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unring the bell

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Jaskier did not go to the coast.

In defiance of Destiny, it had been his plan to go to the coast. He bought himself a horse and aimed for the sea, thinking it was as simple as that, but like most life-changing choices it was not simple at all.

He found himself crab-walking, slowly sidestepping his way down in a southerly direction instead of an easterly one. He dragged his heels on his way to Cintra, once he realized that that was his unconscious destination. His progress was slow, both because he was reluctant to get himself further involved in Geralt’s affairs, and because he was afraid to stray too far from Caingorn Mountain.

It was irrational, but he had been hoping that if he lingered, Geralt might chase after him.

Then two things happened almost simultaneously. First, Jaskier learned of Cintra’s fall and the royal family dead, the young princess missing. He felt pain and guilt that he hadn’t made it in time to see her, and now probably never would. The second thing that happened is that he found himself waylaid by an ambush of Nilfgaardian soldiers and there was no Geralt leaping out, steel sword drawn, to save him. Being just a humble bard, he had little choice but to go quietly.

He finds himself now traveling to an unknown destination, his hands bound before him and the reins of his horse’s bridle held by a soldier beside him. He thinks often of digging in his heels, spurring his horse forward and galloping away, but Hayseed is not Roach, and they’ve only just met, so Jaskier can’t imagine actually escaping three trained soldiers that way. It’s only a vague daydream that nags at him the longer they travel. He looks to one side and the other, seeing only the tempting freedom of open countryside. Ahead of him is the unknown.

They haven’t said what they want of him, but he’s not stupid and he can take a guess. ‘The witcher’s bard’, they’d called him when they caught him that morning nursing a hangover in the common room of an inn, in a town whose name he can’t even remember. He had finally made it relatively far from Caingorn Mountain into Redania, certainly not far enough for the memory to fade into a blunt ache instead of a jagged spike in his chest, but possibly far enough that Geralt wouldn’t even hear of his capture, wherever he had gone after…

After.

Jaskier now regrets his crawling pace and his indecision. Perhaps they would never have found him, had he been cozied up in some little inn by the sea.

That first day he tries to fill the silence as they travel with inane commentary, talking until his throat hurts, despite not receiving any response from any of the soldiers. He tries not to think of Geralt’s irritated grunts. At least Geralt would acknowledge him.

Eventually the commander of the trio of soldiers rides up beside him and smacks him across the face, hard enough that his jaw blooms with pain and he loses his breath for a moment, tasting a slight tang of blood. Jaskier knows it could have been a much harder hit.

“Shut the fuck up, bard, or I’ll gag you.”

The commander rides back up to the front of the group and the soldiers snicker meanly. Jaskier lifts his bound hands to touch his bruised jaw. He’s taken harder hits in tavern brawls, but this is different. This scares him. He keeps his mouth shut.

They make camp in a large clearing by a stream. The horses gather at the water’s edge, and Jaskier is yanked roughly off of Hayseed’s back. He lands badly on his hip, the impact jarring his whole body. He can feel the jolt in his clenched teeth. A soldier leads Hayseed to the water.

Jaskier is tossed down with his back to a tree and bound there, the rope cutting into his middle and his back pressed to the rough bark. It rips his silk doublet and Jaskier winces, though he knows it doesn’t matter. He knows he’s been lucky so far that he hasn’t received more than some rough treatment. He wonders what will happen when they reach their destination.

They do not feed him. They offer him some water, which he drinks quickly, soothing his parched throat. Jaskier flexes his jaw and feels the bruising there. Nothing damaged, no loose teeth. He’s lucky and he knows it. He bites back his meager bravery and waits.

Eventually the commander comes to tower over him. He’s a large man, with broad shoulders and meaty hands and a permanent sneer on his face. One of the soldiers had addressed him as Rugin.

“We were instructed to bring you alive,” Rugin rumbles, his voice naturally rough. He makes Geralt’s voice sound smooth as silk in comparison. “Orders never said we couldn’t knock you around a little.”

Jaskier tries not to shrink back, but his eyes widen. “I haven’t done anything,” he protests before he can think better of it.

Rugin smiles. “Who said we need a reason?”

Jaskier closes his eyes and doesn’t see the boot when it lands in his stomach, or the next kick to his ribs. Rugin laughs and wanders away again, leaving Jaskier to catch his breath. He can’t double over because he’s tied too tightly to the tree, but he draws his legs up in belated protection. The soldiers by the fire are staring at him with interest.

Sleep is a long time coming as he watches the soldiers bed down. Jaskier waits for one of them to approach him but they don’t, and eventually Jaskier falls asleep with his chin tucked to his chest.

~*~

He wakes in the morning with the worst neck ache he’s ever had, and his whole body is stiff and painful. His first thought is of Geralt, and he winces. He can’t rely on Geralt anymore. Geralt is a vain hope, and Jaskier wants to remain practical as long as possible.

He watches the soldiers pack up their camp, and eventually one of them comes over and unties him from the tree. The soldier allows him to relieve himself, and he awkwardly maneuvers his clothing with bound hands. He manages it, but now he notices how much his wrists burn from the rope, and how numb his fingers are.

“I don’t suppose you’d loosen these ropes,” Jaskier says hopefully, forgetting to hold his tongue. “At this rate my hands will fall off before we get where we’re going.”

Rugin approaches with an arched eyebrow. “You won’t need your hands where we’re going.”

Jaskier feels the blood drain from his face, though he maintains his bravado. “I have to lodge a formal complaint. A bard always needs his hands. I could play for you,” he offers desperately, forgetting for a moment that the soldiers had taken him with nothing but the clothes on his back. All his things were abandoned at the inn, including his priceless lute. “Or maybe I could sing. Your men must be longing for some entertainment.”

“Bard, you’re already the entertainment.” Rugin bares his crooked teeth in a warning grin, and Jaskier curses his runaway mouth. Nevertheless, Rugin loosens the rope and knots it again, and Jaskier’s hands tingle painfully as the blood rushes back through them.

“Thank you,” Jaskier whispers, hating himself for feeling gratitude.

Rugin responds by shoving Jaskier toward Hayseed, who is waiting placidly nearby. A soldier helps him onto the horse and Jaskier settles himself into the saddle. He tangles his fingers into Hayseed’s mane, gripping tightly to something that is his. Something they haven’t taken away from him yet.

At lunch the soldiers take turns with their fists, never hard enough to break, just hard enough to knock the breath from Jaskier’s lungs. He curls up on the ground and tries to recite poetry in his head, but the rhythm of the beating throws him off.

~*~

They reach their destination just before sunset. The camp is set up in a large clearing in the forest around a central campfire, already blazing. There is a freshly killed deer carcass nearby and meat roasting over the fire. Jaskier counts nine soldiers in total, plus a woman in an elegant silver doublet and a split skirt for riding. She’s too perfect to be anything other than a mage.

Jaskier is dragged within the circle of the camp and shoved to the ground, crashing awkwardly on his knees. When he looks up there is a man crouching down before him, staring with a piercing, cool gaze. Jaskier blinks.

“You are the witcher’s bard, are you not?”

“Not anymore,” Jaskier replies honestly. He senses that he won’t receive a punch from this man for talking, so he talks about nothing at all just to hear his own voice again. “So if it’s Geralt you’re after, I’m afraid you’ve got the wrong person. An unfortunate confusion, but I’m happy to be on my way and save you the trouble of asking me anything I wouldn’t have answers to anyway.”

The man tilts his head to the side, examining Jaskier. “You’re mouthy.”

Jaskier nods. “I’ve been accused of that before. It’s a gift and a curse.”

The man stands up. He is very tall and slender, and clad in black armor that doesn’t appear to have any affiliation with an army, but his accent, like all the other soldiers, is Nilfgaardian. Jaskier feels very small there on his knees.

“I’m glad you like to talk. You’ll be doing a lot of talking for me, bard.”

“I’m better at singing, honestly,” Jaskier says, lifting his chin.

The man almost smiles, and the calm of his expression unsettles Jaskier more than Rugin’s threats. “I’m sure you’ll be doing a lot of that too.”

Jaskier doesn’t think he means music.

“Fringilla,” the man calls, and the mage joins them.

“Cahir. Who is this?”

The man, Cahir, gestures at Jaskier. “The witcher’s bard. They finally found him.”

She nods, her dark eyes sweeping over Jaskier. “Excellent. We can start tomorrow.”

“Start what?” Jaskier asks, looking between them. He really doesn’t want to know, but he can’t seem to keep his mouth shut. Rugin looms behind him, but so far hasn’t made any move to cuff him for his insolence. “I’d like to be dressed for the occasion, and I’m afraid this outfit hasn’t held up well.”

“Oh, he’s funny,” the mage says, though she doesn’t crack a smile.

“I thought you’d like to begin right away, Fringilla,” Cahir says, frowning.

She purses her full lips. “If you wish.”

“Where would you like him?”

“Tie him to one of the trees.”

Fringilla approaches him while Rugin lashes him to a small tree, and Jaskier can’t take his eyes off her. Unlike Rugin’s brutish manner and Cahir’s unsettling composure, the mage Fringilla is like a frozen stream--things lurk beneath the ice, slowly shifting, barely glimpsed.

“You’re going to tell me all you know,” Fringilla says, her voice low and implacable.

“Where to begin,” Jaskier replies, and his voice barely shakes. “I studied the seven liberal arts at Oxenfurt, so I know quite a bit. We should probably break it all down by subject first, or--”

Jaskier’s head snaps back into the tree when Fringilla touches her finger to his forehead. Instantly there is a searing pain ripping through his consciousness, and he can feel her rooting around in there with spidery fingers. He knows when someone is trying to read his mind, he’s been around enough magic-users to recognize that much.

“Where is the witcher?” Fringilla asks slowly, succinctly.

He closes himself off, does his best to recite his own poetry and not think of Geralt of Rivia. He must succeed, because Fringilla breaks off after a few minutes with a frustrated sound. Jaskier reels with pain and squeezes his eyes shut against the fading sunlight.

“Surprising,” she murmurs, sounding both irritated and intrigued.

“What is?” Cahir asks, much closer than before.

Fringilla steps back from Jaskier. “He’s resistant. He must have had training.”

Jaskier can’t help the snort of inappropriate laughter that bubbles out of him. There is a certain kind of irony there, in that the person who had coached him against mind manipulation is the same person they want to find. After meeting Yennefer a few times, Jaskier had become paranoid that she could be reading his mind. Despite Geralt’s disgruntled assurances that Yennefer wouldn’t do that, he had consented to helping Jaskier strengthen his defenses. Geralt used weak waves of Axii while Jaskier did his best to fight it. He isn’t an expert at it, but he is grateful now for any little bit of an advantage.

“Where is the witcher?” Cahir asks, using his greater height to intimidate Jaskier.

“Which one? There are more than a few left, actually. You’ll have to be more specific.”

Cahir’s jaw clenches, and Fringilla says, “The White Wolf. Where is Geralt of Rivia now?”

She doesn’t give him time to answer before she’s touching his forehead again and Jaskier is swimming through fire, trying to find the surface. He thinks of a stream, of cool water, and the pain becomes a little more bearable. He shies away from the instinctive thought of Geralt.

She breaks off with a growl. “This will be...complicated. I need to prepare. Leave him here and I’ll get started in the morning.”

Cahir nods. Rugin adjusts the ropes around his chest so that Jaskier can sit down, and then removes his boots. So he can’t run, Jaskier realizes. Rugin smirks at him and Jaskier tries not to flinch.

Cahir and Fringilla walk some distance away, speaking too quietly for Jaskier to hear, and a soldier stands guard nearby. It’s pointless to guard him; there’s no way he can escape.

Jaskier knows he is not without his moments of courage. He followed a witcher into danger for twenty years, after all, and that required bravery no matter what Geralt may think. He’s faced down wyverns and wraiths at Geralt’s side, but he’s never been good at dealing with the human monster. He’s too soft, too easily surprised at human depravity, even at his age.

This is not a monster he knows how to fight.

He tries not to think of Geralt, but now that Fringilla is gone the memory of him swims behind his eyes. He doesn’t know where Geralt is, so no matter how many times they ask the question Jaskier will have no answer to give. He takes some comfort in that, at least, though he wonders what the consequences will be for not answering correctly.

Eventually after the sun goes down and dinner has been eaten Cahir returns. He stands in front of him and stares for a while, and Jaskier feels absolutely exposed by that gaze. He resists the urge to squirm.

“This will go a lot better for you if you just tell us what we want to know.”

“Even if I knew, I wouldn’t--”

“Yes, yes, you wouldn’t tell me. But you will,” Cahir says calmly. “How long it takes to get the information out of you is up to you. But we will get it.”

Jaskier swallows hard. “I suppose I should at least try to tell you that I don’t know where the White Wolf is, even if you won’t believe me. My mother didn’t raise a liar.”

Cahir’s lips twitch. “I never met a bard who wasn’t a liar, so I’ll take that with a grain of salt.”

“Rude.”

“Why should I believe you?” Cahir asks plainly.

Jaskier shifts uncomfortably but the ropes hold him tight. “I have no reason to lie. I’ll be weak to torture, most likely, but my answer will stay the same.”

Cahir gives him a sideways glance. “Fringilla said you were resistant. Why resist if you have nothing to hide?”

“Wouldn’t you resist, if someone was trying to probe your mind?” Jaskier scoffs.

“That’s a fair point. However, I think you still have a lot you can tell us. And you’re right, you look like a little torture will go a long way.”

Jaskier falls silent. He tucks his fingers up into loose fists.

“Get some sleep. Tomorrow will be here before you know it.” Cahir turns to leave.

“Why do you want to know where he is?” Jaskier blurts out.

There is silence for a moment, then Cahir speaks, his voice cold. “If you won’t tell me, then I won’t tell you.”

He walks away, nodding at the soldier on guard. The fire is too far away to warm him, and the light doesn’t reach where he sits. In the cold dark he begins to tremble.

~*~

Morning dawns before Jaskier is ready. He wakes with every bone aching, and his first thought is of torture. His second thought is of Geralt. He thinks of mornings in camp, Geralt tending the fire for breakfast, gently shaking him awake with a hand on his shoulder and a grunted greeting. For a moment he loses himself in the memory, drawing warmth from it.

Regardless of how it ended, Jaskier knows that some memories will remain untainted.

Fringilla and Cahir come for him some time later, and a soldier unties him from the tree in silence. When he realizes what they’re going to do he can’t help but struggle, for all the good it does. They tie his wrists to two closely spaced trees, his arms stretched out wide.

He tries not to react when Fringilla comes to touch his forehead again. “The White Wolf,” she says again.

“You are very persistent,” Jaskier spits out through the pain. “I still don’t know.”

“Why?”

He grits his teeth and resists. He imagines a clear stream flowing in the summer heat, and shows it to her. Dragonflies dart over the surface of the shallows. It is innocuous, and he feels her frustration.

Fringilla sighs and Cahir turns to the soldiers around the fire. “Rugin,” he calls, and Jaskier’s eyes widen.

Rugin saunters over, his expression pleased. He is flipping a short knife in his fingers. “I could let someone else do it, but I feel a connection between us, bard, and anyway. I like doing this.”

Jaskier sneers, gathering his bravado. “My answer won’t change.”

“Perhaps our questions will,” Cahir says calmly.

Rugin efficiently opens Jaskier’s doublet and slices through his shirt. It hangs open, exposing his chest and belly, and Jaskier shivers in the cold. Without preamble Rugin places his blade on one side of Jaskier’s chest below his collarbone and draws it downward several inches. The pain doesn’t hit right away, and Jaskier watches as blood wells up and starts to trickle downward. It’s not a shallow cut.

Fringilla switches places with Rugin and touches his forehead. “Why don’t you know where he is? We know you travel with him, like a pathetic shadow.”

The slice in his flesh stings sharply. He imagines the stream again, but he’s distracted by pain and the scene wavers.

“Rugin,” Fringilla says, an order.

Rugin trades places with her again. He makes another cut beside the first, and this time the bite of it is immediate. Tears come unbidden to Jaskier’s eyes.

“One cut for each time you don’t answer,” Cahir says, leaning one hip against the table.

Jaskier shudders. Fringilla touches him again, and tears slip down his cheeks. The stream is a dry bed of stones.

A third cut, then a fourth, then a fifth. Jaskier cries and blood soaks the waistband of his trousers. The stream is gone, leaving a void.

“The witcher cast him aside,” Fringilla says with grim satisfaction, and Jaskier moans.

“How long ago?” Cahir straightens up, tapping one finger repeatedly against the table perhaps unconsciously.

“Several weeks,” Fringilla says. “Maybe closer to two months.”

Cahir growls and paces back and forth. “Find out where he might go, if he has her.”

Jaskier looks up, confused and shaky with pain. Every breath he takes makes the wounds on his chest burn.

With a small sigh Fringilla tries again, and Jaskier can see she’s growing tired. He hasn’t even had time to process the question before she’s in his head, digging with rough tendrils. He cries out, shaking her hand off of his forehead.

She breaks off with a gasp. “I need some time,” she says, stepping away.

“No matter,” Cahir says firmly. “I can ask as well as you can. Go now.”

Fringilla walks away, her shoulders slumped ever so slightly. Cahir stands before him, his piercing eyes just as frightening as Fringilla’s. Rugin stands beside him, waiting.

“Where might he go? What hideaway, what trail, what stronghold?”

Jaskier presses his lips together and closes his eyes. He loses track of the cuts as Rugin adds another each time Cahir asks his questions. Jaskier can tell that they span the width of his chest. He’s having a hard time remaining upright, sagging between the trees.

Cahir asks again, and again Jaskier resists, though he’s starting to shake. He’ll never tell, though now that Fringilla is gone he lets loose the floodgates of memory, of the keep of Kaer Morhen that Geralt has told him about, though he’s never been there. Surely if Geralt was on the run he’d return there for safety. Jaskier just doesn’t know why he’d be running from Nilfgaard, and he doesn’t know who the ‘her’ is that Cahir mentioned. Yennefer, maybe?

With considerable effort Jaskier stands still, holding back with all his might. He knows he’ll be disfigured now, that he’ll bear forever the lines of his resistance written on his chest, but it’s a small price to pay for Geralt’s safety.

Finally Cahir stalks away from Jaskier, jerking his head at Rugin, who follows. They leave to go stand by the campfire and Jaskier heaves a sigh of relief. After a few minutes Rugin returns.

“I’m to let you know how displeased he is,” Rugin rumbles. “And I’m to punish you how I see fit.”

Jaskier shrinks away from him, woozy and scared.

Rugin shrugs. “Don’t worry, I’ll start slow. You’ll be with us awhile, we can save some for later.”

A blow impacts on his cheekbone before he can even register that Rugin’s fist is moving. Another strikes the other side, then one on his brow bone, another on his jaw. His whole face is awash with agony, and before another blow can land he slumps in his ropes, his vision mercifully darkening, and then he feels nothing more.

~*~

Chapter Text

Jaskier dreams of Geralt. He dreams that Geralt chased him and caught him at the inn in Caingorn, begging forgiveness and gripping Jaskier’s hand in supplication. And because it is his dream, Jaskier leads Geralt to his room and Geralt kisses him and kisses him and kisses him, hard and desperate, his hands on Jaskier’s cheeks, cheeks which ache sharply, swollen and hot, and Jaskier jerks away because--

--because he’s hanging between two trees in a forest somewhere in Redania, and he tries not to cry out in agony. He has trouble opening his eyes through the swelling in his face, and his lip is stinging and split. There is blood in his mouth, coppery and sweet. His shoulders are on fire and his hands are numb. He stands shakily, relieving the weight on his wrists and shoulders.

It appears to be mid-afternoon, by the angle of the sun, and there is a bored looking soldier nearby. Jaskier’s doublet and shirt hang open, providing no comfort from the cold air, and his chest burns. Blood is sticky on his stomach, a livid red. He feels leached of all strength, and hopes they don’t come for him any time soon.

The shadows continue to lengthen, and Jaskier can smell meat from the campfire, can hear the soldiers laughing and talking. The last time he ate or drank anything was on the road with Rugin’s men, over a day ago. His stomach cramps and he grits his teeth.

Eventually another soldier brings him bread and water, feeding it to him with no particular gentleness. Water spills down his chest, streaking the blood.

There is a commotion when three new soldiers arrive, clearly after having had a long ride. They don’t bother to keep their voices down when they report to Cahir and Rugin, and Jaskier catches something about an abandoned keep that they found. Cahir looks pleased.

Later they come to him, Cahir and Rugin and Fringilla, and Jaskier sighs.

“Melitele’s tits,” he mutters. “You’re as persistent as ghouls catching the scent of flesh.”

Fringilla raises her eyebrows. “If you’d only tell us what we want to know, we’d leave you alone.”

“And let me guess--you’d let me go?” Jaskier smirks and his lip splits again. He’s so tired.

“Well, no. But you’d be rewarded with some peace.”

Jaskier chuckles but the sound is devoid of mirth. “Peace. Sure.”

“We aren’t barbarians,” Cahir protests, and surprisingly he sounds sincere.

This time Jaskier’s bark of laughter is loud enough that Cahir blinks.

“Where...would the White Wolf...take her?” Fringilla asks slowly, trailing her finger over his swollen cheek to his forehead.

“Her who?”

Fringilla’s mouth flattens and she splits open his mind again. It already feels like it’s full of brambles, and now the thorns catch tighter. Jaskier yells and Fringilla digs deeper. Jaskier throws up walls around Kaer Morhen, high and wide.

“There’s something…” Fringilla whispers, prying at the stones.

Jaskier shudders and squeezes his eyes shut. “You can’t have it.”

“Pull it out,” Cahir orders, and Fringilla hisses through her teeth.

Searing pain rips into him, and all at once the stones crash down.

“A fortress.”

Where?”

Fringilla shoves Jaskier’s head back in anger. “He doesn’t fucking know.”

Jaskier laughs and laughs. Rugin breaks his ribs for the fun of it.

The thing is, Jaskier knows more than he let on. He knows what kingdom, what mountain range, what valley just by the name Kaer Morhen alone. Geralt placed too much confidence in Jaskier when he told him the name of his home. But Fringilla will never get more than an invented image of a crumbling fortress, a whimsical fancy that Jaskier constructed while listening to Geralt’s bare-bones description one night.

The name is the one thing he’ll take to his grave.

Jaskier wheezes through the agony in his ribs, but he’s grown calm. They can’t have it. He loves Geralt too much.

Cahir sneers at him, looks him over, catalogs Jaskier’s injuries. “If you can’t be of use for information, you’ll be of use as bait.”

“Bait,” Jaskier repeats.

“If we can’t go to him, we’ll bring him to us,” Cahir says with grim finality. “Imagine how fast he’ll come running to save you.”

“Well,” Jaskier says, as conversationally as he can, “your plan is flawed, because Geralt of Rivia wouldn’t lift a finger to save me. He made that perfectly clear the last time I saw him. So good luck with that.”

Fringilla cocks her head to the side. “I think he believes that.”

“Doesn’t make it true,” Cahir points out. “At any rate, runners have already been sent to spread the word that we have you, so we’ll know soon enough.”

Cahir gestures to Rugin and the three of them step away, speaking in hushed voices. Jaskier can make out something about ‘a more defensible position’ and ‘long term solution,’ but the words are meaningless to him.

In a louder voice, Cahir says to Rugin, “Get him ready to move, we leave in the morning.”

Rugin nods and they all leave. Jaskier waits, flexing his numb fingers. Eventually a soldier comes with a bowl of water and a pile of cloth. He washes Jaskier’s chest and stomach of blood, making Jaskier whimper as he cleans the wounds. Jaskier is surprised that the soldier seems to be trying not to hurt him.

Jaskier’s wrists are untied and he gasps as his arms drop and blood flows back into them, his fingers tingling painfully. He sags into the soldier’s arms helplessly, and is held up for a moment until he finds his feet. The soldier helps him out of his ruined doublet and shirt and into a plain, clean tunic, then ties Jaskier’s wrists in front of him. He helps him step into rough-spun wool trousers that are scratchy but warm. The soldier lets him sit and then ties him to one of the trees again, and when he stands Jaskier meets his eyes. He’s younger than Jaskier, softly handsome with shaggy wheat-colored hair, and at another time and place Jaskier would have taken him to bed without a second thought. The soldier’s brown eyes are too kind for someone in the employ of Nilfgaard.

“You should just do what they say,” he murmurs, leaning down to straighten Jaskier’s tunic. “It will go easier on you.”

Jaskier smiles a little. “I will never, but I thank you for the advice.”

The soldier nods, stepping away. He lingers for a moment, looking at Jaskier, then leaves.

Jaskier lets out a shaky breath, slumping against the tree. He stares at the pile of ruined, bloody silk on the ground nearby. He stretches out his leg as far as he can and snags the doublet and shirt with his toes, pulling them toward him. He curls his fingers into the familiar fabric, then spreads them over his lap like a blanket. It does nothing against the cold of early winter, but it’s a comfort nevertheless.

He dreams again of his room at the Pensive Dragon inn, and of cool, gentle hands on his bruised cheeks.

~*~

Jaskier wakes the next morning to see the soldiers packing up their camp and tying everything to their horses. A soldier comes to untie Jaskier and lets him relieve himself, then Rugin takes him over to Hayseed, who is already tacked up and ready to go. The dawn sun is bright in Jaskier’s eyes and he feels shaky from lack of food. It’s actually a good thing that Rugin has a hand on his wrists, because he fears he might fall over otherwise.

He’s deposited on Hayseed’s back and for just a moment feels a rush of freedom even though his wrists are still bound and a soldier has taken his reins. Shortly they all mount up and head for the road.

Cahir rides by him on a tall bay mare, examining Jaskier with his sharp gaze. “Enjoy the reprieve,” is all he says, then canters away to the front of the group.

Jaskier would enjoy it more if he had some actual food and water. Surely they don’t mean for him to starve to death, he thinks. He wouldn’t be much good as bait then, for all the good it will do them.

He just doesn’t believe, realistically, that Geralt will come for him. He doesn’t think that Geralt is completely heartless in that regard, but he does think it highly unlikely that Geralt would go alone against a dozen soldiers and a mage just to save Jaskier. And that’s assuming that Geralt would even hear of his capture.

Jaskier tries to distract himself from the pain of his injuries by puzzling through why Nilfgaard might be after Geralt. Why would they want a witcher so badly that they would kidnap someone close to him? Jaskier wonders where Geralt might have gone after the disastrous end of the dragon hunt, thinking that the answer might hold the clues he needs.

There’s not much north of Caingorn, so Geralt would have headed in a southerly direction. Jaskier thinks it is unlikely that the unnamed woman with Geralt would be Yennefer, not with how they had ended things, but there aren’t many females closely associated with Geralt that Jaskier can think of. Geralt has always been more of a lone wolf, preferring paid company to emotional attachments, except in Yennefer’s case. He never lets anyone get too close.

Unbidden, Geralt’s last words come to mind, and Jaskier’s stomach drops in reaction. Geralt blames him for the djinn, the Child of Surprise, all of it. Jaskier can own that without his foolishness the djinn would never have tied Geralt to Yennefer, and he feels the weight of that on his shoulders. But the Child of Surprise is something he feels less guilt over. All he did was invite Geralt to a party, really, and Geralt did the rest on his own. And even though he’s tied to Princess Cirilla, he has yet to acknowledge her at all. At least Jaskier was willing to head south to...check on...her…

And Jaskier feels cold wash through him at the realization. Geralt might have gone to find her after all, and after Cintra’s fall escaped with Princess Cirilla. Jaskier doesn’t know why Nilfgaard would want a lost princess of a fallen kingdom, but it’s the only thing that makes sense to him.

They might not be after Geralt at all, but Cirilla.

So with Jaskier as bait they hope to lure Geralt in, and in doing so expose the whereabouts of the princess. Jaskier itches for his notebook and lute. There’s a story here to be told, Jaskier thinks, until Hayseed stumbles a little on uneven ground, and the jolt reminds him of where he is. The moment sours.

He thinks again of his lost lute, but tries not to dwell on it. He wonders if they will let him sing later. He’d take comfort in that, even if his audience is his captors. He plays and sings inside his head, songs new and old, losing himself in memories of music. Memories of performing, of golden eyes watching him from dark corners over tankards of ale, so many times through the years. Surely Geralt wouldn’t have stayed to watch him if he--

But there isn’t any use in looking for logic. He was pushed away, and that was that. There’s no point in trying to mend his broken heart either, not here on top of his horse with his body bruised and bleeding, heading toward more pain and no end in sight, no Geralt to save him. He might as well embrace the jagged hole in his chest that hurts more than the beatings he’s already taken. The only way out is to go through. Jaskier closes his eyes and lets tears fall.

~*~

They stop for lunch and Jaskier is approached by the same young soldier who had tended his wounds last night. He helps Jaskier down from Hayseed’s back and helps him relieve himself behind a bush. Jaskier is too tired for embarrassment, although it seems the soldier is not. His ears are pink when he laces Jaskier’s trousers up.

He leads Jaskier to a fallen log and leaves, but hurries back with a skin of water and some bread and jerky. He sits with Jaskier while he eats.

“I’m Jaskier,” he says between bites, eager to cling to the one kind person he’s met.

“Ellien,” the soldier replies. “Are you truly the White Wolf’s bard?”

Jaskier’s heart jolts. “I used to be.”

“I’ve heard some of your songs, though played by other bards. Even in Nilfgaard you’re well known.”

Jaskier lifts his chin in an echo of pride. “An artist is always glad to know he is appreciated.”

It’s impossible for Jaskier to miss the flush on Ellien’s cheeks. Jaskier is keenly aware of how swollen his face is, how ugly and bruised, and he can’t understand why Ellien would be drawn to him now, but a small part of him basks in it, wants to encourage it.

“I wish these were different circumstances,” Ellien says. “I would have liked to hear you play and sing.”

“Another time perhaps I would have played for you,” Jaskier says, and drops his voice a bit lower. Ellien flushes deeper, his gaze falling to Jaskier’s bound wrists.

“I should go,” he says, slowly standing. He makes his way over to a group of soldiers but glances over his shoulder and smiles tentatively. Jaskier does his best to return it, his split lip stinging. Ellien is lovely, truly, and if things were different...

Jaskier sighs and finishes his meal, grateful for every bite.

~*~

That night is spent sleeping under the stars. Jaskier is left against a tree again, all but forgotten. He shivers in the cold and his wounds burn when he breathes, so he loses himself in memories to escape the pain.

Sometimes Geralt would smile at him, or huff laughter when Jaskier was particularly witty or foolish. His smile always transformed his face, and Jaskier would feel such pitiful hope that it meant more than just a smile, that Geralt cared for him more deeply than he let on.

