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Learning Curve

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The air smells strange, the scent of rotten eggs and bile sitting thick on the back of Yennefer’s tongue. Her skin flakes with the whispers of the Deathless Mother’s gratitude. Riders on horseback appear on the horizon, charging through the acrid smoke, heralding destruction on a level she has never seen before—not even when she emptied herself of all her magic at Sodden.

Ciri begins reciting the Elder that Yennefer made her repeat countless times, casting a spell to direct energy at a target and throw it backwards. Ciri’s words are correct, but her inflection is wrong—

Ciri shakes like the leaves of a tree rather than being the one who controls the storm. The air crackles and Yennefer is thrown backwards, landing hard. She sits up, dazed—

and the riders—

They’re close. Too close. Ciri’s error has brought the demon riders closer.

Geralt appears at their side, raising his sword. Yennefer scrambles to her feet, chanting quickly and casts a defensive barrier around Ciri and Geralt. The shield goes up, encircling them with Yennefer’s protection, a shimmer that looks murky and strange beneath the foreign sun, like curdled water of a bog. The riders of death continue their charge, unrelenting and unconcerned.

An old pain shoots down Yennefer’s spine and through her pelvis, a white-hot whip cracking inside her conduits—

—and the protective barrier disintegrates around them.

Yennefer sways in agony. Ciri pulls her sword from her scabbard, standing in a mirror perfect stance of Geralt, tears of blood dribbling down her cheeks. She looks like an old Skelligan god.

Yennefer is certain the Wild Hunt is not afraid of the gods, old or new.

“No,” Yennefer whispers as the demon riders knock Geralt aside like he is a ragdoll, and the lead rider scoops Ciri from the ground, a portal opening inhumanly fast. Yennefer tries for another spell but the chaos is a bundle of nails raking her from the inside, snagging in her conduits and ricocheting through her body.

Yennefer vomits from the pain while the Wild Hunt disappears with Ciri and the portal closes.

Before she has caught her breath, Yennefer has lost Ciri.

Hot acid burns her tongue and she wobbles on her feet, only to gasp at the shocking cold that pierces her. Yennefer looks down at what she’s brought upon herself: a steel blade jutting from her stomach.

Yennefer’s eyes well with hot tears, but the coldness moving through her is a terrifying reprieve from the deeper agony inside her body.

Geralt grunts and pulls the blade from her. Yennefer clutches her stomach and her hands come away wet and crimson. Her vision blurs even as the world narrows.

“You failed to teach her,” Geralt says from behind Yennefer, his voice heavy and anguished. “You were supposed to protect Ciri. I should have never trusted you.”

Yennefer sucks in a breath, coughing up blood, and sways when she turns around.

The anger and resentment that plays out on Geralt’s face is hiding his despair.

“I’m sorry,” Yennefer says and sways. His eyes are unforgiving and cold as she tumbles to her knees.

Geralt walks away, his sword leaving a trail of her blood.

The Deathless Mother is gone, having escaped Yennefer’s body as soon as they arrived. There is no one she can turn to for help.

She’s so cold, so tired, and her chaos—Yennefer calls for it, but it doesn’t respond to her. Her limbs are too heavy to move.

Yennefer gags on a bubble of blood and a familiar sound reaches her ears. It’s the steady gait of boots striking the floor, a familiar echo muffled by the narrow corridors of Aretuza’s dormitories, and it’s so out of place and uncanny. She blinks at the vast wasteland in confusion, and the dread and anger she associates with the person who wears those boots chokes her more than the blood in her mouth.

Tissaia strides into view and she stares down at Yennefer.

“I should have left you with the other girls in the pool at Aretuza. Then your life would have meant something,” she says, her voice dripping with condescension.

There’s no life in Tissaia’s eyes, only disappointment.

A blackness pulsates in and out of Yennefer’s vision, deep and cold, suffocating, and—

 

Yennefer jerked awake, the blackness swallowing her, and the pressure on her chest sent her into a panic. She flailed hard enough that her pillow fell to the floor.

She was in bed, the blankets kicked away, her body shaking with cold and fear. Every breath hurt more than the last.

She needed to find Ciri. She needed to create a portal and find where the Wild Hunt had taken her. Yennefer could possibly track Ciri’s blood, if any was left behind.

It was dark. Too fucking dark.

Aenye,” Yennefer rasped, conjuring the light of the nearby candle, and she cried out when it flickered to life. Fiery needles cascaded through her body, leaving a furious vertigo in its wake. She gritted her teeth and sat up, looking around, determined to stand and fight.

Her vision swam and the candle dimly illuminated her room in the Blue Mountains, in the heart of the dilapidated witcher’s keep. Not a wasteland of a dream where she died under Tissaia’s disappointed gaze.

The dizziness began to fade when Yennefer finally managed a deep, shaking breath, but the knotted pain in her chest remained. There was no hint of sulfur from the otherworldly domain in the air. No distant taste of salt in the air that reminded her of Aretuza. No blood or bile in her mouth. Only the biting chill of winter. Memories came to her like the shear of a portal coalescing.

That first week at Kaer Morhen had been heavy with grief and the scent of the funeral pyres as the witchers burned their dead. Yennefer warded the keep against intruders, Geralt comforted Ciri, Jaskier hovered in orbit, looking decidedly bored and stressed in turns as he performed manual labor to help put the great hall back together, and the other witchers cleaned up and pretended they were moving forward.

The following two weeks Yennefer had been conducting magic lessons with Ciri and strategizing with Geralt where their next steps would take them to keep Ciri safe. During those sessions Jaskier had been invaluable with his recent insights of what leaders or band of mercenaries were vying to take advantage of the tensions right now. Geralt and Yennefer needed to know what routes to avoid and where they could potentially lie low with Ciri if they needed a new place to hide.

Yennefer’s heart thumped erratically as she slipped her coat over her nightgown. Ciri was alive and safe in the keep. The nightmare was a dream. A recurring one, but it was still difficult to shake. Her skin ached when she stared at the candlelight.

There was little she could do about her frustrations. Yennefer had to condense years of training into what might only be months for Ciri. It didn’t matter that Yennefer could no longer cast even a simple spell without some kind of feedback—some strange aftertaste or tinnitus, if not a physical pain—she had a job to do. The effects would fade, eventually, and she had been documenting the effects and bracing for the strangeness when she was doing practical demonstrations in case she could find a pattern.

