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Bardic Idyll

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It was autumn in Cidaris, and Geralt was feeling particularly piqued. He was sprawled out in a corner booth at the tavern, and Jaskier was perched beside him, eating all of Geralt’s pierogies and talking absolute rubbish.

“No, but see, this is actually a brilliant idea, Geralt,” Jaskier said. He was wearing his most winning expression, which was far more regularly deployed in the direction of comely romantic prospects, and so Geralt felt somewhat taken aback by it.

“No,” Geralt grunted, and stabbed his knife into the nearest pierogi, using it as leverage to drag his plate away from Jaskier. Jaskier huffed, looking like he was considering making a grab for the plate. Geralt smacked his hand away, just in case.

“I could buy you all the pierogies on the Continent, if I won this competition,” Jaskier tried, tapping Geralt on his knuckles with Geralt’s own fork. Geralt grunted, ignoring the provocation.

“So win the competition," he offered, grinning at Jaskier with a mouthful of potato.

“Eurgh,” Jaskier said, predictably. Geralt absolutely, definitely, did not snicker at that. “Anyway, I would like very much to win it, and I can, except that you helping me is a non-negotiable requirement.”

“Hmm,” Geralt said, unconvinced. “Take me through that one again.”

Well,” Jaskier said, sighing exaggeratedly. “This is an extremely highly regarded competition, very prestigious stuff. I’m perfectly capable of competing and winning, but.” He coughed delicately. “Some aspersions have been cast about my, er, my virtue. And, you see, the old bastard who’s head judge this year is a terrible prude. He thinks artists suffer when distracted by trivial lustful dalliances. It’s ludicrous! Where does he think we get literally all of our material?”

Geralt snorted, stealing Jaskier’s tankard of ale while he was busy with his outrage. “And how am I supposed to help with this?”

“Oh, that’s easy,” Jaskier said, waving a hand at him. “Couldn’t be easier, in fact.”

“Jaskier,” Geralt said warningly.

“Honestly!” Jaskier said. “All you have to do is slouch around the competition grounds letting people believe that I’m making you wait for a hand-binding ceremony, so that my virtue stays in tact. It’s the easiest job in the world. You’ve already got the expression of someone who isn’t getting any--” he waved his hand dismissively. “You know, dalliances.”

“I get dalliances,” Geralt started, feeling unaccountably insulted. As though he cared what Jaskier thought he got up to, romantically speaking.

Jaskier rolled his eyes at Geralt, slow and exaggerated. “Yes I know, you’re no paragon of virtue yourself. I’m just saying you don’t look like you’re getting any.”

“Jaskier,” Geralt growled, preparing himself to rub Jaskier’s face in the dregs of the meat platter they’d just shared, which was definitely not, in any way, a euphemism.

Jaskier sighed, putting his hands up. “Listen. All I’m saying is that it’s an easy way to make a tidy pile of coins. All you’d have to do is be there with me. Room and board are included for competitors, and as my companion you’d be entitled to the same. And, if there are any beasts wandering around, I should think the Alderman would be particularly disposed toward giving you the contract to remove them. And there will be monsters. These bards cheat like you wouldn’t believe. Last year someone set loose a flock of harpies, just to throw the first place contender out of tune.”

“How long does it last?” Geralt asked. He couldn’t believe he was considering it. He couldn’t believe how ridiculously often Jaskier got him to go along with his objectively terrible ideas. Jaskier looked so hopeful, though, and he had definitely noticed that Geralt had stolen his ale, and he wasn’t complaining about it at all. He was watching Geralt drink it, and if Geralt hadn’t known better, he would have called the look on Jaskier’s face something close to fond. Geralt cleared his throat, suddenly feeling oddly on display, and passed the tankard back to him.

“Two weeks,” Jaskier said. He had to know that he was winning, because he adopted just the right casual tone of voice when he said, “Two weeks of good food and a warm bed, Geralt, and all you have to do is glare.”

“Hmm,” Geralt said, and that was that.

***

“Stop fidgeting,” Jaskier told him crossly, the next morning. They were at the local tailor’s shop, and Jaskier was draping at least his hundredth bolt of cloth across Geralt’s chest, muttering fervently to the tailor all the while. Geralt could hear the conversation so well that it was insulting for Jaskier to pretend otherwise, but he was, and Geralt’s arse featured more prominently in it than Geralt was even a little bit comfortable with. He had learned that Jaskier found it very comely, though, which was nice. Or stupid. It was definitely stupid and not at all nice.

Jaskier rapped him on the shoulder with the tailor’s ruler, startling Geralt out of his thoughts. “Stand up straight,” Jaskier said reproachfully. “We need to see the full effect.”

“I don’t need new clothes,” Geralt tried, though without much hope.

“Nonsense,” Jaskier said, unsurprisingly. “You’re meant to be the romantic hero for whom I pine prettily away. Nobody will believe that if you’re all frayed and tattered. My high standards are legendary.”

“Your what?” Geralt spluttered. “You have no standards.”

“Explains why I hang about with you,” Jaskier shot back tartly, pursing his lips. “Anyway, I do. I just happen to see the best in people. That’s another of my skills.” He flattened a hand over Geralt’s chest, fingering the collar of his shirt, and Geralt’s breathing absolutely did not hitch at that. Nobody could ever prove that it did.

“There are bite marks in this shirt,” Jaskier pointed out, and Geralt felt his mouth quirking up a little, in spite of his best efforts. Jaskier grinned back, sudden and warm, then redirected his focus to the tailor. “He’ll look very fine in the silver and black brocade. Nothing too fussy in the cut; he gets stroppy if he can’t move about freely.”

“Stroppy!” Geralt repeated incredulously. “Have you forgotten that I’m doing you a favor?”

Jaskier fixed his eyes upon Geralt, sudden and direct. “I haven’t,” he said evenly. “I certainly have not, and it means more to me than I have heretofore found the words to express.” His eyes flittered over Geralt’s face, soft as a caress, and Geralt felt the idiotic impulse to reach out and take Jaskier’s hand. He cleared his throat instead, looking away.

“Well then,” he said, staring down at his own scarred hands. “Fine.”

“He’s a sour one,” the tailor muttered, clearly not having realized that Geralt could hear him.

“Mm, he is,” Jaskier said fondly.

“Why do you put up with it?” the tailor asked, poking Geralt probably on purpose with one of his pins. Geralt made an affronted noise, and Jaskier put a hand to his shoulder, as though gentling a colt.

Jaskier hummed thoughtfully, soft and sweet. “He’s very good at dice,” he said, after a moment.

It was so far from what Geralt had expected that he almost toppled over. Of all the things Jaskier could have chosen, he had expected something like, he’s extremely effective at frightening small children, or his smile makes grown men weep.. The answer was so ridiculous, so innocuous, that Geralt didn’t have any idea what to do with it.

The tailor didn’t either, if the stupid look on his face was any indication. Geralt took childish comfort in that.

That evening, Jaskier dressed him in his new clothes, hands cool and sure as he smoothed the hem of Geralt’s doublet. He’d done a good job, Geralt grudgingly had to admit to himself, though he would never have said as much to Jaskier. It was altogether too shiny, and it probably wouldn’t hold up in a fight, but it laced at the sides as well as the front, leaving enough room for Geralt to move easily, and there was a minimum of ridiculous trim.

Jaskier seemed pleased by it as well, humming to himself as he directed Geralt to a chair, then took up a position behind him and began to oil and plait Geralt’s hair. His fingers felt wonderful, sure and solid against Geralt’s scalp, and Geralt let himself lean into the touch for just a moment, breathing slow and deep. Geralt was glad that Jaskier couldn’t see his face, though he wasn’t exactly certain why.

He was deeply relieved when Jaskier suggested that they ought to walk over to the castle that would play host to the event. The cool air was a balm on Geralt’s face, and the streets were dark, candlelit windows providing the only illumination. It was a reprieve to fade into the shadows, tethered to the rest of the world only by the brush of Jaskier’s arm against his own. Jaskier seemed content as well, savoring the hint of chill in the air after the steamy warmth of the inn. They took their time crossing town, and the evening had deepened into true night by the time they stepped onto the castle grounds.

Jaskier turned to him then, drinking in the cool evening air appreciatively. His shirt was unlaced at the base of his throat, and Geralt could see the fluttering of his pulse, there, and an appealing glimpse of chest hair.

“Are you ready?” Jaskier asked. He flexed his fingers together, as though stretching before a fight.

Geralt made a face at him. “It’s a crowd of pompous arseholes. I deal with those every day.”

Jaskier shrugged. “If you say so.” With that, he turned away, making for the light and noise of the castle. Geralt followed behind him. Though Geralt’s stride was longer, in this, he was content to let Jaskier lead.

