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faith in transience

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Again and again, however we know the landscape of love
and the little churchyard there, with its sorrowing names,
and the frighteningly silent abyss into which the others
fall: again and again the two of us walk out together
under the ancient trees, lie down again and again
among the flowers, face to face with the sky.
r.m. rilke


In the time-erasing cold darkness outside Wetterton, Geralt snaps his teeth at the wind. His boots, over the course of his pacing, packed the snow densely beneath him.

Kill them, the town elder said as he pointed Geralt in the direction of the devourers’ suspected cave. And then leave.

He killed the devourers. The stink of their rotting blood coats his armor and mats his hair. But despite the success of the hunt something deep and hungry and needy inside him is not sated. It thrums in his veins alongside the potion of cat and potion of black blood. The latter, handy for turning a delicacy to the devourers into a lethal poison, often left him panting and gnashing his teeth as his sickened blood ripped tiny perforations in his veins until it the potion ran its course. But this is a different, unfamiliar pain.

Just a stone's throw from forest, the merry lights of the inn beckon him. Inside is a bath, and a bed, and the bard’s lilting tenor wooing coin from the drunken townsfolk.

Inside. Go inside.

No. Kill them. And then leave.

His slow, steady heart pounds. He turns away from the inn and instead looks to the depths of the forest and the narrow path leading to the infested mountains. Whatever is inside him is beats against his skeleton from the inside. Leave. Leave. It builds from pressure into pain, tugging him towards the cold dark.

He must leave.

But: the bard.

Geralt curses aloud. He paces the same stretch of path again.

“Geralt? Geralt, is that you?” Jaskier bounds down the path. His doublet is open despite the cold, and he stumbles clumsily in his haphazardly fastened boots. “Darling witcher, Geralt, you mustn’t just stand out here in the cold. The barmaid ordered me to fetch you as she said your, quote, ‘looming and lurking’ would frighten away potential customers.” As he approaches and his human eyes adjust to the dark, his face falls.

Just hours ago Geralt gutted a devourer from chin to pelvis. He exhales hard through his nose and breaks Jaskier’s gaze because with the potions alighting his senses it’s too much—the gentle blue of his eyes and the stains on his doublet and the ghost of others’ hands on him.

The burning thing inside him tells him to leave. He turns to do so.

“Geralt, what’s happened?” Jaskier takes his wrist despite the dirt and the blood. “Are you hurt?”

He must leave. Yet he cannot pull his hand away. “No.”

“Well, that’s quite good.” Some of the brightness returns to Jaskier’s voice, though it seems forced. “Can’t say I fully believe you, though. You’ve taken Cat, I see, not my most favorite of your concoctions, though not the worst. Anything else?”

“Black blood.”

Jaskier sucks his teeth. “Ah. So you’re not injured, but you are hurting.”

Geralt is not hurting, not in the way the black blood hurts. But he is being pulled, wrenched away from the inn. His lungs feel heavy as stones, like they may calcify and shatter and leave him to asphyxiate if he doesn’t fucking leave.

“Come now, Geralt,” Jaskier says. “Come inside.”

The pressure in Geralt’s chest eases. Jaskier pulls him towards the inn. He follows. With each step the pain decreases.

“Put your hood up, please,” Jaskier says as they approach. “While I’m used to Cat’s effect it can be quite a jarring sight for the uninitiated. I’ve worked fairly hard to improve your reputation here so it’d be best for us both if we didn’t spook these fine folk.”

Geralt puts his hood up.

His breaths come easier. The urge to walk into the mountains abates with each smooth note of Jaskier’s unrelenting chatter. The thing inside him still twitches and stutters, its mysterious needs unfulfilled, but now it was a manageable fight. If Jaskier keeps doing whatever he was doing—Geralt isn’t sure exactly what that is—Geralt will be able to ride this out.

“Hood further down, dear, thank you.” Jaskier ushers him through the inn’s door. The standard tavern noise—sloshing ale, laughter, overtalking—stutters and ceases. Geralt’s heavy feet stomp wetly across the hardwood.

“Consider the scourge of devourers ended.” Jaskier addresses the room with a dramatic sweep of his arm. “Rabble-rouse in peace and with good cheer, my friends, knowing your witcher revels in victory upstairs.” He ducks behind Geralt and guides him toward the staircase with a hand flat at the center of Geralt’s back.

“Revels, eh?” someone answers. “Don’t make too much noise, lads!”

Hesitant laughter. Jaskier gasps with faux offense. “Why, sir. Keep that language confined to the brothels. Though" —Geralt doesn’t see it but he swears he can hear the wink— “should the fantasy bring you comfort don’t stifle your imagination on my account.”

Hoots of laughter ring out as the inn’s mood lifts, higher than it was previously, what with the confirmation that no longer would they encounter hungry devourers at the edges of their farms and cemeteries.

“Up the stairs with you,” Jaskier mutters. He pushes at Geralt’s back. “There’s a bath in our room.”

So Geralt goes.

As soon as Jaskier closes the door of their cozy room, he slumps against it, and sloughs off the easy smile he’d cast to the inn’s patrons. “Excellent. Shouldn’t be run off in the middle of the night this time.”

Geralt stands in the center of the room. The thing inside him still beats against his bones, thrumming, like a crazed bird slamming relentlessly into a windowpane. There’s too much light in the room, too much stillness. He needs something but that something is unknown. He gnashes his teeth.

“Whatever this is,” Jaskier says, “I don’t like it.” He crowds into Geralt’s space and begins unfastening his armor deftly, wiping gore from the clasps with nothing more than a grimace. He knows the armor’s intricacies nearly as well as Geralt does. “Get your kit off. We’ll deal the mess tomorrow.”

He begins removing the armor. Ease, again. Like coming up from beneath the waves for a desperate gasp of air.

Jaskier kneels and works through the muck on Geralt’s boots to find the fastenings. “The bath should be clean enough. Igni it and heat it up a smidge, will you?”

With his armor halfway off, Geralt traces the sign of Igni in the air. Fire dances along the outside of the copper tub long enough for the water to begin to steam.

“Lovely. There, I’ve got your boots. Kit off, kit off.”

As Geralt undresses Jaskier shucks his dirtied doublet off and rolls the sleeves of his undershirt to his elbows. He rinses the dirt off his hands in the small basin, then digs items from his spare but luxurious collection of soaps. “Hurry up and get in. You smell like the graveyard threw up on you.”

Geralt steps into the hot bath. The water smells faintly of chamomile and the familiar sweet-spice scent of Jaskier’s sweat. “It did.”

“Ah! He speaks!” Jaskier grins, then a disgusted realization pinches his expression. “Yes. Right. Devourers and the potion of black blood. Delightful combination.” He chooses a bar of soap and tosses it. Geralt catches it instinctively. “Wash.”

He does so. The water grows murky.

“Now relax.”

He relaxes.

“Let me get this mess out of your hair.”

It's strange but soothing to engage with an indefinite request. Geralt assumes there is no point of completion to the task other than the one Jaskier assigns. The burning thing inside him ceases its thrashing. He relaxes each muscle of his body methodically, beginning at his toes and moving toward his head. He catalogues each strain and minor injury, taking inventory to better guide his meditative healing energies.

The efficiency of the healing process is complicated by the distracting pleasurable sensation of Jaskier’s hands in his hair.

“Half the time I wonder why you don’t cut it all off,” Jaskier grumbles as he works a small comb through a knot of dirt and gore close to Geralt’s scalp. “You’re all about being effective and murderous. The long hair, despite its loveliness in the rare times it’s properly tended, is certainly not a battle advantage.”

Geralt had considered cutting it as well, but every time he’d held a straight razor near his hair he couldn’t commit. His hair, despite its downsides, was a signal that eased his travel through towns. If one saw white hair and dark armor from a distance, they could prepare themselves for an encounter with a witcher. Should he simply turn his yellow eyes onto an unsuspecting human they may die of fright. “Because I like it.”

“Oh.” Jaskier’s hands still for a moment. “Well, then. That’s a better reason than any, isn’t it?” He presses his thumbs to the base of Geralt’s skull and guides his head down. The sweet, soothing pressure pulls a grunt from deep in Geralt’s chest.

