Actions

Work Header

Negotiate with a mare

Chapter Text

“Geralt. It’s a horse.”

The inn is dingy and cramped, though there’s a good few feet of empty space around their table, people crowding into anywhere that doesn’t put them within reaching distance of a witcher. The food is dull, the ale is watered down, and none of it is worth the coin that Jaskier had handed over to a tavern keeper who seemed far too immune to his charms.

Not that he has many left. They’ve been here for two nights now, and the regulars really aren’t the type to be enthused by the songs he has in his repertoire. The cold is playing havoc with his lute strings as well. If another one pops, he’ll have to wait until they hit a larger town to be able to buy replacements.

“It’s a horse,” Jaskier repeats, leaning across the table towards Geralt. “A very fine horse, to be sure, but we can leave her here, swap her for another and keep going east. You deal with the apparent pack of monster wolves threatening the livestock up on the hills or whatever it is that has the farmers so rattled, we get some money and result! We come back, pick up Roach, and be on our merry way.”

Geralt stares at him in that way Geralt does. It’s been months of travelling together, and Jaskier has yet to learn what most of his expressions really mean. He knows there’s a lot more behind them than Geralt willingly lets on, that much is obvious, but the bright yellow eyes and the white hair and that quite frankly stunning chiselled jawline somewhat distract him from picking out the nuances.

“We’re staying until Roach is sound,” Geralt just says. He takes another gulp of ale, and even Geralt can’t hide the wince at the taste. “She should be better tomorrow.”

“I’ll be honest, I didn’t even know horses could bruise their hooves,” Jaskier says. “How do they walk around all over the place then?”

This time, Geralt’s stare is obvious. It’s the one he uses when he thinks Jaskier is being an idiot.

“You walk around all over the place on your feet without bruising them. Why are horses so different?”

“That’s assuming my poor feet aren’t horribly bruised from running around after you all day,” Jaskier mutters. “You know, I don’t think I’ll ever recover from trying to run away from those drowners in the swamp. My ankle still aches when it rains. Which in this part of the world, is way too often.”

Geralt hums. “You get used to it.” He downs the rest of his ale and sets the tankard down with a solid thunk. “You can leave. Go on south to bigger towns. If you want to.”

“Ah, but then who would provide me with such scintillating conversation?”

“Hmm.”

Jaskier watches Geralt leave, the crowd parting around him with a few sneers and muttered words trailing in his wake. Jaskier doesn’t miss them, which means that Geralt certainly doesn’t. But the witcher just keeps moving through the damp tavern until his broad figure disappears out into the rain.

In the months he’s known him, Jaskier has never seen Geralt react to the sneers, the snide remarks, the way people sometimes spit at him as he rides past or sketch hasty warding symbols in the air, as if that sort of thing is anything more than old hedge witch superstition. Geralt never looks like he’s angry whenever it happens, no more than the usual scowl. He just looks…resigned.

It plucks at something in Jaskier every time he sees it, a string he hadn’t known was there. He’s never tried to put those moments into song. They don’t fit.

He sighs, drains his ale with a grimace, and reaches for his lute. Time to sing for supper. And hopefully kill two birds with one stone.

The first strum of the lute makes the drab tavern feel just a little lighter. Jaskier puts on a wide smile and strolls into the middle of the room.

When a humble bard graced a ride along…”

0-o-0-o-0

Geralt hasn’t come up to their room.

It’s not like he’s worried or anything. Geralt is obviously more than capable of looking after himself, and it’s not like Jaskier really adds anything to all of his survival skills beyond maybe preventing Geralt somehow dying of boredom. Geralt has been travelling around for years on his own, before Jaskier found him in that tavern and annoyed him into letting him tag along on his adventures. He knows what he’s doing, even in small towns where the distaste for him is palpable in the air as they pass.

Maybe he is a little concerned. If only because Jaskier doesn’t know this part of the world very well yet, and if he tried to set out on his own he worries he might become hopelessly lost, and then meet an unremarkable and tragic end as a snack for a wolf or two. That’s it.

Jaskier abandons his notebook on the single bed that their crappy little room has with a sigh. He didn’t have any inspiration anyway, not in this drab little corner of the world. He needs action. Drama. Heartbreak and betrayals and maybe a couple of murders, as long as they’re not too gruesome or involve bodily fluids other than blood. A drowning or two would be nice. Drownings are poetic.

Geralt isn’t downstairs, only the drunkards who are asleep on various tables as the barmaid sweeps around them. Jaskier gives her a grin and a wink. “You haven’t seen my companion around recently?” he asks, leaning on a table and trying not to wince at the stickiness under his hand. “You know, tall, white hair, yellow eyes, permanently grumpy expression like someone just pissed in his boots?”

“That witcher?” the barmaid asks. She stacks up plates and balances nearly six empty mugs on top of them, taking them over to the bar. It’s quite impressive. “That freak is out in the stables, I think.” She shakes her head. “I don’t know why you follow him around, to be honest. Someone like you shouldn’t have to be around the likes of him.”

There’s a brief temptation to take that and run, turn up the grin and distract the barmaid for a little while, but it’s dampened and suppressed by the uneasy shiver that runs through him at the way her lips sneer around her words.

He really wants to get out of this damn town.

“I am indebted,” he says instead, conjuring up a grin. “And soon we will be on our merry way to deal with those atrocities up in the hills stalking your poor farmers. Until later, my dear.”

It’s raining outside, as usual for this place, and Jaskier takes care to avoid the worst of the puddles on his way across the courtyard to the stables. The main door is pulled shut but not barred, and Jaskier slips inside. It’s warm, the smell of horse shit and piss under that of hay making his nose wrinkle a little. He can’t hear anyone moving, beyond the occasional horse.

Roach was stabled down towards the end, and Jaskier makes his way past various scruffy nags towards her. He can just make out her head, her nose snuffling through the hay in the manger. She flicks an ear in his direction, and then turns back to eating.

“Okay, easy now. Let’s try this again.”

Jaskier starts. That’s Geralt’s voice for sure, but he doesn’t think he’s ever heard it this quiet. This…gentle.

Roach snorts, and then there’s a sudden clatter and a cut-off curse from Geralt. Jaskier peeks over the stable wall. A bucket is rolling across the stable floor, water spilling across the stones. Half of it seems to have gone across Geralt where he’s crouched down next to Roach’s front leg.

Geralt sighs. “That wasn’t very helpful. I know you don’t like standing in cold water, but you are going to have to if we’re to get your hoof better. Good thing I brought a few buckets from the well.” He reaches out and drags another one in the corner over, the water sloshing against the sides. “Easy,” he says as Roach snorts at it, eyeing it uneasily. “It’s just a bucket. It won’t eat you.”

Roach stubbornly refuses to pick her front hoof up when Geralt tugs gently on her leg. “Fine, be like that,” Geralt says. Jaskier can see the faint curl at the corner of his lips in a smile as he leans into Roach’s shoulder, forcing her to shift her weight onto her other leg. “There we go,” Geralt murmurs. He holds up her hoof with one hand and drags the full bucket underneath it with the other. “Don’t knock this one over.”

Roach snorts uneasily as Geralt carefully lowers her hoof into the cold water. “Really there should be ice in this,” he says to her, stroking in long lines down her neck as Roach shifts uneasily. “But I don’t think anywhere in this town has an ice well, and I think we would have had a real battle on our hands if I had made you stand in a bucket of ice.” Roach tries to move, and Geralt steadies her. “Stay still.”

Roach subsides. She noses at his hands, and then at his pockets when he just shows her his empty palms.

“I know,” Geralt mutters to her. “I know your hoof hurts, and the hay here is going mouldy, and you’re fed up of being inside this stable.” He sighs, his fingers tangling in Roach’s mane. “We will leave soon. Maybe head south and get out of this rain, give your tack time to dry out properly.” He pats her on the neck. “I would like to not be in wet clothes all the time. I’m sure Jaskier would appreciate not having to guard his notebook from the damp so fiercely.”

Jaskier suddenly feels like he’s intruding on some private moment not meant for him. He had no idea Geralt had noticed how frantic he had been getting about the ink running on the page or the parchment crinkling and curling in the perpetual damp. He’s been fretting over it, if he’s honest, worried that he’ll lose some inspired notes to the rain constantly dripping down the back of his neck and getting into every one of his bags out on the road.

Roach lips at Geralt’s hand when he stops patting her, smearing half-chewed hay across his skin. “Thanks,” Geralt huffs. He wipes it back on her shoulder, leaving strands of hay stuck to her coat. “At least you’re standing still.”

Geralt falls quiet, standing next to Roach in her stable, one hand just resting on her shoulder. Roach turns her head to check his pockets again, and then goes back to eating hay.

Jaskier is thankful for his significant experience in tiptoeing out of rooms without being spotted by furious jilted lovers as he slowly backs out of the stables.

Of course, it should be obvious to anyone who has travelled with Geralt for more than a few days that he’s fond of Roach. But he hadn’t quite put two and two together, it seems. And Jaskier, as far as he knows, is the only person who has volunteered to travel with Geralt for any length of time. Certainly the only one who has ever managed to annoy the witcher into letting him tag along.

He isn’t sure whether that says more about Geralt’s character or his own that he’s still here. It definitely says something about him that he saw a witcher sat in the corner of a tavern and decided that yes, this would be interesting. Less reckless and impulsive people would have left the whole thing well enough alone.

Jaskier forces a few more lines of his latest project out onto a new page in his notebook before Geralt eventually comes back to the room, smelling of hay and horse. “Move over,” he grunts at Jaskier.

Jaskier arches a brow, staring up at Geralt from where he’s reclined on the bed. “To where, exactly? I’m already up against the wall. This place isn’t exactly spacious.”

Geralt manages to glare at him even as he’s in the middle of pulling off his leathers and piling them in the corner. “What else do you want me to do?” Jaskier asks. “We did not have enough money to pay for a second room at what are quite frankly extortionate prices, especially with paying for Roach’s stable as well. I did the best I could.”

He hesitates. He can’t get the image of Geralt standing next to Roach, talking to her in a soft voice he doesn’t think he’s ever heard, out of his head. “I can sleep on the floor,” he offers reluctantly.

Geralt snorts. “You’ll complain about it all of tomorrow if you do,” he says. “We’ll make do.” He sits down on the edge of the bed, beginning to unlace his boots. Jaskier notes with mild interest that the leather is beginning to crack close to the toe, even with the care that Geralt takes for all of his clothing. There’s only so much that can be done when half of your time is spent wading through swamps and mud and kikkimore guts, and poking more holes in the leather to try and stitch the cracks together never really helps with the aim of keeping water out.

He’s thinking too much about when they’re next going to go through a town large enough to have a cobbler to notice Geralt sliding into the cramped bed next to him. At the first brush of his arm against Jaskier’s, Jaskier can’t help but jump. His head smacks into the wall behind him.

“Ow. That hurt like a bitch.”

He opens his eyes to see Geralt staring at him over his shoulder. There’s something odd in his expression, something that makes a shiver skitter through Jaskier. If he didn’t know any better, he would say that there was something almost like…confusion, beneath a layer of resignation and an even thicker act of indifference. “I’m fine, thank you for asking,” Jaskier says, pouting for effect.

“Hmm.”

Jaskier sighs, and shifts over even further to make more room. “Oh, what scintillating conversation. What concern for my poor head. I feel so cared for, Geralt.”

“Hmm.”

“Come now, don’t say that! I’m sure we can work this all out between us.” Jaskier stares up at the ceiling and tries not to think of the solid warmth of Geralt right beside him. “And Roach, of course. The essential third member of our partnership. How would we ever manage to do this without her? Oh, I’ll write a song for her. An epic ballad. Maybe that will make her like me a bit more. Do horses like singing? She hasn’t gotten really mad at me so far, but then it’s just so hard to compose properly whilst trying to keep up with her or run away from whatever monster is chasing us. I don’t-”

“Jaskier?”

“Yep?”

“Shut up and go to sleep.”

“Yep.”

Chapter Text

He’s in one of the larger towns when he hears. He’s spent the past few months catching up on reading at the libraries, playing the larger events in the nearby city, wandering on his own through the crowded markets and revelling in the press of people around him, the myriad of smells and sights and the sheer noise.

He just loves people. He loves everyone’s petty little squabbles, as he neatly sidesteps an old woman complaining about the quality of the potatoes to the resigned stall owner. He loves how everyone is convinced of their own self-importance, how they think the world revolves around them alone and everyone else are poor caricatures filling in the gaps in their fantasy. How much everyone fights and hates and hopes and dreams and loves, how much every person walking past him in this crowded market loves someone else.

Jaskier is reaching for his notebook to jot some of this down, trying not to hit anyone with the lute case on his back, when he hears it.

“Oh, no, I don’t have none left. Haven’t had much ever since that creature started harrying one of the upper farms on the foothills.”

“Oh, Arran’s place?”

“Aye, that’s the one. Heard from Daryll down the way that he got a bunch of folk together and they hired a Witcher passing through. White hair, yellow eyes. The proper stuff of nightmares. Got the job done, apparently, though I heard that he took a proper beating. Couple lasses found him near passed out next to the corpse. Blood everywhere, I heard. I didn’t even know witchers could bleed like us folk.”

Jaskier nearly drops his notebook in the puddle at his feet.

He’s not quite sure how he gets the details out of the two farmers. He only knows that he has directions now, and that he’s already outside of the town, bag slung over his shoulder and lute securely on his back.

It looks like it might rain. Jaskier hitches a ride on the back of a cart heading back up towards the mountains and tries not to pick at the pages of his notebook as the town disappears from view.

Geralt is fine. He’s going to be absolutely fine. Jaskier is going to turn up and look like a complete idiot when he finds Geralt and it’s nothing but a scratch, and Geralt will probably do that thing where he’s not laughing but he is, really, and it’s nothing like how Jaskier would like him to look at him but it’s all he’s going to get. He’s going to be fine.

Gods, he’s such a melodramatic idiot.

He should have known that this would happen. He’s well aware of how easily he can fall head over heels for someone, he shouldn’t have expected it to be any different with Geralt.

Everything is different with Geralt, though. Absolutely everything has changed. But Geralt seems completely oblivious to how he has completely upended Jaskier’s life, so he’ll keep quiet.

Jaskier knows that Geralt thinks he can’t ever shut up about whatever is on his mind, but he can. If it’s important enough. That’s the trick. Smile and laugh and talk about every passing thought, and people don’t realise when something is left out.

He hops off the back of the cart at the crossroads, waving half-heartedly at the kind farmer who had brought him up here. The village is up on the hill ahead, farmland stretching out behind it until it is gradually swallowed up by the forest that reaches up with dark fingers up to snow and tall grey peaks.

Jaskier shoulders his lute, tucks his head down against the wind sweeping off the mountains, and starts walking.

The first thing that clues him in to having the right village is the tension permeating the air, the wary glances that people give to the clouded sky as he passes them on the road in, but the thing that really gives it away is the wyvern head spiked onto a pole at the entrance.

Jaskier takes a moment to study it, the congealed blood pooling at the base of the pole, the tongue lolling out of the creature’s mouth between great big fangs, some broken and missing. “You can’t do anything by half, Geralt,” he mutters to it.

“Are you looking for the Witcher?”

Jaskier turns to see a young boy standing there. He has a stick in his hand, the tip dragging in the dirt. He must be about eight years old, patched clothing and muddy shoes, hair sticking up in all directions. When Jaskier offers a smile and he grins back, he’s missing his two front teeth. “That thing tried to take my sister,” he says, “and he killed it!”

“The witcher?” Jaskier asks. The kid nods. “Is he still here?”

The kid nods again. “The wyvern bit him. My mama put some stuff on his leg. He can’t walk so good right now, mister, so he’s still here. You know him?”

“He’s, uh- he’s a friend of mine.”

The boy’s face lights up at that, and any further questioning that Jaskier tries is pointless. The kid is waving the stick around at his side, and Jaskier notices that the end is crudely sharpened to a point. “Could you show me where he is?” he says eventually, cutting through the kid’s chatter.

“Yeah, sure.” The kid takes off through the village, makeshift sword trailing behind him. Jaskier follows, and tries to ignore the way he can feel his heart attempting to wrap itself around his throat.

The kid leads him through the quiet village, keeping up a mostly incomprehensible chatter. People stop and stare as they walk past, a few eyeing him suspiciously. Jaskier isn’t exactly dressed for small farming villages, and he doubts they’ve ever had a bard wander through.

“He’s in there,” the kid says eventually, coming to a stop and peering around the corner of a house at a small rickety barn, door firmly shut. “Mama made the girls put him in there after they found him in the fields and she went in there with all these spare scraps of cloth I was going to use to make a new toy. And then she came back out and there was blood everywhere.” He sticks his lower lip out. “She says I’m not allowed to go in there.”

Jaskier sucks a breath in. “Well then, you just stay out here and let your mama know that the bard Jaskier, Geralt’s friend, is here.” Jaskier hesitantly pats the kid on the head. “Run…run along, yeah?”

He firmly pushes away images of Geralt, collapsed on the floor and bleeding out into mouldy straw, out of his head and strides towards the barn. “Geralt?” he calls out, cracking the door and sticking his head through. “Geralt? It’s Jaskier! You know, that bard who you pretend not to like but secretly adore and wish was with you all the time?”

There’s what sounds like a grunt from inside. Jaskier pushes the door fully open and walks in. “Oh, Geralt?” he calls out. “Sound annoyed if you’re in here.”

There’s another grunt, and then a clattering and a heavy thump.

“Geralt!” Jaskier runs forwards, heart in his mouth. Roach is tied up at one end of the barn, neck arched as she snorts nervously. There’s a crumpled dark shape on the floor next to her.

Jaskier doesn’t think he’s ever sprinted so fast in his life. He skids to a stop and falls to his knees next to Geralt, lute banging painfully against his back. “Geralt?”

The shape groans, and Geralt slowly rolls over onto his back. “Jaskier?” he rasps. He stares up at him in shock. “What the hell are you doing here?”

Jaskier doesn’t reply. He’s too busy patting Geralt down, finding the rough bandages wrapped around his thigh and calf, stained red with blood. “Bloody hell, Geralt,” he spits. “I turn by back for a few measly months and you go and get your leg chewed on by a fucking wyvern?”

“Jaskier,” Geralt says, and Jaskier doesn’t think he’s imagining the happy surprise in his voice as it curls around his name. “You’re here.”

Jaskier grabs Geralt’s arm and helps him sit up. “Yeah, well- gods, Geralt, are you built of bricks or is this all muscle- one hears a story about a witcher getting mauled by a wyvern up in the hills, one assumes it’s his idiot friend and comes looking. You know, just to make sure you haven’t bled out on me whilst my back was turned.”

Geralt grimaces as he gets to his feet, swaying slightly as he puts weight on his leg. “I wasn’t going to bleed out,” he mutters.

“Oh, and you were just lying on the floor for a nice little nap, were you? Right next to where your horse might kick you in the head with a wrong move?”

Geralt glares at him. “Roach wouldn’t kick me.” He slumps against the wall, and Jaskier shoves a nearby stool underneath him before he ends up back on the floor. “She knows not to.”

“She’s an animal, she knows how to eat, sleep and shit, and to bite me whenever I get too close. I still have the bruises.” Jaskier rubs at his arm to make a point. “Now, what were you doing on the floor?”

Geralt mutters something under his breath. Jaskier grabs another stool and sits down opposite, making sure to steer well clear of Roach’s hind legs and her head and just generally any bit of her that might end up hurting him. “Repeat that for the audience?”

“Roach needs brushing down,” Geralt says with a glare. “I…my leg couldn’t take the weight.”

It looks like the admission physically pains him more than the holes in his leg, judging by the grimace on his face. “Well then, that’s your own fault,” Jaskier says, unable to resist the smile at Geralt’s expression. “Roach will be fine until you can stand up without falling over.”

“I can stand,” Geralt snaps. He lurches to his feet and walks stubbornly over to Roach’s side, picking up the brush on the floor. Jaskier watches as he leans heavily against Roach’s shoulder, starting to brush the mud from her neck.

“And three, two, one…there we go.” Geralt’s trembling leg gives out underneath him and he stumbles into Roach. Jaskier kicks the other stool forwards to him. “Made your point, Geralt? Sit down. Roach can wait.”

Geralt sinks onto the stool with a hiss of pain and props his leg out in front of him. “She is covered in mud and dirt, and has been out in a lot of bad weather. If it’s not cleaned off then she’ll get rain scald.”

“She’ll- I’m sorry, what now?”

“Rain scald,” Geralt says, like it makes perfect sense the first time round. He must see the confusion that Jaskier knows is on his face, because he rolls his eyes. “If her skin gets wet and muddy, it can get infected. The scabs are painful, and it takes a while for it to heal unless I can keep her inside and dry until the hair grows back. She gets the same thing on her fetlocks every winter where the hair is white. The pink skin is more sensitive than the dark.”

“Fet…locks?”

Geralt stares at him. “Yes, Jaskier. Fetlocks. You know, that every horse has.”

Jaskier stares at him. “Fetlocks,” he repeats. “Honestly, Geralt, you’re just making up words.”

“How can you not know anything about horses?” Geralt asks. “You’re a bard. You travel everywhere. You must have ridden horses.”

“Hey, I know how to ride, thank you very much.” That lesson had been drilled in at a young age, namely by being thrown onto the top of a horse and learning everything not to do to be thrown back off. “Horses are fine to get from one point to another. Great, fantastic. Love not having to walk everywhere, by the way.”

“Hmm.”

That one very definitely means Jaskier should get to the point. “I’m not saying there’s anything wrong with horses in principle,” he says. “Love the idea. They’re all just a bit…messy. Up close. And why do I need to know what a- a fet- fretlock-”

“Fetlock.”

“-fetlock is?”

Geralt points at Roach’s leg. “That’s a fetlock,” he says. “The joint below their knee on the front legs, and the hock on the back legs. The skin in the hollow beneath it at the back is thin, and prone to cracking if it gets wet a lot. Using oils or fats there to block water can help prevent it, but if it gets infected then the scabs need to be picked off until the hair grows back, and it hurts. Worst case, they go lame and can’t walk properly.”

Jaskier thinks that may be the most words he’s ever heard Geralt say in one go when he isn’t describing the next monster trying to kill them. “So…we don’t want her covered in mud like this?”

Geralt rolls his eyes. Again. “No. It’s not good for her.”

Jaskier hums. His eyes alight on the discarded brush on the floor. “Well, then.” He reaches over and grabs the brush. “Direct me, O master of horses.”

“Jaskier.”

“Tell me what to do and I’ll brush her down.” Jaskier waves the brush in front of Geralt’s face. “Yes? No? Am I allowed to touch Roach or are you going to tackle me to the ground if I lay a hand on her?”

“Fine,” Geralt gets out.

“Good.” Jaskier turns towards Roach. “Now, you and I are going to get along absolutely fine, aren’t we? There’ll be no biting or kicking or getting muck all over these clothes that are quite frankly somewhat ruined already from the rain and whatever that farmer had in the back of their cart. You just…stand there, and I’ll…just…brush you?”

“She’s a horse, Jaskier,” Geralt grunts. “She can’t understand what you’re saying.”

“You talk to her all the time,” Jaskier points out, glancing at Geralt over his shoulder. “She understands you.”

“She knows who I am,” Geralt says. “And I don’t act like she is going to bite my arm off every time she gets close.” He sighs at Jaskier’s look. “You act nervous around her. She notices. It makes her nervous. Just…don’t do that.” He snorts. “Pretend like she’s a lady you’re wooing.”

“Ah, right.” Jaskier turns to Roach and sketches a bow at her. “My dear Roach, what lovely eyes you have. I would ask for your hand, but I see that you have hooves instead. If I may say so, what a bold choice! Not many can wear such a look. Now, my lady, if I may attend to you?”

There’s another snort from behind him. When Jaskier glances over his shoulder, Geralt has an actual honest-to-gods smile curling the corner of his lips. “Just brush the damn horse like you offered,” he says, settling back against the barn wall and propping his leg up in front of him. “Long strokes. Follow the line of her coat. If the brush is too full of hair, clean it with the curry comb over there.” He nods towards a metal thing with a lot of small teeth that looks more at home in a torture chamber. “Don’t just hit her with the brush.”

“Yes, thank you, I have some idea of how to brush out human hair,” Jaskier says. “I assume it’s not so different with a horse.” He starts dragging the brush down Roach’s neck, flakes of mud slowly falling away from the coat.

“So,” he says after a few minutes, when Roach seems amiable to being brushed and not likely to bite at him any time soon. “How’s the leg?”

“Fine,” Geralt grunts. “It’ll be fine.”

“How did it even happen?” Jaskier asks as he picks at a clump of mud on Roach’s flank. “Getting slow in your old age, Geralt?”

Geralt hums. “There was…there was a child.”

Jaskier deliberately does not turn around. “Oh?” he just says.

“A young girl was watching the flock and wandered away from her father. She didn’t notice the wyvern in the sky, or when I called for her.” Geralt grimaces. “I had to get her out of there first.”

“She’s okay?”

“She’s fine. Scared, but fine. This is her parents’ barn.”

Jaskier brushes at a piece of dirt across Roach’s back. “Well, that’s good then. Would make a great song, by the way. The heroic Witcher, saving the terrified young girl from the jaws of the vicious wyvern as it swoops down out of the sky!”

“She threw a rock at it,” Geralt says. “When it had its teeth in my leg. Managed to hit it right between the eyes.”

“Well, as the author I reserve to take some creative liberties with the narrative.” Jaskier tackles the clumps of mud clinging to Roach’s mane. They’re not quite dry, and he just keeps squishing them further into her hair as he tugs at them. “Might miss out how you tried to brush your horse and fell over, though. Bit embarrassing. Not quite suitable for an epic ballad.” He pulls free some of the mud with a triumphant shout. “My song about you is spreading, by the way.”

Geralt grunts. “I’ve heard.”

“What, and you’re not falling at my feet in gratitude? Probably stopped them from finishing the job when that wyvern put some holes in your leg. I’m changing the attitude of people to witchers, one terrible tavern at a time.”

Geralt hums. “Oh, do tell me what you think,” Jaskier says. “Seeing as I’m doing you such a favour right now. Incidentally, there is horsehair everywhere. It’s never coming out of these clothes.”

He can hear Geralt shift against the wall. “It’s a little…trite. Friend of humanity?”

“People want easily palatable sentiments in a song for it to be remembered, not a deep discussion on the nature of monsters and situational morality.” Jaskier grins at Geralt’s expression. “I did go to university, remember? I can quite easily hold a discussion on whatever philosophical model you choose. But most people don’t want that in a song. They want a catchy tune and lyrics that are easy to remember.” He flicks some dirt off Roach’s coat onto the floor. “Don’t tell me it hasn’t been helping.”

Geralt glances away, which is answer enough. “Is that what you were doing, these past months?” he asks instead. “Studying?”

“Amongst other things. Played some events in the city to keep my reputation up, did some of the larger towns around the area. Caught up on reading at the library. Kept an ear out for fantastical stories of monsters and witchers, and who was singing what at which taverns, how the audiences responded. All the usual things.”

Geralt grunts. “So why are you here?”

“Well, you know.” Jaskier shrugs, switching hands as his arm begins to tire. “The money, the nice weather, the fact that I heard two farmers discussing a witcher with white hair and yellow eyes getting beaten up by a wyvern. People really do like to gossip, especially about gory details.”

Geralt’s yellow eyes look up at him. “I’m fine, Jaskier.”

“You have holes in your leg.”

That comes out sharper than he means, and Jaskier glances away from Geralt’s stare. “This mud is really stubborn here.”

“Jaskier,” Geralt says, drawing his name out. “Don’t tell me you were worried.”

