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The god of scraped knees.

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Jaskier is born to a virgin mother.

It sounds much more dramatic than it is, really. His birth progresses much the same as any other, with a lot of screaming and a lot of blood and far too much unidentifiable gunk. Perhaps the strangest thing about it, apart from the fact that it occurs without the involvement of a father, on a raised stone dais in a sacred cave under total planetary alignment, is that he remembers it.

Remembers that first lungful of cool, midnight air. The heat of his mother’s body replaced by the rough touch of stone. The silver coin of the moon glowing through a hole in the cave’s ceiling. The sting of life, of magic, spreading in his tiny extremities. It hurts, being born, more than anything that Jaskier feels before it (for he does, vaguely, remember a before), and more than anything he feels after. He remembers the hurt, and the night, and the priests, crowding around the dais, touching him with reverent hands, wiping him clean of his mother’s blood and raising him to the moon, christening him god-begot, god-begot, god-begot.

He is not called Julian Pankratz until much, much later, and not called Jaskier for a good while after that. Dandelion as a moniker, he earns earlier, when he saves one of the first cities of man from a year without harvest. The spell he uses goes a bit wonky, which he thinks he can’t be blamed for given that he’s just written it, and as a side effect all the gardens in a thousand league radius are shot through with dandelions, those most charming of yellow-flowered weeds.

Dandelion is much easier to remember than his real name, the one the priests bestowed upon him after his mother’s death on the dais, which is long and cumbersome and supposedly meaningful. He likes being named after a flower, after his own happy mistake. People greet him with joy, spill out of their front doors to crowd around him in the town square, calling, Dandelion! Dandelion!, imploring him wet their dry wells, heal their son’s broken leg, call home their wayward mule. These little bits of magic he does without much thought, without effort, and for that the people love him. His name travels across the continent in children’s songs, prayers; oh, dear, you’ve torn your skirts. best hope Dandelion dances along to mend them, or you’ll be spending all day inside with needle and thread. 

Jaskier doesn’t mind helping; in fact, he quite likes it, so he sets himself up in a quiet hamlet in a valley near a lake and makes it no secret that he lives in the cottage with the green door. He hears petitioners, as many as he can, and helps the ones that are good-hearted. They come from across the continent, from the realms of elves and dwarves and dryads, and some of them come with armies, with swords and arrows and fire, wanting to take from him by force that which he will not give willingly, but Jaskier always feels their ill-intent from leagues away. He enchants the forest to ensnare them, spells the village invisible, stands fast before the wave of their fire and sends it roaring back at them.

The people of the hamlet look upon him as something separate from themselves, something ancient and mystical and wise. Jaskier has never claimed to be very wise, but given the circumstances of his birth he can’t deny a certain mysticism, and given the fact that he’s lived nearly a hundred years, he supposes he can’t very well deny the “ancient” part either. 

At night, he spins round the fire thrumming his lute, singing songs he remembers from his childhood, songs the trees and brooks and birds sang to him when no one else was listening. The villagers and the petitioners dance with him, rosy-cheeked and smiling, eyes alight with the flames and the gleam of pure unadulterated happiness, touching his shoulders and reaching for his face and laughing delightedly when he reaches back. Jaskier loves them, all of them, in a wholehearted and uncomplicated way that he’s never before experienced, and they love him in return.

When the priests come for him, murmuring god-begot, god-begot, god-begot, he doesn’t sense their approach. They hide their minds from him, and stalk between the cottages, wolves in a henhouse, dark cloaks and shadows trailing after them like smoke. 

Jaskier fled, decades ago, ran from that cave that had been his nursery with the clothes on his back and nothing else, and he thought he’d seen the last of them. But then he wakes in the middle of the night, in his cottage with the green door, one of the village children tucked sleepily against his side (she’d had a nightmare, asked for a lullaby), and he sees them. 

Jaskier strikes out without thinking.

He doesn’t know, when he does, that they’ve enchanted themselves. He doesn’t know that stopping their hearts will release a maelstrom of fire like nothing he’s ever seen, flames burning blue and impossibly hot, licking across the eaves of every cottage in the hamlet before he even has a chance to get out of bed. He doesn’t know that it will be magical fire, that he won’t be able to do anything to stop it, that it won’t touch him, won’t dare touch the god-begot Dandelion. That he’ll scream every spell he knows, lungs burning with smoke, but the screams of his people will be louder, so loud that he can hardly even hear the flames, that he’ll break in half right there in the village square, that he’ll see the little girl who had the nightmare come out of his cottage covered in flames and seize her up and run for the lake, that the water won’t do anything. That she’ll still burn.

No one ever thinks the priests’ fire killed him. 

Jaskier’s silent tears seed dandelions through the charred ruins of his home, and on the last day of his hundredth year, he starts walking. He finds every priest of the order that brought about his birth, and he takes their lives, pulls their hearts out with twists of his fingers and sweeps entire caravans off cliffs and vanishes all the air out of rooms where they sleep. They run from him, and the survivors build a fortress on the Isle of Thanedd, where Jaskier is too tired to follow them.