“Ah, witcher.” Jaskier’s voice is a low, soothing tone. He works his hands, strong and nimble from years of lute, down the nape of Geralt's neck, then follows the lines of his trapezius muscles to his shoulders. “I know the comedown from black blood is awful. It’ll pass.”

“Not the black blood,” Geralt hums.

“No?” Jaskier valiantly tries to keep his tone lighthearted, but the higher pitch of his words betrays him. “Then what is it?”

“Don’t know.”

“Great.”

“Hm.” Geralt has no idea how much time passes with Jaskier's fingers working through his hair and his over his shoulders. By the time Jaskier eases him back into mostly-consciousness with his voice, the water is tepid and dark with grime.

“Up you get,” Jaskier says. “You’ll turn into a prune if you sit in there any longer. Dry off. Get some sleep."

The thing inside him, beaten into a fitful rest, is acquiescent. He dries off. He gets some sleep.

 

By the time Geralt blinks into wakefulness the sun is fully up in the sky. Jaskier is dressed already—highly unusual—and eating bread while watching Geralt anxiously. “Melitele’s tits, Geralt, I was about to call the coroner. I’ve never seen you sleep so much.”

Geralt hums and methodically takes stock of his body and surroundings. He’s on his belly in the bed, but the scent of the sheets suggests Jaskier slept beside him, as usual, though Geralt does not recall him entering the bed nor leaving it. His body is undamaged, aside from the usual strains and pulls of battle. The previous night is a haze. He remembers meeting with the town elder and accepting the contract over ale at the tavern. He remembers dispatching the devourers with some, but not too much, difficulty.

Then after that, the memory is foggy.

He remembers losing his sense of time outside the inn, pacing in circles as powerful magic thrummed in his veins trying to convince him to disappear into the mountains. But the dosage wasn’t quite strong enough, and he’d resisted its call. Jaskier found him and told him to follow him into the inn. That is what had sated the magic’s powerful thirst—the instruction.

“The town elder,” Geralt says as the pieces slot into place. “Is there a mage in this town?”

“I believe so, yes,” Jaskier says. “Shall I fetch them?”

“No. I think I was given a potion at the contract meeting.”

Jaskier starts. “Excuse me? As in you, you were drugged?”

“Hm,” Geralt says. “Yes. I’m familiar with it. It’s a potion to make one amenable to suggestion. The town elder instructed me to kill the devourers and then leave. Likely to avoid payment.”

“This is a common potion?” Jaskier sounds extremely affronted.

“No,” Geralt says. “But I’ve seen it before. Their dosage wasn’t quite strong enough. I was able to resist its effects. And.” He pauses. “I believe you gave me instructions? I can’t quite remember.”

“Well, sure, I told you to bathe, because you reeked like the dead, and there were entrails in your hair.”

“Following your instructions sated the magic enough to allow me to outwait it.”

“Glad to be of service, I suppose,” Jaskier says darkly. “How horrible. Trying to con your way out of paying a contract. How do you feel today, then?”

“I need more rest,” Geralt says.

“I’ll get us another night at this inn, then.”

“With what coin?”

“That doesn’t concern you,” Jaskier says smartly. He stands up and putters around the room, gathering his things. “Rest more. I’ll return soon.”

Perhaps there’s still a trace of the potion coursing through Geralt’s veins because it’s remarkably easy to shove his face back into his pillow.

“I’m taking your sword, love. Don’t wait up.”

Geralt half-hears him. By the time he registers the sentence, Jaskier is gone.

 

At midday, Geralt finally rouses. He stands and rolls his shoulders, testing the joints. His body is healed and working well, and the lingering effects of the potions are gone.

And he is fucking ravenous. There’s a spread of food on the small table near the copper tub, still rank with his bathwater from the previous night. Jaskier must’ve brought the food this morning, accounting for Geralt’s typical post-contract appetite: there’s the usual bread and butter, as well as salt fish, a block of cheese, and a flagon of lukewarm ale. Geralt methodically works through it. He’s starting to feel like himself again.

Then he recalls Jaskier’s parting words.

He glances at his armor, still piled, soiled, in the corner. And, as promised, his steel sword is gone.

Geralt sighs. There’s no telling how badly Jaskier has fucked up their stay in this inn. Better to stay in the room until he returns lest the innkeeper realize he’s still here and kick him out before he’s good and ready. Geralt will give Jaskier the time it takes for him to clean his armor. Then, if he isn’t back, Geralt will go out looking.

Lucky for them both, Jaskier stomps into the room as Geralt is polishing his last bracer. “Jaskier. You’re back.”

Beads of sweat are gathered in Jaskier’s temple and sliding down his nape. The smell is an immediate comfort, especially as it gives him something to focus on that isn’t the terrible stench he’s removing from his armor. He looks absurd, in a rich navy doublet and trousers, with Geralt’s immense sword hanging across his back like it belongs there. Jaskier doesn’t seem encumbered by its weight in the slightest.

“Ridiculous!” He slams a bag of coin onto the table. “That elder is a fucking coward. The mage is worse. I’ve doubled our pay. And the next night at the inn is covered.”

“Did you kill them?”

“Did I—Geralt, what, no, of course I didn’t kill them.”

“Good. Didn’t want to clean the sword. Doubt you could wield it, though.”

“Oh, gods give me patience, he doubts I could wield it. See if I sort out your squabbles next time.”

“I didn’t ask you to sort out my squabbles.”

“You didn’t have to.” Jaskier shrugs the sword off. “I know when my way works better than your way.”

“What’s your way, then?”

“I convinced them you were under my control,” Jaskier says. “The sword made that easy. Everyone knows a witcher cannot, will not, be parted from his swords. Due to the… Magic, and the spells.”

“It’s just a sword.”

“I know that. They don’t. I told the elder the mage had overdosed you and you were totally catatonic. A golem! For at least the next twenty-four hours. And now you were under my control, and were lurking scarily in the shadows somewhere nearby, and we’d like our coin as promised and some extra for the tomfoolery.”

Geralt snorts, and his lips curl up in a small smile. Hard to deny the bard’s resourcefulness. And it wasn't completely untrue—when he was in the throes of the potion’s grasp, he had been, somewhat, under Jaskier’s control.

And it’d been nice, in a way. It was easier to relax when he’d been instructed to do so.

“But no hard feelings,” Jaskier says. “You’re to sleep off the potion’s effects then we’re on our way. Your reputation and mine intact.”

“And that’s what’s important,” Geralt says.

“Well, gods yes, what did you think we were doing all this for?”

 

On their way out of Wetterton, a peasant mentions a drowner problem a few towns north.

“I’ve written all the drowner ballads I can write, Geralt.” Jaskier pulls his cloak tighter. “There are simply no more ways to spin it. Shall we pretend this something more exciting for my next work? What was that thing in the swamp in Kalkar that looked like a fat leech with hands? Bloodzinger?”

“Bloedzuiger,” Geralt supplies from Roach’s saddle. She’s ambling at a pace slow enough for Jaskier to keep up. “You would wish upon me a beast that spits its digestive acids at my face?”

“No, I wish upon you a monster that makes a better story.” Jaskier sighs. “Plus, you’d be fine. What’s a bit of digestive acid against that armor?”

Geralt shrugs. He has a point. “I don’t like drowners, either.”

“I know,” Jaskier says. “You don’t like getting wet.”

That is the most annoying part of drowners. They’re not too hard to kill, but it does require stomping through whatever body of water they’ve claimed as their home, and getting deep into the water so it soaks every crevice of his armor. He doesn’t know how Jaskier knows that—he’s never said it. But it’s a serious pain in the ass, especially when it’s cold.

“Especially when it’s cold,” Geralt says.

Something odd dances across Jaskier’s face, but it’s gone as soon as it arrives. “And yet we shall do it. For the people!”

“I’ll do it. You’ll stay in the tavern and empty their pockets with some chords and winks.”

“Ah, you’ve identified the heart of my busking strategy. The wink. It’s key.” He adjusts the cloak as if he could pull it tighter and closer to his ears. “It’s efficiency, Geralt. I’ve seen you kill quite enough drowners, thank you, and this way we can make double the coin.”

“Your songs do not make nearly as much coin as my contracts.”

