The Godling blinked, staring up at Geralt with her large eyes. “I wish I could pay you back for your help.” He’d dealt with the bandits that had been stomping through the swamp, ones that had set fire to her burrow trying to be rid of her. She liked this swamp, she liked the children of the nearby village, she hadn’t wanted to leave.
Geralt couldn’t explain the soft spot he had for Godlings. Perhaps it was their stature, so small and more or less defenseless, maybe it was their childlike behaviour, and the natural instinct to protect the young. In any case, although there was no reward, he’d helped Lilia.
Lilia snapped her fingers. “I know! I heard tell of a jewel! But it’s cursed.” She frowned, and looked to the ground. “It’s also in Lettenhove.”
“It’s also not yours to give.”
“Well… you’re a Witcher!” She looked up at him, the beads in her hair jingling in the wind. “Maybe if you broke whatever the curse is, you could have the jewel, you know, as payment. I’d go to Lettenhove if I were you!”
“I’ll take it under advisement,” Geralt said with a small smile. “I need to be off, will you be alright now?”
“Sure thing,” Lilia said. “I’m going to make a new burrow, even better than before!”
He wished her good luck as he departed.
Three months passed before he thought of the Godling’s words. He happened to be in a tavern in one of the closest towns to Lettenhove when he overheard a conversation between three would-be-bandits.
“I’m telling you, we could be rich,” the man with the mustache said, leaning heavily on the table, and keeping his voice low. “Lettenhove was built because of their mines. Rumour has it the finest jewels are at the top of the tower.”
“You’re drunk,” his balding friend said before chugging back his own ale.
“We could be livin’ like kings, and instead you want to go back to herding sheep?”
The third man, scrawny, scratched his head like he had fleas. “They’re fucking cursed. Everyone knows that. Fools have tried to rob the Viscount, none ever walk out of the estate.”
“Because they get caught,” Mustache argued. “Not because of some curse.”
Three drunk men planning a robbery they probably won’t remember in the morning was not Geralt’s problem.
Since he was in the area, he went to Lettenhove. Not because of the curious jewel? Jewels? He didn’t hear any new rumours in the town proper. He did hear of nekkers. He met with the Viscount, Aleksander Iwon Pankratz, a tall, willowy man with a goatee, and dark eyes with heavy bags under them. They negotiate the payment for the three nekker nests, and Geralt was on his way, along with one of the Viscount’s men to ensure each nest destroyed.
It took him the better part of the day, but he rode back into Lettenhove with armour covered in the gore of slaughtered nekkers, and the satisfaction of a contract completed.
The townspeople gave him a wide berth, and he was fine with that. At least they weren’t spitting at him, or throwing stones. He heard a few people mutter about his face, a few curses under breath, but it still managed to be more kindness than he’d come to expect after the events at Blaviken. He left Roach outside the estate with one of the stable hands, and followed his guide across the vast lawn, and into the estate.
His footsteps echoed in the halls. Flowers overflowed from vases, but they weren’t enough to hide the scent of nekker guts rotting on his armour. He longed for a bath, and as long as the Viscount didn’t stiff him on his pay, he would be able to afford it with his night at the inn.
The guide knocked twice, and opened the door. The office was the same one Geralt stood in when negotiating the contract. The Viscount stood at his desk. “I take it the nests have been eliminated.”
“Yes,” Geralt replied. He noticed the way the Viscount looked to the guide for a nod before picking up the coin purse.
“Then this is yours. Thank you for your service, Witcher.”
Geralt let the weight of the coins settle in his hand. He didn’t bother counting, it felt about right, and the Viscount had been decent to him thus far. Geralt nodded, and walked out of the office. The guide followed him, and Geralt knew he’d be escorted right to the door. It wasn’t surprising. Witchers weren’t to be trusted.
He had his hand on the door when the shriek came from the front room, and the guide took off like a bolt. Geralt couldn’t miss the hysteric woman’s frantic cries. “Worms in the linens! How are their worms and dirt in all the linens?” From the opposite direction he heard light footsteps.
A young girl looked up at him with dark eyes. Her hair fell in soft brown waves around her shoulders. The dress she wore spoke of money, while the dirt on the hem, and under her nails made her the likely guilty party of the ruined linens. She reminded him of Ciri, not in looks, but certainly in that mischief streak. “You’re a Witcher?”
He looked around, but didn’t see anyone to take the kid off his hands. “Yes.”
“Good. I have a contract for you.” She held out her palm, and laying on her dirt creased palms; a shiny button and a quartz crystal. In her other hand, she held out a well-loved teddy bear. “You only get Wibbleton the Third if you complete the contract.”
He couldn’t help but ask. “What happened to the first two Wibbletons?”
“Drowners,” she replied sagely. She wiggled her hand a little until he took her ‘payment.’
“Hmm.” He crossed his arms, still half expecting the girl’s mother, or nanny, or a servant to collect her. “What’s the contract?”
“I need you to break the curse on jewels.”
