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Once & Future

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For all his talk, Jaskier has never been a particularly remarkable man.

Born the eldest and least-loved son of a minor Redanian noble, shoved like an afterthought out an open window and thus plunged even deeper into ignominy, a nameless fourteen-year-old wandering the countryside with nothing to his name but a collection of bruises and the shirt on his back.

Hitching a ride in a wheat farmer’s cart to Oxenfurt, because Oxenfurt was where he knew music to be, acquiring trousers only out of the kindness of a tailor’s heart, catching the eye of every brothel scout in town when he shuffled up in the back of a bread line outside Guildenstern Cathedral—It’s the eyes, his madam told him later, her touch half proprietary and half tender as she cleaned his dirty face. You’ve got eyes men want to see crying, and Jaskier supposes in hindsight that’s at least slightly remarkable but it’s not the sort of remarkable he’s always wanted to be.

At university, once he’d scraped together enough coin to pay his way, he’d made good marks, not exceptional by any means since he had to spend most of his nights sucking cock instead of studying, but he’d done alright, graduated near the middle of the pack and emerged bleary-eyed into the world of the wandering trobadour like a chick poking its head out of an egg—attached himself to the first band he came across, followed the Tretogor Four on their way to vanquish a fearsome something or other, sang their praises in every inn they came to and was tolerated grudgingly for it.

He’s a good bard, good at spinning epic tales out of boring week-long slogs, good at laughing off the discomfort and the suffering and the indignity, good at finding the silver lining even when the storm clouds are low and dark, when he’s spent a week walking outside in the pouring rain and his fingertips have gone so soft and white he can’t even look at his lute without losing a layer of skin. He can work a crowd on an empty stomach, carry a tune when he’s barely awake and bully almost any booker on the Continent into giving an act their fair share, but it’s not like people know his name. They might know the Tretogor Four, might know Shrike, but Jaskier is just the jaunty man in a funny hat who trails along after them.

He’s an easy lay and an easy mark, a hopeless idealist and a hopeless romantic and more often than not the butt of everyone else’s jokes. He is not the sort of man who falls in love with a king—or at least not the sort of man who a king falls in love with back. He is not the sort of man who is called upon to save anyone or anything, let alone entire kingdoms.

So it seems very ridiculous that he should be here. That destiny or True Love or Sheer Dumb Luck have arranged for him to be here, standing in the frozen uninhabited wilderness with an eight-hundred-year-old sorceress, her hand on his shoulder, preparing to sing a song and wake the mountain.

He’d thought Yennefer was poking fun at him, to begin, when she handed him his lute. But—“Expelling magical energy from the body is difficult for people who aren’t trained,” she explained. “It’s a lot like getting rid of excess emotion. Some people cry, some people scream. I figured you might want this.”

“Right,” Jaskier had said, taking the instrument from her with shaking hands. “Thank you.”

Now, in the airless hush of the night, Geralt and the rest of the witchers in shallow slumber not a few yards away, Yennefer squeezes his shoulder, digging her nails into his cloak, and murmurs, “Whenever you’re ready.”

“Whenever you’re ready,” Jaskier mutters back, which doesn’t mean anything.

Except that apparently it does, because Yennefer smiles—he can feel her smile, the same way he can feel that she’s staring down her nose disdainfully at him even when she’s walking behind him on the trail—and says, “Alright, then.”

Words spill from her mouth in a tangle, complicated and incomprehensible but clearly imbued with a great deal of power, judging by how the very stone beneath their feet seems to crackle at their passage. Her hand on his shoulder is suddenly blazing hot, like a brand, and a moment later he feels the heat push into him, spreading over his spine like he’s lying down in boiling water. “Melitele’s tits,” he gasps, and Yennefer grits out between words of the spell, “Sing, Jaskier, or it’ll kill you.”

In light of the alternative, Jaskier sings.

He starts off badly, voice tremulous in a way it hasn’t been since before his balls dropped, with an utter lack of confidence that is completely foreign to him. “There was a girl named Lulu,” he begins, because he can’t think straight and it’s the first song he ever really learned the lyrics to, hiding with his child-sized lute beneath his bedclothes and laughing himself silly at all the innuendos he thought he understood but didn’t, really. Yennefer makes a soft sound at his shoulder like she wants to laugh but is in too much pain to do it, which Jaskier understands—the laughter because it’s an idiotic song to choose, under the circumstances, and the pain because he feels like his body's made of wet clay and someone's trying to drag his bones out.

Emotion, he thinks, as he comes to the strumming, tapering-off end of the song, and remembers his professor at Oxenfurt, naked and smoking a pipe after a particularly vigorous round on the rug, Jaskier whining about his bad marks and getting back nothing but a faint smile and the words, “Emotion, Jaskier, isn’t about singing the loudest or the softest or any of that. Emotion is about what hurts you. What hurts you,” jabbing the pipe in his direction, and Jaskier hadn’t been brave enough to answer the question out loud but he’d answered it in his heart, and he still remembers.

So he doesn’t get louder. He doesn’t keep on the panicked rush of rising energy that wants to carry him away. Instead he quiets his fingers on the strings, breathing out in a cloud of frost around his face, and as Yennefer whispers ancient words at the back of his neck he sings, “I am weak, my love, and I am wanting.”

In front of him, far up the mountainside, the night catches fire and burns gold.