“I make less coin, more frequently. It evens out. Wait until the bloedzuiger song enters my repertoire. The White Wolf’s armor sizzled / The acid struck his mighty chest / And his muscles, very chiseled / Drove a sword into its chest…

Geralt shakes his head. A vast cloud rolls across the sky, darkening their path. Jaskier curses.

“Come on.” Geralt extends his hand. “Ride with me. You’ll freeze.”

“I’m already frozen,” Jaskier says. He takes Geralt’s hand gratefully and settles astride Roach, his back to Geralt’s chest.

They don’t ride like this often, simply because Geralt doesn’t want to strain Roach unnecessarily, but without the sunshine the cold is formidable. With Geralt’s heat behind him and Roach’s warm body beneath him, Jaskier will complain substantially less. “Better?” Geralt asks.

“Quite,” Jaskier says softly.

By late afternoon they reach the town, which is more like a village. In the inn they inquire about the drowner problem and the villagers fall over themselves explaining it and directing him. They promise they’ll scrounge together payment. It won’t be enough, but he’s here, and these people seem to be deeply affected by the drowner.

“You’ll go tonight?” Jaskier asks as he unpacks their things in their room at the inn.

“Might as well. Shouldn’t take too long.”

“Back in time for dinner, then, eh?”

“Possibly.”

“I’ll have the keeper draw a bath, then. And get a fire going in the hearth downstairs to dry out your armor.” Jaskier helps Geralt strap it on. “Let the thought of a warm bath and a cold ale give you strength on your journey, darling witcher.”

Geralt stables Roach and travels on foot to the nearby swamp. There’s two drowners, which is an unexpected complication, and he should’ve expected that given the reported number of deaths. He dispatches them fairly quickly, but not without getting deep, deep into the swamp, up to his chest in mud.

Gods, he hates drowners.

He removes the creatures’ heads from their bodies and marches back to the inn. The thought of a bath is very appealing. And he won’t even have to ask for it. It’ll just be there, steaming, waiting for him.

Inside the inn, his gruesome appearance draws gasps of shock. When he raises the two heads, the shocked gasps turn cries of relief and hoots of joy.

Jaskier is lounging at a table near the fire, his feet propped up on the hearth and his lute in his lap.

Geralt approaches him and tosses the heads into the fire. They hiss as water turns to steam, and then begin to burn, releasing an unpleasant but satisfying scent.

Jaskier wrinkles his nose. “All went well?”

“Yes.”

“Any injuries?”

“Hm.” Unsure, Geralt does a rapid mental scan of his body. “Gash on my leg. Minor.”

“Need help with it?”

He doesn’t. But he is gripped by the sudden desire to say yes. It’s just a surface level gash on his calf from the drowner’s back foot as it struggled. He can clean it and wrap it himself easily, and it’ll be healed by morning. But he wants Jaskier’s voice chattering idly about nothing as he washes the mud from his body, and he wants Jaskier to click his tongue at the wound and tell Geralt he’s being careless.

Jaskier blinks up at him, waiting patiently for an answer.

If Geralt says yes, Jaskier will surely come. Wrap his leg. Perhaps even comb his hair.

“How’s the food here?” Geralt asks instead.

“Dunno,” Jaskier says. “You said you’d be back in time for dinner. And here you are.”

“Hm. Order some.”

“Send it up?”

“No, I’ll come down.”

“Excellent!” Jaskier beams. “Now that you’ve returned with the vanquished in hand, moods will be much brighter. I bet I can swing a free meal with a few tunes, don’t you think?”

“I’ll bathe to spare myself the listening.”

“Ha, you’ll bathe to spare us all your stench. Hurry back, dear. Innkeep! What’s on the menu tonight?”

The bath is there as promised, and again it smells faintly of Jaskier. Geralt re-heats the water and sinks in, but doesn’t spend time soaking as he usually does. He washes, wraps the wound on his leg in a bandage, dresses in clean slacks and shirt, and ties his clean but tangled hair into a neat bun. Then he cleans his armor and walks back downstairs to dry it by the fire.

He pauses in the shadowed staircase.

The inn is raucous with energy. It’s newly crowded, with folks of all ages gathered to celebrate the death of the drowners, sharing drinks and food and laughter. And in the center of it all Jaskier stands on a chair, his fingers flying across his lute as he sings an even dirtier version of the Fishmonger’s Daughter and the crowd shouts along. Perhaps it’d be best to return upstairs and leave the people of the village to their celebrating. His presence tends to dampen spirits.

But he does need to dry his armor before travelling tomorrow. And, selfishly, he does like to watch Jaskier engage with crowds like this. He’s seen him in courts plenty, and taverns that’d rather he leave, and the occasional drunken holiday celebration, but rarely does Geralt get to watch him sing for a crowd that can match his energy.

Jaskier stomps his feet to the tune, encouraging the crowd to stamp theirs, He winks, and smiles, and adds complicated flourishes to his simple, memorable songs. He seems to glow in the warm firelight, drawing the villagers’ attention as if he’d enchanted them.

Which he had, in a way, Geralt supposes. Such was his craft.

He creeps down the stairs, but of course in such a small tavern his presence does not go unnoticed. He’d been prepared for the music to pause and for the laughter and singing to fizzle out as all eyes fell to him.

But it doesn’t. He walks directly to the hearth and lays out his armor.

Then he looks up. Mid-song, Jaskier breaks into a wide grin as their eyes meet.

“The witcher!” a drunken voice shouts from the crowd.

Then—extremely unexpectedly—the crowd cheers.

The drunk man sways on his feet and raises a flagon of ale. Jaskier stops singing, but he strums his lute like he can’t stand to still his hand completely.

“Them drowners got my brother and his wife,” the man says. “And I got their little boy. And that little boy’s gonna know your name, witcher.” A beat. “What was it, again?”

Jaskier barks a surprised laugh—a bright, musical sound. “Here, perhaps this will jog your memory.” He strums his lute again. “When a humble bard / graced a ride-along / with Geralt of Rivia…

Geralt realizes he has been standing and staring, armor in hand, for far too long.

The crowd sings the chorus along with Jaskier merrily. After the song, he hops off the chair and does his rounds, speaking to villagers, shaking hands, accepting coin. Eventually he makes his way to Geralt’s table with two tankards of ale.

“They know how to have a good time, I’ll give them that.” Jaskier’s face is flushed from heat and exertion, and his eyes catch the firelight.

“Quite a party for a couple drowners,” Geralt says.

Jaskier shrugs. “Ah, a drowner to you is an annoyance. To them it’s… It’s a nightmare. The worst thing they’ve ever experienced. You may not remember killing this drowner in twenty years, but that little boy will know the story well enough to tell it to his own children.”

“I’ll remember.” Geralt sips his ale. “I remember all my contracts.”

“Even the unremarkable ones?”

“There’s always some information to cull,” Geralt says. “I should’ve realized there would be more than one drowner. Reveals a blind spot in my assessment.”

“Huh. That’s very… Practical.”

“Practical is what keeps us alive.”

“Yes, you’re right. And hope keeps them alive.” Jaskier sighs and rests his chin in his hand as he looks out over the crowd. “Life’s hard out here in these villages. Being frightened of you makes it so much harder. That’s where the songs come in, you see. If they’re frightened of you, a bad memory becomes worse. Scary monster kills their family and is then killed by another scary monster. They’re just powerless victims in the food chain. Or murder chain, I suppose. But now the story's different. Now, a scary monster killed their family, and then the White Wolf came and saved them.”

“Hm.” Geralt is not a symbol of hope. He is a witcher, and he kills monsters because that is what he does. For years he’s done it the same way he’s always done it: find contracts, stomp through the bullshit negotiations, kill the monsters, accept the coin, sleep under the stars. Repeat. He is not made to fit into society, so he doesn’t try. And it’s been fine.

The innkeep brings over their meal. It’s stew and bread, nothing fancy, but it’s hot and filling.

“Lovely,” Jaskier says. “A treat. Cheers, White Wolf.”

Geralt taps his tankard to Jaskier’s. The villagers sneak looks at him, but they aren’t looks of fear. Possibly it’s admiration.

“Don’t go soft,” Geralt says. “It’s back to eating what we can hunt once we’re on the road. We can't afford to stay at inns this often.”

“Oh, let yourself enjoy the basic comforts of civilization for one night, Geralt, the world won’t end.”

The food he can forget. The bed, a comfort, but unnecessary. The bath, easily replaced by a stream.

