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No Marks

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The town of Lekberg is a prosperous enough place, sprawling on the banks of the Pontar, just on the Kaedwen side of the border with Aedirn. The soil is good; the tolls on shipping lucrative; and all in all it’s the kind of town where nothing particularly of note ever happens. It has a mayor and a city council, an ornate guildhall, two market days, and all the extras of a well-run, respectable community: taverns, a theatre, a few rival temples, and an under-occupied local guard.

It also, currently, has a griffin problem.

“—for about a month now,” the mayor is explaining. “At first it only snatched the livestock, though that was bad enough, but last week it took two of the men who were watching the pastures. Good men.”

“Hmmm,” Geralt says. Griffins have been moving into the valleys more and more often, as their mountain roosts are encroached upon by new settlements. He’s never much liked taking contracts on them; they aren’t malicious, unlike some of the other beings he fights. They’re like bears, or wolves: animals following their nature. But once they’ve got the taste for human flesh, they don’t cease hunting. This one needs to be put down.

The mayor seems decent enough, though he definitely fancies himself a prince more than a local official. When Geralt turned up at the town hall to enquire about the contract, he insisted that they come out to his hunting lodge, closer to where the griffin has been seen, so they could prepare at their leisure. The hunting lodge has a small army of staff, ten rooms, and four visitors: a priest, two minor nobles, and a mage. When they were introduced Geralt could see Jaskier out of the corner of his eye bursting to make some off-colour joke about something or other.

A witcher, a priest and a mage walked into a tavern…

Geralt realises he’s stopped paying attention. “Notice said forty marks,” he interrupts.

The mayor startles, clearly not used to people not hanging on his every word. “Why – yes. Forty marks, indeed. Put up by the landowners hereabouts and supplemented by the council.”

“It should be sixty,” Jaskier pipes up, like always. “To slay such a vicious beast as this requires the utmost skill a witcher of Geralt’s experience can muster – it’s not all about sticking swords into things you know! There’s the preparations, the decoctions, the magical energy exerted, the fact that griffins can fly… Sixty marks seems like the least a realm under siege should offer in thanks to their saviour!”

Geralt and the mayor both stare at him.

“Forty’s fine,” Geralt says. “I was planning just to stick a sword into it, to be honest.”

Jaskier huffs. Sometimes Geralt lets him talk a bounty up, mostly for the amusement value, but forty marks is a fair price and he doesn’t think the mayor will cheat him.

“You’re both welcome to stay the night here, of course,” the mayor says, gratefully. “It’s late, I imagine you won’t want to start the hunt till the morning?”

Griffins usually come out at dusk or dawn, and this time of year they’re well past dusk, so dawn it is. Geralt nods in thanks, and drives Jaskier out of the room before he can create more of a scene by the simple method of standing behind him and walking forwards.

The room the steward shows them to is rather fancier than Geralt’s used to: a large four-poster bed with hanging brocade and a mattress stuffed with feathers as well as straw. There are antlers displayed on all four walls. Geralt looks at the largest set for a while and then hangs his swords on them. Lekberg isn’t the worst place he’s been to, but there were still peasants toiling in the fields on the way through; he wonders what they’d give to spend a night in such luxury, safe from a passing griffin.

“You really should let me negotiate,” Jaskier says from where he’s flopped on the bed face first. “Oh, this bed is glorious. The price they offer is always the amount they think they can get away with, you could get more. I swear, this quilt is pure silk. Still, if you time killing it right so we can stay here a couple more days, I’ll consider it even.”

Geralt shrugs. Forty marks will see him clear for a while. It didn’t seem worth haggling over. “My plan is to kill it when I see it.”

“A feather bed though!” Jaskier moans. “Baths. Feasting. Servants.”

“Thought you were all about the romance of the road,” Geralt tells him. He feels a bit… uncertain. He knows Jaskier likes the finer things, that he could get them at any court he cared to name, at least any he’s yet to be run out of. But he does always follow Geralt from hunt to hunt, from camp to camp. He wouldn’t do that if he didn’t enjoy it, really.

“I can like both things,” Jaskier tells him haughtily. “Variety is a sign of character, Geralt.”

“If you say so,” Geralt says, smirking.

Jaskier throws a pillow at him and misses.

 

They dine with the other members of the mayor’s weekend hunting party: a duke, a baron, the mage, the priest. Geralt gets told all of their names and forgets them instantly. They try to get him to talk about his hunts, which Jaskier takes as his cue to start entertaining them with his white wolf oeuvre, whatever the fuck an oeuvre is. But he plays and sings softly, not insisting on being the centre of attention for once, and the mayor and his guests brag about the various creatures they’ve killed while they eat venison and potatoes and good fresh bread. Geralt eats twice as much as the mage sitting next to him, content to be quiet and fill his belly in peace. The mage doesn’t speak much, either. He’s a spare man, handsome in the unaging, polished way that all the mages out of Ban Ard are. He occasionally smiles or nods in answer to a boast, and spends the rest of his time watching Jaskier, a small curl to his lip. Geralt can’t tell if it’s amusement or contempt; Jaskier often provokes both equally.

“I’m to bed,” Geralt tells the group after an hour or so. “Early morning.” As he stands, Jaskier finishes the ballad he’s been playing and bows theatrically.

“And for me,” he says. “Sleep well, gentleman.”

When they’re back in their room, Jaskier fusses like usual: folding his clothes, combing his hair, rubbing cream into his face. Geralt’s already undressed and in bed halfway through the process. “Thought you’d have stayed up carousing,” he says. It was good wine. Jaskier usually likes that sort of thing.

“Nah,” Jaskier says. “Pretty boring company, don’t you think?” His voice is light, but there’s a lie in it somewhere. Geralt can’t quite see what it would be, so he lets it go. “You… you’ll let me accompany you tomorrow, right?”

Geralt considers it. Griffins can be tricky, but it’s not likely to go after Jaskier while Geralt’s attacking it. “If you stay with Roach and ride like hell when I say,” he tells him.

“Promise,” Jaskier says, getting under the covers and patting Geralt’s head. “You can trust me, dear witcher.”

Which probably means he’ll be sneaking up to get a closer look the moment Geralt’s back is turned. He sighs. Jaskier means well, but he treats promises as conveniences rather than anything to take seriously. “Go to sleep,” he says. “And don’t complain when I wake you.”

Jaskier nods solemnly and falls asleep almost immediately. Geralt watches him a while, fondly, despite the way Jaskier’s mouth is hanging open and there’s a thin line of drool on his lip. He’ll damn well complain in the morning, but it’s all part of the routine. Geralt’s got used to it by now, like he’s got used to the constant noise and endearments and fussing. He finds he misses it when he and Jaskier part company; he was more pleased than he can credit when he ran into the bard barely a week after leaving Kaer Morhen. Not that he’d ever admit it.

 

They’re on the road before dawn, following directions the mayor gave them to the fields where the griffin was last seen. The path is dark and narrow amidst the trees. He leads Roach, Jaskier stumbling and yawning behind him. The bard is quiet when he’s half asleep. It’s one of the reasons Geralt likes mornings, likes watching the world wake peaceful and slow.

The fields are well kept, sheep pasture for the most part, with some cows in the meadow nearest the farm on the curve of the hill. Geralt settles Roach on a patch of grass by the edge of the wood, and Jaskier flops down to sit cross legged beside her, lute by his side, pen and paper ready in his lap.

“Stay,” Geralt tells both of them. Roach whickers, Jaskier rolls his eyes.

He takes a position by one of the hedges in the field with the most animals in it, from where he can see clearly in all directions. He downs a dose of Blizzard – griffins move fast – and holds his sword lightly in one hand, ready for a long wait.

In the end, it’s not long at all. The weak sun has barely risen, casting long shadows on the ground, when he hears the beat of wings coming from the west, and turns to see the griffin flying low, talons already outstretched. Out of the corner of his eye he’s aware of Jaskier leaping to his feet to get a better view, and grumbles low in his throat. That idiot better stay out of harm’s way or so help him—

He doesn’t have time to finish the thought before the griffin is overhead. He casts aard, watches it jerk upwards, unbalanced. It gets its wings back under control, and pivots to see what attacked it.

Griffins are magnificent creatures, Geralt thinks vaguely as it thunders out of the sky towards him. They don’t look like they should be able to fly at all, and yet they move with such grace. The sun is glinting off gold feathers and black eyes and sharp claws, and it’s a shame to have to kill it, but that doesn’t stop him leaping up to meet it and plunging his sword into its breast.