Jaskier finishes the song, Yennefer’s magic flowing through him now like a river undammed, and he doesn’t even have to think about what to play next, his fingers moving like they’ve got minds of their own, like they’re guided by something outside of himself. He begins The Ballad of the White Wolf, but halfway through the song veers off the path and becomes something new, something that he’s never heard before, that he realizes with a distant thrill of alarm he’s composing in the moment, lyrics forming at the back of his tongue and standing up fully-formed by the time they leap from his mouth.

Stories are about how living makes you feel, he’d told Geralt once, and he has always believed that. So he sings about it all, about the strange joy of kissing a statue and having it turn into a man, about the flattening revelation of Geralt’s identity, how his heart has been locked to Geralt’s like a man locked to an anchor and shoved overboard into the sea, how he looks at him and sees not just a man but a castle and a city and an empire and a future which is better and brighter and more harmonious than the present they live in now, how he would just as willingly follow the White Wolf over the edge of the known world as kiss his stomach, soft and searching, in bed, how he has wandered the Continent and never found anywhere he wanted to stay but he would come home to Geralt if he could, if Geralt would let him—each and every day until the end of the time, he’d come home to him.

He’s not sure how the words come out, if any of what he’s saying is making sense, but it doesn’t seem to matter—slowly, like snow sloughing away from eaves in the spring, the mountain is clearing away from Kaer Morhen.

Yennefer is leaning hard against him, and he’s swaying back into her grip, each of them the only thing keeping the other up.

Somehow it’s become bright and warm as a midsummer’s day, and vaguely Jaskier’s aware of someone yelling, a sensation like a headache throbbing at his right temple. There’s some sort of shield around them, a barrier made of pure sunlight, and beyond it someone is trying to get in, pounding like their life depends on it—Jaskier sees a flash of familiar eyes, feels a swoop of fear before Yennefer digs her nails into his neck, the sharp bite of pain snapping him back, and orders, “Focus, bard. We’re almost finished.”

That’s good, Jaskier thinks, because he doesn’t have a lot left in him.

His fingers feel heavy, and they move slower and slower on the strings as he crawls toward the end of the song—wherever that end might be. He feels as if he’s been awake for months, and suddenly he’s so overcome with anguish he can’t help but burst into tears, fumbling his lute as he drops hard to his knees.

Yennefer comes with him, her hand still on his shoulder, magic still burning a path through his chest. “Just another minute,” she says, voice like a rider struggling with the reins of a horse. “Just hang on another minute, Jaskier, please.”

Eyes men want to see crying, Jaskier remembers, and I want to see you grow old and I can’t, I can’t, I can’t, feet dangling over the abyss and the river rushing up to meet him and Where were the witchers?

Almost there,” Yennefer grits out. “Hold on, Jaskier.”

Geralt, Jaskier thinks, as his heart crumples and his soul folds in on itself.

“Geralt,” he thinks he begs, out loud, like a sick child crying out for his mother.

“Done,” Yennefer says, and all at once the barrier around them falls and the winter comes swirling back and night slams down like a dropped crate and above them on the rocky slope looms a fortress out of legend and the last thing Jaskier hears is Geralt, on his knees beside him, hands pressing over his numb body, snarling, “Don’t you fucking dare—"

***

For a long time, Jaskier is in the dark. He’s not aware that he’s in the dark—he’s not aware of anything, really, until he wakes and realizes in retrospect that he was in the dark for rather a long time, and that he was all alone. But he wakes content.

His eyelids rise, just a fraction. Sunlight streams through an oddly familiar window, turning suspended dust particles into tiny flecks of gold in the air. Somewhere nearby, he can hear running water, the low-grade grumble of a river. The mattress underneath him is plush and warm, and he’s got so many pillows and blankets piled about him he thinks it’s a wonder he doesn’t combust from the sheer luxury of it all. He feels fine—better than fine, even, like he’s had the best night’s sleep of his life and spent the day lazing around in bed and had another best night’s sleep for good measure—but something about all of this strikes him as subtly wrong. Like a clock with one hand ticking backwards, a statue with teeth, a pastry someone’s added salt to instead of sugar. He shouldn’t be here, he thinks blearily, through a fog, before he even realizes where here is.

There’s a child-sized lute resting on the pillows beside him, and an abandoned game of shah scattered around his feet.

“Julian,” his mother says from the door. “Good, you’re awake.”

His eyes snap to her. He doesn’t say anything as she picks her way through the detritus of his room—his father’s guards must have left a mess when they burst in here, the floor is strewn with splintered furniture. Jaskier wants to yell at her, tell her to get out, ask her how he got here, where Geralt and Renfri and the others are, but he can't. His voice is trapped in his throat, in a way it hasn’t been since he was very small.

His mother sits down beside him.

She’s aged gracefully, the way a woman of good breeding is meant to age, hair gone gray, delicate crow’s feet dusted with powder, the cut of her dress a bit more modest than those he remembers. Something is strangely indistinct about her eyes, but Jaskier doesn’t have a chance to figure out what it is before she places a hand on his forehead, checking him for fever.

“You’ve been quite ill,” she says. “We weren’t sure whether you would recover.”

There’s no We’ve been worried, no trace of anxiety or weariness in her expression—but then, there wouldn’t be. This is the first time in her life Jaskier’s mother has ever sat by one of her children's sickbeds. Not that he’s a child anymore.

At his silence, she gets a pinched look on her face. “I did pray for you,” she says, as if she can hear his thoughts. “I prayed for you when you were a babe, as well, you know. You were my first. I wanted you to be strong.” Her fingers are cool at his hairline, caressing his brow absently, like how people pet velvet chairs. “I suppose,” she muses, “I prayed to the wrong gods.”