***

Geralt would never admit to Jaskier that he’d been right, but it took walking into Vartburg Castle’s grand ballroom to recognize what a colossal mistake he had made. For one thing, there were so many people that Geralt could barely shift from side to side without running into one of them, and for another, it seemed that all of those people were staring at him.

“What’s wrong?” he hissed at Jaskier, trying surreptitiously to check himself for stray blood spatter or perhaps a knife that he had totally not intended to carry.

“Relax,” Jaskier hissed back. “They just,” He threw a hand up. “You look good.”

Geralt wasn’t at all sure how to take that, and so he decided to bristle at it. “What’s that supposed to mean?”

“Ssh,” Jaskier said, though he seemed like he was trying not to laugh. “And anyway, a lot of people here know me. I used to be a lecturer at Oxenfurt, you know?”

Geralt stared hard at him. “Jaskier, you can’t be a day over twenty.”

Jaskier did laugh now, delightedly. “I most certainly can, and am,” he said, and tucked Geralt’s arm under his own, solicitously. “You’ve known me for at least that many years.” He was shifting into crowd mode now, greeting people as they passed through the throngs in the large entry hall.

“How old?” Geralt demanded. He felt poleaxed, his world shifting slightly on its axis, and he didn’t even know why.

Jaskier considered him for a moment, his eyelids heavy over his bright eyes. His mouth worked for a second, but he appeared to think better of it, shaking his head. “Let’s go with twenty,” he said easily, after a huffed breath. He ducked away from Geralt’s frustrated swat with another laugh.

“Come on, now,” Jaskier said, once Geralt had given up on trying to catch him. He slipped back into step at Geralt’s side, straightening the line of Geralt’s doublet. Jaskier’s own clothes were cream-pale, trimmed in sky blue velvet. He looked delicate and, hilariously on the nose, rather virginal. It wasn’t subtle, but Jaskier had assured Geralt that subtlety was lost on these types. Geralt had not found that hard to believe.

“What happens now?” Geralt muttered to him, tracking their progress across the ballroom.

“Oh,” It’s all very formal and dramatic,” Jaskier said, not sounding a bit as though he minded. “We process past the judges, and they’ll introduce us.”

“Introduce us how?” Geralt asked suspiciously.

“Oh, the usual,” Jaskier said, waving a casual hand. “Titles, holdings, bibliography, etcetera. Then they’ll present the categories for this year. We’ll perform one piece each tonight, but the real competition begins tomorrow.”

“Hmm,” Geralt said, and focused on ignoring everyone who was gawking at them, staring firmly ahead.

“Julian Alfred Pankratz, Viscount de Lettenhove, and his cherished companion Geralt of Rivia,” the officiator intoned.

Geralt reared back to look at Jaskier, startled. He supposed he’d always known that Jaskier was no commoner, but it seemed far too much name for someone of Jaskier’s stature and temperament.

“Yes I know,” Jaskier muttered, completely misreading Geralt’s reaction. “You’re a fully formed person with a deeply dimensioned personality. But for this competition, you are my companion.” He tugged Geralt along with him, smiling winningly as they passed before the table of judges. Geralt put forth just enough effort to not actively snarl at the judges, though even that was a trial. Jaskier tugged him along, but his hand was gentle in the crook of Geralt’s arm. Geralt figured the playacting had begun, and made a token effort to not actively shove Jaskier away.

“Essi Daven,” The officiator continued, “The Little Eye of Cidaris, Three time winner of the Western Coastal Poetry Meeting, accompanied by Mistress Helena of Kerack.”

Geralt followed the progress of a pair of women, one fair haired and blue eyed, the other with dark curls piled atop her head. They were prettily turned out in colorful embroidered chemises, ducking their heads to the judges as they passed.

“Ah, Essi’s the blonde one,” Jaskier murmured, ducking his mouth close to Geralt’s ear. “I’ve competed with her before; she’s quite good. All the more reason to have you here. This was an excellent idea.”

Geralt rolled his eyes, grunting when Jaskier trod firmly upon his foot. “People are watching you,” he hissed, and Geralt could feel Jaskier’s breath upon his neck.

“This is just what I look like,” he hissed back. Jaskier snorted back a laugh, looking him up and down.

“I suppose it is,” he said quietly, eyes bright with mirth. He glanced up at the procession of competitors. “Oh, for fuck’s sake--”

“Valdo Marx the silver tongued, also of Cidaris, Oxenfurt Poetry Award Recipient, accompanied by his beloved, Lady Priscilla of Novigrad, the Jewel of Redania.”

Geralt looked up interestedly, following Jaskier’s outraged stare. The bard at whom Jaskier was glaring was stocky and short, kitted out in bottle green velvet and accompanied by a heavily coiffed woman in jewels and chartreuse silk. Marx executed an elaborate bow and the woman curtsied, simpering at the judges. Jaskier sniffed disdainfully, looking pointedly away.

“Friend of yours?” Geralt asked.

“A friend?” Jaskier spluttered. “That loathsome piece of excrement called me a talentless wastrel. He wouldn’t know talent if it hit him in the head, the bastard.”

“I’d like to meet him,” Geralt started interestedly. Jaskier made an outraged noise directly into his ear, smiling benevolently at the assembled crowd all the while.

“You would not like to meet him, Jaskier hissed. “That man is vile.”

“Says you,” Geralt whispered back pleasantly. “I’ll make my own judgements.”

“I’m not even going to bother correcting that, because you will find out for yourself, and then you will be so sorry,” Jaskier said. He tugged Geralt by the arm. “You have to go sit in the spectator area now. We’re going to sing.”

“Wonderful,” Geralt said flatly. Jaskier just huffed at him, tugging him toward a row of lacquered seats atop a platform.

“Look,” Jaskier said delightedly. “A place of honor for the spouses.”

“Jaskier,” Geralt started, his voice coming out half a growl.

“Sorry, sorry,” Jaskier said, with an exaggerated bow of apology. “Spouse to be,” he corrected, and danced away with a grin before Geralt could do anything about it. Geralt sat down in his overly dainty chair and tried very hard not to think about how odd the interaction had made him feel.

“Your beau is very handsome,” a woman said, seating herself beside Geralt. It was Essi Daven’s companion, Helena.

Geralt thought about several very choice replies, managing to restrain himself from saying any of them. “Hmm,” he decided upon instead, shifting to make room for Helena. The chairs really were ridiculously tiny.

Helena was an attractive woman, pleasingly round and possessed of a bright-eyed, open smile that seemed instantly to put people at ease. Even Geralt felt weirdly calmed by her guileless enthusiasm. She was constantly in motion, brushing dark curls out of her eyes and commenting to Geralt about the competition. She whispered to him about the format and seemed to take Geralt’s occasional noises as more than enough fodder for conversation. She seemed happy to accept Geralt just as he was, which was rare enough to be noteworthy.

“The theme for tonight is memory,” Helena said quietly. “Oh, I’m sure Jaskier’s already told you all about this.”

“No,” Geralt said, adding awkwardly. “He was busy practicing.”

“Ah, of course,” Helana said, laughing. “Essi was an absolute wreck about it too. Couldn’t get her to eat a bite before we came. Poets, you know. They require their share of minding.”

“Always getting themselves into trouble,” Geralt agreed.

“Exactly!” Helena cried, clapping a hand over her mouth when a few people turned to stare reproachfully at them. “Sorry,” she stage-whispered at them, waving a hand apologetically. Geralt covered his own mouth with a hand, unable to resist grinning.

“Ah, there’s Jaskier now,” Helana said, and sure enough, Jaskier was taking his turn upon the performance stage. He ducked a head to the judges, and the light caught and lingered upon his profile, tinging it golden. Geralt felt the atmosphere in the room shift as the spectators leaned in, awaiting Jaskier’s song. Jaskier took a breath, running a sure hand over the body of his lute, and began.

Geralt had expected either something soppy or something ribald, but Jaskier’s song was neither. It was complex, bittersweet and full of yearning. Geralt was no expert, but even he could hear the old Elven melody woven through the piece, achingly soft and strange. He thought it might be a lullaby.

“He’s awfully good,” Helena said earnestly, afterward. “I can see why you care for him so.”

“I don’t--” Geralt started instinctively. “Uh, I don’t know much about music,” he finished lamely. Jaskier was going to kill him, not that that should bother Geralt any. He did feel a twinge, though.

“Oh, nor do I,” Helena clucked. “I mainly just know about weaving. That’s my trade,” she clarified. “Perhaps that’s what makes us good matches for these artistic types, eh? We live in very different worlds, but our partnership makes a door between them.”

“Right,” Geralt said awkwardly. He very emphatically did not think about that any more.