Yennefer grabbed the candle from the desk and stared into it.

She could pace the room like a caged animal, or toss and turn for the rest of the night. She could go down to the alchemy lab and work on her next lesson on charms, or some mild glamours. She could spend some time on her plan to have Ciri ambushed by a witcher to gain more experience in reacting with her magical tactics.

Every option was unappealing. The lab would be so fucking cold and Yennefer wasn’t sure she wanted to heat the lab and work there with the low-grade nausea such a spell would cause to settle in her gut. She could bundle up and work in the cold…but she wasn’t sure she could focus on what needed to get done. She didn’t want to work alone in her dreary room. She was tired, her nerves frayed.

Instead Yennefer could find her way to a warm bed and warmer body.

Like she had done after she had visited Ciri’s repressed memories of the Deathless Mother; the weight of Ciri’s pain had followed Yennefer to consciousness, suffocating her with dread and despair.

Like she had done after she’d spent hours in an abandoned wing of the keep, literally tearing herself apart, casting spell after spell, not understanding why the pain and odd side effects came and went, idiosyncratic and unnatural through her body, leaving her fatigued and bleary with sensory overload and confusion.

Like she had done on other nights after she died upon Geralt’s blade in dream after dream and woke up in a bed of regrets and cold sweat.

Yennefer’s fears danced in the shadows, peripheral and patient as the Deathless Mother, and she needed help to cast them away. She donned her boots and made the long trek to Jaskier’s room. With every step the remnants of the nightmare clawed at her and she resented the trembling candlelight that drove her even faster to her destination.

The fire in the hearth had burned low in the night, though it was considerably warmer than the corridor. Yennefer shut the door behind her and dropped a fresh log into the hearth and strode to the bed, kicking off her boots along the way.

A dozen candles sat on a dirty platter on the bedside table, each one left from her previous visits from the last three weeks. Yennefer lit them all and added her newest candle to the collection. She turned to the huddled form that barely resembled a bard.

His bed was almost too small for two people, the pillows were shoddy, and Jaskier cuddled like a leech. Still, Yennefer felt a surge of relief when she crawled in behind him, moving blankets and Jaskier’s arm so he wouldn’t elbow her.

Jaskier stirred like he usually did, squeezing her fingers and rolling over until he faced her, little more than a grunting silhouette. His presence wasn’t really a familiar thing, but he was becoming a comfort that Yennefer didn’t want to acknowledge.

“Yen’fer,” he mumbled and scooted closer, his arm draping over her waist so easily, like it was something he’d done for years. She curled into him, fingers twisting into the warm shirt, and it stilled the jittering feeling in her hand.

“Nightmare?” Jaskier asked in that too-quiet knowing voice that made Yennefer wish she could pretend to be asleep already. She could refuse to answer, let him assume what he would. Even though he’d assumed correctly because he was becoming familiar with her evening routines, habits, and needs since they began their stay at Kaer Morhen.

Still, Yennefer was tired and annoyed that she felt abashed by her need to seek out his company, as soft and welcoming as it was. She pressed her face into the pillow beside him, feeling more exposed than when she was actually nude and sitting on his cock.

“No,” Yennefer lied, hooking a foot over Jaskier’s leg and pressing her toes against his bare calves. “I’m cold.”

“Icy feet, icy heart,” Jaskier said and she could hear the faint smile in his sleepy voice. “Warm you.” He exhaled into her neck and his warm breath continued soothing the worrying ache in her body. It was still so strange to be this drawn to him. She couldn’t think about it too much.

“You need to stop stealing the blankets,” Yennefer said and rolled away, deliberately tugging the blankets off Jaskier and cocooning, knowing he would be unable to resist curling into her.

“My bed, my blankets,” Jaskier said, and tucked himself tight behind her, helping himself to the blankets and her body. His hand idly moved across her stomach and she winced, her mind drawn to the blade that Geralt had skewered her with.

She elbowed Jaskier and rolled onto her stomach, keeping her face turned away from him. He grumbled wordlessly and draped himself half-atop of her, his hand smoothing up her back until his fingers wound their way into her hair, scratching at her scalp. She was an Aretuza-trained sorceress that had leveled the Nilfgaardian Army with fire magic and had become a vessel for the Deathless Mother, yet she felt powerless against the sigh that escaped her lips.

“You’re like a grumpy cat,” Jaskier said into her hair and Yennefer could hear the smile in his voice. He was a solid weight pinning her to the bed, the pressure snuffing out the anxiety in her veins.

“You’re going to wake up as a cat if you don’t stop talking,” she said, mostly into the pillow, but Jaskier seemed to hear her anyway because he chuckled quietly.

Jaskier’s fingers continued their gentle, winding path against her skull. “Witches need their familiars.” The smug affection would have rubbed Yennefer the wrong way if she wasn’t already falling asleep.


The aching pressure on her hip woke Yennefer but she was so, so warm beneath blankets and limbs that she was insulated from most of the pain. She opened her eyes and the room was filled with a soft, gray light of dawn.

Yennefer looked down at the lump of Jaskier who clung to her like an octopus, his arm slung across her waist, leg half-thrown over her thigh and forehead tucked into her chest. The intimacy took her breath away; Jaskier was heavy and Yennefer really should move so she could fill her lungs and regain sensation, but the longer she remained still and listened to his slow and steady breath, she found herself breathing in tandem with him.

She dozed lightly until the pins and needles along her arm became too difficult to ignore. Yennefer reached over with her free hand and gently tugged on Jaskier’s ear. When he didn’t stir, she tugged a little harder and dragged her finger along the shell and tickled his lobe with her pinky. Jaskier grunted, burying his face into her chest and tightening his embrace.

“My hand’s asleep, you overgrown hangnail,” she said, but there was no heat to the words, only a quiet fondness that would have felt foreign on her tongue six weeks ago. He mumbled something, his lips moving against the fabric of her nightgown, but Yennefer couldn’t make it out. She ran her hand through his hair and scratched the nape of his neck, trying to rouse him further. At least that’s what she told herself, despite knowing he would just snuggle in more.

“Mmm,” Jaskier said.

