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The Soul (of a Man)

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The rider slouched low in his saddle, wide-brimmed flat top hat sending the rain sluicing down the back of his long back coat. 

Amber eyes flashed in the lightning that spiderwebbed across the sky. 

The stranger had been called many things in his life - demon, monster, evil… The list ran on and on. 

The truth was far more complicated than that - 

See, the stranger had a brand at his temple, curling down his left cheek. If the light hit it right, the very center would shimmer. 

No worldly thing had left that brand. 

Not that the stranger would tell you that. He was the quiet sort, the kind that looked you in the eyes until you backed down - until you looked away. 

The only sounds that tended to follow him were the creaking of his saddle, the snorting of the horse beneath him. 

It was like that that the stranger rode into the sleepy town of Posada, a storm at his back. 

A man sat in the corner of the little saloon, a guitar slung across his lap with his feet kicked up on the tiny table in front of him, idly strumming at the instrument. 

The music filled up the smoky air, the smell of burning tobacco nearly overwhelming the stranger as he shouldered his way up to the bar counter. 

“Whiskey.” He said it curtly, voice like thunder and hail, reaching up to take off his hat and setting it on the counter beside him. 

Tennessee whiskey got me drinking in heaven… ” The man with the guitar crooned, tipping his head back enough that he nearly looked at the stranger from upside down, chair creaking ominously. 

The stranger’s eyes met pale blue ones, a brow quirking. 

The man winked at him - “ Angels start to look good to me… ” The thud of chair legs as the man dropped it to the floor, pushing to his feet and-- 

There wasn’t a good word other than sauntering, the stranger thought with some bemusement. 

It wasn’t often that anyone approached him, much less someone this confidently. 

The guitar ended up slung across the man’s back and those nimble, callused fingers rose to pluck absently at the bandana tied about his neck. A dark red - in some ways, it reminded the strange of blood. 

“Well, well.” The man said, and even his speaking voice was musical. The stranger loathed to note that it wasn’t as grating as most voices. His accent was clearly one from old money, though he didn’t look it at all. “I’m a fan of the whole… brooding nature. You look like you have some stories to share.” He perched himself on the barstool next to where the stranger stood. 

“I don’t kiss and tell.” The stranger rasped dryly, plucking the whiskey glass from the bar counter and taking down half of it in one go. He licked his lips and gestured with his glass towards the man - “You’ll be better off harassing any other patron of this fine establishment.” He muttered and sipped at the remaining whiskey in his glass. 

“Ah, but they’re not nearly as interesting as you are.” The man’s gaze lingered on the brand at his temple - the stranger could feel it burn under the scrutiny. He growled softly, gaze hardening a bit as he glared at the now proffered hand. “Jaskier.” The man introduced with a sunny smile that entirely clashed with their current location. 

The stranger rolled his eyes and knocked back the rest of his whiskey, reaching for his hat. 

“Hang on!” Jaskier sputtered, hopping off the barstool to hurry after the stranger as he shouldered his way back towards the door, placing his hat back on his head. 

He hadn’t found what he was looking for. 

“Hang on! You’re the monster hunter, aren’t you?” Jaskier asked and the stranger paused, taking a deep breath. “The Wolf?” 

It was less than a blink - 

The chatter in the saloon immediately died as Jaskier blinked at the barrel of a Colt Peacemaker, silver glinting in the low light. 

“Don’t.” The stranger rumbled - outside the thunder rolled at the same time, shaking the saloon. “Call me that.” 

And then, to the shock of everyone in the tiny Posada saloon, Jaskier reached out and pressed his index finger to the barrel. He pushed gently until the stranger had lowered the gun to be pointed at the floor, raising a brow. 

“Then what should I call you?” Jaskier asked, simply. 

A breath. 

Two. 

“Geralt.” The stranger said, and tucked away his gun.

Geralt’s chestnut mare, Roach, did not like Jaskier’s horse. 

He wasn’t quite sure why - the white gelding Jaskier called Pegasus seemed like one of the calmest animals Geralt had ever seen. He might even call it apathetic were he asked. 

Roach, however, nipped at the gelding whenever he got close and tossed her head. She kept an ear turned towards him, eyeing him with distrust. 

Geralt, in response, also kept a closer eye on the gelding than when he’d first seen him outside the saloon. 

Jaskier had tucked his guitar into a wooden case that rested in a strange bag that was attached to his saddle - it almost looked like a giant pouch. 

Geralt had never traveled with someone who had an instrument, so it was a bit novel at first, though he quickly lost interest. 

Turned out that Jaskier also talked. 

A lot. 

He chattered over the sound of the wind and rain, bright and apparently unaffected by the rain that soaked his hair - it made the mahogany locks curl against his forehead. 

Geralt, for the most part, simply ignored his presence entirely. 

He was hoping that the man would give up, really, but that didn’t seem to be the case. 

The storm cleared up late in the evening. 

Jaskier didn’t seem to be tiring, which was odd, but he also seemed to be an endless well of energy. 

It wasn’t much of a surprise that Jaskier worked the guitar out of the case, pulled it into his hands. 

He left the reins hooked around the horn of his saddle and Pegasus plodded on after Roach obediently - Geralt briefly wondered how many people Jaskier had followed like this before. 

The melody that followed them wasn’t… terrible. 

Ah, the sound and the fury… ” Jaskier crooned it to the thin, waning sunlight - stifled as it was behind the lingering clouds. “ Oh, I miss them the most… ” 

Geralt glanced over his shoulder - 

For a moment, Jaskier looked eerie. His pale blue eyes looked nearly white, long fingers plucking at the strings of the instrument in a way that vividly reminded Geralt of someone pulling at threads, and Geralt felt the hair rise on the back of his neck. 

And then Jaskier met his gaze and grinned and the image was broken. 

Geralt snorted at the expression and turned his eyes back to the road in front of them. 

“You make enough sound for five men.” Geralt informed, and Roach snorted softly beneath him - agreement, certainly. 