***

“Your song sounded Elven,” Geralt said, that night. Jaskier had bounded into his room a quarter of an hour prior, and had only just stopped talking about every nuance of the competition thus far. He had taken off his doublet and loosened the ties on his shirt, the effect of which was irritatingly distracting.

“I didn’t take you for a scholar of musical history,” Jaskier said, sounding pleased.

“I’m not,” Geralt grunted. “Just old.”

Jaskier laughed, conceding the point. “You’re right, it’s from an old tune. Used, from my experience, to calm colicky children.”

“How did you learn it?” Geralt asked. “Is it something to do with what you said earlier, about your age?”

“Well,” Jaskier started. He leaned in, quiet and personal. His brow was furrowed, his gaze inward, as though he was considering what to say. Geralt felt himself tilting toward Jaskier to match. It was oddly intimate, being so quiet and close in the low evening light and the pleasant warmth of the bedchamber. He could feel the weight of Jaskier pressing into the mattress beside him, Jaskier’s palm flattened close to Geralt’s thigh.

Geralt sucked a breath. “Yes?”

The door burst open behind them. Geralt squawked and tumbled off the bed with a thump, scrabbling for his sword.

“Sorry, was I interrupting something lewd?” Essi Daven said from the doorway.

“Our love is chaste until we are wed,” Jaskier said primly. The effect was rather spoiled by his indolent full body stretch, which seemed entirely purposeful to Geralt. Geralt put down his sword and regained his position upon the corner of the bed, though he couldn’t help glowering a little.

Essi snorted. “Whatever you say, Jaskier. It doesn’t matter, anyway. I wanted to talk strategy. Did you see the way they drooled over Valdo’s ridiculous song? He’s got half the judges in his pocket already. What do you say we work together? We’ve got to best him, no matter who else wins.”

“I suppose you’re right,” Jaskier said. “Shall we compare notes?”

“I think we should,” Essi said, but made no move to do so, looking rather pointedly at Geralt.

“Competitors only,” Jaskier said, nodding at the door. “We can’t be accused of conspiring with those outside the competition.”

“It’s my room!” Geralt yelled, outraged. Jaskier shrugged unrepentantly at him, but turned and made an exaggerated courtly gesture at Essi, unfolding himself from Geralt’s bed with easy grace.

“Don’t pine too deeply for me, beloved,” Jaskier said, his tone saccharine. “I will bear for the both of us the pain of our hours of separation.”

“Get out,” Geralt said, and they obliged, nattering away already about the competition. Geralt rolled his eyes and flopped back down on the bed, thinking. A snatch of the Elven melody was caught in his head, and he hummed it to himself, without really wanting or meaning to. His thoughts caught for a moment on the memory of Jaskier, shirt unlaced, head tilted back against Geralt’s pillow. His neck had looked so long and pale in the lamplight, his breaths so slow and sweet and even. He was so at ease near Geralt, so unafraid to show his belly to a Witcher. Geralt didn’t have any idea what it meant.

His dreams were troubled that night, woven through with the old Elven tune.

***

“It was a good showing,” Jaskier said, over breakfast. “I got satisfactory marks, but the second chair judge said I needed to enunciate more. Ridiculous, but easily fixed. His hearing has been going for ages.”

“Hmm,” Geralt said. “You were telling me about where you learned that tune, last night.”

“Yes,” Jaskier said distractedly. “But I need to focus now, Geralt. Valdo’s first today and I must analyze his performance.”

“Jaskier,” Geralt tried again, but Jaskier made a hushing noise and reached over, clasping his hand over Geralt’s. Geralt froze, startled by the sudden closeness. Jaskier squeezed his hand, tilting his head minutely across the room. The judges were in full view of them, and Jaskier angled his body toward theirs slightly, bringing his and Geralt’s interlaced fingers up to rest upon the table. Geralt didn’t know why that made him feel so deflated. It was such a stupid ruse, anyway. Nobody would ever believe that Jaskier had chosen him. He sighed, but didn’t take his hand away. At least Jaskier was holding onto his off hand, so Geralt could still eat with the other.

Evidently the theme for today was loss, for Valdo sang a particularly dramatic piece about a child stricken by ague. Geralt found it without redeeming qualities, but the judges seemed to like it, and the crowd too. Jaskier was frowning, muttering to himself as he carefully watched the judges. Geralt flexed his fingers where they were still tucked against Jaskier’s, and Jaskier squeezed back, absentmindedly.

They stayed like that for the rest of the morning, until Geralt felt that he would go mad. He didn’t understand why he felt so trapped, so taken captive by the touch of Jaskier’s hand against his own. It had to be the press of the crowd, the way everyone was looking speculatively at them. He ducked his head, staring at the grain of the wooden table. Jaskier’s fingers still pressed coolly against his own, and it was maddening.

Finally, Jaskier’s name was called. He stood, and their hands slipped apart. Geralt’s hand felt odd and cold; he had become used to the weight of Jaskier’s palm. He had only a moment to recognize this, and then Jaskier was back in his space, looking down at Geralt as he reached out and cupped Geralt’s face in his hands. He was tucked in close to Geralt’s body, standing in the vee of his legs where Geralt was sitting with his back to the table. Jaskier pressed closer yet, murmured “Go with it,” and then he was kissing Geralt, sharp and sweet and devastating.

Geralt made a harsh noise, shocked, but Jaskier had already slipped away, glancing back at him to wink. He was wearing a secret little smile that Geralt both hated and wanted to kiss right off of his smug face. God. He hadn’t been touched in far too long. That had to be the reason for his reaction. It was just a stupid kiss, and not even a real one. He hated both himself and Jaskier, briefly and fervently.

Somewhat in spite of himself, Geralt was drawn out of his misery by Jaskier’s song. Again, it was not what Geralt might have expected, though he was rapidly learning not to trust his expectations when it came to Jaskier and this competition. This song was sweet, but mournful too. It spoke of a childhood home left long ago, a home to which Jaskier could never return. Geralt could feel the sorrow of it, bitter upon his tongue. He could see it in his mind’s eye, Jaskier’s description so rich that it was almost painful.

Geralt realized with a jolt that Jaskier was actually, bizarrely, good at this. He’d always found Jaskier’s music low, simple and without depth, often offensive or meaningless. It was uncomfortable to realize that Jaskier was capable of something else, something this rich and evocative. Geralt shook his head frustratedly. It had only been two days, but this ridiculous competition had made Jaskier a hundred times more mysterious than Geralt had ever found him, in all the years that they’d known one another. It was off-putting, and Geralt didn’t like it.

Helena came and sat with him, a little later. The wordsmithing continued into the afternoon, and Jaskier was seated with the other competitors who had already performed, talking animatedly as they observed the rest of the participants. Geralt had considered leaving, but Helena made herself comfortable, indicating that they were expected to stay.

“You look thoughtful,” Helena observed.

“There are too many people here,” Geralt said, which was true, though not at all what had been perplexing him.

Helena nodded understandingly. “I know. I don’t go in for all these crowds myself, but I do like to see Essi light up for them. She lives for this.”

“But you don’t like it,” Geralt said. “Why do you come?”

“Oh,” Helena said, shrugging. “It’s not so bad. The crowds just fade away, when I’m listening to her sing. It doesn’t feel like a hardship to be here, when her singing makes me feel like it’s all just for me. You know what I mean, don’t you? I mean, with Jaskier.”

“Hmm,” Geralt said.

“He has eyes only for you,” Helena said, nodding in Jaskier’s direction. “It’s sweet. I wish Essi looked at me like that.”

“You-- what?” Geralt said, surprised. “You aren’t together?”

Helena rolled her eyes. “We’re friends. I feel as though I’ve made it perfectly obvious that I’d like to be more than that, but I think Essi is afraid. She’s experienced the unkindnesses of this world, and she’s been made cautious because of it. I don’t want to make the decision for her, but I do wish she’d hurry up and make it for herself. It’s awfully tiresome, wanting her like this for so long.”

Geralt frowned. “But, you know that she loves you? And you love her?”

“Obviously,” Helana said. She paused, then laughed. “Oh, I sound so confident, don’t I? I can’t be sure, of course, but I do think so. But fear is powerful. It’s hard to willingly sign up to be different.”

“Most people wouldn’t care,” Geralt said. “Anyone who does is a bigot, and not worth your concern.”

“Ah, I know that,” Helena said. “It’s really just nobles who get worked up about these things. Still, I must wait for her to make her own decisions.”

“Hmm,” Geralt said, and tried not to think about anything at all.

