“Do you have a death wish?” Geralt asks two days out of Posada.
Jaskier nearly chokes on his roast turkey. Fear shoots through his veins, chilling him to his core. “What could possibly have given you that idea?” he asks with forced jocularity.
Geralt turns a baleful eye on him. “Take your pick.”
“You know, I could ask the same of you,” Jaskier points out. “May I remind you that of the two of us, I wasn’t the one who literally bared my throat in invitation for death’s kiss.” Geralt doesn’t respond, and slowly Jaskier lets the tension slough off his shoulders. “Anyway, a bard is only as good as the tales he can tell,” he continues, “and the very best tales are those rooted in a kernel of truth. How am I to speak about your triumphs without witnessing them firsthand? Something tells me you aren’t much of a storyteller.”
Geralt stares at Jaskier for another moment before returning to sharpening his silver sword, and Jaskier smothers a sigh of relief into his turkey. This isn’t a conversation he wants to have with Geralt, least of all right now, when his blood still thrums with the elation of having flirted with death and escaped with all his bits intact.
Admittedly, this isn’t a conversation Jaskier wants to have with anyone, ever, but if there’s one thing he’s learned in his few revolutions around the sun, it’s that he and destiny have laughably different ideas of what he should want.
When Jaskier is nine, he spots an apple glinting bright red from the highest branch of a tree and decides he wanted it. It is only once he is perched at the top of the tree, enjoying his sweet spoils, that he realizes he has no idea how to get back down.
Rather than do the sensible thing and call for help, he lowers himself carefully so he hangs from the branch like a pendulum, and he simply lets go, trusting the tangle of leaves and wood to break his fall. Instead, he falls unhindered for several meters before crashing to the hard ground below.
He is lucky to have emerged unscathed aside from his broken arm, he is told afterward, though the same cannot be said about his doublet.
When Jaskier is thirteen, he decides there must be more to life than daily lessons and early bedtimes and subsequently sneaks into the wagon of a travelling merchant with no more than the clothes on his back and a full water skin. He can disappear into the next city once the merchant reaches it, he reasons. Surely the journey would take only a day or two, especially by wagon. It seems a well thought out plan, in the way that plans often do when one has no experience with which to pick holes in them, and Jaskier can barely contain his excitement at the prospect of finally seeing the world.
He hadn’t accounted for the way his extra weight makes the wagon list, though, and he is discovered and summarily tossed to the side of the road half a mile from the market.
When Jaskier is fifteen, he spends a lovely summer afternoon pressing Eda Velten against a tree and dropping sweet kisses upon her mouth and cheeks. For some odd reason, this angers Marcus Friedman, who Eda is seeing at the time, and who is not only two years older but also considerably stronger than Jaskier, having spent the last year apprenticing with the blacksmith.
“Didn’t anyone ever teach you not to touch what isn’t yours?” Marcus snarls, looming over Jaskier in what might have been an intimidating fashion, had Jaskier thought to be intimidated.
Instead, Jaskier shrugs and says, “You’re just jealous it was her mouth I was plundering and not yours.” Though he does not win the ensuing scuffle, the redness dusting Marcus’ cheeks is victory enough for him.
And each time, as his mother sets his arm or washes the dirt from his hair or applies ointment to the bruises blooming around his eye, she shouts, “Do you have a death wish, you stupid boy? I should beat you myself, if it’s pain you’re after,” and Jaskier mutters an apology and lets her hug him close and swallows the truth clattering against the backs of his teeth, which is that—
Jaskier doesn’t know how to put into words the yawning ennui that seems to take up the space in his rib cage where his heart and lungs should be. He doesn’t know how to explain that the vinegar-sharp tang of fear thrills him in a way he has never felt before, or that he is chasing after something he doesn’t quite know the shape of, a satisfaction that will finally make him whole, if only he could identify it.
He had heard tales of Witchers as a child. Of course he had; most mothers were quick to see the value in using a hulking, psychotic, monster of a mutant who could take down a kikimora in one fell swoop as a scare tactic, shouting at their children that a Witcher would come for them if they weren’t home by nightfall. Nonetheless, monster hunting carries a natural intrigue for young boys, and it wasn’t uncommon for Marcus and his raggedy band to run around brandishing sticks as swords, loudly proclaiming their intentions to rid the whole Continent of beasts — monsters and Witchers alike.