Instead, he turns to the only pursuit which has ever made him happy: music. For a while he continues as Dandelion, singing to crowds who think he’s only adopted the name of the most powerful sorcerer who ever lived, but then he gets involved in some business with re-directing a river to bring water to a city suffering from drought, and the jig is up. So he cuts off his topknot and starts calling himself Julian Pankratz, quits the taverns and the villages for the banquet halls of lavishly rich nobles, where he spends a century or two distracting himself with drink and silk and the simple carnal pleasure of being taken from behind while he’s buried between a woman’s legs. But it is a distraction, and that’s all it is, because every time he closes his eyes he’s holding a little girl’s body while she burns, blue fire in front of his eyes and lakewater lapping at his waist.

In the winter, when Geralt returns to Kaer Morhen, Jaskier turns into a tree.

He finds he quite likes being a tree. It’s a peaceful sort of existence, letting the snow light softly on his branches and not feeling the cold, having all the warm, small animals burrow up in his hollows and knots. He lets his mind drift and feels the earth through his roots, feels her sing to him, songs of death and rebirth, of how it feels to be touched by the sun like a dear old friend, how it hurts to circle the moon over and over, never allowed to touch. 

For all that he’s had to do rather a lot of it in his long, long life, Jaskier despises waiting. Not for his own sake, but for the sake of those around him. He knows how little time they have, how brief their stays are on this earth, and even though it’s true that Witchers live longer than most, he does not like to be away from Geralt for too long. Every second apart feels like time wasted. Time passes easier as a tree. So he waits by the road to Kaer Morhen, and when he sees the buds start to poke from the frozen earth, sees Roach come trotting down the path, the Witcher setting back out into the world, he waits for Geralt to pass, turns back into himself, and portals to meet him at the first village.

Jaskier didn’t see Geralt coming, is the odd thing. That day they met, the dingy tavern and the table in the corner, Geralt grunting out monosyllabic answers, Jaskier had no idea to expect him. Usually when he meets people who’ll be important to him, he gets an inkling before he sees them, a flash of their face in his dreams, an echo of their future conversations. But with Geralt, there was nothing. Jaskier only looked over, and saw him, white hair, golden eyes, and knew instinctively, in the same way he could sense danger ahead or a storm coming, that Geralt was the person he’d been waiting for since that night so many hundreds of years ago, when he’d been born.

Jaskier’s been pretending to be human for so long now that he hardly remembers what it feels like to be a sorcerer. He doesn’t want to remember what it feels like to be a sorcerer. Down that path lies only pain and madness. But people still murmur his name with reverence in certain dim halls; Dandelion, Dandelion, destroyer of worlds. 

Sometimes, alone at night while Geralt rides out after whatever monster, Jaskier misses the days when people knew him as a helper, someone who healed scraped knees and made gardens bloom. He survives as a household god in children’s songs, playground games, but it’s not the same.

He’ll never again know that simple, peaceful love that he felt with the villagers in that hamlet. His capacity for that sort of thing is gone. But some days, he wakes up to hear the birds chirping and Geralt murmuring good morning fondly to Roach, the Witcher’s rumpled bedroll mere inches from his own, foggy memories of rolling together in the dark, sunlight splitting through the forest canopy and a warm spring breeze licking at his bare feet, and it’s almost the same. 

Being around Geralt makes him feel better. Less alone. Even though they don’t ever talk about it (how could they, when Geralt doesn’t even know what Jaskier is?), sometimes Jaskier holds his gaze over a tavern table and sees reflected back at him the exact same world-weariness, the same broken idealism, same unspoken desire to retreat from it all. Geralt’s not kind, and he’s not loving, but Jaskier has never needed either of those things. All he’s ever needed is someone who won’t leave him.

Turns out Geralt’s not that, either.

(“Come to bed with me,” Jaskier says. Not a question, really, except it is, it always is.

Geralt considers him for a long moment. Jaskier already knows he’s going to say no, but there’s this look in his eyes, this considering look, like he’s trying to figure Jaskier out. Trying to read between the lines. Jaskier wants to tell him there is no “between the lines,” there’s only wanting Geralt, needing Geralt, being tired of waiting. But whatever the Witcher imagines he sees, it must not be what he wants, because he shakes his head slightly and says, “No.”)

Jaskier tries being a bird for a while, after Geralt leaves him on the mountain. He thinks maybe it will hurt less, if he’s a bird. Figures birds don’t have the sort of capacity for emotional pain that humans do. But he sails through the clear, open air, through turbulent rain clouds, across mountain ranges and oceans, over parts of the world where no mortal man has set foot, where strange creatures move in primordial fog and the voices of old gods clatter like swords in the darkness, and no matter how far he travels, his thoughts return always to Geralt. To miserable, muddy treks, to monsters and coin purses and leagues and leagues of Geralt’s wordless grumbling, muttering spells under his breath to soothe his sore feet and fix Roach’s loose shoe, strumming songs in the tavern until dawn and creeping up creaky stairs, slipping into a rented room to find Geralt face-down in bed, his back moving up and down with the bellows of his breath, their things spread out on the table.