Now he knows better, but he can’t stop the flood of memory, Geralt in the bath with Jaskier’s hands in his hair, Geralt’s eyes closed and his mouth soft. Steam curling around them. Water glistening over Geralt’s shoulders.

Sharing a bed at an inn, warmth between them under the blanket, backs touching, Geralt breathing against him. Not so much a hope for more, but a comfort of familiarity, a feeling of peace and safety.

Geralt pulling Jaskier up onto Roach’s back when he was tired, Geralt’s armor hard under Jaskier’s fingers, Geralt’s hair brushing Jaskier’s cheeks in the breeze. The scent of leather and the vanilla from Geralt’s bath. The kindness shown.

What was that if not friendship?

From Jaskier, at least, it is friendship--love--unreturned but no less powerful because of it. He will still give his life for Geralt if it comes to it, and for all the witchers he’s never met who call Kaer Morhen their home. Their stronghold is Jaskier’s unfortunate secret to keep, and he will.

In a way, Geralt’s admission that he wants nothing to do with Jaskier is a blessing in disguise. If he doesn’t come for the bait, for Jaskier, he’ll stay safe.

Jaskier finally drifts off in the wee hours of the morning, exhausted, his heart wrung out. He should be thinking of escape, but that idea seems as futile as the idea that Geralt could love him in return.

~*~

The next afternoon they reach their destination, an abandoned keep that has begun to crumble with time. The camp is quickly set up near the front gate of the keep with Nilfgaardian efficiency that is fascinating to watch. Jaskier is dragged through the remains of the keep to an underground area that looks untouched by time and holds a row of iron-barred cells. He is escorted into the closest one, which has a rickety wood cot that is low to the ground and bare of a mattress. There is already a bucket in the corner, which he eyes with disdain.

Mercifully, a soldier unties him and he is free to move around in a way he hasn’t since being taken from the inn. He rubs his wrists, examining the red, raw lines from the rope.

Having no key for the door, the soldiers wrap a chain around the bars and secure it with a padlock, which Jaskier fiddles with once he’s left alone. The chain is made of thick links and the lock is heavy in his hand. Without a key there is no way he’s getting out.

He paces the cell, stretching his legs, staring at the light that filters down from the stairway. At night it will be pitch dark, he thinks, and wonders if there will be a torch. After a while a soldier descends the stairs and approaches the cell. In the semi-darkness Jaskier realizes that it’s Ellien.

“I’ve been assigned to you. Well, evenings and nights, anyway. We rotate,” Ellien says, standing before the door with his shoulders back, stiff like a proper soldier should be, but his eyes give him away. He’s pleased to be there.

“I shall consider myself lucky, then,” Jaskier says with a smile, and Ellien relaxes a little.

“You’ll have food twice a day. I’ll find a blanket for you, if they will allow it.”

“That would be much appreciated,” Jaskier replies, “since it’s cold down here away from the sun.”

Ellien nods. “It’s a basic comfort. I’ll ask.”

“You’ve been remarkably kind, Ellien,” Jaskier says softly.

“I…” Ellien frowns and shuffles a half step closer. “I don’t like to see prisoners treated this way, no matter the reason. I’m a loyal soldier, but I’m also a man.”

Jaskier doesn’t reply, but he looks Ellien up and down appraisingly, liking what he sees and letting Ellien know it. It’s in his best interest to have this soldier on his side. Ellien steps back after a long moment, taking his place by the stairway. He fixes his look at the far wall and stands tall. Jaskier sighs and sits on his cot. He’s cold and hungry, but at least he’s not alone.

Food arrives eventually, a thin stew with bread that is the best thing that Jaskier has ever tasted, after being starved for days. He eats too fast, inelegantly, grateful for the allowance of food. He won’t starve after all.

Cahir arrives not long after Jaskier has finished eating. He examines Jaskier’s cell and then Jaskier himself, his expression coldly detached. “We won’t stop asking, you know,” Cahir says abruptly.

Jaskier flinches involuntarily. “I thought I was to be bait.”

“You can be bait and also the keeper of a secret we need to know.”

“I’ll never tell you what I don’t know,” Jaskier says, shaking his head. “You’ve already taken it all.”

Cahir runs a hand over the chain and padlock then turns for the stairs. “We’ll see.”

Darkness slowly descends as the sun sets. Someone comes to light a torch, which is a relief. Ellien stands guard, and Jaskier stretches out on his cot. It’s not much better than sleeping on the floor. Without a blanket he shivers uncontrollably.

He notices his chest stinging more than it had been, and he lifts his tunic up around his armpits. The scored lines down his chest are angry red, and Jaskier realizes that they’re not healing properly. All he can do is hope it doesn’t turn into an infection. He shudders to think what kind of care he’d be allowed if it did.

“Ellien,” Jaskier calls from his cot. “What are the chances I could have some healing salve?”

“I’m not sure. I think you’re more likely to get a blanket, but I can ask about the salve too.”

Jaskier feels the weight of Ellien’s gaze on his bare torso, and lets him look for a moment before he pulls his tunic back down. He settles back into the cot, too tired to indulge Ellien more than that. Part of him is flattered and seeking to encourage that, and another more calculating part realizes that Ellien might just be his way out of here.

He falls asleep in the middle of planning his escape.

~*~

The next day Cahir and Fringilla come for him. They take him from his cell to an adjacent room which has a table in the middle, and they strap him down. Fringilla batters the walls of his mind and Jaskier drifts, thinking only of peaceful things while she tries to take him apart. Rugin joins them and takes pleasure in aggravating Jaskier’s injuries, digging his fingers cruelly into Jaskier’s chest, cracking punches into Jaskier’s ribs.

He gives nothing up.

The day after that is the same, and the day after that, and Ellien watches him with worry each time Jaskier is returned to his cell with tears streaking his face and new blood soaking his tunic. The salve is denied him, and he knows he’s lucky to have the blanket that Ellien gives him. He curls on his cot and shivers.

Sometime in the night he opens his eyes to see the torch light wavering and hazy, his head aching and his mouth parched. His chest feels hot when he touches it through his tunic. He recognizes that he has a fever, and moans Geralt’s name when he means to call for Ellien. He knows he’s confused, but can’t untangle his thoughts.

Ellien comes to the bars and says his name, and Jaskier whimpers.

“Fever,” he says, and Geralt says, “Fuck,” only it isn’t Geralt, is it?

Jaskier reaches out helplessly anyway. A hot wave pulls him under, drowning him.

He wakes to the feel of cool fingers dabbing something onto his bare chest, something sharply medicinal. It stings and Jaskier tries to shy away. A voice soothes him, replacing a wet cloth on his forehead. There is a strange taste in his mouth, willow bark maybe.

“It won’t do to have him die now,” another voice says, “not yet anyway.”

A woman answers him. “Let me try now, we’ll never have a better opportunity.”

The gentle hands leave him and Jaskier protests weakly. Impersonal fingers knock aside the cloth on his forehead and press there, and Jaskier’s headache spikes to unbearable levels.

“Just tell me,” the woman says, and her voice echoes as though from the bottom of a well. “You want to tell me. Where is it?”

Jaskier shouts wordlessly and thrashes under her touch. There are words she wants, a name, a place. Jaskier knows he can’t let her have them. He locks them in a box and buries the box in a lake. The lake freezes over and the fish stop swimming, and the box is lost.

The woman curses, and her hand leaves him.

“He’s even stronger now,” she says. Fringilla. Her name is Fringilla. “I can’t understand it.”

There is silence for a minute. The gentle hands return to him, cold sweeping his forehead and soothing the ache again.

“He’s still of use to us. Don’t let him die,” Cahir says, and Geralt says that he won’t.

Jaskier opens his eyes and sees Ellien’s face above his, handsome and worried. It’s not the face he wants, but he reaches up and touches his cheek anyway, pretending.

Ellien makes a small sound and guides Jaskier’s hand back down. He looks nervous now, his eyes darting to the soldiers guarding the open cell door.

“Stay,” Jaskier says, tears slipping down his temples into his hair, and he’s not talking to Ellien.

“I will,” Ellien says, and Jaskier cries.

~*~

Jaskier’s fever breaks the next day, and reason resumes. Ellien has stayed by his side throughout his illness, just as he said he would, and Jaskier feels so guilty about it that he wants to throw up. He’s weak as a kitten, and Ellien helps him eat some broth because his hands are too shaky to do it himself.

Cahir and Fringilla don’t come to see him that day. Jaskier has hope that they’ve given up digging for answers. Being bait is much easier, and the quiet allows him to perfect his escape plan. He has to get stronger, to begin with. He won’t be able to sneak out of the fortress in the state he’s in, so he has to bide his time. The second thing he has to do is the worst part. He has to seduce Ellien.

He knows he’ll succeed. It’s only a matter of time.

Right now he’s weak enough that Ellien is in and out of his cell to help him eat, and to tend his wounds. It’s cold but he goes without his tunic to keep the fabric from rubbing his sliced flesh. The lines look much better after using the salve, and Ellien faithfully cleans them and reapplies it after dinner, sitting beside him on his cot, his hands gentle and cool, his warm breath on Jaskier’s ear.

Jaskier is starved for touch, and it isn’t a lie when he leans toward Ellien, whose fingers trail for brief moments over places that have no wounds. Every touch is agony, because Ellien isn’t who he wants, but he’s lovely and doesn’t deserve what Jaskier is going to do to him.

The next day he’s strong enough to care for himself, and Ellien is once again on guard from outside Jaskier’s cell. Jaskier has been paying attention to the rotation of the guards, and knows that Ellien leaves around midnight, switching with another soldier who is utterly immune to Jaskier’s charms. Jaskier knows he has to make his move after full dark when everyone has gone to sleep, but before midnight. He knows that Ellien keeps the key in the pouch on his belt.

He has no boots, which is a problem. He knows that his feet will be a mess by the time he’s outside the fortress, to say nothing of escaping into the woods, but he has no choice. He’ll run anyway. He has no coat or cloak to ward off the chill of late autumn, but there’s nothing to help that either. He’ll just run until he can’t anymore, and hopefully he can find some kind of shelter. He doesn’t know where they are, either, or where the nearest town might be, so he will have to follow along the road but not actually be on the road.

Jaskier is extremely aware of the great disadvantage he has in escaping. He will likely fail. The chance of escaping a dozen soldiers while recovering from a high fever, nursing knife wounds, broken ribs, no boots, and no idea which way to go, is a fool’s dream.

But he has to try. Geralt isn’t coming for him. Eventually Cahir will realize that Jaskier is useless as bait, and Jaskier will be disposable. He’s fighting for his life.

~*~

Chapter Text

Jaskier has no mirror so he has no idea how much his bruises have faded. His hair is desperate for a good wash. His beard has grown in, which is less than ideal. He probably looks scruffy and unclean, his body damaged and unappealing. He hopes Ellien will see through that.

He smooths his hair as casually as he can, ignoring the twinge in his chest whenever he lifts his arms. It’s long past the time he usually goes to sleep.

“Ellien,” he calls softly, and Ellien turns to look at him expectantly.

“Can’t sleep?”

Jaskier shakes his head with a little smile. “Restless.”

Ellien returns his smile. “What do you usually do when you can’t sleep?”

He’ll never get a better opening than this. “Oftentimes I compose, or just play and sing. I have no lute now, though.”

“You could sing for me,” Ellien says hesitantly.

Jaskier looks at him for a long moment. “Would you like that?”

Ellien nods swiftly. “Very much.”

“Alright, let me think. Have you heard ‘Her Sweet Kiss?’”

“No, I don’t think so.”

Jaskier smiles sadly. “It’s not a happy song, but it’s one I haven’t been able to keep out of my mind.”

He goes to stand before the bars of his cell, closing the distance between them as much as he possibly can. Ellien turns to face him and leans against the wall. Jaskier needs no lute to accompany him, he just lets his voice growl and soar, desperate and in love and in anguish. Ellien is entranced, the color high in his cheeks, his chest lifting in visible breaths.

When Jaskier finishes, unintended tears are slipping down his cheeks. “Ellien,” he says, and lifts one hand.

Ellien rushes to him in long strides, taking his hand and pulling him forward. Jaskier leans into the bars and then Ellien is kissing him, and it’s good, Jaskier could feel something for him if his heart wasn’t already irrevocably ruined. He reaches through and grasps him tightly at the waist, and slides his other hand through Ellien’s hair, gripping the back of his head. Ellien moans and says his name, then kisses him again.

“I’m so sorry,” Jaskier whispers against his lips, and slams Ellien’s head forward into the bars, as hard as he can. He grips the pouch on Ellien’s belt and yanks, ripping the leather strap as Ellien falls to the ground. His head lolls and he lies still, and Jaskier lets out a hysterical sob. With fingers made clumsy with terror he pulls the key from the pouch and unlocks the chain on the door. He catches it before it falls, stifling the sound so it doesn’t alert anyone else.

He swings open the heavy door and steps through, his heart beating rabbit-quick in his chest. Ellien is still breathing, thank all the gods, though there is blood running down his forehead, and Jaskier pauses to touch his cheek before rushing to the stairs. There is no guard at the top, or anywhere in sight. He creeps along the walls through the partially ruined keep, hugging the darkest shadows as he goes. There is barely any moonlight to reveal him as he slips past the open windows.

There seems to be no one at all inside the ruins of the keep itself, but Jaskier still has to get past all the sleeping soldiers on their bedrolls, knowing that there will probably be some on patrol as well.

Jaskier slips out an open doorway and crouches down into the shadow of the wall. He can’t go out the front gate, but the outer wall of the keep is crumbling. There is a very narrow gap in the wall that he can see from his hidden spot, but it skirts close to the sleeping soldiers. He curbs his desire to just run for it, and makes himself wait.

He watches two guards patrol the wall, meet near the front gate, and return the way they came. He’s not sure how long it will take for them to come back around again, but he knows he can’t wait forever. As soon as they both go out of sight around the keep Jaskier steps forward. He has only a small amount of coverage from overgrown brambles, and only for a stretch. The last part will be completely exposed.

He does a quick check and doesn’t see any movement from the group of bedrolls. It’s not clear where Cahir and Fringilla might be sleeping, but it doesn’t matter. It’s time to go.

Jaskier closes his eyes and thinks of Geralt, of learning to be stealthy at his side while hunting monsters over the years, just keeping his mouth shut and placing his feet carefully. Balance is everything, Geralt would say, and Jaskier can balance on a table with a lute in his arms while drunk. He can do this.

Step by step, one foot in front of the other. He ignores the twinges in his bare feet and the screaming of his ribs as he crouches, moving ever forward. He creeps through the partial cover of the brambles, biting his lip so hard it bleeds when he steps on a thorn from a loose branch, then he’s out into the open air.

A soldier nearby snorts in his sleep, then relaxes into soft snores. Jaskier’s heart thumps an extra beat, and he has to brace one hand on the ground for a moment before he can handle stepping forward again. He continues on, the gap in the wall growing ever closer. A soldier turns over restlessly on his bedroll and Jaskier claps a hand over his mouth to smother a terrified gasp--then he’s shimmying up and through the narrow gap, scraping his back and scrambling down a short drop into the forest.

He fights the instinct to run. The thin sliver of the moon that helped him sneak through the camp now hinders him, because between the lack of moonlight and the heavy tree canopy mean that he can’t see where he’s putting his feet. All he knows is that he has to get as far away as possible before he collapses, and given how his ribs are aching with each breath and how he’s getting winded from sudden exercise after no activity for so long, he isn’t sure how much fight he’s got left in him.

He circles around the outer wall of the keep until he reaches the road, then follows it from a safe distance away within the woods. Every couple of hours he has to pause and rest, his body failing him faster than his resolve. His feet are raw and wet with blood by the time the first glow of light appears in the east, and he has to use trees to hold himself up. He’s been looking for somewhere to hide, some hollowed out tree or overhanging rock, but there’s been nothing. He knows he can’t stop.

By the time the sun peeks low through the trees he’s woozy with pain and desperation. He keeps thinking of what he’ll do when he finally stumbles into a town, if anyone will be willing to help him when he’s clearly on the run from something. He wonders if anyone would believe him that Nilfgaard has sent a covert group of soldiers into Redania.

Poor Ellien, Jaskier thinks, and guilt cuts at him. Such a kind soul should never be a soldier in an army like that, and should never have been betrayed in such a way as Jaskier had betrayed him.

Jaskier freezes when he hears hoofbeats getting closer, and it takes him a minute to realize that they’re heading toward the keep instead of away from it. Still, he clings to the shadows of the forest trees to wait for the traveler to pass by. He tucks himself behind a tree and watches, his heart hammering too fast--it’s been too fast for too long, he thinks--and his vision is beginning to darken when he sees it. A man on horseback, trotting at a determined clip, and the morning sun glinting off of the two swords on his back--

--and Jaskier is stumbling toward the road before he tells his feet to move, tripping as he reaches the dirt track and catching himself on his hands. He opens his mouth but no noise comes out as he stands there watching him go, and then suddenly Geralt jerks Roach’s head around and she spins sharply, fighting the tight rein.

For a moment they stare at each other in astonishment, then Geralt leaps to the ground and runs toward him, catching Jaskier just as he falls. Geralt’s shoulder smells like leather and horse and his arms are iron bands around Jaskier’s back. The rivets on Geralt’s armor dig into the barely healed wounds on Jaskier’s chest and his ribs are screaming in agony, but he doesn’t fight to get away. His cheeks are wet with tears and he can’t catch his breath.

Jaskier,” Geralt whispers into his hair.

“You came,” Jaskier marvels, holding on with numb fingers.

Geralt makes a startled sound. “Of course I came.”

Jaskier says, “I did it without you,” and then slips into darkness.

~*~

Someone is gently smoothing the hair from Jaskier’s forehead with calloused fingers. Jaskier opens his eyes and squints at the brightness of daylight. There is a tree canopy overhead, thin and bare with oncoming winter, and the rushing sound of a stream nearby. His whole body stings and aches.

Geralt’s face comes into view and Jaskier lets out a small sob, unsure if he’s still dreaming or not. He squeezes his eyes shut and then opens them again, and Geralt is still there, unsmiling and worried.

“Where are we?” Jaskier whispers, his throat parched.

“Safe,” Geralt replies, lightly cupping Jaskier’s shoulder. “You’re safe.”

“But they’re looking for you.”

Geralt nods. “I know.”

“I was bait.”

“Yes.” Geralt’s brow furrows. “I only just heard.”

Jaskier looks around and takes in the camp. He’s on a bedroll near a fire, and Yennefer of Vengerberg is tending a pot nestled in the coals. Jaskier jerks back in surprise and regrets the move immediately when the pain spikes. He makes an involuntary noise and Yennefer looks sideways at him.

“Bard,” she says, pulling a piece of cloth from the pot with a stick. It steams in the air and she waves it around a little, presumably to cool it. “You’ve looked better.”

“Yen,” Geralt says in an undertone.

She ignores him and removes the pot from the fire, moving to kneel at Jaskier’s feet. “This will hurt. Give him something to bite on. You’ll have to hold his legs down.”

Geralt takes a strip of leather from his nearby saddlebag and slips it between Jaskier’s teeth. Confused, he obediently bites down. Geralt braces his hands on Jaskier’s thighs and leans some considerable weight on them.

“What--” Jaskier says, and then he bites down on the leather and yells through his teeth when Yennefer starts to wash his feet. It stings like fire as she dabs at the raw flesh, warm water streaming down, but the worst is when she disinfects everything with alcohol. He tries to jerk his legs away but Geralt is faithful to his job and Jaskier can’t move an inch. He grabs Geralt’s arm and digs his fingers in, tugging fruitlessly.

In the end he has no choice but to suffer Yennefer’s necessary ministrations. He’s crying by the time she applies salve and wraps his feet, and Geralt removes the leather from his mouth.

“Thank you,” he croaks.

Yennefer looks startled, and nods stiffly. “ You won’t be able to walk for some time.”

“I can carry you,” Geralt says, releasing Jaskier’s legs and kneeling once again by his head. He rests a gentle hand on Jaskier’s chest and Jaskier’s wounds ache in protest. He squirms under the touch and Geralt frowns. “Where else are you injured?”

Jaskier indicates his chest, and Geralt helps him strip his shirt off. He hisses when he sees the angry red lines on Jaskier’s skin, the messy scars beginning to form. Jaskier counted them once, and there are twelve. Geralt growls low, staring at them.

“Geralt,” Yennefer says, and puts a firm hand on his arm. “You can’t kill them all.”

“I can try,” Geralt rumbles.

“It’s already healing,” Jaskier assures him. “Don’t worry about it.”

Geralt’s expression is incredulous, then he gets up and stalks away into the forest.

Yennefer moves to take Geralt’s place. She efficiently washes his chest and rubs salve into the lines. “In a better world these would have had stitches.”

Jaskier wheezes a little laugh. “In a better world the man who did this would have died on the end of Geralt’s sword.”

She looks sharply at him, then back at the wounds with a sigh. She puts away the salve and examines their supplies. “I don’t have enough bandages to wrap your whole chest.”

“It’s alright,” Jaskier says. “The fever has already run its course.”

“With any luck we’ll stave off infection in your feet, and you’ll be back to your usual prancing in no time.”

Jaskier watches her tidy up, never feeling less like prancing in his entire life. He looks off into the woods where Geralt had disappeared. “Why is he angry?”

Yennefer stops moving and stares at him. “I can’t tell if you’re an idiot or just oblivious.”

Jaskier smiles a little. “So nothing new, then?”

She returns his smile, and Jaskier thinks it’s the first time she has ever done so. “Anything else need tending?”

Jaskier touches his ribs where they hurt the most. Yennefer prods them carefully and Jaskier grits his teeth from the pain.

“I can’t do anything for cracked ribs, I’m sorry. You’ll just have to be careful. Be glad they’re not fully broken.”

“No magic tricks or...something?” He wiggles his fingers a little over his ribs.

“I’ve never been much of a healer, I’m afraid, and I’m totally drained anyway.”

He takes the time to really look at her, and sees the dark circles under her eyes, the tired set of her mouth. Her black hair is in a simple braid over her shoulder, and she’s wearing a simple doublet and trousers in plain charcoal colored wool. She looks like a person, not a sorceress.

“What happened?”

She grimaces. “That’s a story for another time.”

“I thought you and Geralt had parted ways.”

“Well, Destiny always has a way of bringing us back together again, despite our plans.”

Jaskier tries to ignore the twist in his heart. He’s so tired of being in pain, of any kind. He scrubs his hand over his face, feeling dirt and the dried salt of tears there. “Destiny can go fuck itself.”

“I think this is the first time that you and I both agree on something, bard.”

Someone pointedly clears their throat, and Jaskier jumps. He hadn’t realized there was a third person in camp. Princess Cirilla of Cintra approaches him tentatively, and she’s the spitting image of her mother. She’s dressed in a dove gray tunic and trousers, her pale hair braided like Yennefer’s. Her eyes are bright green and wary.

Jaskier slowly sits up with Yennefer’s help, and sketches a little bow with his head. “Princess, I’m glad to see you are well.”

“You don’t have to bow to me,” she says uncomfortably. “Just call me Ciri, please.”

“Ciri, I am Jaskier the Bard, and I am pleased to finally make your acquaintance. I wish we could have met under more pleasant circumstances.”

She nods, biting her lip. “Are you badly injured?”

Jaskier considers lying, then settles for a careful truth. “It is nothing that won’t be mended over time.”

Geralt returns to camp looking much calmer, and runs a distracted hand over Ciri’s hair. She smiles a little and leans into it. He can’t seem to take his eyes off of Jaskier, though.

“I’ll be fine,” Jaskier says firmly, even though he can’t remember what ‘fine’ feels like at the moment.

“Here,” Geralt says, fishing out a gray shirt from his pack and thrusting it at Jaskier. “I know it’s too big, but it’s clean.”

“Thank you,” Jaskier whispers, and Yennefer helps him put it on. It’s too wide in the shoulders, but it’s worn soft with age and is gentle on his wounds. It smells like Geralt.

“We’ll have to get you some warmer clothes as soon as it’s safe to stop at a large town. We have to be careful where we show our faces.”

“Speaking of faces,” Jaskier mutters, leaning toward Yennefer. “Do you have a mirror I could borrow?”

She winces a little. “You’re better off without one.”

“That bad?”

“Not great,” she says with a shrug, and pats his hand.

Suddenly, and for the very first time since he met her, Jaskier is glad that Yennefer is there.

Geralt is packing up the camp around them, his motions determined and quick. “Can he travel?” Geralt glances at Yennefer.

“The answer is no, but clearly it doesn’t make a difference.”

Geralt sighs. “We can’t stay here. We’re too close and we need to cover as much ground as possible before tonight. How many soldiers are there?”

“Twelve total, with one pack horse, and one extra horse that they stole from me. They move quickly. There’s also a mage with them. Fringilla, she’s called.”

Yennefer snarls. “Fucking Fringilla. Did she have her fingers in your head?”

Jaskier nods, remembering the pain.

“It’s a wonder you’re still alive.”

“Anything else?” Geralt’s face is unreadable.

“They’re led by a man named Cahir. He’s...extremely motivated to find you.”

Ciri fumbles her saddlebag and it falls to her feet. Her hands make fists at her sides. “Does he wear a winged helmet?”

Jaskier shakes his head. “None of them wear Nilfgaardian livery or carry any banner. He’s very tall and slender, with a sharp face and cold eyes.”

Ciri’s chin trembles but she nods stiffly. “You’re right, he is very determined to find me.”

“He’s not going to,” Geralt rumbles, picking up her saddlebag and handing it to her gently.

Yennefer gets to her feet and helps Ciri tie her bag to her horse’s saddle, speaking softly to her.

Geralt silently cleans up their campsite and kicks sand over the fire. Jaskier watches him, still having a hard time believing that he’s really there.

“Geralt,” he says, and Geralt stops, facing him. “I…”

After a moment Geralt nods and barely smiles. Then he continues his task.

Eventually he comes to Jaskier’s side and crouches down. “I need the bedroll. Can you shift off of it?”

Jaskier nods and moves onto the dirt beside it, trying not to drag his heels on the ground. Geralt quickly rolls it up and ties it to Roach’s saddle, then returns.

“You’ll ride with me in the front,” he says, and reaches down to lift Jaskier into his arms.

Jaskier knows he is not a small man, but Geralt lifts him without much effort. As soon as he grips him hard to lift him onto Roach’s back, Jaskier can’t help but cry out.

“Cracked ribs,” Yennefer calls helpfully as she swings up onto her own horse.

“Fuck,” Geralt mutters, and closes his eyes for a moment. Then he helps Jaskier up more carefully and gets him settled in the front of the saddle. Roach protests when Geralt climbs up behind him, but he soothes her with a hand on her neck.

“Won’t she get tired carrying both of us?”

Geralt hums and the sound vibrates in Jaskier’s ear. “There’s nothing to be done about it. We don’t have a choice.”

“I could ride with the others too,” he points out as they ride away. “Take turns.”

Geralt’s arm comes around him, carefully holding him low on his stomach, his fingers pressing into Jaskier’s hip bone. Jaskier shivers and Geralt tugs his cloak around both of them. “They’re not strong enough to hold you up.”

“I can--”

“You can’t.”

Jaskier closes his mouth. He’s exhausted already, and truly can’t imagine staying up without Geralt’s steadying arms. After several minutes he murmurs, “I’m sorry.”

“For what?”

“That I got you into another situation you shouldn’t be in. That you have to help me.”

Geralt is quiet for a while, then sighs. “I’m just glad you’re safe.”

Jaskier does feel safe, with Geralt’s cloak wrapping them both in warmth and his strong body at Jaskier’s back. It feels like the old days, with the casual touches that Jaskier mistook for affection. He won’t make that mistake again, but he’s beyond grateful for Geralt’s presence.

Geralt takes the lead, with Ciri in the middle on her gray gelding, and Yennefer bringing up the rear on her dark bay mare. They ride for hours, longer than Jaskier wants to, but he doesn’t complain. He bites down on the moans that want to escape every time Roach takes a jolting step, and smothers his nausea at the constant swaying.

They stop for a late lunch next to the stream they’ve been following. Geralt dismounts first and then helps Jaskier down into his arms. Yennefer tosses out a blanket for Jaskier to sit on, and once he’s on the ground he can’t stop himself from tipping over and curling up protectively, the way he would do on his cot in the cell. He squeezes his eyes shut and tries not to cry. He’s not strong enough for this.

Geralt kneels in the dirt beside him. “Why didn’t you say something?”

Jaskier sniffles. “We have to keep her safe. We can’t slow down.”

“Jaskier…”

“I’m not wrong, Geralt.”

Geralt rubs his shoulder, an unfamiliar gesture, then stands up. “The horses need a rest too. Get some sleep if you can.”

Yennefer comes over and places a cool hand on his forehead. Jaskier doesn’t know if she uses magic or if he’s just that tired, but he slips off to sleep immediately.

He dreams of Geralt again, like he often does, and he’s so disoriented upon waking that he reaches up to touch Geralt’s cheek. Geralt’s eyes startle wide and Jaskier yanks his hand back, embarrassed.

“I want to get more distance before we lose the light. You can do this.”

Jaskier realizes upon sitting up that he has to relieve himself, and suffers the indignity of having Geralt carry him behind a sheltering tree. He has no choice but to stand on his own feet to do his business, while Geralt gives him privacy. Jaskier’s feet feel like they’re on fire, and he tucks himself back into his trousers as quickly as he can. He clings to Geralt on the way back to Roach, feeling like a heavy burden.

Normally Jaskier would be filling the silence with chatter as they travel, talking Geralt’s ear off and begging for reactions, or playing his lute and singing. He does none of these things, too weary to keep a thought in his mind long enough to voice it. Eventually he sinks back and lets his head rest on Geralt’s shoulder. Geralt tightens his grip on Jaskier’s hip.

Hours pass and Jaskier drifts, half awake. Geralt holds him up, bracketed between his arms. Jaskier grips Roach’s mane, tangling it in his fingers and then smoothing it out, tangling and smoothing, over and over.

“I didn’t tell them,” Jaskier says sleepily, watching the sun sink lower in the sky.

Geralt stiffens. “Tell them what?”

“Where you’re going.”

“Where do you think we’re going?”

Jaskier swallows, his throat dry. “Kaer Morhen.”

Geralt makes a small sound. “How did you know?”

“It’s home. You’d take her home.”

They fall silent again, and Jaskier feels Geralt’s breath on his cheek. He closes his eyes and thinks of a windy mountain top, of words echoing down into a valley, irreversible.