“So what if I was?” Jaskier snaps. His hand clenches around the brush. “Your job is to kill things before they kill you, and wyverns are objectively horrible creatures! Forgive me for hearing stories about you bleeding out in a random field and being a little worried for my friend.”

Geralt’s breath just hitches slightly, right on the edge of Jaskier’s hearing. Jaskier stubbornly stares at Roach’s coat instead of at Geralt. “I’ve been doing this for a long time, Jaskier,” Geralt says eventually. “I know what I’m doing.”

Jaskier snorts. “Obviously. But I don’t need to be a witcher to know that you only have to be unlucky once for things to go really, really wrong.”

He doesn’t know how to explain the way his heart had started pounding as soon as he’d heard the farmers talking, the restlessness that had overtaken him until it had taken him all his effort to sit still on the back of the cart and not take off running up into the foothills. The sheer relief at seeing Geralt, stubborn and obstinate and so obviously not as uncaring as he pretends to be.

Jaskier can’t take his eyes off him, some days. That much studying, and he was bound to notice Geralt’s façade eventually.

He hasn’t asked. He doesn’t think that Geralt would take his head off if he did, or abandon him on the side of the road, but he also isn’t sure. And even if he has lain awake some nights these past couple months, missing Geralt lying nearby and really not sure why, he’s not going to risk pushing and potentially jeopardising the little he has right now.

It’s fine. He’ll be fine. It’s not like he’s pining away, he’s doing just fine being Geralt’s annoying tag-along companion and possible friend, if he ever manages to bludgeon through that wall and get him to admit he might have actual feelings.

“I’ll be fine, Jaskier,” Geralt just says. “Don’t worry your pretty little head about it. I’ll be good enough to walk in a few days.”

“I’ll come with you.”

Geralt looks up. “I thought you were busy. In the cities. You said when we parted that you needed at least four months in the bigger towns before you would go out on the road again.”

Is that reluctance in his voice? Jaskier shrugs. He had said that, and he could do with more time before wandering off around the world again, but Geralt doesn’t need to know that. “Oh, it’s fine,” he says. “I was getting a bit stir crazy anyway. And this way, we can head off a bit earlier if we overstay our welcome here. I can look after Roach now!”

“Absolutely not.”

Jaskier pouts at him over Roach’s back. “Come now, Geralt, haven’t I just proved that I can brush her down all by myself? If we’re on the road you can ride, I can walk, and then you don’t need to hobble around all on your own setting up a miserable lonely camp.”

“Because you are such good company.”

“You’re just grumpy because Roach likes me more now,” Jaskier says. “And I am excellent company, thank you very much. Roach likes my singing, don’t you, Roach?”

“She’s a horse, Jaskier. She has no musical taste.”

Jaskier gasps, and reaches up to cover Roach’s ears. “Don’t listen to him, darling. He doesn’t know what he’s talking about.”

Geralt snorts. “Make sure you get the mud off her legs.”

“Off her fetlocks.”

“Hm.”

Jaskier bends down and starts picking at the mud around Roach’s legs. “So, where to next?” he asks as he scrubs the brush across a particularly difficult patch. “North? South? We could mix it up and go inland. Or to the coast. Wherever the work is, I guess. Point Roach right at the most disgusting monsters and go.”

Geralt hums. “There are reports of something attacking caravans moving through the mountains. Merchants get very upset about that.”

“Oh, and merchants do have such nice coin purses,” Jaskier says. He bends down further, running his fingers down one of Roach’s hind legs. “Hey, she has a couple scabs here. You said to pull them off, right?”

“Just be-”

Jaskier gets his fingernails under one of the scabs with a grimace and tugs it away from the soft pink skin underneath, a couple of the hairs coming loose with it. Roach flinches and stamps her feet, making Jaskier scramble back out of the way just as she swishes her tail hard in displeasure.

The end of Roach’s tail catches Jaskier square in his face.

Oh gods, it stings.

“Fuck!” Jaskier cries out, scrambling back from Roach. “Oh gods, fuck that hurts. Shit, shit, shit. Geralt? Geralt! Am I bleeding? It feels like I’m bleeding. Oh gods, is my face okay? Geralt, is my face okay?”

He turns frantically towards Geralt, hand pressed to his cheek. “Geralt!”

Geralt is laughing.

It’s not much, a rough chuckle, his shoulders just shaking as a grin curls his lips, but it stops Jaskier dead in his tracks. He’s never seen Geralt laugh before.

There’s a sudden constricting pain in his chest that has absolutely nothing to do with the way his face is still stinging. Geralt arches a brow at him, his shoulders still shaking a little. “Are you okay, Jaskier?”

“Uh, fine, just fine,” he stammers out, trying to ignore this strange feeling of pride creeping over him. He made Geralt laugh. Geralt, who has people stare and whisper as he passes, who spit at his feet or turn away in fear at his eyes. Jaskier has done a bit of reading. Most witchers don’t have white hair and yellow eyes. Most witchers die on the job. Most witchers don’t even become witchers before dying.

It seems like a hell of a lot to trade for the ability to be able to kill monsters before they kill you, and abruptly Jaskier wonders just how much choice Geralt had in all of this.

“Your face is fine,” Geralt says, thankfully oblivious to Jaskier’s internal thoughts. “I did warn you that it hurt her a bit to take the scabs off.”

“You could have warned me that her tail is a whip!” Jaskier rubs at his face, even though the stinging has mostly died down. “Seriously, she could take people out with that.”

Geralt hums. “Now, if you’re satisfied with Roach’s care,” Jaskier says, “I’m going to go and charm that mother into some food for the both of us, and maybe some wine? Or no, something a little stronger, maybe.”

“Don’t eat her out of house and home, Jaskier.” Geralt shifts against the wall with a grimace. He looks exhausted, now Jaskier is paying more attention to him than to Roach, paler than normal and with deep bags under his eyes. “There’s not much that grows well this far up towards the mountains.”

“I’ll be perfectly civil, thank you.” Jaskier sets the brush down on the floor and gives Roach a tentative pat on the neck. “Look after my lute, okay? That thing is worth more than I am.”

Geralt snorts. “I will guard it with my life.”

Jaskier grins at him. On a whim, he picks up a tattered blanket from where it hangs over a wall and flings it out. Geralt glares up at him as the blanket gently settles down over his form. “What is this.”

“You look cold,” Jaskier just says. “Sit tight and don’t go anywhere, not that you can. You know, given you fall over if you try to brush your horse. I’ll be back.”

Geralt just keeps glaring at him. Jaskier grins, waves, and then disappears through the barn door.

When he gets back, two bowls of stew and a jug of wine balanced precariously in his hands courtesy of a grateful mother, Geralt is exactly where he left him. He’s fast asleep, chest slowly rising and falling beneath the blanket still draped over him.

Roach glances over and nickers at him softly. “You and me, girl, we’ve got a hell of a job on our hands,” Jaskier whispers to her. “Don’t you worry, though. I’ll stick around for a bit. Help you out.”

Roach flicks an ear at him, and then goes back to her hay. Jaskier heaves a sigh. “Sometimes I feel so unappreciated.”

Chapter Text

“Jaskier.”

Jaskier leaps a foot into the air. He lets out what is definitely not an undignified shriek and spins around. “Fucking gods, Geralt! Give me some warning!”

Geralt is a couple feet behind him, staring at Jaskier with an unreadable expression. A brace of rabbit swings from one hand, blood still dripping from them onto the forest floor. He glances down at the quill Jaskier is brandishing in front of him. “Were you going to try to stab me with that?”

“If I had no other choice,” Jaskier says. He straightens up. “Seriously, stop sneaking around like that. One day you’re going to surprise me and I’m just going to keel over dead, and then where will you be, hmm?”

“Hopefully, with some blessed peace and quiet,” Geralt mutters. He wraps the string of the brace around his hand and heads towards the fire. “And I wasn’t sneaking. You were too distracted by your poetry.”

“There’s no need to say it like that,” Jaskier says, picking his notebook back up and checking that the ink hasn’t run. “My poetry got you free ale at the last tavern.”

Geralt snorts as he starts skinning the rabbits. “I got us free ale at the tavern by stopping their son being eaten by ghouls. And I wasn’t sneaking.”

Jaskier pauses. His poised quill drips a spot of ink onto the page and he curses, trying to blot it before it spreads. Geralt’s back is to him as he skins the rabbits, and Jaskier takes the opportunity to watch him for a moment. “I’m sure I was just being particularly oblivious, then. As usual.”

He wonders if he imagines the slight hitch to the line of Geralt’s shoulders. “As usual,” Geralt mutters. He doesn’t sound annoyed. He sounds almost…confused.

“Are the rabbits ready yet?” Jaskier asks, instead of asking the questions slowly forming in his mind about why Geralt always seems so surprised when Jaskier is surprised by him. If he asked, he knows Geralt would immediately shut right up, and it would be days of travelling in silence before Jaskier’s incessant badgering wears him down enough to get back to normal.

Geralt gives him a look over his shoulder. “Skinning rabbits doesn’t happen instantly. It would go quicker if you helped.”

Jaskier grimaces. “Ew.” Geralt just stares at him, and Jaskier heaves a sigh. “Fine, fine. I’ll come learn how to skin and carve up cute little bunnies.”

“If you don’t want to prepare them, you don’t get to eat them,” Geralt says as Jaskier sits down next to him. One rabbit is already ready and done, lain out on the floor. He dumps another in Jaskier’s lap and Jaskier instinctively cringes back away from it. “First you take off the head,” Geralt says, grabbing the final rabbit. “One hand holding the shoulders, the other holds around the skull. And just unscrew it.”

“I’m sorry, unscrew it?”

Geralt twists and there’s a soft pop beneath his hands. He picks up the knife and cuts away the last bit of fur, and suddenly the rabbit is in two pieces. “Unscrew it,” he says, like it’s obvious. “Pretend it’s a…pretend you’re tightening a lute string.”

Jaskier stares at the two separate pieces of rabbit in Geralt’s lap. “Yeah…I’m going to go and get firewood. Lots of firewood. All the firewood. Um…you have fun with that.”

“You like rabbit,” Geralt says accusingly as Jaskier gets to his feet.

“Doesn’t mean I need to watch you unscrew rabbit heads. Shout when you’re done and I don’t have to watch you do…that anymore.”

Later, Jaskier beds down on the forest floor, tugging a few blankets up around his shoulders. Geralt is on the other side of the fire, lying on his back and staring up at the night sky above. “Good stew,” Jaskier mutters. “Very…rabbity.”

There’s a long pause. Jaskier can just make out Geralt’s eyes, glinting in the firelight, as he looks over at him. “Go to sleep, Jaskier,” he says quietly.

“Going,” Jaskier mumbles. He curls up under the blankets and listens to the crackling of the fire until he falls asleep.

He wakes up, not quite sure why. It’s mostly dark, maybe an hour off dawn judging by the slow greying just about creeping through the trees. The fire is low but still going, and Jaskier watches the flames for a few moment as they lick up around the logs, the bark curling and blackening as the wood crackles quietly.

“Easy now.”

Jaskier glances up through the fire. Geralt’s hair glints in the firelight, a few feet away. He’s crouched down next to Roach, her leg up and hoof resting in his hand. “There,” he says quietly to her, pulling something away from the sole of her hoof. “Much better.” He gets to his feet with a quiet groan, running a hand down her neck. “We’ll get going soon, once Jaskier is awake.”

He falls silent, running his hand down Roach’s neck, and Jaskier is about to fall back asleep and get as much time as he has before Geralt gets impatient and wakes him up when there’s another low murmur from him.

“I don’t understand him sometimes.”

Jaskier rolls his eyes. Great. Just when he was beginning to think, after years of knowing him, that maybe Geralt actually likes him. He ignores the pricking at the corner of his eyes and the heavy weight that wraps around his throat. Of course Geralt only puts up with him begrudgingly. He knows that. Geralt puts up with him because Jaskier manages to supplement his irregular monster-slaying income and maybe stop ignorant people spitting at his feet when they walk past. Or at least spreads out the target area.

Still. He thought that he had been getting somewhere.

Maybe he’ll just cut his losses and head his own way when they meet the next town. Find some other source of inspiration. Find another warm and willing bed to crawl into and pretend that it’s what he wants.

It won’t last. It’ll never last. He already knows he’ll come back to Geralt again. An exquisite form of self-torture, forcing himself to stay around when he knows he isn’t wanted because it’s still easier than working out how to cut himself away.

He stays still, and watches Geralt through slitted eyes. Geralt lets Roach lip at his hand for a second before gently pushing her nose away. “I know. It’s nice having him back with us.”

Jaskier tries not to choke on his own spit and give away that he’s listening. The weight that had been around his throat vanishes into thin air. He just manages to keep himself still.

Geralt likes him. He likes having him around. He may complain endlessly about the talking, and the singing, and the disappearing into people’s beds because Jaskier just craves company sometimes and people are so varied and interesting and he needs their stories like he needs air to breathe, but Geralt likes him. Geralt is his friend.

Jaskier is never going to let on that he’s overheard this, but he’s never going to forget it.

Geralt hums, and Jaskier turns his attention back to him. “I noticed him do it again today. I thought it was just once, or I had forgotten how less sensitive normal people are. How much they don’t hear. Before him, I hadn’t travelled with someone else for…well. It doesn’t matter. But he keeps just…forgetting I’m there.”

He tangles his fingers in Roach’s mane, tugging on it gently. “Nearly jumped straight off that log when I called his name earlier, like he had no idea I was there. Does he just not notice me? He can hear me, even if he doesn’t pay attention to a single damn thing I tell him.”

Roach snorts. “I know,” Geralt says. “Suppose I should be grateful he hasn’t left yet. It’s just…odd. He turns his back so easily.” He huffs. “Gets too caught up in his songs and poetry, I guess.”

He falls silent again. Jaskier tries not to give away that he’s asleep by grinning at the fire, and lets his eyes slip back shut.

He can’t do a damn thing about how other people react to Geralt, other than keep singing his songs in every shitty tavern they pass through. But he can stick around for a while longer. He’s got nowhere else to be.

0-o-0-o-0

“Seriously, what is her problem?”

Geralt glowers at him from under the hood of his cloak. Beneath him, Roach shifts uneasily. At the click of his tongue and the pressing of his heels into her sides she takes a few steps forwards, and then abruptly jumps sideways across the track, sending stones and splashes of mud skittering out across from under her hooves. She snorts loudly, neck arched high and ears pricked.

“That log,” Geralt finally says. He tugs on her reins, pulling her back onto the path. Roach takes a few more steps forwards at Geralt’s urging and then freezes in place, planting her hooves and refusing to take another step.

Jaskier glances back up the track they’re on. A tree has come down, probably in the recent storms that are still spilling rain down onto them, and has fallen across most of the track, the branches tangled up in the brush on one side of the road.

“A log? She’s a horse, Geralt, and we’re in a forest. There are lots of logs all around us. One that’s fallen over is hardly special.”

There’s a muffled curse from Geralt, the sound of hooves clattering against the ground, and Jaskier turns around to see Roach spinning on her hind legs. Geralt just manages to keep her in place and stop her bolting back down the track. “Get up,” he growls at her under his breath, pushing her forwards. Roach walks forwards uneasily, ears pricked and snorting at the apparently terrifying log.

Jaskier reaches out and pats her neck when she draws level with him. He can feel the muscles in her neck quivering underneath his hand. “There, there, darling. It’s not so terrifying.”

“She thinks it’s a dead animal,” Geralt says. “Once she gets close enough to smell it, she’ll be fine. We can jump over it and keep going.”

“A dead animal?” Jaskier laughs, and then it trails off as he sees Geralt’s expression. “No, really? But it’s a log.”

“And she’s an animal built to run away from anything dangerous,” Geralt points out. “Dead animals mean predators. Better for her to be over-cautious than dead.”

Jaskier laughs at that. “Seems like someone could take some advice from her, I think.” He pats Roach on the neck again, ignoring Geralt’s look. “Come on, darling. Let’s go say hello to the scary log.”

Jaskier picks his way through the mud and up to the tree, tugging his thick cloak that he may have stolen out of Geralt’s saddlebag tighter around his shoulders. Hopefully his notebooks are secure enough, wrapped up in about three layers of oilcloth that Geralt bought in the last town. It still makes Jaskier smile hopelessly, every time he thinks about Geralt shoving the cloths into his hands and turning away before Jaskier could even say anything.

“See, Roach?” he calls over his shoulder. “It’s just a log. Just a very wet, dead tree that has absolutely nothing to do with any dead animals. If you could find it in your heart to come over here and jump over this very inanimate log, then we’ll be on our merry way.” Jaskier leans against the log, grimacing as his hand comes away wet and covered with moss. “Pretty please, darling Roach?”

Geralt snorts. “You know she can’t understand you.”

Jaskier crosses his arms. “I don’t know, we’ve been getting along much better recently. She hasn’t tried to take a chunk out of my arm for months now. We’ve got a proper connection, me and her.” He leans back against the log again.

Geralt’s expression is hard to see under the hood, with Roach still shifting uneasily underneath him, but Jaskier sees the moment his eyes flicker past Jaskier to something behind him. His eyes widen and his hand goes straight for the swords at his side. Jaskier starts to turn, but something thin and sharp pokes very pointedly into his back.

“Tell your friend to let go of his sword, or your guts will end up in the mud.”

Jaskier slowly raises his hands. “I’d appreciate you not doing that,” he says. “At least, not until we’ve gotten to know each other a bit better first.” He risks a glance to the side. “Great. Bandits. Just what we need.”

Two more men to the one currently sticking something sharp in his back appear from the thick brush. The mud behind the fallen tree is churned up with footprints. “Oh, you were hiding behind the tree?” he asks. “I’ll admit, seems like a lot of effort for the chance that someone will ride down here.”

The sharp thing that Jaskier is fairly sure is a dagger jabs into his back. “Worked out, didn’t it?” the man snarls in his ear. “Now, tell your friend to get down off his horse and hand over everything in your saddlebags.”

“Oh sure. That’s going to go well.” Jaskier looks over at Geralt. “These very nice men would like you to get down from Roach and hand over all our stuff,” he calls out to him. “What do you think?”

Geralt’s hands twitch on Roach’s reins. She shifts underneath him, pawing at the ground. “Let him go. Now.”

“Ooh, that muscle in your jaw is twitching like it does when you’re actually pissed off instead of pretending to be pissed off,” Jaskier says to Geralt. “You better be careful,” he says to the bandits over his shoulder. “He does end up stabbing quite a lot of things once that gets going. Maybe consider a career change? You know, whilst you still can.”

“What part of this aren’t you understanding?” the bandit asks. “Get down off that horse, hand over all your money and whatever is in your saddlebags. You’ve got fancy enough clothes on under that cloak. I think we’ll take those as well.”

Jaskier sighs. “I’ll have you know this doublet is actually horribly out of fashion in the big cities, it’s just the only one I don’t mind getting wet in this weather.” He looks over at Geralt. “Going to do anything about this?”

“Will you shut up?” one of the other bandits cries. “Do you not realise what we’re doing here? Hand everything over or I will personally stick this sword in your gut.”

Geralt’s gaze fixes in on that bandit. “Ooh, you’re in for it now,” Jaskier says. “I don’t think you really realise what you’re doing here, actually. Haven’t even asked our names yet. I’m Jaskier, by the way. Recognise the name?”

There’s a hurried whisper behind him. Geralt’s gaze hasn’t moved from that bandit. His hands are twitching towards his sword, and Jaskier rolls his eyes at him. “Don’t give me that look, I am well known.” He glances at the bandits. “You must have heard of my most popular song, at least. Toss a coin to your witcher, oh valley of plenty, oh valley of plenty. Ring a bell?”

“Oh, shit,” the third bandit breathes. “Yeah, yeah I know you. You’re that bard, the one that always travels around with…oh, shit.”

“Could be more eloquently put, but yes,” Jaskier says.

“Oh, shit. Oh gods, oh- we should not- oh gods. Oh fuck, we are so dead.”

“What are you talking about?” the first bandit hisses. His grip on the knife poking Jaskier in the back has loosened somewhat. Jaskier shifts experimentally in his hold. It wouldn’t be too hard to spin around and grab the blade, maybe poke him with it a little.

“That’s the bard Jaskier,” the third bandit hisses. “The one who travels with the White Wolf. The Witcher. Geralt of fucking Rivia. And if that’s Jaskier, then it means that the person on the horse…that’s your witcher.”

All three bandits turn towards Geralt as one. “Fuck.”

Geralt pushes his hood back. “Let him go,” he growls, his hand resting on the hilt of his sword. “Or I will run you through.”

“Just run them down on Roach, Geralt,” Jaskier calls out. “I’ll jump out of the way, don’t worry.”

The bandit behind him grips his shoulder. “You’re not going anywhere.”

“Really?” Jaskier twists in his grip so the bandit can see his incredulous stare. “Really? That’s Geralt of Rivia right there, and you still think this is a good idea? Or is this some sort of sunk cost fallacy thing going on right now? You’ve gotten this far, so you figure that you might as well try to follow through.” He sighs. “Look, you just let me go and we- well, Geralt specifically- won’t kill you all where you stand. Fair deal for everyone.”

Geralt draws his sword from its sheath. The sound makes all of the bandits flinch, and Jaskier can’t help but grin. “Run them down, Geralt.”

Geralt just looks at him. “Roach isn’t a charger. She isn’t trained for combat.”

“I mean, it can’t be hard,” Jaskier says. “Just point her at them and go.”

Geralt’s look is very obviously the one where he thinks Jaskier is being an idiot, though this time there’s something underneath that Jaskier, for all his skills at reading Geralt, can’t quite decipher. If he didn’t know any better, he might say it was concern. “It takes years to train a charger,” he just says. “And I’m not a knight.”

Jaskier snorts. “Oh yeah, I knew that one already. Come on. Give Roach something more interesting to do. Let her have a bit of fun.”

Geralt sighs. “Jaskier.”

“It is absolutely, unequivocally not my fault that these bandits were here,” Jaskier says quickly. “Also, I’m getting a little tired of having this guy’s dagger poking in my back, so if you could maybe do something about it? Somewhat soon?”

“Don’t move!” one of the bandits shouts.

“Oh yeah, like that’s going to work,” Jaskier mutters.

Geralt dismounts from Roach and loops her reins around a nearby branch. “Let him go,” he says, walking slowly towards them, his sword resting easily in his hand. “And be on your way. Don’t start a fight you can’t win.”

The first bandit laughs. “I’ve got your pet bard right here. You’re not going to do anything that would harm him.”

Geralt gives Jaskier a look. “No,” he says quietly. “I wouldn’t.”

His fingers tighten around the hilt of his sword. Jaskier takes this as his cue. He throws himself away from the knife resting at his back, spinning as he drives his elbow back into the bandit’s gut. As the bandit doubles over, breath knocked out of him, Jaskier drives his knee straight up into the man’s groin, and then elbows him right in the nose for good measure.

By the time he turns around, the other two men are on the floor, clutching various parts of their bodies. They’re groaning, so Jaskier assumes that they’re not dead.

Geralt grabs his arm and roughly pulls him away from the fallen tree, Jaskier’s feet slipping in the mud. “That was stupid,” he growls.

“Hey,” Jaskier protests, grabbing Geralt’s forearm to balance himself in the mud. “It’s absolutely not my fault that there were bandits hiding behind this damn tree. And I’m okay, thank you very much for asking. I even did exactly what you taught me, aiming for his groin and his nose and everything.”

Geralt hums. “I never told you to do that to someone who has a knife at your back.”

“Well, I was improvising.” Jaskier tries to dust himself off, remembers that his cloak is soaked through, and wipes his hands off on a dry part of his trousers. “Which I wouldn’t have had to do if you’d just ridden them down on Roach. It can’t be that hard.”

“She isn’t trained,” Geralt says. “It would put her in danger.”

“Oh, but I’m fair game, am I?” Jaskier asks.

Geralt sighs. “Jaskier.”

“Oh no, no need to apologise, Geralt. It wasn’t like I was scared of getting stabbed in the back or anything.” Now that Jaskier has had a moment to breathe, he can feel the rabbity thump of his heart in his throat. He glances over his shoulder, making sure that the bandits are still there and haven’t somehow sneaked up behind him. “What are we going to do with them?”

In answer, Geralt stalks past Jaskier and picks up the first bandit from where he’s groaning on the ground. “Oh gods,” the man whimpers. “Please don’t hurt me! We had no idea who you were, we would have left you alone if we’d known! Oh gods, please don’t kill me.”

“If I hadn’t been a witcher, you would have robbed me of everything I had.” Geralt’s lip curls. Jaskier sees his hand tighten around the hilt of his sword.

“Let’s leave them, Geralt,” he says. “Let’s take their weapons, maybe tie them up so they can’t follow us, and get going. They’re really not worth it.” He steps forwards and wraps one hand around Geralt’s forearm. “Come on, Geralt.”

Geralt drops the bandit onto the floor, and rests the point of his sword at his throat. “I would strongly advise you to find another job,” he says quietly.

Ten minutes later and the application of the bandits’ own rope, Jaskier hops over the trunk of the fallen tree. Geralt pulls himself back onto Roach, takes her a little further down the track, and then spins her back round towards the tree. “Move out of the way, Jaskier.”

“Do you think if I put one of the bandits at the bottom of the tree, she would jump him as well?” Jaskier eyes the one who had held a knife to his back. “Or would she just trample him? I bet that would hurt. A lot.”

The bandit tries to say something, but the gag Jaskier had stuffed in his mouth somewhat hinders him. “I would really consider finding another job,” Jaskier says to him. “Maybe one that can be done without hands. Or a tongue.”

“Jaskier.”

“Just kidding! Seriously, though, will she jump him if I drag him there?”

He can hear Geralt’s sigh from all the way over there. “No. She’s a domesticated animal who has spent most of her life being taught not to accidentally kill people. She won’t jump over a person.”

“Oh. Well, that’s disappointing.” Jaskier backs up and watches Geralt as he clicks his tongue. Roach picks up a trot, and then a loping canter at Geralt’s urging. She pricks her ears at the log, and then in one smooth leap bunches her muscles and sails over it. Geralt pulls her up on the other side, Roach snorting and prancing underneath him.

“Would you like a round of applause?” Jaskier steps up and pats Roach on the neck, avoiding her nose as she lips at his pockets. “Well done, Roach. You looked marvellous.”

“I was the one riding,” Geralt points out.

“Yes, but you just sort of sat there. Roach did all the hard work.”

Geralt snorts. “I would like to see you try.” He pauses. “That was not a challenge.”

“Oh, you keep telling yourself that.” Jaskier gives Roach one more pat and grins up to Geralt. “I am ready for a bath and a real bed. Shall we?”

No bandits come after them in the next hour or so as they walk away, the forest eventually giving way too farmland and open meadows, and Jaskier eventually relaxes. “So,” he says, walking on the other side of Roach. “Do you think those bandits will actually give up on being bandits?

Geralt hums. He dismounted a while back and is walking Roach in hand, giving her a break from being ridden. The reins swing easily from where they’re looped around his hand, Roach ambling along behind them. “Probably not.”

“They were pretty shit bandits, though,” Jaskier points out. “I can’t imagine they get much money out of that.”

Geralt hums again. “I think they would have done better if I wasn’t…this.”

Jaskier inclines his head. He ignores the undercurrent in Geralt’s voice as he describes himself for now. It’s too wet and miserable, and it’s still too easy for his hands to shake if he thinks about how wrong it could have gone.

