl.

“And what is that?” Geralt asks, gesturing to the smoke escaping from the bowl’s spout.

Aavi. It dulls the senses temporarily. It will help. Now, exhale,” they say and Geralt does. They lift the bowl above Geralt's face and tip it. Heavy pink smoke tumbles out over Geralt's skin.

“Inhale.” Geralt does. The smoke is spicy and so thick it's like inhaling soup. It hits Geralt like ten cups of wine. His mind clouds over and his muscles go loose. Sensing the change in him, the mage grabs his wrists, palms pressing the cold iron bars into Geralt's skin, and begins to speak in a guttural, incomprehensible language.

The spell is like nothing Geralt has ever felt. He can feel the table underneath him, but he could swear he’s falling, limbs flailing, guts in his throat. It’s nauseating, but better than when the spell catches him. The iron on Geralt's wrists sears his skin down to the bone like lightning as an invisible landslide crashes over him. He shouts just before losing his breath in the crush. Hands grab his listing neck, steady his shoulder while the mage keeps hold of his wrists, finishing the spell.

It does not end as quickly as it began. The pain dissipates, but the crackling energy inside of Geralt remains. Against his chest, his amulet throbs. Finally, the mage lets go of his wrists. They flop in Geralt's lap.

Someone holds something underneath Geralt's nose. A sour, flowery smell brings Geralt back to his senses. He lifts one of his shaking hands to his face, pawing at it. His skin is clammy. The knot on the back of his head makes itself known, aching anew.

“What the fuck was that?” Geralt croaks, moving the cuff up so he can see under it. There's no visible mark, but Geralt can feel the spell still burning there.

“Binding spell,” the mage replies. “Your magic will stay within you even if you cast and you shall not raise hand against any fae as long as you wear these cuffs.”

Now that Geralt can support himself, the Captain lets Geralt's shoulder go and backs away from the table.

“What keeps him from taking them off?” he asks.

The mage is already tidying things away. “More pain that he can imagine.”

“How can we know?”

The mage brings a knife and cuts the wax string away from Geralt's fingers. After giving Geralt a moment to flex the tingles away, they say, “Cast one of your hand-spells, witcher. The books say there's one that makes fire.”

Igni,” Geralt says.

Igni,” the mage corrects themself.

Under the watchful eyes of the High Mage and the Captain, Geralt makes the sign for Igni and feels the surge of magic. But no flames rise from his palm. The magic swells under his skin but stays there, bending back inside of himself instead of releasing. Geralt makes the sign again, and again. He tries Aard, hoping to blast both of the fae into the walls. So much magic races through Geralt his leg twitches but both fae stay standing.

The mage smiles to themself and goes to the hearth, returning with the poker.

“Can you stand?” Geralt slides back onto his feet. Aside from the claustrophobic feeling of the magic trapped under his skin, he's not physically harmed. The mage hands Geralt the poker and steps well back.

“This is where you come in, young man. Fight the witcher.”

“What?” The Captain's jaw works, eyes tight on the poker Geralt has loosely in his hand. He unsheathes his sword.

“Go on,” the mage coaxes, “let him raise weapon against you.”

“Jasper-” the Captain protests, but Geralt's already raising the poker, bringing it down in hopes of cutting the Captain's sword-hand off at the wrist.

Before the poker even clangs against the sword the Captain lifts to block Geralt's hit, an enormous wave of pain washes over Geralt, hot like fire, radiating like poison, jagged like glass. It paralyzes him where he stands, makes it difficult to see and hear, and impossible to keep hold of the poker. The momentum of the Captain's blade wrenches it free from Geralt's hand, sending it across the room.

Geralt staggers, nausea overtaking the pain. He gags, curling over himself.

“Effective,” the mage says from somewhere in the haze.

“Will he die?” the Captain asks.

“No. The pain will fade shortly and will not return as long as the cuffs remain on and he does not act with malice towards us.”

“Fuck you,” Geralt says, spitting onto the stone. The pain and nausea are receding, but they leave a shaky feverishness in their place.

“He can speak against us?” The Captain asks.

“As much as he likes.”

“Fuck you,” Geralt says again, the only thing he can do to make himself feel better.

*

A servant meets them at the base of the High Mage's tower.

“Princess Lyra bade me bring the witcher to her and the human.” She's clearly nervous at the sight of Geralt freed, both the shackles and leg irons left in the tower. The Captain pats her on the shoulder with a large hand.

“He won't harm you. Jasper has taken care of it.”

Geralt frowns. Even without the cuffs he's not going to harm a helpless servant, fae or otherwise. But it’s clear to him that in this land, the shadow a witcher casts stands is taller than his stature. He says nothing to keep the peace and keep himself free of chains.

Before the servant can lead Geralt away, the Captain stops him.

“Perhaps next time I'll let you raise a sword. It's difficult to fight fearsomely with a poker.”

Geralt holds out a cuffed wrist. “I don't think I'll be fighting fearsomely at all with these on.”

The Captain nods, a faint smile on his freckled face. “Perhaps sometime you'll earn the right to have them removed.”

“Maybe,” Geralt says, doubting it even as he turns to follow the servant.

She leads Geralt to another wing of the castle, away from the High Mage's tower and the Queen's chambers. There are less paintings and tapestries here, but everything is still tasteful and immaculately clean. Through an open window, Geralt can see that it's sunny outside, the clouds a cool yellow in the quartz light.

The same light is pouring into the room the servant brings him to. It's a large room, well-appointed with furniture, smoky sun sliding across the rug on the floor and the bed princess Lyra is lounging on. She's watching Jaskier tie the collar of a chemise closed. It doesn't belong to him; neither do the fawn-brown trousers he has on. The wrapping is off his left wrist.

As the servant closes the door behind Geralt, Lyra turns her attention to Geralt. She looks him over head to toe, and makes a surprised noise to see him free of restraints.

“Oh!” she exclaims, sitting up, beckoning him. “What did Jasper do?”

Geralt sits on the edge of the bed next to her feet, showing her the iron on his wrists. She touches one finger to the cross on the right one and pulls her hand back sharply.

“Powerful,” she murmurs, licking the tip of her finger. “Does it hurt?”

“Only if I misbehave,” Geralt says as Jaskier joins them on the bed. His fingers, when he takes his turn touching the cuff, are warm and careful as he slides the cuff up and down. The iron doesn't hurt him and he can't feel the magic binding the cuff to Geralt's wrist, but he touches his thumb to the skin beneath it as if he can, where it still tingles.

His own wrist, the left one, is swollen from the fall and dark with bruises. Without thinking about it, Geralt gently touches the injury, testing the range of motion, feeling the heat that comes with healing.

“It's okay,” Jaskier assures him. “A few days wrapped and it'll be like nothing happened.”

“Mm-hmm.” Thankfully it's not the worst injury Jaskier's ever suffered. The discarded wrapping is on the bed; Geralt tugs it over and sets to the work of re-wrapping Jaskier's wrist, letting the rhythm of the caretaking settle him.

He focuses on doing the task right, taking his time, barely aware of the silence in the room. When he glances up, Jaskier is watching him, smiling. So is Lyra, with a very curious expression on her face.

She smiles too. “I think you'll do well at the Giftell.”

Jaskier's smile fades. “What is it? Your brother said something of the truth of love?”

“It's a ceremony for those who wish to marry for love. To prove you know and treasure each other above all others. People drink veritasium potion and must answer all questions posed about their beloved truthfully before they wed. For most people it's a game, a silly part of the celebrations before a love marriage.”

Without meaning to, Geralt squeezes Jaskier's wrist. “What do you mean?”

Lyra's brow furrows, not understanding.

“You're saying that Jaskier and I are to marry? We can't.”

Lyra's expression clears.

“It's not unheard of,” she explains, “to marry twice, as long as one does so for differing reasons. Some marry for political gain, or family lines, or curiosity,” she says, smiling to herself at the last reason. “And some do for those reasons, and also for love. Jaskier marrying us both is a lesser scandal than his humanity.” She reaches out to put a hand on Geralt's arm. “It doesn't bother me to share him with you. I know it's different for a love marriage, but I hope you'll feel the same in time.”

Geralt shakes his head. She must have little knowledge of human customs if she doesn't understand why it would be impossible for he and Jaskier to marry. Suddenly, having Jaskier's hand in his isn't so soothing. He ties a knot in the binding and releases Jaskier’s hand.

“This Giftell, what happens if we fail?”

Lyra shrugs uneasily. “I don't know. Death for you,” she gestures to Geralt. To Jaskier, “Perhaps death for you as well. Marriage to Titus for me.”

“I don't understand,” Jaskier says. “Aren't you...too young to be worried about marriage? To Titus, or me, or anyone?”

Lyra scoffs. “I have two hundred years behind me!”

Jaskier's eyebrows go up. “You wouldn't know by looking at you. I thought you a girl, but you're telling me you're older than Geralt?”

Geralt and Lyra make eye contact. Geralt sees someone in the first bloom of womanhood, not in full command of her grace or body, still in simple dresses, still wearing her hair down as girls do. Looking at her, he would have guessed she was eighteen.

He doesn't know what she seems in him. A fool beyond his years, a monster. She doesn't say.

“I'm not a girl,” Lyra says firmly. “I've finished my schooling. I could lead my people if I had to. I, I've bedded people. One of my maids, and Brio from fencing lessons.” She flushes as she says the last part, but keeps her chin defiantly up to them.

“Ah.” Jaskier catches Geralt's eye for a second, relief on his face. “I'm happy to not be marrying a child. I was worried. Although...” He trails off, searching for words. “Will, ah, will we be expected to...”

It takes Lyra a moment to understand, but when she does, she blushes from throat to forehead and inhales tightly.

“This is not a love marriage,” she says quickly. “Mother will be unhappy if we have children. And I didn't...think that far ahead...”

Jaskier holds up his hands. “That's fine, that's fine. I didn't mean to imply we should.”

Lyra relaxes. “Good. We agree. You have your love marriage and perhaps, in the future, I will as well.”

“Maybe we can be friends in the meantime,” Jaskier offers.

“Please,” Lyra responds, grateful and delighted at the prospect.

*

Once Lyra leaves them, with no indication of when she will return, or what they should do until she does, Geralt turns on Jaskier.

“What have you done?” he growls after he's endured the sound of Lyra's footsteps fading down the hall.

“What?” Jaskier replies, clearly expecting this. “What I had to do to save our lives, Geralt. They were going to kill you!”

Geralt stands up from the plush bed. “They weren't going to kill you. And now they very well may.”

Jaskier opens his hands on his thighs. “Only if we fail their test.”

“Or if you displease the queen. Or the princess you’ve apparently promised to marry.” Geralt paces the floor, hands clenched at his sides so he doesn't take a swing at Jaskier or the wall. His magic sweeps through him, trapped, exactly how he feels in this room.

“Then I won't do that,” Jaskier says. “You saw her. She called me to me. She needs me. And she likes me.”

“Jaskier!”

Jaskier shakes his head, interrupting. “It's too late, Geralt. This is happening What are you going to do, confess we've lied, damning us both to death, just to save yourself some discomfort in the short-term?” He wipes his hand over his mouth, his face and voice softening. “You have to help me.” He laughs a little. “I genuinely can't do this without you. And besides, is pretending to be in love with me the worst thing you've done to save your own head?”

Geralt stops pacing, looking at the sun striking over the tops of his boots. It is, but in a selfish way Jaskier wouldn't understand or want to hear.

“No,” he sighs to them so he doesn't have to see the relief and victory on Jaskier's face.

“Of course it's not,” Jaskier says, his smile rich in his voice, “Marrying will be a treat compared to some of the things we've done. Do you remember when we hid in that rotten bog to avoid those rogues? We smelled for days.”

*

With no other direction, they spend the day in the room. It's comfortable enough, ample space for two people, but aside from a tapestry on the wall, there's little to occupy them. The shelves hold no books, and Geralt wasn't the only one stripped of his belongings. Jaskier doesn't know if his lute survived the fall, hasn't seen it or his satchel.

The window in the room overlooks an overgrown courtyard. It's too far below to jump and land unscathed, and the walls all around it are high and smooth. No one walks through it, although once Geralt sees two guards walk the perimeter. They look up to the open window, at Geralt standing there. One flashes their sword at him, daring him to act.

As the sun sets, the room is bathed in red light. Jaskier joins Geralt at the window to watch it. His face goes pink as blood dripped in water.

“It's beautiful,” he says. “Strange but beautiful.”

“Hmm,” Geralt says, leaning over to see the garden below, where cool blue blossoms bloom with light.

A servant brings them a tray of food and lanterns for the room. The lanterns exude the same blueish light as the garden below. Ignoring the tray, Jaskier opens the door on one of the lanterns to see inside. There's a fuzzy-petaled flower tucked inside. Jaskier touches it with a finger and then examines his finger where he touched it. It glows faintly until he rubs his finger over his thumb.

“Please,” he says to the servant, “what is this?”

“Luma blossom,” the servant says. “It will fade by morning. Faster if you touch it.”

Jaskier carefully closes the lantern door.

This time, the food is hot, bowls of stew sealed under pastry lids. No wine, only the same sparkling water from this morning, but neither of them complain, too focused on eating. After, Jaskier carries the tray to the door and sets it out in the hall. He lingers at the open door, looking up and down the hall.

“There aren't any guards,” he says over his shoulder to Geralt. “Do you think we're free to wander?”

“I wouldn't,” Geralt says. It's obvious to him that they're already stretching the boundaries of hospitality afforded to them. “Close the door.”

After another few looks, Jaskier does, coming back into the room. He watches Geralt take his boots off.

“Well,” he says, “at least this is normal.” He crosses one shin over his knee so he can work at the buckle at the top of his own boot. “You can pretend we're at an inn somewhere in Rivia. Soon someone next door will start screaming or crying.”

“Or fucking,” Geralt says, hauling himself into the bed. He sinks into the mattress pleasantly, which would never happen in an inn on the Continent.

Boots off, Jaskier flops onto the other side of the bed. He sighs in pleasure, closing his eyes.

“I think that's supposed to be us,” he says, holding up a finger.

Geralt snorts.

“Should we?” Jaskier asks.

Geralt's stomach dips. “What?”

Eyes still closed, Jaskier makes a fist. He bangs it against the headboard once, then again. He raises it to do it a third time, but Geralt catches his fist before he can.

“Stop.” Geralt squeezes Jaskier fist and then lowers it to the pillow beside Jaskier's face. “This isn't a joke.”

Jaskier brings his hand onto his chest, opening his eyes to look at Geralt. “I know. I just don't know what else to do.”

“We'll see what happens.”

Jaskier's face softens. “We'll be okay,” he says, fingers flexing on his chest. “At least we're together. I don't know what I'd do if I was alone here.”

Anything Geralt would want to say to that would come from the secret, raw place inside of him, and anything he could say would be rough, hurting Jaskier's feelings to protect his own.

Geralt says nothing.

He turns into his side facing Jaskier and brings up a hand to touch the lump on the back of his head. It throbs, but the pain is less intense than it was this morning. After a few days - if he lives that long - it should be fine, same as Jaskier's wrist. He can't say the same for the rest of their situation.

*

They're woken early by a handful of servants bearing food and clothing and buckets of steaming water to fill the tub in the corner. Geralt barely makes it to the door before they barge in, no deferential treatment for the human and the witcher.

“What's going on?” Jaskier says, sitting up in the bed and rubbing his eye, blearily watching servants step around Geralt at the door. It’s not yet dawn, the blue light of the lantern’s flower faded, replaced by the servants' candles.

The oldest servant, unrolling a leather case on the table to reveal a shaving razor, speaks. “You're to join the princess and prince on a ride.”