Jaskier’s hands twist in the bedsheets. He swallows, tears pricking his eyes, and finds his voice all at once. “I don’t care, mother,” he says, teary and vicious all at once. “I don’t care about anything you have to say.”

She snatches her hand back, an expression on her face like an animal she’s been told is tame has suddenly bitten her. “Julian—”

No,” Jaskier says. “No. You don’t care for me, you’ve never cared for me, but it’s not my fault. It’s yours. There’s not a single thing wrong with me.” He laughs lightly, then amends, “Well, there are a few high notes that still elude me, I can’t hunt worth a damn, and I’ve got very expensive taste in clothes, but the point is that there are people out there who think I’m enough just as I am, who love me without any exceptions, and I don’t need you anymore. I don’t need to feel sad about you anymore.”

His mother reaches for him, but he bats her hand away, scowling—

—and comes awake with a gasp.

“Shit!” a small someone exclaims, leaping away from his bedside. A moment later they’re back, slender hands pushing him onto the pillows when he tries to fight his way out of bed in a blind panic, a girl’s voice babbling, “It’s alright! You’re alright, Jaskier! You’re in Kaer Morhen and I’m Ciri and I was only supposed to be watching you for a moment while Aiden stepped out but now you’ve gone and woken up, oh gods please don’t make me punch you—”

“Ciri?” Jaskier says. It’s the one word his brain has managed to latch onto in all that, and while his heart races hotly in his chest and his breathing slows down, panic-sweat cooling on his skin, he tries to focus on it. On her. 

Ciri. Cirilla with the question mark.

Now not so much with the question mark, since she’s kneeling on the edge of his bed holding him down like she’s afraid he’s going to jump up and run away. When he doesn't, she gives him a hopeful, tentative smile. “You're safe here," she says. "All the Nilfgaardians have been killed, and even if they hadn't and there were some hiding around they wouldn't want to come out since they're outnumbered."

“Right,” Jaskier says, relaxing in fits and starts. “You're absolutely right. I’m sorry, love, I just had the most dreadful dream.”

“A nightmare?” Ciri lets him go, sliding back into the chair at his bedside. It’s much too large for her, the back reaching a good foot above her head, and Jaskier wonders who else might’ve been sitting in it, while he was asleep. “I used to have nightmares all the time. It always helped to run in and sleep with my father. Or to have Uncle Aiden sing me a song.”

Jaskier makes a soft wondering sound. Uncle Aiden. “Oh yeah?”

Ciri nods emphatically. “Would you like me to sing you a song? My father just taught me a new one.”

“Cirilla,” Jaskier says, melting back into the pillows, “I would like nothing more than for you to sing me a song.”

Ciri takes that as an invitation to clamber back into bed with him, kicking her slippers off on the way. She curls up against the headboard with her knees pulled up to her chest, moving her long ashen hair all to one side so it doesn’t tickle Jaskier’s face. “My grandmother used to tell me I had a very pretty singing voice,” she says, “but Uncle Lambert says I sound like a dying frog. I suppose you’ll have to settle the matter, being an expert.”

Jaskier snorts, settling back down in the mattress. “Well, I can’t very well settle anything if I haven’t heard you sing. Come along, now—rule number one of barding, never keep your audience waiting. It makes them cranky.”

Ciri laughs, an endearingly unladylike sound, and begins to sing. Jaskier stops her a few bars in to ask, “Where did you say you learned this song?” and she answers, “My father taught it to me,” sounding annoyed he’s made her say it twice, before she continues.

Unfortunately Lambert wins the argument on whether Ciri can sing—her grandmother must’ve been a dirty rotten liar—but Jaskier doesn’t mind, because the lullaby she’s singing is one that he sang to Geralt on the mountain, when the king was still shaky and pale after having Yennefer rooting around in his head, his forehead warm under Jaskier's lips. He's surprised that Geralt remembered the song at all, let alone remembered it well enough to pass on the words, and he can't help thinking of him sitting in that chair next to the bed, his daughter in his lap, singing softly. Jaskier’s never heard him sing, but he can imagine how he would sound, low and rough and unpracticed, stilted, pronouncing each word with care.

“Cirilla,” Jaskier says, when she’s done. She’s got her fingers in his hair now, and it feels like she’s braiding it, tugging a bit too hard, twisting, her fingers tacky. “How long was I asleep?”

At that moment door opens, and Eskel says, “Asleep isn’t exactly the word I’d use, lad.”

Eskel’s arm is in a sling, and he’s limping as he makes his way across the room. It’s not a long walk from the door, at least—the room, which Jaskier hasn’t really bothered to look at much until now, isn’t all that large, but it is cozy. A fire crackles in the hearth, and the bed is piled with enough furs to keep even a weak little human warm, which is thoughtful. The floor is stone, as are the walls, and someone’s fashioned a curtain over the arrowslit window, keeping the wind out. Amenities seem to be spare, but the bed is big and Jaskier can see his lute case sitting over on a table, which is all he needs.

The chair scrapes over the floor as Eskel sits, dragging it closer to the bed with his one good hand. Jaskier tries to sit up, Ciri's small hands shoving at his back to help him. "What the hell happened to you?" he asks, a bit breathless from the exertion.

“Got banged up, is all,” Eskel says, waving away his concern. “No one died. Our plan worked.”

A wave of relief crashes over Jaskier, strong enough to nearly make him fall back again. “It worked?”

Eskel’s eyes are fond. “Aye,” he says. “How d’you reckon Ciri’d be sitting here braiding your hair, if it hadn’t?”