Probably the most commonly known pitfall of eternal life is the loneliness. Having to watch your loved ones grow old and pass into the next world without you, seeing the world change and evolve and remembering when it was young, when cities were just villages and wars were just careless words exchanged across royal banquet halls. Until Jaskier came along he’s not sure anyone knew, though, this dimension of immortality. He thinks he’s the first person aside from the old gods to live to see his five hundredth birthday, his thousandth. 

His time as a tree never feels like isolation, with the forest creatures and the earth to talk to. But as a bird, soaring far above the earth, watching men and elves and sorcerers toil away like ants on the side of a mountain, his blurry underdeveloped eyes seeing forests tiny like thickets of grass and lakes tiny like puddles and cities tiny like piles of shells on the beach, he feels, illogically, like no one has ever touched him, not in any way that mattered. Not in any way that stuck. And maybe this has always been his fate; to wander the earth, and the skies, and the seas, alone.

A month or a year later, when Jaskier finally stumbles back into society, human and still fighting the phantom impression that he has wings, he finds out Yennefer is dead. He can count the number of times he’s actually met the sorceress on one hand, but he knows Geralt cares about her, and to Jaskier that’s a more important qualifier anyways. 

He lies awake in the goosedown bed in his apartments in Oxenfurt, surrounded by lavish furnishings purchased with a few lifetimes worth of gold, and can’t sleep, thinking of Geralt. Lurking in shadows in crowded taverns, golden eyes flashing over a pint of ale, nursing a broken heart but too manly and stoic to even go fuck it out of his system, since that would require admitting to himself he has a broken heart in the first place. It hurts, and not because Jaskier can’t imagine Geralt ever being torn up over his own death (well, not only because of that); it hurts because Jaskier’s not there. Jaskier can’t poke at Geralt like taunting an angry bear until he lashes out and forgets his pain, he can’t listen to Geralt breathe steadily through the night, can’t roll over, feigning sleep, and press his foot to Geralt’s leg when he feels him come silently awake in the small hours of the morning. He can’t even go to him, because Geralt doesn’t want him there. He told him himself.

So Jaskier, who’s been at Oxenfurt for the better part of summer already, lecturing at the university and playing an enticing game of cat and mouse with some representatives from Aretuza who’ve somehow caught wind that Dandelion might be in the city, picks up and heads for Yennefer’s last known location. The battlefield is charred and littered with bodies, and for a moment as Jaskier stands in what looks like the center of the blast, he remembers standing in the aftermath of a much different fire.

A single dandelion sprouts near his foot. 

“Oh,” he says, sort of charmed. He hasn’t accidentally sprouted any flowers in a long while. It’s a weak little thing, swaying in the breeze, and he takes pity. “Don’t even try it, love, trust me.” 

He crushes it under the heel of his boot.

Yennefer comes back into the world screaming, furious. Jaskier’s a bit winded; it’s difficult business, bringing someone back to life when you don’t have a body to stick them in, and on top of that Geralt’s sorceress was rather stubborn about being magicked out of the afterlife. Probably a point of professional pride or something, since the second she sees Jaskier standing over her with his doublet rended open and the wet blood of the earth smeared across his chest, she tosses a mean defensive spell at him and spits, “You.”

Jaskier sighs and bats the spell out of existence before it can reach him. “Honestly, I know we never got on all that well, but I think a ‘thank you’ would be in order.”

Yennefer doesn’t answer him. She’s staring at something just beyond him on the ground, wide-eyed and pale, and for a moment Jaskier thinks there must be a horrible beast creeping up on him, but then he turns around and sees a field of yellow weeds, flowering gently. His shoulders relax, then tense up again almost immediately. Yennefer, if she’s heard the stories, and she must have, will know who he is, and he doesn’t want to have to reinvent himself again, not when Geralt knows this him. 

“Ah,” he says, still staring at the dandelions, wondering if he can possibly be fast enough to crush all of them under his boot and claim she was only imaginging things. “This, well,” he clears his throat. “I’d spin one of my legendary stories, but frankly I’m not sure I could offer any excuses that would satisfy a sorceress such as yourself.” 

He turns back to look at her then. Yennefer is watching him warily, sprawled out with her weight on her arms, dress wet and heavy with the blood of the earth. There’s a look on her face caught halfway between respect and jealousy. Jaskier wipes his chest clean as best he can with a spare scrap of scarf, buttons his doublet, and tries to ignore the pressure of her gaze.

(“Are you sure your human is just a normal human?” he hears her ask, across the campfire. The night and the mountain big and ominous around, the troupe of midgets cackling raucously over a dirty joke, Yennefer bent close to Geralt in the shadows.

Jaskier tries to stop listening, tries to look as innocuously, condemnably human as possible while he puts a leg up on a log and starts to strum for the jolly campers. But he still hears Geralt, almost amused, “Who, Jaskier? He’s as normal as they come.”)

