It starts with a witch.
Actually, it starts even further back with a bard, one who courted trouble as if it was a coy lover in need of coaxing. Geralt knows better; he's never seen trouble so ravenous for someone, besides himself. It could find Jaskier anywhere, and in this case, it comes upon them in a small, backwater village somewhere near Temeria. Apparently, Jaskier had come through here a few years before, and he left quite the impression on yet another cuckolded husband. Geralt had watched, amused, at the start of the altercation, but he quickly stepped in when the man decided on a more violent reproach. Some of the other villagers had gotten involved, and at the tipping point of a full-out brawl, someone had finally recognized Geralt. Punches turned to pleas for help, and now here they were on the way to deal with the aforementioned witch, free of charge thanks to Jaskier's inability to keep it in his trousers. Geralt could only sigh and try to tune out the nattering.
"Well, a witch can't be all that bad, in terms of your usual monstery business, right? No fangs or claws or, or, worse yet, a penchant for setting up shop in muddy mires? My wardrobe still quakes in fear whenever someone utters 'a nest' and 'of drowners', and I didn't even get a good song out of it! Just sludge in some very uncomfortable places - "
"Hmm, sadly none of which were your throat; you complained quite loudly all the way back to the inn." Geralt sometimes can't help but needle the bard; it's proven therapeutic and amusing in situations like this.
"Yes, Geralt, because very uncomfortable places, as I said. I had to let my grievances be known to something that might show more sympathy for my sorry state than you, like another weary traveler. Or a rock."
"You know you're not required to follow me everywhere? I think I've even mentioned, once or twice, that you should stay away." He lets a quiet snort out with that. One, two, a hundred times he's told Jaskier to stay at the inn, or the road, or at least behind some sort of cover. And yet he usually manages to find his way into the line of fire and every time takes a few more years of off Geralt's very long life. At the rate they're going, Geralt's surprised neither of them is dead - Jaskier from stupidity and misplaced bravery and himself from the stress. If Vesemir could see him now...
"Don't be ridiculous! You would miss me far too much."
"I'll be magnanimous and ignore that extra-long and incredulous sounding 'hmm', as you're distracting from our conversation - "
Now Jaskier is the one to heave a sigh. "Yes, positively, all the time, but more so right at this moment. As I was saying, what should I be expecting with this witch? A crone waving about a wand and shouting magical nonsense? Not much to write about, huh? Let's see, how about: 'The hag rose up with the crack of a back, Gnarled hands outstretched and teeth did she lack, She wasn't a looker, But I'd rather hook her, Than be trapped with your mum in the sack!' Mmmmm, catchy but needs work. Oh, they're not like a certain sorceress are they? Beautifully terrifying and threatening to cut off a man's best bits?" Yennefer had left a great impression, and he both respected and feared her a healthy amount, which would be A Lot. And there may have been some jealousy in there as well, but he didn't like to linger on that.
Geralt can't stop a small chuckle from escaping. "Don't worry, I'll keep her from your fingers."
"While you know damn well those are not the bits I was referring to, I'll take it as a compliment, and a confession of your undying delight at my lute playing. You know, I would appreciate your bouts of verbosity much more if they weren't usually at my expense."
"Nothing to add?"
"You just said I'm not allowed to speak if I can't say anything nice."
A shocked face of outrage, tempered by delight that Geralt is bantering with him; Jaskier gears up to play his own part in this self-indulgent play. "You-, wh-, right then! You're in rare form indeed today - "
"Never have I been so beset upon - "
"I mean, really and truly - "
With a bitten-off gasp, the rest of Jaskier's monologue came to a swift end. There on the pathway before them stood a woman. She seemed rather ordinary-looking, almost too much so. Average height, average body type; hair the most unremarkable shade of dull blonde, with silver streaks here and there. But all were trappings leading to the snare of her eyes, a calculating and acidic green that took one look and knew all your secrets and sins. She didn't so much appear out of thin air; it seemed as if she was always here, on this road, existing only in this place. Of course, the more accurate and worrying notion was that she had been waiting for them. Geralt tensed and pushed Jaskier behind him, even as the idiot tried to bat him away.
"Well hello there," she called out in a voice that was strangely melodic, with a faint discordant note hiding underneath. "I heard whispers of a Witcher come to put a stop to my wicked ways. What, are those peasants tired of the services I so graciously provide them?"
Before Geralt could say anything in response, Jaskier decided to do it for him. "You turned a man into an ass."
A harsh laugh."To be fair, he wanted his lady love to see him as he was. How was I to know it would turn out that way?"
"What about all the chicken eggs hatching into basilisks?"