But the songs. The glances. The gratitude. The firelight sparkling in Jaskier's sharp blue eyes.

Things like this end. Best not to get attached.

 

The next few contracts are uneventful: a kikimore, a handful of ghouls, a werewolf.

“There’s word of an infestation of arachas a few days’ south,” Geralt says over the campfire. “If you’re interested.”

“If I’m interested? It’s your job.”

“I assume you are bored of seeing the same contracts repeated.”

Jaskier pauses in the midst of tuning his lute. The winter is beginning to edge into spring, and the night, though cold, is bearable. “They’re all different,” Jaskier says. “You said it yourself. Always something to learn from each job.”

“For me to learn. Not you.”

“I learn stuff about you to enrich my songs, thanks very much.”

Geralt starts. “Like what?”

Jaskier strums a chord. “Plenty of things. You always ask the contractor if they want the head or not instead of just showing up with it, because you don’t want to shock people. You eat normal amounts of food when eating in public, instead of your usual awe-inducing giant amount. You sleep more when you’re hurt, but that’s the only way I’d ever know. You’re a bit weird about your potions and you count them a lot.” He glances up and grins. “Shall I continue?”

Something in Geralt’s gut twists hard. How had he never noticed Jaskier noticing the potion-counting? He feels exposed, confused, like the first time Jaskier had helped him out of his armor. Like Jaskier is playing a game and Geralt doesn’t know the rules.

“I know things about you,” he says.

“Oh, darling witcher, you don’t know a thing about me. Though it’s nice to think you do. I’ll accept the fantasy.”

Suddenly it seems important that Jaskier know he's not entirely correct. Even if Geralt doesn't always understand Jaskier, he is still attentive. He watches, listens, and catalogues. “Before I return from a contract you put chamomile oil under your nose to mask the scent.”

“That’s not a secret, that’s just a good practice. And I know you can smell the chamomile on me.”

“You write simple songs so others can memorize them,” Geralt says. “But you want to play more complicated things.”

Jaskier stops fiddling with his lute and looks across the fire at him. His blue eyes are wide, and unreadable. “Okay, point.”

“You like people. You like talking to them.”

“Wouldn’t be a bard if I didn’t. Doesn’t count.”

“I wasn’t finished.”

“Oh, sorry, by all means.”

“You—” Now that he has Jaskier’s attention it’s hard to wrestle his observations into sentences. “You talk to them because you are interested in stories, not to fleece them. People can tell the difference. That’s why they like you.”

“It’s not my smooth tenor voice?” Jaskier asks, but there’s little humor in it.

“Sounds like a cat getting kicked,” Geralt says.

“All right.” Jaskier returns to his lute. “Fine. Perhaps you do know some things about me. You and those keen eyes, witcher.”

“And.”

Jaskier, stunned, looks up again.

“And you get bored easily.” Geralt unfurls his bedroll. “Hence my question. If there are other stories you would like to pursue I understand.”

Jaskier hums.

Anxiety rises sharp and sudden in Geralt’s chest—like he’s facing a striga and forgot his potion of swallow. Perhaps he’s opened a door he would’ve preferred to keep closed.

“I quite like these stories, Geralt,” he says. “I’ll tag along for the arachas, if I haven’t driven you to madness yet.”

“Not yet.” Geralt exhales long and slow and gazes up at the stars. Jaskier will leave eventually, of course, he comes and goes as is the way of all bards. Geralt hopes he will at least wait until spring. “Jaskier.”

“What? Hey, have you seen my socks?”

“It’s cold this evening. Share.”

“You always know just what to say, my beloved walking furnace. Scoot over.”

Jaskier finds his socks, then clambors into Geralt’s bedroll as he’s done what feels like hundreds of times before. He slings an arm over Geralt’s chest and presses his face into Geralt’s shoulder, and in a few breaths he’s lost to sleep.

Geralt tips his nose against Jaskier’s scalp and inhales deeply before he falls into sleep as well.

 

The aracha hunt goes sideways.

“Stay here.” Geralt ushers Jaskier into a small clearing near the cave where the arachas have been sighted congregating. The night is cool and deeply dark. The farming village nearby has learned to keep the fires lit and the animals penned. “Arachas sense vibration to hunt. If you see or hear them, don’t move.”

“And if they sense me?” Jaskier grips the hilt of his shortsword anxiously.

Geralt’s honestly unsure when it was, exactly, that Jaskier picked up the little weapon. One day he carried his lute, the next he carried his lute and a sword. Probably after he realized how seriously everyone took him that day he wore Geralt’s sword strapped on his back. “Hm. Then kill it.”

“Wonderful plan. Don’t let them sense me, but if they do, kill them.”

“You’re the one who wanted to see them for yourself.”

You’re the one who can’t ever seem to recall any details that might make for a rousing story! Your version of events would be something like” —Jaskier steels his face into a serious expression and drops his voice an octave— “There were twenty large bugs. Now there are zero. I got paid. The end.”

Geralt’s face twitches into a smile. Years they’ve been travelling together and Jaskier still finds ways to amuse and surprise him. “That’s not what I sound like.”

“You’re right, sorry, it’s more like this.” He drops his voice even deeper and more gravelly. “There were twenty large bugs—”

“All right, all right.” Geralt grabs Jaskier roughly by the shoulder and gives him a firm shake. “I get it. You’ll get your details.”

“And hopefully not an aracha bite.”

“You’d be fine. The bites aren’t bad.”

Turns out the bites are extremely bad. No one in the sleepy farming village thought to mention that this was not an infestation of everyday arachas, which are easily killed by a well-aimed blade to the soft underbelly. These are venomous arachas. The killing blow is the same, but it requires Geralt to be a bit more careful to avoid the bite. A bite wouldn’t kill him, especially not now after he’s dosed himself with potion against the venom, and other concoctions to boost his senses and his endurance, but it wouldn’t be pleasant.

A single bite was venomous enough to kill a human within minutes.

In the damp, narrow cave, Geralt awakens five arachas. Their immense, armored bodies moved crablike down the walls. He stills himself completely—even his breath, his heart—and waits.

In the back of the cave, an aracha twitches its mandibles in his direction, then releases a burst of toxins from the large sac behind its head.

Fuck. Fuck. If the arachas left the cave—

If they moved past the clearing—

If Jaskier inhaled that—

Geralt does something extremely stupid. He knows it’s stupid as he does it, yet he can’t think of a better solution. He whirls and traces the sign of Aard at the roof of the cave.

He will not let them escape. He will not lose Jaskier to the aracha venom because one of the beasts slips through his fingers.

Magic roars through his body, a familiar consuming burn, and the sign carves an immense crack into the rock and then brings it down in boulders to turn the cave to a tomb. The rocks rumble and crash, sending dirt and dust spinning. The noise sends the arachas into a frenzy, and one leaps at Geralt as the boulders fall, and he spins hard to dodge it. The aracha is crushed by rockfall.

As is Geralt’s foot. The dust settles and with a flash of crushing pain Geralt is pinned at the edge of the rock pile, on his back with his foot beneath a boulder and the arachas approaching. They make no sound but the clicking of their mandibles and their steel-hard legs in the dirt as they move toward him.

Reality narrows. The only moment that exists is the space of each breath.

Thinking him easy prey the aracha crawls over his body and moves to strike at his throat. Geralt drives his blade into the beast’s gut, carefully avoiding its venom gland, and opens it like a gift. Its entrails spill hot atop him. With the corpse on him he has a moment of reprieve—just enough time to bite the cork off a potion and swallow it down. He’d hoped it wouldn’t come to this. The enhancement to his strength and stamina will be valuable, but as it works in tandem with the other magic rippling through him, the comedown will not be easy.

He doesn’t think about that now. Not when the magic rips through his veins and coils its sharp burning talons in his muscles, erasing any weakness and drowning any doubt.

Geralt heaves the rock off his mangled foot. He stands. The pain means nothing.

He was designed for this.

In the damp darkness of the cave Geralt dispatches the arachas one by one. They slash at his armor with their sharp feet, snap their mandibles at his face, and hurl their fat, heavy bodies at his own. Geralt dodges avoids parries slices bares his teeth bathes in blood.

Breathes.

