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the tempo of falling (in love)

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It was two months after the mountain when Yennefer found him.

He was in Novigrad, his favorite place on earth - not as stuffy as Oxenfurt, with plenty of taverns eager to hire a famous bard and patrons with pockets deep enough to buy him whatever he wanted in return. He’d spent the last several weeks on what he was generously calling a “journey of self re-discovery,” but which most of his colleagues in town had labelled an extended bender. It was his right, he felt, after two decades spent madly in love with a man who cast him aside like bones from a broth. He was entitled to a few weeks of wallowing, and to purchasing enough wine and company to dull the ever present knife in his back.

To say that he was surprised to see Yennefer enter the tavern he was currently occupying was an understatement. To say that he was displeased was a gross trivialization. There was perhaps only one person that he would like to see less than Yennefer, and he was unlikely to be caught within ten miles of the city. Especially if he knew that Jaskier was here.

Yennefer stepped - or glided, perhaps - through the front door of the tavern just as Jaskier was wrapping up a song. He fumbled the last note, shocked into stillness for a long moment, though the crowd around him didn’t seem to notice. As his heart hammered in his chest, he debated his course of action. Run? If she wanted to speak to him he could do little to stop her. Go up and confront her? Too risky; if she felt like it she could easily turn the crowd against him. And he very much wanted a place to sleep tonight.

Finally he decided that he would simply continue on as if he hadn't seen her. He was a professional with a set to finish, and the show stopped for no one. Even an all powerful sorceress who's keen violet eyes were piercing him from across the room.

He played longer than he might have otherwise, hoping that the witch would be on her way. Finally, the tavern had all but cleared out, and he could no longer put off the inevitable. Yennefer still watched him from her table in the back, for a moment looking much like him despite their radical differences in physical presence. Jaskier packed up his lute and his gold quickly, hoping to escape to his room upstairs.

“You’re quite good,” came a voice directly behind his shoulder. Jaskier couldn't hide his jump, only just managing not to drop his case. “I’ve never truly heard you play beyond the drivel you toss about on the road.”

“Yennefer,” he said in a sigh. He felt exhausted, both from his extended performance and the resurfacing of his neglected grief. “To what do I owe the utmost displeasure?”

“We have things to discuss,” she answered loftily. “Let me buy you a drink.”

Jaskier eyed her suspiciously. “What could we ,” he said, waving his hand between them, “possibly have to discuss? I think we left things exactly as we should have.”

We didn’t leave things at all,” she said. “We barely spoke the entire way up the mountain. You were too busy singing, and mooning after Geralt.”

Jaskier couldn’t stop his flinch. “Well, we said enough,” he grumbled. “I have no interest in catching up.” He turned away, pulling the strap of his lute case over his shoulder. A warm meal and a few tankards of mead would have helped his mood nicely, but he’d have to be satisfied with the rations in his pack upstairs until morning. Unless Yennefer was satisfied with his rebuttal, which he doubted. 

An unyielding grip caught up around the wrist. “Jaskier -”

He stopped and turned back towards her, teeth gritted in frustration. Even knowing that she could tear him apart with a word did not lend him any sense of caution. His sense of self preservation was at a low, lately. “Yennefer,” he spit out, “I do not wish to talk to you. I do not want to see, speak to or listen to you ever again in my life, if that would be possible. I’m just a bard, there’s no reason we ever need to interact again so long as I’m alive. I’m sure my life is just a blink of an eye to you, so just give it about fifty years and I’ll be out of your hair. Just,” he ripped his hand away from her grasp now, turning back towards the stairs, “leave me alone.”

“You won’t be,” Yennefer said from behind him. 

Jaskier stopped again, refusing to turn to face her. “What does that mean?” he asked, staring up the flight of stairs before him. The tavern had almost completely emptied by this point, leaving only the sleepy looking barkeep and a few drunk patrons in a far corner table. 

“You won’t be dead in fifty years,” Yennefer said. Jaskier turned back to look at her sharply, confused and irritated by this digression. 