“I can’t feel my fingers,” she added mildly, and did her best to move her hand where it was tucked beside her thigh and Jaskier’s hip. He rocked gently against her with a delighted whimper. It gave her just enough space to pull her arm free and Jaskier fumbled for her hand, and she had expected him to lace their fingers together and was surprised when began massaging her knuckles instead.

“Can’t that. Have that,” he mumbled, still-half asleep. “Need these for another day of teaching. Brewing potions. Magic it up with Ciri. Witchiness.”

Jaskier pushed down the blanket and waggled Yennefer’s fingers at her. He did a silly swoop with her wrist and it was clearly meant to be cute—except she had spent the entire week helping Ciri adjust her posture to help channel her chaos, turning her wrists and correcting the angles of her hands, only for the spells to shrivel and fail. Ciri couldn’t find her balance and direct the magic the way she intended. Yennefer had let Ciri push herself too much. It only made things worse when objects around them began to explode in unexpected ways. Each lesson ended with Ciri stalking off to the training course, confused and upset in a way that left Yennefer weary and frustrated.

So she had no patience for wrists and hands right now, not even Jaskier’s, if he wasn’t putting them to good use. She didn’t want to think about her current failures or the day ahead, and she wanted Jaskier not to touch her hands when he could be touching other places. Yennefer pulled free of Jaskier’s hand and dragged her fingers down his chest, loosening the laces of his braies and reaching for his cock.

“That’s—oh,” he whispered and rolled onto his side, arching into Yennefer, “one way to wake up your hand.” He leaned over and captured her lips for a slow and uncoordinated kiss.

Yennefer rolled onto her side too, to face him, and leaned into his touch, warm and eager and wanting. She stroked his cock, enjoying the stiffness growing in her hand, and she drank the indelicate sounds he made.

“You’re the best thing to wake up to,” Jaskier mumbled, pushing her nightgown up to her waist and circling her navel with his fingers. His nose bumped her nose and cheek, but he kept kissing anyway.

“Sure you’re awake enough for this?” Yennefer asked. She pumped him a little harder and his punched out groan made her smile wickedly. Jaskier pulled her thigh up over his hip and sighed against her cheek. His cock was warm and heavy in her hand, and she twisted her wrist, eliciting a weak rumble from him.

“Are you?” he asked, his voice still rough with sleep. Jaskier slid his hand into her knickers, slowly threading his fingers in the curls between her legs, and heat pooled in her gut in anticipation. He pulled on her pubic hair and Yennefer grunted in surprise. Jaskier rubbed her clit vigorously. The jolt of pain and pleasure made her grit her teeth and she kissed him even harder.

She didn’t know how long they went on like that, with deep and slow kisses and grinding into each other’s hands, but it felt like an eternity. Jaskier was quiet and unhurried as he kneaded her clit, eventually moving faster and harder, alternating between index and middle fingers, like he was playing off her gasping breaths. She dimly realized she would never be able to watch him play the lute the same way again.

Yennefer rocked into his hand, the pleasure and heat spreading through her body. She thumbed the head of his cock and traced his length, giving his balls a cursory touch. She shoved his braies further down so she’d have more space to fondle him and Jaskier wiggled, kicking them away. There was a shock of cold as the blanket got pulled down to their chests, but he was solid and warm pressed against her when he pulled them back up right away.

Jaskier kissed her eyelid and temple, and his fingers found a new rhythm, passing over her clit and opening.

Yennefer rolled her hips, her own fingers wandering behind Jaskier’s balls, circling that sweet spot. If he was going to fucking tease her, she would tease him just as well.

“Mmm,” Jaskier whimpered, his hand stilling over her opening as Yennefer pressed down behind his balls. She stroked evenly and long enough against his perineum that his eyes scrunched closed and he gripped the inside of her thigh.

“Good morni—greatest. Greatest morning,” he said, his words jumbling together. Jaskier opened his eyes and they were hazy with lust. Yennefer curled her leg tighter over his hip, caging him close to her body. She rocked against his hand, done with teasing and needing him to get with the fucking program because she was boiling in her veins. Yennefer was ready to pin him to the bed, sink down on his cock and take what she needed, but she was so sluggish to do anything but breathe.

“Comefuckingon,” Yennefer muttered and fisted Jaskier’s hair. His eyes widened ever so slightly, getting the picture, because he plunged two fingers inside, thrusting fast to match the growing desperation in her.

Yennefer moaned, clutching the back of his neck and clenching down on his hand. Jaskier’s lips parted, eyes locked on Yennefer, angling his fingers just fucking right.

She faded in and out, bleary with the heat and arousal until he stopped to give his wrist a break. Yennefer could almost touch her orgasm, she was so close. Jaskier kissed her until she was breathless and raw. She pulled on his hair again and glared at him, aching for more.

“Fuck,” she grunted. Jaskier wasn’t teasing now, his fingers thrusting unrelentingly hard, and that was the push she needed. Yennefer shook in Jaskier’s embrace and tipped over the edge, writhing and closing her eyes, the orgasm slowing everything down again.

He kissed the hinge of her jaw and Yennefer wallowed in the crest of pleasure that overcame her. Jaskier pulled his fingers free, smearing her wetness along her thighs and quickly racing over her clit, shoving her into the next wave of orgasm; it was mild and unyielding and Yennefer dug her toes into the back of his leg and kissed his neck, warm and light-headed upon fingers that coaxed her through it all.

Jaskier’s fingers seemed to be everywhere at the same time, thigh, hip, breasts, neck, and Yennefer sighed, letting her own hand skate down his back. Jaskier’s cock was still hard and brushed her stomach, stoking the heat inside her.

She tried guiding him into her but Jaskier pulled away and pressed the head of his cock to her clit and kissed her neck lazily.

“Do you need a fucking map?” Yennefer snapped. He laughed quietly and caught her mouth again. They were barely moving except for Jaskier’s fingers that slipped back inside of her, and the dancing of his eyes.

“I’m drawing a map,” he said. Jaskier kissed her cheek and eyebrow and pulled his hand free and traced a lazy, meandering path up her body, dragging the slick around her breast. He pinched her nipple and the touch sent a cascading twinge to her core.

Yennefer pulled even harder on his hair. “You’re not going to make me beg,” she said.