The motions are elegant and completely without thought—he kills on instinct. Slashes open their bellies so their steaming entrails fall hissing to the cave floor. A lucky beast catches Geralt’s arm in its mandibles, and gets its head removed for the trouble.

Then the arachas are dead.

The cave is silent. The corpses reek but, thankfully, do not excrete any venom in death.

His arm spasms. The bite is shallow—most of it was stopped by the bracer—but it was enough to introduce the venom into his bloodstream. It’s a paralytic that then induces organ failure in a regular human. It tries to do so in Geralt’s mutated biology. He grits his teeth against the sudden cramping in his muscles. With the effects of the potions rattling his bones and the venom intertwining he can’t fucking think. He has to lie down. Meditate. Focus his energy on regulating the magic and the pain until his metabolism flushes it out. If it goes uncontrolled it could kill him.

He could do it here. Lie down among the bodies and go into a trance.

“Geralt? Geralt, can you hear me?” The voice on the other side of the landslide is faint and thready with anxiety.

If he sleeps here he would awaken cold, starving, and exhausted, and potentially even more poisoned if these corpses bloat and pop. He would survive. But perhaps it isn’t the most efficient choice.

Perhaps it’s a choice he may have made were the bard not here. Jaskier’s voice buries deep in his gut and tugs at him like it has magical properties of its own. Like the slaughter, it’s instinctual. Go to him.

Just one more push.

Jaskier’s terrified voice rings out from the right side of the rockfall. Geralt traces the sign of Aard again and slowly pushes leftmost boulders aside, just enough to create a path into the clear, cool night air.

“Gods above, Geralt, did you bring the fucking cave down on your head on purpose?” Jaskier darts towards him, not even checking for any remaining arachas. His doublet hangs open and he smells of sweat and exertion, with a sharp edge of fear. His boots and hands are dirtied. He’d been trying to move the boulders himself. “One moment you’re in the mouth of the cave, the next the cave is collapsing! That was not a complication we’d discussed nor planned for!”

“Jaskier.”

“And of course I can’t hear anything, or talk to you, so for all I know you could’ve been crushed to death, though you probably have some sort of bone-enhancing potion to turn your bones to steel or something insane like that.” Jaskier’s hands flit around his body like birds. “Your foot! Geralt, it’s mangled!”

He needs to heal. He can’t just fucking—stand here. The venom sings in his veins. His skull feels like it’s cracking, preparing to burst. His muscles spasm and jerk as the venom tries to paralyze him and the magic forces his nerves back into wakefulness. He can hardly regulate his vision, his pupils fluctuate, letting in too much light, then too little. He sways on his feet. He has to—do something. But action behind immediate trance is unfathomable.

“Jaskier,” he grits. “Tell me. What to do.”

“Excuse me?” Jaskier shoves himself under Geralt’s arm. “Lean on me. You can’t be putting weight on that foot.”

“I need—to meditate. Just—tell me. What to do. Like Wetterton.”

Jaskier starts. “Were you drugged?”

“No,” Geralt bites out. “Venom. I can’t—Jaskier. Please.”

“Right. Right. I’ll stop asking questions. Just don’t die, darling, I can’t carry you out of these woods on my own.” Jaskier softens his voice, but strengthens his posture, and Geralt leans heavily on him because he knows Jaskier can hold the weight. “Good. Walk, now.”

Geralt walks, dragging his bad foot. Jaskier leads the way, muttering nonsense mainly to himself, unless he needs Geralt to do something, then his tone becomes clear and comforting. “Step up here, dear, over the root, all right, we’re on the path now, should be easy going, keep walking…”

Geralt allows his senses to dull as his energy focuses inwards to keep the venom bridled. He barely feels dirt beneath his feet nor the night air—he feels only Jaskier’s warm steady weight at his side, smells only the dirt and sweat and his own blood.

“We’re at the inn, darling, no one’s awake, though I doubt you’d enjoy any company at this particular moment, it does mean you’ll have to navigate some stairs. Over the threshold, excellent. All right, one step at a time. One hand on the wall. Lean on me, good, like that. First one.”

After an eternity of stairs they reach the landing, and then the room. As if on cue Geralt’s knees buckle beneath him.

“Whoa, whoa, whoa, not yet, not yet, come on, onto the bed.” With a heave Jaskier pulls Geralt back to his feet.

Geralt sits, fully armored, on the edge of the bed. He closes his eyes. He is being boiled alive from the inside.

Jaskier, muttering, swiftly removes all the armor he can reach. “Ugh, that foot. Geralt, darling, are you with me?” His voice sounds distant, like the rockslide is between them again.

“Hm.”

“Hate to do this. I hate it. But.” He unfastens the boot around Geralt’s foot and removes it slowly. It’s swollen from the walk and bruising. “It’ll be worse tomorrow if you don’t. Can you set the bones?”

Yes. If he begins to heal with the bones misaligned he’ll have to rebreak them. With tremendous painful focus he kneels down and grips his bad foot.

Three fractures where the rock landed, clean across his metatarsals. He’s lucky they’re not shattered. With a rough exhale and a single, sharp motion, he realigns the bones. Against the cacophony of terrible sensation there’s a pinpoint of relief.

“Perfect,” Jaskier says.

There’s another.

“All right.” Jaskier pulls the strip of leather from Geralt’s hair so it falls free. He cards his fingers gently through Geralt’s hair despite the sweat and dust and traces of aracha blood. “Start healing, witcher, I’ll stand guard.”

He lies back and the slips into the deep meditative healing trance he’s been staving off nearly immediately. Despite his inward focus he still feels Jaskier’s callused fingers on his arm as he dresses the aracha bite. He hears Jaskier’s sighs and footsteps as he tidies the room, the feels him climb into the bed, and only then does the trance deepen into a deathlike sleep.

A few hours later Geralt wakes. In the room’s small window the sky is gray with the threat of dawn. The potions have run their course, he aches his normal unremarkable aches, and the venom is a barely-present thrum. By morning his body will expel it completely. Until then, though, he needs to replenish the energy he’s spent healing.

“There’s salt pork in my pack,” Jaskier mutters. He doesn’t even open his eyes. “And hardtack. Should tide you over til breakfast.”

“Thank you.”

Then Jaskier half-opens one eye, like an irritated cat. “You’re okay?”

“Yes. Go back to sleep.”

Jaskier buries his face back in thin pillow and is asleep in moments. Geralt stands and fishes the rations from Jaskier’s pack, then sits at the room’s small table. His dirtied armor is piled in the corner and his swords lean, easily accessible, by the door. Geralt’s side of the bed is disgusting, dark with the grime that’d coated his body. Jaskier had pulled the sheets off his side and built a barrier between them and spread his bedroll on his side of the bed. Geralt’s lips quirk into a small smile when he sees it. Of course Jaskier wouldn’t risk rolling into the muck on Geralt’s side, but he also wasn’t willing to give up the luxury of a mattress. Resourceful bard.

Perhaps it’s the aftereffects of the venom, the heavy dosage of potions he’d used, or the simple exhaustion from healing, but Geralt lets his gaze linger on Jaskier’s sleeping form.

He’s on his belly, with his arms under the pillow and his mouth slightly open against the fabric. The blanket of his bedroll is pushed to his waist, and the wide neck of his undershirt is pulled off-center drawing Geralt’s eye to the smooth column of his neck and the tendon leading to his shoulder.

In all his years as a witcher Geralt has healed from many injuries: broken bones, gashes, bruising, internal bleeds, even head blows and paralyzing back strikes. His training gave him all the tools he needs to heal. And this—whatever this was—was not included in that training.

Were he a pure result of his training he would’ve gone into a trance in the cave with the aracha bodies. It would've been fine. He would’ve woken up ravenous and dirty, broken his foot again to reset it, and dragged his aching body back to the inn to eat and bathe and meditate again.

This was better. He hurt less, he had food, his foot was healing properly, and he wouldn’t need another meditation. It was efficient.

But this way required Jaskier. It required trust.

Jaskier snuffles into the pillow and rolls over. The slope of his shoulder and curve of his hip rise under the bedroll like hills on the horizon.

Geralt is meant to be alone. He is meant to serve humanity while remaining distinctly outside the constructs of society; things like family and friendships were never part of his life. His work is too risky and his life too bloody and brutal to invite others in. And yet here is Jaskier, carrying him up the stairs, dressing his wounds, letting him eat the salt pork from his secret stash.