It’s not a killing blow. The griffin screams, loud enough to make his head ring, and beats its wings hard to try and get away. He can’t let it – he’s pretty sure the wound is mortal, but if not, it’s angry, in pain, it’ll rip apart anything unlucky enough to cross its path. He clings onto his sword with one hand, fumbles for a dagger with the other as the griffin fights to rise. The field falls away beneath him.

He hears Jaskier yell, in the distance, but can’t make out the words.

The griffin hovers in the air, shrieks again. One of its talons lifts to scrabble at the sword in its chest, tearing across Geralt’s shoulder. He feels blood spill, thrusts his silver dagger deep in next to the sword, braces himself, pulls downward.

They’re too high up. The griffin starts to fail, its cry weaker. It’s bleeding in great bursts around his weapons; the blood is pouring onto his hands. He’s losing his grip as it wheels desperately in the sky, going into a spiral.

His hands fall away.

He sees the ground coming up to meet him. Too fast.

He tries to cast quen.

He fails.

There’s a great reverberation as he lands, a shock too great to hurt, and that’s the last thing he knows for a while.

 

There’s a clink of glass at his lips and a tearful voice says, “Swallow, ha, that’s almost funny, isn’t it, my dear, please,” and he swallows and-—

Time is moving strangely. It’s dark and it’s light and it’s dark again, pulsing in and out.

He can hear someone talking but he can’t understand the words.

His face is pressed into something warm. It smells of horse and sweat and blood. Roach, he thinks, and the name echoes, pressure building in his head, and then Roach moves and his leg moves and pain wipes the world away.

Time stutters again. Someone’s muttering, “nearly there, nearly there, such a good girl, Roach, keep going.” And then, “don’t die, don’t die, don’t die.”

He doesn’t know who it is. They sound sad.

He’s lying down and he blinks and there are steps in front of him and people talking and buzzing around him and they have their hands on him and it’s too much, too loud, too painful—

He’s lying down and it’s soft. He’s shaking with cold; his body is freezing; he can’t feel it, can’t feel anything.

He hears that voice again. The sad one. “Please,” it says, and someone is talking back but the words are a low buzz. He strains to hear but everything’s ringing like temple bells, round and round. He listens to the ringing a while, feeling like he ought to – be something, do something – but all he can really manage is breathing and even that stabs at his chest.

“I know,” the pained voice says. He wants to reach for it. “All right… understand… no marks…” and the sounds fade again and he remembers: the contract, the griffin, the fall. Did it get away? If it got away they won’t pay him the marks he’s owed and if they don’t pay him he’ll die. He needs a healer. It’s clearer now, the sharp pain of broken bones in his chest, the distant numbness of his leg. If he can’t feel it, it must be bad.

He groans. He’s so cold, everything is so cold, except for his hand, and he blinks to look at it, and someone is holding it, and he blinks again, confused.

“It’s going to be all right,” the voice whispers. “Geralt, don’t, darling, you’re going to be fine,” and he can barely hear it over the building whine which is… which is him.

It’s him making that noise, that pathetic, continual moan.

There’s someone else in the room. A tall, spare man, beautiful in a way that feels wrong.

The man lifts his hands, and one of the bones in his leg shifts with an audible crack, and pain rips through him again and he’s. Just. Gone.

 

There’s light on his face and the sound of a rhythmic clink. The combination is almost hypnotic. He lies there, dazed, for what seems like a long time. Clink.

He decides to open his eyes. He sees cloth above him, the red velvet of a canopy bed. To his right, the late winter sun is casting the last of its light into the room. To his left, there’s the sound. Clink. He looks over.

Jaskier is slumped in a chair a foot or so from the bed, legs outstretched, eyes closed. He looks exhausted, skin pale. He’s turning a bag of coin over and over in his hands. Clink.

Geralt tries to say his name, but his throat is raw: all that comes out is a shaky exhalation of breath. It’s enough to rouse Jaskier, though, and the relief on his face matches the sunlight for brightness.

“Welcome back,” he says. “How are you feeling? Thirsty? Of course you’re thirsty, you lost – well – there was a lot of blood, hang on, let me—”

Geralt lets the babble wash over him, bringing him slowly back into himself, the room, his mind. He remembers going to hunt the griffin, but not how it ended. Not well, it seems.

Jaskier perches on the edge of the bed, helps lift him up to sitting, passes him a water skin, steadies it in Geralt’s hands as he drinks deep. The water helps revive him somewhat, enough to ask, “the griffin?”

“Dead,” Jaskier says, simply. “It came down a couple of fields away, a farmer found it; they have the head on a pole out front now. They brought your weapons back too. And there’s your money.” He gestures to the bag now resting on the chair. “Fifty marks, I counted. The agreed fee plus some extra for the, oh, what was it, nearly dying.”

Ah. He sounds angry. It must have been bad. He pats clumsily at Jaskier’s knee.

“That does not make up for it,” Jaskier says, quietly. “Your leg was in pieces, Geralt. Your skull—” He swallows, passes a shaking hand over his face. “I had to drag you back here on Roach. I thought you were going to die. You would have died.”

“‘I didn’t,” Geralt tells him.

Jaskier looks at him, smiles, a little wobbly. It doesn’t reach his eyes. “No,” he agrees. “All’s well that ends well, right?” There’s something bitter in his tone, something Geralt doesn’t understand. His head aches, a pounding in his bones.

There’s a knock on the door, and Jaskier startles, then stills. A man’s voice sounds from outside: “It’s Albin, come to check on my patient. May I come in?”

Jaskier goes to unlock the door. He pulls it open, says, “he’s awake,” and retreats to stand by the window, looking out.

The man who enters is the mage from dinner the night before, elegant in a dark blue tunic over expensive woollen hose. Geralt remembers him now, his hands lifted as his magic started to knit Geralt’s bones back together. No wonder he feels so terrible. Unnatural healing works, but there’s a cost: the body resists, takes it out in fatigue and fragility. He’ll be a bit slower, a bit clumsier, for the next few days.

Geralt pushes himself up to sit a little taller. He’s never much cared for mages, and has no intention of seeming weak in front of one if he can help it.

The mage – Albin, that was his name – almost glides into the room. He comes to rest by the bed, tilts his head to one side to consider Geralt. “Any aches and pains?”

“My head,” Geralt tells him, a little reluctantly, but the mage only hums.

“Yes, that’s to be expected. It’ll ache for a couple of days, as will the rest of you, from the strain. But I can tell there are no lingering fractures. You should be back on your feet tomorrow.” He grins, a thin, slightly cruel twist to his lips. “I’m sure you’ll want to leave this place as soon as you can.”

Geralt gestures at the bag of money on the chair. “You can take what I owe you from the bounty.”

Albin smiles wider. “Oh, I wouldn’t dream of it. It was a fascinating experience. I count myself paid in full.”

Geralt grunts. He’s not enjoying the way the mage is looking at him, like a specimen, like an experiment. “Thank you, then,” he says, only a little grudgingly.

“You are most welcome,” Albin says. “It was a pleasure.” He bows his head a fraction, then turns and leaves.

Jaskier moves from the window, goes back to the door, locks it again. He stands there a moment, one hand on the doorknob as if to check it’s secure. Geralt says, “mages,” with contempt, and Jaskier laughs, a little breathily.

“You are entirely right, my friend,” he says. “Still, he did save your life, so I suppose one should be grateful.”

“Hmm,” Geralt says. “There’s no rule.”

Jaskier laughs again. He comes back to sit on the bed, twists to look at Geralt. “I’m very glad you’re alive, anyway,” he says, all sudden sincerity. It makes Geralt uncomfortable, the shine to his eyes, the quiver in his lip. It must have been really bad for Jaskier to react like that: he’s seen Geralt nearly die perhaps a dozen times in the last ten years, after all.

“Good as new,” he promises. “Not even a scar to show for it.”

Jaskier taps his fingers restlessly on his thighs, his muscles oddly tense. “Lucky,” he says.

 

They set off the next day with fuss and fanfare and thanks that Jaskier bows and accepts with a slightly forced smile. Geralt lets it all wash over him. He still feels weak, groggy; he doesn’t have the energy to pull together even his usual meagre store of words.

The mage is nowhere to be seen, and Geralt finds that he’s relieved. Most mages are cold, and arrogant, and superior, but this Albin felt worse than any he’d met before, with the exception of Stregobor. Though perhaps his memories of Stregobor are affecting his judgement. Still, he wishes he didn’t owe the man his life.

They follow the river, back to the original plan to work their way to the borders of Redania. There are a few towns and villages on the way: some beasts will be working their way out of hibernation, others attracted by the newborn animals in the fields. There’ll be plenty of work, when he’s fit for it. At the moment, he’s only grateful he managed to kill the griffin before he fell; if it wasn’t for those fifty marks, they’d be facing a lean few days, and he’s tired enough that he’d rather stay in a tavern and be fed than fend for himself on the land.