“Wouldn’t dream of it,” Jaskier said, and kissed the corner of her mouth. “Ready,” he said—or asked—Yennefer couldn’t be certain because his cock brushed her clit, inching closer to her. She kissed him furiously, but he slowed the kiss and cradled the back of her skull with so much gentleness that it felt impossible for her to burn any hotter.

Jaskier rocked against her once, his cock sliding over her opening, and he pressed his forehead to hers. “You’re more brilliant than any dream.”

He finally pushed his cock inside and it was tight and hot and more perfect for all the fucking teasing that she endured.

Yennefer tipped his head back and Jaskier stared at her. His eyes were wide and his jaw slack, like he was the one who’d been teased for too long. He was so hard, and she was so fucking full, and they were so fucking still.

Yennefer pressed down on his carotid and found his pulse thrumming as fast as hers. His skin was hot, his breath was as heavy as her own, and she didn’t know how he hadn’t driven himself mad with lust. Jaskier’s mouth turned up briefly as he watched her survey him. The smirk was unbearable. She bit his chin, a little harder than anticipated, because gods she was so fucking aroused and didn’t know how much more she could take. Jaskier mewled, undignified and amused and Yennefer gasped—or laughed—when he bucked into her in retaliation.

“More bite-y than a nightmare, stronger than one,” Jaskier said, a little quieter, against her cheek. He continued thrusting into her, and his fingers explored up and down her body. Yennefer’s pleasure shadowed every touch, following Jaskier like he was the fucking pied piper of orgasms.

“Fucking poetry,” she rasped and grabbed his ass and took control of the pace, rocking her hips to meet his cock. Jaskier tried to match her, breathing heavy against her neck. She lost herself, chasing her next orgasm and the pleasure was slow to build, but the ache was so fucking good. She wanted—needed—more, to reach that next wave of pleasure. Yennefer rocked even faster. Jaskier’s panting quickly receded into grunts and he clutched her hip, trying to slow her.

“Yennef—wait,” he said. “Please.” His voice was low and pleading, stoking her frustration and arousal. She thumbed the grain of his cheek, remembering how good it felt between her legs the last time she’d found her way to his bed.

He pulled his cock free and the shock of emptiness made her dig her fingers into his cheek. She was going to break a finger or his cock if she couldn’t—

“Roll over? I think, yeah,” Jaskier said, and his deep, open-mouthed kiss stifled her objection because his fingers roughly circled her clit and her brain stalled again. She rolled onto her back and to her other side, not so obediently for how roughly she yanked Jaskier along with her, keeping his hand pinned to her clit.

“Like this,” he said, and it was less of a suggestion, more polite urgency when he wrestled his hand free and pulled Yennefer’s leg up. “Hold, please.” Jaskier wiggled his fingers behind her knee. Yennefer fumbled for her knee and Jaskier quickly pushed his cock back inside, and the new angle was deep and beyond perfect.

Tucked up close and tight behind her, Jaskier buried his face into her neck and slowly began thrusting. Yennefer was panting unevenly against every push that seemed to go deeper and harder. She cursed sharply when Jaskier’s hand found its way back to her clit and began unraveling her from both ends. Slowly and surely Jaskier carried her through another slow, orgasmic wave with languid thrusts and frantic pressure on her clit.

Yennefer turned her face and Jaskier kissed her for minutes between thrusts. He groped her breast and danced around her clit. It no longer mattered how slow and long they’d been at it, how long it took to get here. She was made of blazing heat and gentle warmth, of urgent need and satisfying arousal, buoyant and boneless from the insensate murmurings whispered in her ear.

Some time later, Jaskier sighed heavily and stilled against her. His fingers dug into the skin between her breasts, hard enough to leave half-moon circles. “I need—yeah?” he asked, quiet but frantic against her neck, and Yennefer buzzed with more arousal at the request. She looked over her shoulder and Jaskier’s lopsided smile was so bright and delighted and maybe a little deranged beneath the sweat and hunger in his face.

“Before you pass out would be good, yeah,” Yennefer agreed and Jaskier’s laughter reverberated through her body. Yennefer pulled her knee up to her chest and let it fall to the sheets, too tired to hold it up any longer.

Jaskier resumed thrusting, hard and charging, and he crushed Yennefer’s hand against the bed. His body tensed and his hips began jerking erratically as he tumbled into his climax. His moan was quiet against her neck and broke when Yennefer lifted his head enough so she could kiss his brow, overtaken by the softness in his face.

Yennefer gently rocked against him until Jaskier finally stilled. He kissed her cheek and sighed sweetly, and the languid hum that escaped his chest sounded like a musical scale when he pulled out of her.

He opened the tent of blankets briefly to leave the bed and Yennefer grunted, burying her face in the pillow. She drowsed, listening to him hum as he cleaned himself and came back with a cloth that she grabbed from him and swiped between her legs. She pushed the blankets down to her waist and rolled onto her back, basking in the cold and satiation.

The tightness in Yennefer’s chest was long gone and she could exhale without pain or worry. She looked over and saw Jaskier watching her with those goofy, heartfelt eyes. He seemed like he was getting too attached. She wanted to tease his oversensitive cock, or scoff to be contrary.

Yennefer sighed and looked away, too content to bother playing with him. Jaskier must not have come hard enough if he was recovering so quickly. She hadn’t either, really, but her pleasure had been unspooled so slowly, and for so long that her skin felt bright and warm, and the crisp air of the morning was now refreshing instead of biting.

She stretched and reclined on her back, and assumed Jaskier had fallen asleep because of the lack of babbling that usually accompanied their encounters. But Jaskier surprised her when he pushed himself onto an elbow and leaned over to smooth out the folds in her nightgown, oh-so-casually tracing the curves of her breasts, making sure she was exposing the perfect amount of cleavage to greet the morning. She watched him, carefully hiding her amusement.

Jaskier’s smile was hesitant when he traced the hollow of her throat beneath her obsidian necklace.

“It takes practice, you know.” Jaskier said it so unassumingly that Yennefer didn’t know what to expect when he didn’t continue.

“What?” she asked, her curiosity getting the better of her now because she was warm and comfortable.