“Perhap you need it! Traveling in silence for too long isn’t good for you. Music feeds the soul, didn’t you know?” Jaskier called from the back of Pegasus’s back and Geralt shook his head. 

He didn’t silence him as he continued to play, though. 

Over a burning fire, pot bubbling with a rabbit stew, Jaskier asked him - “What, exactly, are you looking for, anyhow?” 

Geralt’s eyes flashed in the orange light, meeting the man’s gaze for a moment. 

He looked away, stirring the stew as he muttered - “You’re better off if y’didn’t know.” He shifted a little, boot kicking up a bit of dust. 

Above, the stars twinkled. 

The moonlight shaped Jaskier’s face in strange ways - highlighted high cheekbones and when he smiled, the flash of his teeth reminded Geralt of sun bleached bones. 

“I’ve seen plenty, Geralt.” Jaskier said, simply, and plucked at the guitar across his lap. 

The fire crackled and Roach flicked her tail. 

Jaskier had been right - it was almost nice to have someone filling the space with sound. 

“You ain’t seen things like I have.” Geralt rumbled, finally, and Jaskier leveled him with a stare that he wanted to squirm beneath. 

“How much,” Jaskier started, voice low, weaving into the melody of the music. “Do you want to bet on that?” 

Geralt didn’t answer, just watched him play the guitar. 

He wondered just who had decided to trail behind him. 

They crested the hill just before golden hour. 

There, in the valley below, the river that had once run through it lay dry. The grass was yellowed, dead, and the few trees were barren of any leaves. 

Beside the riverbed, a black horse stood. 

At first glance it appeared to be grazing. 

Roach pawed the ground, though, and as it lifted its head to look at them, the true nature of its actions became clear. 

A rabbit lay bloodied and torn open at its hooves and its muzzle shone with liquid. 

The first yellow ray lit its face, revealing empty, ink eyes. 

Jaskier inhaled sharply beside him and Geralt gently kicked at Roach’s sides, urging her into a trot, taking the winding way down the hill slowly - his gaze never leaving the creature. 

The black horse merely flicked its ears lazily, swishing its tail, although it did not return to its meal. 

When they were in earshot, it was the creature that spoke first. 

The black horse tipped its head back, pinning its ears to its neck as it opened its mouth - 

HE SENT YOU FOR ME, DIDN’T HE?

The voice slipped against the edge of Geralt’s consciousness, slow and rough and angry

Geralt reached for his gun, pulling the silver Peacemaker into the light. It flashed, sparkling in the dying light. 

The black horse reared back a little, stamping the ground with its front hooves. 

TAKE HIM BACK A MESSAGE FROM ME.

The creature tossed its head. 

HIS OWN UNDOING HAS BEGUN. 

And then the horse spun in place, taking off into a gallop in the other direction. 

“Stay here.” Geralt snarled over his shoulder, digging his heels in and urging Roach into the chase, one hand on the reins, the other aiming the gun. 

He wasn’t close enough for a good shot and the creature was fast , tearing across the ground, kicking up dust and dirt. 

Its black tail was held high, streaming like a flag behind it. 

The creature tossed its head up - a high whinny like a scream and laughter , deep and rolling, shook the valley around them. 

“Roach, girl, I know--” His voice called over the wind whipping at their hair. She made a grunting noise beneath him, but he could feel her throw herself forward, giving him a burst of energy that would likely tire her out for the rest of the day. 

THY WILL BE DONE!

Geralt fired. 

The creature’s body hit the ground like a thundercrack, twisting and flipping. It thrashed, screaming, wavering between high pitched notes to ones that shook the ground. 

Flesh melted from bone, rotting and decaying in seconds. 

Roach skidded to a stop past the scene and Geralt turned her back, walking to the dying creature. 

Brown stained bones, falling apart, the skull lifting. 

Its maw opened wide and it roared -- 

Geralt fired a second time and the skull hit the ground with a thud, crumbling to ash. 

Both he and Roach were still breathing heavily when Jaskier dared to venture closer, after Geralt had tucked away his gun.

“This is what you do?” Jaskier asked, quietly, in the unsettling silence that followed the creature’s death. “Hunt demons?” 

Geralt tensed, turning his gaze on the other man. 

He should have looked frightened. Should have been staring at the place where the creature had died. 

Instead, Jaskier was staring at him - something close to admiration in his eyes. 

Geralt didn’t like that. 

“Monsters.” Geralt corrected because it felt like there was an important distinction there. 

Roach tossed her head a little and nipped at Pegasus when he got too close. Geralt absently reined her head away, brushing his hand up and down her neck, soothing her, before he gently urged her into a walk. 

“I hunt monsters.” 

Jaskier watched him from across the fire licking at the sky. 

Geralt watched him in return - watched clever fingers pluck at the strings of the guitar. 

“Why’re you followin’ me?” He asked, and Jaskier grinned crookedly. 

“Because you’re brimming with soul.” Jaskier answered, and Geralt was reminded viscerally of the first day they had traveled together - the way the moonlight had bounced off Jaskier’s features, the way he’d seemed otherworldly. 

“I ain’t got one of those.” Geralt said with a roll of his shoulders. He stood from where he’d been sitting, going to where he’d left his saddle, digging through the saddlebags for a peppermint candy - 

In another life, he would smoke when he felt like this. Tobacco was hell on his senses these days. 

He tossed one of the wrapped candies at Jaskier, not looking to see if he caught it. 

“But don’t you?” Jaskier questioned, tilting his head to the side. 

Geralt snorted, popping the peppermint into his mouth and rolling it around on his tongue as he looked out over the dark sprawl of land. 

“No.” He answered, and crunched down on the peppermint, grabbing one more for good measure. Geralt walked back to the fire, dropping down and sighing. He knew Jaskier fairly well these days and he was sure he wouldn’t let it go without a little more. He considered lying at first, but figured after what Jaskier had seen he ought to know anyhow. “Sold it.” It sounded dismissive at first - but there was a thread of pain laced through the tone beneath. 

