he knows her, the dark-light lady.
she is pretty but she is sharp. she is angry. she is... dangerous. he wants to go to her, but she hurts him. so he stays away.
they go to the dark place. the bad place. bad things happen here. they want him to go back but he won't. he can't. he stays with the horse. she is safe, she is home.
they leave. he stays.
but then he hears them down in the dark, the bard and the dark-light lady. cry of fear. scream of pain. he can't stay here. he has to go to them.
he sees the monster, black and oily and evil. he hits it but it won't die, it won't die . the wind hurts. the magic hurts. but he fights. he always has to fight.
the bard is hurting. the bard is... dying. he has to save him but he can't. there must be a way but he doesn't know , he can't see...
and then. glass breaks. and then.
and then it all came crashing back.
Light returned. Words returned. Sense returned.
And it found Geralt kneeling on the floor of a filthy dungeon with Jaskier's broken body cradled in his arms.
For a fortnight and more his only thoughts -- if they could be called thoughts -- had revolved around Jaskier; keep him close, keep him safe. Protect, protect, protect. And he had failed and that damned poltergeist had hurt Jaskier, cut him, crushed him, and Geralt hadn't been able to do anything to stop it. Anything at all.
Thought returned, but it might not have bothered, when the only words crashing around in Geralt's head were useless, pointless repetition: he's hurt he's hurt he'sHURTHE'S HURT --
It was Yennefer -- and how had Yennefer even come to be here, he hadn't been able to question before and he was too numb to start now -- who snapped him out of his trance, got him up off the filthy floor and out of the basement. She needled him with words and barked at him when his steps dragged, and she promised salvation for them both, if he could only get Jaskier up those stairs.
Somehow they got out of the godsforsaken basement and Yennefer pulled her magical tent out of the air and whisked them away. He'd have to go back later, he knew with a kind of glassy exhaustion. His swords were still in that basement along with the garkain's head that he wouldn't be able to cash in his payment for this gods damned job without. But if they'd sat a month without being disturbed, a few more hours wouldn't make a difference either way.
It was hard to focus, hard to hold onto more than one thought at a time -- out of practice, perhaps, from the month he'd spent as a drooling idiot. His thoughts were freed from their cages but they rattled around in his head in such a cacophony that he almost regretted their restoration.
No, that wasn't true. He had his mind back, his mind. It was a miracle he wouldn't have dared to hope for, if he'd been able to hope -- a gift almost beyond price.
Almost. Because if the price was Jaskier's life...
He couldn't let himself think that.
The bard was laid out on the low couch in Yennefer's chambers, unconscious. Jaskier was filthy -- they all were, really, but Yennefer had been adamant about not wanting him in her bedsheets in that condition. Geralt wasn't about to push the matter. Not when Yennefer had spent an hour mixing and brewing and infusing herbs with her most potent magic, coaxing them down Jaskier's throat until his skin warmed from the ghoulish grey pallor, until his breath didn't bubble warningly in his lungs and rattle his half-crushed throat. Until he slept quietly, healing, recovering, safe.
It was all too much like the time with the djinn -- another time that had been his fault, though he hadn't known at the time just how much fault. He ought to be feeling something about that, he knew, an all too familiar storm of grief and guilt in his head. But right now, just now, all he could feel was numb.
Yennefer sat down with a tired groan on the winged armchair before the fire. Geralt was perched on the footstool next to the couch. He was well-practiced at keeping his expression flat and stoic, but Yennefer looked at the way his hands clenched around the edges of the fabric and sighed.
"The bard will be fine," she told him bracingly. "He should wake before evening. The decoction I gave him will ensure he'll be feeling no pain."
Geralt nodded. He felt like he should say something, but the lump in his throat blocked speech, so he settled for a "Hmm."
"That's all you have to say?" Yennefer said sharply. " Hmm? What was the point of restoring your speech if you refuse to use it?"
"You're angry." Geralt sighed. "Just say whatever you have to say, Yen."
"What a deduction!" Yennefer said. "Yes, of course I'm angry!"
Geralt winced. "Is this because of the --"
"You had no right to do that, Geralt! No right!" Yennefer's voice overrode his. She pushed herself out of the wingchair and began to pace in front of the fire. "I am not yours to grab and manhandle, or force a kiss I didn't consent to. Do you not understand that?"