He offers Yennefer a hand up. She refuses it, gets up on her own, brushes herself off. Jaskier expects a hundred questions, half of them about Geralt and his intentions. He expects her to toss more battle magic at him and try to drag him back to Aretuza. He expects her, maybe, to turn on her heel and portal out of here without a word, leaving him to wonder whether his life is about to be upended, or whether he can go on being Jaskier a little longer. What he doesn’t expect is for her to size him up and ask, “The legends say your mother was a virgin. Is that true?”

He’s a cat when he approaches the cabin, because dogs aren’t his style.

It’s on the far outskirts of a village up near the edge of the plains, where bands of nomadic horsemen hunt hulking animals called bison. There’s a clothesline outside, and a bale of hay that’s been sacrificed to archery practice, and Jaskier doesn’t see any sign of Roach but he does smell fresh bread cooking inside, and the tracking spell he cast was very accurate, so he positions himself on the sill of an open window and yowls. It’s not Geralt that ducks into view, however, but a young girl, with blonde hair and inquisitive blue eyes, who smiles delightedly to see him.

She lifts him inside and lets him sit on the kitchen table while she bustles about cleaning up the flour, stopping every so often to come over and pat his head and tell him what a handsome cat he is. Jaskier wouldn’t say he basks under the attention, but he’s always loved this kind and unsuspicious way children have with animals, and anyway the cabin smells like Geralt so he’s quite content to wait here as long as she’ll let him. He even pushes his luck, after a few hours have passed and the bread’s come off the fire, and hops down to push his nose into a pair of leather pants, halfway mended, hung over the back of a chair. He hadn’t realized quite how terrible he felt, how big a piece of himself he must have left with Geralt on that mountain, until he buries his feline nose in Geralt’s scent and suddenly feels alright again. It’s a marked difference.

The girl shoos him away a second later, but she still doesn’t chase him out of the cabin, so when Roach comes thundering out of the grasslands, when Geralt dismounts and stalks up the steps and drops a perfunctory kiss on the girl’s head, muttering, “Ciri,” he’s still hiding under one of the kitchen chairs. Geralt turns a look on him like he’s one nuisance on top of a thousand others, the same look he used to give to horrible monsters, and says, “What did I say about the frogs.”

“He’s not a frog,” the girl, Ciri, points out reasonably. “He’s a cat, and he’s lovely.”

One night, Jaskier tells himself, once Geralt has posed no more argument, rolled his eyes heavenward, and tromped up the narrow staircase to the loft. One night, as Ciri flashes him a triumphant smile between the table legs, reaching for him, and he goes. One night, sleeping hidden in Geralt’s house with this little family he seems to have built for himself, a few uninterrupted hours of joy and comfort that he can tuck away in his heart for later, and then he’ll turn back into a human.

In the end, he gives himself a full week.

Jaskier’s never claimed to be particularly strong in matters of willpower, and refusing himself things. And that first morning, when Geralt rolls out of the loft still half-asleep, eyelids heavy and white hair loose and tousled around his face, he lumbers past Jaskier, curled on the kitchen table, and runs his fingers absently over his head. It’s a fraction of a second, Geralt’s big Witcher hand on Jaskier’s delicate cat skull, but Jaskier thinks it may be the best thing he’s ever felt.

Being a cat is a peaceful existence, as, it seems, is being Geralt of Rivia. These days, all he seems to do is rise in the morning, watch Ciri fondly while she fumbles about with a bow and arrow, and go to bed at night. Jaskier feels a bit cheated, at first, that he never got to partake in this particular Geralt, soft and gentle and quick to smile (with his eyes); then, later, curled up on Geralt’s lap while he nurses a flagon of ale on the porch after Ciri’s gone to bed, he figures there’s no good reason why he can’t. For a while, at least. He can let Ciri feed him scraps of bread under the table, let himself be pet and loved and cared for and christened, in a sick twist of fate, Dandelion. 

(“It has lion in the name,” Ciri defends, when Geralt questions her choice.

“He’s not much of a lion,” Geralt judges, casting Jaskier a disdainful look, but Jaskier’s well used to his disdainful looks, and only yowls indignantly in response.)

It’s when he finds himself seriously considering cleaning himself in full view of both of them that he decides it’s probably time to switch back. He waits until Geralt rides into town for some supplies, then snags a blanket off the clothesline and runs away from Ciri as she chases after him, gets himself tangled up in the blanket, and emerges a man. Ciri startles back, eyes wide and mouth pressed into a tight line, and that’s why Jaskier wanted the blanket; he didn’t want to alarm her any more than absolutely necessary, and certainly not in that way. She looks like she might be considering running to yell after Geralt, but he’s already been gone an hour. Her eyes dart to the bow and arrow. 

“I’m not going to hurt you,” Jaskier says, holding up his hands.

“You’re not a cat,” Ciri observes. She’s prone to obvious declarations, but in this instance Jaskier can’t really blame her. He’s not, after all, a cat.

“I’m Jaskier,” he says, trying to sound non-threatening. “Maybe Geralt mentioned me. I used to be his bard. You know; toss a coin to your Witcher, and all that.”

