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A marvelous beam of sunlight tickles at Jaskier's cheek when he awakens; he scrunches up his nose, yawning more on principle than out of necessity, and shifts just enough to displace the arm wrapped around his waist.

One of the arms around his waist.

Ah, yes. It was a lovely night. Jaskier cranes his neck to check how far the sun has risen—bollocks. He has an engagement scheduled further south in a few days and he'd hoped to be able to spend a little more time with present company.

Although, come to think of it, had last night been a little weird? Maybe last night had been a little weird.

One half of the couple he bedded (who bedded him?) rouses with a languid yawn of her own, vibrant red hair falling in her face. She's still naked, freckled breasts brushing delicately against Jaskier's ribs as she resettles.

Her partner, a slightly older man with graying temples, drags his peppered stubble up the sensitive skin of Jaskier's inner arm to nip at his bicep.

Maybe Jaskier could indulge a little longer. Just an hour or two.

"What do you think, love?" the woman asks smugly, eyes still closed but fingers effortlessly finding the man's cheek to stroke. "Shall we keep him?"

Okay, yes. Maybe last night had been… strange. That tone sounds significantly less playful in the daylight. Jaskier surreptitiously frees a trapped leg from under the man's weight.

"Mm, I think so," the man murmurs back. "How could I deny you?"

Yes, well. Jaskier would hate to give these lovely people the wrong impression. If he had a few days left in town, he'd certainly be up for a repeat tryst—he loves sex with couples. But there's simply not time to spare, and he's not one to drag out a goodbye.

Better to just go, then.

"Erm, I'm afraid there's been a—a misunderstanding," he hedges apologetically, carefully extricating himself in what he hopes to be a non-offensive manner. "You see, as I mentioned last night—did I mention last night? I actually have a prior engagement out of town that I must—"

The woman props herself up on one elbow in the space he leaves behind, tilting her head innocently. "You're sure you don't want to stay a day or two more? You've only slept your way through half the tavern downstairs."

Jaskier laughs reflexively.

"We do have to let him go," the man reminds the woman with something like reproach. "You remember what the Chapter said last time."

"I can assure you, I have thoroughly enjoyed your company!" Jaskier promises hastily. He hops back into his trousers with fervor. "It's the life of a troubadour, I'm afraid. Can't stay in one place for too long—you understand?"

The woman nods sagely. "Yes, we do get rather bored of a place after thirty years or so."

Jaskier laughs again—the woman can't be aged past thirty total herself, and the man appears to be in his mid-forties. But the pair of them smile more like they still haven't let him in on the joke.

"I'm sorry," he says, fumbling for his shirt without looking. "I've lost the thread, I'm afraid."

"We're sorcerers," the man says. "Did we mention last night?"

Shit, did they? Jaskier was pretty performance-drunk, and also regular drunk. He remembers the night, on the whole, but the particulars are a little blurred by how very badly he wanted to get absolutely ploughed by the attractive couple in the back corner.

Mission accomplished, Jaskier. Spectacular job of it.

"Well, if you plan to be in Prana a while longer, I will definitely look you up the next time I pass through!" he tells them cheerfully. "It really was a lovely night, I'm so sorry that I must be going so abruptly. I really don't prefer this."

The couple shares a look that Jaskier can't parse—then the man gestures in a 'go ahead' motion and the woman smiles sharply, which was a much more titillating expression last night.

"Yes," she says smugly. "You really must be going."

Jaskier trips over his own feet when he rescues his discarded doublet from the floor, not even pausing to put it on. His urgency is suddenly doubled—a sort of frenetic dread overwhelming him.

Out, out, he thinks emphatically, even as he turns and stumbles to give the couple one last friendly wave goodbye. Get out!

And out he goes, down the stairs of the mages' lovely home and through their kitchen—he half expects there to be a cauldron, but that doesn't make sense, does it? Do mages have cauldrons, or just witches? Are witches different from mages or is it a matter of public relations?

Oh sweet Melitele's perfect tits, get out of here!

Jaskier shuts the front door firmly behind himself and comes to an undignified halt in the street, where there are already people milling about. A woman giggles and is shushed by her companion when he nearly crashes into them and hops out of their way.

"Well," Jaskier says out loud to no one in particular, smoothing out the creases on his trousers. "That went just fine!"

 

~*~

 

White Bridge is an uneventful two days' travel, if one takes the main roads and gets lucky. Jaskier manages to arrive the night before he's scheduled to perform at the mayor's anniversary celebration, which means he's free to give a warm-up prelude at the inn.

The innkeeper is easy to charm, especially when Jaskier pays for his room up front and mentions why he's in town. His reputation finally precedes him—and not even in the bad way. 

Perhaps it will help him with the beautiful woman sitting with her equally beautiful friends in the middle of the room, who's been making eyes at him all evening.

Whether she recognizes him or not, he's very familiar with the look on her face. What better way to break in his perfectly respectable room upstairs?

Jaskier winks at the woman before taking a swig from his ale. She smiles shyly in return, biting her bottom lip, then turns to whisper in her friend's ear.

Yes, it'll be a great night indeed.

Jaskier plays a few more songs, shamelessly choosing some of his saucier ones—but nothing too bawdy, of course. His new friend doesn't seem like she'd appreciate something crass. When he's thoroughly played out, coins clinking in his pockets and buzzing with excitement, he drapes himself artfully across the back of an empty chair at her table.

"Hello there!" he tells her brightly, startling another round of giggles. "Might I sit with you?"

"Um, sure?" she answers, looking to a friend for support. "I liked your performance."

Jaskier smiles as he sets his lute into its case and takes a seat. "Thank you! It's my first night in town, you know, and your smile was rather encouraging for me while I played. Nerves, and all that."

The woman's soft eyes widen as she teases, "You don't look like you get nerves."

"Well, I didn't tonight!" Jaskier clarifies. "On account of you! Unless you're a dreadfully good actor and you actually thought I was horrible, in which case I'm about to be really embarrassed, erm, what's your name?"

"Zofia," says the woman. "And yours?"

Jaskier does a miniature bow at the table. "Jaskier the bard, at your service."

"Jaskier," Zofia repeats, returning his gesture with a cute little seated curtsy. Her hair, a flattering light chestnut, falls into her face. "How long are you in town?"

"Ah, regrettably just a night or two." Jaskier spreads his hands in apology. "I'm playing for the mayor tomorrow evening, but shortly after I'll have to take my leave."

Zofia smiles wryly. "You mean my father?"

"Oh, really?" Jaskier laughs, startled. "What are the odds?"

"I'm glad tomorrow won't be entirely boring," Zofia tells him, taking another sip of her ale. "If you're new to White Bridge, um, I'd be happy to show you around."

Jaskier is also familiar with that particular hint. He sits up excitedly and says, "I'd love nothing more! Have you eaten? We could—oh!" He looks down at the empty plates on the table. "Well, I'm at your disposal, then!"

Zofia clears her throat and stands with a smoothing of her skirts, shooting her friends a meaningful glance. None of them make any move to leave the table, which was apparently her desired result.

"Did you want to leave your lute?" she asks him. "I can meet you outside."

Ah, perhaps she does just want to show him around the town. 

Jaskier smiles readily; he's never one to pass up a lovely night of conversation, even when it's purely for its own sake.

"I'll just be a moment!" he tells her. "Ah, I've been cooped up here all evening—can you advise me on the weather?"

"It's still pretty warm," Zofia answers.

Jaskier grabs his lute. "Wonderful, thank you!"

He goes up to his room, where he tucks his lute securely into its case and sheds his doublet, uninterested in sweating through the poor thing any further. There's nothing else he'll need before morning.

Zofia is waiting for him under the lantern light out front, picking at a loose thread on her skirt. She looks up when the light and sound pour with him out of the inn and smiles nervously.

Jaskier offers his arm, which she takes, and allows himself to be led down the street.

"It seems like a lovely town you've got here," he tells her, allowing his gaze to be drawn by the architecture. He can't hear the river from here, but he remembers the rush of the rapids on his way into town. "What do you think of it?"

Zofia shrugs delicately. "Only one I've got."

"That's fair," Jaskier allows. He glances at her, curious. "Do you ever think of leaving?"

"Not now that I'm older," she answers pragmatically. "I'm happy enough here."

A concept Jaskier is thoroughly unfamiliar with. Hunger propelled his childhood, the literal starving artistry of his early twenties. He was born insatiable by design.

"I'm sorry," says Zofia. She turns her head, perhaps uncomfortable with his lapse into silence. "I don't usually do this."

"Go on walks?" Jaskier teases.

Zofia's lips twitch. "Not with strange men."

"Ah," Jaskier says. "Well, there's nothing wrong with preferring strange women. I'm a bit of an equal opportunist myself, actually."

"Strange anyone," she corrects with a laugh. "But my friends are a poor influence."

Jaskier hums with understanding. "Well, they're not here to influence anyone anymore. You say the word and I'll take my leave—or, erm, walk you home if you'd prefer to not go unaccompanied. Or walk you—sorry. Have I made the point?"

"You have, and thank you." Zofia pats him on the arm with her free hand. "But I wanted to be influenced. I'm just not sure how this normally goes."

"Well!" Jaskier smiles brightly. "I don't see a reason it has to go a certain way at all. Let's just see where the night takes us, shall we?"

Zofia nods, returning his smile. "The river's lovely at night—just don't stand too close to the bank. I'll show you from up on the hill."

"Er—why can't we be close to the water?" Jaskier asks nervously, though he allows himself to be led by the arm. "Is there something in it?"

"Hopefully not anymore," Zofia says, far too cryptically for Jaskier's personal liking, thank you so much.

She is quite beautiful, though—so up the hill they go.

 

~*~

 

Nothing crawls out of the water and tears Jaskier limb from limb, so that's a boon. He also snogs Zofia on top of the very nice hill, and is happily led back to her house when she shyly asks to take him to bed—the night is certainly going his way.

When Zofia unlocks the front door, she immediately puts a finger to Jaskier’s lips and pulls him through a side room.

Luckily for Jaskier, he's well-versed in the finer points of being a dirty secret. He allows himself to be shepherded through the house, listening carefully to the muffled sound of voices coming from what he assumes is a sitting room.

"Father hired a Witcher—for the river," Zofia whispers, steering Jaskier towards a staircase. "He must be back."

Jaskier tests a floorboard under his toe before putting his full weight down. At least it isn't a jealous spouse—those are the most inconvenient. An overprotective parent is certainly a nuisance of the utmost vexing variety, of course, upon which topic Jaskier would gladly rant at length—Zofia is a consenting adult, and anyone she takes to her bed should be her business alone, even if she's under someone else's roof.

That being said, overprotective parents aren't likely to have their opinions swayed by bards who have, as Jaskier has been told on numerous occasions, "very punchable faces." 

Subterfuge is a perfectly reasonable, if not dignified, option. Jaskier rather thinks he could make a career out of it.

They make it to Zofia's bedroom without being discovered, and she's quick to shut the door by pushing Jaskier up against it.

He's encouraged by the change of pace—perhaps the thrill of sneaking around emboldened her. Clever fingers work at unlacing his chemise, tickling his chest hair as she kisses sweetly at the corner of his mouth.

Jaskier steadies her by the hip and slides his other hand up her back, tugging at the ties keeping her outfit together. Her body pressing them both into the door, a slip of his thigh between her skirts and, oh, her hair smells faintly of a pleasant musk—dirt and sweat and the barest hint of whatever floral oil she uses, and—

Jaskier is standing in the center of the room with his chemise hanging off one shoulder.

Zofia blinks at him, apparently as confused as he is.

"Erm," Jaskier says uncertainly. "I'm—sorry?"

Zofia scrunches her skirts up in her hands. "Is something wrong?"

Jaskier does what he always does under strange circumstances—smiles effusly and declares, "Not at all! Will you join me on the bed?"

He walks backwards until his thighs hit the edge of the mattress, then hefts himself onto the bed with forceful determination.

Zofia, kindly dismissing his temporary lapse in… something, comes to stand between his legs and kisses him once more.

The fabric of her skirt is lightweight, accommodating the late summer heat. Jaskier can feel the tantalizing expanse of her thigh under his palm, bunching up the thin wool and slipping upwards to cup the curve of her arse. She hums invitingly and reaches for the laces on his trousers, fingers brushing—

Jaskier is at the window. More specifically, he is wrenching open the window with significantly greater fervor than he was using to disrobe the beautiful woman gaping at him from the bed.

"What in Melitele's—" Jaskier attempts to shut the window again; instead, he pulls it open the final three inches. "—bollocks?"

"Did I do something?" Zofia asks incredulously. "Have I—"

"No, no!" Jaskier insists, though his fucking traitorous body, which has him hitching one leg over the windowsill seems to be implying— "You've been—apparently I must be going?"

Zofia repeats, "Apparently?"

"You've been lovely!" Jaskier promises her, rather inanely, as he prepares to fall to his undignified demise. "An absolute pleas— aaaah!"

"Fuck!"

Jaskier opens his eyes. 

There is a handsome man inches from his face, holding him much like a blushing bride on her wedding night.

This does not, however, appear to be because he has perished and ascended to a holier plane. The evidence to the contrary is as follows:

Firstly, he is relatively certain that he has jumped from windows of a similar height before (for reasons which were his own) and not died.

Secondly, his surroundings look remarkably similar to White Bridge.

Thirdly, his white-haired guardian angel smells distinctively of rotten fish.

"I am so sorry," Jaskier says, wrinkling his nose. "Is that odor—is that congenital?"

The man drops him into the dirt.

"Ow!" Jaskier rubs at his elbow. "I suppose I deserve that. How do you—oh, fucking Lilit's cunt that's a big sword, isn't it? Very impressive, erm—could you, perhaps, sheathe that…?"

The man, scowling with a glinting sword held at Jaskier's throat, says, "Return whatever it is you stole and I'll let you go."

"I'm—I'm sorry?" asks Jaskier. He scoots backwards, which only serves to trap him against the wall. "Stole? You think I—from the mayor's—because of the window! This is—you're really going to laugh, because it's all just a big misunderstanding, you see."

Jaskier's rescuer-turned-assailant, who is not any less attractive while threatening to murder him, narrows his eyes. "Is it?"

"It is! I'd be delighted to tell you if you just remove—"

The man growls.

"—or not! I'll tell you with the, erm, sword, that's certainly not an issue." Jaskier laughs thinly. "Right, so you see, I was about to make love with the mayor's daughter, Zofia, you see, entirely consensually on both our parts, but perhaps not on the part of her father's—"

"Ugh," says the man, and lowers his sword.

Jaskier blinks rapidly. "Ugh?"

"Ugh," repeats the man.

He sheathes his sword and moves to walk away.

"That's it?" Jaskier asks, disbelieving. He scrambles to his feet and follows. "One moment you're threatening me—in a very sexy way, might I add—and the next you're just leaving?"

"Why would I care where you put your cock?" the man asks flatly.

There are several places Jaskier could put his cock which—

Not the moment. Focus, Jaskier.

"Well, firstly because—" Jaskier pauses to consider. "Come to think of it, why would you? I think that's the point I was trying to make, actually, but hardly anyone listens to me when I try to make it."

The man grunts.

"I should thank you for saving my life, however," Jaskier argues. He darts ahead to block the man's path. "Or, at the very least, my ankles."

"Your ankles," the man repeats with a raised eyebrow. Getting a better look at him, he does cut a rather imposing figure—dressed in black, sturdy armor all the way to the gloves, two swords strapped to his back, broad, biteable shoulders—

Wait, swords. Two swords. White hair, funny little wolf amulet around the neck, mayor's house?

Jaskier claps his hands together excitedly and exclaims, "You're a Witcher! You're Geralt of Rivia, aren't you? Oh, this makes the whole shit day worth it—I've always wanted to meet a Witcher!"

The man—Geralt, he must be—stiffens, the hint of amusement sliding off his face. 

"Lucky you," he grunts, and side-steps Jaskier to trudge right on down the road.

Jaskier's brain does a series of spectacular somersaults—Witchers monsters curses cures for curses am I cursed sorcerers spectacular threesome oh shit—in the span of approximately two seconds.

"Wait!" Jaskier runs to catch up again, flailing his arms like he's trying to catch a ferry. "Wait, I need you! For some—some Witchering!"

Geralt does not wait. He does, however, side-eye Jaskier while he walks. "Witchering?"

"Yes! Yes, because I think I might be—" Jaskier's throat suddenly seizes up in a violent coughing fit. He wheezes for air, bent over with his hands braced on his knees. "Bo-bollocks. Wait just a—"

Geralt continues to walk.

"Goddess, I could use a drink, are you headed for the inn?" Jaskier asks. He clears his throat and resumes. "Anyway, as I was saying, there's a strong possibility I'm ackalbargh!"

Jaskier clutches his throat with one hand, wide-eyed. 

Geralt, still moving, says, "I don't have time for this."

"Oh, for the love of!" Jaskier leaps in front of him again. "I didn't jump out of the window on purpose!"

"Hm." Geralt frowns at him. "Someone threw you?"

"Erm. No?" Jaskier grimaces. "It was like—like I had no control over my body? One second I was—well, as we discussed, and the next I'm falling into your lovely arms. And I may or may not have angered the, um, the sort of people who curse people?"

Geralt drily asks, "Did you talk to them?"

Jaskier ignores him, emphasizing, "But this is your sort of thing, isn't it? I mean, you could tell me if I'm—the word I can't say? Isn't it a little suspicious that I can't say the thing I can't say?"

Geralt sighs in a tone that Jaskier is very familiar with—it is a sound made by someone who desperately wants to be left alone. 

He pinches his medallion with his thumb and forefinger and holds it away from his chest. "Touch this."

Jaskier frowns skeptically, but does as instructed. The medallion immediately starts buzzing under his touch in a way that sends a faint sting up through his knuckles.

"Congratulations," Geralt deadpans, and grips Jaskier by both biceps in order to manhandle him out of the way. "You're cursed."

Well, that's not how Jaskier wanted his week to go in the slightest.

"Nothing for it!" he says, though, maintaining a positive demeanor. "Except, erm, there is something for it, right? You can cure me?"

Geralt steps out of the path of a group of young men who are very obviously attempting to give him a comedically wide berth. 

"I don't involve myself in the petty affairs of men," he says, resuming his walk. He is, conveniently at least, heading in the direction of Jaskier's inn. "Talk to whoever cursed you."

Jaskier feels a cold trickle run down his spine. "Um, right, yes, but you see—they're all the way back in Prana and, erm, I do really need to continue south if I want to—have I mentioned that I'm a bard? If I want to keep myself fed."

"Prana's less than a day by horse," Geralt says unsympathetically.

"Right, yeah, good." Jaskier spins a ring around his finger. "I don't have a horse, though?"

Geralt shrugs. "Then learn to tuck and roll."

"I'm sorry?" asks Jaskier.

The very serious Witcher's lips twitch. "Next time you jump out of a window."

Jaskier huffs, shaking a finger at Geralt accusingly. "You're making fun of me!"

Geralt doesn't answer.

"Yes, yes, laugh it up!" Jaskier tells him, gesturing emphatically. "But I can't go back to those—to Prana, and I refuse to deprive the world by becoming celibate."

Geralt looks up at the darkened sky. "Who did you cheat on?"

"No one!" Jaskier insists. He crosses his arms when Geralt makes a dismissive noise. "I'm very clear about who I am, promiscuity very much included, alright? It's not my fault people assume and—and want me to be something I'm not."

He neglects to mention certain situations in which he has facilitated the infidelity—but that very much was not the question at hand. 

Geralt hums skeptically nonetheless.

"Look, alright, it was a couple, and I was under the sincere impression it was obviously a one night situation—on account of I told them I was leaving town the next morning," Jaskier argues, a hand arcing through the air so doggedly that Geralt has to nimbly lean out of smacking range. "Oh, sorry. But, you know, they were kind of… scary-sexy, or was it more sexy-scary? And they kept saying shit like, 'won't he make a good little pet?' and yes, it was incredibly hot at the time, but in retrospect it was—do you know how sometimes someone's a little too into choking you?"

Geralt coughs, wide-eyed, into his fist.

It is, Jaskier dares to say, adorable.

"So anyway, I'm not going back there!" Jaskier continues brightly. "On account of I don't want to become a human pet outside of certain very specifically negotiated roleplay scenarios."

Geralt is frowning now—a slight turn of his mouth and a deepening of the ever-present wrinkle on his forehead. "Give me their names."

"Okay," Jaskier says, "you're going to laugh—"

Geralt sighs loudly.

"I was drunk!" Jaskier says defensively. "The conversation was very action-oriented, so to speak."

They're nearly at the inn now. Geralt pinches the bridge of his nose and says nothing.

"And anyway," Jaskier wheedles in a sing-song voice, "I thought you didn't care about my personal problems."

"I don't," Geralt deadpans. He bypasses the front door and heads for the stables in the rear. "I might care about sorcerers kidnapping people, if you had a useful description."

"Oh, well, physically—"

"I'm not tracking a woman down by her tits."

Jaskier says, "Well that's rather narrow-minded of you. What if it were a man?"

Geralt raises an eyebrow. "A man's tits?"

Jaskier shrugs.

"No one's tits," Geralt clarifies. He stops at the stall of a brown horse with a big splash of white on the muzzle, who snorts and headbutts him as soon as he approaches. "Or cock. And so on."

"At least we're being equitable," says Jaskier. He reaches out to offer a friendly pat. "Ooh, is this your horse? What a lovely—"

The horse pins its ears back and lunges.

"—horrible demon creature?"

Geralt, apparently unbothered by this outburst, continues to stroke the horse's neck. "Roach agrees with me. Go away."

Jaskier, now standing several feet back, wrings his hands together and asks, "You're really not going to help me?"

The horse is chewing on Geralt's hair. He grunts in confirmation without sparing so much as a final glance.

"Fine!" Jaskier huffs, crossing his arms pointedly. "I'll—I'll cure my own curse! See who's laughing then."

"Hm," says Geralt. 

Jaskier storms off with a flourish, which would be more dramatic if he had some sort of door to slam behind him. The best he can do is kick a rock into the brush, which in retrospect makes him seem more like a petulant child than a competent adult about to fix his own mess.