The corner of Jaskier’s mouth pulled into a smile and he kissed Yennefer’s shoulder, his fingers sliding down between her breasts and arching on her ribcage. “Letting yourself be seen.”

She gave him a dubious look. “I am the most hunted sorceress on the Continent right now. The goal is not to be seen.”

“That’s not what I mean and you know it,” Jaskier said and propped his chin on her shoulder, giving her a rueful smile.

“It’s too early for feelings,” Yennefer said, but she didn’t shrug him off.

“It’s also too early for masks,” he said, and the observation made Yennefer frown.

“Jaskier,” she said, intending on distracting him with a kiss or a clever insult, but Jaskier resumed his gentle, affectionate touches beneath her breasts, and Yennefer would never admit to forgetting what she wanted to say because a damnable bard had distracted her with his fingers, over and over again.

“This is a good look on you. Fucked away some of the pain and frustration,” Jaskier said and tilted his head, like he was giving her a thoughtful assessment. “Simply glowing. No need to cover it up with a mask of control. Not right now,” he added, a little quieter, and his fingers slowed in their idle movements.

His eyes were pensive, lips drawn together like he was hoping he could convince her to keep her guard down a little longer if he held her gaze long enough.

It was working.

Yennefer studied his face. She could do a pass over his mind, see what he was really thinking. She would have done so without permission once upon a time, but so far every time she did, his every suspicious actions and statements had revealed nothing beyond what he was expressing in the moment. Jaskier just wasn’t that complicated. The novelty of him continued to be strange and appealing.

She traced Jaskier’s arm from wrist to elbow and decided to roll over and face him fully. Yennefer searched for her voice and stared at his stupid hair. She smoothed it down just to have something to do with her hand.

Jaskier’s mouth twitched, like he was holding his tongue and he slid his hand along her thigh, rubbing gentle patterns along her skin. Yennefer liked it immensely.

“I don’t know what I’m doing,” she said and the words felt leaden in her mouth.

“This is called ‘cuddling,’ an act of love and/or affection. A way to demonstrate an essential part of the human condition: connection,” Jaskier said evenly, no hint of a smile on his face, but his eyes dared her to push back.

“You know, most men forget how to speak after a good fuck,” Yennefer pointed out, poking him in the cheek and pushing him away.

“In fact, I do know, but I find there’s nothing like a sweet morning dance to get the words flowing,” he said with a coy smirk. Jaskier captured her hand, kissing her palm and pressing Yennefer’s fingers to his lips, hushing himself.

“I don’t know what I’m doing,” she repeated and her voice stumbled over the admission, “with Ciri. Teaching her.”

Jaskier cradled her hand, his breath warming her fingers. “From what I’ve seen, you’ve been patient and instructive in basic magical forms, yeah? You know your magic like the back of your hand. Anytime I see you together she seems to be attentive and studious. It sounds like she’s been getting the fundamentals down.”

Yennefer bit the inside of her lip. It was still difficult to explain. She had spent so much time wanting—needing—someone who needed her as much as Ciri did, but Yennefer had never really imagined what that would look like in a practical way. She had fucked up with Ciri before she had a chance to really know what it was like to truly be there for her. Maybe if Yennefer had returned to Aretuza all those years ago when Tissaia had asked, she would have a better idea of how to weather her struggles with Ciri. Or gain an understanding of how to not fuck up in the same ways Tissaia did with her.

“That’s not the issue. The fundamentals are just the beginning. Ciri is smart and unbelievably strong. She’s motivated to learn. That’s something you expect with someone who has the kind of power she does. Ciri is eager but she’s also impatient,” she said.

The sight of Ciri at the river in Temeria and following Yennefer’s careful instruction had been incredible. It had been the first time Yennefer had actually felt pride in something that was real. But it wasn’t real. That moment had been built upon a lie that Yennefer had allowed Ciri to run with because Yennefer was so desperate to regain her own power.

That memory was tainted now. Just like everything she touched. She withdrew her fingers from Jaskier’s hand.

“There are certainly worse students to have, so count yourself fortunate,” he said.

Yennefer wasn’t making herself clear. She couldn’t afford any more mistakes with Ciri. Not when the stakes were so high and the cost of failure could mean more harm to Ciri and so many others. That was never the kind of responsibility Yennefer had envisioned for herself.

Yennefer’s lingering fear about her burnt conduits did not help matters, either. She shook her head into the pillow.

“There’s not enough time, Jaskier. We don’t know how long she’ll be safe here, even with the wards and other witchers patrolling down the mountain. The power she has is too immense and the danger’s going to catch up before I can show her everything she needs to know,” Yennefer said.

Jaskier scrunched his eyebrows together and his fingers stilled on her hip. “You’re doing everything you can. Identifying her strengths and weaknesses? Trying to manage your time. There’s got to be… I don’t know… A way to prioritize? If there’s so much?”

Yennefer nodded. She’d been keeping that in mind since they’d started, dividing up her lessons between defensive and offensive tactics, and giving Ciri an overview of the ways she could eventually scry objects around her, survey her environment. Ciri on the surface was so excited and fascinated, but when reality set in, she had a difficult time when her magic didn’t respond to her the way Yennefer explained it should.

It reminded Yennefer of when she was eager to master Tissaia’s lessons while also refuting the woman on principle, even though she wanted nothing more than to exceed the rectoress’ expectations. Be better and more powerful than Tissaia.

“It’s not just that, is it? That’s bothering you?” Jaskier asked when she didn’t elaborate, and not for the first time Yennefer was quietly impressed at how intuitive he was.

“Ciri reminds me of myself when I was a student.”

Jaskier made a sympathetic noise. “I have taught many young and hopeful students who believed they alone could bring the world to their knees with the perfect poem. It’s good when you can relate to a student. A beginner’s mindset can be a gift,” he said.

She had forgotten he spent time at the Academy as an instructor, but the student mindset was part of the problem. Yennefer didn’t like being reminded of that time of her life.

Jaskier tapped her shoulder in a repeating pattern that startled her. She blinked, not realizing she had been staring past Jaskier, at the shadows on the wall.

“At Aretuza they were good at teaching us magic and showing us the importance of harnessing the chaos so that it wouldn’t consume us. We learned the necessity of reading people as well as we could read Elder Speech and runes,” she said, not bothering to hide the bitterness.