Jaskier watched them, sometimes, though he never joined in. He wasn’t a fighter, he knew; his fingers were infinitely more comfortable wrapped around the shaft of a pen or the neck of a lute than hefting a sword. Still, there was a certain allure to the lifestyle, a gleam of infinite and inexplicable adventure. How nice it must be to be a Witcher, and have the confidence to bare your neck to death in invitation, and never know what awaits you around the next bend.
The reality is more like this:
Jaskier straddles a fallen log and plucks desolately at his lute as the sound of steel clashing against scale rings out from the cave Geralt had entered half an hour ago. Jaskier strums another halfhearted melody, pitches up the final note to create an ascending run, frowns, and hums the original melody to compare the two.
“What do you think, is the run too formulaic?” he asks Roach. Roach, being both indifferent to Jaskier and a horse, does not respond. “Right. Yeah. Maybe inspiration will strike if I give it room to sneak up on me.” He sets his lute back in its case and closes his eyes, letting the noon sun lull him to sleep.
He is jolted awake some time later when Geralt emerges with a basilisk head slung over his shoulder.
“I imagine it’s too much to hope you paused in the middle of your no doubt arduous battle to note the way the sunlight glinted off its eyes?” Jaskier asks, more for the principle of it than because he thinks Geralt will finally answer in the affirmative.
True to form, Geralt doesn’t grace him with so much as a glower. After securing the basilisk head to Roach’s saddle, he runs an old cloth down his sword to wipe off the blood coating it. Jaskier takes that as his cue to climb to his own feet and collect his lute and notebook from where they’re strewn in the grass.
“It’s just that death reflected in its eyes evokes so little emotion,” Jaskier continues, heedless of the silence stretching between them. “I need details if I’m to craft a song they’ll sing for years to come.”
“Then craft a song they’ll forget once it’s over,” Geralt mutters. “They’ll thank you for it.”
Jaskier gasps, insulted. “It’s like you don’t even want your reputation rehabilitated,” he accuses. “I mean, do you actually enjoy hearing the things they say about you? I certainly wouldn’t, if I was in your place. But that’s the problem, isn’t it — I’m not in your place, I’m never in your place, because you hog all the fun while I’m stuck lounging a safe distance away.” He makes a frustrated noise low in his throat. “Geralt, I can’t stop writing about creatures that don’t exist until I, you know, get a chance to see the ones that do.”
Geralt sheathes his now-clean sword and untethers Roach, gathering her reins in hand. “You won’t be writing shit if you’re dead,” he says bluntly. “Be grateful you still possess the fingers to hold your lute.” He disappears into the trees, presumably headed back toward town.
Jaskier licks his lips. “Facing death would be so much less boring, though,” he whines to no one in particular, before scrambling to catch up with Geralt.
Jaskier doesn’t have a death wish, not in so many words. Not to the point of digging a shard of broken glass into his wrists just to see if he can still bleed, or leaping from the highest tree on the grounds solely to experience the stomach-churning exhilaration of freefall.
But he has also never had the sense that others seem to. He has never known when to stop picking at scabs and weaknesses and old bruises, has never been able to turn his back on the promise of something more. He has no stomach for starting fights, but he’s incapable of walking away without finishing them.
Jaskier doesn’t have a death wish, but he does have a tendency to run headfirst into danger, to seek bigger and brighter thrills, because the alternative is wasting away into a parody of who he could have been, and he would rather die than succumb to such a fate.
Jaskier is still trying to figure out the shape of the empty thing in his chest when he spots a muscular loner drinking alone at the edge of the world, and a fire ignites within him. This man, he thinks later, when he is crumpled in the dirt and trying to remember how to breathe, will take him to the brink of death and back. This man is everything his destiny shouldn’t be.
So when Geralt of Rivia walks away, Jaskier follows.
Half a year after he starts trailing the Witcher, Jaskier sucks his cock.