It's getting late enough that he should probably just go back inside, though—not like there's much trouble he can get into elsewhere. He'll pass the waning night socializing with the locals and then get a good rest in before his performance tomorrow afternoon.

Curse breaking, like finding the perfect song lyrics, is probably the kind of thing that comes to you when you least expect it. 

 

~*~

 

Nothing comes overnight. Including Jaskier, who briefly considers the idea of masturbation and then fearfully keeps his hands very to himself when he considers the possibility that the curse might apply to such endeavors of self-love.

His window overlooks the stable.

The lack of inspiration is frustrating, but then there's breakfast to contend with—he half-expects the Witcher to re-appear, but there's no such luck—and letter writing after that. Jaskier may not be an expert on either magic or curses, but he knows a few folks at Oxenfurt who might have something to say on the matter.

After they make him the laughingstock of the campus, of course. But frankly, this sort of thing happening was just a matter of time. It's practically an occupational hazard.

Thus consoling himself, Jaskier takes his letters to be mailed, entertains a brief flirtation with the assistant postmaster, and then heads back across town to the mayor's house.

Ah, yes. The mayor's house. From which Jaskier was defenestrated yesterday. In which Zofia lives.

Bollocks.

Jaskier flicks at the strap of his lute case to feel the comforting thwack of it against his chest and then knocks assertively on the door.

The mayor—Jaskier presumes—is a handsome man with thinning hair. He throws the door open and bellows, "Welcome! You must be the bard."

"At your service," Jaskier confirms, bowing energetically. "I hope I'm not imposing by arriving early."

The mayor claps Jaskier on the shoulder, steering him inside. "Not at all! You're welcome to eat while the guests arrive."

Right, food. Jaskier always forgets about that.

"You're too kind," he says, allowing himself to be led to a sizable dining space near the back of the first floor. "But just say the word and I'll start—"

Jaskier is transfixed by a familiar pair of golden eyes—currently staring at him with an impressive combination of resignation and alarm.

Before Jaskier can speak, the mayor leans in close and murmurs, "I know what you're thinking, but don't worry—he's not one of the violent ones."

"I—erm." Jaskier coughs lightly and manages a smile. "It's just that we've met, actually. How do you do, Geralt?"

"Fine," Geralt answers flatly. "Yourself?"

"Spectacular!" Jaskier enthuses, feeling rather like he's compensating for something. "Never better! Oh, blessings on you, Oskar, is that trout?"

It is. Jaskier pulls up a chair next to Geralt, who is sitting stiffly at a table alone, and claims himself a plate.

"What the fuck," Geralt mutters under his breath.

"Well, none," Jaskier shoots back. "Because you won't help me."

Geralt scowls. "Are you following me?"

Geralt's plate has an abundance of carrots. Jaskier does not have an abundance of carrots. He steals three of them with his bare fingers and says, "You know, that's a fair question, because I would consider it, but fortunately for you I happen to be the afternoon's entertainment."

"Ugh." Geralt slides his plate further away.

Jaskier leans over, jamming an elbow into Geralt's side, and steals another carrot. "And anyway, how do I know you're not following me, hmm? I thought you 'didn't get involved in petty affairs.'"

Geralt's eyes flick over to Oskar, who is conversing with a woman holding another plate of food.

"The mayor's up to something," says Geralt.

Jaskier, chewing rather impolitely while he talks in the interest of eating everything in sight before any guests arrive, asks, "How do you reckon?"

"He invited me," says Geralt.

Jaskier swallows. "He said that he invited you here because he's up to something?"

Geralt reclaims a lost carrot with his fork. "He wants to thank me for killing the drowners."

"Ah, yes, I can understand how that clearly indicates a nefarious plot," Jaskier agrees sagely. He moves onto the fish, which isn't a texture he particularly enjoys, but there's that saying about beggars and choosers. "You want me to distract him while you take him out?"

"People don't thank me," Geralt says roughly. 

Jaskier blinks, pausing with his lips pursed shut to scrutinize the Witcher's face. It's carefully neutral, save for the charming wrinkle on his brow. 

"Surely they must?" Jaskier prods. "You're something of a hero, in my estimation—slaying monsters, lifting curses."

"Hm." Geralt's mouth flickers with the suggestion of a smile. "Do bards not learn subtlety in court?"

Jaskier declares, "Subtlety is overrated! I much prefer boldly and clearly declared intentions—or how else will you get what you want?"

Geralt hums again, his gaze still focused on the mayor. "Only works if people like you."

Jaskier may not be an invested proponent of subtext, personally, but he does like to think he's able to know it when he sees it.

"I'd find you perfectly likeable," he assures Geralt. "Perhaps more so after a bath and a little favor with—"

"No."

"Well, have it your way." Jaskier returns to his meal. "Do let me know if you need that distraction, though. Ooh, we should come up with a hand signal! Hold a fork upside down in your left hand and I'll knock over a—a pitcher of wine or something."

Geralt says, "You don't even believe he's done anything."

Jaskier shrugs pleasantly. "I like being included."

Geralt closes his eyes wearily.

Several people—family members or hired workers, Jaskier isn't sure—filter in and out as Jaskier finishes inhaling his meal in relative silence; he's a brilliant multitasker, but talking will outrank eating if he let's it, and he doesn't have the time to spare. 

He's almost finished with his plate when Zofia walks into the room, her arm linked with an older woman who bears a maternal resemblance.

"Shit," says Jaskier.

"Mayor's daughter?" Geralt guesses drily.

Jaskier smiles pleasantly at Zofia and waves. "You'd be correct."

Zofia smiles back.

"Does he have two?" Geralt asks.

"Erm, I have no idea," Jaskier says. "That's the one I had a lovely evening with yesterday, in any case, if that's what you're implying."

Geralt asks, "Why is she smiling at you?"

"You know," Jaskier says, tilting his head. "That's an excellent question. My exit was rather uncouth yesterday."

Geralt hums in a derisive manner.

"I refuse to be criticized by a man who still smells like—I can't even come up with a suitably derogatory comparison."

"Drowner guts," Geralt suggests helpfully.

The sound of voices drifts down the hall.

"Shit," Jaskier asks, "is that people at the door?"

"Mm," Geralt confirms.

Jaskier takes a final swig from his wine goblet and reaches for his lute. "You won't leave without me, will you? I still need help with my, erm, situation."

"What indication have I given you," Geralt asks like he's speaking to a particularly dumb child, "that I have any interest in helping you?"

Jaskier conveniently fails to answer before guests arrive. 

He begins playing, ambling through the room to find the spot he can best hear himself while he performs. It's a nice atmosphere here, with a group on the smaller side. People occasionally walk up to him and make requests, which he's happy to oblige.

The second course is almost over when Zofia approaches him.

"Um, hi," she says, just as sweetly as the day before. 

Jaskier shifts into a simple instrumental. "Hello again! I'm terribly sorry about yesterday—I'm not sure what came over—"

"It's okay," she tells him quickly. "I'm just glad you heard him coming."

Jaskier asks, "I'm sorry?"

"My father walked in to say goodnight right after you left," Zofia explains, frowning softly. "Is that not why you—"

"Oh, yes!" Jaskier says quickly, flicking a brief, grateful look towards the ceiling. "Yes, no, I just, erm, had no way of knowing whether he actually—I normally don't panic, you see."

Zofia smiles at him. He smiles back, though his attention is caught by Geralt, who has him fixed with such an exaggeratedly bored expression that Jaskier has to stifle a giggle.

"Are you okay, by the way?" Zofia asks.

While Jaskier's plate was long cleared away, no one has come to sit with Geralt on either side. Jaskier asks, "How do you mean?"

"You fell a pretty long way," she points out.

"I tucked and rolled," Jaskier says absently. "Why did your father invite that Witcher here?"

"Dad says we should be nice to people who are different," Zofia answers. "You were talking to him earlier, weren't you?"

Jaskier realizes he's been playing the same riff for most of their conversation. He switches it up a little, scanning the crowd, but almost everyone seems fully engrossed in conversation.

Except for Geralt, who is cutting into his food with high-societal politeness and still very much alone.

"Was he nice?" Zofia prods.

Geralt notices Jaskier staring; he scowls.

"Oh, he's very nice!" Jaskier says, smiling wickedly at Geralt. "Loves a good conversation. You should go talk to him if you're curious."

"Maybe I will," Zofia says thoughtfully. "I should let you get back to singing or Dad will get cross."

Jaskier nods understandingly. "Any requests for me before you go?"

"The one you sang last night, about the rose garden?" Zofia asks eagerly, then twirls a lock of hair around her finger. "I'm growing roses in our garden, did I tell you?"

Jaskier segues into the introductory melody, smiling with encouragement. "You did. The red ones just bloomed, didn't they?"

It's a fitting hobby for her, he thinks. Gentleness and moderation. Jaskier tried to keep a little windowsill plant at university and drowned it within the month.

"I could show you after you're done playing," she offers, then bites at her lip in a way that suggests activities besides looking at flora. 

Jaskier is a weak man, at the end of things. The prattling inner voice trying to remind him that he is literally cursed, thank you very much, is easily wrestled to the ground by one cheerfully and enthusiastically suggesting some alternative applications of a little gentleness.

"I'll look forward to it," he promises, and shortly thereafter has to suppress a delighted laugh in the middle of a verse when Zofia sits herself down next to Geralt and appears to begin asking him questions.

Geralt looks up at Jaskier, glares, and pointedly holds a fork upside down in his left hand.

Jaskier grins back and continues to play.

 

~*~

 

Several courses of food and some touching anniversary speeches later, including one from Zofia, Jaskier is released from his station and encouraged to partake in leftover dessert. 

He's just returned his lute to its case when Zofia approaches him and asks, "Would you like to see the garden now?"

"Oh!" Jaskier grabs himself a bite of cake for the road, slings his lute over his shoulder just in case, and says, "Absolutely! Lead the way."

Zofia loops her arm through his and leads him towards a rear door; they pass by Geralt on the way—Jaskier haughtily ignores the judgemental eyebrow raise.

The garden is mostly functional—various fruits and vegetables growing on lovingly maintained trellises and such. But the rear wall is obscured by an absolutely lovely array of roses, all in various stages of bloom. Like Zofia mentioned the day before, the red ones are currently the stars.

"Oh, wow!" Jaskier says excitedly. He cups one of the flowers carefully, avoiding both thorns and damaging the petals, and takes a delicate whiff. "These are amazing! That scent."

Is what she smells like, he realizes. A hint of her passion clinging to her even when she's not there.

It makes him want to bury his nose in her hair, kiss at the sweet place behind her ear.

He shouldn't. He's not sure he physically can.

Zofia is smiling anxiously. "Do you like them?"

Jaskier beams reassuringly. "I love them. You tend to them by yourself?"

"Won't let anyone else touch them," she confirms. "It's… one of the few things I keep for myself, I guess."

Jaskier gently releases the flower, allowing it to resettle against the leaves. A few stems away, a ladybug crawls its way to the edge of a leaf and takes flight.

"I'm glad you showed me," he says warmly, turning his gaze back to her face.

Zofia bites her lip and reaches, slowly, to fiddle with a bit of embroidery on his doublet. Her nails make a pleasant scratching sound against the thread, and then she looks up with a lovely bit of light in her eyes and kisses him.

Jaskier's brow furrows with confliction—his hands automatically on her waist, his heart beating with stubborn excitement, and yet—

"I can't," he murmurs reluctantly, leaning away.

She shakes her head, coaxing him with a sweet frown. "I know you have to leave town. I don't care about that."

"It's, erm, not that," Jaskier explains with hesitation. "But rather an issue of a—a physical… nature?"

"... Oh." Zofia looks pointedly down at his crotch—then, apparently embarrassed, back at his face with a rising flush. "I'm—can you not…?"

Jaskier laughs frantically. "No! Or, I mean—it's not that kind of physical, um— believe me, it's all very functional and you very much inspire, erm, function, as it were, but you see—"

"Do you have a rash?" Zofia whispers, subtly removing her hands from his person. "Because the town's healer has an ointment for—"

"Gods," says Jaskier. "A rash? Is that the aura I portray to—not that there's anything wrong with—it's not a rash! Oh, fuck it, maybe it'll be fine?"

"What will be fine?" Zofia asks nervously.

Jaskier runs both hands through his hair. "I'm just in a bit of a predicament, is—apparently the best I can do to describe it, but I'll just—there's a chance I'll have to dash off?"

"You're being really weird," Zofia says.

"Believe me," says Jaskier, "I know."

There's a moment of quiet. Jaskier is about to offer to take his leave when Zofia kisses him again.

He muffles surprise against her lips, fingers wiggling ineffectually near her sides.

Zofia cups his jaw and murmurs, "You promise it's not a rash?"

Jaskier nods emphatically.

They kiss again. It smells overwhelmingly of the garden, a light breeze ruffling both their hair. Snogging one unlocked door from a room full of dwindling party guests and both Zofia's parents is probably not the wisest of ideas, but it's also not the most foolish thing Jaskier's ever done.

Or is currently doing.

Zofia slips her tongue into his mouth, hands running up and down his doublet teasingly. He walks her backwards towards a bench, tucked further into a back corner, where they sit with her half-draped in his lap.

How… specific is this curse, Jaskier wonders? Can he cup a hand around one of her breasts, squeezing gently? She moans softly and moves to bite at his ear, sending a thrill up his spine. Can he slide his other hand up her thigh, under the pretty skirt she's wearing? He thumbs lightly at the hem of a stocking and wonders—

Jaskier scratches the back of his wrist against a thorn when he stumbles backwards into the bushes. Something snags his doublet and he quickly tugs it free in a panic.

"Fuck," he says. "I'm sorry."

Zofia's hair is disheveled. Her skirts are rucked up over one knee where she still has it pulled up expectantly. She asks, "What's wrong?"

Jaskier blinks slowly. No more horrible urge to literally run for the hills. Perhaps it's a matter of pacing. Taking things slowly, savoring them. Jaskier can be a savorer.

He walks back to the bench slowly and sits down a respectable distance away. "Hmm, I think this is working."

"What is working?" Zofia asks. "If my father walks out here—"

Jaskier holds up his hands. "I know, I'm sorry. Just—let's resume. Uh, delicately?"

Zofia narrows her eyes, but scoots closer on the bench and takes his hand. She runs her thumb over the backs of his knuckles intently and purrs, "You must be good with your fingers," and Jaskier is running straight for the garden wall.

He has the presence of mind to be grateful it isn't the wall with the rose bushes and the good sense to not shriek like a boiling tea kettle when his body attempts to launch him over the tomato plants in one leap.

Jaskier thuds bodily against the stone wall as a wooden trellis snaps after making contact with one of his knees. He scrabbles for purchase, wheezes for air when he hauls himself over, and then does a spectacular tuck and roll when he hits the ground, lute clutched protectively to his chest—

—and lands directly at Geralt of Rivia's feet.

Jaskier comes to rest flat on his back. The sun is hanging low in the sky, illuminating Geralt with a halo of gold and pink. His eyes are almost amber at this angle.

It doesn't occur to Jaskier to speak for an entire three seconds.

Geralt steps over Jaskier's prone, suffering form and keeps walking.

Jaskier scrambles to his feet, clutching at his ribs, and enthuses, "Geralt! How wonderful to see you again! Were you waiting for me, you scamp?"

Geralt grunts.

Jaskier rushes over and falls in step. "It's so lovely that we keep meeting like this, isn't it? I mean, it must be Destiny at work!"

There's a particularly prominent muscle flexing in Geralt's jaw. "Destiny is horseshit."

"Well, that's a load of nonsense," says Jaskier. "What would you call this then, hm?"

He gestures pointedly between them.

Geralt side-eyes him. "Unhappy coincidence."

"Psh." Jaskier follows Geralt back onto the main road. "Coincidence is just Destiny's jaded, frumpy cousin."

"That makes no sense," Geralt says flatly. He fixes his eyes up ahead, where the same horse from before is tied to a post.

Jaskier tilts his head. "Why is your horse here?"

"So I can leave."

"But he—"

"That's a little narrow-minded," Geralt cuts-in, a teasing lilt creeping into his voice. "Roach is a mare."

Jaskier corrects, "But she was at the inn. Was it really necessary to bring her over here?"

Geralt doesn't answer.

"You planned on a quick getaway!" Jaskier accuses. "Why?"

"To avoid you," Geralt says.

Jaskier counters, "We both know I would be very easy to outrun on foot."

Geralt sighs; they've reached Roach, who shuffles around the pole to stand further from Jaskier.

"The mayor," Geralt says eventually. He unties Roach from the pole and headbutts her fondly, a gentleness to his demeanor that… doesn't seem out of character, necessarily—perhaps more so that he was unlike himself before.

Jaskier finds himself unreasonably charmed, once again. He asks, "Did something happen?"

"Seems like you tried to fuck his daughter again," Geralt observes, and hops up onto his horse. He clucks at her and steers her towards the road headed south, which is terribly convenient.

Jaskier follows at Geralt's hip and sighs forlornly. "I hope I haven't given her a complex. She was really quite sweet."

"She's lucky you didn't give her something else," Geralt deadpans.

"You are incredibly rude!" Jaskier says, placing a hand to his chest. "I am but a poor, hapless citizen in need of assistance and you are being mean."

Geralt says, "Then stop following me."

"I don't even know why you're so against helping me!" Jaskier rants, gesturing now with fervor. "I mean, I can pay you for services rendered. I can pay you in advance. You can beat me up and take all my money, in fact—"

"Hm. Tempting."

"Or—or—oh! I can pay you in song, you know." Jaskier mimics a banner unfurling with his hands. "The grand, heroic adventures of Geralt of Rivia, the—the 'White Wolf' or something!"

Geralt scoffs.

"Helping a cursed bard would be quite thematic, for a first ballad, I think," Jaskier wheedles. "A poor, lonely bard condemned to a life of total solitude—"

"You're not condemned to fucking solitude," Geralt says irritably, "because you can't get your dick wet."

"Well, no," Jaskier agrees. "But no one wants a song about an inconvenient curse, just like no one wants a song about a mediocre love. People want tragedy! They want soulmates and utter devotion!"

Geralt says, "They want you to lie."

"I don't lie," Jaskier protests. "My factual information may be exaggerated, if you must remark upon it, but the emotion— that's what real truth is. That's what everyone really wants. What can you think of that's more important than how something made you feel?"

"Hm." Geralt glances down with a grand flash of something indescribable in his not-quite-human eyes. "No one ever told you Witchers can't feel?"

Jaskier is not a prideful person. He is a pragmatic one, however, and he's never found it particularly helpful to linger on his own shortcomings. Plenty of others have always been happy to do that for him. 

There's a horrible twist in his gut at the realization that he has no idea how to respond—what would be ingratiating or irritating. It's much less distressing to be irritating on purpose.

"Are you being sarcastic?" Jaskier asks cheerfully. "Sometimes I have trouble with that."

Geralt says nothing.

"Well, if that's supposed to be true, then you're a phenomenal actor," Jaskier prattles, fully aware that he's probably making a fool of himself in one direction or another. It's better to commit. "All those frowns and scowls and little smiles."

Still no response. Geralt's gaze is fixed firmly ahead, towards the darkening horizon. He's wearing leather riding gloves, thumbs running restlessly over the reins even though he's not pulling on Roach's mouth.

Jaskier whole-heartedly deflects the conversation. "Anyway, where're we going?"

Geralt clears his throat and repeats, "'We?'"

"Obviously!" Jaskier says, spreading his arms with a grandiosity befitting a budding adventurer. "I'm honestly not sure what part of this you aren't getting, Geralt. Me, you, curse-breaking?"

"I'm leaving town," Geralt says firmly. "Need to find more work."

"What a coincidence," Jaskier says delightedly. "So do I!"

Geralt glances over at him with something approaching curiosity. "You said you were headed south."

"You do listen when I talk!" Jaskier claps his hands together, then tilts his head. "Wait. Are we not walking south?"

Geralt glances up at the sky. "We're walking east. The sun is setting behind us."

"Right, yeah, good," says Jaskier with a dismissive shrug. "South, east, it doesn't really matter—except north is where I came from and I'm not getting swallowed by a sea monster trying to go west to Skellige. So, one of the two!"

A muscle jumps in Geralt's jaw. "Sea serpents are extinct."

"Well, that's boring," Jaskier says.

"You can get attacked by sirens like everyone else." Another almost-smile. "Fitting for you."

Jaskier wags a delighted finger at him. "Didn't they teach you at Witcher school that feeding stray bards jokes only encourages them? Even if it's at my expense."

"Hm," says Geralt. He's quiet for a moment, then observes, "You travel light."

"I'm sorry?" Jaskier asks. "Oh, shit."

Geralt tilts his head to the left. "Inn's that way."

"Fuck, fuck," Jaskier frets, wringing his hands. What all did he leave in his room? Is it worth risking the best opportunity he has to get this curse lifted? "I just, erm—I'll be right back! Stay there!"

"What," Geralt says flatly.

"Two shakes of a lamb's tail!" Jaskier insists, already taking off at a run. Even if Geralt keeps walking, he can probably catch up, right? 

Geralt shouts, "You're not coming with me!"

They'll see about that, won't they?

Jaskier takes two wrong turns trying to get back to the inn. He does find it, though, fumbling for the key in his pocket and trying to avoid smacking his lute case into anything on the way up the stairs.

His belongings are scattered all over the room. Bollocks, why is he such a fucking perpetual disaster? He tosses everything into his bag haphazardly—shaving kit, a vial of hair oil, that bar of soap that might actually belong to the inn now that he thinks of it but is already in the bag.

The traveling cloths are treated with marginally more care, settled on top with a cursory fold, and then he's ready. He only had the one bag, right? Right.

Jaskier hurries back downstairs and leaves the key at the bar, waving at the innkeeper somewhat manically, and then rushes out into the street. 

Which way was the main road? East, they were heading east, so—

Someone whistles sharply from behind him.

Jaskier whips around, a hand clutching the crossed straps of his bag and lute, and takes in the sight of Geralt leaning against the inn wall.