"It wasn't like that," Geralt protested. "The only thing that will kill a poltergeist is sunlight. I had to blow the roof out, and my signs alone wouldn't have the strength --"
"I am not a keg you can tap when you need a power-up, Witcher!" she interrupted him. "I am not your source, not yours or anyone's."
"I didn't have a choice," Geralt said through gritted teeth. "The geist was killing us, nothing we were doing was making a dent. Jaskier was dying --"
"Yes I'm aware of that, seeing as I was there," Yennefer snapped. "But you didn't ask!"
"There wasn't time!"
"Oh?" Yennefer's voice was dangerous. "There wasn't the five seconds it would have taken to say 'I need power, join with me' and for me to give the nod? Six words, five seconds? That was too long for you to wait?"
Geralt sighed. "Yen..."
His voice trailed off. He didn't know what else to say. Yennefer turned to face the fire, drew the edges of her mantle around her. "I think there was time," she said. "I think the reason you didn't ask was because you were afraid of the answer. You were afraid I wouldn't say yes, that my spiteful feelings and my pride would drive me to make the wrong choice. So you took my choice away."
Geralt found himself at a loss. There was nothing he could say to argue that, because she wasn't wrong. Not that he had reasoned it all out in his head -- it had all happened in a mad scramble, in the heat of the moment -- but her words stung in a way that he knew from experience meant they carried more than a grain of truth.
What could he possibly say? "I -- I won't do it again."
"Oh yes, you will," she said. "You'll do it again the next time you think it has to be done. You always do what has to be done, don't you? No matter who you trample over in the process. And you're always so sure you know best, that nobody else can possibly know better."
He looked down. "I can't change who I am, Yen."
"You don't even try to change," she said, and she sounded not so much angry as resigned. "You haven't tried for years. You'd rather live in misery than face the effort of trying."
She wasn't wrong. She knew him far too well for comfort. But wrong or right, there was nothing he could say to that.
"I owe you a debt twice over now," he said instead, changing the subject. "Once for Jaskier's life in Rinde. And another for mine, today."
"What?" She scoffed, sounding surprised. "That wasn't a fatal curse, Geralt. It wouldn't have killed you, just made your life miserable for... however long it took the spell to wear out."
How long would that have been? As a Witcher, it's not like he would have died of old age. But it was a moot point. "If I didn't starve to death in the woods, if I'd ventured out into the town as I was... then the townsfolk would have mobbed me, and I wouldn't have been able to stop them." Even in his reduced state he had still known that; somewhere in his idiot brain he'd still understood the danger that awaited him if the humans had found him in that state. But the patch of woods was too small to hide a beast his size for long; it had always been a futile effort. "If I didn't starve and wasn't stoned to death, eventually the rumors of the monster in the woods would have circulated far enough abroad, and they would have hired another Witcher."
"What, one of your Wolf brethren?"
"Maybe. Maybe one of the other schools. Wouldn't matter." Geralt shrugged. "One way or another they'd have tracked me down, and once they saw the state I was in, they would have killed me."
"Oh -- that wouldn't --" Yennefer objected, startled.
"It wouldn't be the first time a Witcher has had to be put down, Yen," he said. "We're too powerful to be allowed to run wild like that. Anyone else who came across me in that condition, a mad witcher -- would have put me down." And they would have been right to do so. He could imagine it so strongly, the image hung like a hallucination in his mind's eye: Eskel's face, his expression of grief and horror, the downward slash of the sword --
He blinked, shook his head to clear the vision away. It hadn't happened. It hadn't.
Yennefer huffed. "And am I also part of that 'anyone?' " she said. "You still believe that, even after today?"
Geralt winced. He'd been so caught up in his self-pity, he hadn't thought of what he was saying, hadn't thought of how his words would land. Again. Isn't that how you got yourself into this in the first place, Wolf? "No. No, you aren't," he said. "You didn't deserve that, and I'm sorry. But..."
"But what?" Yennefer said.
Geralt sighed, and lowered his head to rest on his hands. "You weren't there. He was."
The two of them looked over the unconscious bard. Geralt thought he saw her expression soften, her manner lose that brittle edge. Jaskier had that effect on people, he thought.
"He cares a lot about you, Geralt," Yennefer said softly.
As if he didn't know it. "And it almost got him killed, again."