***

The next few days passed in similar fashion. Jaskier was busy most of the time, either performing or strategizing with the other performers. Geralt couldn’t quite relax into the routine of it, uncomfortable with so much idleness. There was a great deal of sitting and listening, but at least the food was both good and plentiful, and he had a warm bed in a comfortable room. Helena seemed to have adopted him, and Geralt found that it was hard to mind her easy friendliness. She wasn’t bothered that Geralt was such a poor conversationalist, and he found it weirdly touching how easily she confided in him about Essi and the rest of her life. She seemed to think that she and Geralt had a great deal in common, which Geralt would have scoffed at, before the competition. Now, though, he wasn’t so sure.

It was during a rare and blessed moment of solitude that Geralt had the displeasure of encountering Valdo Marx.

Geralt had been wandering the castle corridors alone, enjoying the escape from both the sitting and all the talking, from the constant prying eyes of the audience, picking him apart as Jaskier sang. It figured that just when he had started to relax, keeping his walk brisk enough to have some hope of tiring himself out, he had to run into Marx, striding around a corner.

“Ah, the Witcher,” Valdo said, smiling unpleasantly. He leaned close, narrowing his eyes. “Tell me, Witcher, what would it do for your business if the common folk found out about your lover?”

“As it has naught to do with their crops or their lives, I should think very little,” Geralt said, raising an eyebrow at him. The bad behavior seemed consistent with the rest of the petty bards, but Marx had wasted no time with it, which seemed uncouth.

“Really?” Valdo was all feigned disbelief. “If they knew that you spread your legs for him, that that fop is ploughing you? How could anyone take you seriously, if they knew that?”

Geralt felt his teeth grinding, and forcibly stilled himself. It wasn’t a particularly good insult, as insults went. People had said much more terrible things about him. And yet, he felt his shoulders tightening at the insult to Jaskier, the idea that Geralt could possibly be ashamed if Jaskier wanted to touch him.

Geralt forced himself to relax, not willing to allow Valdo Marx a victory. “Spoken like someone who could use a good plough,” he said lightly, and made himself smile at the detestable bard. He stepped forward, directly into Valdo’s space. “We’re waiting until we’re wed, but once we are?” He chuckled darkly. “You can be sure that I will enjoy it very much indeed.”

“We shall see how your reputation holds up,” Valdo said tartly, looking ready for a real tirade. Geralt steeled himself, trying very hard to remain calm.

“You are a boorish lout, aren’t you, Valdo Marx,” came a sweet voice from beside him. It was Essi Daven, her placid, blinking expression belied by the sharpness in her tone.

“Essi Daven, what a pleasure,” Valdo said flatly.

“It always is,” she replied, matching his tone. “Now go away. I’m bored by your ill manners.”

Amazingly, Valdo wilted under the force of Essi’s gaze where he had not quailed before Geralt’s. He slunk away, his face stormy as he turned the corner.

“Thanks,” Geralt said abruptly, pressing the heel of his hand against his temple. He could feel a headache coming on.

Essi sighed, leaning back against the wall beside him. “I very much dislike him,” she offered, off-handedly.

“Hmm,” Geralt said, glancing over at her. Essi was focused on her own hands, not looking at him. “Could have helped you in the competition, though, if he rattled me.”

Essi made a disgusted noise. “I don’t need that offensive nonsense to win. I want to win for my voice and my heart. Not for his foul bullying.”

“Hmm,” Geralt said again, considering. “You sing about a beautiful maiden in love. Are you that maiden?”

Essi shrugged. “A poet draws inspiration from everywhere.”

“Hmm,” Geralt said again. “For example, the inspiration of loving a beautiful maiden?” He quirked a brow in her direction.

“For example,” Essi allowed. Geralt thought of Helena, who had watched Essi so raptly, who had nodded along as though the songs had been just for her, Helena who had told Geralt just how much she cared for Essi.

“Not a bad thing to have,” he said, and Essi nodded at him, slow and understanding.

“No,” she said, and she sounded kinder than she ever had before. “Not a bad thing at all.” She cleared her throat, and when she spoke again it was businesslike, as though she had shed the vulnerability of moments before. “What will you do about Valdo? He’s not going to give up so easily.”

“I have a few ideas,” Geralt said, and levered himself up. He had a sickening notion of what he was about to do, and was firmly tamping down the urge to think about it at all, even a little. He turned toward the ballroom, pausing to call back over his shoulder, “I hope you do well here.”

Essi’s sharp, surprised laugh followed him into the ballroom.

Inside, the great hall was alive with gossip, competitors debriefing about their performances, trading compliments, insults, and varying degrees of intimidation and blackmail. Geralt found Jaskier leaning easily against a pillar, in the midst of an animated conversation with a handful of robed Oxenfurt lecturers. Geralt made for him at a brisk stride, intent upon his goal.

“Oh, Geralt!” Jaskier said, when Geralt pushed his way through the crowd. He sounded so pleased, his face alight with joy, and Geralt realized abruptly that Jaskier always looked that way, when he saw Geralt. Geralt was hard pressed to understand why, having seen his own reflection, but Jaskier reacted that way to him all the same. Geralt felt suddenly as though the force of Jaskier’s affection was a wave washing over him, leaving him shocked and exhilarated. He drew in a breath, brushing by the lecturers to seize Jaskier by the shoulders.

“Geralt-- what?” Jaskier started.

Geralt pressed a thumb to Jaskier’s lips, cupping his hand around the point of Jaskier’s jaw. He felt Jaskier’s intake of breath against his palm, and his stomach tightened at it. “You have to beat Valdo Marx, I’ll do whatever it takes,” he grated out, and then he kissed Jaskier hard, with every ounce of frustration he had. As it turned out, it was a considerable amount.

Jaskier made a sweet, hungry noise against Geralt’s mouth, and he was kissing back, meeting every bit of Geralt’s force and returning it. Geralt had no real idea what he was doing, except that his body was hot with rage at the idea that he might not be a man if he wanted Jaskier to bed him. It was absurd, because what could be more purely, deliciously masculine than the feel of Jaskier’s body, the smell and taste of him, the low melodious sounds he made? What could be wrong with wanting that? And Geralt did, he realized, with sudden certainty. He would have wanted it very much indeed, had Jaskier truly been offering it.

That was a sobering thought, and it enabled Geralt to end the kiss, however reluctant he might have felt about it. He watched Jaskier breathe, helpless to look away from the sweet flush on Jaskier’s cheeks, the slick softness of his open mouth. Jaskier’s hand had somehow ended up splayed on Geralt’s chest, and he slid it down to tug at Geralt’s belt, drawing him even closer. He looked entirely delighted.

“My betrothed,” he said, to the gawping academics, sounding very smug about it. “You’ll have to forgive us, we haven’t seen much of each other in a few days, thanks to the competition.”

Geralt had to endure endless pleasantries and giggled questions after that, but he could hardly bring himself to care. Jaskier’s fingers were cool and sure against his skin, and they stayed there, tucked under the waistband of his trousers, for the rest of the conversation. It was all that Geralt could think about, even after they had retired for the evening.

***
After that, Jaskier was near him constantly. It seemed inconceivable that Jaskier’s behavior until that point had been him holding back, but evidently he had been, for now it was as though he was magnetically attracted to Geralt’s body.

At meals, Jaskier presented Geralt with plates of his favorite foods, smiling soft and indulgent as he watched Geralt eat. At the informal salons where the troubadours practiced in the evenings, Jaskier seemed oblivious to all of the gossip and bad behavior, constantly seeking Geralt’s eye, shooting him secret little winks and grins and leaning in to whisper in his ear. His body was forever pointed in Geralt’s direction, even when he was chatting to someone else.

Geralt found it difficult to process. He knew it was an act, and yet Jaskier’s sweet, attentive nearness heated his blood, making him feel thick and overwhelmed. Geralt’s experience with people looking at him had largely been associated with his freakishness; he was an oddity to be gawked at, an unsettling relic who at once fascinated and repulsed onlookers. Jaskier didn’t look at him like that, though. Jaskier looked at him like he was something precious, something to be cherished. It was dizzying, mortifying, though the hungry way in which Geralt constantly craved it was far worse.

Even more difficult was all the touching. Geralt knew that Jaskier was habitually tactile. He’d felt Jaskier’s hands on his body often enough: stitching him up after a fight, or scrubbing the grime off when Geralt was too injured or too exhausted to do it. Geralt knew well the delicious firm pressure of Jaskier’s fingers in his hair, and once, gloriously, kneading away the tension that felt permanently knotted into Geralt’s shoulders. None of this, however, had prepared him for Jaskier’s new level of physical affection.