The golden hour is waning. Jaskier's heart is pounding in his throat. Geralt holds Roach's reins loosely in one hand and has the other curled at his side; a tiny smile flutters briefly across his face.

The bastard made Jaskier run here for no reason.

Jaskier's voice is raspy from exertion. He threatens, "My first song is gonna be—" he takes another breath. "—about how Witchers are naughty little men with smelly hair."

"How will you sing it with that lung capacity?" Geralt deadpans.

Jaskier makes a rude gesture with the hand that isn't tugging at his collar.

"Let's go," Geralt says. "Before we lose the last of the light."

"Maybe I'll just take first turn on Roach?" Jaskier suggests, though his breathing is already regulating again—he's not made for sprinting, but he does pride himself on being in good travelling shape; he's done it for almost a decade, after all.

Geralt hops rather rudely onto the horse. "No turns on Roach."

"Naughty, smelly, and selfish," Jaskier amends playfully. He falls into step near Geralt's hip and follows him down the path.

Geralt hums in a tone Jaskier can't decipher. A quiet settles over them, which Jaskier is content with for once. He's distracted, thinking about the town in the way he often does when he leaves one. The architecture, the people—the river, a little safer today than the night before. 

A town like this must love its river. Change and timelessness, birth and rebirth. Witchers live a long time, Jaskier thinks. Yes, he's heard that somewhere. A Witcher protecting the town's lifeblood. Veyopatis has fallen out of fashion, but evoking the god in a song might still carry sway here. Pain in the arse to rhyme with any—

"It'd still be an improvement," Geralt says suddenly.

Jaskier glances over, blinking away his errant train of thought. "What's an improvement?"

"The song," Geralt says. "About Witchers."

They're beyond the city limits now. Crumbling ruins of a little shrine gape up at them from the river bank, which they'll have to cross or allow to push them south anyway. 

Jaskier had meant it as a joke. It'd been obvious it was a joke, right?

"I can do better," he says. "Take a dip in that river and we can cross smelly off the list. Selfish, too, come to think of it—sort of a two-for-one special. Can't pass up a deal like that, I always say, although I suppose that's technically what got me into this mess."

Geralt hums and steers them south, towards the woods.

 

~*~

 

They don't travel for much longer at all. Privately, Jaskier thinks it would've made more sense to just stay another night at the inn and set out in the morning—but perhaps Geralt doesn't have the coin for that.

Feeling the weight of his purse in his pocket, Jaskier's not sure he has the coin for that either.

But Geralt finds them a clearing to make camp in, tying Roach to a nearby tree and measuring a portion of grain out to leave at her feet. She eats happily, having been divested of her tack.

"Stay," Geralt says, possibly to Roach but also possibly to Jaskier.

"Erm," Jaskier says. "Where are you going?"

"Hunting," says Geralt.

Jaskier perks up considerably, setting his lute on the ground. "For monsters?"

"For dinner," Geralt corrects drily.

"Oh," Jaskier says. "Ick. Please be my guest—I prefer not to get my hands dirty with that sort of thing."

Geralt grunts. He reaches into a saddlebag and starts to assemble what looks like a little hand crossbow. Fascinating.

"Ooh, is there anything else I can do to help?" Jaskier asks eagerly. "I can build a fire!"

"A cooking fire?" Geralt asks.

Jaskier purses his lips. "What's different about a cooking fire?"

Geralt sighs. "Just get firewood."

"Right, yeah." Jaskier unbuttoned his doublet shortly into their journey; he shrugs out of it now and lays it on top of his lute. "Just, um, normal firewood?"

"Mm." Geralt's crossbow makes a clicking sound. "Stay on that side of clearing."

And with that, he vanishes into the trees. Jaskier rests a hand on his hip, frowning softly. He just has to make sure he doesn't get himself turned around in the woods; if he walks entirely in one direction, all he'll have to do is turn back around and head back.

Manageable.

Jaskier sets off in the opposite direction of Geralt, humming absently to himself. He tries to gather up a variety of kindling, just in case. In truth, it's been a while since he's made a fire at all, with how hot it's been.

There's a hint of autumn in the air, though, Jaskier thinks as he dumps his second batch of wood into a growing pile in the clearing. It probably won't be cold tonight, per se, but the first chilly days always feel worse than they are. 

Some of the logs Jaskier collects will be too large, he figures. Geralt's probably the kind of person who carries a hatchet to fix that problem. He won't mind if Jaskier just has a little look-see around his bags, will he?

Roach pins her ears back at him when he approaches.

"Sheesh, you're just as prickly as he is," Jaskier tells her, giving a wide berth. "We're gonna be best friends by the end of this, mark my words."

Roach paws at her empty bag of grain.

The first bag Jaskier checks is filled with little glass bottles that seem to contain different liquids. The second has a variety of herbs and flowers, along with what look worryingly like guts and things in more bottles. 

The third bag has the hatchet and other tools. Giving a little ha! of victory, Jaskier takes it and starts splitting up the larger pieces of wood.

By the time Geralt gets back, two rabbits hanging limp from one hand, Jaskier has finished splitting the wood. There's a thin sheen of sweat on his forehead and he's frowning thoughtfully at the pile, wondering if he needs to go find another batch before his reverie is interrupted.

"Ah! Welcome back, Geralt!" Jaskier says brightly. "Are those unfortunate creatures our dinner?"

Geralt grunts, "Good pile."

"Why, thank you!" Jaskier preens. It's getting late enough that the light is truly waning, but he can see well enough that there's no blood on the rabbits' fur. "Erm, how exactly did you…?"

"Stunned them." Geralt crouches down in the dirt and sets the rabbits down to the side. He starts picking apart the collection of twigs and sticks, appearing to sort them by size.

Jaskier plops down on the ground next to him. "So, fire-building, hmm?"

"Hm," Geralt echoes.

Geralt's no longer wearing his gloves. Jaskier watches the steady work of his hands with idle fascination—the practiced movements, dirt under the fingernails and little bone-white scars against already pale skin.

"You're quieter out here," Jaskier observes.

Geralt begins stacking the larger pieces in a rectangle. "Not used to company."

"Cities are talking places," Jaskier agrees sagely. He taps his fingers on a knee. "Well, everywhere's a talking place for me. My mother always used to say I came into the world singing, which was her polite way of saying she never got a moment of peace again."

Geralt raises an eyebrow.

"I know what you're thinking," Jaskier says, holding up a hand. "And don't worry—nothing's changed."

Geralt appears to finish building the initial structure.

Jaskier concludes this because Geralt grabs him by the back of the shirt, drags him a full three feet backwards through the dirt, and then uses his other hand to set the wood on fire.

"Well then!" Jaskier yelps. 

Geralt walks over to his bags and pulls out a knife from the same place Jaskier got the hatchet. Then, he comes to sit by the fire again and grabs one of the rabbits.

"Know how to do this?" he asks, gesturing with the knife.

Jaskier scoots closer until their shoulders brush. "You mean skinning it? No, can you teach me?"

Geralt twitches at the contact, eyes flicking over curiously.

Jaskier, undeterred, leans closer to peer at the rabbit resting on Geralt's thigh.

After a prolonged pause, Geralt grunts, gestures pointedly to highlight the position of the first cut, and gets to work. His pace is slow and easy to follow; Jaskier's not sure if it's always that way, or if Geralt's aiming to be a good teacher.

Once the rabbit is skinned, Geralt puts the rabbit on a spit and begins roasting it over the fire.

"We're not cooking them both at once?" Jaskier asks curiously, then accepts the second rabbit when Geralt holds it out to him. "Ah, thank you."

Geralt hums, gesturing at Jaskier's rabbit. "We'll cure that one."

"Ah," says Jaskier. "That's rather self-sufficient."

Geralt hums again.

"Oh, right. Can I have the—the thingy?" Jaskier asks, gesturing at the knife and pouting at Geralt's expression. "Oh, don't judge me, I'm tired too!"

Geralt hands the knife over. When he resettles, it's with a respectable breadth of space between them.

Jaskier deigns to not take it personally. He frowns down at the rabbit, trying to remember where Geralt started. Ah, there. He arranges the little beasty and tries to make the first cut.

The knife scrapes ineffectually against the fur.

"Well, that's tougher than it looks," says Jaskier. He frowns and applies more pressure, which—

Results in him stabbing the poor carcass instead of slicing.

"Bollocks."

Geralt huffs out a laugh. Tentatively, he leans into Jaskier's space, an outstretched hand hovering above Jaskier's own.

Jaskier glances up, meeting Geralt's questioning gaze. He nods.

Geralt's hand is rough, callused in different places than Jaskier's are. He folds his fingers over Jaskier's around the hilt and guides him back to the proper place on the rabbit's neck.

"You get a feel for it," he rumbles gently. "Go slowly at first."

Jaskier feels a shiver run up his spine, the familiar tingle of heat in his fingertips. Geralt's hand is steady, patient. Assured. His face is very close and Jaskier hardly notices the smell anymore.

It's… not feasible. And a poor idea even if it were. Tolerating Jaskier on this little adventure hardly translates to having any desire—

Geralt clears his throat and stands up abruptly.

Jaskier looks down at the rabbit, which has the skin properly loosened.

"Good," says Geralt roughly. "Finish that."

"Ah, yes!" Jaskier says, laughing nervously. He finishes the job in a perfectly respectable manner. Geralt returns with a container of salt, which he sets on the ground, and takes the rabbit from Jaskier. "You're a fantastic teacher. Do you often lead naive bards into the woods and teach them life skills?"

Geralt begins dividing the flesh into cuts of meat. "My brothers."

"Oh?" Jaskier lifts a hand, intending to run it through his hair, and then remembers where it's been. He sets it back in his lap. "Did you come from a big family?"

Geralt's voice is rough when he clarifies, "Younger Witchers. Rotate the spit."

Jaskier does as he's asked. "Mm, so they're like family, then? I always heard Witchers worked alone."

"They're dead now," Geralt says flatly. He begins to salt the meat, shoving it into place with none of the gentleness he used to guide Jaskier's hand. "You should wash in the river before we eat."

Jaskier is, on occasion, capable of taking a hint. He gets to his feet and asks, haltingly, "Erm, right, yeah, I'll—is it that way?"

Geralt doesn't look up. "Straight past Roach."

"Thanks. I'll just—" Jaskier gestures vaguely. "Sorry."

He gives Roach a wide berth and heads for the river, where he scrubs hard at all the unpleasantness under his nails. 

Gods, brilliantly done, Jaskier. He splashes the tepid water on his face and then belatedly considers the possibility that it isn't safe to drink. Ugh.

He'd heard the stories, of course. That Witchers used to be in far greater numbers. He'd assumed that it was some simple product of the times—less monsters, less people becoming Witchers. But the way Geralt spoke of it implied a less gentle fate.

Obviously, the storyteller and busybody in him wants answers. Maybe he'll get them one day, but not tonight.

When Jaskier returns to camp, Geralt is sharpening a sword while the rabbit finishes cooking. He doesn't look up when Jaskier comes to sit next to him. 

If Jaskier were a bolder and/or more mature man, he'd apologize for hitting a nerve. 

Instead, he reaches for his lute, displacing his most expensive doublet into the dirt, and declares, "You know what every good campfire needs? Music! Campfire music. Feel free to sing along, Geralt, I'm sure you have a lovely voice."

Geralt pauses the passing of the whetstone over his blade. He fixes Jaskier with an unimpressed stare. 

"Or just listen!" Jaskier allows. "'Audience member' is a very important campfire song role."

Geralt resumes sharpening his sword.

 

~*~

 

They eat in Jaskier's version of silence, which involves a lot of himself chattering about nothing in particular. Impressions of White Bridge, that one time he thought he was eating rabbit but was actually eating a rat. 

(Geralt laughs at that one, which leaves Jaskier preening.)

After dinner, Geralt leaves camp to scatter the animal bones further away. He comes back without seemingly having had any difficulty navigating, despite the fact that Jaskier can barely see by the light of the waning fire.

"Can Witchers see in the dark?" Jaskier asks him curiously. "I thought that was a rumor."

Geralt hums in the affirmative.

"Fascinating," says Jaskier. "That's why you have those neat eyes, hm? Like a cat's?"

"I didn't pick them out at the market," Geralt answers drily.

The mental image of this—Witchers shopping for useful mutations with the same discerning care Jaskier chooses a new ring—makes Jaskier giggle.

"Time for sleep," Geralt says, changing the subject. "Where's your bedroll?"

"My—" Jaskier cuts off when the realization hits. "Ohh."

Geralt pinches the bridge of his nose. "You don't have a bedroll."

It isn't a question. Jaskier crosses his arms in a huff and defends, "Someone led me to believe we were in a rush! It's probably somewhere in my room, along with any—"

Geralt begins rather aggressively kicking aside pinecones and fallen needles.

"What… are you doing?" Jaskier asks.

"Clearing a place to sleep," Geralt mutters.

Jaskier pushes to his feet. "Oh, you don't have to—"

"For me," Geralt clarifies.

"I'm confused," Jaskier tells him. "Should I also clear a place to sleep?"

Geralt's face is even more unreadable in the flickering firelight. "Take the bedroll—"

"Oh, Geralt, you really don't have to—"

"You're the human."

He has a point. 

Jaskier, however, has not abandoned all his courtly manners just because he's currently a vagrant—and, he thinks more privately, he is acutely aware that there is only so much of a nuisance anyone will tolerate him being, and he very much does not want to find that line with Geralt.

"But you're the Witcher!" he argues. "You need your rest to do your—your Witchering tomorrow."

"Sky's clear. Ground's dry." Geralt kicks a pinecone into a tree. "I've slept in worse."

"So have I," Jaskier lies.

Geralt growls impatiently.

It's at this point that Jaskier has one of his patently brilliantly idiotic ideas.

"Well, if you're really feeling charitable," he suggests brightly. "We could just share it."

Geralt snorts, but his eyes suggest confusion rather than derision.

"It's really the most pragmatic solution, if you think about it!" Jaskier continues. "No one sleeps on the musty ground! C'mon, Geralt haven't you ever shared a bed with your—"

Dead family dead family what the fuck is wrong with you, Jaskier?

"—a, erm, travelling… companion?"

Brilliant save.

Geralt shakes out his bedroll with a firm snap of both wrists and says, "If you snore I'm feeding you to Roach."

Jaskier has been told, by numerous bedpartners, all his friends from Oxenfurt, and his mother, that he snores like a pregnant dragon.

"Deal!" he says cheerfully. "Are you the little spoon? You seem like a little spoon."

Geralt growls again.

"Back to back would also work!" Jaskier walks over to their bags. "Where's your blanket?"

"I overheat," says Geralt.

"Right, yeah, of course," Jaskier agrees, frowning at the supplies. "But if you can fall asleep without a blanket, that's officially the weirdest thing about you. Picked that out at the mutation market too, did you?"

Geralt sighs. "Use my cloak."

Jaskier grabs it triumphantly. He wriggles out of his boots, setting them within arms reach to the side, and plops down on the rather stiff bedroll with a flourish.

It's a narrow thing, barely wide enough to accommodate Geralt on his back. They'll definitely have to be on their sides to have any hope of fitting—unless they were to drape over each other, which Jaskier would certainly not be opposed to, he loves a good cuddle, but he has the thin self-preservation instincts to not suggest it.

Geralt lays down towards the edge, facing away.

Jaskier joins him, pressing their backs together and wrapping the cloak around himself snugly, and asks, "We're really sleeping now? It's so early."

"We leave at dawn," Geralt mutters.

"Geralt," Jaskier says, deeply wounded. "I thought we were friends."

Geralt hums skeptically.

"Fine," Jaskier concedes. He closes his eyes and tries to suppress his remaining energy. "I'll see you in the morning, you brute."

Geralt doesn't answer. Jaskier sighs and wiggles restlessly, tugging the cloak more snuggly around himself—it smells like horse, specifically, and a general air of musk. Rather masculine in a way that isn't entirely un-soothing.

Despite his complaints of the early hour, Jaskier does feel decently drowsy. Geralt's still form next to him helps, inspiring rest.

From somewhere deeper in the forest, an animal howls.

Jaskier's eyes fly open.

"Geralt," he says. "What was that?"

Geralt grunts dismissively.

The trees seem rather more alive than they did a moment ago. If Jaskier listens, he can hear other sounds—ones that creatures and monsters might make. Another howl.

"No, seriously," Jaskier says.

"Forest noises," Geralt grumbles. "Go to sleep."

Jaskier nervously asks, "Dangerous forest noises?"

"Normal forest noises."

"That's not an answer."

Geralt sighs, pushing up onto a forearm. "Want me to check the perimeter again?"

"No, no," Jaskier says quickly. He's been far too much of an inconvenience tonight. "I'm sure you're right, it's fine, you would know, right?"

Geralt lays back down. "Thought you'd travelled before."

"Right, yeah. If I'm being honest?" Jaskier says, laughing thinly. "I mostly rely on the hospitality of strangers. Staying in barns and temples and that sort of thing."

"And the strangers' beds?" Geralt adds drily.

Jaskier laughs again, allowing himself to marginally relax. "When the opportunity arises."

"People like doing things for you," Geralt murmurs.

Jaskier rolls onto his stomach—presses himself hip to shoulder against Geralt's back and still has to drape half of himself off the edge of the bedroll. He says, "I suppose, for a time."

Geralt hums.

"It gets old," Jaskier admits. Something touches at his ankle and he jerks it back onto the bedroll. "Novelty becomes imposition."

Geralt is wordless, his breathing even and unsettlingly slow. Jaskier wonders if he's drifted off to sleep, just like that.

"People want something from you," Geralt says quietly. "Not you."

"... Yes," Jaskier answers softly, carrying the distinct impression that they're no longer talking just about himself. "Yes, I suppose it's a bit lonely."

He rolls onto his other side, arms carefully tucked against his chest. 

Geralt says, "Stop fidgeting. You'll never fall asleep that way."

"I can't help it!" Jaskier complains. "I'm made to be a body in motion, Geralt, and it really is absurdly early. I mean, I'm normally playing in a tavern right around now, or at least taking the edge off with a little companionship. Do you know how much easier it is to sleep after an orgasm?"

Geralt grunts.

Jaskier sighs dramatically and flops onto his back.

"Ugh," Geralt growls. "Stop."

In a spectacular feat of agility, Jaskier is being squished under the full weight of a Witcher before he can blink his eyes open.

All the air leaves Jaskier's lungs in a rush. "Oh!"

They're laying chest to chest, one of Geralt's knees digging into the side of Jaskier's thigh. His hips are pinned in a manner more reminiscent of boyish wrestling than anything sexual.

Jaskier's face still goes dizzyingly hot. 

"Fuck." Geralt stiffens, pushing quickly away. "Sorry. I didn't—"

"No," Jaskier says quickly. He swallows, eyes fixed firmly on the canopy above them. "Um, that—might help me sleep. If you—it's comfortable?"

They've let the fire die too low. Jaskier can't discern anything in Geralt's face when he lowers his head back down, settling a cheek above Jaskier's breastbone. He feels a fond, hopeless twinge in his chest—wonders if Geralt can hear it, if Geralt knows the stutter in his heartbeat is at the realization that he's thoroughly stumbled into something he wasn't supposed to.

You're a contract to him, Jaskier tells himself as he shifts to lay more fully on the mat, as he tentatively loops his arms around this strange, horribly endearing man's back to have somewhere to put them. You're just an obligation.

He falls asleep to the thought on loop and a quiet whuff of air against his collar bone.

 

~*~

 

Another howl, louder and even more haunting than the last, shatters through the blurry jumble of Jaskier's dreams. He sits bolt upright—as best he can with the weight still on top of him.

"Geralt?" he asks frantically.

"I hear it," Geralt says. He sits up and urges Jaskier back down with a hand on his chest. "Go back to sleep. I'll keep watch."

Jaskier's heart is pounding. He's certain Geralt can feel it. "Are you sure?"

Geralt stands, gathers up their spare firewood and reignites the dead fire. He checks on Roach, who Jaskier can now make out the faint outline of across the clearing. She's pacing restlessly and kicks out violently at him when he tries to get closer.

"Easy, Roach," Geralt murmurs. There's a faint flicker of light—a trick of Jaskier's panicked brain, maybe—and she seems to settle slightly.

Geralt then draws a sword from its sheathe and comes back to sit on the edge of the bedroll. He faces the forest, legs crossed neatly with the sword laid across his thighs, and closes his eyes.

"Geralt?" Jaskier asks. "What—"

"Shh."

Jaskier closes his mouth.

After a moment, Geralt mutters, "It's a pack. They're hunting something—not us."

"How do you know?" Jaskier whispers.

"Witchering." 

"Hilarious," says Jaskier. 

"We have heightened senses," Geralt explains slowly, "that I can't use with you talking."

Jaskier pushes up to a sitting position, wrapping the cloak around his shoulders, and very pointedly keeps his mouth shut.

"Go back to sleep," Geralt repeats.

"Yeah right." Jaskier gestures at Geralt's deceptively peaceful form. "And miss all this Witchering?"

Geralt cracks one eye open judgmentally.

"Let me keep you company," Jaskier insists, moving around so they're sitting shoulder to shoulder, knees knocking together. "What if you need backup?"

Geralt closes his eyes again. He looks on the verge of saying something, his tongue flicking out to wet his bottom lip, but nothing ever comes.

Jaskier adjusts his posture, sitting as if his lute were in his lap. Staying quiet will be a challenge; he closes his eyes, too, and practices phantom scales like he was taught when he was young.

Geralt says, "Witchers do work alone."

"Yes," Jaskier says reassuringly, and slumps down to rest his head on Geralt's shoulder. "And it makes you very scary and strong and such, don't worry."

The backs of Geralt's knuckles brush against Jaskier's knee.

 

~*~

 

Jaskier wakes up with a horrendous kink in his neck—on top of the nasal headache he always gets this time of year. He groans, twisting to work out the knot, and realizes that he very much fell asleep slumped against Geralt's side. 

Geralt is sitting exactly like Jaskier left him the night before—eyes closed with fluttering eyelids, hands resting lightly against the sword in his lap and back perfectly straight. He grumbles, "Morning."

"Melitele," Jaskier says, startled. "Did you sleep like that?"