He didn’t bother correcting her grammar. He’d heard enough of the cursed jewels of Lettenhove that even he was curious. While going along with her would surely cause him trouble, he found himself powerless to pull away when her small hand fit into his.
She managed to avoid every servant along the way, quite the skill for someone so small, and without training. She led him up a spiral staircase to the very top of the tower.
The short hallway had metal bars in the middle, a door… a cage.
Inside, a room of luxury. A large four-poster bed with soft blue privacy linens tied back. A bookshelf of cherry wood, overflowing into small piles on the floor. A desk with stray bits of parchment, and a bottle of ink gone low. The windows were open, letting in the fresh summer air along with the bright sunlight. In the middle of the biggest sun spot, a pile of pillows, and on that pile of pillows, a handsome, shirtless man basking in the warmth, a book in one hand. While it was an odd sight, there was a distinct lack of jewels, much less cursed ones.
“Jewels!” the girl shouted.
The man startled, the book falling to the side when he looked over at them. “Seraphina,” he drew out her name, emphasizing every syllable. He moved slowly, rising from his nest of comfort, eyes on Geralt the entire time. Geralt couldn’t look away, for the man had the purest sapphire blue eyes Geralt had ever seen.
“Don’t Se-ra-phi-na me, Ju-li-an.”
Julian. Jules, a nickname, not a diamond or a ruby, but a man. A cursed man if all the rumours were true.
Julian stopped just out of arms reach of the bars that kept him in the gilded cage, eyed Geralt with a rabbit fast heart.
“He’s a Witcher! He’s going to break the curse!” Seraphina said. “He’s just like in your stories, I know he can do it.”
From the bottom of the stairs he heard footsteps. “Seraphina?” Aleksander called out. “Are you up there?”
The girl grimaced. “Yes.”
Geralt figured this was about the time he’d be kicked out, and while Aleksander looked surprised when he reached the top, it didn’t take long for that expression to shift to pure exhaustion. “What am I to do with you, child?”
“He’s a Witcher, Dad! He can help Jules!”
“Return to your studies.”
Seraphina stormed past, but paused at the top of the stairs to wiggle Wibbleton the Third as if the bear was an enticing prize to be won. Then, she stomped down every step.
“What is the curse?” Geralt asked.
Aleksander sighed. “I’ve had a witcher here, long before, when Julian was still an infant, again as a child. There is nothing that can be done.”
“Your kid already paid me.”
“With what?” Aleksander demanded, looking nervous. With how Seraphina got into things, the nerves were probably well earned.
Geralt produced the shiny button, and rock from his pocket.
Julian leaned in closer, smiling. “You’re either soft of the head, or kind of the heart. You know that’s quartz and not a diamond, right?”
“Yes.” He pocketed the trinkets. “I agreed to her terms. What is the curse?”
Aleksander frowned. “Julian can’t touch anything living without causing them immeasurable pain.” Upon hearing the words, Julian backed up a few steps from the cage door, like even being too close might bring them agony.
“When did this start?”
“The moment he was born,” Aleksander replied. And from there, Geralt got the full story. Lettenhove had offered their support to the Redanian army. A young man, raised by a sorceress, and in service of Lettenhove went off to war, and did not return. Furious, the sorceress cursed Aleksander to understand the pain of never being able to hold his son. “My late wife, Zuzanna gave birth to Julian a day later, but the curse didn’t just affect me, it’s anyone who touches him. Zuzanna and the midwife were first to experience it. They wrapped him up in blankets, kept from touching his skin. We kept him to one room, only our closest servants entrusted with him as he grew.”
And so, in a gilded cage, the heir to Lettenhove stood, beautiful, and sad.
“And the sorceress who cast the curse?”
“Long dead,” Aleksander said.
“That doesn’t sound like a particularly hopeful ‘hmm.’” Julian turned a little in his space, looking around, and eventually snatching a loose grey tunic from the back of a chair, and put it on. “Is this the part where you say, ‘oh, too bad.’”
“Magic isn’t my strong suit, breaking a curse like this would require a sorceress. I know one.”
Julian ran his hand through his hair, and side-eyed Geralt. “Why would you help me?”
“I already got paid.”
“And the not bullshit answer?” Julian asked.
Geralt gave a half-shrug. “Seraphina reminds me of someone.” At Julian’s raised eyebrow, he sighed and continued. “My daughter.”
Admitting he had a child softened Julian. “You really think your sorceress friend could help me?”
“If anyone could, it would be Yen. It’s not a guarantee though.”
Julian glanced at his father. “It’s more than I’ve ever had.”
“And where is this sorceress?” Aleksander asked.
“I don’t know where she is now,” Geralt said. “But I know where she will be come winter.”
“You’d have me travel with you?” Julian asked, a bit of wonder in his voice.
“I have to get you to her somehow.”
Julian chewed on the side of his thumbnail, paced a few steps, turned and paced back before looking at his father. “Please.”
Aleksander smiled sadly, but pulled out an ornate key, unlocking the cage, and pulling it open just a little. “I’ll speak with your sister while you pack.”