One afternoon, Jaskier draped himself over Geralt’s lap, easy as you please. He winked infuriatingly at Geralt and stole all the sweets off of his plate, before wrapping a casual arm around Geralt’s neck and continuing his conversation with Essi and Helena. Geralt felt as though he was on fire, every point of contact alight. Jaskier smelled so good, and the weight of him upon Geralt’s thigh was hot and perfect, so pleasantly grounding. Jaskier’s fingers were gentle at the nape of Geralt’s neck, sliding over and into his hair, and Jaskier seemed so at ease tucked up against Geralt that Geralt half started to think, he wants this too. He felt thick-headed, dizzied by Jaskier’s touch. He was quiet for a long time after Jaskier wandered off, trying to clear his head. Helena was kind about it, but he could tell that he wasn’t being at all subtle.

On the evening of the sixth day, the Alderman pulled Geralt aside, asking him to clear out a handful of ghouls that someone had smuggled into the belfry. Geralt was more than happy to shed his too-fussy court clothes in favor of utilitarian black, and to feel the weight of silver and steel in his hands once more. It was a simple hunt, but exhilarating after too much time spent sitting idly. Geralt relished the feel of his body moving freely, his muscles stretching and working.

It was the first time he’d been alone in days, and he took his time dispatching the ghouls and cleaning up afterward, breathing deep of the cool night air. He thought briefly and sorrowfully of how much Jaskier would have enjoyed getting to watch the fight, pausing to smack his bloodied hand against his own forehead. It was disconcerting how quickly his thoughts turned to Jaskier, how affected he was by Jaskier’s constant presence. Geralt was going mad; he was sure of it.

Geralt lingered outside for another hour, working through a handful of stretches until he felt pleasantly fatigued, his mind reasonably quiet. Slipping back into the residential wing of the castle, Geralt was grateful for the late hour. He was filthy, and sick of talking to insipid fools. Fortunately, the wing was quiet, its inhabitants either snoring away in preparation for the next day’s competition, or off carousing somewhere else.

Upon turning the corner to his room, Geralt was surprised to see Jaskier leant up against his door, clearly waiting for him. Geralt waited for annoyance to trickle into his field of vision, his solitude disturbed. It didn’t come, though, just the maddening, familiar leap in his pulse at Jaskier’s nearness, the stupid impulse to tuck himself close and let Jaskier stroke and gentle him. There was nobody there to watch their ruse, though, so Geralt kept his distance.

Jaskier ducked his head at Geralt, gesturing at the door. “I had a bath brought up,” he said, and followed Geralt into his room as though he owned the place, which was just typical.

Geralt didn’t mean to, but he must have made a grateful noise, upon seeing the ample, steaming bath. Jaskier grinned lazily at him, raising an eyebrow. He couldn’t help but flirt, Geralt thought, or maybe Geralt just wanted to read everything Jaskier did as having intent. Maybe it was all in his head, and Geralt was weak enough to believe in it, just because he wanted to. He shook his head, trying to force the thoughts away. It was exhausting.

Jaskier stepped into Geralt’s space with easy confidence, helping Geralt free of his armor. It was nice, quiet and companionable. It made something well up in Geralt’s throat, listening to Jaskier hum absentmindedly as he helped Geralt strip off his clothes. He didn’t know when they’d gotten this comfortable with one another, or how in the world to breathe.

Once Geralt was stripped down to his trousers, Jaskier turned away, busying himself with his assortment of ridiculous toiletries. Geralt shucked the remainder of his clothes and levered himself into the bathtub, groaning at the welcome heat of the steaming water. Jaskier turned back once he was settled, sprinkling something into the water. It smelled like Jaskier, pine-y and clean-sweet.

“I’ll let you have some peace,” Jaskier said, reaching for a cloth to dry his hands.

Geralt couldn’t bear to lose the companionable closeness. “Wait,” he blurted out, before he could stop himself.

“Yes?” Jaskier asked mildly. He had a hand on his hip, his head cocked curiously to the side, and it was unbearable how soft and inquisitive he looked.

Geralt furrowed his brow, considering. It was insufferable and weak, wanting Jaskier to stay with him, to touch him and coddle him like a pampered child, but Geralt wanted it. He could not bear to tell Jaskier to go.

“The way you sing here,” Geralt settled on. “Why don’t you sing like that when we’re traveling?”

Jaskier laughed, at once sharp and sweet. “What like an intellectual? I did, when I first went off on my own after Oxenfurt.” He rolled up his sleeves, revealing the pleasing cut of his leanly muscled forearms. “Want me to wash your hair?”

Geralt couldn’t find the words to respond, but he ducked his head in acknowledgement. Jaskier correctly read his invitation, huffing another laugh as he moved to kneel behind Geralt’s head. He carefully worked Geralt’s hair free of the bloodied tie that held it out of his face, running the flat of his hand over it before continuing.

“The first tavern where I played like that, they dragged me out and beat me half to death. Said I was trying to put a spell on them. They accused me of being a sorcerer.” Jaskier scoffed, gently working soap through Geralt’s hair as he spoke. Geralt’s head lolled back into Jaskier’s hands, in spite of his best efforts to stop it. He felt ensorcelled himself, powerless to control his own body. It had somehow never occurred to him that Jaskier, too, had been the victim of ignorant hatred. Geralt didn’t know how to feel about it, besides unhappy.

“After the second town, I figured it out,” Jaskier continued, pressing down on Geralt’s shoulder until he relaxed once more. “People are afraid of that which they don’t understand. So now I always give them something they know, something they understand.” He worked his fingers over Geralt’s scalp, massaging at the base of his skull. Geralt felt liquid, entirely boneless. “Sometimes they applaud, and sometimes they jeer, but they always understand what I’m giving them.”

“I never know you as well as I think,” Geralt muttered, too heavy and relaxed to censor himself. “You keep surprising me.”

Jaskier hummed, dragging his fingers through Geralt’s hair. Geralt tried, and failed, to contain his pleased little groan. It was infuriating how good it felt. He heard Jaskier huff in response, and his fingers slowed, gently working the tangles out of Geralt’s hair.

“I don’t think I’m very mysterious,” Jaskier said, a moment later. “But sometimes you make me feel like I am. I don’t mind,” he added, no doubt feeling Geralt tense once more beneath his fingers. “It’s nice.”

“Hmm,” Geralt said. He let himself be lulled into something close to a doze as Jaskier rinsed his hair, careful and slow. The next morning he had a vague recollection of Jaskier helping him towel off, and ushering him to his bed, but it was all a drowsy blur.

***

The rest of the competition passed by without incident, the days melting together as Jaskier sang, and touched Geralt, and Geralt thought furiously about touching Jaskier back. There were good meals, there were drinks at infuriating parties, and sometimes, when Geralt was excessively lucky or unlucky, there were Jaskier’s fleeting kisses, gone almost before Geralt could be sure they had happened at all. Geralt’s new dedication to their fictional romance seemed to be working, though it was hard to feel good about that when Geralt wanted nothing more than to scream and to kiss Jaskier repeatedly and thoroughly. He could hear people gossiping about them whenever they entered a room, and it made the judges heads tilt speculatively, too. Something about them was moving, evidently. People found it very romantic.

Geralt thought he would go mad, but he also never wanted the competition to end. It seemed inevitable that Jaskier would leave, then. He might even find some admiring sycophant from the audience to take to bed, once he was no longer bound by the competition. Geralt could barely stand to think about that, and yet it intruded constantly upon his thoughts.

The eve of the final performance was fraught for almost all of the competitors, but Jaskier seemed entirely relaxed. Geralt had ducked out a few hours prior to run laps around the castle grounds, an escape from the suffocating nervous energy permeating the halls. Now, freshly bathed, he stepped into the finery that Jaskier had saved for this night. Geralt felt foolish in it, the dove grey trappings too soft and courtly by far, but Jaskier was luminous in his silver doublet. He looked otherworldly, just the tiniest bit iridescent, and it made Geralt’s mouth water.

Jaskier was perusing his notes, not watching Geralt, and so for once Geralt allowed himself to look his fill. It was the last night of the competition, anyway. Soon Geralt would have no good reason to stare at Jaskier, to try to memorize his every feature. Soon their ruse would be over. It made Geralt feel wretched. He forced himself to think of nothing but this very moment, committing the soft furrow of Jaskier’s brow to memory, matching Jaskier breath for breath.

All too soon, Jaskier stirred, murmuring that it was time to go. Geralt grunted at him, unable to find the words that might convince Jaskier to linger here with him, just a little longer. On their way out, though, Jaskier paused, reaching out to clasp Geralt’s hand.

“I wanted to say thank you,” Jaskier said, unusually soft and serious. “I know this hasn’t been easy for you. It means a great deal to me.” He shifted awkwardly. “Anyway, we’ll be late, we’d better go.” He was out the door already, arm stretched out to keep Geralt’s hand tucked into his own, when he added, “Thank you.”