"Meditated." Geralt opens one grouchy eye. "You snore like a dying grave hag."

Jaskier grins. "Are you sure it's not more of a fearsome dragon?"

"Definitely grave hag," says Geralt. "Drool, too."

"Ooh, do grave hags drool?"

"Not as much as you."

Jaskier smacks him on the arm. "Rude Witcher."

Geralt hums. He rolls his head slowly, then stretches out his limbs one by one. His silver hair, glinting in the early morning sun, falls in his face when he leans over to touch his toes.

"Well!" Jaskier says brightly. "I think we should celebrate not being torn limb from limb in our sleep! How about I treat us to breakfast?"

Geralt hesitates mid toe-touch. "Mm?"

"Ohoho! Delicacies await you, my dear friend." Jaskier darts over to his bag and starts rummaging through it, grateful he remembered to take his traveling rations with him when he packed hastily the day before. "And by delicacies, I mean stale bread and an apple apiece."

"Lap of luxury," Geralt agrees drily. Then, less sarcastically, "I have my own food."

Jaskier rolls his eyes, spreading out a handkerchief on the ground. "Right, because we both ate our own food last night. I must have blacked-out while I hunted that rabbit."

Geralt hums skeptically.

"What, do you think I'll poison you?" Jaskier wheedles. "I still need your help, you know. It'd hardly be economical to take you out now."

Geralt stands up and continues to stretch, the armor he slept in creaking as he limbers up. "Fine."

Jaskier purses his lips together in a smug smile. He procures a clean knife from Geralt's tool bag and begins cutting his apple up into slices, humming idly to himself. The weather is crisp and lovely this morning, but he fears it'll be a hot one come noon.

Food prepared, Jaskier plucks two apple slices from his side of the cloth and approaches Roach with caution.

"Good morning, my fair lady," he says in a coaxing voice, palm outstretched temptingly with her treat. "I'm not above bribery and I suspect neither are you."

Geralt snorts.

Jaskier ignores him. Roach's ears perk up when he approaches; she takes a step and a half forward and then tosses her head in frustration when she hits the end of her rope.

"Shh, I know," Jaskier soothes. "I wouldn't like to be tied up like that either, but I've got a treat for you if you promise not to bite me."

Jaskier's horsemanship experience may be limited, but he did learn how to properly feed a horse that one summer he spent tumbling in the hay with his father's stable boy, so no one can say his promiscuity has never done anything for him.

Staying carefully out of kicking range, Jaskier offers up the first apple. Roach sniffs it, her whiskers tickling his palm, and then snatches it from him with alarming speed. 

She nearly takes his fingers off trying to get the second one before he's ready, but he escapes with minimal slobber damage instead.

Immediately after realizing there's no more food, the horrible demon creature pins her ears back at him again.

"You know, Geralt," Jaskier says, wiping his hand off on his trousers to join Geralt for breakfast, "far be it for me to criticize, but I thought work horses typically had, erm, manners?"

Geralt is peeling the skins off his apple slices with the blunt edge of a dirty thumbnail. He smiles fondly and says, "Roach is new."

"Aren't we all," Jaskier agrees nonsensically. He tears himself a chunk of bread and chews thoughtfully. "What do we do about water?"

"River should be running clean," Geralt answers, then smacks Jaskier's hand away when he reaches for an apple peel.

"Hey!" Jaskier says, pouting. "If you're not eating them—"

Geralt says, "I save them for last," and then furrows his eyebrows, glancing down as if embarrassed.

"Oh." Jaskier smiles kindly, though Geralt doesn't look up. "Perfectly understandable, then, sorry."

A waterskin is another thing Jaskier forgot, apparently. Thankfully, it looks like Geralt has two. It seems reasonable that if Jaskier fills them up, he should be allowed to share, right? Right.

"Be right back!" he announces, shaking a mostly-empty canteen in explanation, and heads past Roach to the river. 

When he gets back, Geralt has started breaking down camp. 

"Ahh, adventure awaits!" Jaskier says grandly, spreading his arms. "You know, I was serious about this being a wonderful business opportunity for us both. Just imagine the thrilling tales I'll be able to weave about our adventures!"

"Looking forward to it," Geralt drawls.

 

~*~

 

"Oh, this is thrilling!" Jaskier exclaims with fervor. "Geralt, watching you work has genuinely been the honor of my life! Please, spare not a detail and pray tell me what the fuck you are doing."

Geralt looks up, unamused, from his crouch next to a little patch of mushrooms. "Witchering."

"Rifling through dead leaves is Witchering?" Jaskier asks skeptically.

"I need supplies," Geralt explains patiently, then prods at a mushroom top with one finger. "For potions."

Jaskier cocks a hip. "Ooh, now we're getting somewhere. And what do your potions do?"

"Things," says Geralt.

"Things," Jaskier repeats.

Geralt plucks two of the smaller mushrooms from the dirt. 

"Why don't you want the big ones?" Jaskier asks.

"They're poisonous before they mature." Geralt stands again and resumes kicking aside the underbrush, looking for gods-know-what on the ground.

Jaskier follows, careful to not disturb Geralt's handiwork. "Right, yeah, and you want them to be poisonous because…?"

"Potions," Geralt says.

Jaskier throws his hands up. "This is the most circular conversation I've ever been a part of, and I went to Oxenfurt, Geralt."

Geralt sighs loudly. "If I tell you, will you shut the fuck up?"

"Well, I definitely won't shut the fuck up if you don't tell me!" Jaskier answers cheerfully.

Geralt uncovers more mushrooms and kneels down in the dirt. Scrutinizing them carefully, he explains, "My potions help me in combat in various ways. Sharpen my eyesight, help my body heal faster. These mushrooms make a potion called Black Blood that I take before fighting vampires."

"Okay, that is fascinating," Jaskier says eagerly. "I mean, not 'put it in a song' fascinating, but still. What's your favorite potion?"

"I don't have a favorite potion."

"You can be honest," Jaskier teases. "I promise not to tell the other potions."

Geralt digs his fingers into the dirt. "They're all toxic. I only survive taking them because I'm a mutant."

Jaskier says, "Oh."

Geralt adds another handful of mushrooms to his jar.

"Well, fine, that's a bit of a downer," Jaskier allows, swiftly changing the subject. "What about your heightened senses, hm? How do those work?"

Geralt hums noncommittally. His eyes light on a bush growing a little further ahead and he makes his way over.

"I mean, how'd you know where the wolves were and such?" Jaskier asks.

"I could hear around how many there were," Geralt says, plucking entire sprigs of the bush. "And I could smell them easily, which meant we were downwind. You don't hunt what you're upwind from."

"Right, of course," Jaskier agrees. "So you can, erm, smell… pretty well?"

Geralt hums in the affirmative.

Jaskier tilts his head curiously. "Is it like my sense of smell, just stronger? Or is it, like—well, how they say animals can smell things we can't?"

Geralt looks up drily. "Are you calling me a dog?"

"Not if that offends you!" Jaskier says brightly.

Geralt continues his walk. He drags his fingers along the rough bark of a pine tree and says, "It's like a wolf. I can smell things in your sweat."

"Like fear?" Jaskier guesses. There was a rather uncharitable nursery rhyme about Witchers that said as much, when he was growing up. He'd always assumed it was hyperbole. "That's handy."

"Not on you," Geralt says. "Except for the wolves."

Jaskier hums and teases, "Correct! Your nose is still in working order."

Geralt's staring straight ahead, though Jaskier can't find anything of note in that direction. Flatly, he asks, "Why aren't you afraid of me?"

Jaskier approaches him slowly, head tilted in a gentle gesture, and asks, "Am I supposed to be?"

There's something terribly human in Geralt's eyes, before he turns them away to dull it.

"I don't know," he says.

 

~*~

 

The rest of the day passes by at a pace that Jaskier presumes is leisurely for a Witcher on a horse and would describe, charitably, as a war crime towards civilians. 

When Jaskier travels, he prefers to take the main roads and stop for pleasant chats with other travellers who are so inclined—perhaps purchase a trinket or two from a merchant's cart—and to partake in a leisurely lunch at a nearby homestead in exchange for a song or two and a little flirtation.

Geralt avoids the main roads entirely—and they seem to be bypassing Vizima, which by Jaskier's recollection should be the next closest settlement. They cool off in the river when the sun is at its peak and then drip-dry through the shaded forest, leaves crunching underfoot. Lunch is a quick, utilitarian affair bereft of joy.

It seems like a rather lonely life, if it's always like this. Perhaps Geralt would describe it as peaceful.

To Jaskier, there isn't much difference. 

When dusk happens upon them, Geralt announces that they've made good time and are stopping for the night. He finds them a clearing in short order—this one smaller than the last—and sees to Roach before anything else.

Jaskier, hoping to make himself useful, assigns himself the duty of collecting firewood once again.

A mere two nights into the task, it already feels routine—the most dreaded of double-edged swords. Jaskier's father would bark at him to mind his tutor, attend to the rote memorization of his studies, and instead he would hide in the kitchens and play the cook's favorite song for her again and again and again until his fingers bled.

(And then his fingers callused. He played for longer.)

He loves his music, his lute. When something catches against the maw in his chest, he gnaws it until the bones snap.

Jaskier cheerfully does not examine the pleasantness of gathering sticks and branches, or of building a respectable cooking fire that earns a little half-nod of approval from Geralt when he returns from the hunt. 

When he inevitably picks this apart, he'll remember it needs to end.

Jaskier has what could possibly be described as a "loose" relationship with the concept of time. He's just as prone to languishing an excruciating ten minute wait for a ferry as he is to blinking and realizing he's stayed up writing well past midnight. 

He is fairly confident, though, that Geralt is sending them to bed even earlier than yesterday. Jaskier would complain, but he has some sympathy for the fact that Geralt stayed up all night to ensure nothing made Jaskier its dinner.

"It was for Roach," Geralt says, then shakes out the bedroll, lays it on the ground, and stares at it with a sudden prey-like rigidity.

Well. Sharing the thing does feel… significantly more awkward the second time, actually. The first night it was sort of a flurry of indignation and ingenuity, and the technically-cuddling was decidedly not premeditated.

But Jaskier doesn't want Geralt to sleep on the ground, and he certainly doesn't want himself to sleep on the ground either, and honestly those very respectable reasons are both secondary to how nice it felt to just…  hold someone.

It hasn't been that long, objectively. Jaskier is prolific, so to speak, but he's not an incubus. Nothing life-shatteringly awful will happen to him if he goes a little while without physical intimacy.

He wonders how often anyone sleeps in Geralt of Rivia's bed. Is that the sort of thing Witchers are supposed to do?

Geralt walks rather stiffly away from the bedroll and retrieves the strange concoction he pulled off the fire a few minutes ago. He sniffs it, blows on it, and pushes a cup against Jaskier's chest.

"I'm sorry," Jaskier says, taking the cup with a frown. "What's this?"

"Drink it," says Geralt.

Jaskier takes a cautious sip; it tastes an awful lot like one of those herbs from this morning smelled. "What's it do?"

"For your snoring," Geralt answers.

Jaskier blinks in mild offense. "I'm sorry, did you really detour us today to get rid of my snoring?"

"Needed the mushrooms too," Geralt says defensively.

"How does it work?" Jaskier asks, which he probably should've done before he started drinking. Oh well. He takes another sip. "If this is one of those 'poison, because you can't snore if you're dead' things, I'll be very disappointed in you."

Geralt's lips twitch. The fire will burn itself out soon, and Jaskier won't be able to see that kind of thing. "You're allergic to pollen."

"I'm very aware, thank you so much." Jaskier furrows his eyebrows thoughtfully. "This will help with that?"

Geralt hums.

Jaskier's chest tightens in a way that is probably not due to secret poison in his tea. "Oh, well—that's… very kind of you, actually, thank you?"

Geralt hums again, a little like he has something in his throat, and says nothing. Neither does he move back towards the bedroll, despite having rather firmly expressed a desire to go to bed.

Well, if Geralt can deeply awkwardly cure Jaskier's allergies, the least Jaskier can do is take some initiative on the sleeping arrangements.

He chugs the rest of his tea, makes a face when the dregs sting at his tongue, and then flops down onto the bedroll with a contented sigh.

"Well, what do you say?" he proposes, patting the empty space next to him. "Shall I not-snore directly into your ear, or less directly?"

Geralt rolls his eyes in the dying firelight.

"Take off your boots," he says, but comes to sit next to Jaskier without telling him to make more room—their thighs press firmly together when Jaskier sits up to do as instructed.

Geralt does the same, then tentatively lays down on his side facing Jaskier. His eyes, mesmerizing cat-like things that they are, almost seem to glow from this angle, with an eerie amount of pupil widened. 

He can probably see exactly how thickly Jaskier swallows. 

Jaskier lifts his arm in invitation.

Geralt rolls over gracelessly, squashing Jaskier in a literally breath-stealing fashion.

"Oof." Jaskier reaches up and tugs menacingly on Geralt's hair. "Arsehole."

Geralt chuckles, gently rumbling against Jaskier's chest. He shifts, weight settling more evenly, and a previously unconscious tension bleeds out of Jaskier's body.

"On the other hand," Jaskier murmurs, allowing his eyes to slip shut, "you have a talent for this."

"Smothering?" Geralt mutters drily.

Jaskier doesn't bother to answer. His fingers, still tangled in Geralt's hair, begin carding through it absently. "Forgive my… my… what's the word?"

Geralt hums unhelpfully.

"Extraneous," Jaskier decides. "Extraneous fidgeting. Idle hands, Lilit's work, and so on."

Geralt's hum suggests contentment this time. 

Jaskier is left to his thoughts. His mind no longer races and his skin doesn't itch, but he's far from true sleep. He thinks of this moment the way he composes a song—burrows so far inside it that he eclipses himself, ends up watching from above.

It's a strange thing, isn't it? Jaskier is easy with his affections—lovers, friends, parents who couldn't comprehend it. He's not surprised at himself; he's better suited for outpouring than restraint.

But he wonders what Geralt thinks. What he smells, his nose a scarce few inches from the tender hollow of Jaskier's throat.

Jaskier can touch his new friend with a gentle hand and hope that it soothes, but can't listen for a change in his pulse—can surreptitiously smell the rosemary oil that he leant Geralt for his hair, but not if he's glad to be laying here together.

"Geralt," Jaskier ventures quietly, and receives a sleepy hum in response. "What does happiness smell like?"

Geralt seems to consider this. He tilts his head, pushing up into the contact between them. "Hm. Like an absence."

Jaskier's thumb brushes against the shell of Geralt's ear. "I don't understand."

"Fear is sour, like curdled milk," Geralt mutters. He turns to rest his other cheek on Jaskier's chest. "Grief tastes like salt in the air. I can tell anger by a change in body temperature."

Jaskier massages gentle fingers at the base of Geralt's skull. He encourages, "Ah."

"If fear is… bad sweat," Geralt says haltingly. "Arousal is… good. Like musk."

Jaskier supposes, "And happiness is none of these?"

Geralt hums.

"That's odd," Jaskier muses. He yawns, arching his back a little under Geralt's weight. "I don't think of it as an absence."

"How, then?" Geralt mumbles.

"It's… that stretched-out pain in your cheeks after a long smile," Jaskier decides. He goes back to threading his fingers through Geralt's hair. "That little bubble you can feel in your chest before a laugh. When you feel warm, like—like hands wrapped around a mug, or someone's holding you. Oh! That lovely moment right when the sky becomes a new color. Especially that."

Geralt is quiet. He says, "Poet," like one of them is being condemned.

Jaskier wants to ask which one. 

Instead, he says, "What else should I be?"

"It's not… nothing," Geralt revises instead. "It's… quiet."

"A quiet smell?" Jaskier teases.

"No. Like—" Geralt shifts with frustration. "It's loud, in my head."

Jaskier's hand stills, cupping the back of Geralt's neck. "Oh. It's calming."

"Like being underwater in the bath," says Geralt.

"An excellent metaphor," Jaskier praises, and resists the ridiculous urge to press a kiss to the top of Geralt's head. "We'll make a poet out of you yet."

Geralt scoffs.

This would be a fine end to the conversation. Jaskier can feel himself starting to doze, lulled by the philosophical chewing.

Geralt says, "Sometimes."

"Sometimes what?" 

"Is there too much?" Geralt asks.

"Happiness?" asks Jaskier.

"Like you won't get above water in time."

Jaskier would like to die drowning. He would like to cut himself gills and swim until he forgets that there's anything else to the world.

He'd be a shit poet, if he could only speak of one thing.

"I think I've lost the thread," he says softly. "Do you still mean someone else's happiness?"

Geralt's hip is digging into Jaskier's thigh. Was it always, or did he move again? Jaskier readjusts them, a gentle palm still pressed to the tender spot at the base of Geralt's skull.

The forest is holding its breath tonight.

Quietly, Geralt asks, "Who else's?"

Jaskier's eyes have been closed; he wants to open them, to use them to seek answers, but he knows there won't be the light for it. He thinks, then, of truth deeper than fact—that no matter Geralt's meaning, Jaskier is not built for moderation. 

That's always the problem, isn't it? His music has never tried to lessen him. It's never asked him to contort into a small life. He will flit from place to person, his thirst a constant spilling over, and wear thin the soles of his shoes with the searching.

Not because nothing would have him. He thinks of the hydra—destined to be cleaved and regrown in double. The more something is sated, the more he is wanted—

"I upset you," Geralt says gruffly.

There's no use in lying. Jaskier huffs out a laugh and reassures him, "You haven't known me very long. Fits of maudlin are inherent in my constitution."

Geralt hums.

"Sorry. I imagine it makes it harder for you to sleep," Jaskier says.

"Sleeplessness," Geralt says, "is inherent in my constitution."

Jaskier taps his fingers against the side of Geralt's neck. "Did you pick that up at the Witcher market?"

"Non-refundable," Geralt deadpans.

"Swindlers, the lot of them." Jaskier smiles ruefully, though he assumes Geralt cannot see. "I suppose we'll just both do our best, hm?"

"Hm," Geralt agrees. His arm, which had been carelessly draped in the dirt, shifts to tuck more snugly against Jaskier's side. 

And try they do.

 

~*~

 

Walking is significantly more pleasant the next day, without the background effects of pollen assaulting Jaskier's senses. He's gotten so used to the haze, to adjusting his breathing and the quality of his voice, that he'd almost forgotten how refreshing it is to travel without worrying about it.

"If you ever got tired of the Witchering business, you could become a herbalist!" Jaskier tells Geralt grandly, with a broad gesture of both arms. "I'd sell you my firstborn child for more of that tea stuff. Why has no one ever done that for me before? Is it a Witcher-y secret?"

"If you brew it wrong, it'll kill you," Geralt says easily.

Jaskier considers this. "Worth it!"

Geralt glances up at the sun, which is near its zenith. 

"Are we going to reach town today? I was hoping to see some monster-fighting before we reached town, so I could compose a song." Jaskier thwacks at the strap of his lute case. "Ooh, or you could tell me about a monster. What's the best monster you've ever fought? By best I mean most gruesome, of course, that's what sells these days."

Geralt says nothing.

"Oh, come on, you must have loads of stories!" Jaskier wheedles. "You're Geralt of Rivia! Everyone's heard of the mysterious white-haired Witcher—rumors of exploits and things, you know. But I'll tell your story the way you want it! Well, perhaps with a modification or two, as need—"

"Jaskier," Geralt interrupts gruffly. "I figured out how to cure your curse."

Jaskier's eyes widen eagerly. "What? Really? How?"

Geralt says, "You can't speak from midday to dusk. 

"What?" Jaskier asks incredulously. "That's impossible! Why—how would that even—"

Geralt glances pointedly skywards again. There's not exactly a lot of time for questions.

Jaskier says, "Fine," and mimes buttoning his lips shut.

Gods, this is going to be miserable. How's he supposed to pass the time without saying anything? He even talks to himself when he's travelling alone, for Melitele's sake. 

And it's not like Geralt will carry a conversation.

But, wait—no one said anything about music. Or humming. Jaskier needs a little auditory stimulation or he will die on the side of the road, so if this curse can't tolerate a little instrumental accompaniment, sex will just stay off the table for a while longer.

Jaskier holds up a hand, asking Geralt to wait.

Sighing, Geralt halts Roach while Jaskier fumbles with his bags to get out his lute. He holds it up for Geralt to see once he has it in his hands, just in case.

Geralt sighs and says, "Fine."

Jaskier smiles with relief. He closes up his case, reshoulders his bags, and sets off once again.

Jaskier plucks through a few familiar warm ups to start. His nails have grown a little long; he hopes he'll remember to pare them down tonight. He'd ask Geralt to remind him, but, well.

As it is, Jaskier endeavors to work out the refrain of a new composition he's been chewing on for about a week or so. That'll be a nice project. He just has to avoid muttering the lyrics to himself while he does it.

Ah, but if he thinks of it as a test! Yes, a challenge to see how well he can envision his voice, the meter—that's a much better way of putting it. He can't voice his enthusiastic revelation to Geralt, per se, but he can grin brightly to communicate that things are just dandy over here on the ground—which he does.

Geralt furrows his eyebrows and faces ahead.

 

~*~

 

They're still on the road when dusk falls and Geralt says, "Okay."

Jaskier wheezes with finally-audible relief. "Oh, thank the goddess, that was the most miserable afternoon of my life. I need to pare my fingernails tonight. Geralt, remind me to pare my fingernails tonight."

Geralt says, "We can reach the next village if we push past sundown."

"Please," Jaskier tells him. "I mean, if it's alright with Miss Roach. I'd very much like a bed. And to, well, you know."

Geralt hums.

Jaskier grips his lute in one hand and wiggles the fingers on his other. "I don't feel any different. Should I feel different? I suppose I didn't feel any different when it happened in the first place."

"Uh," Geralt says. "Jaskier—"

"Oh, Geralt! Now I can ask your opinion on something," Jaskier says excitedly. Gods, it feels fucking amazing to talk again. "You know this sort of riff I've been working on all day? Well, which version sounded better to you? It's a love song, obviously, so picture something romantic."

Geralt sighs and says, "Play them both again."