~*~

Chapter Text

Geralt finds them a secluded area to camp, well off the road and sheltered by dense trees. Jaskier feels absolutely useless watching the three of them bustle around in an efficient routine, and he huddles inside Geralt’s cloak miserably. Soon enough there is a fire going though, and Jaskier perks up a bit when Ciri sits down next to him and hands him a steaming cup of willow bark tea for his pain.

“Geralt says you wrote the coin song.”

Jaskier straightens, calling up all the energy he has left, in order to put a smile on her face. “I did, in fact, write the coin song. I actually wrote it the first day I met Geralt. I was overcome by his bravery and selflessness, and the fact that he told me to piss off--if you’ll pardon the expression--changed my mind not a bit.”

Ciri gives an elegant kind of snort. “That does sound like Geralt.”

“Ah, but it was worth every moment, my dear. To walk in the shadow of greatness, to witness heroics beyond imagining, to--”

“To stop telling tall tales to the young and impressionable,” Geralt grumbles, arriving at the fireside with two rabbits ready to be cooked.

“I’m not that young,” Ciri says imperiously, throwing her shoulders back and tilting her chin up.

Geralt raises an eyebrow and she slumps a little. He softens, and it’s like nothing Jaskier has ever seen before. “Just try to take anything the bard says with a grain of salt. Several grains.” His warm gaze transfers to Jaskier, whose stomach swoops.

“This is an old argument,” Jaskier points out, his voice light. He wishes Geralt would stop making him feel things. He’s tired of feeling things. “I call it artistic license.”

“I call it lying.”

“Well,” Ciri says loudly, “I call it delightful and flattering, so I’m going to side with Jaskier.”

“Hmm,” Geralt says, and sets the rabbits up over the fire.

Yennefer returns from watering the horses and sits down next to Ciri. It’s strange for Jaskier to see her doing such mundane things, and wonders about the circumstances that brought her to this point. She notices Jaskier watching her and her expression is mildly challenging, which makes him feel as though some things haven’t changed.

It’s been so long since Jaskier had a hot meal that he has trouble finishing his portion. He ends up giving the rest to Ciri, who tears into it with elegant gusto. A little bit of rabbit and some bread has Jaskier yawning into his hand and blinking at the fire, and soon enough Geralt is encouraging everyone to get some sleep.

Jaskier watches the others laying out their bedrolls and blankets, and realizes that he doesn’t have one of his own. He says, “Geralt? Um…”

“You’ll share mine,” Geralt interrupts, tossing his bedroll out and helping Jaskier to lie down under a couple of blankets with Geralt’s cloak on top. Once settled, Geralt smothers the fire and joins him under the blankets.

Jaskier carefully finds a position on his side that doesn’t put extra pressure on his ribs, and Geralt leans against his back. He lightly rests his hand on Jaskier’s hip, and Jaskier is aware of every single fingertip that touches him. Their shared warmth grows under the blankets and creates a sense of intimacy that makes Jaskier’s heart pound. He squeezes his eyes closed and takes a shuddering breath, letting it out slowly.

“You didn’t seem surprised to see Ciri,” Geralt murmurs quietly.

“I wasn’t.”

“Did they tell you she would be with me?”

“No, I pieced it together on my own. That you would seek her out and rescue her, that they would hunt you for her. I just never learned why.

“It’s...complicated.”

“No doubt.”

“How long did they have you?”

“Ten days,” Jaskier whispers.

Geralt’s muttered, “fuck,” fans the back of Jaskier’s neck. “I didn’t know until two days ago.”

“I didn’t think you’d hear about it at all, or that you would come too late, or that you might not…” He lets his hushed words trail off, ashamed of his belief now.

“You thought I wouldn’t come,” Geralt says flatly.

“I wouldn’t have blamed you,” Jaskier replies, so softly that even he can barely hear it.

Geralt is silent for so long that Jaskier would have suspected him to be asleep were it not for the tension in his frame and the way his hand has locked rigidly onto Jaskier’s hip. Eventually he mutters, “Go to sleep, Jaskier.”

He’s so tired that he does.

~*~

Jaskier wakes in the morning stiff and sore, but rested. Knowing that Geralt was there had allowed Jaskier to truly sleep for the first time since his capture. Geralt is no longer there anymore, but quietly packing his saddlebags. Jaskier slowly sits up and smiles tentatively at him, but Geralt only glances his way.

Breakfast is bread and hard cheese, and Ciri shares an apple she’s been hoarding. Afterwards Yennefer insists on examining Jaskier’s feet to check for infection. They appear to be healing well, thanks to whatever is in that salve, and she wraps them again to keep them clean.

Geralt offers his spare pair of wool socks to wear over the bandages, and soon Jaskier’s toes are warm again. He wishes that he had some clothes that fit properly and could ward off the early winter chill, but he’ll have to be patient until they reach a town that is big enough to have a clothier. Until then Geralt seems to be fine with sharing his cloak.

Geralt urges them to hurry up, and soon they find themselves on the road again. Jaskier still feels badly about Roach having to carry two grown men, but she’s a large and sturdy girl herself. He leans forward to stroke her neck in silent thanks, and she flicks an ear back at him.

“You aren’t talking to me today?” Jaskier asks quietly, thinking of their conversation last night and feeling guilty about doubting Geralt’s character. Of course he was going to come for Jaskier, no matter how he feels about him personally.

“Hmm,” Geralt grunts softly, curving his hand around Jaskier’s hip.

Jaskier smiles ruefully. “Well, that’s fine. I can talk enough for the both of us.”

Geralt sighs. “Jaskier.”

“Geralt?”

“It must have been...hard. Not knowing.” Geralt sounds like he’s struggling with his words, so Jaskier just holds his tongue and waits. Eventually Geralt says, “Not knowing if I would come. Not knowing what more would happen to you.”

Jaskier lets out a shaky breath. “I wanted you to come, so much. But I decided I had to save myself.”

“How did you do it?”

“I…” Jaskier is suddenly tongue-tied, thinking of Ellien on the ground, blood trickling down from his forehead. Tears cloud his vision and he chokes out, “Another time, if you please. I’ll tell you another time.”

Geralt says, “Alright,” soft and low, and flattens his hand over Jaskier’s belly, holding him.

Jaskier can’t stop the silent tears that soak the collar of his shirt, and he isn’t even sure who he’s crying for.

~*~

When they stop for lunch, Jaskier leans back against a fallen tree with jerky in one hand and dried fruit in the other, and is thankful for simple things. His body may be struggling to function, but he is surrounded by good people--including, he admits, Yennefer--and at that moment he does not need to be afraid.

Yennefer sits with Ciri and shows her some small magic, just little sparks with her fingertips that look like fairy lights in the shade of the massive trees around them. Jaskier is enchanted by this side of Yennefer, this kind, maternal demonstration. He catches Geralt watching too, his expression soft, and the moment becomes bittersweet for Jaskier.

“Where is your next destination?” Jaskier asks when his food is gone. “Which town?”

Geralt hands him another piece of jerky and won’t relent until he takes it. “There is a town at the foot of the Kestrel Mountains, before the pass. We can stock up on supplies there. Find you some better clothes too.”

“I must admit, I do miss boots,” Jaskier says wistfully, wiggling his toes, and Ciri giggles.

“Boots too, and a new cloak.”

“I’ll be happy to pay you back, as soon as I can perform…” Jaskier trails off, remembering his lost lute. It was the same one that Jaskier had received from Filavandrel the day he had met Geralt. It had been with him for twenty years. He knows every whorl of the wood grain, every gentle depression worn down and smoothed by his fingertips. He’d been faithful to it, and now it’s gone.

He looks up at the trees for a moment, staring hard until he’s sure he won’t cry again. It seems as though all he does is cry lately.

“Well. I’m sure I won’t be down for long, it will take more than a little imprisonment to keep me from my craft.” He smiles too brightly, but no one comments on it, which he appreciates.

“I can’t wait to hear you sing the coin song. Would you sing it now, Jaskier?” Ciri asks eagerly, and Jaskier is about to answer her when Geralt clears his throat.

“Sing later. We need to keep going.”

A shadow passes over Ciri’s face, and Jaskier’s heart sinks to see it.

“I’ll sing for you soon, princess, I promise.”

She nods her head and smiles, though she is more subdued now. She dusts off her trousers and goes straight to her horse.

Geralt tucks the remnants of their lunch into his saddlebag, then leans down to pick up Jaskier. He helps him onto Roach’s back with ease, and Jaskier rolls his eyes.

“I’ll never stop feeling like a blushing maiden every time you do that.”

Ciri makes a snickering sound behind her hand, disguised as a cough, and Geralt snorts.

“You’re neither blushing, nor a maiden,” Geralt mutters as he swings up behind Jaskier.

“In age or experience,” Yennefer comments drily as she rides by them.

Jaskier narrows his eyes at her, then thinks of his crows feet and smoothes out his expression again. He raises his chin haughtily and Ciri gives up all pretense and cackles at him. He winks at her, and feels almost normal again.

But it’s then, as they reach the main road, that they are found.

Three soldiers ride hard upon them, and of all three of their own horses only Roach keeps her composure. The other two dance skittishly away and Ciri and Yennefer both have to fight to keep their seats.

Geralt vaults himself off of Roach’s back and slaps her on the rump. “Go! Run!” he shouts, and Ciri and Yennefer obey, tearing off down the road.

Jaskier grabs desperately for the reins and rocks back to sit properly in the saddle, stilling Roach. For one second he thinks about following them, but swings Roach back around instead. Geralt has engaged the first one, with the soldier on horseback and Geralt on his feet. Even disadvantaged and outnumbered, Geralt holds his own. One of the soldiers hangs back, and Jaskier sees him pulling up a crossbow.

Geralt,” Jaskier cries, “crossbow!”

Geralt’s focus snaps to the second soldier just as he pulls the trigger, and Geralt dodges just in time. The bolt just barely grazes his shoulder instead of burying itself in his chest. He never falters in his attack on the first soldier.

“Stop, we’re supposed to take him alive,” the third soldier yells at the one with the crossbow.

Jaskier freezes, the blood draining from his face when he realizes that the soldier who yelled is Ellien, recognizes the shine of his bright hair in the sunlight. There is a gash on his forehead that Jaskier put there.

“Jaskier, get the fuck out of here,” Geralt growls, just as he impales the first soldier on his sword.

For a moment Ellien locks eyes with Jaskier, and his expression is both angry and anguished. Jaskier knows love when he sees it.

Geralt turns on the second soldier, who drops his crossbow in the dirt and pulls his sword. Ellien’s horse dances away and Jaskier is frozen. It’s over very quickly, the soldier toppling from his horse and lying still where he lands.

Chest heaving, Geralt turns on Ellien. Jaskier’s heart is in his throat and before he realizes what he’s going to do he’s already launching Roach forward, leaping between Geralt and Ellien.

“Geralt stop! Don’t, please. Let him go.”

Incredulous, Geralt stops in his tracks. The point of his steel sword wavers. “What? I can’t, you know I can’t.”

Jaskier pulls Roach around so he can see both of them. Ellien looks as shocked as Geralt. “He won’t tell. I know he won’t. Please.” He’s begging both of them, his blood rushing in his ears and his vision sparkling at the edges. He can’t get enough air in his chest.

“Ellien,” he entreats, and reaches out to grab his hand. There is contact only briefly, until their horses pull them apart.

Geralt makes a strangled sound in his throat. Very slowly he sheathes his sword. “How can I trust him?”

“Swear it,” Jaskier begs. “On the love you bear me.”

Ellien holds Jaskier’s gaze. “I swear it. I never saw her.”

Jaskier’s eyes blur with tears, distorting Ellien’s face. “Thank you,” he whispers, not trusting his voice any louder than that. “Geralt. We have to go.”

Geralt pulls himself up onto Roach and wraps his arm around Jaskier’s waist, too tight. Ellien looks like he might be sick. Jaskier has one last glimpse of Ellien over Geralt’s shoulder, then they’re galloping away. Tears streak down Jaskier’s face in the wind. Geralt’s arm is pressing on his ribs, but Jaskier covers Geralt’s hand with his own and holds it there, gripping it hard.

It’s a long time before they find Ciri and Yennefer, but they’re alright. They rode hard until their horses couldn’t take anymore, then found a secluded glen far from the road. Geralt followed them by scent, and Jaskier has never been so thankful for his witcher senses.

Geralt gathers Ciri into his arms and holds her tight, rocking back and forth. Yennefer puts her hand on Geralt’s shoulder and leans her forehead there. Jaskier feels like a forgotten interloper.

He slides off Roach and lands hard on his feet, which hurts but doesn’t stop him from hobbling over to a fallen tree and sitting down. From now on he’ll refuse Geralt’s help. He escaped imprisonment, he can walk on his own. There’s a hole in the hem of his shirt and he pokes at it, makes it bigger.

“Are they gone?” Ciri pulls back to see Geralt’s face. “Are we safe?”

Geralt looks over at Jaskier, his eyes cold. “We’re safe.”

Jaskier swallows hard and looks away.

~*~

Chapter Text

The next two days are rough on Jaskier’s heart. Geralt basically ignores him, even when they’re both riding on Roach together. At night he shares his bedroll, but faces away and doesn’t touch him. The others notice, but no one says anything.

They reach the town of Schron at the base of the Kestrel Mountains in the early afternoon. Despite feeling that they’ve left Nilfgaard safely behind them, for a little while at least, they still undergo a bit of simple glamour from Yennefer. Geralt’s eyes turn hazel instead of gold, and his hair becomes a glossy brown. Ciri’s hair is also brown, and it’s easy to think she’s really Geralt’s daughter this way. Yennefer turns her own eyes gray to match her outfit. She’s still beautiful, but plain.

Jaskier gets nothing. He’s already nondescript, he realizes, and tries to shrug it off.

There is a clothier’s shop near the center of town, and Geralt accompanies him inside. The woman behind the counter clucks at Jaskier and bustles over to him, clearly seeing her work cut out for her. She has a couple of ready-made shirts and a doublet that fits him without needing tailoring. The matching trousers only need the hems let down, which she does quickly while they wait. Everything is made of soft, warm wool in subdued, smoky blue, and while they’re not at all like his previous style, he finds that he likes them. A gray cloak completes the outfit, leaving only the boots that they’ll have to get from a cobbler.

Jaskier closes his eyes in horror at the price, but Geralt pays it without hesitation. He needs these things, and he’s not too proud to take what is offered. He’ll pay Geralt back someday.

He changes into his new clothes and hands Geralt back his borrowed shirt. When the clothier asks what he wants to do with his old trousers, Jaskier asks her if she wouldn’t mind burning them for him. She chuckles and says she will take care of it. He’s still absolutely filthy from head to toe, and he feels bad about putting his new clothes on already but he can’t stand another minute in those rags.

The clothier stops them as they’re leaving. She steps into the back room and comes back with a pair of worn leather boots. “These belonged to my son, who has married and moved away. They’re far from new, but if they fit you, please take them.”

Jaskier tries them on, and they’re only slightly big on him, nothing that an extra pair of socks couldn’t fix. As though she read his mind, she throws two pairs of socks on top of the pile for free.

Jaskier walks out of the shop feeling more like himself than he has in weeks. Geralt, on the other hand, looks like a statue, stiff and untouchable. Jaskier deflates a little when he can’t even catch Geralt’s eye when he expresses his gratitude.

They meet Yennefer and Ciri at the stable where their horses are already settled. They’ve bought a good supply of food for their journey to Kaer Morhen, which Jaskier understands is quite long and perilous. Ciri also shows off her new forest green scarf, to cover her hair when she’s not wearing a glamour.

Then Yennefer picks up a large and familiarly shaped case from behind her, and hands it to Jaskier.

He takes it with shaking fingers, confused and shocked when he opens it and finds a lute. It’s simple and unadorned, worn down in places that suggest it was well loved at one time. He runs his fingers over the strings and they make a soft sound, untuned and raw.

Jaskier looks up at Yennefer, who appears deeply uncomfortable.

“Let’s not make a big thing about it,” she says breezily. “The shopkeeper gave me an excellent discount because I gave him a magical salve to relieve his gout. So it’s really not--”

She breaks off when Jaskier grabs her hand and holds it tight for a minute. He dares not embrace her, but he doesn’t know how else to thank her. His heart is full.

~*~

The inn has two open rooms, and they all gratefully ascend the stairs with their heavy bags. Yennefer and Ciri are in one room, and Geralt and Jaskier take the other. They only have one bed in each room, but it suits Jaskier just fine. The bed looks big enough to hold both of them comfortably, which is good because Geralt is doing his best not to touch Jaskier at all.

Servants come and fill their bathtub, and Jaskier stares at it longingly.

“You go bathe first,” Geralt grunts at Jaskier as he goes through his bags and pulls out clean clothes..

Jaskier shakes his head. “Reluctantly, I have to suggest that you go first. For once, you’re cleaner than me.”

Geralt looks sideways at him, assessing. “Hmm. Alright.”

“I know I must smell like a drowner at this point. I’m sure it’s been hard on your nose, and I’m sorry for it.”

“You don’t need to apologize for that. It’s not your fault.” Geralt strips off his clothes as he walks to the tub, and Jaskier has a hard time looking away from all that skin.

He turns to his new lute, quietly tuning it while Geralt bathes. In the past, he might have offered to wash Geralt’s hair, but tonight he bites his tongue. He knows it wouldn’t be welcome.

Geralt doesn’t linger too long, and soon he rises from the tub, grabbing a towel as he goes. Jaskier can’t help watching Geralt now, bare and slick and beautiful. Geralt puts his clean clothes on and begins sorting through his potions, ignoring Jaskier.

So Jaskier sets his lute aside and strips his clothes off quickly, feeling a little self-conscious about his wounds. He steps into the tub and hisses as the warm water hits his sore feet. Geralt suddenly makes a sound, rough and shocked, and Jaskier looks over his shoulder at him.

“What is it?”

Geralt gets up and crosses the room, staring at Jaskier. “Your bruises.”

Jaskier nods. “I’m sure they’re very colorful by now.”

“They’re everywhere.” Geralt lays his palm carefully on one that wraps around his ribs.

“The soldiers were very thorough,” Jaskier whispers, trying hard not to remember what it felt like to receive them.

Geralt growls, low in his chest, and Jaskier shivers. “Can I see the rest?”

Jaskier nods tentatively, and Geralt guides him to turn around in the tub. He stands there anxiously, naked and defenseless, while Geralt runs his eyes over every inch of him. Far from the implacable expression of the last few days, Geralt’s eyes burn with anger and frustration.

“Geralt?” Jaskier asks, starting to tremble. He knows he’s a mess, covered in a rainbow of healing bruises, and the deep slices down his chest are still an angry red. He feels too exposed.

“I’d kill them all if I could.” Geralt still won’t meet his eyes, but he touches a bruise on Jaskier’s collarbone gently.

“Too many of them. I’d rather you live, even if it means that they do too.”

Geralt finally looks him in the eye. Jaskier shivers harder, and Geralt nudges him down into the water. “Do you need it warmer?”

Jaskier nods. “Just a little.”

Igni warms up the bathwater enough that steam rises in the cold room, and Jaskier sinks below the surface. When he comes up Geralt hands him the soap, and then goes back to his potions.

Jaskier washes his hair three times before it feels clean. He soaks the grime from his skin, the lingering proof of his imprisonment, and scrubs until his skin is rosy pink. When he leaves the bathtub he is relaxed and relieved. He puts his new clothes back on and luxuriates in the feeling of warmth. Geralt silently tends to his feet, wrapping them carefully, then Jaskier puts on his socks and boots. There’s only one thing left that he needs.

“Geralt...can I borrow your razor?”

Geralt fishes it out of his bag along with his small shaving mirror, and hands them to Jaskier.

Never before has Jaskier enjoyed a shave so much. When he can finally see his bare face in the mirror he touches his cheeks and smiles. Even the fading bruises can’t dim his joy. “Geralt, I am a new man.”

Geralt turns to look at him and almost smiles.

~*~

They all have dinner in the large public room downstairs, and Jaskier can tell that Geralt is enjoying the anonymity of his glamour. No one looks twice at them, at their little family group, and they just eat and talk like regular folk. Still, there is one thing that irritates Jaskier--there is already a bard.

Jaskier had a half-formed notion to get his new lute and perform, but Geralt quickly squashed that dream. The whole point of glamour is to not draw attention, he reasoned. The last thing any of them needs is to be memorable.

So it is with a heavy heart that Jaskier allows the other bard--who is unaware that he had nearly been upstaged--to continue his performance. It is clear that his heart is in the right place, if not his voice. Jaskier tries to ignore him.

Instead, Jaskier focuses on Ciri, who is amazing and magical and a little bit broken, like all of them. Ciri sips her watered wine like royalty, but tears into her roast chicken with more enjoyment than elegance. She is a dichotomy, a princess in trousers.

“You still owe me a song, Jaskier,” she says teasingly, tossing her brown braid over her shoulder.

“I haven’t forgotten. I’ll happily play one for you tonight, if you wish.”

“Yes, please. I’m sure it will give me good dreams.”

Jaskier smiles. “If that is the case, I will consider my life’s work to be worthwhile.”

She makes a face at him. “You mock.”

“I surely do not,” he says with the utmost seriousness. After a moment she gives him a tiny smile.

A barmaid comes over to refresh Yennefer’s wine, and when she leaves again Yennefer does a subtle thing with her fingertips over her glass. Jaskier gives her a quizzical look and she smirks. “It’s a much better vintage now.”

“That’s a neat trick. Could you improve on this ale?”

She shakes her head. “It would be wasted on your inferior tongue.”

Jaskier gasps. “I will have you know that my tongue is excellent at--” Geralt kicks him under the table, “--at tasting things.” He glances nervously at Ciri, who rolls her eyes.

The bard finishes his set to a smattering of applause, which Jaskier joins in because he feels as though he would be betraying his profession not to support an artist.

“I believe that is our cue to go to bed,” Yennefer announces, and ushers Ciri up and away from the table. They move as a group to their rooms, and then Jaskier promises to sing to Ciri once she is ready for sleep.

Geralt and Jaskier wait quietly in their room until Yennefer comes to get them. Ciri is already under the covers, and Jaskier pulls up a chair by her bedside and cradles his lute. Geralt hovers by the door.

“I think I know which one you will ask for,” Jaskier says teasingly. “Let me see if I’ve got it right.”

Ciri watches him silently with dancing eyes.

He strums nice and low, soft as a night breeze. “Toss a coin to your witcher, oh valley of plenty…” he sings, taking it slow like a lullabye, and Ciri’s satisfied smile is everything.

Behind him, Geralt softly huffs, and Jaskier can perfectly picture the look on his face. It makes him smile through his singing.

By the time the song is through Ciri’s eyes are beginning to droop. Jaskier finishes on a hushed flourish, and gently puts his hand on the crown of her head. “Only good dreams.”

She nods and closes her eyes.

Yennefer shoos them out the door and they return to their own room. Jaskier looks around and takes a deep breath, trying not to break down. He needs a distraction.

“Geralt, do you have a spare bag? Just something small to keep my things in.”

Wordlessly, Geralt pulls out a canvas bag that Jaskier recognizes as one he uses for collecting potion ingredients. He hands it to Jaskier and their fingers brush. Geralt quickly pulls his hand away.

“I know you may not want to hear it, but I need to tell you how grateful I am,” Jaskier says as he carefully folds his new spare shirt and socks and puts them in the bag. “For everything you’ve done for me. You’ve saved my life.”

“You saved your own,” Geralt grunts, beginning to put his potions away.

“Yes, but after. You didn’t have to.”

Geralt frowns. “I don’t understand you sometimes.”

“That’s nothing new,” Jaskier says with a little sigh.

“Hmm.”

“Still.” Jaskier forges ahead, determined to say what he needs to say, hoping he can do it without getting choked up. “Despite everything that has come before, I will...miss you. And Cirilla. Maybe even Yennefer, at least a little bit, but you can’t tell her that I said so. I hope that Kaer Morhen is the refuge you need it to be. You all deserve to rest.”

Slowly, Geralt turns to face him. He carefully sets down a bottle on the table and looks at Jaskier, absolutely shocked. “Jaskier. What are you talking about?”

Jaskier blinks a few times, pushing down the need to cry. “You don’t have to say anything, you said quite enough on the mountain. Let’s not rehash it now, I don’t think I can take it. This is as good of a town as any, I can thrive here as well as any other place. You can rest assured of that.”

Geralt looks even paler than usual, almost ghostly. “I never said...that’s not...you’re coming with us, Jaskier.”

“What?” Jaskier rocks back on his heels, taking a stumbling step backwards.

“That’s why, with the new clothes, warm for the mountains,” Geralt says, almost nonsensically.

“I thought,” Jaskier murmurs, his voice hoarse, “that you just felt obligated to send me off prepared to make my own way. And the lute from Yennefer, a way to make a living.”

Geralt is shaking his head. “You were always meant to come to Kaer Morhen with us. I thought you knew that.”

“Geralt, how would I know that? After what you said to me on that mountain, and the way you’ve been so cold, what else would I believe?”

“I didn’t mean it,” Geralt says softly. “I didn’t. I’m sorry.”

There isn’t enough air in the room. He covers his mouth with one hand, turning away. Geralt’s hand comes down tentatively, awkwardly on his shoulder but Jaskier can’t look at him. “You don’t want me gone?”

“I don’t want you gone.”

“Excuse me, I need a few minutes,” Jaskier whispers, and pulls away. He leaves the room quietly and Geralt lets him.

Roach is drowsing in her stall when Jaskier enters the stable. He slips in beside her and she sleepily noses at his hand. She is warm and familiar, and he buries his face in her neck and cries.

~*~

Geralt is in bed already when Jaskier returns, his eyes puffy from crying. He strips down to his smallclothes and blows out the last candle, then slips into bed. He’s careful not to touch Geralt, keeping to his side of the bed. His head hurts, and he has to rearrange his entire world view to accommodate an invitation to Geralt’s mountain home, a promise of not having to be alone.

As he’s finally drifting off to sleep, he feels Geralt shift behind him. Geralt’s warm palm curves around his hip and stays there, an unexpected weight.

~*~

It’s not the first time they have awakened tangled up in one another, but it’s certainly the most awkward. Geralt is pressed against his back, wrapped around him; his thigh is nudging between Jaskier’s and his arm is carefully resting over his. Their fingers are threaded together and Geralt is hard against the small of Jaskier’s back.

It takes every last bit of willpower that Jaskier possesses not to rock back into him. It would be taking advantage, Jaskier knows, because Geralt is only reacting to a warm body in bed with him, and their relationship is already too tentative to be strained by foolishness.

Very carefully Jaskier slips his hand out of Geralt’s and leans forward, away from him. He gets a few inches of distance before the iron band of Geralt’s arm traps him fully. “Geralt,” he says softly, and Geralt sighs against the nape of his neck.

It’s a testament to how comfortable they are with one another, all things considered, that Geralt doesn’t startle awake on high alert. Slowly Geralt tenses as he awakens fully, and disentangles himself from Jaskier. He rolls onto his back with a deep breath, and Jaskier sits on the edge of the bed, running his hands through his hair while he tries to get himself under control. He very carefully doesn’t look at Geralt.

They dress without acknowledging anything, and prepare to leave. The morning sun is just beginning to stream through the windows when Geralt knocks on Yennefer’s door. They all stumble downstairs for an early breakfast.

Of the three of them, Ciri is the only one who appears rested. She eats her eggs and cheese eagerly, cleaning her plate with a thick slice of bread, while the rest of them chew a little more slowly. Even Geralt looks like he could have used a few extra hours of sleep, and Jaskier tries not to think of their difficult conversation the night before.

Jaskier eats in silence and sips his strong black tea while Geralt and Yennefer discuss the details of their journey. Jaskier is only half listening, content in the knowledge that he will be coming along. He watches Ciri, who is fidgeting in her chair with impatience, and the relief he feels at not having to lose her presence in his life is palpable.

He doesn’t know how he’s supposed to fit into this little family group, but he has time to figure it out.

While they’re all readying their horses to depart, Geralt takes Yennefer aside for a moment. Jaskier can’t hear what they’re saying but Yennefer glances at him with an incredulous expression on her face, and Jaskier squirms. He feels certain that Geralt is telling her what they discussed last night, the confusion about Jaskier’s future. She doesn’t say anything, but as they leave her gaze seems softer on him.

The pass through the mountains is low, so they don’t have to do much climbing. They follow a river that will eventually join up with the Gwenllech, Geralt says, and from there on to Kaer Morhen. Jaskier feels uncomfortable having that much knowledge of their destination, involuntarily recalling Fringilla’s fingers on his forehead and Rugin’s blade on his skin. Rationally he knows that if he’s caught now it will mean the end for all of them anyway, but still he is afraid. He leans back a little bit to feel Geralt behind him in the saddle, and is comforted.

When they stop for lunch and to rest the horses Jaskier looks at Roach, who already seems tired. He bites his lip and looks at Geralt.

“This isn’t sustainable, Geralt. Roach can’t carry both of us all the way to Kaer Morhen.”

Geralt sighs. “You can’t walk all the way either.”

Ciri steps forward. “What if I ride with Yennefer, and Jaskier takes my horse? Yennefer and I are much lighter than you two.”

Jaskier raises his eyebrows, surprised at not having thought of it before. “It’s true, Geralt. I’m strong enough to ride alone now.”

Geralt considers it. “Are you sure? All of you?”

Yennefer nods. “My horse is sturdy enough for both of us, even through the mountains. It makes more sense.”

“Alright,” Geralt says, and they shuffle around their belongings. Ciri climbs up behind Yennefer on her bay, and the two of them look fairly comfortable.

Jaskier swings himself into the gray gelding’s saddle and immediately breathes a sigh of relief. It feels good to have his autonomy again, even if it does remind him of his own horse that he lost. He rides in the back of the group with Yennefer and Ciri in the middle, and they all set off once again.

They make much better time this way, and Geralt is pleased with their progress.

“We’re racing against the season,” he says over dinner, everyone seated around the campfire eating fish that Geralt caught. The river rushes softly nearby and the fire crackles, though it does little to ward off the chill. “We have to get through the pass in the Blue Mountains before the snow closes it. It will take us another week or so to get to the pass, if the weather doesn’t slow us down.”

“Let’s hope for fair weather, then!” Jaskier says brightly, clapping his hands and smiling at Ciri, who looks worried.

“What if we don’t make it in time?” she asks Geralt.

“Then we go back down and spend the winter hiding out in Ard Carraigh,” Geralt says honestly.

“That’s not a good option.” Ciri looks down at the fish in her hands.

“No, it’s not. But we’ll figure it out.” Yennefer smooths a hand over Ciri’s pale hair. She had dissolved their glamour as soon as they left town, and Jaskier is relieved to see everyone looking like themselves again.

“I thought sorceresses could portal wherever they want,” Jaskier muses, looking curiously at Yennefer.