“That’s generous of you, Yennefer, perhaps I’ll live to the ripe old age of one hundred, let’s make it sixty -”

Yennefer interrupted him, her bright eyes flashing dangerously. She looked sharper than before, he realized, more dangerous. This was the creature he had seen, all those years ago, when he first woke from the djinn attack in the manor. When she was trying to chain the power of a thousand wishes to her will. An impossible woman. “You will not be dead in fifty, sixty, one hundred years or more, perhaps,” she said. Jaskier’s brow furrowed in confusion. “Something has changed. Have a drink with me, bard.”

* * *

The drinks were good, despite the barkeep’s surly attitude at being kept up so late. They sat in an isolated corner of the large room, a candle flickering between them to keep the shadows at bay. Jaskier downed his first pint in several long gulps and immediately called for another. 

“If you think I’m paying for this, you’re sorely mistaken,” he said, starting on his second. It was a warm winter brew, heavy with spices to cover up the weak flavor of the mead itself. The taste of it lingered on the back of his tongue, thick with sweet honey and cloves. 

“You made plenty of coin tonight,” Yennefer pointed out, circling her finger around the rim of her goblet of - wine? He hadn’t seen the barkeep fill it, but she sipped from it nonetheless. 

“It’s compensation for my time,” he replied. “What do you want?”

Yennefer set her goblet down and placed her hands flat on the table. She looked like she was thinking about what she wanted to say, picking her words carefully. “When we met, you were, what would you say, twenty five years of age? Twenty eight?” Jaskier nodded. “And we have known each other for nearly ten years more since then. I didn’t notice it, time is so… ten years is nothing to me.” She looked away, staring off towards the fireplace at the center of the back wall. Her eyes were far away. “Half a century goes by and it seems like no time has passed at all. I didn’t notice, and I was preoccupied with -” She cut herself off, turning to scowl down at the table before turning her gaze back to him. “You have been unchanged since the day I met you, bard. I didn’t notice, not until I made that jibe about your crows feet.”

Jaskier huffed. “What about them?” he asked, taking another gulp of mead. 

“You don’t have any,” she said, a small line creasing the perfect skin between her eyes. “Did you notice? Maybe not. Witchers age so slowly, and I not at all. Did you not return to Oxenfurt and see that your colleagues were beginning to gray and wither while you remained youthful?”

“I’m only forty,” he said, pouting. “I’m not old .” He couldn’t comprehend what Yennefer was trying to say. He was aging well, so what? Why would that matter to her?

She huffed out a frustrated breath. “Bard,” she said sharply. “ You don’t age . There is a magic around you, within you, that keeps you young.”

Jaskier blinked at her, shaking his head slowly. “No - What, you think I’m cursed? Some hag put a spell on me a decade ago and I never noticed?”

Yennefer looked angry now, her fingers scratching at the wood near the base of her goblet. “A mere curse could not do this,” she said. “Immortality, even the slowing of the aging process, is exceptionally powerful magic. I had to give up everything for it,” she hissed. “What you have is stronger. Sometime along the way, I don’t know when, you became more than human.”

Jaskier laughed then, a sharp, disbelieving sound. It landed in the silence of the room around them like a wet rag. “I don’t think so,” he snorted bitterly. “I think I would have noticed.” He raised his mug for another drink.

Yennefer reached across the table and put a hand over his tankard, slamming it down into the table. “You are not listening to me,” she said, her pretty white teeth bared. “I am telling you that you have power, maybe even greater than my own. You’re a Bard .” Something about the way that she said his title held a weight to it, filled with the quiet awe of religion or fear.

“That is my occupation,” Jaskier said, because he couldn’t think of what else to say. He was tired of all of this - of Yennefer, of her wild theories, of being reminded so vividly of everything he’d had and not had, before. He wanted to go upstairs, go to sleep, and tomorrow he would leave town and run until he couldn’t remember the smell of lilac and gooseberries. 

“That isn’t what I - A Bard is a powerful type of spellcaster, maybe even a creature closer to that of a djinn. They begin as humans, but sometimes if their work reaches enough people, in enough places, the energy of so many believing in their words makes their songs into a spell, of a sort. It’s… complex. I don’t understand it, not completely. The magic is vastly different from my own.”