"You know... I had a chance to talk to him while all this was going on," Yennefer said. Geralt felt a cold bolt of panic shoot down his spine at the thought, but Yennefer only chuckled and shook her head. "We understand each other better now. Mind you, I still think he's a loudmouthed fool --"
"No argument here."
"But he's got more qualities than I expected," Yennefer continued. "Intelligence. Determination. And... kindness."
"The world would be less, for losing him," Geralt said. He looked up at the sorceress. "Thank you for saving him. I owe --"
Yennefer made a vague, open-handed gesture. "Mm, don't need your thanks for that," she said. "I'm inclined to say I did it for him, rather than for you. That won't count towards your debt towards me."
Geralt winced. "But the rest of it does?"
"Oh, you'd better believe it does," Yennefer said emphatically. "I haven't thought of anything sufficient for you to repay me yet, but when I do, I won't hesitate to cash in."
Geralt wondered if she realized yet that she didn't need him to be in debt, to ask favors or help of him. He would always help her if he could -- however he could -- no less than he could have done for Jaskier.
But if it made her feel more in control to have that leverage over his head, to have someone she knew couldn't turn their back on her -- "I guess I'll keep waiting," he said.
Yennefer left, probably to take her own bed. Geralt was left sitting by the fire, staring into it, trying to put the last few weeks in some kind of order in his head.
So much of it was a blur -- the world seen through a heavy shaded glass, voices and sounds garbled into incoherent screeching. He couldn't remember awakening in the lair, dumb and mute, struggling back to the surface in the woods. He could barely remember running through the woods like an animal, eating raw meat with his bare hands and... wolves? He remembered there being wolves at one point, but he couldn't remember how that encounter had ended -- only staggering through the trees with his arm black with blood and throbbing with pain. He hadn't been able to make sense of anything until the bard appeared in his life again.
Despite everything that had passed between them last autumn, Jaskier had greeted him as a friend. He remembered that, remembered how painfully glad he had been to see him again. Jaskier had fed him and washed him and tended his wounds, sheltered and guided him when it became apparent just how mind-crippled Geralt had become. Days had piled into weeks and Jaskier had never left his side, never gave up on him. Not even when the money ran out, the food ran out -- he hadn't understood, it had all gone over his head, but with his mind restored to him he could look back over memories of increasingly scanty meals and poor lodgings and no jobs and do the math.
Geralt wasn't so deep in denial that he didn't know how badly he'd treated Jaskier the last time they'd parted. How much of it had been genuine anger, and how much a desire to drive Jaskier away before Jaskier was taken from him... he still hadn't worked out even six months later. Even now.
But he'd had plenty of time to seek the bard out, to make amends, and he hadn't. Hadn't even made plans to do so. Hells, he could have written a fucking letter, and he hadn't. After such a remission Jaskier would have been well within his rights to turn him loose to fend for himself, to leave him to a well-deserved fate.
Instead, Jaskier had looked after him.
There was only one person in the world who would have sought him out and cared for him in his worst moments, who wouldn't have just ended his misery, and that was Jaskier. The bard was the only one who'd ever given a damn about him just for himself -- not for what he could do for them or what he was to them, but just for his own sake.
He was such a fool.
Geralt started out of his reverie. Damn, he'd been so sunk in himself that he'd all but lost sight of the outside world. He looked wildly around, trying to pin down the shifting shadows -- it was evening, going by the light from the windows, but not night. Yennefer was still resting in the next room. Jaskier --
Was awake. He hadn't moved, his eyes had barely opened, but his breathing had shifted. Jaskier turned his head slightly, squinting into the shadows. Was he in pain? Geralt narrowed his focus, trying to discern distress -- but Yennefer had been right, the herbs he'd taken allowed for none of that. He smelled muddled, faintly chemical, like blood and dirt... but not pain.
"Jaskier," Geralt said, and tried to ignore how his voice threatened to crack. "Take it easy."
A small smile tweaked Jaskier's face. "You're you again.... good."
"Thanks to you." Geralt cleared his throat to steady it. "And Yen."
" 'M glad," Jaskier mumbled. "Missed you."
Somehow those two words -- spoken without artifice or intent to manipulate, just sincere and heartfelt feeling -- threatened to break apart the thin veneer of control he'd managed to pull around himself. His head pounded, his vision swam -- Jaskier blurred in the firelight, and he blinked fiercely and bit his knuckles, focusing on the pain to distract him. It was hard to breathe, even harder to speak without breaking down entirely. Missed you. Missed you. Missed you too.