“If I hadn’t burned through nearly all my chaos at Sodden Hill, I would be able to portal us right to the gates of Kaer Morhen. Alas, here we are.” She stands abruptly and walks away to where the horses are tethered.

Jaskier winces and looks away. Just before his capture he had heard rumors of what had happened there, and is surprised to hear that Yennefer had been there and survived.

Geralt grimaces and follows her. She crosses her arms over her chest and he rubs her back gently while they speak quietly together. Jaskier watches them and his heart twists. They look so lovely together, light and dark. Jaskier assumes that if not for Ciri, it would have been the two of them sharing a bedroll instead of Jaskier and Geralt.

Jaskier remembers that he is now the reluctant owner of his own new bedroll, and even though he knows that some space from Geralt is necessary, he doesn’t have to like it. When Geralt lays out his own on the opposite side of the fire from Jaskier, it leaves a hollow feeling in Jaskier’s chest. Geralt may have convinced Jaskier that his presence is still welcomed, but his manner is still cool toward him. It’s as if there is a wall between them that Jaskier doesn’t know how to scale.

He tucks himself in and prepares for a long, cold night.

~*~

Chapter Text

The days continue like this. During breaks from traveling, Geralt and Yennefer frequently spend time with their heads bent together, talking quietly. Jaskier uses this time to distract himself with getting to know Ciri better. She is a marvel, and raises some protective instinct in Jaskier that he didn’t know he had.

“I was at your first Name Day celebration, you know,” Jaskier tells her with a grin one afternoon as they rest after lunch.

Her eyes go wide. “No! Truly? What were you doing there?”

“I was performing, of course. I was the royally appointed entertainment.”

“I had no idea.”

Jaskier winks at her. “I was also there the day your parents were married, and I decided that I had to meet you just once, at least.”

Ciri glows with joy. “I’m honored. But why did you never come back after that?”

Jaskier clears his throat and ponders how to explain politely. “Well, you see...I made the unfortunate mistake of...making the close acquaintance of a lady of the court while I was there. As it turns out, the lady’s husband felt that the lady didn’t need any new...friends...and your grandmother agreed with him. I was not invited back, sadly.”

She levels an unimpressed look at him and arches an eyebrow. “You slept with the wrong person.”

Jaskier’s burst of laughter startles the horses, and Geralt turns to look at him. “I believe I should be more candid with you in the future, Ciri. Clearly you can handle it.”

“I’m thirteen, Jaskier, not three.”

“My apologies, I will keep that in mind.”

They sit in silence for a while, then Ciri says, “I’m quite envious of your life. I never got to travel, never saw any of the places on the map in Grandmother’s war room. I wanted to be strong like she was, to fight and defend Cintra, but she only ever wanted me to be my mother.”

Jaskier frowns a little. “That must have been difficult for you. To be seen only as what someone else thought you should be. That’s why I left home to be a bard, actually.”

“Really? Did your parents disapprove of you?”

“I’m a viscount,” Jaskier says sheepishly. “Or I was, before they disinherited me. They had a very different future in mind for me. I wanted more out of the world, so I took it. Never looked back.”

Ciri looks at him with new eyes. “Are you happy now, with how your life turned out?”

Jaskier looks at Geralt sitting across the grove with Yennefer, his silver hair catching the winter sunlight. “I don’t know if happy is the right word. But I wouldn’t change a single thing.”

“I’m no longer a princess. There is no more Cintra. But I don’t know what I’m supposed to be next.”

“Anything you want to be, I imagine. If you still want to fight and defend people, I know someone who could help you do that. In fact, he’s the best person alive to teach you.”

“Jaskier,” Ciri says quietly. “There’s magic in me. Yennefer calls it chaos. It feels like chaos, like something that can’t be controlled. Sometimes I think I’m too dangerous to be around other people. Maybe I don’t get to decide what I want to be after all.”

He muses over that for a while. She casts worried glances at him, and he reaches out to grip her smaller hand in his. “I don’t know much about chaos, but I do know the most powerful sorceress in the world. You’ll never be safer than you are with her, or with Geralt. With the two of them as your protectors you can learn to be whatever you wish.”

She straightens her shoulders and looks hopeful. “And now I have you as well.”

Jaskier smiles wryly. “Yes, I can teach you to sing a merry tune as you go into battle.”

Ciri doesn’t catch his sarcasm and just beams. He is blown away by the force of her smile, lighting up all the dark places within him. Still, though, he does wonder what he can offer her, compared to Geralt and Yennefer. He doesn’t fit into their self-created family. He’s just a bard, after all.

~*~

That night they’re all awakened by the sound of Ciri crying out, a full-throated sound of anguish. Geralt is immediately on his feet with his steel sword in hand, searching for an enemy to fight. Yennefer throws herself over Ciri protectively, a purple haze forming over the two of them. Jaskier hovers uncertainly next to his bedroll, watching the rocks and leaves around them start to levitate.

“Just a dream,” Yennefer finally murmurs when Ciri’s cry dies off. The rocks drop to the ground. “You’re safe.”

Ciri shudders with sobs that puff out ghostly in the frigid air. Yennefer holds her while Geralt puts his sword away. Jaskier sits back down, his heart still racing.

After a few minutes Ciri says, “Everything was on fire. The whole world.”

Yennefer kisses the crown of her head. Geralt crouches down beside them, touching Ciri’s shoulder. The two of them wrap Ciri back up in her bedroll, but she reaches out to Jaskier.

“Will you sing for me, please?” Her voice is a mere thread of sound.

Without another thought Jaskier reaches for his lute. He sings a simple tune that he learned from a Skelligen sailor, one with a gentle rise and fall of repetitions, simulating the waves upon the sea. Ciri slips off to sleep again.

“Only good dreams,” Jaskier whispers.

He feels the unnatural shine of Geralt’s eyes on him for a long time, even after he tucks himself back in and tries to sleep.

~*~

The snow finally catches them, or perhaps it is they who catch the snow. The elevation rises as they approach the Blue Mountains, and winter has come earlier there. Jaskier feels like he’ll never be warm again. Sleep eludes him at night; he’s so cold his teeth ache. Yennefer and Ciri share a bedroll to keep warm, but Geralt does not offer the same to Jaskier and he’s too proud to bring it up himself.
By the time they reach the last village before the mountains the snow has already turned the landscape white.

“It’s only going to get worse before it gets better,” Geralt warns them as they restock some of their supplies in the village. Ciri’s hair is tucked into her green scarf, but Geralt’s eyes are the same golden hue. The villagers are familiar with witchers, being so close to Kaer Morhen, and pay him no heed.

“Couldn’t you just lie to us?” Jaskier whines, tucking his gloved fingers under his armpits.

“No,” Geralt answers succinctly, but his eyes give away that he is amused.

“I hope there are lots of fireplaces in Kaer Morhen. With lots of firewood. What do you witchers do to stay warm, anyway?”

Geralt’s eyebrows jump up a little and his ears turn pink. “Drink, mostly. And play Gwent.”

Jaskier gets the feeling that Geralt isn’t telling him the whole truth. “Gwent doesn’t keep you warm,” he says suspiciously.

“It does when we play it,” Geralt says vaguely, focusing on strapping down a bag of grain to Roach’s saddle.

“Hmm,” Jaskier responds, and he knows he sounds just like Geralt.

“And there are the hot springs,” Geralt adds, as though that were obvious.

Jaskier’s eyes go wide. “You could have led with that.”

“I could have,” Geralt agrees, and heads over to help Ciri tie things down to her saddle, leaving Jaskier to stare at him.

They don’t linger in the village, but press on immediately. They’re doing alright so far with the weather, but it’s still another two days before they reach Kaer Morhen and it looks like a storm is brewing in the distance.

From there they begin to climb, and their progress slows down. They don’t talk unless it’s necessary, saving their breath as it gets thinner with elevation. The horses aren’t quite struggling, but there are times that they all get down and walk to spare them.

They spend the night in a cave shelter that is obviously used every year by the traveling witchers. There’s a permanent fire pit there, and stacked dry firewood at the back of the cave. They settle the horses under the overhang at the mouth of the cave and Geralt quickly gets a roaring fire going. It’s barely warmer than outside, but Jaskier will take what they can get.

They share a meal of cheese and dried fruit and jerky, unsatisfying but sustaining, and curl up for sleep earlier than usual. Jaskier is shocked when Geralt joins up their two bedrolls, tucking Jaskier up against him, back to front. It might only be because of the extreme cold, but Jaskier soaks up Geralt’s heat and his presence after so long being denied it.

“Will they accept us?” Jaskier murmurs, watching the way the snow swirls into the mouth of the cave but doesn’t reach them.

“They will, because I do,” Geralt says against the back of Jaskier’s neck.

Jaskier leans back into him and for just a moment Geralt’s mouth brushes his skin. Jaskier closes his eyes and pretends.

They wake in the morning tightly entwined, but unlike the morning at the inn they don’t rush to break away. Geralt just pulls him closer for a minute.

“We’re almost there,” Geralt says quietly, his voice rough with sleep.

Jaskier sighs. He can do this.

Geralt stands at the mouth of the cave before they depart, frost billowing his breath. “This part is the most dangerous. There’s a reason we call this trail The Killer. But Roach knows the way, and the other horses will follow her lead. There are places we’ll have to get down and walk, and places you’ll have to just trust me. The weather is against us now. Be careful.”

And so they set out on the last leg of their journey. Jaskier holds the dream of the hot springs ahead of himself like a reward. He thinks of heat, of mulled wine and roaring fires, of Ciri’s smiles of wonder at experiencing new things and seeing new places. Of Geralt’s gaze on him sometimes, inexplicably warm for just a few seconds.

They reach the worst parts of The Killer in late afternoon, when the winter sun has already begun to set and the snow is swirling more heavily. The horses follow nose to tail as they carefully pick their way up the narrow trail. Above them Kaer Morhen looms, a dark shadow in the sky, unwelcoming.

They must cross a ravine that stretches alongside the front of the keep, some distance away from the gate but within sight. The bridge is barely wide enough for two horses to cross side by side, should they need to. It has no railings, and they have to trust their horses not to bolt or slip. The sides of the ravine are mostly covered in snow, but Jaskier could swear he sees the shapes of bones beneath, the roundness of skulls almost the same color as the snow. He doesn’t ask Geralt about them.

Then they’re standing at the front gates, waiting for someone to let them in. Geralt rings a heavy bell, and after an uncomfortably cold wait someone opens the gate for them to walk through. A broad shouldered man steps out of the shadows, crossing his arms beneath his wolf medallion.

“The fuck have you brought us?” he asks, looking their little group over with mistrust and irritation.

“Good to see you too, Lambert,” Geralt says wryly, and grabs the man into a hard embrace.

It’s not often that Jaskier sees Geralt initiate an intimate touch like that, and he is somewhat shocked.

“Let’s get our horses settled first. I’ll explain later,” Geralt continues once Lambert has returned the embrace. Yennefer boldly steps forward and Ciri hangs back behind her, not exactly cowering but clearly uncomfortable. Jaskier is just too cold to care about their welcome anymore.

The stables are warmer, well insulated by brick and wood. There are three horses there already, and luckily room for many more. They each take a stall and care for their horses, untacking and rubbing them down with clean straw, pouring grain into their troughs. Lambert has disappeared.

Another man appears in the door of the stable, and Jaskier already likes him more than Lambert upon seeing the huge smile that creases his scarred face.

“Wolf,” he calls, striding to Geralt and embracing him without reservation. “You’ve just made it, another day and you’d likely have had to turn back. And I hear we have visitors.”

Geralt gestures to them. “Eskel, this is Yennefer of Vengerberg and Princess Cirilla of Cintra. Ciri. My Child of Surprise.”

Eskel blinks a few times, but after a moment appears to accept the new knowledge with grace.

“Not anymore,” Ciri says in a clear voice. “I’m not a princess anymore, I mean.”

“You are well met and welcome, no matter who you are,” Eskel says warmly. He turns to Jaskier. “And you?”

“This is Jaskier the Bard. My friend.” Geralt doesn’t stumble over the word, and Jaskier is so astonished that he almost forgets to make a little bow to Eskel.

“I am at your service,” he offers formally. “Whether it be entertainment or labor.”

Eskel nods and smiles. His scar pulls at his lip, but his is a handsome face. Jaskier begins to wonder if all witchers are handsome, the same way that all sorceresses are perfect.

“Let’s get you all in out of the cold,” Eskel offers, and he and Geralt heave up most of their bags, leading the way into the keep itself. Jaskier isn’t aware of much beyond stone walls, high ceilings, and warmth as they enter the great room.

He immediately heads to the fireplace, dropping his bags and crouching down, removing his gloves and extending his frozen fingers. He hears Geralt snort behind him and then say, “Go on.” A moment later Ciri joins him on the floor. Yennefer hangs back beside Geralt, seemingly impervious to the cold.

Someone clears their throat a few minutes later, and Jaskier turns to see an older man, gray and grizzled with a powerful barrel chest, standing next to Geralt and Eskel. Jaskier scrambles to his feet and joins them.

“Vesemir,” the man says, and after a moment’s assessment offers his hand to shake.

“Jaskier.” He takes Vesemir’s hand, and it’s a good, firm shake.

“I know who you are. Geralt has been talking about you for years. You’re welcome here, though I’d love to hear why there are suddenly three new humans in Kaer Morhen.” This last is to Geralt. Jaskier is still reeling from hearing that Geralt has spoken of him, that he would call him a friend. A glance at Geralt shows that his cheeks are red, though it could just be from the cold.

“Let’s talk over dinner,” Eskel suggests, guiding them toward the long dining table. “You must be starving.”

Lambert has reappeared, still with a mistrustful expression on his face, but he helps Eskel bring food from the kitchen to the table. Jaskier sits across from Geralt, while Ciri and Yennefer flank him on either side. Jaskier is between Eskel and Lambert, which makes him at ease on one side and nervous on the other. Vesemir sits at the head of the table.

There is a hearty stew and fresh bread, and Jaskier swears it is the best food he’s had since before his capture. He says it unthinkingly, and looks up when the others grow silent. Jaskier feels the blood drain from his face and isn’t sure what to say next. Geralt catches his eye and Jaskier gains strength from it.

“And that’s a story for another time,” he says, his voice only wavering a little. He feels Lambert’s eyes on him.

Vesemir speaks up. “I’d like to know what brings you all here. Geralt?”

Geralt is silent for a minute, perhaps deciding how to describe their situation. “Princess Cirilla of Cintra is my Child of Surprise. We’re all running from Nilfgaard,” he says bluntly. “They want Ciri, and they’re willing to do whatever it takes to find her.” He looks at Jaskier and there’s something in his eyes. A shadow of some kind.

“I made the entire kingdom of Nilfgaard very angry at me when I destroyed half their army,” Yennefer adds. “We seek sanctuary.”

Vesemir glances at Geralt, then back at Yennefer. After a long moment he firmly says, “You have it. Do they know where you are now?”

Jaskier sets his fork down with a clatter and takes a large drink of his ale. “I suppose the time for my story is now, after all.”

“Jaskier,” Geralt says, but then doesn’t follow up with anything. His gaze is steady.

“I was taken prisoner by a group of Nilfgaardian soldiers and tortured for information on Geralt and Ciri’s whereabouts, and then they used me as bait for Geralt to come to them. The most they ever got out of me was when I imagined a fortress and the sorceress saw it. I never told them where, or the name of this place, I swear it on my life. I escaped and Geralt found me.”

Jaskier finishes and looks down at his bowl, tucking his shaking hands under the table. He can hear Ciri crying softly. “It’s not your fault, dearest,” he tells her, but can’t bring himself to look up. There is a light patter of feet that tells him she ran from the table, and Yennefer goes after her.

“Maybe we shouldn’t speak of such things in front of her,” Eskel mutters.

“She’s not a child,” Geralt says grimly. “Not anymore.”

“And there wasn’t anywhere else you could go?” Lambert’s voice is loud in Jaskier’s ear.

“Lambert,” Vesemir reproaches calmly.

“You’re bringing them to our doorstep, if they figure it out. Do you remember what happened the last time an angry army came knocking? What kind of defenses do you think we have left, Geralt?”

Jaskier looks up then, and sees Geralt’s face, pale and conflicted. “She’s my family. They’re all my family, just as you are. What would you have done, if it was Aiden?”

Lambert visibly flinches. He doesn’t say anything more.

The word family echoes in Jaskier’s ears, tangled up with the realization that Kaer Morhen isn’t the impenetrable fortress it had been in his mind. There is safety here, yes, but it is still vulnerable.

“Excuse me,” Jaskier murmurs to Vesemir, getting up from his chair. “I’m very tired from the journey. I thank you for...everything.”

“I’ll take you to your room.” Geralt gathers up Jaskier’s few things and carries them toward a spiral staircase, and Jaskier follows.

Geralt leads him to a long hallway with many doors, hesitates before one of them, then continues to the next door. It’s a plain room with a simple bed, a chest of drawers, and a writing desk against one wall. The window is narrow, and Jaskier can see snow swirling beyond it. The hearth is cold, and Jaskier shivers in the dark room. Geralt lights a candle in a wall sconce with Igni.

“I’ll get a fire started for you.” Geralt gently sets down Jaskier’s bag and lute case on the bed and turns to him. “And some blankets for the bed. Give me a few minutes.”

Jaskier takes out his new spare shirt from the bag and refolds it, then sets it carefully in the chest of drawers. He puts his spare socks next to it. Jaskier has no other things, except his lute. He feels suddenly overwhelmed, staggering under the weight of having nothing, of being no one, of starting over. There’s a pressure in his chest and he grabs at his sternum with one hand as though he can pull out the feeling.

Geralt returns with an armful of firewood and stops when he sees Jaskier, stricken there in the middle of the room. “What’s wrong?” he demands, dropping the wood on the floor. He pulls Jaskier’s hand away from his chest and holds it tight.

Jaskier shakes his head, wordless. He grips Geralt’s hand like a lifeline and struggles to get air into his lungs.

“Breathe,” Geralt says, a gentle order. Jaskier listens to him and tries. Geralt tips their foreheads together and Jaskier makes a strangled sound. “Is it the room? Should we go somewhere else?”

Jaskier shakes his head. “I think...I think I’m just tired. Things caught up with me,” he whispers. His knees feel weak, both from panic and proximity to Geralt.

“Understandable. Let me light the fire for you.” He releases Jaskier’s hand slowly. He piles some logs in the hearth, then lights it with Igni. Immediately light floods the room and Jaskier gravitates toward the promise of heat.

“I’ll be back in a minute,” Geralt assures him, and leaves. Jaskier sits on the rug in front of the hearth and stretches out his cold hands.

When Geralt returns he’s carrying a pile of blankets and furs. “These are a little dusty, but they’ll keep you warm.” He arranges them on the bed, then brings a woolen blanket over and drapes it around Jaskier’s shoulders. “Will you be alright if I leave? I need to check on Ciri.”

Ciri. Jaskier had forgotten, in his fear. “Yes, of course. She needs you.”

“She does, but also…” He makes a small sound of frustration. “I’ll be near, tonight, if you need me. My room is next to yours.”

Jaskier’s eyes widen a little at that, but all he says is, “Thank you. Good night, Geralt.”

“Good night, Jaskier,” Geralt says softly, and then he’s gone.

Eventually Jaskier gets up, moving as slowly as an old man. He strips down to his shirt and smalls, then folds his clothes with care and puts them in the drawer. He crawls into the cold bed and shivers under the pile of furs until he falls asleep. He can still feel the ghost of Geralt’s hand gripping his own.

~*~

Chapter Text

Jaskier sleeps fitfully, even as exhausted as he is. When the dawn sunlight glows through the window he’s not quite ready for it. He stretches and scratches his chest without thinking, and the pain wakes him up fully.

He takes a moment to feel his body, to recognize his various hurts. His ribs ache, but not as much as before. He knows it will take a while longer before they are truly healed, but already it feels like an old familiar pain instead of a sharp fresh one. The lines on his chest are scarring over, though they still burn and itch. His feet are mostly healed, at least well enough for him to walk without real difficulty.

All in all, he’s getting better. He needs to be better, especially around Ciri. He hadn’t meant to make her feel guilty about his treatment and injuries, and from now on he’ll make the extra effort to show her that he’s fine.

He climbs out of bed and hisses at the freezing stones under his bare, tender feet. The fire in the hearth has long since burned itself out, and Jaskier is surprised that he can’t see his breath in the air. He dresses quickly, and once he has warm socks and boots on his feet he feels much better.

Since last night was a blur of exhaustion, confusion, and fear, Jaskier has no idea where he is. He assumes that breakfast will begin in the kitchen, but he needs a guide. Geralt had said he was next door if Jaskier needed him, so he bravely steps out of his room.

Jaskier knocks lightly on Geralt’s door, and is not expecting Geralt to open it so quickly, or half dressed. Jaskier stumbles back a step, startled by all that skin. Geralt has a shirt in one hand, and his trousers on at least. His hair is loose around his face.

“Good morning,” Geralt rumbles. Jaskier has always loved his morning voice--rough around the edges, warm and relaxed. “How did you sleep?”

“Like the dead,” Jaskier lies with a little smile. “I feel much better today. And hungry.”

Geralt huffs a laugh. “Let me finish dressing and we’ll go.”

He walks away and leaves the door open, and Jaskier helplessly follows. He notes that there is no sign of Yennefer, no lingering scent of her perfume. He hates that he’s checking for it.

Geralt pulls his shirt over his head and tucks it into his ridiculously tight leather trousers, then pulls back his hair into its usual tie. Jaskier watches longingly, wishing that someday he’d just leave it down. It’s never happened, and it is especially difficult for Jaskier because he knows what those strands feel like in his fingers.

Apparently Geralt isn’t cold, because he only wears his shirt as he ushers Jaskier out of his room. Together they make their way down the stairs and through a couple of hallways to the kitchen, and Jaskier just knows he would get lost if he tried it on his own.

Vesemir is just putting fresh bread onto the kitchen table as they enter. Eskel is already there, stirring what looks like a hearty porridge over the fire. He gives Jaskier a warm, lopsided smile.

“We’re not formal here, lad. Help yourself,” Vesemir says, handing Jaskier a wooden bowl and a spoon.

With a belly full of warm porridge and bread drizzled with honey, Jaskier is ready to go back to sleep, but he puts on a determined face and asks Vesemir what he should be doing to earn his keep.

“You can help Eskel in the stables, if you like. The animals always need tending.”

“I’d be happy to,” he replies. “My ribs need some caution, but the rest of me is hardy enough now.”

He squirms when Vesemir’s gaze drops to his ribs, but the old witcher doesn’t comment other than to give him a nod of understanding.

“Have Yennefer and Ciri come down yet?” Jaskier asks, longing to see Ciri and know that she’s alright.

“Not yet,” says Eskel, finishing his own food. “But they had better hurry if they want their breakfasts warm.”

“Or to have them at all,” Lambert grumbles, clearly still out of sorts as he spoons a huge serving into a bowl and stomps away, not acknowledging Jaskier.

“He’s a cheery one,” Jaskier says to break the silence left in Lambert’s wake.

“He’s an ass,” Eskel says, shrugging, “but we love him anyway.”

“Must be an acquired taste. I’m sure I’ll get used to him in time,” Jaskier says hopefully.

“Come on, bard, I’ll show you around the stables.” Eskel leads him out and Jaskier casts one more glance over his shoulder at Geralt, who is watching him with warmth in his gaze, surprising him.

He wishes Geralt would make up his mind, either to be cold and distant or to be his friend, his family.

The stables are warm and fragrant with the smell of animals and manure, not especially pleasant, but the animals themselves are worth it. The horses are pleased to see them, eager for their food, and there is a coop full of loud chickens. Jaskier’s favorite is a pen with goats that Eskel seems to especially love. He introduces Jaskier to Lil’ Bleater, his favorite goat, and Jaskier is just as charmed by Eskel as he is by the goat.

Eskel seems different enough from Lambert as to be night and day, and when he points that out Eskel sighs.

“Lambert is...well he’s always prickly, always a little bit like a bomb that could go off at any time. Usually when it does, it’s all show and little substance.”

“I would think that being home for the winter would relax him, isn’t that what this time is for? Geralt has always led me to believe that.”

Eskel rubs his scar before he answers. “This place holds a lot of memories for us, and not all of them are good. Most of them aren’t, I’d say. We try to build something better each winter, but it’s difficult. Sometimes not all of us make it home, and we’re left to wonder if…”

Jaskier swallows hard and nods.

“This year Lambert was waiting for someone, and he never arrived. With this new storm coming, the pass will close and he will have to wait until spring to find him. Spring is a long time away, when you’re waiting.”

“It is,” Jaskier agrees, thinking of every single spring for twenty years that he waited for Geralt to return from his mountain. He doesn’t know how Eskel would receive that, so he holds his tongue, but there must be something in his expression that has Eskel gazing shrewdly at him.

“I think you know exactly what I mean,” he says and claps Jaskier on the shoulder.

“I do.”

And that was all that needed to be said about it.

~*~

It’s not until lunch time that Jaskier sees Ciri and Yennefer. They both look well rested, and Ciri has a huge grin for Jaskier when she sees him.

“Geralt showed me the training yard and the armory,” she exclaims, and Jaskier raises his eyebrows.

“Did he, now? You waste no time, Geralt.”

“Why wait? She’s eager to learn.”

“And Yennefer is going to teach me magic,” Ciri says proudly. “I can do both, like you said.”

Yennefer looks fond and indulgent, two emotions that until this moment Jaskier would have sworn she fundamentally lacked. Geralt stands very near her, and they both look like proud parents. It squeezes at his heart, and he can’t decide if it’s in a good or a bad way.

“I’m pleased for you,” Jaskier says, throwing all his goodwill into his voice, and she beams.

After lunch Geralt takes Jaskier aside, away from the others, and speaks to him quietly. “Eskel and Lambert and I are heading down to the hot springs. I think you should join us, it would be good for your injuries.”

Jaskier frowns a little. “Alright, I’ve been dreaming of it since you mentioned it to me. But is there a reason why I shouldn’t? You seem a little...hesitant.”

Geralt’s gaze flickers down at Jaskier’s chest. “They’ll look at you. They won’t be able to help it. They’ll see everything, and I just want to make sure you’re ready for it. If not, we can go another time.”

Jaskier thinks about it for a minute, chewing his lip. “It’s all part of me now. I’m not going to hide it away.” He gives Geralt a crooked smile. “I’ve never been one for hiding myself.”

“That’s certainly true.” He beckons Jaskier, who follows without hesitation. Like a pathetic shadow, Fringilla’s voice whispers in his head, a memory so unexpected that it makes his head jerk back. He’s glad that Geralt is in front of him so that he doesn’t see the trembling of Jaskier’s mouth, the tension in his neck and shoulders, the shaking of his hands. He has time to get himself together again.

They enter a darkened staircase that seems to stretch endlessly downward, and Geralt holds a torch to light their way. As they get closer the air becomes more humid, and Jaskier opens his eyes wide in awe when the stairway opens into a large cavern with multiple pools of steaming water. Eskel and Lambert are already there soaking.

Geralt sets his torch into a holder on the wall and shows where Jaskier can put his clothes. Jaskier takes one brave breath and strips his clothes off, knowing the others can see the deep bruises still discoloring his skin, though they’re fading, and when he turns around they can see his chest. Neither of them say anything as he and Geralt approach, but Jaskier can feel the questions just hanging in the air.

“There are natural shelves to sit on, here and over there,” Geralt points out as they climb in.

As soon as the water envelopes him to the waist Jaskier lets out a little moan that he just can’t hold back. Eskel chuckles a little as Jaskier just sways in the water, eyes closed, enraptured. After he acclimates, Jaskier wades over to one of the seats Geralt had shown him. As soon as he sinks in above his chest, however, his scars sting with the heat and he hisses, jerking back up.

Geralt is already half out of his own seat, reaching for him, and Jaskier waves him off. “It just took me by surprise,” he says, and lowers his chest more carefully below the water line. He wants the water on his tense shoulders badly enough to put up with some discomfort elsewhere.

“You can ask,” Jaskier says after a few minutes of silence.

“Those look pretty deliberate,” Eskel says softly. “Not just cutting for the sake of it.”

This is the question Jaskier had always expected Geralt to ask, but he never had. He takes a slow breath in, and lets it out. “They were asking me questions. Where is the White Wolf? Where would he take her? What trail, what hideout, what fortress?” Jaskier rubs his chest, feeling the ridges of the scars. “Every line is a question I didn’t answer.”

Geralt makes a sound, rough and choked off, and Jaskier looks at him. He looks horrified, gutted.

Eskel and Lambert are still and quiet. Jaskier shrugs. “Worth it,” he says, and Geralt says, “Jaskier,” in a tone he’s never heard before.

“Now hush.” Jaskier puts on the bravest face he has. “It’s over and done, and I was promised a nice bath.”

Eskel recovers the fastest, and hands Jaskier a bar of soap. “The water will do wonders for you. You’re welcome to come here as often as you like.”

Lambert doesn’t say anything and after a minute begins to wash himself, but the sour look has left his face, and Jaskier will take it as a good sign.

Jaskier hands the soap to Geralt when he’s finished with it, but he’s afraid to look at him, afraid that Geralt will wear that same expression of devastation as before. Geralt surprises him by catching his hand below the water and gripping it tightly. After a shocked moment, he squeezes back.

Eventually, after Jaskier’s fingers have gone wrinkly and his muscles feel like jelly, they all leave the spring together. Eskel bumps Jaskier’s shoulder gently with his own as they walk, and Jaskier is pleased at the budding camaraderie that seems to be forming between them. Lambert keeps shooting him assessing looks, like he’s trying to puzzle him out. Jaskier doesn’t think he’s all that mysterious, but he’s willing to let Lambert go at his own pace.

Geralt looks like he wants to say something to Jaskier. The words never come, but they hang heavy in the air anyway, unsaid.

He leaves Jaskier at his door for a rest, and his hand is heavy on Jaskier’s upper arm as he tries to convey something with the press of his fingers. Jaskier doesn’t know this new language of Geralt’s, one based on touch, but he leans into it all the same.

Instead of napping, Jaskier picks up his lute and sits cross-legged on the bed, playing a basic scale and waiting for something to click. He craves the rush of composing, of letting ideas flow from his fingertips to the strings, but the perfect moment never finds him. He settles for playing old ballads from years gone by, but what he really wants is to convey through music the beauty of this crumbling place. The witchers with their steadfast hearts. The welcome he has received.

Still, though his heart yearns for it, the music won’t come. He hasn’t felt that spark of creation in weeks. Not since before… Before.