Geralt returns at sunset to find Jaskier still sitting under that same blanket, plucking away at a makeshift lute fashioned from a pail and some spare bowstrings. He pulls Roach to a stop at the edge of the yard, eyes sharp and alert like they get when he’s expecting a fight. Jaskier flashes his gaze over to him, but doesn’t stop his song, because Ciri’s smiling beatifically where she’s laying in the grass next to him, dandelions wound in her hair, and he thinks to stop his song would be more of an admission of guilt than he’s willing to offer, anyways.

He listens to Geralt’s boots hit the ground as he dismounts. Listens to him lead Roach over to the stable, the creak of the old wood door, Roach’s grouchy huffs as Geralt loosens his girth and takes off his tack. He listens to Geralt come back out of the stable, close the door, hesitate for a long minute, and then stalk over to loom over them while Jaskier trills out the last notes of his song: the ballad of the White Wolf, of course. What else would he sing, here.

When he’s finished, Geralt clears his throat. “Ciri,” he says. “Go wait inside.”

She starts to protest, then sees the look on Geralt’s face and must think better of it, because she just gets up, dusts herself off, and hurries inside. Jaskier’s not worried about what she might say; he’s already sworn her to secrecy on the him-being-the-cat front, and he gets the sense that she’s the sort of child who enjoys keeping secrets from her guardian. (“Does Geralt know you can turn into a cat? He never mentioned you were a sorcerer. If it’s a secret, I won’t tell. I’m ace at secrets.”)

Jaskier sets his bucket lute aside. Geralt’s still standing over him, and Jaskier feels, nonsensically, like if he looks up at his face he’ll split clean in two pieces, so instead he’s looking straight at Geralt’s knees. He tries to address them as seriously as he would his face. “Geralt. I know you said you never wanted to see me again, but I thought you’d like to know Yennefer is alive.”

“I know,” Geralt says. “She was here.” His voice sounds oddly tense, even by his standards.  “Did anyone follow you here? Anyone from Nilfgaard?”

“No,” Jaskier answers, and he does look up at Geralt then, involuntarily, and the panic-tinged look on his face nearly topples him, for all that he’s still sitting. “No, Geralt, never. I would never have come if there was the chance I would lead them to you. I swear it.”

Geralt breathes out a huge, blusterly breath. Jaskier’s reminded, in a gut punch of sense memory, of the last breath Geralt takes before settling in to go to sleep, always a labored, behemoth thing. “Good,” the Witcher says when he’s recovered, and offers Jaskier a hand up. Jaskier takes it, lets himself be tugged off the ground, wraps the blanket around his waist and prays Geralt won’t think to ask where his clothes are. Prays Geralt doesn’t hate him enough to send him back out into the world naked as a babe, though he supposes he could make the return journey to Oxenfurt as a cat, as well.

Another thought strikes him. “Did Yennefer tell you how she came to be, ah, alive again?”

Geralt smiles. Actually smiles, with his mouth as well as his eyes. “Always fishing for a song, aren’t you, Jaskier. No, Yen didn’t say, even when I asked.”

Jaskier’s not sure whether that bodes ill or well. But Geralt leads him inside, fetches him a shirt and a pair of leggings, instructs Ciri to set him a place at the table and doesn’t tell Jaskier to leave this place and never return, all of which bodes very well indeed. And after Ciri has gone to bed (after he fetches his pail from outside and plucks her a few songs, none about Cintra, as per Geralt’s decree, but a few that he learned from the birds and one from when he and Geralt used to travel together), Geralt invites Jaskier up to the loft with a look that speaks volumes, rolls out an extra bedroll (why does he have an extra? is it Yennefer’s?), and positions it between his and Ciri’s. Geralt, he knows, likes to be between his companions and the door, best positioned to protect them, and Jaskier’s not about to disabuse him of the notion that he needs protecting, so he lays down without a word.

Part of him is still expecting Geralt to snap out of whatever idyllic trance he’s in and boot Jaskier out the front door. Part of him wants it to happen, because at least then it would be over with. At least then he wouldn’t be balancing on this razor’s edge between contentment and annihilation. But Geralt reaches out and puts his hand on Jaskier in the dark, on his stomach, and tugs at him, only a little, just enough to pull him a few inches closer. Jaskier can feel the heat of him in the dark. He imagines hooded figures standing over him in scant moonlight. God-begot, god-begot, god-begot. Just let him have this, please. Let him have it for a while, before it gets ripped away.

“Next time I tell you I hate you,” Geralt’s voice is more pressure than sound in the close, muggy space between their faces, “don’t listen to me. Stay anyways.”

Jaskier searches Geralt’s face, trying to read between the lines, but it’s too dim to see. He can feel, well enough, Geralt’s fingers digging into his stomach. The tension in Geralt’s body beside him, the same as every time Jaskier’s been injured in his company. “I will,” he promises. “I’ll stay.”

Geralt rumbles in acknowledgement, breathes out that big blustery breath, and settles down to sleep.