Jaskier breaks into a laugh, so strong it startles him—and Ciri too. “It worked,” he says. “It really worked. Thank the gods.”

“As I understand it we have you to thank, actually.” Eskel’s look turns chiding. “That was a brave thing you did, Jaskier. Stupid, but brave.”

“Yes, well.” Jaskier clears his throat. “As I understand, those two things often go hand in hand. And anyways, it was worth it.”

“Aye,” Eskel says gruffly. “Aye, it certainly was,” following his gaze to Cirilla, who gives them both a shy little smile, her fingers still working in Jaskier’s hair. Jaskier’s only known her half an hour and already he would burn the Continent down if anything ever happened to her. He can only imagine how her father felt. How Geralt felt. It was worth it a thousand times over.

***

Over the next few days, Jaskier’s room becomes a hub of activity. Eskel and Vesemir carry in armfuls of scrolls every morning with breakfast and spend most of the meal squabbling over repairs that need to be made on the keep, plans to dig out the collapsed sections of the Killer, duty rosters and patrol schedules. Lambert visits as well, and it takes Jaskier the better part of a week to train him into leaving his mud-spattered boots outside the door, instead of tracking footprints all over the place that Yennefer or Ciri will just have to magic up later. The greater offense, though, is when Jaskier wakes one afternoon from a spot of light dozing and finds him and Aiden descending quickly into nude debauchery on the couch by the window. Not that he hasn’t heard them fuck before—camping is an intimate business—and not that he doesn’t appreciate the view (minus Lambert’s flexing Aiden tattoo) but honestly.

Desolé,” Aiden murmurs, stopping to buss Jaskier’s hand in apology as Lambert pulls him out of the room, and for a moment Jaskier wants to ask them to stay, to maybe let him get in on the action, but he doesn’t. Even though Geralt’s avoiding him like the plague, it doesn’t mean he’s about to invite two more witchers into his bed. He does have some self-control.

Renfri stops in at least twice a day to regale him with tales of the battle, which depending on who you ask either lasted two hours (Renfri), fifteen minutes (Yennefer) or nine years (Lambert). Knowing each of them, and having heard Lambert’s vociferous complaints about having been left to stand over his unconscious body, Jaskier’s guessing the truth is somewhere in the realm of an hour or so. Renfri, allegedly, faced down seven Nilfgaardians at once while holding the east stairwell—fighting from the low ground and left-handed, to boot—and though her account seems to be mostly focused on her own exploits she’s the only one other than Lambert willing to help Jaskier fill in gaps for the song he’s working on, so he’s just got to filter it all through the lens of having known her for five years and do his best.

The battle, as he understands it, went almost exactly as they planned, back in Aretuza. It was a mercenary operation, simple and fast in the way that true violence almost always is.

Eskel and Vesemir won’t really talk about it, Jaskier thinks both because it affected them deeply, seeing their nightmare come to life for a second time, and because in the fashion of most career fighters they aren’t willing to go digging around in the wound. Aren’t willing to glorify the dirty work that they do.

Aiden will talk a little, but he got pinned down in the great hall early on and didn’t see much; Ciri, the one time she happens to overhear him talking to Aiden about it, confesses that she spent most of the fight hiding under the table, stabbing legs with forks.

“Good,” Jaskier says, ruffling her hair. “That’s exactly where you’re meant to be, Your Majesty—somewhere safe.”

Ciri wrinkles her nose at him. She hates being called ‘Your Majesty’ almost as much as Geralt does.

By the end of the week, Jaskier can tell Renfri is getting restless, spending her visits pacing from wall to wall, bouncing around on the balls of her feet like she does when she’s in a fistfight and waiting for the other guy to hit first, generally giving off the aura of a tiger trapped in a cage.

“I’m going to leave,” she blurts, when he points it out. “I’m not cut out for this anymore.”

This?” Jaskier asks, teasing. He’s recently become ambulatory, and he’s using his newfound freedom to sit at the table instead of in the bed. “What, you mean sleeping on plush mattresses, always knowing where our next meal is coming from—”

“Exactly!” Renfri erupts. “It’s so boring, Jask! I feel like my brain’s melting out my ears.”

“Where are you off to, then?” Jaskier asks. He forces down a tendril of anxiety—he doesn’t want her to leave, she’s his best bloody friend, they’ve been together half a decade—but it must still show on his face, or at least she must know him well enough to know it’s there even though it doesn’t show, because she comes over to sit next to him, taking his hands in hers.

“I’m going back to the arenas,” she says. “Back on tour. Eskel’s got a scheme in the works to send an envoy of witchers out as a band. You know, reintroduce them to the world. I figure I can help.”

Jaskier musters a smile. “So it’ll be ‘Shrike and the Wolf Pack’ after all, will it?”

“Well,” Renfri says, “wolves...and bears, and a couple of vipers, I’m told. But mostly, yes.” She searches his face for a moment, a frown between her eyebrows, then says, “I’m sure we could find some use for a bard. If you wanted.”

Jaskier smiles. It’s still small, but at least it’s genuine this time. “From you, that’s practically a declaration of love.”

Renfri gives up holding his hands to shove him. “Shut it. You’re the worst, I take it back.”

Jaskier laughs, then sobers almost immediately. It’s been a week since he woke up and he hasn’t caught even a glimpse of the White Wolf, though a few nights he’s surfaced from sleep in the morning to the sense that Geralt was there sometime in the night, sitting in the chair beside the bed, as if his presence had left a mark on the empty air. Maybe he should leave. Maybe Geralt doesn’t want him here. Maybe being back in his old life has made him re-think all those things they said to each other. Maybe he’s changed his mind.