“Oh,” Jaskier says, letting two servants get him out of bed and prod him toward the tub. A different servant ushers Geralt toward the table and the servant with the razor. Geralt sits in the chair set out and grips the arms of the chair. The cuffs dig into his wrist, a reminder of how he can't defend himself if the man with the blade decides to slit his throat instead of shaving it.

He doesn't. The man is quick and skilled, giving Geralt a fine shave without ever touching Geralt's skin directly Geralt's magic hums hard the whole time anyway. He closes his eyes, listening to the splashing sounds of Jaskier bathing as the blade moves over his skin.

“Thanks,” he forces himself to say once it's over, rubbing his hand over his smooth throat to reclaim it.

He trades places with Jaskier, undressing while the servants refresh the water. He's aware of all eyes on him, the scars on his body, evidence of the long, hard life of a witcher. The servants filling the tub slow their work, eyes wandering, curious and repelled.

“Do none of you fight?” Jaskier snaps, breaking the spell Geralt's bare skin has cast. “None of you scar?”

Not one of the servants say anything, but they avert their eyes as they help Geralt scrub the dirt of their imprisonment off.

Jaskier, dressed now in the simple clothing brought to them, shirt still unlaced over his collarbones, brings over a plate of fruit and bread. Geralt holds out a hand to take it. Jaskier flicks Geralt's hand and gives him a significant look.

Geralt drops his hand into the water.

Jaskier selects something off the plate for himself, and as he chews, he takes his time selecting another morsel. He brings the piece of fruit he’s chosen to Geralt's mouth with his fingers that smell of citrus and flowers.

Geralt has to swallow before he can open his mouth for Jaskier. The servant kneeled beside the tub, with a washcloth in her hand, blushes wildly at the sight of Jaskier's fingers in Geralt's mouth.

Geralt chews the fruit harder than he needs to. It's soft and syrup soaked, fit for a child, no match for Geralt's teeth. But he swallows it down like it's a rock.

“Thank you,” he says, voice gravelly.

“Of course,” Jaskier says sweetly, finally handing Geralt the plate. He briefly puts his hand on Geralt's shoulder before returning to the table to bare his own throat for the blade, familiar, as if he feeds Geralt breakfast from his hand every morning of their life together.

*

The sun is coming free of the horizon by the time a servant leads them to the stables. The princess, prince and Captain of the Queensuard are leaning on a fence waiting for them. All are dressed in boots and trousers for riding.

Lyra playfully shoves the Captain against the fence before turning to greet them.

“Hello!” she says brightly. Her red hair is bound back from her face, making her look more inhuman and gives her face a severity, despite her warm smile. “You look well.”

“Yes, thank you,” Jaskier says, bowing a little. Lyra's clearly pleased by the gesture, but neither the prince nor the Captain respond well. The prince crosses his arms and the Captain pushes his blond hair to one side, that the side of his head is shaved, more gold chevron scars across his scalp.

Lyra ignores them. “I thought we could show you some of the kingdom. Now that we're to be married.” Some of her bluster from yesterday has burned off. She sounds a little shy when she says the last sentence, glancing at Geralt.

“Thank you,” Jaskier says again. “That sounds nice.”

Two stablehands appear, leading by the reins three of the kind of elk Geralt saw in the forest. These ones are larger than that one had been, each taller than a horse, well-muscled under their brown and teal fur. Their four antlers have been cut to stubs and capped in gold and each one bears a colorful ring through its septum. Their dark eyes have none of the wildness of the one in the forest, only docility.

Jaskier, who didn't see the beast in the woods Geralt did, looks at the elk with stunned wonder on his face. “What is that?”

Lyra takes the reins for one of the elk, who lowers its head so she can stroke its forehead.

“They're called yurra. They're hardy and nimble in the forest. This is Joli. Come, you can touch her.”

Jaskier approaches cautiously, putting his flat hand on the creature's side. His palm sinks into the dense fur, past the teal tips into the brown undercoat. Joli doesn't react to him, blinking slowly at Lyra instead.

Another stablehand leads over two horses. When Lyra sees them, she frowns at her brother and the Captain, both already seated on their elk mounts.

“Really?” she says to them. To Geralt and Jaskier she says, “Yurra can outrun horses,” apologetically. She leans in to press her nose to Joli's, and then hands her reins back to a stablehand. “Bring me a horse instead, please.”

If the fae are worried about them escaping, then they could have provided worse horses. The horse Geralt mounts is strong and responsive, although not as good as Roach, and they've given Jaskier a fine horse as well. Neither must be a match for the yurra in speed or strength though. The beasts the prince and Captain have are both broader and taller than the horses and look well-attuned to their masters, shifting in anticipation of a ride.

A horse is brought for Lyra, who she also kisses on the nose before mounting.

“Come,” she says, flicking her reins. “Let me show you our world.”

*
They ride into the forest, Lyra talking the whole time. Geralt struggles to pay attention to her; now that the fog that clouded his senses for the past few days has lifted, the forest is alive to Geralt. The scents of the foreign flora and fauna are rich, and the magic that hums through the trees calls to the magic trapped in Geralt, distracting him.

So, he must miss some of what Lyra says, about this tree or that blossom, but even still, there's more than enough information to drown in.

“Your world is a mirror of ours,” Lyra explains, with the same high energy she'd told them about a purple-feathered quail that had run across the path. “The same but different, like a reflection. And untouchable, like a reflection, except under the right circumstances.”

“It's very beautiful,” Jaskier says politely. “Right, Geralt?”

“Yes,” Geralt says absently, watching yellow sap seep out of the roots of a tree, smelling its spicy scent.

“Is your world as beautiful as ours? I'd like to accompany you there someday.”

It's the kind of comment that could draw a protective brother's ire, but Mard and the Captain are riding their yurra through the underbrush, leaving the path for the horses. They’re deep in their own conversation, only here in case trouble arises, not to make friends like Lyra.

“It is beautiful,” Jaskier confirms. “But different.” He waits a tasteful beat and then asks, “So is it possible to travel between the two worlds freely?

“Oh, yes,” Lyra says, and then she has Geralt's full attention. “No tear between the two is permanent, but we can open them.”

“So ,we can return to the Continent?” Geralt asks, not bothering with a tasteful beat.

Lyra considers it, biting her lip. “Yes, but...Jaskier is meant to serve here. Do you not wish to stay with him once you're married?”

Jaskier cuts in with a sideway glare to Geralt. “Geralt's life and work are on the Continent. He won't be content to be idle, and I doubt your people would welcome a witcher's work.”

“No,” Lyra agrees. “Perhaps...perhaps we can find some solution.”

After that, it's impossible to focus on anything at all but the thought getting home, all the beauty of this world be damned.

*

When they return from their ride, there's a man in livery posting a notice on the stable wall. Mard gets down off his mount to read it aloud. It proclaims the marriage of the second daughter of Queen Mavaena, Princess Lyra, to Jaskier of the Continent in six weeks' time, and anyone with reason why they should not wed are to bring them to the Queen directly.

“You're getting your way, brat,” he says, helping Lyra down from her horse. “Hope you're happy.”

“Very,” she sniffs before being ushered away by her handmaids.

*

With the marriage pronouncement official and public, word spreads quickly. Riders leave the castle to bring word and invitation to the neighbouring royalty and criers in the castletown inform the commoners. Within days, the servants and staff refer openly to Jaskier as the princess' coniux, half-bowing and half-curtseying when they see him, gestures he returns, playing at regality.

Slower and quieter, word that the coniux intends to not only wed the second princess, but also have a love marriage with the witcher, spreads. There is no public notice, no horses frothing as they run for the next province, no joyous cries. The news is passed from mouth to mouth, eye to eye as Geralt and Jaskier walk by.

Coniux-carus, they call Geralt when they whisper about him.

“It's not bad,” Lyra insists when Geralt asks about it as they walk through the grounds. She has a blue flower woven into her red hair and her arm through Jaskier's, so that people can see them that way. “It means beloved of the consort. Isn't that a nicer thing to be called than witcher?”

Geralt, walking on Jaskier's other side, hands to himself, says, “I am a witcher.”

Lyra leans around Jaskier to see Geralt, frowning. “Yes, but aren't you also the beloved of Jaskier?”

Jaskier laughs and reaches for Geralt's hand, squeezing it in warning.

“Yes, he is,” Jaskier assures her. He leaves his hand in Geralt's for a while as they walk, so that they might be seen that way.

*

The riders return to the castle, bringing well-wishes and word of hundreds of wedding guests coming to see the marriage of a royal fae to her human that fell through the mirror. That stirs a frenzy of wedding planning which involves the servants, royal family, and even Jaskier.

Most days, by dawn, there are servants coming into the room to rouse Jaskier from the bed he shares with Geralt for whatever the coniux is needed for that day. Lessons about history and guests, food discussions, a parade through the castletown. Jaskier gets up for each one obediently, looking back at his place in the bed longingly before the servants lead him out the door.

Geralt is decidedly not a part of this royal wedding. No one consults him about food or guests or clothing, which is fine by him. He doesn't care for any of that, and when he's honest with himself, the thought of involving himself in Jaskier’s marriage to the princess fills him with a sore sadness.

The days are long, longer than any Geralt's ever experienced on the Continent, and not just because he has little to do. The sun moves very slowly in the sky, each day at least twice as long as those Geralt is used to. With so much idle time, Geralt starts wandering the halls. He takes care to leave his wrists exposed from the sleeves of his borrowed clothes, so anyone passing by can see the iron cuffs binding him to obedience. After a few days, none of the servants are startled to see him. They won't speak to him, but do stop dropping their trays and washing whenever they come across him.

Even wearing the cuffs, Geralt expects for someone to stop him at some point, banish him back to the room. But he's left free. The Queen must feel assured enough that his power is neutered, or she's so busy planning Lyra's wedding to Jaskier that she hasn't noticed. Either way, Geralt is glad for the longer leash.

There's little to tempt him into trouble anyway. Many of the doors Geralt tries are locked, and most of the ones that aren't reveal rooms with servants feverishly preparing them for wedding guests. At the base of the High Mage's tower is a library, empty of except for a librarian in brown robes that cringes each time Geralt pulls a book from the shelf.

Most of the books Geralt looks at are written in the fae language, but there are a few Geralt can read. Without checking their contents, Geralt collects the books and brings them back to his and Jaskier's room for company.

*

Geralt is walking the battlements, watching storm clouds gather on the horizon, when he hears the distinctive sound of swordfighting. It's coming from the west, near the castle's gate. Geralt turns to it, feet responding before his head can tell him not to.

Someone hollers in surprise, cut off by the hard, flat sound of a shield hitting a body. Boots scuffle in the dirt, swords hitting swords, scraping and clanging.

Geralt comes to a stop above the western yard, looking down on the sight of many men engaging each other in the dirt below. Each is in the pearl and gold armor of Kokiren, they're fighting each other, and fighting hard. The movements are messy, brute force taking precedence over skill. Knees and thighs are jabbed at, shields swung at heads. But no one suffers any significant injury. The swords they wield are metal but dulled, for practice.

Watching the men fight is the Captain of the Queensguard, in his own armor, with his helmet off, so his displeasure is clear for all to see.

“Stop, stop!” he calls. The men sag, dropping their swords in the dirt, pulling their helms off to shake out their sweaty hair and catch their breath.

“Terrible,” the Captain spits. “Who taught you to fight? Thieves? Vagabonds?”

A man close to the Captain, his grey hair plastered to his skull with sweat, protests, “We've been at this for hours.”

The Captain turns on the man. “So? Battle lasts for hours. For days. Sloppiness will lead to your death. Did Tichor teach you to move like this?”

There's muttered begrudging assent from the men. Many of the men look unhappy at the mention of the name. Tichor must be the previous Captain of the Queen's Guard, the spy. The one the Captain down there killed for treason. Geralt leans against the battlement wall to see better. The movement draws the Captain’s eyes, his gaze flicking up to Geralt before returning to his men.

The Captain shakes his head, angry. “He did so because he wanted to see you dead. A victory for Ajax is simple if you all fight like fools. Bartir's soldiers train from dawn 'til dusk to fight. Don't let a traitor like Tichor make it easy to kill you.”

“Does Bartir's army never tire?” the grey-haired man asks. “Is his an army of witchers like the one the Queen keeps in the castle?”

“No,” the Captain says. “They're fae. I've seen them with my own eyes. But they thirst for blood worse than the witcher of Rivia ever could. The witcher kills for coin. If we go to war, Ajax will kill you for glory.” The Captain draws his broadsword from its shealth. “But their skill is the same. I'd have you fight like witchers, and there may be some hope of that yet. Let me show you a real fighter.” He tips his face up to Geralt. “Witcher, join us?”

A frisson goes through the men. All turn to see Geralt above them, disbelief and horror in their eyes. Geralt can smell the heavy stink of fear and disgust as he descends the ladder and walks through them to where the Captain is. Some of the men curse or say small prayers in their own language as he walks by.

The Captain is calm, the scars on his jaws prominent under the darkening sky. He knows he has little to fear from Geralt, as long as the iron cuffs are on.

“I can't fight you,” Geralt says. He wishes he could though. All of his pent-up anger and boredom and love have him yearning to have a sword in hand

“Perhaps not,” the Captain says. He hefts his sword up and offers the golden hilt to Geralt. “But you can show my men how to fight.”

Geralt takes the sword from him. It's a beautiful weapon, exquisitely crafted and cared for, blade wickedly sharp, sigils on the hilt and pommel. The sight of Geralt holding it thickens the stink of fear in the yard.

“It's no silver sword,” the Captain says, smirking, “but it should work for a demonstration. Len, bring a pell.” The Captain points to the one he wants.

A boy drags over the pell the Captain pointed to, which is the most lifelike of the bunch, a head and arms attached by replica joints. The Captain must be in dire need of a demonstration if this is the dummy he's chosen for Geralt instead of one of the featureless wooden blocks.

“Wouldn't you prefer I use a wooden sword?” Geralt asks. “This will dull your blade.”

The Captain crosses his arms, satisfied that Geralt knows what he intends. “My blade can be sharpened. I cannot retrieve one of my men from beyond the veil of death. Show us a fight.”

Geralt adjusts his stance, bringing the sword up, and begins his attack without mercy. A single pell posted in a bare yard is no real fight, but it nevertheless feels good to wield a sword. Geralt's body moves naturally, something it hasn't been able to do in days, stepping around the pell, slashing at it in the ways he's perfected over the years. Each thunk, each divot cut out of the wood, feels right.

He cuts deep into the pell's right bicep, and then removes the arm at the joint cleanly. The crowd cries out as the arm hits the ground. Geralt ducks as if the dummy struck out, rolling away on the dirt, coming up at its left side, slicing where the thigh would be. The wood gouges to the post, chips falling. Geralt kicks the pell in the same spot, imagining a pained howl as the pell tips over. The left hand comes off at the wrist, the arm at the elbow.

The dummy's head is burlap, already leaking straw from the fall. Geralt puts a boot on it, and with one strike, severs the head from the neck. Out of habit, he kicks it away from the body. It trails straw instead of blood.

It was the work of seconds. Geralt isn't even winded, but the men are gasping, horrified by the easy brutality of the kill.

The Captain steps up to admire the damage to the pell. He runs his fingers over the clean-cut edge of the dummy's neck.

“Very impressive, witcher,” he says as thunder rolls acrossthe sky. “Have you ever run a drill?”

*

They work until the rain is too heavy to see through and the mud is too heavy for them to work in. The guards aren't as hopeless as the Captain implied. Most need form correction and to not fight so closely to their opponent, neither of which Geralt can fix in an afternoon, but once they manage to swallow their fear of the witcher among them and really work, Geralt can see the potential.

One even manages to knock Geralt into the muck with a shoulder to the gut. He's too surprised to finish the move with a kill, which gives another man an opening tag him from behind with a practice spear, but it's a start.