He curls up under the furs and thinks about what he has lost, both in body and in soul. He wonders how he can get it back. If he can. He keeps remembering moments from his captivity at odd times, and it’s destroying his sense of stability.

Geralt has always been his muse, but now his feelings surrounding Geralt are confused. He’s uncertain where they stand with one another, and he’s afraid to ask. It should be enough that he’s here.

He decides he will throw himself into helping Ciri, in whatever capacity she needs him. There is an uncomplicated space in his heart for her, and it brightens every time he sees her smile. If she asks him to play a jester instead of a bard, he’ll do it. If she wants nothing more than songs from him, he’ll gather up all the best ones he knows and sing his heart out for her.

He may not understand Geralt, but he understands Ciri--struggling to find her own way in the world, gathering up the unraveled threads of her past and trying to weave them into a future of her own making. If nothing else, he can support her in that.

Jaskier wove his own threads into a future long ago, beginning in Posada. His tapestry took the shape of a white wolf, and there is no changing that.

~*~

After dinner Jaskier accompanies Eskel back to the stables for the nightly feeding, and he draws his cloak closer as they cross the dark courtyard. The snow is coming down heavily, big white flakes that swirl in a cold breeze. The stables are a relief, warm and welcoming.

Roach bumps him in the shoulder with her nose, hard enough to rock him back on his heels, but from her it means affection and so he smiles. Pegasus, the big gray horse he borrowed from Ciri, nuzzles his hand gently. Jaskier is exceedingly fond of him, and can’t help but feel attached to Pegasus after such a long journey together. He takes special care with him, giving him a good brushing and a little bit of extra grain. Eskel is amused, but allows it.

They’re just finishing up with the goats when the sound of a heavy bell rings out through the courtyard. Eskel’s eyes go wide and he darts out of the stables and runs for the main gate.

“State your name,” Eskel shouts, a hand already on the crossbeam locking the gate.

“Aiden,” a voice calls, weaker than Eskel’s. “Open up, it’s cold out here.”

Eskel throws back the beam and pulls the gate wide enough to allow a man and a horse to enter. The man called Aiden slips through, guiding a weary horse by the reins. Aiden looks dead on his feet, stumbling forward, frost encrusting his clothes.

“Aiden, we gave up hope,” Eskel says with surprise.

Aiden gives him a wisp of a smile. “I love a dramatic entrance.”

Then suddenly Lambert is there, his feet pounding through the snow, and then he’s throwing his arms around Aiden. “Fuck, you’re here,” he says roughly, pulling him in and hanging on while Aiden lets out a huge sigh and slumps in his arms. Lambert pulls back just far enough to kiss him, hard and desperate, uncaring of their audience.

Eskel looks politely away and nudges Jaskier, who belatedly does the same.

Eventually Lambert lets Aiden go, pressing their foreheads together. “You’re frozen.”

Aiden huffs a laugh that billows in the air. “I know, take me inside for fuck’s sake.”

Eskel takes Aiden’s horse and jerks his head for Jaskier to follow. They bring the exhausted horse to the stable and get him settled and warm and fed, then carry Aiden’s bags inside the keep for him.

He’s at the kitchen table eating hot stew when they come in, and Jaskier can finally get a proper look at him. He’s a beautiful man, because of course he is, with black hair and vivid yellow eyes with a hint of green in them, and he smiles tiredly.

“They tell me you’re Geralt’s bard,” he says. “It’s good to finally meet you.”

“And you’re Lambert’s Aiden,” Jaskier replies with a grin. “It's likewise good to meet you.”

Lambert actually flushes and fidgets and won’t meet Jaskier’s gaze. Jaskier happens to notice the silver medallion on Aiden’s chest, and is surprised to see not a wolf but the profile of a cat. He recalls Geralt mentioning the cat witchers, and not in glowing terms. There’s a story there, and Jaskier is eager to hear it.

But all that can wait until another day, when the poor man isn’t half frozen. Vesemir pushes everyone out of the kitchen to let him eat in peace with Lambert. They run into Ciri, who is leaning around the doorframe trying to get a peek. Yennefer comes up behind her and pulls her back with faint irritation.

“It’s past time you were in bed, Ciri. He’ll still be here tomorrow.”

Ciri sighs, then catches Jaskier’s arm as he passes. “Could I have a song, please?”

“Of course, little bird. But I’ll need a guide to your room, as I am absolutely clueless about how to get around here.”

“Really? But it’s so simple,” Ciri says, wrinkling her nose at him. “Up the spiral staircase, take the first left, follow it to the second corridor, and it’s three doors down on the right. Easy.”

Jaskier blinks at her. “We’ve only been here a day.”

She shrugs. “I pay attention.”

He laughs. “I suppose my head is stuffed with daydreams and has no room for details.”

Yennefer leans in as she takes Ciri’s arm to guide her away. “Stuffed with nonsense, more like.”

“I’ll stuff you with--” Jaskier mutters, breaks off when Geralt arches an eyebrow at him, and recovers with, “--a song! Yes, I will sing you a song, Ciri. Geralt will help me find your room, won’t you, Geralt?”

Geralt looks annoyed but Jaskier can tell he really isn’t. “I’ll have to draw you a map tomorrow, bard,” he drawls, and Jaskier’s stomach flips over at the sound.

Yennefer and Ciri bid everyone goodnight and disappear up the stairs. Geralt and Jaskier do the same, but Vesemir stops them before they leave.

“The snow is here, lad,” Vesemir says as he claps a hand on Jaskier’s shoulder. “You’re well and truly stuck here for the winter.”

“There’s nowhere else I’d rather be,” Jaskier replies honestly, and sees a glimmer of something in Vesemir’s eyes. Approval, maybe. Acceptance.

Geralt ushers Jaskier to the stairs and they walk at a slower than usual pace, Geralt making sure to exaggerate his explanations of the route they take through the keep. Jaskier can’t stop grinning.

“You seem...lighter,” Geralt says as they stop by Jaskier’s room to retrieve his lute.

“I like it here,” Jaskier replies. “I like your brothers. I like making Ciri smile. I hate snow, though. Probably should have mentioned that.”

Geralt snorts and hides a smile.

I like making you smile, Jaskier thinks, but doesn’t voice it.

“How’s your pain?”

“Painful. But better after the hot springs, honestly. I have a feeling I’ll be there a lot this winter.”

“Any time you like. It’s my favorite part of being here.”

“Not Gwent?”

“Well...maybe my second favorite thing.” He stops in front of a door just three doors away from Jaskier’s own room.

“Oh, that’s handy,” Jaskier says, pointing at the short distance.

“We’re all in this corridor,” Geralt explains, gesturing at the long hallway. “Makes it easier.”

“You should put little name tags on each door so no one opens the wrong one by mistake.”

“Like you do at inns?”

“That was one time, Geralt. Okay, two times. But one of those times worked out in my favor.”

Jaskier knocks on the door and Yennefer opens it. Ciri is sitting up in bed, clutching the blankets around herself in a little nest.

“You look cozy, little bird,” Jaskier says as he sits on the edge of the bed with his lute.

“Why do you call me a bird? I’m a lion cub.” She doesn’t sound put out, just curious.

“Well, you’re a bird to me. Graceful, inquisitive, aiming at the sky, fond of music.”

She cocks her head a little, just like a bird. “I’ll allow it,” she says imperiously.

“Now, little bird, what song would you like tonight?”

“Do you know any about birds?”

Jaskier laughs. “I have one about a nightingale who fell in love with the moon, will that do?”

“Perfect.”

It’s a sweet song, full of longing and love, softly rhythmic. When he finishes the song she looks content and sleepy. “Only good dreams,” he says, and leaves quietly with Geralt. Yennefer gives him a grateful look, and he smiles at her. Tentatively, she smiles back.

“You’re good with her,” Geralt says as Jaskier pushes his own door open.

He shrugs and leans against the door frame. “I just talk to her the way I wish someone had talked to me at that age. At any age, really.”

Geralt frowns. “I’m not any good at that. Talking.”

“I hadn’t noticed,” Jaskier says dryly. “But it’s just as important to listen as it is to talk. And you are good at listening.”

“Am I?”

“You’ve had twenty years of practice with someone who has a lot to say.”

For a moment, just one suspended moment, it seems like Geralt might say something, and that something would be life-changing, but the moment passes and a light like a candle winks out in his eyes. Jaskier feels bereft. He looks down at his boots.

“Well. I’ll see you in the morning, Geralt.”

“I’ll be here to lead you downstairs like a blind man.”

“You think you’re very funny, don’t you?”

“All that matters is that you do,” Geralt says as he walks away.

~*~

Chapter Text

Jaskier has another uneasy night. He repeatedly wakes up startled, and has a hard time falling asleep again. He is cold and alone in the dark, and he keeps dreaming that the bed underneath him is bare wood. The only thing that he takes comfort in is that Geralt is next door, and they are separated by only a stone wall.

Geralt is waiting for him in the morning, all rough-voiced and rumpled hair outside his room. Jaskier gives him a wan smile and wishes he could press his face into the curve of Geralt’s shoulder.

“Did you sleep?” Geralt asks, looking concerned.

Jaskier must look pretty bad if Geralt is asking him that. He shrugs. “Some.”

“Hmm,” Geralt rumbles, and carefully touches Jaskier’s shoulder.

Jaskier’s smile is brighter this time. “It will get better. I’ll get better.”

“You’re safe here.”

“I know.” Except he’s not. Not completely. He keeps wondering if Cahir would climb a mountain to get to Ciri. He’s pretty sure he knows the answer to that.

But he gives Geralt the answer he’s supposed to, and they go down to breakfast.

There are too many people in the kitchen, but it’s warm and smells like freshly baked bread, and Ciri is there at the table smiling like a sunrise. She’s excited for Geralt to begin training her, and to look at her no one would ever know that she’s been running for her life for weeks.

“We’re just starting with footwork, cub. No weapons yet, so don’t get any ideas,” Geralt says, quietly amused by her enthusiasm.

“I’m a good dancer, do you think that will help?”

“Absolutely,” Eskel says, grabbing more bread from the basket. “Footwork in combat is a kind of a dance. Balance is everything.”

Out of nowhere Jaskier is talking himself through his escape. His feet are tearing on the sharp rocks and loose brambles as he creeps across the courtyard to the wall. His ribs burn as he fights to maintain his balance. Balance is everything.

“Excuse me,” Jaskier mumbles, dropping his bread and shakily pushing away from the table. His vision darkens and he stumbles out into the hallway. He braces himself against the wall with his hands and tries to breathe, but he can feel the pain in his feet as fresh as if it just happened, the vise of fear crushing his ribs.

“Jaskier.” Geralt is beside him, his hand on Jaskier’s back between his shoulder blades, rubbing gently.

“Gods,” Jaskier gasps, “I don’t know how to do this.”

“Tell me.”

Jaskier’s chest heaves once, involuntarily shaking on a sob that he hides in his arm. “I can’t.”

Geralt sighs softly and pulls on him until Jaskier is pressing his face into Geralt’s neck, the curtain of his hair cool on Jaskier’s cheek. He feels Geralt’s arms come around him, resting lightly on his back. “When you’re ready, I’ll listen.”

Jaskier focuses on calming his breath, in and out, inhaling the sweetness of leather and Geralt deep into his lungs. His fingertips are tingling and his ears are ringing, but eventually that subsides and he’s left standing in a hallway next to a kitchen being held by someone he loves too deeply for words.

He bites back on everything he wants to say and do, and slowly backs away. Geralt lets him go, but his yellow eyes are warm and worried.

“I can’t go back in there,” Jaskier whispers, nodding toward the kitchen.

“You want me to bring you some food? Might help.”

Jaskier just nods. Geralt leaves and Jaskier leans back against the wall, staring at the brick patterns under his feet. In a moment Geralt returns with a piece of dark bread drizzled with honey. He leads Jaskier down the hall to an alcove by a window, and sits him down on the window seat.

“You don’t have to stay,” Jaskier says, looking up at Geralt towering over him with bread in his hands.

“I’ll stay,” Geralt replies, perching himself next to Jaskier. He sits there with him until all the bread is gone.

Jaskier doesn’t know what to say. He feels foolish and tired.

Geralt tilts his head at Jaskier. “Would you like to see the library?”

Jaskier perks up. “There’s a library?”

Geralt nods and stands, pulling Jaskier to his feet. “Vesemir has two passions--baking bread and caring for the library. It’s the closest thing Kaer Morhen has to a sanctuary, and it’s a good place to go when you want to be alone.”

As with everything in Kaer Morhen, Jaskier is sure that he will never be able to find it again, or find his way back, but it will be worth getting a little lost for. It’s larger than he expects it to be, but still has that sense of intimacy that only a room full of books can have. The whole library is warm browns and reds and blues, leather and wood and the sweet scent of lignin from the old pages waiting to be read.

Geralt lights a fire in the hearth and brushes his hands off, and Jaskier feels his eyes on him as he wanders from shelf to shelf, touching the spines of books.

“I promised Ciri I’d show her the basics this morning. I’ll be in the training room if you need me.”

Jaskier laughs a little. “I wouldn’t be able to find it if my life depended on it.”

Geralt almost smiles. “I’ll send someone to check on you later.”

“Good idea.”

Geralt looks at him for a moment, quiet and oddly intent, then turns to the door.

“Geralt?”

“Hmm?”

Jaskier bites his lip. “Thank you.”

“Anything,” is all he says, and Jaskier believes he means it.

It takes him a long time to choose a book among thousands that he wants to read, but eventually he settles on a bestiary with vividly painted illustrations. He curls up in a large armchair by the fireplace, pulls a blanket over himself, and reads until he falls asleep.

~*~

He wakes with Yennefer’s hand on his shoulder, and then jumps when he realizes it’s her.

“Bard,” she says, settling into the other chair by the fire.

“Witch,” he says warily, but there’s no venom in it.

“Are you feeling better? You look better.”

Jaskier takes stock of himself and decides that he does feel slightly better. He picks up the book in his lap and closes it. “I guess I just needed a nap.”

The look in her eyes says she knows better than that.

“Do you have trouble sleeping too?” he asks cautiously.

She pushes her hair back and sighs. “I always have trouble sleeping. Always.”

“What do you do about it?”

“Fuck, mostly. I find that usually does the trick.”

Jaskier hides a smile. “And what do you do if that isn’t an option?”

“Darling,” she drawls, “fucking is always an option.”

He laughs a little. “Are you coming on to me?”

Yennefer arches an eyebrow. “Believe me when I say that that would be a terrible idea, and let’s leave it at that.”

“Well,” Jaskier says, setting his book aside and offering her the blanket in his lap. She declines. “I clearly need to do something. Not just about sleeping.”

“Why don’t you compose? Isn’t that what you musical types are always doing? Working through your ennui by writing shitty poetry and maudlin songs?”

“Please, tell me how you really feel. Don’t hold back,” he says dryly, but part of him appreciates her candor.

She shrugs. “I never see much point in shoving everything into a bottle and waiting for it to explode.”

“Like a djinn, you mean?”

She eyes him shrewdly. “Like a djinn.”

“To answer your earlier question, I would compose if the muses were kind enough to grace me with their presence.”

“I thought Geralt was your muse.” Her violet eyes are far too keen.

“He…” Jaskier clears his throat. “I was on that mountain as well as you. That’s a hard thing to come back from. And there are things I don’t know how to tell him.”

“I’m sure there are.”

Jaskier realizes at that moment that he is totally transparent to her. He’s not sure how he feels about that. He looks away, flushing. “Not just...that. He wants to know things that I’m not ready to talk about. Geralt is a tangle of words in my chest.”

Yennefer clicks her tongue lightly. “And you say you can’t compose.”

Jaskier eyes her sideways. “What are you doing here, anyway?”

“Geralt sent me.”

“Geralt sent you.

She smirks. “What, I can’t check on a friend?”

“Yennefer of Vengerberg, I have hated you for far longer than I’ve liked you.”

“But you do like me now?”

Jaskier sighs. “Gods help me.”

“Come on, bard. It’s lunchtime, and Lambert said he was going to eat your share if you didn’t turn up.”

“Ah, Lambert. Is he behaving better now that Aiden has arrived?”

She snorts elegantly. “Haven’t seen much of them so far, to be honest. Definitely heard them last night though.”

Jaskier laughs, and it feels genuine in his chest. “Maybe that’s why I couldn’t sleep.”

“Chamomile tea.”

“I beg your pardon?”

“Chamomile tea. When fucking isn’t an option.”

He hangs back and allows her through the doorway first. “Thank you, Yennefer.”

“Don’t mention it. Seriously.”

~*~

They all eat in the great hall, agreeing that the kitchen table is just too small for their large group. Jaskier notes that Vesemir looks ever so slightly dazed but also very pleased when he looks down at everyone from the head of the table.

Ciri arrives at lunch all flushed and sweaty and chattering on to anyone who will listen about her first training session. Jaskier watches her youthful animation and realizes all over again that she’s burrowing into his heart, that he would move mountains for her, and not just because it would be the right thing to do.

“Yennefer said that after lunch we could work on some magic theory, and I thought that after that maybe you could teach me to play the lute, Jaskier.”

Jaskier almost chokes on his bite of carrot when he hears his name spoken. “I, uh,” he says, unprepared, “I would be honored, little bird.”

She beams at him. “I want to learn to play the coin song.”

The witchers groan, and Ciri laughs.

“On that note,” Eskel interjects, “I don’t think anyone would mind if you played for us sometimes in the evenings. We’ve never had music in these halls before.”

“Well, that is a tragedy.”

“None of that depressing shit, though,” Lambert says from further down the table, where he sits with his arm around Aiden’s shoulders.

“He means love songs,” Aiden says with a wink. “But I wouldn’t say no to a few of those.”

Jaskier decides that he likes Aiden very much.

“I will happily play for all of you,” he says, already thinking of which songs would be appropriate for a group of witchers as well as a thirteen year old girl. There’s not a huge amount of overlap, but he can make it work. It’s been too long now since he played for anyone, and he hopes it will soothe his soul.

After lunch he helps Geralt and Eskel patch up a broken window in one of the lesser used hallways, because snow and wind are finding their way through. He carries planks for them as they board it up, glad to be of some use, but when they’re finished he feels sore from the exertion.

“Hot springs?” he asks Geralt hopefully.

“Hedonist,” Geralt accuses, but he’s only teasing.

Jaskier feels something warm in his chest at the thought that Geralt is capable of teasing.

They stop by Geralt’s room for some towels and some clean clothes. Jaskier has nothing else to change into, and Geralt frowns.

“I have an idea about that,” he says as they walk down the darkened stairs. “I think we may have some clothes in storage, from when there were trainees here. I’ll see if I can find them.”

“That would be wonderful.”

No one else is at the springs, and Jaskier suddenly realizes the error of his ways when he watches Geralt walk naked into the water. Giving himself a stern talking to inside his head, he follows.

They wash in silence, sharing the soap, then lean back together against the side of the rock and relax. The heat soothes Jaskier’s aches and he closes his eyes at the simple pleasure. After a while he feels a shift in the water and opens his eyes to see Geralt in front of him.

“Can I see?” He gestures at Jaskier’s chest.

Jaskier stands up so that his wounds are above the water, and nods. Geralt examines them carefully, touching the lines and testing the scar tissue that is forming. Jaskier hopes to the gods that Geralt can’t see him getting hard under the water.

“They’re healing well,” he says, sounding relieved.

“There was someone who helped care for them,” he says without thinking, and then his breath catches.

Geralt’s gaze snaps up to his. “The soldier.” He doesn’t have to say which one.

Jaskier nods mutely. Geralt steps back.

“You put a lot of faith in someone from Nilfgaard. Considering what’s at stake.”

“He wouldn’t betray me. Not like I...betrayed him.” Jaskier chokes out the words like he’s trying to breathe underwater. “He loves me.”

Geralt takes another step back. “He helped you escape.”

Jaskier shakes his head. “I used him. I seduced him.”

“You love him?”

Jaskier shakes his head again, sharply. “I couldn’t. My heart's already…”

Geralt looks conflicted, distant. “What did you do?”

“I sang for him. I coaxed him close. I kissed him and slammed his head into the bars and stole the key. I left him there bleeding.” Jaskier feels tears sliding down his cheeks, mixing with the spring water.

“You did what you had to.”

“He deserved better than that. Than to love me. He’s a good man.”

“Sounds like you do love him.”

Jaskier shakes his head again, helplessly. “I could never.”

Geralt takes a deep breath. Jaskier covers his face with his hands.

“Alright.”

Jaskier peeks at him. “That’s it? ‘Alright?’”

Geralt still looks distant. “You trust him, and I trust you. But there’s still the possibility that they could get the information out of him anyway. The way they tried with you.”

Jaskier stares at him in horror.

“I know, I didn’t think of it either.”

“Oh gods. What have I done?”

Geralt shakes his head, his voice low and even. “He doesn’t know where we went. Only that Ciri is with us. If they try hard enough, they will find Kaer Morhen themselves, eventually.”

“I know. I’m afraid that they’re coming for us, no matter what we’ve tried. That all this,” he presses his hand over the lines on his chest, “was for nothing.”

“It’s not nothing to me,” Geralt says softly. “You kept us a secret. You gave us a chance. You gave up pieces of yourself to do it. That’s not nothing to me.”

Jaskier lets out a shuddering breath and bites his lip on words better left unsaid. Geralt’s golden gaze is steady on his, and Jaskier takes strength from it.

“You can do this. I’ll keep you safe.”

“I believe you,” Jaskier says, because he does.

“Now, sit. You’re too tense again.”

Jaskier lets out a startled laugh and sinks back down onto his rock ledge. “I undid all my own good work.”

“I’m the one who brought it up.”

“I don’t mind you looking,” Jaskier says, more softly than he intends to. “I don’t mind showing you.”

Geralt sits down near him again. “I wish I could take them away for you.”

Jaskier sighs. “They’d still be there, even if the scars were gone.”

Several minutes go by in silence, then Geralt says, “No one’s ever done something like… Not for me.”

“Well, you’ve been hanging around the wrong people, then. I’d still do it again, if I had to.”

Geralt takes an unsteady breath, then lets it out slowly. “Then you’re an idiot.” He sounds so fond that Jaskier smiles.

“I know. I know.”

~*~

Ciri is still buzzing with energy when she meets Jaskier in the library for her first music lesson. Jaskier quickly learns that she had a bit of training in various instruments growing up under Calanthe’s guidance, but only a little bit on the lute. Apparently Pavetta had been quite skilled on the harp, so Ciri’s focus had been the harp as well.

“It’s not as though I didn’t enjoy the harp, it’s just… I always wanted to get up and move while I played, not be confined to a stool and an instrument so large I couldn’t move it by myself.” She reaches out and longingly touches his lute, the flat front and curved back of it, tracing the grain of the wood.

“One of the best things about a lute is that you can dance while playing it,” Jaskier tells her with a smile.

Ciri’s eyes sparkle. “I’ve watched other bards do it, of course, but I want to see how you do it.”

Jaskier thinks about it for a moment and decides that he’s limber enough to try it. He gets to his feet and dramatically strums the opening notes of Fishmonger’s Daughter--without the lyrics--and takes a few exaggerated steps around the library floor. He carefully dances around the armchairs and tables, ignoring the twinges in his feet because the freedom of movement feels so satisfying. Ciri grins and claps her hands as Jaskier accompanies himself in the most overly exaggerated way possible.

When he brings the song to a close he hands the instrument to Ciri. She takes it reverently, and then awkwardly maneuvers it to hold it the way Jasker had.

“It’s a little large for you, but it’s all we’ve got for now so we’ll make it work.”

He spends the next hour showing her how to place her fingers, how to change position for a few basic chords. By the time they’re done she looks a bit weary.

“My hands hurt,” she says, but it doesn’t sound like a complaint.

Jaskier nods. “You’ll have to build up the strength in them, and gain some calluses. Between this and sword fighting your hands will hurt quite a bit for a while. Still want to learn?”

Without hesitation she says, “I want to make my own way. This is my way.”

“Little bird,” Jaskier replies, “your way is magnificent.”

~*~

It seems that songs of adventure are the best ones to bridge the gap between witcher and princess, and the first night playing in the great hall for everyone is a success. Even Lambert seems to be enjoying himself, tapping his finger in time with the beat as Jaskier stands with his back to the fire and sings. Everyone is seated in armchairs or on furs on the ground, though Vesemir stands behind them all with his arms crossed comfortably over his chest and a small smile on his rugged face.

For the first time in a very long time he sees Geralt look relaxed. It might be the ale in his hand, it might be the company or the comfort of home, but Geralt is leaned back against the wings of his chair with an expression of contentment on his face. The firelight turns his eyes to gold, and Jaskier has a hard time not staring as he sings.

He notices Yennefer glancing knowingly between the two of them, and he makes an effort not to look at Geralt anymore. If Yennefer can see it then surely the others can sense something too. If they can see, then Geralt can see, and the thought scares him.

Let Geralt think that he risked his life for friendship, since that is what Geralt is prepared to give to Jaskier. No more, no less.

“You’ve all been a lovely audience,” Jaskier says when he sees Ciri’s eyes start to droop. “I will leave you with one last song. Any requests?”

He sees Aiden wink out of the corner of his eye and smothers a grin. “Ah yes, thank you, Lambert. What an excellent suggestion.”

Lambert frowns in confusion and Jaskier throws himself into a heart wrenching tale of star-crossed love. Out of the corner of his eye he thinks he sees Geralt grin, but does not look at him.

~*~

Chapter Text

Days and nights fall into a routine as time passes. By day Jaskier helps with the animals and other odd jobs around the keep, then teaches Ciri in the afternoons before dinner. It’s not always easy teaching her; there are days when she’s so tired she has a hard time holding the lute, and days when she’s still distracted by thoughts of what Yennefer is teaching her. Still, it’s one of the most rewarding things he’s ever done.

By night Jaskier is a mess.

He never gets more than a few hours of sleep at a time, plagued by nightmares and restless feelings he can’t shake. He does his best to hide it in the daytime, but his eyes look bruised and there’s not much he can do about that. Jaskier does his best to take comfort in the fact that Geralt is nearby, and let that be enough.

Ciri has her own nightmares to deal with, and sometimes Jaskier is summoned to sing to her. “Only good dreams,” he always says to her as she drops back to sleep, and he is relieved that he can offer her this small kindness when her life was so recently torn apart. He cannot offer himself the same kindness, however.

His body is healing, though, and he is grateful for it. There are scars on his feet and his chest, but they’re fading into a soft pink and not as tender to the touch. Yennefer gave him a marvelous salve that helps tremendously.

Jaskier admits that he’s beginning to genuinely enjoy her company. She’s already shown herself capable of deep caring, both for Ciri and for Geralt--though in a new and different way--and even for Jaskier, though she certainly doesn’t need to do more than tolerate him. It’s a large keep, she could easily avoid him, but instead now and then she seeks him out in the library. Sometimes they talk, but usually they merely read in front of the fire in silence.

Geralt seems bemused by their new relationship, but he doesn’t comment other than to say, “Hmm,” when he finds them chatting by the fire one day.

As for Geralt himself, Jaskier sees less of him than he would expect. Geralt is always kind and solicitous, while also holding him at arm’s length. Jaskier begins to worry that Geralt knows how Jaskier truly feels for him, and this is his way of gently rejecting him. A careful line has been drawn in the sand, and Jaskier can only toe it and meet Geralt on his terms.

~*~

Two weeks after arriving at Kaer Morhen, Jaskier is watching Ciri’s training session with Geralt when he realizes something very important he’d not quite let himself accept as truth before. They’re outside in the courtyard, snow having been shoveled off to the sides against the walls, and Ciri is training on a simple padded fighting pell. Jaskier is perched on the end of an empty wagon, wrapped in a thick wool cloak. He’s holding an apple in his gloved hands, turning it around and around but not yet having decided to eat it.

Ciri’s wooden practice sword keeps bouncing off the thick post and throwing her off balance. She stumbles over and over, her form faltering. Geralt, standing off to one side with his arms crossed over his chest, keeps barking orders at her like she’s a soldier and he’s a commanding officer, and it’s making Jaskier increasingly uncomfortable.

Her breath is coming in white plumes around her face as she pants with exertion, clearly trying desperately to please as she lifts her shaking arms to strike, up high, down low, balancing and thrusting, connecting with jarring force.

Lambert and Aiden practice on the other side of the courtyard, oblivious or unmoved by Geralt’s loud orders. Eskel is shoveling snow, occasionally pausing to watch one pair or the other with approval, then turning back to his task.

“Again,” Geralt growls, and Ciri grunts as she swings. Her sword bounces off again, and she falls hard on the crossed-beam base of the pell.

She gives a little cry and drops her sword, gripping her wrist as she kneels on the muddy cobblestones.

“Get up, do it again,” Geralt orders, and Ciri struggles to her feet.

“I think she’s had enough, Geralt,” Jaskier calls out, incredulous.

Geralt’s gaze snaps to his, sharp and angry. “Do you think that whatever she’s fighting will let her rest?”

Across the courtyard Aiden and Lambert have stopped sparring, and Eskel is leaning on his shovel looking concerned. Jaskier isn’t sure whether the concern is for Ciri, for Geralt, or for Jaskier.

“It’s fine, I’m fine,” says Ciri, who is clearly not fine. But she picks up her sword, and after a bracing breath she attacks the pell again.

Geralt is still staring at Jaskier, a hard and challenging glint in his gaze. Jaskier shrinks under it. He awkwardly climbs down from the wagon, dropping his apple in the process. Feeling multiple sets of eyes watching him, he doesn’t stop to pick it up.

Geralt isn’t training Ciri. He’s preparing her.

~*~

That afternoon Jaskier calls off their music lesson for the day, citing a headache, which isn’t a lie, but he really wants to let Ciri’s wrist rest. Instead of their lesson he finds himself in the library, aimlessly running his fingertips across the faded spines of books. He doesn’t want to read, he doesn’t want to lie down, he doesn’t want to acknowledge his headache or the reason for it. He could help Vesemir in the kitchen with dinner, but he doesn’t think he could handle the old witcher’s opinion of his interruption during training, for certainly someone has told him about it.

The snow has begun falling again, large flakes drifting down outside the library windows. Jaskier sits down in a chair in front of the cold, dark hearth and watches the snow. When the room has gotten too dark to properly see, Jaskier decides to pull himself together and go down to eat with the others, and is just about to rise from his chair when the library door opens and Geralt enters.

“I’ve been looking for you,” Geralt rumbles, and sits down across from Jaskier.

“Here I am.”

“Hmm.”

“I’m sorry about today. I never should have interrupted,” Jaskier says evenly, having practiced the simple apology in his head for hours.

“You care about her. Nothing wrong with that.”

“I suppose you and I just have different ways of showing her that we care.”