The first day, he only manages to walk for a few hours in the morning; he rides for a few hours in the afternoon before making camp early. Jaskier pouts at him until he agrees to sit for a while, and the while turns into full sleep before he even notices his eyes closing.

When he wakes, he’s under a blanket on a bedroll and the fire is lit, the sun already fallen. There’s a chill in the air still; they’re not that far past winter. Jaskier is sitting crosslegged by him, one hand resting gently on Geralt’s calf, the other clenched in his lap, his eyes far away. He flinches when Geralt moves, pulls his hand away sharply.

“Had a good nap?” he asks.

“Witchers don’t nap,” Geralt tells him. “Don’t suppose you hunted supper.”

“Bards don’t hunt,” Jaskier says, a long-running argument, though the words come out without any real feeling. “Fortunately I begged some provisions from the kitchen before we set out – cold roast chicken, a pie, ham, cheese…”

This is unusual foresight; Geralt is pleasantly surprised. The food is good, too. He’s ravenous, tearing through more than his normal share, while Jaskier takes a few bites and packs the rest away. Afterwards, he waits for Jaskier to pull out his lute and start asking irritating questions about griffins, but instead he just sighs and unfurls his bedroll to sleep.

“Goodnight, Geralt,” he says, after a few moments, and Geralt grunts, a faint itch at the back of his mind. This isn’t normal. Jaskier’s been with him through other great injuries – perhaps nothing quite as bad, but still. There have been broken bones and head wounds and blood before, and Jaskier only went faintly green, told him he was an idiot, and stitched him up through his scolding. He’s never reacted like this.

He’s still picking at the problem when his thoughts are interrupted by a whimper, the sound of a rustle. Jaskier has turned over in his bedroll, his teeth grinding together, a choked off cry in his throat. Geralt leans over and rests a hand gently on his back, and it seems to disrupt the nightmare; Jaskier stills, and relaxes back into restful sleep.

Geralt watches him a while, a little adrift. He’s come to accept that Jaskier cares for him, beyond the value he adds to his songs. He’s not stupid; he knows Jaskier doesn’t need to stay with him for the fame, certainly shouldn’t stay with him for the coin, and is no longer entirely the brash youth who yearned for adventure. Geralt can’t say he understands what drives him, and occasionally he resents it, but he’s… used to his presence, on the whole. He’s not sure how to handle whatever’s going on now that has left Jaskier so subdued. But it’ll pass, like everything does.

 

It doesn’t.

The next day goes equally slowly, equally quietly. No lute, no humming, no composing, just birdsong and the sound of their feet on the road. It’s slightly eerie.

The next village comes into view as dusk is falling amidst a mild drizzle, and as if by mutual consent they pick up the pace, heading towards the small inn where the path meets the first of the dwellings. It’s empty when they look in, and Jaskier goes to take care of talking to the landlady while Geralt ducks back out to groom Roach and see her settled in the rough lean-to that passes for a stable.

When he enters the main room of the inn, Jaskier is sitting by the fire, a bottle of vodka and two glasses on the table next to him. He toasts Geralt, and downs the drink. He looks flushed already.

“I was only gone half an hour and you’re drunk,” Geralt says. He sits too and takes a shot. It’s a little raw but not bad, burns in the right way all the way down.

“Lies,” Jaskier mumbles. “Only a little tipsy. Here’s to your good health!” He drinks again. Geralt sighs and moves the bottle away from him.

They eat surprisingly good rabbit stew, and Jaskier flirts reflexively with the landlady (though Geralt can tell his heart’s not in it, his phrases are pretty but unspecific), promising to play a set so magnificent they’ll more than make back the cost of their room. She bats at him, disbelieving yet charmed, and Geralt retreats upstairs, leaving them to it.

He slips into meditation at the first sound of the lute being strummed, and comes out of it some hours later when Jaskier crashes into the room, falling heavily back against the door as he closes it and slumping to the floor. He smells of sweat and woodsmoke but mostly like he’s bathed in vodka.

Geralt stares at him. The bard drinks, of course he does, makes merry, sometimes too merry. But Geralt’s never seen him like this, vacant-eyed, like a man who’s been drinking with the intent of forgetting his own name. He’s clutching a mostly empty bottle of vodka in his left hand, and when he sees Geralt watching he lifts it shakily to his lips.

He’s a grown man. Geralt’s not going to stop him. He wants to, but… It’s not his place, after all. If Jaskier wants to drink till he pukes and passes out, that’s up to him. Even if it’s going to be Geralt who has to deal with the consequences.

He holds this resolution for approximately twenty seconds until Jaskier drinks again, and Geralt goes to wrestle the bottle away from him. Jaskier fights back, uncoordinated and red-faced and furious, for some reason.

“You – you – ’s my alcohol, all right? I bought it, I earned it, I’m drinking it. You don’t get to…” His voice trails off as another thought strikes him. “You’re m’best friend, Geralt. Couldn’t let you die.” He throws a hand out wildly, hits Geralt on the shoulder, which is still tender. Geralt winces and Jaskier says, “sorry! Sorry, sorry, didn’t mean to—”

Now he looks like he’s going to cry. This is why drunk people are annoying: too many feelings, one crashing into another like they’re dancing a jig. Geralt is abruptly done, with him, with the vodka, with the whole evening. He stands. “Bedtime,” he says, and pulls Jaskier up from the floor, dragging him unwilling over to the bed.

Halfway there, Jaskier blanches and retches. Geralt sighs and pulls the chamber pot from under the bed, and holds Jaskier’s shoulders steady as he vomits up a stream of clear liquid. How much vodka did he fucking drink?

When he’s fairly sure Jaskier’s through he lifts him again, pushes him down on the bed, on his side in case he pukes again. Jaskier blinks at him blearily. “Sorry,” he says again.

“Go to sleep,” Geralt tells him.

“’S not your fault,” Jaskier mumbles. Then his eyes slide shut and he’s snoring almost immediately.

Geralt looks down at him, less annoyed than he’d like to be, feeling the faintest stirrings of something like anxiety, except that witchers don’t get anxious. What did Jaskier mean? What’s not his fault?

He doesn’t have an answer, but the question keeps him awake for some time, and follows him into an uneasy sleep.

 

In the morning, predictably, Jaskier groans and complains through getting up, breakfast, and the first two hours of walking before lapsing into silence. Geralt told him it was his own fault and has been ignoring him since, still worrying over the notion of fault.

Aside from the smell of stale vodka, Jaskier seems in a better mood; the way he railed against his headache, the betrayal of alcohol, unsweetened porridge and the sun itself was comfortingly familiar. If he would only start making music again, Geralt could put the last couple of days down as a strange interlude and cease fretting.

Aside from the session in the tavern – which Jaskier seems to have spent drinking as much as playing – he hasn’t touched his lute, though.

Geralt clears his throat. “Not composing?”

“My head hurts like Roach trod on it, and my mouth tastes like something shat in there and then died,” Jaskier says. Geralt looks back at him, amused despite himself, and Jaskier gives him a rueful smile. “All right, fine, I brought this upon myself, I shall never touch the demon drink again!” he declaims.

“It’s just a hangover.”

“Says you, the hardened toper, we don’t all take potions that accustom us to toxic build up you know. Some of us are suffering.” He does actually look like he’s suffering. Pale and sweaty and tired. Geralt frowns. Jaskier sounds more like himself, but he’s a performer; it’s hard to tell when he’s acting sometimes.

“Should write something,” Geralt says. “Cheer yourself up.”

“Ah, well, my muse has deserted me of late,” Jaskier says quietly.

“Figured you’d be halfway through the ballad of the airborne witcher by now,” Geralt tells him. Jaskier likes to have a few comic songs in the mix, something about contrasts heightening something, Geralt usually tunes out when he starts explaining setlists.

There’s a long silence and when Geralt glances back Jaskier has stopped walking, his arms folded. He looks like someone’s slapped him. Geralt raises an eyebrow and Jaskier comes a few paces towards him, his movements stiff and tense. “It’s not funny,” he says.

“It’s pretty funny,” Geralt says. “The witcher who thought he could fly? My brothers would piss themselves laughing.”

Jaskier’s lip twitches. “It’s not funny yet,” he corrects himself. “You were dying and there was nothing I could do—” He breaks off, breath coming short, like he’s on the verge of panicking, and Geralt doesn’t understand why, not now, two days later with them both safe. He says,

“You persuaded the mage to help me. You saved my life.”

Jaskier moves from looking like he’s been slapped to looking like someone’s stabbed him. “What did you say?”