The Captain himself, drenched with rain, offers Geralt a hand up.

“Get that man an ale,” Geralt says. “He almost killed a witcher.”

“It helps if you don't piss your smalls in surprise halfway through,” the Captain chuckles. He drops Geralt's arm and turns to the men, most of whom are still doggedly fighting each other and the rain. “Enough! Enough. Better. Go inside. Dry off, eat. Edwon, an ale on me for winding the witcher.”

The men drift toward the castle, too tired to fear Geralt anymore, although none do more than nod at him. Once it's just Geralt and the Captain standing in the downpour, the Captain turns to Geralt.

“Do you believe they have potential, witcher?”

“Yes,” Geralt says. “They aren't ready to wage a war, but the roots are aren't poisoned. And it's Geralt.”

The Captain smiles. “I'm glad to hear it. If you have the time and the inclination, feel free to join us again.” He pulls off his soggy glove to reveal a hand as rough as Geralt's and holds it out. “Alyx.”

Geralt takes it.

*

The rain dampens the sound inside the castle, but Geralt can still hear laughter escaping through the door to the room as he comes down the hall. He opens the door expecting to see the princess lounging on the bed again, but instead he finds Jaskier standing on a riser, dressed only in a pair of trousers, two seamstresses measuring him. Once seamstress is kneeling to measure Jaskier's waist while the other measures the span of his shoulders. Jaskier's shirtless, his chest and shoulders on display, but it’s the shell of his ear that has caught the seamstress' attention. She appears mesmerized by its roundness, the soft pink of it. Her face is hidden from Jaskier so she must believe it safe to ogle, but Geralt sees it all.

Geralt lets the door bang shut behind him, startling all three. The woman measuring Jaskier's waist drops the string she's using, losing her measurement, and the woman behind Jaskier flushes and drops her eyes to his shoulders.

“Geralt! What happened to you?” Jaskier asks. “You look like you fought a kikimore.”

Geralt grunts, his good humour from running drills drying like the mud inside his boots.

Jaskier holds out a hand, disturbing the woman at his back.

“Come here,” he coaxes, putting sweetness in his voice, “carus.” His Fae accent is surprisingly good.

Geralt glares at Jaskier. The word hit a tender place inside him, but the pleasure at hearing it is overruled by the knowledge that Jaskier's saying it for the benefit of the seamstresses.

Jaskier beckons Geralt again, and for a second his eyes go stern, the pleading in them backed by a threat

Geralt goes to him. The seamstresses get out of the way so Geralt can get close enough for the hand Jaskier holds out to cup his nape.

“There you are,” Jaskier murmurs, as if not seeing Geralt for the better part of a day was a trial for him. His hand is warm and gentle on Geralt's skin, so welcome after hours in the rain training men to fight for their lives how witchers do.

It would look wrong if Geralt only stood here limply, so he puts a hand on Jaskier's waist, thumb next to the birthmark Jaskier has on his belly. It's a constellation of brown freckles, one of the many things Geralt would recognize Jaskier anywhere by. Geralt has thought often of putting his mouth over them.

Jaskier brings up his other hand to push some dripping hair behind Geralt's ear. “Tell me what happened.”

Unable to resist the urge, Geralt lifts his other hand to run his fingers over the shell of Jaskier's ear, the one the seamstress was coveting. It's soft and perfectly formed. He cups his dirty palm over it so it can't be seen anymore. The seamstress who had been looking turns her face to the floor and gestures for the other one to clean up.

Geralt smiles. “Spent a few hours showing the Queensguard how a witcher fights.”

Jaskier hums. “Looks like it went well.” He looks up to see the retreating seamstresses over Geralt's shoulder. “Thank you, sorry. We'll finish another time?”

The door shuts behind the women with a satisfying bang. With no more watching eyes there's no reason for them to touch like this, but Geralt won't be the first to let go.

“What were you laughing about?” he asks.

Jaskier's ear heats under his fingers and a rueful smile takes over his mouth.

“They wanted to know if you took me as beasts do,” he admits. “I told them you're a very tender and patient lover. I'm not sure what idea titillated them more. It's terrible gossip, but, you know. It works.” His smile is bashful.

The thought of being either as rough as a beast or tender and patient with Jaskier burrows deep in Geralt's guts. He can't help the pulse of arousal that stirs, not at all helped by the bare skin under his hands and eyes.

He steps away from Jaskier and his soft ear and the secret birthmark on his belly. He focuses on his own clothing instead, which are clinging-wet and stinking of yard mud, and the bruises from the fae guards striking him, to temper his arousal.

“If it works,” he says gruffly, pulling his shirt over his head, dropping it onto the spotless rug. He pulls at his trousers. They're so caked with filth he has to roll them down slowly.

“It works.” Jaskier gets down off the riser, picking Geralt's shirt up with two fingers, moving it to a less priceless part of the floor. “I'll call for some water for you, shall I?”

“Yes.” The trousers get dropped onto the rug too. They may need to be disposed of instead of cleaned.

Jaskier moves them as well. He raises his eyebrows at Geralt's shortness, but doesn't comment. “The Queen is having a dinner to discuss the wedding. Will you be joining us? It would be good to have you there.”

“No.”

Jaskier sighs. “Have it your way.”

*

True to his word, Jaskier calls for the tub and water to be brought. Because he's the coniux, he gets what he wants and quickly. He stays long enough to see Geralt seated in the tub and to open the window to let the steam out.

“I won't be late,” he says tenderly for the servants to hear.

Geralt grunts in reply, sliding down further into the water to wash the mud out of his ears.

*

Keeping his word, Jaskier isn’t late in returning. He comes back after the sun has set and it’s just the great wide white moon lighting the courtyard below. Geralt's sitting in the largest stuffed chair they have in the room, wine goblet in hand, heels up on the windowsill, watching the rain fall.

He hears Jaskier behind him, removing his boots, unlacing his shirt, sighing. The sound of soft feet wandering over.

“Good dinner?” Geralt asks, although he doesn't care much if it was or not. His own dinner was bread and meat brought by servants afraid of starving the coniux-carus.

Jaskier hikes a hip onto the arm of the chair, his thigh pressed parallel to Geralt's forearm.

“Your absence was noted.”

Geralt ignores the feeling of the muscles in Jaskier's thigh flexing as he balances himself on the chair. He grunts. “What did the Queen want me for?”

“Wedding guests will be arriving soon. She requested everyone be on their best behavior.”

“Especially the savage witcher?” Geralt clarifies. He lifts his goblet to his mouth. The wine is good and strong, with the same fortifying effervescence as the water, oddly pleasant to Geralt now.

Jaskier makes a noise. “Yes, although she has more to worry about from her own strong-willed children. I think they would bicker about the colour of the plates in front of them if they could.” His hand comes down to free the goblet from Geralt's fingers. “She wasn't the only one who cared you were missing.”

The way he says it, silky, teasing, makes Geralt's heart swell. Geralt squints up to find Jaskier looking down at him, drinking Geralt's wine with a sly smile on his face.

When he lowers the cup, he licks the wine from his lips and says, “The Captain of the Queensguard was quite complimentary of your skills. Said he's never seen someone move so fast.”

The tight anticipation in Geralt's chest deflates. He slouches in the chair. It's a kindness, to be seen as something other than a monster, but not the kindness Geralt was hoping for.

“Glad to hear it.”

Jaskier lifts his eyebrows at the flat tone, but instead of attempting to further draw Geralt into conversation he merely refills the goblet he drained and gives it back to Geralt, seating himself next to Geralt's arm on the chair again. He looks out the window watching the rains turn the courtyard below plush and verdant, his eyes soft and his mouth red from wine, so close to Geralt but still so far out of reach.

*

In the dark space between awareness and sleep, Geralt dreams of falling. He sees Jaskier's face creased with laughter as he bends to pick a strange red flower from the ground to offer it to Geralt.

He sees the smile turn to fear as the ground dissolves beneath Jaskier's feet and feels the strength in his wrist when Geralt grabs it, swinging him around so it's Geralt falling into the precipice instead. But he's not fast enough. Jaskier teeters on the edge for a moment, the flower in his fingers falling to petals, before he falls after Geralt anyway. Geralt sees him from below, his body going limp in the light, fading into nothingness.

Geralt jerks awake. It's dark like the dream, but the sensation of falling leaves him, awareness of the mattress underneath him chasing it away. All he can hear is his own heartbeat, loud in his skull. He reaches out, afraid of finding nothing, but his hand lands on Jaskier, sleeping soundly beside him.

At the touch, Jaskier murmurs, shifting so his hip fits in Geralt's hand better, the curve of it solid and smooth under Geralt's palm. Geralt doesn't let him go.

*

As the wedding day approaches, travelling parties begin to appear on the horizon. City delegates and royals from other provinces, the scouts report. They come, carts weighed down with food and gifts, banners waving. The family is called to greet each party as it crosses the gates, Jaskier and Geralt among them.

First is the queen of the southern sea, Naia of Tidel, bringing with her enough seafood for days of feasting and her children, a prince and princess, coy-eyed and giggling around Prince Mard. All of them have dark skin and eyes and hair the colour of coral. She and Queen Mavaena greet each other as sisters, warmly clasping hands and kissing cheeks.

“So it's true,” she says, in a voice as soft and soothing as waves. “Your daughter marries a human and keeps a witcher as a pet.” She's more impressed than disgusted, peering at Jaskier and Geralt closely. “I'd have thought it would be my Eusmilia or Bream marrying Mard first.”

“You can bring fresh water to the yurra, but it will not drink if it's not thirsty,” Queen Mavaena says mildly while Mard stares hard at the horizon and his sisters smirk at him.

Next, with a banner of lightning cracking the earth, is the party from Tellus, of the farmlands to the west, Jaskier murmurs to Geralt, one of the hundred things he's been made to learn these last few weeks. Jesters and musicians precede the royal party, led by King Regnor, a tall, muscular fae with a delicate periwinkle beard and hair. Beside him walks his son, Titus, just as broad as his father, but with the face of a kicked dog as he looks at Lyra, at her arm securely in Jaskier's.

Both Jaskier and Lyra stand tall and formal as the King comes down the line, but all the King does is laugh like thunder at their posturing.

“Lyra, my girl, you're making a mistake not marrying Titus,” he says, lifting Jaskier's face by the chin. “But I'll allow you that he's handsome for a human.”

“Thank you, my King,” Lyra says demurely, curtseying without removing her arm from Jaskier's.

“Thank you, Your Majesty,” Jaskier says as best he can with large fingers pinning his chin.

“And this,” Regnor booms. He gestures to Geralt, but wisely stops short of touching him. “I've never in my life seen a witcher. Those eyes! Mavaena, how do you keep it from causing havoc?”

“He's proven to be surprisingly tame,” the Queen says coolly. “And Jasper's worked their magic to keep him that way. Show him, witcher.”

Obediently, Geralt lifts one of his wrists so Regnor can see the dark iron cuff there. Regnor bends to examine it closely, his beard almost touching Geralt's skin. The guards he's brought with him, dressed in purple and grey, ready their weapons.

Geralt stays very still, keeping his fingers limp even as magic roils under his skin. The king cuts his eyes up to Geralt, to see his reaction, if he'll try and strike.

Geralt holds his hand steady and turns his head to see Jaskier instead. For Jaskier, he does nothing.

“Good work,” the king says when Geralt fails to react to provocation, straightening himself. Geralt finally lets his hand drop. His knuckles brush against Jaskier's between their bodies. Geralt keeps his hand still, his fingers limp.

*

More parties arrive, from lesser kingdoms and larger cities. A party even comes south from Ajax, waving banners of a broadsword with a tall city built on the blade. King Bartir is not one of the guests, having sent only delegates dressed in yellow and black. They greet the royal family with the utmost respect, and eye Geralt greedily as they pass into the castleyard, as if he's meat hung from a hook, ready to be bought for the right price.

*

Two days before the wedding, Geralt is stirred from his early morning lassitude by the sound of quick footsteps in the hall and a nervous heartbeat. Fae hearts are already given to fluttering as they beat, but the owner of this heart is worried.

Cracking an eye open, Geralt catches sight of the rich gold sunrise crawling up the bed and the side of Jaskier's face, sleep-flushed and peaceful. He's got one of his ankles between Geralt's and a hand fisted in Geralt's sleeve, despite the space afforded to him by the size of the bed.

Whoever's outside taps on the door twice, softly, and then twice more with more force. Jaskier scrunches his face up, but then opens his eyes. He gives Geralt a confused look, squinting.

Another knock echoes in the room.

“Gods,” Jaskier grumbles, but withdraws himself from Geralt and the warmth of the bed to answer it. Geralt draws the covers back up to save Jaskier's heat and the smell of his sleep.

Jaskier fumbles at the door before he can get it open. Outside is Lyra's favoured handmaid, the one with the grey eyes who's always nervous. She curtsies to him.

“Master Jaskier,” she says. “My apologies for the earliness. But my lady, she wanted to invite you to dinner this evening. King Regnor and Queen Naia will be in attendance. You're to bring the witch- Master Geralt.”

“Okay?” Jaskier rubs his mouth. “That's fine. It's another dinner. I don't know why she needed to tell me about this one before dawn.”

The handmaid's eyes dart around the room, skittering over Geralt in the rumpled bed. She holds out a folded sheet of paper to Jaskier, snatching her hands back as soon as he takes it, like holding it burns her.

Jaskier slowly closes the door, flipping the paper over as he does it, checking it over. He gets back into the bed, settling the covers over his legs and a pillow at his back before he unfolds the sheet.

He quickly reads it, brow furrowing as he does.

“What?” Geralt asks, throat scratchy from sleep. Jaskier offers the paper and Geralt takes it.

On it, written in ink that shines like none other Geralt's ever seen:

You're not supposed to know but the Giftell will be tonight. Good luck. May your love show true. - L

Geralt puts the paper down on his chest. The skin under his iron cuffs turns cold, then hot.

“Well,” he says to the ceiling.

Jaskier pulls the covers up and turns into his side to face Geralt. “Are you ready?”

Geralt shrugs. “I don't know what to say.”

“We've known each other for years, Geralt. Longer than many people's marriages last.”

Jaskier's right. There must be fae who take this test after months or days of knowing each other and pass, free to have their love marriages. But those situations are different. People loving each other freely and openly. Not like this, half real and hidden, half a show for strangers.

Geralt must take too long to answer, because Jaskier gets up on his elbow, hand in his messy hair, his expression soft and careful. If Geralt didn't know better, he'd think Jaskier had just finished making love with someone.

“I know you don't want to do this,” Jaskier murmurs, “and I'm sorry it's like this. You deserve better. But we've come this far, so let's just keep going, alright?”

He's too close – in the bed, in Geralt's heart – for Geralt to say no to him. He's so close that when Geralt wets his lips to speak, he has nowhere else to look but at Geralt's mouth.

“Yeah,” Geralt says. Jaskier watches his mouth make the word.

“Good,” Jaskier says absently, and then sits up, blankets pooling over his lap. “Come on, get up. Let's spend the day together before we go to dinner and lose our heads.”

*

The dinner is torture.

Instead of the great hall, where there are windows and light, a servant leads them to the Queen's quarters, to the room dominated by the oak table, velvet curtains dimming the room to a claustrophobic smallness. There, Geralt finds himself sitting surrounded by royals and officials, forced to listen as the low ceiling catches all of their practiced, pointless conversation about the years since they've all gathered. He's seated in the last chair before end of the table, where the High Mage Jasper is, Jaskier beside him and some low-level advisor across from him. The placement means that he's in full view of the regents at the other end of the table, Queen Mavaena at the head, Avaline and Mard usurped from their seats to let Queen Naia of Tidel and King Regnor of Tellus flank her.

