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Once & Future

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As a bard, Jaskier believes it’s important to fall a little bit in love with everyone he meets. Human, non-human, animate, inanimate; within every countenance, be it beautiful or monstrous, porcelain or pockmarked, there is something worthy of song. Which is why, by the time he and Renfri are leaving Ard Carraigh by the west road, he is genuinely—really genuinely, no matter how loud Renfri laughs or how much sod she throws at his head when he proclaims as much—in love with the statue of the Unknown King.

“You know,” Renfri teases, when she’s gotten a hold of herself and wiped her muddy hand on her trousers, “the townsfolk say that if you kiss the King at the exact right time of day, on the exact right day of the year, he’ll wake up.”

“Is that so?” Jaskier stops, hands fixed gallantly on his hips, to examine the statue more comprehensively. “Well, I suppose it wouldn’t be a hardship to try. He is quite fetching.”

Renfri sighs. “Get it over with, then. We haven’t got all day.” She props herself against a convenient tree, arms crossed, and settles in to wait.

Jaskier pops down off the cart path, fjording through the untamed grasses to the base of the King’s pedestal. Most people, he knows, would not see fit to lock lips with a statue unless they were either drunk or twelve years old and being cajoled by a gang of unruly friends, but Jaskier is a bard and thus has romance in his heart, so if there’s a chance that he could plant one on a statue and have it turn into an ancient, cursed king, he can’t just walk on by. He takes hold of the hilt of the King’s sword—literally, unfortunately, since the statue is clothed—and heaves himself up onto the pedestal. The King is life-sized, sitting on a modest throne with a four-foot broadsword braced between his legs, head bowed between his shoulders, which makes the prospect of kissing him a bit of a puzzle.

Renfri snorts, watching him try to maneuver himself up into the V of the King’s arms, and calls out, “What are you trying to do, suck his cock?”

“Shut up,” Jaskier gripes, wriggling under the King’s thigh. He’s not quite lithe enough for any of this to be comfortable, or dignified. Not that it’s particularly dignified as a proposition, but, well—“It’s not as if they made him easy to kiss. You’d think if they wanted him woken they’d have made his mouth more accessible.”

“It’s just stories, Jask, stories aren’t meant to be functional.”

“I beg very much to differ,” Jaskier returns, then breaks off into a happy little a-ha noise, because he’s managed to get himself wedged between the King’s stone thighs.

Space is tight. He’s wedged with his head at an unpleasant angle, one leg stuck out over the edge of the pedestal, sitting on his other foot. His face is right up against the King’s, rough stone pressed to his forehead, and for a moment in the shadow of the statue Jaskier forgets where he is. He forgets that he’s in the forest west of Ard Carraigh, that the skies are grey and low like a portent of snow, that it’s cold in a way that bodes ill for the prompt start of spring, that Renfri is rolling her eyes at him not ten meters away—all that exists is him and this man, this stone king who he has fallen in love with bit by bit over the years, meandering past in the sweltery, flowering heat of summer, trudging past in the driving rain, mud spattered up to his waist and his trousers a lost cause, tagging after bands of mercenaries and plodding on alone and walking side-by-side with one of the last solo acts on the Continent, these last few years. Feeling a bit silly even as he does it, Jaskier brushes his hand over the King’s face, thumb carressing the cold, sandpaper line of his cheek. The dour countenance, like a man on the brink of some great loss, brooding beneath a great weight; the long hair tied back in a simple half-braid, each strand lovingly and vividly rendered; the plain diadem nestled on tortured brow; the sloped, weathered line of his great shoulders. Jaskier knows whoever rendered him must have loved him as dearly as Jaskier does—more dearly even—so he ignores Renfri shouting bored innuendos, telling him to Get it over with already!, and takes the time to do this properly, for whoever this statue was inspired by and whoever loved him.

He tilts his head, neck crunching at the strange angle, and kisses the King’s stone frown.

What he’s expecting is to taste some mildewy rock and then have to shimmy gracelessly back into the grass, Renfri laughing at him all the way.

What he’s not expecting is to feel stone turn to flesh beneath his lips.

The statue—who is now not so much a statue as a man—gasps into Jaskier’s mouth.

“Melitele’s TITS!” he hears Renfri exclaim distantly, but most of his attention is on the King, because the broadsword has gone clattering from the pedestal into the tall grass and the King’s arms are around him, strong and entreating, drawing him up onto his knees. Jaskier goes with a muffled sound that might be surprise or might be encouragement, plastering himself to the King’s front, head tilted back to let him lick into his mouth, and quite hysterically realizes that he’s currently receiving the best goddamn kiss of his life from a man who was a hunk of rock not a moment ago.

A clump of wet sod hits him in the side of the face. He swats absently in Renfri’s direction, a fuck off motion, his other hand sunk in the King’s brilliant hair—brilliant silver hair, a bit damp and wavy at the ends—content to let himself be devoured for as long as he can get away with it, potentially forever.

Before he can get to ‘forever’ Renfri declares, “Oh, for FUCK’S sake!” and hauls him away by the back of his doublet.

He lands flat on his backside in the dead grass. Renfri plants herself between him and the pedestal, breathing hard, one hand on the pommel of her sword.

The Unknown King blinks his odd golden eyes. His hands hang in the air where Jaskier just was, like he’s not sure what to do with them now that he hasn’t got anyone to hold.

For a moment, it’s silent. Or at least the closest to silent it ever gets in the forest. Wind rustles bare branches. Undergrowth crunches beneath the passage of some tiny animal. Frost hangs in the air around Renfri’s face.

The King is bleeding, Jaskier realizes, from a cut on his face. And one on his arm. His eyes look half-wild, terrified, confused, like a man abruptly woken from a nightmare.

“What,” he starts to say, then stops to swallow, wet his dry throat. “What year is it?”

***

As it soon becomes clear that the King can neither stand nor muster himself enough to pick up the broadsword, Renfri deems it safe to ignore his questions and drag Jaskier aside to scold him and blame him savagely for things outside of his control. “You told me to!” he tries to claim, in between scathing accusations of idiocy, and, “How was I supposed to know that this was the exact right time of day on the exact right day of the year?” but Renfri has been in a sour mood since the inn turned them out without breakfast this morning and she’s not about to turn charitable on him now, god forbid.

“We are not taking him with us,” she hisses.

“Well we can’t bloody well leave him by the side of the road!” Jaskier protests, at a volume that makes her stomp on his foot. “Ow, fuck you, we’re the ones who woke him up, it’d be rude to just—leave him flopping about in the grass.”

Renfri eyes said flopping distastefully. “Someone else will come along,” she says.

“Yes,” Jaskier allows, “certainly, someone else will come along. But how do we know they’ll be as lovely and compassionate as we are? They could be robbers—”

“What are they going to rob him of? He was a statue three minutes ago.”

“—or slavers, or bloody cannibals or something.”

“There are no cannibals in Ard Carraigh, Jaskier. Fuck’s sake, listen to yourself.” She grabs his shoulders as if to shake him— but doesn’t shake him, just digs her nails in sharply, eyes wide. “The statue man will be fine. You’re not responsible for him, and more importantly, I’m not responsible for him, and I’m not dragging him all the way to Rinde.”

“Perhaps not all the way to Rinde, no, but—”

Jaskier.”

Jaskier casts a despondent, pitying look at the Unknown King, who is at this moment swearing profusely as he attempts to lever himself to standing with the empty pedestal. It seems that on top of waking up exceptionally confused, he has woken up without command of his body, which Jaskier supposes is to be expected, given that he has spent either the last five hundred or one thousand years—depending on which bard you ask—encased in stone in the middle of a northern forest. He’s as helpless as a newborn kitten.

And he’s not going to be able to keep up with them, even if he does manage to walk. “We’re going to need a horse,” Jaskier tells Renfri.

She glares daggers. “I’m not buying a horse.”

“’Course not,” Jaskier agrees. “I’ve heard you can rent horses, these days.”

Renfri’s not amused. “Let me be very clear. I am not spending any coin to keep your sexy statue man alive.”

Jaskier doesn’t argue about the King being his sexy statue man, because having woken him he does feel a certain level of ownership—and responsibility, no matter what Renfri says. Anyways, if she’s moved on to who’s going to pay for the horse, that means she’s accepted it as a foregone conclusion that there’s going to be a horse, and that means they’re going to take the King with him.

“I’ll pay for the horse,” he says, pulling out his coinpurse. “You wait with my sexy statue man, and I’ll go—”

I’ll go.” Renfri yanks the purse out of his hands. “You wait with the golem.”

“Not a golem!” Jaskier pipes, offended.

Renfri stomps back down the path towards Ard Carraigh without looking back.

“Right then,” Jaskier says, turning back to the King. “What shall we do to pass the time?”

It’s one thing to jest, but Jaskier’s not about to take advantage of someone who’s not in possession of all their faculties, so unfortunately he doesn’t get to climb into the King’s lap and spend the next hour sucking on his tongue. Instead he helps the man prop himself up against the pedestal and sits next to him in the grass, so he can loll sideways against his shoulder. He’s heavy, even heavier than he looks—and he looks pretty heavy—but Jaskier’s years on the road have accustomed him to both daunting physical tasks and uncomfortable sitting positions, so he makes do. In the absence of conversation—the King hasn’t said a word since his initial question—Jaskier pulls his lute out of its case and starts to strum, humming to himself, looking aimlessly for a melody to go with his latest scrap of lyric. It’s a quick, jaunty ditty about Renfri’s last arena fight, which wasn’t so much an arena fight as a glorified brawl with a pack of barghests. He’s going to have to dress it up a little to make it work as a story—turn the mud on Renfri’s face into smears of warpaint, the crowd of drunk pissants into a troupe of desperately endangered schoolgirls—but that is, after all, what he does best. He’s trying in vain to rhyme something with ‘barghest’—largest, largesse, best, protest? No, definitely not protest—muttering to himself and plucking the same note on his lute, when the King mutters, “Barghests?”

“Ah!” Jaskier’s thumb twangs off the strings. “He speaks! Well, he speaks again, I suppose.”

“Hm,” says the King. His eyes are a bit clearer now, brow pinched as he surveils the empty path in front of them. “Never did tell me what year it was.”

“1637,” Jaskier reports. “What year is it for you? I mean, what year did you…become afflicted?”

The pinch between the King’s brows becomes more pronounced, as if to criticize Jaskier’s word choice. “1088,” he says.

Jaskier whistles. “That’s rather a long time to be a statue, isn’t it? I mean, I can’t say I’m privy to the numbers, but I’d assume the average is, well—less.”

“Hm,” the King agrees.

“Man of few words, are you?” Jaskier intuits.

The King sighs through his nose.

“What do I call you, man of few words?” Jaskier goes back to strumming, giving the King some space. He seems like the sort of person who needs space to talk.

“Geralt,” the man says at last.

“Geralt,” Jaskier says, as careful with the name as he was with the awakening kiss. “Well, Geralt, it’s very nice to meet you. I am the humble bard Jaskier, at your service.”

He sketches a mock-bow, and when he straightens, Geralt is watching him. If Jaskier’s not mistaken, that’s amusement sparkling behind his eyes.

Before he can have the pleasure of hearing what his name sounds like in Geralt’s mouth, the sound of approaching hooves draws both their eyes. Renfri comes crashing back through the forest on a modest chestnut mare, auburn curls upset in a cloud around her face, looking murderous.

She doesn’t say anything when she reaches them, just dismounts the horse with the easy grace of a person getting up from a chair and stands holding the reins until Jaskier gets the idea and rolls to his feet. “Up we go, Your Majesty.” He clasps Geralt’s forearm and hauls him up as well, then helps him hobble over to the horse, stopping to pick up his broadsword on the way. “You haven’t got a scabbard for this, have you?” Jaskier asks, struggling just to lift the damn thing and despairing utterly at the prospect of carrying it, but Renfri sighs theatrically and takes it from him before Geralt can give the obvious answer, which is of course No. He’s dressed in trousers and a simple black shirt—now that Jaskier thinks about it, he probably should have gotten Renfri to pick up an extra cloak as well, but they’ll just have to rustle something up at the next town.

“Renfri,” Jaskier says, as they set out on their moseying way down the path, “this is Geralt. Geralt, Renfri.”

“Don’t care,” Renfri says, marching doggedly ahead.

“Hm,” Geralt comments.

“Marvelous.” Jaskier slings his lute case around his back, adjusting the strap. “I can tell this is going to be an amicable journey. Much exchange of ideas. A meeting of the minds, as it were.”

“Jaskier?” Renfri calls back.

Jaskier perks up, though he knows what’s coming. “Yes, dear?”

Shut up.”

***

Jaskier’s noble schooling, comprehensive as it was in the areas of etiquette and inanery, did not cover what to do in the event that he found himself playing host to a recently-unenchanted six-hundred-year-old king. He attempts small talk for the first dozen miles or so, but Geralt is even less cooperative than Renfri in that department—which is really saying something, since Jaskier’s bonny traveling companion once went eleven days without speaking to him, breaking her silence only to scream FUCK! when they were ambushed. Geralt has considerably fewer questions than Jaskier might expect out of a man in his position—which is to say, he has no questions at all, or at least none that he voices aloud.

Geralt’s too absorbed with scanning the landscape around them to pay much attention to what Jaskier’s saying—or at least that’s how it seems to Jaskier, as he regales him with tales of Renfri’s heroic exploits, bawdy court gossip and the doomed travails of the Tretogor Four, the band Jaskier toured with back in his wayward teenage years. Renfri, stomping along in front of them, interjects occasionally to offer her thoughts on What blasted idiots those mercs were—or to tell Jaskier that he’s being innacurate in his representation of Just how fucking bad a kikimore’s breath smells. Geralt, surprisingly, snorts quietly at that, like he knows what she’s talking about. Maybe he does. Jaskier’s heard monsters used to run rampant through the countryside, way back when—maybe Geralt’s met his fair share of kikimores.

“So, what were you the king of, then?” Renfri asks brusquely, the first night.

Geralt is sitting on a log, poking at the fire while Jaskier wrestles his and Renfri’s bedrolls out of their pack. Renfri raises her eyebrows expectantly while she tears into some slimy cooked squirrel. Jaskier expects Geralt to just not answer, like he’s been doing all day, but instead he grumbles, “Few things.”

“A few things,” Renfri echoes. “Like what? A pond? A pebble? A sack of spuds?”

Geralt, unbothered by the jab, says nothing.

Jaskier’s always thought there’s something romantic about sleeping under the stars, the vast unlit sprawl of the landscape dark and slumbering around him, with nothing more than a bedroll and his lute case shoved under his head. He’s self-aware enough to know he’s only making the best of a less-than-ideal situation—if he had a tent he’s sure he would love it dearly, but they’re an extravagance he can scarcely afford and isn’t interested in carrying, since his and Renfri’s packs are heavy enough as they are.

No matter. He doesn’t mind sleeping in the open—not with a vicious, bloodthirsty harpy snoozing next to him. And he minds it even less tonight, once he manages to bully Geralt into sharing his bedroll.

“You’ll freeze if you don’t,” he points out reasonably. “It may be almost spring, but we’re still fairly far north, the frost hasn’t yet thawed—body heat goes a long way.”

Renfri’s lying rolled up in her cloak with her back to him, shoulders shaking, clearly laughing at him. Geralt just stares at him across the smoldering embers. Those inscrutable golden eyes.

“I won’t grope you again,” Jaskier promises. “Guaranteed, zero molestation.” He pats the thin strip of empty bedroll. “Come on, Your Highness. Nice and cozy.”

Geralt sighs through his nose and heaves himself up off the log.

It’s not the most comfortable night of sleep Jaskier’s ever had, that’s for certain. Geralt’s not exactly a cuddler; he sleeps flat on his back with his arms crossed over his chest, frowning, which basically just makes for two grown men lying side-by-side on a bedroll meant for one. Jaskier’s not sure what he expected, but it certainly wasn’t Geralt’s elbow poking him in the back clear until dawn. He wakes up with his mouth planted in Geralt’s implacable shoulder. Geralt’s still lying stiff as a board, his body rigid, but his face is turned toward Jaskier.

“Really, genuinely,” Renfri says, standing over them and looking disappointed, “I want to vomit.”

“Be a dear and do it over in those bushes, will you,” Jaskier mutters, flinging his hand.

Renfri doesn’t budge. “You are a terror. You are a constant horror. I don’t know why I put up with you.”

Jaskier sighs and shoves himself up to sitting, waking Geralt—with an alarmed jolt—in the process. “Because I write beautiful songs about you, darling.”

“Debatable.”

Jaskier elects not to be offended. “And, because you love me.”

Renfri’s glare softens, just a bit. “Do not,” she lies, and kicks him. “Get up, we’ve got ground to cover.”

The further south they get, the more people they start to see on the road—merchants impatient at the late thaw hauling wares to the markets of the north, rich families bundled in plush carriages returning from winter homes, itinerant farmers trudging hundreds of miles in search of work. Geralt trades his diadem for a scabbard and a fur-lined cloak; it’s burnished bronze, doesn’t fetch much, but on the other hand he doesn’t seem all that upset to part with it.

Jaskier’s continuing attempts to pump him for information bear little fruit. His Majesty the King of a Few Things is able to walk now, the horse—who Jaskier has affectionately dubbed Biscuit, for her love of Biscuits—piled with their packs instead, so Jaskier lengthens his stride to keep up and quizzes Geralt on the 11th century. He mostly gets grunts and silence, but he occasionally gets a one- or two-word reply, like when they pass through a small river town north of the Sherrawedd and Geralt stops at the top of the hill, staring down at it.

“What’s different?” Jaskier asks.

Geralt shakes himself. “More colors,” he says, and leads Biscuit after Renfri.

More colors, Jaskier thinks, somehow astonished, standing there on the hillside for a long minute after Geralt leaves. He turns the thought around and around inside his head like a marble, imagining what this village must have looked like six hundred years ago, thatched roofs like yaks huddled at the edge of the water, mud brick houses, the entire place no more than a brown smudge on the shimmering oxbow curve of the great river. Geralt would’ve arrived with a royal entourage, he thinks, but not in a carriage—he might not know much about the man but he knows that he’s not the sort to ride in a carriage, king or no. On horseback, then, flanked by mean-faced men with broadswords slung across their backs, knives strapped to their thighs, heads bowed as they slumped into town unannounced—because Jaskier can hardly see Geralt as the type of king to send a herald in front of him, either.

His distinctive appearance would’ve announced him eventually, though, supposing silver hair was not in style in 1088. And it seems he’s worried about the same thing, more than half a millennium later, since by the time Jaskier catches up to him and Renfri he’s got his hood pulled up, face in shadow.

Renfri’s searching the community bulletin with a dark look on her face; when Jaskier pops up next to her she gives him an aggrieved look. “No open contracts.”

“I thought we had enough coin to get to Rinde?”

“That was before we bought your sexy statue man a damned horse,” Renfri says. She turns her back to the board, surveying the town, the sparsely-populated square. “There’s bound to be a fight around here somewhere. I’ll just go find it, shall I?”

Find it she does, in the form of a garkain chained to a post.

Geralt arrives sans horse while she’s negotiating a fee with the local booker, looming over Jaskier’s shoulder to ask, “What’s going on?”

“Renfri’s going to dance for our dinner.”

Geralt doesn’t reply, and while that in itself isn’t unusual the quality of his silence is, so Jaskier looks back at him. There’s a crease between his eyebrows, worried and confused, as he watches the booker shake Renfri’s hand and wave for a fighting space to be cleared. Criers—boys of ten or eleven, screaming at the top of their lungs—go running to the four corners of the town, announcing the spectacle.

“I don’t understand,” Geralt admits.

“Which bit?” Jaskier asks.

Geralt just shakes his head, bewildered.

“Right.” Jaskier turns back to watch the square fill up with people, each of them shelling out a copper to get past the booker’s men. “So, the booker charges to get in, and then Renfri takes thirty percent—”

“She’s going to fight a garkain for sport?” Geralt interrupts. He sounds incredulous.

“Yes,” Jaskier says. “I mean, it’s a bit of an oversimplification—I prefer to think of it almost as an art, but essentially—yes.”

“Hm,” Geralt says. It’s not a happy hm.

The booker directs his men to put up ready-made fences around the center of the square. Renfri remains inside with the garkain, sharpening her sword and watching it with piercing, attentive eyes. It’s a sickly thing, half-dead already, clearly been chained up for a while, but it’s still got paralytic claws and the sort of slavering, white eyes that regularly feature in grown men’s nightmares. Renfri might be reckless, bull-headed and mostly mad at the best of times, but she’s not stupid—she’ll go about this in the quickest, most practical way possible.

“Gather round, gather round!” The booker raises his voice, calling the audience to attention. “I’m pleased to announce we have a minor celebrity in our midst! A solo act from Creyden, who you may know as Shrike!”

There are a few cheers—not many recognize Renfri’s stage name, this far north, but a few do. “Now now, simmer down,” the booker says, theatrically, like there’s been more applause than there actually has. “It’s not often we get good entertainment in this town, so let’s not waste time. Without further ado, I give you—SHRIKE, VERSUS THE GARKAIN!”

Safely outside the fence, he yanks on a chain, freeing the beast.

The crowd ripples subtly away from the fences as the lesser vampire sways forward, almost drunken, dropping down to all fours. Renfri circles it, crouched low, waiting for it to strike. Jaskier knows she prefers never to attack first—at least, not unless the monster draws it out long enough that the audience gets agitated.

At last, the garkain lunges.

The crowd exclaims in surprise, then turns to egging Renfri on—chanting Shrike, Shrike, Shrike as she sidesteps the creature’s claws, one crazed woman shrieking KILL IT! as Renfri drops to one knee and slices one of the thing’s legs. Ichor splashes on the frozen mud, painting the side of Renfri’s face, but she doesn’t flinch.

She steps back to her feet, turns around the garkain’s back, and drives her sword through the crown of its head. It crumples to the ground at her feet, ichor and guts and shit spilling out of it, absolutely disgusting.

The audience goes wild.

When Jaskier sneaks a look at Geralt, he looks like he’s swallowed something bitter, mouth twisted, eyes hard.

“People used to be afraid of monsters,” he says, later that night. They’ve made camp a dozen or so miles down the road from town—Jaskier tried to lobby for an inn and a real bed, but Renfri hadn’t wanted to spare the coin and Geralt doesn’t seem to have any qualms about sleeping side-by-side with Jaskier on a too-small bedroll, crammed bicep to bicep, like they are now.

Jaskier’s confidence in the muscularity of his biceps has been badly shaken by the arrangement, but he supposes even he can’t help admitting, in the privacy of his own head, that it’s sort of nice. The warmth of another body, the soft windlike sound of Geralt’s breath, the occasional late-night question, murmured like a confession in the dark.

They haven’t discussed how long Geralt will stay with them. If he has somewhere else to be he hasn’t said, and Jaskier can’t imagine where he’d have to go—everyone he knew being long dead, his kingdom no doubt long since dissolved. It’s sad in a way that threatens to swallow Jaskier whole if he looks at it directly, so he doesn’t, not the least because he doesn’t want to think about Geralt leaving, either.

“As I understand it,” he replies, low enough not to wake Renfri, “the population of monsters used to be nearly equal to men. Nowadays it’s more like…a hundred to one, in favor of humanity. Most of the monsters where driven back into the forests and the mountains, when Nilfgaard took over.”

“Nilfgaard,” Geralt echoes.

“Indeed.” Jaskier burrows around a bit, looking for a comfortable bit of ground. He doesn’t find it, but he ends up pressed closer to Geralt, which is a fair enough trade. “The Emperor offered a bounty for every monster head—normally he wouldn’t have gotten many takers, but it was a famine year, his armies had razed half the Continent—people were desperate. Bands of mercenaries started heading out looking for drowners, wraiths, the odd wyvern…”

“Where were the witchers?” Geralt asks. There’s something odd about his voice, but Jaskier can’t put his finger on it.

“Witchers?” Jaskier casts back through his mental library, to university classes on Ancient History, Pre-Imperial Folklore. “I suppose there weren’t any, by that point. They’d all died out. Disappeared.”

Geralt is silent beside him. He doesn’t speak again for the rest of the night.

***

Every year in the week before Imbaelk, the mercenary bands of the Continent—along with their bards and various hangers-on—gather in a field outside Rinde for what’s known as the War Fair. It’s seven days of drinking, fucking, and fighting, all of which concludes with a bardic festival to rival Oxenfurt’s and a tilting tournament whose champion has their visage chiseled into the Fair Rock (a large rock at the center of the fairground) by a particularly untalented sculptor called Mags.

The War Fair is a place to shake off the winter, to get ready for the year ahead. Every year Jaskier’s gone there’s been at least one death, normally from drunken jumping-off-of-things. Most of the whorehouses in Redania send contingents, vintners from all over Toussaint truck in cartloads of wine, and Jaskier tends to waste most of the week trying to out-drink Valdo Marx and take to bed at least one rebellious princess, of which there are usually several in attendance.

Last year Renfri started a brawl in one of the kitchen tents that turned into a full-scale riot and sent most of the field up in flames, but the princess whose virginity Jaskier had been in the process of stealing was so impressed by the way Renfri caught her when she jumped out of a high argosy window—leaving Jaskier to land in a piss puddle—that she turned around and hired her as her personal bodyguard. Unfortunately it was an arrangement that ended with Renfri getting the princess’ virginity instead of Jaskier, but it kept them both in meat and potatoes for a few months so he wasn’t in any position to argue.