“Hmm,” Geralt said, and based on Jaskier’s soft noise, it seemed like it might be enough.

Inside the great hall, crowds were thronged behind the ordered rows of seats, watching each bard enter and bow to their audience. Jaskier’s bow was unusually cursory; he seemed far more interested in escorting Geralt to his seat of honor upon the dais, unmoved by the chattering of the crowd. Geralt figured that was probably part of the whole performance, the pretense that Geralt was so much more fascinating than Jaskier’s adoring audience. He felt awkward and out of sorts, unsure if he wanted Jaskier to stop this foolish act, or if he wanted Jaskier to hold onto him for forever, even if it wasn’t real.

Either fortunately or not, Geralt still wasn’t sure which, Jaskier made the decision for him. He released Geralt's arm and executed an elegant bow, his nose almost brushing Geralt’s knee. His hand caught and rested there, tucked in over Geralt’s kneecap, and Geralt suddenly couldn’t bear to let Jaskier walk away without one final kiss. It was likely to be their last, and Geralt couldn’t imagine how much he’d have to hate himself for the rest of his miserable life, if he didn’t kiss Jaskier when he could.

Not allowing himself to think too much about it, Geralt tugged Jaskier close and drew their mouths together. Jaskier was hunched over him, shoulders canted toward Geralt, and Geralt wanted nothing more than to pull Jaskier into his lap, to fit them both tightly together and never let go. He tried desperately to hold back his pitiful noise, when Jaskier licked into his mouth. It escaped, anyway. For a moment Geralt thought that Jaskier couldn’t possibly believe that Geralt was acting. He had to know. It was almost cruel, how he hummed and shifted in Geralt’s arms, smiling secretly as though just for him. It was perfect, and awful.

Finally, Jaskier pulled back, breathing hard. His mouth was open and wet, and his eyes danced merrily over Geralt’s face, as though searching for the answer to a question Geralt was supposed to have heard. Geralt scrubbed a hand through his hair, unable to find any words at all.

“What a state you’ll put me in,” Jaskier said, not sounding at all bothered about such a thing. He laughed once, softly. “I have to sing now, beloved. I’ll find you after.”

Geralt nodded shortly, fairly choking on feelings. Jaskier had never called him that, not once throughout their time at the competition. He supposed Jaskier had just waited for the finale, to deploy it when it was most devastating. The people around him were cooing, not even trying to hide how much they were enjoying the show. Geralt resisted the urge to snarl at them. It was why Jaskier was being this way to him in the first place, after all. Geralt couldn’t blame them for liking it at least as much as he did himself.

Helena came and sat with Geralt, once Jaskier had gone. “Nervous?” she asked sympathetically, seeing Geralt’s face.

“Something like that,” Geralt lied.

Helena clucked comfortingly at him. “Jaskier will be brilliant,” she said.

“Yeah,” Geralt managed. “Essi, uh.” He cleared his throat, trying his hardest to remember how to act like a person. “Essi too.”

“Thanks awfully,” Helena said brightly. “We ought to convince them to perform together, once this is over. It would be nice to see the both of you again.”

Geralt frowned, hating the way his traitorous heart leapt at that. Perhaps they would have to pretend to betrothed again, his brain told him treacherously. He shoved away the thought. It was unbelievable that this had already worked for as long as it had. There was no reason to believe Jaskier would want to tempt fate again.

“Oh, it’s starting,” Helena said, jolting Geralt out of his thoughts. He looked up, and saw Valdo Marx tuning his lute. He looked like a pompous cockerel, his doublet trimmed in carrot orange and umber. Geralt sneered unbecomingly at him, doing his best to tune out his performance. The theme of the final competition was, unsurprisingly, love, and Marx yowled on about his courtly paramour while simpering dramatically in her direction, about as unsubtle as it was possible to be.

Geralt looked pointedly away, choosing to watch Jaskier instead. With the rest of the crowd focused on Valdo Marx’s capering about the stage, it felt safe to let his gaze be as much of a caress as he desperately wanted it to be, lingering on Jaskier. Jaskier caught his eye, and smiled at him, open and sweet.

Geralt was drawn from his reverie when Essi Daven took the stage. For one thing, Jaskier’s posture changed. He looked genuinely delighted to hear Essi’s sweet voice, melding beautifully with the soft melody she plucked out upon her lute. For another, Helena grabbed Geralt’s hand and squeezed it hard, watching Essi with a particularly soppy expression. Geralt couldn’t find it within himself to mind. Afterward, Essi came and ducked her head to Helena, and laid a kiss upon her hand.

“I think your affections are returned,” Geralt said dryly, once Essi had returned to her seat. Helena smacked him on the shoulder, but there was no heat in it. She was blushing, and Geralt couldn’t help match her smile with one of his own.

Then it was Jaskier’s turn to perform. He stood silent for a moment before the crowd, graciously accepting their applause, before finally taking up his lute. He caught Geralt’s eye and nodded at him, a tiny, apologetic gesture that Geralt couldn’t parse. Then, he began to sing.

It was an aching song, so sweet it made Geralt’s heart feel twisted up inside his chest. He felt as though he couldn’t breathe, pinned by Jaskier’s voice, and by the horrible, ridiculous, cruel things Jaskier was saying. For the song was about him, was about Geralt. Jaskier sang, soft and sweet and treacherous, flaying Geralt open before the audience. He called Geralt kind, and brave, and noble. His voice was like a caress when he spoke of soothing Geralt’s pain, of stealing away his cares. He sang of his torment, of watching and loving Geralt from afar. It was all too much; it was far too much. Jaskier had to know that Geralt wanted him, he simply had to, for he was laying it all out for the audience to see, making a mockery of Geralt’s ridiculous pining. Geralt couldn’t breathe. He’d known, somewhere deep and ugly inside of himself, that Jaskier had to have noticed. How could he not, when Geralt was so very un-subtle? But this, this was too much. He had never expected Jaskier to torment him in front of people like this. He had believed that Jaskier would know, how much that would hurt Geralt. He had thought that Jaskier would care.

Geralt didn’t duck out of the room, but only because there were so many people watching him. The moment Jaskier stepped off the stage, though, he fled, whispering to Helena that he needed a moment. Nobody followed him, thankfully. Geralt strode to his room and managed with shaking hands to open the door, sinking down numbly upon the bed.

Of course, the universe hated Geralt, and so Jaskier intruded upon him not five minutes later. He was still flushed from his performance, hair a mess as though he’d been running his hands through it. He looked terrified, which Geralt wished he could find more satisfying.

“Geralt,” Jaskier said, throat working as he caught his breath. “I saw you leave. What’s wrong?” His eyes were wide, and his hands were working helplessly at his sides.

“Why did you say those things about me?” Geralt asked harshly. The numbness was giving way to fury, sudden and sharp. He felt hot with rage and something else, something he couldn’t name. His chest felt agonizingly tight, and his pulse was fast and sharp beneath his skin.

“I--” Jaskier started, sounding bewildered. “What?”

“Those lies,” Geralt gritted out. “Why? Why are you always lying about me?”

“What are you talking about?” Jaskier said incredulously. “This is about something I said in my song?”

“It’s about everything you said in the song,” Geralt said. His voice came out rough, harsh. He felt as though it was being ripped out of him, the words bleeding out against his will. He felt nauseous, hot and trapped in the corner of the room.

“Ah,” Jaskier said tightly. He sat down abruptly upon the bed, raking a hand through his hair. “Suppose I rather showed my hand there.”

“Why did you say those things?” Geralt asked again, biting back his frustration. It felt like a living thing, trying to scrabble free.

“Now you’re just being cruel,” Jaskier said. It came out quietly, thick with resignation. “And yet it is I who must apologize, for it must have put you in an uncomfortable position. That was never my intent.” Geralt could see Jaskier’s pulse ticking fast in his throat, against the sensitive skin of his wrists. Geralt’s mouth was suddenly dry, but his rage was a cyclone inside him, impossible to contain.

“Uncomfortable?” Geralt parroted back at him. He shook his head. “You made me sound--” he pressed his fingers into his temples, making a frustrated noise. “You made me sound so good,” he said finally, spitting out the words. “You made it sound as though you could love me. You showed everyone my shame. Why did you tell such lies?”

Jaskier looked up at him, then, his expression set and steady.

“I didn’t lie,” he said evenly. “I did no acting tonight. Nothing that I said was a fabrication, or a hypothetical.”

Geralt choked on nothing. His skin felt too tight, and his head was buzzing. “But you said,” he started, trailing off in frustration. He couldn’t bear to say the words, couldn’t bear to have Jaskier tell him that he was wrong, that he could never want Geralt. “Me?” He said finally. “Really?”