“I think you believe you sold it.” Jaskier returned and it made Geralt scoff. “No, I mean it. And I think whoever bought it thinks they have it.” His pale eyes twinkled at Geralt over the fire. “It all depends on what you believe is a soul, you know. Words are important - I’d read that contract again.” 

The aimless plucking turned into something more, a wandering melody. 

I'm going to ask the question, answer if you can… ” Jaskier sang, softly, voice quiet beneath the crackle and pop of the flames. “ If anybody here can tell me, what is the soul of a man? ” He tipped his head, closed his eyes, and for a brief moment Geralt indulged the urge to follow the line of his throat with his gaze. 

I've traveled in different countries, I've traveled foreign lands - I've found nobody to tell me, what is the soul of a man…

The woman thrashed against the binds that held her to the wooden chair. 

Spittle flew from her lips as she snarled at them, teeth blackened with eyes blood red save for the single dot of black in the center. 

YOU THINK YOU’RE SO CLEVER, DON’T YOU?”

She hissed at them like a pissed barn cat and Geralt took a swig from the whiskey bottle he’d bought in town about two miles or so back. 

“I dunno.” He said, crossing his legs and lounging back in his own chair, head tipped lazily. “You tell me. You’re trapped ain’t you?” 

Her gaze wasn’t trained on him, though, but rather on Jaskier , who stood just behind his chair. His hand gripped the back of it, eyes narrowed. 

Geralt pursed his lips, reached into his pocket and pulled out a flask. Instead of drinking from it, he unscrewed the cap with one hand, knocking it aside. 

Leisurely he flicked the flask towards the demon, watched the Holy Water hit her skin. It sizzled and hissed, skin reddened before their eyes like a burn. She howled, tossing her head back. 

FUCKING BASTARD!”

Geralt took another swig of whiskey and set the bottle down beside his chair. 

“Where’s the kid?” He asked, and leaned forward now, elbows on his knees. 

“I ATE HIM .” 

She shrieked with laughter through pained gasps and lifted her head, matted hair falling into her face. 

Geralt kept that gaze for nearly a minute. 

“You’re lying.” He said, tossing another bit of Holy Water at her, pushing himself to his feet. “I’ll make you drink this whole thing. Keep tryin’ me.” He drawled it as he circled the chair. 

She swiveled her head to follow him with her eyes, head tipping against the back of her chair to look at him from almost upside down. She giggled and it escalated into cackles that shook her body, black ichor leaking from the corners of her mouth. 

“YOU CAN’T DO ANYTHING TO ME THAT WILL BE WORSE THAN BELOW.”

Geralt hummed, placing his hands on his hips. 

“Oh?” He asked, and one hand slipped down to push his coat back. He pulled out the silver Peacemaker, pushing at the cylinder. He peered down at it and then tipped the gun back. Silver, engraved bullets slipped down to land in his other hand and he rolled them around in her line of sight. 

Geralt noted her tensing from his peripheral and knew he’d gotten her. 

Slowly, he slid one bullet into place in the cylinder and closed it back up, spinning it. 

Then, slowly, Geralt lifted the gun and leveled it at her forehead. 

“I can erase you.” He said, simply, and smirked at her disbelieving scoff. “You can risk it if you’d like.” 

“THEN YOU WON’T KNOW WHERE THE CHILD IS.”

She said it and Geralt could hear the desperation in her voice. 

Geralt cocked the gun. 

“FUCKING KILL ME THEN! LOSE YOUR ONLY FUCKING CHANCE AND KNOW HIS BLOOD COATS YOUR HANDS! ” 

Geralt pulled the trigger. 

She screamed and thrashed against the rope. Gasping, she tossed her head, throwing the hair back from her face as she looked at him, wild-eyed. 

“Jaskier, you may want to leave.” It was the first time he’d really spoken to the musician since they’d entered the crumbling farm house. 

Jaskier made a low noise in the back of his throat - without Geralt’s enhanced hearing he would have missed it entirely. 

“No. Finish it.” Jaskier had something dark in his tone and Geralt spared a quick glance at him, surprised to find his jaw set. 

Geralt’s gaze refocused on the demon. 

Geralt cocked the gun. 

“YOU’VE NO IDEA WHAT YOU’VE GOTTEN YOURSELF INTO, MORTAL.” 

Geralt pulled the trigger. 

The demon wailed, kicking her feet against the rotting wood floor. 

“HE’S UNDER THE BARN! HE’S UNDER THE BARN! IN THE THIRD STALL, THERE’S--”

Geralt didn’t need anything else. 

He cocked and pulled the trigger in quick succession and two later the bullet fired with a crack, burying itself in her skull as she screeched loud enough to shake the already cracked windows. 

Jaskier had already spun on his heel and run for the barn even as Geralt yelled after him. 

Geralt left the rapidly decaying body, turning to run after Jaskier, reloading the gun on the way, boots kicking up dust in the deadened farm yard. 

“Slow down!” He snarled, but Jaskier ripped the door of the barn open. 

He choked immediately, pulling the bandana up over his face, flies buzzing loudly. 

Geralt’s stomach turned and he brought an arm up to hide his nose against the crook of it. 

“Fuck.” He muttered, animals dead in their stalls. 

The fourth stall had the corpse of a farm horse, neck slit. It was, however, fresher than the others and Geralt sent Jaskier a look. 

Together they braced their hands against the dead mare’s back, pushing until she rolled to the side. 

Geralt spared a moment of sorrow for her, though it was only a second of thought, turning his attention to Jaskier-- 

Jaskier, who had curled his hands around the handle of the wooden door. He pulled up, opening it and Geralt grit his teeth at the darkness that met them. 

“Stay.” He ordered, and climbed down without a second thought. His eyes adjusted to the darkness quickly, pupils widening. 

He followed the blood caked walls deeper - deeper, until he came to a wide room carved directly into the dirt. Wooden support beams were the only thing keeping the thing from crumbling entirely. 

Geralt spied the boy, chained to the far wall, trembling and filthy. 