Most of the time, Geralt seems to be pretty damn okay with everything they did to make him into what he is now. He barely seems to dwell on it, unless it’s some sort of mutation that happens to be useful for the particular monster he’s hunting down. Sometimes, though, at the most random times Geralt gets this tone in his voice. One that Jaskier, for all his skills at working out what people are thinking and what they want to hear, can’t quite decipher. He can only imagine what’s going through Geralt’s head at those moments, but he can guess that it’s nothing good.

He’s known Geralt for years now. Nearly a decade. And whilst the urge to glare at people spitting at his feet has diminished as his songs have spread further and people have stopped drawing warding sigils in the air as Geralt passes, the urge to somehow wish away whatever prompts that resigned undercurrent that drags through his voice hasn’t yet gone away. He doesn’t think it ever will.

He’s fallen for many people before. He knows he loves easily, all sorts of different people catching his attention for brief moments, flashes of brilliant colour that are so easily to be dazzled by. But Geralt is different. Geralt is the only one who has ever stayed. Jaskier has learnt over the years that those small tells, the way a muscle pulls in his jaw or his eyes narrow, have a whole other world behind them, and he’s maybe one of the few people who can read some of it.

Sometimes, Geralt tugs at strings Jaskier didn’t even know he had. This time, though, this is a familiar feeling. That low ache of regret at something that happened long ago to someone else, flavoured with that bitter kind of resignation coating his tongue that nothing can be done about it.

Still, for all that Geralt may not believe it, Jaskier does have some sense of timing. And tramping through the rain after nearly getting stabbed by some bandits is not the appropriate time to tackle the fact that Geralt might sometimes not like what they made him into at Kaer Morhen.

“They did have a knife stuck in my back at one point,” Jaskier remarks, tucking his sodden cloak a little tighter around him at the thought. “They weren’t complete amateurs.”

Geralt glances over at him. “I would have made sure that they didn’t hurt you.”

A joke is right on the tip of Jaskier’s tongue, but he bites it back. “I know,” he says simply. He reaches over and scratches Roach on the nose. “Do you think you’ve scared them out of being bandits, though?”

Geralt sighs. “People who prey on other people, they do it for one of two reasons. Either they are desperate enough that selfishness overrides any care they have for other humans, or they believe that other people do not matter. Those men were the first. They were hungry and desperate. The second would have tried to stab you anyway.”

“Maybe this will have scared them enough to set them back onto the right path, and off the one involving ambushes and knives,” Jaskier muses. “Good thing we didn’t run into the second lot, then.”

Geralt is quiet for a long moment. “Most people are the first. Most people will do more than they think they are capable of, if they are desperate enough. It isn’t always a bad thing-”

“That kid, who threw stones at the wyvern,” Jaskier offers.

Geralt nods. “And others. But some…some are born into bad circumstances, or find them later, and they find it easier to turn it onto other people. They’re driven there, and then they find that there’s no way out. They don’t want to be there. Those men didn’t want to hold a knife to your back. But they don’t think there is any other choice.”

“And the second type?” Jaskier asks.

Geralt shakes his head. “People like to believe that there are monsters around every corner. And there are. But they tell their children stories of ghouls and vampires and the Wild Hunt. They don’t tell them of the drunk next door whose wife takes the beatings, so their child doesn’t. The people who think they are entitled to another person’s body just because it is there. Everyday monsters are more common than the ones they ask me to kill for them.”

Jaskier watches Geralt out of the corner of his eye. “Have you ever been asked to…to deal with those ones?”

“People don’t want to admit that their neighbours might be monsters,” Geralt says eventually. “Or admit that they ignored the signs. Some people tell themselves it’s not their business. Some just don’t notice.”

“That can’t be true for everyone,” Jaskier argues. “If people see something wrong then some will do something about it. I know it isn’t that easy, I’ve seen plenty of people get away with shitty things because they were in a position of authority and the others around them were either too drunk on their power or too scared to do anything. But that isn’t always true. Most people are kind. It’s just easier to spot the ones who aren’t.”

Geralt looks over at Jaskier. “Do you really believe that?”

“What?”

“That most people are kind.”

Jaskier shrugs. “I make a living out of studying people and learning what they want. Sure, people are selfish and petty and squabble over literally the smallest things possible. But I’ve seen complete strangers come to each other’s aid when they have no reason to, watched countless people help each other out in the smallest of ways that still matter. Women looking after children that aren’t their own. Men giving a stranger food out on the road when they barely have enough for themselves.” He pauses, looking over at Geralt. “A witcher who sat in the corner of a tavern and gave his last coin to a bard. Don’t think I didn’t notice that one.”

Geralt glances over at him. “The food they threw at you wasn’t fit to eat,” he says, but Jaskier sees the question in his expression.

“Most people care, Geralt,” he says. “They just do.”

Geralt holds his gaze for a long moment, and then looks away back at the road. “Still. If enough people take a stand against someone else in their village, they don’t tend to hire a witcher. They’ll deal with it themselves.”

“But you have dealt with people like that before,” Jaskier presses. “Haven’t you?”

Geralt doesn’t answer.

“I know that there’s way more to the story of Blaviken,” Jaskier says cautiously. “No story survives being retold that many times and comes out anywhere near what really happened. Especially not that one.”

Geralt’s lip curls. “How do you know what they say isn’t the truth?” he spits. “It could be.”

Jaskier sighs. “Geralt. I know you. I’ve travelled with you for nearly a decade. You’re not a butcher. You protect people who need protecting. You didn’t just…just slaughter a town. You wouldn’t.”

Geralt keeps walking down the road, a muscle ticking in his jaw. Roach nudges at his back with his nose, and then flicks an ear at Jaskier when he doesn’t respond. Jaskier scratches her on the nose. “Geralt?”

“I killed her men, in the market square.”

Jaskier keeps silent. Geralt shakes his head slightly, staring straight ahead. “She was going to hold the townspeople hostage. Force my hand. Because I refused to kill the sorcerer for her. The one who wanted me to kill her for him, all because of some stupid superstition and a long-held grudge against someone who hadn’t deserved it. I tried to stop her. And when the sorcerer refused to leave his tower, when her plan failed…I asked her to stop. I didn’t want to kill her. But I did.”

Jaskier breathes out. “Sounds like a lot of people might have died if you hadn’t done that,” he offers.

Geralt just shakes his head. Roach nudges at his back again with a soft nicker and he rests one hand on her neck, his fingers tangling in her mane. They walk on in silence.

“Her name was Renfri.”

Jaskier keeps walking. “Renfri,” he muses. He glances over at Geralt. “I don’t usually ask for permission like this, but if you tell me a little more, I could make it into a song? If you want to tell your version of the story.” He sees Geralt tense at that. “Tell people what actually happened. I think they would listen.”

Geralt is silent for a long, long moment. “No,” he says eventually. “Not…no.”

Jaskier doesn’t mean to come to a stop, his feet just do that on their own. Geralt continues for a few paces, and then turns back when he realises Jaskier isn’t beside him anymore. “Jaskier?”

Jaskier waves one hand at Geralt’s expression, the pinched furrow between his brows that means he’s concerned. “I’m fine. I just…if you ever do want to set out what really happened, then the offer’s there. The offer is always there.” He shrugs, and meets Geralt’s gaze. “Tell me as much as you want of it, and I’ll put it into song. I’ll even let you hear it before I sing it anywhere.”

Geralt stares at him. Roach, confused about why both of them have stopped in the middle of the path, nudges at Geralt with her nose. “Leave it, Roach,” he mutters to her, not looking away from Jaskier. “You think people would actually listen?”

“They’ve been listening to your stories so far,” Jaskier reminds him. “And people love a misunderstood hero.”

At that, Geralt snorts. “I’m not a hero, Jaskier.”

Jaskier shrugs again. “Depends on how you define it. Need I remind you, I can write it however you like. You want everyone to hate the shitty sorcerer for what he did? Done. Want Renfri immortalised in song? Easy. Tell me the story, I’ll put it into song and spread it wherever I go. I can hand it off to other people as well, there are plenty of other bards out there, even if none of them are as good as I am.” Geralt arches a brow at that, and Jaskier grins. “I know, but it is true. I can tell the proper story, change peoples’ minds. If you ever want me to.”

“Why do you care what people think about me?” Geralt asks. He clicks at Roach, tugging gently on the reins until she starts walking forwards. “It doesn’t bother me.”

Jaskier tries to dampen down the incredulous look on his face, and hopes that Geralt doesn’t notice it. “It bothers me sometimes,” he says. He shrugs, and starts walking again. “You’re a good man, Geralt.”

Geralt snorts. “Sure.”

“I tell stories for a living,” Jaskier reminds him. “I spend a lot of time learning how people work, how they think and love and see the world. And you, my friend, by pretty much any measure that people use, are a good man.” He falls into step on the other side of Roach. “Just give me the word and I’ll write it. However you want it told.”

Geralt is silent. Jaskier has just about given up on any more conversation and is beginning to pick at lyric ideas in his head, when Geralt glances over at him. “Thank you.”

“Eh, not a problem.” Jaskier pauses. “Can I ride Roach?”

“Don’t push your luck.”

Chapter Text

There’s still dried blood on his face.

He can feel it under his fingertips, the flakes falling apart as he runs his fingers over his chin again. There’s more on his neck, itching every time he turns his head. He can still remember it spilling out of his mouth, the way it had soaked into his shirt and stuck it to his skin. The horrible, heart-wrenching feeling of suddenly not being able to breathe properly.

Jaskier grabs his waterskin and a piece of his now-ruined shirt, wetting the cloth and scrubbing it over his chin and neck. Cold water drips down his chest but he can still feel the blood there, still feel the flakes stuck to his skin and staining it dark. He can still taste it on his tongue, and he scrubs harder, pressing into his neck until he can feel his pulse hammering beneath his fingers.

“Jaskier.”

Geralt is in front of him, an unreadable expression on his face as he stares down at him. Jaskier pauses, cloth dropping from his chin. “What? Regretting leaving what’s-her-name behind?”

“Yennefer, and she had other things to do.” Geralt is still staring at him. It’s getting somewhat creepy at this point, and Jaskier looks away, going back to trying to get the blood off his neck.

“Oh well, I’m sure we’ll run into her again. Or I’ll just bugger off somewhere else and you two can have some nice alone time.” Jaskier presses harder into his neck, scraping the cloth down across his skin. He can taste blood on his tongue, and resists the urge to cough.

“Jaskier,” Geralt growls. He pauses, glancing away as he clenches his jaw. Jaskier just sits there and watches him until he sighs and turns back towards Jaskier. “What are you doing?”

“What does it look like, Geralt,” Jaskier snaps. “Trying to get all this fucking blood off my face.”

Geralt sighs, and suddenly he crouches down next to where Jaskier is sat on the ground. “Jaskier,” he says again, but this time it comes out completely different, his normal growl curling and softening around the name. “You’ve cleaned all the blood off already.”

“What?” Jaskier asks. He reaches for his throat, fingertips running over the skin. He can still feel the flakes of blood. “I can still feel some of it. Right here, see?”

Geralt reaches out and takes the piece of cloth out of his hand, tugging it gently from between his fingers. “Here,” he says gruffly. “I’ll get it.” He reaches out and Jaskier goes very still as Geralt carefully takes his chin in one hand and tilts Jaskier’s head to one side. The wet cloth drags slowly across his skin, Geralt’s thumb tracing across the hollow of his throat. Jaskier suppresses a shiver.

“There,” Geralt mutters after a few moments. “Good as new.”

“Thanks,” Jaskier gets out. He clears his throat, wincing at the rasp. “So, where to now?”

Geralt moves away, sitting down across from him in the small clearing they’re taking a short break in. They’re half a day out from Rinde and that whole mess, neither Geralt or Jaskier keen to stick around to try and explain anything after Yennefer left. Jaskier isn’t sure which direction they’ve been going in. Everything has mostly been a haze since they left, Yennefer going one way and the two of them going the other.

Geralt shrugs. “There’s another town a few hours down the road. We can reach it around nightfall if we leave soon. Get some sleep in real beds for a few nights.” He turns the ragged piece of cloth from Jaskier’s shirt over in his hands. “There’s enough money to wait a bit before finding the next job.”

“If there’s a tavern, I can sing for our supper,” Jaskier says.

Geralt looks up immediately. “You should wait,” he says abruptly. “You sound terrible.”

“What a glowing review,” Jaskier remarks, just to see Geralt scowl at him. “Go on, tell me how you really feel.”

Surprisingly, Geralt goes quiet. “What,” Jaskier asks. His hand drops from where his fingertips have been dragging across the skin of his throat. “What is it?”

Geralt glances up at him. “I don’t- Jaskier, what I said before. About your…singing.”

Jaskier immediately braces himself. “You’re a good singer, Jaskier,” Geralt says haltingly, like the admission is painful. “I- I like your songs. Most of them. The ones that aren’t too trite.”

Jaskier’s jaw drops open. “I’m sorry, did you openly just admit to liking my music? No, no you don’t get to take that back!” He grins at Geralt’s expression. “You admitted it. Oh, I’m going to write so many new songs. And just for you, I’ll ease off on the so-called trite ones as well.”

“I’m touched,” Geralt mutters, but Jaskier sees the slight curl to his lips that would be a full smile on anyone else. He reaches over and pulls some of Roach’s discarded tack closer, pulling out a cloth rag and a small pot of lanolin and beeswax out from one of the saddlebags. He gets to work cleaning the leather of the grime and dirt.

Jaskier heaves himself to his feet with a sigh. Roach is tied up to the other side of the clearing, grazing quietly. The sun is shining overhead, there are birds singing and insects buzzing and trees doing whatever it is they do in perfect summer weather. It’s a world away from the frantic haze earlier, the blood pooling in his mouth and coating his throat and that horrible, ringing fear that this might be it.

Jaskier takes a deep breath and lets it back out, tilting his head back to stare up at the sky as he wanders in slow circles. He’s fine. He nearly died earlier today, but he’s fine. His throat barely hurts anymore. A few more days and a lot of tea with honey in it and he’ll be fine.

A few small bugs dart in front of him, and then a few more. Jaskier grimaces, swatting them away from his face. He turns towards Geralt, ready to throw out a complaint about the number of irritating little creatures in the world that exist solely to annoy him, but as soon as he opens his mouth, he breathes in and a bug goes straight down his throat.

Jaskier coughs instinctively, spluttering as he spits the bug back out. He tries to breathe back in and it hitches and catches in his throat. He coughs again, hand flying up to his throat as it convulses. Every attempt at breathing scrapes through his throat and makes him cough and gasp for air. He can’t breathe. He can’t fucking breathe.

“Jaskier?”

He can’t see anything more than a blur as tears stream down his face. Every cough rips through his chest and there’s no air, there’s not enough air. He can’t fucking breathe. He can taste blood in his mouth. That djinn is back and there’s blood in his mouth and he can’t fucking breathe.

“Jaskier!”

His knees hit the ground. There’s grass under his hands and he grips at it, tufts ripped up between his fingers. He reaches up and clutches at his throat. He can’t breathe. Oh gods, he can’t breathe. He can taste blood, his mouth is full of blood and he’s going to drown in it, oh gods he’s going to drown in his own blood and he’s going to die right here because he can’t. Fucking. Breathe.

“Ger-”

He can’t get the words out. He can’t do anything but cough and sputter and desperately gasp for a breath that isn’t there.

“Jaskier!”

There are hands on him, grabbing his shoulders. They haul him upright and Jaskier falls back against a strong, steady warmth. “Ger- I can’t-”

“Jaskier.” Geralt’s voice is slow and steady, a low growl in Jaskier’s ear. “You’re okay. You’re going to be fine. Deep breaths.” There’s a hand gripping his, another spread wide and heavy across his chest. “Breathe, Jaskier.”

Can’t,” Jaskier gets out. “I- I can’t, oh gods, Geralt- the djinn, I- I can’t breathe.”

“Yes, you can.” Geralt’s hand squeezes his. “Deep breaths. The djinn is gone. You’re safe. I won’t let anything happen to you.”

Finally, Jaskier heaves in a desperate breath. And then another. “Good,” Geralt says, his voice low in Jaskier’s ear. “Keep breathing. You’re doing good.”

The mouth of a waterskin is pressed to his lips. Jaskier gulps down a mouthful, only to choke on it and sputter, desperately gasping for air as water spills down his front. “I can’t,” he gets out. “I- Geralt. I can’t- the djinn, Geralt-”

“Is long gone. I won’t let anything happen to you. Deep breaths, Jaskier. Just take deep breaths.”

Jaskier sucks in a breath, and then another. Geralt is a solid weight at his back, one hand resting on his chest. Jaskier can feel it shift, Geralt’s fingers ghosting across his skin with every ragged breath he manages.

He doesn’t know how long he sits there, eyes squeezed shut as he struggles for air. Geralt doesn’t say anything else, doesn’t move from where he’s propping Jaskier up. The sun is warm on his face, and eventually Jaskier’s breathing quietens enough that he can hear the birds again.

He groans, opening his eyes and squinting at the blinding blue sky he’s staring up at.

A waterskin is pressed into his hands. Jaskier abruptly realises that he’s leant heavily against Geralt, his head resting back on Geralt’s shoulder. He flinches away, sprawling on the grass in a tangle of limbs. “Fuck,” he spits out.

He had been doing so well. Not thinking about how close he’d gotten to dying. And then one stupid little bug, and he can’t keep it together enough to realise that it’s just a fucking insect and not a djinn come back to pick up where it left off.

He rolls over and pushes himself up to his knees. The waterskin is on the ground next to him, and he swipes it without looking at Geralt. His hands are shaking, and half the water ends up over his front instead of in his mouth, but it’s fine. He’s fine.

“Jaskier.”

“I’m fine,” he gets out. He wipes the back of his hand over his mouth and tells himself it’s stupid to check whether it’s blood or not. He’s fine. Yennefer fixed everything, he isn’t going to drop dead from a djinn attack anytime soon.

A hand grasps his shoulder. “Jaskier.”

What, Geralt?” Jaskier snaps. He spins to him, feet churning up grass. Nearby, Roach pricks her ears up and snorts at them.

Geralt is on his knees, one hand still outstretched towards Jaskier. As Jaskier watches, he slowly lowers his hand.

“What,” Jaskier snaps again. “What do you want me to say? Would you like an apology for how I’m such a fucking mess? Sorry I haven’t instantly forgotten how a djinn nearly killed me earlier today. Sorry I made you watch me freak out over it just now, that I can’t just get over it like I’m sure you think I should. Sorry for being such a fucking burden, Geralt. That good enough for you?”

Geralt quirks a brow. Jaskier stares at him as a small smile curls the corner of Geralt’s lips. “Oh, because this is so fucking hilarious,” Jaskier spits at him. “Laugh it up, Geralt. Poor Jaskier, can’t even cope with a measly djinn trying to kill him without losing his marbles. I bet I look so damn stupid to you.”

“Jaskier,” Geralt sighs. He cocks his head, studying him until Jaskier glances away. “Do you really think I think that?”

Jaskier throws his hands up in the air. “I don’t know! You seemed pretty damn distracted by that Yennefer. You barely even glanced at me to check I was okay and not, I don’t know, permanently damaged by that fucking djinn?”

“I trusted Yennefer when she said that you would fully recover. Mages from Aretuza know what they are doing.” Geralt isn’t looking away from Jaskier, and Jaskier can feel his hands starting to shake again. He reaches for the waterskin and gulps down another mouthful. Geralt’s gaze is still fixed on him. “And if you weren’t,” he adds, “I would find her and make her fix it.”

Jaskier snorts. “Like she would do that.”

“I would make her,” Geralt says, like that solves everything. “And it’s not…you aren’t stupid, Jaskier, for being scared.”

“You’re never scared,” Jaskier says before he can help himself.

Geralt grimaces. “I’m a witcher. We don’t retire from our jobs, Jaskier. We get slow, or we make a mistake, and we get killed. So, they prepare us for that.” He shakes his head. “You? You’re a bard. They don’t teach you at your universities what this is like. If they did, I don’t think anyone would ever leave.”

Jaskier sits back. “Oh.”

“You’re not stupid for being scared, Jaskier,” Geralt says again. “You’re just…human.”

“And you’re not?”

Geralt snorts at that. “You already know the answer to that.”

Jaskier has absolutely no idea what to say to that, so he says nothing. He drains the waterskin instead. His hands are still trembling and he stretches his fingers out, watching them shake in the air.

When he looks up, Geralt is watching them too. He says nothing, just watches them for a few seconds. Abruptly, he gets to his feet.

Jaskier ducks his head. He doesn’t think that after all this, Geralt would just get up, take his stuff and ride off to leave him behind, but he doesn’t think he’d be surprised if he did. After all, what’s Jaskier proved with all of this? He’s just human, weak and pathetic and utterly unlike Geralt. Even now he craves Geralt’s hand on his shoulder again, the warmth of his body as he’d propped him up and taken his weight, the way he’d dragged Jaskier around that house with a hand firmly on the back of his neck.

He’ll just head…somewhere else. Anywhere else. Find someone who will at least pretend to have him for a while.

There’s the sound of footsteps on grass, and then a pile of leather falls straight into his lap. Jaskier jumps, and then jumps again when Geralt sits on the ground right next to him and starts untangling the pieces of leather he’s just dumped on Jaskier.

“What’s this?” Jaskier asks. He’s only half paying attention to whatever Geralt has dumped on him. The rest of him is too caught up in the warm press of Geralt again his side, how his hand brushes Jaskier’s legs with every movement as he untangles the leathers.

“Roach’s tack,” Geralt says. He presses a cloth into Jaskier’s hand, and sets down a small pot with that distinctive smell of lanolin and beeswax at his feet. “It needs cleaning, and the stitching needs checking. It’ll go quicker with both of us.” He hands Jaskier a small knife. “Scrape the dirt off with the back of this first, then rub in the mixture in that pot. Check none of the stitches are coming out. If they are, just give them to me. I’ll fix it.”

Jaskier picks up a piece of leather and lets it dangle between his fingers. “Hmm.”

“Quicker we do this, the quicker we can get going again and get you to a real bed,” Geralt just mutters as he pulls Roach’s saddle over and starts going over it, tracing all the stitching. “It shouldn’t be that far.”

“We?”

“I’m not letting you wander off on your own anytime soon,” Geralt says with a snort. “Who knows what trouble you’ll get yourself into.” He turns over a flap on the saddle, scraping off some of the built-up dirt with the back of his knife. “Besides. Need to make sure you’re alright before anything else.”

Jaskier’s breath shudders in his throat, and he suddenly finds himself blinking fiercely as his vision blurs. He hastily wipes at his eyes before he ruins the leather on his lap. “Sure,” he gets out. “Sounds good.”

Geralt hums in the back of his throat. He doesn’t say anything else, just keeps pulling apart the leather in Jaskier’s lap as he cleans it. His hand brushes across Jaskier’s leg with every movement, the warmth of his body not leaving Jaskier’s side. Jaskier takes a shaky breath, and gets to work.

By the time all of the tack is clean and laid out in the sun, Jaskier’s hands are steady and he can breathe again. Geralt puts everything back together with quick, sure movements, and then gets to his feet and heads over to Roach. Jaskier leans back on his hands and just watches as Geralt easily slings the saddlecloths and saddle onto Roach’s back, doing up the girth and fastening their saddle bags to the side. He picks up Jaskier’s lute, secure in its case, and ties it onto the other side of the saddle.

“We should get going before we lose the sun,” Geralt says over his shoulder, bridle in hand. He gathers the leather of the bridle in one hand, pressing the metal of the bit to Roach’s lips for her to take it.

Roach keeps her teeth firmly clamped together, and Jaskier watches in mild amusement as Geralt adjusts his grip and tries again. Roach turns her head away and tries to go straight back to grazing. Geralt just manages to catch her head with his knee, pushing it back up. “Roach,” he growls.

“She doesn’t seem very enthusiastic,” Jaskier comments.

Geralt hums. “Have it your way,” he tells Roach. “This is your own fault.” He promptly sticks his thumb in at the side of her mouth. Roach throws her head up in affront but Geralt grips her nose and keeps her head down. Roach opens her mouth and sticks her tongue out, and Geralt quickly slips the bit into her mouth. “See,” he murmurs to her. “That wasn’t so hard.” He slips the headpiece over her ears and does up the rest of the buckles, tugging on the sides of the bit until he’s seemingly satisfied with the way it sits in her mouth. He tugs on the reins and heads towards Jaskier, Roach ambling behind him, seemingly content. “Ready?”

Jaskier sighs, resigning himself to a few more hours of walking before he can finally collapse into a bed. “Sure.”

Geralt holds out a hand. His palm is rough and callused, fingers curling tight around Jaskier’s wrist as Jaskier takes it and gets pulled up to his feet. He stumbles slightly and Geralt catches him, Roach snorting at the sudden movement.

Jaskier feels the absence of Geralt’s touch as soon as he lets go and easily pulls himself up onto Roach’s back. Roach shifts underneath him, nosing at Jaskier, and Jaskier vaguely pats at her face. “Sorry for getting blood on you,” he says to her.

Geralt snorts. “She forgives you. Ready to leave?”

“Let’s go,” Jaskier says with a nod. He turns towards the path and makes himself start to walk on legs that feel more like jelly than actual legs.

“Jaskier.”

Jaskier glances back over his shoulder at Geralt, and then stutters to a stop. Geralt has one hand held out down towards him. “You look like you’re about to fall over,” he just says.

Jaskier tries not to grin up at Geralt as he takes his hand and fits his foot into the stirrup. It’s a bit ungraceful and Geralt has to mostly pull him up, but Jaskier makes it up onto Roach’s back, securely sat behind Geralt. “Don’t get used to it,” Geralt mutters as he picks up the reins. He clicks his tongue at Roach to move off.

Geralt is warm against him, and the sun is high in the sky above them. Jaskier feels his eyes slipping shut without his permission as exhaustion creeps up behind him. Before he can stop himself, his head droops forwards and stops against Geralt’s shoulder.

“Jaskier?”

Geralt’s voice is a low rumble in his ear. Jaskier just hums, his cheek pressing into the solid muscle of Geralt’s shoulder. He’s so tired.

“Oh,” he hears Geralt murmur. Roach slows underneath him, and then Jaskier feels a hand gently close around his forearm. Geralt tugs Jaskier’s arm around his waist, holding him more securely in place on Roach. Jaskier is too tired to do anything but tangle his fingers in Geralt’s shirt and hold on. He dozes off as Geralt clicks at Roach and she moves off again, the sound of her hooves against the dirt track slowly lulling him to sleep.

Chapter Text

Things change, after that.

Geralt is closer. More inclined to touch him if he needs something, move him around with a hand on his arm or the back of his neck if Jaskier is being too slow. Sometimes, Jaskier catches Geralt watching him out of the corner of his eye as they wander down another road, and he doesn’t think he’s imagining the way Geralt occasionally smiles out at nothing when he thinks Jaskier isn’t looking.

And then they run into Yennefer again. And again.

Jaskier goes off on his own to Novigrad for months after one such encounter, loses himself in the rush of the big city, and tries to tell himself that it’s nothing to do with how Geralt seems to forget he’s there as soon as they come across her.

He understands the allure of something so undeniably not good for him, but he hates being on the other side of it. He pours himself into writing new songs, wandering through markets and just watching all the people move around him, living their own incredible lives. He fills up notebook after notebook with observations and thoughts that coalesce into lyrics, spends hours sat out in the winter sun with his lute in his lap, messing with chords until something falls into place. People know his name now, know some of his songs off by heart. Some taverns he walks into, he’s greeted with a rousing chorus of toss a coin to your witcher as soon as he crosses the threshold. It makes it a little hard to sing anything new, if he’s honest, but he’s appreciated the notoriety over the years and he isn’t going to get anything out of ignoring his most popular song.

“Oy, Jaskier!”