“I sense a ‘but’ somewhere, like there’s something more to it,” Jaskier said, and his fingers coincidentally danced along the curve of her ass in the obvious pun, but his face was warm and open.

She sighed and let her eyes wander to the folds of Jaskier’s shirt he had never managed to take off, and caught another glimpse of his collarbone that she traced with her fingertips, unable to resist touching him again.

“The students were nothing but tools to Aretuza. We were disposable and everything came with a price. So you learned the importance of using people before they could use you,” Yennefer said and shook her head. “I’ve already taught that lesson to Ciri.” Her voice did not quite catch on the word taught but she forced herself to look at the thatch of chest hair peeking out from his shirt instead of meeting his eyes.

Jaskier squeezed the back of her neck. It didn’t relieve her of the discomfort, but it did make it a little easier for the rest of the worries to tumble from her lips.

“Ciri will never forgive me for showing the Deathless Mother the way to her. I wouldn’t, if I was her. I haven’t forgiven Tissaia for how she lied. She kept the full truth from me. Took away my ability to make choices about my life. And what I did was so much worse—” Yennefer choked on the razor of truth tearing up her throat.

She moved her hand to his back, fisting his shirt suddenly. Jaskier scooted even closer. He slid his fingers into her hair, cradling her head, gentle and solid all at once.

“I lied to her, manipulated her into thinking Geralt had been captured by Nilfgaard. And why? Because I didn’t want to live without my magic and she was the key for me getting it back.”

Jaskier hooked her thigh over his hip again and dug his fingers into her lower back, tucking himself close against her body. Without the heat and arousal of sex, the closeness was so disorienting and terrifying. She let go of his shirt, trying to work out the cramps in her fingers from clutching too tightly.

“You—” Jaskier started but she cut him off. She couldn’t let him try to make excuses for her. She should push him away and get used to sleeping alone again.

“Geralt has always been right, I’ve been too selfish to do anything but hurt people. The Deathless Mother took over her body and her mind and Ciri now has to live with the memories of killing Geralt’s brothers. Of being trapped and controlled in ways that are—were—unimaginable.”

Jaskier pressed his forehead to hers and Yennefer closed her eyes. He was wrapped all around her now, like his simple presence could shield her from the shit she got herself into. Yennefer took a shaky breath.

“I’ll… I’ll teach Ciri everything I can… but I broke her trust. I can try and glue it back together, but the cracks are still there. It’s making her doubt me and herself even though she wants to learn. I’ve already caused her so much pain.”

“Pain is a fact of life and you’ve certainly lived to spite it. I’m not surprised it’s going to take you and Ciri time to learn how to heal,” Jaskier said sadly and pushed some of Yennefer’s hair behind her ear.

She frowned. The twisting ache in her chest was returning. The pain was deeper and worse than the needles that raked through her when she lit a candle with magic. Yennefer leaned back and opened her eyes.

The pity in Jaskier’s face showed that he really didn’t know what it was like to live the way she had. “Healing is a luxury. That’s why you do what you can to protect yourself. No one is looking out for you, and you learn to embrace the pain. It’s the price you pay for having access to this kind of power,” Yennefer said. Jaskier looked like she had shoved a lemon wedge in his mouth.

“Even if I might disagree with parts of your thesis, your reasoning is sound, and based on your experiences. It’s not like Ciri won’t lack for enemies that she’ll need to protect herself. You’ll do well to show her how to survive pain,” Jaskier said, tracing her jaw and the curve of her neck and shoulder with his fingers.

His mouth opened again but nothing came out, and he stared at her, like he was stalled in puzzlement.

Yennefer forced a smirk and grabbed a handful of his ass. “I sense a ‘but,’” she said and Jaskier smiled painfully and sighed.

“But it’s not going to be easy. Even if she never forgives you or trusts you, that doesn’t mean she can’t learn from your experience. She could have said no to you and your magic, but she didn’t because she’s scared, too. So keep giving her everything you can. That’s obviously what you want to do, otherwise you wouldn’t be so afraid. You’ve had your own shit to wade through—literally and metaphorically,” he said with a curl of his lip,”—and Ciri’s been loaded with enough baggage to sink an armada. That could be a place to start building something real with her. Since she reminds you so much of yourself when you were young, tell her some of the things you wish you had known back then. Tell her what you wish you had known six months ago. A year. Even five weeks ago when you had an ancient, cooped-up witch whispering in your ear,” Jaskier said.

He cupped her face, and nestled his finger behind her ear. Part of Yennefer thought she was going to disintegrate from his touch and the care in his words.

“Is it better to have a bard whispering in my ear?” Yennefer asked.

Jaskier’s eyebrows waggled a little. “More fun, certainly,” he murmured and cleared his throat. His thumb moved gently across her cheek. It was so damn soothing.

“And sure, time really isn’t on your side, what with the assassins and armies after Ciri, but you’re already doing the work and she’ll learn as much as she can because she knows she needs you as much as you need her. It sounds like you’re the best thing to happen to Ciri, if it means she can learn from you and not those Aretuza arseholes.”

What he said made sense and she hated that about him. Why did she need a bard to tell her something so obvious? Yennefer was frustrated and wanted to thrust Jaskier’s hand between her legs to distract them both and get herself off again.

“Oh, c’mon, my monologue wasn’t that bad,” Jaskier prompted, looking concerned.

“I’ve heard better,” Yennefer said, her brain supplying the joke automatically. She frowned at herself because Jaskier was being more genuine and kind than she deserved. She sighed into the pillow.

“Well, I hope you give me another chance to give you something worthy of a standing ovation,” Jaskier said, his words still light, but his fingers slid to the back of her neck, rubbing idle circles into her skin.

“I think you and Ciri will learn a lot from each other,” he added.

Yennefer exhaled, thinking over the prospect of that kind of vulnerability with Ciri. She had done it before, briefly, when she talked about her relationship with Geralt. Opened up about some of the pain and heartache that came with being bonded with someone you hadn’t chosen.

But Geralt hadn’t been the only one Yennefer hadn’t chosen. She had no choice when she manifested her chaos and Tissaia plucked her from that pig sty.