He hasn’t been sleeping well, partially because the ground is bumpy even through his bedroll but mostly because restlessness thrums in his veins, urging him to do something reckless and exhilarating and liable to culminate in a knife pressed to his throat. Usually when Jaskier finds himself battling this kind of impulsiveness, he finds the nearest airheaded dolt with a ring on their finger and takes them to bed, and the adrenaline spiking his veins as he climbs through the window the next morning tides him over until he can find something else to occupy his attention.
But contracts have been few and far between, and they haven’t had enough coin to afford a room in an inn in nearly two weeks. As a consequence, Geralt hasn’t bothered looking for towns when he stops at night; instead he pitches camp wherever he happens to be when day melts into dusk, and Jaskier has no choice but to follow suit.
And now Jaskier can’t sleep, and his skin is crawling with an itch he can’t scratch, and there are no paramours to be had out here in the woods. So he waits until the sun has crested the horizon before sneaking over to Geralt and undoing the laces of his trousers with light fingers. He sits back on his heels and admires the view for a long moment, mouth suddenly very dry. Then he darts a glance to Geralt’s face, which is still slack with sleep, and gets back to it.
He manages to stroke Geralt’s cock just once before he’s flipped onto his back, the Witcher’s hand pressed tight against his throat and cutting off his air supply. Jaskier’s breath comes short and quick as he stares, wide-eyed, up at Geralt. Geralt’s eyes are still heavy with sleep, whereas Jaskier knows his own pupils must be blown wide with arousal.
“Are you trying to get yourself killed,” Geralt growls, keeping Jaskier pinned to the ground. It isn’t a question.
“I need—” says Jaskier, his voice hoarse. He swallows, feels his throat move against the heavy weight of Geralt’s palm. “I—”
Geralt stares down at him, considering. He loosens his grip slightly but doesn’t pull away. Jaskier swallows again, licks his lips.
Then Geralt’s mouth is on his, stealing what little breath he is able to draw, and Geralt’s other hand is tangling in Jaskier’s hair, and Jaskier feels lightheaded in the best possible way. Geralt rolls them so Jaskier is atop him and moves the hand at Jaskier’s throat to his hair, then uses his grip on Jaskier to push him down toward Geralt’s cock. Jaskier moans at being manhandled like this, ducks his head just to feel Geralt tugging at his scalp, then falls on Geralt with fervor. He develops a rhythm that is quickly broken by Geralt holding him down, choking him, before pulling back just enough for Jaskier to catch his breath. It’s fast and rough and sloppy, and Jaskier comes rutting against Geralt’s leg like a bitch in heat.
Afterward, Jaskier lies next to Geralt, panting and trying to swallow past the tightness in his throat, and he feels a weight he hadn’t even known was bearing down on his chest lift. He feels like he’s hurtled off a cliff with nothing more than a prayer to keep him aloft, and gods preserve him, he’ll be chasing this high for as long as he lives.
“Next time, just ask,” says Geralt, sounding as wrecked as Jaskier feels.
A smile plays at the corners of Jaskier’s lips, though he’s too tired to wear it properly. “No promises,” he says.
Jaskier does not have a death wish, because Jaskier does not want to die. He wants to approach death, like one might a skittish cat. He wants to coax it near, and examine it from all angles, and possibly shine a light into its crevices to see how it is constructed. There is a thrill to standing on that knife’s edge, teetering between irreversible catastrophe and the ability to walk away, that he wants to prolong for as long as he can; he does not actually want to fall.
He has never been able to explain this difference to anyone who does not seek to walk that tightrope themselves.
He had tried, once, with Cillian McMurray, Jaskier’s boyfriend when he was seventeen. Cillian had responded with a blank stare and a rueful suggestion that they might be looking for different things in life, in that Cillian was looking for life, and Jaskier wasn’t.
Jaskier had stopped trying after that. It became instinct, eventually, to deflect and self-deprecate and turn the question around on the person asking it, because it was easier to play the fool than try to explain he was seeking a counterbalance to the lead weight caving in his chest. After all, fools don’t have death wishes. Fools smile and make merry, and if they sometimes gaze longingly into the distance, it can be written off as a trance brought on by inspiration and not, as is often the case, by a desire for something more than what life has to offer.