Jaskier had had enough. “Yennefer,” he said, pulling his mug away from her. “I am not a magical bard of legend. I sing rowdy songs in taverns and I’m popular, yes, but that doesn’t mean I, what, sung myself into immortality?” He gave her a disbelieving look, one that he hoped conveyed a healthy lack of faith in her current mental state. 

“Do you know what he was, before you began to write songs about him?” Yennefer asked, pulling her hand back. “I suppose you wouldn’t, you weren’t even born for most of it. But I remember, after I went to court, hearing the gossip and songs about him. He was a villain, the great Butcher of Blaviken. He was hated almost universally across the Continent, for what he was and what he did. And then you came along with your catchy little songs, and you changed everyone’s minds almost overnight. You made people love a witcher, someone they hated and feared. You changed things. You changed everyone.” Her gaze grew soft for the first time that evening, filled with remorse and overwhelming pity. “Your love for him was so strong it became magic.”

Jaskier stood up from the table so quickly that his chair fell behind him with a clatter. He could barely breathe. “Stay away from me, Yennefer,” he choked out. “Just - stay away.” He turned and fled up the stairs and to his room, not turning to look back at her sympathetic eyes as he ran.

He flung his lute down in the corner after locking the door behind him, not bothering to even remove his shoes before throwing himself onto the threadbare bed. Finally he let the tears that had been threatening him all night fall, though no sound escaped him. Staring up at the ragged beams of the inn as they were obscured by his wet eyes, he thought about how cruel that would be, if Yennefer were right. If he’d loved Geralt so completely that he’d made himself into some kind of immortal demigod, and Geralt had wanted nothing to do with him. A poet of legend with the power to touch the hearts of all men, except the one he’d already given his own to.

That would be cruel indeed.

* * *

Yennefer left him alone for nearly a fortnight, two mercifully uneventful weeks. No monsters nipped at his heels, no witches tried to curse him, he didn’t have to stop to punch any idiots in the nose for insulting Geralt because they hadn’t heard Toss A Coin recently enough. He played in the taverns he stopped in, and used the coin to buy supplies to last him until the next town over. He bought a few traps, learned to use them, caught himself dinner regularly enough to make his stash last. Despite the witcher’s constant harping on his skills, he wasn’t completely useless. He could fend for himself if needed, even knew a bit of swordplay from back when everyone thought he would still fit in as a noble at court. And travelling for twenty years off and on with someone who foraged for nearly everything rubbed off. 

Jaskier wasn’t entirely sure where he was going, after leaving Novigrad, but for now it was enough to keep putting distance between himself and the mountain and wherever Geralt was. Nilfgaard had been pushing progressively closer to Cintra; perhaps he would make his way there to finally claim his Child Surprise. Or perhaps he would continue fucking around in the wilderness hunting nekkers. It mattered not to Jaskier, so long as they remained far apart.

So he continued walking during the day, and at night he made camp and ate his meager catches or rations, and he tried to write new songs but couldn’t. He felt like he was living in a sort of haze, only half aware of his own thoughts. A quarter of every emotion was shoved into a corner of his mind and left unexamined. His gut reactions were muffled, the urge to say Geralt, look at this shied away from on instinct. Cutting the witcher out of his life left him feeling grayed out, frayed at the edges. But it was better this way, he told himself. At least living in this washed out world was honest. 

Yennefer found him again one night at the tail end of the fourth week, just when he’d begun to think she’d taken his request to heart. He smelled her first, of course, the sickening scent of that heavy perfume cutting through the crisp twilight air. When he looked up she was stepping gracefully into the clearing, dressed in a black gown that tumbled off of her shoulders and was glaringly out of place in the quiet forest. He sighed, tossing the stick he’d been using to poke the fire down in exasperation. “What can I pay you,” he said, “to stay out of my life?”

Yennefer stalked towards the fire, lowering herself to sit across from him. Her violet irises glittered, reflecting the flames eerily. He was always surprised to realize that he had again forgotten how beautiful she was, otherworldly in the sharp cut of her jaw and the smooth curve of her cheek. His memory never did her justice, always turning her more jagged and cruel than she really was. Her true visage was a beautiful sheath hiding a dangerous weapon. “I am here to ask you for a favor. Or offer you a job, however you might wish to look at it. I will compensate you however you wish, if you can do as I ask.”