Geralt watched Aleksander leave before pulling open the cage door. Julian took a few steps back. “I never got your name, Witcher.”
“Julian Alfred Pankratz,” he stated, bowing with flourish. “I’d shake your hand but—”
“Just essentials,” Geralt warned looking around, taking in various trinkets, books, and instruments.
“Of course,” Julian replied.
By the time night had fallen, Julian had packed the ‘essentials’ and while Geralt argued that a lute was not an essential, Julian stood his ground, and Geralt relented with a, ‘fine, but you’re carrying it.’
Geralt waited by the doors while Julian said his goodbyes. Aleksander held Seraphina back although she wanted to hug her brother, hushing her with soft whispers of, ‘it’s too dangerous.’
He didn’t miss the way Aleksander tossed a coin purse to Julian, who pocketed it. It wasn’t the only exchange of coin. Aleksander handed a heavier purse to Geralt. “Keep my son safe, Witcher,” he said. “You’ll get the other half upon his return. Still cursed or not.”
Geralt nodded, and glanced at Julian. “Ready?”
Julian took one last look at his family, eyes glistening. “Let’s be on our way.”
They left under the cover of darkness, no one paid any mind to the leaving witcher, nor the man in a dark cloak walking at his side. They went as far as they could with the minimal light, and when Julian was tripping more than walking, Geralt made camp.
The sun had barely risen, but Geralt snapped to wakefulness, seeking the sound that had disturbed him. A little sniffle, a rapid heartbeat. Julian sat on the bedroll he’d been supplied by his father, but he was swiping his hand back and forth over the dewy grass.
“Are you alright?” Geralt asked.
Julian pulled his hand back for all of a second before he was reaching out, touching once again. “I’ve never felt grass before. It’s different than I expected.”
Geralt’s heart clenched. “Did you… ever come down from the tower?”
“It was safer for everyone if I was kept in one spot. Safer for those I might bump into, safer to not let people find out—about me. Father feared that I might be taken, used.”
He supposed ‘immeasurable pain at a touch’ classified as a pretty effective form of torture. Kidnapping him might prove a touch more difficult, but not impossible. Geralt reckoned the man was still as vulnerable to the blade as anyone else.
Geralt let him explore the area around the camp, while he packed and readied Roach. Julian touched everything from bark, to leaves, poking his finger against the needles of evergreens, exploring the textures of the woods.
The first week spent on the road was odd for Geralt. He’d spent so many years with just Roach for company on the Path, he was used to the quiet. Julian didn’t seem to know the definition of quiet. The man chattered away about books he’d read, instruments he could play, all the while constantly stopping to touch things, to ask Geralt about herbs, or places, or about Roach.
He was bright, happy, and from time to time, Geralt couldn’t help but smile back.
They’d stayed away from towns, but the incoming storm pushed them to seek shelter. The downpour hit as they entered the village. Julian checked that his sleeves were over his long gloves, and he pulled the hood of his cloak up to cover as much of his face as possible.
“Just stay close to me,” Geralt advised. “People tend to steer clear of Witchers.” Julian kept a step behind and to the left of Geralt as they walked through the wide streets.
Once Roach was cared for, they sought out the local inn. Geralt knew he was being ripped off on the last room, but considering the storm, he had little option but to pay.
Their room was in the middle of the hall, an argument going on in the room to the right, and a pair of very athletic lovers in the left. Their room only had one bed. It would be a long night.
Julian removed his cloak, heavy with water, and draped it over a chair by the hearth. He shivered where he stood. “Any chance you can do that—” he wiggled his fingers at the logs in the fireplace.
Geralt walked over, and cast igni. The fire helped light the room, and Julian sat on the floor, curling toward the fire. “I’m going to get us something to eat.”
“I can pay,” Julian offered.
He returned with a small feast, it had been a while since they’d had more than rabbit, and he bet that Julian was used to a wider spread. The man lit up upon seeing the plates balanced on one arm, and the two steins of ale. He got up like he wanted to help only to pull his hands back, looking at his wet gloves by the fire.
“I’ve got it,” he said, trying to assuage the guilty expression on Julian’s face.
The two of them sat on the floor by the fire, a meal of chicken, carrots, potatoes, fresh fruit, and bread between them. Julian was always careful, making sure his hands never got too close to Geralt.
When they were done, Julian complained that he’d eaten too much, but appeared content, half laying back, and wiggling his sock covered toes by the fire.
“You should go to bed,” Geralt said. “I want to leave at first light.”
Julian yawned. “I’m fine here.”
“You can’t move me.” He smirked. The little shit. “Get a good night’s rest, Geralt.”
In retaliation, Geralt dumped the pillows and blankets on Julian, it was the least he could do.
And if something stirred in him to see Julian all sleep rumpled in the morning, tangled in the blankets and curled up with the pillows, well—no one ever had to know.