Geralt would prefer to sit in his uncomfortable silk outfit and eat the complicated, sparse food place in front of him without attracting attention, but apparently Jaskier has other plans. He does everything short of telling the regents at the table he knows what is to come.

He starts off by drinking from Geralt's wine whenever his goblet is empty and eats from Geralt's plate even though they're served the same meal. Whenever Geralt bothers to say anything, he laughs, overflowing with fondness. And by the end of the dinner, his hand becomes a permanent fixture on Geralt's neck. He seems completely at ease then, speaking with Lyra about her archery while playing with the hair at Geralt's nape. He's absorbed, not even looking at Geralt, but his fingers scratch through Geralt's hair in a way that makes Geralt want to go wild, pin him to the table in front of everyone.

*

After the plates are removed, Geralt expects the Giftell to begin immediately, but instead, cups of a stronger alcohol are served. Geralt takes a mouthful and almost coats the table with it. It tastes of candied orange peel, but the alcohol is scorching. He swallows it, expecting to see smoke when he opens his mouth. He feels it hit his belly and blaze there.

Helped by alcohol, the conversation finally turns from the past to the present.

King Regnor puts an elbow on the table and leans into it so he can see Geralt from the other end of the table.

“Witcher,” he says, voice filling the room to reach Geralt at the end of the table, “I've heard that you fight with the Queensguard.”

Geralt, who intended to say nothing of import this entire time, finds his tongue loosened by the alcohol burning in his stomach.

“I don't fight with them,” he corrects. He holds up a fist, cuff visible. “I can't fight them.”

“Oh-ho! Can't he says, not won't. Mavaena, you were right to shackle him.” The King takes a hefty swig of his own alcohol and considers Geralt as he swallows without flinching. “I'll bet you're a fierce fighter though, witcher. I brought my strongest man, Ruga, with me. I'd see you fight him in single combat before I leave, if it please Her Highness,” he tips his glass to Queen Mavaena.

Lyra, sitting on Jaskier's other side, huffs. “Geralt is not an animal. You cannot bait him like a bear for your amusement.”

“He's a witcher, and witchers kill,” Queen Naia says. She speaks in a bored, imperious voice, tapping long green nails on the table, her fingers moving in a wave. “If we can't watch Regnor lose his best man to the witcher, then what are we to do with him?”

Regnor makes an indignant sound. Queen Naia smirks.

“Nothing,” Lyra says. “He's not ours to do anything with. He's Jaskier's.”

In the space of a heartbeat, the air in the room turns expectant. The fae at the table share knowing looks. Jaskier's thumb that had been busy stroking Geralt's neck soothingly, stills. Geralt wishes fervently for a sword, even though it would do him no good here.

“So you say,” Queen Mavaena murmurs. She gestures to the High Mage, who gets up and shuffles to a sideboard, where among the candles sits a carafe filled with liquid the colour of molten silver and two glasses. “It's time to prove that claim.”

Geralt knew this was coming, but still his belly, full of fire now, goes cold.

“You will both drink the veritasium and answer our questions truthfully. If you pass, you may continue in peace. If you fail, the price will be dear.”

“Will my son get the marriage thusfar denied to him?” Regnor asks, smiling.

“We'll see,” Queen Mavaena responds. Lyra looks stricken. She puts a hand on Jaskier's arm, fingers clenching in his sleeve.

The mage fills the glasses and sets one in front of Jaskier and one in front of Geralt.

“Drink it all.”

Geralt picks up the glass. The liquid inside is thick and opaque enough that Geralt can see his reflection in it, his rippling and ugly. The potion clings to the side of the glass as he tips it.

It smells of nothing and tastes of nothing, but takes hold of Geralt as soon as he swallows. A heaviness weighs his body down as it loosens his mind and his mouth. Every thought he has feels huge and important. He struggles not to blurt out that his shirt is uncomfortable and the room is too hot and he's afraid of what will happen when they call on him to speak.

Beside him, Jaskier gulps from his own glass, eyes closed tight. As he swallows his smell goes haywire, muddy with fear and pleasure and embarrassment. His breathing goes shaky, his hand making a steadying fist in Geralt's hair.

“It's working,” the High Mage tells the table, removing the glasses.

“The witcher first,” King Regnor decides. Queen Mavaena nods. A page appears to lead Jaskier into a different room so the questioning can begin. She waves her hand at the door once it's closed, a silencing spell, and turns the full force of her cold gaze on Geralt.

“We'll start simply. What is your name?”

It slips out without Geralt even thinking. “Geralt of Rivia.”

Everyone at the table except for Lyra chuckles at how the words rushed out of Geralt. She grimaces at Geralt from across Jaskier's empty seat, begging him with her eyes. She won't die if Geralt fails this test, but her life and livelihood will be turned upside down. Geralt struggles not to curse her out for her selfishness, for getting them into this situation, for taking Jaskier for her own. He digs his fingers into the chair's arms to hold his tongue.

“What are you?” Regnor this time.

“A witcher of the School of the Wolf.”

An advisor wearing the Tellan lighting strike crest asks, “How do we know this is fact?”

“It is,” Prince Mard chimes in. “I have heard of Geralt and the Wolf witchers. He speaks the truth so far. How did you meet the human Jaskier?”

“At a tavern. He was young. Wanted to know what I thought of his song about false monsters.” The memory rises: Jaskier, barely out of his schooling but headstrong, unwilling to take no for an answer. Geralt had behaved boorishly, but Jaskier had stuck by him anyway, awe on his pretty face at everything Geralt did. Geralt remembers Jaskier's soft belly against his fist, and how he'd yelled at the elves in hopes of protecting Geralt. How surprised Geralt had been by that boy.

The fae titter again. Geralt closes his eyes, miserable. The raw, secret part of him longs for the chance to speak freely, to say everything he's thought and felt for years. He wants it so badly his mouth waters.

Before he can though, the conversation shifts, the fae taking their chance to indulge their curiosity about witchers. They ask questions about the school, the trials, the ugly work of a witcher. Geralt answers them truthfully and without shame, and would answer them for as long as they ask them, to keep from having to talk about other things.

Unfortunately, it's impossible to leave Jaskier out of his answers. They've spent too many years travelling together for him not to feature in the stories flowing out of Geralt's mouth. Geralt can't help but talk about Jaskier being annoying and brave and loyal.

“And when did you love him?” Lyra asks. She's leaning into the space between them, as if gossiping with only him, curious despite her nervousness

Geralt tries not to speak, but the words come up from his heart and between his teeth anyway. “When I thought he would die,” he admits. “We were...friends, but the thought of his death was like a knife to the belly.” There may as well be a knife in Geralt now, his guts are twisting so much. He hoped to never say this, not to Jaskier, and not to a room full of fae acting as judge and jury.

Avaline frowns at Geralt, pushing some of her curled red hair behind her ear. “I have read that humans aren't known to live long. Will you not outlive him, witcher?”

“I will,” Geralt says. The pain in his stomach is crippling.

“What will you do?” she asks. “Will you mourn him for a hundred years? Longer?”

“Yes,” he says, the word tasting of ash in his mouth.

*

Geralt leaves the room on weak legs, mind fuzzy, heart aching. The page takes him out into the hallway and leaves him there alone, no chance at all to see Jaskier and say that he's sorry for ruining everything. Geralt presses his fists against his eyes to attempt to hold back the nausea rising in him. Under his arms is wet with sweat and he needs the support of the wall to stay standing. At least the hall is empty of servants and only lit by candle-lamps, no bright sun to show his shame.

He feels worse than the last time he was run through by a dagger. At least then he wasn't betrayed by his tongue. Geralt drags a fingernail over the offending flesh, but can't taste it. No one said how long the veritasium would last.

So, with no other options, honestly in love and unsure if he'll die anyway, Geralt waits.

*

It feels like an age before anything happens. Geralt stays where the page left him, despite how much he'd like to run. No one passes by him and he hears nothing but the sputtering of the candles and the blood rushing in his ears.

Finally, the Queen's carved-vine door opens. Instead of the page, it's Jaskier being escorted out into the hall, the door shutting firmly behind him. He's flushed and fidgeting.

“Jaskier,” Geralt blurts. The veritasium is still in his blood, stronger than any potion Geralt's ever had. Ten true things war for space in Geralt's mouth but he manages to only let the most pressing thing out: “Are you alright?”

“No,” Jaskier says and strides up to Geralt, taking him by the elbow and dragging him to an alcove down the hall. It's dark, no lamp in here, but it's shallow enough that a passerby could find them to bring them back. In there's some small privacy though, the feeling of being alone together.

Geralt's back thumps into the wall. He has to press there to make space for Jaskier, who follows him in, the scent of him strong with sweat and emotions.

“No,” Jaskier repeats furiously. “It was humiliating. I felt like a butterfly under glass, and the thingsabout you I had to say-” He cuts himself off, taking Geralt by the shoulders and kissing him hard.

Surprise has Geralt opening his mouth, first to speak but then to kiss back as Jaskier presses closer, slipping his tongue into Geralt's mouth.

In his imaginings, Jaskier kisses with finesse and skill. But Jaskier's mouth on his now is demanding, sweltering. His tongue tastes of the nothingness of veritasium, but it's a taste Geralt would have all his life, if it meant kissing Jaskier.

Geralt groans, which only opens his mouth more for the kiss. Jaskier licks into Geralt's mouth so deeply that Geralt's lip pinches between their teeth. It hurts a little, but Geralt doesn't care. The veritasium and years of thinking of this turn the little pain into a bigger pleasure that sinks into Geralt's stomach. His cock, already tempted by Jaskier's behavior during dinner, hardens so quickly he feels dizzy.

Pulling back, Jaskier takes one deep, shaky breath before he kisses Geralt's cheek, his ear, working one of his legs between Geralt's. The heat of his breath and his thigh make Geralt shudder.

“You're mine,” he says fiercely into Geralt's ear, gripping Geralt's neck, one of his wrists, pressing everywhere.

Geralt's never heard anything like that, from Jaskier or anyone else. Never thought he'd want to hear it, but the words do more for Geralt's cock than the grind of a silk-covered thigh does. He whimpers, turning his face away. All the years of want combined with the weeks of pretending, the hours of Jaskier's touches at this dinner have him rushing towards an edge he's not ready to fall off yet.

Jaskier's cock is hard against Geralt's hip, but he doesn't seem to care about his own, too busy rolling his thigh over Geralt's cock and finding a place on Geralt's throat to suck.

“Jaskier,” Geralt moans. Jaskier might as well be sucking his cock. His back is sweating, prickling against the stone wall. He's going to come, whether he wants to or not. Geralt’s hips jerk against Jaskier's thigh as he does.

Jaskier gets a hand between them, squeezing Geralt's cock through his trousers, feeling the pulses. He moans like he's the one coming, but he's not. Geralt would smell it on him, and all he can smell is the salt of skin and the burn of sustained lust through the haze of his own orgasm.

Geralt comes longer and harder than he has in years. Every time his cock twitches Jaskier squeezes it, which makes it twitch again. He's sweating, eyes stinging with it, the skin of his throat burning where Jaskier's mouth was.

“Please,” he rasps, which makes Jaskier moan again. He tries to get purchase on Jaskier's slippery silk clothes, but his hands are clumsy. He can't catch his breath, but that's not half as important as getting his hands on Jaskier, or his mouth if his hands don't work. He'll get on his knees, suck Jaskier's cock, eat him out. Anything.

Jaskier sags against Geralt, his hard cock against Geralt's slowly softening one. He kisses the burning place on Geralt's throat, his jaw, his cheek. But before he can kiss Geralt's mouth again, a door opens nearby. It's somewhere beyond Jaskier, beyond Geralt's caring, but tentative footsteps find their way down the hall to the alcove.

A servant's face appears in the light, eyes wide at the tangle of the bodies.

Coniux, coniux-carus,” he says, “they'll see you now.”

In the dark alcove, bodies tangled, they must look like a strange monster to the blinking servant: too many arms and legs and eyes. Jaskier stiffens in Geralt’s arms, his mouth smearing away from Geralt’s cheek, arms letting Geralt go, cold air filling the space between them, smelling of shame.

*

They are not invited to sit again. They stand together as they did when they first came through the mirror, although it's worse this time around. Geralt feels naked. His black trousers will only hide the wetness of his spend for so long and the bitemark on his neck burns, visible to anyone who cares to look.

The Queen takes them in impassively, although there's no doubt in Geralt's mind that she knows what they've done. But she doesn't betray them as she folds her hands together.

“While I don't know why one would waste their love on a witcher, you've passed the Giftell,” she says simply. “The wedding will go ahead as planned.” She spares no look for Regnor, who shakes his head in disappointment. “You may go.”

She says the last to Geralt and Jaskier, but Lyra gets up from the table at the dismissal, grinning in relief as she comes to them.

“Thank you,” she whispers, “thank you.”

*

Back in the hall, the smell of lust still fading, Lyra takes Jaskier by the hand tightly.

“I had thought Mother might - that she might stop it, no matter what you said.” She swings Jaskier's hand in hers before bringing it up to press against her mouth. “Congratulations, to you both.”

“Yes,” Jaskier says awkwardly, not looking at Geralt, his hand in Lyra's. “I do look more handsome with my head attached to my shoulders.”

Lyra laughs. “I agree. Come, come, let's walk. I was so nervous I could hardly stay still.”

“Yes,” Jaskier agrees. “It would be good to get away. Geralt?”

He's still not looking at Geralt.

A sour feeling takes hold of Geralt's guts again.

“No,” he says, thinking of having to walk beside Jaskier, smelling his cooled sweat and lust, enduring the sham victory of the Giftell and the indignity of the spend in his trousers while Jaskier walks beside him like a stranger.

Lyra looks him over. “You look unwell, Geralt.”

He nods. “I don't think the potion agrees with me.”

“Oh!” She touches her mouth. “I didn't even consider how the veritasium would affect a witcher. Or a human. Jaskier, do you feel alright?”

“I'm fine,” he says tightly. “I'll walk with you. Geralt can rest in our room.”

Lyra reaches out with the hand not holding Jaskier's to touch Geralt's shoulder. “If you're not well tomorrow we'll send for a healer. I won't have you sick for your wedding.”

“Of course not,” Geralt agrees, feeling love-sick, shame-sick.

*

Geralt is so desperate for privacy that he locks the door to the room after him. Jaskier can knock when he returns. It's empty but the servants have been here to place lanterns and fill the water basin. Grateful at the sight of fresh water, Geralt peels his insufferable, sweaty silk shirt off, dropping it on the floor, and undoes the laces on his trousers.

His cock is a mess, come all over it, drying in his pubic hair. He picks up a rag, wets it in the basin and scrubs at himself roughly. He can smell himself, the salty stink of an animal rutting. Embarrassment makes his stomach ball up and his head buzz. No wonder Jaskier wanted to distance himself.

He kissed Geralt first though. Got into his space, held him by the shoulders, and kissed Geralt. Had said You're mine with such fierceness he'd seemed almost angry.

He’d said whatever he’d needed to get his space from Geralt though, so perhaps the potion didn’t work on humans. Perhaps he could tell a lie.

You're mine. What a lie to tell. The memory tightens Geralt's nipples, flushes his cock despite the cool water wetting it. Jaskier's hot mouth and his hard thigh between Geralt's legs, bringing him off. Better than anything Geralt's imagined when he's alone.

But. The smell of his embarrassment, how he hadn't looked at Geralt once it was done.

“Fuck,” Geralt says to the empty room. He wets the cloth again, but there isn't enough fresh water anywhere in this realm to wash away what he's feeling.

*

Geralt stays awake the whole night, meditating, pacing, lying in the bed that smells like Jaskier. Jaskier never knocks. In the morning, Geralt dresses in the linen clothing he's used to, leaving the silk shirt and trousers to languish on the floor. A servant brings a bowl of clear broth and a mug of herbal tea for him to break his fast.