Geralt nods. They lapse into silence. Jaskier can’t make out Geralt’s face clearly in the darkening room, but he knows he’s being watched.

“They’re coming, aren’t they?”

“Yes,” Geralt simply says.

“And you’re sure?”

“Yes.”

He lights the candle on the table next to them with Igni, and the flare of light makes Jaskier flinch. Geralt runs his hand over his hair, smoothing down the loose strands. “There’s no way that someone so determined wouldn’t eventually discover the name of a witcher fortress by word of mouth, and learn how to get here. It’s inevitable. We’ll have until spring when the pass opens, and then we have to be ready.”

Jaskier’s headache throbs in his temples. “Does she know?”

“Not yet.”

“When will you tell her?”

Geralt sighs and looks at him. “I don’t know. When she can swing a real sword, probably.”

“Will she be able to do that before spring?”

“Swing it, yes. Kill with it, no.”

Jaskier rubs his temples. “You want her to feel like she can defend herself.”

Geralt nods and comes to stand before him. He gently knocks Jaskier’s hands away and presses his fingertips into Jaskier’s temples, moving slowly. Jaskier sags into the touch, surprised by it and desperate for it. The relief is strong enough that he trembles.

“Anywhere else?” Geralt asks softly.

Jaskier points to the back of his neck, and Geralt’s fingers slide there, cupping his skull. It’s all Jaskier can do not to cry out, and he bites down on the sound because he doesn’t know whether it will sound like pain or pleasure. It comes out as a tiny whimper, and Geralt hums. He massages Jaskier’s neck with gentle pressure, holding him up when his head feels too heavy. Jaskier is dangerously close to tipping his forehead against Geralt’s stomach, and wants to so badly he almost does it.

“Thank you,” he whispers instead, and Geralt slowly releases him but doesn’t step away. Jaskier looks up at him, at the tall, pale shadow of him, and Geralt delicately nudges a lock of hair from Jaskier’s eyes.

“Come on,” Geralt murmurs. “They won’t hold dinner for us forever.”

Jaskier swallows hard. “Wouldn’t want Lambert stealing all our food.”

“Lambert bet Eskel that you got lost again.”

“Hey, I haven’t gotten lost since...like four days ago.” Jaskier gets to his feet, and they’re too close together because Geralt still hasn’t stepped back. He smells like leather and clean sweat, and Jaskier realizes how little effort it would take to kiss him. He’d barely have to lean up and in, and Geralt’s mouth would be on his. He can imagine it, a shock of warmth and velvet.

Then Geralt does step back.

“Let’s go,” he says, and it’s so gentle it doesn’t even sound like a rejection.

~*~

Ciri asks Jaskier to sing for her before bed, and even though he just spent almost an hour singing for everyone, he knows the difference between that and what she’s asking. She needs reassurance everything will be alright, and sometimes Jaskier is the only one who can offer her that.

Only he can’t.

So he lies to her, lies with every fiber of his being, with a gentle song about a princess who saved herself. It’s not one of his own compositions, it’s one he’s known since he was a child. It’s easier to lie, using someone else’s words.

“Only good dreams,” he whispers, and kisses her on the head. She smiles sleepily, and there is a heaviness in his stomach. When Yennefer walks him to the door she frowns a little.

“Everything alright?” she asks, because they can ask each other things like that now.

Jaskier shakes his head and kisses her on the cheek, even though that’s definitely not a thing they do, and she looks so shocked that he smiles, just a bit.

~*~

Jaskier doesn’t think he’ll be able to fall asleep, and he watches the fire burn down to embers while trying to think of nothing at all. Sleep finds him anyway, but doesn’t keep him. He dreams of a princess who tries to save herself, of an army too big to fight, of blood on snow, of two swords falling to the ground, limp hands dropping them--

--and he wakes up with his heart thundering, his chest heaving, his mind racing. The fire has long since gone out, and it’s so dark that Jaskier can barely see his hand in front of his face. He has bad dreams every single night, but this is so much worse, and he’s stumbling from his bed before he can tell himself not to.

The stones are icy under his bare feet, shocking his senses. He’s at Geralt’s door, he’s knocking.

Then Geralt is saying his name, and Jaskier hovers on the threshold, not sure what he had meant to do once he got here. Then Geralt sighs and opens his arms, and Jaskier walks into them.

He doesn’t realize until he’s held tight that he’s shaking so hard his teeth are chattering. Geralt steps backwards into his room and pulls Jaskier with him, nudging the door closed with his foot. The fire in Geralt’s hearth is burning low, and over Geralt’s shoulder Jaskier sees the bed with blankets rumpled.

“Come here,” Geralt murmurs, taking him there without breaking the hold he has on him. They shuffle-step until Jaskier’s leg hits the mattress, then Geralt lets go only to guide him down.

He lets Geralt maneuver his limbs like he’s a child, tucking Jaskier into the warm space that he left, then Geralt joins him there. He’s still shaking hard enough to hurt his teeth, and Geralt gathers him up into his arms like he’s something fragile. He feels fragile.

Geralt holds him until he calms, until his shivers settle and his heart stops pounding so hard it feels like it will burst through his chest. Gradually he realizes how close Geralt is, head on the same pillow, sharing the same heat in the same space beneath the blankets and furs. Geralt’s eyes are dark and calm.

Jaskier sighs as he relaxes against him, his eyes going heavy-lidded with exhaustion. Here, he is safe.

He finds his thoughts drifting as he lays there, Geralt’s arm heavy over his side. He remembers his fever dream in the cell, thinking Geralt had come for him, his confusion when it was Ellien all along. It’s not until Geralt makes a tiny, mournful sound that he realizes he’s been speaking aloud.

He lifts his hand to touch Geralt’s cheek, just as he had in his dream. “I don’t blame you,” he mumbles. “Even when I thought you hated me, you were still the thing that kept me going.”

“Jask. I don’t hate you.” Geralt’s voice is just as hushed, and he traps Jaskier’s hand on his cheek. As slow as honey he turns his head and kisses Jaskier’s palm, his wrist. He gathers up Jaskier’s hand in his own and holds it carefully.

“But you won’t let me near.”

Geralt sighs softly and his breath fans warm over Jaskier’s skin. “You deserve someone who wouldn’t hurt you the way I did. I thought if I kept you away you’d stop loving me. I thought I could make you.”

“Geralt,” he whispers sadly, “you can’t unring a bell.”

“I know that now.” He presses a kiss to Jaskier’s forehead.

“Do you still want me to stop loving you?”

“No,” Geralt breathes, and Jaskier brushes their mouths together, feather-light.

They’re caught in that dark, honeyed moment, shifting gently, unhurried. Under the blankets it is warm and intimate, and Geralt slowly tangles their legs together. He rises up onto his elbow, no sudden movements, leaning over Jaskier and kissing him as he runs his hand up Jaskier’s ribs that barely ache anymore. A moment later he does it again, but this time up under Jaskier’s shirt. Geralt’s thumb catches his nipple and Jaskier arches, stretching against him from head to toe.

He hadn’t fully appreciated earlier that Geralt is down to his smalls, his chest already naked and warm against Jaskier’s hands. He lets his fingers wander, learning the texture of Geralt’s skin, the topography of his scars. Geralt’s leg slides heavily between his, nudging his thighs apart, and Jaskier opens for him naturally, as inevitable as gravity.

Their kiss never falters, Geralt’s tongue gliding against his, a gentle flicker that locks them together. When he pulls back it’s only to breathe, his lips wet and shining and his eyes as dark as night.

“Jask,” Geralt says, his voice as low as Jaskier has ever heard it. He draws his fingertips through the hair on Jaskier’s stomach, trailing down to the band of his smalls. “Can I?”

Jaskier nods and Geralt slowly unlaces them and lifts him out, curling his fingers around him, and Jaskier realizes for the first time that he’s hard, he’s aching. Geralt kisses him again and Jaskier makes a small sound, reaching for Geralt’s laces too. The feeling of Geralt pressing smooth and hot against the sensitive skin of his hip makes Jaskier shiver, but in the best way, and he keeps shivering as Geralt begins to rock into him. Geralt’s leg pushes him wider, intimately baring him even though he’s still clothed.

With a moan Jaskier arches his head back into the pillow, and Geralt licks at the thin skin of his throat, sucks on it lightly but relentlessly. His hand is loose around Jaskier’s cock but slowly tightening, his thumb circling wetly over the tip and making Jaskier shudder. He never moves faster, either his hips or his hand, and Jaskier loses himself in the unhurried sensuality of it.

When he comes it’s like a soft wave, Geralt’s tongue on his collarbone, warm wetness spreading between them. Geralt gasps and his hips stutter, his cock spurting nearly untouched in long pulses upon Jaskier’s belly.

For long minutes they lay collapsed against each other, finding their breath, until Geralt levers himself up and gets off the bed. Jaskier silently watches him walk to his chest of drawers, find a cloth and turn back, his smalls fallen open around his softening cock. He steps out of them, cleans himself and then Jaskier, then helps Jaskier out of his clothes. He drops them on the floor and joins him under the blankets again.

“This is another bell you can’t unring,” Jaskier whispers, and Geralt draws him close, touching from head to toe.

“I would never try.” He kisses his forehead, his temple, his mouth. Jaskier slumps against him, utterly exhausted. “Only good dreams,” Geralt murmurs.

Jaskier slips into sleep.

~*~

He wakes to the feeling of Geralt’s mouth on his chest, moving from left to right, kissing his scars. He’s pressing his mouth down the length of each one slowly. Jaskier slides his hand into the curtain of Geralt’s hair and lets him. The pale light of dawn is glowing dimly through the clouds and falling snow. Jaskier watches it out the window.

He can feel Geralt’s cock resting against his naked hip, but neither of them are hard. This is not about that.

“If I could...” Geralt murmurs, his voice hoarse, trailing off.

“I don’t think I would take them away,” Jaskier says. He runs his fingers through Geralt’s hair. “There is love behind each one.”

Geralt drops his forehead gently against the scars, resting there. “You know that I...that I…”

“Do you?” Jaskier asks, because he doesn’t know, not for sure.

Geralt nods against his chest.

Jaskier tightens his hold on Geralt’s hair and guides him back up to kiss him. Geralt melts into him, rolling down and pulling him so that Jaskier is leaning over him. Jaskier smiles and smooths Geralt’s hair back so that it spills onto the pillow, rumpled and perfect.

“I thought you loved that soldier.”

“Ellien,” Jaskier says, because he needs to be named. It’s important. “I didn’t, and I don’t.”

“It hurt to believe it.” Geralt reaches up and brushes his fingers along Jaskier’s jaw. “But I thought it was better that way. That you had found someone better than me.”

“There is no one better than you,” Jaskier whispers.

Geralt falls quiet, meeting Jaskier’s eyes. It’s clear that he doesn’t believe it, but desperately wants to.

Jaskier strokes a soothing hand over Geralt’s chest, over his heart, and Geralt responds by trailing his fingers down Jaskier’s spine to the small of his back, pressing them closer.

“I have to feed the animals,” Jaskier says apologetically.

“I have to shovel the snow so that you can get to the stables,” Geralt points out.

They lay there for another moment, then another one and another one, but finally they untangle themselves and get out of bed. Jaskier slips back into his shirt and smalls, watching while Geralt gets dressed for the day. He moves to the door but finds himself reeled back in and kissed, harder than Geralt has kissed him so far, tantalizing and promising more.

“This is not helping,” Jaskier mumbles against his lips.

“Hmm,” Geralt replies, and kisses him again.

Jaskier decides he has to be the strong one, so he firmly pushes him back and walks over to the door. Geralt follows like a shadow, only stepping back once the door is open. Jaskier checks the hallway, glad when he sees that it’s empty. He hurries away from Geralt to his own door, and when he looks back Geralt is watching him intently, his golden eyes warm.

Jaskier grins, his heart full, and goes into his room. When he’s finished dressing he glances at the little mirror on the night table. There is a light mark on his collarbone, proof that last night wasn’t a dream. He tugs his shirt up a little and covers it, keeping it close like the best kind of secret.

~*~

Chapter Text

They don’t even sit beside each other during breakfast, but Aiden makes a smug face at Lambert, who groans, and Jaskier can tell when he’s looking at a bet won and lost. Jaskier sighs and rolls his eyes, and Eskel winks at Geralt, and that’s all the fuss that’s made about it.

Geralt shovels the snow while Jaskier watches, since Geralt still feels the need to protect Jaskier’s ribs from heavy labor. When the path is clear to the stables Geralt stays and helps Jaskier take care of all the animals, and though his hands don’t wander, his eyes make it clear that he wants them to. Jaskier feels drunk with the knowledge that Geralt would do whatever he says, whatever he asks for.

Jaskier reminds Geralt that he has training scheduled with Ciri, and watches as Geralt the lover turns into Geralt the father, for that is what he is becoming. He kisses Geralt once and leaves him at the training room inside the keep, Ciri already bouncing past them with a knowing look on her young face.

Yennefer finds him in the library later, while he’s once again struggling to compose.

“I’m to congratulate you, they tell me.” Her voice is steady and her face is a mask.

Jaskier sets his lute down and moves over in the window seat so that she can sit down.

“I won’t flaunt it in front of you, if that’s what you’re worried about,” he says softly.

She gives him a half smile. “It does hurt, a little. But I knew this was coming, sure as a sunrise.”

“I didn’t know.”

Yennefer sighs and nods. “That’s because you’re an idiot.”

“Nothing new, then,” he says, the traditional response, and she huffs a laugh.

“I’ll get used to seeing you two, just as I’m getting used to not having him here for me in that way. We would never have worked, djinn or no djinn. We were like fire in a forest, and we burned out.”

“You know, for a while there I thought you and he had fixed things, that you had fallen back into being lovers.”

Yennefer smiles wryly. “That’s not what he needs from me. He needed a friend to talk to, and I can always offer him that. We’re bound together, but we chose the way that suits us best. Even if it hurts sometimes.”

“I am sorry, truly,” Jaskier says, and he takes her hand. “I wish you could have what you want, too.”

“Hmm,” she replies, sounding like Geralt. “I think I do, actually.”

“Ciri?”

She nods. “I wanted a child more than I wanted anything, more than I wanted him, and now I have one. She surprised me. She surprises me every day.”

Jaskier squeezes her hand and after a moment she squeezes back.

~*~

He plays and plays, alone in the library, and something starts to move within him. A frozen river, thawing. Words coming to the surface, a melody out of the air above it.

He’s afraid, and he’s in love, and he starts to write.

~*~

His lesson with Ciri is bittersweet. She is coming along nicely with the lute, becoming more comfortable with it, more natural instead of stiff and precise. He loves to see her earnest focus, her obvious enjoyment. Still, he thinks of his dream last night, of the coming spring, and he aches for her.

Playing an instrument won’t save her life. Jaskier is not offering her anything that will help her, nothing practical. Geralt is teaching her to defend herself with weapons, Yennefer is guiding her with her magic, and Jaskier is giving her...nothing.

“That song you sang for me once, the one about the nightingale and the moon. Can you teach me that one?” Ciri’s eyes are bright and hopeful.

“I think we’re almost to that point. That’s a wonderful song to start with, actually. And easier than the coin song,” he says with a smile and a wink.

He can do this. He can give her this, because she wants it, even if she doesn’t need it. He’d do anything for her smile.

 

~*~

By dinnertime Jaskier is a tangle of fear and anticipation and lust. He hardly knows what to do with himself, and can barely keep up with the conversations at dinner. Geralt just watches him, his gaze unwavering.

After dinner Jaskier doesn’t even try to linger with the others in the great room by the fire. He slips away quietly, but only makes it as far as the hallway to his room before he’s spun around and pushed up against the wall. Geralt kisses him like a man possessed, not quite roughly but skirting that line, and Jaskier’s knees go weak. Geralt’s hands spear into his hair and he tilts Jaskier’s head for a better angle to kiss him. His tongue tangles with Jaskier’s, thrusting intently, drawing him in.

He gets his thigh in between Jaskier’s and rocks against him. Jaskier moans and shivers, pinned completely and unable to move. Anyone could come down the hallway and see them. His pulse spikes even more.

“Geralt,” he mumbles into the kiss. “Geralt, someone could see.”

“Hmm,” Geralt says dismissively, biting his jaw and sucking a mark into his throat.

“Yes, but,” Jaskier breaks off to moan, “what if it’s Ciri?”

Geralt freezes and pulls back. “Fuck.”

“We can’t do that here.” He gently pushes Geralt away and grabs his hand, tugging him to the closest bedroom, which is Geralt’s.

“Clothes, now,” Geralt orders as soon as the door is closed. “Or I’m going to rip them off.”

Jaskier gets his clothes off so fast he thinks he may have ripped a seam or two anyway, but when they’re both naked he doesn’t care at all about the pile of clothes around his feet. Geralt stalks him and Jaskier backs up into the bed, then Geralt is shoving him down and covering him, and Jaskier has a hard time getting his whole body on the bed before Geralt’s weight is pinning him. He moans at the feeling of so much skin on skin.

“I don’t know how to tell you,” Geralt rumbles, low and dark, “how badly I need you.”

Jaskier spreads his legs so that Geralt can settle between them. They both groan at the contact, and Jaskier pulls Geralt down for a kiss. He wants one that’s overwhelming, shocking in its intensity, and that’s what he gets. He can’t breathe and he doesn’t care, digging his fingers into Geralt’s shoulders too hard, Geralt’s hand gripping the back of his neck.

“What do you need?” Jaskier moans when Geralt moves down to scrape his teeth along Jaskier’s throat.

Geralt tugs Jaskier’s thigh up and thrusts his hips in an unmistakable mimicry of what he wants. Jaskier shudders and nods, reaching up to touch Geralt’s face and look him in the eye, running a thumb over his kiss-reddened lips. He nods again.

The fact that there’s a bottle of oil within reach on the bedside table makes Jaskier think of Geralt pleasuring himself when he’s alone, and Jaskier is so caught up in that imagery that he almost misses Geralt slicking up his fingers and sliding them between Jaskier’s cheeks. He gasps at the sudden sensation of Geralt rubbing over his hole, dipping inside with a questing finger, and he rocks his hips to get him deeper.

Geralt doesn’t seem that inclined to wait, slipping two fingers in and making Jaskier purr at the fullness. His muscles flutter as he gets used to the feeling and Geralt hisses. He stretches him with all the patience he has, Jaskier can tell by the way his jaw flexes as he grits his teeth. He pulls out and thrusts back in with three fingers, and it’s just a little too soon but Jaskier needs him so badly that he doesn’t care.

“Please,” he whimpers. “I’ve waited so long.”

He finds the corked bottle that had rolled against his hip on the mattress and thrusts it at Geralt, who pours oil into his cupped hand and slicks up his own cock until it’s dripping. Jaskier bites his lip and cries out when Geralt pushes in, and Geralt immediately stops, but Jaskier urges him on.

“It’s good,” he promises, “you’re so good to me.”

Geralt’s cheeks flush at the praise and he slides home. Jaskier’s breaths come in audible gasps and he arches his back to get him even deeper.

“Jask,” Geralt growls softly, unmoving. He runs his hands down the backs of Jaskier’s thighs, his thumbs rubbing the slick skin where their bodies meet. Jaskier makes a little hiccuping noise when Geralt gives an experimental thrust.

“That’s...you feel…” Jaskier struggles to find enough words to make a sentence, all he knows is that he needs more, and he never wants it to stop. “Fuck, Geralt, please.”

Geralt pulls back and pushes in again, and Jaskier scrabbles at the bed to brace himself but only finds himself driven down into the soft furs with no leverage at all. All he can do is take it when Geralt starts to thrust with a rhythm and intensity that matches their desperate kisses from earlier. Sweat beads Geralt’s skin, gleaming in the dying firelight, and Jaskier lets go of the furs to touch his chest, hot and slick, sliding up his shoulders to grasp Geralt’s wild white hair.

“So good, darling, how is it so good,” Jaskier mumbles, pulling Geralt down to kiss him. It’s sloppy and uncoordinated, but somehow it’s the best kiss he’s ever had. Geralt groans against his mouth, clearly trying to keep the rhythm but it stutters when Jaskier says, “That’s it, love, like that.”

Geralt pulls back to look at him, his gaze hot. He pushes Jaskier’s hair out of his eyes and then takes the back of Jaskier’s head in his hand. When he squeezes the nape of his neck Jaskier goes limp as a kitten. Geralt lifts him into a kiss, growling low in his throat.

“You like when I call you love?” Jaskier asks when they break to breathe. “When I call you darling?”

Geralt sucks in a breath and Jaskier actually feels Geralt twitch inside him when he pauses his motion.

“When I call you mine?”

It takes them both by surprise when Geralt suddenly comes, belatedly thrusting hard, getting as deep as he can go. Jaskier smiles around a gasp, delighted and exhilarated. Geralt gets a hand around Jaskier’s cock and jerks him fast while he’s still pulsing inside him, and Jaskier comes like that, his fingers locked in Geralt’s hair, looking into Geralt’s flashing yellow eyes in the low light.

When Geralt starts to pull out Jaskier shakes his head and grips him in place with his thighs.

“Not yet.”

Geralt nods shakily.

“Are you alright, love?”

Geralt twitches again.

“Goodness,” Jaskier murmurs, closing his eyes at the sensation.

When they’ve finally caught their breath and Geralt has softened inside him, Jaskier reluctantly lets him go. Geralt pulls out and runs his fingers around Jaskier’s hole, checking for pain, and Jaskier shakes his head with a smile. Geralt gets off the bed and finds a cloth to clean them.

“You’re awfully quiet,” Jaskier says when Geralt has rejoined him on the bed. Jaskier slides into his arms, tangling their legs together. “Quieter than usual, I mean.”

“Hmm,” Geralt replies, stroking a hand over Jaskier’s hair. “That was…”

“Hmm,” Jaskier agrees. He kisses Geralt’s chest. Here they are safe and nothing else exists. Nothing can touch them, not fear, not war, not death.

As though Geralt can hear his thoughts, he turns on his side to look at Jaskier. “This is ours. No one can take it away.”

Jaskier traces the little crescent scar on his cheekbone. “As long as I’m breathing, you have me. You always did.”

Geralt tips their foreheads together and they drift into sleep.

~*~

After breakfast, Lambert corners Jaskier in the stable while he’s pouring grain into Roach’s feed bucket. “What you did for us, that took guts,” he says, arms crossed over his chest.

Jaskier shrugs, feeling caught off guard. “I only tried to do what was right.”

“No other human would have done the same.”

“I’d like to think that somewhere out there, there’s at least one person who would. I can’t be that unique.”

Lambert’s flat gaze tells him otherwise.

“Well, then I’m sorry. It shouldn’t be that way for you.”

“Look, I just wanted…” Lambert scuffs his foot on the straw floor. “You’re part of us, now.”

Jaskier’s eyes go wide.

“The fact that you can touch this one,” he says, laying his hand on Roach’s flank. Roach’s ears immediately flatten back, and Lambert moves away. “That alone tells me all I need to know.”

“Lambert, I…”

“Just, he deserves to be happy. Make him happy.”

Jaskier nods jerkily. “That’s all I ever wanted.”

Lambert looks at him carefully and whatever he sees in Jaskier’s eyes makes him relax a little. He gives an almost imperceptible nod and turns around, heading out into the snow.

~*~

After all the chores are done Geralt and Jaskier head to the hot springs, being greatly in need of a wash. The others politely decline the invitation to join them, which doesn’t surprise Jaskier at all.

Jaskier hisses when the water hits all his sore places, but soon it begins to soothe him. He washes thoroughly and then leans back in his favorite seat, utterly content. He watches lazily as Geralt washes his hair, slicking it back so that it streams over his shoulders.

“You’re beautiful,” he says, and Geralt snorts, wading over to him. “You’re the most beautiful thing I’ve ever seen.”

Geralt stares at him skeptically and gestures at his body. “I’m covered in--”

“If you say scars I’m going to slap you.”

Geralt closes his mouth.

“Do my scars make me ugly to you?”

Looking a little sheepish, Geralt shakes his head.

“Then accept that you’re beautiful to me, scars or no scars.”

“I don’t understand it, but I accept it,” Geralt concedes, moving close and resting both arms on Jaskier’s shoulders, locking his hands behind Jaskier’s neck possessively.

“Good,” Jaskier says as he brushes a kiss on Geralt’s mouth. “Because I’d hate to have to slap your beautiful face.”

“I’d like to see you try,” Geralt says with a little smile. He moves even closer, bringing their bodies flush together. Jaskier wraps his legs around Geralt’s waist and holds on tight.

Jaskier grins when he feels Geralt’s cock filling against his belly. “Again?”

“I feel like I’ve been walking around for years half-hard whenever I’m with you.”

“Likewise, my dear.” Jaskier leans in to lick across Geralt’s lips, then bites the lower one gently. Geralt groans and pulls him into a deeper kiss. One hand sneaks down Jaskier’s back to slide between his cheeks, rubbing ever so lightly over his hole.

“As much as I adore your fervor, I’m afraid it’s too soon for that,” Jaskier says, even as he rocks his hips a little, because it really is tempting.

“I have a different idea,” Geralt murmurs, removing Jaskier’s legs from his waist and turning him around. He pushes him over to kneel on a stone ledge, his knees and lower thighs in the water, his upper half flat on the stone surrounding the pool.

“Geralt, what--” he asks, then feels Geralt’s tongue lapping gently at his hole, delicately soothing the swollen flesh. He lets out a shocked moan, spreading his legs further to give Geralt more access.

“Is this alright?” Geralt asks, then slides his tongue inside, just a little bit.

“Hnngh,” Jaskier replies, resting his forehead on his folded arms and trying to rock back against him. His soreness is quickly replaced by pleasure as Geralt’s tongue circles his rim again and again. He honestly thinks that he could stay here for hours doing this, but all too soon Geralt pulls away. Jaskier protests wordlessly, and Geralt huffs a laugh.

“Just stay there,” he commands, and Jaskier obeys.

Geralt gets out of the water and goes to the shelves where they keep the soaps, and brings back a bottle of oil they use for massages. He lowers himself back in the water and moves between Jaskier’s spread legs. Jaskier is about to remind him again that they can’t right now, but Geralt only places his oiled hands on Jaskier’s upper back, gently working his muscles as he moves downward.

Jaskier lets out a breathy moan as Geralt’s hands glide down between his cheeks, just skimming over his hole, to rub between his thighs. Geralt pauses for more oil, and Jaskier looks over his shoulder to see Geralt slowly pumping his cock, his hand slick with oil, watching him with heavy-lidded eyes.

He urges Jaskier to close his thighs, then slides his cock between them. Jaskier can feel the head of Geralt’s cock pressing beneath his balls, hot and fat, and he clenches his thighs on a wave of lust. Geralt groans and starts to move, carefully thrusting. It feels better than it should, Geralt’s hands on his hips gripping hard, pulling him back until they’re churning the water around them. Jaskier lies there in a sort of blissed out state, head pillowed on his arms, letting Geralt use him as he likes.

“Jask,” Geralt says hoarsely, “touch yourself.”

Jaskier leans up and gets his hand underneath himself and around his cock, and he tightens his thighs again as pleasure races through him. He rocks into his fist the same way Geralt is rocking into him, and he hears Geralt’s breath hitch. Just knowing that Geralt is close brings Jaskier to his peak and he cries out as he comes, his voice echoing around the cavern. Geralt groans low in his chest and Jaskier feels hot spurts painting his skin.

Geralt pulls away and rests his forehead on the small of Jaskier’s back, his panting breaths rushing out across Jaskier’s skin. “It’s like I can’t get enough of you.”

Jaskier shudders with aftershocks. “You have all of me.”

Slowly they turn to face one another, and Jaskier buries his face in Geralt’s neck. Geralt’s arms come around him and hold him close. For a while they just sway there in the water, sated and vulnerable.

Eventually they separate to wash again, and Jaskier finds himself thinking about something. “Geralt, earlier when you said you’d like to see me try to slap you…”

Geralt winces. “I’m not into that, I’m sorry.”

Jaskier splashes water at him. “Not that. I want you to teach me to fight.”

It goes completely silent in the cavern as Geralt freezes. “What.”

“I want to be able to defend myself, like Ciri. I want to know I can try.”

Geralt sighs. “There isn’t enough time. There’s not enough time for Ciri either.”

Jaskier frowns. “Then just teach me with a dagger. Or a crossbow. Something.”

“When they come, I intend for you to be far from danger.”

“Geralt. You can’t possibly promise that. Do you want me to use my lute? I can hit somebody exactly one time with it, then it’s useless.” He gets out of the water and stomps over to the towels. He wraps one around his hips and turns on Geralt. “I am useless, Geralt.”

Geralt is walking toward him and pauses, his eyes wide. “Where is this coming from?”

Jaskier covers his face with his hands. “I have nothing to offer, and no way to defend.”

“Why do you think you’re useless?” Geralt takes him in his arms and lets him hide there.

“I’m a bard. I have no fighting prowess, no magic. What use is a bard when the enemy is at the gates? Shall I sing them to death?”

Geralt sighs. “You’re not just a bard. You’re a man with a heart like I’ve never known.”

“Well, I definitely can’t love them to death,” Jaskier scoffs.

“No, but you can love us. Give us a reason to fight harder.” Geralt presses a kiss to his temple. “You already do that for me.”

“Geralt of Rivia, I had no idea you were hiding a secret romantic side.”

Geralt scowls. “I’m not.”

Jaskier sighs and pulls back to look at him. “It’s alright, I won’t tell anyone.”

Geralt steps back and grabs a towel, efficiently drying off while Jaskier takes his time about it. “If you truly want...I can teach you some simple things. The dagger is a good idea.”

“Any little bit will help. Thank you.” Jaskier smiles and kisses him as soon as Geralt pulls the towel off his head. His hair is everywhere and he looks ridiculous, and Jaskier loves him so much that it hurts like a broken heart.

~*~

Chapter Text

Dagger training, apparently, consists mostly of Geralt dropping him down to the floor a lot and twisting his arms in unnatural ways and knocking the dagger out of his hand until it goes numb.

It’s possible to win against someone with a sword when all you have is a dagger, Geralt explains to him. The element of surprise usually works against the average enemy--get in fast and close, past the sword to bury the dagger in a vulnerable spot, dance away out of range again. Jaskier has a bad moment when Geralt reminds him to remember his balance, but Geralt helps him breathe through the fear.

By the time their first lesson is over, Jaskier is very sore and very satisfied. Eskel, who has been watching from the side, claps him on the back and praises him, which makes him glow. Geralt has a proud half smile on his face.

Ciri’s music lesson later that day is rather painful, since all his aches from training are just now making themselves known. Ciri thinks it’s delightful that he’s trying to learn, and encourages him the same way he likes to encourage her with her music.