This year, as a consequence of last year, most of the fairground is bare dirt and charred scrub grasses. The tents are all pitched at the far side of the field, where there are still a few hundred square meters of healthy earth, and the ground around the Fair Rock is all knee-deep mud, trampled by hundreds of horses, thousands of boot heels. They’re going to have to find a new location for the tilting tournament if they don’t want any horses to break their legs—Jaskier certainly doesn’t want Renfri getting any ideas about Biscuit.

Which is why he’s the one with Biscuit’s reins as they make their way into the camp. Renfri’s gone ahead to meet up with the lads from Mage Rage and bully them into letting them share their tent, but Geralt tromps beside Jaskier, hood up, amber eyes shining from the shadows.

“So, rules of the War Fair,” Jaskier begins, as they dodge a fight that’s already broken out in one of the brothel pavilions. “One. There are a lot of drunk people here, which means there are a lot of cutpurses, so keep an eye on your valuables, your semi-valuables, et cetera. Two, do not—I repeat, do not visit a brothel that Zoltan and the Blood Hogs have already been to, those fuckers are crawling with every sort of venereal disease there is.”

“Zoltan and the Blood Hogs?” Geralt echoes, skeptical.

“Don’t look at me, love, I didn’t name them. Anyway, back to the rules. Where was I? Ah yes, rule three—”

Geralt grabs him by the back of the doublet and lifts him out of the way just as the fight spills out of the brothel pavilion and into the aisle.

“Watch,” he says.

Jaskier staggers, a bit flustered at the manhandling. “Yes. Thank you.”

“Rule three,” Geralt says.

Jaskier hums inquisitively. “Rule three?”

Geralt’s eyes are amused. He doesn’t say anything else.

“Right!” Jaskier exclaims, when his mind bursts free of the lusty fog. “Right, of course. Rule three. The most important rule of all—what happens at the War Fair, stays at the War Fair.”

“Hm,” Geralt says. “Are there any sorcerers?”

Before Jaskier can answer, there’s a loud Whoop!, and Urien of Cidaris goes shooting overhead on a funnel of air magic. They watch him arc back down towards the sea of tents, cackling gleefully, and crash behind a three-storey argosy.

When the cats have stopped yowling, Geralt says, “I need a tracking spell.”

“You’re going to have to earn your own coin, first,” Jaskier tells him, turning toward Mage Rage’s encampment. “Renfri’s not going to pay for that, and I’m all in on Biscuit.”

Geralt gets that same look he got watching Renfri fight—bitter, distasteful.

“Fine,” he says.

The boys in Mage Rage—five this year, though previously there have been as few as two and as many as nine—have adopted hairstyles that wouldn’t look out of place on exotic Vicovarian birds, and they break out in raucous screeches of brotherhood (Oi, it’s the fucklehead!) when Jaskier pokes his head in the tent.

Geralt amongst Blaviken’s best-known band is a bit like a lion amongst a flock of enthusiastic geese. Jaskier, for his part, delivers the ancient king safely to the corner of the tent where the band has stashed their personal mead barrels, sits him down, and instructs him that he may want to start drinking. Geralt gives him an imploring look as he’s pulled back into the fray, but it’s been a while since he’s seen the lads, and soon enough he finds himself following his own advice, guzzling his first flagon of the day before the sun’s even reached its apex. Renfri reappears with the frontman Anselm while he’s leading the others in a joyous if somewhat janky rendition of Hey, Hey, A Toss In The Hay, bearing armfuls of food—roast chickens on spits, fresh-baked bread and fragrant wheels of cheese, which Jaskier suspects very strongly have not been honestly got.

Far be it from him to complain, though, not when his every need has been so thoughtfully provided for. As they eat he does his best to entertain with tales of his and Renfri’s winter exploits, but Renfri keeps undercutting him by insisting that they spent most of their time snowed under at a rather cozy little inn up in Ard Carraigh, Renfri taking the odd arena fight while Jaskier mostly sang for their money. “Ah, but what glorious odd arena fights they were, though!” Jaskier tries, scrambling to salvage the tale, to which Renfri gripes, “All fights are awful fucking slogfests”—a comment which actually gets a faint smile out of Geralt, of all bloody things. So Jaskier gives up trying to entertain and lets Mage Rage take over, because apparently what they got up to over the winter was slaying a godsdamned dragon.

“No you did not,” Renfri accuses, slamming her flagon down on the table.

“Aye, lass, we did.” Himsbach—the piggish one with the war hammer and all his hair shaved except for thin a stripe on top of his head—looks right pleased with himself. “Carried its head down the mountain, delivered it to the vassal king of Kovir, still spittin’ fire. Made fifty crowns that contract, didn’ we.”

“Bit cheap for a dragon, don’t you think?” Jaskier chimes in.

Anselm shoves him. “Shut it, fucklehead. Fifty crowns’s more than you’ve seen in your sorry life.”

Jaskier exchanges a speaking look with Renfri across the table—she’s the only one in this life who knows that in his first life, fifty crowns was more like a week’s allowance than a life savings.

“I don’t suppose you’ve got proof,” Renfri says, turning away from him. “Spent all the coin by now, I’d imagine, and forgot to take a scale off the damned thing—”

“See, that’s where you’re wrong,” says Tybalt, clearly relishing the reveal. “Gaze upon it and despair…”

“If you pull out your cock,” Renfri warns.

“I would never,” Tybalt says, which is a bald-faced lie, but he does produce a shard of dragon scale from within his jerkin, so that’s something. It gets passed around the table, from Renfri who looks grudgingly impressed to Jaskier who taps it with his thumbnail and makes note of its iridescence, to Geralt—who sniffs it, bites it, and declares, “This scale is about nine hundred years old.”

Himsbach’s jolly smile falters. “Right old geezer, wunnit, mate?”

“No,” Geralt says. “This scale is from a juvenile, actually.”

“You lying fucks!” Renfri explodes, delighted. “You didn’t kill a bloody dragon!”

“Oi, pipe down about it, though,” Anselm hisses urgently. “We’ve got a bet going with the Tretogor Four, you keep quiet and I’ll cut you in.” He glances at Geralt. “Cut you in, too, if you back our story.”

“Hm,” is all Geralt says.

For a man who’s spent the last six hundred years as a glorified lawn ornament, Geralt adjusts remarkably well to the War Fair. Jaskier tells him as much, meaning it as a compliment, but Geralt gets that pinched look on his face and tells him that killing monsters is the one thing he’s always understood. Which seems a bit odd for a king if you ask Jaskier, but no one did.

Geralt disappears while Jaskier’s up on a makeshift stage having a lute battle with Priscilla, a lovely woman who nonetheless has no idea what she’s talking about when it comes to claiming she can play Blue Mountain Rag faster than he can. His fingers fly over the lute strings, so fast they feel like they’re burning, and his heart feels like it’s spiraling up into the black pool of the night sky with the embers from the enormous bonfire, and someone in the crowd shouts, Bang Away My Lulu! and gets a whole chant going, people on the top floors of argosies banging their mugs against the rail and leaning out to join in, so Jaskier and Priscilla segue neatly out of their friendly little competition and begin the requested ribald: “There was a girl named Lulu…” By the time he bounds down off the stage six songs later, riding giddy on the waves of applause, Mage Rage and Renfri are still where he left them but Geralt is nowhere to be found.

He grabs Renfri. “Where’d he go?”

“Hell if I know.” Her lips are wine-stained, cheeks flushed. “He’s not a dog, Jask, he can go where he likes.”

“Dear gods,” Jaskier says.

It’s uncharitable of him, he knows, to assume that just because most of today’s regents couldn’t defend themselves from a frog, let alone a band of drunken and malicious mercenaries, it’s somehow dangerous for Geralt to be wandering the fairground unaccompanied. Probably it isn’t. Probably he’s very good with that broadsword he’s lugging around—literally, unfortunately, though Jaskier’s willing to bet metaphorically as well. Probably the dark, growly thing isn’t just a front, and Geralt really could kill a man with one punch, but Jaskier has come to think of it as his responsibility to guide his slumbering king through the myriad dangers of 17th century life, and now he feels a bit like an Oxenfurt tour guide who’s lost track of his charge.

He checks the nearest kitchen tent, then the second-nearest, and the third. He checks the Passiflora’s pavilion, and the Rosebud’s, and Mama Lantieri’s and Eager Thighs—very nearly gets trapped in Eager Thighs by some rather eager young ladies—then concludes that Geralt must not be tending to his more bodily needs.

On the off-chance Geralt’s decided to take Jaskier’s advice and make himself some coin, Jaskier heads for the arena.

One would think, with all the monster-killing these mercs get up to the rest of the year, they’d look forward to having a week off to relax. Not so. Jaskier supposes it’s a bit like him and his music—it’s their passion, their life’s blood—but also it’s a bit that they’re too greedy to pass up the money-making opportunity. They’re within an hour’s ride of Rinde, which means that the townspeople—who don’t have an arena of their own—are more than willing to make the trek and shell out a few coppers for the privilege of watching the Continent’s best bands face off against the Continent’s nastiest fiends. The place is packed to bursting when Jaskier arrives, opening night, raked seating crammed with at least twice as many people as is probably safe. There’s a troupe of roving carpenters who truck the arena in and out every year for a cut of the gross earnings, which is a good deal for them but doesn’t instill a lot of confidence in terms of their craftsmanship, which is why Jaskier always buys tickets for the standing room around the arena floor. More dangerous, maybe, and more messy for sure, but at least he’s not going to have two thousand people collapse on his head.

The mosh pit isn’t so good for finding people, though, so Jaskier jostles his way back to wall below the first row of seats and then climbs it, looking out over the canopy of heads.

He has to resist the urge to shout A-ha! when he spots Geralt over in the staging pen, talking to the booker. Obviously from this distance he can’t make out any words, but he can see the bar of Geralt’s shoulders and the expression on his face in profile, and he knows this particular booker well enough to know he’s probably trying to short-change Geralt and Geralt’s probably not having it.

Or at least, that’s what Jaskier thinks, until they break away, shaking hands, and without further ado Geralt hops the fence into the ring. Jaskier’s heart gives a little jolt, like a bird caught in a cat’s claws.

“Geralt!” he shouts.

With the noise, it should be impossible for Geralt to hear him. But he does. He turns to Jaskier—waving ridiculously with one hand and clinging to the wall with the other—then turns away, saying nothing.

“LADIES AND GENTLEMEN!” The booker’s voice booms through the arena. He must have had it magically enhanced or something, because it shakes the stands like a clap of thunder. “I am excited to announce that the first act of the year is a debut performance! A new act! Fresh blood!”

The crowd goes wild. Nothing gets Redanians going like the promise of bloodshed—they love to watch a band get eaten alive almost as much as much as they like to see them vanquish their foes.

“This man,” the booker continues, when the noise dies down, “reckless or valiant, foolish or courageous, has agreed to fight not one, not two, but six kikimore warriors at the same time! A fight we shall surely tell our grandchildren about, whether the tale is one of legendary stupidity or legendary bravery…”

A hush has fallen over the arena.

Jaskier’s heart is in his throat. Six kikimores? What the hell is Geralt thinking?

The booker steps up on the fence, getting ready to evacuate. “Ladies and gentlemen,” he says, quieter, with a secretive note. The crowd leans in, hanging on his every word. “I give you…

“THE WHITE WOLF!”

For a split second, Jaskier wonders where in the hell Geralt gets off, coming up with a stage name without his bardic input.

Then the pen gates open, six kikimores come screeching into the arena, and all he thinks is Fuck.

Chapter Text

When Jaskier was fourteen, his father pushed him out a seventh-storey window. He was trying to murder him, no question about it—Jaskier was the eldest son, and in his father’s opinion a bit of a floozy, a romantic flake not at all suited to inherit the Lettenhove title—but luckily he’d been blind drunk at the time and forgot that a fairly deep river ran just beneath Jaskier’s bedroom window.

Jaskier forgot for a moment, as well. Arching through the open air, his body dropping faster than his stomach, he stared up at the night sky and the warm rectangle of lamplight that was his bedroom window, and thought about how unfortunate it was that the last person ever to touch him would be his father, in hatred.

Almost immediately, he smacked the water like hitting a brick wall, and even as he tumbled arse over teakettle through the dark—bones glancing off rocks, the branches of submerged trees raking his skin—the feeling of relief was overwhelming.

He experiences the exact same series of terrors, watching the kikimores race toward Geralt in the arena. The startling drop, the weightless free fall, the spike of grieved longing—that the last time he touched Geralt could have been that rough grab on the back of his doublet, so perfunctory, so utilitarian.

And the wash of relief, so powerful his knees almost buckle, as Geralt springs to motion.

He’s a vision.

Jaskier’s seen a lot of fights in his short time on this earth, a lot of fighters. Most of them have been bad fighters, mediocre fighters, fighters just good enough not to get killed, who made entire careers out of pressing their luck—but he’s also seen good ones, men who made names for themselves in the Imperial border wars and wandered home laden with stories and viscera to retire as monster killers. He was there when Saga, in the first and only appearance on their reunion tour, brought down a chimera and an entire arena in the process. When he was sixteen and still tagging along after the Tretogor Four (the old Tretogor Four, before three of their members died horribly) he saw seven different bands team up to root out what was allegedly the largest drowner nest on record. Hell, he’s been traveling with Renfri for going on five years now—he knows what good fighting looks like.

This isn’t good fighting, though. This is something else.

Geralt moves like he was born with a broadsword in his hand. He cuts the first two kikimores down in what looks like a single motion, as elegant as it is brutal, then turns to dance with the other four, bending back out of the reach of their pincers, dodging sprays of acid spittle.

The crowd roars, splitting the night with the force of their enthusiasm, half chanting White Wolf! and half slavering for Geralt’s blood. Geralt barely seems to hear them, all his attention focused like a beam on the task at hand.

He makes short work of the rest of the kikimores. When he's done, he rips away his shirtsleeve to keep a glob of acid from getting to his skin and marches back to the fence. There’s a moment of hesitation—the audience is used to mercs lording over their kills, putting a foot up on the corpse and basking in it—and then the cheering starts. Geralt doesn't even look up.

Jaskier hops down from the wall and forces his way through the crush of spectators, heading for the staging pen with a mind to yell at Geralt and maybe shake him a little. Sadly, there’s an outward flow of people that sweeps him up along the way and carries him clear out of the arena, so instead he’s got to hang around puttering like an idiot until Geralt comes stomping out of the side door.

“Geralt!” he calls.

Geralt glances at him and keeps walking.

Jaskier hurries after him, miffed but not deterred. “Geralt, what the bloody fuck. Six kikimores? You could’ve been killed! Why the hell weren’t you killed?”

“I’m a witcher,” Geralt tells him.

“You’re a—” Jaskier stops in his tracks, then has to hustle to keep up with Geralt, who once again has not bothered to stop for him. “You’re not a witcher, don’t be ridiculous. Who ever heard of a—”

Witcher king, he's about to say, except that classical Oxenfurt training is kicking in, and he’s remembering sitting in the back row of Pre-Imperial Folklore—the professor’s lips moving and all of Jaskier’s attention focused trying to get Shani to kick him in the leg again, flicking balled-up pieces of paper at her hair, except she’s got too much hair so they’re just sticking in the back and she can’t even feel it, and he’s aiming for a strip of bare skin above her elbow, tongue screwed up between his teeth, and the professor says, Julian, making him miss by a country mile, and Jaskier looks up for just a second and sees the chalkboard, which is even now seared in his mind…

The White Wolf, the King in the North, Lord of Kaedwen and Kovir Both, Regent of Redania and Savior of Aedirn. Jaskier was only at university for a few weeks before all record of the man was purged from the libraries, all mention of his name banned on pain of death. The Emperor of Nilfgaard, Jaskier understood, had finally managed to tame the wild north, bringing all of Kaedwen under his rule for the first time in a millennia, and he didn’t want them getting any ideas about independence again, especially not under the mantle of Nilfgaard’s ancient enemy, the only other true empire on the Continent. Jaskier had barely registered it at the time—it hadn’t seemed all that important or relevant to everyday life, this dusty squabble over six-hundred-year-old wars.

It certainly seems relevant now. Jaskier’s stopped in his tracks again, and this time he doesn’t resume moving right away—he’s too busy trying desperately to remember everything he’s ever heard—whispered in smokey taverns, shouted in jest by drunken northerners, alluded to in ballads dense with metaphor—about the White Wolf.

A witcher—a killer of monsters, feared by men and shunned by society—one day met a monster in the shape of a king. That must be some sort of a lyric, with how well Jaskier remembers it. A witcher one day met a monster in the shape of a king. Despairing that he should be relegated to hunting spiders and ghouls when much worse devils roamed the earth, the witcher returned to his hearth, the mythological fortress of Kaer Morhen, deep within the Blue Mountains. There he spent all the winter in chambers with his brethren, grumbling and arguing, tearing at each other with claws and teeth and words. When the snow melted they descended from the mountain, a unified front. They slunk into the monster-king’s palace like beasts in the night and slit his throat while he slept, and from that one vengeful act of violence, the White Wolf’s empire spread like an inkblot on the map of the Continent.

Some northerners still speak of him as a messiah. The Breaker of Chains, they call him, murmuring the epithet like an oath of allegiance, warmed on dark and stormy nights by a dream of freedom centuries old. Some of them refer to him by a more familiar name, almost affectionate.

“You’re Geralt of Rivia?” Jaskier bursts, snapping back to motion.

Geralt grunts, which seems to be an affirmative. “I need a sorcerer."

“Right,” Jaskier says, jogging to keep up. “How do you feel about a sorceress?”

A quarter of an hour later, they’re sitting in the velvety receiving room where Triss normally lets the putzes cool their heels before taking them for half their life savings. Geralt is giving Jaskier a look that says, quite eloquently despite his silence, This is where you take me? and Jaskier is having a hard time convincing him nonverbally that Triss is indeed a very good sorceress, because she really has gone all out on the kitschy Korathi bead curtains. Luckily she doesn’t leave them waiting for long.

Dandelion,” she says, sweeping a curtain aside with a limp-wristed gesture. “The last time I saw you, I was treating you for—what was it again? The clap?”

It was a touch of mouth herpes, actually, but Jaskier’s not sure that’s much better in terms of his image so he doesn’t bother to correct her. “Yes, well, I haven’t got any diseases this time.”

“Logorrhea,” Triss teases, but her eyes are fond.

“You harpy.” Jaskier stands to hug her, grinning. “How have you been?”

“Oh, you know.” She squeezes him. “Toiling under the yoke of our Nilfgaardian oppressors. You?”

They move to the back room, where Triss tells fortunes and sells virility potions for approximately eleven times what they’re worth. Geralt, clearly struggling with a deep level of skepticism at Jaskier’s good judgement, frowns at several bottles with labels like ‘Guaranteed Immortality’ and ‘Proven To Exorcise Demons’—“Those are all hogwash,” Triss says, when she notices what he’s looking at. “I sell them to people who don’t know any better. Somehow I’m guessing you know better.”

“Well,” Geralt says, lips twitching. “I do now.”

It takes Jaskier a moment to realize it’s a joke, and by that point Triss has already moved on, leading them out of the back room to a second, more secretive back room. Jaskier wonders how big her fucking tent is—if she’s got spells cast on it or something to make it unfold inside like a map tucked in the pages of an atlas—but before he can ask she says, “So, Jaskier, if you haven’t got any diseases, what exactly do you need?”

Jaskier feigns offense. “Maybe I just wanted to see an old friend—”

“I need a tracking spell,” Geralt interrupts.

“Ah.” Triss' smile fades. “I should tell you I don’t abet stalkers. And I won’t help on a bounty unless I get a cut of the reward.”

Geralt reaches in his shirt and draws out a pendant, slipping it over his head to hand to Triss. Jaskier’s spotted the outline of it before, pressed under his clothes, but he’s never seen it. It’s dark silver, wrought in the shape of a wolf’s head, and Geralt handles it like it’s precious.

“There are five more like this,” he says, as Triss lights a candle to get a better look at the engraving. “They’re bound with magic. That should make them easier to trace.”

Should being the operative word.” Triss touches two fingers to the metal. “How old is the magic?”

“Old,” Geralt says. "Six centuries, about."

Triss closes her eyes, then makes a soft sound of surprise, frowning. “Melitele wept, you’re not kidding. I’ve never seen magic this old. But it feels almost…” Her eyes blink open like a baby deer’s. “Is this Yennefer’s work?”

Geralt looks like someone hit him. “You know Yennefer? She’s still alive?”

There’s something in his voice that wrings Jaskier’s heart like a wet towel. He sounds like—well, like a man in love, grabbing onto Yennefer’s name the same way a drowning man grabs a rope. Jaskier has to swallow around a thick lump in his throat. He’s not sure why, it’s not like he has any claim to Geralt, but he feels abruptly like he’s been brushed aside, passed over in favor of someone else. It’s not an unfamiliar feeling but no less unpleasant for it.

“She is,” Triss answers, oblivious to Jaskier’s inner turmoil. “Last I checked, at least. With the life that woman leads I wouldn’t be terribly surprised. But you’re telling me she’s managed to stay alive six hundred years?”

“Eight hundred,” Geralt says. “At least.”

Triss lets slip a manic little laugh. “Gods. Alright.” She looks at Jaskier, incredulous. He just shrugs back, so she shakes her head as if to clear it, curls bouncing, and continues, “Well, I’m sure Jaskier’s told you I don’t work for free—"

Geralt’s already pulling out his new coinpurse.

“Good!” Triss claps. “In that case, then. Let’s get started.”

She spreads a map of the Continent out on the table, gesturing for Jaskier and Geralt to clear away the candles. They do, then return to watch the show, which isn’t much of one, since most of the actual spellcasting is just Triss muttering under her breath, eyes closed, fingers pressed to the pendant.

Eventually there’s a rustle of energy that sweeps under the walls of the tent, like striking a vein of cold water in a warm pond, and the smell of burning stings Jaskier’s nose. Five starbursts appear on the map, marking—Jaskier is willing to bet—the locations of the other five wolf pendants. Triss takes a perfunctory look at the map and pulls five more down from the rack—more detailed versions of the five regions in which the burns have appeared. She spreads all five out on the plank wood floor and casts the spell again, this time with an additional flourish.

In short order they have five maps, adorned with five pinpoint burns.

***

“Care to tell me where we’re going?” Jaskier asks, hotfooting out the tent after Geralt. “Or why we’re going there?”

We’re not going anywhere.” Geralt, Jaskier realizes, is making a beeline toward the stable where they berthed Biscuit, which is really just not on for a number of reasons, not the least of which is that Jaskier paid for that horse. “You’re staying here, to get drunk and fuck. I’m leaving.”

“Leaving to where?” Jaskier demands, deciding not to be offended about the other part.

Geralt stops. Jaskier skids and collides with his back in a most undignified manner, which he feels he can’t be blamed for because of the mud. He’s stopped by a hand on his shoulder before he can face plant into said mud, which he appreciates, but when he looks up he finds Geralt glaring at him—which he doesn’t.

“Look,” Jaskier says, swallowing again around that same lump. It’s just about the middle of the night, but there are still lots of people around, jostling between tents, shouting inside the brothel argosies, posted up on circles of logs for a jolly tune. He doesn’t usually mind doing things in front of an audience—emotional revelations, love confessions, orgasms—but right now he feels oddly exposed. “Look, Geralt, you need me.”

Geralt raises an eyebrow. “I need you.”

“Yes,” Jaskier says, gaining steam. “Maybe you used to know your way around the Continent, but it’s been six hundred years. Things have changed. You could take a wrong turn and go stumbling into a vat of quicksand.”

“Has the Continent got itself a quicksand problem while I was asleep?”

“Well, no,” Jaskier admits. “Not quicksand exactly. But you understand what I’m trying to say.”

Geralt glares at him for another moment, then sighs without moving his mouth. It’s mostly in the eyes and the facial muscles. “Fine,” he bites, and marches away without another word.

Jaskier has to do a lot of whining and wheedling and reminding that he is in fact the lawful owner of Biscuit the horse before Geralt agrees not to set out until morning. He’s not sure what sort of madman starts a quest in the middle of the night, but then again if you’re an ancient resurrected witcher king perhaps the rules don’t really apply.

Once he sees Geralt to sleep in the Mage Rage tent—propped against one of the tent posts, arms crossed over his chest, eyes still open the faintest sliver—he's not about to leave him and give him a chance to escape, so he’s forced to pace the strip of grass just outside the flap while he waits for Renfri to return.

She washes up sometime around dawn, with a pleased look on her face that tells Jaskier immediately she’s spent the whole night drinking Mage Rage under the table. “Fucklehead!” she exclaims, when she sees him. “Thought you’d’ve found yourself a princess by now.”

“Oh but I have, darling,” Jaskier says, catching her as she tries to take a header.

He’d been planning on convincing her tonight that accompanying Geralt on his quest was the right thing to do, but by the time he lugs her inside she’s mostly passed out, so the argument has to wait until morning.  

And oh, what an argument it is.

At least he manages to convince her to have it on horseback.

“I’m a merc, not a bloody squire,” she declares, for the sixth or seventh time. Jaskier’s attempts to impress upon her that she really doesn’t know what a squire is have been in vain. “He killed six kikimores on his own, he doesn’t need our help!”