“The princess wishes to know if you'd like to have one of the healers attend to you.”

“No.” The veritasium had left him in the night, breaking like a fever, his thoughts and feelings no longer crowding him so urgently. If he feels unwell now, it's for his own reasons. “I'm fine. Do you know where Jaskier is?”

“The coniux spent the night in the princess' chambers.” There's some soft disapproval on the servant's face at the impropriety of that, but they offer no further explanation. At Geralt's silence, they leave him to his ailing man's meal.

*

Jaskier returns at midday, slipping into the room as if it's midnight. Geralt is sitting at the table, book open in front of him. It's about the creatures of this land; Geralt should be absorbed, but it’s been open to the same page for an hour.

Jaskier is dressed in his clothing from last night, silk rumpled terribly. He looks tired.

“Hello,” he says softly.

Geralt turns to a new page in the book, revealing a huge beast with a trunk on the front of its face and a mouth of fangs beneath that. “Hello.”

Jaskier takes note of the empty bowl and mug and smiles a little. “Lyra was very worried. She thought she'd killed you with that potion. I spent half the night convincing her not to call every available healer for you.” He comes closer. “How do you feel?”

“I'm fine,” Geralt says. He saw himself in the mirror earlier. He looks tired too, disheveled despite the fresh clothing and washed face.

Starting to pick at his wrinkled cuff, Jaskier says, “Listen,” in a soft tone that makes Geralt's blood chill.

“I'm sorry,” he says, “for last night. I was... I've never had to fight for three people's lives while sat in a chair before. It was stressful. Emotions were high. I've never felt like that, acted like that. Normally, I would never treat someone like that. I got carried away.”

So, the potion does have some adverse effect on humans after all. Makes them act in ways they wouldn't.

“Okay,” Geralt says woodenly.

Jaskier's found a loose thread on his cuff. He pulls at it, glancing at Geralt. “I…will you forgive my behavior?”

“I forgive you.” There's nothing to forgive. Jaskier did nothing wrong, nothing Geralt didn't want, but there's no point in saying so. Jaskier is sorry for what he did and intent on being forgiven.

Jaskier smiles, only in one corner of his mouth, still shy.

“It looked good though,” he offers softly, “to be driven mad with passion.”

“Yeah,” Geralt agrees faithfully, staring at the wild beast trapped on the page, as dull and flat as Geralt feels.

*

That night, when only the luma bloom lanterns light the room, Lyra knocks on the door. She's still dressed, but her hair has been brushed out for sleep. Geralt opens the door wide enough for her to come in but she shakes her head.

“Will you walk with me?” she asks.

Geralt looks behind himself to where Jaskier is sitting, book open on his lap to give him reason not to speak with Geralt. He closes it and starts to get up.

Lyra holds up a hand. “You can stay. I'll speak to Geralt alone. I promise not to keep him for long.”

She doesn't take him far, just down a set of stairs and out into a courtyard Geralt's not seen before. She walks him along the path for a while, until they're surrounded by the glowing night foliage. Stopping in front of a tree with tongue-pink flowers, she says, “I remember what you said. During the Giftell.”

“I said a lot of things.” More than he wished he had. Thinking of his words makes him feel hot and cramped.

Lyra brushes her finger over one of the flowers, so gently the light doesn't fade. “About...outliving Jaskier. Having to mourn his passing, and continue on long after he's gone.”

“Yes,” Geralt says, same as he'd said during the Giftell, feeling the same pre-emptive sorrow that comes with knowledge of a truth.

“I just. I wanted to tell you then, but I couldn't, because you hadn't completed the test yet. But, part of a fae wedding involves taking the Vitae together. It'll...he won't ever live as long as a fae, but the tales say a witcher lives for hundreds of years if nothing kills them. Jaskier could, if he keeps taking the Vitae as I do, he could live for hundreds of years.”

Hope glows like a flower inside Geralt, but he frowns. “Does he know?”

Lyra nods. “He knows. He wasn't going to tell you, but I thought you would want to know.” She smiles sweetly at him, looking so young with her hair down and her face lit pink by the flowers, not at all like a woman to be married tomorrow.

“Thank you for telling me,” Geralt says. When he doesn't rejoice in what she's told him, Lyra's happiness dims.

They stand together in front of the flowers in silence for a minute, until Lyra says, “I should go back to my rooms. They'll be looking for me. Can you find your own way back?” Her tone carries a deeper question than her words.

“I'll be fine.”

Before she goes, Lyra brushes her fingers over Geralt's hand, so lightly he barely feels it. When he's alone, he takes a deep breath of the flowers and the dirt and the cool bright night air, and another, wondering why Jaskier didn't want to tell him.

*

Morning comes and brings with it the first of two weddings.

As the purple dawn light works its way into the room, Geralt watches the stewards dress Jaskier for his wedding. The trousers and doublet are the deep red of a ruby, serving to highlight the blue of Jaskier's eyes. The front of the doublet has been embroidered with a heartblossom in rust-coloured thread, the mark of the princess, the flower he plucked to seal his fate to hers. The underside of the cape they fasten to his shoulders is the same rust colour as the flower. The boots the stewards put on Jaskier are black, and polished to a severe shine. He's never looked so regal as he does this morning, carefully fixing his cuffs, smiling shyly at the steward fixing his collar.

Geralt can't look at him anymore. The sight of him is too much, so tempting it’s painful. He looks out the window instead while a servant braids the top half of his hair away from his face. No one walks in the overgrown garden below, the flowers curled up, waiting for darkness to bloom.

The steward has an outfit for Geralt too, but he dresses himself. The shirt is as iron grey as the cuffs on Geralt's wrists. The trousers and jacket are a velvet black that reminds Geralt uncomfortably of the darkness he and Jaskier fell through all those weeks back. There is no embroidery on Geralt's jacket, nothing to mark him as Jaskier's but his heart.

*

The great hall, beautiful to begin with, is decadently decorated today, giant iridescent crystals hanging from the ceiling, each emitting a soothing tone as they catch the draft from the open windows. The carpet underfoot is white, pristine, and like walking on a cloud. The room is more crowded than the night the guards dragged them in front of the Queen, hundreds of fae from all the provinces come to see such a strange marriage with their own eyes. The gathered crowd only adds to the opulence of the affair. Dressed in the pastel silks and tulles favoured by the fae, each person is like a blossom, making for a field of pink and blue and green.

Dressed in heartsblood red and mirrortear black, Jaskier and Geralt stand out against gentler colours. Jaskier smiles bravely at the staring eyes and begins the long walk up to the dais where the Queen is seated, flanked by Avaline, Mard and Alyx, all dressed so finely they put the assembled crowd to shame. To the side waits the priestess in her gold-threaded grey robes and eye-covering, two bare-faced acolytes with her, each holding a pillow carrying an object.

As the only one to act as Jaskier's witness, Geralt walks beside him. He ignores the crowd, focusing on the dais ahead. His knuckles brush against Jaskier's. Some of the people in this room must have heard about the double marriage, but Geralt doesn't take Jaskier's hand. If he did, he doesn’t think he could let go.

When they reach the dais, Jaskier takes his place on the second step, so that the Queen can preside over the ceremony from above him and the crowd on the floor can see from below. Geralt takes his own place, off to the side, not with the royalty nor the crowd, alone.

As the door to the hall opens again and everyone turns that way, Jaskier turns in the opposite direction to find Geralt. He gives Geralt a smile before turning to see Lyra enter.

She's in a gown the colour of a sapphire, her trailing silver cape held by two handmaidens. Her long red hair, usually down like a girl's, is pinned up with silver branch pins, a diadem to match nestled in her hair. In her arms she carries a bouquet of white flowers. Her face is serene, ethereal in its beauty. Today there's no bratty youngest sister, no nosy free spirit. Stepping onto the dais next to Jaskier is a princess, the perfect match in regality for him, the two of them the crown jewels of the morning. The crowd of fae murmur and sigh over her, marveling at her beauty and grace as she places her bouquet into the waiting arms of a handmaid and then takes Jaskier's hands in hers.

The priestess comes to stand before them. She raises her hands for quiet, and when she gets it, begins to speak in a deep slow voice. She speaks first in Fae, which has slippery consonants and vowels like rocks. It's an old blessing, Geralt had read in a history book, about honor and care and duty. Geralt understands none of it, but lets himself drift in the rhythm of it. Much of the crowd have their eyes closed, hands on hearts, doing the same.

When that's over, the priestess's voice lightens, her accent lifting her words the way Geralt's growing used to. Now she speaks of the lineage of the royalty, thousands of years of fae, living with the world and enriching it with culture as it enriched them. From Jarlsmir to Edda, to Raym, to the Queen Mavaena, and someday to Queen Avaline. And before them, princess Lyra, first of her name, third in line for the Kokiren crown, beloved of the people.

“And she has chosen as husband this one,” the priestess puts a hand on Jaskier's shoulder, “the human Jaskier - Julian Alfred Pankratz, Viscount de Lettenhove of the Continent, beyond the mirror. Today we crown him as one of our own.”

One of the acolytes comes forward. On their pillow is a diadem, copper wound with citrine-coloured moss, tiny rubies peeking out. The priestess picks it up as Jaskier obediently closes his eyes and lowers his head so she can crown him as Lyra's coniux.

“With this,” the priestess continues, “he becomes princess Lyra's equal. He will serve her, our Queen, and our people for all the years of his life. And she, as his equal, will serve him, our Queen, and our people for all the years of her life.”

The second acolyte comes forward. On their pillow is a shallow bowl, small enough to be held in the hands, dark clay with sky-blue sigils on it. It holds in it a bright mother-of-pearl liquid so rich with magic that even the sight of it calls to the magic under Geralt's skin. The priestess lifts the bowl above Jaskier and Lyra's heads, presenting it to the gathered fae.

“We, the people of Kokiren, offer them our Vitae, our most precious life-giving magic, to bind their lives together and give them many prosperous years as spouses.” The priestess lowers the bowl, offering it to the princess.

Lyra drinks from the bowl first before handing it to Jaskier. Jaskier cups the bowl with both hands, looking down at the surface of the liquid nervously. But he closes his eyes and drinks, swallowing twice of the Vitae that will extend his life hundreds of years. When he hands the bowl back to the priestess, he looks brighter, more alive. Geralt hears his heart skip a beat and then settle into a new, slower rhythm. Geralt watches him take a deep, calming breath, getting used to the feeling.

The priestess reaches between them to reclasp their hands together and then takes Jaskier and Lyra by the shoulder.

“By the sharing of the Vitae, it is done. Before you is the Princess Lyra and her husband Jaskier. May they take heart in one another and be well together.”

The wedding guests begin to clap and cheer, cries of Be well filling the hall. A grin finally breaks through the solemness on Lyra's face and she darts in to press her mouth to Jaskier's cheek. The kiss she leaves behind glimmers with ageless magic.

*

The wedding that comes after is a much less opulent affair. It doesn't take place in the great hall, and there is no reverent crowd sighing over the proceedings. Lyra, Mard and Alyx join them in their borrowed castle bedroom, still in their wedding finery, although Lyra has removed her long cape for ease of movement. There's no priestess either, just a shy-faced acolyte, his nerves obvious without the eye covering afforded his senior.

“You do know what to do, don't you?” Lyra asks sharply from where she's lined up against the wall with Mard and Alyx, so they can bear witness of the wedding.

The acolyte swallows. “I, I read about it,” he stammers, holding up a book. The gilt-lettered title is incomprehensible, but below it are several human figures dancing. “It's not, not complete, but I think I understand enough to do it.”

“I've read that book. I like the parts about human superstitions.” Lyra settles her skirts around her. “Very well then. Please proceed.”

As the acolyte nervously flips through his book to get to the section on weddings, Jaskier takes both of Geralt's hands into his as Lyra took his barely an hour ago. He leans in close to Geralt.

“I didn't say before,” he murmurs, speaking just loudly enough for Geralt to hear, “but you look wonderful today. The clothes they picked for you are perfect. I've never seen you so handsome.” He's still wearing the diadem and his breath smells of sweet fae magic, but he's rubbing his thumbs over Geralt's knuckles and smiling only at Geralt.

“You too,” Geralt replies, just as quietly.

“Oh, this?” Jaskier raises his eyebrows toward the diadem. “It's nothing.”

Geralt may love him, but won't let that stop him from calling Jaskier a rude name when he deserves it. But as he opens his mouth to do so, the acolyte picks that moment to clear his throat and say, “To all those who have gathered to witness the love marriage between Jaskier, coniux of Princess Lyra, and Geralt, witcher of Rivia: welcome and be blessed.” He looks at the three witnesses standing to the side and nods jerkily, to bless and welcome them.

Lyra nods back, humour in her eyes, but neither Mard nor Alyx return the gesture, watching seriously.

The acolyte goes on, glancing down at the book. “Is there a, ah, dowry to be read, or a father to give permission?”

“Gods, no,” Jaskier says, squeezing Geralt's hands as he smiles wryly. “I did loan Geralt twenty ducats in Skellige though. That should suffice.”

“Oh.” The acolyte studies the book for a moment, looking to see how the loaning of ducats might fit into the ceremony. “Okay,” he says nervously, “do both of you freely consent to enter into this marriage?”

“Yes,” Jaskier says quickly. He's still smiling, but it's turned from teasing to warm and kind.

“Yes,” Geralt says. He feels as though his belly is full of veritasium, heavy with the truth.

“Good,” the acolyte mutters, flipping the page. He pauses again, reading, mouthing the words as he does, and then turns to Jaskier.

“Do you, coniux – Jaskier – promise to have and to hold Geralt as your husband, for better or worse, in sickness and health, 'til death do you depart?”

“I do,” Jaskier says. His hands in Geralt's are sweating, but he's beaming at the acolyte, at Geralt.

Finger on the same place in the book, the acolyte says, “Do you, Geralt, promise to have and to hold Jaskier as your husband, for better or worse, in sickness and health, until death do you depart?”

Geralt wets his dry mouth. He's imagined his own death a thousand times, and suffered through imagining Jaskier's, but he's never in his life imagined either of their deaths in this way, entwined and far off in the future.

“I do,” he says, so deafened by his own heartbeat he hardly hears it.

The acolyte nods at them, satisfied. “As an acolye of the Dyanna Temple, I pronounce you married. Take heart in one another and be well together.”

Lyra starts clapping. “Be well!” she cries, smiling broadly at the sight of her husband taking a husband.

“Be well,” Mard and Alyx murmur. When Geralt glances at them, he can see, almost hidden between them, that Alyx has taken Mard's hand in his. Geralt looks away, letting them have that private moment in the face of this more public one.

Jaskier squeezes Geralt's hands, drawing his attention back. He's smiling, biting his lip.

“It's done,” he says. “Be well.”

“Be well,” Geralt repeats, heart in his mouth.

Lyra leans to try and see the acolyte's book over his shoulder. “Shouldn't you kiss?” she asks. “I've heard humans kiss when they're wed. To complete the vows.”

Ignoring any objections he could make about the half-human half-fae wedding ceremony they just had, Jaskier just goes, “Ah,” cheeks turning pink. “Yes, well...”

He bites his lip harder, looking to Geralt for permission.

“It's alright,” Geralt says to Jaskier, even though his stomach is humming. “We're married now.” Saying the words makes the humming turn to a busy buzzing, but it's as pleasant as it is terrifying.

Jaskier's expression turns soft and fond. He lets go of one of Geralt's clammy hands to cup his cheek instead, drawing their faces together. He kisses Geralt in front of the bed they've shared for weeks, a Captain, a prince, and his new wife, as tender and loving as if they're the only two people in the room.