"A young girl was worried about her father's lack of product to take to the markets. She was really quite vague in her wishes, so I took some.....artistic liberties, you could say." She examined her nails, which Jaskier noted were neither grotesque nor twisted; they were rather well-kept. He'd have to reconsider his earlier composition. Or go full-on and add a bit more exaggeration for the bawdier crowds.
Geralt tried to steer things to more serious matters as he put a hand over Jaskier's yap. "And the string of dead men you've left in your wake?"
Now her banal facade shone with a large crack, as her mouth twisted in disgust around a snarl. "It is no fault of mine that they were so easily swayed in their affections. I dare say the lovers they scorned for a quick shag would agree with my lesson."
"Now now," Jaskier finally displaced the hand, "is death really the deserved punishment for a small dalliance? The heart cannot help but want wh -"
"It had nothing to do with heart, bard. And I can see very clearly your thoughts on the matter. Or at least, what you used to think. Your amorous exploits seem to be settling down, but your opportunity for heartbreak has never been higher." Her amusement had found it's way back, though it was suspended on a wistful air. Jaskier again fell silent; Geralt felt overwhelmingly like he was missing something. However, he never did have patience for parsing the unspoken, and he wasn't about to find any now.
"Whatever transgressions, real or imagined, are in the past. But you must leave these people alone, now, else I'll have to kill you."
"Kill me? I would love to see you try, Witcher. You may have some decades under your belt, but you're still a child compared to me. And I'll not be taken down by a mere tantrum." She looked over his shoulder at Jaskier. "Or maybe you'll let your little songbird have a go at me."
He could feel a growl being pulled from deep in his chest. "Leave him out of this, he's of no importance."
"I beg your pardon?! I know not all of us have," and here Jaskier lowered his voice in a caricature of a certain Witcher, "fancy golden eyes and big hulking muscles and the vocabulary of a particularly aggressive toddler -"
"Fuck, Jaskier. Can you just, shut. Up. I didn't mean it that way. And I don't sound anything like that."
"You sound exactly like that! It was a stellar impression, worthy of awards! And furthermore - "
Geralt cannot believe this man. "No. Not another word, Jaskier. Get out of here while I deal with her, you'll just get in the way!"
Before Jaskier can retort, and it certainly looks to be a scathing one, the witch makes a frustrated noise of her own. "By the gods you two are annoying! Is this how you usually deal with your monsters, just snipe at each other until they kill themselves to make it stop?" She raked her hands through her hair and then put them on her hips in the universal 'I Am Done' pose. "You're not even talking with each other, just at each other. Your bard has words aplenty, but it seems you, dear Witcher, could stand to learn the power words can wield. I'll leave you a parting gift before I run along; this dreary little village was growing quite boring anyways."
Her form rippled as Geralt braced himself for attack, but she didn't start chanting and waving in his direction. Instead, with an unsettling wink, she turned slightly to his left as her hands shone with the faintest red glow. The hair at his nape rose up as he looked over and saw exactly what he feared: Jaskier, standing frozen and in clear view of the witch's designs. His body reacted independently from his mind as he threw himself into the path of the sickly looking spell, not focusing on the witch at all; his vision was narrowed to wide blue eyes and Jaskier's hand reaching out. As he felt the spell impact, he could just barely hear the witch's parting words: "So predictable."
Geralt immediately felt an itching break out across his body, rolling from his crown to the soles of his feet. It went on for an eternity and barely a second before he was able to shake it off and stumble towards the ground. But he instead found Jaskier's arms, stable and strong and soothing, and Jaskier's voice, high and hysterical and nowhere near as calming.
"Geralt? GERALT! Are you alright? What did she do to you, can you hear me? Now is not the time for your stoic, 'I'm fine, I'm tough, I don't need any help Jaskier' bullshit, why did you jump in front of me?!?"
"Shut up bard, I am fine. Just give me a minute." He could probably do with an hour, really, but no need to worry Jaskier more and have him reaching a new octave of ear-splitting concern.
Jaskier looked very much like he wanted to smack him. "Oh wonderful, a minute he says, that's all. It's not like you were just hit with a questionable and angry-looking light show. And what did she mean by that 'power of words' nonsense? Ah, well, at least you have the wherewithal to employ your favorite chorus of 'shut up', so you can't be too afflicted. But you didn't answer my other question, why did you do that?"
A grunt was his answer this time. Geralt finally lurched to his feet with only a smidge less grace than usual. He did look rather alright, no gaping wounds or boils or ominous clouds to speak of, besides his usual personal cloud of man-pain. Jaskier felt his chest loosen as his breath came easy once again.