About the same time the child spotted him and began to scream. 

“I’m here to help.” Geralt said, above the clamor, and the child burst into tears.

The boy’s name was Dara and his parents had been killed by the demon. 

His small hand clung to Geralt’s coat as they made their way back towards the exit of the tunnel. 

Geralt grasped him about the waist and handed him up to Jaskier, who took the boy with gentle hands from him. 

Geralt climbed up after, herding the both of them out of the barn, away from the stench. All three of them took deep breaths of the fresh air when they reached it and Geralt crouched down, moving a hand to push the hair that had fallen loose from his ponytail back from his face. 

Dara moved closer to him, asking in a small voice. “She’s-- she ain’t comin’ back is she, mister?” 

Geralt met his wide dark eyes. “No.” He answered, and held out his hand. “Come here.” He urged and when the boy did, he took one of the small hands in his own, pulling his gun out with the other. 

“See this?” He asked, and glanced at the boy’s face. 

“This is a special gun. It kills creatures like her. Completely. She ain’t never comin’ back. Ever. If you want, you can shoot her again.” Geralt promised, and set the gun in the boy’s hand. 

The boy turned the gun slightly, watched the light bounce off of it. After a long moment, he shook his head a little, and handed the gun back to Geralt. 

“I believe you.” Dara’s voice was small and he lingered there, torn, as Geralt tucked away the gun. 

To Geralt’s surprise, the boy wrapped his arms around his neck, giving him a tight hug. Slowly, Geralt’s hand settled on his back and he looked past him up at Jaskier-- 

At Jaskier who had a soft look about his eyes that did strange things to his chest. He swallowed, but pat the boy’s back gently. 

“C’mon. We’re gonna get you somewhere safe.” Geralt promised, and stood back to his full height. 

He held out his hand and Dara took it as Jaskier fell into step with them. 

Vesemir was standing on the front porch when they approached, his hands on his hips. 

Far out where the cattle were, Geralt could see Eskel perched atop his black horse - Scorpion. 

Roach lifted her head and whinnied high and loud - Scorpion answered with a whinny of his own and Geralt smiled a little crookedly. Eskel turned the horse, heading for them, though they reached the house long before he got close. 

Geralt dismounted first, helping Dara down, Jaskier the last on the far side. 

“What’d you bring home now?” Vesemir called and didn’t get to receive an answer before thundering footsteps carried a little girl out of the door. 

Her pale hair whipped behind her as she bounded across the space between herself and Geralt - 

Geralt smiled

It was with all his teeth, sharp canines and all, bending slightly and reaching out his arms. She collided with him at full force and he scooped her up, spinning her slightly before setting her back on her bare feet in the grass. 

“Geralt!” She cried, “You weren’t supposed to be home until winter! Are you okay?” She stepped back slightly to check him over and Geralt laughed a little, shaking his head. 

“I’m fine, Ciri.” He rumbled and gestured slightly to the boy that had retreated a few steps to stand beside Jaskier, nearly pressing into his side as he watched. 

“This is Dara. He needed somewhere to stay.” Geralt explained and Ciri looked away from him to look at the other two arrivals. 

For a moment, she froze. 

Something like fear flickered over her expression as she looked up at Jaskier and the musician tipped his head at her, blinking. 

She shook herself, though, and Geralt felt pride well up in his chest as she stepped forward and offered her hand to Dara. 

“My name’s Ciri. This is Kaer Morhen ranch!” She introduced, and waited until he’d taken her hand to tug him back along to the house. “C’mon. We have lemonade!” 

Geralt watched them go and Jaskier stepped in closer to him, leaning to speak from the corner of his mouth. 

“I understand why, if it was for this.” 

Geralt hummed in the back of his throat and then nodded towards the stables. 

“C’mon. We’ll take care of the horses and then go in for dinner.” 

Jaskier fit in rather well with Geralt’s small but cherished family. 

It was strange to watch him interact with them over the dinner table, smiling at Lambert’s sharp quips - retorting just as quickly without even a flinch. 

Ciri’s gaze bounced between the two of them, the nervous set of her shoulders relaxing over the course of their meal. 

Eskel eyed Jaskier with something like interest, though he remained quiet, apparently content to simply observe. 

Vesemir, on the other hand, was more focused on Dara, asking him gentle questions about what he knew how to do. Geralt knew he wouldn’t have to worry - the boy would have a place here. 

Jaskier, at one point, reached over to pluck the roll from Geralt’s plate that he hadn’t got to. If Lambert had tried the same thing, he would have ended up with a fork in the back of his hand. Geralt merely rolled his eyes, reached out to take the roll right back from Jaskier, tearing it in half so he didn’t pout. He handed him one half and took a bite of his own, so used to the routine that he didn’t even think about it - at least until he realized that most of the table was looking at him with wide eyes. 

Even Vesemir looked a bit gobsmacked. 

“What?” Geralt gruffed defensively around his mouthful of bread.

Beside him, Jaskier clucked his tongue - “Don’t talk with food in your mouth, dear.” 

Geralt grunted, shooting him a look from the corner of his eyes, but returned to his food. 

“Huh.” Eskel said, quietly, and Geralt knew he was going to get cornered later based on that tone. 

He hated that he also knew what Eskel was going to say to him. 

Dara spoke up quietly after the food had been cleaned away - “Will you sing?” 

Jaskier blinked in surprise, gaze darting around at the men surrounding the table. 

“Is he good?” Ciri asked Geralt in a false whisper, looking a bit sly. 

Geralt smirked, his eyes glancing over at Jaskier, expression thoughtful. He finally lifted a hand and made a ‘so-so’ motion that made Jaskier squawk his indignation. 

“You’re so rude .” Jaskier huffed, lifting his nose. “Just for that, yes , I’ll play.” 

It was also an old routine, one where Jaskier’s indignance was a joke and Geralt’s criticisms were all for show. 