*

Even after two weddings, the day is not over. There's the feast to attend, in honour of Lyra and Jaskier. Geralt sits on the other side of Jaskier from Lyra at the royal table. He feels out of place in his black clothing, next to the couple being celebrated, but this is his place as coniux-carus, so he must suffer publicly.

At least the food is good and the wine free-flowing. Geralt focuses on that instead of the neverending procession of well-wishers stopping in front of Lyra and Jaskier.

“I knew you when you were half the height of a tisla tree, and now I see you married. It warms the heart,” one courtier says.

“He's handsome this close up,” another coos. “Look at his ears!”

“May your marriage be long and content.”

Some of the guests eye Geralt as they come to the table, gazing heavily at the space between he and Jaskier, but none are brave enough to speak, either for or against the love marriage everyone's been whispering about. Geralt buries his mouth in his goblet so his scowl won't scare anyone off.

After dinner has ended, the parade of people stops so that a band of Tellan musicians can entertain. The instruments look familiar enough to Geralt, although the wood they're carved of is streaked with forest green, but the music that comes from them is unlike any Geralt has heard before. Lighter on the ears, but resonating in the soul.

Beside him, Jaskier is sitting up straight, captivated. His eyes move from musician to musician, instrument to instrument, taking in all the details. Wonder and pleasure come off him in waves.

After a few songs, sung in Fae by a woman with a voice like a bell, Jaskier stands up. He goes to the musicians, to the man holding an instrument that resembles a lute, although it has a longer neck and too many golden strings, and speaks to him. The man looks in Jaskier's wake, where Geralt and the royal family are sitting, and hands the lute over.

Jaskier puts it on and plucks a few strings. Without the other instruments to accompany it, the notes are mellow and rippling, pebbles dropping into a pond.

He turns to face the crowd.

“Where I come from,” he says, voice raised to be heard, with the polish of a performer, “it's traditional for the wedded to exchange gifts. I have little to give, but I hope that a song will suffice.” An excited murmur swells as Jaskier plays the first few notes of his song, and then falls to an expectant hush as he starts to sing.

He sings the song of the thief who steals a wolf-pelt cloak from a magician, and how he's cursed to always tell the truth while wearing it. It should be a sad song, but whenever the thief tells the truth he gains health, wealth, and love, making his life brighter and better. He dies warm under the wolf-pelt, surrounded by his loved ones, finally able to say he's happy.

Geralt's heard the song a hundred times over the years, in taverns, at campfires, while Jaskier works, but it's still a pleasure to see Jaskier sing to a blushing Lyra, and the song sounds beautiful and ageless on the fae lute. The fae must not know the song of the wolf truth at all, because they hang onto every word and cheer and clap once it's over. Jaskier bows several times, to Lyra and the guests.

He hands the lute back to its owner, both of them smiling at each other, like seeing like, and then he turns back to the table. He doesn't bow to Geralt, but he does tip his head, a secret between them in plain sight.

*

More wine is served, along with sugar-glazed fruits and more of the thick citrus alcohol Geralt remembers from the Giftell, and then the festivities begin in earnest. Guests lean forward in their chairs, conversations turning salacious and rowdy, and many come to the open floor in front of the musicians to dance. Jaskier and Lyra are amongst them. All of the lessons must have been worth it, because Jaskier moves through the fae dances with ease. He moves with Lyra as if they've been dancing together for years, not weeks, spinning with his palm to hers while they laugh.

Geralt's moved to the side of the room, to avoid the stares that he gathers when out in the open, and cut down on the risk of someone asking him to dance. He's had no lessons in these twirling, quick-footed dances, and no desire to learn tonight One of the Queensguard, in his armour, stands near Geralt, surveying the scene. It's the man who knocked Geralt into the mud the first time Geralt joined them in the yard.

He nods at Geralt in greeting. “Celebrations not to your taste?”

Geralt shrugs. “They weren't planned with me in mind.” He tips his goblet toward where Jaskier and Lyra are, Lyra ceremonially offering her open palms to Jaskier as another song begins, and then brings his wine to his mouth. “The wine is good enough for me.”

The guard taps his thumb on the hilt of his sword. “Have some for me, would you? Captain doesn't allow it on nights like these.” The man in question is across the room, also dressed, his white cape like a flag. Alyx is speaking to a beast of a man dressed in Tellan grey and purple, his usually-stern, scarred face eased by good humour.

Geralt makes a noncommittal noise. “Would Tichor have let you drink?”

The guard grins. “Oh, he encouraged it. Said these kinds of affairs were boring, and needed a kick.” He considers what he's said, perhaps weighing it against the things Alyx said to the men in the yard, and his grins slowly fades.

A man gets up from the table nearest them, carefully tucking his robe close to his body so he can pass by, heading toward the dais and the dance floor. He sends Geralt a scathing look, perhaps for the sin of being a witcher, or free of chains, or both.

The guard next to Geralt returns the look to the man and then begins to tell Geralt what he has missed at the training yard. Alyx is working the men to their bones on maneuvers, which they've improved on. Some soldiers from other provinces have even joined in to pass the time they must spend at the Kokiren court, showing their prowess of their own styles of training.

“They ask after you-” the guard begins to say, interrupted as someone yells, and then chokes, drawing Geralt's attention.

The enormous Tellan man has picked up Alyx in the hug you'd get from a bear, one arm barred around Alyx's ribs, the other around his throat. At all the tables, goblets are held aloft, confections frozen in mouths. The music, jovial and gentle, cuts off in a discordant tangle. Around the room, each at a different table, rise a handful of fae, some dressed in pastel party clothing, some dressed in the colours of their courts. All have weapons.

People begin to react, mouths filling with screams instead of cake, goblets dropping, wine soaking the tablecloths. The rogues pay no mind to the partygoers. They run down the aisles between tables and over the tables themselves toward the dais and the dance floor, where the royal family is. Where Jaskier is.

Ahead of them all, one man drops his robe to reveal two curved iron blades, one in each hand. He's headed straight to the Queen, picking up speed with each step. The Queen watches him run toward her, incredulous horror on her face. Beside her, Avaline screams, reaching for her mother. On the floor in front of them, surrounded by other courtiers, Jaskier pulls Lyra towards him, as if he has any hope of shielding her from the assassin's wicked blades.

Coming from the edges of the hall, their Captain being crushed by King Regnor's strongest man and unable to lead them, the Queensguard follows in the assassins' footsteps, over and between tables.

They're fast, but Geralt is faster.

Everyone's hearts are beating so quickly that all Geralt hears is a great buzzing fill the room. The man is almost upon Jaskier and Lyra. Jaskier closes his eyes, waiting to die. Geralt gets a boot on an empty seat, getting onto the very edge of the last table before the dance floor, and jumps.

He hits the man in the back, and they go down to the stone floor together. Pain explodes in Geralt's gut, worse than any time he's been stabbed, although neither of the blades cut him. It's the fae binding magic, fighting to keep Geralt under control. Whether he knows about it or not, the assassin takes advantage of it, slamming his own body back into Geralt's, winding him.

“Witcher,” he hisses as they tussle. “Join the right side. Don't let this bitch of a queen control you!”

The man viciously jabs his elbow into Geralt's sternum and slithers out from under him, intent on getting to Queen Mavaena. The other assassins are tangling with Queensguard, swords swinging on both sides. On the other side of the room, Mard runs his sword into the strong man's side, so deep the man grasps at the sword, dropping the purple-faced Alyx.

Screams of Run! and Kill them! echo up to the crystals in the ceiling, making their music grim, and Geralt has no idea whose voices he's hearing, courtier or killer. Still magic-sick, he gets up to chase the assassin, slowed now by the obstruction of the fae running and fighting.

He takes a few shaky steps and then Jaskier tackles him to the ground, scrabbling at him. Geralt shoves at him, trying to get away. He doesn't need protecting, not like the royals, not like Jaskier.

“Leave me!” he shouts. He rolls so Jaskier is under him, but before he can shove himself up Jaskier wraps a leg around his, pinning him down. Hands rip at his sleeves, drawing them up so Jaskier can hook his fingers in the iron cuffs around Geralt's wrists.

“No!” Geralt says, the muscle memory of pain gripping him, but Jaskier wrenches them off anyway. The pain is immeasurable, the white-hot nauseous rockslide Geralt remembers from the High Mage’s tower. For a moment, there is nothing but that pain, threatening to burn Geralt to ashes – but then through it, Geralt can feel Jaskier's palms on his wrists, steady and cold, dampening the burn down.

“Get up, Geralt.” It's Jaskier's voice, a thousand yards away through the fire, urgent, needing him. “We have to fight.” He squeezes Geralt’s wrists desperately. The cold of his palms penetrates deeper, giving Geralt something to cling to as he comes to his senses.

They rise together, supporting each other. In the fray, people have dropped weapons, in fear or injury. Jaskier retrieves a fae sword, long and thin, and presses the vine-carved hilt into Geralt's hand, folding Geralt's fingers around it.

“Go!” he yells, pulling a dagger out of a woman's belt to defend himself on his way back to Lyra, who's surrounded by guards now. It appears that the other assassins have been subdued, their weapons no match for the guards and the braver courtiers. The first assassin is still moving, using his blades to cut a bloody path to the Queen.

Geralt's wrists may be weak and scorched and his body trembling, but he's still a witcher, still faster. He catches the man again as he slices deeply into a guard's thigh, curved blade cutting to the bone. Taking advantage of the distraction, Geralt stomps on the back of the assassin's calf, bringing him howling to his knees in front of the dais. Geralt grabs him by the hair, wrenching his face back so he can bring his sword to the assassin’s throat.

The man snarls up at Geralt, hatred turning his fine fae features ugly. On his chest hangs an amulet in the shape of a sword, a city carved on its blade.

“You won't stop us,” he tells Geralt. “You couldn't if there were a hundred witchers at her service.”

Geralt holds the man by the hair and keeps him still with the threat of the blade. On the dais, the Queen turns away from the guard urging her out of the room to face Geralt and the man who would kill her.

“What would you have me do?” Geralt asks.

The Queen's face is hard, her fury obvious, despite her gentle hand on Avaline's arm, how tall she stands in the middle of the dais, how carefully she considers them.

“Witcher,” is all she says, nodding.

Geralt nods back. “Your Majesty,” he says, and makes the killing cut.

*

The assassin's blood has golden flecks in it when it dries on Geralt's bare wrist. It crumbles when Geralt rubs his thumb over it, smelling of iron just like the cuffs had.

The sound of boots running past their room, where they’ve retreated, is hectic and the shouts to find any traitors echo off the stone. Somewhere close by a door slams and someone screams. Geralt flinches. Sounds are loud, all his senses amplified by the magic running unchecked through his body with nowhere to go.

It's night outside, but the moon is too bright, bolstered by all the torches and lanterns on the grounds below. Geralt can see even the farthest spires through the window. There are no lanterns inside the room, all the servants running or hiding as the guards sweep through the castle.

Geralt rubs at the blood on his wrist and hisses as a lightning bolt runs up his arm from his wrist to his shoulder. Fiery pain flares in that wrist, the other throbbing in sympathy. Even torn off, the cuffs keep punishing Geralt.

“What is it?” Jaskier asks in the dark behind him. “Are you hurt?”

“No,” Geralt says as Jaskier comes into the moonlight shining in the window. His hair is wild from fighting, and then from him having his hands in it as he’s paced the room. His moss and copper diadem is gone, probably crushed under stampeding boots. “It's-”

Jaskier takes Geralt's wrist, lifting it so he can get a good look at it. He smells of iron too, but wherever the blood is on him, Geralt can't see it, not against the beautiful deep red of his wedding outfit.

*

Hours pass, the moon sinking down to the horizon as the noise in the castle fades, the softer steps of servants replacing the pounding of boots and armour. Sometime after the sun has risen, someone lightly taps on the door.

It's Lyra and her guards at the door, come to collect Jaskier.

“Mother wants to see us,” she murmurs. She's in a different, clean dress and her hair is combed, but it's obvious she hasn't kept well. This may be the first time she's ever witnessed the dark side of royal power. She speaks to Geralt but doesn't make eye contact with him “Geralt, you, you stay here. Don't leave the room. Lock it after us, understood?”

Jaskier follows her without saying anything, leaving Geralt with a worried look.

Geralt does as he's told, locking the door to the finest cell he's ever been in and sitting down to wait.

*

Jaskier's gone until well past nightfall, knocking at the door after the moon has risen high above the overgrown courtyard below the window. He's pale as death when Geralt lets him in, breath shaky in his chest.

“It's bad, Geralt,” he says, pacing in the dark. There are no luma lanterns tonight. No one brought any, and Geralt wouldn't have let them in even if they did. “Half the court are calling for your head. Despite what you did - you saved the Queen! They can only see that a witcher killed a fae. They believe you should die, Geralt.”

“And the other half?” Geralt asks.

“They say you killed one to protect all. That you're a hero. Lyra about screamed herself hoarse at some of the advisors.”

“And the Queen?” The court can tear itself in two if it likes. It's only the Queen's opinion that will keep Geralt alive.

Jaskier rubs his eyes, his inhale hitching. “I don't know.”

“It's alright,” Geralt says.

“Geralt,” Jaskier says, his own voice hoarse, tipping into Geralt's chest. He wraps his arms around Geralt tightly and puts his hot, wet face in the crook of Geralt's neck.

“It's alright,” Geralt says again, and means it. They have no reason to kill Jaskier, and as coniux, he has the princess' protection. He'll stay safe, no matter what happens to Geralt, and that's all Geralt cares about. He hugs Jaskier back, closing his eyes, letting himself have this one last comfort.

*

It's the Captain of the Queensguard himself who comes to summon Geralt in front of the Queen. His face worn above his bruised throat, his gold scars dull, his hair lank in his face.

If Alyx had brought shackles, Geralt would put them on without a fight, but he only gestures to the hallway with the hand he once pulled Geralt out of the mud with.

*

The great hall still has the enormous crystal shards hanging from the ceiling, although they hang still now, no breeze provoking their music. The tables and chairs are all still here, empty now, some of the chairs tipped over and the tables messy with spilled food and wine. On the rug in front of the dais where Jaskier and Lyra got married is the dark bloodstain marking where Geralt slit a fae's throat.

Queen Mavaena is seated on her throne, surrounded by silver branches and roots, Avaline seated at her right hand, Lyra and Mard and Jaskier standing beside them. No one is happy. Lyra's cheeks are wet, her brother's hands holding her shoulders, his thumbs rubbing to soothe her. Even Avaline, no friend of Geralt's, looks sorry to see him here.

Jaskier, who was called away before dawn, has a resigned look on his face. He shifts, as if he'd go to Geralt if he could, but he can't.

Alyx leaves Geralt to stand in the bloodstain and retreats to his own place, leaving Geralt alone again. Out of reflex, Geralt pushes his sleeves up, past where the cuffs had once been on his wrists.

“Geralt of Rivia,” the Queen says. There's only a handful of people here, but she still uses the level tone of a regent addressing a full court. “Witcher of the School of the Wolf, you stand before me having taken a fae life in this very room.”

“Yes,” Geralt says. His voice sounds small in the empty hall, but does not waver. He will not lie now.

“You did so, why?”

Geralt glances at Jaskier. “To protect you.”

“Do you hold murderous intent in your heart for the people of my queendom, or for any fae?”

“No. I only killed the one I did to keep him from killing others.”

Queen Mavaena takes a heavy breath, settling back in her throne for support. “My queendom is in chaos thanks to you, witcher. For many, hearing a witcher has slain a fae is their truest nightmare. They believe that now that you've done it once, you'll do it again, and again, not content until the forest grows strong from our spilled blood.”

“He won't, Mother!” Lyra bursts in. “He's not a monster! You saw him at the Giftell! And he saved you! You owe him a life debt!”