Jaskier rides into town two days after Geralt leaves it to fulfill a contract. It has been nearly a year since they last traveled together, and Jaskier decides he’ll catch Geralt upon his return and accompany him for the next year or two. Jaskier has run out of tales to tell anyway; watching Geralt will make for good inspiration.
But days pass without any word from Geralt, and anxiety begins to dig under Jaskier’s skin, spreading through him like a rash. A week later finds Jaskier nursing his fourth flagon of ale in a corner of the inn, his lute left safely in his room. He can’t bring himself to sing the Witcher’s praises when he’s worrying himself sick over Geralt’s well-being.
“More’n likely, the mutant’s run off with the damn coin,” comes a deep voice near the fire. “Likely took one look at the beast, shit his fuckin’ pants, and fled.”
“Could be he’s dead,” another man suggests. “Cockatrices ain’t t’be trifled with.”
The first scoffs. “Coin’s gone either way, innit?”
“He’s not dead,” Jaskier says before he can think about it. It’s as much reassurance for himself as refutation of the man’s aspersion. “And he certainly wouldn’t have run off with your coin.”
The man stands up and swaggers to Jaskier’s table, flanked by two members of his entourage. He’s half a head taller than Jaskier and nearly as thick with muscle as Geralt, and a frisson of fear shoots down Jaskier’s spine. He revels in it, lets it meld with the warmth of ale in his belly and embolden him as he stands to be on more of a level with the brute.
“And how would you know?” the brute challenges.
“He’s got more honor than that.” He should leave it at that, Jaskier thinks distantly. He should smile in apology and beg his leave and go shake apart in the comfort of his room. But the last week has been so fucking uneventful, the hungry part of him whispers, and Jaskier is hard-pressed to argue with that. So Jaskier gives the brute a disdainful once-over and sneers, “Not that I’d expect you to be familiar with the concept.”
The brute’s scowl deepens, and he cracks his knuckles. “Keen on parting with yer life tonight, are ye? Better pray yer Witcher’s alive, so’s he can come’n save ye.”
Jaskier grins ferally and steps away from the bench so he has room to maneuver. “I won’t need a Witcher to make you regret putting your filthy hands on me, you misbegotten whoreson.”
The fight itself is quick and dirty and little more than a litany of punches connecting with Jaskier’s abdomen as the brute’s companions hold him immobile. It is abruptly cut short when a hand dripping with viscera bodily pulls away the brute. Jaskier is so blind with fury and exhilaration that he doesn’t recognize his savior until Geralt throws Jaskier unceremoniously over his shoulder and strides back out the door. As they go, Jaskier levers himself up to shout, “And your own pants would have been shitless, would they, had you come face to face with a cockatrice? Cowards, the lot of you, spitting insults behind the back of the very Witcher you hired to kill the monster you had not the balls to face yourself!” Then the door closes behind them, and Jaskier loses track of where they are until Geralt sets him down outside Roach’s stall in the stables.
“I could have handled him,” Jaskier says, molten metal still flowing through his veins in place of blood. “It was no worse than I’ve dealt with before.”
Geralt snorts and begins brushing down Roach. The sound of goathair scraping along Roach’s flank, usually soothing in its repetition, only serves to set Jaskier further on edge. Did Geralt truly think Jaskier some kind of damsel in distress, unable to take a beating?
He is so sick of being saved, Jaskier realizes. He is fed up of being treated like he’s fragile, like he doesn’t know what he wants or is too stupid to be allowed it.
The familiar desire to not quite push a boundary so much as tear through it headfirst settles upon Jaskier, and he doesn’t curb the bitterness suffusing his voice when he spits, “I’m no hapless maiden. I was doing just fine before you came along, you know. I can handle a simple fucking bar fight.”
He hears Geralt pause. He hears Geralt set down the brush and open the stall. He hears his pulse racing in his ears as anticipation grips him anew. Before Jaskier can turn to face Geralt, the Witcher fists a hand in Jaskier’s collar and shoves him into the wall. The uneven wooden surface digs uncomfortably into Jaskier’s back, each pinprick of pain a small triumph in its own right.