The musician got to his feet, going to retrieve his guitar where he’d left it in the main room - instead of coming back into the dining room, he left the rest of the household there. He leaned himself up against the back of the couch to be facing the doorway, framed by it as he slung the guitar strap over his shoulders. 

After checking that it was tuned, he glanced up and lifted a brow, meeting Geralt’s gaze before darting past him towards Ciri and Dara. 

“Any requests?” He asked, looking entirely at home. 

It made Geralt’s chest ache in a way that he didn’t fully expect. 

“Something you wrote since you’ve known Geralt.” Ciri’s voice piped up after a few moments and beside her Dara nodded. 

Jaskier tipped his head in thought, chewing on the inside of his lip. Finally, his fingers start plucking out a low melody that Geralt hasn’t heard before. 

He turned in his chair to be better facing the blue eyed man. 

Don't give it a hand, offer it a soul - Honey, make this easy… ” Jaskier’s foot tapped along against the hardwood floor and Geralt hated that his chest got tight at the words. “ Leave it to the land, this is what it knows… Honey, that's how it sleeps. ” 

Jaskier’s head bobbed slightly, his hair falling over his forehead, and Geralt’s fingers twitched. They itched to push back those sweeping locks of mahogany. 

He didn’t turn to meet Eskel’s gaze, but he could feel it burning into the side of his head. 

That night, Geralt crept out onto the porch long after most of the house had gone to bed. 

Jaskier lay in his own and Geralt wasn’t sure he could confront having to share the same mattress just yet. 

He lowered himself down into one of the rocking chairs, his gaze watching the cattle mill about in the distance. 

Sparks of light like dancing stars, winking in and out of existence - fireflies making themselves known. 

Geralt took a sip of Lambert’s truly awful vodka and felt terribly like everything he had ever wanted was just beyond his reach. 

Eskel joined him not ten minutes later and Geralt closed his eyes, absently swirling the alcohol about in the glass. 

“You ain’t gonna be able to have him like that. Not really.” Eskel said, softly, and Geralt knew it was what he was going to say. It still ached something fierce and he breathed out a heavy sigh. 

“I know. I traveled with’im long enough to know he don’t swing this way, anyhow.” Geralt rumbled, quietly, and turned his gaze on Eskel finally, meeting his dark brown gaze with his own. 

“Geralt…” Eskel started, gently, and Geralt smiled something sad and brittle. He looked away, rolling his shoulders in a shrug, knocking back the rest of his vodka glass. He leaned down afterwards and set it against the porch with a soft click. 

“Ain’t nobody’s fault I was wired this way.” Geralt said and huffed a breath through his nose. “Don’t worry none.” 

Eskel snorted something like a scoff at that - “I worry ‘bout you every day, idiot.” He rocked his own chair a little, nodding towards the sprawl of land in front of them. “What you did… Can’t say I agree, but I know why .” He pursed his lips, reaching up to rub a hand over his mouth. A pause. 

“Just be careful, ‘kay? I know you.” Eskel drawled, finally, and Geralt shot him a slightly offended look. 

“I hunt monsters , Eskel.” He retorted, “A man ain’t gonna break me.” 

Eskel puffed a breath as he pushed himself to his feet, moving to pat Geralt’s shoulder. “Gotta tell you the truth, brother - your heart’s too big. A broke heart might very well break ya.” He squeezed the shoulder he’d patted and then moved to go back into the house, pausing at the door. 

Quietly - “You know I love ya, right?” 

Geralt wrinkled his nose and rolled his eyes away. “Gross.” He gruffed, but a little, more genuine, smile tugged at his lips. 

“I’ll get Lambert to kick your ass tomorrow.” 

Geralt snickered and waved him off, listening to the door shut behind him as he went to lay down. 

In the morning, Geralt found Jaskier plastered up against his back. 

His breath ruffled the hair at the nape of Geralt’s neck and Geralt suppressed a shiver - a quick check confirmed that Jaskier was still asleep. 

It didn’t take much to make Geralt pretend he was asleep as well, despite the sun that was beginning to creep through the windows. 

He’d never hear the end of it from his old man, but it was worth it to feel Jaskier’s body against his for even a few minutes more. 

In all, it ended up being half an hour of blissful fucking torture. 

And then-- 

Then - 

Jaskier stirred slowly, as the brighter sunlight of morning lit the room up. He grumbled behind Geralt, hiding his face against his hair, nuzzling in, before freezing entirely. 

Geralt did not feign waking, pretended to sleep soundly - if he had to make an excuse, he was at home. Here, he could truly rest instead of constantly being on the lookout for danger. 

His mind was racing, coming up with all sorts of excuses-- 

Jaskier’s face pulled back and gentle fingers tucked back his long hair from his face - Geralt’s heart was beating hard enough that he was almost afraid that Jaskier would hear it. 

Those fingers trailed featherlight over the side of his neck, his shoulder, and down between them. 

Geralt could not suppress his shudder then, inhaling sharply as if he’d just been woken, chest clenching tight as Jaskier lurched to the other side of the bed. 

“Mmn?” Geralt inquired, sleepily, bracing his elbow against the mattress and levering himself up to look over at Jaskier blearily. 

Jaskier stared back at him for a moment and then spoke quietly, voice morning-rough. “We should get up.” 

Geralt blinked a couple of times and then peered about the room, grunting a sound of agreement as he pushed himself to sit up fully. 

So they should. 

The summer storms were beginning to ease up when they made it to White Orchard. 

They passed through the town entirely, gazes of the inhabitants heavy on their backs. Geralt kept his head ducked, hat obscuring his gaze to most. 

It wasn’t here that he was looking for - he’d heard of strange happenings in the surrounding area. 

Wild dogs rabid in a way hunters had never seen naturally before and sour water with no real reason as to why

Jaskier trailed along beside him as usual, chattering away. 

Geralt had become… used to it. 

He was loathe to admit it, but he had begun to find silence uncomfortable. 

They were traveling through the forest past the town when Jaskier pointed through the trees - “Geralt.” He hissed, softly, and Geralt followed his gesture. 