"I didn't need you complaining again, did I? She seems to have moved on, so let's just forget it and go back." Geralt continued on without waiting for Jaskier to gather his own bearings. As he heard the sound of scrambling feet and indignant huffs start up behind him, he continued to take stock of his body. He really did seem unharmed, and he wondered if the witch fumbled her own spell, or if she just wanted to throw him off while she escaped; he couldn't say. There was a slight burning in his gut after he brushed off Jaskier's questions, but he gave it no particular mind. He was probably just hungry.
A handful of days pass and they're on the road once again, Geralt riding sedately on Roach with Jaskier weaving along at her heels. Geralt often wonders how he doesn't trip and fall; between his ridiculous boots and mercurial attention-span the road should be rising up to meet him more often than not. But he has a queer grace to his stumbling footfalls, and he looks just as at home here as in some fancy court. It makes something shivery and quiet creep into his chest; he's gotten proficient in squashing the feeling.
"Something the matter Geralt? You look like you're contemplating, which we both know is more my area of expertise."
"We'll stop here for the night, the next town is still at least a day's travel."
Geralt guides Roach and Jaskier down off the main road, to a small clearing sheltered by lush green trees. Jaskier prattles on, still composing his next song, and the bits of rhyme and hummed melody melt into a comforting murmur that Geralt has gotten used to. He takes care of Roach, brushes down her coat until it's gleaming, the repetitive motion settling them both for a night's rest. Some food and a few more pats to her nose, a scratch to her ears, and Geralt turns back to the camp Jaskier is setting up. He's already gotten their bedrolls out and laid down in a grassy patch; the sky is clear so there is no need for a tent, and the stars are just making themselves known. Jaskier is kneeling by the fire pit he's created, staring back at Geralt with a faraway look and the flint held loosely in his hands.
Jaskier startles and the flint goes flying away from him. "Nothing, nothing! Just, ah, you're always so gentle with her. Makes me want to compose a ballad for the brave and beautiful Roach, a Witcher's best friend. Although why you had to name such a gorgeous creature 'roach' I'll never know. Did you not think how egregiously difficult that would be for a dashing bard to twist into song?"
Geralt's tone is as dry as cracking desert. "No, I can't say I thought of that at the time. My apologies."
"That's quite alright, you're forgiven, on the condition you go and stalk some bunny rabbits or a squirrel or two for supper. I'm practically wasting away here, man cannot live on stale bread and sheer stubbornness alone. Well, at least not this man." He gestures grandly to himself and Geralt has to stifle the smile that wants to curl across his face. He says nothing in return, but goes off into the falling night to do as requested.
He comes back later to see Jaskier has finally gotten the fire going and a makeshift spit is waiting to be used. The two hares he managed to capture are skinned and set over the fire, quick and efficient, and soon they are enjoying their meal together. Jaskier is still humming around each bite, the unfinished song lingering, and Geralt looks at him and listens to him and almost says something like, 'this is nice' or 'I like your voice best when it's just the two of us'; in the end he says nothing and tears maybe a bit more forcefully into the meat. The burning he felt before has returned, aching up his side; he ignores it.
It's been weeks since the witch, weeks of the same routine of contracts and playing inns and nights camped close together, either in the open wild or the quiet pocket of a shared room. It's been weeks and Geralt is starting to think that spell wasn't as ineffective after all.
It comes and goes, that burning crawl along his skin. It varies, from softly lit embers to a raging wildfire, and each time has something to do with Jaskier; Geralt's almost sure of it. And he's definitely starting to realize what lesson the witch had been trying to impart.
Another tavern performance, with Jaskier so alive and bright and loud, dancing between chairs and upon tables without a care; a night spent camping out in the cold, their bedrolls pulled close together for company just as much as for warmth; Jaskier's fingers combing gently through his hair, unraveling knots and Geralt's sanity both; Jaskier, afraid, for him but never of him, when he's been tossed about and beaten bloody, looking into pitch-black eyes like they're not the manifestation of Geralt's empty soul. Moments threaded together by that pricking needle burying itself in and in and in, and Geralt can never tell if it's sewing him together or ripping out his seams. In each instance, he had wanted to say something, to reach down and pry that ball of roiling emotion out of his core and give it a name - give it to Jaskier. But for all his training, his mutations, being stripped bare down to his bloody knuckles and sharp teeth - he is woefully unequipped for something as complicated as words. And he knows Jaskier cannot possibly feel the same way, cannot be drowning and adrift in the same sea, cannot feel for him the way Geralt needs him to. He can't because that's not what Geralt's worth and not what Jaskier deserves. Geralt's familiar with ignoring his...feelings for Jaskier, this is just making them a bit more of an inconvenience. He'll keep his words locked behind a clenched jaw and that yearning fire can fuck off; he's used to pain anyway.