"Geralt?" Jaskier's eyes opened a little wider, focused on him. "You okay?"
He cleared his throat again, then coughed and wiped the back of his hand over his mouth. When at last he thought he could speak without breaking he said, "I'm fine." He lowered his hand. "Don't worry about it."
Jaskier scoffed -- apparently still able to see through his bullshit even sky-high on Yennefer's best herbs. "Not fine," he said. With a great effort, he raised his hand and flopped his arm over to the side of the couch, leaving open a sliver of cushion next to him. "C'mere."
"I -- no," Geralt said, and stuttered. "No, Jaskier, I've leaned on you too much already. I've taken too much of your friendship --"
"No such thing as too much," Jaskier murmured. His voice was raspy and blurred, a token of the damage the poltergeist had done to him, the heavy metal bars pressing across his throat, suffocating him. "Think you'd... know that by now."
He wanted to. That was almost the most frightening thing, that he really wanted to crawl into Jaskier's embrace and hide from the world there. The curse had really done a number on his self-control -- no, the curse was gone, he couldn't blame his weakness on it any more. Geralt was fine; Jaskier was not; it was absolutely unthinkable for him to ask more of Jaskier now.
"Don't be an idiot," Jaskier admonished, as he waffled. He flapped his hand a little, beckoning. "C'mon."
The burning in his eyes returned, and Geralt gave in. Who was he to deny Jaskier anything he wanted? He slid off the footstool and crawled forward until he was leaning against the edge of the couch, Jaskier's arm around his back.
There wasn't really enough empty space for Geralt to actually lie down on the couch -- not without putting pressure on Jaskier's torso which he absolutely was not going to do. But he managed a sort of sideways half-slouch, his head resting against Jaskier's arm, Jaskier's hand on his back.
"Better, hmm?" Jaskier said, when Geralt had finished his shuffling. His eyelids were already drooping, his mouth going slack, as the herbs took hold of him once more. Likely he wouldn't even remember this in the morning.
"Yeah," Geralt said. He took a moment just to breathe, then let out a sigh. "Yeah, this is better. Jaskier?"
He waited for an answer, but none came. Jaskier drew a deep breath, then another, which buzzed slightly on the outflow. Asleep again.
As for Geralt... well, sleep was not going to be an option, not in this position, not after the day they'd just had. But he leaned into the warmth of the embrace, all the same, and let the tears go.
In the morning Yennefer reappeared from the bedroom, dressed in a trailing nightgown of pale violet gauze and black lace wrapped around with a heavy robe of crushed plum velvet. She caused breakfast to appear, somehow, but forbade Jaskier from eating or drinking anything more than weak tea while she checked him over.
"He'll be fine," Yennefer said briskly, standing up straight and dusting her hands off. "The swelling has gone down and his lungs sound normal. All that's left is the bones, but they'll have to heal at their own pace."
"Is there nothing more you can do for him?" Geralt said anxiously. The geist had tossed Jaskier around like a ragdoll; hard to say whether it was the impact with the wall or the remains of the metal shelf landing on him that had broken his ribs and shoulder, but the breaks were extensive. Geralt had suffered broken ribs and shoulders before, rarely at the same time -- it had not been an enjoyable experience.
Yennefer shrugged. "You can thank me for the lack of kidney failure and collapsed lung," she said. "Crush damage would have caused his tissues to swell and organs to hemorrhage after a few hours left untreated."
The reminder that Jaskier could have died -- could easily have died -- hit him like a body blow. Geralt thought he controlled his reaction to that fairly well, but the way Yennefer and Jaskier looked at him made him think he hadn't done a very good job.
"But healing magic isn't my area of specialty," Yennefer continued. "I can infuse potions; if you want magical healing, find Triss Merigold."
Geralt considered this. "Do you think we could find her? Where is she?"
"I'm right here, you know," Jaskier said peevishly. "You could ask me what I want. And by the way, speaking as someone who likes both my lungs and my kidneys, thank you, Yennefer."
"Sorry," Geralt mumbled. "It's just... humans take so long to heal. Especially bones."
"Well, excuse my petty mortal bones," Jaskier said.
"Decide for yourself where you want to go from here," Yennefer said sharply, "but decide today. I'll be going back to Lyria tomorrow, I have business I put on hold for all this mess."