 

~*~

 

As Geralt estimated, they reach a respectably sized town shortly after nightfall. The moon is waxing in the sky, a delicate oval of light. Jaskier doesn't know much about moons, but he thinks it'll be full in about a week, maybe ten days.

There's a stablegirl available to tend to Roach, but she warns them that there might not be work for Geralt here.

"What about for me?" Jaskier asks. He plucks out a three-note tune in the torchlight. "I'm more than willing to sing for our supper."

The girl giggles; she's too young for him, but a little personable charm never hurt. 

"You'll have to ask my pa," she says. "He's running things inside."

Geralt seems uninterested in such details. He hands Roach's reins over with some reluctance and warns, "She gets nervous easily. If she tries to kick, come get me and I'll see to her myself."

"Alright," the girl says. She grabs the reins, but Geralt doesn't release them.

"Don't beat her," he says. "Or raise your voice."

The girl's eyes are earnestly wide. "I wouldn't, sir."

Geralt hesitates a moment longer—Jaskier contemplates coaxing him away—before he lets go. Then, he pats Roach on the neck once more and brushes past Jaskier to lead the way inside.

Jaskier smiles apologetically at the girl before following.

Inside the inn, they're immediately waved over by a rugged-looking man at the counter. He has greying-blond hair and a nose that looks almost as oft-broken as Geralt's and a slice of scar tissue that interrupts the stubble growing on his jaw.

Jaskier subtly undoes the first two buttons on his doublet before falling in step with Geralt.

"How can I help you?" asks the man.

"Rooms for the night," says Geralt. "And if you know of any work in town for a Witcher."

"'Fraid I don't," the man answers, then laughs. "Or, not 'fraid, since we'd rather not need your line of work, you understand."

Geralt hums.

"I've got one room left, though," the man offers, his eyes flicking over to Jaskier. "One bed."

Geralt turns to Jaskier too.

Jaskier shrugs and says, "Less coin. We can rough it, hm, Geralt?"

"Hm," Geralt agrees. He turns back to the innkeeper to deal with payment.

Jaskier will get him back later; he casts his eyes over the rest of the inn instead—getting a feel for his potential audience. Most people are socializing over their dinners or playing Gwent. There aren't many women, which Jaskier finds odd for this part of the Continent. Perhaps there's another establishment in town, leaving the rougher crowd to their current location.

Not that Jaskier has anything against the rougher crowd, exactly—as long as they don't have anything against him.

"I'll eat in the room," Geralt says, the volume of his voice suggesting that he wants Jaskier's attention. "He can do what he wants."

"Oh!" Jaskier turns back around and smiles winningly. "Erm, I'll dine down here. Any interest in a little musical performance before or after? I take requests!"

Geralt grunts with mild amusement and takes his leave.

The innkeeper watches him vanish up the stairs, and then leans across the bar towards Jaskier to ask, very seriously, "Are you alright?"

Jaskier blinks, double-taking between the empty stairwell and the man. "How do you mean?"

"The Witcher," the man says, voice dropping low over the word, like Geralt will be summoned in a puff of black smoke otherwise. "We can hide you away if you need it. Some of the militia are still in town."

Wait. This man thinks—

Jaskier laughs. This is perhaps not the most socially desirable reaction, but manners aren't at the forefront of his mind. Honestly. Does he think Jaskier is some kind of sex slave?

"You think—oh, Melitele, not at all." Jaskier rests his forearms on the table. "I'm a perfectly willing travel companion, but thank you for your concern."

The man breathes a sigh of relief. "Forgive me. It's just—you hear what you hear about them, and then you see—well, someone like you in the company of one, and…"

Oh. This man literally thought Jaskier was—

The idea sours Jaskier's stomach. This is what people look at Geralt and see, isn't it? They think he'd be capable of such a thing, when not ten minutes ago he was fretting over the well-being of his viciously ill-tempered horse.

Of course, the way to win hearts is rarely with vinegar. Jaskier understands the power of stories, after all—his job is to weave a better one.

"Geralt's been a lovely travelling companion, actually," he says cheerfully. "We get on like two fleas on a dog."

"Well, that's good to hear." The innkeeper inclines his head conversationally. "What brings you together?"

"Oh, he's just helped me with a bit of a predicament I found myself in," is the factual answer. It does not feel true. Jaskier frowns as he realizes, "I suppose we'll part ways soon."

The innkeeper hums. His eyes are quite warm, lingering on the column of Jaskier's throat. "And what's next for you?"

Jaskier wets his bottom lip experimentally, finds that the movement is tracked. He notices the ring on the man's left hand and distinct absence of anyone else behind the bar—though perhaps there's a spouse in the kitchen.

"I'm a bit of a wanderer, myself," he says, looking up. "I like to see the world, spreading… song. Could I trouble you for an ale?"

The innkeeper clears his throat and fetches a mug. He's a bit on the older side, judging by his appearance and the age of the stablegirl, but that's never bothered Jaskier. He can handle himself in a tryst just fine. 

And perhaps there's something about taking an older lover, specifically. The notion that he's helping someone delight in something forbidden, and that he's coveted, while it lasts.

The man returns with Jaskier's ale and says, "On the house."

"Why, thank you!" Jaskier answers, smiling brightly. He takes a hearty drink and reaches with his free hand to open more of his doublet. "Bit warm for the cusp of autumn, isn't it?"

"Weather'll break soon, I hope," the man agrees.

Jaskier props his chin up in one hand. "You know, I have to apologize—it's terribly rude of me to have not caught your name."

"Peter," he answers. "And yours?"

Jaskier smiles. "Jaskier the bard, at your service."

Peter asks, "How long have you been travelling, Jaskier?" which is the polite way of verifying whether or not he should feel guilty about wanting to take the doe-eyed wanderer to bed.

Jaskier knows what he looks like.

"Oh, don't make me count at this hour!" he pouts, drumming his fingers against his tankard. "Let's see—it's coming up on eight years, I think, since university."

Peter whistles. "The road becomes you."

Jaskier preens a little, hiding a smile behind his drink. "You're very kind."

"I travelled when I was younger, you know," Peter says casually. "Not that I had much choice."

"Oh? Were you in the army?" Jaskier asks. "I'd love to hear about it—nothing better than a good story. Or, almost nothing better."

He winks, and Peter smiles crookedly back. 

There's a part of Jaskier, grumpy and rather fun-spoiling, that feels remiss to seduce someone who judged Geralt so swiftly and harshly. That tugs at shutters around Jaskier's heart with an instinctual loyalty that's both nascent and baffling—Jaskier once fucked Essi's ex-girlfriend the day after they broke up, which had been just fine with her because she knew he'd been in love with Priscilla for three years and still snogged her in Julian's bed when they all got drunk on brandy that last winter of school.

It's not that Jaskier was disloyal; he would never plagiarize a brilliant verse she spun while drunk, nor publicly critique a song she composed that had an error, though he certainly did both of those things to people who were not his friends. He loves her more dearly than blood, even today—will love her even if they never speak again. They were just honest about the shape it took.

So then, this. Jaskier doubts himself, even though he accepts Peter's straightforward proposition to join him in his personal rooms. He doubts, passing by the door he knows is Geralt's, even though there's been nothing said between them that would suggest a claim on each other.

(They met three days ago, for Melitele's sake. Jaskier has gone on university-era benders that should have more influence.)

Jaskier brings his bags with him, feeling awkward about the idea of slipping into Geralt's room to stash them there, and promptly drops them by the door when Peter kisses him.

The scrape of stubble against Jaskier's clean-shaven cheek is delightful. He doubts less, caught up in the sensation. Besides, he considers himself rather persuasive, and perhaps—

Peter untucks Jaskier's chemise and slips rough hands underneath his shirt.

—he can use this to Geralt's advantage. Convince Peter to become a little more open-minded.

"What do you want?" Peter murmurs, and nips at Jaskier's neck, hand slipping lower instead, and—

Jaskier is yanking the door open and stumbling out into the hallway, where he promptly crashes into a very firm and familiar chest.

"Uh," says Geralt.

"What exactly's going on?" asks Peter.

"Erm, Geralt," Jaskier says, taking a half-step back and patting Geralt on the pectorals. "You know that c—" he turns and coughs violently into his elbow. "— fucking thing we said was cured?"

Peter asks, "What thing?"

"I know," Geralt says. "I was trying to warn you."

"Warn me?" Jaskier gapes at him. "You knew? Why didn't you say something?"

Geralt raises an eyebrow. "I thought I could eat dinner first."

There is a very heavily implied, you slut, left unsaid.

"Hey!" Peter says, raising his voice. "What's going on?"

Geralt makes a face that even Jaskier can't decipher, says, "He's cursed," and scruffs Jaskier like a cat to drag him down the hallway.

"Geralt!" Jaskier snaps, wiggling ineffectually against the grip. "Stop it! What're you—"

Geralt lets him go.

"—doing?"

Geralt walks back into his room.

Jaskier, flushed and whiplashed, decides he might as well follow. "I don't understand. Did I mess up earlier? Is there another part to the—the thing?"

Geralt sits down on the bed.

"Jaskier," he says tiredly. "I made it up."

A chill hits Jaskier's stomach. "You what?"

"I was being sarcastic." Geralt stares past Jaskier, at the door. "And you took me seriously."

"But you—" Jaskier flounders. "You didn't—you could've said! You let me go all day—"

Jaskier suddenly remembers why he doesn't drink ale on an empty stomach. He can feel it seeping through him like the poison it is.

"I see," he says quietly. Geralt prefers the quiet, doesn't he? Fuck, he was such a fool to think— "It's alright. You're hardly the first."

"What," Geralt says flatly.

"If you can tell me how to cure this thing," Jaskier says, clearing his throat, "I'll pay you the coin and be out of your hair."

Geralt says, "That's not—"

Jaskier smiles—wants it to be bitter, but thinks it flattens into sadness. "I'll see if dinner's ready."

He takes his leave. Halfway down the stairs, he realizes that he looks embarrassingly disheveled and quickly re-tucks his chemise, smoothing his hair back down. 

Jaskier has no intention of actually checking on dinner. He can't face Peter and he doesn't want to find out if there really is an angry spouse in the kitchen.

Instead, he sits at a free table in the back and grants himself permission to feel sorry about it all.

Jaskier is a cynic, for all that he weaves dreams into songs. He knows, somewhere in the marrow of his spine, that love does not blind its bearer. (He forgets, when it's convenient.) He knows—has known, since he discovered he was the youngest child of a family who very much wished they had quit while they were ahead—that he's a lot to take and that some people would like five gods-damn minutes every now and then, Julian.

(He forgot, when Geralt of Rivia waited for him outside an inn in White Bridge.)

So it's manageable. It's not unexpected. It was less cruel than it might have been and crueler than he deserved, and that's better than some people get in their entire lives.

Over the din of the crowded room, Jaskier doesn't hear the creak of the stairs—but he sees Geralt when he comes to stand in front of him.

Geralt is holding both of Jaskier's bags. He doesn't say anything.

Jaskier petulantly clamps his tongue between his teeth.

"Got your stuff," Geralt says stiffly. "Can I sit?"

Jaskier nods.

Geralt, in what Jaskier can only attribute to a remarkable lack of situational awareness, drags a chair to sit on the same side of the table as Jaskier. He lays the lute case down gingerly and lets the bag thud beside it, and then flattens both palms on the table and stares out at the room while he talks.

"I, uh, explained to Peter," he says. "He thought you had the opposite curse. That it was a compulsive sex thing."

Jaskier snorts despite himself. "Bit of a theme for him. Should we be concerned?"

Geralt's expression doesn't change. His fingers curl against the table a little, though.

"I really don't know what you're hoping to do here," Jaskier admits helplessly.

"I've said more to you in three days than I normally say in a month," Geralt tells the empty chair across the table. "Being afraid of that says more about me than you."

"Geralt," Jaskier says softly. Almost reaches for his hand, but loses the nerve. He so rarely loses the nerve.

Geralt finally glances over, something earnest in his eyes despite the blunt rasp of his voice, and says, "Forgive me."

And, Goddess help him, Jaskier forgets.

"I've had the realization," he says, and has it in the three second pause before what comes next, "that I might… prod, in my enthusiasm. At things you don't want to be prodded."

Geralt hums. He looks down at his hands. "I don't like any prodding."

Jaskier teases, "If that were true, you'd have let me get rid of myself."

"I don't like it," Geralt says stubbornly. "But I also…"

Jaskier waits patiently.

"I'm used to being alone," Geralt says. "Most of my brothers are gone. The only other person is… volatile. And I know that you'll leave too."

Jaskier wants to correct him. It aches in his throat, tensing it, but he doesn't know how to say the strange enormity of it—that they've met by chance and really all Jaskier wanted is a favor, but it feels so much grander. Gods, he's always wanted too much. He's always broken his jaw trying to swallow it.

"So you make it easy," Geralt tells him. "Which is worse."

"I don't want to be worse," Jaskier says, which is a lie—or perhaps, a misleading way to frame the truth. What he wants is— "But I'll always be too much. I don't know how to be a portion of myself."

Geralt nods. Wets his bottom lip and nods again. "Let me try to lift it."

Don't leave me yet, he means. I still want you around.

It's good enough for Jaskier.

He wags his finger, though, and warns, "No more pranks!"

"Hm." Geralt smirks faintly. "What if it's really funny?"

Jaskier narrows his eyes—but there's something about that careful expression Geralt keeps, and how lovely it is to see it slip. He sighs dramatically and bonks his head against Geralt's armor-less shoulder. "I suppose. But you have to clue me in before I embarrass myself like this again."

"Fine," Geralt grumbles, sounding rather put-out for someone who was five minutes from being sent to sleep in the stables.

Well, maybe ten minutes. Jaskier can admit to being a bit of a sucker.

They settle into an actually contented silence. Jaskier eyes his lute, wondering if he could get away with playing still.

"Food smells ready," Geralt observes.

Sure enough, it's only a few more moments before a young man, probably around Jaskier's age, emerges from the kitchen carrying two bowls of food. He looks around, then seems to spot their table—and doesn't look particularly happy about it.

Great. Is Jaskier going to have to field more ridiculous prejudice against Witchers? 

The cook approaches them and sets their stew, then addresses Geralt, "Can I get you anything else, sir?"

Jaskier almost never gets called 'sir.' Especially not with his clothes on.

Geralt declines with a hum.

Jaskier holds up a hand to signal a request. "Actually, if it's not too much trouble, could I get an ale?"

The cook narrows his eyes. "Are you gonna fuck my pa?"

Jaskier splutters violently.

Geralt places a hand on the top of Jaskier's head and promises, "I'll keep him out of trouble. Two ales."

The cook leaves with a curt nod. 

"Looks like I did you a favor," Geralt comments drily. "He was too old for you."

Jaskier gasps in exaggerated offense. "He is not. How old do you think I am?"

Geralt squints at Jaskier suspiciously. "Humans don't like it when I answer that question."

"I'm twenty-six!" Jaskier says indignantly.

Geralt makes an unimpressed sound and takes up his cutlery.

"Well, how old are you, then?" Jaskier asks, poking Geralt in the ribs. "Is it true Witchers live a long time?"

"We don't die in our beds," says Geralt. "You stop keeping track."

Jaskier persists, "Well, is it over or under a century?"

"Hm." Geralt looks up at the ceiling like he's making a calculation. "When was that plague in Vizima?"

Jaskier blinks, his brain hurtling clumsily backwards to a series of very drunkenly attended history lectures at Oxenfurt. "The  Black Death? That hasn't touched the North since the '70s."

"The 1170s?" Geralt asks.

"Oh, my gods," Jaskier grabs for his ale when the cook sets it on the table. "Yes, the 1170s."

Geralt says, "Under a century."

"But you were alive for the plague?" Jaskier asks curiously.

Geralt hums. "That was… early. But after I became a Witcher."

"I see." Jaskier reaches over and steals a bit of Geralt's bread. "You must have witnessed a lot of tragedy."

Geralt, side-eyeing him, takes Jaskier's entire bread roll. "I got good at killing ghouls."

"I suppose you would," Jaskier agrees. Unbothered, he dips another piece of stolen bread into the watery stew. "I expect you don't want to continue this particular line of conversation?"

Geralt says, "It was a long time ago."

"That's not an answer," Jaskier tells him softly.

"I haven't given you anything good for your songs," Geralt says.

Jaskier frowns. "You haven't really given me any indication that you want me to write a song."

Geralt takes a polite bite of stew. "I don't."

"Then why do you care if you've given me material?" Jaskier asks. "Which, by the way, you're correct—you've been rather stingy on that front."

"If you knew what it was like," Geralt says. He looks down at his bowl, tapping his spoon on the edge of the wood. "You wouldn't want a song anymore. The feeling isn't right."

Jaskier shifts closer, trying to get Geralt to meet his eyes—but he won't. "Why do you think that?"

Geralt doesn't answer.

Jaskier gentles his voice. "What's the feeling, Geralt?"

Geralt looks over at last, blinking with his slitted pupils widened in the dying tavern light. He looks small, for a second—young. Half a century crosses his face and he turns back away.

"Think I'll eat in the room," he says, suddenly casual in tone. "It's loud."

"Oh." Jaskier feels something twinge in his chest. "Alright. Do you want company?"

"Not now," he answers. "Don't be up too late—if there's no work in town we've gotta move on."

Jaskier smiles encouragingly. "That's alright. I might play for a bit, though—see if I can round up some tips."

And because he misses it. Perhaps mostly because of that.

Geralt grunts, taking up his bowl and ale, and makes for the stairs. Jaskier watches him go, feeling a strange sense of melancholy stretch out between them—and then Geralt turns around.

"The one you were working on," he says, voice carrying across the room. A few people turn to look; Jaskier merely nods. "It's good."

Jaskier's smile changes. "It's not ready yet," he says.

Geralt's head tilts—almost imperceptibly—and then he's gone.

Jaskier returns to his stew.

 

~*~

 

The crowd is decently encouraging, even joining in when Jaskier leads them in a drinking song—and whatever Geralt said to Peter must have worked, because he doesn't show any sign of ill-will when he reappears at the counter.

Jaskier tries to be mindful of the hour, he really does. Except that he has no way of telling the hour from inside the inn, and if people want to keep tossing coins into his lute case, who is he to deny them?

All this to say, Jaskier makes enough money to mostly cover what he owes Geralt for the room, and drags himself up to bed with a sudden post-performance exhaustion weighing down his limbs. The hard travelling pace over the past few days must have had a larger toll on him than he realized.

Geralt's already in bed when Jaskier gets in; he didn't light a fire in the fireplace, which miffs Jaskier a little—it's cold up here. Summer isn't dying gracefully. But then again, there's precedent for Jaskier to steal a little body heat, so perhaps it won't be so bad under the blanket.

He shrugs out of his doublet and unlaces his boots, then crawls into bed.

Geralt mutters something, possibly in his sleep, and rolls onto his side. 

Jaskier bites at his lip, shuffling a little closer. He's tempted to ask Geralt if he's awake, just in case—but on the other hand, accidentally waking Geralt up doesn't sound like a pleasant venture. 

In the end, he tugs the blanket up to his chin and tucks himself into the empty space Geralt's body curls around—not quite touching, except for Geralt's arm resting on the mattress, which brushes against the back of Jaskier's neck. 

But it's an almost-thing. Close enough that Jaskier can feel the impossibly steady sigh of Geralt's breathing, a comfortable warmth insulating him against the chill. It's made worse by Geralt being without his armor or gloves—bare fingers and a soft shirt, achingly within reach.

Geralt makes another sleepy sound, though perhaps more coherent this time, because he brushes a knee against the back of Jaskier's thigh and mutters, "Your tea."

"Oh," Jaskier whispers, feeling the tips of his ears go hot. "Is that every night?"

"Mm." Geralt shifts, but not to move away. "Table."

Jaskier sits up against grand protest from his weary muscles and fumbles blindly until he finds the cup in question. It's gone cold, but he's chugged worse for less noble reasons. 

"Blech," he says anyway.

"Hm," Geralt echoes in the same tone, perhaps reflexively, because no further comment comes. 

Jaskier lays back down tentatively, self-conscious about resuming his previous position.

"You can…" Geralt's tongue seems to fail him; Jaskier can picture the frustrated little frown. "If… you want."

Jaskier wants very much—to fold himself into Geralt's arms, to kiss him gently on the mouth and let him tuck his face into Jaskier's neck to smell the quiet. 

He settles, instead, for what he had before. Tucks himself a little closer, so that his back lightly brushes against Geralt's chest—a responsible greed. And sighs with something like relief when fingertips skim against his hip and, finding no rebuke, an arm wraps loosely around his middle. 

There are worse ways to be dissatisfied.

 

~*~

 

In the morning, Jaskier wakes up first. There were no curtains drawn over the drafty window, and curled up with Geralt as he was, there's nothing blocking the sun from disrupting his slumber.

Geralt, on the other hand, grumbles and hides his face between Jaskier's neck and the lumpy straw pillow when Jaskier tries to get up.

"Oh, hush," he tsks, but magnanimously subjects himself to further cuddles. "You've dragged me out of bed plenty early the past two days."

Geralt growls like a petulant house cat.

"You're terrifying," Jaskier says consolingly, and buries Geralt under the blanket when he gets up. "Breakfast?"

The Witcher-shaped lump under the covers rolls onto his stomach with another grumble.

It's really just not fair. How is Jaskier supposed to cope?

He rescues his doublet from the floor and heads downstairs, where a few other patrons are already milling about. Peter is once again at the counter, and Jaskier can smell something delicious frying in the kitchen.

"Good morning!" Jaskier says cheerfully, hopping up onto a stool. "Might I trouble you for two plates? I'll bring them up to the room."

Peter nods and shouts the order out to his son. 

"I'm sorry about all that trouble yesterday, by the way," Jaskier adds, rubbing the back of his neck. "There was a, erm, misunderstanding about the cure, you see, or I wouldn't have—"

"It's alright," Peter says kindly. "Your Witcher explained everything."

Jaskier casually props his cheek up in one hand to conceal a smug smile. He ventures, "It's a shame we'll have to be moving on—you've a lovely town here."