There was nothing Yennefer could imagine sharing with Tissaia when she had been Ciri’s age. Nothing real, anyway. Tissaia had only opened up to Yennefer when it suited her interests. The old anger woke up and tumbled through Yennefer, heavy and inescapable as an avalanche.

The memories of her time at Aretuza were best left in the past for a reason. Because it was utter horseshit.

“I hated her,” Yennefer said. The moment the words left her mouth, she wanted to take them back because there was no point in talking about it. She frowned and didn’t continue. Jaskier squeezed her shoulder reassuringly.

“Who? The Hutless Cuntface?”

Yennefer’s heart did a little backflip because he was wrong and not wrong at the same time. The similarities between her old teacher and the Deathless Mother were uncanny. Two women who spoke to her of power and control, who used Yennefer for their own agendas.

She rolled onto her back and stared at the cracks in the ceiling. “No. Tissaia,” she clarified and it was like her heart cracked even further.

“Was she your teacher?” he asked.

Yennefer nodded. Jaskier kissed her knuckles and stroked her palm. It continued to be the grounding sensation she needed. “Tissaia de Vries,” she snorted, “was cold and cruel, but strategic about it. It motivated us. Produced the results she wanted.”

“You don’t have to be like her,” Jaskier said. He sounded like he believed it.

“I already am,” she said, and the truth of it burned hotter than the fire magic that had scorched Yennefer’s conduits.

Jaskier’s strong, warm fingers curled around her chin, tipping her face to look at him. His expression was severe and unnerving in its focus. “Did she ever apologize or show remorse for how she treated you?”

“Not in any way that mattered,” she said. Yennefer had known better than to want or hope for remorse from the rectoress. Tissaia was not built for apologies, so Yennefer had never bothered expecting it and didn’t waste her time demanding it; she had better things to do with her life.

“Then you’re already better than her. You may never make full amends for the hurt you’ve caused and Ciri may not ever forgive you. But it’s still important to acknowledge the hurt and keep working to be better because you know it’s what’s right. It’s important for yourself—and for Ciri,” he added. His conviction was so unsettling to hear that Yennefer had to look away again, made uncomfortable by his tone.

“I saw what it was like when Tissaia got too close. She cared for me, more than a teacher should. Like a mother,” Yennefer said. The rage and grief she had seen in Tissaia when Yennefer returned to Aretuza was shocking. And a relief. Tissaia had mourned Yennefer, she knew, and that meant something. Tissaia had stopped Stregobor from spending too long in her mind. Yennefer understood that Tissaia cared for her, deeply and profoundly, but in her own fucked-up way, because she loved her role and her school and her control so much more. So she had refused to help when Yennefer had most needed it.

Yennefer sat up, her heart hammering in her chest. She could never willingly put Ciri in that kind of danger or force her to make the shittiest of shit choices. Never. She would sacrifice herself again and again before she let anything like that happen.

The anger and anxiety made Yennefer clench the blankets.

She shook her head. “Tissaia knew it made her weak to have herself open like that, but she did it anyway. It caused her trouble with the others on the council. They thought she showed favoritism. She couldn’t stand that.” Yennefer seethed quietly, letting herself stare at the cold hearth across the room. “The Brotherhood tried to force me to kill a man just to prove I wasn’t a spy, and she let them.” Yennefer laughed darkly. “To gain their favor.”

The bed shifted as Jaskier sat up behind her and smoothed his hand down her back. He was so tactile, which was usually comforting, but she didn’t bother looking over her shoulder. She didn’t want him to see her like this, the way the ache was trying to force her to fold in on herself. So much like her spine had done when she was young.

Yennefer kept her posture straight, and she tried pulling herself free of their nest of blankets—the morning was getting late, and she needed to eat and get ready for her lesson with Ciri—but the blankets were so tangled around them both that Yennefer struggled for a few seconds and gave up.

“I’m sorry Tissaia couldn’t be what you needed. Just because she didn’t understand the power of caring doesn’t mean that you being there for Ciri is going to make you weak. It’s going to be the opposite, and I think that scares you,” Jaskier said, his voice hovering just behind her ear, and he cupped her elbows gently. She wouldn’t slouch into him, even if he was solid and warm and stupidly endearing.

Yennefer sighed. Why was she so fucking tired? She closed her eyes. “‘The power of caring’? You sound like an astrologer’s pamphlet.”

“Hey, even astrologers can be right once a harvest moon,” Jaskier huffed and brushed back some of her hair. She had half a mind he was going to start braiding it, but his fingers smoothed down her shoulders and arms again.

“It’s not that I don’t understand why she did it,” Yennefer said. It hurt more because she understood, but Yennefer was still a fool who had believed Tissaia would support her when it really counted. “Tissaia’s voice on the council is important. She’s brilliant and can do better than the whole lot of them, she’s just stuck playing by their rules instead of making her own because she fucking adores their game,” she added.

“That’s a shitty explanation and worse excuse,” Jaskier said and there was a sharpness to his voice that was so out of place from him while they were in his bed. “If she loved you like a mother, she would have rigged the game for you.”

Yennefer felt so heavy and her heart continued thumping harder than it should.

The bed dipped a little as Jaskier shimmied closer and tucked his head over her shoulder, tugging her arm upward. “I see you, Yennefer, and I know you’re going to do right by Ciri, and give her the tools and knowledge and even the love that she needs.”

Jaskier’s lips were light and soft when he kissed her wrist, and the choking sob that had been building hot and fierce in Yennefer’s chest finally escaped.

Jaskier propped his chin on her shoulder and hugged her while she shook. Yennefer looked down at the healed wounds where the Deathless Mother had entered her physical body. She rubbed the scars once a night before sleeping.

The new scars crossed over the old marks—there were now four of them: two on each wrist—and she was glad that the Deathless Mother had left them rather than smoothing out the tissue. She needed that reminder of who she was, even though she didn’t understand who she was now or why her magic wasn’t right. She didn’t know if she just needed more time, or if the Deathless Mother couldn’t or wouldn’t leave Yennefer whole. She needed to be able to teach Ciri and keep her safe, no matter what.

“My magic’s broken, Jaskier. The Deathless Mother—she…My chaos doesn’t feel right when I cast a spell. The magic is taking a toll on me in a way it’s never done before. And I don’t understand what magic is supposed to feel like for Ciri because her power is so–extraordinary. How do I teach her and make sure she won’t hurt herself or spiral out of control when my own control is… is— ” The words left her in a rush and she folded her hands in her lap.