It’s a good thing the horse Geralt bought her with his arena winnings is a stolid beast, because in between ripping bites out of a dried sausage with her teeth bared, Renfri’s doing a lot of enthusiastic gesturing. “Besides, where are we supposed to be going? What are we supposed to be doing?

Jaskier gives Geralt a pointed look. It doesn’t have any effect, since Geralt’s riding in front and has his back to the both of them, but it communicates pretty effectively that Jaskier doesn’t have all the answers. In fact, he doesn’t even have very many of them.

“Are we even getting paid?” Renfri despairs.

“A thousand crowns,” Geralt says without turning. “For you. Not for Jaskier.”

Hey!” Jaskier exclaims.

“You can’t fight,” Geralt tells him. “She can fight.”

“Where are you going to get a thousand crowns?” Renfri demands, jabbing her sausage in his direction. “A month ago you didn’t have a bloody cloak. A month ago you were a statue!”

“When we’re finished,” Geralt says, “I’ll be a king.”

He kicks his horse to a canter, leaving them behind. Renfri turns to glare at Jaskier. “You’ve thrown our lot in with an insane tosser, you know that?”

“Either he’s an insane tosser,” Jaskier says, “or he’s the White Wolf Geralt of Rivia brought back to life. But a tosser couldn’t kill six kikimores, so I’ll take my chances.”

Renfri continues to grumble through the rest of the day’s journey, through setting up camp and most of the way through falling asleep, but there’s never any talk of her turning back, letting Jaskier continue on his own. For all that she bitches and gripes, Renfri is the one person on earth Jaskier knows would never leave him—she’s certainly had ample opportunity to do so in the past. She was the one to find him in the wake of the Tretogor Four, eighteen and seriously fucked in the head from watching three of his friends get torn limb from limb, struggling to pull his head out of the bottom of a bottle long enough to compose and seriously considering a return to prostitution, because at least then he wouldn’t have to be conscious to earn some coin. Jaskier’d thrown up on her shoes; he’d mostly expected to end up stabbed in an alley, but the profuse and pitiful apologizing he’d done must’ve struck some strange, sympathetic chord in Renfri’s rabid tiger of a heart, because instead of impaling him she’d hired him to announce her at a tournament the next morning. Shit job he’d done of it, too, but it hadn’t ended up mattering—she’d won swiftly, decisively, in a way that inspired Jaskier, even more hungover than he’d ever been and suspecting that a mouse had died in his mouth, to write a song called Good Lady Death, which Renfri hated but which earned them both enough coin in the taverns of Novigrad that night that she couldn’t very well tell him to fuck off when he tagged after her the next morning.

She’s prickly, but she’s Jaskier’s, like the patchwork doll that one of Jaskier’s sisters used to drag through the polished halls of the Lettenhove estate. Warped, malformed, potentially ill-conceived, but beloved nonetheless.

Besides. Jaskier’s never loved easy people.

Speaking of—“The songs you sing,” Geralt says, a few nights after they leave the fair. “The stories in them. They’re not true.”

Jaskier makes a soft sound, rolling over to face him. They’ve procured an extra bed roll, which means unfortunately there’s a stretch of ground between them, grass cool and damp in the darkness. “They’re not meant to be true,” he says. “They’re meant to be stories.”

A line appears between Geralt’s eyebrows, which means he doesn’t understand. “Stories are…” Jaskier frowns, looking for the right phrasing. “They’re more than truth. They’re how truth makes you feel. How living makes you feel.”

“Hm,” Geralt says, and doesn’t say anything else.

Eventually, Geralt has to own up to their destination, spreading out one of the five maps he got from Triss when they come to a reasonably flat rock. The pinpoint burn is in the middle of a lake in northern Redania, most of the way to Montecalvo. He still won’t tell either of them why they’re heading for a lake in the middle of nowhere, but they’ve got five of these things to get through—Jaskier figures he’ll warm up at some point.

They stop for a night in a town outside Gelibol, where Jaskier gets to exercise his Welcome to the 17th Century guide skills by informing Geralt that inns don’t rent out one bed to every five people anymore, so he doesn’t actually have to pay five times the nightly rate to get a room to himself. They still end up with only one room, though, because while Geralt might be the rightful king of half the world he’s also apparently a spendthrift on a budget.

Jaskier plays the taproom until his voice starts to go hoarse, rebuffs the amorous attentions of a dashing young gent and tries not to think too hard about why he does it, then washes up several sheets to the wind in one enormous bed with his decidedly platonic best friend and the man whose mouth he hasn’t stopped thinking about for the last two months, which he’s sure is hilarious for any number of reasons that he’ll be sure to come up with at a later date.

He falls asleep wedged between Geralt and the wall, since Renfri’s stretched out to take up most of the bed, then wakes up while it’s still dark out needing to take a piss. The situation is urgent enough that he doesn’t bother with most of his clothes, leaving his doublet and his overcoat draped over the chair where he left them, just yanks his trousers back on over his braies and sticks his feet in the first boots he finds, which definitely aren’t his and are probably Geralt’s, since they’re too big. This isn’t the finest establishment, so there are no chamber pots and no facilities inside the building; Jaskier goes out into the piss-stinking alley and stumbles into the shadows, still half-asleep, to relieve himself.

While he's peeing, someone slips a noose around his neck.

“Gggrghh!” he manages to say, as all the air’s yanked out of his lungs.

There are a whole bunch of them—mean, hard-looking men armed with alarmingly spiky instruments. The one who’s got Jaskier is managing him easily with one hand, dragging him down the length of the alley with his trousers open, through all sorts of disgusting muck—Jaskier thinks distantly, through the suffocation, that this would be a pathetic way to die. Mid-piss.

“Oi!” one of the men exclaims, in a harsh whisper. “That ain’t the one we’re lookin’ for, dickhead!”

Jaskier wheezes, clawing at the noose. His eyes feel like they’re going to explode out his head.

“Right, but this is one of ’is buddies.” Jaskier’s handler gives him a rough jostle. “Way I figure, maybe he’ll come runnin’.”

He’s the White fucking Wolf,” the first one hisses back, “he ain’t gonna come—”

A sword spears out of his chest, dripping crimson.

It’s pulled out a moment later, and the body crumples.

Geralt’s standing in the shadows behind it, spattered with blood, face like stone in its cold fury, wearing his socks.

“I came running,” he rumbles. “Who wants me?”

Aside from the man strangling Jaskier, there are four left standing—and they all go for Geralt at the same time. He bats them aside like they’re insects, chops one’s head off like he’s chopping carrots, and turns to Jaskier’s handler just as he drops the noose and bolts for the opening of the alley.

Jaskier crashes to the ground, sucking in a desperate breath. His throat is on fire.

There’s a tight, sharp mutter of Shit, and then Geralt crouches next to him, hands on his back, his shoulder. “You’re alright,” he says, while Jaskier clutches his chest and hyperventilates. “You’re alright, Jask.”

Jaskier can do nothing but nod.

The strangler makes the end of the alley.

He stops short a second later, dropping like a sack of potatoes. Renfri steps around the corner, retrieves her knife from the man’s gut, and makes a face while she’s wiping it clean on her trousers. “Serves you right,” she mutters. Her eyes find them, crouched in piss. “Gods, Geralt. Why the fuck are you barefoot?”

Jaskier laughs, then says “Ow,” then laughs some more.

***

Geralt and Renfri are very rarely in agreement about anything. So far, the only thing they’ve reached a consensus on is the fact that Jaskier talks too much, but he’s not doing a lot of talking after his near-strangling, which gives them a window to agree on other things—like the fact that they’re being hunted by Nilfgaard.

Jaskier spends most of the morning making tender, baby bird noises while he rides at the back of the pack, fretting over his singing voice and ignoring Renfri’s assurances that it’s in no way permanent—“I should know, I’ve been strangled before!”—thus, he only catches the overview. Renfri’s guessing—very logically—that for the same reason the Emperor banned all mention of Geralt or his empire, he’s decided to hunt Geralt down and kill him, and that Geralt’s little performance at the War Fair was enough to announce to all interested parties that he’s returned. Geralt just says, “Hm,” but it’s an agreeing, “Hm.”

When they make camp that night, Jaskier has a hell of a time falling asleep. He nearly manages it a couple times, but each time he twitches awake a few minutes later, heart hot and racing in his chest, convinced someone’s trying to sneak up on him. After the third repetition, Geralt gives a blustery sigh and reaches across to yank Jaskier’s bedroll—and Jaskier with it—over into his own space. “You’re safe,” he says, like it’s a chore to have to tell him, like Jaskier should already know, then wraps an arm around his shoulders and holds him tightly, stubborn, until he falls asleep.

Five days after they pass through Gelibol, they reach the lake. Jaskier’s not sure what he was expecting—it looks to be a perfectly normal lake, rusting reed grasses and bathing ducks and all. No one’s built a cottage on it, which he supposes is a bit odd for Redania, but still.

Now will you tell us what we’re doing here?” Jaskier asks.

Instead of answering, Geralt unclips his belt and drops his sword on the ground, followed by his cloak. It’s a cool spring day, the breeze still edged with a hint of winter, air fragrant and damp, and Jaskier shivers in sympathy as Geralt wades out into the shallows of the lake.

“What the bloody fuck are you doing?” Renfri says flatly.

Geralt ignores them, leaving them holding the horses on the lakeshore.

Renfri rolls her eyes, thrusts her horse’s reins into Jaskier’s hands and stomps away to lay down in a patch of sunlight. Jaskier sighs to Biscuit, who he likes to think gives him a sympathetic look in return.

Water sloshes. Geralt’s moved out deeper into the lake, up to his waist. His wet shirt clings to his abdomen, his forearms. Jaskier wants to lick him, but he does his best to wrestle down the urge—he’s learned rather a lot about witcher senses in the last few weeks, and he’s not keen to stand over here smelling like a raging bonfire of lust. It’s embarrassing. Geralt must still be able to smell him a little bit, though, because he casts a look over his shoulder as the water reaches his chest. It’s sort of quelling, like an admonishment—Wait. Patience.

Then he turns back to the lake, and calls out, “Eskel!”

Nothing happens. Jaskier’s about to ask who the hell Eskel is and why Geralt expects him to appear out of a lake, but before he can Geralt takes a deep breath and plunges below the surface.

“Um,” Jaskier says.

Geralt’s gone for a long time. Jaskier doesn’t know anything about witcher lung capacity, but he hopes it’s enhanced at least a bit, or else it appears their statue king has gone and drowned himself.

Not so—all at once, Geralt bursts back into the air, gasping.

He’s not alone. He’s dragging a man with him, a man who looks as limp-limbed and helpless as Geralt did when he first awoke, hacking water from his lungs, clutching Geralt’s shirt. Jaskier leaves the horses to their own devices and crashes into the shallows to meet them as Geralt swims over, and together they heave the man up onto the shore. He’s got the same eyes as Geralt, but a wicked scar bisects the right side of his face—his hands stay fisted in Geralt’s sodden shirt even as they get him lowered to ground, and Geralt holds him in return with a hand on the side of his neck, murmuring, “Easy, Eskel. Easy.”

“Geralt,” Eskel gasps, “the keep, they’re—we’ve lost the keep—”

“It’s alright,” Geralt tells him, gently.

Eskel’s eyes stop roving long enough to land on the canopy overhead, the lake beyond his feet. “What,” he says, sort of helpless. “Where the hell are we? How did we get here?”

“Yen,” Geralt says.

No.” Eskel’s gaze snaps back to him, anguished. “She didn’t—the Domesday Spell?”

Geralt nods gravely.

“Sorry,” Renfri cuts in, clearing her throat where she’s lounging in the sun. “Either of you want to tell us what’s going on?”

Geralt takes a second to think about it, then says, “This is Eskel. My right hand.”

“Oh good,” Renfri says. “Don’t tell me you’ve been asleep for six hundred years as well?”

Eskel boggles. “Six hundred years?

Jaskier glares at Renfri. “Couldn’t have been a bit more delicate, could you?”

Renfri looks at him like he’s being an idiot, which he supposes he is, expecting her to be gentle. But this poor witcher has just been yanked unceremoniously out of a lake and out of a centuries-long slumber at the same time, and Jaskier’s protective instincts have kicked in once again, even though he didn’t wake this one with a kiss.

***

Over the next few hours, Jaskier learns that Eskel is much more forthcoming than Geralt—enough that it forces Jaskier to re-think how long after waking Geralt was really having memory problems, and how long he was just bullshitting. Jaskier gets evicted from Biscuit and sent to ride with Renfri on her horse, which she’s refused to name and also refuses to allow him to name, but he doesn’t really mind, because Eskel’s spilling all the beans and it’s fantastic.

Apparently he and Geralt were enchanted by something called the Domesday Spell, invented by Yennefer of Vengerburg—Geralt’s court mage, trusted advisor and (Jaskier thinks) sometimes-lover—to be used in the event that Kaer Morhen should fall. “Seven of us were portaled out of the keep and put in some sort of…static existence. An endless sleep.” Eskel rides alongside Renfri, keeping pace not with her but with Jaskier, bouncing around backwards-facing on the edge the saddle, a sweet touch which tickles Jaskier pink. He’s got kind eyes and a way of holding his mouth that looks like he’s smiling even when he isn’t, and it’s such a breath of fresh air to have someone willing to talk to him that Jaskier feels a bit giddy with it. “The fortress itself was meant to go into a sleep of its own,” Eskel continues. He’s starting to dry out, and his hair curls adorably behind his ears. “Buried beneath the mountain, fully intact. That way the seven of us who got portaled out could take the time to think something up.”

“I’m guessing you weren’t planning on taking six hundred years,” Jaskier says.

“Not quite that long, no,” Eskel returns. “Yennefer was meant to stay awake. When it was safe she’d find the rest of us and wake us as well.” He looks forward, at Geralt’s back. “I don’t know what happened. I’m guessing the Wolf doesn’t, either.”

His face is suddenly sad. Jaskier wants to reach out and hug him, comfort him—he senses Eskel would welcome his touch, unlike Geralt—but the logistics of doing that while on horseback are sort of prohibitive. So instead he just says, “We’ll figure it out, darling. I know we will.”

Renfri makes a puking noise at the endearment, but Eskel smiles.

***

“So,” he asks, later that night. “I’m guessing I’m the first one you’ve woken. Who’s up next?”

Geralt, mid-bite, passes him one of the rolled-up maps out of his saddle bag. “Lambert.”

“Is he in a lake as well?” Eskel asks. “He’d be happy about that, wouldn’t he.” Geralt gives his friend a look Jaskier can’t quite parse, and Eskel chuckles, warm. “Nah. Kestrel Mountains, is it? Should be nice this time of year.”

The second leg of their quest is much more pleasant than the first, and not just because the weather seems to grow more and more temperate with every mile they wend on their way back towards Kaedwen. Geralt seems somehow more relaxed, to have Eskel with them. They speak an entire language with only their eyes—they’ve lived a life together, a private and difficult life from which Jaskier will always be half a millennium distant, and it shows in the way they are together, the way they can anticipate each other’s thoughts without having to talk, how Geralt sometimes meets Eskel’s gaze across the campfire and something in him just settles. He’s less tetchy, less likely to fix Jaskier with one of those searing glares for the high and treasonous crime of asking how far to the next town, and he actually starts rolling his eyes when Jaskier calls him Your Majesty—mostly, Jaskier thinks, because it makes Eskel guffaw. Renfri and Geralt continue their habit of sparring before dinner, leaving Jaskier and Eskel to do most of the cooking, which suits Jaskier just fine because it gives him space to pump him for more information.

Well, pump might not be the right word, because Eskel offers most of it up willingly. He tells Jaskier about Kaer Morhen as it was before Geralt became the White Wolf—drafty and in bad disrepair but still a family seat, still somewhere for three weary and wayward witchers to drag themselves home to each winter. He tells him how it was after, when the witcher schools came together to turn a borderline ruin into the most formidable keep on the Continent, the great hall warm with candlelight, hot springs steaming in the lower reaches, furs piled on the beds and children’s laughter ringing in the corridors.

“We’d even decorate for Yule,” he says, while they’re roasting pheasants one evening. He’s still getting used to the past tense, keeps stumbling over it. “Never used to, before—witchers aren’t much for holidays, as you can imagine, but with all the human servants, with the cub…” The crow’s feet around his eyes are sad, his gaze distant, remembering. “It was Yule when the keep fell, you know. That’s why me and Geralt are in shirtsleeves. Caught us unawares, those bastards.”

“You didn’t expect them to attack on a holiday?” Jaskier asks, surprised. He'd thought that was a fairly common tactic.

“Aye,” Eskel says, sadly. “We expected it. Didn’t expect them to attack from inside our own bloody fortress, though.”

What?” Jaskier nearly burns himself on the spit. “How did they get in?”

Eskel shrugs. “Don’t know. For me it happened five days ago. Hopefully Yennefer can tell us more.”

The two witchers take to sleeping on the flanks—or at least they try to, until Renfri notices what they’re doing and moves her bedroll far enough away as to make sleeping in protective formation inconvenient. Then it’s just Jaskier in the middle, Eskel and Geralt on either side of him, an arrangement which he’d be lying if he said he didn’t like. The nightmares are less and less frequent, as if something in his subconscious has been soothed by the proximity, and on the odd night he does shock awake with a start—like he’s been hit with a tiny bolt of lightning, heart racing and stomach hot—Geralt is always awake already beside him, watching him with steady golden eyes.

“Tell me,” he says, on one such night.

Jaskier shakes his head. It wasn’t the Nilfgaardians, wasn’t even anything very terrifying—only a ghost from his past, and he doesn’t want Geralt to think less of him for hearing it.

But Geralt reaches over, twists a hand in the front of Jaskier’s shirt, and says again, “Tell me.”

Jaskier holds onto his wrist, not looking at him. Looking, instead, at the magnificent starmap laid out above them.

“Jaskier,” Geralt says, softer.

Jaskier realizes he’s crying. His eyes sting. “It’s nothing,” he insists.

Geralt doesn’t say anything, but Jaskier can feel the weight of his gaze, his hand still twisted tight in his shirt, holding him fixed. Holding him. He exhales, long and shaky. “I was…attacked, once,” he says, selecting his words carefully. “At Oxenfurt.”

“Attacked,” Geralt says.

Jaskier is hyper-aware of Eskel at his back, still breathing slowly in slumber. “Attacked,” he repeats, with an emphasis that should tell Geralt exactly what he means. “I had to pay my own way, you know. I’d been disowned, and I didn’t have a lot to sell, beyond...” he stops, swallowing, then adds, “Some people didn’t want to buy.”

He feels more than hears Geralt’s response—a short, unsteady breath, fingers pressing against Jaskier’s chest while the rest of his body curves toward him like a bow. Like a man curling up around a wound. “Jask,” he says, gruff, then gives up on words and pulls Jaskier by the bedroll into his reach, curling around him too.

Jaskier wraps his arms around Geralt’s waist—something he hasn’t dared do before—and falls asleep with his forehead rested against his chest, lulled by the drumbeat of the king’s heart.

They don’t speak of it in the morning, and Jaskier would almost think he imagined it, waking up alone as he does, except that Eskel takes a good whiff of him at breakfast and then spends the rest of the day giving Geralt looks like a boy teasing his kid brother about his first crush, which Jaskier doesn’t really understand and so elects to ignore.

Instead he rides up alongside Renfri—they’ve happily acquired an extra horse, though it’s really more of a pony—and leads his choir of one cheerily through all seventeen verses of Renfri’s least favorite song, The bonny lass Rhiannon, using his pony’s saddle horn as a drum. It earns him nothing except withering ire and a bruise on his tailbone, when she succeeds in shoving him from his mount, but when the seventeenth verse is finished—Jaskier jogging alongside his pony to catch it, still belting out the tune between ragged breaths, Eskel laughing uproariously behind him—he apologizes by singing My Achy Heart Can’t Take No More, which she pretends to hate but actually loves.

Two weeks after waking Eskel, they reach the foothills of the Kestrel Mountains. Spring has arrived in earnest, hillsides thick with evergreen trees, the entire landscape a vista of verdant growth. Birds warble and bunnies herd their cottonball young across the path as they leave the main road and head into the forest on an old hunting trail—which quickly becomes impassable. Geralt, Eskel and Renfri dismount to hack through the thick undergrowth on foot, clearing a way for Jaskier and his chain of horses, a slow mode of travel which luckily only lasts a couple of days.

Geralt’s map leads them to a cave high on a rocky slope, but when he and Eskel go to check it out, they find it empty.

“Well,” Eskel says, “not quite empty. Looks like a wolf’s been living in there.”

“Just one?” Jaskier asks. “Don’t they usually travel in packs?”

They’re standing around the base of the neighboring slope, where they left the horses; Eskel looks back at the cave opening, then looks at Geralt. It’s a speaking look.

“Hm,” Geralt says. “Maybe.”

“It would be like Yen,” Eskel reasons.

What would?” Renfri snaps, impatient. “What are you lot talking about?”

“We’ll have to track him,” Eskel says, ignoring her.

“Maybe.” Geralt’s still looking up at the cave, frowning. “Or…”

An hour later, they’ve got a fire going and half a deer cooking overtop of it. They haven’t bothered with much of the skinning or cleaning, since they’re not going to eat it, which makes for a disgusting and very smelly process, but then again Jaskier supposes disgusting and very smelly is exactly what they’re going for.

It doesn’t take long for the wolf to appear.

Geralt’s the first to spot it, alerting the rest of them with a quiet, “There.” They follow the line of his gaze to see its silhouette at the top of the ridge, backlit by the moon and mired in smoke from their fire—it’s an enormous animal, bigger than any wolf Jaskier’s ever seen, but as it bounds down the steep slope it moves like a mouse, nimble and fleet-footed. A frisson of fear goes down his spine, rooting him to the spot; Renfri steps in front of him, a sword in each hand, as Geralt and Eskel go to meet the beast.

It circles them, tail swinging, ears back, eyes fixed on the deer hock.

“Lambert,” Geralt says lowly.

The wolf bares its teeth in a growl.

Eskel steps up behind Geralt’s shoulder and says, pained, “Lam. It’s us.”

Jaskier’s not sure what recognition would look like in a wolf’s eyes, but there’s none here. It growls again, low and threatening, like a distant roll of thunder before a storm, then pounces.

Geralt drops his sword, hands flying up to catch the wolf mid-air. The weight of it bowls him to the ground; the noise is enormous, the wolf’s snarls and Geralt’s body scraping across the ground, and Jaskier shoots to his feet but is stopped by Renfri, moving her body to check him in place. Eskel hangs back, sword at the ready, looking completely unwilling to use it.

He doesn’t have to. Geralt wrestles the wolf underneath him, one hand pinning its forelegs, the other clasping its snout. The thing stares back at him with hatred, bucking and struggling beneath him, but Geralt’s face is almost tender. Grieved.

“Lambert,” he says again, like a father ordering a child. “Come back. Your king commands it.”

Jaskier blinks, and when he opens his eyes, Geralt is no longer kneeling on top of a wolf—he's kneeling on top of a man.

The eyes are still wild, still animal. The man lunges for Geralt’s dropped sword, shoving Geralt off him in the same move, but before he can use it, Eskel smacks him on the back of the head with his sword hilt. He slumps in the dirt, unconscious.

Eskel meets Geralt’s confused look, and says emphatically, “Fuck.”

***

Turns out living as a wolf for six hundred years is a bit of a mindfuck. They have to keep Lambert tied up, guarding him in rotating shifts, and mostly he just watches them with those wild, white-ringed eyes, his long red hair matted with leaves and twigs, twitching at every faint noise. He doesn’t speak, and when they feed him he eats like a wolf bent over a carcass, tearing with his teeth and his hands, snarling as he does.

Geralt and Eskel try talking to him. Eskel, mostly—reminding Lambert of who he used to be, stories of growing up as Wolf witchers, their life in Kaer Morhen. Jaskier wakes a few times in the night to see Geralt sitting by his friend, speaking urgently under his breath, quiet enough that Jaskier can’t hear. It twists his heart out of place in his chest, watching it, seeing how much it hurts the both of them that Lambert is like this, but he doesn’t know how to help.

“What’s his favorite song?” he asks one morning.

They’re making their way back out of the foothills. Lambert, tied up, bounces along on Eskel’s horse. Enough of them are walking that the pace of travel is relatively slow; Jaskier pulls his lute out of its case and plucks a string, sending a discordant note twanging through the humid air.

The Rocky Road to Cintra,” Eskel says, no hesitation.

“Right then.” Jaskier strums a few notes, finding the rhythm, then begins. “In the merry month Velèn, from me home I started…

It doesn’t magically wake Lambert up or anything, but Jaskier fancies that he sees a bit more life in those eyes—or at least, a bit more of the focused sort of life that’s unique to humans, instead of the flat windblasted face of animal intelligence. That night around the campfire, he gets the feeling that Lambert is actually looking at them, not just seeing them—like he’s making some sense of his surroundings for the first time since he’s been turned back.

Still, six hundred years is a long time to be anything, let alone a feral animal, so there’s no telling how long it might take him to revert to his former self—if he ever even does. In this vein of thinking, Geralt sets down one morning as they’re striking camp, his elbows on his knees, and says, “So.”

They all stop. Geralt initiating a conversation is a rare thing, and from his tone of voice it seems important to listen.

“Vesemir is in the forest south of Dol Blathanna,” he says. His words are measured, precise, as if he’s been thinking about this for a while. Probably he has. “Before we go there, I think we should try and find Aiden.”