Geralt left Julian in the woods with Roach while he did a contract. He still needed to do his job, and needed the coin too. The closer he got to where he’d left his companions, the better he could hear the strumming of a lute, Julian’s accompanying voice was otherworldly as he sang, deep and longing.
He paused at the tree line, watching Julian move with a stunning fluidity while he played. A man in his element. Geralt felt some of the tension leave his body as he watched and listened.
“What do you think?” Julian asked. Geralt tensed, thinking he’d been caught. Roach nickered. “A glowing review, thank you, Roach, you were a delightful audience.” He picked an apple from the nearby tree, and rolled it across the grass to her. Roach was quick to eat it.
Geralt stepped away from the trees. “No more apples—” Roach stomped her hoof. “Don’t give me that attitude, you’ll end up with a stomach ache.”
Julian frowned. “Noted. One apple.”
“Did you feed her others?”
“No, just that one.”
“She can have two, but no more,” Geralt said. “But she probably doesn’t need a reward for being your audience. You’re very good.”
Julian smiled. “You think so?”
The soft contentment practically radiated off Julian, and Geralt found himself happier for it.
The crisp morning air warned of the changing seasons, Geralt couldn’t ignore the frost on the ground in the morning, or the bright coloured leaves. They would need to stock up before making the climb to Kaer Morhen. Geralt had kept the pouch of coin from the Viscount of Lettenhove safe, while it was partial payment, he knew he’d need it to get supplies to make the trip, and to keep Julian warm on the way.
Between the plans for winter, and Julian half strumming, half humming a song, Geralt didn’t notice they weren’t alone until an arrow was caught in his armor. “Fuck!”
The moment devolved into pandemonium as things happening all too fast. Geralt dismounted, and Roach ran off. He pushed Julian by the cloak covered shoulder toward the trees, and barked the order for him to go. He identified four bandits, and drew his steel sword.
Swords clashed, and he quickly realized these weren’t bandits. Trained soldiers, perhaps deflected from the king they’d once served, but definitely trained. He spent so much time trying to ensure his positioning didn’t let them near where Julian hid that he ended up surrounded.
A foolish, beginners error. Vesemir would rip him a new one if he could see him now. One of the swords glanced off his armour, and Geralt was ready to cast aard to get himself some room back when he saw Julian dart out of the woods.
One of the men made the motion to slash at Geralt only suddenly seize, scream out in a way Geralt hadn’t heard since the Trial of Grasses. Julian’s fingertips had only grazed his cheek. The man dropped to the ground, screaming, and writhing in agony.
Geralt capitalized on the distraction, cut down the others. He took a moment to center himself, ensure there were no more threats around before focusing his attention on the downed man, still trembling through the aftershocks, although Julian was a few steps away, and not touching him at all. “How long does it last for?”
Julian looked near tears. “Five minutes or so.”
“Look away,” Geralt said, not wanting him to see any more bloodshed than necessary. Julian turned toward the trees, and Geralt killed the last of the would be thieves.
He didn’t hear strumming or humming for days.
Julian complained that his feet hurt, and his hands ached, and everything was so cold, drizzly, and dreary. The constant waves of sadness, and pouting didn’t affect Geralt. They didn’t. The tavern just happened to be on the way, that’s all.
The moment they stepped inside, Julian gravitated toward the fire. Geralt stayed by him, ensuring none of the locals got too close. Julian kept his gloves on, even though they were wet. Geralt hadn’t seen him without them since the incident with the bandits, the very real reminder of the man’s curse.
The tavern wasn’t particularly busy, but spacious, they got a long table away from anyone else once they’d gotten semi-warm. A couple bowls of stew went a long way to warming their bellies.
“Do you have family?” Julian asked. It wasn’t uncommon for Julian to ask questions at random, he’d skirted around asking questions directly about Geralt, but seemed to have built up his bravery over time. “I mean, I know you have a daughter… I was always told Witchers were sterile.”
“We are,” Geralt said. “Child Surprise.”
“Where is—is she—” he paled.
Julian breathed again. “Good, very good.”
“She’s with the sorceress I told you about, Yennefer.”
“You two… raise her?”
“Yes. It’s complicated.” Geralt glanced around, no one was paying them much mind, but he remained unsettled. “It’s not to be discussed here.”
“Right, of course. Sorry.”
Geralt dragged some of his bread through the broth at the bottom of his bowl. He looked across the table at Julian who toyed with his gloves. “I have brothers… not of blood, but brothers nonetheless.”
Julian propped his chin in his hands. “What are they like.”
It was odd to have such a rapt audience, but he found himself talking about Eskel and Lambert, the better stories that painted his brothers in a good light, ones that avoided the pain and trauma of their childhood.
Julian hung upon every word, asked questions here and there, laughed at humourous parts, his hand on the table, halfway reaching before he caught himself. Julian put his gloved hands in his lap, but the attention never wavered.
The tavern got busier as the night went on, and the barkeep approached. “You’re a bard?”
Julian snapped to attention. “Uh…” he looked to Geralt.
“You’ve got an instrument. Entertain for a few hours, you’ll get a room on the house. You interested?”