The warmth that floods him now as he chews the pork isn’t unfamiliar. He’s felt it plenty: when Jaskier had told the story of bluffing the Wetterton elder, crowing and preening with Geralt’s sword on his back. When Jaskier followed behind Roach on foot without complaint, humming and and idly working through verses on his latest ballad. When he pressed the length of his back to Geralt’s chest and sighed with relief at the warmth.

Geralt’s never examined the sensation. It’s just Jaskier. He’s a bard, his job is to make people feel happy and eased.

But it’s more than that, isn’t it?

It’s not the perilous blaze of attraction Yennefer, a kindred soul, sparks in him. And it’s not the perfunctory lust he pays to experience in the brothels.

The angles and divots of Jaskier’s body are as familiar to Geralt as his own. He knows Jaskier’s heartbeat has slowed throughout the course of their travels from the walking as his thighs and calves have hardened. He knows his forearms are corded from strumming and his fingertips lack sensation due to the calluses. He knows the slim muscle of his abs and chest, how he broadens slightly in the summer when food is abundant, then sloughs the weight off in the depths of the hungry winters. He’s tended Jaskier’s wounds, when they’ve happened. He knows the sharp coppery scent of his blood, delicately unique to him as all blood is, the thrumming frightened pulse, and the choked-off breaths has he tries not to express pain.

Despite this knowledge Geralt still seeks out Jaskier’s touch, his closeness.

It’s reciprocal, though. Jaskier knows Geralt’s armor, his potions, his weapons, his abilities, and his limits. He sees him, knows him, and he doesn’t turn away. He writes about him. When Jaskier is around the townsfolk don’t drive him into the woods, they cheers him with their tankards.

Must it always be as bad as he was trained to believe? Perhaps if he acknowledges the ephemerality of all this—whatever this is—he can just…

Just be here. With Jaskier.

Geralt finishes eating and changes into a clean set of clothes. Tomorrow he’ll have a bath brought up and a real, hot meal. But this will do to get a little more rest. He sweeps the dirtied sheets off the bed, lies on the bare mattress, and slots his body against Jaskier’s as he’s done what feels like hundreds of times before for warmth. He loops an arm over Jaskier’s body and even in sleep Jaskier sighs and shifts back against him. Geralt noses at his nape, the familiar scent there relaxing him. If he follows that with his lips on Jaskier’s skin it’s light enough to be deniable. The clarity it brings is worth it.

 

Geralt wakes first when the sunbeams sluice through the window, but he doesn’t rush to get up. He’s hungry, but not deliriously so. He drifts in an easy, light meditation until Jaskier stirs.

“Ugh, brute, you reek!”

“Hm.” Geralt doesn’t move. “It’s the entrails.”

“I know it’s the entrails! Shove off.” Jaskier wriggles out of his grasp and rolls onto his other side to face him. He props his head up, cheek in his palm.

Geralt finds it’s hard to meet his sharp blue eyes even when they’re still fuzzy with sleep. He rolls onto his back.

“You look better,” Jaskier says. “Fed? Rested? Foot’s all right?”

“Yes,” Geralt says. “Should be fine to travel today. Thank you for… Helping. Last night.”

“Certainly, it’s what we do, isn’t it? You do the slaughtering, I do the panicked rescuing. Turned out pretty well though. May have pulled my shoulder trying to move a boulder, though.”

Geralt sighs. “That’s not how I meant for the hunt to go.”

“Yes, I figured as much. What happened?”

“The arachas were the venomous type. They’re uncommon, and no one had reported any signs that led me to suspect it. It’s fatal to humans. Even just a drop.”

“So you… Destroyed the cave? To smash them?”

“To keep them from leaving the cave. You were out there. I trust in your ability to handle a standard aracha, but the venomous type is too risky.”

“Oh.” Jaskier furrows his brow and takes a deep, steadying breath. “Geralt, that’s— You could’ve been killed.”

“It was a quick decision. Got the results I wanted. Arachas are dead. You are not. And because you were there and able to help get me back here I was able to manage the venom easier.”

Realization dawns on Jaskier's face. “That’s why you wanted me to give you orders. No decision-making. So you could focus on the venom.”

Geralt nods. He stares at the rafters. Something pulls in his chest, tense and tight.

Jaskier justs understands.

He wants to tell him, but the phrases won’t form in his throat. Jaskier is the one with the quick words and sharp mind and the ability to take whatever he’s feeling and spin it into a sweet-sounding sentence. How does a witcher say, You see me. You know me.

Stay.

Jaskier crawls out of bed and stretches his arms overhead. His spine pops. He curls his toes on the floor and pops those too. “I’m sore, dear, too much adventuring yesterday. What do you say to a bath before breakfast? Will you survive or do you need more sustenance already? I see you’ve done some serious damage to the hardtack stores.”

Geralt sits up and swings his feet to the floor. “Jaskier.” He grabs the hem of Jaskier’s undershirt and tugs him close, so Jaskier stands in the open space between Geralt’s knees.

“What is it? Something wrong? Still poisoned?” Concern flits across Jaskier’s face, turning the corners of his lips down.

It seems so simple, now. He can feel it galloping in his blood. But the words aren’t there. He reaches up, wraps his hand gently over the back of Jaskier's neck, and tugs him down.

Jaskier bends at the waist easily under the gentle pressure of Geralt’s hand.

Geralt kisses him. Jaskier makes a small sound into his mouth like he’s hurt.

There are so few parts of Jaskier’s body Geralt hasn’t touched. Now that he knows the taste of Jaskier’s mouth he never wants to give it up. Jaskier parts his lips just the barest amount and their lips fit together, perfectly, and Geralt hums into the kiss, a low rumble deep in his chest.

Then Jaskier wrenches out of his grasp.

“Oh no,” he says, repeatedly, until it blurs into one word. “Nonononono. No, no, Geralt, that’s not how this works, this isn’t—”

Geralt stands. “Wait—”

Before he can step closer, Jaskier stops him with a hand on his chest, and it stills Geralt like a spell. Just Jaskier’s fingertips touch him, five brands through the thin fabric of his shirt.

“Geralt, darling, you stupid oaf, I thought” —he grits his teeth— “our implicit agreement was that you would do the killing to provide the narratives for my work, and I would do the story-spinning to make my own living and ease our way a bit, and I thought it was fine that I had my, I don’t know, affliction; I don’t need anything more than your company on the road, and certainly you give me more than I ever expected. Yes, when I asked to join you in your travels I didn’t think there’d be quite so much, er, massive scary witcher bleeding all over me, but I don’t mind it. Not in a weird way. I mean—” He casts his eyes around the room like he wants to escape. “I mean, I’ll tend to you when you need it. Of course I will. Don’t do this to—thank me, or repay me, because you think you need to scratch out the debt. There’s no debt. I know I’m quite obvious sometimes, but. Like this, I just. I can’t.”

“You can’t?” Geralt’s head still spins from the kiss. His nerves sing with it. He itches to touch Jaskier again.

Jaskier turns away.

“You won’t,” Geralt says.

Whatever warmth had been blooming in Geralt’s chest, whatever leaping sparks the kiss ignited, he extinguishes. His training pulls the emotions from their place of growth like weeds. Pain like this is inefficient to function. So he simply shuts it off. Better to feel nothing.

“Gods, you’re impossible.” Jaskier drags his fingers through his own hair and tugs at it in frustration. “No, I won’t, Geralt.” He turns again, a spin on his heel, easily graceful. He levels Geralt with his gaze. “This” —he thumps his chest with his fist— “cannot have a little, or sometimes, or careless, or… Or once. I can with others. But not with you.”

Again Geralt flounders. There’s a game here. There’s something Jaskier wants from him, there’s something behind the words he says and Geralt can’t fucking hear it. Jaskier is a bard the same way Geralt is a witcher—he wears the role like armor and Geralt cannot pierce it. “You speak in code.”

“I don’t—fuck, Geralt, at least I speak at all!”

“I do speak. I speak to you.”

Jaskier’s face falls. “Then speak. What do you want?”