Of course, things get worse; they always do. Even when it feels like there couldn't possibly be more shit to deal with, the bastards wait until he's acclimated to his new low before they get more creative. In this case, life throws a wyvern at them.
They were traveling somewhat aimlessly; their end destination was Oxenfurt, but they were in no rush. It was quiet in the stretch of woods they found themselves in, some small critters skittering in the underbrush while birds sang out from the trees. Of course, the loudest lark was walking next to Geralt, playing that damned "Toss A Coin" on his lute. Geralt enjoyed Jaskier's music for the most part, although he would rather be eaten by another selkiemore before he contributed to Jaskier's smug peacocking, but that piece of music always grated on his nerves. Every time he heard it he would catch himself days later still humming snippets. He was trying his hardest to block out the whole mess, and so he missed the sound of the small creatures around them going silent. However, he did not miss the flapping of wings or Jaskier's terrified "GERALT!" ringing out behind him.
He whirled around, unsheathing his silver sword at the same moment, but the beast was quick and already upon them. Upon Jaskier. The wyvern's talons burrowed deep into Jaskier's shoulders; they might as well have sliced into Geralt's own chest. Everything faded out but the bright red of blood on Jaskier's blue doublet and a curious ringing in his ears. Before the wyvern could take to the air with its prize, Geralt swung and hacked at its closest wing. The ringing became screeching as it tried to twist away and keep hold of Jaskier, but it soon gave up and threw him to the side. Jaskier landed against a tree with a loud crash and didn't move; the red of his blood overcame Geralt's vision until it was all he could see.
The wyvern was trying to escape, but the silver sword had incapacitated its left wing enough to make flight difficult. They circled each other, lashing out with silver on one side, talon on the other, and teeth on both. The beast must have realized Geralt wasn't the easiest target, and it started thrashing closer to Jaskier's prone body. Geralt had not taken any potions, and there was no ornithosaur oil coating his blade; he had to dispatch the wyvern, and fast. Even with his waning stamina, a rush of pure fear and adrenaline lent him enough strength before the wyvern's stinger could sink into Jaskier's pale, vulnerable throat. But it was much too close.
Geralt didn't wait for the wyvern's convulsions to stop; its head was barely clear of its shoulders before he was hurrying over to check on Jaskier. He gathered him onto his lap and frantically searched for a pulse. He couldn't tell if it was being elusive because of his shaking hands or if there was nothing there to find, until, finally, a weak but steady thrum beat itself against his fingertips. Geralt breathed out - when did he stop? He breathed out a low, "Jaskier" and tapped gently at his cheekbones to bring him around. After a few moments, dazed eyes looked back.
"Hullo there," Jaskier slurred out. "Two quessuns, is tha pointy screechy thingy dead, and why arrrre there three o' you? M'not complain, jus' curiouss."
Geralt allowed himself to scratch his fingers along Jaskier's scalp and down his back, ostensibly looking for injuries. "Yes, it's dead. And it scrambled your head more than usual. It was distracting."
Jaskier closed his eyes under Geralt's ministrations as he tried to fight the fogginess in his head. He winced at the sting he could feel in his shoulders even as he kept talking, his words coming out more clearly. "Well, I'm sorry my becoming a monster's chew toy was such a bother. I'll make sure to die quickly next go round so you don't have time to be distracted."
It's said with a light enough air, a joke to dispel the lingering tension from the battle, but it lands hollow at Geralt's feet. Jaskier had been so close, too godsdamned close, to death and his humor only made Geralt want to scream. He wanted to shake Jaskier, to tear into his soft heart so he could understand how fucking fragile he was, scare him into safety far, far away from him. But he knew the more he pushed, the more Jaskier would double-down and push back.
Geralt didn't know how to say he was the scared one, that he was the fragile one, because losing Jaskier would destroy him. So he didn't say anything except a low "Hmmm", and the burning centered and dug into his belly like a brand.
He cradled Jaskier close and carried him back to Roach; he needed to get him somewhere comfortable to tend to his wounds.
After Jaskier is seen to, and the camp is set, and his heart no longer trips with every small sound around them, Geralt takes off his armor and pulls up his tunic. There, right below his belly button and made stark by the low firelight, are the words: I can't lose you.