Geralt couldn't help but wince at that, but it was only fair. Yennefer had already come far out of her way for this -- to save him, to help Jaskier, and what did they have to offer in repayment? He could count on her to safeguard their safety and well-being; not their convenience. "I understand," he said. "Thanks... Yen."
Yennefer accepted the thanks with a regal nod, then swept out of the room. Jaskier sighed as she went with some emotion Geralt couldn't decipher; envy? Admiration? ...Lovesickness? If Jaskier had fallen in love with Yennefer while he was out of it, he was in so much trouble. He resolved to try to pay more attention.
"So," Jaskier said. He shifted on the couch, looking miserable; Yennefer had declined to give him another dose of the painkilling herbs this morning. He pulled his lute over to his lap -- mostly for comfort, Geralt expected, since he couldn't play with his shoulder broken. "Where are we going after this?"
"Riede," Geralt answered immediately. "I've still got to collect the bounty that started all this. That will give us some traveling money, some margin without having to rely entirely on Yen. After that..." he hesitated. "Up to you, I guess. Wherever you want to go to heal." Was Triss still in Temeria? He could take Jaskier to her, help speed his healing... assuming Geralt wasn't still banned from the country on pain of death, that was...
"Oxenfurt, then," Jaskier said. "I can catch up on his paperwork, get a head start on next session's curriculum. I don't normally spend summers there -- Novigrad gets too hot, and the summer sessions are boring with so few students around... but I don't think I'll be up for much that's exciting or adventurous for the rest of the season." He grimaced.
Geralt stared. Not that he disagreed with the plan to stay quiet and out of trouble, not by any means, but -- "Curriculum? I didn't know you were a teacher there."
"Professor, actually," Jaskier said with a shrug. "What can I say, you write enough manuscripts correcting errors in their natural philosophy texts and eventually they just throw the doctorate at you to make you stop." He glanced up, caught Geralt's expression, and his smile twisted wryly. "I do have a life outside you, you know."
He knew that, of course he knew that. He'd been counting on it, in fact, when he resolved to cut Jaskier out of his life last fall -- told himself that Jaskier would be happier among his own people, not trailing around the countryside after a Witcher, that he was really doing Jaskier a favor by forcing him back to a better life. But it was one thing to tell himself that in empty gestures and another thing to hear it from Jaskier -- that he'd spent a month hauling Geralt's useless ass around the countryside when he could have spent that time relaxing happily in an ivory tower.
Professor. He could see that, was the worst part. He really could see it, Jaskier comfortable and at home in a hall lined with books or instruments, half a dozen younger and flightier bards in front of him, showering him with the attention he craved. Why, in the name of all the gods, would Jaskier prefer the Path to that life?
Jaskier had continued to ramble on while Geralt lost himself in his thoughts; he'd mostly tuned it out, but he gathered Jaskier was expounding at length on the dreariness of Oxenfurt in the summer. "It's boring," Jaskier finally concluded, "but -- I'll grant it this -- at least there are no horrible rot ghosts in the basements. Phew! What even was that thing?"
Of course Jaskier would want to know; it had almost killed him. "It's called a poltergeist," Geralt said, glad enough to change to a topic he could actually contribute to. "Not dissimilar to other kinds of wraiths, but it has more in common with vampires. They're blood-drinkers. Incorporeal, which makes it hard for them to get the blood they want; so they throw things. Not the most dangerous of monsters, but a damn pain in the ass to kill."
Poltergeists were rare and Geralt hadn't encountered many in his time on the Path; he had to close his eyes to concentrate, dredge up the old page in the bestiary that he'd memorized decades ago. "Fire and silver don't work on them. Even most Signs only slow them down," he said. "The only things that are known to be effective against them are samum bombs -- which I didn't have -- or sunlight."
He opened his eyes to see Jaskier staring at him with astonishment. "What?" he said.
"Rather generous with the details this time, aren't you?" Jaskier said.
Geralt withdrew a bit. "You always want to know," he said.
"No, no, I definitely want to know," Jaskier said. "The bit with the roof falling in and the mirror trick is going to make an absolutely smashing climax to the song I'm going to write. It's just that I usually have to work a lot harder to get you to give me anything, you know?"
Geralt looked away. "I... thought you deserved it," he said. "After everything you've done for me, I can give you as many words as you want."
He heard Jaskier sigh. "Geralt," he said. "I don't want you to force yourself to talk to me just because you think you owe me something."
