Jaskier left and took Geralt's senses with him. He'd dulled them to anything else.
Food tastes like nothing. He wears grey clothes and fights grey monsters with grey swords, on a brown horse.
He doesn't hear when someone approaches him - he is dead a thousand times over, caught off guard -
He misses the times when it was just him and Roach and the road - when he didn't know and he didn't miss -
It's just him and the road, but... he knows.
There's a buttercup by the side of the road. He picks it up and braids it into Roach's mane. The road is grey and so is the sky, but he has a brown horse with a yellow buttercup. It's enough.
He requests fewer baths. He can't smell the blood or the dirt or the sweat on his skin. He can't smell the flowers.
He orders more ale, but it tastes like water. People who approach him are braver now, if they are not deterred by the look on his face. He touches – the cold, dead skin of monsters with no faces. The world is dark when the sun is up, darker when it is down.
He doesn't walk towards a town or a monster – he just walks. Sometimes there happens to be a kikimora. Sometimes a drowner. Sometimes a barmaid. Sometimes someone pressing a bag of coin in his hand, someone flinching away. He walks, but he doesn't hear the laughter in the tavern or the slicing of his blade or his own footsteps. It's a blur of grey. The only thing clear is the yellow buttercup. It wilts after a while. Geralt keeps walking.
He is somewhere – in front of some tavern, some monster's blood in his hair - when something slices through the muffled sounds – through him.
It's Jaskier's voice.
He freezes and stops whatever he was doing, if he was doing anything at all. He follows the voice into the tavern and a barmaid says something and he says something back but the only thing he can hear clearly is Jaskier's voice.
He is led to a grey table and sits down. Then he sees him, turned away from him. Wearing a blue tunic, like the sky. Jaskier turns a little more and Geralt can see the side of his face.
He remembers what red looks like.
Geralt can't hear – but he can hear Jaskier.
So he stays.
Jaskier has told them to call him Julian, so they don't know about his most popular songs. So long as no one recognizes him, he's in the clear. No one will request any songs that will throw him back ten years into the past – violently.
He's in the middle of a song about a shepherd who's losing sheep when he turns and -
He stumbles over his words before he catches himself enough to pretend like nothing's changed. But there he is. Stoically sitting in the corner, like he's made of marble.
Jaskier didn't expect this – to run into him by accident, like you'd run into an old acquaintance. There is no protocol for this. How do you act when you meet someone who meant the world to you – means the world to you – was your friend – wasn't your anything – probably can't stand the sight of you? Maybe Geralt didn't see him. Maybe he'll leave once he does.
But then Geralt's gaze is on him – just for a moment – and Jaskier sings the chorus for the third time in a row -
Then Geralt is looking away again. Right. Right. That's how you act when you meet again – I've never calmed you after a nightmare in the dead of night, I've never tended to your wounds, I've never learned the meaning of the noises you count as language.
Jaskier pretends not to watch him out of the corner of his eye.
And now we're right back at the beginning - back to square one. I'm a bard singing and you're sitting in the corner. Just like it was always meant to be.
Jaskier's wrist is stiff and his fingers are tense and the sounds of his lute come out strange. But he keeps playing. What would you do if I walked over to you? Would you let me? Would you let me love you for a little bit? Or only from afar? You've ripped out my heart before, do you want to have anther go? Well, no thanks. Jaskier's had his fill of it.
He finishes his set a bit early. He has the brilliant idea to get outrageously drunk, so he sits at the bar.
The barmaid has curly hair and lovely brown eyes.
“Sixteen pints of ale, please,” Jaskier says politely.
“That's a bit rash, isn't it?” she says, but smiles.
“Oh, believe me,” Jaskier murmurs, “I'll need it.”
“Not if you're not a mutant you don't,” she says. “That much alcohol will probably kill you.”
“Eh, worth the risk.”
“Sweetheart, I think at that point it counts as a suicide. What's going on? Lover's quarrel?”
“No, I...” Jaskier starts and then pauses. “You know what? Yes. Yes, it was. You wouldn't believe what he said to me, that brutish, stubborn oaf of a man -”
Jaskier goes on to describe a vicious fight over half an hour in which they had both traded scathing insults. Only exaggerating a little bit.