Jaskier makes a speedy recovery, yet Geralt's peace of mind is still shot. Now that the first words had broken free to write themselves on his skin, the dam appeared to be nonexistent. Every day brought with it the chance of secrets spilled, and Geralt could feel himself pulling farther and farther away from Jaskier; a friendly touch to his shoulder, a startled hand wrapped in his, the brush of knuckles against a split cheek - all brought Jaskier too close to what he was trying so desperately to hide. He banned Jaskier from helping him in the bath, and he no longer let him see to his wounds after a fight, just goes to lick them alone, in private. Geralt can see the hurt and confusion on Jaskier's face, but those are better than the horror and rejection that would certainly replace them if he gave in.
It's not just the life-or-death situations that tattoo his body. More and more, there are numerous small moments where Geralt cannot look at Jaskier without wanting; it's become his most constant companion. A litany of a happier life, coming faster and faster, the sensation of heat and blaze and danger and passion -
Jaskier looks back at him as he dances ahead, fingers flying over his lute to make the Path seem lighter, and the words I would die for you and Your voice sounds like home and I always want you to look at me like this, just like this spill ink-dark over his ribs. Jaskier's arms wrap around him and hoist him up from a muddy floor, paying no mind to the blood that gets on his hands and under his nails, and Geralt gets two bands, one around each bicep: Never let me go and I feel almost human under your touch. Another night at a tavern lit up with Jaskier's quick wit and raucous laughter, the patrons caught up and singing along with their own joy, and You're incredible and You make me smile sneak over and curl tight to his hips. A silent room, as Jaskier slips away with a maiden at his side and a glance over his shoulder, and the tip of his tongue lights up with a gasping Please; a few nights like this and Geralt can almost convince himself the mark throbs from biting it and nothing else.
And an ordinary afternoon, the sun shining down on where they've come to rest in a meadow, creates the marks that make Geralt want to reach out the most. With Jaskier's sleeping head against his shoulder and the scent of wildflowers filling his lungs, I would live for you and I love you whisper over his collarbones.
He knows something is bound to break soon. He was expecting it to be himself; he didn't think he'd take Jaskier down with him.
The dragon hunt is a shit show from the start, Yennefer and Borch and fucking Destiny all conspiring to make his head spin and his shoulders tense so tightly he can hear bone creak. He does not want tender words and platitudes, no light touch or hushed murmurs to try and sooth the ragged chasm of inadequacy and loss that yawns open inside him. He had driven Yennefer away with his clumsy affection and a desperate wish to save her; he'd not given any thought to how tying their lives together would make her indomitable spirit recoil and rebel. He had been so embroiled in gratitude and relief and that spark of attraction - he rarely felt so much for anyone besides Jaskier, and it was so good and nice to be wanted that he held on too tightly and smothered her. He had used his words for once and tried to explain, to show her what he felt for her was a kind of love; different from what he held for Jaskier, true, but no less important. And he had fucked it up. And Borch... Borch had almost been another failure in a string that went as far back as his long memory, and his return and subsequent reveal had played havoc with his emotions.
Geralt is so full, too full, anger and regret and hurt - he almost wishes he had been the one to fall off the mountain; surely death would be preferable to the riot building in his breast. So when Jaskier comes to him with comfort on his lips and eyes full of understanding, Geralt breaks.
"Why is it, whenever I find myself in a pile of shit these days, it's you shoveling it!" He lashes out like a tempest, cruel words flung wide with the intent to damage and deflect and push everything away and away and away.
Jaskier's face breaks open, and his voice is soft, devoid of fight. "That's not fair."
Geralt has no need for fair right now; he swallows it up and spits it back at Jaskier's feet, even as that damned burning starts up again. "The child surprise, the djinn, all of it! If life could give me one blessing, it would be to take you off my hands!" Fire races everywhere, eating up the tinder his body has become, every word and syllable and letter glowing hot and dangerous. He feels like a fever that will never break.
As he turns his back to Jaskier, to try and catch his breath and hide his pain and devotion, he can just barely hear the catch in his throat. "Right, uh, right then." The pain isn't stopping; it's getting worse, right where his bruised heart restlessly beats. "I'll - I'll go get the rest of the story from the others." Flame-tipped claws are scratching at his chest, trying to split him open and make everything he's been holding so tightly inside pour out, and he raises his own hand to press over it, to find some relief.
"See you around Geralt."
Hesitant footsteps entwine with the screaming mess in his head and his body and his heart as another mark carves in.
The pain finally dulls after what feels like centuries, but couldn't have been more than an hour. Geralt is curled up in the dirt, tracing the single word that sits upon his left breast, on his heart, the letters mocking and jeering at him: STAY.