"But I do owe you," Geralt objected. My life, my mind, my everything.
"But I don't want that to be why you do it," Jaskier countered.
Stalemate. Geralt chewed over the problem, frustration building to anger, until at last Jaskier sighed. "I think I've seen enough of your innermost feelings to carry me a lifetime," he said. He carefully avoided looking at Geralt, looking instead down at his lute, fingers making melodic pings as they worked the fretboard. "So I only want one answer. Just one, and we'll call it even -- and tell me the truth. Do you like being around me?"
It was a simple question but -- at the same time, not simple at all. How could Geralt explain to Jaskier when he couldn't even explain to himself -- this endless tangle of wanting and not-wanting, of longing and resentment, fear of loneliness and fear of loss? Jaskier brought music and color and joy into his life but also pain, because with happiness came the inevitable end of happiness, because Jaskier was human and would leave, because Jaskier was mortal and would die , because one day Geralt wouldn't be enough for him, because one day Geralt wouldn't be able to save him, because Geralt could never be anything else than what he was --
He couldn't explain it. But, he realized, none of that would even be an issue at all if the answer to Jaskier's question weren't blindingly obvious. "Yes," he said. Yes, Jaskier made his life more complicated but made it better, and yes, Geralt liked him. Liked his life better when Jaskier was around.
Jaskier gave him a slow, sweet smile -- not one of his teeth-flashing radiant grins, but something much more gentle. "Okay then," he said.
Geralt took a deep breath. There'd be no better time. "I am sorry that I... took my temper out on you," he said, then winced. Gods, that sounded pathetic. "I shouldn't have done that. I'm sorry."
Jaskier kept up his gentle tuning. "Well that's good to hear," he said. "I'd have kept on being your friend even without an apology, but I do think I deserved one."
"You did," Geralt told him. "You do."
They stayed one more day in Yennefer's guest-rooms as cold rain pelted down outside. Geralt and Yennefer had made one more foray into the sorcerer's lair -- Geralt to collect his swords and his trophy at last, and Yennefer to sift through the dead mage's belongings for anything worth salvaging -- and afterwards she conjured enough hot water for all of them to bathe. It was a welcome reprieve but Geralt had to admit, by the end of the day, that the three of them in such a small space were rather badly grating on each other's nerves. Thankfully the next morning dawned fair, and they all made plans to part ways.
Before they left the lair with its basement of death and secrets behind, Yennefer lit the place on fire behind them with a magical, stone-searing fire. Foul smoke belched out from the entrance, heat radiating on all their faces, before the ceiling caved in. Geralt found it more than a little satisfying, he had to admit.
In the overgrown castle courtyard they made their last preparations to depart. Geralt walked Roach carefully down over the uneven mess of tumbled stones and ropy tree roots, letting her find flat footing before they attempted to load her up with their gear, trophies, and Jaskier. That left Jaskier and Yennefer to say their goodbyes behind him, although with his enhanced senses he could hear every word.
"Do try to stay out of trouble," Yennefer said. "I don't want to see either one of you for another turn of the seasons at least. I have my own inquiries to see to, you know."
"Inquiries of the teleporting kind?" Jaskier said, his tone sly, although Geralt had no idea what he thought he was implying.
Yennefer scoffed. "None of your business, bard," she said. Then her voice became quieter, more serious. "The border with Nilfgaard is heating up again, you know. It may not be so easy to slip in and out of the country soon."
"Maybe not," Jaskier said. "But I have no doubt you can achieve whatever your heart desires, dear sorceress."
"Your faith in me is touching," Yennefer said dryly.
"And does your heart desire a certain Witcher?" Jaskier said, more quietly this time.
"Perhaps," Yennefer said. "But there is one thing that you can be to Geralt that I can never be."
"What's that?" Jaskier said, voice apprehensive.
"There for him."
That was the end of the exchange; Geralt took his time coming back up, wondering as he did so whether they knew he'd heard every word. He heard fabric rustling, and thought the two of them might have exchanged an embrace; by the time he reached the courtyard, the two of them were standing apart, avoiding eye contact.
"Well, time to go," Jaskier said, sounding breezy and carefree as he ever did. "It's a beautiful day for traveling, isn't it?"
Despite his light words he moved stiffly and slowly, and Geralt had to support him on the unsteady climb down. By the time he looked back up at the courtyard, Yennefer was gone.