“You got a name, kid?” the aging woman asked.
Julian chewed his bottom lip, nodded a little unsure. “Jaskier.”
The woman raised a brow at the name but shrugged. “Well, have at it.”
“Jaskier?” Geralt tested the name on his tongue, and didn’t miss the way Julian shivered.
“Every bard should have a stage name, right?” Julian opened his lute case. “What better to describe me, but a name of a flower both pretty—” he pulled off his gloves with a frown, staring at the exposed skin of his hands, “—and poisonous.” He held his hands to his chest. “You won’t let anyone get too close, right?”
Julian—no, Jaskier, he moved different, smiled a little brighter as he started to play, sinking into a persona of a grand performer, and he was good. Geralt had listened to him strum while they travelled, heard him play and sing softly around the campfire, but it paled in comparison to the notes he belted out now.
The tavern came alive, clapping, singing, stomping their feet, dancing into late in the night.
In all the time they’d spent travelling together, Geralt had never seen his charge look so alive.
Jaskier looked over his shoulder at Geralt, smiled as he sang a particularly dirty lyric, and gave a mischievous wink. Geralt failed to keep a straight face, and Jaskier looked absolutely delighted.
It was a good look on him.
The coin from the Viscount still sat heavy in Geralt’s pocket. He’d had to dip into it a few times on their travels, but only when Julian was in need of something he didn’t have the coin to provide. It happened less and less as they travelled, Julian becoming Jaskier in taverns, playing and usually ending up with a small pile of coins at the end of the night. He cared for himself, and took pride in that.
The closer they got to Kaer Morhen, the colder the weather got, the stingier the crowds. Geralt bought Jaskier a new pair of boots, his weren’t made for such cold, and were constantly getting soaked through. The new boots were expensive, but worth it.
“That cloak there,” Geralt said to the merchant, pointing to the back of his stall. “How much?” The price gave Geralt a brief pause, but he parted with the coin, and thrust the cloak at Julian. “Here.”
Julian stumbled back a step out of habit, but the cloak stayed caught up in his arms. “What? No! This is too much—”
“The mountains are colder, you’re going to need it. Your cloak is too light for this weather.”
Julian rubbed his cheek against the fur lining. “I’ll pay you back.”
“It’s a gift,” Geralt said, turning away, knowing Julian would follow. “You owe me nothing.”
“I owe you a great debt, one I don’t think I could ever repay.”
“It’s just a cloak.”
“I’m not talking about the cloak, or at least, not just the cloak.”
Geralt paused, looked to his right where Julian now stood. “Because of you I got to leave my tower. You trust me at your side, you trust me with Roach even knowing, even having seen the pain I cause. With you, I got to travel, and perform, and live, oh Melitele, I’ve lived more in these months with you than I have in the rest of my life put together. I—You’re my best friend, Geralt. I can never pay you back for—” he opened his mouth and shut it a few times, trying to find the right word, “—everything.”
It was entirely too much, emotions so all encompassing. Geralt wanted to reach out, wanted to touch, to make Julian understand with actions instead of words, but he couldn’t. He didn’t have the words to make Julian understand how much his company meant, that just a smile from him could make Geralt’s entire day better, that travelling with him had been some of the best months of his very long life. Julian was much like his songs, stuck on repeat in Geralt’s mind.
This was the son of a Viscount, heir to an estate. Julian didn’t have experience with other people. If not cursed he would surely make friends wherever he went, and he’d then be able to tell that Geralt’s company was dull and worthless in comparison. Breaking the curse was a job, and Julian would be escorted back to Lettenhove, the free man wouldn’t waste a thought on Geralt then.
“Let’s get moving, we still have a lot of ground to cover.”
Julian’s shoulders drooped, his head bowed. He said nothing as he fell into step behind Geralt.
“Am I just a job to you?” Julian asked as they struggled up the path to Kaer Morhen. The thin layer of snow made everything more difficult, especially since it hid the uneven ground, and patches of ice.
Geralt paused, his grip tightening on Roach’s reins. He looked back at Julian who wore the cloak Geralt had purchased, and Geralt’s own gloves since Jaskier’s had gotten wet after he’d taken a fall at the base of the mountain and his had soaked through. Geralt was sure he wouldn’t succumb to frostbite, but couldn’t say the same for Julian’s nimble fingers.
“I am being paid to break a curse, and return you back to Lettenhove safely.” That was, by definition, a job.
Julian frowned. “So I’m just a task to be completed?”
“I didn’t say that.”
“You didn’t not say it!”
“Forget it. Let’s go. Sooner we reach the top, sooner this curse breaks, or isn’t broken, and sooner you send me back to Lettenhove.”
Julian went to storm past, in his emerging dramatic fashion, and Geralt reacted without thought, reaching out to grab his arm. Julian’s reflexes were faster than Geralt would have thought, flinging himself back to avoid Geralt’s hand.