When he manages to pick himself up, alone and sore, he goes looking for Jaskier. When he comes across a few of the others making their way down, they tell him the bard had hurried past them some time ago. There's a rushing in his ears as he runs the last few hundred feet to get to Roach, and then deafening silence pulls him under when he sees Jaskier's bags and lute are gone. He is gone. The choking sob that rises up startles him and his breaths are cut short and heaving. Geralt can feel yet another mark forming, a ring of I'm sorry I'm sorry I'm sorry I'm sorry settling so deeply around his neck he doesn't need a mirror to know what it says.
It burns like a funeral pyre.
He wallows. There's no other word for it; he wallows and drinks and his skin is still set aflame even without Jaskier nearby. They crowd and suffocate him - I miss you and Come back and Forgive me and I didn't mean it and I'm not worth your tears and Maybe you're better off; and running through them all is that drowning undercurrent of I'm sorry. There's always a blaze of heat or an arc of pain somewhere on his body now, and some days it feels like that ring around his throat is tightening. He keeps an ear out for any mention of Jaskier, but he doesn't go searching. He doesn't want to lay the mess he's become at Jaskier's mercy, can't ask for more forgiveness after decades of treating the abundance he was given with such callousness. He's taken enough; he'll give Jaskier his freedom.
At the height of his misery, Destiny sees fit to finally gift him his child surprise. She's a brash and brave little thing, and he can see Calanthe's fierce influence shining out from her determined face. But she also has Pavetta's compassion and quiet strength in the curve of her smile and the spark of her eyes. Ciri finds him in a forest and barrels into his chest, into his life, and starts to make a home there. It's hard for Geralt at times, to let her in where he's so hollow. Where he's made himself so empty and devoid. But he thinks of soft hands and a lute playing in the falling evening, and he tries.
They've been traveling together for a few weeks, training and getting to know each other and easing their burdens together, all while dodging Nilfgaardian soldiers and trying to keep safe. Geralt knows he cannot keep them running forever, and so he sets their sights on Kaer Morhen. They can settle there, the stability good for Ciri, and she can learn more than Geralt could ever hope to teach her.
They're about two weeks out from Kaer Morhen when they come across Yennefer. She looks rough and disheveled, her seams fraying, but still just as beautiful and fierce as he remembered. She surprisingly doesn't immediately run him through or cast any unfortunate spells his way; to be fair, she's a little preoccupied with Ciri, but when she looks at Geralt the hatred he expected to see isn't there. Yennefer's not exactly happy to see him, but she agrees readily enough to accompany them and take Ciri's magical training under her wing.
After the first night, when they're put up in a couple of very nice rooms, thanks to Yennefer's doing, Geralt waits until Ciri has gone to bed before he takes Yennefer aside to talk.
"You? Want to talk? Well, that's new." She's amused, but he can see the wariness lurking in the tight set of her spine.
"I wanted to give you a proper apology," Geralt manages to grit out. He is so very uncomfortable, but he knows this is the least of what he owes her. "For taking away your choice and binding yourself to me, I had no right. I do care for you, in a way, and I'm glad my actions saved you that day so you could be here for Ciri, and hopefully for me as well - "
A laugh bubbles out from Yennefer and some of the tension she was carrying eases. "I think that's the most you've ever spoken at once, and it definitely looked like it hurt you deeply. But I appreciate the effort, however clumsy. I've had time to think over everything, and while I don't know if I can forget so easily, I may be able to forgive you, in time." Her sharp smile fades a little around the edges. "And I know you love me, but not in the way I want, not where I'm the most important thing to you. Those words aren't for me." She reaches up to trace along the sorry peeking out over his collar and sitting directly over his jugular as she sighs out, "Pity."
He freezes for a moment at the scratch of her nail, but then replies, "No.They're not for you, and I can't apologize for that." A wry grimace pulled at his face, "But you can at least take some comfort in the fact that he didn't love me in the way I wanted either."
The most disbelieving and incredulous look passes over Yennefer's face, and she just stares at him for a minute. Then, without warning, she slaps him, hard, upside the head.
"Ah - What the fuck, Yen?! I thought you didn't want to kill me now!"
She aims another slap to his head. "How can you be so stupid? Men! 'He didn't love me the way I wanted'? That man followed you around for decades, scooping up any crumb of affection and wailing love songs about you up and down the entire Continent!"
"What? Those weren't love songs, they were exaggerated stories, made to garner coin. And he may have loved me as a friend, but he couldn't have felt any deeper for me."
Yennefer really looks like she's going to kill him now, but there's a sadness to her gaze as well. "Geralt, I'm going to say this as clearly as possible so it can maybe penetrate that slab of meat you call a brain: That man loved you, was in love with you, and will probably never not love you. Whatever you've done to chase him away, you need to man up and apologize for it."