“Aiden?” Jaskier asks.

“Cat witcher,” Geralt says. “He was one of the seven. Him and Lambert…” he trails off, letting Jaskier infer the rest. “He might have better luck getting through to him.”

Renfri shoves her bedroll back in her and Jaskier’s pack. “Where’s Aiden, then?”

“Don’t know,” Geralt says. “He’s a cat. He hasn’t got an amulet.”

“How are we meant to find him, then?” She looks between Geralt and Eskel, neither of whom seem to have the answer. “We can’t bloody well search the entire Continent.”

“Hold on,” Jaskier says. “When you say he hasn’t got an amulet—you mean he hasn’t got a wolf amulet, right? He’s got a cat one?”

Geralt watches him, wary. “Yes,” he says. “Why?”

“What’s he look like?” Jaskier asks.

There’s still a question in Geralt’s mouth, Jaskier can see it, but instead of voicing it he goes to Lambert and yanks him onto his feet. He manhandles him around to yank his shirt up, baring his back and what may be the least tasteful tattoo Jaskier’s ever seen, a strange impressionist portrait of a man shirtless and flexing his biceps.

“He lost a bet,” Eskel explains, when Jaskier makes a questioning noise.

“Right,” Jaskier says. He clears his throat and stands, going to examine the portrait more closely. The level of detail is abysmal, and Aiden’s biceps have got spidery script curling around them that seems to spell out LAMBERT IS A TINY IDIOT, but there’s enough there that his suspicions are confirmed. “Okay, well. I know where he is.”

Geralt stares.

“How?” Eskel asks.

Jaskier smiles ruefully. “He’s in a painting, in my family’s estate. I suppose it could be just a regular painting, but I don’t imagine witchers are in the habit of sitting for portraits.” He glances at Lambert’s back. “Aside from this one, obviously.”

“Your family’s estate?” Eskel echoes.

“Jask,” Renfri says, with a warning note. “You don’t have to do this.”

“Lettenhove,” Jaskier tells Eskel, smothering his apprehension. “My father is the Count de Lettenhove.”

Chapter Text

They make camp a half day’s ride out of the town of Lettenhove, where Geralt and Jaskier leave the others behind. They’ve agreed that two people need to stay with Lambert, and though Renfri lobbied to be the one to accompany Jaskier, she was overruled. It's best Aiden wakes to someone he knows, and easier to smuggle a man out of the estate than a five-foot painting. They part with little fanfare, though Renfri does run after them to seize Jaskier in a hug and warn Geralt over his shoulder, “I don’t care what you’re the king of—you come back without him, I’ll string you up by your spleen.”

“Noted,” Geralt says, without a hint of humor. Renfri glares at him for another long moment, like she suspects him of duplicity, then nods once and lets Jaskier go.

If Geralt’s confused by Renfri’s behavior or by the strange aura of doom Jaskier can feel himself trudging under, he doesn’t mention it. Most people’s homecomings aren’t like this. The witchers’ homecoming, from what Eskel has told him, was never like this, not even before the White Wolf’s reign—it was a climb, but never a long, grudging climb, like a man heading to the gallows.

Jaskier is at least glad for the reprieve of Geralt’s silence, since he hasn’t figured out quite yet how he wants to frame the complicated tale, but he can’t let it go on forever. Geralt will be expecting to walk in the front door, to stroll easily to the portrait gallery and retrieve his man just like that. He deserves to be warned that’s not going to happen.

So Jaskier clears his throat a few miles from town, drawing Geralt's attention. The road is deserted, the only sound the steady clop of their horses’ hooves. “I should probably tell you I’ve been disowned," he begins.

Geralt grunts. “You told me already.”

“Right,” Jaskier says. “Yes. But I didn’t tell you how, ah, severely I was disowned.”

Geralt gives him a guarded look. “Severely?”

Jaskier presses his lips to a thin line, breathing through his nose. He feels suddenly queasy. He doesn’t want to tell Geralt this at all, but he feels he owes it to him, the way a mouse who’s been in a cat’s jaws owes it to another mouse to let him know what it feels like. Not that Geralt is a mouse, he reminds himself. Geralt is a wolf, and from what Jaskier’s seen he’s more than capable of taking on the Count de Lettenhove’s entire cohort singlehandedly.

He takes a deep breath, trying to calm his stomach, and says, “My father tried to kill me. He might actually—he might think that he succeeded. I can’t be sure.”

Geralt pulls his horse to a halt. Biscuit halts alongside him, because she’s a filthy traitor. Jaskier scrubs the back of his wrist over his eyes, face turned away. “We’re going to have to sneak in,” he says, knuckling through tears. “I can get us in the servants’ entrance.”

“Hey.” Geralt grabs his shoulder, turning him around. His gaze is hard and earnest. “I’m with you.”

“Right,” Jaskier says, swiping tears from his cheeks. “Yes, I’m. Thank you.”

Geralt squeezes his shoulder once more and lets go.

They reach the edge of Lettenhove at sunset and board their horses at a stable in the low town. The place hasn’t changed much, streets still bustling even at suppertime, men loud and women darting through doorways with their heads down, wimples on. Even here Jaskier can feel that people are afraid, an edge of nervousness to their energy, the threat of reprisal for even the smallest misstep hanging constantly over their heads. Jaskier has to lead the way, since he’s the one who knows his way around, but Geralt sticks close, hood up, shadows obscuring his face, a menacing presence at Jaskier’s back for which he’s staggeringly grateful. It takes them little more than a half an hour to wend their way up to the estate, perched high on a hill overlooking the town; on the way they stop at the diseased canal where most of Jaskier’s father’s servants do their washing, and a few misplaced coppers are enough to get them in roughspun smocks—a disguise that might not hold up to close inspection but should get them through the gates, even with Geralt’s bulk.

Tension ratchets higher and tighter in Jaskier’s spine, the closer they get to the estate. Geralt must be able to feel it, because he puts a hand on Jaskier’s back, between his shoulder blades, as they pass beneath the outer wall. “Easy,” he rumbles, and the timbre of his voice makes some restless animal in Jaskier stop and settle down.

“The painting’s in the south gallery,” he says, as they reach the lower halls and head towards the servants’ quarters. “The corridors will be empty after midnight, so if we can find somewhere to lay low for a while…”

Julian?” someone exclaims.

Jaskier freezes in place.

Geralt’s hand goes to his belt, where he’s probably got a concealed dagger or two, but then Jaskier turns and sees who it is, and he stops him with a hand on his arm. “Wait,” he says. “Brygda?”

His old nursemaid seizes him and pulls him into a crushing hug, tittering delighted nonsense. “Oh, Master Julian. They told us you were dead! Where have you been? What have you been doing, all these years? Oh, we must tell everyone—"

“No!” Jaskier blurts, shoving back out of her arms. At her startled expression, he softens. He takes hold of her hands. “This is very important, Brygda. No one can know I’m here.”

She gives him a skeptical look, then gives Geralt the same look over his shoulder. “Are you a spy?”

“No,” Jaskier promises. “Not a spy. A bard! I’m a bard.”

“A bard!” Brygda smiles, pinching his cheek. “Oh, how wonderful. You always did love to sing.”

“Yes,” Jaskier says, forcing a smile of his own. He can feel Geralt getting impatient over his shoulder, and he’s fairly antsy himself, standing here in the open like this. “Listen, Brygda. Me and my…friend…are on a bit of a time-sensitive mission, and we could really use somewhere to hide—”

“Oh, I know just the place,” Brygda interrupts, too eager to even let him finish speaking. “Come with me, Master Julian. Come.”

She tugs his arm, pulling him toward the stairs. Geralt follows.

It’s been more than a decade since Jaskier’s been back to his childhood birdcage, which is why he doesn’t realize where she’s taking them—winding up seven storeys of back stairs and cramped servants’ corridors—until it’s too late.

“The room’s just the same as you left it,” she says, as she ushers them through the door. “Your mam wouldn’t let no one touch a thing. Old Temerian custom, I hear, when a child dies. But now you’re home…” she trails off hopefully. “Well. I’m sure she wouldn’t mind, under the circumstances.”

Jaskier swallows around a lump in his throat, turning to look at the room. It is exactly as he left it, unmade bed and all. “Thank you, Brygda.” He turns, smile firmly in place. “And remember—no one can know we’re here.”

“Right,” Brygda says, in a stage whisper. “Spies, and all.”

Not spies,” Jaskier repeats.

Brygda gives him a look that suggests she’s not buying it for a second. It’s the same look she used to give him whenever he swore, mud on his face and frogs in-hand, that he definitely hadn’t been rooting around in the garden after bath time—but she doesn’t argue, just mimes locking her lips and backs out the door, closing it behind her.

It’s quiet in the wake of her leaving. Somewhere far off, several floors down are the muffled sounds of a dinner party, but up here in the blue semi-darkness, all Jaskier can hear is the creaking of the eaves, the faint rushing of the river outside. The sounds he used to fall asleep to.

“This was your room?” Geralt asks.

Jaskier turns to see him studying the bed. There’s a child-size lute among the disturbed covers, a few scribbled sheets of music. He remembers he’d been asleep when his father came in, drunk and yelling; he’d bolted straight up and over to the window seat, which was small and protected and made him feel like he was hiding in a cave too narrow for the monster to reach him.

He’d been aware, in the distant way that happy, pampered children are aware of the problems plaguing their parents, that his father intended his younger brother to inherit. He hadn’t been aware that his own existence was the main obstacle.

Jaskier rubs his hand over his sternum, where he can still feel the phantom pain of his father’s hand. He’d pushed him hard enough to leave a livid mark, one that stayed for weeks and weeks, like it was somehow magic.

The madam at the Oxenfurt brothel where he’d finally washed up had put salve on it with gentle hands before sending him to meet his clients. Some of them might like you with bruises, she’d told him, in the same tone his mother used to tell him that his cerulean doublet brought out his eyes. But they’ll want to be the ones to put them there.

“Jask,” Geralt says. “Let’s find somewhere else.”

“No.” Jaskier snaps out of it, blinking rapidly. “No, this is a good place to hide. No one will come in.”

Geralt searches his face for another moment, then nods.

It’s strange seeing him in this setting, like part of Jaskier’s future has wandered into his past. The moonlight through the window turns his heather grey hair to burnished silver, and his golden eyes shine like cat eyes in the dark. Jaskier wants very many things—he wants to tell Geralt everything all at once, every story of his childhood, to share with him every moment, every late night he spent crying, singing, fooling around with kitchen maids in this very room; he wants to pin Geralt against the wall and ravish him, suck kisses into that chiseled jawline, that proud chin, that hint of collarbone that’s been distracting him since the lake; he wants to possess Geralt completely and he wants Geralt to want to be possessed, he wants them to give themselves utterly to each other. But that’s so many leaps and bounds ahead of what’s happening here that it feels embarrassing to want, embarrassing to even think about. He hopes Geralt can’t smell it on him.

They rustle up an old shah board, missing half the pieces, and Jaskier spends the better part of the evening getting thoroughly trounced by Geralt—not the sort of ass-pounding he’d prefer to have taken, but pleasurable nonetheless.

“I suppose shah hasn’t changed much while you were asleep,” he says. They’re speaking in whispers—people have begun to trickle out of the dinner party and into the guest rooms—and it’s almost unbearably intimate, sitting on Jaskier’s childhood bed. “No offense, but I wouldn’t have guessed you’d be good at strategy games.”

Geralt’s mouth twitches in a way that means laughter. “I did conquer half the Continent,” he points out.

“That’s ridiculous,” Jaskier says. He’s not disagreeing with the facts, but—“You’re an unwashed child. You had kikimore guts in your hair for three days before you noticed, it’s ridiculous that the Continent allowed you to conquer it.”

Geralt snorts, takes Jaskier’s last red knight, and says, “Check.”

***

It’s half two by the time Geralt deems the halls quiet enough to venture outside.

They carry their boots until they reach the servants’ corridors, so they won’t echo on the polished floors and wake anyone, then stop to put them on. Probably they needn’t have bothered—the whole estate seems to have turned in, even Brygda’s prize mouser, who’s snoozing in a nook near the west stairwell.

Jaskier leads Geralt down the stairs, through the wide imposing hallways to the south portrait gallery. His ancestors look on from above, stern men with sharp goatees, women who look more like porcelain dolls than people. Jaskier is reminded abruptly of how eager he’d been to leave this place even as a child, how desperately he’d clung to news clippings of bands and their bards, gossippy garbage from the arenas of Novigrad, Cintra, Ard Carraigh. His mother had thought it mere frivolity, his obsession with mercenaries, but to Jaskier they’d represented something greater than themselves—a chance at freedom, at the sort of heroism people wrote songs about. He wonders what his eleven-year-old self would think, if he knew where Jaskier was now, cavorting with kings and witchers of old. Probably he’d run down here to tell Aiden.

He hadn’t known his name was Aiden, of course. For as long as he could remember, the portrait had hung in the corner of the south gallery, unnamed, unattributed. Jaskier had been drawn to him because he looked, he’d thought, like something out of a storybook. Sharp, intelligent eyes, honey brown skin and a rakish swoop of hair, shirt unlaced to the middle of his chest, strange cat emblem pendant resting between his pectorals. Teenage Jaskier had been quite aswoon.

Adult Jaskier feels a bit silly, in hindsight, for how many wanks he’d had over a godsdamned painting. He thinks he puts on a good show of acting casual, though, as he points Geralt to where it’s hanging.

Geralt crosses the room without hesitation.

He grasps the gilt frame like he’s holding the man’s shoulders, and says, “Aiden, wake up.”

The painting blinks, and gasps, centuries-old shellack cracking around him.

Geralt reaches into the frame, arm disappearing up to his shoulder, and when he steps back he pulls with him a man, tumbling out of the wall like he’s falling through a window. They land in a heap on the floor, Aiden—in a crisp Toussainti accent—swearing and shoving until he’s sprawled on his back on the marble.

Mon dieu,” he says, breathless. “I have never in my life felt such a strange sensation.” He sits up, staring at Geralt with a hint of alarm. “What has happened, Wolf? Where are we?”

Geralt gives him a hand up. “Lettenhove.”

Aiden spits. “Lettenhove. Piss town.”

Geralt watches him somberly in a way Jaskier knows means he’s trying not to be amused. “You didn’t happen to mention to Yen how much you hate this town, did you?”

“Perhaps, over wine,” Aiden says. “Why?”

“No reason,” Geralt lies.

“Gentlemen,” Jaskier says, clearing his throat. “Not to ruin the moment, but perhaps we could catch up when we’re safely away, and no longer breaking and entering?”

“Hm,” Geralt agrees, after a moment. “I’ll see if it’s clear.”

He marches back the way they came—there are several galleries to pass through before he reaches the hall—leaving Jaskier alone with Aiden. The cat witcher looks him up and down, one eyebrow arched. “And what are you supposed to be?” he demands.

“Ah,” Jaskier says, “Jaskier.”

“Jaskier,” Aiden echoes skeptically. “What is that?”

“It’s me. I’m Jaskier. I’m a bard.”

The eyebrow inches higher. “And what is a bard doing with the king?”

Long story, Jaskier’s about to say, taking a page out of Geralt’s book on deflection, but before he can a familiar voice behind him says, “I must commend you, Julian. You’ve managed to keep yourself alive for much longer than I would have expected.”

Jaskier turns.

His father is standing in the door, looking a decade older but otherwise much the same as the last time Jaskier saw him. Granted, there’s less drunken spittle, and face isn’t quite as red, but that familiar hatred is there, dancing like flame behind his eyes. Jaskier’s heart leaps into his throat, trying to run away even while the rest of his body is rooted with fear to the spot.

He looks back to Aiden, but there’s no one there. The cat witcher is gone. There are only shadows.

His father tsks, sharp-heeled boots tapping out a death knell as he paces towards him. “Really, Julian,” he says, “your own nursemaid sold you out. The woman who weaned you. Who are you looking for? Who do you expect to save you?”

Jaskier’s heartbeat pounds in his mouth, in his ears. His father is close enough that he can feel his breath on the nape of his neck. A month ago he was nearly strangled by a band of Nilfgaardian thugs, but somehow this is more frightening. His own father is more frightening. Because at least when he was being strangled, he didn’t feel like a little boy.

“No one’s coming,” his father murmurs. “No one’s ever come for you, Julian, and they’re not going to start now. You’re alone.”

“Fuck you,” Jaskier manages to say. It comes out as a quiet rasp, and it’s not exactly his most creative work, but it takes a great deal of effort to get it out, so he reckons he’ll take it.

His father doesn’t seem as pleased—he backhands him with a crack that Jaskier hears before he feels, sending him staggering back into the arms of his father’s guards. “Take him out the servants’ entrance and slit his throat,” he orders. “Do it twice, if you have to. Make sure he’s dead. I don’t want him coming back a second time.”

Father,” Jaskier says. It’s a shameful plea and a shameful sound, like a dying animal.

His father doesn’t even look at him as the guards drag him away.

Jaskier goes boneless, letting them do most of the work. He figures if he’s about to enter the afterlife, he might as well start the journey well-rested. His boot heels scrape over the floor, his shoulders scream with how roughly the guards are dragging him, and he’s afraid his mind has crawled off to die in a corner like a sickly cat. He doesn’t think of anything as they cart him down the west stair. Doesn’t think of where Geralt might’ve got to, if him and Aiden are even still in the building. Doesn’t think about trying to escape, because he knows that’s a useless avenue of thought, and doesn’t think about how unfortunately Renfri’s going to have to string the White Wolf, King in the North, Lord of Kaedwen and Kovir Both, Regent of Redania and Savior of Aedirn up by his spleen. 

Or maybe she won't. They round the corner to the fourth floor landing, the clockwise curve of the stairwell, and with a clash of steel Geralt is there. He has to wield his sword left-handed to fight up the stairs, but he still makes short work of the guards in front. Jaskier’s making a valiant effort to get his feet underneath him when the guard on his left arm goes limp—by the time he crashes down on his arse and looks up, it’s to see Aiden slitting the last man’s throat. He’s quieter than Geralt, lighter on his feet, but if anything he’s more scary for it, like a specter of death. Jaskier’s mind snaps back into his body, bringing the fear with it, and when Aiden reaches for him he jolts away as if he’s been scalded.

“Jaskier.” Geralt puts a hand on his arm. Jaskier leans into the touch instinctively. He’ll never flinch from Geralt, he knows. His body knows better than that. “We’ve got to move. Before they realize—”

A maid rounds the corner, screams, and goes running back the way she came.

Moments later, the siege bell begins to ring.

Geralt sighs through his nose.

Magnifique,” Aiden mutters. “They’ll be all over the exits. You don’t know another way out of this place, do you?”

“Actually,” Jaskier says.

Back on the seventh floor, Geralt gives Jaskier a look which is not impressed.

Jaskier gets it, really, he’s not too keen to leave via this route again either, but there’s a lot of armor clamoring around in the halls, and from the sound of the bells the Count de Lettenhove is rousing extra units from the low town, which means they have to get out of here very quickly.

Aiden leans out the window to give the water a skeptical frown. “How can you be sure you will survive?” he asks Jaskier. “That is quite far, for a human.”

“Well,” Jaskier shuffles his feet, nervous. “I survived it once before.” He feels Geralt’s eyes snap to his face, but doesn’t look at him. “It’s not a pleasant experience, but unless the two of you feel confident in taking on fifty men…”

“Hm.” Geralt glances back at the closed door. “Better not. Don’t want to start a war.”

“Well then.” Aiden steps up onto the window seat, sheathing his sword. “I will see you down there. Adieu.”

He turns and leaps out the window, sailing into the night.

Jaskier watches him drop, then backs up and presses himself to the wall like he’s been pulled on a string. His heart’s racing so hard it’s making him dizzy. He shuts his eyes. “Geralt, I don’t know if I can do this.”

“Hey.” Geralt settles a hand on the side of his neck, supporting his head. “The last time, you were pushed. This time you’re jumping. And I’m jumping with you. I won’t let anything bad happen. I swear it.”

Jaskier opens his eyes. Geralt is very close, close enough that Jaskier can make out each individual eyelash, darker gray than the rest of his hair, nearly black. Jaskier’s tongue darts out to wet his lips. A lock of Geralt’s hair has come loose of its tie, hanging frazzled beside his face—he wants to tuck it back into place, but it doesn’t seem like the right time. It’ll probably never be the right time.

So instead he nods, and says, “Alright. Alright, let’s go.”

The drop is the same. The shock of slamming into the brick wall of the water is the same, but the moment Jaskier is submerged he freezes, unable to move or even to think. Panic inflates like a balloon inside his chest, forcing out everything else, and his lungs burn but he’s powerless to feed them air—he is somehow fourteen again, insensate with terror. He’s going to die in this river.

Strong arms wrap around his middle. Someone else kicks off from the riverbed for him, dragging him towards the surface. He gasps as they burst into the air, and Geralt gasps beside him, deeply enough that Jaskier can feel his ribcage moving against his side. “See?” Geralt says, breathless. “Told you I had you.”

Jaskier laughs. It comes out sounding like a madman’s laugh, high and manic. “Yes,” he says, when he gets a hold of himself. “I never doubted, darling.”

“Hm,” Geralt says, and presses his mouth to the back of Jaskier’s wet hair in what might almost be called a kiss. He swims toward the shore, pulling Jaskier along with him. This time Jaskier’s aware enough to help him, however feebly.

Aiden meets them at the bank and hauls them up, his forearm clasped with Geralt’s. “About time, Wolf!” he says, shouting above the river’s noise. “I was beginning to think the guards may have got you.”

Once again, Geralt looks unimpressed.

They retrieve their horses in the low town. Jaskier ends up riding behind Geralt, Biscuit having taken immediately to Aiden—the filthy traitor—which is an unpleasant arrangement all around even before it starts to rain. Jaskier tugs Geralt’s cloak up and hunches underneath it, tucked close against his back. Geralt rumbles but lets him.

It’s almost peaceful for a while—the tidal motion of the horse, the rain pattering against the cloak, huddled up against Geralt’s solid warmth—but then the great lout has to go and ask, “What happened to your mother?”

Jaskier doesn’t answer for a long minute. He’s not planning to answer at all, but then Geralt says softly, “You don’t have to tell me, if you don’t want,” and all the stubborn goes out of him.

He turns his face, tucking his nose against Geralt’s wet spine. “Nothing happened to her, that I know of,” he says. “She seems to have cared more for me once she thought I was dead than she ever did when I was alive. That’s all.”

They ride in silence for a few moments. Then Geralt says, “I was abandoned, once." Horse swaying beneath them, rain quiet on the roof of the cloak. "No person should ever be without a home. When this is over, and we’ve retaken Kaer Morhen, you’ll have one with me. If you want it.”

For perhaps the first time in his life, Jaskier’s at a loss for words. He slides his arms around Geralt’s waist, and holds on.

***

Jaskier, being the more eloquent of their merry company, spends most of the ride back to their camp doing his best to explain to Aiden what the hell’s going on. Aiden seems to stop listening completely after the words ‘Lambert,’ ‘wolf’ and ‘six hundred years,’ which Jaskier supposes is fair—they ride flat-out the rest of the way back, horses’ hooves slipping and sloshing in the mud as they try to gallop, Jaskier jostling around on the back of Geralt’s steed like a bottle in an ocean storm.

Aiden’s off his horse the moment they reach the clearing where they left the others. Renfri draws her sword on him, but Eskel steps out to stop her—and a good thing, too, because Aiden barely seems to register the existence of anyone but Lambert, tied up and hunched miserably in the open side of a rickety lean-to. He goes to his knees in front of him, hands patting him down like he’s searching for injuries, muttering in tense Toussainti. “Lambert,” he begs, pronouncing it like Lambère. “Lambert, mon cœur. Where have you gone? Will you not return to me?”

Aiden’s thumbs stroke his cheeks. It’s strikingly tender, for two men so monstrous—and miraculously, like the sun coming out from behind the clouds, Lambert blinks. He raises his hands, still bound, to touch Aiden’s face. “Aiden,” he rasps.

Eskel whoops. Geralt smiles, just barely, which is essentially the same thing.

Lambert doesn’t say anything else that night, but when they untie him he doesn’t try to kill anyone, so as far as Jaskier’s concerned it’s a step in the right direction. The red wolf sleeps wrapped around Aiden like a mama bear with a cub—perhaps not the most apt metaphor, but Jaskier’s had a trying day. It’s a relief to stretch out on his bedroll, even damp and chilly as it is; he curls up on his side, hugging himself, and remembers how warm it had been to ride along under Geralt’s cloak, pressed against his back. He falls asleep in seconds and doesn’t stir until morning.

They make good time on their return trip across the Continent, heading for Dol Blathanna and the witcher called Vesemir. More horses have to be acquired, which means more coin has to be got, as even Geralt’s impressive arena winnings have started to run low. They take care of both in Hagge—a town which the witchers try to insist is not a town but rather just a castle, and though that may have been the case six hundred years ago, it's now completely wrong. Hagge has a bustling arena, in which Shrike and the White Wolf both make an appearance, but the real copper is made by Jaskier later that night, belting his heart out in a local tavern. He sings The Rocky Road to Cintra for Lambert and Bang Away My Lulu for a few lovely ladies who shriek out the request, The bonny lass Rhiannon for Renfri, who flips him off from behind a truly massive beer stein—then once the crowd has started to calm down, mellowed by drink and the late hour, he climbs up on the table and sings a song that’s been banned almost as long as he’s been alive.