There, tucked away in the trees, lay a small hunter’s shack. 

Geralt turned Roach off the main path, trusting her to pick her way through the underbrush, approaching the little building. 

“Stay here.” He told Jaskier, and heaved a long suffering sigh when he heard boots hit forest floor. 

He’d miss Jaskier if he ever moved on, but there were times he felt very much like screaming at him - maybe taking him by the shoulders and shaking some sense into him. 

Geralt shot him a look - one that conveyed that Jaskier had to at least stay behind him. 

Jaskier hummed, giving him one of those wide-eyed falsely innocent looks that worked annoyingly well on most people. 

Geralt was not most people. 

His look strengthened to a glare and Jaskier was the one to sigh this time, giving a slight nod towards the door. 

Geralt knocked on it - a firm rap of knuckles against wood. 

The man that answered the door looked haggard. 

He had light brown eyes, a scar above his forehead, and his hair was unkempt. He stared at them for a few moments before tensing - 

“I ain’t bothered nobody.” He said, firmly, squaring his shoulders. “Get outta here.” 

Geralt blinked in surprise and Jaskier lifted his hands a little. 

“We aren’t here to argue or-- anything like that. We were wondering if we could ask you some questions, actually.” Jaskier spoke, making sure his voice stayed friendly. 

Gerat nodded a bit. 

“Bout the forest.” Geralt added and though his voice was gruff, it was gentle as he could make it. 

The man pursed his lips and then finally huffed a breath through his nose. 

“You talkin’ ‘bout the dogs and shit?” 

Geralt nodded and the man clenched his jaw before he moved back out of the doorway. 

“Sit down. S’a long story.” He muttered and Geralt hesitated only a moment before stepping inside, Jaskier at his heel. 

Geralt was tense as they left the small shack.  

“You’ll find him.” Jaskier offered, quietly, and did not seem phased by the information they had learned not moments ago. Geralt did not allow hope to spark in his chest. 

He didn’t.

Mislav’s partner Florian had gone missing a few days ago - in a way that was entirely uncharacteristic of him Mislav had assured. But no amount of Mislav’s tracking skills could find enough of a trace to follow to him. 

Geralt feared one thing - that no inhuman had done this. 

He knew human monsters, knew them too well, and sick fear churned at his stomach although he did not show it to Jaskier. 

“You always find the monster.” Jaskier said - in some ways Geralt heard what else he was saying. You’ll kill it, whether Florian is alive or not

“I got a feelin’ this one ain’t unnatural, Jask.” He muttered, simply, and Jaskier hummed a low sound in the back of his throat. 

“I say again - you always find the monster.” Jaskier repeated, voice firm. 

Geralt looked over at him, pausing a moment, hand on Roach’s saddlehorn. He finally gave a low grunt and hoisted himself into the saddle, hand briefly moving to brush over the handle of the second gun - a gun he rarely ever pulled anymore. 

Vesemir had passed it down to him when he’d turned sixteen and he’d kept it on his person at all times since - though he rarely pulled it. 

A flash of the Peacemaker usually had people backing down, startled as they realized who he was. 

This gun-- 

He reserved it for humans who truly needed a bullet - silver for monsters, steel for men.

Geralt did find the monster. 

Or, really, monsters

Florian’s hands were tied behind him, lip split and oozing blood, head hanging low, slumped up against a wide oak tree. One eye was swollen shut and the opposite cheek had a streak of purple where he was bruised. 

Geralt had no doubt he was covered in far more bruises than that. 

It wasn’t Geralt’s best moment to charge into camp, Vesemir’s old gun in hand, but rage and hurt nearly blinded him. 

He’d shot two of them and turned his gun on the third, only to find a bowie knife buried in his skull. 

A glance towards Jaskier confirmed that he’d thrown it, arm still flung out, his eyes wide. 

“Fuck, Geralt. Give a man some warning.” Jaskier panted, clearly still struck with adrenaline. 

Pegasus, for the first time since Geralt had known him, tossed his head and let out a whinny. It was threaded through with another noise, one that made Geralt tense. Jaskier’s hand pet over the gelding’s neck and the next sound was entirely equine, an annoyed huff as the horse swished his tail back and forth. 

Geralt jumped from Roach’s back, grabbing the bowie knife from the man’s skull, not bother to look at the squelch, too busy making his way over to Florian and cutting the ropes that held him. 

“Hey.” Geralt rumbled, and watched as Florian flinch back from him. 

“Hey.” He gentled, “We’re here to help. Mislav sent us.” He assured, and Florian turned teary eyes on him. 

“He’s okay?” Florian asked, and Geralt’s chest ached because of course it was the first thing the man would ask. 

“Yes. Yes, he’s alright.” Geralt assured and wiped the knife on his coat before offering it blindly up to Jaskier. 

The other man took it as Geralt gently helped Florian up onto Roach. 

It was slow going, but they didn’t stop until they’d reached Mislav’s shack once more. Florian was in and out of it, occasionally mumbling responses to Jaskier’s chattering, but mostly seemed to be focused on not falling off the horse despite the mare’s slow pace. 

Mislav was already out the door the moment they arrived and he helped Florian off of Roach before Geralt could step in. 

They embraced each other desperately, hands grasping at clothes, foreheads pressing together. 

“I’m sorry.” Mislav’s voice was thick with pain and shame. Geralt couldn’t look away from them, not as Florian raised his hands to cup Mislav’s cheeks. 

“Not y’fault.” Florian rasped and Mislav made a low, helpless noise, tipping his head to kiss him. 

Geralt stared and knew his expression must be too telling, knew he could not hide the emotions warring inside of him. 

He hooked a hand around Roach’s saddlehorn, hauling himself up into the saddle. He gently reined her around, away from the scene behind them. 

“Wait!” Mislav called. 

When Geralt looked back, he was standing with Florian leaning into his side, Mislav’s arm around him. 

“How can I repay you?” Mislav asked, brows furrowed. 

Geralt was quiet. 