“You,” Jaskier agreed mildly. “Really. I didn’t exactly mean to tell the whole audience, though.”

Geralt exhaled sharply. His head was spinning. He could feel his pulse lurching fast, his breath coming short and shallow. It couldn’t be right. It couldn’t be what Jaskier meant. It wasn’t possible.

“Geralt,” Jaskier said, sounding concerned. “I’m sorry, all right? I won’t mention it again. Please.”

Geralt met his eyes at that. He couldn’t help the way he pressed in close to Jaskier, craving his presence. “No,” he said. “Not that. Can you just say exactly what you mean? I need to hear you say it. Everything. With no allusions.”

Jaskier sighed. “Are you going to leave if I do? Please, Geralt. I can’t lose your friendship, too. I can’t.”

“Jaskier,” Geralt rasped. It came out too rough, but he couldn’t contain himself. “Please. Just tell me.” He felt desperate, his whole body keening for Jaskier, his limbs tight with the effort of not reaching out for him.

“Geralt,” Jaskier returned. He sighed again, but this time it was soft, and unbearably sweet. Jaskier leaned in closer, his throat working. He planted a palm upon the bed, fixing his eyes upon Geralt. He looked at him straight on, with determination.

“Geralt,” he said again, more firmly. “I meant every word of that song. It’s terrifying how much I love you. I thought I would die after that first time I kissed you. Could’ve died happily, except that I knew it wasn’t real, that you would never truly let me do that. It felt wrong, doing that to you when I knew how badly I wanted it to be real.” He shook his head ruefully. “I knew this farce was a terrible idea, that it would end in sorrow for me, but I just wanted so badly to know what it would be like, if you could bring yourself to love me.” Jaskier looked down, then, watching his own hands pick restlessly at the bedsheets. “Please tell me our friendship can recover from this. Please. I can’t bear to lose that too.”

“Bring myself to love you,” Geralt spluttered, cutting Jaskier off. He grabbed Jaskier by the shoulders, giving him a gentle shake. “I thought it was just me,” he said, a little hysterically, and then he kissed Jaskier, hard.

Jaskier made a shocked, delighted noise against Geralt’s mouth. He returned the kiss every bit as hard, not breaking it even as he scrabbled his way into Geralt’s lap. He was a bundle of limbs, too thin by far but full of reckless energy. Geralt laughed against Jaskier’s mouth, trying to bundle him up and close, closer still.

Jaskier made a comical, affronted noise at that, but Geralt couldn’t contain his joy. It came spilling out of him, laughter that felt strangely close to weeping, tucked in between their kisses and sharp breaths. Jaskier’s hands were under Geralt’s shirt already, and he pressed into Jaskier’s touch, desperate for more contact.

Jaskier made a pleased noise against Geralt’s mouth and worked his shirt up over his head, pausing to stare hungrily down at him. “You,” he started, shaking his head. “The things you do to me. It’s obscene how good you look.” He smoothed his hand over Geralt’s chest, just the right amount of firm pressure. Geralt made an embarrassing noise and pressed into his touch, shuddering.

“You’re so sweet for me,” Jaskier continued, sounding delighted. His hands had found their way down to Geralt’s belt, and he tucked his fingers under it now, pulling their groins flush. Geralt groaned again, hips working. He could feel the line of Jaskier’s erection, hot and hard against his own. Jaskier ducked his head to catch Geralt’s nipple between his teeth, and Geralt felt the eager, wanting, pathetic noise curled up inside his throat, and was powerless to prevent it escaping.

“You should be as loud as you want to,” Jaskier said conversationally. He looked half wild, eyes dark with desire. Geralt wanted to muss him even further, wanted to tangle his fingers in Jaskier’s hair, to drag his stubbled jaw across Jaskier’s pink cheek and make it even rosier. He wanted everyone to know that Jaskier wanted him, and that he’d given Jaskier pleasure. Geralt shifted feverishly against Jaskier’s hands, and let all the ugly, hoarse noises free.

Jaskier seemed to like them, if the jerk of his erection was any indication. “You’re perfect,” he whispered, mouthing at Geralt’s chest. “So perfect for me. I’ve wanted you for so long.”

“Fuck,” Geralt managed to pant out. “Yes.” He grabbed at Jaskier’s ridiculous ruffled shirt, dragging him back up to Geralt’s mouth. “Fuck me,” he said, against Jaskier’s lips. “Please.”

“Since you asked so nicely,” Jaskier said, between kisses, but Geralt was close enough to feel how it’d made his pulse jump, could smell just how much Jaskier liked that idea. He liked it too, could barely contain himself at the very idea.

The door burst open, then. “Aha!” Valdo Marx cried, sounding extremely smug. “Not so chaste now, are you?”

There was a commotion from the hallway. “You absolute bastard,” Geralt heard Essi shouting, accompanied by some outraged noises from Helena.

Geralt couldn’t help laughing, sharp with disbelief. “Honestly, why does that door not have a lock?”

Jaskier sat back in Geralt’s lap, looking entirely unbothered by the intrusion. “We’re busy,” he said to Valdo Marx, gesturing at Geralt, spread out and flushed beneath him. “Go tell the judges, if you wish. I have bigger things to worry about just now.” He accentuated his words with a twist of his hips that made Geralt choke and forget whatever he had been about to yell at all of them. He sat up himself, though, when Jaskier’s words registered.

“You’re not being disqualified,” Geralt said firmly. He tumbled Jaskier off his lap, ignoring Valdo Marx’s startled look as he stood up, not bothering to hide his state of undress, or his arousal. Geralt fumbled for Jaskier’s hand and tugged him up off the bed, leading him to the door. He grabbed at Valdo’s wrist and yanked him along, heading down the hallway.

“Come on,” he said, when they passed Essi and Helena. You can be our witnesses.”

“Geralt,” Jaskier huffed out. “Where are we going? What are you doing?”

“Unhand me!” Valdo Marx said officiously. Geralt yanked him a little harder, rolling his eyes, and Jaskier choked out a sharp, slightly hysterical noise.

Geralt grunted and turned down the hallway, picking out the ornate door at the end of the hall. He pounded on it until it opened, revealing the disgruntled, half-asleep Alderman, clad in a rumpled nightgown. “You’re going to marry us,” Geralt said, without preamble. “If Jaskier accepts.”

“You could have just asked me directly,” Jaskier said, laughing. “You should have known I’d want to.”

“I just did,” Geralt pointed out, in what he felt was an extremely reasonable voice.

“You strong-armed the Alderman out of bed, and dragged half the competition here with you,” Jaskier corrected. “An excellent proposal, truly. I accept.”

“It’s the middle of the night,” the Alderman spluttered. “This is highly irregular.”

“We’ve waited long enough,” Geralt said, deploying his most hideous toothy grin, and realized it was true. They’d been dancing around each other for what must have been decades, living in each other’s pockets for at least half that. “The hand-binding. Now.”

Well” the Alderman said, tutting. But he located a strip of cloth, and spoke the ritual words of the hand-binding over them. Jaskier beamed and tugged Geralt in for a kiss, before the Alderman had even finished. Geralt didn’t mind any, as the ceremony was terribly dry. Valdo Marx was complaining vociferously about disqualification all the while, until Essi ducked in and elbowed him hard, darting away before he could even finish squawking.

“We’re awfully sorry for the inconvenience,” Helena said afterward, ushering the Alderman back to bed. Geralt nodded to her, and to Essi, and spared a lazy grimace for Valdo Marx.

“We’re going now,” he said, and Jaskier made a happy noise and grabbed him by the hand.

“Just one of many excellent ideas you’ve had tonight,” he said delightedly, and dragged Geralt back to bed.

The next hour or so was taken up with vigorous marital consumation, the quality of which made Geralt seriously question why he’d ever spent time doing anything that wasn’t having sex with Jaskier. They were both filthy by now, sweaty and half stuck together with spend, but Geralt couldn’t bring himself to move. His head was pillowed on Jaskier’s chest, and Jaskier was playing idly with Geralt’s hair.

“Jaskier,” Geralt said quietly, into his skin. “Why won’t you tell me about your age?”

“It’s not that I don’t want to,” Jaskier said, sounding vexed. His fingers were still moving, but Geralt could feel the change in his focus, the way he was just that slightest bit less relaxed. He regretted asking, immediately, but couldn’t see a way to fix it. He shifted around, trying to catch Jaskier’s eye.

Jaskier had trailed off, and when Geralt looked up at him, he saw that Jaskier had brought a hand to his own face, touching his mouth experimentally. “Geralt!” Jaskier cried delightedly. “I can! I can tell you now!.”