“You’ve seen Geralt,” he says to Renfri. She looks wary at once, but he forges on. “You've talked to him. Do you know why he’s avoiding me?”

Renfri looks immensely uncomfortable. “Look, it’s not like me and him were ever really friends,” she says. Jaskier would beg to differ—he spent enough evenings this past spring sitting alone noodling on his lute while Renfri and Geralt tried to kill each other with wood swords—but he doesn’t say so. “Not like you two are friends, at least,” Renfri amends on her own. “You know, with the—” she wiggles her fingers next to her head “—reading each other’s thoughts and such. I've no idea what goes on in that man's head. You'll have to ask the harpy.”

The next time Yennefer comes to check on his recovery, Jaskier ambushes her. “Why is Geralt avoiding me?” he demands, the second she’s through the door.

Yennefer looks alarmed, then guilty, then tries to look innocent. “I’ve no idea,” she lies.

Jaskier will just have to pick his heart up off the floor after she leaves, but right now he’s got to know—“Did the two of you get back together?” When she doesn’t answer right away, he swallows thickly, then invents, “I won’t be angry if you did. Genuinely. I can just go with Renfri. I’ll get out of your way.”

Yennefer doesn’t seem to know whether to laugh at him or pity him like a stray dog. Her face does something complicated, and then she heaves an enormous sigh, flipping the covers back to set about with the daily poking and prodding.

“You should talk to Geralt,” she says. “And you definitely shouldn’t leave, not that it would matter if you did.”

“What’s that supposed to mean?” Jaskier exclaims, hurt.

She scowls. “It means he would hunt you down and make sad eyes in your direction until you came back." She jabs at his hip, hard enough to make him flinch. "Just talk to the man, Jaskier, honestly. Preferably before you fall into bed with him.”

Talking to Geralt presents a tricky prospect, as Jaskier seems to be a prisoner in his own room.

There’s a witcher posted on the door at all hours of the day—either Aubry or Coën, both of whom are very kind and excellent conversationalists (Jaskier suspects he’s been given the two most talkative witchers in the keep), and neither of whom have any interest in letting him walk around unattended. Or attended, for that matter.

Jaskier is aware that supper is served each night in the great hall, that nearly everyone in the keep is in attendance nearly every night, and that, according to Ciri, this particular ‘nearly everyone’ includes her father. Thus, the next time someone’s bringing him food and he hears the echo of the feast noise down the corridor, he grabs them—it’s Eskel, who looks deeply unimpressed and also like he was expecting something like this—and demands to be taken out of his dungeon.

“You’re not a prisoner,” Eskel says, exasperated.

“Oh?” Jaskier shoots back. His eyes feel wide and it’s probably making him look insane, but he doesn’t care. He’s at the end of his rope. “Then why can’t I leave the bloody room? I’ve been able to walk on my own for days!”

“Oh, fine,” Eskel exclaims, tossing the tray roughly on the table. “Fine! We were trying to keep you from the excitement until you were less liable to faint from it, but no. By all means, let's go faint."

Excitement is certainly the right word. Jaskier’s caught glimpses, out his arrowslit window, of what the witchers get up to down in the training ground. He’s heard them yelling and jeering in the early morning, seen them tossing each other over shoulders and leaping from piling to piling thirty feet in the air. And of course he’s spent months with his own witchers, on the road. But he hasn’t really seen how they live, when they’re at home.

The feast is wonderful. Not the food, though the food is good as well, but the atmosphere, the utter sea of smiles and shouts and playful jibes, dozens of witchers crammed around each table, space at a premium but no one seeming to mind that they’re bumping elbows like they’re in a bar in Novigrad. Lanterns flicker on the walls, casting warm light. This is what Jaskier used to imagine family meals looked like, for people who weren’t nobles, or for people who weren’t Lettenhoves—the easy talk, the sense of camaraderie, the feeling of setting down after a long day with people you trusted in a place you felt safe.

At the head table, his friends are clustered around an empty central chair, Ciri on the left. Eskel leads Jaskier to the chair on the right and pulls it out for him, then takes the one next to it—Jaskier sits, a bit unsteady. He feels a few eyes on him, but they’re not hostile, not suspicious, only curious.

Geralt doesn’t appear through the meal, so when people start to trickle out, Jaskier turns to Eskel and says, “I need to see him.”

Eskel watches him for a long moment, like he’s taking the measure of him. Then he says, “Aye, I reckon you’re right.”

***

Clutching his cloak tight around him in the open door, Jaskier says, “I can take it from here. You don’t have to babysit me.”

Eskel gives him a look that begs to differ but holds his hand out, gesturing Jaskier into the night.

The cold bites his exposed cheeks, his fingers. It’s snowing lightly, flurries buffeted around in the breeze, and high overhead the moon is nearly full, hanging silver behind a thin layer of clouds. Jaskier darts across the courtyard as fast as his wobbly legs will take him, heading for the stables.

He finds Geralt exactly where Eskel said he would be—in the farthest stall on the left. His silver head is bent, his hand moving up and down slowly over a horse’s face, not saying anything, just sharing Roach's space. Jaskier knows Geralt can hear his heartbeat as he approaches, and even if he can't, he can at least hear his steps, the cold wood floorboards creaking beneath them. For a moment he doesn’t turn, and Jaskier stands outside the stall door, wrapped up in the cloak Geralt gave him on the Killer, feeling like an orange that’s been scooped out and filled with water—weak and weepy and wrong inside, and suddenly without courage.