Walking was difficult for Jaskier; as soon as they reached a clear stretch Geralt helped him mount on Roach instead. Not that riding was exactly comfortable either, no matter how well bound and splinted his broken bones -- but it had to be one or the other until they could reach civilization.
The mare was affable enough to the change in ridership; Jaskier was a familiar presence and had been tending her more than Geralt did for the last month or so, after all. Geralt walked beside her, holding the reins -- the exact reversal of how they'd been for the last month, Geralt riding while Jaskier led them both.
The irony of the switch was apparently not lost on Jaskier either. "Did you know," he said after they'd been going for a while. "Roach was the one that led me to you, the night I found you?"
"Clever of her," Geralt said with a grunt. He shook his head. "I didn't know; you just seemed to show up out of nowhere, and I didn't think to question it."
Jaskier gave him a curious glance. "How much do you remember, anyway?"
"Not much." Geralt frowned at the effort of memory. "It's all a blur."
The answer seemed to unsettle Jaskier, who kept looking at him askance. "So you don't remember," he said after a long pause. "The things I said. The night I lost my temper and yelled?"
"No..." Geralt tried to recall it; it was difficult to put events in order, they all seemed to have been jumbled together in a heap in his head. In all honesty, he tuned out most of Jaskier's words even when he was in his right mind. But he remembered... a fire, a curving wall, Jaskier voice raised in strong emotion, yes. "I remember you were upset. I didn't understand why."
"Oh," Jaskier said.
Geralt considered the memory, the events of the nights distorted through the lens of the curse. He remembered vaguely wondering what Jaskier was reacting to, looking around for any sign of attack. It hadn't occurred to him at the time that it was anything to do with himself at all, though in retrospect it was obvious. "It can't have been easy, dragging my sorry ass around and cleaning up after me."
"Not easy, no," Jaskier agreed. "But I was glad to do it."
For a time they fell into the comfortable, relaxed rhythm of travel. Geralt set an easy walking pace for Jaskier's sake; at the pace they were making, they should just about make Riede by nightfall. After a while Jaskier began to hum softly. Horseback was no place to try to play a lute even if he'd had both hands to play with, and his bound-up ribs prevented him from putting any real breath behind his singing, but the tune was clear enough if quiet. If he was being honest, Geralt preferred it this way; he got the melody of Jaskier's voice without the pain that came from full volume.
It tugged at Geralt with an odd sense of familiarity, although he couldn't place where he'd heard it before. If anything it seized him with a weird urge to go and find Jaskier, even though he was right there beside him.
'The very next day the soldier arose
He started to stand, in horror he froze
For there at the foot of the soldier's bed
He saw his sweetheart lying there dead
For the space of a moon she cared for her beau
Only to die with the cock of the crow'
He must have made some sound, because Jaskier glanced down at him and started to laugh softly, breaking off the song. "Not a fan of that one?" he said. "It's not one of mine, you know."
"I didn't say it was," Geralt grumbled. It sounded nothing like Jaskier's songs; his tended to go all over the scales, and often sacrificed exact rhyme in favor of better word choice.
"What don't you like about it?" Jaskier sounded curious. "The rhyming scheme is rather simple, I always thought --"
"It's so senseless," Geralt interrupted. "Toiling over the soldier until she collapsed with exhaustion like that. The girl would have lived if she had just taken better care of herself."
"But then her sweetheart might have died instead," Jaskier pointed out.
Geralt shrugged irritably. "He was a soldier; he knew that was a risk when he went off to war," he argued. "But the whole point of going to war was to protect her. If she dies anyway, there's no point to any of it. She should have known he wouldn't have wanted her to neglect herself for his sake."
Jaskier hummed "Well, love can make people do strange things," he said. "Maybe she thought this was her battle to fight."
Geralt couldn't think of anything to say to that, so he just hmm 'd instead. That made Jaskier laugh again, and he launched into another ballad, this one a nonsense jumble of sounds and syllables that made no sense and yet, again, seemed naggingly familiar. It made a nice calming background at least as the road unraveled under their feet.
Jaskier went through that song, then another, before he fell off into silence. Geralt would have thought he was just resting his lungs, if not for the sideways glances he kept shooting towards him. "So," he said. "You said you don't remember much..."
Geralt sighed. As little as he wanted to talk about it, he'd hold to his promise from yesterday of telling Jaskier anything he wanted to know. "Not of things that were said. I didn't understand it, so it just flowed away like water."