The last note of The Ballad of the White Wolf has to be held for a good long while, and by the time he’s finished you could hear a pin drop. For a moment anxiety claws into his throat—perhaps there are Nilfgaardian spies in the audience, perhaps he’ll be thrown in the pillory, perhaps the witchers will be so offended by his presumption that they’ll leave him to be squashed and tomatoed and all manner of indignities—but then the entire room erupts with applause.

“Where’d you even learn that song?” Eskel asks, raising his voice over the noise as Jaskier comes down from the table. “I thought you said Nilfgaard banned it?”

“Yes, well.” Jaskier settles down at the witchers’ table, flashing a smile to the barmaid as she slides a heaping plate in front of him. “It’s a bit like forbidden love, isn’t it? Banning it just makes us bards want to sing it more.”

He picked it up from an amazingly old woman in that town they stopped in outside Gelibol, while Renfri and Geralt were out nosing around the market. She’d been watching Geralt with wide eyes as he left the inn, and when Jaskier sat down next to her to inquire if she was alright, she’d whispered That man is the spitting image of the King in the North—she was a northerner through and through, she confided, her daddy had died fighting one of the last Kaedwenian wars of independence. “Do you know…?” Jaskier had asked, tentatively, and when he finished his question she smiled at him, clasped his hands in hers, and began to sing. Jaskier might be utterly hopeless at most things, but he’s got a mind like a sponge when it comes to the bardic arts; by the time she was finished he was already arranging the words to music in his mind, soaring from note to note.

Now, at the table, he chances a look at Geralt—and finds the king already watching him, heavy and unwavering, like the two of them know something no one else in the tavern knows.

Then Renfri jostles him, sending his elbow into his potatoes, and the moment passes.

“Sing it again,” Lambert requests, a few nights later. He’s been coming back to himself more and more every day, slowly but surely, though he still pisses on trees to mark their campground and prefers his meat just this side of raw. Still acts like an arse, too, but Jaskier’s been assured that’s normal where Lambert’s concerned.

The stars are twinkling brightly overhead; the breeze is mild and pleasant, out of the south. Jaskier strums his lute for a few notes, finding the song, then sets out. It’s a gentler version, softer, slower and more sad—these men are not in exaltation, he knows, not in triumph, but in mourning. He sings of what they have lost, the proud fortress on the mountain ledge, parapets rising in the clear, freezing air, snow glittering on the peaks. He sings of the Sack of Novigrad, the Siege of Pont Vanis and the horrors of war, a bad thing done well not because it was glorious but because it was necessary, in order to free the people. At some point Aiden starts to sing with him, a high sweet croon that aches with memory, and by the time Jaskier reaches the end of the ballad—a hopeful verse about the future, about the White Wolf’s cub and her destiny to unite the Continent—he looks up and sees that Lambert is crying. Aiden takes his face in his hands and kisses the bridge of his nose, right between his eyes, whispering something that makes him break into a smile and a teary laugh and say, “I know, love. I know.”

Jaskier looks for Geralt, instinctively, wanting to see him looking back, but Geralt has gotten up and left the circle of the fire, his expression unreadable.

He’s still not back by the time they settle down to sleep, so Jaskier ends up between Renfri, snoring like a hive of bees with her limbs flung to the four corners of the earth, and Eskel—who is decidedly more peaceful. Jaskier can tell he’s not asleep, even though his eyes are closed, so he rolls over to face him and whispers, “Psst. Eskel.”

Eskel cracks one eye. “Psst? Really?”

Jaskier shifts around, folding one arm under his head. Something on his face must clue Eskel in that this is serious, because he doesn’t tease anymore. “What is it?” he asks.

“The Wolf’s cub,” Jaskier says, after a moment of hesitation. “Geralt’s daughter. What happened to her?”

Eskel’s face darkens. He doesn’t bite Jaskier’s head off for asking, though, which is probably a step up from Geralt. “Ciri was meant to be one of the seven,” he says, voice lowered. The fire crackles at their feet. Somewhere in the night Geralt is prowling, tormented, all because of a few words in a song. “Something went wrong, though. She’s still in Kaer Morhen.”

“She’s alive, though?” Jaskier asks, heart skipping.

“Aye, she ought to be. Along with the rest of our people in the keep. And the Nilfgaardians who got stuck in there with them.”

Jaskier dreams of her that night, Ciri, though he’s never seen her face. A small princess with ashen hair, dressed for a Yuletide feast, ribbons tied to her corset and one hand reaching for a sword, trapped in the dark beneath the mountain with two warring armies. In the morning he feels unsettled, as if something in him has been displaced, knocked out of line with the rest. And when he looks at Geralt, plodding along on his roan blue mare, he cannot imagine him now as anything but a man with great, vital pieces missing.

***

Dol Blathanna in the late days of spring is a menagerie of irritating insect species, all of which, Jaskier is convinced, have got together and contrived to bite him all at once. He claps a hand on his neck in time to catch a mosquito before it buzzes away, then wipes his hand on his pony’s flank to get rid of the mosquito guts and the bright red smear of his own blood—disgusting, honestly.

“How much further?” he asks, raising his voice to reach the front of their little caravan.

Aiden shoots him an amused look, but doesn’t answer. Renfri, riding beside him, reaches down from her horse to shove his shoulder. “Buck up, fucklehead. We’re making a thousand crowns off these arseholes.”

You’re making a thousand crowns,” Jaskier reminds her.

Renfri smiles beatifically and kicks her horse, trotting up to ride beside Lambert. Jaskier doesn’t like those two talking so much—sooner or later something’s bound to get set on fire—but he’s got enough vampiric bugs on his hands that he’s not in any position to do anything about it.

It’s almost another full day’s ride before they reach the clearing marked on Geralt’s map, but they don’t stop to make camp. Instead they ride on through sunset, through the late hours of the night into early morning, Jaskier half-asleep in the saddle and having to slap himself every few minutes to keep from nodding off. Finally, deep enough into the night that they must have nearly come out the other side, Geralt pulls his horse to a stop and says, “Here.”

‘Here’ is a patch of forest that doesn’t appear to Jaskier to be any different from the last hundred miles or so of forest, but he’s always been shit at navigation—and besides, Geralt on this quest has seemed to be guided not only by the maps but by some sort of internal compass, like he can sense instinctively when they’re on the right track, when they’re getting close to one of his people. They all dismount, boots quiet on the ground. The forest menaces close around them, the canopy too dense for moonlight to penetrate. Jaskier knows the witchers can see in the dark, that they’d be able to hear anything coming, but he can barely see and he can’t hear anything but the sound of their footsteps, his own heartbeat—and a shiver of apprehension runs down his spine. Renfri strikes a match, lights a torch fashioned from a stick and a strip of cloth. Firelight flickers in the horses’ eyes, bathing Geralt in warm light as he paces up to a gnarled old oak.

At first Jaskier’s not sure how Geralt has singled out this tree, of all the dozens of trees in the clearing. Then he sees the faint outline of a face in the treebark, an old man with heavy eyebrows and lowered eyes, mouth turned down in a frown.

“Vesemir,” Geralt says. It’s less of a command than the first three, as if somehow he’s is in less of a position to order this witcher about. “It’s Geralt. I need you to wake up.”

Nothing happens. In itself, that’s not unusual—there’s been a delay between order and obedience with each of the last three—but then Geralt voices his request a second time, and a third, and still there’s no response.

Two hours later, the day has dawned gray and rainy, and the witchers have had no luck negotiating with the tree. Renfri’s rustled up a deck of Gwent cards from deep in their pack, and she and Jaskier are playing halfheartedly on an overturned log—Renfri’s thrashing him quite handily, but only because she lost the last two rounds and he knows if she goes too long without a win she’ll be irritable for two to three days. Jaskier’s about to fold under the weight of several consecutive Skellige Storm cards when they hear the horses fussing of in the forest. “Your turn,” Renfri says, without looking up from the game.

Jaskier sighs, puts down his hand and goes to check on their herd. They’re tied to a low bit of bramble a few meters off into the woods, where there’s a patch of grass for them to graze. The last few times they were spooked it was because of an odd bird that had landed overhead, but this time when Jaskier arrives, grasping Biscuit’s bridle and rubbing her nose to calm her, he doesn’t see any birds.

“What’s got you so—?” he starts to murmur, but then there’s a commotion in the clearing behind him.

Men’s voices crash through the forest like swords. He hears Renfri scream in anger—Aiden shouts, “Putain!” and there are a few isolated clashes of steel before all falls quiet again. A man’s voice he doesn’t recognize barks, “Search the woods! Make sure we have them all!”

Someone crashes through the forest, heading towards him. Many someones.

Just as they reach the horses, Jaskier throws himself behind a tree, curling up as small as he can manage. Heart pounding, he inches around the trunk to get a look at who’s attacked them.

Three men in black Nilfgaardian armor are tearing at their saddlebags, slashing the underbrush around the horses. One glances his way, and Jaskier snaps back into his hiding place, adrenaline pushing bile up into his throat. His hands are shaking, but he clenches them into fists, willing himself to be steady. Silent.

After a minute, one of the soldiers shouts, “All clear!” and he hears them tromping back to join the rest.

He waits until he can hear the individual beats of his heart, until his pulse isn’t just a steady rush of noise in his ears, then creeps out from behind the tree. The horses ripple at his appearance, but he shushes them, and they quiet.

As stealthily as he can—which is unfortunately not very stealthily at all—Jaskier sneaks back to the edge of the clearing. He’s not sure what the hell he’s planning to do, but he has to see if the others are alright, if they’re hurt. He sticks his hand carefully through a bush, moving the curtain of leaves aside so he can peer through.

He’s expecting to find five men guarding the witchers, maybe six. A dozen at most.

Instead, there are thirty.

Chapter Text

Jaskier has always had a great many friends. Even as a disowned viscount working a brothel in Oxenfurt, fourteen and furious at the world and more cynical than was attractive, he’d never wanted for companionship, the working girls flocking around him like wildly inappropriate older sisters. He’s had friends he would lie for, steal for, cheat for, friends on whose behalf he would attempt any number of reckless and idiotic stunts, friends whose wellbeing he placed above his own—but it wasn’t until Renfri that he really had a friend he would die for, who he would step in front of a sword for, because he knew she would do the same.

Now it seems Jaskier’s protective instinct doesn’t know what’s good for it, because he’s peering out of the bushes at Renfri and four captive witchers, and he would die for every one of them. He’s hoping he can think of a plan that isn’t just bursting out of his hiding place and letting the Nilfgaardians have their way with him as a distraction, but it’s been a few minutes and his brain is whirring and it’s not looking good.

The captain of the guard—the one with golden accents on his armor—paces behind the witchers, who are on their knees. Lambert spits on his boots and gets a savage backhand for his trouble, gauntlet splitting his cheek open. Geralt surges in his direction, and the captain catches him by his hair, yanking him back.

“The legends said you were savage barbarians,” he muses, using Geralt’s hair to turn his head. Jaskier wants to vomit. “I don’t know why, but I always thought they were exaggerating." He grins wickedly. "Not so, it would seem.”

His soldiers laugh. One of them tries to stick his fingers in Renfri’s mouth and gets bitten.

Jaskier shifts his weight, fighting the urge to run to her defense. In the clearing, Eskel’s eyes snap to the motion. His witcher senses must tell him where Jaskier is, because he looks right at him—and shakes his head, ever so slightly.

Jaskier bites back a swear. Eskel’s right, of course he’s right. If Jaskier runs out now, all he’ll do is get himself killed, or captured. He can’t do nothing, but he hasn’t got a sword, wouldn’t know how to use it even if he did. He could set something on fire, maybe, but they’re in the middle of a forest and that could get out of hand quickly. Plus, the Nilfgaardians have taken all their saddle bags, even (he forces down a swell of panic) his lute, which leaves only saddles and…

Horses, Jaskier thinks. Eureka.

It is, granted, not the best idea in history. It’s not even really a good idea, but it’s the only idea Jaskier has, and if he has to watch that fucker pull Geralt’s hair again he’ll probably explode, so horse stampede it is.

Not a lot of work is required on his part—the horses are already spooked from the attack. All he has to do is untie them and slap the flank of the one in the rear, and they go thundering off towards the clearing, neighing and tossing their heads. He hears more than sees them plunge into the fray, the alarmed shouts of the Nilfgaardians, the distressed sounds of confused horses, and it tugs his heart a bit—he hopes his pony forgives him—but he doesn’t have time to think on it. He rushes after the stampede, the crushed underbrush left in their wake, and staggers into the clearing.

It’s utter chaos. The Nilfgaardians have scattered, the horses frantic and running in tight circles, hooves crushing armor underfoot. Aiden is on his side, worming towards the pile of their confiscated swords. Jaskier’s about to run for him when Renfri spots him and shouts, “Jask!”

He skids down on his knees next to her and yanks the knife out of her boot, cutting her hands free. She takes off for the swords immediately, dodging Biscuit as she leaps over a fallen Nilfgaardian and barely avoiding a hoof to the head, and Jaskier moves to free Lambert next, then Eskel. By the time he turns to Geralt, Aiden is already there, free from his restraints with two wicked-looking curved swords in his hands—he cuts the White Wolf loose, and the two of them rush to meet the soldiers as they recover. Jaskier’s left alone, holding Renfri’s boot knife.

Which is, of course, when the guard captain claps eyes on him.

His face, beneath his gold-embossed helmet, twists with hatred. He stalks over his fallen men, sword in-hand, and in his haste to backpedal away from him Jaskier trips over a root and goes sprawling on his back, knife knocked from his hand.

Geralt is occupied with a half dozen soldiers, moving so fast Jaskier can barely track it. Renfri’s locked in a grapple with an opponent of her own, and Lambert is running to aid a wounded Eskel, Aiden hot on his heels. No one is looking in Jaskier’s direction, and the din is too loud for yelling to be worth much, not even with witcher hearing.

He scrambles back on his hands, but the Nilfgaardian captain is faster. Of course he is. He closes on Jaskier in a second, raising the sword for the killing blow, and Jaskier opens his mouth to yell anyways—why the hell not, if he’s going to die regardless?—when from behind him there’s a mighty sound like a bridge breaking.

Jaskier and his would-be murderer both turn, wide-eyed, to stare at the oak as it resolves itself into a man.

Vesemir.

He’s older than the other witchers, visage lined with age, but he wears it well, like a veteran warhorse. He carries no weapons, walks in nothing but shirtsleeves and trousers, but when the captain goes to raise his sword again, Vesemir catches his arm, draws back, and punches him in the face.

The Nilfgaardian drops at his feet like a sack of spuds.

Jaskier watches with his mouth agape, so thrown by the unexpected appearance that he doesn’t even notice that the fight is over, that the clearing has gone quiet, until Geralt says roughly, “Vesemir.”

Vesemir turns to him like a man in a trance. His eyes are glassy. “Wolf,” he says.

Then he follows the captain down.

***

After that, a great many things happen all at once. There’s a lot of shouting, they somehow manage to get the horses under control, Renfri gives Jaskier a hand up and then knocks him around a bit for almost getting himself killed, never mind that she’d been in the process of getting herself captured. Eskel and Geralt are crouched over Vesemir, murmuring too lowly for Jaskier to hear; Eskel peels back Vesemir’s eyelid to reveal a glassy, unseeing eye, but his chest still hitches with uneven breath—“Something with the spell,” Geralt guesses, and Eskel nods. “Aye, I reckon you’re right,” he says. “Best get him seen by a mage,” to which Geralt shakes his head, mouth a small, tight line, and says, “No time. We’ll have to go to the elves.”

Renfri backs Jaskier up in trying to impress upon the witchers that there are, genuinely, no more elves left—that the last elf was seen something like four hundred years ago, that the entire race vanished mysteriously almost overnight and has not been heard from since—but Geralt will not be swayed, which means none of the others will be swayed either. They collect what they can from their saddle bags, but don’t linger, not even to tie up the Nilfgaardians, then mount up—one of the horses has been badly injured in the stampede and has to be put down, so Renfri gives Jaskier a hand up onto the back of her nameless steed—and ride through the rest of the day and into the night, deeper and deeper into the forest. Jaskier is worried the horses will collapse before they reach their destination—where that destination may be he has no earthly idea, as Geralt seems to be guided by some preternatural sense of direction—but no one speaks, all the witchers as silent as the unconscious Vesemir, so he doesn’t voice his concern. He clings to Renfri’s waist and spends most of the journey trying to make himself think of this as a song—the flight through the forest, the noble quest, the last-ditch effort—but he feels as if all traces of artistry have abandoned him, banished by the punishing pace and the terrible quiet and the constricting stranglehold of anxiety that Vesemir, who Jaskier doesn’t know but who the witchers seem to love quite dearly, may not make it.

Midnight or thereabouts, Geralt calls them to a halt. The horses breathe heavy, as if the galloping hasn’t even stopped. Insects and animals trill in the dense wood around them, and Geralt slides off his horse. Jaskier has a moment of déjà-vu, watching him walk up to a sturdy tree, but then he realizes that it’s not a tree at all—it’s a stone plinth, so old that it’s molded and overrun with vines, its face weathered to a smooth grain.

Geralt places his hand on it, fingers spread. In the low light Jaskier can barely see—Renfri spent most of the ride here swearing under her breath at having to follow the others by sound alone—but his tired eyes stay fixed to Geralt’s outstretched arm, his hair in sweaty disarray around his head, the infinitesimal motion of his breathing.

“Hear me, Filavandrel aén Fidháil of the Silver Towers,” he says, at a volume that would be conversational if not for the heavy frisson of more in his voice. “I am King Geralt of Kaer Morhen, and I request sanctuary.”

This time, there’s no delay before something happens.

The air itself seems to ripple around them, disturbed by some great force. Jaskier has the sense of a hand reaching out from the plinth to grab them all like a handful of marbles, and in the next moment they’re standing in glittering midday sun, on the edge of a bridge made of living trees.

At the far side, a spectacular palace sits perched above a roaring waterfall, whitewater plunging into a bottomless ravine; it steals Jaskier’s breath just to look at it, and the bardic instinct which has been silent in him this past miserable day blinks its eyes and comes meandering awake. He wants to write odes about this place, entire song cycles—if the elves will let him. For he knows even before they set off across the bridge, Geralt pushing his blue roan mare back to that same punishing pace, that they have stepped out of their own world and into another, one in which a race thought extinct has somehow managed, for the last four hundred odd years, to remain hidden.

Their horses’ hooves pound the treebridge. Jaskier holds tight to Renfri’s waist, her cloud of auburn hair bouncing in his face, and tries very hard not to look down at the drop, the foggy depths of the earth below them. Geralt doesn’t stop when they reach the other side, just steers his horse to the right, up a flight of steps onto a wide thoroughfare. Pedestrians—elves, Jaskier realizes with a rush of adrenaline, noticing their pointed ears—turn to watch as they pass, a bloody, panting, half-alive rabble making their way like a stain across the whitewashed city. Jaskier waves at a cluster of wide-eyed children, mustering a smile, but he must look a real sight because they shriek and scatter, running to hide behind their mothers’ skirts.

The palace courtyard is bustling with activity, a massive building project underway for what looks like a twenty-foot bonfire. A mage leaning out of a high window is floating a string of wildflowers across to a woman on the far side, and a steady stream of food and drink is being carted up a flight of stairs from what must be the kitchen—Geralt nearly bowls over a page carrying a large decanter of wine, which is when he finally seems to come back to himself and reins his horse to a trot, then a skidding stop. He dismounts as the rest of them ride up around him, turning to face the cohort of king’s guard that come spilling down the palace steps.

They’re surrounded in an instant, shining gold spears menacing them from every direction. Geralt holds his hands up, showing his empty palms, but Jaskier can see violence coiled between his shoulder blades, hidden in the irritated tilt of his head.

“Stand down!” someone shouts, from the top of the stairs.

The king—for who else can he be but the king, with how the guards obey him immediately, lowering their spears—sweeps his silken cloak out behind him and descends the steps. He is a beautiful man, with long flaxen hair and delicate features, but he is not nearly so effeminate as Jaskier has always imagined elves to be. His smile is a man’s smile, robust and sporting, the sort of smile a tilter might wear after he’s knocked his opponent from his horse. He clasps Geralt’s forearm, laughing in wonder, and says, “By the gods, it really is you. You’ve got some explaining to do, my friend.”

“Filavandrel,” Geralt greets him. “One of my people needs a healer.”

“Of course.” Filavandrel snaps his fingers, ordering a few of the guard forward to help Eskel as he lowers Vesemir from his horse. “Take him to the infirmary. And someone go and wake Ithlinne, I don’t care how hungover she is.” He explains to Geralt, “She’s our best healer. She’ll set him right in no time.”

“Thank you,” Geralt says.

“Think nothing of it.” Filavandrel smiles at him again, clasps him by the shoulders and gives him a good shake. “Gods, it’s good to see you. Hardly anyone remembers what it was like back in the old days, before we went underhill. Only one of my advisors is older than five hundred—you’ve no idea what it’s like.”

“Hm.” The tiredness seems to be catching up to Geralt all at once, weighing him down. It’s certainly catching up to Jaskier—he feels like he could sleep for a week. “I’m not that old, either. I was asleep.”

Asleep,” Filavandrel echoes, like it’s the most fascinating thing he’s ever heard. “Asleep, you say? You’ll have to tell me all about it, old friend, but first—” he puts his arm around Geralt’s shoulders, guiding him up the steps to the palace doors—“First, I think you could do with a bath. The stench is unbelievable.”

Geralt huffs, and doesn’t argue.

The rest of them are set upon by palace attendants almost at once, and herded into baths of their own. Or at least, Jaskier assumes he’s not the only one being stripped down by a pushy elf maiden, shoved unceremoniously in a tub and lathered with all sorts of floral-smelling soaps—he can hear Renfri protesting loudly from the next room, which means she’s at least being forced to confront uncomfortable truths about her personal hygiene as well.

When he’s done the elf maiden returns with a towel and a set of clean clothes, a finespun green tunic that buttons halfway up his throat in a fashion he’s never seen before and a pair of soft leather trousers. Jaskier manages to do up about half the laces before he wanders out and discovers that on the other side of the changing screen is an enormous, plush feather bed—at which point he collapses face-first into the pillows and falls asleep in the space of a breath.

By the time he wakes, bleary and disoriented, the sun has set and the sky outside is as deep a blue as he’s ever seen, spotted with flecks of starlight. It takes him a moment to realize that he’s woken because of a sound—someone pounding on the door, shouting, “Jaskier! Come on, lad, wake up!”

He hurries to the door and opens it to find Eskel on the other side. “There’s singing and dancing outside, and I figured you wouldn’t want to miss it,” the witcher says. Then he takes in Jaskier’s appearance, eyebrows rising. “Have a good nap, did you?”

“I did, actually,” Jaskier says, attempting a lascivious smile. “You ought to have joined me, darling.”

Eskel snorts and turns to walk away, shaking his head.

Jaskier is aware that he fell asleep on wet hair and thus his head likely looks like a bird’s nest. He’s probably got pillow creases on the side of his face as well, but he doesn’t pause before following Eskel out into the hall, because really—what could his appearance matter when there’s singing and dancing to be had?

He’d been too tired to register the palace itself when they’d first arrived, practically dead on his feet as the elven maiden herded him to his bath, but as Eskel leads him back down a sweeping staircase, through an entryway buttressed by columns as big around as a team of oxen, he begins to get a sense of the size of the place, the scale. Jaskier’s been in plenty of palaces, first in his capacity as viscount and later as courtly entertainment, and he has never in his life laid eyes on a place such as this.

“Eskel,” he says, hurrying to catch up after falling behind to marvel at a bas-relief of an epic battle. “Can I ask you something?”

Eskel grunts, which is as good as a Yes in witcher-speak, so Jaskier ploughs on, “The elf-king and Geralt, they’re not…you know.”

It takes Eskel a moment to figure out what he means, and when he does he bursts out laughing—which is as good an answer as any. “Melitele’s tits, no,” he says, as they reach the ground floor. “Filavandrel owes Geralt a debt, that’s all. When he decided to leave our world, we helped get all his people underhill.”

“Where are we, then?” Jaskier asks, fighting a shiver of unease. “If we’re not in our world.”

Eskel shrugs. “Some other realm,” he says. “I can cast Axii with the best of them, but magic’s not really my area. Yennefer did most of the work, portaling the stragglers.”

“And Yennefer and Geralt,” Jaskier says clumsily. “They were…”

“Aye,” Eskel says. “Bloody mess that was. Made each other miserable, but they’re both adults.” He casts a sideways look at Jaskier as he leads the way out the doors. “Don’t tell him I said that.”

Jaskier tries not to let on that his heart’s just split in two. He mimes locking his mouth and tosses away the key.

Eskel smiles, fond, and pushes out the doors into the courtyard.

Immediately, they’re hit by a wave of heated air. Jaskier blinks in the sudden brightness, staring up at the twenty-foot bonfire that dominates the space. “Oh,” he breathes, realizing it even as he speaks—“It’s Beltane.”