Jaskier jumps as a hand clamps on his shoulder. His inkpot wobbles precariously as his knee bangs into the underside of the table, and he darts forwards to grab it before it upends and spills everywhere. “Watch it,” he snaps, putting the stopper on the inkpot and pulling it closer towards him.

Someone falls into the seat across from him, and Jaskier looks up to see the grinning figure of Ada opposite. “Heard you were around,” she says, stealing his ale and taking a gulp. “Got anything new?”

Jaskier sets his quill down. “Working on it. Nothing yet.”

“Yeah, well your classics are still damn popular enough to keep your reputation up,” Ada says with a grin. “You should leave some for the rest of us, you know.”

“From what I hear, you’ve been doing well enough,” Jaskier remarks. “I’ve heard a couple of your songs, passing through the larger towns.” He closes his notebook, now the ink is dry enough, and leans back in his chair. The tavern is rowdy around them, the noise rising up out of the background it had faded into now he’s not paying attention to the mess of lyrics in his book.

“Eh, it’s not too bad. Was going to head south for the winter, only I’ve been hearing rumours about unrest from Nilfgaard. Shifting politics, that sort of thing.” Ada has fully stolen Jaskier’s ale now, and takes another swig. “Heard anything on your travels?”

“Bits and pieces, nothing certain.” Jaskier hasn’t been that far south with Geralt. There are more monsters up north, and he has never bothered to make such a trip on his own. Not with the rumours he’s been hearing slowly crawling north. “It might be worth not going further south than Cintra for now.”

“I’ll keep that in mind,” Ada says. She suddenly straightens up. “Oh! I know why I was looking for you. Your witcher is here.”

Jaskier definitely does not nearly leap up off his seat. “What?”

Ada grins slyly at him. “Oh, honey. Someone told me that someone told them- you know how that goes. Anyway, they saw him on the outer edge of the city this morning. They may have said something about him asking where a certain bard is? I’m not sure, by that point I was more distracted by the cute barmaid and I wasn’t paying much attention.”

Jaskier knows it comes across as a little bit pathetic to immediately start packing up the satchel next to him on the seat, but he does it anyway. He has a fairly decent idea of where Geralt might be on the city edge. He probably won’t come into the centre where Jaskier is now, not with the amount of people in the streets, which means Jaskier will have to go out and find him.

“Leaving so soon?” Ada asks with a grin. “I’m sure your witcher won’t disappear for an hour or two. Sit. Have a drink with me. Listen to me complain about my pathetic excuse for a love life, and in return I’ll let you complain as much as you want about whatever it is that has you here instead of off with your witcher.” She polishes off his mug of ale. “I’ll even buy the next round.”

Jaskier groans. “Fine. I’d be an idiot to pass up free ale.”

They’re deep into a conversation on whether heckling is acceptable if the performance really is that bad when the door to the tavern opens and the chatter in the background abruptly dies. Jaskier looks up to see a familiar silhouette framed in the doorway.

“Geralt!” he calls out, waving a hand. “Shut the door behind you, you’re letting all the warmth out.”

Geralt eases the door shut behind him and heads towards their table. Every single person in the tavern turns their head to watch him as he walks past, and whispers break out in his wake. Jaskier knows that Geralt hears them, but he just puts a large smile on his face and shifts over to make room at the table. “Fancy seeing you here,” he says. He scans over him quickly. He doesn’t look injured or otherwise hurt, and he wasn’t limping, but there’s a slight tick in his jaw, his eyes darting quickly around the place before settling on Jaskier. “How’s things?”

Geralt hesitates, standing at the edge of the table. “Fine,” he just says. His gaze skips over to Ada and he hesitates, that muscle jumping out in his jaw a little more.

“This is Ada,” Jaskier says. “We studied together at Oxenfurt, and she has terrible taste in women. Ada, Geralt.”

Ada nods at him. “Nice to meet the witcher that’s helped inflate Jaskier’s ego to the point that he’s utterly terrible.” Jaskier snorts at that, and she laughs. “No, it’s even worse. He’s just as unbearably cheerful as he was when we were skipping out on classes together.” She drains her mug and sets it back down on the table. “I’ll leave you two to catch up. I’ll see you round, Jaskier.”

Jaskier gives her a wave, and Ada slips out from the tavern. “Sit down and stop just hovering there,” he tells Geralt. “Unless you’re not here for little old me?”

Geralt slides into the seat opposite Jaskier. “So,” Jaskier says, tipping his mug of ale back and forth with his fingers. “How’ve you been? How’s Yennefer?”

“You were there last time I saw her.” Geralt catches the eye of the barmaid and raises the empty tankard in a question, and she starts to head their way. “I don’t know any better than you.”

Jaskier hums, arching a brow at him. “I’m sure you know her much better than I do.”

He’s surprised when Geralt snorts and looks away with a slight shake of his head. “I’ve met her three times now. I’ve known you for nearly two decades.” The barmaid brings over a mug of ale, and Geralt drains half of it in one go. “There are reports of young couples walking out onto the moors around Denesle and not returning. I’m heading north from here to look into it.” He pauses, and anyone else might miss it, but Jaskier sees the hesitation there for a moment. “It will probably make a good story.”

“Is that your way of asking me if you want me to accompany you?” Jaskier asks.

Geralt glances away. “Hmm.”

“Nope, that’s not actually an answer, despite what you might think.” Jaskier takes a swig of ale and sets it down a little harder on the table than he actually meant to. “Why are you here, Geralt?”

Geralt doesn’t quite meet his gaze. “You said you were heading this way when you left. Novigrad was closer to where I was than Oxenfurt, so I came here first.”

“And you came all the way into the centre of the city, even though I know you don’t like the looks you get being around a fuckton of people, why?”

“Jaskier,” Geralt growls.

Jaskier leans back in his seat. “I’ve known you for nearly two decades, you can’t scare me with that tone anymore, if you ever did. Admit it, Geralt. Admit that you maybe missed my company just a little bit, and I’ll go and pack my bags right now and go with you wherever you want to go.”

Geralt throws back the rest of his ale in one long swallow. Jaskier just crosses his arms and waits. It’s been two decades now. He doesn’t have to spend his time second-guessing whether Geralt cares about him or not.

“Fine,” Geralt mutters eventually. “I did…it was quiet, without you there. Too quiet.”

“And…”

Geralt fixes him with a look that Jaskier easily returns. He’s had a lot of practice over the years. “I’m not doing this guessing game over whether you want my company or not. And?”

“And I missed your company,” Geralt growls. “Happy?”

Jaskier grins at him. “Ecstatic. Was that so hard for you?”

Geralt glares at him. “Can you leave tonight?”

“Ah, I promised the lovely tavern owner I’d play here tonight.” Jaskier glances around at the various patrons scattered around the place. “I know it doesn’t look it right now, but this is one of the nicer taverns in the city, and it’s got a good reputation. Look, the floor is hardly sticky. It’ll fill up better once people finish work in a few hours.” He swirls the remnants of his ale around in the bottom of his mug. “Did you bring Roach, or did you leave her on the edge of the city?”

“She’s tied up outside.” Geralt is eyeing the mug in Jaskier’s hands, and Jaskier pushes it over to him. “Thanks.”

“I’ve got a room here for tonight. We can leave first thing in the morning before the streets get really busy. There are stables back out for Roach.” Jaskier drums his fingers on the tabletop. “My room is big enough for the both of us, if you want to save some money. And the tavern owner likes me enough to let me use the bath free of charge. You know, just in case.”

“Was that a hint?”

“Eh, just a small one. I’ll ask them to start heating some water over the fire.”

A small smile curls Geralt’s lips. “I’ll take Roach round to the stables.” Jaskier fishes for the key in his pocket and tosses it at Geralt, who easily snatches it out of the air. He pauses as he walks past Jaskier, and his hand drops onto Jaskier’s shoulder. “It’s good to see you,” he says quietly, as Jaskier tries not to shiver at the warmth of his hand, the way his fingers drag across his collarbone. “I did…I missed having you around.”

Jaskier’s grin softens into something else entirely as he looks up at Geralt. “Can’t wait for yet more blood and running from monsters.” On an impulse, he reaches up and grips Geralt’s forearm. “Tell Roach I say hello.”

Geralt snorts, squeezes his shoulder and heads out of the door. Jaskier reaches for his notebook and quill. If the smile doesn’t disappear from his face, or he starts whistling a half-composed tune to himself as he jots down some notes, then that’s nobody’s business but his own.

0-o-0-o-0

The last notes die out, and with one last flourish over the strings of the lute Jaskier brings the song to an end. He sketches a bow as the patrons applause. “Ladies, gentlemen, and everyone else who has to actually work for a living! That is all I have for you tonight, I’m afraid. I leave tomorrow morning for more adventures out in the great unknown, and I will bring back those tales for you all. Thank you, and good night!”

He picks up the hat that had been serving as an impromptu collection pot, feeling the satisfying weight of the coins jingling in the cloth. One last bow, and then he shoulders his lute and heads back up the stairs.

Geralt is where he left him, mixing up one of his foul potions in a mortar. He glances up as Jaskier enters. “They sounded like they enjoyed it,” he offers.

“Ah, were you listening in?” Jaskier asks. He sets his lute down on the bed and tosses the hat full of money down next to it with a satisfying jingle. “This tavern does always play well. Have you seen my case?”

“Exactly where you left it,” Geralt replies, nodding over at the mess of Jaskier’s things in the corner. “Under that thing you call a shirt.”

“Excuse you, that shirt is the height of fashion right now.” Jaskier grabs the case, tossing the shirt onto the bed. It’s not exactly a lie. The ruffles along the neck and the ruched sleeves are in fashion right now, but technically hasn’t spread to menswear yet. He may or may not have liked the look of it so much that he bought a women’s chemise, cut half of it off and hemmed it to turn it into an undershirt. “You know, you could have come downstairs with me. Instead of listening through the floorboards.”

Geralt snorts. “This city considers itself the height of civilisation. They don’t want a witcher sitting in their tavern.” He picks up an empty vial and carefully pours a dark liquid from the mortar into the vial, stoppering it and beginning to slowly drip hot wax around the edge to seal it.

“You may not have the best table manners after months spent out in the wilds, but you’re hardly uncivilised.” Jaskier fits his lute into its case and closes it up. He waves a hand at Geralt’s expression. “No, no, don’t whine at me. I get it. Don’t want to appear approachable, or anything but other than as emotional as a block of granite to people asking you to kill monsters for them, or you’d never make enough money to survive. Still. You and I both know none of that’s really true. Else you wouldn’t be here, right in the heart of Novigrad, just to come and find me before you set off again.”

“Hmm.”

“That just means you agree with me and don’t want to admit it.” Jaskier grabs his bag and starts stuffing some of the clothes strewn around the room into his bag. “Are you done making your potions, or should I leave the window open for a bit longer so I don’t suffocate on the fumes?”

Geralt rolls his eyes. “No, I’m done for now. I need to find more hellebore petals before I can make the other ones I need.”

“Right. Well, I have precisely no idea what those are, so I’m going to go back downstairs and have a drink or two. Are you sure-”

He cuts off abruptly as there’s a frantic knocking on the door. “Expecting anyone?” Jaskier asks Geralt, who just shrugs.

Jaskier opens the door as a second round of knocking, louder than the first, starts up. There’s a boy on the other side, fist still raised. “Uh- is the- I’m looking for the, uh- the witcher?”

Jaskier stares down at the kid. “Right,” he says slowly. “Geralt? It’s…for you?”

The lad peers around Jaskier as he opens the door further, eyes wide as he stares at Geralt. “Mister witcher, sir?” he asks, obviously so nervous that Jaskier almost feels sorry for him. “Uh- your-”

“Spit it out, kid,” Jaskier says.

“Your horse is colicking,” the kid blurts out in a rush.

“Fuck.” Geralt leaps to his feet and rushes out of the room. Jaskier hears the pounding of his feet as he runs down the stairs and then the tavern door slams open.

He turns back to the kid. “Drew the short straw, huh?” The kid just stares up at him, and Jaskier sighs. “Come on, then, let’s go.”

By the time he gets to the stables, Geralt is already in with Roach. Even Jaskier can tell that there’s something wrong with her. Her normally sleek coat is dull and patchy with sweat and she is walking in tight circles around the stable, tail swishing with every step. Geralt steps in front of her, murmuring low words that Jaskier can’t make out as he slips a halter onto her head. Roach pins her ears back at him and bares her teeth, before abruptly swinging her head around to nip at her side.

“Easy,” Geralt mutters. There’s another stable boy hovering by the door, and he turns to him. “How long has she been like this?”

“No more than twenty minutes,” the lad replies.

“You got paraffin here?”

“Sent a boy to get some.”

Geralt grunts. Roach shifts uneasily, one hind leg kicking at her stomach until Geralt clicks her tongue and tugs her forwards. The stable boy jumps back out of the way as Geralt pulls her out of the stable. “Bring the paraffin out to the courtyard. Find out if someone fed her something.”

Roach follows Geralt reluctantly out of the stable, trying to stop every few metres to bite at her sides. Geralt doesn’t spot Jaskier until he’s almost to him. “Everything okay?” Jaskier asks. Geralt glances at him, grunts, and walks Roach past.

Jaskier turns on his heel and follows him. “Geralt?”

The stable boy appears in front of him. “If you’re with him, here, take these.” He thrusts a bucket of water and a thick blanket into Jaskier’s hands. “Tell your witcher to just keep the horse walking. I’ll get the paraffin out to him as soon as the boy is back.” He disappears before Jaskier can say anything.

When Jaskier gets out the courtyard, his eyes adjusting to the low light from a few torches burning on the walls and a brazier or two across the yard, Geralt is walking in a slow circle with Roach. He glances up at Jaskier’s appearance, and then straight back to Roach. He’s talking to her still, a low murmur that Jaskier can’t make out.

“I have a bucket of water, and a blanket,” he says as he crosses the courtyard to him. “Where do you want them?”

Geralt pauses. “Put the bucket down there, bring the blanket over here.” His voice is tight, and Jaskier can see the tense line of his shoulders, the muscle jumping in his jaw. He all but rips the blanket out of Jaskier’s hands as soon as he’s close enough, bringing Roach to a halt to shake it out and settle it over her. Almost as soon as he stops her, Roach is turning and trying to bite at her side, pawing at the ground. Geralt clicks his tongue at her, and they begin their slow walk again.

“What’s wrong with her?” Jaskier asks. He reaches out and scratches Roach’s neck. Under his fingers her coat is stiff with sweat, heat radiating off of her. She swishes her tail, head swinging around, and Jaskier pushes her nose back towards Geralt. “No, I don’t think that’s a good idea,” he tells her. “Geralt?”

“She’s colicking,” Geralt growls.

“Yeah, I don’t know what that means. Is she going to be okay?”

“She’s…she must have been fed something bad for her,” Geralt says eventually. “I don’t know what it was, I- I don’t know. She can’t- horses can’t throw up something bad for them, but I don’t know how bad it was.”

“So what, she’s got the stomach ache from hell?”

Geralt doesn’t say anything, but his expression is enough for Jaskier to work out the answer. “Okay. Alright. So, what do we do?”

“I can’t let her stop walking. If she stops and tries to get down on the ground to roll, it could make it worse.” Geralt glances back towards the tavern. “But there’s- I have some things in my saddlebags that might help. I need-”

“Okay, well you give her to me, and I’ll keep her walking whilst you get whatever you need.” Jaskier holds his hand out for the rope.

Geralt hesitates, and then presses the rope into Jaskier’s outstretched hand. “You cannot let her stop, Jaskier,” he says quietly, his hand still gripping Jaskier’s. “She has to keep walking.”

There’s a quip about how little Geralt trusts him on the tip of Jaskier’s tongue, but Jaskier bites it back at the obvious worry etched into every line of Geralt’s expression. He just nods, and Geralt turns and disappears.

Jaskier wraps the rope around his hand. “Right, let’s keep going.”

Roach plants her feet and pulls back against the rope. “Roach,” Jaskier growls at her. “Come on, don’t be an idiot. You’ve got to keep walking.” He tugs on the rope again, and this time Roach reluctantly takes a few steps forwards. “There we go,” he murmurs to her. “That’s not so hard now, is it? Let’s just keep doing that. One hoof in front of the other.”

Roach tries to swing her head around to the side, and Jaskier pulls her back around. “No, darling, that’s a bad idea. Come on, you don’t want to worry Geralt any more than you are already. Let’s just keep walking and then neither of us will get in trouble with him.”

He’s managed a full loop of the courtyard with Roach, pulling her along every time she tries to stop, when Geralt reappears, a vial clutched tightly in his hand. Surprisingly, Geralt doesn’t take the rope back from Jaskier. He just walks on the other side of Roach, one hand pressing under her jaw to where Jaskier presumes he can feel her pulse. He pulls her lip up, pressing one thumb into the gums above her front teeth and holding it there for a few seconds until he pulls it back, grunting at whatever he sees there. Roach rolls her eyes and tries to pull the rope out of Jaskier’s hand, but Jaskier just holds on and keeps walking.

Another two loops and a stable boy comes running up, a bottle in his hands. “Paraffin, sir,” he gets out between gasps for breath. Geralt snatches the bottle out of his hands, and grabs Roach’s halter to bring her to a stop.

Jaskier steps back, and Geralt’s gaze cuts to him. Jaskier suppresses a shiver as Geralt reaches out and takes his hand. “Don’t wrap the rope around your hand like that,” he says quietly, not looking away from Jaskier as he takes his hand and unwraps the rope from where Jaskier had wrapped it in coils around his palm. “If she pulls away, you’ll get hurt. Hold it like this.” He presses the rope into Jaskier’s hand, and then takes Jaskier’s other hand and curls it around the end of the rope.

Jaskier holds on tight to the rope as Geralt finally looks away from him, grabs Roach’s halter and uncorks the vial in his hand.

A few minutes later and Jaskier’s palms are stinging fiercely from trying to keep hold of a half-ton animal. Roach finally subsides as Geralt drops the paraffin-soaked cloth to the ground and rubs a hand down her neck. “Easy,” he murmurs to her as her hooves clatter on the cobblestones. “Easy now. You’re okay.”

“She’ll be okay, right?” Jaskier asks.

Geralt glances away. “If she is going to get better, it will be in the next hour now. If she doesn’t…”

“She’s going to be just fine.” Jaskier pats her on the neck. “Aren’t you, Roach? A little stomach ache is nothing compared to all the shit you’ve done for us so far.” He looks over at Geralt. “She’ll be fine.”

Geralt doesn’t look convinced, and Jaskier doesn’t press it.

They start walking again.

Jaskier tucks his hands under his armpits to try and keep them warm as they do slow laps of the courtyard, Roach occasionally digging her heels in and refusing to move until Geralt growls at her. Jaskier keeps quiet, occasionally taking the rope whilst Geralt fetches a fresh bucket of water or disappears into the stables for a few moments.

He doesn’t think he has ever seen Geralt look this worried. One hand constantly rests on Roach’s neck as he walks her, fingers tangled in her mane.

Eventually, Roach begins to quieten. She stops trying to kick at her stomach as much, stops nearly knocking Jaskier over when she swings her head around to bite at her side. The sweat slowly dries on her coat, and slowly the furrowed brow and ticking muscle in Geralt’s jaw both begin to dissipate.

“You really care about her, don’t you?”

Geralt looks over from where he’d been adjusting the rug across Roach’s back, his expression unreadable. “I’m not- I’m not saying anything bad about it,” Jaskier adds. “Just…you really do care about her a lot.”

Roach nudges at Geralt with her nose, lipping at his empty hand. Geralt absent-mindedly catches her bottom lip and tugs gently at it. “I think she’s over the worst of it. I’m going to keep walking her for another hour, but you can go back inside.”

Jaskier shrugs. “I’ll stay with you for a bit longer.” He pats Roach on the neck, running his fingers through her coat. “She’s going to be fine, Geralt.”

“What do you know about horses?” Geralt mutters. “You have no idea what’s going on.”

“I’m only concerned about her. And you,” Jaskier adds, trying not to smart at Geralt’s tone. “You know, seeing as you are my friend and everything. Even if I disappear to you every time Yennefer turns up.”

Geralt sighs. “Jaskier.”

Jaskier shakes his head. Too late to back out now. “Don’t try to deny it, Geralt, you know it’s true.” Geralt won’t meet his gaze, and he tries not to let it sting. “It’s fine. She’s all powerful and entrancing and whatever other adjectives you’d like to throw around. Of course she captures your attention. I just don’t quite appreciate being left at the side of the road every time we run into her.”

“I don’t-”

“Don’t lie to me, Geralt, or I swear to all the gods I will never respect you again.”

Geralt glares up at the dark sky above them. “Jaskier,” he growls.

Jaskier takes the rope and clicks at Roach to get her to keep walking. “It’s fine, I’m well aware that I come in second to whatever Yennefer is to you. I have other things to occupy my time with whilst you’re…busy. I just wish…”

“What.”

Jaskier curses in his head. It’s late, most of his attention is taken up by Roach and making sure she isn’t on the ground, and he’s still distracted by the fact that Geralt came here, right into the heart of a city full of people ready to spit at him for what they made him into, to find him.

Geralt is staring right at him, and Jaskier heaves a sigh. “I just wish- ah, I don’t know. For some credit? Some acknowledgement that you like having me around? That I am, in any way, useful to you?”

Geralt arches a brow. The barest of smiles curls the corner of his lips, and Jaskier resists the urge to throttle Geralt with Roach’s leadrope. If nothing else, it’s unfair to Roach with all she’s got going on right now.

“Oh, of course you find it so fucking funny,” he snaps. “Poor Jaskier. So utterly useless. Can’t even defend myself, or get out of shit situations by myself, or be at all helpful. Unable to do anything compared to the all-powerful Yennefer. So utterly…human.”

“Don’t,” Geralt growls. He strides forwards and grips Jaskier’s wrist, tugging him to a stop. “Don’t, Jaskier.”

“Don’t what?” Jaskier tries to pull his wrist free, but Geralt just tightens his grip.

“You’re not useless,” Geralt growls at him. “How do you- Jaskier. Why would I be here if I thought were you useless?”

“I don’t know, you seem to find the idea hilarious,” Jaskier snaps. He tries to tug his wrist free again. “Let me go, Geralt.”

“I don’t-”

“Geralt. Let me go.”

Geralt’s gaze drops to where his hand is wrapped around Jaskier’s wrist, and he abruptly lets go. “Jaskier,” he says again, but his voice has softened, wraps around Jaskier’s name in a way that sends a shiver straight down his spine without any sort of permission. “Do you really think you are useless?”

“Compared to Yennefer? Absolutely. I can play a lute and sing quite well, as long as it’s not your opinion being asked. She can literally destroy houses if she gets pissed enough.” Jaskier turns away, clicking his tongue as he asks Roach to start walking again.

Geralt’s fingers close around his wrist. His grip is loose, fingers brushing over the soft skin on the inside of his wrist. Jaskier, despite himself, stops and turns back to him.

Geralt steps forwards, his brow furrowed. “Jaskier,” he says again, his voice softer than Jaskier has heard for a long time. “How do you not know how important you are?”

Jaskier swears that the ground drops straight out from under his feet.

Somehow, Geralt doesn’t seem to have noticed. His thumb brushes over Jaskier’s pulse point. “Why do think I’m here?” he asks.

“I don’t know, because Yennefer wasn’t around and you were running out of money?”

Geralt shakes his head. “Why do you have such a hard time believing that I came here to find you?”

“Oh, because my company is so important to you,” Jaskier snaps. Geralt’s gaze is fixed on him and he looks away, staring at Roach instead. “Leave off, Geralt,” he mutters, anger slowly giving way to exhaustion. “I’m not in the mood for this. And if you lie to me and pretend like you’re not entranced by Yennefer just to…I don’t know, spare my feelings? I don’t care that you’re a witcher, I will knee you right in the balls.”

“I’m not-”

“Knee. Balls.”

Geralt sighs. “Fine,” he mutters. Roach butts at his side and he catches her head with one hand, scratching his fingers through her forelock. “Yennefer is…complicated.”

Jaskier snorts. “Tell me something I don’t know.”

Geralt shakes his head. “Yennefer…she appears and disappears and- and she acts as if she only cares about power and wealth and control, but I’m not sure that is true anymore. Or if it ever was. And she doesn’t just want power for power’s sake. I don’t know much of Aretuza, but I know the mages sometimes have little choice in what they become.”

“Not really following,” Jaskier says, “but go on.”

“Jaskier, do you think I had any choice in this?” Geralt asks. He sets his jaw, not looking up from Roach. He still hasn’t let go of Jaskier’s wrist, and his thumb drags across Jaskier’s pulse point, brushing over the sensitive skin on the inside of Jaskier’s wrist. “In being made into this? We didn’t get asked if we wanted to be this. It just…happened.”

“Geralt,” Jaskier says softly. Geralt glances at him, and then away again.

“Yennefer is- it’s like when you have part of a song that you can’t get out of your head, one that you don’t know how to finish. You sing the notes over and over again, looking for the next part. I can’t get her out of my head when I’m around her.” Geralt thumb skips over Jaskier’s pulse point, and he still isn’t looking at him. Jaskier resists the urge to press his fingers along the line of Geralt’s jaw, reach out and turn Geralt’s face towards him.

“But this…it’s a lonely life, Jaskier,” Geralt says eventually. “And people who care, who are honest about caring, I’ve found to be rare.” He runs his hand down Roach’s neck. “My most constant companion is often Roach. I have a horse, but I also-” He breaks off, shaking his head. “Yennefer, she comes and she goes. But you…you’re the one who’s still here.”

“Oh,” Jaskier breathes. Geralt’s hand is warm around his wrist, and in a sudden bout of daring he slides his arm up, and lets his fingers gently tangle with Geralt’s.

Geralt clenches his jaw and turns away. “Roach needs to keep walking.”

His hand is limp in Jaskier’s, but he doesn’t pull away. They start another slow loop around the courtyard.

“Why do you care so much?”

Jaskier stumbles over his own feet, startling Roach and making her snort. Geralt’s hand tightens around his, pulling him back to his feet. “I’m sorry, what?” Jaskier asks, trying desperately to ignore the fact that Geralt is still holding onto his hand.

“About…about leaving. You were talking for a month about coming down to Novigrad before you left. I thought you wanted to. Needed some time amongst other people.” Geralt turns the corner and clicks his tongue at Roach.

Jaskier swallows. “I think technically I said I needed to spend some time around people, period. I’m a bard, I sometimes need the chatter of an oblivious crowd or the attention of a larger audience than what we tend to find out in the middle of nowhere.” He glances over at Geralt, who’s watching Roach with a focus that Jaskier really doesn’t believe.

He swallows again. He wonders if Geralt can feel how sweaty his palm is getting where they’re still somehow holding hands. “I did want to come down here,” he says eventually.

“But?”

“But what?” Jaskier shrugs, and tries to pretend that he’s not overthinking every single thing that comes out of his mouth. “What do you want me to say, Geralt? It wasn’t under the ideal circumstances, is that it? We’ve covered my general feelings of inadequacy compared to Yennefer already. I think it’s safe to say you can draw some assumptions from there.”

“Jaskier,” Geralt sighs softly.

“Can we- can we just not?” Jaskier says. His voice wobbles slightly, and he clears his throat. “It’s been a really long day, Geralt, and I’m so bloody knackered. Let’s just…not. Not right now.” He reaches up with his free hand and scratches Roach on the neck. “Besides, there’s more important things to worry about right now. Like this darling right here.”

Geralt huffs a quiet laugh. “She can go back to the stables now, I think. I’ll keep an eye on her for a while longer.”