He wants Jaskier at his side on the roads and in his bedroll at night. He wants the songs by the firelight and the long-winded stories. He wants shared meals, shared coin, shared laundry. He wants to walk into an inn after a hunt and see Jaskier by the hearth, feet kicked up, lute in his lap, grinning like he expected nothing less. And he wants—he wants—

He wants to kiss him again. He wants to re-learn the planes of Jaskier’s body. He wants to take his time.

You see me. You know me. Stay.

He cannot say it.

Perhaps he doesn’t know Jaskier at all. Jaskier would be better with someone who could keep up with his voice and his mind. Geralt hunts monsters. Jaskier hunts coin. Everything else has been symptomatic of that arrangement.

Geralt blows air hard out his nose. “Jaskier…”

“We should part ways for a season,” Jaskier says, suddenly. His eyes are red-rimmed as he stares at his bag. “I should go to Oxenfurt. I’ve quite a lot of material from these hunts, could do me well to finish them in the academy where they can begin to circulate.”

His stomach hardens. “You’re leaving.”

“I suppose so.”

“All right,” Geralt says. He feels nothing. “I will get provisions for your journey.”

Jaskier nods.

 

When Geralt returns to their room with bread and salt fish carefully wrapped for travel, Jaskier is gone. The room still smells faintly of sweat and cotton and chamomile.

In previous times when they’d parted ways it’d been painful, but jolly. Now he wonders if Jaskier intends to ever travel with him again.

The thought of that is nearly enough to crack through his trained resolve.

He bathes. He lies down on the bed. He meditates.

Debt, Jaskier said.

Jaskier thought the kiss was payment for the caretaking he'd done. Which only made sense if Jaskier thought that Geralt thought his kiss had any value. As if his kiss was a thing to be relished instead of endured.

Affliction.

Jaskier's eyes blazed when he thumped his chest.

Strangely what comes to mind is the ease with which Jaskier slides into his bedroll at night.

And then the songs, the bathing, the bandaged wounds, the terrible catch in his voice when he tried to move the boulders one by one.

It's apt, at least, as all Jaskier's words are, even if they're too quick and elegant for Geralt to catch, like a lark flitting across a summer sky. Loving a witcher is an affliction, if the witcher is too rigid to feel the truth in each touch, and too deaf to hear the confession in every song.

 

Then speak.

 

If he can give Jaskier nothing else he will grant that request. He rouses, packs the room, and leaves astride Roach.

A few miles outside the village, Jaskier walks down the path. He’s dressed in light pants and a mismatched doublet, his lute and pack are slung across his back, and his sword bounces on his hip. Despite the travels, and their conversation, there’s still a lightness to Jaskier’s movements, like he can’t bear to grind the dirt beneath his heels.

Roach nickers.

Jaskier glances over his shoulder and sighs. “Don’t disturb me, I’m composing. The aracha’s teeth and venom / Into paroxysms it sent him…” He sucks his teeth. “Not going well.”

“They don’t have teeth. They have mandibles.”

“Well, I didn’t see them,” Jaskier says sharply.

Just the sound of his voice, even in anger, tugs at something deep in Geralt’s chest. “Come.” He offers his hand. “I’ll escort you to Oxenfurt. And I’ll speak, if you’ll listen. Then if you desire I’ll bid you farewell and I’ll never darken your doorstep again.”

Jaskier huffs, but attaches his things to Roach’s saddlebags and takes Geralt’s offered hand. The feeling of Jaskier’s slim, muscled back against his chest settles something inside him. Jaskier's hair smells of woodsmoke and the crisp air in which he walks.

“What is there to say, then, witcher?” Jaskier asks.

The mare’s ambling pace, the long empty road ahead, and Jaskier against him—these have been the comforts of his life and he’s loathe to give them up.

“Witchers are trained to dispel emotion,” Geralt says. “It’s detrimental in both battle and the cost-benefit analysis of contracting. You know this.”

“You feel, though. I see it in your face often.”

It’s easier to say these things without Jaskier’s gaze piercing into him. “Hm. Even if the emotion is there often it’s hard to name it. Or understand it. Because the witcher’s way is to whisk it away like a leaf on a river. It’s a fleeting inconvenience.”

“Well, that’s no way to live.”

“I meditated before I came to find you. But I understand now. You found what I did patronizing.”

Jaskier stiffens against him. “I don’t need your pity. I know it’s foolish to feel the way I do for a witcher. I never asked you for anything, and don’t I need you to try to assuage my feelings with a… A tease. A mirage.”

“I didn’t know how you felt.”

“What?” Jaskier half-twists in the saddle and nearly loses his balance. “That’s impossible. Everyone who sees us together knows. Everyone who hears my songs knows. I can’t hide it for shit, never have I been able to.”

“I’m not—” Geralt closes his eyes and trusts in Roach to walk the path without his guidance. “You are complicated.”

“That is not true.”

“To me, you are. You are of the people. You know how people work well enough to sing their emotions and experiences back to them. I don’t—I don’t have that. Before your songs I could rarely get a room at an inn.”

Jaskier hums thoughtfully and, for once, says nothing.

“After I killed the arachas I wanted to go to you,” Geralt says.

“As you should’ve,” Jaskier says. “You were in a right state.”

“You don’t understand. When I am in that state—potions, venom, all that—all unnecessary functioning shuts down. I become more like a creature than a man, and survival is all that matters. I should’ve started my meditation and healed a few hours before moving the boulders. That’s what my body wanted to do. But my desire to go to you was stronger than my impulse to heal. That’s when I began to realize what I feel for you is— is—”

Jaskier’s hand covers Geralt’s on the reins.

Geralt tips his head forward and presses his face into the crook of Jaskier’s neck. “Stay with me,” he chokes out. “That’s what I want.”

“Oh,” Jaskier murmurs.

“I know our paths will diverge sometimes. But I would have an agreement with you. If you are amenable.”

Jaskier untangles Geralt’s hand from the reins and folds it over his own heart, both their hands together. “And what’s that? So I may take it under consideration.”

“That you belong to me,” Geralt says. Jaskier’s heart pounds steady under his palm. “And I to you.”

A shudder rips through Jaskier’s body. “Fuck Oxenfurt,” he says. “We’re not too far from the inn, are we? Let’s go back. I’ve made my point quite effectively, I think. I’d like you to kiss me again.”

“I will.” He turns Roach around and starts back to the inn at a slightly faster pace. He likes Jaskier like this, straight-backed and clear-voiced and saying what he wants. “Not careless. Not sometimes. Not once.”

“Fuck. All right, Roach, pick up the pace, old girl, I’m suddenly on a very tight schedule.”

 

The innkeeper is confused but not unhappy to see them again; Jaskier gives a bright wave and a few coins and drags Geralt up the stairs. As soon as the door is closed Jaskier presses Geralt against it and kisses him.

It’s not like the kiss they shared this morning. It’s deep and searing and hungry. Jaskier sighs into it, presses up to his tiptoes and and guides the kiss with a hand on Geralt’s jaw.

Geralt didn’t know a kiss could feel like this. He’s melting into it, sinking back into the door, letting Jaskier devour him. It’s wonderful and deliciously familiar—he knows the slim hips he curls his hands around and he knows the scent of skin and he knows the sweet little catch of breath. He knows the voice when it rumbles and purrs and he knows the hand carding gently through his hair.

It’s right. He leans on Jaskier because Jaskier is the one he can trust to hold him up.

Jaskier kisses the angle of his jaw, then noses beneath it. Geralt tips his head back, obligingly exposing the column of his throat to Jaskier’s quick, hot mouth. “Oh, darling,” Jaskier murmurs into Geralt’s skin. “Gorgeous. I hate seeing you hurt. For every time you’re hurt I want there to be twice as many moments like this. You’re more than just a witcher, I know it, not sure if you know it, but I’ll say it until you do.”

Geralt’s chest is tight, painfully so, and he wraps his arms around Jaskier’s body and hugs him tight against him. Something inside him cracks open and it’s not just the familiar warmth accompanies Jaskier’s presence—love?—but relief, cool and refreshing like a stream flowing over him.

He’s not leaving. They’re together.

Jaskier’s clever hands slide under Geralt’s shirt and slide up his sides. The contact forces an exhale from his lungs. It’s so gentle, but firm, and when Geralt opens his eyes he’s met with Jaskier’s face bright and awed. He can’t stand it. It’s too much. He closes his eyes.