She jerks forward, but Mard holds her fast by her shoulders. Beside her, Jaskier seems frozen in place. He's looked nowhere else but at Geralt since Geralt stepped foot into the room. His new, unfamiliar heartbeat is fast, fluttering.

The Queen holds up her hand for peace.

“Lyra, I know. But I will not have your sister inherit a war with Ajax and civil unrest so that the witcher can keep a place at court. It will take months, perhaps years, to untangle this all. What am I to do in the meantime, lock him in the dungeon next to the traitors until the people believe him tame again? His own husband tells me that would be a crueler punishment than death for a witcher.”

She straightens up and her tone changes, addressing the destroyed hall the way she would a full court. “So, I cannot kill him and I cannot keep him. That leaves me little choice. Geralt of Rivia, witcher of the School of the Wolf, you will leave my land and return to your own on this day or no other.”

Silence rules while the Queen's pronouncement sinks in. Several people exhale heavily.

The Queen points to her daughter, who's crying. “Lyra, you will prepare the tear for him, wherever he needs to go.”

“Yes, mother,” Lyra croaks in relief, wiping tears from her face.

Even though he's to live, Geralt's blood runs cold. He ignores that, and the relief that comes with knowing he'll live a little longer.

“What about Jaskier?” he asks.

Finally, Jaskier looks away from Geralt, eyes dropping to the floor. One of his hands curls into a fist at his side.

The Queen shakes her head. “He is to remain here, with us, as the princess' coniux, to present a united front as we find the rest of the rot that has taken root in my court. He agreed to stay. He tells me he knows something of changing people's opinions of you.”

She gestures to the servant standing near her throne. “Kiri, make sure he has food and warm clothing for his return. Alyx, return to him his armour and weapons. Quickly, now.”

Everyone moves then, Alyx and the servant coming to Geralt while the royals recede, taking Jaskier with them. Geralt stays still, caught. The thought of having his swords again should please him, but there's no pleasure knowing that he'll have his swords back at the price of losing Jaskier.

*

The servant Kiri brings Geralt a pack loaded with clothing and dried food. On top of it are the shirt and breeches he was wearing when the guards captured him in the woods. After weeks of wearing silk and linen in the tight fae fit, the fabric feels rough and too loose when Geralt changes.

Another servant comes into the room, weighed down with Geralt's armor. Alyx follows behind with Geralt's swords, one in each hand.

“I've taken good care of them, witcher,” he assures Geralt. “I won't say I never took a swing with the silver one though, just to see what it felt like.”

Geralt starts putting on his armour, thankful to have his hands busy. “Did it suit you? This world can't lack for monsters.”

Alyx carefully lays the swords on the bed to wait while Geralt fastens his chest piece.

“I have my own monsters to worry about,” he says, frustration filling his voice. “I thought that after Tichor was gone there would be no more traitors among the men, but what remained were worse than him.” He restlessly pushes his hair back, revealing the scars on his scalp. “The Queen would be right to put me in the dungeon with the others. All of my training, and she almost died. Would have died, if not for you. And the others...” He shakes his head, viciously unhappy with himself.

Reaching for his swords, Geralt says, “You'll make it right. Find the good men and train them.”

Alyx raises a pale eyebrow. “To fight like witchers? Difficult to do with the witcher I'd have them model themselves after back in his own realm.”

“Use your imagination,” Geralt tells him, tightening the last buckle. “Tell them whatever you come up with is a sacred witcher technique, and make them do it a thousand times.”

Alyx chuckles, and reaches out to grip Geralt's wrist in the warrior way with his rough hand. “If you can return to us, witcher, then return to us. We owe you a good life. And if you can't return, then live a good life anyway.”

“I'll try,” Geralt says, even though he knows there's no good life for him if Jaskier's not in it. He appreciates the sentiment anyway.

Alyx looks beyond Geralt, to the door, and nods. He lets go of Geralt's arm. “Be well, Geralt.”

Jaskier's the one at the door, a drab grey cloak covering his clothing. He accepts the hand Alyx claps on his shoulder without comment and then closes the door once he's gone so they're alone together.

Looking Geralt over in his armour with his two swords on his back, his hair in the stubborn wedding braiding, Jaskier quietly says, “I think I lied before.”

Geralt shifts, trying to settle his swords on his shoulders. “About what?”

Smiling sadly, Jaskier takes Geralt by the shoulders and tips his forehead so it touches Geralt's. “This is the most handsome you've ever looked. I've always thought you looked your best in your armour.”

Geralt takes a breath of Jaskier, his skin and his sadness and his love. “Jaskier, I-”

“Don't,” Jaskier interrupts him. “Don't, Geralt. It'll make it harder to let you go.”

Geralt makes a frustrated noise, finding Jaskier's hips under the cloak, holding on. “Come with me. I don't know why you're staying.”

“To make it easier for them to let you go. You're not safe here now, but perhaps I can change that, given time.”

Geralt closes his eyes, aching all over. “We might never see each other again.”

Jaskier sighs, his nose brushing Geralt's, almost kissing him. “We will,” he murmurs. “You're mine, remember? I'll see you again. Now come on, we have to go.”

*

They slip out through a private garden, mindful not to be seen. Lyra meets them there, dressed in her tall boots and riding trousers. A dagger is on her belt, the handle a glowing blue crystal that shimmers.

“Is that necessary?” Jaskier asks, nodding to it.

Lyra shrugs, starting to lead them to the stables. “Mard insisted I take it.”

The path to the stables is empty, but the area around the stable is not, stablehands leading horses and yurra around, pouring water into troughs, cleaning muck. They creep into the stable unseen and find themselves face to face with a stablehand the princess' age, brown hair in thick looping braids and surprise on their face.

“Disa,” Lyra hisses. “Prepare us Joli, Hesta, and Din.”

When the stablehand hesitates until the princess draws a handful of coins from a satchel on her belt and presses them into their palm. “Please.”

The stablehand gapes at the gold in their palm before nodding shakily, hurrying away. The three of them wait in silence, watching the stablehand prepare three yurra. Just as they're leading them out of their stalls, a voice outside cajoles the stablehands into working faster, harder, as boots approach the stable.

“Behind us, Geralt,” Lyra commands, winding her arm through Jaskier's, making a wall in front of Geralt. She's just about as tall as Jaskier, and with them both cloaked in the dim stable, it provides some meagre cover for Geralt.

The stablemaster, a fae with brown hair streaked with moonlight-silver comes in and immediately greets Lyra with a warm smile. “Princess, what brings you to me this fine day?”

“Oh, Jorg,” Lyra says, leaning girlishly on Jaskier, playing at newlywed, “we wish to go riding, escape the unpleasantness for the afternoon. It's been so awful.” She moans, spoiled, upset at the inconvenience of almost being assassinated.

“I know, I know, Your Highness,” the stablemaster croons. “Once they kill the witcher and the other traitors, things will return to normal.”

The stablehand, reins jingling in their fist and coins jingling in their pocket, brings the yurra forward.

Jorg looks the three yurra over, eye turning critical. “Will the prince be joining you? Din is his mount.”

“Ah,” Lyra says, shifting.

Her movement allows the stablemaster a glimpse of Geralt in his armour, his two swords on his back. He curses. “Princess! Are you abetting in the witcher's escape? His head should be on a pike! You can't let him leave!”

He lunges at Lyra, getting a hold of her wrist, either to get her out of the way or to use her against Geralt. She yelps, flailing for her dagger.

Geralt lifts his hand. His magic swells, bursting out of his palm. The Aard he casts is so strong the stablemaster is flung into the back wall of a stall. He falls into the muck, unconscious.

Lyra, only now getting her dagger from her belt, turns to Geralt with wide eyes. “I -I - I didn't know you could do that!”

Geralt flexes his fingers, magic crackling under his skin. “I couldn't before.”

Recovering, Lyra catches the reins of the nearest yurra and gives them to Geralt. “Will you teach me?”

Geralt laughs, adrenaline making him feel wild. “If you teach me how to ride one of these.”

“It's easy,” Lyra says, getting into the saddle of her mount Joli. “They move more freely than a horse, but it won’t feel like it at first. Let me guide them.”

The yurra is taller than a horse, but once Geralt's in the saddle it feels familiar enough. Hesta or Din, whichever he's on, even flicks a large oval ear at Geralt, like Roach might when he hasn't seen her for a while.

Lyra sets her own mount to walking and clicks her tongue over her shoulder. “Hesta, Din, come now,” she says, and both other yurra follow her.

They ride like royals through the castleyard, calm and collected, but as they pass through the eastern gate, someone in the distance behind them yells. Without pausing to see if it's directed at them, Lyra yells, “Vado!, and they're off, racing through the long lacy-grassed plain separating the castle and the forest.

No one follows them. Geralt risks a look back once he's sure his yurra won't trip or buck him off, but there's no riders in pursuit, no mob with pitchforks at the games. There's just a beautiful, seashell-white castle, its tower and spires rising into the smoky quartz sky.

*

The yurra enter the forest at a full gallop, not at all bothered by the transition from open field to close trees. Geralt ducks low to his mount's neck and hopes he doesn't lose his head to a stiff branch after he's managed to avoid losing it to a blade. Beside him, Jaskier does the same, his curses whipped behind them by the wind. Ahead, Lyra's bent over Joli like a racer, calling, “Follow, follow!” to the yurra.

They ignore the horse path, running through the ferns and moss, jumping felled trees, going deeper and deeper into the forest, until they reach a clearing.

Lyra slings herself off her mount, inspecting the area while she catches her breath. She takes a moment to collect herself and then pulls from inside her shirt a piece of parchment. She unfolds it and orients it correctly, before bringing it to Geralt.

It's a map of the Continent, written by a shaky hand, so old the ink has faded in places. Some of the names are unfamiliar to Geralt, or ones he's only heard from Vesemir, places whose names have since changed.

“Where do you need to go?” Lyra asks.

Geralt looks the map over. He and Jaskier had been on their way to Vizima from Skellige. Before all this. He can’t even remember why.

“Send him to Kaer Morhen,” Jaskier says, pointing to the map. “It's his home.”

Lyra looks at the place on the map where the little mountain range is drawn, Kaer Morhen written over it, for a moment, and then tips her face to the trees, sensing.

“It's far from here, but I can do it,” she decides. She brings the map to the centre of the clearing and kneels down with it in front of her, sitting with her hands on her knees as if she's meditating.

“Stay back,” she cautions. “Jaskier, hold onto Joli.” Once she deems them all ready, Lyra takes a deep breath and puts her palms to the ground in front of her.

Nothing moves, but a sensation comes, one of rising that's so strong Geralt almost feels like he's leaving the earth, his hair lifting from his shoulders, his amulet rising. Jaskier ducks a little, reflexively, and the yurra stamp their hooves and snort.

On the ground, Lyra has her fingers clawed in the grass, almost pulling at it. Her face is coloured with exertion, her eyebrows so pinched they're almost touching. The sensation builds and builds, winding tighter and tighter until it finally snaps. Still in place, everything sags, something torn.

Catching her breath again, Lyra stands, wiping the dust from her knees. When she can, she speaks. “Your Kaer Morhen is far on the other side of the mirror. It will take time for the mirror to tear enough to let you pass. In the meantime, I have something to show you.”

*

They ride until the forest ends, revealing a great lake. The lake's water is clear and calm, shining in the sun like a crystal, and the shore of it is covered in grey sand with a rainbow sheen.

“Wow,” Jaskier says as they stop the yurra where the grass turns to sand.

“This is Uma Lake,” Lyra tells them. “I meant to bring you here earlier, Jaskier, but could never find the time.”

Jaskier's already dismounting his yurra, eyes on the water. “I've never seen such a beautiful lake.” He walks onto the sand, marvelling at the beauty of it.

Geralt takes a step to follow him, but Lyra stops him with a hand on his arm.

“I know he's your love,” she murmurs, “but I made a promise to him as well, and it's one I'm intent on honouring. I promise I'll do everything I can to keep him safe once you're gone, Geralt.”

She looks at him with serious eyes the same colour as the lake, her pale mouth firm. She's done nothing but fight for Geralt since he walked into the Queen's great hall; he has no doubt she'll fight for Jaskier if she has to.

Geralt grips her elbow, hoping to convey all his gratitude in the one touch. “Thank you, princess.”

She smiles warmly at him, and together they look to Jaskier.

The hood on his cloak is down, midday breeze ruffling his hair. He's standing so close to the lake his boots must be getting wet. Jaskier's always been captivated by the water, has told Geralt some of the best songs are about the sea. They'd been coming from Skellige when they fell, Jaskier still talking about the beauty of the coast before he picked the heartblossom at the centre of the mushroom ring.

Sensing he's being watched, Jaskier looks back over his shoulder at them and smiles, his eyes on Geralt's. Maybe he's thinking the same thoughts as Geralt, or maybe he's just so pleased by the beauty of the lake before him he's smiling. No matter what it is, Geralt loves him and is going to miss him terribly.

“Come on,” Lyra says, leading Geralt to Jaskier. She opens the satchel on her belt where she kept the coins she bribed the stablehand with and pulls out a copper key.

“Do you see that?” She points with one gloved finger to a place further along the curve of the lake. On that distant shore sits a little cabin. It looks to be well-kept, built of dark wood with a black brick chimney, no smoke rising.

“A man used to live there,” Lyra says, brushing some of her hair behind her pointed ear. “A human man. Petur, he was called. He liked mushrooms, fell into our realm picking them. I never knew him. He died before I was born. But my mother knew him, and liked him well enough to let him live there for many years.” She turns the key over in her hand, looking down at it before holding it out to Jaskier. “It seems right that it should belong to a human again.”

Jaskier takes the key from Lyra, surprised. “This is very kind of you. You don't have to give this to me.”

“We can call it a wedding gift,” Lyra says. “You can come whenever you like. Maybe you can write more beautiful songs here.”

“I'll try,” Jaskier says, rubbing his fingers over the key as the breeze blows and the waves lap at the shore, this world's own quiet song.

*

When they return to the clearing, around the place where Lyra kneeled, is a ring of mushrooms and flowers, glowing softly in pastel blues and pinks. Lyra crouches outside the ring and tests the ground inside with a knuckle.

“It's almost torn through,” she says. “Geralt?”

He walks toward it, but before he can cross into the ring, Lyra puts her arms around him, hugging him tight.

“I'll miss you,” she says into his neck. “Stay safe, coniux-carus. We'll find a way to contact you through the mirror.”

It may not be befitting his station as coniux-carus or savage witcher to hug a princess, but Geralt does it anyway. She never intended for any of this, and has done her best. He knows she'll care for Jaskier just as she promised.

She lets him go, and before he can change his mind, Geralt steps into the ring. The ground doesn't crumble beneath him, as it had when Jaskier picked the heartsblossom, but it doesn't feel solid either. Even if he can't see it there's a sponginess to the earth, a give.

“You may want to lie down,” Lyra advises him. “It's not so sudden that way.”

That makes sense. Geralt lies down, cool grass tickling his neck, the leaves of the trees above him dark and shivering. Jaskier kneels outside the ring, the light of it illuminating his fidgeting fingers. He calms his fidgeting by leaning dangerously over the ring to take Geralt's wrist, rubbing his thumb over Geralt's pulse.

“Be careful,” he says. His eyes are bright and sad, full of unsaid things they don’t have time for now.

“You too,” Geralt replies, trying to say the same things in those two words. He feels like he's sinking. The ground around him is still there, but the tear pulls at Geralt, drawing his soul down. He has to follow it.

“You should let me go,” he murmurs. His vision is darkening.

Jaskier says something, but it's indistinct, echoing. He doesn't let Geralt's wrist go, but the feeling of his fingers fades away, even though Geralt tries to hold onto it for as long as he can. His eyelids feel leaden so he lets them drop, waiting for the mirrortear to take him.