Jaskier crossed his arms and rested them on his knees, eyeing her wearily over the crackling fire. “I can’t imagine what I could possibly have to offer you, Yennefer,” he said. 

“I want you to write me a song,” she said, and he had a feeling what she asked for was more than a simple ballad. 

Still, he said, “Ah, something to repair your reputation? I’m afraid that may be a task even too great for me, my dear. You see, you are reviled across the Continent and beyond, feared by -”

“Jaskier,” she snapped, and it was rare enough for her to use his name instead of simply calling him ‘bard’ that his mouth clamped shut. “I want you to remove Geralt’s wish.”

Jaskier felt his entire body grow cold. “What makes you think I could do something like that?” he asked.

“I told you before,” she said, impatient. “You are a Bard. I’m sure of it. Even all the mages in Aretuza could not remove the curse as it is. A djinn’s magic is some of the most powerful in the world. But a Bard’s magic is something else. It does not work within the laws as we know them. There is no spell so great that a Bard cannot undo it. You are not a source yourself; each person who says the words helps to cast it, over and over again. All you have to do is sing it,” she said. It was as close to begging as he had ever heard from her, he thought. Her fingers dug into the fabric of her dress, clenching and unclenching it. “I must be free of this bond,” she said. “My mind must be my own again.”

If only all of us had that luxury, Jaskier thought. “I’m not what you think I am,” he said. If he was, wouldn’t he have written himself into a happier narrative a long time ago? He wasn’t a fan of tragedies.

“You are,” Yennefer insisted. “I will give you anything, anything you desire. Just write the song, bard.” She paused, and then bit out, “Please.”

He stared at her across the fire for a long moment, and then said, “No.”

* * *

Yennefer haunted him. Everywhere he went, she was only a few steps behind, and he could only travel so quickly. As soon as she knew where he’d headed, she was there - distance was no object to her. She would sweep into the room while he was performing, or eating, or sleeping, interrupt his day and start hounding him about magical songs. He was infuriated. Yennefer refused to drop the issue, and she had all the time in the world to try and persuade him. It would do her no good. What she asked was impossible, because he was not, and never would be, a bard with magical singing powers. Yennefer was so desperate for a way to undo the wish that she had fabricated this concept of him. It didn’t make it true.

He could stop performing, he supposed. If he did so, he might be able to avoid her for some time. For about a week, it worked - he left the town she had most recently confronted him in and kept to the backwoods, and when he reached the next village over he did not utter a peep. He moved on once again, but quickly found his coin dwindling. By the time he made his stop in the third town, he was forced onto the stage again just to make enough to buy his dinner. 

She found him a few miles outside of the town the next day, as he was breaking down his camp. He threw down his bedroll in frustration, feeling for a moment that he very well might attack her. 

“This has to stop,” he begged, for what felt like the hundredth time. Yennefer looked as cold and aloof as ever, but something was different. Her gaze was calculating, looking at him like a puzzle to be solved. 

“I agree,” she said. Jaskier balked at her. “This game of cat and mouse is getting us nowhere. I tire of chasing you about the Continent. It will be easier to convince you to help me if you stay in one place.”

Jaskier did not like the sound of that. It wasn’t stated as a threat, but it held one all the time. “Yennefer,” he tried one last time, “I can’t help you. I’m not what you think I am.”

“I can taste the power of your words in the air of every village I follow you through,” she said, dismissive. “You may not have the ability or training to recognize magic, but I do. I know what you’re capable of, even if you don’t. Besides, what’s the harm in writing the damn song? If there’s no magic in it that does little to harm you.”

“Besides demolishing my reputation,” Jaskier muttered. “I don't want to write you a fucking song, Yennefer. For the last time, let it go.”

The sorceress shook her head, her mouth pulled into a tight line. “I didn’t want it to come to this, but you’ve left me no other options,” she said. She reached for him - when had she gotten so close? - and said, “This won’t hurt.”

“What? What won’t -” he started, and was cut off when her fingers reached his brow. She muttered a word, and everything fell into darkness.