“If you want me to leave,” he says, which hadn’t been how he was planning to begin at all, “you only need to say. Renfri’s heading out with the envoy in the morning. It would be easy for me to go with her.”

Geralt looks up sharply. To have those eyes on him again after so long almost makes Jaskier stagger back. He doesn’t feel like a man right now. He barely even feels like a person. He just feels like a thing that wants Geralt, a thing that’s afraid he can’t have him, a thing that both yearns for this moment to be over and hopes it will last forever, in case this is the last time he gets to look at Geralt’s beloved face, watch the beloved motion of his breathing.

“Please just tell me,” he says. His voice comes out as a hoarse whisper. “I can’t stand you not talking to me, I feel like I’m going insane. Please just—” he stops and swallows, stopping a hot rush of tears. “Please.”

Geralt’s eyes are wide. He shakes his head. “I said you’d have a home with me. I meant it.”

“You’ve got a funny way of showing it,” Jaskier informs him. “Keeping me locked up like a bloody prisoner.”

Geralt’s lips don’t twitch. He doesn’t get that look in his eye that means he’s trying not to be amused. He just says, “I’m sorry. I didn't want you to get hurt again.”

“Where have you been?” Jaskier asks helplessly, ignoring that answer. “Why haven’t you…?” Come to see me. Kissed me. Ravished me. Told me you loved me, like I told you. “Did I do something wrong? Are you freaking out again?”

Geralt shakes his head, turning his face away, and doesn’t say anything, his mouth pressed into a thin line.

After a moment, Jaskier realizes he’s crying. “Geralt,” he says, without deciding to say anything. For some reason he is utterly terrified, the same as if he'd realized Geralt was bleeding, and before he can think better of it, he's pushing into the stall with the king and his horse and drawing the former into a hug.

Geralt hugs him back, almost bruising, and buries his face in his shoulder. Jaskier has no guidebook for this, no frame of reference, so he just holds him, soothing a hand over his hair like Geralt was soothing his horse, and waits it out. Eventually Geralt’s silent shaking stops. He turns his face into the soft side of Jaskier’s neck, nose hot. “I’m sorry,” he says again, muffled this time, voice nasally.

“It’s alright,” Jaskier tells him. He’s not sure specifically what Geralt’s apologizing for, but he’s sure that it’s alright. There’s nothing he can think of that Geralt would do—that he’s capable of doing—that Jaskier wouldn’t forgive him for. “It’s alright, love, I’m here.”

Geralt exhales one last time, massive and wet-sounding, and steps out of his arms. For a moment he looks very young, lost and wrong-footed, his hair frazzled in disarray around his face, but then his face turns hard.

“Tell me,” Jaskier says, before Geralt can shut down completely.

Geralt seems to struggle with himself for a minute, turning back to his horse. Jaskier holds his questions, making himself wait. He knows how Geralt is with talking. And he’s rewarded for his patience. “I failed,” Geralt says, at last. “I failed as a king. As a father. As a man.” His eyes flick to Jaskier and away, like he’s not sure he’s allowed to look at him, which is ridiculous.

“You didn’t fail,” Jaskier says urgently.

“You nearly died,” Geralt argues. “Ciri nearly died. The keep nearly fell.”

Nearly being the operative word—”

Jaskier,” Geralt says, tight.

Jaskier falls silent watching him, the stable quiet around them except for a faint whistle of wind and the musty, heavy noises of horses shifting in the dark. Geralt scrubs a hand over his face and says, “I don’t deserve to be king. I’ve been trying to figure out how to abdicate without putting it all on Ciri.”

“Abdicate?” Jaskier echoes. “Geralt, why would you want to—”

“Because I failed!” Geralt snaps, rounding on him. “I let Nilfgaard in through the front bloody doors! Me!

“You didn’t know what you were doing—”

“It doesn’t matter,” Geralt interrupts, low and furious. “My daughter lives here. My men live here. This is the one place on the Continent we were supposed to be safe, and I lost it.

“You got it back,” Jaskier says.

You got it back,” Geralt contends. “Without you…”

“Yes, well, luckily you never have to be without me.” Jaskier comes tentatively around the front of the horse, towards Geralt, who backs away from him with each step until he hits the wall. What if the people back in the great hall could see this, Jaskier thinks wildly—what if they saw the White Wolf retreating from a humble bard, and then thinks viciously that no one is ever allowed to see this but him. Only him. He puts his hands on the sides of Geralt’s face, pressing himself against him like they were pressed together in the hug, close enough that Geralt is forced to either look at him or close his eyes.

Geralt looks at him.

“I may be wrong,” Jaskier says carefully, hoping he’s chosen the right answer, the right words, “but I’m fairly certain there’s not a single person in Kaer Morhen who would want you to abdicate. They might not even let you if you tried.”

Geralt stares at him the way a drowning man grabs a rope.

“Not a single one of them blames you for anything,” Jaskier tells him. “No one could have prevented what happened.” He remembers how Geralt had looked through the cracked door of the infirmary at Filavandrel’s palace, his head bowed by Vesemir’s bedside, saying I failed you. I lost the keep. There had been something almost obscene about it, seeing so much beauty and so much power laid low by guilt, by grief, like a painting trampled in the mud. A statue knocked from its pedestal. “You didn’t fail them, and you didn’t fail Ciri, and you didn’t fail me.”