Geralt can feel his certainty waning in the face of Yennefer's bluntness. "Even if he does, if he did, love me, I - I don't deserve it, Yen - "
"So you're back to making decisions for people? Taking the choice from their hands? I thought you had learned your lesson with me, but perhaps not." Her voice is as honed and deadly as his swords, and they cut just as deep.
"Fuck!" It comes out on a frustrated exhale as he buries his face in his palms, but Yennefer's not done with him yet.
"You need to lay it all out for him, lay yourself open and bare for him to decide what he wants. And then you give him exactly that. If he still returns your feelings and can forgive you, congratulations. But even if he rejects you, at least the curse placed on you should still dissipate when you use your damned words. I know you feel they're a penance you must suffer, but their weight will eventually kill you, and Jaskier doesn't 'deserve' to have your death on his hands. Besides, Ciri would probably miss you."
Laid out like that, it sounds so simple. "I'll think about it. We still need to reach Kaer Morhen."
Yennefer huffs, but before she can say anything more, a tired voice pipes up from the door. "You should listen to her," Ciri said with all the authority of her noble upbringing. "It sounds like you're just being stupid. You don't want to regret not telling him how you feel. And it might make you less grumpy as well." She popped out just as suddenly as she had appeared, her two bits thrown in with Yennefer's to gang up on him; he knew their meeting would result in more headaches for himself.
"I'll think about it!," he yelled after her.
Geralt goes looking for Jaskier.
He makes sure Ciri and Yen are safe at Kaer Morhen, and that the others know to play nice - although he feels he gave the wrong people that warning. He had stayed a few days after they arrived, and Yennefer had definitely made quite the impression; Geralt doesn't know what Lambert did or said, but with the icy stares he's surprised he's still unscathed. Geralt's mostly sure everyone will be alive when he comes back and that's good enough for him. He packs up Roach and tells her they're going to find Jaskier, and she whinnies in what sounds like approval. He knew Jaskier had bribed his way into her good graces with treats.
It's slow going at first, as he's not sure where to start. He just picks a direction and hopes Destiny or Chance or whatever the fuck had brought them together, over and over, in the past would do so again. He asked for Jaskier at every town and village and city, and he chased down whatever slim scraps of information he could glean. And it miraculously paid off after a only a few weeks.
Of course, he finds him in a town close to where they had faced the witch, what felt like a lifetime ago. It's getting late after he settles Roach in the stables, and he makes his way to the tavern the town gossip had said would be hosting a very well-renowned bard for the next few nights. As Geralt draws near, he can hear that damned song, and he's never been so glad for it. It sounds a little slower, a little more subdued than usual, but the patrons are still singing along, out into the night. He stands at the threshold, embraces the twin flares of the I want you down his spine and the I need you over his sternum, and presses open the door with only slightly shaking fingers.
His eyes are drawn straight to Jaskier's form; he's stationed in the middle of the crowd, and while his mouth is smiling and his fingers are quick, he's not as vibrant. There's no dancing between chairs or on tables, no sending of a rakish grin to the gaggle of girls in the corner. He is beautiful and devastating and there, but something is missing; Geralt hopes that it's him.
The song draws to a close while Geralt lingers in the shadows by the door. Jaskier must have already been playing for awhile; he can tell by the slope of his shoulders and the way his fingers twitch, like they physically need rest but would still happily play down to the bone for anyone who will listen. The crowd also seems to be winding down, but they still cry out for one more.
"Well," Jaskier's voice rings out and hits him right in the gut, over that first brand of I can't lose you. "I would hate to disappoint my fans, so I'll give you lovely people one more. It's one of my newer songs, and it's a bit slow and a bit melancholy, but I hope you enjoy it." He settles his fingers and takes a deep breath, and then he starts to sing:
"I think I've known you all my life
Carried your face behind my eyes
And I, I can't say it was a waste
Even though you left your knife
In the cradle of my ribs
For me to cut myself on memories
Of all the places we've seen
And the people we've been, oh love
I missed you long before you left
And I'm left standing here
While you're lost to me out there
Not sure if I want to be found
But the worst part, love
That breaking ache unbound
You're not even looking
And I'll be alone when you forget
You won't mean to
Oh love, Oh love
I know you'll forget
Your eyes hit me
Like a punch to the gut
I was a goner and now
You're just gone
Keeping the door firmly shut
You never gave me a key
And I'm so tired of knocking, love
Oh, I missed you long before you left
Don't know where you are
Just know where you're not
And the coast's as empty as
This space you've left to scar
Do you even know it's there?