That night Jaskier is so sore that he can’t handle doing more than lying on the bed groaning while Geralt rubs salve on his bruises. Geralt’s pleased demeanor earlier in the day has disappeared, replaced by a sober, concerned expression.

“What’s wrong?” Jaskier asks him finally, as Geralt massages a bruise on his hip.

“When I first found you, you were covered in bruises. I don’t like seeing you this way. This was a mistake.”

Jaskier sits up and grabs Geralt’s wrist. “There is a great difference between bruises that were inflicted upon me, and those I choose to give myself so that no one ever does that to me again.”

Geralt sits for a moment just staring into his eyes, then simply nods and runs his hand down Jaskier’s thigh, idly touching. The bruises are tended to, the day is done.

“Come here,” Jaskier says, arranging himself on a pillow and tugging Geralt down with him. Geralt rests his head on Jaskier’s chest, and it hurts a little but Jaskier welcomes it, to have him so near. He pulls a fur pelt over the two of them and just allows himself to be in the moment with Geralt pressed up against his side, over his heart.

~*~

The banging on the door in the middle of the night is disorienting, and Jaskier sits up quickly, not immediately knowing where he is. Geralt is already up and moving to the door. He opens it a crack and says, “Yen?”

Jaskier scrambles for his trousers when she says, “I need Jaskier, right now.”

Geralt opens the door wider and finds his clothes, and Yennefer comes in, heedless of their states of undress.

“I can’t reach her,” she says, and her face is pale. “She called out for you.”

It isn’t the first time he’s been summoned in the middle of the night, but this seems different. “How bad?”

“Very bad.”

Jaskier pulls his shirt over his head as they run to Ciri’s room. Aiden and Lambert are already at the doorway and Eskel is just coming out into the hall. Jaskier shoulders through the growing crowd and enters the room, and there is Ciri kneeling in the middle of her bed, with every object in the room that isn’t nailed down levitating around her. Chaos crackles, her hair waves unnaturally around her head. She’s crying, and her eyes are squeezed shut.

“Ciri, love,” Jaskier says gently, dodging a heavy candlestick holder with a lit candle. He sits on the bed beside her and takes her hand. She shakes her head a little and doesn’t open her eyes. “It was just a dream. You can wake up now.”

“Not just a dream,” she whispers, and her hand curls into a fist within his hold. “It’s not a dream if it happened.”

“But it’s not happening now. Right now you’re here with us, and you’re safe.”

“They’re afraid of me.”

“Who is?”

Ciri points at the doorway without looking. Jaskier sees faces crowded in the hall behind Yennefer and Geralt. “They’re afraid of what I can do. They should be afraid.”

Jaskier tugs her hand down and takes both of them in his. “They’re afraid for you.”

“I could kill you all with a thought.”

“Are you going to think it?”

She frowns a little, then shakes her head. “Not on purpose.”

The levitating things in the room are quivering as though just waiting for a command to start spinning. Jaskier remembers vividly the night Pavetta lost control. There is a dagger hanging in the air by the foot of the bed. Jaskier nods his head toward it and Geralt enters, grabbing the dagger and putting it in a nearby chest.

“I didn’t mean to kill those boys, either, or the horse, but they died screaming anyway,” Ciri says, her voice thick with tears, and Jaskier’s hands tighten on hers.

“Please open your eyes, Cirilla,” he murmurs.

Finally she does, and fresh tears spill down her cheeks. Her face looks so much younger than thirteen, and her eyes so much older. She looks at Jaskier like he can banish her demons, and his heart breaks.

“Do you want me to sing for you?”

She nods, and he sings her a lullaby that he knew as a child, about a girl who harnessed the wind and flew amongst the stars, and Ciri pulls her hands away to wipe her cheeks. She doesn’t lie down, but she relaxes enough that the objects in the air stop quivering, then lower gently to the floor. When the song is over he glances around the room and sees that everything has settled, and the only people left are Geralt and Yennefer standing at the foot of the bed. Geralt has his arm around her, and she looks worried and weary.

Ciri looks at Jaskier and sighs. “Don’t say ‘only good dreams.’ You can’t promise something like that.”

“It’s not a promise, little bird, it’s a hope. That’s all we ever have.”

She chews on her lip and looks at Yennefer. “How long will it take for me to have control?”

Yennefer straightens her shoulders, becomes a mother again. “I don’t know,” she says, kindly but with naked honesty. “But you’re getting stronger every day. We’ll keep trying until you can master your chaos, I won’t leave you.”

“None of us are going anywhere,” Geralt says. “You’re not alone.”

Ciri buries her face in her hands and takes some very deep breaths. “Okay,” she replies in a small voice.

“Lie down now, and sleep. Do you want us to stay?” Jaskier tucks her hair back behind her ear.

“Just Yennefer,” she says, reaching out, and Yennefer joins her on the bed. They lie down and Yennefer takes her hand, unflinching when Ciri grips her fingers hard enough that her knuckles turn white.

“You can say it now,” Ciri whispers as Jaskier and Geralt are moving to the door.

Jaskier pauses and looks back, and says, “Only good dreams.”

He follows Geralt back to his room and sags into his arms when the door is closed.

“See? You’re far from useless,” Geralt whispers into his hair.

He pours Jaskier a splash of wine, and Jaskier sits on the bed and sips it gratefully.

“I don’t think I’ll be able to sleep again tonight,” he says tiredly.

“Neither will I.”

“We have to tell her the truth eventually, that they won’t give up.”

Geralt nods wearily. “She deserves to know. I’m only afraid of setting her back, of having more nights like this one.”

“Soon we won’t have a choice.”

“I know you’re right. I’m just not ready yet.” Geralt runs the backs of his fingers over Jaskier’s cheek. “You’re so good with her.”

Jaskier smiles sadly. “I just wish I could take all her pain away. She’s too young to carry it.”

“So are you.”

“So are we all, I suppose. But,” Jaskier says firmly, “that’s why we have each other.”

Geralt looks at him with warm, sorrowful eyes. “Jaskier. Will you tell me now what they did to you?”

Jaskier is quiet for a long time, then sets his wine glass aside. He holds out his hand and Geralt joins him on the bed, and Jaskier curls up beside him with his head on Geralt’s chest, listening to his slow, steady heart. He talks until the sun comes up, until his voice is hoarse, and Geralt just listens. He runs his hand over every part of Jaskier that he can reach, inside the safe and intimate space beneath the blankets.

When he finishes his story with Geralt finding him on the road, he falls silent and closes his eyes. Geralt doesn’t say anything. The next time Jaskier opens his eyes the sun is high in the sky, and Geralt is still there.

~*~

As Ciri’s control grows, so too does Yennefer’s chaos slowly return to her. Jaskier watches them sometimes when they practice in the snow-filled yard, Ciri learning to levitate objects and throw them at targets with only her mind and the palms of her hands directing the flow. One such day she gains the courage to throw a wooden practice dagger at Yennefer, who blocks it and throws it right back with barely any effort. Jaskier can’t see more than a faint shimmer in the air between them, but everything crackles with static. Ciri lets the dagger spin past her cheek as she neatly side steps, and the dagger clatters into a target set up behind her.

She looks over her shoulder and beams at Jaskier, her entire face alight with pride. Jaskier claps his hands for her and whistles, and she sketches a little bow. Yennefer grins, her whole face transforming from her usual aloof expression into one of satisfaction.

“Well done,” she calls, and Ciri turns back to her.

“Again?”

Yennefer nods. “Let’s try something larger this time. How about Jaskier?”

Ciri laughs and raises her hands, and Jaskier feels a lightness in his body that he’s wholly unprepared for.

“No, no, nope,” he protests, holding onto the cart he’s sitting on with white knuckled hands. “Jaskier will stay right here, thank you.”

“Only joking, bard,” Yennefer calls. Ciri releases him and he settles heavily back down. “But you see how the principles are the same, Ciri? You could throw a much larger object just as easily as a smaller one. It’s all a matter of focus and direction. Were you saying the incantation in your head like I taught you?”

Ciri shakes her head and shrugs. “I forgot, but Jaskier was starting to float anyway.”

Yennefer’s eyes go wide. “Even I usually have to silently incant when I focus my chaos. If you’re able to do it instinctively, that’s… Well, that makes my job both easier and harder.”

“Why harder?”

“Because you will surpass me in power. That’s something I’ve suspected for a while, but at a certain point you’ll be teaching me instead of the other way around.”

They stare at each other, and after a moment Ciri shakes her head, her expression resolute.

“I don’t believe that will ever be true, Yennefer.”

“Well, not yet, at any rate,” Yennefer says with a faint smirk. “Let’s try the dagger again. This time, go faster.”

Jaskier silently retreats, leaving them to their work. He feels conflicted; seeing Ciri learn control is something he’s relieved to see, but she’s still so young to be preparing to use her chaos in a combat setting. He knows Geralt intends for her to stay far back from any fighting when it inevitably occurs, but Jaskier knows that there are no guarantees that that will happen. Just as Jaskier is preparing to defend himself, she may have to do the same.

~*~

Jaskier’s own training is also going well, according to Geralt. Like Ciri, he’s learning footwork from Aiden, the crossbow from Lambert, the dagger from Geralt, and strategy from Eskel. He never wanted to learn any of this before his captivity, but now every day that he gets stronger is another day further from helplessness.

He sleeps more soundly now that Geralt is beside him every night. He still wakes in a cold sweat sometimes, but Geralt always patiently and gently calms him down. Jaskier opens himself up to him without reservation, heedless of how vulnerable it makes him.

Geralt is his sanctuary.

~*~

“We need a plan,” Vesemir says one night after dinner while they’re all gathered around the main hearth. Jaskier has just finished singing a few songs, and there is a calm and contemplative mood in the room. Ciri has been sent to bed already. “Spring will be here before we know it, and we need to be ready for them.”

“I think we should all head down as soon as the pass is clear,” Lambert suggests, leaning forward with his elbows on his knees. “Meet them in the open. Kaer Morhen is indefensible with only a handful of us.”

“And what if they come with a larger army and surround us?” Eskel counters.

Yennefer shakes her head. “I’ve been exchanging enchanted ravens with Triss, and she says there has been no major Nilfgaardian advance into Kaedwen that she’s aware of.”

“When were you planning on telling us that?” Lambert demands, and Aiden puts a cautioning hand on his shoulder.

“I’m telling you now,” Yennefer says coolly. There is no love lost between her and Lambert, both of them being too prickly and too proud to respect each other much.

“Then we can assume that they will come with only their small cohort. That still puts us at a disadvantage with numbers, but not with skill.” Geralt turns to Yennefer. “They’ll have the mage Fringilla with them, which is a complication I don’t like.”

Yennefer’s eyes harden. “I’d not lose sleep over her death, believe me.”

“But will you be ready?” Jaskier asks, finally speaking up. “Can you match her?”

“I’ll at least be able to meet her as an equal,” Yennefer assures him, though there is a pinched tightness around her mouth that Jaskier doesn’t like to see.

“Then we’ll all be matched, both sides,” Vesemir says. “I still like those odds.”

“Are you counting Ciri in our number? Or me?” Jaskier demands. “Because I’m willing to fight but are we planning to make Ciri a killer too?”

Geralt grimaces. “I’d rather have you and Ciri stay inside the keep. Having you two with us will only distract us and complicate the situation.”

“This still doesn’t solve the problem of where to make our stand,” Eskel points out. “Should we let them come to us or go to meet them?”

“How will they even make it up The Killer without a guide?” Aiden asks. “It’s difficult even for us.”

“We have to assume that they will.” Lambert leans back in his chair and scrubs a hand over his face. His voice is bitter. “After all, a mob of humans managed it before, and look at what happened then.”

“What if…” Jaskier says, then trails off, still thinking.

Geralt’s eyebrows go up. “What if what?”

“What if we let them come to us, and use the Killer against them. There must be some place where we could catch them and let the mountain help us.”

There is silence for a moment, then Vesemir speaks up. “The ravine just outside the keep. It puts them right at our doorstep, but the bridge is only wide enough for two horses at a time. We could trap them there, one of us could close in from behind and block the trail back down.”

“Fish in a barrel,” Lambert says with a mean grin. “That’s my kind of fishing.”

“That ravine is deep,” Eskel points out. “If one of us falls, we’re gone.”

“Then you’d best not fall,” Jaskier says, shivering at the thought.

“We could pick them off one by one that way, as they reach our side, but don’t forget Fringilla.” Yennefer says her name like something bitter and poisonous is rolling off her tongue. “I can do my best to neutralize her, but we will have no way of knowing what she’ll try to do.”

“If by luck they get through us, there will be nothing to stop them getting inside the keep. That means there is no rescue for you, Jask.” Geralt’s brutal honesty is painful.

Jaskier takes a shaky breath. “You know I’ll defend her until my death.”

Geralt goes even paler than usual. “No, you’ll go quietly. They want her alive, and she’ll need you to be strong.”

“We don’t know that they want her alive,” Aiden points out softly. “We’re just assuming that because the alternative is unthinkable.”

All heads swivel to him.

“If it comes to that, we’re all already dead anyway.” Vesemir drains his tankard of ale, and his gaze is hard as he sweeps it over each of them.

“She can scream. We’ll tell her to scream, as a last resort. None of them will make it out alive either.” Yennefer holds her cup out for more wine and Eskel refills it for her.

“She’d have to make it down the mountain alone,” Jaskier murmurs.

“But at least she’d be alive to try.” Geralt’s hand finds his under the table and they link their fingers together.

~*~

Jaskier tries his best to swallow down his fear, but he can’t stomach the idea of watching the witchers play Gwent after that conversation. He knows that they’re just distracting themselves, since there is no more that can be done that night and witchers are nothing if not practical, but Jaskier just isn’t built that way.

He trails his hand over Geralt’s shoulder as he passes, and Geralt looks up from his deck, curious. “I think I’ll go up,” he says, and tries to smile.

Geralt frowns, but nods at him. “Want me to join you?”

“No, you play. I’ll be fine.”

Their room is cold, and Jaskier lights a fire in the hearth. He wraps himself in the warmest woolen blanket from the bed and sits by the fire with his notebook and lute. He’s restless, an itch has settled in his mind that won’t be eased. So he writes by the light of the fire, and he plays music in a stutter of sound as he works through what he feels--frightened yet emboldened, filled with a fierce love that he’d die to defend. There is something sacred that he carries in his heart that will never be diminished or destroyed, and he shines with it.

When Geralt enters the room later Jaskier stands, dropping everything to the floor. He unbuttons his shirt and lets it fall, toes off his boots and removes his trousers. His smalls join the pile on the floor, and he steps out of everything. Geralt is frozen against the closed door, surprise and desire on his face.

Jaskier goes to him and tangles both hands in Geralt’s hair, pulling him down hard for a devouring kiss that Geralt matches with equal fervor. Jaskier bites at Geralt’s bottom lip and he growls, digging his fingers into the swell of Jaskier’s ass, pulling him in and grinding his hardening cock against the bare skin of Jaskier’s belly.

“Come on, come on,” Jaskier moans, trying to pull or push Geralt over to the bed, but Geralt isn’t moving.

“I like you a little desperate,” Geralt says with a smirk, his voice low and rough.

Jaskier responds by nipping hard at Geralt’s throat, making him hiss and toss his head back for more. Jaskier sucks on the thin skin there over Geralt’s pulse, the only place on Geralt that seems truly fragile. He can feel Geralt’s clothed cock throb against him and he uses his teeth again.

Geralt shoves him toward the bed and Jaskier stumbles, catching himself on the night table. He thrusts the bottle of oil into Geralt’s hand and turns around to bend over the bed.

“Like this?” Geralt asks, and he sounds breathless.

“Yeah, just like this,” Jaskier gasps, and then Geralt’s slick fingers part his cheeks, rubbing over his sensitive hole, and he spreads his legs a little more. “Don’t tease.”

“I’ve got you,” Geralt says, slipping one finger in and then two, stretching him fast, and Jaskier sucks in a breath at the sting. “Too much?”

“More, I can take it.”

“I don’t want you to take it, I want you to love it.”

“I do love it, I love it because it’s you.”

Geralt makes a little choked sound and carefully slips in a third finger, thrusting gently but firmly, massaging Jaskier’s rim with his thumb. Jaskier moans and pushes back, getting him even deeper. His cock hangs heavy between his legs, jerking with every thrust.

“Geralt, fuck,” Jaskier gasps, his fingers curling into the furs on the bed. “Come here, get over here.”

“You’re not ready,” Geralt protests, but pulls his fingers away. Jaskier grabs him and pushes him down on the bed, fully clothed. “Wait, just let me--”

“No,” Jaskier says, and works at the laces of Geralt’s trousers and then his smalls, shoving the fabric out of the way. He gets his mouth on Geralt’s cock and his vision whites out for a second because it’s so good, the stretch of his jaw, the heavy press on his tongue, the bittersweet taste of him.

Geralt shouts in surprise, his hands going to Jaskier’s head, but he doesn’t thrust up or try to force Jaskier down. Jaskier doesn’t need any encouragement, he just goes down as far as he can without choking and listens to the little involuntary sounds that Geralt makes. The only rhythm he can find is a quick one, desperation driving him.

He only pulls off when he feels Geralt’s hand pushing on his forehead, and realizes that Geralt has been saying his name. He lifts his head and wipes his wet mouth, uncomprehending for a moment when Geralt pushes the bottle of oil at him.

“Please, Jask,” Geralt says, his breathing labored.

Jaskier slicks Geralt’s cock until oil is dripping down, then shakily sets the bottle on the table. He climbs up to straddle Geralt’s waist, lining him up and sinking down as fast as his body will allow him to. Geralt grits his teeth and holds on to Jaskier’s hips, keeping him from going too quickly. It’s the best kind of burn, the kind that lights Jaskier up from the inside. He greedily cherishes every inch of Geralt inside him, how well he’s filled, as if his body was made for no other purpose than this, for Geralt.

There’s a kind of illicit thrill to being nude while Geralt is still fully clothed. Geralt’s heat radiates through his shirt, which rubs Jaskier’s inner thighs. Jaskier takes a deep breath and starts to move, guided by Geralt’s hands, rolling his hips to the pace of his pounding heart. Every sense is sharper--the blinding shine of Geralt’s eyes, the scent of sex rising between them, the drag of Geralt’s cock inside him, Geralt’s heaving breaths rushing in his ears.

Jaskier leans down and takes Geralt’s mouth in a needy kiss, whimpering as the shift in angle rubs against the spot that makes his vision sparkle and his muscles clench. Geralt grips the back of Jaskier’s neck and kisses him fiercely, then grunts with effort as he pushes Jaskier up and off of him, then flips him onto his back.

“Geralt,” Jaskier says, stunned at the sudden change. “What--”

“You want to feel alive? Is that what this is?” He takes Jaskier’s hand and kisses his palm, bites at the meat of it.

Yes.” He moans when Geralt’s teeth scrape the inside of his wrist.

Geralt grins, a predatory kind of thing that makes Jaskier shiver, and pulls Jaskier’s thighs up. The first thrust back in is like the moment a spark ignites dry tinder, a flash of heat in darkness. Geralt’s strokes pound him into the bed, hard and relentless like he craves. Geralt releases his thighs and threads his fingers between Jaskier’s, palm to palm, and pins his hands to the bed. Jaskier can’t move, doesn’t want to, just closes his eyes and throws his head back and takes it. His blood is singing in his veins, he’s shivering with the heat of it.

“Gods, you feel like--” Jaskier mumbles, and Geralt cuts him off with a kiss. “--fire,” he finishes when they break for air.

“You feel like mine,” Geralt rumbles, his rhythm starting to break down.

Jaskier groans and feels his peak hovering just out of reach. He struggles to get a hand free to stroke himself, but Geralt tightens his fingers and pushes harder into the bed.

“Just like this, or not at all,” he growls. “Feel what I’m giving you, take what you need.”

Jaskier cries out, thrashing in his hold, gripping Geralt tighter with his thighs. His whole body tenses, the fire flaring up within him. Geralt’s golden eyes glitter fiercely with life, with something more primal than love.

The fire explodes, a roaring rush through his body, and he stripes their bellies with spend. Geralt shudders and gives a last rough thrust, pulsing hotly inside him. It goes on and on, the pleasure and relief ricocheting between them, back and forth like an echo, until Geralt finally slumps and Jaskier gladly takes his weight.

After a minute Geralt pushes himself up and disentangles them, and Jaskier takes a deep breath. He feels shaky and unmoored, too vulnerable, until they finish cleaning up and Geralt pulls him back down into the bed. Geralt leans over him, stroking his fingers through Jaskier’s hair, gazing intently at him.

“We’re both alive,” he says gently, “and we’re going to stay that way.”

“I needed to--just in case--”

“There’s no ‘just in case.’ I’m not leaving you, and you’re not leaving me.”

Jaskier nods jerkily, latching onto Geralt’s utter surety. He knows there are no real guarantees that Geralt can make, but here in the dark it’s easy to pretend.

~*~

Chapter Text

Music practice feels particularly pointless in light of the conversation the night before, made even more frustrating because Ciri’s attention is clearly elsewhere. Eventually Jaskier gives up altogether and closes his notebook of verses he’d been showing her.

“Little bird,” he says gently, “where are you?”

Ciri strokes her thumb over the strings slowly, making barely a sound. “When were you planning to tell me?”

Jaskier frowns. “Tell you what?”

“That they’re coming for me, and soon.”

“Ah.” Jaskier puts down the notebook and leans his elbows on his knees, steepling his hands and staring at them. “How much did you overhear?”

“The whole thing.” She sounds far too cold for one so young.

Jaskier sighs. “Geralt wanted to wait to tell you, until--”

“Until they’re at the gates? I’m not a child, Jaskier. Why would he be training me if he doesn’t want me to fight?”

“You’ll have to ask Geralt that, I’m not going to answer for him.”

“I’m asking you, because you’ve always been honest with me. At least I thought you had been.”

That cuts deep. “I have always wanted to be.”

Into the silence she picks at a few strings, and Jaskier recognizes the first little melody he taught her.

“Even if we prevail, they won’t stop, will they? Nilfgaard, I mean.”

“Probably not.”

“Why do they want me so badly? Because I’m the heir to the throne of Cintra? Because I have dangerous magic?”

Jaskier shakes his head. “I don’t know.”

“We could fill the whole valley with things we don’t know.” Ciri sets the lute aside and wanders to the window. It’s snowing again, and the view is obscured. She watches it awhile anyway.

“Geralt would give anything to protect you, we all would.” Jaskier joins her at the window, trying to catch her eye.

She hugs her arms around her stomach. “I don’t want anyone dying for me.”

“You know that war doesn’t work that way.” He says it as gently as he can, and she finally looks at him, her eyes shining with tears. When he opens his arms she leans in and lets him fold his arms around her. She sniffles on his doublet for a bit, and he doesn’t mind at all.

Movement out of the corner of his eye makes him look, and Geralt is standing in the doorway of the library watching them. Jaskier gives him a small smile, but all he feels is sadness.

“Ciri? Geralt is here. I think I’ll let the two of you talk.”

She pulls back and scrubs her hands roughly over her cheeks. “Alright.”

When he passes him, Geralt catches his hand. “She knows?”

“She overheard.”

Geralt’s mouth thins. “Fuck.”

Jaskier shrugs. “It’s done now. No sense in looking back.”

“I don’t know what to say to her.”

“She just needs you to talk to her as a person, not a little child.”

Geralt sighs. “I’m no good at this.”

Jaskier lifts their hands and presses a kiss to Geralt’s knuckles. “Let this be your first lesson, then.”

~*~

Jaskier has never before dreaded spring. For twenty years spring had meant the return of his wandering life, the return of Geralt, the easing of the tightly coiled thing in his chest that appeared each year as he wintered in Oxenfurt.

This year he has Geralt already. There is no need for spring; Jaskier would prefer a neverending winter if it meant that all his new family would be safe and whole.

Nevertheless, spring comes with bright skies and birdsong and snow drifts receding. Lambert returns from his examination of the trail and announces that the pass is open. The witchers prepare themselves to put their plan into action, and someone is in the watchtower at all times with eyes trained on the valley below. Lambert and Aiden are ready to take their positions on the far side of the ravine, in order to block the trail behind the soldiers.

Perhaps they won’t come after all, Jaskier thinks as he watches the witchers train in the courtyard one day. Perhaps they don’t want her that badly, perhaps they never uncovered the location of the witcher keep, perhaps…

Aiden beckons him over with a grin, and Jaskier draws his dagger. Together they dance, a slow version of a real fight, accommodating Jaskier’s level of skill. Still, even though Aiden is going softly with him, Jaskier does get a couple of hits that surprise Aiden. Geralt’s eyes are warm with approval, and Jaskier feels proud. He might not win in a real fight, but he’ll certainly be able to try, and that will have to be good enough. He is tasked with staying behind with Ciri anyway. Jaskier is to be the last resort.

~*~

Vesemir is the one in the watchtower when the band of soldiers appears in the valley. His booming voice echoes through the courtyard and into the keep, alerting everyone. Vesemir’s witcher eyes, just as sharp as when he was young, have seen the progression of the little faraway group slowly ascending the trail. They seem so small, so pitiful, Jaskier thinks as he looks out from the tower beside Geralt. Surely they will be easily beaten.

His hand finds Geralt’s anyway, and their fingers interlace for a moment. Geralt gives him a reassuring smile and goes back down the tower to prepare. Jaskier stays behind, looking at the peaceful valley, spring green dotting the hills, the river sparkling below like a silver ribbon in a girl’s hair.

“This is what they do,” Vesemir says, and Jaskier turns to him. “They kill monsters. This is just another kind of monster.”

Jaskier nods. “I remember thinking that anyone who could do to another person what they did to me, must be a monster. No remorse, no empathy. And yet here I see before me a group of men said to have no heart, no soul, and they’re about to risk death to defend a little girl. I don’t understand humanity.”

“Son, I don’t either.” His gruff voice is kind, and his hand on Jaskier’s shoulder is an unexpected comfort. “But I understand my boys, and I’d bet on them any day.”

~*~

Ciri is sitting quietly on the edge of her bed with her sword across her lap when Jaskier comes to find her. She is alone; Yennefer must be off preparing herself for the fight. Like Jaskier, she is wearing a boiled leather cuirass over her doublet, courtesy of young witcher trainees from long ago.

“Little bird,” Jaskier says calmly as he sits down next to her. “It’s time for us to go.”

“I just needed a minute.”

“Do you want a song?”

She shakes her head and smiles a little. “No, thank you. I was just enjoying the quiet.”

Jaskier clicks his tongue. “And I’m disturbing you. I have never been one to tolerate long silences. Just ask Geralt.”

Ciri laughs, a slightly breathless sound. “I already knew that about you, don’t worry. I’m ready, I think.”

“Alright then, grab your things and let’s join the others.” He musters a cheerful smile at odds with the circumstances. “I couldn’t ask for anyone better at my side.”

She carefully buckles her belt around her hips and adjusts the dagger’s sheath on the side. She picks up her shortsword in one hand and her crossbow in the other, and together they march out into the bright sun of the courtyard where the rest of the family is waiting.

Lambert and Aiden don’t say goodbye when they leave, they just slip away out the gate, heading for the hills beyond the ravine. Lambert will make use of his knowledge of explosives, and Aiden will use his stealth to set everything in place.

Eskel, Vesemir, and Geralt strap their steel swords on their backs and head toward the gate. Yennefer speaks quietly for a moment with Ciri, then kisses her forehead and joins the others. Geralt hangs back, catching Jaskier in his arms. Jaskier doesn’t mind the armor digging into his skin, because Geralt is kissing him softly. He doesn’t say anything, just rests his forehead against Jaskier’s temple for a moment, then steps away.

He strokes Ciri’s hair with his gloved fingers, and she looks at him with eyes as round as the moon, like she’s trying not to cry. “If it comes to it, either you surrender quietly, or you scream as loud and long as you can.”

She nods and takes his hand. It seems so small compared to Geralt’s. “I’ve never been one to give up easily.”

Geralt smiles at her, a real, full smile. “I know.”

Then he’s gone out the front gate and Jaskier is alone with Ciri.

“Well, little bird, it’s time.”

Ciri leads the way up the interior of the watchtower, and Jaskier barricades the door behind them. They find the best vantage point and settle there, overlooking the ravine. They’re just far enough away that they will probably go unnoticed by Cahir’s men, but close enough that they will be able to follow the battle.

“Is it a battle if there are less than twenty men? Or is that a skirmish?”

“I think that’s a skirmish,” Ciri says distractedly, watching the soldiers approaching and the witchers descending the trail. “Are you going to write a song about this?”

“My dear, I’m going to write an entire song cycle about this.” He runs his fingers over the hilt of the dagger on his hip, wishing he had his notebook. Now that they’re here, finally, words are flowing like a river in his heart and there couldn’t be a worse time for it.

He watches Geralt stop at the edge of the bridge and examine the area, though they’ve done it a hundred times before, then they all hide themselves in the trees. Jaskier swings his attention down the trail, watching the soldiers get closer.

After a few minutes the group appears on the far side of the bridge, mounted soldiers leading the way for those on foot, and Jaskier’s heart pounds in his throat. They pause at the edge and Jaskier can see Cahir among them, looking around and examining the forest and the keep for signs of an ambush. Jaskier knows that his friends will have hidden themselves well, and sure enough after a minute Cahir directs the men to begin crossing.

As soon as the first horse has almost reached the near side of the bridge the hillside explodes behind them, bringing down rocks and trees onto the path. Jaskier jumps at the concussive sound, even though he’d been bracing for it. He hears Ciri suck in a swift breath and then let it out slowly. The soldiers’ horses go wild with fright and confusion, and the first man is thrown to the ground. He lands on the bridge itself and not over the edge, more’s the pity.

Cahir is shouting orders among the chaos, keeping a tight rein on his horse as he assesses the trail behind them and the far side of the ravine before them. It’s then that the witchers race from the trees, swords drawn, with Yennefer at their side.

The first soldier, now on his feet, has no choice but to engage the witchers who are waiting for him. Eskel’s sword flashes in the afternoon sun, and the soldier goes down quickly. His horse, loose and panicked, races past him to solid ground.

The next soldier charges them with his horse, and Eskel has to leap swiftly out of the way to avoid being trampled. He pushes right through the witchers and spins around to attack from behind. Vesemir is there to take him, and Jaskier has to divide his attention between watching Vesemir in action, an impressive sight, and watching the next soldier meeting Geralt. They both seem to be holding their own, but the next soldier makes it across the bridge and Eskel is waiting there, and all the witchers are now engaged--and the soldiers keep coming. With the soldiers on horseback and the witchers on foot, Jaskier sees a distinct disadvantage.