Geralt’s heart was in his throat before he even registered why—everything happened so fast; Julian’s foot went out from under him, and he fell toward the dangerous cliff edge. He reached out for something to grab onto, but only the thorny bush was close enough, Geralt’s too big glove caught on the prickles and slipped right off his hand.
For a split second, Julian’s body was parallel with the ground a long way down.
Geralt knew it would hurt, reached out anyway and grabbed Julian’s bare hand. His skin burned and his blood boiled, knives stabbed his brain and his stomach inverted. The unbearable pain screamed to let go. He tightened his grip instead, pulling Julian to his chest as he fell back onto the ground.
Julian pulled his hand from Geralt’s grip, and crawled out of Geralt’s arms. “I’m sorry, I’m sorry, I’m sorry!”
Geralt couldn’t yet speak, his body still trembling from the relentless pain. It felt like hours though he knew logically that it was only minutes before he could take a breath without feeling like his lungs were collapsing, until he could blink without his eyelids feeling like sandpaper, until his fingers could twitch without causing a shockwave of pain through the rest of his body.
He heard Julian sobbing, looked over to see his head tucked against his drawn up knees, his hands over his head pulling on his hair.
“J-” his voice cracked and he wondered how long he’d spent screaming to make his voice so hoarse. “Julian?” He didn’t respond. Geralt rolled onto his back, big snowflakes falling upon his overheated face and melting, it felt nice. It took him another minute to try again. “Jules?” He tipped his head to the side and saw Julian lift his head just enough that he could see the bright blue of his eyes glistening with tears.
“It’s not, it’s really not, I didn’t mean to—I shouldn’t have—you told me the mountain was dangerous, and that we needed to be careful, and I didn’t listen, I just had to run my mouth and get mad and—”
The instructed breath hitched and stuttered on the way out.
“We’re fine,” Geralt said. He struggled to sit up, no part of his body wanted to cooperate, like the pain had fried every nerve ending along the way. He leaned back against Roach’s leg for support.
The two of them sat in silence in the middle of the mountain pass while Geralt got reacquainted with his body, and Julian struggled to get his emotions under control.
“The camp is at the halfway point,” Geralt said. “We’re not far.”
Julian sniffled. “Okay.”
Geralt leaned heavily on Roach as he got to his feet, staggered a bit, but the unnatural migraine abated. “Stay close, and away from the edge.”
“Your glove,” Julian muttered, pointing to where it blew in the wind, stuck in the thorns, dangling over the dangerous edge.
“We can dry yours at camp.” Geralt didn’t trust his shaky legs so close to the edge. “Afraid that one is a lost cause.”
“Stop apologizing, you’re fine, I’m fine, we’re fine.”
Julian nodded but wouldn’t meet his eyes.
The ‘camp’ was just a stable for one horse, and a very small shack with a roof that had been threatening to cave in for at least five years. Geralt hoped it would hold out at least for the night. He got Roach settled first, set the camp fire outside first before ushering Julian into the shack.
There was one bed, a small fireplace, a dresser full of extra clothes, and a few jars of dried fruits and meats. Geralt put a few logs in the fireplace, and cast igni. It wouldn’t take long for the small space to warm up.
“If your clothes are damp, there are some in the drawers, you should at least change your socks,” Geralt advised. “Might want to place the stuff you choose in front of the fire for a bit first, they’ll be cold.” He looked over to see Julian still standing by the door, fists curled on the inside of his cloak, bunching it up toward his face, like he tried to keep the least amount of skin exposed. Geralt stood, and backed away from the fire. “Come on, get warm.”
“I never wanted to hurt anyone,” Julian whispered. “Certainly not you. You should have let me fall.”
Fuck it. He stalked into Julian’s space, and as usual Julian backed up, tried to ensure himself out of arms reach, but backed against the wall, he had no where to go. Geralt stopped with the most minuscule space between them. “I would do it again.”
Julian’s eyes widened. “What?”
“In a heartbeat, knowing what it would do to me, knowing just how much it would hurt, I would do it again to keep you safe.”
“Because I’m your job?” Julian asked in the softest whisper.
“Because… I care about you.”
All the tension seemed to leave Julian’s body, and he leaned heavily against the wall. “Am I your best friend?”
Geralt couldn’t help but smile. “No.”
Julian’s mouth went slack but his eyes lit up as he dramatically put his hand over his heart. “If not me, then who?”
Julian looked like he was having trouble not laughing. “I have never been so offended. I’ll fight him for the honour.”
Geralt laughed at the thought. “Please, don’t.”
“Then what am I?”
“Something else entirely,” Geralt murmured.
The easy teasing shifted to tension in a heartbeat.
“A good something?” Julian asked.
“Very,” Geralt said, leaning in close enough they shared breath before he remembered himself, the curse, the pain, and he leaned back. “Get warm before you fall ill.”
They changed into dry clothes after they warmed them by the fire. “You can take the bed,” Julian said.
Geralt pulled on gloves he’d found in the drawer, and gave himself a once over, everything but his neck and face covered. “We could share.”
Julian looked him over. “I’m not sure if you’re brave, or stupid.”