“And that's how we broke up,” he finishes. “Twenty years of a loving relationship down the gutter. I was going to propose, I had a ring and everything.”
He had gone through two pints of ale already and he takes another swallow.
“We were going to settle down by the coast,” he says more quietly. “But alas, it was not – not meant to be...”
“That was just one fight, it's not the end of the world,” the barmaid says kindly, “maybe you can still talk about it.”
“Ah, no, see... fight was a long time coming. We wanted different things.”
He's aware that somewhere behind him, Geralt is still sitting. Jaskier is sure he'll be gone in the morning and this time, Jaskier won't follow. He's angry, yes, but more bitter.
The burly man on the seat next to him nudges his arm.
“Lad, I don't mean to alarm you, but that man in the back has been staring at you for a while,” he says, “you want me to talk to him before he makes trouble?”
Jaskier turns into the direction the man is pointing. It's Geralt. Looking at the table. He almost laughs.
“No, it's fine,” he says dismissively and waves a hand. Why is Geralt watching? To make sure he keeps his distance? Won't be a problem, sir. I don't even know you.
“That's the witcher,” the tall man two seats over chimes in. “They say he's strangled a man with his own laces.”
“No, no,” the burly man says, “that's the one from the songs. From what I've heard, he's killed two ghouls unarmed.”
Jaskier snorts. The barmaid leans over the counter. “I've heard he got swallowed by a selkiemore and survived.”
“I've heard he's a dick,” Jaskier says. Three pairs of eyes land on him.
“What,” the barmaid says, “you know him?”
“Ah, no,” he denies quickly. “I've stayed in an inn he was before. They told me he didn't take his boots off in his room. Got selkiemore guts everywhere.”
Tomorrow he'll be gone. It'll be fine.
Before he leaves for the night, he can't resist turning around one more time. Geralt is sitting there exactly like he did when Jaskier first saw him tonight. Exactly like he did when Jaskier first saw him at all. Like he hasn't aged a day. Like in twenty years no one has gained or broken his heart. Still lonely.
Jaskier was going to leave town the next day, but there's a chance – a small chance, but a chance that the seat in the corner of the tavern won't be empty tonight. He has an argument with himself over it that lasts all morning. It's one thing to follow someone into battle who doesn't want you to, it's another to go into the same tavern again for the chance that he'll be there, just to see him. Once the sun sets, Jaskier gives up the pretence and heads back.
As soon as Jaskier's through the door, his gaze skitters to the seat Geralt occupied the day before. There he is, the great pretender. Less blood in his hair this time. Jaskier feels a little lighter when he starts his new song, lighter and a little heavier, but all worth it.
Why are we strangers again? I can't believe there was a time when you let me touch you.
“Your usual?” the barmaid says later, “sixteen pints of ale?”
“Only fifteen today, please,” Jaskier says and winks. “I'm feeling a little better.”
“That's the spirit,” she answers.
All night, Jaskier can feel Geralt's gaze in his neck.
Geralt returns to the tavern, even though he doesn't know if Jaskier will be there. He can't not return. He sits in the spot furthest away from the people, from which he can best watch Jaskier. He knows Jaskier can't forgive him and worse, he can't ask for forgiveness. He wants to. But he can't bring himself to step up to Jaskier and just - talk. Not after how the last time turned out.
He knows Jaskier saw him, so maybe that means he won't come back, but the memory still lingers in the tavern and it appeases Geralt a bit.
Then Jaskier is there and Geralt almost catches his eye. Just let me have this. Jaskier won't come over, he knows.
So he sits and he drinks and he watches.
Geralt is frozen in time, frozen in that moment in the tavern two decades ago - he is an ink drawing of a future that shouldn't have happened. Please don't smudge the ink. Please don't cry on me, I think I'll wash away -
Geralt's fingers clench around his jug. He quietly watches as Jaskier goes to the bar again, talks to the barmaid. He doesn't get Jaskier's words any more or his smiles or his touches – but this. This he can have. If you will let me return to the distance of you, I will. Every time.