Geralt takes a deep breath, and his exhalation shakes like a loose plank rattling in the wind. He draws Jaskier in with great handfuls of his cloak and buries his face in his shoulder again, quiet.

Jaskier kisses the top of his head, his hairline, his chilly ear. “It’s all going to be alright now,” he promises. “But I do think that we should go inside, because it is very, very cold.”

Geralt huffs in his arms, a tired sort of laugh, then steps back and scoops Jaskier into his arms.

Jaskier knows he should protest—he’s a grown man, it’s not dignified to be carried about the castle by other grown men—but he’s only been up and walking for a couple of days and his legs really could use the break. So he winds his arms around Geralt’s neck and lets Geralt pull his hood up for him, rumbling at Jaskier’s laugh and pressing a gentle kiss between his eyebrows. Luckily they don’t pass many people on their way through the keep, Geralt striding through back corridors and narrow stairways that he goes up sideways rather than put Jaskier down, even though Jaskier insists that his legs do work, that he can walk and that he is not actually on death’s door any longer.

He’s so busy insisting things that he doesn’t even realize they’re not going back to his room until Geralt pushes through a door into another one. The White Wolf's, Jaskier realizes. Geralt's. It’s not ostentations, or well-appointed—it’s hardly even bigger than the rest of the rooms Jaskier’s seen, with a bed that looks much the same, a fireplace that looks much the same, and a small wobbly table identical to the one Jaskier has in his own room, one leg propped up with a wad of parchment. But there are many odd and wonderful things mounted on the walls, an elven tapestry that shimmers like water and a mirror that seems to look through into another location entirely, a shirt which Jaskier thinks is chainmail at first but realizes upon closer inspection is actually wrought from dragon scales.

Geralt doesn’t give him too much time to look around. He marches across the room and installs him in the bed, stopping only to unclasp his cloak and help him take his boots off before guiding him under the covers. “I wanted you here,” he confesses. “While you were recovering. But I wasn’t sure. I thought it was selfish.”

Jaskier reaches up and tugs on his ear, teasing. “I’ll admit, this isn’t exactly the sort of tucking in I was hoping for…”

Geralt’s eyes darken. His fingers dig into the mattress on either side of Jaskier’s head.

“…but you can have me in your bed whenever you want." It is, potentially, the greatest understatement Jaskier's ever made. "I’ll even live here, if you like. Just bring me my lute. I’ll sing all day and all night. We’ll lead a very musical life, in your bed.”

“Our bed,” Geralt says. “I want it to be our bed. That’s what I want.”

Oh,” Jaskier says, heart stuttering, “you can’t just say things like that—”

“Yes I can,” Geralt murmurs, smiling softly, and kisses him.

Jaskier runs a hand over his head, and sinks his fingers in his hair, and pulls him down bodily between his legs. He means to keep the kiss light and tender, but his hunger makes it difficult. He hasn’t seen Geralt for more than a week, hasn’t touched him in even longer, and he’s starving for every part of him, his voice and his taste and how even just his presence soothes him, makes his heart beat smoother. Geralt, for his part, doesn’t seem too interested in going slow either.

Jaskier’s gone to bed with plenty of people before, even a few he thought he was in love with—losing one’s heart quickly and recklessly is basically a prerequisite for being a bard—but he has never felt his own devotion matched and returned to him, not like this. Geralt can’t seem to decide which part of his body to touch first. His hands rove frenetically, tugging at Jaskier’s laces until his doublet falls open, pushing up beneath his shirt to slide over his bare skin, the slight swell of his belly, his carpet of chest hair, thumbs brushing his nipples as he settles his hands over the sides of Jaskier’s chest, rumbling happily into his mouth. Something molten unfurls in Jaskier’s gut, searing the breath out of his lungs, and he relinquishes Geralt’s lips to bite playfully at his cheek, trying for a smile. He gets one, Geralt’s mouth curving under his fingers, and he laughs in return—at least until Geralt’s thigh grinds up between his legs, turning his laugh into a startled moan.

“I want you to come like this,” Geralt murmurs, kissing wetly over Jaskier’s open mouth. “I want to watch.”

Dear gods,” Jaskier says, too delighted to say anything intelligent. “You can watch whatever you like, darling, I’m—mmmmmmm—” he breaks off into a wordless, pleased sound as Geralt moves his thigh again, his hips pressing down in concert so that Jaskier can feel the hard, hot line of his cock against his stomach. He nearly swallows his own tongue, it feels so good. “Geralt,” he begs, tugging at Geralt’s hair, slightly panicked with how good it feels, “Geralt, I'm not going to last long if you keep—”

Jaskier,” Geralt interrupts, breathing hard. He curves over him, putting his body between Jaskier and the room, and moves in a way that tells Jaskier he’d like to be fucking him through the mattress if only they didn’t both still have their trousers on, gathering him close into his arms as stars explode behind his eyes. “I want you to come on my thigh.”

As my king commands, Jaskier tries to joke, but he can’t because he’s too busy having an earth-shattering orgasm.

It feels like he comes for ages, his whole self unraveling over and over in Geralt’s hands. By the time he comes back to their bed, back to his tingling body, he finds Geralt watching him with unrestrained lust, darkening his entire countenance.

“Come here,” Jaskier says, and pulls him down into a kiss. His lips feel swollen, clumsy, like trying to think first thing in the morning, but Geralt doesn’t seem to mind—Jaskier can feel him practically vibrating overtop of him, with how turned on he is. How tightly-wound, how cranked, liable to go off at the slightest touch of a hand.