Elven Beltane, it appears, is human Beltane on a healthy dose of fisstech. Half the attendees are naked, none of them seem to have any compunctions about copulating in plain sight, and the scent is so heavy on the air that even Jaskier can smell it, human as he is. He feels a flush run up his neck to his face, something hot and liquid settling in his gut. There are three or four bards performing at once, their voices both complimenting and clashing with each other at the same time, songs Jaskier doesn’t recognize fighting to climb highest, twisting together into one overarching refrain—Jaskier feels the same tug in his chest that he feels whenever he hears a good song being sung without him, to take up his lute and join in, but his lute is lying smashed somewhere in Dol Blathanna, and anyway he doesn’t know the words. Not yet.

All that food and drink he saw being carried from the kitchens earlier is now consumed in abundance. Renfri staggers past him with a shouted greeting, an elven maiden on each arm, sloshing an enormous chalice of wine; to the left of the bonfire is a high, regal table, at which Filavandrel and men and women who must be his elven nobles eat a feast the likes of which Jaskier has never seen, three entire roast pigs lying on platters, their mouths stuffed with apples, cooked birds made up with garnishes to look as if they’re still in flight, vegetables in a dozen different colors and a hundred different shapes. Filavandrel sits at the center, in a chair slightly larger than the rest, as is the custom of kings, and to his right sits Geralt.

Jaskier’s not sure why he’s surprised to see Geralt in a place of honor—he knows, logically, that Geralt is a king, even if all he’s king of right now is a fortress buried under a mountain, but he’s never really looked at him and seen a king. Now, though, Geralt has had a bath, he’s wearing a doublet that seems to be made of spun moonlight, his hair is clean and combed and he does not look at all uncomfortable to be brushing elbows with royalty—doesn’t look uncomfortable to have a serving boy hovering over his shoulder, refilling his cup whenever it runs low, to have elves darting up to bow and curtsey to him as often as they do to Filavandrel. This is the same man who shared Jaskier’s bedroll for near a month, who wrapped an arm around him when he woke from nightmares, who tracked him with quiet, amused eyes while Jaskier got sloshed with Mage Rage at the War Fair—an event which, though it was only a few months ago, already feels like a memory softened by the span of lifetimes. This is the same man who woke with a gasp beneath Jaskier’s lips, who flopped around in the frozen grass, and yet looking at him Jaskier is struck by a rush of something—like the wobbly anger he felt when he saw the Nilfgaardian captain with his hand in Geralt’s hair, the need to go to him and hold his face and kiss him, over and over, until the smudge of indignity was off him—but much larger, much stronger. It’s how some men sing about their countries, he thinks. How the northerners whisper about The Breaker of Chains—reverent, fervent, devoted.

Aiden and Lambert try to draw him into their circle as he passes—they do manage to snag Eskel and put a drink in his hand—but Jaskier only has eyes for the head table. He skips up the steps, affects a jaunty little bow to the elf king, then turns to find Geralt watching him with barely-concealed amusement.

“My lord king,” he says, deliberately ostentatious to bug the hell out of Geralt. “Might I trouble you for a dance?”

Geralt’s lips twitch. “No,” he says.

Jaskier doesn’t miss a beat. He wasn’t expecting a Yes, anyways. “A drink, then. Out amongst the common folk.”

Geralt rolls his eyes, Filavandrel watching them with clear delight, but he pushes back his chair to join Jaskier on the steps. They go out into the crowd—Jaskier hopes there’s enough distraction, enough noise from the hundreds of revelers that Geralt can’t hear how much his heart is rabbiting just to walk next to him—and fill themselves up a couple of bucket-sized flagons from the common wine cask beside the fire.

Jaskier has always loved Beltane, even when he was too young to attend the festivities himself—he’d spend the night peering out his younger sister’s window, because she had the best view of the courtyard, his child-sized lute perched on his knee, humming along to the May Day songs and watching the dancers spin round and round the maypole, skirts flying, smiles flashing. When he was ten he’d asked to join them and his father had locked him in his room for three days, which had taught him nothing except that he’d have to avoid getting caught when he snuck out the next year. He didn’t understand what drew him to Beltane, really, to the fires—still doesn’t, if he’s being perfectly honest, except that it’s the same thing that draws him to music.

“Thought you’d be out there,” Geralt says beside him, half-muffled in his flagon. “Never seen you miss an opportunity like this.”

“Yes, well.” Jaskier shrugs, feigning nonchalance. “I left my lute back in the forest, possibly in several pieces. And besides, it’s nice to have a night off every once in a while. Not even I can be on all the time.”

“Hm,” Geralt says, in a tone that suggests Jaskier is full of shit. To be fair, he is.

They watch the maypole dance in companionable quiet for a few minutes—Jaskier swallows the urge to babble, because suddenly he feels self-conscious about what he might say, that the wrong words might come out of his mouth. It’s nice, though, to feel Geralt at his side, the steady reassuring presence of him, to be aware of the air he displaces when he moves his arm to take a sip of wine.

Oddly, it’s Geralt who breaks the silence. “Tell me,” he says, still staring out at the fire, “why do you sing?”

Jaskier looks at him, startled by the question.

“I don’t know,” he says, which isn’t quite true. Geralt doesn’t take it as true, though—he waits for Jaskier to think on it, patient, his eyes understanding. Jaskier taps his empty cup against his leg, hyperactive, thinking.

How to answer, he wonders. Words are his specialty, his purview, but he’s not sure how to pin simple language on the very essence of his being, which he supposes is part of the problem—or rather, the root of the issue. “I suppose I don’t know how else to live,” he says, after a minute. “I’m not sure how to feel things without wanting other people to feel them too, and this is the only way I know how to ask them if they understand. Just talking isn’t enough.”

Geralt’s eyes rest heavy on his face. He’s flushed in the heat from the fire, cheeks pink, his lips very faintly wet from the wine. Jaskier thinks it’s possible he’s never wanted to kiss anyone so badly in his life.

“When you sang The Ballad of the White Wolf,” Geralt says, sounding uncomfortable over the title but no less confident about what he’s saying, “you were trying to tell me something. I heard it.”

All the air leaves Jaskier’s lungs in a rush. “You did?”

“I did,” Geralt assures him, eyes never straying from his face for an instant.

“Oh,” Jaskier breathes. And he can tell from Geralt’s face that he’s not lying, that he really did hear. Mixed with the wine, it gives him the courage to set his flagon down, to reach over and sink one hand in Geralt’s hair, cradling his skull. Geralt takes hold of his wrist, loosely, holding him there, and Jaskier feels more than hears him hum in contentment, the vibrations tickling his fingers. He steps into him, and his heart thrills as Geralt turns to meet him, setting his own drink down on the cask behind him so his arms are free to wrap around Jaskier’s waist, manhandling him even closer.

Geralt presses their foreheads together, making that happy little sound again, and Jaskier can’t help it, his heart swells so much in his chest—he’s smiling when their mouths finally meet.

He bites Geralt’s lip, and gets a quiet laugh in response. One of Geralt’s hands comes up to frame his face, thumb moving over his cheek, and he murmurs, “Let’s go inside.”

“Yes,” Jaskier agrees, “yes, absolutely, let’s go inside,” though he can’t help darting in to kiss him one last time in the warm light of the fire, starving for the taste of him and despairing of having to let up for even a second.

They slip through the palace halls like boys sneaking out after curfew, Geralt tugging Jaskier along doggedly by the hand. It’s such a simple thing, so innocent, holding his hand, and yet it feels like something much bigger—the same way love feels like something bigger than normal love, when it’s Geralt.

Geralt must’ve made a mental note of where all his people were berthed, or otherwise they get very lucky, because he takes Jaskier right back to his room. The same bed he just napped in for more than half a day, sheets still twisted and kicked, but Geralt doesn’t seem to mind—in fact, he seems to like it, if the way he rumbles, “Smells like you,” as they sink into the mattress is any indication.

Jaskier pulls Geralt overtop of him, wanting to feel the comforting weight of his body, and kisses him again. Geralt settles in like he’s got nowhere to be, like he’s not in any rush, like he’d be perfectly satisfied to lie here and lick Jaskier’s mouth until the end of eternity, and it makes Jaskier’s spine shiver with heat. He’d be perfectly satisfied with that as well—he is so, so glad to be kissed. Joyous to be kissed. He holds the king’s face in his hands and calls him darling like exhaling, and Geralt rumbles against him, his hand sliding beneath Jaskier’s tunic to rest chastely against his side.

Close between their faces, like a secret, Geralt says, “That was stupid, what you did in the woods.”

Jaskier’s hands rove over his back. Now that he has free reign of him, he can’t decide what to touch first—his shoulders, his arse, the delicate curve of his waist?—so he’s decided instead to touch all of him at once. “I had to do something,” he says. “I could hardly have left you there.”

“Hm.” Geralt tucks his nose against the soft skin of Jaskier’s throat, languid, affectionate. “You should be more careful.”

“Careful,” Jaskier scoffs, in the same way he’d scoff Quiet when he was a boy and his mother told him his ‘noise’ was unbecoming. “There are more important things than careful, Geralt.”

Geralt presses a kiss to his pulse, to the bony edge of his jaw. “No there aren’t,” he says. “I want to see you grow old.”

Oh,” Jaskier says, choked. “Gods, Geralt, you can’t just say things like...”

He feels like he’s been dealt a blow directly to his core. His hands are suddenly so shaky he has to twist them in Geralt’s doublet to keep from flying into a million pieces. He wants to say something back—I love you, maybe, or I want to see you grow old too, even though I know I can’t—but all he can do is press his mouth alongside Geralt’s and close his eyes, completely destroyed.

Geralt doesn’t seem to mind. Lying between Jaskier’s bent legs, he holds his face and kisses him again and again, patient, close-mouthed, as if he’s waking him up from a slumber.

Awareness returns to Jaskier all at once, like the first healthy day after a long illness, everything hyper-real, hyper-vivid. The rasp of Geralt’s stubble against his cheek, the shape of his thigh under Jaskier’s boot heel, the noise from the revelry outside drifting in through the cracked window, the only sounds in here the windlike rustle of Geralt’s breathing, through his nose pressed against Jaskier’s cheek, and the soft wet meeting of their mouths. Geralt’s fingers are working at the laces of Jaskier’s tunic, he can feel him starting to get frustrated at the intricacy of them and he senses that if he doesn’t intervene he’s likely to end up with a ripped tunic, so he tangles his fingers in Geralt’s to stop him and says, “Let me.”

Geralt pushes up on his arms to watch him. There’s no more than a foot of space between them, but it feels like miles—Jaskier shivers as he undoes the first row of laces, but he’s not cold for long, because Geralt ducks immediately to mouth over the exposed skin, chest hair tugging under his tongue.

Jaskier feels a hint of teeth at his collarbone and loses the plot entirely. His skull echoes with the voices of an enormous choir, and all of a sudden it’s very important that he tells Geralt something before they get any further, before their minds get any more muddled. “Geralt,” he says, pushing at his shoulder, trying to get him to meet his eyes. “Geralt, love, look at me for a moment.”

Geralt does. In the halflight his gaze is like honey, half-lidded and slow.

“You’re everything,” Jaskier tells him, voice barely more than a whisper. “You’re my king. I’d die a thousand deaths for you, and it would be worth it every time.”

There’s a short, tense silence.

Then a door closes behind Geralt’s eyes. He pushes himself out of Jaskier’s arms, out of the bed entirely.

Jaskier sits up so fast that he sees stars, all the blood rushing from his head. “Geralt?” he says.

Geralt turns away from him, shoulders tense. “I can’t,” he grits out.

The air in the room can’t be cold, it’s spring outside, but Jaskier feels as if it’s freezing. He resists the urge to clutch the bedclothes to his chest like a tumbled maiden. “Can’t what?” he asks, praying there’s some way he can salvage this.

Geralt starts to turn to him, but he only gets halfway before something seems to stop him. He shakes his head in profile.

Anger catches in Jaskier’s chest, irrational and reactionary. “What did you think I was telling you?” he demands. The harshness of his voice is startling, but he has too much momentum. “With The Ballad of the White Wolf. What did you think you heard?”

Geralt does look at him, then. It’s too dark for Jaskier to see his expression.

“I don’t know,” he says, sounding lost.

In the next moment he’s gone.

***

The second he’s out the door, Jaskier goes running after him. There doesn’t seem to be anything else to do—Geralt just walked out the door with his entire heart, and Jaskier may not be an anatomist be he understands that the heart is fairly vital.

“Geralt, wait—” he says, skidding out the door, then stops in his tracks.

Eskel is standing at the end of the hall, clearly on his way to look for one or both of them. His eyebrows climb most of the way to his hairline as he takes in the scene in front of him—Geralt’s hair half-out of its braid, Jaskier still with his tunic hanging open, both of them no doubt smelling of amorous liaisons.

“Sorry to interrupt,” he says carefully, turning to Geralt, “but I thought you’d want to know, Wolf—Vesemir’s awake.”

For a split second, Geralt looks unsteady in a way Jaskier’s never seen. Then his face hardens and he says, “Take me to him.”

Jaskier’s not sure why he follows them—out of a need to say thank you to the man who saved his life, maybe—but follow them he does, closing back up his tunic on the way. Neither witcher speaks as they wend their way through the palace towards the infirmary. The warmth and good cheer of Beltane now seems very far away.

They come to a tall white door, marked with a symbol Jaskier’s never seen before—some sort of elven healing symbol, probably. Eskel says, “In there,” low under his breath, like he’s trying not to disturb someone.

Geralt pushes through the doors, leaving them in the hall.

In his absence, Eskel looks at Jaskier again, his eyes knowing. Jaskier must look miserable, because he doesn’t say anything, just gives an apologetic little twist of the mouth and settles in to wait.

Through the cracked door, Jaskier can make out a cross-section of the infirmary. A long row of empty cots, lanterns that stay aloft of their own accord, shining with soft white light. A half dozen beds away from the door, Vesemir lies propped up on a wedge of pillows, a tired-looking elf maiden hunched at his side. Geralt strides over and takes the other chair, his back to the hall, every inch of him the penitent schoolboy. Vesemir takes hold of his shoulders, jostling him in Hello, and the elf maiden—Ithlinne, Jaskier thinks, the healer Filavandrel sent for earlier—excuses herself quietly and hurries away to parts unseen. “Geralt,” he hears Vesemir say, a gruff voice like an old billy goat. He smiles wryly, like treebark cracking. “We’ve stepped in it now, Wolf…”

Geralt’s silver head hangs between his shoulders. “I lost the keep,” he says. “I failed you. All of you.”

Vesemir puts his hand on the crown of Geralt’s head. Jaskier has no personal experience in this area, but it looks to him like a father comforting his child. “We’ll retake the keep,” Vesemir assures him. “We’ll bring everyone home. It’s not done yet.”

If Geralt were anyone else, this would be when his shoulders began to tremble, when tears dripped from his face. But he’s not anyone else, so he only lapses into silence, the line of his spine so tense it looks painful.

Jaskier backs away from the door. “I shouldn’t be here,” he mutters. Suddenly he feels like an impostor, like some creeping fiend watching a family through the lit window of a house. “I’m sorry, I don’t think I should…”

“Jaskier?” Eskel says, with a note of concern.

Jaskier shakes his head. His mind is stuck back in his bedroom, the cold in Geralt’s absence, the cast of his face in shadow and his voice saying, I can’t. I don’t know. I can’t.

“I shouldn’t be here,” he tells Eskel again, and flees.

The thought of going back to his room makes him feel ill—he doesn’t want to be reminded of anything that happened there, of how it felt to be in Geralt’s arms or how it felt to be foist out of them, how Geralt had buried his face in the bedsheets, his hair tickling Jaskier’s face, and purred happily—so instead he goes looking for Renfri.

He finds her cavorting with her elf maidens in a corridor near the great staircase, flower petals scattered through her hair and three sets of cheeks flushed pinkly. “Fuck off, Jask,” she says at first, but then she raises her head from between one of the elves’ ample breasts and actually looks at him, and changes her mind so fast the maidens curse her out, offended, when she waves at them to leave. She takes hold of Jaskier’s tunic and drags him around the corner into the room that must be her own, where they collapse on an ornamental and extremely uncomfortable couch in a bony pile of limbs.

“You know,” she muses some time later, fingers carding through his hair, his eyes finally dry, “when you told me you were in love with the statue of the Unknown King, I didn’t really think you meant it.”

Jaskier laughs sadly against her side.

It’s hardly the first time Renfri’s eased him through a broken heart, but it feels different somehow. She doesn’t tease him about his poor taste, doesn’t tell him he’s better off sticking with her, doesn’t try to pour alcohol down his throat or coax him under someone else. She just sits with him in the small light of a single candle, petting him and letting him weep, as the song falls silent outside and the orange light of the bonfire through the window turns to cool blue, then pitch.

Someday, maybe tomorrow, Jaskier will turn this feeling into a song. It is, after all, the only thing he knows how to do—he wasn’t lying when he said as much to Geralt. But right now the only thing he knows how to do is hold onto Renfri and grieve.

***

Morning three days later finds Vesemir back on his feet and all the members of their company gathered in Filavandrel’s war room, standing around an enchanted map of the Continent. Legions upon legions of tiny black figures are advancing from the south, mobilizing from the City of the Golden Tower, from Maecht and Stygga, the most advanced among them already threading through the mountain pass at Beauclair. They appear to move faster than a man can walk, covering ten miles every minute; Jaskier has had it explained to him—sketchily, by the combined efforts of Lambert and Aiden—that time moves differently in this realm, that for every hour they are here entire days pass on the Continent, with the only concurrent point arriving every decade or so, at Beltane. That means that the armies travel with alarming speed. Nilfgaard is marching on the north, committing their forces at full strength. War is brewing, the likes of which has not been seen in centuries.

“They know you’re awake,” Filavandrel tells Geralt, smiling wryly as he circles the map. “There hasn’t been a king willing to stand up to the empire since Radowit the Fourth, and even he didn’t merit this level of mobilization.”

“But where are they mobilizing to?” Lambert asks.

Filavandrel manipulates the map with his hands, and in a moment they’re staring at a more focused section of the Blue Mountains, and… “Kaer Morhen,” he says. “It may be under a mountain, but technology has improved since the last siege. They can collapse the entire mountain and the keep with it, using Zerrikanian alchemy. Black powder.”

Eskel shakes his head. “They’ll never make it up the Killer. Six hundred years without maintenance—it’ll be nigh impassable.”

“They don’t need to,” Filavandrel says. “Mages from the last war will have kept careful record of the keep’s location, and the Emperor employs more court sorcerers than all of Aretuza. He can portal his army straight to the front doors.”

For a long minute, the room is silent.

Jaskier stands near the door, with Renfri. Not for the first time these last few days, he wonders why they’re still here, why Geralt hasn’t had one of the elven mages eject them back into their normal lives, but he’s not about to ask. He doesn’t want to remind the White Wolf that he doesn’t need them here, if he’s forgotten.

Arms crossed, frowning at the map, Geralt says, “How long?”

Filavandrel’s face is almost pitying. “In real time? A month at most.”

No hint of a reaction shows on Geralt’s face. “I need to find someone,” he says. “Yennefer of Vengerburg.”

“Your court sorcerer?” Filavandrel seems startled. “She wasn’t the one who woke you?”

Geralt glances at Jaskier, then away. “No. But I’ll need her to wake the keep.”

Filavandrel gets that look on his face that Jaskier has come to realize means he thinks Geralt’s doing something extremely reckless, and he’d really like to get in on the action—if only his advisors would let him. “Yennefer’s Aretuza-trained, isn’t she?” he asks, and when Geralt nods, “She’ll have gone back to her alma mater, then. They recalled all their mages at midsummer.”

“Midsummer?” Renfri interjects. Every head in the room turns to her. “It was Beltane three days ago!”

Geralt ignores her. “We’ll need a portal to Aretuza, then.”

Filavandrel’s already shaking his head before Geralt finishes speaking. “I’m afraid that’s impossible. They’ve set up shielding around the tower so strong my mages can hardly scry the place. There are no ravens in or out, no riders. Only those who were reared by Aretuza are permitted to pass, and none of my mages were.”

“Hm.” Geralt looks to Vesemir, like he can think better that way, then says, “Who hasn’t gone home yet?”

By sunset—nearly Samhain on the Continent, the elven sorcerers tell them—they’re packed and gathered in the palace courtyard, horses refreshed, wounds patched, preparing to portal to Ebbing. It’s deep in the south, closer to the Nilfgaardian homeland than Jaskier is strictly comfortable with given that Nilfgaard wants them dead, but there seems to be only one mage who’s not gone running back to Aretuza as of yet—a man called Istredd, who Filavandrel warns them is ‘an insufferable wonk’ and ‘liable to bore you to death before he’ll help you,’ who’s taken up residence at a university in Claremont.

It’s a bitter thing, leaving this place where the birds titter and the brooks babble in eternal spring. Even rent as his heart has been, Jaskier hasn’t known peace like this since he was a small child, and the idea of willingly giving it up to walk straight into the middle of a war is hard to swallow. But as he straps his saddle bags to the side of his new horse—who he’s decided to call Penelope, because she seems like a Penelope—he watches Geralt and Eskel speaking softly to each other over the corrugated horizon of her mane and thinks, truly, that there is nowhere else he would rather be. Nowhere else he could even stomach being, when these men were riding off into untold danger, than by their sides.

Attends,” Aiden jogs up as Jaskier goes to mount his horse, one foot in the stirrup. “Attends, mon ami. I almost forgot.”

He presents a green leather case, a beautiful piece of craftsmanship inlaid with delicate silver stitching. It’s a familiar shape, and Jaskier’s hands shake as he takes it from him, half with eagerness, half with disbelief.

“A lute,” he says, and once the word’s out of his mouth it makes it real, and he can’t help but smile, laugh, delighted. “You got me a new lute? An elven lute?”

“Yes, well.” Aiden darts a deliberate look at Geralt. “Perhaps not me, precisely.”

He goes back to his own horse, leaving Jaskier to unclasp the case and run his fingers reverently over the lute strings, holding his breath. It’s only been a few days since he lost his own instrument, but he has felt the separation acutely, like the loss of a limb—and now here is this absolutely gorgeous specimen, and he didn’t even think to ask if the elven palace had a luthier, but miraculously, against all odds, Geralt thought of it for him. Jaskier could sing. He will sing, now that he’s got a lute.

One of Filavandrel’s mages calls forth a portal. Jaskier’s seen portals before, sick-looking tears in the fabric of the world, but this doesn’t look like that. It’s stable, steady, as if a door has merely been opened from one room to the next.

He slides the strap of his lute case over his head, settling it across his chest, and hauls himself up onto his horse.

“Farewell, White Wolf!” Filavandrel calls, waving from the top of the palace steps. “If you live through this, promise you’ll visit!”

Geralt snorts, doesn’t answer, and rides through the portal at a clip.

It deposits them a mile outside Claremont, on the top of a gently sloping hill. Jaskier has heard tell of the city’s beauty, the terra cotta rooftops, narrow cypress trees lining the roads, the sky somehow larger and more blue here than anywhere else—and for once he’s not disappointed by the reality. They join a caravan of dairy farmers heading into the city and pass through the east gate without incident, into the maze of narrow cobblestone streets.

Jaskier hadn’t quite believed, when they were in the elven realm, that time was passing differently in his own world, but there’s no ignoring it now. Even this far south, the air is edged with the sharp bite of winter to come. The hills around Claremont are golden with ripe wheat, harvesters trucking grain into the city by the cartload, and people have begun to hang Brigid’s crosses above their doors in preparation for Samhain, to ward off mischievous spirits. The stable where they stop to board their horses is half-packed with gourds and pumpkins—apparently one of the stable hands sells them on the side, his friend’s crop, and he cuts their boarding fee in half when they agree not to tell his master.

Finding the university is an easy enough prospect, but finding Istredd is a trickier one, even with Jaskier’s talent for navigating the snarled yarn of academia. They’re sent to three separate registrars before Aiden and Lambert give up and go to find a pub, Renfri trailing after them ‘to make sure they don’t get lost,’ never mind that she’s never set foot in Claremont in her life. Geralt, Eskel and Vesemir follow Jaskier as he gives up with the niceties and marches straight to the dean—who it turns out is the man they’ve been looking for all along.

“I don’t advertise my identity,” he explains, as they settle down in the chairs opposite his desk. “Aretuza wouldn’t look kindly on me giving myself to mortal academia. They’d think it a waste of talent.”

“On the contrary,” Jaskier says cheerily, a bit teasing, “I’d imagine university administration requires rather more cunning than sorcery. Produces rather more headaches, as well.”

Istredd smiles at him in a way Jaskier recognizes. “Quite.”

Geralt clears his throat. “We need to speak to Yennefer of Vengerburg,” he says. “You can get us into Aretuza.”

Istredd shoots Jaskier an amused, private little glance. “Not one for pleasantries, is he?”

“Ah, not exactly, no.” Jaskier can feel Geralt about to boil over like a kettle, so before that can happen he smooths things over with a smile that promises more than he’s willing to give. “Unfortunately, he’s not wrong. Time is of the essence.”

“Well.” Istredd gets up from his desk, pacing over to the window to look out at the university courtyard. “Fortunately for you, my moral compass abandoned me some time ago—I’ve no problem sneaking a band of brigands into my alma mater.”

“Lovely,” Jaskier says, pleasantly surprised, “well then, we’ll just—”

Unfortunately for you,” Istredd interrupts, “my university is flat broke, so if you want my help you’re going to have to pay.”

“Right,” Jaskier says.