Jaskier keeps returning, and curiously, Geralt does too. It's strange. Geralt must know why he stays. It's much less clear why Geralt is still in this town.
He's right there, right across the room, but walking over to him would be like walking through a snow storm with no clothes. Swimming across the ocean with missing limbs. Climbing a steep mountain with half a lung. He could do it, but... shit, it would be painful.
He fantasizes about it, though.
“You look familiar,” he'd say. “You look like a friend I used to have.”
He fantasizes about yellow eyes on him and the amused curl of his lips.
It's too late, Geralt. I already know all your secrets. I know that under the big muscle mass and the frowns and the tense jaw, you have buried a heart. I know you have kindness hidden away in your yellow eyes. I have seen the soft lines of your body that you hide in your skeleton.
Geralt never moves from his spot, never talks to anyone.
If I come any closer, will you still insist that we are strangers?
All Geralt gets are curious glances. Everyone is asking themselves the same question.
Why are you still here? Is there a monster in this tavern you are looking to kill?
Geralt rarely stays in one place for this long. But he has a good reason, he does. If he leaves, he won't hear again. Jaskier is at the bar and he's laughing. He doesn't need Geralt. He has five friends in this tavern alone. There's twenty strangers he could meet in this tavern, each of them with a nicer voice and a brighter smile than Geralt has.
And if Jaskier stays, he must have a good reason to. The girl behind the bar has pretty hair, Geralt can tell. And warm eyes.
Geralt doesn't know what he'll do when his coin runs out. Find a monster near by, hope Jaskier will still be here when he returns.
Why are you still here? Where is the pretty girl that has caught your eye?
Geralt's breath hitches in his throat when Jaskier makes a step in his direction. He's had enough. He's not putting up with Geralt any longer. He'll point Geralt in one direction and tell him to stay far, far away from him. Worse, maybe he'll want an explanation.
Geralt's throat gets tight and he tries to think of anything that won't make him sound like a creep.
I didn't think you would stay for so long.
When the world turns dark, I will follow your voice. (And fuck, it's dark.)
The closer Jaskier gets, the more nervous Geralt becomes. He doesn't belong into this corner of the world, where Jaskier has decided to stay. That's where pretty barmaids and humans with normal eyes belong. Jaskier won't let him have this any longer.
Go and take with you the colors of the world. I've survived it before.
Geralt remembers the first time Jaskier talked to him, like he wasn't scary at all.
Here's your second chance, you can get it right this time. Say "I'm here to sing alone," and I will answer with "Ah. I know who you are. You're the bard I let in.” Walk away and I won't follow.
Jaskier leans against the wall and crosses his arms.
You are the best thing that ever happened to me. I'm the worst thing that ever happened to you.
Geralt has locked himself in a small room with no windows, only there is no lock and there is no door.
“I was just going to stay one more day,” Geralt wants to say, but the words are stuck in his throat.
From inside his self-made prison, he can still hear the gentle sounds of Jaskier's lute. So, he listens. Can you blame me?
"I hear someone ordered a pie with no filling,” Jaskier says, his voice cold. Geralt nearly flinches. Jaskier saunters over and sits in the seat opposite Geralt. “Here to drink alone?”
“Something like that,” Geralt says. He prepares for the inevitable accusations. He prepares his excuses. It's just your voice. A voice like amused smiles and no nightmares.
“I've seen you, you know,” Jaskier says. “Around.”
“Yeah, well, it's,” Geralt pauses, “the usual.”
“Right, right. Here's the thing though,” Jaskier says and leans forward across the table. “It's not. It's not the usual. You never stay this long in one place. So why are you still here? It can't be the ale, because to be frank it's not that good.”
“Maybe I just like... the company.”
“The company? Geez, Geralt, you've lied better before. I know for a fact that in your whole life, you've never liked anyone's company. Are you here for a case? Some monster? Because I haven't heard anything.”
Geralt drinks in the sight of him, the soft red in his cheeks, the brown hair.
“No monsters,” he says slowly and looks down at his drink. "It's the smell," he says, “you smell... like home."