“I’ll stay with. You also look like you could fall asleep at any point. At least with two of us we can keep each other awake.” Geralt turns Roach around with a gentle push to her shoulder, and Jaskier follows. Geralt still hasn’t let go of his hand, and Jaskier doesn’t do anything but keep pace as they make their way back inside.

He feels like they’re teetering on the precipice of something. He has no idea what’s on the other side, if there is anything beyond a long fall and some jagged rocks at the bottom. But he’s been slowly climbing towards this ever since he saw a witcher in a corner of a tavern and walked right over. He might as well see where he lands.

Chapter Text

He’s cold.

He tries to tell Geralt this, but the words get stuck on his tongue and come out slurred and garbled.

He tries again. “’m cold,” he mumbles. The ground is rocking beneath him and he tries to look down, but something presses hard across his chest and holds him in place. He tries to move against it, but even picking up his hand is somehow too difficult to manage.

He’s so tired.

“Stay awake, Jaskier.”

He doesn’t know how Geralt knew he was tired. His head droops forwards, and that thing across his chest pulls him back again. There’s a solid warmth at his back that he presses back into, trying to get rid of this horrible cold spreading out through his body.

“Jaskier.”

“’m cold.”

“I know.”

The ground jolts beneath him and pain explodes out from a point in his side, burning across his skin. Jaskier cries out and the arm- it’s an arm holding him close, pressing him back against a broad chest- tightens around him. “Jaskier! Stay awake!”

He’s so tired.

He peels his eyes open. Blue and green and grey blurs past him and slowly coalesces. Flashes of sky between branches, moving quickly overhead. The rocking of the ground is rhythmical, sending his head lolling until it falls back and hits something solid and warm behind him. “Jaskier.” Breath ghosts past his cheek and he shivers, and then he can’t stop shivering, his body shaking and trembling as the branches rush past above. He squeezes his eyes shut again.

“Geralt,” he slurs out. His tongue and lips are uncooperative, struggling to form words. That’s wrong. That isn’t how it should be. Words are always easy. He licks at his lips and tries again, but whatever words were on his tongue are swallowed and overcome by a sudden whimper that takes over as the ground jolts again.

“Easy, Roach. Steady now.”

Oh. It’s not the ground that is moving. The steady sound of hoofbeats slowly work their way through to him, and the rhythmic rocking suddenly coalesces and makes sense.

Geralt’s arm tightens around him, sending another burst of pain spiralling out from his side. Jaskier opens his eyes and glances down. Roach’s neck, her mane jumping up and down with every bob of her head. Streaks of dark red across the top of her shoulders. Her hair clumped and standing on end in places, muscles rolling as she runs. Geralt’s hand, smeared with bright red and clutching both reins tight.

“Geralt,” he tries again. He thinks it comes out slightly clearer this time, judging by the way Geralt’s breath stutters past his ear and the grip tightens around his chest.

“I’m here. Just stay awake, Jaskier. You’re going to be fine. We’re nearly there.” Geralt clicks his tongue and the rocking increases in pace, Roach’s hooves drumming out a frantic beat on the ground.

“’m tired.”

“I know.” Geralt’s voice is achingly soft in his ear. There’s something that Jaskier can’t identify beneath it. He frowns.

“Geralt?” He tries to turn to see Geralt’s face, study his expression because all of the hidden clues are there, in the way Geralt tenses his jaw or arches an eyebrow, whether he’s holding Jaskier’s gaze or glancing away, but he can’t quite make it. His head falls into the crook of Geralt’s neck. A few strands of white hair drift across his gaze. “What’s…what’s wrong?”

“You’re going to be fine.” Geralt’s hand presses firmly into his side. “We’re nearly there. There’ll be a doctor in the town. If they aren’t enough, I will find a mage. You’re going to be fine.”

“You’re saying that a lot,” he slurs. “I think you might be lying.” He can see the pulse jumping in the side of Geralt’s neck, can just make out the clench of his jaw. He’s pretty sure that Geralt is lying. He’s so cold.

“I’m not lying,” Geralt says. “You’re going to be fine.”

He’s so cold.

His eyes slip shut without his permission. Geralt grips him tighter, pulling him more upright on Roach’s back. “Stay awake, Jaskier,” he growls. “Don’t you dare fall asleep.”

“I never listen…to what you tell me,” he mumbles into Geralt’s collarbone. “Why…”

“Jaskier!”

There’s a sharp pain in his side and a sudden jostling as Geralt pulls him up, his voice loud in his ear. He winces, pressing his head into the crook of Geralt’s neck. “’m awake. ‘m here.”

“I won’t let anything happen to you.” Roach picks up speed beneath them, Geralt pushing her forwards.

“Bit late now,” he mutters against Geralt’s collarbone. Roach’s hooves are clattering loudly on the path, and he forces his eyes open. “Geralt.”

“What is it?” Geralt’s breath is a warm huff past his face, and he lets his eyes slip shut again.

“’s stony,” he murmurs. “’s not good…not good for Roach.” Geralt’s breath stutters. “Should slow down,” he mumbles into Geralt’s neck. “She’ll bruise her hoof.”

Geralt chokes on a breath. “She’s a horse, she’ll be fine,” he says.

“Don’t want her…hurt,” he murmurs. “There’s…blood on her.” He tries to reach for the blood drying her hair into clumps across her shoulders, but there’s no strength left in his arms. He can barely lift one high enough for his fingers to skim across Geralt’s hand where it’s clamped tight on his side.

“That’s your blood, Jaskier,” Geralt says.

“Oh. That…that’s not good.”

Geralt sighs, and says nothing else as he urges Roach forwards.

He keeps his eyes shut, shaky breaths sending stabs of pain through his side with each one, and listens to Geralt’s heartbeat. It thuds along in time to his own, the rush of blood pounding in his ears. That’s wrong. Geralt’s heart should be slow.

“’s too fast,” he slurs.

“Hold on,” Geralt says, his breath tickling his cheek. “We’re nearly there. Just hold on a little longer, Jaskier. Stay awake. Stay awake for me.”

“I’ll try.” Gods, he’s so tired.

He’s not sure, but he thinks he is even colder than he was before. “Geralt?” he asks quietly.

“I’m here.”

He forces his eyes open for a second, seeing wisps of white hair and the edge of a jaw. “’m not okay,” he mutters. “Am I?”

Geralt is silent for a long, horrible moment. “I’m not going to let anything happen to you, Jas.”

He hums. “Okay,” he murmurs. “’s good.”

He knows Geralt is lying. He always knows when he’s lying.

The sound of Roach’s hooves abruptly changes from packed dirt and stones to the harsh clatter of iron against cobblestones. “I need a doctor!” Geralt shouts, the sudden sound making him flinch and then whimper helplessly against Geralt’s neck at the stabbing pains from his side. “Is there a doctor here?”

A sudden clamour surrounds him, people shouting out and hurried footsteps running closer. Roach snorts, her hooves loud on the cobblestones beneath them. There are hands on him, grabbing hold of him and Geralt suddenly disappears from behind him. “Geralt?” he slurs, reaching out blindly. “Geralt!”

Hands grab at him and then he’s being dragged off Roach. The pain is blinding and he can’t help but cry out, stumbling as his legs hit the ground and give way completely underneath him. Strong arms catch him and haul him up, wrapping around his side and pressing down until there’s a keening noise that he realises is from him.

He forces his eyes open to see Roach standing there, heaving for breath, sweat foaming along her neck. His vision spins, and then Geralt is there, staring down at him as he holds him up. “Stay awake,” Geralt growls. “Come on, Jaskier. Stay awake.”

“Sorry,” he slurs. His eyes slip shut of their own accord.

“Don’t you dare, Jas. Stay awake!”

“Jaskier!”

“Jas-”

0-o-0-o-0

There’s a low voice calling his name. At least he thinks it’s his name. He knows he should respond to it, but his tongue is so heavy in his mouth. He manages a low hum, and the voice falls away abruptly. That’s not right. He wants the voice back. He likes the voice.

Something smooths across his brow. He leans into the touch, humming again in the back of his throat. Words are too hard, stick to his tongue and drag him down. There’s a vague sense that there’s something wrong there, that it shouldn’t be so hard, but then the voice is back and that worry disappears.

He can’t make out what the voice is saying, but it doesn’t matter. He leans into the warmth of the hand pressed against his cheek, callused fingers stroking across his skin. “Hmm.”

“Jaskier.”

He’s pretty sure that’s his name. He tries to answer it, but his tongue is sluggish and won’t move properly.

“Jaskier. Open your eyes.”

He tries. He really does. But he’s so tired.

“Come on. Open your eyes, Jas.”

It takes a monumental effort, but he forces his eyes open. The whole world is a blur, and it’s so, so tempting to just let them slip shut again, but there’s a soft pressure against his cheek. “Jaskier.” The voice is a low growl now, and he blinks until the blur above him slowly coalesces into a shape. White hair, messy and falling around his face. Bright yellow eyes, that crinkle at the corners as Jaskier finally focuses on him.

“Geralt,” Jaskier slurs. He reaches up and haphazardly pats Geralt’s arm where it’s reaching out, his thumb still brushing across Jaskier’s cheek.

“You’re going to be fine, Jaskier,” Geralt says, his voice low and rough, curling around the words in a way that makes Jaskier shiver. He feels so heavy. A small part of him knows that he should be in pain right now, knows that something is wrong, but there’s a heavy haze settled over him, and he can barely keep his eyes open.

“’m tired,” he murmurs, leaning his head into Geralt’s hand. “Wha- what happened?”

“You got hurt, but you’re going to be okay.” Geralt glances away briefly. There are other voices in the room, muted conversations in the corner, but Jaskier can’t make them out. Geralt turns back to him. “Can you drink some of this for me?”

The mouth of a waterskin is pressed to his lips. Geralt’s hand briefly leaves Jaskier’s cheek, and Jaskier mourns the loss until he feels Geralt’s hand slide gently behind the back of his head, fingers carding through his hair as he lifts Jaskier’s head from the pillow and slowly tilts the waterskin up to trickle water into Jaskier’s mouth.

He only manages a few mouthfuls before his stomach twists and he has to turn his head away. Pain slowly begins to roll its way up his side at the movement. The waterskin disappears, and Geralt slowly eases his head back down onto the pillow. “Easy,” he murmurs. “You’re okay.”

“’m not, though, am I?” Jaskier mumbles.

Geralt’s expression crumples slightly before it shutters, and he shores it back up. “You’re going to be,” he says. He smooths Jaskier’s hair back from his forehead, and Jaskier can’t help but lean into his touch.

“’m tired,” he gets out. It’s getting harder and harder to keep his eyes open.

“I know.” Geralt’s hand slides behind the back of his head again. “Drink some more water, and then you can go back to sleep.”

The mouth of the waterskin is pressed back to his lips. Even the small movement of lifting his head from the pillow sends tremors through his body, but he manages to gulp down the mouthfuls of water that Geralt slowly tips into his mouth.

The waterskin is eventually pulled away, and a callused thumb wipes a trickle of water away from the corner of Jaskier’s mouth. “Go back to sleep,” Geralt says, carefully lowering his head back down to the pillow. A quiet rustle, and then he feels the heavy weight of a thick blanket pulled up over him.

“You’ll…you’ll stay?”

“I’ll be here when you wake up.” A touch smooths across his cheek. “Go back to sleep, Jas.”

He has enough time for a brief flicker of a smile to come across his lips before darkness curls in and he’s out.

0-o-0-o-0

The next time he wakes, it’s much easier. There’s a low throb of pain in his side, but it fades a little with every breath he manages until it’s bearable. He can hear a low background of noise, though it’s far away and muted, the rumbling of carts and murmuring of people talking too far away for him to make out anything they’re saying. There’s the sound of someone breathing steadily nearby, the crackling of a fire in a hearth.

Jaskier takes a breath, and opens his eyes.

Immediately he has to squeeze them shut again against the bright light streaming through the open window. A groan escapes his lips, quite without his permission. There’s a startled sound from across the room, and then footsteps on the floor. “Jaskier. Are you awake?”

“No, he’s not here,” Jaskier mutters. “Come back later.”

“You’ve been asleep long enough.”

“’s too bright,” Jaskier mutters.

There’s the swishing sound of fabric, and the light dims. Jaskier cracks his eyes open and turns his head just enough to see Geralt pulling the curtains shut across the window. He licks his lips. “Geralt. Hi.”

“Jaskier.” Geralt crosses the room, leaning over the edge of the bed. “How are you feeling?”

Jaskier licks his lips again. “Thirsty,” he rasps. “Any chance for some water?”

Geralt hands over a waterskin, and Jaskier pushes himself up on his elbows. Even that movement makes his arms shake, a hot throb of pain working its way out from his side. Geralt leans over further, one hand outstretched before he seems to think better of it and pull back. “You’re hovering,” Jaskier gets out between gritted teeth as he pushes himself a little further up the bed and leans back against the headboard. “I’m fine.”

Geralt just glances away, pressing the waterskin into his hands. Jaskier drains half of it in one go, coughing and spluttering as he inhales a little of it in his haste. “Where are we?” he gets out once the coughing and the fierce pain in his side subsides, handing the waterskin back. “This is…fancy.”

There’s only dim light in the room, but he can make out the rich fabric of the curtains pulled tightly shut across the window, the ornate carving across the mantlepiece above the fire. There’s a table next to the bed covered in what look like clean bandages, pots of salves and a plate of food. Geralt even looks clean.

“The mayor’s house.” Geralt glances around them. “I was through here about twelve years ago. You were in Oxenfurt, I think. I cleared the swamp up above here of a drowners’ nest.” He straightens up, looking away from Jaskier. “She remembered. Her doctor looked after you.”

Jaskier hums. “And am I…” He glances down at the blanket covering what feels like layers upon layers of bandages, where his side feels like a red-hot poker had been pressed into it. “What’s the prognosis?”

“You’re going to be just fine.” Geralt steps back from the bed, tugging the curtains back open to let the light back into the room. Jaskier winces, and rubs at his eyes with a shaky hand at the sudden glare. “The doctor will explain it all in run-on sentences and too-long words, but the blade got muscle only. It was the blood loss that was the main worry, but you’re fine now.” He grimaces. “You will be.”

“How long was I out?” Jaskier tries to do a mental tally in his head, and frowns. “What happened? Last I remember was…leaving that village with the maypole, I think. And then…something on the road?” One hand ghosts over his side. “I assume I was stabbed.” His frown deepens. “Why was I stabbed?”

Geralt snorts. He shakes his head. “You weren’t chased down by a cuckolded husband, if that’s what you’re asking.”

“I wasn’t,” Jaskier says quietly. He can’t remember the last time he seriously pursued someone other than the witcher now standing at the window and avoiding looking at him, let alone someone who might result in him getting in that sort of trouble. “Who stabbed me?”

“A random group of bandits.” Geralt doesn’t look away from the window. “You had wandered ahead on the road. By the time I got there…” His jaw clenches, and he turns from the window, striding across the room to stoke the fire. “It doesn’t matter anymore. This was the closest town. We’ve been here for three days now. You’ve been in and out for a day, but this is the first time you’ve been fully conscious.” He finally, finally, looks over to Jaskier, if only for a brief second where Jaskier doesn’t even have enough time to properly read his expression. “It’s just gone noon, by the way.”

“Oh. Well, that could have been worse, then.” Jaskier pulls back the blankets a little to peer at the bandages wrapped securely around his side. He can’t see any blood staining the bandages, which he supposes is a good sign. “How long am I on bed rest?”

“A few more days.” Geralt is staring down at the fire now. “You need to eat something, if you can stomach it. There’s food there on the side.”

Now that Geralt mentions it, Jaskier suddenly realises he’s starving. He grabs a hunk of bread from the plate. “A few days doesn’t sound too bad,” he cautions, tearing the bread apart in his hands and then wrinkling his nose at the crumbs that scatter across the bedspread. “Especially if the mayor here is charitable enough to have gotten her own doctor to treat me. I doubt I’ll heal up as quick as you, but I’m sure I can limp my way around soon enough.”

Geralt doesn’t look up from the fire. “As soon as you’re ready to travel, I’ll take you back to Oxenfurt.”

The stab wound has nothing to do with the ache as Jaskier’s heart carves a clean line straight through his chest on its way to the floor. “I’m sorry?” he gets out.

“You don’t heal as fast, so it will be a few weeks before you can make the trip at a walk.” Geralt isn’t looking up from the fire, even as Jaskier gapes at him. “If you ride Roach down, then we might be able to leave at the end of the week, but you probably don’t want to wait that long.”

Jaskier tries not to choke on his own spit. “Geralt-”

“There’s a merchant caravan passing nearby in the next few days.” Geralt leaves the fire, but just crosses to the other side of the room where Jaskier can see Roach’s saddlebags are stacked. “I have enough money to hire a place for you on the caravan. They are going via Oxenfurt. They can take you back there.” He crouches down, pulling something out of the saddlebags. “I’ll head up into the mountains from here. We shouldn’t presume on the mayor’s kindness.”

Jaskier holds up one hand. “Hang on, hang on a second,” he says. His head is spinning. “Geralt. What are you saying?”

Geralt still won’t look at him. “It’s not a hard journey down to Oxenfurt from here. And it’s not dangerous. The merchant caravan will have guards. That will be the safest option. Nobody would attack a merchant caravan between here and Novigrad.” There’s a jingle of a coin purse. “This should be enough to pay for your travel.”

“Geralt.” Jaskier pulls himself further up on the bed, his arms trembling underneath him at the effort. “Geralt, stop this.”

Geralt nods to himself. “I’ll talk to the mayor about it. I’m sure she will allow you to stay until the caravan arrives, and help arrange matters. I will stay for another day, make sure you’re out of the woods, and then I can leave by tomorrow-”

Geralt.”

Jaskier holds back a cough from the way the shout had ripped through his throat. Geralt falls silent. His back is to Jaskier, head bowed. “Oxenfurt is safe,” he says eventually. “You can recover properly there and forget all about me.”

“Are you even listening to yourself right now?” Jaskier asks. “Do you hear what you’re saying? Since when have I ever asked you to drop me off at the doorstep of a city like I’m a fucking child you’re returning to their mother?”

Geralt tenses. “I’m doing what’s right here,” he growls. “Don’t be so pig-headed and stubborn that you-”

“You do not get to make this decision for me.”

Jaskier’s voice cracks like a whip through the room. “Don’t you dare,” he hisses, pushing himself up on the bed through sheer anger alone. “Don’t you fucking dare, Geralt. You do not get to just decide that I’m done here. You don’t get to decide anything for me. I’m not your fucking pet, and I will not just lie here and pretend like I’m okay with you deciding what I’m to do with my life.”

That still doesn’t make Geralt look at him. “You were stabbed, Jaskier. Because of me.” He shakes his head, staring down at the saddlebags. Jaskier realises he is slowly packing. “You should be in a city somewhere. Playing the crowds. Doing what you love. Not following me around the wilds.”

“I’m sorry, did you not hear anything I just said?” Jaskier winces as his side throbs, as his heart somehow sinks even lower at watching Geralt pack. He’s exhausted, he’s hungry, he’s in more pain than he remembers being in for a long while and now his entire life seems to have been abruptly upended. He is not going to lie down and take this. “Because I distinctly remember saying that you don’t get to decide what I do with my life. Do you not want me here? I could have sworn we had gotten over all that shit a while back, but apparently not.”

“What I want doesn’t matter,” Geralt growls. He stuffs something into one of the saddlebags. “You’re going back to Oxenfurt.”

“Fuck that, and fuck you for deciding that,” Jaskier spits. “Do you want me here or not, Geralt? Yes or no.”

“I don’t-”

Yes or no.”

Geralt spins to him. “Yes,” he snaps, his eyes blazing. “Yes, I fucking want you here. But you can’t travel with me. It was blind luck that someone or something hasn’t killed you yet. And this…” He waves a hand at Jaskier, at the bandages wrapped around his torso and the stitches underneath it, the bone-deep exhaustion that is dragging Jaskier down even now as he glares daggers right at Geralt. “This nearly did it, Jaskier. It’s not safe for you, with me.”

“I never asked for that!” Jaskier hauls himself up on the bed. “I have never asked for you to keep me safe. If I wanted to be safe, then gods, I would have left a long, long time ago. But I’m still here. I’ve always been here. Don’t you fucking dare make this about trying to protect me.”

“I’m a witcher, and you’re human, Jaskier.” Geralt turns away, shaking his head. “It’s too dangerous for you. And I’ve let you be a part of this for too long already. I thought…I thought I could protect you, but I was wrong.”

“Oh sweet fucking gods, Geralt, are you deliberately being as thick as possible? I am not here for your gods dammed protection!” Jaskier thumps the bed, ignoring the flash of pain up his side at the movement. The hunk of bread goes flying onto the floor. “I am well aware this is dangerous. But I’m not going to disappear back to some random city, where I could just as easily get stabbed in a back alleyway, and pretend like these haven’t been the best fucking years of my life with you. And you damn sure don’t get to make me go just because you’re scared.”

“I’m not-”

“Don’t fucking lie to me, Geralt, or I swear to all the gods I will get up out this bed and hit you, stab wound besides.” Geralt drops his head, and Jaskier eases himself back up against the headboard, letting out a hiss as he pulls the rucked blankets back up around him. “I have pretty hazy memories of the ride here, but I can remember some of it. You were scared.”

“You were bleeding all over Roach,” Geralt mutters, but the fight has dropped from his voice. He leans back against the wall and then slides down it in one exhausted motion, staring down at the floor he’s sat on. “All over me.”

“And when I can get out of this bed, I will go to Roach and thank her for getting me here. Possibly in the form of some apples.” Jaskier sighs. “And because I haven’t said it yet and you won’t realise it’s implied, thanks. For not letting me die.”

“I told you I wouldn’t let anything happen to you.”

Jaskier hums. “Yes, I vaguely remember that one. But the fact of the matter is, Geralt, that shit happens. It could happen travelling with you, or travelling on my own, or even staying put in a city somewhere. I could trip and fall and break my neck in the middle of a market square, if I was particularly unlucky. I know I’m just a mere human, but I’m not an idiot.”

Geralt actually flinches slightly at that, and Jaskier sighs. “Get over here.”

“What.”

“Get your arse off the floor and come over here so I don’t have to keep shouting across the room at you.”

Geralt levers himself up off the floor and drags a chair over, dropping into it at Jaskier’s bedside. Now that he’s close enough, Jaskier can see the deep bags under his eyes, the tangles in his hair where it’s been half-heartedly tied back away from his face. “You think I haven’t worked out how dangerous this life can be, over the literal two decades we’ve known each other?” he asks Geralt, poking him in the shoulder now he’s close enough. “You think I haven’t thought this through?”

Geralt snorts at that. “You do have a tendency to jump in headfirst and damn the consequences,” he mutters.

Jaskier winces, and shifts against the headboard until the pain in his side subsides back down to a dull throb. “Not when it’s something important,” he says quietly. “Not when it’s as important as this.”

Geralt heaves a sigh, his head hanging as he stares down at the floor. “It’s not safe, with me.”

“It never has been, or haven’t you noticed all the running from monsters I’ve done over the past couple decades?” Jaskier reaches out and pokes Geralt square in the forehead. “Hmm. Feels pretty thick to me. It must be, for you to not be getting the fucking message, Geralt. You do not get to make this decision for me.”

“You said that already,” Geralt says to the floor.

“Well, it bears repeating apparently, to get it through that thick skull of yours.” Jaskier flicks him on the forehead. “You don’t get to decide what I do with my life. If you don’t want my company-” and he stumbles over the words in his mouth a little when that is what makes Geralt finally look up at him, “then that’s- that’s a different thing entirely, but we have already covered that you do actually want me here. So you don’t get to push me away just because my human fragility scared you.”

Geralt’s gaze flickers over his face. “You could get hurt,” he says quietly. “You could die.”

“Statistically, you’re more likely to get hurt than I am.” Jaskier sighs when Geralt just shakes his head, and meets Geralt’s gaze. “I know. I’m aware of how dangerous this can be. But I chose this, Geralt. I chose you.”

He reaches out and grasps Geralt’s forearm. “You do not,” he says, shaking Geralt’s arm a little for emphasis, “get to choose any of this for me, okay? I’m sorry that I scared you, but I’m not sorry that I’m here. It’s damn well worth it.”

Geralt’s gaze drops down to Jaskier’s side. “It is,” Jaskier says. “I promise.” He reaches down, and slowly wraps his fingers around Geralt’s hand, trying to ignore the sudden skip in his heartbeat as he does so and Geralt doesn’t pull away. “Now, promise me you’re not going to up and disappear in the middle of the night whilst I’m stuck in this bed. I need to thank Roach personally, of course.”

Geralt snorts. “I wouldn’t want to deprive you of that. Or Roach.” His fingers curl around Jaskier’s hand, resting on top of the bed. His thumb smooths over the soft skin on the inside of Jaskier’s wrist.

“You look tired,” Jaskier remarks. He doesn’t think he can manage a more complex sentence, not with the way that Geralt is looking at him, the way his thumb still hasn’t stopped gently brushing back and forth over his wrist.

“Hmm.”

“See, that’s not really an answer.”

“I had to make sure you were okay.”

Jaskier hums, and then arches a brow at Geralt’s expression. “What? You don’t have a monopoly on the sound.”

“You should eat something,” Geralt just says. He picks up the rest of the bread with his free hand, twisting his body awkwardly to reach it with his hand still holding onto Jaskier’s. “You lost a lot of blood.”

“I don’t know,” Jaskier muses. “Sure I don’t need to keep it around to throw something at your head when you say more stupid things?” Geralt fixes him with a look, which he easily ignores. He takes the bread from Geralt’s hand and chews on it slowly. “’s good bread.”

Geralt snorts. “I’ll pass on your compliments.”

“You really should sleep.” Even as he says the words, Jaskier’s jaw cracks in a massive yawn. “I know,” he says at Geralt’s look, “I should take my own advice.” He tries to shift back down the bed, but something in his side catches and pain swamps him. A whimper slips past clenched teeth as he squeezes his eyes shut.

When he opens them, Geralt is half out of his seat. Jaskier breathes cautiously. “I’m good, I’m good,” he mutters. “Might…need a little help though.” He belatedly realises that he’s gripping Geralt’s hand tight enough for Geralt’s knuckles to be white, and makes himself slacken his grip. “Sorry.”

Geralt slips his hand out from Jaskier’s grasp, and Jaskier briefly mourns the loss before Geralt is standing up and sliding one hand behind Jaskier’s back. “Easy,” he murmurs. “Take it slow.”

Jaskier grips his forearm and braces himself. Even with Geralt helping and taking most of his weight, it’s a couple of minutes before Jaskier can breathe somewhat easily again. “’m good,” he mutters, his head sinking back into the pillow and his eyes slipping shut. He reaches out blindly, and feels Geralt slip his hand into his. “You don’t leave, okay?”

“I’m not going anywhere.” There’s a slight jostling of the bed, and Jaskier cracks his eyes open to see Geralt sat down on the edge of the bed. His expression has softened, and he reaches out with his free hand to push Jaskier’s hair out of his eyes. “Go back to sleep, Jas.”

“Stay.” Jaskier murmurs as his eyes slip shut again.

“I’ll be right here,” is the last thing he hears, and then he slips under again.

Chapter Text

He wakes up to darkness, the sound of a crackling fire and someone breathing steadily close by. Jaskier cracks his eyes open. It’s night, judging by the darkness in the room, a faint glow from the fire the only source of light. He can just make out Roach’s saddlebags piled up against the wall, and a pile of what look like clothes and bandages on a chair that weren’t there before.

Jaskier goes to reach up to rub at his eyes, and then stops in surprise at the heavy weight in his hands. He turns his head the other way and his breath hitches entirely without his permission.