“It’s been a long journey, and we still have a full day of travel ahead, we both need the rest.”
“I could hurt you,” Julian whispered.
“I’ll risk it,” Geralt said, laying down on the bed, waiting for Julian to make up his mind.
Slow, careful steps brought Julian to the bed. He double checked Geralt was covered before he laid down ever so slowly, resting his head on Geralt’s chest, far enough down that his cheek wouldn’t brush against Geralt’s neck in his sleep. “Is this okay?” he asked, a soft whisper, like he understood the frailty of the moment between them.
Geralt’s hand fit just right on Julian’s ribs, holding him in place. “Yes.”
They laid like that for a few minutes before Julian reached for Geralt’s other hand, maneuvering it to a safe point of Julian’s covered body. The moment hung for a moment, Geralt struggling to keep his breathing even.
“Will you—can you—” Julian trembled in his arms. “Please.”
“What do you need?” Geralt asked.
“Can you hold me tighter?” Julian asked. “I can’t remember ever being held like this, can you just—” Geralt pulled him closer, held him tight, and felt the tears soaking through his tunic. “Thank you.”
It didn’t take long for Julian to fall asleep after that, and Geralt stayed awake a while longer, finding himself smiling just watching the man sleep in his arms.
They made it to Kaer Morhen at nightfall without any further problems. The open gate welcomed them, Geralt was a little surprised to be the last to arrive, but his whole family was out in the courtyard like they’d been waiting. Vesemir and Lambert were standing near a small fire. Yennefer had her back to a wall, her eyes on Ciri who hung off of Eskel’s flexing arm. Ciri tried wrapping her legs around him, and he laughed. “That’s cheating!”
“What are you going to do about it?” Ciri adjusted her grip on Eskel’s bicep and let her legs dangle again.
Eskel was faster than people expected given his size. He got a good hold on her, and she shrieked as he tossed her into a pile of snow covered hay. She laughed as she sat up, hay clinging to her hair and cloak. She then took notice of Geralt, and clambered out of the pile. “Geralt!”
He took a few steps forward, met her in the middle, picking her up, and holding her close. She smelled a little of Yennefer, a little of Eskel, and a lot of woodsmoke and hay, obviously she’d had a long day of playing outdoors. “I’ve missed you, cub.”
“Missed you too, Dad,” she mumbled, resting her head on his shoulder. “Who’s your friend?”
Geralt looked over at Julian who kept himself far back from everyone else. “This is Julian. He’s… cursed, don’t touch him. Yen, we need your help.”
Yennefer pushed away from the wall, her long hair getting whipped around in the winter winds. “What kind of curse?”
“Don’t touch his skin, touch alone causes pain,” Geralt said. “But perhaps we should do the talking of specifics inside.” He could hear his companion’s teeth chattering together, and wanted him to be more comfortable.
“How bad is the pain?” Lambert asked, eying Julian.
“Think of the Trial of Grasses.”
“Fuck.” Lambert took an instinctive step back. “That bad?”
“No.” Geralt sighed. “Worse.”
Lambert appeared grim at that news, and kept far away from Julian as they walked into the keep. Inside, they sat around the large dining table, built for far more witchers than currently lived, but it ensured Julian had enough space to sit away from everyone.
Geralt reiterated the story from the Viscount, and Yennefer in particular paid the most attention, nodding along, and glancing at Julian every now and then. “Do you think you can break it?”
Yennefer tapped a finger against the table as she stared at Julian. “I’ve heard of such a curse before.” She frowned, her dark eyes turning to Geralt. “And you’re not going to like what I have to say.”
“You can’t break it, can you?” Julian whispered, a little quiver in his lower lip.
“I can’t.” Yennefer sighed. “It’s a curse of suffering, but clearly grew far too out of control because it didn’t just affect your father, but everyone who touches you. The only thing that can break such a curse is for someone to be willing to endure it.”
“What does that even mean?” Julian asked, standing, pacing a few steps away.
“You need to find someone who cares enough to hold you through the agony until the curse breaks.”
Julian let out a humourless laugh. “Well, I lived the first twenty-seven years of my life like this, I guess I can live the rest of them.”
“How long would it take to break the curse?” Geralt asked.
Yennefer blew out a breath. “I wish I knew, but this curse is messy, it’s already outside the binds that it should have adhered to. Maybe that makes it easier to break? Maybe it makes it harder? There is no real way to find out.”
“I think I’d like to sleep now,” Julian said, on the edge of tears. “Where can I—”
“I’ll show you,” Geralt said, rising from his spot carefully since Ciri had fallen asleep against his side. Lambert shifted over to take his space, and Geralt lowered Ciri’s head to Lambert’s arm instead.
The two were quiet as they walked through the halls of Kaer Morhen, and Geralt opened the door to his own room. He hadn’t managed to send word to expect company so he doubted any guest rooms were prepared.