Finally - “Don’t let’em stop you.” He said, voice firm and low and rough with emotion he did not want to acknowledge. “If you gotta run, if you gotta hide, do it. But don’t let’em stop you.” 

Mislav’s eyes flashed with something - 

It was instinctive, the icy fear that gripped at him. 

Mislav nodded, lifting his chin in the defiant way Geralt had seen in mirrors before. 

“Good.” Geralt confirmed, and turned back to the forest, urging Roach into a canter. 

The hoofbeats that followed told him that Jaskier was trailing after him. 

Later - 

“Do you want to talk about it?” Jaskier’s gentle voice over the campfire. 

“The men were poisionin’ the water and beatin’ the dogs.” Geralt muttered, and Jaskier sighed softly. 

“You know damn well that’s not what I’m talking about, Geralt.” 

Geralt hated that his name felt safe in Jaskier’s mouth. 

“What’s there to say? I’m sure you fuckin’ know.” Geralt snapped in return, poking at the fire roughly with the stick he had in hand. 

Sparks sputtered up, floating into the sky. 

“Sure.” Jaskier said, slowly, and chewed his bottom lip. Geralt steadfastly did not look at the movement. “It doesn’t change anything, you know?” Jaskier’s voice was unbearably soft. 

“Don’t it?” Geralt snarled, his amber eyes meeting blue, flashing with anger and defensiveness. 

“No.” Jaskier murmured, quietly. “Not unless you want it to.” 

That drew Geralt up short. 

He blinked a few times at the sight of Jaskier’s seemingly serene expression. 

“What?” Geralt managed, blankly. 

With a heaving sigh, Jaskier pushed himself to his feet. He made his way around the fire to kneel down beside Geralt, hands resting on his thighs as he kept his gaze.

“You weren’t asleep when I touched you at Kaer Morhen, were you?” He asked, and Geralt could not contain the flinch at the accusation - though it sounded too… soft

“Oh, Geralt …” Jaskier breathed and Geralt had never heard someone say his name so gently. His hands trembled where they sat clenched into fists in his lap. His amber eyes focused on the flames, heart roaring in his ears, unable to look at Jaskier. 

Fingers calloused from guitar playing and a life on the road ghosted over his cheek. Geralt let out a sound that was almost wounded, closing his eyes entirely as Jaskier pressed further against his skin, well and truly cupping his jaw. 

They lingered in the moment, until Jaskier’s hand moved to tuck some of the loose locks behind Geralt’s ear, leaning in to gently press his lips to Geralt’s cheek. 

Jaskier.” Geralt rasped it helplessly, and Jaskier merely cupped the back of his neck. 

“It’s okay - it’s okay.” Jaskier assured, hushed, guiding him, and then they were kissing

For a moment, Geralt was reminded of Jaskier’s words - 

After all, what soulless creature could feel like this ?

The ground had begun to frost. 

Geralt knew the time was coming for him to turn for Kaer Morhen for the season - a whole winter each year to see Ciri grow. It had been the conditions of the contract. 

And every year, without fail, O’Dimm would show up before his travel back to check in with him. 

Occasionally there were messages to convey, other times O’Dimm would take one look at him and give praise - or a thinly veiled threat. 

It all depended on his mood. 

This year, however, Geralt and Jaskier were riding back towards Kaer Morhen by the time Gaunter O’Dimm showed himself. 

They were passing through a forest and a voice exclaimed - 

“Jaskier!” 

Geralt’s eyes immediately darted up, pulling gently at the reins to bring Roach to a stop. Beside him, Pegasus pawed at the ground and tossed his head. 

It was only the second time Geralt had seen the gelding unsettled. 

Jaskier blinked and then set his jaw. 

“You.” He said, flatly, and Geralt was not used to the tone. It was acidic, hostile, worse even than the anger Geralt heard in his voice when they were hunting. He turned his gaze on Jaskier in question, something like fear taking hold in his gut again. “I wondered when you’d show yourself, O’Dimm .” Jaskier spat the name. 

O’Dimm lifted his brows and lounged back against the branch he’d taken up residence on, tipping his head to the side, fingers drawing absent, glowing patterns in front of him in the grey winter afternoon air. 

“Oh, please, you’ve never been ambitious enough. The power you have - what use is it to laze among them?” O’Dimm asked, and Geralt knew , of course, but it was another thing to have it confirmed. 

Jaskier was his Jaskier , though. He knew him. How he looked in the morning with ruffled hair, the way he liked his coffee, how to read his eyes-- 

He knew his touch and how it was gentle against Geralt’s skin despite it all. 

“I’m not lazing .” Jaskier said, firmly. “I’m living. Something you’ll never quite know, hm?” 

It seemed to have struck a nerve as O’Dimm sat up sharply, swinging his legs over the edge of the branch as if to jump down immediately. 

“You’d best be careful with your tongue, Jaskier. I currently hold the soul of your little toy in my palm.” O’Dimm snapped, and Jaskier tipped his head slowly. 

“Do you?” Jaskier asked, entirely unafraid, despite the way Geralt’s muscles had locked up. 

Geralt didn’t use to fear death - it was a part of life - but now he had Ciri and she needed him. 

“I do, he made the contract and all.” O’Dimm said, pleased. 

“For his soul.” Jaskier hummed, pursing his lips. He urged Pegasus a few steps forward to be directly under the branch, staring up at O’Dimm. 

“For his soul.” O’Dimm echoed and Jaskier grinned

It was all bleached bone white teeth and pale eyes nearly glowed, head craned back. Geralt felt a shiver run down his back - but it wasn’t… it wasn’t quite fear.

“But do you know what a soul is?” Jaskier asked him and O’Dimm’s brows furrowed. 

“You know damn well--” 

Do you ?” Jaskier interrupted and O’Dimm growled at him, moving to slip from the branch, walking on air down to the ground. 

“You dare question me ?” O’Dimm snarled. 

Geralt flinched. 

Jaskier rumbled softly - “Should it not be the other way around, Gaunter O’Dimm?” He asked, eyes narrowed. “Even you will meet your end someday. Do not think you can escape it.” 