Geralt is fast asleep on the bed next to him. He’s curled on his side, facing Jaskier. One hand is outstretched and lying limp in Jaskier’s grasp, his fingers resting on the inside of his wrist. As Jaskier watches, Geralt frowns slightly in his sleep. His fingers brush over Jaskier’s pulse point, and slowly the frown dissipates and disappears. Jaskier watches as his breathing slowly evens out again.

Jaskier curls his fingers around Geralt’s hand and falls back asleep with a smile on his face.

0-o-0-o-0

Jaskier had never thought that stairs could be such an insurmountable task.

He pauses at the top of them, and briefly regrets dragging the absurdly comfortable blanket off the top of the bed and wrapping it over his shoulders. It’s staying in place with one hand holding it at his throat, which leaves only one hand to grip the banisters on the way down. He very briefly considers sitting down and sliding down the steps, one by one, but that would be more embarrassment than he could take. Besides, he’s not sure if he would be able to get back to his feet when he reaches the bottom.

He sighs, grips the blanket a little tighter, and starts the climb down.

“I swear to all the gods, I am never getting stabbed again,” he mutters to himself as he pauses for breath halfway down. “This is the worst.”

By the time he reaches the last few steps, he’s seriously regretting all of his life choices. The house is quiet, nobody having walked past in the minutes it’s taken him to get down the stairs, and Jaskier lets himself lean against the dark wood panelling of the wall to catch his breath.

A few seconds later and he’s sat on the bottom steps, blanket pulled securely around his shoulders. He could just have a quick nap here. That’ll be fine. A quick nap, and then he can find the kitchen in this place and get some food better than the thin broth Geralt has been letting him have over the past day. Geralt had glared him into submission the last time he’d asked for something more substantial. He’d been right, considering Jaskier had nearly thrown up the first bowl of broth that he’d eaten far too quickly, but Geralt doesn’t need to know that.

“Oh!” The sound of footsteps on the stone tile floors stutter to a stop, and then pick up again. Jaskier cracks his eyes open. The woman now staring down at him, one eyebrow arched and a poorly suppressed amused tilt to her lips, gives him a look. “Nice to see you up and about,” she says. “Do you need something?” She glances him up and down. “Some shoes, maybe?”

Jaskier glances down at his bare feet, and winces at the cold of the stone tiles as he puts them down. “I, ah- I don’t actually know where most of my clothes are, I’m afraid. Apologies for borrowing your blanket.”

The woman waves one hand. “Don’t concern yourself with it. I am repaying an old debt to Geralt of Rivia, and you are a guest in my house. You may have whatever you wish that I can provide for you.”

Jaskier glances over her. She’s dressed in what look like expensive riding clothes, jodhpurs and a long coat that is exceedingly well-tailored, knee-high black boots that are well-polished but spattered with mud around the toes. Her hair is pulled back into a neat braid, blonde greying at the roots. Crow’s feet crinkle at the corner of her eyes as she looks down at him. “You must be Mayor Anders,” Jaskier days, trying to dredge up a charming smile. “Thank you for your hospitality.”

“Call me Charlotte, please.” Charlotte smiles, and Jaskier feels like he could cry at the genuine kindness on her face. “I take it you are bored of your sick-bed?”

“No offense meant, but the same four walls do become a little dreary after a while, and I wished to stretch my legs.” He had severely overestimated his ability to do so, but it’s still nice to be out of that stifling room. Geralt has been insistent on keeping the fire roaring high at every minute of the day, and Jaskier was starting to miss a cool breeze and something other than the smell of old blood and healing salves.

Charlotte nods. “Anything that you would like, that I can provide, is at your disposal.” Her smile dims and softens slightly. “It is good to see you up, Jaskier. You had us worried for a little while.”

“I really didn’t mean to,” Jaskier just says.

“Well, let’s just be thankful that you are on the mend, or your witcher would have been a force to deal with.” Charlotte laughs softly to herself. “Now, is there anything you do need?”

“Some food, if there is any?” Jaskier asks hesitantly. “Getting stabbed and losing a couple pints of blood does really seem to take it out of you.”

“Of course.” Charlotte turns away and rings a small bell sitting on the side. There’s the sound of scurrying footsteps and then a maid appears from one of the doorways. “Tiffany,” Charlotte says. “Accompany Master Jaskier to the kitchen, will you? I believe Nadya has made some soup, and there should be fresh bread from breakfast still remaining.”

“Of course, ma’am,” Tiffany replies. She eyes Jaskier. “Nice to see you awake. Need a hand getting up?”

Jaskier is just about to attempt it himself when he hears the sound of footfalls from upstairs. There’s the sound of a knock on wood. “Jaskier?”

Jaskier cranes his head back, and he’s just able to spot Geralt outside the door to the room that has been his sick room for the past few days. As he watches, Geralt cracks the door, looks in, and then flings the door wide open and rushes inside. “Jaskier!”

Jaskier tries to call out to him, but his voice cracks embarrassingly and he barely manages a normal volume. Charlotte glances past him up the stairs. “Ah. He does worry, doesn’t he?” She clears her throat. “Geralt?”

Geralt reappears in the doorway. When he looks down to see Jaskier sat at the bottom of the stairs, his eyes widen. “Fuck,” he spits. He runs down the stairs, the wood shaking under Jaskier with the force of it. Geralt all but falls to his knees in front of him, his hands cupping his face and tilting it up. “Are you okay?” he asks, eyes flickering over Jaskier’s face with a searing intensity. “What happened? Why aren’t you in bed?”

He pulls back, and Jaskier briefly misses the warmth of his hands until they’re pulling back the blanket around his shoulders and running across his chest, checking the bandages still wrapped tight around his torso. “Geralt,” Jaskier whines as a gust of cold air slips in under the now open blanket. “You’re letting all the cold air in.” He swats ineffectively at Geralt’s hands. “Stop it, you brute. I’m fine.”

Geralt lets out a breath, his head briefly hanging. “What are you doing on the stairs?” he asks with a sigh of relief. He glances down. “And where are your shoes?”

Jaskier tugs the blanket more securely around him. He can’t quite get it up over his shoulders, wincing as he tries to shrug it up back into place. Geralt reaches out and takes hold of the blanket, pulling it up around Jaskier’s shoulders and wrapping it tight around him until Jaskier feels like he can barely move his arms. “Okay, okay, I still have to breathe,” he says with a laugh. “And I honestly have no idea where my shoes are. I came downstairs- all by myself, thank you very much- to look for a bite to eat.”

“Tiffany was just about to show him to the kitchen,” Charlotte says from behind them.

Jaskier starts at the reminder that she’s there, but is mollified by the fact that Geralt starts slightly as well. He turns towards Charlotte and Tiffany, the latter of whom is hovering with a slight blush to her cheeks, putting him at the perfect height for Jaskier to lean into him and let his head knock against Geralt’s shoulder. Geralt’s hand settles on his back, the warmth evident even through the thick blanket. Tiffany’s blush deepens.

“The stone floors are very cold. I’ll fetch some socks and shoes for you, Sir,” she says, and then darts off towards another room.

“You should have waited for me,” Geralt says as they wait for her to come back. “Rather than attempted the stairs on your own. You’re still hurt.”

“It was fine. I managed it, didn’t I?” Jaskier points out.

Geralt hums. “And you’re definitely not sitting down here because you needed to rest, I suppose,” he says, his voice light.

“Master Jaskier and I were just having a pleasant conversation,” Charlotte says. “Where I was explaining that you are guests in my house and as such, you may have anything we can provide for you. And I won’t,” and she fixes Geralt with a stern look, “be accepting payment from either of you.”

Jaskier huffs a laugh. “I like her,” he mutters to Geralt. “Did you try and pay her?”

“Doctors are expensive,” Geralt mutters back. He looks up at Charlotte. “But I’ve gotten the message.”

Tiffany hurries back with a pair of boots and socks in her hands. “Fresh from the laundry,” she says, handing them over to Jaskier with a small curtsey. “Do you…do you need help, Sir?”

Jaskier untangles his arms from the blanket enough to take the socks and shoes. “I’m sure I can manage,” he says. He reaches down with a sock, and his side seizes with pain.

When he opens his eyes, Geralt is bracing him upright, one hand pressed against his chest. “Breathe, Jaskier,” he says firmly. “Take a breath.”

Jaskier heaves in a breath and squeezes his eyes shut against the deep throb working its way across his body from his side. “Motherfucker,” he spits, thumping his fist on his thigh.

Geralt grabs his hand, sliding his palm under Jaskier’s fist before he can thump it into his leg again to try and distract from that awful pulse in his side. “Don’t do that.”

“Yeah, yeah, don’t need any more bruises,” Jaskier mutters. He sucks in a few more breaths and peels his eyes open. “Gods fucking damn it. I’m really fucking tired of this, Geralt.”

Geralt just hums, and lets go of Jaskier’s hand to pull the blanket back around him. “Give me those.”

The socks are pulled out of Jaskier’s unresisting grasp, and Geralt moves from his side to kneel down at Jaskier’s feet. “You’ll heal up quickly,” he says as he gently grasps Jaskier’s ankle and slides the sock onto his foot. “A couple weeks and you’ll be back to singing and dancing around the room.”

Jaskier stares down at Geralt, knelt at his feet. Geralt’s fingers skim softly over his ankle as he pulls the sock up, and he suppresses a shiver. Geralt glances up. “You wouldn’t be cold if you’d remembered to put on socks,” he says, a smile curling his lips. “Or if you had stayed in bed.”

“I was hungry,” Jaskier says, trying to distract himself from the soft smile on Geralt’s lip, the care as he slips the sock onto Jaskier’s other foot and then carefully pulls the shoes on. “Still am, actually.”

“Well, that won’t do,” Charlotte says. When Jaskier looks over at her, she just arches a brow at him. She looks highly amused at the entire thing, and Jaskier can’t quite blame her. Even he is getting a bit tired of this perpetual dance him and Geralt seem to be caught in.

Not enough to work up some courage and do something drastic about it, of course, not while some tentative, unmeasurable progress seems to be being made, but still.

“Ready?” Geralt asks as he rocks back on his heels. At Jaskier’s nod, he gets to his feet and holds out his hands. “Let me do all the work. Just try not to fall over.”

“Such a difficult task, but I’m sure I will be able to manage.” Jaskier grasps Geralt’s hands, only for Geralt give him a look and readjust his hold until his hands are wrapped securely around Jaskier’s wrists. Jaskier takes the hint and grasps Geralt’s wrists, his thumb brushing over Geralt’s pulse point to feel the slow, steady thud of his heart.

Geralt pulls him up to his feet, Jaskier stumbling slightly as his side throbs at the movement. Geralt smoothly moves to his side, wrapping one arm around his waist. “Easy.”

Jaskier swats at his chest. “I’m not your horse.”

Geralt snorts. “If you did what you were told like Roach does, my life would be a lot easier.”

“Ah, but it wouldn’t ever be as fun.” Jaskier takes a few experimental steps, Geralt’s arm tight around his waist. “I’m good, I’m fine. Which way to the kitchen?”

Charlotte gathers the blanket fallen from Jaskier’s shoulders. “Follow me,” she says, and Jaskier begins his slow shuffle across the hall of the manor. The house around him slowly gives way from dark wood panelling and pieces of art to whitewashed walls and rough stone tiles. There’s clattering from up ahead, and the smell of bread baking in the oven that makes Jaskier’s mouth start watering.

The kitchen is bustling, and Geralt weaves in between one cook at the stove and another at a counter with what looks like an entire pig laid out neatly in parts to help a limping Jaskier to the table. Tiffany sets a bowl and spoon in front of him as soon as he it sat down. “Enjoy,” she says with a small curtsey.

Jaskier starts as the heavy blanket settles around his shoulders. Geralt tucks it into place, seemingly taking ages to pull it tight around him. “I feel like an invalid,” Jaskier comments as he picks up his spoon.

“You are an invalid,” Geralt points out. He settles on the bench next to Jaskier. “Eat up before it goes cold.”

Jaskier refrains from a comment about how he left Lettenhove precisely to escape overbearing mothers and starts eating. The moan that slips out of his mouth at the first taste makes red flush to his cheeks. Geralt’s knee bangs the underneath of the table, the soup nearly slopping over the side of the bowl. When Jaskier glances over, Geralt is staring straight ahead at the stove.

“This is amazing,” Jaskier gets out between mouthfuls. He dips a hunk of bread into the soup. “Gods, food is so good. Whoever came up with the idea of bread should be knighted.”

Geralt reaches over and takes a piece of bread, dipping it in the soup. Jaskier smacks at his hand. “Oy you, leave off. I’m an invalid.”

“Only when it suits you,” Geralt says as he easily avoids Jaskier’s attempts to keep him away from his soup. Jaskier gives in quickly, and eventually ends up shoving the bowl closer to Geralt so that Geralt doesn’t drip soup all over the table and leave Tiffany more mess to clean up. The kitchen bustles on around them, Charlotte going back to whatever it is a mayor needs to do, the various servants passing in and out with baskets of food and laundry. Jaskier eats until he physically cannot eat another mouthful, and then he tugs a bit of the frankly massive blanket onto the table and pillows his head on it.

“Okay?” Geralt asks, his voice low.

Jaskier presses his cheek into the folds of the blanket and hums. “Just tired. Apparently, that happens when you get stabbed. Not that you would know.”

“Just because I’m a witcher, doesn’t mean I don’t know what it is to be tired,” Geralt replies. He sounds amused, that slight lilt to his voice that Jaskier knows means he’s smiling. A hand smooths across Jaskier’s back, tugging the blanket back up to his shoulders. “Don’t fall asleep at the table.”

“’m not going to,” Jaskier murmurs. He closes his eyes and soaks in the bustle of people around him, the thousand little things that come with every person who walks past him, all their chatter and gossip, the way Nadya growls to herself when something isn’t going quite well enough with the butchering, how Tiffany hums old walking songs only just audible above the sloshing of wet cloth. The slow sound of Geralt’s breathing, the idle circles that he’s rubbing across the back of Jaskier’s shoulders over and over again. Jaskier pillows his head on the table, and just breathes it all in.

“You know you’re going to have to go back up those stairs,” Geralt says eventually.

“Oh. Yeah. Didn’t think of that.” Jaskier straightens up with a groan at the pull in his side. “Never thought stairs would be such a challenge.”

“Do you want to go back up?” Geralt asks.

Jaskier is about to nod when he catches sight of the trees lining the side of the house through the large kitchen windows. “I want to go outside,” he says instead. “I need to thank Roach for carrying me here so effortlessly. Is she okay?”

Geralt snorts. “She was winded, but she’s fine. There’s a bran mash steeping that I was going to take out to her this evening, but she can have it now. If you want to come with.”

It takes a couple minutes for Jaskier to get to his feet, blanket still wrapped around his shoulders. “Don’t give me that look,” he says, pulling himself up to his full height and giving Geralt the haughtiest stare he can manage whilst wrapped in a blanket and wearing shoes a size too big for him. “I’ll have you know this is the height of fashion right now.”

Geralt snorts. “Can you walk outside on your own two feet, or do you need carrying?”

“Pick me up and you’ll find yourself the recipient of some spectacular bruises,” Jaskier warns. “And possibly missing some parts of your anatomy you would much prefer to keep. Let’s go.”

Geralt hovers all the way out to the stables. It’s cold outside, the wind carrying a chill that sneaks its way in underneath the blanket no matter how tightly Jaskier holds it. Jaskier doesn’t mind. He tilts his head back and watches the clouds scudding across the bright blue of the sky. A flock of geese fly over in a lopsided arrowhead, high up above him. The bustle of the kitchen extends out to the stable courtyard, farmhands herding a flock of freshly-shorn sheep across towards the fields Jaskier can see extending out beyond the back of the house, two dogs crouched low to the ground as they dart back and forth behind the flock.

A few people stop and stare as Geralt and Jaskier walk past, and Jaskier is fairly sure it’s not just because of the blanket draped around his shoulders. A farmhand pauses as Geralt leads Jaskier towards a row of stables along one side of the courtyard. “Nice to see you on the mend,” he calls out after them.

Jaskier pauses. “Oh. Ah- thank you.”

The farmhand nods, and then continues on his way.

“Everyone is very…nice, here,” Jaskier says as he catches up with Geralt. “You must have made an excellent impression all those years ago.” He pauses, considering his words. “For you, at least. Which means that you didn’t piss anyone off too severely.” Geralt just hums, the bucket of bran mash swinging from one hand. “I told you most people were kind,” Jaskier adds, just because he can. Geralt gives him a look, but doesn’t dispute it, which means that he knows Jaskier is right but doesn’t want to say it.

Geralt leads him to one of the stables, Roach’s halter hanging up outside on a hook. He glances over the half-door as he goes to unlock it, and then abruptly pauses.

“What?” Jaskier asks sharply. He hurries forwards and peers over the stable door, his eyes taking a few moments to adjust to the dim stall. “What is it? Is she-” His eyes adjust, and he lets out a coo. “Oh, bless her.”

Roach is lying down in the straw, her legs tucked neatly underneath her. She flicks an ear at both of them and then her head sinks back down, her eyes half-shut. Jaskier stifles a laugh at the way her large bottom lip hangs loose and dangles, just scraping across the top of the straw. “She’s asleep,” Jaskier whispers. “Oh, the darling. Don’t wake her up, Geralt, that’s just unfair.”

Geralt snorts, and quietly sets the bucket down next to the stable door. “She can sleep later. At night. When most horses sleep. As soon as she knows there’s food, she’ll be wide awake anyway.”

“Never deny anyone the chance for a nap, Geralt.” Jaskier adjusts the blanket around his shoulders and peers over the door again. “Will she let me pet her whilst she’s lying down, or will she get up if I go in there?”

Geralt gives him an amused look. “You’re moving far too slowly right now to go anywhere near any horses. If she gets up quickly, you won’t be able to get out of the way and she’ll knock you right over. I’m not calling the doctor back here again for you.”

Jaskier pouts at him. “I’m an invalid. You have to do what I say.”

“If that was the case, you would get hurt much more often,” Geralt mutters. He pauses a moment later, as if realising what he had just said. “You can come in with her, if you stay in the corner,” he says gruffly. “Don’t bring the bucket in or she’ll run you over for it.”

“Charming,” Jaskier says, but by now he’s well-versed in Roach’s love for treats. He may or may not have snuck an apple from the kitchen table, now hidden in his trouser pocket, just for her.

Geralt hovers again as they slip inside the stable and Jaskier sits down on the edge of the hay manger, leaning up against the wall. The hay there tickles against his legs, but it’s easy enough to ignore as Geralt pulls the stable door shut behind him and then just…goes over and crouches down on the straw next to Roach’s head. He reaches out and scratches her behind the ear, and Roach just nods her head sleepily.

“Adorable.” Geralt arches a brow at him, and Jaskier feels his cheeks go bright red. “Ah- Roach, I mean,” he stammers. “She’s adorable. Look at her bottom lip, just all…loose, and wobbly.”

Geralt huffs a laugh. He reaches out and gently grabs Roach’s lip, tugging it this way and that. Roach lets him with barely a flick of her ears. “She wasn’t like this when I first got her. Could barely get her saddle on without her trying to take a chunk out of my arm. Turns out the dealer had lied to me and she hadn’t been broken. We got on much better once I realised that.”

“Broken?”

Geralt grimaces slightly. “Breaking a horse is teaching it to be ridden, to take tack and a rider. It used to be a much…harsher process. Still is, with some people. But there’s nothing to be gained from treating a horse harshly. Especially if you expect them to then be loyal to you.”

“So how do you…break a horse, then?” Jaskier asks. He wrinkles his nose. “It’s not a particularly appealing word, I’ll grant you that.”

Geralt shrugs. “Introduce things one at a time. Let them get used to it before moving on. They’re big animals, they have to learn to respect your space and that you are in charge, but you don’t have to be cruel to teach that.”

Jaskier hums in agreement. He leans his head against the stable wall, feeling the cool stone press into his cheek, and watches Geralt scratch at Roach’s nose as he sits next to her in the straw.

He doesn’t realise his eyes have slipped shut until there’s a hand gently grasping his shoulder. Geralt’s voice is a low rumble as he call’s Jaskier’s name. “’m awake,” Jaskier murmurs. “Makes for a solid two out of three in this stable.”

Geralt hums. “You should go back to bed. You’re going to be tired for a while.”

“Give me a minute,” Jaskier says, rubbing at his eyes with a wince. He opens them to see Geralt crouched in front of him, yellow eyes staring up at him. Roach is still lying down behind them. “You know, I hardly ever see her lying down. Do horses not sleep as much as I thought they did?”

“Jaskier.” He knows that tone of Geralt’s. It’s the one he uses when he thinks Jaskier is being particularly oblivious. “You do know that horses sleep standing up.”

“I’m sorry…they what?”

“They sleep standing up,” Geralt repeats. “They can lock their knees to stay standing, which means that if there’s a predator, they can run quicker. They only sleep like this an hour or two every day.” He shakes his head. “Jaskier, you’ve travelled with me for years. How did you not know this?”

“I don’t know! I just thought they were particularly…sturdy.” He laughs at Geralt’s expression. “I know, it sounds stupider when I say it out loud. Consider myself properly educated on the matter.”

“We’ll make a proper horseman of you yet,” Geralt just says. He straightens up, one hand resting on Jaskier’s knee. “I’ll get her feed.”

As soon as he brings the bucket into the stable, Roach goes from half-asleep to alert within an instant. She rocks back, throwing her front legs out in front of her, and then heaves forwards to scramble up to her feet. “That is the most ungainly thing I’ve ever seen,” Jaskier says in amazement as Roach nickers insistently at Geralt until he puts the bucket down, and she plunges her nose into it happily. “And I have watched many, many people be either ungodly drunk or horribly hungover.”

Geralt arches a brow. “Are you including yourself in that?”

“Excuse you, I deal with a hangover with exceeding grace and poise.” Jaskier abruptly remembers the apple in his pocket. “Oh. Geralt, be a dear and give her this for me, would you?”

“She doesn’t need spoiling,” Geralt says, even as he scratches at her neck with one hand.

Jaskier pouts. “No, but she needs thanking. Give her the apple.”

Geralt rolls his eyes, but plucks the apple from Jaskier’s grasp. With a small knife from his belt he cuts it up into slices and drops them into the bucket with the mash. Roach is on them before Jaskier can even say anything. He pulls the blanket more firmly around his shoulders. “I think we should leave before Roach finishes that and starts eyeing up the next tastiest morsels in here.”

Geralt rolls his eyes yet again, but he helps Jaskier up anyway. Jaskier manages to stay on his own two feet all the way back to the house, Geralt hovering like he’s going to trip over air the entire way back. It isn’t until he reaches the bottom of the stairs that he realises the flaw in his plan.

“Fuck.”

Stairs really are an insurmountable task.

There’s a resigned sigh from Geralt, and then before Jaskier knows anything there’s a sudden movement and he finds himself quite literally swept off his feet. “Geralt!” he squawks. “What are you- put me down!”

“That doctor spent a lot of time and effort sewing you back up, and I’m not letting your stubbornness end up with you falling down a flight of stairs.” Geralt seems to be barely out of breath as he carries Jaskier, one arm under his knees and the other firmly around his back, up the stairs.

Jaskier gives in to the obvious temptation and secures himself by wrapping one arm around Geralt’s shoulders. His hand skates over the firm muscle and he quickly squashes the temptation to do something stupid like actually caress it, or bury his head in Geralt’s neck just to breathe him in.

“So,” he says, trying to pitch his voice normally and not a few octaves higher. “How are we going to repay Charlotte?”

“I already tried offering her money,” Geralt says. His voice is a low rumble in his chest and he’s carrying Jaskier so gently, it’s all Jaskier can do not to curl up into his warmth. “She wouldn’t take it. But I could…you’re going to be here for a few weeks at least before we can travel anywhere. I could take a contract or two for her.”

“You won’t leave, right?” Jaskier asks. “Not without me?”

He hates how small his voice suddenly gets, the uncertainty with every memory of yesterday flooding right back. But he can’t help it. He doesn’t have much restraint left, and what remains is solely devoted to stopping him from curling up into Geralt and making himself a home there.

Geralt’s hand tightens on his waist. “It’ll be a few days, nothing more,” he says, his voice gruff. “I’ll go on foot. Roach deserves a break, if you’ll make sure they look after her properly whilst I’m out.”

“Oh.” Jaskier nods, his chin brushing against Geralt’s chest. He hears the intent in Geralt’s voice, the cautious offer that goes unsaid. Geralt would never leave Roach behind. “Yeah. That sounds good.”

They make it up the stairs, but Geralt just keeps hold of him, pushing the door to the room open with one foot. Jaskier would protest, but it’s getting harder and harder to stop his eyes from slipping shut. His breathing has slowed, matching the steady thud of Geralt’s heartbeat that he can hear right next to his head.

Geralt sets him down gently on the bed. “Get some rest,” he says, his voice a low growl and so unbearably soft. “I’ll be here when you wake up.”

Jaskier curls into the blankets with a hum. “I’m not going anywhere.”

Chapter Text

Despite all the shit that life tends to throw at him, Jaskier had really believed he wouldn’t leave him. Or that he would get good as left, right there on the side of that fucking mountain.

How could he have been so stupid?

The first week after getting down from the mountainside, all on his own, he spends most of it in a drunken haze. He flits from town to town, tavern to tavern, anywhere that he thinks is the complete opposite direction to where Geralt has gone. He doesn’t sing, even when he’s recognised and tavern owners promise extra money for his voice. His lute stays securely in its case, and he doesn’t take it out.

Drunken hazes give way to drunken anger, and Jaskier walks out into a nearby woods one evening so that nobody can hear him as he screams at a tree. Twenty fucking years of his life. He’s not damn near immortal like Yennefer, he doesn’t age so slowly it might as well not matter like Geralt. Twenty years is a quarter of his whole damned life. For it to just end like this, abrupt and clumsy and cruel, deliberately cruel…

Someone walks past him on the road whistling the tune to Toss a Coin to your Witcher, and Jaskier wants to scream at them. He wants to rewrite every single song he’s ever written about Geralt so the reason people know him isn’t because of the man he’s been trailing after for longer than he’d like to remember and who finally told him just how much he despises him. He wants to smash his lute against the nearest tree until it’s in shards.

It’s that impulse that shocks him out of this stupor. Gods, he’s a fucking idiot.

He might be a little bit heartbroken, fine. That’s expected. But he’s not going to ruin his life over it. And Geralt didn’t make his songs famous, didn’t make them be sung in every tavern up and down the northern kingdoms. Jaskier may have lost his muse, but he damn sure hasn’t lost his voice.

He keeps wandering, and he keeps singing.

Oxenfurt keeps his attention for a few months, and then he wanders back out of the city gates in a random direction. He keeps listening for gossip, unable to stop himself listening in at any mention of monsters or witchers or mages.

It’s in a dingy tavern along the road that he hears the first murmurs that the Nilfgaard army is moving north. The murmurs turn into rumours, turn into news spreading fast with messengers galloping their horses past him on the roads until they are foaming with sweat and winded outside town halls and city gates.

The news just gets darker, and Jaskier’s purse gets slimmer. People don’t want cheerful songs in taverns. They want to know if they’re safe, if Nilfgaard will keep moving north, if the Lioness of Cintra will stop them in their tracks and bleed the army dry.

Jaskier keeps his mouth shut, strums his lute when he thinks people will take a little cheer and distraction, and tries not to think about Geralt and the princess that Geralt had been avoiding for so long. If Cintra is in danger, Jaskier can’t see Geralt doing anything but heading straight there to protect her.