“I got my hopes up,” Julian admitted, taking off his cloak and tossing it over a chair. “I shouldn’t have, but I did. I-I want more than anything to just be as we were last night but without having to worry.” He bit his bottom lip, flushed at having admitted perhaps more than he’d intended.
He wanted to kiss Julian, for the way he had crept slowly into his heart, dodged all defenses, and made himself at home with Geralt made him weak. “I told you, I’d do it again.”
“Geralt,” Julian whispered his name like a prayer and a warning in one.
Knowing the agony that awaited, he cupped the back of Julian’s neck, and nearly dropped to his knees. He was vaguely aware of Julian crying, calling out his name, pleading with him to just let go. Instead he dropped his forehead against Julian’s, trembled as the pain sliced down his spine.
He tasted blood in his mouth, and it didn’t stop him from kissing Julian in a desperate attempt to distract himself from the unspeakable agony. As swift as the pain had started, it ended, and he felt himself grow weak in relief in Julian’s arms. His cheek brushed against Julian’s as he rested his head against Julian’s shoulder.
“Geralt… are you—”
Geralt kissed Julian’s neck, nuzzled against it. “Doesn’t hurt anymore.”
He felt Julian’s arms move, two soft thumps of gloves hitting the floor and then Julian’s hands were on him, his neck, in his hair, pushing him away only so Julian could cup his face with both hands, and Geralt leaned into the touch.
“I can’t believe you did that,” Julian said, eyes wide in wonder. “You—you insane, selfless, sweet man—”
“Not selfless,” Geralt argued. “I just wanted to kiss you.”
Julian laughed, wild and completely free. “Well, I shouldn’t leave you without your reward then.”
He kissed him.
And kissed him.
And kissed him.
In the morning they were both shirtless, wrapped up in blankets and furs, but Julian was basically laying on Geralt, like he was trying to make up for the years of touch-starvation in one extended moment. His fingers were light as they traced over Geralt’s old scars.
“I can have Yennefer open us a portal to Lettehove. I’m sure you’re eager to reunite with your family,” Geralt murmured. “Your sister will be happy to be able to hug you.”
Julian froze. “What if… what if I want to stay with you?”
His hopeful heart skipped a beat. “The Path is dangerous.”
“I’m well aware,” Julian replied. “I’m not scared. Travelling with you has been incredible. I can help too! I can make money, I can be a bard like I always dreamed of being. Please, Geralt. I want to stay with you.”
He traced the line of Jaskier’s spine. “You should still see your family first.”
“But then I can stay with you?”
“You are free to make your own choices, Jules.”
Julian kissed over Geralt’s heart. “Thank you.”
The portal brought them to the outside of the Lettenhove estate, and startled a few of the servants. Julian paid no mind, leading the way, pushing open the door to the sprawling mansion he’d grown in just the tower of.
“Dad?” He called out, wandering a bit, looking in different rooms as Geralt followed a few steps behind.
Aleksander emerged from his office, the dark circles under his eyes more prominent than ever. “Julian! Did it—”
“It worked!” Julian shouted with delight walking into his father’s embrace.
Geralt saw the tears in the Viscount’s eyes as he mouthed a ‘thank you’ over Julian’s shoulder, holding his son tight for the first time.
“Jules!” Seraphina came barrelling down the hall and latched onto her brother. “I knew it, I knew the Witcher could help!”
Julian ruffled her hair with his bare hand.
She left her family to walk up to Geralt, and held out Wibbleton the Third. “Thank you.”
Geralt assessed the bear, now missing it’s left eye. “I think Wibbleton should stay with you. I encounter too many drowners.”
Seraphina smiled, and hugged the teddy bear to her chest.
They sat in the ornate sitting room as Julian started telling the whole story from the beginning, all the while curled up to Geralt, playing with Geralt’s hand, bending his fingers this way and that, linking their hands together, and soft brushes of his thumb, constantly touching.
The Viscount certainly noticed, but didn’t make mention of it.
Seraphina hung upon every word, especially interested and asking details about the monsters Geralt had fought on contracts during their journey. Yeah, she and Ciri would get along well. Maybe one day they’d be able to meet.
They spent the next two days with Julian’s family before Yennefer portalled in, ready to take them back to Kaer Morhen.
“You could wait until spring,” Geralt said, not believing anyone would willingly spend more time up in the frigid mountains than necessary. “You could spend the season with your family.”
“I want to spend it with you,” Julian replied, taking Geralt’s hand in his, walking backward into the portal.
In the summer, they stopped in a tavern for a meal that Jaskier played for. A few hours of entertainment before he finally took a seat across from Geralt, clearly exhausted but delighted, still humming the lines of a ballad.
At the table next to them a few men talked about the cursed jewels of Lettenhove, of what the curse might be, of how one might rob the estate.
Jaskier leaned over to their table. “I heard the curse has been broken,” he whispered conspiratorially. He did a dramatic look around. “I also heard, the jewels are gone.”
One of the men leaned in closer. “Stolen?”
Jaskier looked to Geralt with the sweetest smile, tapping his finger over his heart. “Something like that.”