Geralt shrugs. “I was out of it, but I heard some of it. You were bargaining, right?”

Jaskier’s eyes are very large and very blue and somehow empty. He smells… dull, like a sword left out to rust. “I didn’t know you heard,” he says.

“Not the details,” Geralt says. “But you got him to heal me. So. Thank you.”

Jaskier passes a hand over his face, letting out a breath that’s a little like a sigh. His fingers are trembling, like he’s frightened, or hurt, but Geralt can only smell that awful, dull scent. He wishes he hadn’t scared Jaskier by nearly dying. He feels like he should make it up to him, but he doesn’t know how.

“You’re welcome,” Jaskier says, eventually, words flat. Geralt nods at him, still not sure what’s he’s done wrong but certain there is something. After a few moments, for want of answers, he starts walking again, and Jaskier follows. He doesn’t speak, or hum, or sing.

 

They reach the next village on the river not long after midday. It’s a pretty place, more prosperous than the last, set on the bend of a river where the flow is fast enough to power a mill. A lot of the local communities must bring their grain here. Perhaps it belongs to Lekburg, or perhaps they’re in a different province now. If his memory is accurate there’s a city another day’s walk downstream.

There’s a noticeboard in the village square, listing a reward for what sounds like a drowner or two lurking in one of the streams feeding into the river. Geralt rips it off the board and Jaskier makes a strangled noise of disapproval.

“Absolutely not,” he says, arms flung up to the sky. “You were at death’s door two days ago, you bloody well aren’t ready to fight!”

“I’m fine,” Geralt mutters. His leg hurts a little, but he’s more than capable of killing a couple of drowners.

“I don’t fucking belive it,” Jaskier hisses. “What was the point of saving your life if you’re just going to chuck it away again a minute later?” He’s angry, Geralt can see that, but the kind of anger that could slip easily into tears, like all his emotions are right there, fighting to be heard. It’s not unusual to see him in that state, but he normally trusts Geralt to know his own business.

“I’m a witcher,” Geralt tries. “This is my job. I’m fine, Jaskier, I promise.”

“Well maybe I’m not!” Jaskier yells.

Geralt grunts at him, exasperated. Jaskier is the one with the words, and he’s not explaining what he means and Geralt can’t be expected to guess. He says, “I’m going to speak to the alderman,” and turns away. Behind him, he hears Jaskier bark an awful, cut-off laugh, and he almost looks back but then Jaskier is walking off so he doesn’t.

He was right, though. The drowners are no problem at all, and he’s back in the village less than five hours later. He finds the tavern, and gets a room. He doesn’t find Jaskier.

There’s no sign of him, and no sign of him, and the sun goes down, and he starts to worry, just faintly, on the edge of his thoughts. He eats dinner, and watches the locals drift in to drink, and watches them drift out again, and there’s no familiar heartbeat or voice or smell of cedar and lemon. He goes up to the room, and determinedly doesn’t cast his senses out wide along the lanes of the village. Half of Jaskier’s belongings are still in Roach’s saddlebags, and even if he’s behaving like a child he’s still an adult. And anyway witchers don’t get anxious.

The moon is full overhead when Jaskier’s heavy steps come up the stairs and stop outside the room. Geralt’s meditating by the window. He hears Jaskier inhale, hears him come in. He smells of sex and sadness. Geralt opens his eyes in the darkness as Jaskier strips, sees the scratches that line his back. A fine evening then, except that Jaskier isn’t carrying the lightness he normally does after a tumble, no matter how ill advised.

“I know you’re awake,” Jaskier says, quietly, just in case Geralt isn’t.

Geralt hmms in acknowledgement.

“I’m sorry,” Jaskier says. His voice is loaded with tears. “It might not be a big deal for you but it is to me, and I can’t… I just can’t shake it. I think… When we get to the border, I’m going to head to Oxenfurt for the season. I need some time to… I don’t know. I think it’s for the best.” He waits, as if hoping Geralt will speak.

There are sentences lining up on Geralt’s tongue. Tell me what’s wrong. Why are you so unhappy. Tell me what I can do. He doesn’t say any of them. He doesn’t say those kind of things, not to anyone, certainly not to Jaskier. Jaskier is the one who tells him how he, Geralt, feels, in between telling him constantly how he, Jaskier, is feeling. Geralt doesn’t know how to be the one to ask, the one to reassure or comfort. He’s not made for it. But Jaskier needs it, that’s clear, so it’s best they part. All Geralt has to offer him is a constant reminder of death, and it’s obviously hurting him. Jaskier should be with someone who belongs to the living.

“If that’s what you want,” he says.

“I didn’t want any of this,” Jaskier says. He stands there a moment, and then sighs, and climbs into bed. Geralt kneels on the hard wooden floor, and waits until Jaskier is asleep before following his steady breaths into the darkness.

 

The next day is sunny and clear and cold, and it feels to Geralt as though he’s walking to his execution. Jaskier trails him along the path. His clothes are crumpled, dark circles line his eyes. It’s like Geralt is some kind of vampire, that his nearly dying has instead stolen the life from his travelling companion. His barker. Ah, damn it all. His friend. He’s grown too used to having Jaskier with him, made soft by kind words and someone smoothing his path. He should have known it couldn’t last. The same thoughts turn over and over in his brain: what did he do? How is this his fault? What can he do?

The repetition brings no answers, only makes him sick of the questions.

The city they come to is the grandest for miles around, with a keep for the local noble, and tightly packed alleys leading to a large square lined with fine buildings. At the inn they go to the landlord turns his nose up at Geralt, but Jaskier slings an arm around the man’s shoulder and mutters some silver words and soon enough there’s a room, and a bath, and dinner. The fifty marks are diminishing but Geralt can’t bring himself to mind. He’ll be back to camping soon enough. He can allow himself a little luxury while Jaskier’s still there.

Jaskier talks, almost manic, as they take turns to wash, as they eat pork knuckle and cabbage, in between the four or five songs he plays after dinner. The crowd is lifted up on the stream of his words, and Geralt clings to them, tries to lay down the memory of what he’ll miss when Jaskier is gone: bright smile, lemon soap, a warm and fearless smell. Though Geralt ruined the last.

They’re lying down on opposite sides of the bed, Geralt careful not to take more space than is due him, when Jaskier moves.

He shrugs out from under the sheets and treads softly to the door, still wearing only a shirt and braies, his feet bare. Some assignation, perhaps, but Geralt was with him all evening and didn’t see a sign of it.

Jaskier turns to open the door, and Geralt sees his face, his closed eyes.

He’s sleepwalking. Geralt’s never known him to do that. He gets out of bed, shrugs on his jacket, trousers and belt, picks up two of his daggers, and follows.

Jaskier seems certain of his way; by the time Geralt catches up with him, he’s nearly half a mile down the twisting streets. His eyes are still shut. It’s been raining; the cobbles are shiny and wet, and Jaskier is shivering. Geralt puts a hand on his shoulder, uncertain, says his name. He’s heard it’s best not to wake dreamers who walk. It makes no difference; Jaskier keeps moving.

The moon is bright and the town quiet. Somewhere nearby Geralt can hear the guards patrolling, the clink of mail and squeak of leather. He hopes they don’t run into them. How could he explain this? “Jaskier,” he says again, and Jaskier’s steps falter for an instant before returning to their rhythm. He’s moving like he’s tethered, like someone’s calling to him, and all Geralt can think to do is walk with him.

Some ten minutes later they come to an archway, the entrance to a courtyard of a grand house, and Jaskier slows. He hesitates, breath heavy, almost like he’s resisting whatever strange pull has brought him here, and then steps forward.

Geralt’s medallion hums against his chest. He holds it in one hand, his other on the hilt of the dagger. He doesn’t know what’s happening, but whatever it is, it isn’t right; and he won’t leave Jaskier’s side till Jaskier leaves his.

He passes through the archway.

Everything changes.

From the outside, Geralt could see cobbles, ivy climbing grey stone walls. Once inside, he sees nothing. It’s black as pitch; the only sound is his breathing, the rustle of his clothes. He can’t sense Jaskier anymore. It’s as if reality itself has ceased to exist.

A soft gust of air teases his ear and he spins, dagger raised. A voice says, “oh, this is a gift.”

The world shifts again.

Geralt is kneeling. His arms are bound behind him. He snarls, and surges forward, but there’s no give in the ropes; they might as well be chains for all he can stretch them. His medallion is still vibrating. Magic, then.

The room is familiar, though it takes him a second to place it. A window facing west. A fine four-poster bed with a red velvet canopy. A chair placed alongside, where Jaskier sits slumped forward, asleep or unconscious.