His anger has mellowed and quietened since he realised he was thinking of smashing his prized possession against a tree. He hates it, but time helps. It always does. And now for every time he remembers Geralt’s parting words, the sneer on his lips, there’s at least three other memories for it. Geralt talking quietly to Roach in the night, Jaskier pretending to sleep, as he carefully picks burrs out of her coat. Geralt pressed against him, a solid warmth as Jaskier tries to remember how to breathe, giving him something to do with his hands until they stop trembling. The aching way his voice wrapped around his name as Jaskier tried to stay awake in his arms, his blood coating Roach’s fur and Geralt’s hands.

An extra blanket, when it was cold at night. The last of the rabbit when they were both hungry and tired. New oilskins to protect his notebooks.

Stories. What Jaskier would live on, if he could. The tools he needed to make something great, to reach through to people and tug on their hearts, remind them of great tales of valour and courage and sacrifice, and kindness, remind them that monsters might not be monsters. To make something change.

The anger softens. It doesn’t disappear, Jaskier certainly hasn’t learnt how to let go of grudges and he isn’t planning to anytime soon, but it softens and mellows, and becomes overlaid with a slow melancholy.

Jaskier knows himself well enough to know that he misses Geralt. What he’s going to do with that information, he’s not sure, but for now he keeps singing when he can, keeps strumming his lute to try and give worried people a little bit of cheer, and keeps listening to the messages flying north with desperate people.

Cintra falls.

The armies of Nilfgaard march north. And Jaskier does the stupidest thing he’s ever done since he saw a witcher, alone in the corner of a tavern, and walked straight on up to him.

He turns and heads south.

Every day he’s swimming against the current, watching people walk past him with all the belongings they can fit on their back. Jaskier grits his teeth, pushes on and asks any of them who will talk to him for news. How long ago did the city fall? Are they taking prisoners, is the army moving further north again? What happened to Calanthe? Has anyone seen the Princess?

Has anyone seen a Witcher, white hair and yellow eyes?

The answers vary, grow more dire as he moves further south and the people become more ragged. He spots more wounded every day. Sometimes he tries to help, put into practice what he’s learnt over these years tending to Geralt’s wounds, but there are limited supplies and whilst his hands might have long since become steady with blood on them, there’s not much he can do with nothing but some water and whatever scraps of dirty linen strangers can spare.

Jaskier has been walking since before dawn when the next town finally comes into view. The streets are busy, the market stalls being brought down for the day, the smithy still ringing with the sound of steel striking iron. It’s been the same in most places he’s passed through. They’re out of the path of Nilfgaard’s army for the most part, and people still have to eat and work and live. Ordinary people going about their ordinary lives as best as they can. Jaskier feels the urge to reach for his lute, or his notebook and a quill. To write this down before it leaves him, or he has to move on.

The tavern is busy, but not full. Jaskier slips into an empty booth and slowly nurses a pint of ale. He’ll wait for most people to have eaten, to have had a chance to drink and relax, before he starts asking questions.

There’s a flash of white through the window. Jaskier turns, staring out of the window at the street, but it’s just the blonde of a young girl’s hair as it slips out from behind her hood. In a moment she tucks it back away, and then she’s gone.

0-o-0-o-0

Roach is screaming.

He can hear her, over the screams of other horses, the cries of the crowd outside and the horrifying roar of the fire devouring the hay and reaching out with hungry fingers for the rest. He can hear her screaming.

The bolt of the first stable is warm under his hands. Jaskier struggles with it, shoving his weight into the door until the bolt slams back with a screech of metal. He flings the stable door back and the horse in there runs out, bolting for the open barn door alongside the smoke starting to spill out into the courtyard.

He thinks he saw Geralt as he had rushed in, an unconscious body slung over his shoulder and dragging someone else behind him out of the barn. In the biggest of crowds, he could still spot Geralt anywhere.

He doesn’t think Geralt saw him. He doesn’t think Geralt has any idea that he’s here. Jaskier could have disappeared into the crowd that had formed as soon as the first call of fire had rung out. But then he’d heard the horses start screaming, and he’d realised that if Geralt is here, then Roach is in there.

His eyes are stinging fiercely, and the smoke is getting thicker and thicker. Jaskier runs to the next stable, pulling that bolt back as well. He can barely get out of the way as the frantic horse charges the door and throws it open, sending it slamming into Jaskier’s side. Jaskier falls, sprawling across the cobblestones with a strangled yelp. The smoke is thinner down here, and he gulps down a few breaths before staggering back to his feet and running for the next stable.

“They’re all free that side!” A stable lad grabs Jaskier’s arm, coughing and spluttering. His eyes are wide and frantic, ringed by smoke. He can’t be more than fourteen.

“Get out,” Jaskier says, pushing him towards the door. “I’ll get as many as I can on this side. I’m right behind you. Go!”

The stable lad gives him one last look before turning and stumbling for the barn door. Jaskier pulls his shirt up over his mouth, gets as low as he can, and runs towards the pressing heat and the roaring fire getting closer and closer every second.

Roach is still screaming as Jaskier goes from stable to stable, horses frantically rushing past him towards that glimpse of light. The fire is so loud he can barely think now, barely do anything but scrabble for the next door, the next bolt. The metal is getting warmer and warmer under his hands, his skin beginning to blister and burn with every touch.

The smoke is getting so thick he’s struggling to find breath, the fire is spreading with every second, but Roach is still screaming. He can’t leave Roach. He has to at least try.

The metal bolt is burning hot beneath his fingers. Roach is pinned in the back of the stable, ears fixed flat back against her head. As Jaskier finally throws the door open she rears up, dancing back on her hind legs. Burning pieces of hay caught on the billowing smoke land on her back and she kicks out, her back hooves hammering into the stable wall.

“Fuck,” Jaskier spits. He grabs the halter hanging by her stable. “Easy, Roach. Easy now.”

Roach lets him slip the halter over her head as she trembles, her coat soaked with sweat. Jaskier tugs on the rope. “Come on.”

Roach doesn’t move. “Come on,” Jaskier says, pulling on the rope with all his weight. “Come on, Roach, you stupid animal, come on! You can’t burn to fucking death, you’ve got to move! You’ve got to come with me.”

Roach gets to the stable door and stands there, quivering. There’s a groan of wood, and Jaskier looks up to see the roof at the end of the barn catch and start to burn. “Please,” he begs Roach, tears streaming down his face as the smoke thickens. “Please, I don’t want to leave you here. Just don’t look at the fire, Roach, just don’t-”

He remembers something Geralt told him, years ago. Jaskier slips his jacket off and takes a few precious seconds to wrap it over Roach’s eyes. “Come on, Roach. Come on, darling, please.”

Roach snorts, the sound resonating low in her throat, and then walks on.

Jaskier pulls her forwards as quickly as he can, one hand on the rope and one holding the blindfold in place. The smoke feels like it’s lining his throat, sending him coughing and staggering into Roach’s shoulder as she nervously prances next to him. “Good girl,” he gets out. “Good girl, come on. Just a little further.”

He can see the light of the open barn door, and he pulls the blindfold from Roach’s eyes, discarding it on the ground. At the neighs and clatter from outside that Jaskier can just hear, Roach runs forwards. The rope pulls through Jaskier’s hands for a few seconds before he grabs it and runs as best as he can, following her out through the smoke, her hooves striking against the stone next to his feet as he tries to keep up.

His lungs are burning, but the light is getting closer and closer until finally they spill out into the courtyard. Roach cries out, surging forwards, and Jaskier’s legs finally give out from underneath him. He spills forwards onto the cobblestones. One last painful scrape across his palms, and the rope slips from his fingers.

He starts coughing and then can’t stop, throat scraped raw as he sputters and gasps for air, sprawled out in a heap across the ground. The world is spinning around him and he heaves, spitting out bile. There’s a deep pulsing pain spreading out from his side, and his entire body starts shaking and then can’t stop as coughs tear through his chest.

Hands grab him, pulling him upright. “Help me get him away from the smoke!” someone shouts. Jaskier squeezes his eyes shut and holds onto consciousness as arms pull him up and he’s slung between two people. “Gods, mate, you’re either brave or stupid.”

“Are the horses-” Jaskier wheezes.

“They’re all out,” someone says as he’s dragged away. “Make room! Give him some space!” The air is slowly clearing, but every breath scrapes against his throat and the entire world is still spinning around him. He heaves again, bile and spit dribbling down his chin. “Stay awake, mate,” that same voice says. “Does anyone know who he is?”

“He’s that bard,” someone else calls out. “The one that- oy, Witcher? Isn’t this your bard?”

Jaskier forces his eyes open just in time to see a broad figure shoulder his way through the growing crowd. It’s at this point that Jaskier’s legs really give out from underneath him, and the people holding him up aren’t quick enough to catch him as he collapses in a heap to the floor.

“Jaskier?”

Strong hands grip his shoulders and haul him up from where he’s sprawled on the ground. Jaskier makes a weak noise of protest. The stone is cool, unlike what feels like literally every part of his body.

“Jaskier!”

Oh, he recognises that tone. That’s the one where he’s done something really stupid.

Jaskier forces his eyes open. A blurred Geralt slowly comes into focus. “Geralt,” he wheezes. He can feel tears slowly trickling down his cheeks. His eyes still sting fiercely, and there’s absolutely nothing he can do about it. He must look an absolute mess. “Sorry?”

Geralt’s hands move from his shoulders to cup his face. “Jaskier.” His voice sounds wrecked, his eyes flickering over Jaskier’s face. There are smears of soot across his cheek, his hair tangled and dark with ash. “Jaskier,” he says again, his hands warm and solid against Jaskier’s neck. “What are you doing here?”

Jaskier tries to breathe. It doesn’t seem to be working quite right. “That’s a long story,” he gets out. “Right now? I think I’m about to pass out.”

Chapter Text

He wakes up to a thick blanket draped over him. His mouth feels so dry that his tongue has glued to the roof of his mouth, and everything tastes of ash. He swallows, wincing at the scrape of his throat, and tries to remember how the hell he got here.

Jaskier cracks his eyes open and stares up at a whitewashed ceiling. Nope, nothing coming back.

“Oh!” a voice says from nearby. “You’re awake!”

“That’s debatable,” Jaskier says, groaning as he sits up. His entire head feels hazy and strange, but there’s no sour-sharp taste of wine on his tongue, just ash. He reaches up to rub at his face and stops short. There are bandages wrapped around his hands, clean strips of linen covering his palms and wrapping up around his fingers. He can remember the roar of fire, the thick smoke blinding him, forcing its way down his throat with every breath. The heat of the metal under his hands as he tugged back bolt after bolt and flung stable doors open. His breath catches in his throat as panic claws up at it from his stomach.

“Oh, he said to tell you as soon as you woke up that your hands are going to be okay. They got a little burned, but they’ll be fine.”

Jaskier winces as he pokes at one palm with the other hand. His fingers feel thick and unresponsive, swaddled in linens, and he forces the panic to let go of his throat and climb back down. “Here, she said you should drink this when you woke up.” A cup is pressed into his hands, smelling of herbs and honey.

Jaskier looks over at the person sitting next to the bed, and his heart softens at the girl he sees sitting there. “Oh,” he breathes.

Cirilla stares steadily back at him. Her long blond hair falls in waves around her shoulders, slightly tangled and muddy but still that bright blond Jaskier remembers of Pavetta. Those brilliant blue eyes, the set of her chin, the determination as she pushes the cup into his hands again. “Drink,” she says. “I’m…Fiona.”

“Oh, I’m so glad he found you,” Jaskier breathes. He smiles softly at her. “You look so much like your mother.”

“You knew her?” Ciri asks. Her chin trembles slightly, and Jaskier suddenly remembers that Cintra fell only a few short weeks ago, Calanthe is certainly dead, and the girl has just lost the last of the family she ever knew. His throat tightens, and it’s nothing to do with the taste of ash on his tongue.

“I was at her betrothal feast, with Geralt,” Jaskier says. His voice is little more than a rasp, and he sips at the drink, the honey coating and soothing his throat with every mouthful. “I’m sure people have told you this a thousand times, but you really do have her eyes. And her chin, actually.”

Ciri lets out a wobbly laugh. “Nobody mentions the chin.”

Jaskier drains the cup, wincing at the way it rubs against his palms, and carefully sets it down on the side. “What happened?” he asks. “Where are we?”

“We’re in- I think this is the mason’s house?” Ciri tucks some hair back behind her ear, hunched on the rickety chair. “They had a spare room, and between Geralt getting that stable lad out and you letting all the horses out, most of the town is pretty grateful. Geralt says we’re going as soon as- well, now, I guess, now you’re awake.”

“Was anyone hurt?” Jaskier pokes at his palms again. They hurt, but not as badly as he thought they might. There’s some sort of salve under the bandages that he can feel, and he can feel each finger as he pokes at them in turn, which is good.

“Um, I don’t think so?” Ciri shakes her head. “Geralt pulled some people out, but there wasn’t anyone left in there- well, except for you.” Her chin wobbles slightly. “They said- I heard someone say that if you’d stayed in there a few more minutes, you wouldn’t have come out.”

“Hey, hey, don’t even think about that,” Jaskier says. He reaches out and grasps Ciri’s hand as best as he can with the bandages. He’s never met this girl in front of him before, but he has spent a long time wondering about her, about what she might be like, if Geralt would ever go back for her. And like everyone’s own imaginations, his could have never lived up to the girl sat in front of him now. “I’m here, aren’t I? I’m fine. Don’t worry about things that haven’t happened. Besides, you don’t even know me!”

Ciri gives him a small smile. “He talks about you all the time, you know.”

Jaskier definitely does not choke on his own spit. “I’m sorry? We are talking about the same Geralt? White hair, yellow eyes, looks permanently grumpy and like a bedraggled cat? The one who answers most questions in grunts or single syllables?”

That makes Ciri laugh, and Jaskier’s heart promptly melts. “He was really worried about you when he saw you collapse,” she says. “He doesn’t really…talk, much, but when he does, he mentions you a lot.”

“Oh,” Jaskier says quietly. “I didn’t think-”

He doesn’t know what he thought. He hadn’t really thought, seeing Geralt through the smoke as he had darted into the barn, towards the sound of Roach screaming.

“Is Roach okay?” He winces at the rasp in his throat, going to rub it before he remembers the bandages around his hands. Everything still smells of ash and smoke, and he wrinkles his nose. He would kill for a bath right now.

“All the horses got out safe.” Ciri refills the cup with a jug of water and passes it over, waiting until Jaskier has a firm grip on it before she sits back. “I think Geralt said Roach had inhaled a bit of smoke, and some burning hay caught her back, but that she’ll be fine in a couple days.”

Jaskier gulps the water down greedily, sputtering on the last mouthful. Water dribbles down his chin and drops onto a ratty undershirt that he suddenly realises isn’t his. “Are you okay, my dear?”

Ciri looks up at him in surprise. “I didn’t go anywhere near the barn. You were the only one who got…singed, I think.”

“I wasn’t talking about the fire.” Jaskier squeezes her hand, as best as he can, and looks her straight in the eye. “I’m very glad you’re safe, Cirilla. And I am so sorry about your family.”

Ciri’s eyes water, but she squeezes Jaskier’s hand back. He can’t help but wince at the pressure, and she abruptly lets go. “Oh, I’m sorry! I should go and get her now you’re awake. She’ll want to look at your hands again.” She gets to her feet and darts out of the door before Jaskier can say anything else. He hears her footsteps disappear down the stairs, and then nothing else.

Jaskier glances around the room he’s in. It’s lived in, clothes hung over a chair, but nothing that he recognises. Nothing that he would know as Geralt’s.

There are footsteps on the stairs, coming closer. Jaskier sits up a little straighter on the bed and braces himself for a healer to descend on him.

The door swings open. “Oh, sweet gods,” Jaskier says. “What fresh hell is this?”

Yennefer gives him a look from the doorway. She looks the least put together he’s ever seen her. Oh, she still looks immaculate at a glance, but Jaskier recognises that dress, which means it’s at least two years old, and her makeup isn’t quite as perfect as it normally is. “Jaskier,” she says, her voice dripping in false sweetness. “How wonderful to see that your stupidity has still not yet managed to kill you.”

“Yennefer. What a pleasant surprise. You look…” Jaskier looks her up and down, and that instinct to jab at her, to get the first blow in before she does, subsides a little. “Tired, actually.”

Yennefer’s smile dims and turns brittle. “You look like you’ve been lightly smoked.” She shuts the door behind him and sits down in the chair Ciri had left. “Let me look.”

“If that’s what you’ve been after all this time, you should have just said,” Jaskier says. He holds out his bandaged hands at Yennefer’s look. “Please don’t remove them.”

“Who do you think looked after them?” Yennefer asks. “None of these villagers knew how to treat burns properly.” She starts unwrapping the bandages, teasing them away from blistered and raw skin. “You’re lucky that I wasn’t far away.”

“So lucky,” Jaskier mutters. He winces as Yennefer tugs some more of the bandages away from his hands. “Be careful! These are the tools of my trade, and I would rather keep them intact and functioning.”

“What do you think I’m doing?” Yennefer asks. She runs her fingers over Jaskier’s palm, bright red and scraped raw from the burns. Jaskier instinctively winces, but her touch is light and cool, and the stinging quietens under her fingertips.

“Historically, you and I have not exactly gotten on,” Jaskier reminds her as he watches her turn his hands over in her grasp. “Are you sure you’re not going to transform me into a frog?”

“I doubt it will stop you from doing stupid things like running into a burning barn to save some horses, so I shall refrain,” Yennefer murmurs. She reaches for a pot on the bedside table and scoops out some salve. “Or one horse in particular, of course.”

“What’s that supposed to mean?” Jaskier hisses at the balm on his raw skin. Surprisingly, Yennefer glances up at him, and then her touch gentles. “You’ve changed,” he says before he can stop himself. “Normally we’re well into insulting each other by now.”

“A lot has changed,” Yennefer just says. She finishes smoothing the balm into his skin. With a flick of her fingers, the old bandages in Jaskier’s lap are clean and new again. She starts wrapping them around his hands again. “I was surprised, when Geralt said he hadn’t seen you since the dragon.”

Jaskier snorts. “Are you?”

Yennefer stares at him. “You poor, oblivious idiot,” she says, shaking her head. “I thought bards were supposed to be good at all those…emotions. You certainly sing about them enough.”

Jaskier stares back at her. “I honestly don’t know what to say to any of that,” he gets out. “You’ve heard my songs?”

Yennefer rolls her eyes. “Of course, that’s what you focus on.” She finishes with his hands. “Stay still. You inhaled a lot of smoke.”

Jaskier flinches back as Yennefer reaches for his throat. “What are you doing?”

Yennefer pins him with a look, and places her fingers against the side of Jaskier’s throat. “I think Geralt would rather you didn’t develop a lung infection in the next few days and drown yourself on dry land.”

“That can happen?” Jaskier squawks. He submits to Yennefer’s fingers pressing into his throat, and there’s a strange tingling that spreads across his neck and seeps deep into his chest. He grimaces, and then just as soon as it had appeared it disappears again. The itch in his throat quietens, but there’s a strange taste lingering on his tongue. “Your magic tastes weird,” he complains.

“Well, it’s going to taste better than you choking on your own blood. Oh, wait.” Yennefer smiles sweetly at him. “I forgot, you already know what that’s like.”

Jaskier winces. “Low blow, witch.”

“You left yourself wide open for that one, bard. Obviously not your best day.”

Jaskier gestures at himself, still stinking of smoke and ash. He’s sure if he looked in a mirror he would be horrified with the mess he’s in. “I think it’s safe to presume that.” He lets her finish whatever she’s doing with her fingers pressed to his throat before he picks his hands back up and studies the bandages. “How long until they’re better?”

“A few days until you don’t need the bandages and salves, maybe two weeks until you can play a lute again.” Yennefer starts packing up the salves on the bedside table. “Ruin my handiwork and I will tie you down.”

“If that’s what you’re into,” Jaskier says automatically. He pauses. “No, wait, that’s exactly the sort of thing you would be into. Disregard me. How long until I can travel, then? I can’t exactly do much for myself with my hands like this, and I would rather like my fingers back.”

Yennefer gives him an odd look. “I’m sure Geralt can help. I imagine you’ll leave tomorrow morning, from what he’s said.”

Jaskier snorts. “Now that you’re here, I doubt Geralt wants me around. I can see myself out.”

“Jaskier.” Yennefer’s hand settles on his arm. Her nails dig ever so slightly into his skin. “What in the ever-loving hell are you talking about?”

“I came looking for him when Cintra fell,” Jaskier admits. “But he’s obviously fine, he’s found Ciri and you’re here, so he doesn’t exactly need a mouthy bard anymore. Not when the world appears to be falling to pieces.” He shrugs, trying to ignore the bitterness crawling under his skin. “Not much I can do about that.”

“You really are that oblivious,” Yennefer says in amazement. “I didn’t think it was possible, even for you.” She studies him intently. “You are aware just how much Geralt…values you, aren’t you?”

“Oh, please,” Jaskier says. “Know that I do not mean this as a compliment in any way, just as a statement of fact. How the fuck am I ever meant to compete with all…that?” He waves one hand at her. “He has literally never been able to take his eyes off you whenever you turn up. Don’t think I never noticed.”

Yennefer purses her lips. “Oh, there are so many things I want to say to that.” She shakes her head. “I can’t quite believe I’m doing this,” she mutters to herself. “I’m going to set our little…”

“Pissing contest?”

“Rivalry aside,” Yennefer finishes. “Just for now. Let’s start small.” Her nails dig a little further into Jaskier’s forearm. “You do know that Geralt wants you around, yes?”

“Oh sure. Because what he told me up on that mountain, the last time I saw him, definitely inspired confidence in that. That’s exactly why I haven’t fucking seen him since then.” Jaskier tugs his arm free from her grip. “If you’re just going to rub salt in a wound, you can kindly fuck off.”

Yennefer studies him in amazement. “You really believe that,” she says. She shakes her head. “Gods keep me from emotionally-repressed idiots.”

“I think it would be a little impossible for them to keep you from yourself,” Jaskier snaps. “How is the quest for a baby going? Found that unconditional love you’re so desperate for yet? You won’t get it from Geralt, if that’s what you’re looking for here. I may be an oblivious idiot, but even I can tell that the two of you will kill each other if you try that.”

Yennefer’s eyes flash. “Jaskier,” she says, and the low hiss of steel in her voice makes Jaskier tense instinctively. “I burnt an army down to ash at Sodden a few weeks ago. It won’t take me a moment to quieten one little irritating songbird who doesn’t know when to shut up and listen.”

“Geralt would kill you if you did that,” Jaskier says immediately.

“Oh, so you do admit that he cares about you?” Yennefer says quickly. She smiles at him as Jaskier stammers, and that is even more unsettling. “Got you.”

“That’s not- I’m not saying he- obviously he cares!” Jaskier sputters. “I’m not a complete idiot, he wouldn’t have put up with me for two decades if he didn’t actually, you know, like me. At some point. But again, haven’t seen him since he declared he really didn’t want me around on that fucking mountainside. So if you have a point, please get to it.”

Yennefer purses her lips. “I’m not making excuses for him,” she says, and that comes so completely out of nowhere that Jaskier actually snaps his mouth shut. “From the little I’ve managed to drag out of him about the last time you were together, he was an arse. But Jaskier…you should have seen how worried he was when I got here.”

“I was a little busy passing out from smoke inhalation,” Jaskier says, but he can’t summon up the usual bite to his voice.

Yennefer nods. “Geralt…well, I won’t put words in his mouth. He can be a big boy and own up to it himself. But he is hopeless at this. He will stay silent forever if he isn’t completely sure that you won’t abandon him when he crosses some line that he has no idea was there. And he’s spent too long insisting to himself that he can’t feel anything to turn it all around in one go after meeting you.”

Jaskier scoffs. “That whole no emotions thing that everyone likes to believe about witchers is a complete lie. Especially for Geralt.”

Yennefer smiles, and it’s bitter and tired. “Live a lie long enough and it’s easy to forget that it isn’t the truth. What’s hard is admitting to yourself that it was a lie. What’s even harder is doing something about it that isn’t just hating yourself.”

“Geralt and I,” Yennefer continues, ignoring Jaskier’s stare, “we’re bound. By destiny, fate, whatever you would like to call it. We’re tied together. We can’t get away from each other. And then there’s you.”

Jaskier bristles. “This is really making me feel so inadequate now, thank you.”

“Jaskier.” Yennefer grasps his arm, her nails digging into his skin with a sharp sting. “Don’t you get it? He chose you. Geralt and I may be bound, and he may have mistaken that for desire at certain points - we both might have mistaken it for desire- because he didn’t yet believe he could know any different, but he chose every moment that you spent together. Or did you really believe that he allowed you to tag along for decades just because you annoyed him into submission?”

Yennefer stares at him with an intensity until Jaskier slowly shakes his head. “He fucked it up on the way here,” she says, “but assaulted on all sides, myself and Ciri and whatever we’re hurtling towards, he chose you.” She grips his arm, her gaze so intense but Jaskier can’t look away. “You, Jaskier. Neither of us get many choices in our lives. I won’t take this one away from him.”

“Oh,” Jaskier says faintly.

Something in his chest sparks and begins to cautiously be pulled towards the light.

“And I do happen to care for Geralt still, so I won’t let an idiotic little songbird mess this up.” Yennefer smiles, showing a little too much teeth to be friendly, and Jaskier swallows heavily. “I’ll send him up, so he stops pacing a groove in the floorboards downstairs. Do not mess this up, or I will eat you alive.”

“Duly noted,” Jaskier says. He watches her as she gets to her feet, smoothing her dress down. She looks tired, and Jaskier wonders exactly where she’s been since the mountain, and what she’s done. “Yennefer?” he says as she heads for the door. He grimaces. “Thank you.”

“That must have been so hard for you to say,” Yennefer says with a smile

“The absolute worst.” Jaskier grimaces. “Excuse me, I’m going to go throw up now from the horror of thanking you and actually being sincere about it.”

“Just don’t undo my handiwork,” Yennefer says, and she slips out of the room.

Jaskier eases himself back down onto the bed. “Fuck,” he whispers to himself.

He had not seen that coming. At all.

It’s hard to remember his life before he’d met Geralt, especially in much detail. Everything he’s done since then has just completely eclipsed whatever measly songs he had written or shitty taverns he’d played in until they’d thrown something at him to make him stop. The moment he walked up to a witcher, all alone in the corner, with that knowing feeling in his gut that he was walking into something wild and wonderful, it’s like everything started over.

Jaskier breathes out, flexes his hands and tries to brace himself to look Geralt in the eye.

He’s spent so many years writing songs about love, about all kinds of love and heartbreak and sacrifice, disguised in amongst a jaunty tune or bawdy language or plain spoken on the strings of a lute. And yet he thinks he still knows absolutely nothing about it. Not if he judges by the quickening thud of his heart as he waits, the twist in his stomach as he wonders just what Geralt might say to him. If he will say anything at all.

Maybe nobody knows. Maybe nobody has any idea what is going on with the fickle twists and turns of their hearts. Maybe all of the bards before him were also lying, or putting into words something that is quite impossible to really say.

Jaskier snorts at himself. Once a bard, always a bard. Even with his hands bandaged and useless as they are right now.

He’s exhausted. Yennefer’s magic might have helped, but it hasn’t healed him entirely, and running into a burning barn and dragging out horses apparently takes it out of him. For a moment he’s tempted to fall asleep and just skip the entire thing, but he forces that idea out of his head. He’s done enough dancing around this.

Besides, if he backs out now, Yennefer is going to be absolutely insufferable, and he cannot let that happen.

Still, no harm is shutting his eyes for a quick nap. For however long it takes for Geralt to make his way up here.