He knows Jaskier’s body from the simple intimacy of shared life in a dangerous world. They touch for warmth, survival, bathing, wound care.

Never simply to touch.

“Kiss me,” Jaskier says.

Geralt sighs and kisses him long and slow.

“Does that help?” Jaskier asks into the kiss. “Instruction?”

How does he know? How is it so easy for him? “Yes,” Geralt says.

Jaskier tips their foreheads together. “Are you sure? Are you okay? It's not potion, or venom, or anything like that?”

“No," Geralt says. "You’re overwhelming. And I wouldn't let anyone else give me instruction.”

Jaskier laughs, suddenly, the natural musical quality of his tenor charming a smile from Geralt’s lips as well. “Usually I get ‘pushy’ or ‘irritating’ or ‘can’t read the room’ but I’ll take that, too.” He softens. “I’ll tell you what to do, love, Gods have mercy on my wretched soul, I’ve thought about it plenty since you first asked, which I'm not proud of, but—you’ll tell me if you don’t like something?”

Geralt growls and flips their positions, so Jaskier’s back is against the door. He noses at the Jaskier’s neck, then the hollow of his throat. His hands grip Jaskier’s hips again. “What won’t I like?”

“Fuck, Geralt, you’re always smelling me, it makes me feel insane—”

“Because you smell good. Can’t help it. You weren’t supposed to notice.”

“Fuck,” Jaskier groans, drawing out the vowel. “You brute. I love it. Please, take this off.” He tugs at Geralt’s thin cotton shirt.

Geralt pulls it off in one smooth motion and tosses it aside.

Jaskier sighs dreamily at the sight. “On the bed with you,” he says. “Shoes off, we’re not animals.”

It’s so easy. He lies on the bed and watches Jaskier fidget out of his doublet and trousers and undershirt, so he’s just in his thin smallclothes, cock hard and straining against the fabric. He crawls onto the bed and brackets his knees around Geralt’s hips. Then he leans down and kisses him again, but this time it’s long and luxuriating.

“Roll over, darling.” Jaskier gives him just enough space to do so. “I’ve been wanting to do this for ages. Breaks my heart to watch you try to shake off your trances.”

Geralt lies on his belly on the bed, his arms folded under his face. The instructions have calmed him down, eased the urgency of his emotions. “I don’t know what you mean.”

"When you first rouse from them, you look like you're hurting,” Jaskier says. He sits astride Geralt’s thighs, just below his buttocks. “The only way I can get you to relax at all is to get you in the bath.” He leans forward and kisses Geralt’s nape. “Just want to take care of you,” he says, almost a whisper.

Geralt closes his eyes. He can't respond around the clenching in his throat.

A bottle opens and oil, cool and slick, spills across Geralt’s shoulders and gathers in the divot of his spine. Then Jaskier’s hands, so deceptively strong and nimble, press into the tense muscle of his neck. Geralt bites back a groan.

“None of that,” Jaskier murmurs. “Make noise for me.”

Jaskier kneads his hands into Geralt’s shoulders and upper back, moving in slow circles of deep, unrelenting pressure. He works the stiff muscle into softness, moving methodically up and down Geralt’s back until Geralt is shivering beneath him, melting into the mattress. His brain slows. He feels like all his blood is travelling to his cock, and he can’t help but shift slightly against the mattress, needy for that little bit of friction.

“Gorgeous.” Jaskier works his clever hands down Geralt’s arms. “I’d keep you like this all the time if I could, no more hunts nor pain, we could live cheerfully in squalor on a bard’s coin, daily massages, if only for me to hear these sweet little sounds you make… Make another, darling.”

“I’d get fat,” Geralt mutters.

Jaskier laughs like he didn’t think Geralt was actually listening. “I don’t see a problem with that. Kiss me again, witcher.”

It’s so easy to oblige him. Jaskier rolls off Geralt’s body and Geralt, loose and lazy from the massage, slides atop him and kisses him, biting at Jaskier’s swollen lips. His cock is heavy in his pants, but he finds he doesn’t want to do anything, not until Jaskier asks. Jaskier slots their legs together and grinds up, gasping as he pushes the hard line of his cock into Geralt’s hip. “Geralt. Please. Touch me.”

“Tell me again.” Geralt holds himself up, his elbow next to Jaskier’s head. Jaskier’s cheeks are reddened, and the same flush colors his pale chest, dusted with dark hair, and travels up his neck. Geralt skates a hand down his leanly muscled torso and marvels at Jaskier’s stunning responsiveness, how his muscles twitch beneath his hand, how he shifts his hips, shamelessly hungry.

“Touch me, Geralt,” Jaskier sighs. “Push your trousers down. Please. Let me see you.”

Jaskier’s voice sends a warm thrill down his spine. Geralt shoves his trousers down, as instructed, and fists his cock once, from root to tip, just to take the edge off.

“Oh,” Jaskier says, staring wide-eyed. “Oh, fuck the beasts, I have a new ballad to write.”

“Jaskier.”

“Just joking, your highness,” Jaskier says, and he loops his arms around Geralt’s neck and pulls him back down. “Do you still want to do as I say?”

“Yes.” Geralt bites at Jaskier’s earlobe.

Jaskier shivers hard. “Touch us both at once.”

Geralt works a hand between them, into Jasker's smallclothes, then shifts his hips so Jaskier is nearly riding his thigh. Their cocks align. With a sigh Geralt fists them both, slow and tight, and the hard, velvety heat of the Jaskier’s cock against his is deliriously good—the tip of Jaskier’s cock nudges just beneath the crown of Geralt’s, Gods, it’s perfect, and he moves slow, slow, until Jaskier is shifting his hips with the motion and baring his teeth. “Good,” Jaskier says.

He sits up just a little, not enough to dislodge Geralt, but enough to slide a hand over Geralt’s shoulder and down his back, slipping easily through the oil there and down to the cleft of his ass. “I want you,” Jaskier murmurs. “Every part of you. As you said. I am yours, as you are mine.”

Geralt growls and tips his hips back into Jaskier’s touch. Jaskier slides one finger down the crack of Geralt’s ass and just rubs there, a sweet pressure that has Geralt keening.

“Gods, Geralt, you impossible thing,” he murmurs. “Keep touching us.”

With not inconsiderable focus Geralt starts stroking their cocks together again, faster now, tight and intense.

Jaskier gasps, then slides two fingers in. The pressure is delicious. Jaskier thrusts his fingers once, twice, and then—those expert, dextrous, nimble fingers—curl just so, and send a spark of liquid pleasure coursing across every nerve ending in Geralt’s body. He groans into Jaskier’s neck.

“There it is. Just like that, Geralt. Let go for me.”

And that’s it. He makes it so simple. It only takes a few more rough strokes of Geralt’s hand, a few elegant strokes of Jaskier’s fingers, and Geralt is coming apart. His orgasm hits like wave, rising in the distance and crashing over him, the pleasure so intense it knocks him halfway into a trance.

He comes back to reality with his teeth set possessively on Jaskier’s collarbone and Jaskier’s hand moving fast over his own cock. He bites down gently, without thinking. Jaskier cries out, arching his back hard as he comes.

In the aftershocks Jaskier kisses him, slow and lazy.

“We’ve been travelling together a long time,” Geralt says. He runs a hand over Jaskier’s chest, because it’s there, and because he can. “And we’ve never done this.”

“Astute observation,” Jaskier says. “I thought I was making my desires quite obvious, but apparently you need a bit more direction.”

“So,” Geralt continues, as if Jaskier hadn’t spoken, “I’d like to propose we make up for lost time.”

Jaskier’s eyes brighten. “Quite an idea. Details?”

“Hm.” Geralt rolls onto his back. He still has to gather some aracha mandibles to present to the villagers as proof, gather his coin, and start finding out where the next contract will be. No reason that can’t wait another day. “Perhaps a bath, and a meal, and then” —he slides a hand over Jaskier’s hip and thigh— "I break this bedframe with you in it.”

Jaskier grins. It's a familiar sight, one Geralt has seen hundreds of times, and one he hopes to see hundreds of times more. Regardless, his plodding mutant heart does something it has never done before.

It skips.

I love him. I’ll love him as long as the fates allow us to be together. As long as he’ll have me, he does.

“Darling witcher, I’d like nothing more.”