"It's onion," Jaskier says and Geralt lets out a soft laugh.
Jaskier sways back a little.
Home? What does it mean? Jaskier crosses his arms, then uncrosses them again. He tips back his chair.
"I wouldn't have pegged you for one to settle down in a place like this,” Jaskier says conversationally.
How come Geralt still are as much of a mystery to him as he was twenty years ago? Or, well. Again.
“Likewise,” Geralt answers and Jaskier frowns. It's clear why he is still here, after all. The same way it's always been. “It's a pretty barmaid,” Geralt says.
“Tabitha?” Jaskier frowns harder. Why are they talking about Tabitha?
“Bit early to buy a ring,” Geralt says, irritably.
“A ring?” Jaskier has completely lost track of the conversation.
“To get married,” Geralt elaborates. “It's what people do. When they stay in one place for long.”
“Not if they stay somewhere for two weeks, what the fuck, Geralt,” Jaskier says, a little indignant. “Not me and Tabitha. No. Though...” His heart is racing faster. “If I'm honest, someone... did catch my eye, in this tavern.”
He presses his palms on the table and leans in closer.
“Oh,” Geralt says quietly. “I see. Someone... important, then.”
He feels terribly cold, suddenly.
“Right. I should... I should go. I should stop bothering you.”
He doesn't belong here, in this place where people talk and fall in love and are happy.
“Bothering me? That's what you call bothering, sitting in the corner and brooding? Not even an apology,” Jaskier shakes his head.
“I... I'm sorry, I should have left -”
“Not for that,” Jaskier says quietly.
Geralt stares at him for a moment. He doesn't quite understand. Does Jaskier want them to part on good terms?
“I'm sorry for that, too, obviously,” he says.
“That's not good enough.”
“It's, it's like they say. I am... my own worst enemy,” Geralt says. “I made a mistake. Bigger than usual. First with Yennefer, and then... You. You were still there. No matter how much I fucked up, you were always still there. I thought I'd... do the hard work for you.”
“That's incredibly stupid, Geralt, you know that?”
“You've never had a friend before, have you?”
Geralt mentally goes through a long list of people he's met. None of them had been like Jaskier.
“Then I'll forgive you,” Jaskier says and smiles a little, “but let it be known that should you ever do something like this again, I'm going to write a very mean song about you.”
“It'll involve an extremely scathing line about your smell.”
Geralt tilts his head a little.
“Seriously, when is the last time you had a bath?”
Geralt raises an eyebrow thoughtfully.
“No, this is not something you need to think about,” Jaskier says, “oh Geralt, I don't know how you've survived a second without me.”
Geralt doesn't know either. Jaskier's eyes look a little brighter and Geralt loosens his grip on his jug.
“Why haven't you apologized two weeks ago?” Jaskier says then.
“You... you looked happy. Happier.”
“I think you haven't been looking too closely.”
“What about that... person. The one who's important to you? Will you want to stay?” Geralt says. “Because I can't. There's no monsters here.”
“You big idiot,” Jaskier says and clenches his teeth. “I really don't know how this is so hard to understand. I'm always in the same place. Have been for years. I'm always, always... where you are.”
Suddenly, Geralt realizes that the table is brown and so is his jug. The ceiling is blue. It's an odd color, for a ceiling.
“Oh, you,” Geralt starts, feeling like he's on the precipice of something. “You - ?”
“I'd say that was fairly obvious,” Jaskier says softly.
“And -” Geralt swallows. “I -”
“That, uhm, obvious not so much,” Jaskier says, hands jittery. Geralt reaches out and covers them with his own. Jaskier stills instantly.
Let me – just let me -
Geralt reaches for Jaskier and pulls him closer. He kisses him – because as a rule, Geralt doesn't feel things, except that he does – and Jaskier smells like flowers. He tastes like something sweet. The world gets a little blurry around the edges, but this time it's okay. Geralt is thinking about a buttercup he'll pick for Jaskier, one he can put behind his ear. He can't lose this again, this feeling that's a little red and a little sweet and a little like Jaskier's voice.
Outside, the sun shines something bright again.