Peter shrugs. "You're welcome to stay and play here as long as you'd like. I couldn't pay a retainer, but we get a lot of travellers to and from Vizima, and I could discount a room for you."

"Oh, that's very kind," Jaskier says quickly. "I'm afraid it's the road for me, though. There's so much I haven't seen."

Peter furrows his eyebrows, seeming mildly perplexed. Behind him, the cook starts bringing plates of food out to the guests.

"You'll change your mind one day," he says, speaking with that air people use when they're really talking inwards. "The road can't love you back."

Jaskier looks up at him with a tilt of his head.

What a strange way to flatten something so beautiful, he thinks. What a small way to love.

He says none of it, though. There's no way for it to leave him in a way that will join their understanding.

Instead, he says brightly, "Nonetheless! It isn't today, though I'm flattered you enjoyed my, ah, performance."

The cook hands Jaskier his breakfast shortly after, and he shuffles upstairs with two plates balanced on the crook of his arm and mugs of tea steaming in his palms. 

This is a fine plan until he has to open the door.

"Geralt?" he calls tentatively, knocking a foot against the thin wood. "A little help if you would?"

There's no answer, but a moment later the door swings open with Geralt on the other side. He looks down at the food, up at Jaskier's face, and then back at the food.

"Half of it's yours!" Jaskier clarifies. "So, you know, feel free to take—"

Geralt grabs both plates with a hum that can only be described as mischievous.

"Very funny," Jaskier tells him, kicking the door shut on his way into the room. He joins Geralt in sitting cross-legged by the cold hearth, setting their tea down on the well-worn fur covering the even older floors.

Geralt still says nothing.

Jaskier feels a spike of anxiety. "Are you cross with me?"

Geralt flicks his eyes over with a tiny frown, then looks down and mutters into his mug, "No."

"Ah." Jaskier smiles, puffing out a conscious breath. "Just feeling particularly untalkative this fine morning?"

Alicja was like that. Jaskier should probably write to her soon.

"Mm," says Geralt.

"Well, that's fine by me," Jaskier reassures him. "Just because I talk doesn't mean you have to. I mean, Roach doesn't say a word and she still makes her opinions perfectly clear."

Geralt rolls his eyes, an excellent case-in-point, and takes a particularly nice-looking kippered herring from Jaskier's plate.

Jaskier, in the midst of his completely normal and appropriate reaction to this display of intimacy, forgets to retaliate entirely.

 

~*~

 

After breakfast, they pack up their things and head down to the stables. The same stablegirl is there, grooming the guests' horses. Their dear and terrible Roach is looking rather presentable, in fact, which shocks Jaskier.

Geralt greets the mare with their familiar headbutt, smiling warmly—then turns that smile on the girl.

"She's happy," he says, leaving a coin on the gate. "Thanks."

The girl's eyes widen much like they did last night. "Oh, you don't have to tip, sir."

Geralt shrugs and leads Roach from her stall, and Jaskier is suddenly aware that he still hasn't paid Geralt for the room. He'll bring it up once they're alone.

Down the road, though, as Jaskier is fishing in his pockets distractedly, Geralt clears his throat.

"I know, I know, I'm just trying to remember if I already put my tip money in with my purse or not. Do you hear jingling in my lute case?"

"Not that," Geralt says. "But no."

Jaskier turns to look at him—he's leading Roach on foot as they head through town, having explained that they'll check in with the alderman to confirm there's really no work in the area.

"Well, what is it, then?" Jaskier asks expectantly.

Geralt looks away. "It's weird now."

"And it was less weird ten seconds ago?" Jaskier puts a hand on his hip.

Geralt says, "It doesn't matter."

"I will dye your hair pink while you sleep if you don't tell me," Jaskier threatens, frowning in a very serious fashion.

Geralt's lips twitch. "What happened to no prodding."

"Geralt."

Geralt sighs, frowning at the horizon. "I didn't like that you noticed."

"Didn't… like what that I noticed?" Jaskier asks, furrowing his eyebrows.

"Sometimes it's like my tongue doesn't wake up," Geralt says flatly. "It's… I can usually make myself, but—"

"You almost feel sick?" Jaskier guesses. "Like something's fighting you."

Geralt blinks, glancing over with surprise, and halts Roach.

"One of my sisters," Jaskier explains. He feels his eyes misting over with melancholy. "She'd go weeks without talking. She used to drag me around and make me talk for her—oh, she was the second youngest, have I mentioned I was the youngest? And we used to joke that she left all her words in the womb for me, which drove Mother batty because she wanted nice normal children and they don't average out, you see, when you have two who're odd in different directions."

Geralt says nothing, but breathes out in an amused staccato.

"Not that I think there's anything odd about it, you know, I'm just articulating her perspective," Jaskier continues cheerfully, then tilts his head. "Actually, I suppose it is odd, but odd doesn't have to mean 'bad,' hm? Anyway, my sister became a priestess of Melitele and took a vow of silence. She's not even particularly devout, she just got so blasted tired of people wanting her to say things and she's really fond of all the little nitpicky rituals they do, and I'm a bard—" Jaskier spreads his arms for effect. "—so I'd say it worked out!"

Geralt is smiling, eyebrows lifted in a bemused expression. He says, "You're odd in many ways."

"Thank you!" Jaskier says, returning Geralt's quirked lips with a flash of teeth. "I like to collect them. It's important to have a brand, you see, and mine is being very loud and deeply peculiar."

Geralt huffs out another laugh and resumes their walk.

Jaskier says, "I lost the thread. What I meant, originally, is that you can be odd with me. It's more interesting, anyway."

"That's the problem," Geralt says. "I don't—"

"Um, is you the mister Witcher, sir?" asks a nasally voice from behind them.

Jaskier and Geralt both turn around—there's a small child standing in the road, peering up at Geralt with pudgy cheeks and a serious expression.

"I am," Geralt answers just as seriously. "How can I help you?"

The child—goodness, she can't be more than six, or possibly ten? Jaskier has had very little exposure to the squished-up little things.

The child of indeterminate age says, "Grampa Peter says you's leavin' 'cause you don't have work."

Geralt elbows Jaskier in the side and says, "Wow, your grandfather said that, huh? I am leaving town."

Jaskier reaches over and yanks on Geralt's hair.

"But you can't go!" the girl insists. "I have a monster."

"Hm." Geralt crouches down in the dirt to look the child in the eye. "You do, do you? How much will you pay me?"

The little girl scrunches up her face, clearly pondering this very hard, and offers, "You can have one of my buttons, if you won't snitch to Ma that I'm takin' buttons."

"That's a pretty steep fee," Geralt says seriously. "Your monster must be really scary," and—

Oh, Jaskier thinks in a rush of warm, aching despair. Oh, damn it all, I'm properly in love with you, aren't I?

"It is," the girl answers. "It's under my bed."

Geralt frowns. "I see. Does it ever touch you?"

The girl shakes her head.

"Does it ever talk to you?"

Another head shake. "I just know it's there! And Ma and Pa don't believe me."

The poor thing is on the verge of tears. Jaskier processes this distantly, from behind the rush of blood in his ears.

"Well, we better investigate," Geralt tells her. "Can you show me where you live?"

"Yes, mister! It's next to Grampa's house," the child answers, and snatches up Geralt's hand in her own to lead him along.

Jaskier trails behind them, taking in the image—Geralt of Rivia, the lone Witcher, leading his horse with one hand and being dragged along by a little girl by the other.

It makes him wish he had a visual talent—something to sketch the moment, something that would let it live outside him when it was done. To tell it, he'll have to let it scratch his throat.

They knock politely on the door; a frazzled looking woman opens it and exclaims at the sight of her child, "I just sent you next door! What've I told you about running off?"

"But Ma!" the girl whines. "Mister Witcher says he's gonna kill my monster."

"Not this again," the woman complains, looking up at Geralt. "She hasn't got a monster. I told her it's time to outgrow these fancies of hers."

Geralt politely says, "I've accepted a contract, ma'am. It's against my code to rescind now."

"That's true!" Jaskier helpfully contributes.

"I'm sorry," says the woman. "Who are you?"

Jaskier turns to show off his lute. "Oh, I'm the bard! I chronicle all of Geralt's adventures, you see." He clears his throat and trills, "The monster under the bed, the White Wolf did slay dead."

The child claps delightedly.

The woman, looking very much like she wants to shove Jaskier's lute strings down his throat, steps aside and says, "Make it quick. She's got chores to mind."

The girl leads them to a little bedroom with three equally little beds. Geralt makes a big show of investigating all the nooks and crannies, even squeezing under the bed as best as he can manage.

When he's finished, he sits down on the floor across from the girl, who mimics his posture with her tiny hands folded in her lap. 

"You were right," Geralt tells her. "You did have a monster, but it's gone now. It heard you were getting big and brave and it ran off."

The girl's eyes go saucer-wide. "Really?"

"Really," Geralt promises. "But I'll teach you a trick in case it ever comes back. Ready?"

She nods intently.

Geralt draws something for her in the dust—Jaskier doesn't recognize it specifically, but it looks vaguely Elder in nature.

"Draw this, and it'll protect you from monsters under the bed," Geralt instructs. "If it's a different type of monster, you should run as fast as you can and get help."

"Yes, sir." The girl scrambles to her feet and reaches under her pillow. "Mister bard sir, you gotta keep lookout!"

Jaskier smiles indulgently and goes to stand by the door. "Don't you worry—I'll caw like a crow if anyone comes by."

He does watch for the girl's mother, humorous tone aside. He'd hate for the girl to get in any trouble.

"You can pick any you want," the girl is telling Geralt. "Except this one, 'cause it's my favorite, unless you really want it and then it's okay."

"I can't accept payment," Geralt answers. "You chased your monster off all by yourself."

The girl argues, "But you taught me the special trick! You shouldn't work for free, sir, people will take advantage of you."

Jaskier presses a hand to his mouth to contain a rather undignified sound.

"Hm, alright." There's a clicking sound as Geralt rifles through the collection. "How about this one?"

"Not that one," says the girl.

Jaskier snorts.

"No?" Geralt asks with amusement. "Hmm, this one?"

"You can have this one," she confirms.

Geralt tells her, "Thank you very much. Now go mind your chores, okay? Mister bard and I have to go."

"Okay." It sounds like the girl stows her collection away again. "You can't stay in case it comes back? You can live in our garden. One time I found a worm out there but it's pretty nice."

A hand brushes between Jaskier's shoulder blades, steering him forward. Geralt says, "I can't. I need to go to other towns and help other children with their monsters too."

Jaskier glances over curiously, feeling the tug of something familiar that his tongue can't place before he's urged along.

The little girl waves goodbye to them at the door, though her mother doesn't come see them out.

That's fine with Jaskier, who is watching Geralt turn the button—formerly polished wood worn dull with time, a big nic down to the middle rendering it useless for mending—in his fingers while they rejoin the main road.

Geralt says, "We should stop for supplies," at the same time Jaskier tells him, "That was unbearably kind."

Geralt looks up, wide-eyed, and hastily stuffs the button into a trouser pocket.

"Don't," Jaskier begs. "Don't shutter off like that. Not for this."

Geralt's jaw clenches; he looks away (he never looks at Jaskier too long) and says, "Sometimes there's a monster."

"Under children's beds?" Jaskier asks disbelievingly.

"In them," Geralt says tightly.

Jaskier's heart wrenches. He says, "Oh."

"It wasn't like that this time. At least not in the house." Geralt's nostrils flare. "I would've smelled it."

Jaskier wonders how many times he has. 

"Even so," Geralt says. "Children deserve someone who believes them."

"That's true," Jaskier agrees softly. "What you did for her matters."

Geralt closes his eyes for a brief moment. When he opens them, his pupils are thin slits against the morning sun.

"Maybe this'll be the song I write, hm?" Jaskier teases. "The mighty White Wolf's most fearsome contract yet—a child's imagination. An epic battle and even more epic rewards. Ooh, I've got it! Toss a button to your Witcher— hm, no, that meter's a bit clunky, do you think?"

Geralt snorts fondly. "We should stop for supplies."

"Oh, before I forget!" Jaskier says, snapping his fingers. "Money, for the room. How much do I owe you?"

"Don't worry about it," Geralt tells him. "Meet me at the second river bend in an hour."

"There are a few complications with that plan," Jaskier cheerfully informs him. "Namely that I don't have a good sense of how long an hour takes or where the second river bend is. Also, fuck you, I'm paying your money back."

Geralt pinches the bridge of his nose. "Don't take too long. I'll come find you when I'm ready."

"If you don't tell me an amount, I'll overpay you on purpose," Jaskier threatens, smiling brightly.

"Fine," Geralt sighs. "Twenty orens."

Jaskier frowns exaggeratedly as he counts out his coins. "How much is that in buttons?"

"Oh, fuck off." Geralt smirks, though, and shoves Jaskier lightly on the shoulder. "See you later."

Jaskier smiles, quite pleased with himself. Although insisting on paying for the room was not, strictly speaking, his most brilliant act of self-preservation—he'll have to be shrewd at the market, which isn't in his nature.

 

~*~

 

Jaskier manages to haggle for more traveling rations and indulges in a single impulse purchase—a little sack of horse treats for Roach, with which to shamelessly bribe her. 

It occurs to him that he should probably look for a new bedroll. Sharing with Geralt is cramped and impractical and was, demonstrably, born out of necessity. Taking advantage of the situation by not getting himself one of his own wouldn't be right.

Jaskier has never claimed to operate from a strong moral center. It's more like a wobbly moral custard, if he's being honest. To be feasted upon in times of need.

He wanders down the street and finds himself a corner where he can busk instead, playing cheerful songs to help the town go about its day. The money isn't grand by any means, but it's better than spending more.

Geralt comes to collect him shortly after, still leading Roach on foot. He mounts up while Jaskier is putting his lute away and leads them out of town. 

"So," Jaskier asks brightly, walking along with the dust kicking up around his feet. "Where to next?"

"We'll cross the river," Geralt says. "The alderman said we might find work from some of the farmers out that way."

Jaskier perks up at that. "A monster?"

"Maybe," Geralt allows.

"Well, count me in!" Jaskier says—not that it was up for debate to him, but boldly declared intentions and all that. "And lead the way."

Geralt says, "Hm," and urges Roach onwards.

 

~*~

 

The day's travel is uneventful, save for the crossing of the river. There's not a bridge nearby apparently, so they roll up their breeches and wade through a shallow stretch of water with Roach led behind them.

While today is marginally cooler, the water is still pleasantly warm. Jaskier is almost sad to leave it and continue on.

There's not as much tree cover here, the forests giving way to farmland. Geralt still leads them off the main road to make camp in an area sheltered from view of other travellers. Jaskier has more trouble finding enough kindling, but makes do.

The sun is a sliver of fresh rust beyond the horizon. Geralt rotates their dinner on its spit and says, "Got you a bedroll, by the way."

Oh. Jaskier doesn't have much right to be disappointed, does he? He was clearly imposing, maybe he's gotten too clingy. Oh, gods, maybe Geralt can tell—

"Right!" Jaskier smiles brightly. "Gosh, thanks for doing that—can't believe it slipped my mind, to be honest."

Geralt's smile is crooked. "I can."

Jaskier asks, "Did you want me to get those laid out?"

Geralt shrugs and says, "We'll be up a while."

"Well, erm, I'm sorry for… you know." Jaskier gestures vaguely between them.

Geralt frowns at him.

"I didn't mean to make you uncomfortable," Jaskier explains. "With the—the, well, proximity."

Geralt glances down at his feet where he sits near the fire. "I didn't want you to feel trapped."

Jaskier should feel guilty—instead of this perverse hope between his collar bones. He purses his lips and says, "I don't understand."

"Wouldn't be right," Geralt tells him. "Not giving you somewhere else to go."

Jaskier isn't a creature particularly suited for remorse; he thinks of his own selfishness in the market and permits it to sluice through his fingers.

"Geralt," he says gently. "I could've slept in the grass."

Geralt hums, unconvinced.

"Did you feel—" Jaskier falters. "That way?"

Geralt turns his attention to the fire, which he stokes with a thin stick he'd deemed unsuitable for burning. He says, "Could've slept in the grass."

A branch splinters and crumbles into red-hot embers under Geralt's prodding. Jaskier feels this under his skin—the threat of consumption. Is this a confession, carried to him across the fire? Is Jaskier lost in his own fancy, inventing poetry out of an ordinary life?

Perhaps Geralt is merely unbothered. It would almost be worse than active discomfort—having to tolerate being inconsequential.

"You're getting maudlin again," says Geralt.

Jaskier looks up, cheeks reddening, and bluffs wildly. "On what grounds would you make such a baseless accusation?"

Geralt smirks. "It's the only time you shut up."

"I could be maudlin and not shut up, if you prefer!" Jaskier offers cheerfully.

Geralt huffs with amusement. He rotates the spit again, then sits back in the dirt. 

Jaskier allows the quiet to settle. He's getting better at that, if only marginally—perhaps the grandest gesture he could make, though it will surely go unappreciated.

Geralt reaches into his pocket and retrieves something, turning it through his fingers. It's the button, Jaskier realizes, dark and scarred and swallowing the firelight with its umber.

Will that little child remember them, Jaskier wonders? Will she tell her friends, her children, about the kindness of a silver-haired man?

"You chose to be a bard," Geralt says eventually.

Jaskier tilts his head. "Yes, I did. Why d'you ask?"

"And you could… settle somewhere," Geralt continues. "Take up reliable employment."

"Ah," says Jaskier. "Did you overhear my conversation with Peter?"

Geralt wets his bottom lip. "I don't make a habit of eavesdropping."

"That's alright." Jaskier draws his knees up to his chest and drapes his forearms across them. "His wasn't my first offer, no."

"Why don't you?" Geralt asks, looking up. The flames catch in his eyes, making them glint like amber. "You said no one wanted you."

Jaskier licks his lips, turning the words over against his teeth. "It's like this, I suppose—you love your Roach very much, don't you?"

Geralt nods seriously.

"How could you love her if you only saw her for the tail, or her hooves?" Jaskier asks. "Don't you need to love all of her body, and the way her gait sounds different over grass or hard-packed dirt, and what she looks like in the sunlight?"

Geralt is watching him intently, thumb and index finger still turning his little trophy around and around.

"That's how I love the world," Jaskier says softly. He glances up at the sky, all the pinpricks of stars, and then back at Geralt's glowing eyes. "I want all of it—every inch. I won't settle for less. And people don't want to be loved because they're a part of something—they want to be the whole of it."

Geralt runs his thumb over the jagged edge of the button, which catches and drags against his skin. His silence seems to be nearly meditative, until he says, "You're a contradiction."

"Certainly," Jaskier agrees, smiling. "Be more specific."

"You talk like no one wants you the way you are," Geralt tells him, gaze steady. "But you're the one who's never satisfied."

Jaskier blinks—a sharp point pressed to his sternum. He swallows down the defensiveness, tasting his heart in his throat, and challenges, "Are any of them? Are you?"

"I want nothing," says Geralt evenly. Like it was pounded flat.

Jaskier snorts. 

"I didn't choose to become a Witcher." Geralt pulls the food off the fire. "There's nothing your world ever offered me."

Jaskier conceals the twist of his stomach. "Then why continue on this path? Why not take my suggestion and become a herbalist, or—or a fisherman or something?"

Geralt frowns, the line of his shoulders shifting uneasily. "I have a duty. There's—nothing else."

"Then you're just as hypocritical as I am," says Jaskier with a hint of smugness. "Trying to tell me I should be something I'm not and yet utterly unwilling to change yourself."

A flash of irritation crosses Geralt's visage; it settles quickly into begrudging amusement. He snaps the spit in half and holds each one out to give Jaskier first pick of the roasted birds—perhaps a peace offering.

Jaskier chooses the smaller one, of course, and takes an eager bite. "Do you want to know—ah, fuck, that's hot—what I think?"

Geralt raises an eyebrow and teases, "Nothing I say will stop you."

"That's—" Jaskier wheezes out hot air. "True."

Geralt blows patiently on his food.

Jaskier swallows. He looks at Geralt and says, "I think you're rather like a man who's been starving for so long, the thought of eating makes him nauseous."

Geralt tenses. "Do you ever say anything normally?"

"Certainly!" Jaskier says, perhaps a little meanly. "You're so unused to getting what you want that you've decided the solution is to stop trying."

The furrow smooths from Geralt's brow. He looks down at his hands—one holding the button and the other, the spit. Jaskier suddenly feels rather far away from him, as if the universe has warped the earth underneath them to make room.

Still expressionless, Geralt tosses the button in the fire.

"Don't!" Jaskier yelps, and lunges on instinct—

"Jaskier!"

"Ow, fuck. Fuck!" Jaskier hisses, flexing and curling his hand against the vestigial shock of heat. He turns to glare at Geralt, who is gripping Jaskier's wrist in his hand with a scowl. "Why would you do that?"

Geralt snaps, "Why would you do that?"

"Forget about me! Douse the fire, you—" Jaskier smacks Geralt's chest with his good hand. "Fucking—" Another smack. "Idiot!"

Geralt tugs Jaskier farther away from the blaze and makes some motion with his hand, which summons a massive gust of wind. Embers and entire crackling logs and white-hot ash scatter through the clearing in a frantic display of dying glory, and Jaskier's vision plunges into darkness.

"Fuck," he says, pulling free of Geralt's touch to dig through the stinging remnants. "Damn it all, Geralt, help me find it!"

"Why," asks Geralt. "It's just a button."

Jaskier's chest puffs in a fit of indignation—then deflates just as quickly. He sits back on his haunches, glancing half-blind in the direction of Geralt's voice, and sags against a sudden weight of shame.

There he is, once again—being carried by grand fancies no one else understands. Ferocious sentimentality, passing whims to build symbols out of useless wood. 

Before Jaskier can say anything, Geralt is circling the fire pit and scanning the mess in the grass. He kicks over a still-glowing log with the edge of his boot, crouches down to comb through the wild grass—some of it threatening to burn—and hums with satisfaction.

Geralt tosses the button to Jaskier, who fails to catch it. He finds it in the grass near his knee, though, willing his eyes to adjust faster to the moonlight, and stares numbly.