Jaskier stroked the insides of her forearms with his thumbs. “Everything is a mess and you’re going to figure something out, no matter what it is. You are brilliant and resourceful, with or without your magic,” Jaskier said, too fucking knowingly, and she hated him, and was grateful he didn’t elaborate, thank gods. She didn’t know if she could stand to hear any more platitudes.

Jaskier breathed steadily against her back and tightened his arms around her waist. Which was good because Yennefer was growing dizzy and nauseous from the swelling pain in her chest.

There were fewer tears than Yennefer expected and Jaskier was silent as he held her through them all. Even when she was done crying, her face remained hot and lined with salt. She exhaled shakily.

Jaskier kissed her shoulder and neck, his hands sliding down her hips and splaying his fingers across her thighs. His voice was lighter now.

“At the end of the day, you’re a fuckup, Yennefer of Vengerberg, fucked up by those around you. The only consolation is that you have perspective on how much they’ve fucked you up and you’re trying to be better. Knowing this is no small feat, my soft sorceress.”

The gentleness of the endearment caused something to twinge deep in Yennefer. It made her warm and a little scared, and she let his words linger in the silence until she was sure she could speak without her voice breaking.

“I guess it takes one to know one,” Yennefer said quietly. It took Jaskier several seconds to parse that before she felt his body tense.

“Why, you—” Jaskier muttered and looped his arms around her, pulling Yennefer flush to his chest. “I dispense the emotional support of a lifetime and—and y-you just shat on it like admitting this wasn’t more frightening than sacrificing yourself for Ciri.” Jaskier pressed an open-mouthed kiss to her neck and spluttered his lips. It was gross and ticklish and stupid. Yennefer laughed anyway and pushed him.

He was so fucking ridiculous and sincere and it was disarming her as thoroughly as Istredd had. Except back then Yennefer hadn’t been properly armed with power and knowledge. She had no benefit of ignorance now, and that fact made her hesitate despite the warmth spreading in her chest.

Yennefer had seen enough in her years to understand with certainty that most people at their core were selfish in some way, and those who weren’t would be taken advantage of. She swore she would never find herself in that position again.

Istredd had allowed himself to be used and thus betrayed Yennefer to the Brotherhood. His intent hadn’t been malicious, but it still fucked her over. At least she had been able to walk away from him.

Geralt had been so tired and fucking lonely that he hadn’t thought twice about the djinn that bound them together, and he didn’t say a godsdamn thing about it for over a decade. He probably wouldn’t have said anything if Borch hadn’t called him out on it. Even in retrospect, Yennefer understood his unconscious desire more than she had been willing to admit.

Time and perspective had made it easier for Yennefer to forgive them both, even if she wouldn’t forget what they’d done to her.

Jaskier’s motivations had seemed so fucking banal to her—fame, fun, friendship. It sounded like one one of those greeting cards Triss had given her shortly after their Ascension. But Yennefer had found Jaskier in Oxenfurt, using his fame for decidedly altruistic things that had earned him more enemies and danger than any trouble he had bumped into while following Geralt. He’d helped Yennefer and the elves at great cost to his own livelihood, and somehow managed to crack jokes that made Yennefer roll her eyes even as she smiled on the inside.

Jaskier’s fingers continued to dance across her skin and Yennefer wasn’t so certain about her assumptions anymore. For all the superfluous inanities he surrounded himself with, Jaskier shoved his vulnerabilities into everyone's face with only his music to guard him, and she couldn't understand how he turned it into an armor nonetheless.

Jaskier could still find a way to use her. Betray her. Hurt her unintentionally, like Istredd and Geralt. It wouldn’t matter because she had her magic back, even if it was as imperfect and broken as she was. At least now Yennefer had her purpose to help Ciri. Nothing else should matter.

But Yennefer had allowed Istredd and Geralt, and even Tissaia into her heart. What could Jaskier do to her that Yennefer hadn’t already endured? She would always find a way to survive, no matter what happened to her.

So maybe she could let herself feel something for him.

“You,” Jaskier said, reeling Yennefer back into his lap, and she went willingly, “need a lesson in kindness and gratitude—something the curriculum at Aretuza was clearly lacking.”

“From the way the insults fall from your lips, your studies at Oxenfurt were also lacking in those subjects,” she said, looking over her shoulder. A warmth was billowing in her chest, still making her a little dizzy, but Jaskier was still holding onto her.

“I am forever a student in the school of life, open to learning what the world can teach me,” he chuckled, his words gentle and easy in her ear.

Yennefer finally turned around in his arms and Jaskier’s face was so fucking raw when he cupped her face and wiped away her tears. The touch made Yennefer ache, like she was going to fall apart all over again. She didn’t know how this was happening, how she could be so wrung out and affected by him. There was no djinn tying her to him. No Deathless Mother in her mind.

She rose to her knees to gain some height and Jaskier looked up as she went, gazing at her with those too-adoring eyes, and her stomach fucking swooped. She was starting to understand how he fell in love with the ruins of a person. It was as if he could see what could grow even after a lifetime of shit; and he loved what could bloom even in the midst of that pain. It had to be why he’d become so attached to Geralt over the years.

Yennefer carded Jaskier’s hair with her fingers. He smiled, curling his arms around her waist and humming like a satisfied cat. She pulled him close and let him rub his face against her stomach and breasts for a few seconds before she tipped him backwards onto the bed.

She crawled on top of him which made Jaskier’s eyebrows arch in delight. His hands came to lazily stroke her hips and thighs, bunching her nightgown up and down. Yennefer practically fell into the urge to show her gratitude with a deep, open-mouthed kiss to leave him breathless, to use her own clever hands that would work him over until he was the one who cried.

Jaskier’s expression stopped her. His mouth sloped in a half-smile, his eyes were warm and affectionate.

She was intrigued by what he saw in her. His capacity for love was so otherworldly; Yennefer wanted to learn more. She kissed Jaskier slowly and smiled against his mouth. She’d never had a teacher or a lover who didn't betray her, but with the way he tended to look at her, she could almost believe he would be the exception.