Eskel shifts in his chair. It might be functional and comfortable on a horse, but the leather armor the elves gave him isn’t made for sitting about in plush academic offices. “In a month’s time you’ll be able to name your price,” he tells Istredd. “We’ll be able to pay whatever amount you like. Within reason, of course.”

“Splendid,” Istredd says. “Come back in a month, then.”

Geralt glares. “In a month, it will be too late.”

“Well then.” Judging by Istredd’s tone and his turned back, he’s already written them off—dismissed them entirely. “My price is ten thousand crowns. Deliver it to me, and you’ll have your portal.”

He waves his hand. The next moment they’re standing in an alley outside the university walls, nauseous and disoriented. “Fucking mages,” Eskel growls—or at least, Jaskier’s pretty sure it’s Eskel. He’s too busy vomiting his lunch up to be sure.

They track the rest of their party down in a tavern a few streets away, already buzzed and heading steadily for a pleasant level of drunk. Jaskier’s of a mind to join them—ten thousand crowns, that’s more money than most of the smaller vassal states make in a year—but the moment he gets a cup of wine in his hand Geralt steals it away and hands it to Lambert. “Need you thinking,” he says, then steals Renfri’s drink as well. “You too. Think. How do we make ten thousand crowns?”

“We don’t,” Jaskier tells him. “We’ll have to blackmail him, or something.”

Vesemir grunts. “Bad idea. There’s no use trying to outmaneuver a mage, especially one that’s Aretuza-trained. Their minds work a hundred bloody steps ahead.”

“We can’t make ten thousand crowns,” Jaskier reiterates. “You might have that sort of coin sitting in the vaults at Kaer Morhen, but out here the only people who’ve got that sort of money are kings, Toussainti vintners, and the Emperor himself. So unless you’ve got a direct line to Morvran the Eighth—”

“Actually,” Renfri cuts in, leaning across the table to snatch her mead back from Lambert. “Those aren’t the only people on the Continent with massive fortunes. There’s someone else. He’s right here in Claremont, in fact.”

Jaskier stares at her for a moment before he realizes what she means. “No,” he says. “No, that’s a terrible fucking idea, do not—

“Who?” Geralt asks, cutting Jaskier off.

“Why, Commodus, of course,” Renfri says, shooting Jaskier a smug look. “Emperor of the Amphitheater.”

Lambert drains his cup, burps massively, and asks, “What’s the Amphitheater?”

Chapter Text

In the staging area below the arena, there’s a commemorative wall upon which each and every band ever to play the Amphitheater has left their mark. There are four bloody handprints from Hell Mell, a ragged bit of weaving from Lady Jain and the Silk Arrows, two daggers stuck into the wall around the chiseled name Vanguard. The Hawks have left their wanted posters, five of them in a messy row; Queen Calanthe’s Bloody Ghost seem to have torn the boning out of a corset and strung it up with a length of ribbon; Saga had their faces magically flash-burned onto the brick, the five of them staring out wide-eyed and a bit singed.

Jaskier can’t help standing a bit in awe of the place, even with the company he keeps. It’s best, he decides, not to consider the fact that half these bands walked into the Amphitheater never to walk out again. His bardic energies are best spent elsewhere—for instance, in the consideration of what their newly-formed band ought to be named. Eskel’s suggestion of Witcher is out (too boring), as is Aiden’s Les héros qui vainquent les monstres (too long, and too Toussainti). Renfri had tossed out Shrike and the Wolf Pack, but somehow he doesn’t think the others are going to bite, especially not Lambert, who’d been angling for LAMBERT on the walk here. No, it’s going to be up to Jaskier to come up with something, since clearly he’s the only one with his head on straight—and the only one who seems to realize just how much is in a name.

“The Cry of the North,” he says at last, turning away from the wall to face them. Most of them are getting ready—sharpening their swords, swiping their knives with whetstones, adjusting their armor—but Vesemir is watching Jaskier calmly, eyes wise and adroit, like he knows exactly what he’s doing.

“It's a good name,” the old witcher says. “The Cry of the North.”

Geralt hums but doesn’t protest, and the others don’t seem inclined to either, not even Renfri. She meets Jaskier’s eyes briefly and nods as well, a sharp jut of the chin. For hours now, Jaskier’s been fighting the urge to pull her aside and beg her not to fight, to let the witchers handle it, to tell her they can go back to muddy barghest brawls and wandering the Continent scraping out an existence on a few coppers a week, that the last few months have been crazy but everything will be alright as long as they both just stay alive, but he knows Renfri well enough to know she’d never agree, and what’s more he knows himself well enough to know he doesn’t really want that—that he’s just afraid.

Afraid, because while the rest of them head out into the Amphitheater, Jaskier’s the one who’s got to sit in the stands and watch. He has always thought it much more painful to be a spectator than a fighter. But then again, he’s never been a fighter.

Ah, well. He screws his courage to the sticking place and musters a smile. “Right, then. What should we leave on the wall?”

“Nothing,” Vesemir says. “Stupid tradition.”

“Nothing,” Jaskier echoes, like it’s ridiculous, because it is. “We can’t leave nothing.” When no other suggestions are forthcoming, he sighs theatrically and says, “Fine. I’ll think of something. But really, chaps—must I do everything myself?”

Someone pounds on the door while he’s chiseling the White Wolf’s signet into the brick, summoning the band onto the arena floor. Jaskier’s heart leaps like a frog into his throat. By the time he turns, looking for Geralt, most of them have already filed out into the hall, towards the roar of the crowd above.

Only Eskel is left. He lingers, indecisive, then mutters something to the page in the hallway and comes over to join Jaskier at the wall. “If we die out there,” he says, pitching his voice low so they won't be overheard, “take the crowns and go to Yen. Tell her everything. She’ll know what to do. Whatever happens, make sure you get the cub out before the mountain falls.”

Jaskier swallows thickly. “Don’t die,” he pleads.

Eskel smiles, teeth bared bracingly. “Aye. We’ll do our best.”

He turns again to leave, but before he can take a step Jaskier says, “Eskel,” and seizes him in a hug. Eskel freezes for a moment in his arms, surprised, then breathes out a quiet swear and hugs him back, rough but reassuring. The page knocks again at the door. Eskel squeezes him once and lets go, striding briskly out into the hall.

Jaskier curls his hand into a fist to stop it shaking, then picks up his knife and gets back to work.

The snarling wolf’s head is finished just as the crowd above falls silent; Jaskier rushes into the hall and sprints for the back entrance to the stands as somewhere above him Commodus’ voice rings out, magically enhanced.

“GOOD PEOPLE OF CLAREMONT,” he says, loud enough that it shakes the entire Amphitheater—even the staircase where Jaskier’s making his way upward through jumbled rectangles of sunlight, taking the steps two at a time. “MY LOYAL SUBJECTS! TODAY, MY MONSTERS FEAST ON KINGS.”

Jaskier bursts up into the open air as the crowd goes to their feet, roaring and stomping their approval. He shoves his way down to the first row of the stands, lute case cradled against his chest, and collides with the railing just in time to see his friends—the newly-christened Cry of the North—march out onto the sand.

Commodus, the glorified booker who fancies himself royalty, lords over the audience in a raised box on the far side of the arena, arms flung high as he addresses his ‘subjects.’ Jaskier hates him on sight. In his head he’s already composing a nasty little ditty that he can drop in a few taverns on their way out of town, full of scathing verses about how all that gilt must be compensating for something, but the entire audience seems to love him—they’re screaming their heads off at every word he says.

“THE LEGENDARY WHITE WOLF HAS RETURNED FROM THE LAND OF THE DEAD FOR ONE SINGLE APPEARANCE,” Commodus booms, declaration thundering into the open sky. “TO ENTERTAIN YOU, THE PEOPLE OF CLAREMONT! WITH HIS BAND, THE CRY OF THE NORTH, HE SHALL FACE MY MOST MAGNIFICENT AND UNKILLABLE BEASTS…”

At the far end of the arena, a gate which could fit several adult elephants stacked on top of each other groans ominously and begins to rattle open.

The band turns to face it, swords out, jaws set. They look quite heroic. What’s not so heroic is the way Jaskier feels like he might faint from the stress. He hopes none of them can hear his heartbeat.

The crowd is chanting something, but Jaskier can’t quite make it out. Win? Twin? Something about a flagon?

“THEY THAT VANQUISHED HELL MELL," Commodus continues, "THE HAWKS, AND QUEEN CALANTHE’S BLOODY GHOST...”

The noise is so deafening that it almost ceases to be noise, a steady pressure on Jaskier’s ear drums.

“THE DRAGON TWINS!”

“Oh, fuck me,” Jaskier says, staring at the gate, but his voice is lost in the roar of ten thousand more around him.

Two mottled green dragons—not the misnamed wyverns Jaskier was hoping for, but genuine, fully-grown dragons—lumber out of the monster pen, deadly heads swiveling on the end of long, muscular necks. They’re enormous in a way not even Jaskier has words to describe, big enough that all the band bundled together would equal only one of their legs, and there’s blood dripping from their faces, as if they’ve been slashed into a rage before being sent out to eat Jaskier’s loved ones whole. Probably they have. Their swinging heads loose massive streams of fire, powerful enough that there’s an audible crackle as the air heats around them, hot enough that Jaskier’s face suddenly feels like he’s got a light sunburn.

It is suddenly baldly apparent why Commodus was willing to pay ten thousand crowns for this fight. It’s not every day you find a band stupid enough to take on one dragon, let alone two.

This is it, Jaskier realizes. He could be about to lose every single person on earth that he cares about in a single moment. The only blessing is that the beasts’ wings are clipped, tied close to their bodies with thick iron chains.

Move!” Lambert bellows, as the dragons come diving towards them.

The band scatters, the crowd roars, and the dance begins.

A tongue of fire licks towards Geralt, but he drops to one knee, somersaulting beneath it so that it barely singes him. He has a clear shot at the creature’s throat, but he doesn’t strike out. Instead he launches himself out of reach of the dragon's claws, getting back to his feet in the sand.

Sword at his side, he holds his hand out to the dragon, almost as if he’s…trying to reason with it.

Jaskier doesn’t have too much time to puzzle on the odd sight—the other dragon is bearing down on Aiden and Eskel, tail scything behind it. Renfri yells, a sound Jaskier would know anywhere, and raises both swords, sprinting at the beast.

At the last second, Eskel catches her around the waist, stopping her. Her hair flies as she looks at him—glaring, probably—and then Aiden collides with them both, tackling them beneath a horizontal wall of flame.

The crowd hasn’t seemed to notice yet, that they’re not actually trying to fight the dragons. To anyone else, it probably looks like the band is scrambling, running for their lives—Jaskier only knows what he’s watching because he’s seen them fight for real. But he certainly doesn’t understand.

At least, not until Geralt whirls—sword and hair flashing silver in the brilliant sun—and crushes the restraints on one dragon’s wing.

The Breaker of Chains, Jaskier remembers. Melitele, no.

The dragon’s wing bursts free, flinging violently to its full span, as big as a ship’s sail as it casts a dark shadow on the arena floor. In the ‘royal’ box, Commodus surges to his feet, a look of pure outrage on his face—which is replaced quickly by fear as Lambert swings at the dragon’s other wing and breaks those chains as well.

People in the crowd scream and start shoving for the exits, their sporting bloodlust replaced with genuine terror. Jaskier tries not to feel smug and mostly fails—these are the people who not seconds ago were cheering for his friends to die, serves them right to be terrified—but a moment later his own stomach leaps into his mouth as the dragon, mid-flight, surges past the railing with such a rush of air that it shoves him flat on his back.

The dragon lifts above the bowl of the arena, the flap of its wings slow and laborious under its massive weight. It opens its mouth in a plaintive cry, a sound like timber splitting, like great trees crashing to the forest floor, then tilts its wings to soar over the terra cotta rooftops of Claremont.

Eskel!” Vesemir shouts, down in the ring.

Jaskier flings a hand up on the railing and hauls himself back up just in time to see Eskel and Vesemir move as one, swords arching down to smash the chains on the second dragon’s wings.

Free, the dragon flings its limbs open wide, tossing its head in a thundering roar.

The shockwave of air flattens everyone in the arena and sends Commodus’ box swinging on its scaffolding like a tavern sign on its hinges. The dragon crouches on its enormous haunches and then surges up into the air, heading off after its brethren. The last few stragglers in the Amphitheater turn to watch it go, mouths gaping, hands flying to their hats to keep them from being swept up in the whirlwind.

Down on the arena floor, the witchers regain their feet. Eskel and Lambert head for the crumbling royal box, Lambert limping, and the others, waved on by Vesemir, pelt back towards the staging area. Figuring they’re going to have to make a quick exit, Jaskier takes off towards the stairs, lute case bouncing wildly against his back.

He reaches the hall outside the staging room just as Renfri shouts, “Jaskier!”

“Here!” he says, skidding around the corner to find them all clustered outside the door, breathing hard and covered in blood and sand. “Here, I’m here—”

They don’t stop for pleasantries. Renfri grabs his arm and hauls him along as they keep moving, heading for the back exit to the Amphitheater, the one that the acts employ to slip out onto the street unnoticed.

“Are we sure we want to go this way?” he points out—very reasonably, in his opinion. “The dragons will have set half the city ablaze by now, we might be better off if we make for the river—”

“The dragons left,” Geralt grunts.

“They—I’m sorry? They left? Why would they leave? How do you—”

“They agreed to leave,” Geralt says, “if I freed them.”

They push through the door, and he takes over Jaskier’s arm from Renfri, which is half annoying because Jaskier doesn’t need to be steered around like a child and half nice, because it almost feels like Geralt’s worried about him. They’re immediately beset upon by a wave of panicked townspeople, screaming bloody murder and shoving in all directions (despite the fact that the dragons really are just flying above the city, heading north) at which point Geralt’s grip on his arm becomes pretty much the only thing keeping him with the rest of the group.

They meet up with Eskel and Lambert a few streets over—the two witchers lugging four coin-heavy sacks between them—and reunited, they use the cover of utter bleeding chaos to head for the university.

Istredd’s waiting for them in the courtyard when they arrive, wide-eyed and a bit manic—“You’re out of your bloody minds!” he shouts, but he’s grinning begrudgingly and he doesn’t sound too put out, especially not once he sees the sacks of coin.

Eskel and Lambert dump them at his feet. A few crowns spill out onto the cobblestones and roll away, but Istredd calls them back with an absent wave of his hand.

“There’s your ten thousand crowns,” Geralt says. “Now. Where’s our portal?”

***

After several months in his witchers' company, Jaskier likes to think he’s developed a fairly good mental image of Yennefer of Vengerburg. Eight-hundred-year-old sorceress, legendary court mage to the White Wolf, inventor of the Domesday Spell—the woman who launched five witchers to the ends of the Continent and buried the world’s most formidable keep beneath an entire mountain. Geralt’s intimidating, volatile lover; Jaskier imagines she is terrifyingly beautiful, the sort of beautiful that makes men forget their own safety, their own sense. In his head she’s a combination of a particularly spiky and sinister Oxenfurt whore of whom he used to be greatly afeared and the goddess Melitele herself, curling lips and burning eyes, fingernails sharp enough to rake your spine.

In reality, Yennefer is much more, and much worse.

They’ve just stepped through the portal into the center of a pristine hedge garden—Jaskier’s barely had a moment to taste the salt air and hear the distant crash of surf, remembering abruptly that Aretuza is near the sea—when a dark smudge of a woman with furious violet eyes comes charging out of the rectory, skirts in her hands. “Istredd, I don’t know what bloody took you so long—”

She sees them and draws up short, staring. Something vital seems to drain out of her, leaving her about as substantial as a scrap of fabric strung up to dry on a line, buffeted by the wind. “No,” she breathes. “No, that’s not possible.”

Geralt steps forward. “Yen,” he says. 

There’s a look on his face like a man in terrible pain but trying not to show it. A man in love, Jaskier realizes, and forces back a selfish rush of hurt. He has no right, no claim, not when Geralt doesn’t want him. Not when Geralt’s looking at Yennefer like that.

Yen,” Geralt says again. His voice is the shape of a hand cradling a baby bird.

Yennefer’s eyes are like the wreckage after a storm. “How are you awake?” she demands.

Geralt glances over his shoulder, at Jaskier—whose heart skips a beat.

The sorceress’ gaze snaps to him too, skewering him like a squirrel on a spit. “And who the hell are you supposed to be?” she bites.

“Ah.” Jaskier squares his shoulders a bit, trying to seem taller than he is. “The humble bard Jaskier, milady, at your service.”

Yennefer looks more than a little alarmed. “Dear gods,” she says. “Are you fucking kidding me?”

“Nilfgaard is marching on Kaer Morhen,” Geralt tells her, ignoring all the very complicated tension that’s zinging back and forth across this garden like bees in a jar. “We don’t have much time, Yen. We need a war plan.”

That, at least, seems to snap Yennefer out of her vaguely irritated, shellshocked fog. “A war plan?” she says, disdainfully. “I’ve been thinking about that night for six hundred years, Geralt, I’ve got all the war plans you could possibly want.”

With that, she turns and sweeps back into the rectory, leaving them to follow her.

Being a learnèd man and a purveyor of stories, Jaskier has heard a great many things about Aretuza and its witches, probably about half of which are true. He has heard that on Samhain all the girls dance naked and covered in fish blood; that somewhere in their tower is a dungeon full of half-men half-beasts, the botched results of twisted experiments; that the place was built by slaves whose bones are entombed in the masonry. He’s also heard, from rather more reputable sources, that the ceilings in the main hall are so high actual storm systems sometimes form inside, clouds obscuring the delicate frescoes; that there are seven hundred odd rooms, some of which have minds of their own and tend to wander off while you’re still inside them; that students are forced to remain celibate while on the grounds and that there have been some truly heinous offshore boat orgies as a result. None of that seems readily apparent as they make their way through the halls, though. The architecture is simple, airy, well-ordered. Arched windows look out on uninterrupted sea, and the higher they climb the more dramatic and breathtaking the views get, until Renfri has to tug Jaskier along by the tunic or risk leaving him behind.

As Yennefer leads them up a spiral staircase, heavy black skirts flapping around her legs, Lambert shoves ahead of Geralt to lambast her for leaving him as an enchanted wolf for six centuries, completely immune to her insistence that one, she didn’t intend to leave him for six centuries, two, if he would’ve rather died on the end of a Nilfgaardian sword she’d be very happy to arrange that for him, and three, she wasn’t surprised that his skull was too dense to understand the concept of ‘what’s done is done’—to which Lambert growls, “Your skull is too bloody dense to understand the concept of a godsdamned apology!”—an outburst which earns him nothing more than a cold look from Yennefer as she pushes open the door to her chambers.

“What happened?” Eskel asks, a minute later. “Why didn’t you wake us?”

They’ve all filed into the sitting room behind her, and the witchers have made themselves at home. Aiden’s emptying sand out of his boot, holding it upside-down out the open window, and Lambert has his rancid socks up on an ornate little coffee service, lying back on a fainting couch in a position which he calls ‘airing out the lads.'

Jaskier weeps for the state of propriety, truly he does, but it feels like it’s been about a thousand years since they left Filavandrel’s palace yesterday, so he sinks down to sit next to Lambert on the floor, leaning back against the couch. His leg muscles scream.

“I tried,” Yennefer answers. Her arms are crossed in a way that reminds Jaskier immediately of Geralt, defensive and trying not to be. “The spell hinged on me being able to wake Geralt, and Geralt being able to wake the rest of you. But I couldn’t.”

“Why not?” Aiden demands indelicately.

Yennefer glares at him. “People live below me, you know. You could be poring sand in some poor woman’s window box.”

“I do not know what is a ‘window box,’” Aiden lies. Jaskier knows it’s a lie, because not three days ago they spent several hours on the subject of palatial gardens. “Why could you not wake the Wolf?”

Yennefer looks uncomfortable, but she’s not in a position to avoid answering. “This sort of magic, it has to be established on a firm base. There are rules about what sort of base can be used, and if they’re broken the spell won’t function.”

“Base?” Geralt asks, frowning.

“Yes,” Yennefer says. “For instance, the Law of Surprise, the Rule of Threes—”

“What base was the Domesday Spell built on?” Eskel interrupts.

“Not the whole spell,” Yennefer says, tetchy, sounding very tired. “It’s too large a spell to have been built on a single base, I had to stack the parts together like concentric rings, each with their own series of—oh, I don’t know why I fucking bother, you have no idea what I’m talking about.”

It’s clear from the witchers’ faces that she’s right.

She sighs, pinching the bridge of her nose. “True Love is an exceptionally sturdy base,” she says, like each word has been extracted by torture. “Geralt was meant to wake from True Love’s Kiss, but when I kissed him, it didn’t work. Because apparently,” she points a finger at Jaskier, exasperated, “his true love is a fucking bard.”

***

A great many people have a great many things to say about that, and they choose to say them loudly.

Renfri insists that it’s a time-reliant spell, that the only thing that happened is Jaskier locked lips with the Geralt-statue on the exact right moment of the exact right day, despite having the actual sorceress who invented the spell telling her otherwise. Lambert is laughing his ass off about Yennefer thinking she was Geralt’s ‘True bloody Love!’ which seems cruel until Jaskier realizes she’s been nursing the wound for six hundred years and so it’s probably scarred over, especially judging by how casually she waves her hand and spills an entire pitcher of water on Lambert’s crotch. Vesemir and Eskel are trying to remind everyone that it doesn’t matter, that they’ve got a war on their hands and a centuries-old siege to win, Aiden takes over the laughing once Lambert is done, not quieting even as he grabs Lambert’s red, furious face and pulls him into a quelling kiss, muttering something in Toussainti about ‘True Love’ that makes Lambert say something about his cock, and at that point Renfri and Yennefer are really going at it, voices snarling like a fucking catfight in a back alley, and Geralt is—Geralt is standing at the center of it all, stock-still, his gaze fixed on Jaskier.

Jaskier hasn’t said a word this whole time. He barely feels like he’s had a thought, let alone been able to take a breath to speak, and suddenly having Geralt looking at him like that is too much. He has to get out, he needs air—so gets onto his knees, leaving his lute case on the fainting couch, and makes a break for the door.

The difficulty is, really, that he doesn’t have a graceful way out of this. He doesn’t have a joke, or a deflection. He doesn’t even have anywhere to run, being in a tower in the middle of the ocean.

Well. Aside from the hallway, at least.

He makes it most of the way to the corner before his legs decide he’s gone far enough.

There’s a window sill wide enough to sit on, and Jaskier manages to land on it. Beyond the window is a long drop to the courtyard below, the hedge garden little larger than his hand at this height. Vertigo forces him to look away; he’s never liked heights, for what he likes to think are understandable reasons. 

The door to Yennefer’s chambers opens, and Geralt emerges. He spots Jaskier immediately—there’s a flicker of something on his face almost like fear, and Jaskier realizes that he’s sitting rather close to the edge for someone in his state, so he scoots forward and folds down to sit on the floor instead. Geralt relaxes.

“You didn’t have to come running after me,” Jaskier tells him, as he strides over. “I know everything you’re going to say, about how Yennefer must have made a mistake, how it’s probably a fluke.”

Geralt crouches in front of him. Jaskier wants to tip forward into the V of his legs, the warmth of his body. He wants to bury his face in Geralt’s chest and not think for a while. But he can’t, he’s not allowed. He has to manage on his own.

“Really,” he says, swallowing. “Genuinely, Geralt, you don’t have to tell me. I know.”

“It’s not a fluke,” Geralt says, without a hint of doubt.

Sunlight warms his countenance. Jaskier wants very many things he cannot have, and it’s difficult right now to remember why he cannot have them. “What do you mean, it’s not a fluke?” he asks, staring at Geralt's mouth. 

Geralt reaches out to touch the side of his face, then stops with his hand halfway there, like he’s unsure of his welcome. “It’s not a fluke,” he says again.

Jaskier makes a soft sound. “How do you know?”

Geralt shakes his head, helpless. “I just know.”

Before he can lower his hand, Jaskier catches it and presses it to his cheek. Geralt’s fingertips skim the shape of his ear. “Back with the elves,” Jaskier makes himself say, “you said you couldn’t. That you didn’t want—”

“I didn’t say I didn’t want,” Geralt says softly.

Jaskier’s heart skips. “But you can’t,” he says carefully.

“I can’t,” Geralt agrees.

“Why not?”

The White Wolf drops his gaze. He doesn’t say anything for a minute, but Jaskier waits him out. He knows Geralt needs space when he’s going to talk.

At last he says, “I don’t ever want you to feel…like you don’t have a choice. Or that…you owe it to me, in fealty.”

Why would I feel like that? Jaskier’s about to say, or maybe, I love you, you bloody madman, but at that precise moment the door down the hall opens again and Yennefer sticks her head out to shout, “Geralt, if you’re quite fucking done, we’ve got a war to win.”

***

In a large windowless cabinet off of Yennefer’s sitting room are six hundred years’ worth of battle plans. Scale models of every room in the keep, complete with tiny enchanted soldiers in accurate positions—“A hundred years after the siege, I had Tissaia help me walk through my own memories, so I could get everyone in the right spot”—who game out Yennefer’s ideas in real time. She has, she informs them, considered every pitfall of every possible permutation of every plan, and she has the shelves upon shelves of scrolls scribbled with arcane maths to prove it. The cabinet looks a bit like the office of a professor Jaskier once knew carnally at Oxenfurt, a man who’d insisted there was one perfect equation at the center of everything, if only he could find it—the walls covered from floor to ceiling with chalk, numbers and symbols that Jaskier was very happy not to understand in the slightest, papers stacked high enough on every available surface that Jaskier had a heart attack whenever the professor went to light a pipe and almost always left with terrible rugburn, as there was nowhere else to fuck but the floor. Which is a long way to say, Yennefer is quite possibly no longer in her right mind, but even if that’s the case she’s all they’ve got.