This is the mayor’s hunting lodge. This is where Geralt lay near death, where—

He twists at the sound of another presence, and Albin the mage walks by him, patting him on the head as he goes. “I didn’t expect Jaskier to bring his guard dog,” he says benignly. “Though I can’t say I mind. It adds a certain piquancy to proceedings, I feel.”

“What the fuck are you doing here,” Geralt says, and Albin’s thin lips stretch. It’s not a smile. It’s a slash in his pale face, the widening of a mouth before it bites down.

He goes to where Jaskier is sitting, and runs a sharp fingernail down his cheek. Blood beads from a shallow cut, and Albin holds a narrow vial to where the blood collects, lets it drip inside.

He shakes the vial and turns to show it to Geralt. It’s glowing.

“They like to dress magic up at Ban Ard,” he says. “But it’s so simple. Blood and seed: life and death and life again. Do they teach witchers that? Perhaps they do.”

Geralt’s fingers itch with the desire to cast a sign, but the air is deadened. Magic shouldn’t affect him, but something is. Dimeritium in the ropes, maybe. “What do you want?” he asks.

“What does anyone want?” Albin asks. Fucking mages. He’s lecturing, posturing, enjoying his audience. “A break from boredom. A little pleasure.”

Blood and seed, he said. Geralt feels his stomach turn. “Tell me what happened,” he growls. Because something happened in this room. Something bad.

“You don’t know?” the mage says. “I suppose I’m not surprised. He was very keen that you didn’t find out. That was the only thing he insisted on, no marks.”

Geralt glares at him. Albin looks back, unperturbed. “Don’t scowl at me like that, beast. Everything I did was agreed to.”

He waves a hand and Geralt’s there, in the real room-that-was, looking down at his own crippled body on the bed. His leg is a mess of shattered bone, blood expanding in a circle beneath his head. Jaskier is standing next to the bed, next to the ghost that is Geralt watching this unfold and powerless to stop it. Jaskier’s pale and shaking and utterly determined. Geralt knows that look. There’s no arguing with him in that mood.

“I’ll pay whatever price you ask,” Jaskier says, and the mage steps close to him, trails a hand down his cheek then lets it fall further.

“You know what I want,” he says. “You could feel me last night, couldn’t you. Wanting you.”

Jaskier casts a despairing, agonised look at Geralt’s still form. “I know,” he says. “All right. But you heal him first, you understand? And you leave no marks on me.”

“Precious thing,” the mage says. “You don’t want him knowing.”

Jaskier lifts his chin up sharply, suddenly every inch the noble he pretends he isn’t. “He’s got enough to carry,” he says. “Do we have a deal?”

“Yes,” the mage says, that thin devouring smile creeping across his face. “I believe we do.”

Geralt tries to move, tries to put a hand on Jaskier’s arm, tries to stop this – but he’s just a ghost, here, and the movement shatters the vision.

He’s back on his knees, the ropes holding him still, Albin looking down at him. He turns to where Jaskier is sitting, and flexes his fingers.

It takes perhaps three blinks before Jaskier realises where he is; three slow blinks before his breath speeds up in his chest, his pulse starts racing, his skin goes white as parchment. His mouth works; Geralt sees him shape the word no but there’s no sound at all.

He watches as Jaskier tries to move, fails, flinches and whispers, “this is a dream, wake up, damn you, wake up.”

“No dream,” the mage says.

Jaskier swallows. Without his finery, his embroidered suits and rings, he looks stripped bare, defenseless. “But,” he says, his throat working, his words choked. “We had a deal. I paid.”

“Did I say I was satisfied?” Albin asks. “I missed you, bard. And I will decide when you’ve fulfilled your debt.” He gestures idly to Geralt. “Don’t forget, what I gave can also be taken away.”

Geralt hears, rather than feels, the creak of his ribs, the unnatural shifting of his thigh bone inside his flesh. He shudders. He meets Jaskier’s eyes, staring back at him, horrified.

“Why’s he here? He shouldn’t be here! Oh gods, oh please…” He sounds like someone dreaming, someone caught in a nightmare. Geralt’s never heard him so lost.

“When I called you, he followed,” the mage says, his tone heated. “An unexpected pleasure. I’ve always liked an audience. It was a shame he couldn’t see us, last time.”

A flash of elsewhere, elsewhen. Geralt, healed, unmoving on the bed. Jaskier kneeling, naked, on the rug by the fire; the mage’s hand twisted in his hair.

Geralt comes out of it, snarling, the image seared into his mind. Albin is smiling again. “I think I’m going to enjoy this.” He walks over to where Jaskier is held by invisible bonds, and stands behind him, staring at Geralt. He runs a hand gently down Jaskier’s cheek, presses his fingers into the hollow by Jaskier’s neck. “I wonder whether I’ll let you remember, or not, boy,” he says. “Perhaps I’ll let you remember and not the witcher, and bespell you not to speak of this. So you’ll walk through the world always wondering when I’ll come for you again, and no one else will ever know about it. Just as you wanted.”

Geralt feels sick. Jaskier looks sicker. “Please,” he says. “No. Please don’t.”

The mage smiles, shakes the vial in his hand. “I have your blood. I have your seed. I have you, any way and any time I want. Beg if you like; I rather enjoy it; but don’t expect mercy.”

Jaskier’s heart is beating so hard and fast Geralt can feel it thrumming through the floor, reverberating in his own chest. He cannot let this happen. He cannot be the cause of this. He cannot fail him, again. He shakes his head, a wordless growl of protest on his lips.

“Hush, witcher, or I’ll gag you,” Albin says. He slides the vial into a pocket of his tunic, and strokes his hand through Jaskier’s hair. “Did you know Jaskier here thinks you were aware of his deal and didn’t care? He’s been grieving for days. The pain of it is really quite delicious.”

Jaskier shakes his head, sharply, and Geralt feels his own slow heart beat faster. He remembers that day on the path – he said he’d heard some of their bargaining. Not the details.

He told Jaskier thank you.

“Fuck,” he says now. “Jaskier, no, I didn’t know, I would never… I would never have asked that of you.”

He meets Jaskier’s eyes again and for a moment it’s just the two of them, caught in a wordless exchange. Then Jaskier looks away. “You were dying,” he says, quietly. “I had no choice.”

That dull, rusty smell is rising again, and now Geralt can identify it: shame. Jaskier’s ashamed. He thinks Geralt is… what? Angry? Disappointed?

He can’t allow it to happen again. He can’t watch his friend be violated, again, for the sake of his own worthless life. He says, “take me.”

Jaskier’s head swings back round, his mouth dropping open. “No. Geralt. What are you doing.”

The mage blinks. His tongue passes over his lips like something crawling out from under a rock. “Go on.”

Geralt doesn’t have the words for it. He’s not a poet. He just knows he can’t stand to see what might come next; he’s not strong enough. “It’s my turn,” he tells Jaskier, tells the mage. He can’t change what has happened, but he can share the cost.

“Interesting,” Albin says, and steps around the chair, walking slowly towards him. Behind him Jaskier thrashes, cries out, and the mage lifts a finger, says “peace” with a note of command singing in his voice. Jaskier stops moving, locked into stillness. His lips shape a stream of furious words, all silent. Though Geralt gets the gist.

The mage is standing over him, looking down; Geralt looks up. He feels the man’s cold touch on his jaw, and shivers a little. It’s only men who can scare him; only men whose capacity for cruelty still surprises him. “Be aware,” Albin says, almost conversational, like this is any old haggling over a market stall, “I will kill him if you do anything stupid.”

Geralt nods. He feels almost inhuman with anger. He’s going to destroy this man. However long it takes, however much it costs him. He’s already dead, he just doesn’t know it yet.

The mage unbuttons the front of his trousers, the material already straining. How long has the bastard been hard? Since the moment they arrived? Since he tasted Jaskier’s shame?

The bastard’s cock is long and thick and flushed. He holds it with one hand, holds a handful of Geralt’s hair with the other. “There are stories of the witchers of Kaer Morhen fucking each other all winter long,” he says. “I know you’ve never touched the bard, I know he wishes you would. Are you practised at this, butcher?”

He traces Geralt’s skin with his cock, trailing a wet line down one cheek, then the other. Geralt feels bile rise in his throat. He closes his eyes. He opens his mouth.

There’s a spray of liquid on his face.

Not come. Blood.

He looks up.

The mage’s eyes are wide, frozen in some terrible surprise. There’s steel protruding from his Adam’s apple. Blood is spilling out around it, surging down.

It takes a surprising amount of time before he falls, but when he does the ropes fall away with him, and the room turns from a fine bedroom in the middle of the day to a dark workroom in the middle of the night.