It's charred, especially around the notched part, the flames having eaten away at the raw edges. But they rescued it, before it was destroyed.

"You should keep it," Geralt tells him. "Sorry."

Jaskier shakes his head, then plucks the thing out of his burned hand and tucks it safely away in a trouser pocket. He curls his hand and winces at the sting—it'll probably be fine in a day or two. It wasn't in the fire for very long.

There's the sound of rustling, and a metal jar opening. Geralt kneels next to Jaskier and takes his hand by the wrist.

Jaskier's vision is starting to adjust, especially as a cloud drifts away from the moon. He looks at Geralt curiously, the soft frown of concentration on his face.

Geralt swipes two fingers through the contents of his little jar and smears a tingling salve across Jaskier's palm. His touch is gentle, almost uncertain. Jaskier wants to press his face into the crook of his neck and bite at the cord of his shoulder.

"Unbelievable," Geralt mutters. He smoothes the salve into the spaces between Jaskier's fingers. "What kind of fucking bard risks his fucking hand for no reason?"

Jaskier's throat is dry. He says, "It wasn't for no reason."

Geralt looks up. Their eyes meet for one horrible, thrilling second before he glances away.

Even if it were reciprocated—if Geralt would tumble Jaskier in the ash-scattered grass, slip a steady hand up the trembling flex of Jaskier's stomach and mouth at the underside of his jaw—

They couldn't. Jaskier couldn't.

His chest aches. There's no pain in his hand anymore. He swallows, hyper-aware of the hold Geralt still has on his wrist, and asks, "Geralt?"

Geralt hums, unmoving.

"Not that I'm in a particular rush," Jaskier says, which is a lie, but not in the way Geralt would think. "But do you have, erm, a sense of what could—how to break my… predicament?"

Geralt clears his throat. "I wrote to someone who could help."

"Oh, good," Jaskier says faintly. He shifts his weight. "It's just, erm, I wonder—what exactly triggers it. If it's—if there are other ways I could possibly be… intimate, so to speak. If I wanted to—if there were someone—"

"We could try it," Geralt interrupts brusquely.

"I—" Jaskier blinks. "What?"

"It'd be useful." Geralt coughs lightly. "Information. If you wanna know what happens."

Jaskier feels light-headed. "Oh," he says. "Yes. I mean, if you're—you'd be willing?"

Geralt wets his bottom lip with a nod.

Jaskier shuffles a little closer and reaches for him, a hand to cup—

"Don't," says Geralt.

Jaskier flinches, confused.

Geralt flicks his eyes to Jaskier's hand. "Salve needs to dry."

"Oh." Jaskier laughs thinly. He holds the injured hand near his hip and reaches with the other—brushes tentative fingers across Geralt's cheek.

Geralt's eyes flutter shut. He leans into the touch, a ghost of breath against Jaskier's pulse, and waits.

"So…" Jaskier leans in until their noses touch, his forehead brushing against Geralt's brow. Gods, he wants to close the distance, wants to just—but he can't. Not yet. "I know that if—if I think too hard about sex, it triggers. But sometimes I've tried… I haven't had the intention, and it still happened. So I think perhaps my partner's intentions also…"

"Don't think about fucking you," Geralt rumbles. "Got it."

Jaskier nods. The movement brings their mouths closer, all hot breath and the tremble of Jaskier's hands, and it's a little like a collapse.

Geralt pushes something out of the way—the salve?—and rests a hand on Jaskier's knee. Jaskier pushes into him, the rough cradle of his lips, flattening his palm against Geralt's cheek with the urgent desire to hold him.

It's… soft. Jaskier feels hopelessly earnest, like a youngling in the garden vying for his first kiss on the cheek—despite the way he swipes his tongue across Geralt's bottom lip with a shiver.

Geralt unfurls for him, mouth opening sweetly. His hand slips up Jaskier's thigh, catching on the rough fabric of his trousers and bunching it near his hip. Gods, he's so gentle. Almost meek.

Jaskier longs for his other hand—to feel the flex of Geralt's muscle, to cup his face in both hands and hold him in this, to play with his hair. He wants—

Careful, he chides himself. But the point is to test, isn't it? To work out…

"Can I—?" he asks.

"Yeah," Geralt murmurs. He bites tenderly at Jaskier's lip, a delicious drag of sharpened canine. 

Jaskier rises to his knees, pushing into Geralt's space, and teases, "Haven't said what."

Geralt's hand reaches Jaskier's hip. He splays his fingers along the small of Jaskier's back, digging a little into the edge of his spine.

Jaskier takes that as encouragement. He straddles one of Geralt's thighs, settling his weight with an arm draped across Geralt's shoulders to stabilize the angle, his bad hand held carefully away from Geralt's shirt.

He's not hard, really, though he can feel his cock stirring when Geralt pushes into their contact. Gods, he wants to rock against Geralt's thigh like a fumbling teenager, wants to tumble with him into the grass and rut against him like an animal. 

Geralt lifts his other hand, bunches it in the back of Jaskier's doublet. He uses it for leverage—pulls Jaskier against him with a rumble from deep in his throat.

"Fuck," Jaskier murmurs. His hand leaves Geralt's cheek, fingers searching for the tie in Geralt's hair. He frees it, letting the curtain of it fall around them. "That's better."

Geralt grumbles in protest. "Don't lose it."

Jaskier smiles against Geralt's mouth. "Sorry. C'mere."

He takes Geralt's hand from his hip and, rather ungracefully with limited use of his second hand, secures the tie around Geralt's wrist.

Geralt meets his gaze, slivers of gold against the blue moonlight. He lifts his fingers to caress the underside of Jaskier's jaw, an aching tenderness. "Thanks."

Jaskier pushes him down into the dirt.

He allows himself to be moved, surely. Smirks up at Jaskier with a wuff of air leaving his lips, silver hair splayed out around him amongst the prickling grass. 

"Alright," he says, and Jaskier laughs. Laughs again, and covers Geralt's body with his own. Maybe he can—if it's just against Geralt's hip. If they don't touch— 

Jaskier licks into Geralt's mouth, shuddering at the teasing flick of tongue he gets in response. And, Melitele, he doesn't even care. He could do this for hours. Just this, just their bodies pressed together and Geralt's hand drifting up his spine. It's been so long since this was all someone expected of him.

But Geralt murmurs, "Think it's working," and Jaskier—

He remembers. That this isn't—for its own sake. He's been selfish today, for his entire all-consuming life. It's so hard to stop.

"Try pushing it a little," Geralt encourages. "See if—"

He shifts so that their cocks brush together, and Jaskier is scrambling backwards through the dirt.

He stops four or five feet away, a sudden pain throbbing up the midline of his injured hand.

"Fuck," says Jaskier.

Geralt's expression is pained, bone-white against the glow of the moonlight. He says, "Sorry. I should've asked."

Jaskier shakes his head in disbelief, wetting his bottom lip. Geralt can't think—

"It was the—" he coughs. More pain in his hand. "Believe me. You didn't, um—it wasn't unwelcome."

There's a throbbing at the base of Jaskier's skull; he doesn't think he hit his head. 

Geralt says, "Okay."

"So, um…" Jaskier clears his throat. "Normally I try to, ah, resume after the first time. And I wonder if maybe, both parties being on the same page, we could…"

Geralt nods. He sits up, settling into a relaxed recline with one forearm braced on the ground. "Alright."

Jaskier walks forward on his knees, determining this to be the least ridiculous of several embarrassing options, and shakes the sting out of his hand. 

Geralt waits, watching him with a lingering heat in his gaze.

Jaskier cups Geralt's jaw, thumbs at his bottom lip. He feels Geralt shudder, feels the hot tingle of eyes on his mouth.

Just to kiss. Just to touch him again, a little.

Geralt hums when their mouths brush in a chaste question. Leans in closer with his weight shifting, chances a brush of tongue that Jaskier chases willingly.

Jaskier tangles his fingers in Geralt's hair again, delighting in the way Geralt melts into him. Gods, it feels like he wants it. Like he wants Jaskier, would kiss him by the obliterated fire under the moon even if it wasn't as a favor. He touches Jaskier's hip, drags fingers along the edge of his doublet, breaks their kiss to brush his nose against Jaskier's cheek and mouth at the sensitive place behind Jaskier's ear.

I love you, Jaskier thinks hopelessly. His free hand quiveringly uselessly at his side when he tilts back his head to bare his throat, begging. Oh, what an absurd and wonderful thing.

Geralt kisses the soft underside of Jaskier's jaw and down his neck, biting once with a tentative playfulness. 

Jaskier gasps, and shudders again, and says, "Oh, Melitele, you're good at that—"

And Jaskier is climbing the nearest tree.

"Fuck!" Jaskier yelps. He tries to stop, or at least slow his unwilling ascent, but only succeeds in dizzying himself when he looks down with alarm. "Geralt! Help!"

"I can't!" Geralt shouts. "I can't get closer."

Fuck, Jaskier's hand hurts. He hisses with pain and then goes stock-still with fear, clinging to a branch high above the ground.

At least he's stopped moving.

Geralt, the absolute bastard, is smirking.

"You did this on purpose?" Jaskier snaps. "This isn't a funny prank, Geralt!"

The smile slides off Geralt's face. "What?"

"I mean, I know you probably didn't mean to put me up the tree, specifically, but still!" Jaskier insists, fighting the urge to gesticulate to make his point. "It was a little—"

"You weren't thinking about fucking?" Geralt asks.

Jaskier blinks. "No? What're you implying?"

Geralt says, "It's nothing. Just come down."

"I can't!" Jaskier sits up tentatively, testing his weight against the branch. "I didn't exactly—"

"Just climb down!" Geralt snaps.

Jaskier looks at the collection of limbs beneath him, which he can barely discern in the dark. A bubble of fear lodges in his throat. "I can't, Geralt, what if I slip or I'm not strong enough or—or—"

"Okay." Geralt's voice is gentle now, his palms spread placatingly. "Okay, Jaskier—you're up less than three stories."

Jaskier gulps. "If that's supposed to be comforting—"

Geralt says, "Jump."

Jaskier edges backwards, shoulders pressed against the tree trunk. "I beg your fucking pardon?"

"I'll catch you," Geralt says.

"Geralt," Jaskier begs. "What if you—"

"Jaskier. Do you trust me?"

Jaskier looks down at him, the earnest widening of his eyes and the ruination of his hair—sticks and dirt and pine needles, from submitting himself to Jaskier's weight above his hips.

"Of course," says Jaskier.

Geralt takes a step closer and holds out his arms. "I'll catch you."

Jaskier jumps.

His stomach flies into his throat and he thinks, for the half second it takes for him to fall, that this might be thrilling if—

Steady arms wrap tight around him—Geralt stumbles back with a grunt and makes a quarter-turn and Jaskier whoops with the realization that he is very much alive.

Geralt snorts in Jaskier's ear, dropping him to the ground. "Don't get any ideas."

Jaskier laughs, grasping Geralt's biceps while the dizziness passes. 

"Thank you," he says, and reluctantly lets go.

Geralt hums, tilting his head with a smile. His gaze drops to Jaskier's hand, held protectively by the good one, and his smile fades.

"Let me see it," he says, eyebrows furrowing.

Jaskier holds it out obediently.

Geralt drags a single finger up the thin skin of Jaskier's forearm, down along the lines of Jaskier's palm. He turns the hand over and presses against Jaskier's fingers, encouraging him to curl them.

Jaskier does, only wincing slightly at the discomfort.

"Most of the healing took," Geralt says. "The pain'll linger. My salve's not made for humans—I can't give you more."

"That's alright," Jaskier says softly, then, "Thank you," again. 

He wants to wrap his fingers around Geralt's wrist, tug him forward into another kiss. The rush from his fall is settling and leaving him fidgety—greedy.

The experiment is clearly over, and even if it weren't, Jaskier isn't keen to test what would happen if he triggered the curse a third time in rapid succession.

Geralt clears his throat and drops Jaskier's hand. "Uh, should I build a new fire?"

"Oh, that's—" Jaskier glances around at the mess surrounding them. "Come to think of it, what happened to dinner?"

Geralt says, "Uh."

He walks over near where Jaskier was sitting and picks up one half of the spit—which still contains a beautifully roasted bird, now seasoned with a delicious coating of dirt and what looks like a live beetle crawling away from Geralt's hand.

Jaskier covers his mouth and says, "Oh, my."

The beetle takes flight 

Jaskier begins to giggle. 

"Don't," says Geralt.

"Do you think— hee." Jaskier bites back a grin. "Do you think if we wash them in the river?"

Geralt drops the stick back into the dirt.

"Oh, don't be such a grumpy-grump," Jaskier teases. "We've made a proper mess— that's an accomplishment!"

"That sentence explains a lot about you," Geralt deadpans, but his expression softens. "Just get something from our bags."

Jaskier makes his way across camp carefully, trying to avoid tripping over any intact pieces of firewood. Roach, oddly, doesn't even pick her head up from whatever forage she's eating when he approaches.

He realizes why when he gets closer—Roach isn't eating grass. While Jaskier was busy having several successive emotional crises, the clever little demon found the bag of treats he bought for her and is currently gorging on them.

"Shit!" Jaskier whispers, trying to avoid alerting Geralt. "Shoo, you naughty thing! Those were for special occasions! Shoo!"

"Don't be such a grump," Geralt teases from directly behind him, making Jaskier jump. "Tonight's been pretty special."

Jaskier presses a hand to his chest, trying to suppress his startled heart rate. "Geralt! You won't let her eat them all at once, will you? I'm not even getting the credit—she doesn't know they're from me!"

"Hm." Geralt pats Roach on the shoulder and then leans his weight against her chest to make her back up. "If you only did it to get credit, does it still count as a nice thing?"

"First of all, I didn't only do it to get credit, but credit is nice," Jaskier answers, quickly snatching up the half-eaten bag. "And second of all, yes it does! If it made someone happy, it doesn't matter why you did it."

Geralt turns to face him, but stays leaning against Roach's side. She nuzzles at his side and bites at his shirt, possibly looking for where her gourmet dinner went.

"So then you believe the opposite?" Geralt asks. "If your intentions were good and you brought harm about anyway, then you're bad?"

"You did something bad," Jaskier corrects. "You can't define someone by one action. No one is wholly one thing, after all."

Geralt hums, furrowing his eyebrows.

"You disagree?" Jaskier guesses.

"I think evil men would be more pleased with your philosophy than mine," Geralt says.

Jaskier quirks his lips. "That might be true. But there must be room for forgiveness, mustn't there? Who hasn't been in need of a little grace?"

"You didn't strike me as religious." Geralt turns his head, kissing Roach's neck, and then moves to unpack rations from their bags.

"I don't mean it in the religious sense," Jaskier says. He crouches down to help, procuring some of the hard cheese and smoked fish he bought this morning. "I mean grace with one another."

Geralt hums in a tone Jaskier can't decipher.

"I think cruel men—evil men—are largely unconcerned with the state of their souls. They'll find whatever means necessary to justify their actions, whether it's through your philosophy or mine." Jaskier brushes his fingers over the back of Geralt's hand, urging him to look—and he does. "It's good men who doubt."

Geralt stands abruptly, glancing away. He says, "I'll try to rebuild the fire. You wanted to pare your nails."

Jaskier blinks. "Bollocks, I did, didn't I? That feels like it was days ago."

"Sorry," Geralt says. "Meant to remind you yesterday."

"Don't be," Jaskier tells him. He carries the food and an empty sack to use as a makeshift table over by the soon-to-be fire. "I forgot too, obviously."

Geralt hums and begins gathering the wood.

Jaskier goes back to his bags and retrieves his shaving kit, which also stores a few other personal grooming items. He eyes Roach while he's there—she seems to be grazing half-heartedly now.

Horses probably can't sulk, right?

Jaskier sighs. He grabs a treat from his dwindling stash and tosses it over to her—smiles privately at the way her ears immediately perk up as she snuffles around in the grass for it. He sneaks back to the fire without another word.

 

~*~

 

When it comes time for bed, Geralt tosses Jaskier's new bedroll to him from across the clearing. Jaskier catches it, digging his fingers into the padding experimentally—it's stiffer than his old one, clearly made of fresh straw, though flexible enough to be, well, rolled. 

"Thank you again," he says. 

Geralt hums, spreading his own out further away from the fire.

Jaskier chews on his bottom lip. He doesn't—well. He doesn't want to sleep alone. Not after everything that's happened between them today. 

And Geralt—he'd said he hadn't minded, right? Of course, it's possible he was just being polite, but Geralt has proven himself fully capable of being blunt.

So at the least, he probably won't mind if Jaskier sleeps next to him, will he?

Jaskier comes around the fire and lays his bedroll out a scant few inches from Geralt's, looking over to gauge a reaction.

Geralt's face is neutral.

It's fine. It's probably fine!

Jaskier borrows Geralt's cloak to use as a blanket again and shucks off his boots, then curls up on his side facing Geralt, who lays on his back. The firelight flickers over Geralt's features—the sharp jaw and crooked nose, the shimmering stubble trailing from cheek to throat. 

"Go to sleep," Geralt mutters, without opening his eyes.

"Right," Jaskier agrees, flopping onto his back. "Of course."

 

~*~

 

 

 

Jaskier doesn't sleep. He does try, of course—but he's fidgety and pent up from an evening of decidedly unresolved attempts at sexual gratification. It's not like he's going to resolve things while laying right next to Geralt, with or without a curse to contend with.

He really should test that one out, though.

"Geralt," Jaskier whispers. "Hypothetically speaking, do you think my current predicament would include acts of, ah, self-love?"

No answer.

Jaskier rolls onto his side, peering at Geralt in the dark. "Are you asleep?"

Geralt doesn't stir. His chest rises and falls with almost painful slowness—if Jaskier didn't know any better, he'd mistake the man for dead. 

The fire's burned low, but Jaskier's eyes are used to the dark by now, and the moon is almost directly overhead. He can see enough—can feel with the tingle under his skin he only gets when someone else is very near—to long for it.

People roll around in the night, don't they? It wouldn't be that unbelievable if Jaskier… accidentally wound up closer. Close enough to touch—just to take the edge off the ache in his chest.

Jaskier inhales unsteadily and brings his cloak with him, wriggling closer until he's casually hugging one of Geralt's arms with both of his and he has his head resting on Geralt's chest, near his shoulder.

A low, amused rumble vibrates against Jaskier's cheek.

Jaskier winces, eyes shutting with embarrassment.

"I was just, ah…" Jaskier fumbles. "Checking to make sure you were breathing? Are you aware that your breathing—"

"Mhm." Geralt frees his arm from Jaskier's childish grip, and Jaskier goes to move away—but Geralt tugs him closer, his arm now draped around Jaskier's back. "Another mutation."

Jaskier laughs nervously and says, "Oh, I see, well, I'm glad that's settled."

"Jaskier," Geralt asks, his voice languid with sleep. His fingers lift to play with the messy ends of Jaskier's hair. "What's your philosophy say about actions under false pretenses?"

Jaskier's cheeks heat up. He curls his fingers in Geralt's shirt like he may yet be found lacking and turned away. He says, "Same as any other, I suppose—what matters more is the result."

"Hm. Alright." Geralt cards his fingers through Jaskier's hair, almost clumsily. It's still soothing—like it settles the breath swirling in Jaskier's lungs. "And what about… inaction?"

Jaskier smiles with a tentative knowing. "Just another form of action, isn't it?"

"Maybe," Geralt allows. His body curls, no longer laying quite flat, but not turning on his side to dislodge Jaskier either. It brushes his mouth against Jaskier's forehead, into the crown of his hair. "Go to sleep."

Jaskier doesn't answer, too busy trying to obey.

 

~*~

 

Jaskier frowns and scratches out the line he just wrote in his poetry book—then tongues at the inside of his cheek and scribbles it down again in smaller script on top.

"What do you think?" he asks out loud. "Is the whole 'moon and sun' metaphor overplayed?"

Roach snorts and flicks her tail.

"Everybody's a critic," says Jaskier.

He's holding down the noontime camp alone today, Geralt having insisted on hunting up lunch to make up for the rations they ate last night, despite the fact that Jaskier argued they could see the first farm in the distance and would probably be fed a charitable dinner.

Apparently it's harder to hunt in broad daylight, because Geralt's been gone a while.

Jaskier is pondering whether he should go looking for his companion when a horrible whooshing noise rends apart space and possibly time and a beautiful woman appears from thin air.

"Fucking tits!" Jaskier yelps, scrambling to his feet. "Geralt? Geralt!"

The woman—curly, raven black hair and stunning purple eyes—curls her lip with enough distaste to show teeth. "Who the fuck are you?"

"I'm—wait, wait just a minute!" Jaskier wags a finger at her, still backing up slowly, trying to buy time. "Ladies first!"

The woman looks around camp, her eyes briefly lingering on Roach and Geralt's swords, both of which he left behind. Then her head whips around again and there's a dagger at Jaskier's throat.

"Where's Geralt?" she hisses, and shoves Jaskier up against a tree. The bark scrapes against his doublet and catches in his hair. "What've you done with him?"

"What have I done with—Geralt, help!" Jaskier's eyes flick between the dagger—what he can see of it, the thin edge of it pressed above the midpoint of his throat—and her face. "I—we're just travelling together! This is all clearly just a big misunderstanding! You seem like a very reasonable wi— sorceress, we can talk this out!"

The sorceress frowns at him thoughtfully, though she doesn't grant any relief from her dagger. "Geralt doesn't travel with anybody."

Jaskier laughs nervously. "Well, as you can—"

"What are you?" she asks suspiciously. "And why can you picture snogging Geralt?"

Jaskier squeaks, "Why can I what?"

"I admire your… range of tastes, though." The sorceress tilts her head in a catlike gesture, licking her lips. "You should visit Rinde. The brothels there have been… recently liberated."

"I'm sorry," Jaskier says, aware that he sounds dangerously offended for a man less than a sneeze away from a slit throat. "Are you reading my mind? Can all mages read minds? Oh, gods, I really can never go back to Prana."

The sorceress' head tilts another degree. "Prana's a shithole. Why would you want to go there?"