A few months later, when Jaskier’s settled into the cabin and fashioned himself a real lute from some yew wood Geralt packed back from the village, when Ciri’s gotten bored of making pspspsps noises at Jaskier behind Geralt’s back every time he turns around, when the farmsteads around them have turned to harvest and the horsemen have started returning for the winter, Geralt turns to him after supper and says, “You meant it, didn’t you.”

The loft has gone silent above them; Ciri’s stopped rolling over and over in her quest for sleep. Geralt’s elbow-deep in the washbasin, scrubbing their dishes clean. Jaskier’s wrapping what’s left of the loaf of bread they had with their stew, not as deft with twine and wax paper as he is with an instrument, but he stops when he hears Geralt’s voice. “That I’d stay? Of course I meant it.”

“No,” Geralt shakes his head once, just briefly, and meets Jaskier’s gaze for a fraction of a second. Jaskier suddenly knows exactly what he’s talking about, the same way he knew when he first met him all those years ago: instinctively. Geralt pulls his arms out of the washbasin, slick with water, and wipes them down with a rag. “Years ago. You asked me to go to bed with you.”

Jaskier’s heart beats triple-time in his chest, like it’s playing a Redanian jig. He swallows, trying to get the feeling to go away, but it won’t. “Geralt,” he says. His throat feels shaky, but he tries to say it with as much calming conviction as he can manage, carefully, because the Witcher is bestowing upon him a great gift, and he doesn’t want to break it, or treat it as anything less than it is. “Yes. I meant it. It’s quite possible I’ve never meant anything more.” 

And Geralt can’t know how significant a statement that is, can’t know that Jaskier burnt an entire order of priests of the old religion to the ground, screaming I hate you, I hate you, I hate you, that he once stood over a raging river, told it to change course, and it obeyed, that he sang a song a thousand years ago and called all the fields in the continent to harvest. But he must still hear its weight, its human importance, because he sets the rag aside, something gone soft in the line of his brow, takes Jaskier’s face in his hands, and kisses him. Jaskier fists one hand in Geralt’s shirt, slides one around the wide trunk of his body, and presses close against him, feeling the earth go quiet under them and the eyeblink of night stretch yawning and fathomless outside, feeling small and right and normal as they come.

Yennefer arrives in the dead of winter. 

Jaskier supposes it was just wishful thinking to hope that she might stay away. He’s settled in, here, in a way that he hasn’t since that first hamlet in that first valley. At night, when Ciri shocks awake from a nightmare, he holds her until she falls back to sleep; she does the same for him, her nimble fingers twisting his hair into braids, soothing as the breeze, the steady tide of Geralt’s breathing rising and falling in the dark next to them. Sometimes he’ll tromp down to the village to sing around the bonfire, testing a new tune he’s been humming all week, and as the townspeople twirl around and around the fire with him, he’ll catch a glimpse of Geralt, lurking on the outskirts, hiding a smile. It’s more difficult now that the snow has fallen, since they can’t just nip off into the tall grass, but whenever they can steal a spare moment, they spirit each other away to relearn bodies they’ve known for decades through averted eyes and accidental touches with hands, mouths, teeth.

Since Jaskier knows he doesn’t get an ending, not really, he thinks this is his happy chapter. His happy epilogue, maybe, before the second book, until he wakes one morning, splashes water on his face, and gives himself a look in the warped mirror hung over the basin (one of Ciri’s royal-minded purchases), and finds a gray hair. He runs it between his fingers, debating plucking it out, but in the end he leaves it in and thinks, maybe, after all. Maybe.

But then, while he’s heaving a hay bale down from the loft in the barn for Roach, he feels something crash against his protective wards, and hears Yennefer yell, “Seriously?!”

His blood runs cold. Swearing under his breath, he slides down the ladder and runs out into the snow, at the same moment as Geralt is coming out of the cabin, bundled up in his cloak. They both spot Yennefer at the same time, stuck fast on the far side of the yard like she’s come up against an invisible wall. She has. It was probably petty of Jaskier, not to include her in the wards, since he knows she’d never willingly harm Geralt or Ciri, but just as he’s never claimed to be wise, he’s never claimed to be immune from pettiness. She throws herself against them, with the weight of her body and the weight of magic, but it’s no use. The wards hold. They’d hold against an army.

“Yen.” Geralt comes down off the porch and rushes over to her, concerned. Before he can reach her, Jaskier waves his hand to drop the wards, unseen by anyone but Yennefer herself. She drops forward into the yard, and into Geralt’s waiting arms.  

She shoves him off almost immediately, muttering something about not being a swooning damsel, but still, in that brief moment, Jaskier looks at the way Geralt holds her and wonders if he’s not just acting as a stand-in. It’s a hard feeling to shake, especially when Yennefer shakes snow off her skirts and invites herself into the house like it’s nothing, when Ciri leaps on her with an ecstatic hug, when Geralt offers no response except to grumble a bit and stomp snow off his own boots. He supposes he can be glad, at least, that no one mentions the wards. He bustles about in the kitchen under the pretense of everyone needing a hot cup of tea, listens to chairs scrape as they settle in at the table, Ciri assailing Yennefer with a barrage of questions about Aretuza and the court and have you fought any more great battles, Yen? He’s still in the kitchen, his back to the lot of them, when there’s a lull in the conversation and Geralt finally asks, “What are you doing here?”