Candlelight plays across a chair, a low bench, the dead man lying on the floor, and Jaskier, standing with bloody hands a pace back from where the body landed.

“Jaskier,” Geralt says, stupidly.

“I said no,” Jaskier says, entirely calm, and then his eyes roll up till they’re nothing but white and he faints so fast Geralt can’t catch him.

He broke the spell. The compulsion, whatever it was. Geralt’s never heard of that happening. He scrambles over the corpse to where Jaskier lies, his pulse weak, his breath shallow.

They need to get out of here before someone comes. Are they even in the city still?

Geralt lifts Jaskier up over his shoulder, steps away from the body and the blood. On the wall behind the bench there’s a cabinet, glass twinkling inside. Vial after vial. Life after life. Geralt shivers. He casts aard and watches them shatter, steps down hard on Albin’s chest and hears the container belonging to Jaskier break too.

Whether this room is in the same city or not, the stairs from the workroom still lead up into the courtyard Geralt saw earlier. The moon has barely moved in the sky. He wasn’t paying attention on the way, but he manages to retrace their steps far enough to pick up Roach’s scent, and from there it’s simple. They don’t run into anyone else; the night feels like they are the only people alive in it.

When he’s back in the tavern, it could almost seem like a dream, except for Jaskier lying pale and cold on the bed, the scratch on his cheek, the dried red stains on his hands. Geralt fetches a bowl of water and wipes his fingers clean, cuts away his blood-spattered shirt and pulls the blankets up, tucking them tightly to warm his frozen flesh. He lights a fire, crumpling the shirt on top, and watches it burn for a while.

When the cloth has turned to ashes, he returns to kneel by the bed. He holds Jaskier’s hands, listens to the faint thrum of his pulse, and waits for morning, his mind both blank and restless, contemplating his debt.

 

Morning turns into afternoon and Jaskier sleeps, unmoving, caught in exhaustion so deep it seems he doesn’t even dream. Geralt meditates for a while, goes to pay for a second night – one ear open for rumours about a murder – and fetches bread and dried meat and water fresh from the well. He lies down on the bed and returns to his vigil, listening to the steady, quiet sound of Jaskier breathing.

It’s dusk and he’s dozing when the bard finally stirs. The first he knows of it is the sound of his own name whispered in a trembling voice, and when he looks, Jaskier’s eyes are open and searching.

Geralt says, gruffly, “it’s all right.” He wants to reach out and take Jaskier’s face in his hands, wants to stroke a firm line down Jaskier’s back, but he has no idea if his touch would be welcome and so he keeps himself still.

“It wasn’t a dream,” Jaskier says, not quite a question. Geralt shakes his head, and watches a tremor pass through Jaskier’s body. “Fuck,” he says, “oh, fuck, I killed someone.”

“A monster,” Geralt insists. “A beast.”

Jaskier’s eyes turn dark, lost in remembering. “Yes,” he agrees. That shame-smell is seeping from his pores. “I’m sorry.”

Geralt almost laughs. It’s his fault, after all. Any witcher on the path can take down a griffin. The failure is entirely his. “You saved my life,” he reminds Jaskier. The hard-edged truth of it. “You shouldn’t have had to.”

“I’d do it again,” Jaskier snaps back, “no matter how much less you think of me for it.” He makes to get up, his whole body tense, and Geralt is fucking this up, he’s fucking this up so badly.

“No,” he says. “Jaskier. I hate what he did. I wish it hadn’t happened. I would rather have died. But you did it for me, and that’s…” He stops, lost for words. No one has ever sacrificed themselves like that, he wants to say. He wants to ask why. He wants to tell Jaskier it wasn’t worth it. “I’m sorry,” he says in the end, and can see how inadequate the words are in the blankness of Jaskier’s face. “I don’t know what to say,” he concludes.

“I can tell,” Jaskier says, a faint glimmer of humour in his voice. “Best shut up, then.” He extends an arm over Geralt’s shoulders, holding him firmly. Hesitantly, Geralt mirrors the gesture, knuckling at the small of Jaskier’s back, feels him relax slightly in his grasp. “There,” Jaskier says, satisfied, “that’s better.”

He’s yawning on the last word, asleep a second later, and Geralt lies there, as confused as he remembers being in his life, and for want of anything else to do, holds him tighter.

 

They leave the next morning. There is no noise about a strange death, no hue and cry on the streets, but still, Geralt wants to get out of the city as soon as he can. Jaskier is quiet; his cheeks are hollow; he looks exhausted. But he follows readily enough, picking a little zealously at his fingernails. Geralt wonders if he sees Albin’s blood lingering there.

Once they’re on the road, Geralt walks with Roach’s reins held in his left hand. After a time, Jaskier comes up to walk beside him, tangles his fingers into Geralt’s right hand. He says, “you offered to take my place.”

Geralt grunts.

“Foolish, really,” Jaskier says, lightly, but underneath the lightness lies something dark and foul. “Why have both of us ruined? I could have borne it.”

“You’re not ruined,” Geralt growls.

Jaskier gives him a mockery of a smile. “I feel ruined,” he says. “It’ll likely pass. I’ll be back to my regular whoring ways in no time.”

Fuck. Geralt needs to be better at this. He says, “don’t say that.”

“No?” Jaskier asks. He drops his voice to a decent imitation of Geralt at his gruffest. “Who did you fuck now, bard? Which cuckold do I have to guard you from this time? Why do we always have to flee town because you can’t keep it in your pants?” The words are fast, carried on a rising wave of panic and that rust-red shame. Geralt stops walking, tugs Jaskier round to look at him.

“You did nothing wrong,” he says. “Not this time, nor any other.”

Jaskier blinks at him. “You’re a terrible liar,” he says. “It’s all right, Geralt. You don’t have to try and cheer me up; I’m not a child.”

Words are Jaskier’s weapons; Geralt’s never going to win a fight with them. “Don’t leave,” he says instead. “When we get to the border. Don’t go to Oxenfurt. Stay with me.”

“Don’t you fucking dare try to coddle me,” Jaskier hisses, but at least there’s feeling in his voice, a vivid hurt, not that awful tripping mockery.

“I’m not,” Geralt says. “I want you with me. That’s all. Stay or go, it’s up to you. But staying would be my choice.” He can’t quite bear the blank, pained expression on Jaskier’s face. He makes himself keep looking.

After a moment Jaskier looks away and starts walking, tugging Geralt with him, his breaths coming shallow and fast. “I want that too,” he murmurs eventually. “It’s just. Sometimes I look at you and all I see is him.”

Geralt hums in acknowledgement, and tightens his fingers around Jaskier’s, and Jaskier grips them back, almost bruising.

 

There are good days and bad days.

On bad days, Jaskier barely sleeps, hardly speaks, and when he does his words are poison, a flail for himself and Geralt both, and all Geralt can do is shake his head, and hold him close. No matter how much loathing is packed into Jaskier’s words, his body always gives way in Geralt’s arms eventually – sometimes he cries, sometimes he fights, sometimes he trembles, but in the end there’s just exhausted acceptance, something close to peace.

On good days, it’s not like nothing ever happened, but the pain is a little less heavy, the disgust a little less plain. On those days he pulls his lute round to his front, sketches out little melodies, serenades the inns where they stop to sleep. Geralt takes no contracts, and watches his coin dwindle with no sense of regret. The payment’s tainted; he wants rid of it.

It’s one of the good days when they stop at a village not far from Vergen, and Jaskier cajoles the landlady into letting him perform. She’s an older woman, grey-haired and comfortable, who laughs at his blatant flattery. She brings them ale on the house, and takes the wind out of Jaskier’s sails by telling him he reminds her of her son, a travelling player. (“Madam,” Jaskier gasps, “I am no actor! I am a bard, and every tale I tell is true—” and she swats him with a cloth, and grins, unmoved.)

The crowd are friendly enough; warming up to Jaskier as he relaxes into his performance, casting only a few suspicious glances at Geralt when Jaskier starts in on his praise of the White Wolf. Geralt raises his eyebrows at them over his tankard, and waits for them to think better of it. He watches Jaskier carefully, increasingly attuned to the faint trembles in his fingers, the needling smell of adrenaline that signals a sudden strike of memory.

“Lovely sight,” the landlady says, following his gaze and then smirking at him. “If I was two decades younger, I’d be thinking the same, no doubt.”

Geralt flinches. “It’s not. That’s not. No.” He feels sick just at the thought of it, that anyone could look at him and think he wants to take. “It’s not like that.”

The landlady tuts and shakes her head at him. “So it’s not like that,” she says. “Still. You may be older than you look, but I bet I’ve lived longer. Don’t you know yet? There’s all kinds of love, ain’t there.” She puts another ale down in front of him, and moves to tend to another customer. Geralt stares after her, then looks back at Jaskier, who’s flushed with sweat and song.