He’s dozing a little, not quite awake but definitely not asleep, when the door creaks open. There’s a soft noise of surprise, only just audible, and then quiet footsteps across the floorboards, getting closer. They stop. Jaskier can just hear Geralt’s slow breathing from somewhere close to the bed.

Jaskier stays perfectly still, breathing evenly, as a hand gently brushes his hair away from his face. The sound of a slight hitch of breath, and then Jaskier feels the brush of a kiss, achingly gentle, pressed against his forehead.

He hums low in his throat, leaning into the touch. The warm hand on his face abruptly disappears.

“If you leave,” Jaskier rasps, not bothering to open his eyes, “I am going to fucking kill you.”

The sound of footsteps stops. “You’re awake.”

Jaskier sits up with a groan. “Obviously.” He goes to rub at his eyes and then remembers his bandaged hands. His eyes are still stinging from the smoke, but he blinks until he can see Geralt. He’s by the door, entire body tense. As Jaskier watches, he turns back around towards Jaskier. His gaze drops down to Jaskier’s hands in his lap.

“Your hands- they are going to be fine,” he says haltingly. “I asked Ciri to- she should have told you as soon as you woke up. They won’t even scar.”

Jaskier nods. “She did. And Yennefer looked at them, did her thing. I also won’t start coughing up blood in a few days and die, which is nice to know.”

Geralt flinches. Actually flinches. “I’m fine,” Jaskier says, more bewildered than anything. “Look, only a little bit singed. A light smoking.”

“You- you ran into a barn fire,” Geralt growls. He spins towards Jaskier, towering over him. “To save some horses. Are you actually fucking insane?”

“I wasn’t going to leave them there!” Jaskier exclaims. “Gods, Geralt, couldn’t you hear them screaming? And Roach was in there! I wasn’t going to leave Roach to burn to death in a barn when I could do something about it.”

“You could have been killed! You passed out from the smoke, Jaskier, you nearly stopped breathing because of it.” Geralt’s hands are clenched into fists at his side, his eyes flashing with what Jaskier easily recognises as barely-suppressed rage. “Of all the stupid, idiotic things that you have done-”

“I’ve changed my mind,” Jaskier says, staring defiantly up at him. “If you’re just going to insult me, then you can leave.”

“You nearly killed yourself, running straight into a barn fire to save some horses,” Geralt growls, the sound reverberating through the room and digging its way straight into Jaskier’s chest. “Why the fuck would you do that?”

“Because they don’t deserve to die?” Jaskier offers. “Because Roach is important to you- don’t even try to deny it, you oaf, both you and I know it’s true. And dammit, that means she’s important to me as well, and I was there, and I could do something. Why shouldn’t I?”

“She is a horse,” Geralt all but shouts at him. “She isn’t as important as your own life!”

“Oh, so I’m important now?” Jaskier asks. He can’t help his tone, riding on the edge of everything dragged up as soon as he first saw Geralt standing there. “That’s a big change from the last time we spoke.”

Geralt’s strings are just…cut. All the anger drains away as Jaskier watches, his hands slowly uncurling, his shoulders slumping. He turns to Jaskier and looks him straight in the eye.

“I’m sorry.”

Jaskier gapes. “I’m sorry, what?”

The barest of smiles tugs at Geralt’s lips for a brief moment. “No, I am, actually.” He quickly sobers. “I’m sorry for what I said to you, Jaskier. I was angry at Yennefer, and at…at myself, I was angry at myself, and I took it out on you. And I’m sorry for that.”

Jaskier stares at him. “Jaskier?” Geralt asks, and the hesitation in his voice makes a sudden ache unfurl in Jaskier’s chest.

“You’re not just-” Jaskier eyes him warily. His chest is tight, and he rubs absently at it as he studies Geralt. “This isn’t just some pity thing, is it? Because if it is, Geralt, I will be seriously pissed off. What you said was unwarranted, and cruel.”

Geralt flinches. It wouldn’t be obvious to anyone else, but Jaskier can see it in the line of his shoulders, the way his eyes dart away from Jaskier and down to the floor. “I know,” he says. “I knew it then, I think, even if I didn’t want to. I was- Yennefer and I, I never meant to bind us like that. And I thought it was- I was wrong. And I never realised how much I missed you until I drove you away.”

Jaskier breathes in, and finds that anger completely lacking. He can still remember it, of course, still remember the sharp pang in his chest at Geralt’s words on that mountainside, but they don’t have any hold here. Not with Geralt standing in front of him, each word so painstakingly pulled out and put together, as miserable as Jaskier thinks he’s ever seen him.

He doesn’t want this to go on any longer. He’s missed Geralt, he’s missed all of this, and he wants it back. He heaves a dramatic sigh. “I suppose I shall forgive you, Geralt. Such a chore, of course, but it must be done.”

Geralt glances down at the floor. “You don’t- I wouldn’t force you-”

“Geralt.” Jaskier gets to his feet. Geralt doesn’t move when Jaskier approaches, but he can see the stillness holding onto his body, the muscle clenching in his jaw. Jaskier presses one hand to his chest and the muscles beneath his bandaged palm flinch. “Geralt,” he says again softly. “I forgive you.”

Geralt shudders slightly beneath his hand. “Did you really think I wouldn’t?” Jaskier asks lightly. “After all this time together?” He ducks his head, trying to catch Geralt’s gaze. “Please. When have you ever known me to give up on something I want?”

Geralt glances down at the hand Jaskier has gently pressed against his chest. “I’m sorry about your hands. I didn’t- by the time I got the stable hands out and could go back, the horses were already running out. I couldn’t see anything, and Ciri- I had to make sure she was safe. I didn’t know you were in there, Jaskier. I didn’t- I didn’t know you were there until they carried you out.”

“I know.” Jaskier runs his hand down Geralt’s chest. He can just feel the way he shivers underneath his bandaged palm. ‘I was looking for you,” he admits. “When I heard that Cintra fell- when I heard Calanthe was dead, I knew you would be coming for Cirilla, if you hadn’t gotten her out already. I came south. But I didn’t- I had no idea you were here until I heard Roach screaming.” He has to look away, glancing down at the floor as Geralt’s intense gaze bores into him. “If I had known, I’m not sure if I would have stayed or not.”

Geralt flinches. “I’m sorry-”

“I know you are.”

“I looked for you, when I came down the mountain.” Geralt’s hands are twitching by his sides, fingers curling and uncurling as Jaskier watches. “But you had already left. I thought- I thought about finding you, but I didn’t know if you wanted to be found. And then Nilfgaard…I had to get to Ciri. I had to keep her safe.”

“What are you going to do now?” Jaskier asks. His heart thuds in his chest, loud enough that he’s sure Geralt can hear it. “She’s not safe here. Nilfgaard must be looking for her.”

“I’m going to take her to Kaer Morhen.” Geralt’s voice is a low rumble in his chest. “She needs training. She needs to learn control.”

It takes Jaskier a moment for those words to make sense. “Ah. Pavetta?”

“Like mother, like daughter,” Geralt says. He hesitates. He brings one hand up close to Jaskier, fingers flexing, and then lets it drop.

“That’s good then,” Jaskier says, because sometimes he cannot help but run his mouth. “That scream was terrifying, I can still remember it after all these years, and if Cirilla has that sort of power-”

“Come with us.”

Jaskier’s words abruptly dry up. “I- you want-”

“Come with me,” Geralt says. “Come to Kaer Morhen.”

Jaskier swallows heavily. “I assume Yennefer will be training her as well,” he gets out.

“Yennefer has things to deal with.” Geralt glances away from Jaskier. “She is going to make her own way there. But yes, Ciri needs more training than witchers can give her.”

Jaskier lets his hand drop from Geralt’s chest. He forces a small laugh from his lips. “Well, I doubt I’ll be of much use, then. She won’t have time to learn how to play a lute, which, let’s be honest, is all I’m really useful for.”

“Jaskier.” Geralt’s voice sounds pained, and he reaches up again, his hand hovering by Jaskier’s side before dropping back down. “You’re not- you have never been useless. And I’m not asking you there to help train her. I…I just want you there. If you want to be.”

“Oh.” Jaskier breathes in. “I thought you didn’t want me around.”

“I was wrong,” Geralt says. His voice is so quiet that Jaskier almost has to strain to hear it. His eyes meet Jaskier’s. “What I said. You aren’t- I don’t want you gone, Jas. I don’t ever want you gone.”

The air is knocked out of Jaskier’s lungs. “Oh,” he manages. Geralt is staring at him, a little furrow in his brow, and Jaskier nods helplessly. “I’ll come with you, then.”

There’s a smile on Geralt’s face. He reaches out again, his hand so close to Jaskier’s side that Jaskier thinks he can feel the warmth of it, but he still doesn’t touch.

Jaskier takes a gamble and shifts his weight, leaning into Geralt’s hand. Geralt stiffens, a sharp breath escaping him, but he doesn’t move away. “You can touch,” Jaskier says softly. “You can- you can touch as much as you want.”

Geralt’s other hand comes up and hovers, achingly close to Jaskier’s cheek. “I shouldn’t-” he gets out haltingly. “I can’t take-”

“I’m giving it freely,” Jaskier says. Geralt is so close, staring at him with his bright yellow eyes. Jaskier reaches out for the solid warmth in front of him, feeling the slow thud of Geralt’s heartbeat under his palm. “I’ve always given it freely to you.”

The back of Geralt’s knuckles brush against Jaskier’s cheek. Jaskier just keeps looking at him, even as he shivers at Geralt’s touch. Geralt’s thumb smooths along the line of Jaskier’s jaw, and then his hand cups the side of his face, fingers running through the hair at the nape of his neck. “Jas.”

“You can have this,” Jaskier breathes. He can’t look away from Geralt’s face, at the want so obviously there if you know where to look. “You can choose this.”

Geralt lets out a shuddering breath. His grip tightens on Jaskier’s side, and then he’s pulling him forwards and kissing him.

Jaskier kisses him back. He pulls Geralt closer until he’s flush against him, wraps his arms around Geralt’s shoulders, and kisses him back.

It’s messy and uncoordinated. Their teeth clack together, Jaskier’s hands ache where he forgets the bandages and tries to grasp Geralt’s shirt, and everything smells of smoke and ash.

It’s the best kiss he’s ever had.

Jaskier only pulls back when he runs out of air. Geralt chases him, pressing kisses along his jaw. He wraps himself around Jaskier, pulling him in close and burying his face in Jaskier’s neck. He’s trembling, a faint tremor running through him.

Jaskier wraps his arms around him, pulling him as tight as he can. “Oh, darling,” he murmurs as Geralt presses his face into Jaskier’s neck. “Shh, it’s okay. We’re okay.”

He holds Geralt close until the tremors die down, hand smoothing down his back. Eventually Geralt pulls back. “Jas,” he rasps.

Jaskier smiles up at him. “Hi.” He loops an arm around Geralt’s neck and pulls him down into another kiss. Geralt makes a muffled noise against his lips, gripping Jaskier and pulling him close. Jaskier kisses him, keeps him close and kisses him until he runs out of air, and then just takes a breath and kisses him again.

Geralt eventually pulls back. “Jas,” he says, a low rumble in his chest.

Jaskier hums. He licks at his lips, watching as Geralt’s eyes track the movement. “Geralt.”

Geralt’s hands come up to frame Jaskier’s face. “You’re going to hurt your hands.”

“I’m going to what?” Jaskier realises he’s gripping the back of Geralt’s shirt, and the burns are stinging. “Ah. Got a little caught up.” He releases the shirt and pulls his hands back in front of him, flexing his fingers. He winces at the pull on the raw skin. He catches the tail end of Geralt’s expression as he stares down at Jaskier’s hands. “Don’t look like that, this wasn’t your fault.”

“You got hurt,” Geralt says in a low voice.

“And I’ll get better.” Jaskier cups Geralt’s face as best he can. “Though I can now do this if you start looking all grumpy.” He pulls him in and kisses him, tilting his head to deepen it, licking along Geralt’s lower lip. He pulls back, and Geralt chases him, kissing him back until they’re both out of breath, lips red and swollen. “There,” Jaskier says, looking up at Geralt’s expression, that he can only describe as content. “That’s better.”

Geralt hums, low in his throat. “Stay with me,” he says quietly. His hands settle on Jaskier’s waist, just resting there.

Jaskier smiles helplessly. He wraps his arms around Geralt, pressing himself close to him. “Of course,” he murmurs into Geralt’s shoulder. He can barely speak through the smile on his face, the sheer joy beginning to run through him, and he starts laughing because he doesn’t know what else he could possibly do.

Geralt’s arms just tighten around him, a low rumble in his chest that reverberates through Jaskier until Geralt’s arms feel like the only thing holding him up. Geralt doesn’t say anything, but that’s okay. Jaskier knows what he means.

Chapter Text

Jaskier tries desperately to keep his balance, but his feet go straight out from underneath him. He flails, and just manages to grab the banister before he completely loses his footing and goes head over heels down the stairs. The barmaid glances up from behind the bar. “Bit too much to drink last night?” she asks.

Jaskier drags himself back up by the banister, making sure his feet are properly beneath him before going down the rest of the stairs at a much steadier pace. “My dear,” he says, straightening his doublet once he’s on surer ground. “You haven’t seen my witcher this morning, have you?”

“Ah, of course. You’re the White Wolf’s bard.” The barmaid props a tray on her hip. “Jennie filled me in.” She winks at him. “Warned me not to let my hands wander.”

Jaskier laughs. “I don’t know if she meant me or him, but either way, probably sound advice. Now, have you seen him this morning?” He’d woken up earlier when Geralt had slipped out of bed, but Geralt had just tucked the blanket back around him and Jaskier had burrowed back into the warmth to go straight back to sleep.

“He came through, asked for some hot water for his girl,” the barmaid says. “I think he went out to the stables?”

“Thank you kindly,” Jaskier says, and he heads for the door. It opens onto a world of white.

They’re getting further and further north each day, and winter is beginning to creep in. It’s the first time Jaskier has seen snow for months. There are already footsteps criss-crossing the street, but it’s early enough that the snow hasn’t been cleared yet, and most of it is still pristine. Out of the window upstairs, the snow across the meadows and the nearby woods was dazzling, making Jaskier immediately reach for his notebook and write a few phrases down before Ciri had woken up and gasped as soon as she looked outside.

The stables are warm, and Jaskier scratches the noses of a few horses as he walks down to where Roach is stabled. Geralt is there, murmuring something to Roach as he brushes pieces of straw out of her mane.

“You know,” Jaskier says, draping himself over the stable door, “if I put this into a song, nobody would believe me. I would get shouted off the stage if I wrote about the White Wolf saying sweet nothings to his horse.”

Geralt turns around. “Jaskier,” he says, his voice a low rumble as it curls around his name. “Is Ciri-”

“Upstairs, waking up slowly like all teenagers do.” Jaskier reaches out and tries to grab Geralt’s shirt, which Geralt easily sidesteps with a smirk. “Geralt,” Jaskier says, putting on a pout. “I’m cold.”

“Kaer Morhen is going to be colder.” Geralt steps closer, setting the brush in his hand down on the stable wall. “Much colder.”

“Well, good thing I have a witcher of my own to keep me warm.” Jaskier manages to snag Geralt’s shirt, and tugs him closer. “Are we leaving today?”

Geralt hums. “Yen is waiting in the next town over, but I need to go to the apothecary this morning, and look into the nests up on the cliffs. The path to Kaer Morhen should stay open for a few weeks more before the snows come in.” He lets Jaskier tug him closer, and then cups his face with warm hands to lean down and kiss him. Jaskier hums eagerly into it, tilting his head to deepen the kiss, pressing as close as he can with the stable door still in the way. Geralt’s hand settles on the back of Jaskier’s neck, his fingers pushing through his hair.

Jaskier has noticed how much Geralt likes to run his fingers through his hair, often when he thinks Jaskier is sleeping. He certainly doesn’t mind, and leans into the touch now, grinning against Geralt’s lips. “So,” he murmurs. “If we don’t have to leave this morning…”

Geralt pulls back slightly, but only so he can press soft kisses along Jaskier’s jaw, down into the hollow of his throat. “What are you after?” he asks, his breath ghosting across the crook of Jaskier’s neck.

Jaskier is starting to regret the solid stable door between them as Geralt’s teeth just barely catch against his skin. “You are very distracting, you know,” he murmurs. “When you- ah, when you do that.” He can feel Geralt’s smile against his skin. “You’re not going to distract me forever,” Jaskier warns, even as his hands clutch at Geralt’s shirt and tries to pull him closer. “Or keep me quiet.”

“What I can do to stop you talking isn’t suitable for out here in the stables,” Geralt says against his neck.

Jaskier shudders. “Oh, you are wicked.” Reluctantly he pulls back, pressing one last kiss to Geralt’s lips. “I did want to ask you something, though.” Geralt arches a brow, and Jaskier presses on. “It snowed last night.”

Geralt hums. “It does that in winter.”

“Oy, you.” Jaskier pokes at his shoulder. “Ciri told me that she’s never been out to properly ride in the snow.”

Geralt snorts. “It snows in Cintra.”

“You know what I mean. She’s never gotten to take a horse out and just run it through the snow. It’s the best fun!” Jaskier leans his chin against the stable door, looking up at Geralt in a way that he knows makes his eyes look even bigger. “So…I thought I could maybe go out with her? Take her on a proper ride? You said we’re pretty safe this close to Kaer Morhen, and the nests would only take a couple hours. You can’t exactly take Roach up there with you, so maybe I could borrow her?” He pouts at Geralt when he doesn’t answer. “It’ll keep Ciri busy, so she doesn’t worry about you whilst you’re gone.”

Geralt sighs. Roach, obviously upset at being neglected, comes over and sticks her muzzle in Jaskier’s face. “See, Roach agrees with me,” Jaskier says, rubbing at her face and trying not to grimace when she leaves a line of saliva across his sleeve. “She needs exercise, doesn’t she? I promise I’ll be careful.”

Geralt sighs, and just like that Jaskier knows he has him. “Make sure you put the-”

“The grease on the bottom of their hooves so the snow doesn’t ball up and make them slip, I know.” Jaskier grins. “I’ll tell Ciri. We’ll stick close to the town and be back by lunchtime, promise.” He presses a kiss to Geralt’s lips. “Thanks.”

“Be careful,” Geralt mutters, but Jaskier can see the small smile curling the corner of his lips. Jaskier kisses him one last time, just because he can, and then heads back towards the tavern, the snow crunching under his feet.

Ciri obviously had nightmares, but she seems to forget them as they ride out across the meadows. He challenges her to a race along the edges of the woods, the snow flying up in great clumps around them as the horses surge through the drifts. Ciri is laughing, her hair streaming out behind her as her hood falls back and she pushes her horse ahead, and Jaskier feels suddenly overwhelmingly grateful to have done this. To be able to give her a little bit of normalcy and fun in amongst all the horrors she’s seen.

Roach is prancing underneath him when they get back to the town, white plumes of breath from her nose as she snorts. Ciri is still laughing at her, cheeks flushed and red with the cold and the exertion, as Jaskier dismounts and Roach nearly bowls him over. “She loves me really,” Jaskier tells her, pulling the reins over her head and leading her into the stables. “Don’t you, darling?”

“She must be deaf, then, to put up with all the singing,” Ciri says from behind him.

Jaskier gasps, staggering and clutching at his chest. “Such betrayal! Oh, the heartbreak! First Geralt, and now you follow in his footsteps. How shall I ever recover?”

“I’m sure it’ll be so difficult.”

Geralt is leaning against Roach’s stable, watching them with a small smile curling his lips. He pulls the stable door open as Jaskier leads her inside. “You look like you had fun.”

“I beat Jaskier in a race,” Ciri says proudly. She leads her horse past and into the next stable. “My fingers are freezing now, though.”

“Roach was in a right mood,” Jaskier says as he slips her bridle off and undoes her girth. “Prancing all over the place. But yes, it was great fun. I take it the nests were not rabid monsters threatening everyone’s lives?”

Geralt hums. “Just some big birds. And she is a mare.” Jaskier gives him a questioning look, and Geralt shrugs. “Mares tend to be moodier than geldings. There’s that old saying. Tell a gelding, ask a stallion, negotiate with a mare.” He rubs the bridle marks away on her face, Roach butting her head into his hand.

Jaskier presses a quick kiss to Geralt’s lips. “And what does one do with a witcher, then?”

Geralt gives him a look that makes Jaskier grin. “I’m sure you can come up with something.”

Jaskier finishes brushing down Roach as Geralt goes and helps Ciri untack her horse and brush him down. He can hear her reminding her how to check his legs for bumps or cuts, to wipe the mud off the sensitive skin around his fetlocks, and a small smile is on his face without him even thinking about it as he listens.

Geralt takes the saddles out and is wiping them down quickly as Ciri finishes looking after her horse. Jaskier glances at him, and then at the few inches of fresh snow on the windowsill of Roach’s stable.

He catches Ciri’s eye, and holds one finger up to his lips. The snow bites at his hand as he scoops it up, but he bites his lip and tiptoes across Roach’s stable, nudging the door shut and quietly sliding the bold shut behind him. “Geralt,” Ciri says innocently. “Can you see if this small cut on his hock needs looking at?”

Geralt turns towards the stable, his back to Jaskier. Jaskier eyes the distance, gives Ciri a quick grin, and then launches himself at Geralt. He shoves the snow straight down the back of Geralt’s shirt.

Geralt actually yelps. “Run!” Ciri cries out to Jaskier through a laugh. “Save yourself!”

Jaskier darts away as Geralt turns and lunges for him, his fingers just failing to close on Jaskier as he sprints for the door. “Mercy!” he yelps, skidding out of the stables and around the side, heading for the snow-covered meadows. He can hear a low growl behind him and he speeds up, sprinting flat out across the slick cobblestones. His feet hit crisp white snow and he makes it onto the meadow, snow flying up in plumes around him.

He doesn’t risk slowing and looking over his shoulder, not when he’s sure he can hear Geralt right behind him. Fingers snag at his jacket and he just manages to twist out of the grasp. “Ha! It’s not going to be that easy- oomph.”

A weight knocks into him from behind. Jaskier goes flying through the air. He barely has time to see the snow coming straight before him before he goes face-first into a drift and the entire world goes white. He scrabbles for purchase against the arms wrapped around him, kicking out blindly until he connects with something solid and the hold loosens, just enough for him to twist around.

Geralt is on top of him. His hair is wild around his face, a breathless grin curling his lips as he studies Jaskier trapped underneath him. “Mercy?” Jaskier tries.

“You started this,” Geralt growls, and then he shoves a handful of snow down the front of Jaskier’s shirt.

Jaskier absolutely does not shriek. “Oh, you bastard,” he hisses. Geralt’s weight is securely on top of him, pinning him down, but Jaskier didn’t grow up with siblings for nothing. He picks up a handful of snow and flings it in Geralt’s eyes. Geralt jerks back instinctively, and Jaskier grabs his elbow with one hand, pins his legs with his, and heaves with all his might.

Geralt lets out a surprised grunt as Jaskier flips him over into a new patch of snow. “Got you!” Jaskier crows, doing his best to pin Geralt’s shoulders as he tries to sit up and throw him off. “No, don’t you bloody dare!”

Geralt gets one hand free, despite Jaskier’s best efforts. “You are going to regret that,” he growls, grabbing Jaskier’s jacket and using it as leverage to pull himself up. Jaskier realises too late but tries to drop his weight forwards anyway and push Geralt back down into the snow. He just ends up pressed against Geralt’s chest, that solid warmth seeping into him. Jaskier leans in and kisses the grin on Geralt’s face, kisses him until they’re both breathless.

There’s a sudden swooping sensation and suddenly he’s on his back, snow flying up around him. Geralt hovers over him. “Don’t think you’re going to distract me like that,” he says, his eyes gleaming.

Jaskier arches underneath him. “Oh, was that distracting? I wasn’t even putting any effort in.”

Geralt growls, and pulls him in for a fierce kiss. His hand tangles in Jaskier’s hair and Jaskier grips him back, humming low in his throat as Geralt bites at his lower lip, pulls him flush against him. He doesn’t even protest when Geralt rolls him over, pressing him into the soft snow to trail kisses across his jaw and down his neck. “We’re going to get- ah, you can’t do that and expect me to form sentences, Geralt!”

Geralt pulls back and Jaskier absolutely does not whine at the loss. “We’re going to get what?” he asks.

“Can’t remember,” Jaskier says immediately, even though he can feel the snow melting underneath him and seeping into the back of his jacket, the bite of it on exposed skin. “Come back here.”

Geralt obliges. His body is bracketing Jaskier’s, pressing him down into the snow. Geralt pulls back after a few moments, just staring down at Jaskier. He brushes Jaskier’s hair back away from his face, fingers tracing gently across his skin, and something falls into place deep inside Jaskier’s chest.

“Oh,” Jaskier says softly.

Geralt hums. “Oh?”

Jaskier can’t help the smile that comes over his face. He’s not sure quite how obvious the emotions are on his face, but Geralt makes a low noise and leans down to kiss him, so they must be there. “I’ve come up with an answer,” Jaskier murmurs against Geralt’s lips, uncaring of the snow seeping into his jacket, uncaring of anything but the solid warmth of Geralt above him, the press of his lips on his own.

Geralt pulls back. “Answer to what?” he asks, and the look in his eyes makes Jaskier feel like he’s melting straight into the snow.

“Tell a gelding, ask a stallion, negotiate with a mare,” Jaskier says, staring up at Geralt. “And then my question about witchers. I’ve got an answer to it now.”

Geralt hums, and arches a brow when Jaskier doesn’t say anything else. “Ask me,” Jaskier says. His hand brushes down Geralt’s side and Geralt shivers underneath his touch.

“You’re going to make me ask you,” Geralt says, his voice a low rumble.

“Yep.”

Geralt sighs. “What do you do with a witcher?” he asks.

Jaskier reaches up and loops his arms around Geralt’s neck. “Why, that’s easy,” he just says. “You love him, of course.”

Geralt stares at him. “Jas,” he whispers, his voice suddenly wrecked. He clears his throat, his eyes searching Jaskier’s face. A whole host of emotions flicker over his face, too fast for Jaskier to catch. “Well,” he says, his voice rough. “I know what you do with a bard, then.”

Jaskier hums. He reaches up and tucks a stray strand of Geralt’s hair back behind his ear, leaving his hand to cup Geralt’s cheek. His thumb smooths down across his jaw. “And what is it you do with a bard, darling?”

Geralt’s expression is so tender, and Jaskier can’t look away. “You love him back,” he says simply.

“Oh.” Jaskier breathes out through the sheer joy he can feel starting to run through him. He grins up at Geralt. “That’s convenient, then.”

Geralt snorts. He sits back, rocking up to his feet and pulling Jaskier up with him in one smooth movement. “Convenient?”

The cold air hits his soaked back and Jaskier shivers. Geralt tucks him into his side as they start tramping through the snow, back towards the stables. “I might take that back,” Jaskier says. “We are both many, many things, darling, but convenient has never been one of them.”

Geralt huffs a laugh, his breath shimmering in the cold air. “Come on. Roach needs more hay.”

“Oh, I see how it is,” Jaskier says. “I can tell who’s really important in this relationship.”

Geralt hums. His hand smooths up and down Jaskier’s side absent-mindedly. “Roach pulls her weight more than you do.”

Jaskier gasps. “Excuse you! I am the life and soul of our little group and you know it.”

Geralt hums again. His arm tightens around Jaskier’s waist. Jaskier presses into Geralt’s side and rests his head against his shoulder as they walk. Geralt leans his cheek against the top of Jaskier’s head, just for a moment.

“I feel so loved,” Jaskier says.

He’s telling the truth. He does.

finis