“What, not happy to see me?” she teases, then, before he can come up with an answer: “There’s a new war on. The Aen Elle have pierced the veil between worlds, at a place far to the north of the Dragon Mountains. They’re coming through in droves, assembling an army. We suspect they plan to march on Kovir when the snow melts.” 

Geralt gives her a guarded look as Jaskier sets the kettle on the table, like he’s warning her not to revisit some past argument. “I’m not sure what you expect me to do about that, Yen.”

“Not you,” Yennefer says, and Jaskier’s stomach plummets. “I need to borrow your bard.”

Geralt tenses. Jaskier feels the sharp jab of his alarm, a knife to tender flesh, fingers on oversensitive skin, if the skin were his heart. “Geralt,” he starts to say, placating, at the same moment that Geralt pushes his chair back, stands, and orders, “Get out of my house.”

Yennefer pauses, surprised, in the middle of pouring out a cup of tea. For a heartbeat, she’s so frozen that it seems like she might actually have been cowed by Geralt’s tone, but then she slams the kettle back down, jostling the table (Jaskier’s been meaning to mend that uneven leg), and makes the inadvisable decision to get up in Geralt’s face. The argument that ensues shakes the entire house, makes Ciri roll her eyes and go wait it out with Roach in the stable, and eventually becomes so violent that it spills out into the yard. Jaskier trails out onto the porch to watch it, not really wanting to get involved, bits of lyrics running through his head like shadow puppetry, something about passion burning so hot it will destroy them both, but then Geralt gets Yennefer by the neck and looks like he might be about to actually throw her, so Jaskier hurries off the porch.

“Geralt!” he snaps, rushing toward them through the snow. “Geralt, don’t.” But Geralt’s in a rage, and he never listens when he’s in a rage, hand tightening around Yennefer’s throat while she tries to scratch out his eyes, so Jaskier snaps a nasty little spell, one that he used to use to separate quarreling children, and they fly apart as if yanked by invisible strings. They hit the ground hard, and for a moment Jaskier feels no shame at all, standing between them and breathing fast, even though it wasn’t a difficult spell at all, flushed with the exhiliration of finally, finally, acting his age.

Then Geralt rolls back around. His golden eyes find Jaskier, concerned and confused, but with an edge of hurt that makes Jaskier feel worse than he did on that mountain, worse that when he let Geralt drag him all over the continent after the djinn stole his voice, still pretending to be helpless out of some sick sense of karma. “Geralt.” He straightens, swallows. “I could explain, but I think it would be easier if we all just went with Yennefer.”

Yennefer, who’s found her feet and is brushing off her dress as if she’s done nothing more than have a bit of a fall in the street, deigns to give him a grateful, if grudging, look. Geralt stares at Jaskier for another long moment, looking like he’s caught halfway between wanting to run him through with his sword and wanting to force him back inside the cabin, nods once, and stands. 

Jaskier reinforces the wards around the cabin while Yennefer looks on with interest and Ciri watches from the cracked stable door with wide eyes. Geralt’s deliberately not watching him, strapping on his armor on the front porch, his sword, his knives. The silence is deafening, but Jaskier feels one wrong word away from bursting into tears, so he doesn’t try to break it. Instead, when he’s done, he turns back to the cabin and gazes upon it for a long minute, at the crooked eaves and the bucket lute that’s sat on the porch, full of snow, at the patch of siding that he and Ciri managed to paint green before Geralt came home and put an end to it, at the single tree in the plains beyond, where in the fall Geralt had laid him back on a blanket and pressed inside him for the first time while birds sang and flitted between the amber leaves. It might be the last time he ever sees this place. He wants to remember it.

They step out of Yennefer’s portal on the side of a mountain.

The sorcerers of Aretuza have set up forward camp on a narrow ledge overlooking a steep drop. Snow and wind howl around them, like they’re in the belly of some horrible beast, but they’re only outside for a moment before Yennefer pulls aside the flap of a tent and leads them inside. Jaskier brushes snow off his shoulders and tries to ignore the stony, silent presence of Geralt at his shoulder. There are eyes on him, a lot of eyes, men and women who look like they’ve been awake for days, gathered in this tent. A sorceress he vaguely recognizes as having shadowed him through the streets of Oxenfurt a lifetime ago steps forward and offers her hand. “Dandelion,” she says. “Aretuza have been looking for you for five centuries. Figures Yennefer would find you completely by accident.”

He clasps her arm, smiling. “I’m a bit rusty,” he says. “But I’ll do what I can.”

The sorceress’ eyes soften with fond amusement. She knows, then, that he’s only being humble. 

She shows him to a map, enchanted to show the location of the passage between worlds and the steady stream of dark elves streaming through it. The rest of the socerers crowd around him, some with  professional interest, some with open-faced admiration, some with doubtful suspicion. Jaskier looks up briefly, seeking one particular person, and finds Geralt next to Yennefer, watching him from the back of the tent near the door. He holds his gaze for a moment, willing Geralt not to turn right around and leave, willing him to give Jaskier a chance to explain, when this is all over, because he can’t spare the time to do it now. There are people that need his help, and Jaskier has never been able to refuse a good-hearted petitioner. “Right,” he turns back to the map. “Right, what about this mountain, here.”