He wants to keep Jaskier safe from harm. He wants him to sleep well, eat well, to be well. To be happy and unafraid.

Is that… could that be…

He grunts and drinks his ale and resolves to consider it later.

 

Later, they are lying in bed, Geralt between Jaskier and the door, Jaskier smelling a little of beer, a little of satisfaction at a profitable evening. Geralt is considering it. He puts a tentative hand on Jaskier’s shoulder, waits for a flinch that doesn’t come.

“I have no skills with words,” he tells Jaskier’s back. “But if I did. I would want to say that you are brave. I would want to say that you are strong. I would want to say that I want you with me.”

Jaskier tenses. He smells bitter, now. “I’m not brave,” he says. “And I don’t need your guilt, nor your pity.”

“It’s neither,” Geralt insists. “Jaskier, look at me. Look at me.”

After a long, long moment Jaskier turns around, a challenge in his bright blue eyes. Geralt rests his forehead on Jaskier’s, brings a hand to his cheek, consciously covering the place where Albin marked him. “When I fight, I feel no fear,” he says, speaking the words into the space between their lips. “It’s been so long since I felt anything. But you frighten me. Because…” He pauses. “When you said yes. The reason you said yes. I would have done the same.”

“Geralt,” Jaskier whispers, and Geralt draws him closer.

“I’ll stay, as long as you want me to,” he says. “I’ll listen, when you want to talk. There’s nothing you could do or say that would turn me away.”

“Geralt,” Jaskier says again, voice thick with tears. “I’m the one who follows you.”

Geralt strokes his cheek, which bears no scar; his hurts are all on the inside. “Then maybe it’s my turn to,” he says.

 

Jaskier starts to talk, after that.

It happens at strange times. They could be lying in bed, or sitting side by side next to a fire, or Jaskier could be leaning idly against a stable wall while Geralt tacks up Roach. Geralt gives up trying to find a reason for it, just stays quiet while Jaskier speaks.

“He made me strip while he was still healing you,” Jaskier will say. Or: “the worst part… I think the worst part was that when he bent me over the edge of the bed I could see your face, sometimes, and I wanted you to wake up and save me, and I knew you wouldn’t, and I hated you so much for that.” Or, the following day: “No, the worst part was that he made me come, but not till after he’d finished. Like he was thanking me. Like he thought I wanted it.”

Geralt listens, clenching his fists, wishing he could bring the man back to life and kill him again.

They’re camping out one night, midway between two of the larger towns, about a week away from the border, when Jaskier says, almost conversationally: “That night. When he found us again.”

The mage is always he. Never named. Geralt nods, to show he’s paying attention. It’s been a bad day. This is almost the first time Jaskier’s spoken at all.

“I needed something to kill him with, and there wasn’t anything. But then when I looked over at the bed, you were lying there. Injured you. And I took your steel dagger and I killed him. But that doesn’t make any kind of sense, does it?”

Magic. Geralt shrugs, because it doesn’t make any kind of sense, but he’s grateful for it, that some spark of Chaos turned in their favour.

“It’s just… I could have done that the first time. I could have killed him then. And I didn’t.”

“Sometimes you can only think of surviving,” Geralt says, remembering some of his own fights, the ones where there was only the battle, where adrenaline left no room for higher thought. “And anyway, he’d likely have killed you if you’d tried.”

Jaskier smiles thinly. “That might have been better,” he says.

“It would have been better if I’d died,” Geralt says, “not you.”

There’s a long silence, broken only by the crackle of wood on the fire and Roach shifting, away among the trees. When Geralt turns to look at Jaskier he’s gone pale. His teeth are digging into his lower lip, deep enough to draw blood.

“Jaskier—” he says, alarmed, and Jaskier stumbles to his feet, flees from the fire, crashing through the trees with no grace or direction. Geralt follows, finds him pounding his fists into one of the birches, again, again, again, the smell of torn skin mixing with fragments of bark. Crows have taken to the air, cawing rough and raucous in the skies above, the whole scene like something from a fairy tale. One of the older, darker versions.

He pulls Jaskier away, pulls him round, catches his wrists as Jaskier struggles. “Stop,” he begs, “stop, please.”

“It wouldn’t be better if you died!” Jaskier yells at him. “Don’t say that, Geralt, don’t imply that’s a solution! What do you think would have happened? Do you think I’d have been fine?” His legs give out, and Geralt goes down with him, till they’re kneeling in the wet loam, Jaskier shaking in his grip. “I’m a mess,” Jaskier gasps, “I’m such a mess, this is so fucked up, but it’s not worse, Geralt! If you’d died, I’d have been just as fucking bad, all right? It would have been the worst thing that ever happened to me!” He buckles further, sits back on his heels. It’s near dark, and Geralt can barely see his face anymore. He pulls him closer, Jaskier’s forehead resting heavy on his chest. The words don’t stop coming. “I love you,” Jaskier says. “If you took me back there, knowing what I know now, I’d do it again. Because it’s worth it, all of it, to have you here. I’d do it again in a second, so please, please, stop sounding like you don’t care either way, like your life doesn’t matter to you.”

He’s almost breathless, the words slurred and hitching. Geralt strokes gently down his back, hums softly. “I’m sorry,” he says, when Jaskier’s calmer, when the sobs have abated and his breath comes steadier. “I just don’t want to see you hurt.”

Jaskier lifts his head up. His face is shades of grey, in the twilight, sharp-boned and raw. “Then stop hurting me,” he whispers.

“Yes,” Geralt agrees, helplessly. “Jaskier, that’s – I’m not used to thinking of myself as a needful thing, I’m sorry, but I’m here, all right? I’m here, I’ll stay.”

“I want you to care whether you live or die,” Jaskier says. “For you, for your own sake, not just for mine.”

Geralt shakes his head, because – they get that trained out of them, a useless witcher might as well be a dead witcher, witchers don’t retire, they don’t get to have this, they don’t get happiness. There’s just the path.

But Jaskier’s with him on the path, and most witchers are dead, and fuck it, Geralt thinks, fuck all of it, and he takes Jaskier’s head in his hands and kisses him. He tastes of salt and blood and grief, and Geralt kisses him and kisses him until those tastes fade and it’s just Jaskier. Lemon and cedar and a faint edge of honey.

Eventually Jaskier pushes him back and rests his forehead on Geralt’s shoulder. “You can’t just kiss it better either,” he says, though the rawness has left his voice and Geralt can hear where the humour is starting to break through, just a little.

“But I’d like to try,” Geralt tells the night air. “Not just kissing. I’d like to try – what you said. Caring.”

Jaskier inhales, halfway to a sob, and nods into Geralt’s shoulder. “All right, then,” he says. “Let’s try it. Both of us.”

 

They keep travelling. Keep doing other things too: hands intertwined, kisses stolen where no one can see them on the road. There are still times when Jaskier’s body tenses, when he turns away; when Geralt finds it impossible to have someone so close; when it’s too much. But they keep trying.

Two nights later they stop at an inn. Geralt chops firewood for their supper; Jaskier sings for the cost of the room. Once the inn closes they lie in bed, the way they usually do these days: faces angled to each other, Jaskier sprawled half over Geralt’s chest, limbs entangled.

This time, though, Jaskier reaches down, palms Geralt’s cock roughly through his smallclothes. Geralt bites back a gasp, feels himself stir. “Jaskier,” he says, checking, and Jaskier rolls his eyes.

“I’m fine,” he says, “stop fussing,” and strokes another firm line from root to tip. Geralt flushes, feels himself arch slightly as Jaskier shifts down the bed to kneel over Geralt’s thighs. He lays one hand on Geralt’s chest, holding himself steady, and fumbles to free Geralt’s cock with the other.

Geralt’s half hard, dizzy with the pleasure of it; he tips his head back, closes his eyes. And takes too long, far too long, to notice that Jaskier’s gone still.

When he looks up, Jaskier’s staring down at his cock. His hand is digging in to Geralt’s chest, almost clawed; his eyes blank and unfocused.

Fuck. Geralt reaches up, takes him by the shoulders, sits up so they’re chest to chest, so he can pull Jaskier to him, run one hand through his hair. “Jaskier, it’s me,” he says, rough and low and gods, he hopes, reassuring. “It’s me, it’s all right, come back to me.” He keeps stroking Jaskier’s hair, petting him, and feels it all through his body when Jaskier takes a deep, desperate breath as if he’s been submerged and has just reached air.

“Oh,” he says, “oh fuck, Geralt, I’m sorry.”

“Fuck sorry,” Geralt says, “don’t be stupid.”