Geralt frowned at him, unable to resist the urge to burrow in against Jaskier’s chest as he did. Jaskier chuckled and leaned into his touch. “Come here,” he said, and drew Geralt up to sitting. HIs fingers were gentle on Geralt’s jaw, and he kissed Geralt once, soft and sweet.

“I was under a geas, a sort of curse,” Jaskier said, once they were sitting comfortably close, facing one another upon the bed. “It felt like something was choking me, whenever anybody asked me a question that was prohibited by the geas. I think there must have been some sort of exception built in for the marriage bed, because, well.” He gestured at their intertwined legs, grinning.

“Explain,” Geralt said. He felt fairly confident that he was going to have to throttle someone, once he had all the information, but for now his outrage was at war with the absolute and total comfort of having Jaskier so near.

“Gladly, now that I can,” Jaskier said. “You know that I’m from a titled family. My father had a firstborn son, whose mother died in childbirth. His first marriage was for an heir, his second was for love. That was my mother.” Jaskier looked down at his hands, shrugging a little. “She was an elf.”

He must have heard Geralt’s surprised intake of breath, but Jaskier continued, twisting his fingers in the bedsheets. “She was too frail for this world, always sickly. But she loved both of us fiercely. My brother too, though he never forgave her for replacing his own mother. I was nine when she sickened for the last time. She was gone within a fortnight.” Jaskier leaned into Geralt’s touch for a moment, then continued.

“My father never recovered from the loss, after she died. My brother took over the estate, and he put the geas on me. He hated elves, hated my mother. I don’t think it was rational. That sort of hatred rarely is.” Jaskier laughed sharply, shaking his head. “Anyway, he bound me so that I could never tell anyone about the taint in our family’s bloodline. It’s totally ludicrous - he’s the eldest and entirely human. I suppose bigots aren’t known for their logic, though. Anyway, he shipped me off to temple school and from there I put myself through Oxenfurt. I stayed on as a lecturer until people started asking questions about why I hardly seemed to have aged. It seemed safer to keep moving, after that, so I never saw the same people for too long a span of time. Jaskier shrugged again, once. “Except for you. I never could bring myself to stay away from you.”

“I--” Geralt started, but he couldn’t finish. There were no words to convey the hugeness of the feeling welling up and out of him, the idea that Jaskier might live just as long as he did, might be just as inhuman as he was, might love him just as fiercely, and not in spite of Geralt’s inhuman oddity. That Jaskier might want him just as he was.

“I know,” Jaskier said ruefully. He tucked himself back into Geralt’s arms, all easy confidence. He felt so warm, the play of his muscles delicious as he curled up in Geralt’s lap. “You’re not getting rid of me any time soon.”

“Fuck,” Geralt managed, wonderingly. It didn’t seem possible, that destiny should hand him everything he so desperately desired. It didn’t seem like it could be real.

“I know,” Jaskier said, again. His breath was warm against Geralt’s throat. “Here’s a thing about half-elves,” he added, “Or maybe just a thing about me, I don’t know.” He worked his way up Geralt’s jaw, dragging his teeth gently over the shell of Geralt’s ear. Geralt shivered, too overwhelmed to hide it.

“What?” He asked, his voice a rasp.

Jaskier grinned sharply, pressing in close. “We really have a lot of stamina,” he said, as though confiding a secret.

Geralt groaned, pressing into Jaskier’s touch. His skin felt too tight, sharp and prickling with arousal. When this was all over, he didn’t think he’d be able to walk for days, and he was looking forward to that immensely. Geralt tilted his chin and kissed Jaskier, just because he could. He did it again, referencing the same rationale. “Here’s a thing about Witchers,” he said, off-handedly. “We have a lot of stamina too.”

Jaskier made a triumphant, delighted sound against his mouth. “Married life suits us,” he declared, mouthing across Geralt’s jaw.

Geralt paused, looking down at him. He shifted back, grasping Jaskier’s shoulders. “You know we can absolve that, if you decide you want to,” he said, finally. “It was sudden. You like to keep moving. I’ll understand, if you don’t want to stay bound.”

Jaskier frowned. “Is that what you want? Because I’m certain I was just crowing about how much I like this. Is your hearing going, Witcher?”

Geralt made a face at him. “I just--” he trailed off awkwardly, hating himself. “I just don’t want you to feel obligated. If all you want is this, well.” He shrugged. “I’ll do whatever you want.”

Jaskier eyed him flatly, jaw working. “And if what I want is to stay bound to you? How will you feel about that?”

Geralt closed his eyes, thinking about it. It wasn’t something he’d ever allowed himself to hope for, and being offered it was almost too much. It was overwhelming. But--

“I want that,” Geralt forced out. “That’s what I want.”

“And I want it too,” Jaskier said patiently, “Which is why I, you know, agreed to marry you.”

“Fuck,” Geralt said, staring at Jaskier. “How can you-- How is this--. Fuck.”

“Eloquent,” Jaskier said, waggling his eyebrows at Geralt. “I think I’ll handle the poetry, here.” He leaned in close, kissing Geralt sweetly. “Fortunately, you have a number of other skills.”

Geralt laughed, somewhat in spite of himself. “Like dice?”

“For example,” Jaskier allowed, smirking at him. “But I suspect you have quite a few other talents, with which I will acquaint myself starting now.” He pressed Geralt down into the bed, hands flitting over his chest. “If you’ll allow me?”

Yes,” Geralt said, and Jaskier did.

***

The next morning, Geralt awoke pleasantly sore and sated, as well rested as he could ever remember being. Jaskier was splayed out on top of him and had stolen most of the covers, but Geralt couldn’t bring himself to mind. Jaskier’s face was tucked up against Geralt’s collarbone, and he was breathing slow and even there, ruffling Geralt’s hair. Geralt passed a hand over Jaskier’s head, still somewhat shocked that he was allowed to do so. It couldn’t be healthy, to love someone this much.

Jaskier muttered at him, flailing a hand sleepily. “Surely it’s not time to get up yet,” he said, plaintively.

Geralt laughed. “Not quite. But soon. You have to go find out if you’ve won the competition.”

“Oh,” Jaskier said, burrowing back into Geralt’s side. “Yes, that.”

Geralt rolled his eyes, but his mouth was quirking up into a grin, and he was powerless to stop it.

“You campaigned for weeks about getting me to this competition. So yes, that.”

“Well,” Jaskier said, flopping his hand on Geralt’s chest. “Suppose that was really more about all the --” he waved the hand, hitting Geralt in the chin. “Oh, sorry. Anyway. It was really more about the you part.”

Geralt rolled his eyes again, fondly. “Still. Don’t you want to see Valdo Marx lose?”

Jaskier barked out a laugh, opening his eyes to gaze at Geralt. “You say the sweetest things, honestly.”

Geralt looked down, unsure exactly what his face was doing, but fairly certain that he didn’t like it. “Well,” he said awkwardly, toying with the coverlet. “You bring it out in me.”

“Mm,” Jaskier said, looking him over. “In you. That’s a very good idea, Geralt. I think we’ve just enough time before we have to get up.”

“Get up?” Geralt said, raising a brow at Jaskier.

Jaskier squawked and kissed him hard, shifting onto Geralt’s lap. It was good, it was so good, and Geralt didn’t know what to do with all of the ridiculous happiness building up inside of him. He told Jaskier as much, once they were moving together, stealing the breath from one another’s lips. Jaskier kissed him again, reverently, taking the words in, keeping them safe.

***

In the end, Essi Daven won the competition. Jaskier came in second, which didn’t seem to bother him any. He was too busy congratulating Essi, and crowing over Valdo Marx’s ignominious defeat. Upon being declared victor, Essi had strode over to Helena and kissed her in front of everyone, and now they were tucked closely together, staring soppily into one another’s eyes as the judges tutted and tried hard not to look as delighted as everyone surely was. It was impossible, when they were so sweet and earnest.

“Are you disappointed?” Geralt asked Jaskier, once they’d managed to find a quiet corner.

Jaskier regarded him, his expression soft. “Here’s the thing,” he said. “The first place prize includes a residency at Oxenfurt. I was planning to turn it down, anyway. Essi and Helena will love it there, but I’ve found that I prefer traveling with my companion.”

Geralt ducked his head, flattened by the force of Jaskier’s affection. “What did you win, then?” he asked, clearing his throat.

“Ah, enough coin to keep us in food and inn rooms for months,” Jaskier said lightly. “And a place to stay whenever we pass through, should we wish it.”

“I-- huh,” Geralt said, cocking his head. “That sounds perfect.”

“It does, doesn’t it?” Jaskier said, sounding pleased. Geralt could do nothing but kiss him, then, because yes, it really did.