They arrive back at the cabin in silence. 

Yennefer doesn’t come with them. Jaskier hardly needs her to portal them around, now that Geralt knows what he is. He’s tired, but it had only taken him a matter of minutes to repair the veil between worlds and collapse an entire mountain on the rest of the army, so he has enough energy left in him to bring them home, to put on a brave face and a smile for Ciri, who, as usual, is full of questions and righteous indignation at having been left behind. He gets her to bed as Geralt sits silently at the kitchen table, brushes his thumb across her hairline and presses a kiss to her forehead. 

It might be the last time he ever gets to do that, but he tries not to let the sense of goodbye come across in his actions. He descends the ladder to the main floor of the house, shaky and nauseous, and joins Geralt at the table. He’s surprised Geralt lets him sit. Surprised he doesn’t kick the chair out in anger when Jaskier goes to sit down. But then Geralt looks up at him, and Jaskier realizes with a start that he’s not angry at all. “You were the cat,” he says. 

Jaskier laughs, and laughs, drunk with relief, then breaks off with something almost like a sob. “I was the cat,” he agrees, weakly. “I should have told you.”

“Why didn’t you?” Geralt asks, but still he sounds contemplative, curious, not angry. “I think we both know I’m the last person who’d have a problem with you being a sorcerer.”

Jaskier drags a hand over his face. He’s suddenly exhausted. “I’m not just a sorcerer, Geralt. I’ve been alive for, gods, I don’t even know how long. Since before there were cities. Before there were Witchers. I never learned magic, I wrote most of it, and I might not have any idea what I am but I’m certainly not human, I’ve spent too much time as a tree to be human.”

“Still,” Geralt says, steadfast, unfazed by any of it. “You could’ve told me.”

“I didn’t want to,” Jaskier says, and is surprised to realize he means it. “I was scared to.”

“Why?” Geralt asks, quiet and gentle, and not only because he’s trying not to wake Ciri. Jaskier’s eyes are warm, and wet, and to his horror he feels tears start to run down his cheeks, such a deluge of them that he’s helpless to do anything but wipe at them with the back of his hands and stare down at the table and hope Geralt doesn’t notice. But Geralt does notice. Of course he does. He makes a noise in the back of his throat like someone’s stabbed him (stabbed him, because Geralt never makes noise when he’s hurt unless it’s dire) and comes around the table to kneel in front of Jaskier’s chair. He puts his big hand on the side of Jaskier’s head, and Jaskier turns his face into it, hiding in Geralt’s palm until Geralt pulls him to the edge of the chair and takes Jaskier brusquely in his arms. “Why didn’t you,” he asks again, sounding tight and urgent, chin pressed hard to the top of Jaskier’s head.

And Jaskier has to answer. He can’t keep lying to Geralt anymore, even if it means he has to stop lying to himself, as well. “Sometimes I like to feel small,” he admits, thick with tears. “I don’t…it’s all so much, and sometimes I want to feel like I’m not important, like I’m just a bard, just human. You made me feel like that, and I didn’t want to ruin it.” 

Jaskier,” Geralt murmurs against Jaskier’s hair. He doesn’t say anything else, just keeps holding him, and Jaskier figures he doesn’t need to. What’s there to say, anyways?

Much later, after Jaskier’s calmed down (after Geralt’s bruised drugging kisses into his tearstained lips, smiled softly in the hot red-flushed space between their faces, unbuttoned Jaskier’s doublet and unlaced his trousers and hunched over his lap, one hand over Jaskier’s mouth so he couldn’t make any more noise than a desperate, broken grunt as he came), they climb the ladder to the loft and lie down to sleep as they have every night for the past few months. Jaskier buries his face in Geralt’s chest and tucks in close to the hulking warmth of him, feels the steady, contented beat of his heart through the loose shirt that he sleeps in, listens to the wind pushing fondly at the roof above their heads. 

He remembers being a bird and being a god and being born, but earlier tonight when he’d crouched and pressed his hands to the frozen dirt and muttered the twisting, ancient words that would bring a mountain to the ground, he had been thinking not of the sacred cave and not of the primordial fog and not of the fire that had blazed blue through his hamlet. He’d been thinking, with a cold jolt of premature grief, of the way Geralt’s bare toes had curled in the grass the first time Jaskier put his hand on him, the bitter taste of his sweat, the feeling of his wiry chest hair against Jaskier’s lips. He’d been thinking of Ciri’s scraped knee, the sly joy in her eyes when he magicked it better, exhilirated to have one more secret to keep from Geralt, who they both loved. 

He’d been thinking of small things, a thousand small things, a lifetime’s worth. And now, he slides his knee between Geralt’s legs, surrounded entirely by the weight of the Witcher’s body, and feels, as he has always, always yearned to feel, like a small thing himself.