She sets about immediately presenting her five best scenarios. The witchers settle around the table with very serious looks on their faces, Renfri wedging herself between Lambert and Eskel, intent on the scale model as the three-inch soldiers begin to move. Jaskier lingers by a long scroll pinned to the wall, listening absently as he scans the list of names hundreds long, some crossed out, some with question marks beside them—a list of casualties, he realizes. A list of the dead.

On a scrap of paper all its own is the name Cirilla, with a question mark beside it. Jaskier feels ill.

The witchers decide quickly on a single course of action, Geralt and Vesemir seeming to have the final word, and then Yennefer focuses in, walking them through all the major variations that single plan can take. Jaskier does his best to pay attention, to keep up, but they’re using lots of martial terms he’s never heard, discussing a place he’s never been, and on top of it all they’ve got their own sort of shorthand, Geralt needing only to say, “Yes, but that will be like that time we—" to get Yennefer to nod and agree, “Of course, which is why we then go…”

They work very well together, the king and his sorceress. Jaskier can’t help but wonder where he’s going to fit in, when this is all over—and then he can’t help feeling selfish, for thinking about himself at all.

The model of Kaer Morhen includes a larger, more detailed view of the great hall, where Jaskier knows from speaking to Eskel most of the witchers were when Nilfgaard breached the keep. Yennefer hasn’t bothered to recreate the Yule decorations, but she has done most of the feast—“Forks can be weapons as well,” she explains, when Aiden asks. At the head table, at the left hand of the thronelike chair that must be Geralt’s, is the only figure in the whole display who’s been rendered in white—a girl frozen halfway to her feet who must be Cirilla.

She is, Jaskier knows, the truest mission behind this quest. Geralt wants to reclaim the keep, yes—he wants to bring his people home, bring them out of stasis, defeat the foes that dared trespass in his hall. But more than all of that, he wants his daughter.

And he’ll have her. If Jaskier has to take every Nilfgaardian sword in his own chest, Geralt will have his cub.

“There’s still the problem of the army marching on Kaer Morhen,” Eskel says, some hours later.

The sun has set, the windows out in the sitting room are pools of pitch. They’ve opened them all wide to let air pass through, to freshen up the place, and now the chambers smell of salt spray and sunbaked rock—a more pleasant option than sweaty, unwashed witcher. Food has been brought and brought away, Lambert has declined drink—a true mark of the seriousness of their task—and Vesemir, the last holdout, has finally declared them ready.

“We’ll have to face them inside the keep,” Vesemir says. “It’s our ground, our territory. Once we’ve retaken it—"

“Why should we bother facing them at all?” Yennefer interjects. “We’ll stop them before they even arrive.”

Geralt grunts, disagreeing. “If they can portal past the Killer—"

“Who said they can portal past the Killer?” Yennefer raises one eyebrow. “They might’ve been able to a few hundred years ago, but I’ve been warding up and down that mountain like all out lives depend on it—which they do. No one can portal in. Not even me.”

There’s a moment of silence, as the witchers process this new information.

Then Eskel says, “Well then. We can end them the same way they were planning on ending us, can’t we?” Geralt shoots him a questioning look, and he smiles. “Black powder. Zerrikanian alchemy.”

“You want to blow up the only road to the keep?” Renfri says, incredulous. “We’d trap ourselves.”

“Aye,” Eskel agrees. “But we can dig ourselves out come spring. We’ve done it before.”

When no more objections are forthcoming, everyone looks to Geralt. He’s still frowning at the model of the Kaer, at the great hall and the tiny porcelain figure of his daughter inside. There’s more resting on this for their king than for anyone else.

Finally he sighs, a thin release of air through his nose. “Well,” he says. “If no one’s got any better ideas.”

***

Come morning four days later they’re on the path, and Jaskier has never been so cold in his life.

Lambert assures him—laughing at his plight—that it’s not even really winter yet, that if it were winter it’d be a fucking blizzard and Jaskier would’ve lost at least three fingers by now, maybe a nose. That’s scant comfort when Jaskier’s wrapped in every item of clothing he owns and some he doesn’t, and still he’s shaking like a dead leaf in a thunderstorm, just barely clinging to the branch. Eskel’s explained that witcher mutagens keep them warmer in winter and colder in the summer, that even though Jaskier’s got the same body mass as Aiden and Lambert he hasn’t got the adaptation, but that doesn’t explain why Renfri and Yennefer both seem to be perfectly fine. “Women are tougher,” Renfri says with a shrug, when he points it out—Yennefer just smirks and pulls his frozen hand briefly into her orbit, letting him feel that she’s warming herself with magic. “You wench!” he accuses, and she just laughs.

When they stop for the midday meal, Jaskier sits hunched as close to the fire as he can reasonably get, breathing into his cupped hands and spreading his fingers in front of the flame. Geralt tugs open his saddle bags and steps around the ring of logs to drape him in a warm, fur-lined cloak. “Here,” he murmurs. “Keep you warm.”

It’s the cloak he bought all those months ago on the road south from Ard Carraigh, the one he traded his crown for. His smell is strong on it, and Jaskier hugs it tighter around himself, hiding his face in the lining of the hood. The cold gives him a good excuse to do it. “Thank you,” he says.

Geralt hms, and goes to sit next to Aiden. There’s barely been a moment to sleep, let alone talk since they decided on a plan, too many supplies to gather and things to put in place before they could set out, and as a result Jaskier hasn’t had a chance to speak to Geralt about what he said outside Yennefer’s rooms. He knows he has to, though. Even if it doesn’t make Geralt forgive him, he has to set the man right about thinking he somehow pressured Jaskier into wanting to stick his tongue down his throat, because really that couldn’t be further from the truth.

As they get underway again, hugging the icy edge of a cliff face, Jaskier knows he should be thinking on the epic ballad he’s going to write when this is all over—searching for the right words to evoke this moment, the howling wind and the fierce cut of northern air, the spectacular vista of the mountains which steals his breath whenever he finds solid footing long enough to look up, the crumbling stones of a path which has not been trod for half a millennium and the noble silhouette of the ancient king, going intrepidly ahead of the rest to make sure the way is safe. He’ll have to leave out Lambert and Aiden’s traveling game, of course, which is to try and best each other for baudiest limerick, and the fact that Yennefer has so much mud caked on her skirts by the halfway mark that she has to borrow a pair of Renfri’s trousers, but all those thoughts register distantly at the back of his mind, like a signal fire not meant for him in a moonless night, faint and decidedly not urgent.

His waking self has retreated to a small, heated room, a bed warmed by the Beltane fires. He feels the shape of Geralt’s face pressed against his throat, the tidal motion of Geralt breathing above him, Jaskier’s hands rising and falling with his ribcage. I want to see you grow old, Geralt says, in the calm quiet place between their faces, where the roaring wind on the Killer cannot reach them. And in memory Jaskier doesn’t say anything back, because the next time he says something back he wants to choose the right words.

At night they make camp in a rock hollow too shallow to truly be called a cave, which offers just enough protection that the wind is a distant thunder, instead of a close one.

“One thing we haven’t figured out,” Vesmir says, when supper is finished and they’re all still huddled around the fire, putting off the prospect of trying to sleep. “How did they get into the keep to begin with?”

He’s looking at Yennefer as he asks. She stares into the fire, flames shining in her violet eyes, and doesn’t answer for a long moment. There’s no sound but the wind and the snap of kindling, and Jaskier itches to fill the silence, but he doesn’t.

At last Yennefer says, “Someone let them in.”

“No,” Geralt says, at once. “None of my people would do that.”

“They might not have done it on purpose,” Yennefer argues. “There are spells that can warp the mind. Make you do unnatural things. Like Axii, but much worse. They may not even have known what they were doing, taking down the wards.” She rubs a hand over her face, tired, and Jaskier feels a pang of sympathy for her—this woman who has spent centuries alone, with nothing to do but worry her own failures, her own private losses, like a tongue poking at loose teeth. “I’ve wracked my brain trying to remember who wasn’t at the feast, who might’ve slipped out unnoticed for a few minutes, but it was so long ago…”

“Not for us,” Eskel points out.

Yennefer’s eyes go to him, wary. “No,” she says, cautious, like she doesn’t want to grab the lifeline only to have it break. “No, you’re right. If I can look in each of your minds, I might be able to piece it together and find something.”

Eskel looks to Geralt—who, after a moment, nods.

Yennefer sets up shop a small ways away, affording the witchers what privacy she can, and one by one each of them go to her to be probed. It doesn’t look like much, but then Jaskier’s discovered most magic doesn’t. Yennefer places her hands on either side of their faces and closes her eyes, dipping into memory with a few murmured words. Each man comes back looking shaky and pale, like they’ve gazed upon something harrowing, and Jaskier supposes they have—the violation of their hearth, the slaughter of their kinfolk, the black-armored monsters charging into their keep.

Geralt goes last, tilting his face up to Yennefer in a way that must be familiar, for how it makes her smile faintly. Jaskier averts his eyes, goes back to the game of shah that he and Renfri have devised with a handful of metal buttons and rocks, but before long Yennefer exclaims quietly and snatches her hands back from Geralt’s skin as if burned.

“Yen?” Geralt’s golden eyes are wide and concerned. He goes to his feet, reaching for her, but she steps out of his reach and he drops his arms immediately, flinching. Jaskier goes to his feet, too, but Renfri stills him with a hand on his leg.

“I’m sorry,” Yennefer says, after a moment. She takes a deep breath and lets it out, shaky, like a child taking their first breath after a long, painful cry. “Gods, Geralt, there’s something in your head. It was you.”

There’s a moment of devastation on Geralt’s face like nothing Jaskier has ever seen. Then he shuts down.

“Get it out,” he says.

Yennefer shakes her head. “It’s intricate magic. I’ll have to prepare, otherwise it will be excruciating, like surgery without ether—”

“I don’t care,” Geralt growls, like a blow. “Get it out.

Yennefer presses her lips together so hard they turn white, and nods.

They roll out three bedrolls side by side, so Yennefer has space to kneel next to Geralt and work. Eskel and Lambert are prevailed upon to hold him down, and Geralt lays flat on his back, a strip of leather between his teeth, glaring determinedly at the stone roof of the cave. Jaskier wants to hold him, wants to stay by his side, but Yennefer won’t let any of the rest of them near so all he can do is stand by the fire, Renfri’s arm tight around his shoulders and his own arms tight around himself, and watch.

It's awful. Tears stream down Yennefer’s face as she works, her brow twisted, but she never stops, never breaks. Geralt’s muscles spasm like he’s being tortured on the rack, the tendons on his neck so taut Jaskier worries they’ll snap. He screams through the leather, garbled and wordless, and when he runs out of energy for that he just breathes hard, like a horse laboring up a hill under too much weight, nostrils flaring, chest heaving. Eskel and Lambert press down hard on his shoulders, keeping him from moving even as he bucks and fights against them, boot heels scraping through the frozen mud, and Renfri tries to get Jaskier to look away but he won’t, he refuses. If the man he loves has to go through this, then Jaskier will go through it, too. He won’t abandon him.

It feels like hours, but it must only be a few minutes before Yennefer is finished. She draws her hands away—Geralt going immediately limp on the bedroll—gets unsteadily to her feet, staggers out of the cave and falls to her knees again, vomiting.

Aiden goes after her. In the cave, Eskel and Lambert let go. Lambert reaches over and squeezes Eskel’s shoulder, mutters Alright? and gets a shaky nod in return, Eskel’s face drained completely of blood. As they move away, Jaskier shoves out of Renfri’s hold and fills the void left by their absence, kneeling beside Geralt.

His breathing is shallow, his eyes barely open. Before Jaskier even speaks, Geralt reaches out and grabs onto him, his hand fisted in the fabric at Jaskier’s side. “Oh, love,” Jaskier murmurs, heartbroken. “I’m here. I’m right here.”

He leans back against the wall of the cave and pulls Geralt up into his lap, laying with his head on Jaskier’s stomach. As the others trickle back in and start to go to sleep, leaving the fire to burn, he cards his fingers through Geralt’s sweaty hair and sings softly under his breath, anything he can think of, childhood lullabies and My Achy Heart Can’t Take No More and Hey, Hey, A Toss In The Hay, which at least makes Geralt huff gently against him, amused. Eventually one of Geralt’s arms comes to wrap around Jaskier’s waist beneath his cloak, his fingers weak against Jaskier’s spine, his strength coming back as a slow drip; eventually he turns his face into Jaskier’s chest, the shape of his nose pressing clearly even through three tunics, and breathes like he’s relaxing in his scent; eventually he murmurs, “Jaskier,” once, tender and apologetic and grateful all at once, and he doesn’t say anything else. He doesn’t have to. Jaskier talks for the both of them, says, “I have you, darling,” and the White Wolf falls asleep like that, wrapped in a humble bard’s arms.

***

On what Jaskier is assured will be their last day on the Killer, two days after the ground becomes too treacherous to ride and they're forced to set their horses loose, they come to a section of the path that has collapsed completely. The entire mountainside has crumbled into a ravine, the cliff they’ve been traversing blocked by a pile of rubble. Lambert sums up the problem fairly succinctly when he declares, “Well, we’re all fucking dead.”

“Shut it, Lam,” Geralt grumbles. He forces his way to the front of the pack from back where he’d been walking with Jaskier, jostling and shouldering through his witchers to get a good look at the obstacle. “We’ll belay around.”

“Sorry,” Jaskier pipes up, from the back. “We’ll do what?”

Geralt gives him a steady, quelling look. A look that says Calm down, I’ve got you.

Which is how Jaskier ends up tied to Geralt with a bloody rope, preparing to climb over a pile of unstable avalanche ten thousand feet above the ground. Granted, they’re also tied to everyone else, but Geralt’s judged correctly that Jaskier’s never been much of a mountain climber—has never, in fact, been on a mountain before this past week—and thus, as the weak link in this daisy chain, ought to be mostly carried. Somehow it doesn’t make Jaskier feel that much better about what they’re about to do, but he forces the anxiety down like a mouthful of bile. No use quaking in his boots when he’s got no other options.

Apparently he doesn’t shove it down effectively enough though, because Geralt says, “Jask,” and puts a heavy hand on his shoulder.

Jaskier realizes he’s shaking badly, so badly he’s about to vibrate out of his skin, which is embarrassing enough that he feels he has to muster a smile to cover it up. “I’m alright,” he lies. “Not too keen on heights, that’s all.”

Geralt’s face softens. He doesn’t offer any words of comfort, for which Jaskier’s grateful, since they wouldn’t be true anyways and since it would feel wrong to receive platitudes from this man, of all people. He only takes Jaskier’s shoulders in his hands, squeezes once, and lets go, like that should be enough to set him right.

“Good,” Jaskier says, mostly to himself. “Right. Okay. Shall we, then?”

The others have all crossed over ahead of them, the idea being that if Jaskier bites it and plunges into the abyss they’ll have better luck pulling him back up if they’re all on one side. Jaskier tries very hard not to think about that as he inches out onto the rocks ahead of Geralt—who directs him calmly and clearly where to place his feet, which rocks to use as handholds, staying close at his side as they move further and further out over the drop.

Jaskier’s almost convinced himself they’re going to make it across without incident when his foot comes down on the wrong rock, Geralt barking, “Fuck, not that one—” and the entire pile goes out from under them.

All the air goes out of Jaskier’s lungs, so fast he can’t even scream.

He feels the rope around his waist give a sharp tug, tearing Geralt from the mountain with him.

Geralt shouts something—he can’t make out the words, but he vaguely registers the sound—and twists to put his body between Jaskier and the mountain as they reach the end of the rope and swing back hard, colliding with the cliffside.

After a while, Jaskier comes back to himself, and realizes they’re not dead.

They’re not much better off than if they were dead, dangling ten thousand feet above nothing but open air, only a length of rope looped under their arms to suspend them, but for now at least, they’re alive. Geralt’s arms are strong around his waist, and even though Jaskier is so terrified that his body feels like it’s turned into a wisp of smoke, that does something to ease him.

“Alright?” Geralt rumbles.

Jaskier nods, face hidden in his chest.

Someone shouts down from above—Jaskier’s too out of it with shock to hear what they’re saying, but Geralt takes care of shouting back. There’s a tentative tug on the rope, lifting their feet an inch in the empty air, and then the rest of their party begins to heave in earnest, tugging them up.

It’s slow going, and every jerky advancement makes Jaskier think of the rope braced against the corner of the cliff—perhaps fraying, perhaps unwinding slowly, perhaps about to drop them to their untimely deaths. His heartbeat must give him away, how it stops for a moment every time they lurch upwards, because Geralt says, “Talk to me.”

Jaskier laughs, high-pitched, a bit manic. “About what?” he manages to say.

“Anything,” Geralt returns. His voice is casual, as if they’re doing nothing more dramatic than taking a stroll, and Jaskier loves him for it just as much as he wants to strangle him for it. “What were you really trying to tell me, with The Ballad of the White Wolf?

“You want to do this now?” Jaskier says, incredulous.

Geralt gives a little motion that would be a shrug, if they weren’t hanging from a rope. “Good a time as any.”

Jaskier makes an exasperated sound. Their bodies are as close together as two bodies have ever been—closer than Jaskier’s gotten with most sexual partners, brought together by gravity and his own desperation—they’re a hair’s breadth away from horrible death, and Geralt somehow wants to talk about his feelings. Jaskier loves him so much he feels hysterical with it.

“I was trying to tell you I love you,” he says. It feels odd to tell someone he loves them without looking in their eyes, but he’s not about to raise his head from Geralt’s chest for anything, so he babbles on, “I’m sorry I chose the wrong words at Beltane, but I only meant that I love you, and that I think this feeling is too large to be normal, and that if I end up having to die for something it really wouldn’t feel right to die for anything else, because there’s nothing else that matters. Just you, Geralt. Only you.”

Geralt doesn’t say anything.

Jaskier fills the silence. “Also, you cannot tell me I shouldn’t be willing to die for you, because I think you’ve just proven that you’d be willing to die for me as well and it would be very hypocritical—”

“I don’t deserve you,” Geralt interrupts, stiffly. “You deserve better than me.”

Jaskier does lift his head, then, because it would be unconscionable not to meet Geralt’s eyes. He is still petrified, and if he glances past their feet at the foggy abyss he’ll probably vomit all over both of them, but Geralt is spouting complete and utter nonsense and it’s very important that he stop.

It makes his stomach lurch to do it, but Jaskier unwinds his arms from around Geralt’s neck to hold his face in his hands instead. He possibly holds his face a bit too tight, but they’re still very high up and his heart is racing so he feels he can be excused.

“You don’t have to earn my love, Geralt,” he says. “You don’t have to deserve it. That’s not how love works.”

Geralt rests their foreheads together.

“I love you because you’re you,” Jaskier continues. “You’re cranky and infuriating and brave and kind, and even though you’re not the most thrilling conversationalist, you’re the best man I’ve ever known—and that’s all you have to be. That’s all you ever have to be to make me love you.”

The wind howls around them, buffeting them on the rope, whistling past the cliff face, but in the safe harbor between their faces all is still and peaceful. Geralt’s arms are busy holding Jaskier’s waist—and thank the gods he doesn’t move them—but he nuzzles his nose against Jaskier’s cheek, so gentle and deliberate that the air catches in his throat.

“Jaskier,” he says, and in the next moment they’re kissing.

It’s not a comforting kiss, or even a particularly nice one. It feels to Jaskier like lighting himself on fire, or jumping gleefully from a great height, or standing naked in a lightning storm. It’s a kiss that awakens his entire self, a kiss that lays the world out at his feet. He has the sense that he has to tell Geralt something and that this is going to be his only chance to do it, that the only language he has at his disposal is hands and tongues, so he sinks his hands in Geralt’s hair and sinks his tongue in Geralt’s mouth and does his best to devour him.

Geralt kisses back, his lips promising all sorts of things that Jaskier worries, with a slow sinking feeling in his gut, he’ll never have a chance to give him. He feels like a brigand, like a thief making away in the night—he has to get the most that he can now and get out, because he won’t get a second shot at this. He won’t get to try again later.

“Geralt,” he breathes when they part, reverent, but Geralt doesn’t let him say anything else—he nuzzles back in and kisses him again, less desperately this time, lips soft.

Above them, the others give one final heave, dragging them up onto solid ground.

They sprawl out in the snow, still tangled together for a long moment even after they’re safe. Geralt presses a kiss to Jaskier’s upper lip, his cheek, his frosted eyelashes, like a mother lion licking over its cub looking for injuries.  

“Alright?” he murmurs, privately between them, and waits until Jaskier nods and says, “Yeah. Yeah, alright,” before he moves away.

No one gives them any shit—not even Renfri, who Jaskier can tell from the mean twinkle in her eye really wants to. They untangle themselves from the belay rope and set out again, a half day’s walk to the Kaer. Geralt goes back to leading the pack, leaving Jaskier at the back with Renfri and Lambert, but he pulls Jaskier into a hard, bracing kiss before he goes, and when he draws back he holds his gaze for a long second, eyes speaking.

“Got it,” Jaskier says, swallowing.

“Hm,” Geralt says, and stomps back through the ranks.

“What have you got?” Renfri pipes in, when they’re alone.

“No idea,” Jaskier admits.

She snorts.

They do make it to the keep by nightfall—or rather, they make it to the patch of mountainous terrain that looks to Jaskier the same as every other patch of mountainous terrain they’ve trekked through to get here, which the witchers all assure him is the location of Kaer Morhen. Yennefer begs off unfreezing the keep tonight, since they’re all exhausted and since she needs to refuel for a spell so large anyways, so they make camp with what scant supplies they’ve managed to haul with them on foot, most of them sleeping two to a bedroll to conserve warmth. Renfri, because she is contrary, instead buries herself under a mound of pine branches, but Jaskier knows from experience if her lips start to turn blue she’ll admit defeat and bunk up with someone, so he’s not worried, and feels no guilt whatsoever abandoning her to burrow under Geralt’s arm.

He sleeps easily, peacefully and without nightmares, even out in the freezing air and the howling wind, Geralt’s cloak pulled tight around him and Geralt’s body turned towards his—until in the middle of the night he feels a hand on his shoulder and something holding his mouth shut, preventing him from making a sound even as he shocks awake.

It’s Yennefer, crouched over them in the moonlight. She releases the muting spell once he sees her, but holds a finger to her lips and then draws it across her throat, signalling both quiet and that she’ll fucking murder him if he doesn’t obey. Jaskier’s spent the last week or so learning that Yennefer is terrifying and also bloody good on her word, so he doesn’t make a peep as he slips out of Geralt’s arms, careful not to wake him, and follows her away from camp.

“You’d better have a good reason for this,” he hisses, when they’re far enough away. “I was very warm back there and it’s too cold to be fucking about in the middle of the night.”

“I needed to talk with you,” Yennefer says, arms wrapped tight around herself, hunched in her purple cloak. “Alone.”

A frisson of anxiety runs down the back of Jaskier’s neck. “Well,” he says, faux-jaunty, “you’ve got me. What is it?”

There’s something heavy behind Yennefer’s face. “The part of the Domesday Spell that put the Kaer under the mountain,” she says. “It’s linked to the part of the spell that put Geralt to sleep. It’s built on the same base.”

True Love, Jaskier remembers, but—“I don’t understand.”

“The magic that woke Geralt is the only magic that can wake the keep,” Yennefer says, biting, like a professor who’s mad at him for not keeping up. “It has to have the same signature. It has to be yours, Jaskier.”

Jaskier shakes his head, lost. “I’m not a sorcerer.”

“I know,” she snaps. “I’m not expecting you to cast any spells, I’m saying that I have to cast through you. I have to channel the spell through you, I have to use your energies to wake the mountain—and you’re only human.”

“What does that mean?” Jaskier asks, after a moment.

Yennefer, to her credit, doesn’t sugarcoat it. “It means you might not survive the process. It means I need you to take that risk and be willing make that sacrifice. That we all need you to make that sacrifice, or everything we’ve done will be for nothing.”

“And you waited until Geralt was asleep to tell me,” Jaskier infers, “because he won’t like it.”

“I think that’s an understatement,” Yennefer says, humorless.

Jaskier stares out at the night. He can’t see anything, really, can only barely make out the snowcaps of the mountains shining silvery in the moonlight, but he feels strangely calm, as if he’s climbed out of fear to a place he’s never been before.

Cirilla, he thinks. Cirilla, with the question mark.

If he doesn’t do this, Geralt never gets to go home. None of them ever get to go home.

Yennefer doesn’t push him, doesn’t repeat herself. All she says is, “I’m sorry. It was supposed to be me.”

Jaskier nods. After a long minute he looks back at her, resolved. “I’ll do it,” he says. “When do we start?”

Yennefer gives him a long, grim look. For the first time in his life, he thinks maybe he knows what it feels like to ride into hopeless battle, to look to your right and find your bandmate looking back and know that you’re both about to die, but that it doesn’t matter, since the cause and the company are both good.

“Now,” Yennefer says. “We start now.”

Chapter Text

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.