Jaskier giggles, a little pained. “I probably ought to be worried by how safe it makes me feel when you call me stupid,” he says. “You’ve conditioned me, you could insult me in all manner of ways and I’d just think, there’s my grumpy witcher, and feel quite content.”

Geralt pushes him back to see his face, and Jaskier looks down. “You’ve gone soft,” he murmurs, sounding disappointed, and puts his hand on Geralt’s cock again.

“Don’t,” Geralt whispers. “It’s all right.”

“It’s just – fuck, Geralt, I like sex!” Jaskier cries, flushed and frustrated. “I really like sex, I know you know this about me, and I’d really like to be having some with you right now.”

“There’s time enough for that,” Geralt says. “I won’t be another thing you have to endure.”

“I wasn’t enduring it,” Jaskier says. “I was enjoying it.”

“Until you weren’t,” Geralt points out.

“Fine,” Jaskier says, defeated, and throws himself on to his back on the bed in a dramatic fashion. Geralt lies down too, turns on his side so he can hold him better, slings an arm and a leg over his body.

“I’m afraid,” Geralt says, “that you may need to be patient.”

Jaskier huffs. “I know you know I’m no good at that.”

“I do know,” Geralt tells him. “But I am.”

“This isn’t going to be like the time you tried to teach me to meditate, is it,” Jaskier says, and Geralt winces, because that… had not gone well.

“More incentive for this,” Geralt reminds him, and licks into the crook of Jaskier’s neck, making him squirm and let out a soft mmmmm which is really quite fucking adorable.

“Patience, then,” Jaskier says, and twists round so he can bite at Geralt’s lips, kiss him again. “For you, my dear, I’ll do anything.”

And the words ought to feel heavy, ought to spark guilt or regret or bitter memory, but instead they’re just clear and bright and true.

 

When they reach the next town, there are bonfires lining the streets, men arranging lanterns on the houses. It’s Imbaelk, Geralt realises. The year is turning towards spring, the days finally growing longer.

People have flocked to the festival from the outlying villages, and Geralt only just manages to find a room. It costs five marks, almost the last of his coin, and he sees it pass from his hand to the landlord’s with a surprising amount of relief for a man mostly left penniless.

Jaskier flits off when he sees the musicians setting up in the square, no doubt planning to inveigle his way into performing. Geralt wanders the streets, spending a few pennies on a mug of warm cider and a honeycake or two.

As dusk falls, the elders line up to walk the bounds of the town. Those at the head of the procession carry flaming torches; as the townspeople fall behind them they’re handed tallow candles, long and fat and stinking. Geralt finds one thrust into his hand, already lit, and rather than protest he joins the throng winding through the streets. The candles glimmer, and the lanterns hung from the buildings cast a soft glow back, and for once he truly feels it: the darkness diminishing, cast out by the hard work of human hands.

The musicians are already playing in the main square, silhouetted by the lit bonfires. Geralt can hear Jaskier’s voice in the medley, some traditional Imbaelk song. There is a season, turn, turn, turn…

He leans against the wall of the tavern where they’re staying and lets the warmth of the fires and the sound of chatter and laughter and singing wash over him. It’s not full meditation, but it’s something close, an easy, relaxed drifting.

A while later he hears Jaskier’s voice solo, a tune he doesn’t recognise. He frowns and concentrates and hears a couple of lines: No fear, said the witcher, for I know how to fly / Not true, cried the griffin, and took to the sky.

Well. Geralt is trying not to hope too hard, trying not to read Jaskier for signs the way the folk around him are divining the weather from cards or candles or the movement of beasts. But he listens to the new song, and watches the bonfire, and can’t help but feel a little hopeful all the same. That’s what Imbaelk means, after all. Change, renewal, life.

 

His patience runs out before Jaskier’s. He returns to the tavern, sits to sharpen his swords. It’s light enough, the lanterns and fires are still burning outside as well as in their room, casting everything in a golden glow.

Jaskier is glowing too, when he comes through the door. The song must have gone down well; he smells of smoke and happiness. “Geralt,” he says. “My lovely witcher. Did you hear? I’m going to make you fly.”

He puts his lute case down carefully, and comes to Geralt, pulling off his doublet and breeches as he does. Geralt meets his blue eyes, sees no shadow or doubt. Jaskier takes the sword and steel away from him, pulls his shirt over his head, runs a hand down the flat scarred planes of his chest. “On the bed,” he says. “Arms up.”

Geralt lies down, propped against the pillows, lifts his hands above his head to grasp at the smooth wood of the headboard. He’ll do what Jaskier asks of him. He’d do anything.

Jaskier tugs down his trousers, strumming his quick, clever fingers against Geralt’s flesh as he goes. He bends Geralt’s knees, spreads them wide; Geralt huffs out a breath as the bedclothes catch against his balls. Jaskier is kneeling in front him, clutching a vial in one hand. “Geralt,” he says, “have you ever—”, moving a finger to trace around Geralt’s entrance.

“Not,” he says, flexing his hands against the wood, keeping the rest of him still, “not really, not for a long time—” Him and Eskel, fumbling, not knowing what they were doing at all, awkward and slightly painful.

“May I?” Jaskier asks, his eyes locked on Geralt’s; it’s important, Geralt can tell, that he sees him, his face, not his body.

“You may,” he says, whispers really. Jaskier’s face is caught in shadows, a little solemn, a little afraid, but brave, so brave.

It doesn’t feel anything like before. It burns, a little, as the first fingertip breaches him, more from strangeness than any real hurt. Jaskier has one hand resting on his thigh, pushing it down, giving him room. He circles Geralt’s hole, barely inside, soothing and stretching, pressing in little by little with a slow circling motion. It feels… fine, a little odd, that sense of something foreign inside him, but not painful, and Geralt breathes, bears down against Jaskier’s finger.

Jaskier withdraws, and Geralt feels empty. He pants, and Jaskier smiles, and pours a little more oil into his hand, and then starts that steady push in again, now with two fingers rather then one, flexing against each other and against the sides of his passage, pushing and stretching again, slowly, until they brush against some place, some element of his flesh that lights up like it’s on fucking fire.

He mewls, and Jaskier laughs, relieved and faintly smug. “There you are,” he murmurs, and circles back, presses in again, and Geralt arches on the bed, his cock jerking as his whole body shudders. “And that’s just fingers,” Jaskier says, “I’m not… I don’t think either of us are ready for my cock yet, but trust me, darling, when I fuck you you’ll see stars.”

“Already am,” Geralt gasps. “More. Please.”

“Patience,” Jaskier chides him, but the delight in his face gives it the lie, and he pulls back his hand and adds another finger.

Geralt loses the details, slightly, can feel only the warmth of the burn, the bright shocks of pure pleasure running through him. At some point he hears himself begging, wordless little gasps of want and need and please; at some point Jaskier’s fingers quicken, pulse relentlessly against that spot inside him, again and again. At some point he comes, though by that point he’s been so high, so strung out on sensation, that when he tips over the edge it does, indeed, feel like flying.

He comes back down when Jaskier swipes a hand through the mess on his chest and uses it to start jerking himself off, long steady strokes where he’s kneeling between Geralt’s legs. His teeth are clenched, his eyes still open, staring at Geralt like he’d fall apart if he looked away even for a moment. Geralt flexes his arms above his head, the muscles in his chest, putting on a show, and Jaskier gasps and speeds up, stripping his cock with the rhythm of a whirling dance that builds and builds with every step, until he comes too, his spend mingling with Geralt’s.

Jaskier drops his head, bracing himself as he leans down and laps at the mess they’ve made. One hand lifts to rub their come into Geralt’s chest. He’ll smell of it, tomorrow, Geralt thinks, him and Jaskier combined, and the thought thrills him, a little shiver running through his body.

Jaskier kisses him, and lets him taste the two of them on his tongue. Geralt shifts his hands where they’re still holding on to the headboard, and asks, “May I?”

“You may,” Jaskier says, and Geralt lets go, reaching to run his fingers gently down Jaskier’s back.

“That was…” Jaskier smiles at him, wide.

“It was,” Geralt agrees.

“Next time—” Jaskier starts, and Geralt catches his hands, pulls him down to lie by his side.

“Just this time,” he says. “Just you and me. Be here with me.”

“I am,” Jaskier says, and yawns. “You do yourself a disservice, my love, that was almost poetic.”

The word rings in Geralt’s ears, golden. “My love,” he repeats, like the exchanging of a vow, and Jaskier flushes with a surprised, rich pleasure, and kisses him, greedy and certain.

 

The next day, at the border, Geralt looks at Jaskier, and Jaskier looks back.

Neither of them speak. They join hands, and walk on together.