So Jaskier reaches down to touch him, grinding the palm of his hand against the front of his trousers. Geralt shudders and drops his head on Jaskier’s shoulder, weight slumping down onto him, just barely holding himself up on his elbows. “There you are, love,” Jaskier murmurs, kissing his head, his free hand rubbing over the span of his back. “There you are,” loosening Geralt’s laces blindly between their bodies, just enough that he can slip his hand in and grasp him, skin on skin. It’s certainly not the most skillful hand job Jaskier’s ever given, since he’s shaking almost as much as his subject is, thrilled by the knowledge that this is Geralt in his hand, Geralt twitching and gasping beside his ear, Geralt whose hips are moving of their own accord, fucking into Jaskier’s fist, still trapped by the thick leather of his trousers.

“Fuck,” he breathes when he comes, and Jaskier wraps him up with his legs and his arms and holds him as he rides through wave after wave, air hitching in his throat, struggling to surface through the weight of pleasure.

Eventually he does, lifting his head from Jaskier’s shoulder to drop a kiss on his chin, his eyebrow, his messy fringe—nonsense places, mindlessly affectionate. Jaskier pets his hair, fond, and muses, “Next time, the trousers come all the way off. I’ve heard it’s better that way.”

“Hm,” Geralt says, smiling, and finds his mouth.

***

Ciri wakes them the next morning by coming through the door, shrieking, and running out of the room like it’s on fire.

“Well,” Jaskier says, peeking out from the cocoon he’s made of Geralt’s covers, “that can’t be a good sign.”

Geralt rumbles next to him and drags him back with an arm around his waist. “She’ll get used to it,” he says.

Jaskier’s not so certain, but Geralt turns out to be right. By breakfast Ciri’s decided that it’s wonderful her father’s taken up with a bard, since it means she’ll be able to have a song every night, and she spends most of the meal jittering with so much excited energy Jaskier’s worried she’s going to try to stand up on her chair. At one point she does, but Vesemir gives her an unamused look and drags her back down by the skirt, like she’s a misbehaving puppy. In a way, Jaskier supposes she is.

After breakfast she accompanies them out into the courtyard, which in the night has been dusted with a light layer of snow. Yennefer’s already there, getting ready to open a portal for the first witcher envoy to venture out into the world in six hundred years—her preparations seem mostly to involve glowering at everyone and grousing about the weather, but her face softens a bit when Ciri runs over to join her. The witchers who've been assigned to the mission have already saddled their horses, prepared their saddle bags, and they’re surrounded by well-wishers, shaking hands, exchanging goodbyes. Renfri peels away from the group and walks over to Jaskier as he approaches, tugging him away from Geralt to crush him in a hug.

“Remember what I said about needing a bard,” she mutters, close to his ear. “If being queen doesn’t work out…”

“Shut up,” Jaskier grumbles. “I hate you.”

Renfri pulls back to give him a small, knowing smile. “You love me, fucklehead.”

Jaskier softens. “Of course I do,” he admits. “Promise you’ll come back and visit.”

“Only if there’s another war,” Renfri teases, but she’s grinning in that way that means she’s full of shit—Jaskier expects she’ll be back before the next harvest.

"Oi!" She shifts her attention to Geralt, marching over to poke him in the chest. “You remember what I said about stringing you up by your spleen. I know you’ve got an army of witchers now, but if you hurt him I’ll sneak up on you in your sleep. Don’t think I won’t.”

“I know you will,” Geralt assures her, amused.

Still squinting at him suspiciously, Renfri goes back to rejoin her new band—stopping on the way to yank Jaskier into one last hug and scrub her knuckles over his skull. When she lets him go, Jaskier drifts until he’s standing beside Geralt, shoulder to shoulder, watching as Yennefer shakes her sleeves away from her hands and calls open the portal.

There’s a green field beyond, a path curving away towards a glittering river. Jaskier feels a brief tug, the call of adventure, the open road, but then Geralt takes his hand, and the urge dissipates.

“Last chance,” Geralt says softly. “I wouldn’t blame you.” He pauses, and Jaskier looks over at him just in time to see him look away, uncomfortable. “It's not going to be easy. Being with the White Wolf, I mean. It’s going to be a storm of shit, and all you get for the trouble is me.”

Jaskier puts a hand on his cheek and turns his face back to him, so he can look in his eyes. Geralt looks like he wants to run for the hills, but that’s too bad, because Jaskier’s not going to let him. “You’re enough,” he says. He’s said it before, and he’ll say it as many times as he has to. “You’re everything. You could never touch me again for the rest of our lives, and it would be enough just to be around you.”

Geralt leans their foreheads together. “I want to touch you,” he murmurs.

“Well, good,” Jaskier says. “Maybe not here, though. We’ve got a bit of an audience.”

“Hm,” Geralt agrees, and steps away from him. His eyes linger for another moment, though, even as he walks towards his men, Eskel and Vesemir and Lambert and Aiden all gathered to see the mission off. The envoys, already mounted on their horses, pound fists against their chests as Geralt walks among them, murmuring White Wolf in fealty, and Geralt gives an acknowledging nod to each of them in turn. When he steps aside, giving his leave, they ride out through the portal, Renfri going after them with one last look back at Jaskier and a jaunty salute, her curls bouncing in an auburn cloud around her head.

Yennefer lets the portal close behind them, and for a moment Jaskier feels like a windswept plain, completely bereft, lost at sea.

Then Geralt turns and finds him again, his gaze like a hand resting on Jaskier's shoulder. And everything is alright.