And I'm not sure I want to be found
Because you won't know my face
Oh love, Oh love
Please don't forget this face
And I'll remember too
The miles under our feet
The laughs lined in my cheeks
Oh, I'll remember you"
The last chords fade out, with a whine that matches the hitch in Jaskier's breath. It's sweet and angry and Geralt almost can't bear to stay and hear it all. The room is silent for a long moment, the air heavy with heart and heartbreak. And then applause breaks out; Geralt can see coin and tears being let loose freely. Jaskier gives a sweeping bow, and as he raises back up, he sees Geralt.
The intense longing there steals his nerve, but the hastily pulled-on face of polite disinterest steels his resolve. Geralt starts to make his way forward, but Jaskier gives a curt shake of the head and motions to the stairway at the back. Privacy, then.
They meet at the base of the stairs, and Jaskier leads him up to his room. Each step feels charged, like lightning waiting to strike, like the stillness before everything falls apart; Geralt hopes he can prevent that from happening. As soon as the door shuts behind them, Jaskier whirls fast around, striking like a snake, "You - "
But Geralt's knees are already hitting the floor and his head is raised to plainly show all the emotions leaking out. It brings Jaskier up short, and he looks at Geralt like he's something foreign and terrible, like he's someone to finally be afraid of.
Geralt hates it.
"I'm so sorry, Jaskier," he starts. It's both easier and harder than the apology he gave to Yen; the words tumble out like a rockslide, barely any effort to push them along, yet there's infinitely more danger of him being crushed at the end of this. "I was hurt and angry, so fucking angry, at everything around me, at - , at myself, and I threw it all at you. I knew you wouldn't leave me alone, wouldn't let me drown in my own sorrow and self-pity, so I drove you away. I wanted the pain because it was easier to deal with than the love -, the love I thought wasn't returned, and that wasn't fair to you." He manages to get it all out there, fumbling and tasting of the salt dripping from his eyes, but the words are free, and his body is being scorched and consumed, and Jaskier -
Jaskier is crying too, but he's reaching out as well. He falls into place before Geralt like he can't stand the distance any longer, and his hands are cradling his face tight enough to bruise, to leave another mark that shows the world that Geralt has someone that wants him so much, that he belongs to him. Their foreheads press together, hard, and that wounds in the same way as the I'm yours etched between the blades of his back. "You're a damned fool if you thought what I felt for you was anything less than pure love, how could you not see all the ways I kept choosing you? There's a lot of groveling and scraping and letting me ride Roach and singing you songs while I tangle my fingers in your hair in your future, I hope you know, I'm not that easy - "
Geralt cuts him off with a kiss. He's never felt so light and happy and hopeful, and he couldn't go another second without pressing his smile to that haunting mouth. Jaskier lets him in with no hesitation, he drags him in with tongue and teeth like he wants to swallow Geralt whole into the home of his body. Both their hands are moving, constantly shifting over sharp angles and vulnerable curves, until Jaskier gets a hand under his tunic and gasps at the fire under his palm. "What's this?"
The passionate moment is cooled somewhat by the reminder of Geralt's years of silence. He pulls back enough to see Jaskier's eyes, and he holds them while he gets rid of his layers and throws them to sulk in a corner.
"Geralt, what - "
"Do you remember that witch we dealt with, near here, all those months ago? I didn't think her magic had worked, but I was wrong."
Jaskier's eyes and fingers trace over every word and secret longing thought, reverent, like he's seeing the words to the most exquisite song. "Are these all for me?"
His hand stutters and stops over the darkest one, the loud STAY of his heart, and he asks, "So you learned how words work, shouldn't they be fading or something now?" He grips a little tighter at the mention of their leaving; he wants the curse to have run its course, but he wants also to keep these words tangible and close at his side for the times insecurity and pointed tongues make him doubt their veracity.
"You can see them clearly now, but I want to say them to you as well. All of them. You deserve to hear every way I love you, every I'm sorry, and when I've finished speaking the words onto all the parts I've broken, I'll come up with new ones." And Geralt does exactly that. He spends the rest of the night kissing every aching shard of himself into Jaskier's skin, and as the words leave his lips, they rise up from his body and float gently on the breeze. He's still covered in warmth, but it's from the comforting heat of Jaskier's love and not the raging swelter of his own reticence.
They're quiet now, wrapped around each other in the nest they've made of the bed, and the sky is just starting to brighten with a new day.
"Come with me," Geralt murmurs, and it sounds like I love you.
"Of course," Jaskier replies, and it sounds like I love you too.