“Leave, then,” Geralt snarls. “If you’re so self-sufficient, stop dogging my footsteps and using my reputation to bolster your own. Stop relying on me to save you every time you run your fool mouth. I already have one shadow; I certainly don’t need another.” His lip curls. “Maybe I’ll leave you to the mercy of the next arrogant bastard you offend. How fast will you eat your words when you have no one standing behind you?”
Jaskier says nothing. Instead he closes his eyes and lets his head fall back to rest against the wood, lets Geralt’s words wash over him and flood the void in his chest. It isn’t enough, though. Jaskier’s veins still thrum with quicksilver desire, and arousal begins to curl tight and insistent in his gut. He paws ineffectually at Geralt, not entirely knowing what he’s asking for.
“Is that what you want to hear?” Geralt asks, and his voice is still low, but there’s an undercurrent to it that Jaskier can’t identify. Geralt shoves a hand down Jaskier’s trousers, calluses dragging across his skin and pulling a keening cry from Jaskier’s mouth. He sets a rapid rhythm as he continues, “That I won’t bother saving you next time? That I’d sooner leave you to be beaten than pull your useless hide from the fire?”
Jaskier shouldn’t want that. He should open his mouth and say no, should say I’ll stop antagonizing the big, ugly thugs that seem endemic to backwater taverns, but he can’t think beyond Geralt’s hand moving in rough strokes against his cock, and this may not be a fight but it’s the next best thing, sending adrenaline coursing through his veins and setting his whole body ablaze. So instead he pushes his hips into Geralt’s hand until he’s spilling into his pants, going limp and relying on the hand still folded into his collar to keep him upright.
Geralt lets go of him once he has stopped shaking, and Jaskier buckles before he remembers how to carry his own weight. Jaskier stands there for a long moment, keeping his eyes pinched shut and listening as Geralt resumes grooming Roach.
Silence hangs heavy in the air as Geralt finishes caring for Roach and heads back to the inn. He pauses at the stable entrance. “I thought I told you to ask the next time you needed a hand at your throat,” he says quietly. Jaskier doesn’t respond, and after a long moment, Geralt leaves.
Only then does Jaskier slide down the wall until he is crouching on the stable floor, breath coming shakily but coming nonetheless. He knows, now, what that odd note to Geralt’s voice had been.
It was recognition.
Jaskier sees something in Geralt at the edge of the world that he spends the next decade trying to identify, and it isn’t until Geralt leaves him spent and panting in a stable on the other side of the Continent that he manages to put his finger on it.
For all his talk about life consisting only of monsters and money, Geralt walks the same knife’s edge that Jaskier has been navigating his entire life. There is a restlessness to Geralt that can’t be explained away as a byproduct of his training or mutations. After all, Geralt could make a good living at court, serving as a royal Witcher or a mercenary on retainer, while still fulfilling the purpose he was created for; instead, he braves the wilderness and drifts from contract to contract, never settling, needing nothing but always seeking more.
It is a pursuit with which Jaskier is intimately acquainted. It would be effortless to fall in step with Geralt and walk the tightrope in tandem. He thinks Geralt just might let him.
“Do you ever plan to stop running?” the Countess de Stael had asked Jaskier once, after he had left his post at Oxenfurt for the third time.
“Yes,” Jaskier had replied, pressing a kiss to her palm, “when I’ve reached the place I’m running to.”
He hasn’t found it yet, that place that will dissolve the ache in his chest that is only ever mollified and never sated. He still doesn’t know what the empty space in his rib cage seeks, or how to keep the disquiet in his blood at bay indefinitely. But he’s getting closer, he thinks.
The company he keeps certainly makes it easier.
“How shall we thwart death today?” Jaskier asks Geralt.
Geralt hums. He tucks his bedroll into one of the saddlebags and hoists himself easily onto Roach. “There are rumors of a gryphon in these parts,” he replies. “Haven’t fought one of those in a while. I thought I might refresh my memory.” He taps his heel to Roach’s flank and sets off toward the main path.
With a smile, Jaskier follows.