Yen,” Geralt yells, and Yennefer steps forward with her hands outstretched, chaos crackling visibly from her fingertips. She pushes out and a shimmering wall seems to form at the edge of the bridge, preventing more soldiers from swarming them.

Jaskier’s heart is hammering in his chest as he watches the soldiers fall one by one under witcher swords, and the horses dance freely around, getting in the way. Eskel smacks two of them on their rumps and they canter off up the trail toward the keep.

Yennefer lets three more through, and they look reluctant as they push forward, like they know what fate they’re riding into. It’s beginning to look good for the witchers, who are still going strong as they meet their adversaries, but it’s then that Jaskier realizes something as he looks at the soldiers on the bridge and beyond--there are more than there should be. Cahir has increased his numbers over the winter, and Jaskier wonders how long the witchers can stretch out their energy and their luck.

Then he sees on the other side of the bridge Lambert and Aiden engaging soldiers not yet on the bridge. The soldiers are effectively boxed in on both sides, and now Jaskier can recognize Cahir and Rugin and Fringilla in the middle of the bridge. Fringilla looks enraged, and Jaskier’s blood runs cold. He imagines he can still feel her in his head, and he grips the windowsill of the watchtower until his fingers hurt. Ciri’s hand covers his, and he breathes again.

Yennefer is holding the soldiers back still, but there is a sudden flash of light and then Yennefer is crying out, staggering under the weight of something Jaskier can’t see. Her wall wavers and another soldier slips through, and the witchers are outnumbered. Eskel and Geralt turn back to back seamlessly, fighting on multiple fronts. Their swords are blurs of shining steel, but Yennefer is struggling still. Jaskier feels helpless, watching her push back against Fringilla’s stronger attack.

“No, no,” Ciri is muttering, pulling her crossbow and resting it on the windowsill, trying to take aim.

“Ciri, we’re too far away, there’s no way you can make the shot,” Jaskier says, alarmed. “You’ll just as likely hit one of our own.”

Ciri growls and flings the crossbow away again, pounding her fist on the stone. “Yennefer is still too weak.”

Jaskier swallows hard. “I know. But Geralt and the others are strong, and they’ve prepared for this. We have to have some faith in them.”

She rounds on him, anger burning bright in her eyes. “There are too many. Aiden and Lambert aren’t getting any help, they’re not going to make it. Geralt and the others are slowing, can’t you see? Fringilla is going to drive Yennefer into the ground. They can’t last.”

“I know. But there’s nothing we can do,” Jaskier says, dread choking his throat.

“Well, fuck that,” Ciri bites out, scooping up her sword and shoving Jaskier hard so that he crashes onto the ground against the wall. “I’m sorry,” she calls as she bolts for the stairs.

Jaskier is frustratingly slow in recovering his wits and his feet, and Ciri is as light and swift as a falcon streaking down the spiral stairs, flinging open the barred door before Jaskier is halfway down. He calls out her name, panicked, his heart racing. He bursts out into the bright sunlight, half blinded by it as he chases her out the gate and down the trail. He knows he won’t catch her.

She slips through the fray like a ghost, gliding between witchers and soldiers and swords like they’re not even there. Jaskier skids to a halt before he reaches Vesemir in the back, staring in shock as Ciri drops to the ground beside Yennefer, grabbing her hand, and suddenly there is a pulse of chaos in the air, crackling audibly. Jaskier can’t see as well on the ground, but he glimpses Fringilla’s face briefly through the melee and she looks shocked.

The soldiers in the very front on the bridge freeze in place like statues, blocking the path of the others. There are still too many on the near side, and they’re starting to close in on the witchers, but at least there aren’t more advancing for now.

Then suddenly a familiar face skirts the crowd toward Jaskier--Rugin is grinning as he closes in, his sword in his hand, and Jaskier rocks a step back. He pulls his dagger and Rugin laughs.

“Bard,” he rumbles, stopping within swinging distance of Jaskier, who tries to hold his ground. “You look well.”

“I’m resilient,” Jaskier says, proud that his voice doesn’t shake.

“I shouldn’t even waste my time with you. I should make you watch while I run your witcher through,” Rugin says as he lifts his sword, “but here we are, and I do so love the color of your blood.”

Someone nearby roars, an enraged sound that hurts Jaskier’s ears, and it isn’t until he has buried his dagger between armor plates and ribs that he realizes he was the one screaming. Rugin looks surprised at seeing Jaskier so close, too far inside his sword range, and he grunts as he tries to shake Jaskier off of him. Jaskier hangs on like a burr and twists his dagger, and Rugin flinches, looking down at the blood covering Jaskier’s hand, then he collapses to the ground.

Jaskier staggers as he lets go, standing over Rugin’s body, watching him go limp. Belatedly he realizes that he’s motionless at the edge of the skirmish, in danger, and he stumbles backward. His eyes find Geralt’s white hair flying as he whirls, Eskel fighting beside him. Around their feet are the bloodied fallen.

Ciri and Yennefer are on their feet, hand in hand, and the air around them is vibrating. A soldier on foot abandons his fight with Eskel and heads toward them, and Jaskier cries out wordlessly, but Ciri’s free hand is already aiming at him. He goes flying, crashing into another soldier. Eskel cuts them both down.

One by one the soldiers fall. The combined force of Ciri and Yennefer neutralizes Fringilla and immobilizes the soldiers. Still, Jaskier can tell that the witchers are growing tired and that’s something that magic can’t help. Jaskier can’t see the far side of the bridge and has no idea what has happened to Lambert and Aiden.

Thinking of Aiden makes him remember his footwork, how to be as nimble and perfectly balanced as a cat. Without thinking, he darts over to a soldier approaching Yennefer from behind, and slips his dagger into the soldier’s unprotected side. He dances away again when the soldier turns to him, and waits for the man to fall before finding another target.

It occurs to him, after the third man falls under his blade, that he’s going to be sick as soon as he has the chance. This is for Ciri, he keeps chanting to himself, holding his dagger against anyone who would threaten her safety, giving her and Yennefer time to keep Fringilla busy.

Time speeds up, flashing in time to his heartbeat, and Jaskier doesn’t know how long he’s been fending off attackers. The soldiers dwindle to a trickle, and then they’re gone. Cahir is fighting Geralt. Fringilla is alone on the bridge.

Jaskier hears Yennefer chanting in gasps under her breath, but he only has eyes for Geralt and Cahir. They’re well-matched, since Geralt’s reflexes are slow with exhaustion. The others stand by and watch. Surely Cahir realizes that he’s beaten, Jaskier thinks, seeing the sweat pouring down his face and the shakiness of his sword arm, but Cahir keeps attacking. He must know that there will be no surrendering today.

Cahir gets in a lucky slice on Geralt’s upper arm and Jaskier bites his tongue to keep from crying out. Geralt only hisses and parries the next strike, then the next, then his blade finds its way through armor plates and Cahir stands there a moment, somehow surprised, before falling at Geralt’s feet.

The silence is deafening. Horses mill around behind them as they face the bridge, and Fringilla sits motionless atop her horse.

Yennefer snarls and takes aim, still gripping Ciri’s hand, and Fringilla opens a whirling portal. Yennefer yells and sends a blast of magic across the bridge, but it lands on empty air. Fringilla is gone.

Yennefer collapses to the ground, her hand slipping from Ciri’s. Jaskier gets blood all over her clothes when he pulls her into his lap, checking her over, but she’s only passed out. He hands her over to Ciri, whose face is pale and breathing shallow. She sits with Yennefer’s head in her lap, looking over the red, muddied ground, unseeing.

Jaskier clutches at Geralt, who is suddenly before him, cataloguing his visible wounds. “Are you alright?”

“Am I--am I alright?” Geralt repeats, grabbing at Jaskier’s bloodied hands, at the dark red smeared across his doublet.

“It’s not mine,” Jaskier mumbles, then pushes him away to find a bush nearby so he can be sick.

When he’s done he just sits on the ground, barely tracking as Eskel and Vesemir sprint across the bridge toward Aiden and Lambert on the other side. Lambert is barely on his feet, arm slung over Aiden’s shoulders, clutching his stomach. There is shouting, barely heard through the ringing in Jaskier’s ears.

Geralt looks like he’s afraid to touch Ciri with his filthy hands, so he sort of hovers above her head and shoulders, talking softly to her. She shakes her head once, twice, then begins to cry. Geralt gives up and gets down on the ground, pulling both Ciri and Yennefer into his arms.

Past them Eskel and Vesemir are half carrying Lambert back to the keep while Aiden limps behind them. Jaskier gets shakily to his feet, not sure if he can trust his legs yet, but follows them away from the field of the dead. They might need help, and Jaskier should try. He’s uninjured and he doesn’t want to feel useless.

Vesemir sends him to fetch hot water from the kitchen. He brings a bowl to the infirmary where everything is already laid out and ready to patch up wounds. Lambert is very pale, and there is a long slice across the front of his armor. Aiden sits beside the bed and holds his hand while Eskel wrestles his armor off and cuts his shirt open. The wound stretches across his ribs and stomach, deep and nasty looking, but Vesemir breathes a sigh after examining it.

“You’ll have another lovely scar, lad,” he says, and Lambert gives a ghost of a grin.

“I get better looking with each one.” Lambert squeezes Aiden’s hand while Vesemir washes the wound. When he begins to stitch Lambert hisses, and Jaskier looks away. He presses Eskel down into a chair and busies himself with washing a cut on his temple that is bleeding profusely.

“It’s nothing, Jaskier,” Eskel says tiredly, but sits still for it anyway.

“I’d rather your blood stay inside your body, thank you,” he says as he applies pressure. “Are there any other wounds that need tending?”

Eskel sighs. “I don’t think any of us are too bad off, except Lambert. Most of those soldiers were too slow to land dangerous blows, and armor took care of the rest. You might check on Aiden though.”

“Just rolled my ankle,” Aiden assures them. “Nothing to worry about.”

“Vesemir?” Jaskier asks.

“Just a couple scratches on my arms. I’ve had worse bee stings.”

Jaskier doubts that, since he can see the blood seeping through Vesemir’s sleeves, but he trusts that the old man will tend to them once he is done with Lambert.

He sees motion out of the corner of his eye and turns to find Geralt in the doorway, watching them. Geralt beckons him and Jaskier goes, willingly dragged out into the hallway. Geralt’s armor is gone, which is good because he hauls Jaskier in tightly to his body, burying his face in Jaskier’s neck. He takes a deep breath and presses a kiss to his skin.

“You weren’t supposed to be there.” His words are muffled and low.

“I know. But it’s a good thing we were.”

Geralt nods, surprising him.

“I killed Rugin,” Jaskier says, and the words sound like they’re coming from someone else.

Geralt pulls back and looks him in the eye. “I don’t know if that’s a good thing. I mean--not that--”

“I don’t know either. I’ll let you know tomorrow,” Jaskier says with a shaky smile. “First, before anything else, I need to see Ciri.”

“She and Yen are in her room.” He leads the way, but he holds onto Jaskier’s hand like he’s afraid to let go.

“Is Yennefer awake?”

“Yes, but very weak. Like she was after Sodden.”

“And Ciri?”

Geralt blows out a heavy breath. “She saw things she wasn’t ready to see.”

Ciri and Yennefer are curled around each other on the bed, both seemingly asleep. Jaskier backs away quietly after checking on them, but Ciri reaches for him without opening her eyes. Jaskier carefully sits on the edge of the bed and holds her hand. He hums the song about the princess who saved herself, and stares at the blood smeared on the hem of her doublet.

~*~

Chapter Text

Jaskier orders Geralt to their room and insists on checking him over for injuries he might be hiding. Geralt allows it patiently, perhaps understanding Jaskier’s need to touch, to reassure himself. Geralt has nicks and cuts in places where the armor didn’t reach, but everything has stopped bleeding by now. He tries to put his shirt back on but Jaskier stops him, kissing the bare skin of his collarbone, running his fingers over Geralt’s vulnerable belly.

“Hot springs?” Jaskier asks hopefully.

Geralt shakes his head. “Too much to do first. The bodies…”

Jaskier swallows hard, squaring his shoulders. “What can I do?”

“You don’t need to be anywhere near that. Eskel, Vesemir and I will take care of it. I need you to round up all the horses and get them stabled. Can you do that?”

“I can do that,” Jaskier says, relieved. “I guess we have more horses than we know what to do with, now.”

“It’s a good thing that there were so many soldiers on foot, or we’d be overrun by horses.”

“I’ll take care of them, that’s something I’m good at, at least.”

Geralt frowns at him. “You’re good at many things. You saved lives today, Jask.”

“I took some, too,” Jaskier whispers.

“I know.” Geralt kisses his forehead softly, wrapping his arms tightly around Jaskier’s back. “I’m sorry.”

~*~

Rounding up the horses takes the rest of the day. Some have wandered all the way around the back of the keep, and some are still too skittish to be caught easily. By the time the sun sinks low he thinks he has found all that are out there, and if there are any others they will hopefully still be there in the morning.

There are ten new horses in the stable now, and Jaskier thanks the gods that there are enough stalls for all of them. He is surprised and pleased to see his horse Hayseed among the number. He works well into the night making sure that each horse has been thoroughly checked over and fed. Three of the horses sustained very minor injuries in the fighting, and he has to find Vesemir and ask him for help, since he’s never had to stitch up a horse before.

Jaskier doesn’t know what the others did with the bodies of the soldiers. He doesn’t ask Vesemir, even though he feels like he ought to, but he’s still a coward about some things. He’s brushing Hayseed’s coat, his eyelids drooping with exhaustion, when he admits to himself that it is, in part, because he doesn’t want to know if Ellien’s body is among the fallen. He has a hope, a fantasy in his head, that Ellien never returned to Cahir after Geralt spared him on the road. He imagines Ellien free, traveling somewhere far away where NIlfgaard can’t find him, where his kindness will be returned. Jaskier refuses to accept any other possibility.

Geralt finds him there in Hayseed’s stall, leaning against the horse’s sturdy shoulder.

“This is Hayseed,” Jaskier says wearily. “He was mine.”

“Hmm.” Geralt lets the horse breathe into his palm, then strokes his neck gently. “I’d say he’s yours again.”

Jaskier closes his eyes and tips into Geralt’s arms. “Are you finished for today?”

“For today, yes. You did a good job here,” he says, looking around at their full stable.

“That one bites,” Jaskier says, pointing at a dark bay a few stalls down. “Otherwise, they’re lovely.”

Geralt huffs a little laugh.

Jaskier smothers a yawn. “What will you do with all of them?”

“Take them down the mountain with us, to sell at a market. We have no need for extra horses.”

Jaskier rests his head on Geralt’s shoulder. “Can we go inside now?”

“We both need a bath, before we do anything else.”

“Hot springs?”

“Hot springs.”

~*~

Lambert is still in the infirmary, but Aiden and Eskel are already in the springs, as well as Vesemir who is soaking by himself in another pool. Geralt is moving more slowly than usual, Jaskier notes as he watches him take his clothes off, and purses his lips at seeing deep bruises blooming on his left shoulder, hip and thigh.

“It’s nothing,” Geralt says, catching Jaskier staring. He groans as he sinks into the water, though, and Jaskier knows that Geralt is in pain.

“We’ll all be recovered by tomorrow, you know how fast we heal,” Eskel says reassuringly. “Even Lambert will be back to his old self, and we’ll have to fight to keep him in bed a little longer.”

“I have some ideas about that,” Aiden says cheekily, and in the next pool over Vesemir makes a vaguely disgusted sound. Aiden just grins, and it warms Jaskier’s heart.

Sitting among them, his family, it strikes Jaskier how very close they came to losing each other.

He closes his eyes and listens to them quietly discussing the horses, how best to get them down off the mountain and where to sell them, then their talk turns to clearing the trail of rubble after Lambert’s explosives completely blocked it.

One by one they leave the springs, until only Geralt and Jaskier are left. Geralt washes Jaskier’s hair for him, even though he could very easily have done it himself. Jaskier scrubs the blood out from under his fingernails. When they’re done, Jaskier straddles Geralt’s lap and tucks himself up under Geralt’s chin. They sit there for a long time, just breathing.

~*~

The next day Jaskier takes Ciri to see the horses.

She is subdued but not overly distraught, which is a good thing but also makes Jaskier a little sad, because this is to be Ciri’s life now and Jaskier mourns the last of her childhood innocence. So much change in such a short time, yet he can see the resilience in her bearing, the way she carries herself and the determined glint in her eyes. She is Calanthe’s blood, through and through.

To Jaskier’s delight she takes an immediate liking to Hayseed, and he to her, and Jaskier has a half-formed thought of giving him to her just as she had made a gift of Pegasus to him. He would give anything and everything to keep the small but genuine smile on her face as it is now.

“Can I help you with them? The animals, I mean? I’d like to feel more useful.”

Jaskier frowns a little. “Of course, but you don’t have to be useful in order to have worth to us.”

She shrugs one shoulder and won’t quite meet his eyes. “All of you, yesterday. You nearly gave your lives for me. The very least I can do is feed the animals and muck out some stalls.”

“We did that because we love you,” Jaskier says, and realizes that he has never said that to her before.

“And I, you,” she says simply. “It would have to be love for me to willingly muck out horse shit.”

Jaskier’s laugh startles the horses. “You’ve been spending too much time with Lambert.”

“He’s the only one who will play knucklebones with me. Even though he cheats.”

“How does one cheat at knucklebones?”

Ciri smirks. “Somehow he found a way.”

Jaskier sighs. “Oh, Lambert.”

“It’s alright. I usually let him win. I want him to feel he’s doing well.”

“You’re cheeky, little bird,” Jaskier says, laughing as he hands her a shovel.

~*~

Jaskier is sitting in the window seat in the library, his favorite spot in all of Kaer Morhen, picking out a hesitant tune on his lute when Yennefer wanders in. He stops playing and notes her weighted steps, her tired eyes. He waits for her to speak, but she just sits beside him and leans on the opposite wall of the alcove. She tucks her legs up and closes her eyes.

He plays a song for her. It’s about a river flowing to the sea, melancholy but growing in strength. He doesn’t sing the words for her; he doesn’t think he needs to.

~*~

It’s three days after the battle when Ciri finally puts voice to a question that no one has dared to ask.

“What about Fringilla?” Ciri pushes her empty plate away and glances around the table. “By now she’s gone back to Nilfgaard and told them what happened.”

Yennefer looks away; Jaskier can tell she feels guilty about that.

“They might return,” Vesemir says. “Though I imagine it will take some time to regroup.”

“We should relocate Ciri.”

All heads turn to Geralt.

“To where?” Ciri asks, confused. “Kaer Morhen is the safest place. We defeated them once, we could do it again.”

“But what if they bring more next time? More than we can handle?” Eskel points out. Ciri falls silent.

Geralt looks at Yennefer, who clears her throat.

“I have a house that I’ve never lived in, in a remote part of Redania,” she explains, and though she looks tired her voice is sure and confident. “It’s not defensible except by wards, but there’s little chance of tracing us there. I could continue to train Ciri in magic during the year while Geralt is on the Path, and he could join us when he can.”

“We could still winter here, all of us.” Geralt looks around, seeing only approval. “They won’t be able to come for us during winter.”

“I’d like to be a part of this, too,” Eskel says immediately. “To visit, and train.”

“And me,” Lambert chimes in. Aiden nods his head.

Geralt seems relieved, but he still looks to Ciri. “What do you think, cub? Would you like to try it?”

She chews her bottom lip, then clasps her hands in her lap. “What about you, Vesemir? I don’t want to leave you alone up here, in case they come back.”

Vesemir looks startled, then his time-roughened face cracks a smile. “I’ve been alone here every year for decades. No army is going to make me leave.”

“Vesemir,” Geralt says, his voice low and pleading.

“I’ve said my piece.”

Geralt stares hard at him, but eventually nods.

“I can strengthen the wards here, and make it so that no one will be able to portal into Kaer Morhen at least. As soon as I’m able.” Yennefer squares her shoulders determinedly. Ciri slips her hand into Yennefer’s.

“It’s settled, then,” Geralt states, looking around the table.

“Yes,” Ciri says, nodding, her gaze solemn but hopeful.

~*~

“They may still search for us,” Jaskier murmurs, running his fingers through Geralt’s hair. Geralt is resting his head on Jaskier’s chest, their legs tangled together under the blankets.

“Possibly,” Geralt agrees. “Though I suspect that they know they won’t get anything from us, after what happened with you.”

“They could follow us back to her.”

“Jaskier. No plan is without flaw.”

“But what if--”

Geralt leans up to kiss him. “Stop.”

Jaskier stops. Geralt kisses him again, dropping his heavy weight onto Jaskier’s side. He traces the line of his collarbone, the curve of his ribs, the cut of his hip. They haven’t been intimate since before the battle, being too exhausted or too distracted, and Jaskier responds immediately.

“This is better than worrying,” Jaskier says, kissing Geralt’s jaw.

“I should hope so.” Geralt’s hand skirts around Jaskier’s hardening cock, teasing in between his legs. Jaskier opens for him, encouraging him with a little gasp.

“I need you in me,” Jaskier whispers against Geralt’s cheek, and it’s Geralt’s turn to gasp.

“Greedy,” he rumbles, pushing Jaskier’s legs apart and dragging his fingertips over Jaskier’s hole.

“For you, always.”

Geralt brushes his lips over Jaskier’s. “Turn over.”

Jaskier complies, and Geralt straddles him, pressing kisses over his shoulders, licking at the nape of his neck, ghosting his mouth down Jaskier’s spine. Jaskier’s shiver is so strong that it almost feels like coming, and he lets out a breathy cry that has Geralt smiling against his skin.

“I could listen to that all night,” he murmurs, bracketing Jaskier’s hips with his palms and kissing lower.

“I’m not going to last all night,” Jaskier warned, “and I don’t want to finish without you inside me.”

Geralt growls softly, leaning up to bite gently at Jaskier’s shoulder. He slicks his fingers with the oil on the bedside table and wastes no more time in opening Jaskier up. Jaskier’s hips twitch with every thrust and twist of Geralt’s hand, and he can’t stop moaning.

“Geralt, love,” he says, pressing his face to his forearm. “That’s enough, please.”

With a muttered, “fuck,” against Jaskier’s skin, Geralt lines himself up and pushes forward. “You’re still so tight.”

“It’s good, I promise. Just move, I want to feel it.” Jaskier presses back to meet Geralt halfway, and they both groan.

Geralt begins to rock into him in little thrusts that tempt and tease, holding Jaskier’s hips still so he has no choice but to take what Geralt lets him have. There is calm in that, a certain stillness, that soothes the tension Jaskier has been feeling. He arches his back and presses his cheek to the bed, just letting Geralt fill up all the empty places in his body and his heart.

“I don’t ever want you to go,” he breathes out almost silently, and the hitch in Geralt’s breath lets Jaskier know that he heard it.

Geralt leans down and presses kisses between Jaskier’s shoulders, and never falters in his rhythm. He never speeds up, only goes deeper and deeper until every small motion chokes off Jaskier’s breath with how perfect it is.

It seems like hours before the coil in Jaskier’s belly tightens almost unbearably, and Geralt reaches around to take Jaskier’s cock in his hand. Three strokes has him coming, and Geralt fucks him through it and keeps going, past overstimulation and into a new rise and fall, and it isn’t until he’s come a second time that Geralt finishes himself. Jaskier feels the hot rush inside him, spilling out down his thighs when Geralt keeps moving, as though he is unable to stop until he’s wrung the last drops of pleasure from both of them.

They collapse together, Geralt’s weight half dropped on Jaskier’s back, and they lay in their mess until Jaskier squirms for air and Geralt rolls off to the side. Jaskier’s cheek is pressed into the bed and their eyes meet. Geralt smooths Jaskier’s hair back and gives him a tired smile.

“I’m not going to go,” he says, tracing the shell of Jaskier’s ear.

“I know,” Jaskier replies, and he believes it with his whole heart.

~*~

Slowly the witchers begin to ready themselves for heading back out onto the Path. They’re much later than usual this year, but none of them are in any particular hurry. Priorities have subtly shifted from monsters to men, and though they will all continue in the roles they were created for, they will also turn half of their hearts to Ciri, to the future.

Yennefer’s strength grows, with Ciri by her side. They help each other now, feeding off each other, balancing power between them. Yennefer teaches her, and Ciri is the bottled chaos that sustains them.

Jaskier is watching from the ramparts as down below Yennefer and Ciri blanket Kaer Morhen with a net of wards like a spiderweb. He can feel the crackle of magic in the air, tingling on his skin. He tucks himself more tightly inside his cloak against the spring chill, looking out into the valley that glows with the emergence of a new, untouched green.

Tomorrow he will set off with Geralt down the mountain and onto the Path once again, stronger than he was before but with an unchanged burning in his heart that won’t ever falter or desert him. It is as deeply woven into him as his own identity, a lifelong light that will carry him through darkness.

Geralt comes up behind him and cups his hands around Jaskier’s shoulders. His thumbs press cool points into the nape of Jaskier’s neck. “Are you ready?”

“I was born ready, my dear.”

“I love you,” Geralt says suddenly, as softly as a secret but as boldly as a shout, putting it out into the world, never to be taken back. Jaskier feels it resonate in his heart like a bell, still ringing.

~*~
end
~*~

Chapter Text

~*~

“Are you sure I can’t tempt you into spending just one night at an inn?” Jaskier wheedles as they ride through the gates of Nadzieja. Autumn leaves swirl around their horses’ feet, and the air is crisp with the coming winter.

“No,” Geralt says firmly. “I want to get back on the road as soon as we’re done in the market. We’ve got miles yet to cover before dark.”

Jaskier sighs. “If I didn’t know better, I’d think you didn’t actually want to fuck me on a real bed for once.”

Geralt inhales a sharp breath, and Jaskier glances over to see him. He’s resolutely not looking at Jaskier, but the sudden desire is plain on his face. “There will be time enough for that when we reach Yennefer’s house,” is all he says in response.

“Oh, yes,” Jaskier says, unable to keep the mildly sarcastic tone from his voice. “Because it’s fun struggling to keep quiet when the walls are thin and your daughter and ex-lover are sleeping nearby.”

Geralt finally gives him an unimpressed stare. “I’ll just have to gag you, then.”

Jaskier shivers. “I...do not have a problem with this plan.”

“I thought not.” Geralt smirks and dismounts in front of the stable they’ve been looking for. Jaskier does the same, patting Pegasus on the neck and allowing a wet snuffle of his sleeve in return.

“Only for an hour or so,” Geralt explains to the stable boy, and Jaskier flips him a coin.

They make their way to the market easily, having been to this town several times on the way to Yennefer’s house. It should only be another day before they reach it, and then they’ll all begin the journey to Kaer Morhen for the winter. This is only ever a brief stop on the way, but Jaskier had dearly hoped to stay the night. They’ve been sleeping in the woods for too long, making do with the hard ground and bedrolls. Not that proximity to the ground would ever stop the two of them from being intimate, but there is something to be said for an actual mattress.

The market is familiar and easy to navigate. They stock up on grain for the horses, food for themselves, and some basic leather supplies to patch Geralt’s armor, since his last contract for a harpy had left his right shoulder vulnerable with a torn pauldron.

Jaskier is finishing the last of his glazed sweet bun from the baker’s stall, licking the honey from his fingers, when he sees him.

Bright hair, strong jaw, broad shoulders, kind eyes. He’s dressed in the red livery of the town guard, and he wears it well.

Jaskier stops in his tracks so fast that Geralt runs into his back.

Ellien is leaving the apothecary shop, squinting in the sun and straightening his tunic. A hand grasps his arm from the doorway, and he is drawn back. A slim man wearing an apron leans out toward him and tugs him into a tender kiss. Ellien runs his fingers through the young man’s hair and grins, then pulls away.

Jaskier shoves Geralt into an alleyway and waits for Ellien to pass. He has a hint of a smile on his face, and confidence in his steps. He looks good.

“Do you want to…?” Geralt asks quietly, and Jaskier’s heart both breaks and mends.

“No,” Jaskier replies. “I don’t want to talk to him. I’m just glad I could...see.”

“Jask,” Geralt says gently. “We have to go to the apothecary for supplies.”

Jaskier swallows around the lump in his throat. “He’s gone. We can do that.”

The young man behind the counter smiles when they enter. He has a pleasant, sincere countenance, and something tightly coiled in Jaskier’s stomach releases.

“What can I do for you, sir witcher?” The apothecary spreads his hands to indicate his whole shop, then rests his palms on the counter. He appears not to care one whit that Geralt is a witcher, a rare thing to experience.

“Celandine,” Geralt grunts, straight to the point. “Nettle and lamb’s cress. Chamomile, if you have it.”

“Easily done, let me gather them for you.”

The apothecary sifts through the jars on the shelves with efficiency. He and Geralt discuss quantity and prices, while Jaskier watches him with too much interest. He knows it, but he can’t help himself.

“I noticed the guard who left your shop just now. He looks familiar to me, from years past,” Jaskier says, throwing caution to the wind. Geralt makes a soft, surprised sound.

The apothecary smiles fondly, and his hazel eyes twinkle. “My husband, Ellien. He’s captain of the guard.”

Jaskier nods. “He’s the same man I knew. Is he...happy?”

“I certainly hope so,” the apothecary replies, raising his eyebrows at the odd question. He wraps Geralt’s selections in waxed paper and accepts Geralt’s coin. “We’ve been married two years now. They’ve been the best years of my life, and I’d like to believe he feels the same.”

“Well,” Jaskier says awkwardly, shuffling his feet. “If you would please tell him that an old friend wishes him well, I would be grateful.”

“And who shall I tell him said so?”

Jaskier glances at Geralt. His face is impassive, but his eyes are faintly understanding. “Just say, an old friend.”

The apothecary tilts his head a bit, looking puzzled. “I will do so.”

They step out into the sunlight and Jaskier finds that his hands are shaking a little. Geralt grasps one in his own and squeezes gently.

As they ride out through the city gates Jaskier looks for him, and catches a glimpse of Ellien in the gatehouse. Jaskier holds his breath, but Ellien doesn’t look out at them. Jaskier listens to his voice as he speaks with his men, and remembers the hours that Ellien spent talking to him during his captivity, the kindness he was shown.

There is a trembling in Jaskier’s chest that is slowly calming, a dizzying relief.

“Now I know,” he whispers, and Geralt hums beside him.

Ahead of them are Ciri and Yennefer and the witchers, his family. Behind him is the last unknown piece of his previous life, now revealed. It’s more than Jaskier could ever have hoped for. He takes a deep, deep breath and guides Pegasus alongside Roach to the main road north. The autumn sun is bright in the sky and the Path is clear, and together he and Geralt head toward home.

~*~