O’Dimm lifted his hand and Jaskier raised his own to meet it. 

“Think carefully about your next move.” Jaskier murmured, dangerously. “You have made him of Hell, yes. One cannot deny that. But you cannot own a soul.” 

O’Dimm hissed something through his teeth in words that Geralt could not understand - they scraped against his ears and he tipped his head away, grimacing. 

Jaskier answered in a smooth, rolling tone, deeper than his usual voice. It rumbled through the ground beneath them, rustled the leaves on the trees, made Geralt’s shoulders loosen from where they were hunched up towards his ears. 

“He’s mine .” O’Dimm roared. 

“He is no one’s save for his own.” Jaskier answered, simply, “That brand of yours? Clever trick, really, but--” 

Jaskier’s hand waved and Geralt blinked slowly. 

Something in the air-- 

It snapped

O’Dimm wailed , the air around him shuddering. 

Geralt reached up, brushed fingers over where the brand had lay previously, finding the skin smooth and unblemished once more. 

“Jaskier?” Geralt’s breathless question was lost under the screaming, shrieking sound of O’Dimm clawing at their reality. 

Geralt had seen this once

A demon that had been exorcised. In trying to cling to the mortal world, it had entirely wrecked the body it had possessed. He’d been of the opinion they should have put the man out of his misery instead of dragging it out as they had. 

O’Dimm’s eyes filled with blood, spilling over his cheeks, limbs twisting, fingers grasping at air. 

I’LL END YOU SOMEDAY YOU FUCKING BASTARD!

The roar was the last Geralt saw of Gaunter O’Dimm, the air giving a soft pop, filling the space where O’Dimm had been a moment before. 

Wide, amber eyes turned on Jaskier, who lowered his hand with a heavy breath. He turned to look at Geralt, pale blue eyes impossibly weary. 

“You’re free as I can make you, love.” He murmured, voice low, “But I cannot reverse what’s been done to you. O’Dimm won’t dog your steps any longer, though - that brand was not really to control you. It was to give him an anchor. He needed you , not the other way around. I couldn’t break it without him being nearby - I needed both ends of the chain.” 

Geralt sort of blanked out after love

“Oh.” Geralt rasped, and then reached for Jaskier. One hand kept Roach’s head reined away so that she wouldn’t snap at Pegasus as he leaned up out of her saddle, fingers curling in the front of Jaskier’s shirt, yanking him into a kiss. 

It was mid-summer. 

It was mid-summer and Geralt was home

Gerat looked at Jaskier from under heavy eyelids, the morning sun not yet risen. 

“You haven’t asked.” Jaskier murmured, his voice low. “Don’t you want to?” His fingers brushed over the features of Geralt’s face, fingers tracing the curve of his nose, the shape of his cupid’s bow.

Geralt searched his face, finally letting out a soft breath. 

“You’re Jaskier .” He said, simply, softly. “That’s all I really need to know.” 

Jaskier smiled - it was like a flower blooming, brightening his face slowly. 

He leaned in, pressing that smile to Geralt’s, nudging their noses together. 

It took a year before Geralt grew restless - 

He loved his home, but something stirred in his blood, made him look towards the horizon. 

Geralt would not stay away for full seasons, perhaps no more than a few weeks, but he-- 

Something in him needed to hunt. 

Jaskier seemed just as happy to follow him back to the road as he did to lounge with him in their bed. 

They woke on a late summer morning before the rest of the house stirred - at least, they had thought so. 

They’d told everyone goodbye the night before, Geralt more than aware that Ciri refused to rouse before the sun shone in her face. 

However, when they stepped into the kitchen, the smell of coffee greeted them. 

Eskel leaned up against the kitchen counter, watching them over a mug of coffee. “Morning.” He murmured, voice quiet and low. 

Geralt blinked, before humming a soft greeting. 

“Here.” Eskel held out another mug for Geralt, who took it and handed it off to Jaskier. Jaskier took it, sipping at it as he watched Eskel hand another to Geralt. 

They stood quietly in the kitchen for a few moments, sharing the last cup of coffee they’d have together for a while. 

“Jaskier.” Eskel spoke, finally, and Jaskier turned his gaze on the man. “You take care of’im, you hear me?” Firm, low. 

Geralt made a soft sound of protest in the back of his throat - he could take care of himself, thank you very damn much. 

“You know I will, Eskel.” Jaskier replied, softly, and something passed between their gazes that Geralt would never quite be able to understand. 

A firm nod from Eskel. 

“Go on, then. Get outta here. Sun’s startin’ to rise. Don’t wanna waste the daylight ya got.” Eskel shooed them out of the door towards the porch. 

Before Geralt got through the door, he reached into his pocket, drawing out a peppermint candy that he dropped in Eskel’s hot mug of coffee. 

Eskel blinked in surprise, but then smiled fondly. 

“Go on.” He muttered, “Fore I don’t let y’go.” 

Geralt waved him off, hand settling at Jaskier’s lower back as they headed for the barn. 

Eskel settled himself in one of the rocking chairs on the porch to watch them ready the horses. 

The sunrise bathed the land in yellow by the time Geralt and Jaskier mounted Roach and Pegasus. 

Geralt turned briefly to give Eskel a wave and Eskel lifted his hand in response, watching them turn to each other. 

Jaskier’s musical laughter carried back to him on the morning breeze and Eskel took a sip of his coffee to fight back the chill, smiling a bit at the taste of peppermint. 

Geralt urged Roach into a trot and Jaskier followed, the two of them riding towards the horizon line, Jaskier chatting animatedly about something. 

They cut a striking contrast - Geralt and Roach dark against the sky, Jaskier and Pegasus shining gold. 

“And behold a pale horse…” Eskel mused, softly, to the breeze. He raised the mug to take another sip of coffee, pausing when Jaskier turned to look back over his shoulder at him - as if he’d heard. 

Even from where he sat, he could see that Jaskier smiled

And it was all bleached bone white.