"But you do remember other things?" Jaskier prompted him. "Like the night the vampire thing attacked our campsite?"
"The --" The memory bloomed in front of his mind almost immediately, vivid and scorching, full of fury and triumph and fear. "Yes. The ekimma." He'd smelled it, or something like it, every night he'd spent in the woods, yet for some reason it had waited until the two of them were camping out in the open to attack.
"That's what they're called. The long claws, that's a dead giveaway," Geralt said. "They're tough, but they're weak against fire. You lucked out, hitting it with the brand like that."
"That wasn't luck, that was planning," Jaskier sniffed.
Geralt's mouth twitched towards a smile. "Of course it was."
Jaskier seemed to be wrestling with himself over what to say next. "And you don't -- remember anything else?" he said at last.
Geralt slowed his pace, trying to focus on his scrambled memories "I remember... you were hurt," he said. That stood out in his mind like a vivid red smear, the smell, the taste in the air on his tongue. "I remember there was blood. I was afraid, and angry at myself that I hadn't managed to protect you. Relieved... so relieved when you were okay after all. And then I -- " Geralt stopped dead.
Roach went on for another pace or two, carrying her past Geralt's position before she stopped, whickering irritably at him. Jaskier had to twist around in the saddle, crane his neck to look at him anxiously. "You don't remember?"
"Well." Geralt had to clear his throat, never more glad that his face didn't show blushes. "I didn't, but I do now."
"Ah." Jaskier sighed as he righted himself in the saddle. "And I see I've made it awkward, as usual. My apologies."
"Why?" Geralt made himself start walking again. "Wasn't your fault. You weren't the one who kissed where you shouldn't have. For once."
"Rude," Jaskier said mildly.
Geralt took a minute before he could answer. "Sorry," he said gruffly.
Jaskier sighed. "Why, Geralt?"
"Why am I sorry? Because I --"
"Not that. I can guess why you're sorry and it's extremely stupid," Jaskier turned to look him straight in the eye, his blue eyes brimming with intensity. "Why did you kiss me then? Then, and never before? What were you thinking?"
"I wasn't thinking. That was the whole --" Geralt broke off, frustrated and embarrassed. "I kissed you because I wanted to, Jaskier. I wanted to, and with that damn spell on me I couldn't think of all the reasons why I shouldn't."
"I see," Jaskier said, and he reached out and took Roach's reins away.
"Jaskier?" Geralt asked, bewildered, as Jaskier pulled Roach to a stop in the middle of the road and then began the awkward process of swinging his leg over to the side without bending or moving his bad arm. "Jaskier, what are you -- " he broke off as Jaskier slid down from the saddle in blithe disregard of his injury, and Geralt had to rush to catch him before he fell on his face in the road.
It ended with them both standing in the road, Jaskier in Geralt's arms, their faces less than a foot apart; Geralt realized how compromised he had become and tried to disengage, but Jaskier reached out and caught his elbow and lingered, keeping him in close. "And what are those oh-so-important reasons, again?" Jaskier said, and he was close enough that Geralt could feel Jaskier's breath on his face.
Geralt swallowed. This close Jaskier was a palpable presence, his warmth and his scent and his breath and the sound of his blood rushing in his veins. He tried to think of the right words but he was assaulted by a mob of wordless feelings instead, echoes of the last month overwhelming his resolve. Song and scent and warmth and the taste of his lips against Geralt's own, the relief of having him safe, the gladness of having him close, the overwhelming contentedness that if Jaskier was there, everything was right.
"To be honest," Geralt said, his voice coming out choked, "I can't think of them right now either."
Jaskier grinned at him. "Neither can I," he said, and he closed the gap for a kiss.
Being kissed by Jaskier was a whole-body experience, Geralt soon realized; he got his chest and hips into it, sliding forward to slot his body against Geralt's, soft and hot and utterly inviting. His tongue -- sharp and wicked in speech, now turned to flirting with Geralt's mouth, flicking against his lips and inviting him in for more.
If he let this happen, Geralt knew, there would be no turning back; his relationship with Jaskier would be changed forever. But it already had been, by the events of the last month, by the events of last year. If he was willing to give Jaskier up for the rest of his life, could he be any less willing to take joy of him for the rest of the same?
Geralt decided, to hell with it, and stepped through the door.