*

Geralt falls again.

This time there's nothing to see. No light from the closing tear, no hair in his face, no Jaskier drifting above him. This time he's alone in the dark, body numb, soul stretching for the Continent. There's no way of keeping time, but it feels endless. Sometimes he's aware, memories of this time and the past playing out in front of his eyes, and sometimes he's not, too far away to know himself at all.

As before, there's a moment when Geralt senses a shift in himself. He can't feel his body well enough to understand it for a long time, until his medallion touches his chest, its magic all Geralt can feel. He's rising now.

Above him, far above, Geralt can see where he's rising to, a place in the dark that isn't quite so dark. It's a blurry grey, hopefully thin enough for Geralt to find his way through.

He's almost there. Geralt's soul sinks back into him as breath fills lungs. The tear approaches, its dim light hard to handle after so much dark. Geralt closes his eyes again.

*

When he opens his eyes, the world is white and cold. Geralt is sure he's died until he blinks and finds his eyelashes are wet. He does it again and senses that his whole face is wet. He lifts a hand to his face and then looks at his fingers. They come away water-wet. Geralt turns his hand to see snow melting on his knuckles.

He sits up, the layer of snow covering him sliding to his lap. There's snow all around him, the ground thick with it, more falling from the knife-grey sky. He's not sure exactly where, but some part of him knows he's on the path that leads to Kaer Morhen.

There are no signs of the tear. The snow on the ground is undisturbed, sparkling and cold and the sky offers no answers but more snow.

He gets up, body dull and distant except for his wrists, which ache and tingle, and shakes off the snow, the sensation of falling, the knowledge that it was late summer when he left this world. He starts to walk in the direction his soul knows Kaer Morhen to be. Behind him in the snow, he leaves the impression of a man fallen from nowhere.

*

On foot in the snow, and exhausted from the fall, Geralt doesn't reach Kaer Morhen until after dark. He has to walk the last part of the path with only the faint orange light that comes from a few of the windows as a guide. The sky's grey has deepened to the colour of iron, snow still falling, the flakes heavy and sticky, the wind gathering power for a storm.

Geralt shakes himself off like a dog at the door. There was a winter cloak in the pack from the fae, but even still, he's wet and freezing when he gets inside. He's tempted to sink into the first chair he can find, or to even just put his back to wall and let himself slide down to the floor, but instead he follows the sound of life through the corridors. He's not even looking where he's going, just letting his senses guide him to the right room. It's harder than it should be to push the wooden door open when he gets there.

He lets himself rest on the frame, his soul finally settling at the sight before him: Eskel, Lambert, and Vesemir sitting at a table in front of the fire, Eskel and Lambert sharing in the telling of a story, half-finished meals in front of them.

Maybe Geralt makes a noise, or maybe they just know, because they all look to him at simultaneously, the story dropping dead as they see him.

Lambert’s knife clatters to the table.

“Fuck me,” he says. “Geralt, is that you?”

*

They get him situated in his seat at the table, a cup of warmed wine in front of him, and then Eskel asks, “Where have you been?”

Geralt wraps a steadying hand around his cup but doesn't drink. His guts haven't been right since the ground disappeared underneath him. “What do you mean?”

Eskel sits heavily next to him, worry hard on his face. “No one's seen you in months. We thought you dead. I rode along the coast for a week looking for your body.”

Lambert sits on Geralt's other side, knife back in hand. He leans in, breathing deeply, grimacing. “You stink. Like a coin doused in perfume. Did you get trapped in a brothel?”

Vesemir intervenes, pulling Lambert out of his seat by the shoulder. “Give him some air. Like neither of you've ever dropped off the map before. Get him something to eat and put some wood on the fire.”

Geralt finds Vesemir's eye and nods, grateful for the diversion.

*

There are more questions, but Geralt doesn't have the energy nor the clarity of mind to answer them. He eats the bland food they give him and drinks the weak, flat wine in his cup, but doesn't feel better after. It takes the rest of his energy for him to walk alongside Eskel to his room. Eskel helps free him from weight of his swords and his armour with kind hands, but leaves him be after that. Geralt is grateful for it but can't find the energy to say so. He sinks into his bed, pulling the covers over himself so it's totally dark and falls asleep.

*

As the storm that followed him howls outside, Geralt dreams of falling.

He's walking along a trail in the sun, a song following him. The scene changes, the song too, Jaskier sitting in next to him at the fireside now, singing to Geralt about a thief who learned to get everything he wanted by telling the truth. There's firelight caught in the hollow of his throat, one of the many places Geralt has thought about putting his mouth. Embarrassed by his lust, Geralt lifts his gaze only to see blood start to pour out of Jaskier's mouth, his eyes bulging in terror as he reaches out for Geralt to catch him. The fear Geralt feels, seeing him still on the bed, the yawning abyss of the lie of the word friend. The squirming pleasure of Jaskier bending down to pluck a flower out of the grass to give to Geralt, one Geralt's never seen before with long petals, each the colour of a heart freshly plucked from a chest.

The smell of him, comforting and familiar. The way he sighed when he kissed Geralt, how he hadn't looked at Geralt after he'd said he would stay and Geralt would go.

Geralt wakes up, jerking in the small bed that smells musty from disuse. The fire has burned low, and someone pulled the curtains closed, although Geralt can hear the wind shaking the glass. He sits up, uncomfortably awake.

He goes down to the kitchen, where Vesemir is sitting in the dark drinking wine and warming his boots by the fire. Geralt picks up the wine bottle and doesn't bother finding a cup for it. He takes a drink and sits on the bench next to Vesemir's chair.

Vesemir turns a lazy, mindful eye on Geralt. “Alright?”

Geralt takes another drink, frowning at the taste of it, how it coats his tongue. “No. Did you know fae are real?”

It's Vesemir's turn to take a drink, although his is much more moderate. He puts one of his boots flat on the floor. “I suspected so.”

“Then why did you tell us all those stories?”

Vesemir smirks at the fire. “To see if you were listening.” He takes another drink, one Geralt matches. “Geralt, I don't know what's true and what's not. I've never seen one, only people who have. Smelled the fae magic that comes from eating their food on them. Copper and flowers. Like you. It fades eventually.”

Like everything does. Geralt takes a drink and rubs his face. The fire pops and hisses. Vesemir turns the cup in his fingers and then asks, “What's it like? The fae world?”

“Like ours, but different,” Geralt says, staring at the fire, unable to put into words the upside-down beauty he saw and impossible good thing that happened to him there.

*

The days are short, the sun hardly seeming to appear in the sky before it takes shelter behind the horizon again, but the winter is long. Geralt does the things he would normally do, repairing his armour and weapons, training with the others, living quietly. But the pleasure, like the taste of food and drink, is dulled.

He never knows how to explain what happened to him, but it doesn't take long for Lambert and Eskel to stop asking. They've all seen things they don't know how to explain. This is one of Geralt's.

It's good to be around them again, but Geralt is the first to set out once spring reaches Kaer Morhen, before the mud on the pass has even dried. He heads toward Skellige. Eskel had loaned him some coin for a new horse, but Geralt stays on foot. It takes longer to get there, but he doesn't mind. He has nothing but time now.

At the coast he stops to admire the sea and get his bearing for a day, and then follows his own old footsteps until he gets to a village he knows has a cockatrice plaguing it, since he's the witcher that took the contract for it.

The man who sells potion goods also keeps horses for a fee. When he sees Geralt he goes grey as though he's seeing a ghost, but takes Geralt's loaned coin and vague apology anyway, stammering, “Y-yes, I kept her, yes, yes, you said you'd b-be back,” as he does.

Roach doesn't give him much of a welcome, and he can't blame her. Geralt didn't mean to leave her for a whole season, but she doesn't know that. Still, she lets him get in her saddle, flicking her ear at him.

As he turns her toward the road, a sense memory comes over him. Being bent low over the back of a different beast, Jaskier at his side, Lyra ahead of him, his cursing and her shouting echoing in the trees. Geralt ignores it, turning his thoughts to the cockatrice and how he'll finally slay it.

*

With nothing to distract him now, it's not hard to find the cockatrice, although he has to go deep in the forest, past a place with a ring of dead grass and dried mushrooms, to get there. The cockatrice screams at him from its mound of broken bones, and Geralt, denied a proper fight for months, goes to it savagely.

*

After he finishes with the cockatrice, there are other roads to travel, monsters to hunt, coin to collect. Geralt applies himself to the work as if he has no other purpose, no other feeling than bloodlust.

The days are long with travel and stained with blood, and Geralt is exhausted to incoherence after many of them. But still ,he dreams more than he ever has in his life. He dreams of a strange but beautiful world, including parts of it he's never seen before, and a figure with her hair worn down in the way girls do, although he can't see her face well enough to know if he knows her or not. But mostly he dreams of Jaskier. Sometimes of his smile or laugh or his kiss, but sometimes just the beat of his heart of smell of his skin, or just the knowledge of his body there in the dark with Geralt.

*

He doesn't find the letter. The letter finds him. He's minding the fire early one morning, occasionally murmuring to Roach, when he hears the sound of something landing softly nearby. He has to look around for a while until he spots the letter innocently balanced on top of his pack. The envelope and letter are both of heavy, good quality paper and the penmanship is unmistakably Jaskier's.

I'm coming home, it reads in ink that sparkles like nothing else in the light. Will you meet me?

Geralt flips the paper. On the other side is a map, Geralt written over the exact place Geralt's camped at and a trail leading to where Geralt should go. It's not labelled and Geralt’s never been there before, but he recognizes the mirror image of it.

*

He arrives before Jaskier. He doesn't bother tying Roach, tired from days of being pushed, instead letting her roam free so she can eat and drink as she please. There's food and water for him in his pack but Geralt doesn't bother, too full of nerves for anything else.

To stretch his legs, he walks to the edge of the lake. The curve of it is the same as Uma Lake, but the water doesn't sparkle like crystal here and the sand is a flat brown instead of a pearly grey. The sound of the waves lapping at the rocks is still soothing. Geralt listens to it, breathing in time with the water until he hears footsteps behind him and turns.

Jaskier's watching him from a distance. He's dressed in new clothing, fae silk and fit, wearing a cloak fastened with a silver heartsblossom pin, but his hair is short, how he prefers to have it cut each spring. He's luminous from the Vitae in his blood, as young and beautiful as he was the last time Geralt saw him.

“You made it,” he says.

You made it,” Geralt responds. “How did you manage it?”

“For someone who swears she doesn't care for a love marriage, Lyra's quite the romantic,” Jaskier says, chuckling. “Once she heard I was missing out on the chance to tromp through the woods with you on monster hunts, she could hardly stand it. Said you might need me.” He bites his lip, eyes on the green grass under his feet, pink coming into his face.

“It's been quiet without you.” Geralt has killed more monsters than he has in years, and has the coin to show for it. But that isn't what he means. No one speaks to him except for contract-holders, and he only hears songs in his sleep. “Are you here for good?”

Jaskier shakes his head. “Unfortunately not.” He holds up his right hand. On his ring finger is a dark grey ring cast with tiny bright blue sigils. “This will tell me when I have to return.”

He rubs his thumb over it, and says, a little shyly, “It's iron. Lyra had your cuffs melted down.” Reflexively, he touches a small velvet satchel on his belt, perhaps where he keeps the ring when he's not wearing it.

That does something to Geralt's insides, brings his blood to life. He grunts, unable to put the feeling into words.

Still shy, Jaskier drops his hand. “I told you, she's a romantic.”

They both go quiet, feet of empty space and sun-hot grass between them. Geralt feels as he did when Eskel and Lambert asked him about his disappearance to the fae world, as if he's grasping after a dream that's fading further from his hands every moment.

This isn't how Geralt imagined their reunion. When he's got a firm grip on his thoughts, he imagines Jaskier falling into step with him on the road, lute on one shoulder, pack on the other, some quip about the passage of time on his tongue. Or Geralt sees the poster on a town's board, Traveling Bard! Plays Every Night of the Week!, and slips into the back of the crowd. In his more secret thoughts and some of his dreams, it's more of a crash than a conversation, a body pressing Geralt's back into some dark alcove as if they never left, rough hands and a demanding mouth. He never imagined this: tension tight between them, awkwardness curling in Geralt's belly.

He rubs his shoulder, where the armour chafes. “Did you know it would be here?” He nods to the cabin. It's not as finely crafted as Petur's cabin in the fae realm, the wood more worn, the curtains covering the windows sunbleached. No one has been here for years, not even to care for it.

Jaskier's eyes lift from Geralt's shoulder. He nods. “I hoped. Not everything is reflected, but the cabin is a human building in a fae land. It straddles the mirror in a way that makes it more visible on each side. Both belong to me now, I suppose.”

“Will you stay here?” Despite his attempt at evenness, a plaintive note finds its way into Geralt's voice. There's a little wind rustling the grass and making the waves on the lake choppy, Geralt hopes it whisks the note away, but Jaskier catches it anyway.

“Yes,” he says, raising his eyebrows. “Do you not want to stay here?” His voice is careful, neutral, but his eyes are searching Geralt’s face.

Geralt shrugs his sore shoulder. “This is your place.”

“Oh, Geralt,” Jaskier says, relieved by that somehow, and bridges the gap between them until he's standing right in front of Geralt, the shiny toes of his fae boots touching the dusty ones of Geralt's. He takes Geralt by the shoulders with gentle hands. “We're married. What's mine is yours.”

Geralt tries to laugh, but his laughter can't make it past his heart, stuck in his throat. He reaches out, to hold Jaskier's waist, thumbs slipping on silk. Jaskier lets him, eyes softening in pleasure, tongue on his own lower lip.

“We're married,” he murmurs again. “You should kiss me.”

Geralt does, leaning in to kiss Jaskier with all the love and care he was too afraid to kiss Jaskier with the morning they were married. Jaskier's mouth tastes the way his skin smelled in the mornings he woke up beside Geralt in bed, sweet and happy.

When the kiss ends, Jaskier puts his forehead against Geralt's and closes his eyes. His fingers find the grooves in Geralt's armour easily, as if he's imagined putting his fingers there many times.

Geralt takes a breath. The question comes out of him without much thought, although he's thought of it often these long months without Jaskier. “Why didn't you tell me about the Vitae?”

Jaskier opens his eyes, lifts his forehead from Geralt's but not his fingers from Geralt's armour. “Hundreds of years is a long time to ask you to commit to me.”

“Is it? You committed the same to me, didn't you?”

Jaskier opens his mouth, and then closes it, exhaling. “I did,” he admits.

“Then I do too,” Geralt tells him, and his smile is the most beautiful thing on either side of the mirror.

Carus,” he breathes, his Fae accent better than ever, and pulls Geralt into the kind of kiss Geralt remembers, hot-tongued and hungry. Geralt returns it, hands gripping his arse instead, squeezing. They kiss until they run out of breath and Jaskier makes a sound of frustration at how Geralt's armour resists his prying fingers.

“Wait,” he says, “wait,” and lets Geralt go to open the velvet satchel on his belt. From it he draws a copper key, which ends up pressed between his palm and Geralt's cheek as they kiss again. It's cool, but Jaskier's palm around it is warm.

Jaskier goes to the cabin's door, leaving Geralt in the sun to stand in the shadow it casts. He fumbles the key when Geralt puts his nose against the nape of his neck, which is something Geralt has thought about doing but never actually done. Jaskier's skin smells of copper and flowers there, fae smells, but that will fade in time. Time they have together. Overcome, Geralt presses his closed mouth firmly to Jaskier's skin before kissing his nape properly, tasting him, sweat and soap and anticipation.

“Geralt,” Jaskier protests, but he's laughing as the door unlocks. And then he's turning, his back to the open door so he can get his hands on both of Geralt's wrists, pulling him over the threshold of their home.