"Funny story!" Jaskier says cheerfully. "I'd be more inclined to tell it not under threat of death!"

"Hmm," says the sorceress. "You don't seem that interesting."

She inspects her nails on her free hand.

Jaskier shouts, "Geralt!" again for good measure.

The sorceress rolls her eyes. "If that didn't work the first few times—"

"Really, Yen?" Geralt asks as he emerges from the forest—sounding much too amused given Jaskier's current circumstances.

The sorceress—Yen, apparently—smirks. "There you are. Who the fuck is this?"

"Annoying but harmless," Geralt tells her. "Let him go."

Yen sighs and takes a pointed step backwards; Jaskier immediately darts away in Geralt's direction, rubbing at his throat.

Geralt glances at him, doing a quick nonverbal assessment, and then looks back at Yen. "You came quickly."

"You're in luck," she answers, striding towards him with an enchanting confidence. There's a smugness to the curve of her lips—the satisfaction of someone who knows exactly what will happen next. "I already know how you'll repay my favor."

Jaskier's heart is still racing. He watches in shock as Geralt smirks back, his pupils widening a little despite the midday sun, and says, "Alright."

Yen pouts, tipping Geralt's chin up with a single finger, and complains, "You don't put up a fight anymore."

Geralt looks at Jaskier again. Then back at the sorceress, who he doesn't seem wary of at all—quite the opposite, in fact.

"I'll indulge you later," he tells her. "In private."

"I'm sorry," Jaskier cuts in, perfectly happy to be wary on Geralt's behalf. "What is happening?"

Geralt says, "Jaskier, stay with Roach," and allows Yen to take him by the wrist and lead him back towards the center of the clearing.

"I—for how long?" Jaskier asks. "Geralt, are you alright?"

Geralt blinks at him. "I'm fine."

Yen drops Geralt's hand and opens up a swirling vortex in the air, which seems to be a window to another place entirely—Jaskier sees the flicker of a fire and a row of bottles on a table.

"Fuck, I hate portals," Geralt mutters.

Yen says, "Baby," and kicks him through. She turns to look at Jaskier, taking in whatever his face is doing, and rolls her eyes. "I'll send him back in one piece, bard. Mind your sitter."

With that, she vanishes.

Jaskier scrubs a hand over his face and looks over at Roach, who has apparently been left in charge.

The damned horse is grazing calmly, implying that she's rather used to sexy, terrifying women appearing out of nowhere.

"So that happens a lot, does it?" he asks her. There is no discernible response. "Ugh. 'Stay here, Jaskier.' What else am I supposed to do, fly off to the mountains?"

Jaskier stomps his way back over to his notebook, which is upturned in the dirt. Luckily not too much of the ink has spilled— that would just be the cherry on top, wouldn't it?

"Leaving me to fend for myself," Jaskier mutters. He scribbles a little frowning face in the margins of his paper. "There's nothing to do out here! What am I supposed to do to occupy myself, Roach?"

Hm. Come to think of it, Jaskier is alone for the first presumably significant stretch of time in a while. Who knows when this particular opportunity will arise again?

Jaskier shuts his notebook and stoppers his inkwell, eyeing Roach warily. She flicks her ears and looks over at him, rather soulful eyes boring right through him.

"Nope!" Jaskier decides. "Stay there and eat your grass, I'll just be—gods, why am I explaining this to you, you're a horse? Stay!"

Roach flares her nostrils with judgement.

Jaskier sticks his tongue out at her and scrambles off into the woods.

 

~*~

 

"Good news, Geralt!" Jaskier cheerfully announces when Geralt reappears in the clearing later that afternoon. "I have, with the utmost certainty, confirmed that masturbation is still possible!"

Geralt stumbles directly into a tree.

"Oh, dear," says Jaskier.

"Fuck," says Geralt. He runs a hand through his hair, which is loose around his face, and glares half-heartedly at Jaskier.

Jaskier grins unapologetically. "So how was your day?"

"Fine." Geralt brushes the bark off his trousers. "Got some leads on your curse."

Jaskier blinks. "Wait, that ridiculousness—was that for me?"

"Sure," Geralt says. "Pack up camp, we've gotta go."

"I mean, alright, but where are we going?" Jaskier asks, reaching for his notebook. "Is the plan still to talk to the—I'm sorry, is that a new shirt?"

Geralt frowns, looking down at his out. "What?"

"It is!" Jaskier accuses, flailing vaguely at the sleeves. "You didn't have buttons before! You got a new shirt? Why did you— ohh."

Geralt narrows his eyes. "What?"

"You did fuck her!" Jaskier says incredulously. "You went with the crazy witch—"

"Sorceress."

"Actually, that reminds me—is that an ontological difference or a matter of public relations?"

"Ontological."

"Fascinating." Jaskier blinks rapidly, refocusing. "You fucked the crazy sorceress! That's a thing! Who is she?"

Geralt grimaces. "Can we not do this?"

"I mean, she did hold a knife to my throat," Jaskier says. "I think that entitles me to a few questions. She made some very mean faces at me too, which honestly hurt worse."

Geralt says, "That's just her face."

Jaskier raises an eyebrow. "She didn't make those faces at you."

Geralt seems to consider this.

"Wait," Jaskier says as it dawns on him, replaying the conversation. "Is she the one you talked about? The—the volatile one, who you're close to?"

Geralt gently pries the book from Jaskier's hands and tucks it into his bag. "... Yeah."

"Oh," says Jaskier. "So she's—you two are… lovers?"

"She's…" Geralt hesitates, wetting his bottom lip. "Important to me."

And that's—

Well, far be it from Jaskier to judge. And it's not that he's jealous in the sense of being possessive. He's always been comfortably in the camp of freely-given love—no need for exclusivity.

But Geralt—he seems like the type to give his entire, beautiful heart over. And if it already belongs to this woman, then where does that leave Jaskier?

"Right, well, I didn't know you had such a taste for danger," Jaskier teases, trying to hide his disappointment. "Although come to think of it, that might explain the look, actually—is your Yen the type to go a little castration-happy at you snogging someone else? Because I'd hate to think she got the wrong impression, rooting around in my brain like she did."

Geralt snorts. "No. We aren't like that. I can kiss whoever I want."

Jaskier's stomach flips. "Really, now? Well, that's rather open-minded."

"Coming from you?" Geralt asks drily.

Jaskier becomes very busy with securing his bag very quickly. "Well, speaking as someone who has been chased out of beds by my fair share of angry lovers, I would estimate you to be in the minority opinion, yes."

"You wouldn't change your mind?" Geralt asks slowly. "If you… found someone. You wouldn't care if they had someone else, too?"

"Not really," Jaskier says, looking up with sincerity. He watches Geralt's face, which is perpetually careful, and quirks his lips. "I do care about loyalty, you know. Devotion, expressions of love and commitment—they're all things I'd want, erm, hypothetically of course. But I don't think love exists in such scarcity that it can't be shared."

Geralt doesn't answer at first, suddenly very intent on his task of tacking up Roach. He drags his fingers through her fur, eyes carefully tracking his own movement.

"We're heading to the farm," he says, still not looking up. "Stay close. I don't know what we're dealing with yet."

"I can do that!" Jaskier says brightly. "Just lead the way."

Geralt secures Roach's saddle, including their bags, and steers their little group out of the clearing on foot.

 

~*~

 

Twilight is rapidly approaching by the time they reach the farmlands proper. Jaskier, walking beside Roach and chattering happily to Geralt, cuts off mid-sentence when he takes in the empty, golden fields.

"Geralt," he says warily, "it's a bit early for the whole household to have quit work for the day, isn't it?"

Geralt hums.

Jaskier ventures, "Maybe they're preparing an early dinner?"

"House is dark," Geralt says.

Jaskier has to squint to see that far, but he trusts that Geralt is right. His skin prickles ominously. "Then… where is everyone? Gone into town?"

"Maybe." Geralt's eyes are scanning the area, casting over the fields in both directions and the road ahead of them, which is clear. 

Jaskier can't feel a breeze, but the wheat seems to sway with preternatural grace. He clutches at the strap of his lute and positions himself at Geralt's hip.

They reach the farmhouse without encountering a single soul. Geralt knocks politely, then pushes open the unlatched door when he receives no response. He hands Roach's reins to Jaskier and steps inside.

Jaskier shuffles closer, dragging a reluctant Roach along, and peers through the doorway.

A handful of flies buzz around rotten vegetables half-peeled near the hearth. Geralt swipes a finger through a thin coating of dust on the table.

"Discovered gold in the river and ran off to make their fortune?" Jaskier suggests brightly.

Geralt huffs quietly. He leaves the building without further commentary, steering Jaskier out of the way with a hand between his shoulder blades.

"We're not staking out the creepy house?" Jaskier asks.

Geralt shakes his head. "There's another one down the road. Need to see if it's inhabited."

"Right, of course." Jaskier glances behind them. "And what if it isn't?"

Geralt smirks. "Then we stake out the creepy houses."

"Fair enough," says Jaskier.

They still don't find anyone in the fields, but there's a lantern lit outside the second house they come across. Geralt knocks once again, and this time a burly woman with deep wrinkles opens the door.

"Quickly," she says, opening the door wider. "Get inside! It's not safe after dark."

Well, that answers that.

"I'm a Witcher," Geralt tells her. "I heard you might have trouble."

"Inside!" the woman repeats. "Leave your horse 'round back, it don't trouble the 'stock."

"Geralt," Jaskier says, glancing around at the rapidly setting sun. "Why don't you listen to the nice woman?"

Geralt sighs. He takes Roach from Jaskier and pushes him inside, then leads Roach around back.

The woman ushers Jaskier into the modest home, which is occupied by an aging man—presumably the husband—and several adults near Jaskier's age who are all filing in from the kitchen.

"Why're you travelling with a Witcher, son?" asks the woman. "Beg your pardon, but you don't seem the hunting type."

Jaskier decides to not take offense. He smiles brightly and explains, "Oh, I'm a bard! You could say I'm chronicling Geralt's adventures."

"Hm," Geralt says judgmentally, shutting the door behind himself. "Why's the house back down the road empty?"

The woman makes a devotional sign to Melitele—which makes little sense to Jaskier, given the goddess' supposed domain, but he supposes that it might be the best the woman has.

"You found Mir's homestead," the woman explains somberly. "We buried him and his family something near a week ago."

Geralt's face doesn't change. He says, "I'm sorry."

"It was the strangest thing you ever seen, Witcher," the older man cuts in. He touches the shoulder of one of the children—a young woman. "Tell him what you saw."

The woman looks up, but not at Geralt. She purses her lips, tears springing to her eyes that distance her gaze, and says, "They were dancing."

Jaskier makes a sound that he barely prevents from becoming a laugh.

Geralt kicks him on the ankle and prompts, "Dancing?"

"I—I heard somethin' spook the 'stock," the young woman says haltingly. "So I went out to see, thinking maybe I'd scare off a fox or what have, but I saw—" She sniffles, wiping at her nose. "The whole lot of them, they were out in the field, all joined hands and—and dancing. And I thought it was strange, 'specially since Ladana'd—"

"The Witcher don't care about all that," the old man says sharply.

Another sniffle. "Sorry. I thought it was strange, so I got closer and I called out to Mirna—that's Mir's oldest, we used to play together—but she didn't even look. And the closer I got, the more I got this feeling…"

She shakes her head.

"I felt like I had to go," she says. "Like—they were smilin', Witcher. I've never seen nobody smile like that. But Ma came lookin' and she dragged me back inside."

The old woman's voice is grave. She tells Geralt, "We found 'em all the next morning. Feet all torn up like they'd danced through the night—they shouldn't've been able to walk."

The blessing, Jaskier thinks, and of course the curse, of being a poet is thus: he feels this family's grief deeply. He feels it so deeply that he itches for his pen—to make it something useful, something to outlive them.

Danced to death. It was made to be a story, wasn't it?

This family doesn't want to be a story. They don't want their neighbors to have been blessed with a compelling death.

"Hm," Geralt says. He glances around the room, gaze settling meaningfully on the young woman. "Has anyone disappeared or died recently, besides this family?"

"No, sir," she answers, sniffly and wide-eyed. "Well, except Ladana."

"What happened to her?" Geralt asks, voice gentling.

The old man answers instead. "She ran off, is what happened. The lord comes passing through and takes a shine to her, she up and leaves her kin just like that."

"We should write to her," one of the sons says suddenly. "Melitele help us, she don't even know."

"You know where she is?" Geralt asks.

The young man shakes his head.

Geralt asks, "And she hasn't sent any letters?"

"No, sir," says the young man.

Geralt nods, the furrow deepening on his brow. "And how long's it been since anyone saw her?"

"Less than a fortnight," the old woman confirms. "The moon was 'round a quarter, I remember."

"I see." Geralt looks between them all again. "It'll take me at least a day longer, but I can destroy what's haunting your land. I take payment when the job's done."

"I'm afraid we don't have much," the old woman says nervously. "We wrote to our lord for help, but he hasn't sent word. So we started up a collection with some of the other farmers, but…"

Geralt's expression softens. "I'll take what you can spare. Including food and lodging, if you're able."

"Of course." The woman gestures towards the kitchen. This seems to cue the children to leave in that direction. "Dinner'll be ready in a bit. We ain't got a spare bed, but you're welcome to the barn."

"Or Mir's place," the old man says, a bit of grim humor. "He ain't got use for it."

"We'll do that," Geralt says. "Thanks."

Jaskier stares at him. "We will?"

Geralt asks the woman, "How can we help with dinner?"

Fucking unbelievable.

 

~*~

 

"Geralt," Jaskier says nervously, following Geralt into an abandoned bedroom. "Do I get a vote about where we sleep? Because I vote for the barn, next to my good friend Roach."

Geralt says, "Be my guest," and shakes the dust out of the blankets. 

"Well, I'm not sleeping in the vicinity of a monster without you!" Jaskier argues. He sneezes into the crook of his elbow, holding the candle he has in his other hand far away. "That's just bad sense."

"She won't come into the barns," Geralt says matter-of-factly. "Or the house."

Jaskier blinks. "'She?'"

"Pretty sure it's a nightwraith," Geralt answers. He looks out the window, pointing towards something in the fields. "Look."

Jaskier comes up next to him, squeezing against his side to get a view. The grain is caught in a strange wind—almost swaying in a…

Circle.

"Oh—it's a spirit?" Jaskier guesses. "A spirit that… dances people to death?"

Geralt hums. 

Jaskier asks, "How do you know?"

Geralt says, "That girl didn't run off."

"You don't mean—"

Geralt hums darkly.

Jaskier's stomach sinks. "But that would mean— gods, Geralt, she killed her whole family."

Geralt moves away from the window. "It's not her anymore."

"Does that—you can't help her?" Jaskier asks. He follows Geralt back to the bed, where Geralt is removing his boots. "There's nothing for—"

"No," Geralt says flatly.

"Then why not just go—just kill it?" Jaskier asks disbelievingly. "She's right there!"

Geralt snaps, "It's not that simple. She's a nightwraith. I have to find her body."

Jaskier's eyes widen. "But—there's acres of farmland, and the woods! What if you can't—"

"I will." Geralt closes his eyes. "It'll be close by. We'll figure out what happened to her."

Jaskier watches the shadows flicker across Geralt's face, the way a melancholy settles over him.

Which one of us are you trying to convince? he wonders.

And says, "I believe you," just in case.

 

~*~

 

In the morning, Jaskier wakes up tangled in the bedding with an arm draped around his middle, Geralt's nose pressed against his shoulder. The room is significantly less creepy in the light, which is a bonus—but he can see the personal effects of the previous occupants, which prompts a curious sort of melancholy.

"Have you ever had a house, Geralt?" he asks, shifting against the dusty headboard.

"No," Geralt grumbles.

"Me neither." Jaskier fiddles with one of the decorative buttons on Geralt's sleeve. "I mean, I had one as a child, and I had a room at Oxenfurt, but as an adult—something that was actually mine? Nothing like that."

Geralt mutters, "The road?"

"I was just thinking," Jaskier clarifies. "It seems like it'd become a part of you. That this house—do you think it misses its people? That a place can grieve what happened in it?"

"Poetry," Geralt accuses. "Before breakfast."

Jaskier hums, tucking a few wayward strands of hair behind Geralt's hair. "Which do you think is worse?"

"Poetry."

"Not that." Jaskier tweaks Geralt's ear. "For something to not care about you at all, or for it to have to outlive you."

Geralt's bleary eyes blink up at him. He says, "Outliving."

"I thought you'd say that," Jaskier teases. He knows there are things to do—stale bread to eat, murders to solve—but he feels no urgency for them. Contentedness is a rare gift. "I feel the opposite."

"Mm," Geralt says. His eyes slip shut again. "Selfish."

"That's true," Jaskier agrees, feeling a strange twinge in his chest. He watches the pale glimmer of Geralt's eyelashes in the light, the subtle curl of his body into Jaskier's side, and feels it again. "A little of that is good for you, I've always said. Life in proper balance."

Geralt frowns, tucking his face away from the light.

Don't worry, Jaskier promises silently, tugging the blanket up to his chest and Geralt's chin. I've got enough for the both of us.

 

~*~

 

Geralt drags them from bed a scant time later, despite Jaskier's vocal protests, and immediately starts rifling through the homeowners' belongings.

Jaskier watches him, befuddled. "Um, Geralt. Not that I necessarily disapprove, but just to confirm, are we… stealing from dead people?"

Geralt turns his head with a very judgmentally raised eyebrow.

"Right, no, of course not." Jaskier laughs awkwardly. "Then… what are we doing?"

"Investigating," says Geralt. He closes the dresser drawer he was searching and moves onto the next one.

"Should I help?" Jaskier asks.

Geralt shrugs.

Jaskier sits cross-legged in front of a chest at the foot of the bed and tries to work the lock open. "What're you trying to find out, who killed her?"

Geralt hums.

"You haven't found a key, have you?"

The key hits Jaskier on the back of the head.

"Thank you." He unlocks the chest, which contains a handful of jewelry and some formal attire, neatly folded. There's nothing that fancy, but a simple ring that looks like iron or maybe tarnished silver and has a little flower engraved on it would look rather fetching.

Jaskier glances behind himself and, finding Geralt otherwise occupied, snatches up the ring and tucks it into his pocket.

"Put it back," says Geralt.

Jaskier sighs dramatically. "It's not like they'll use it, Geralt!"

"You just went on that insufferable rant about how places have memory," Geralt says drily. "Where's your respect for the bereaved?"

"I'm a pragmatist," Jaskier says flippantly, but he drops the ring back into the chest and locks it again.

Geralt says, "There's nothing here. Let's try another room."

Jaskier pushes the chest back into place and follows Geralt into the other bedroom, where it looks like the children slept. Curiously, all of the beds are done-up nicely except for one.

"I'm guessing that was Ladana's," Jaskier says.

"Hm." Geralt checks underneath each of the other beds. "Maybe."

Jaskier goes straight to the unmade one and checks under the pillow—where he finds a small book, poorly bound and with worn-down pages.

He hops up on the bed, kicking his legs triumphantly, and flips it open. A stack of letters flutter onto the ground near his feet.

"Whoops," he says.

Geralt looks over from his own stack of letters, apparently discovered at one of the other beds. "Check those first. Look for names."

"Hmm." Some of the letters are unread. Jaskier slices open the most recent one and skims it quickly. "It's addressed to Ladana. Looks like—ohh, no." Jaskier looks up. "No, that's gross and bad."

Geralt narrows his eyes. "What is it?"

"Are we allowed to bet on murder suspects?" Jaskier asks. He turns the letter around to show Geralt. "Because I bet on whoever the fuck Filip is."

Geralt snatches the letter from him and starts to read. 

Jaskier watches, feeling a growing dread in his stomach as the contents sink in—and the paper crumples in Geralt's fists.

Rage is flickering in Geralt's eyes. He says, "Let me see the rest."

Jaskier flops backwards onto the bed instead and immediately suffers a sneezing fit when a cloud of dust surfaces. "It's disappointingly cliche, isn't it?"

"What?" asks Geralt.

"The whole 'spoiled man can't take rejection' business," Jaskier explains. He drops the letters off the far side of the bed in a flurry. "It's just such a tired narrative. Boring."

"A woman is dead," Geralt growls, "and you're worried about your narrative?"

"I don't mean it like that!" Jaskier says quickly, pushing up onto his forearms. "I'm saying—it's pathetic, isn't it? Men are categorically horrible."

Geralt says, "You're a man."

Jaskier frowns down at the dirt smudged in his fingernails. "I know."

Geralt sits tentatively on the edge of the bed and asks, "You see yourself in these letters?"

"Of course not." Jaskier swallows the bile in his throat. "Not—exactly. I just…"

"Good men doubt," Geralt supplies quietly.

Jaskier sits up all the way, coming to perch next to Geralt with his legs crossed. He glances over at his companion's face—still creased with anger, shifting contemplative—and says, "Sometimes the way you say, 'yes,' is so small, I… I wonder."

"Jaskier," Geralt says, voice dried out with amusement. "I'm a Witcher. You could hardly force—"

"Not physically," Jaskier cuts in. His fingers twitch with the urge to brush against Geralt's knee; he keeps them to himself. "But you said it yourself, sometimes words are difficult. And I have so many of them, I—if it's just to appease me, at night, or having me around at all, because it's easier than telling me no…"

Geralt shakes his head. He wets his bottom lip, eyes fixed on the floor straight ahead. "I worry… the opposite."

"How do you mean?" Jaskier asks.

"I'm a Witcher," Geralt repeats.

Jaskier tilts his head against the pang in his chest. "You think… I'm doing this because I'm afraid of you?"

Geralt closes his eyes with a curt nod.

"How could you think that?" Jaskier asks, trying to stifle his incredulity. "I—do I smell afraid of you?"

"No." Geralt's hands become fists. "But—maybe you're hiding it, or I just don't wanna admit—"

"That's not true!" Jaskier insists. He gives into temptation, clutches one of Geralt's hands in both his own. "Geralt, will you look at me?"

Geralt does, but not in the eye.

Jaskier smiles, wavering into a lopsided thing. "I'm not afraid of you. You've given me no reason to be."

Geralt untenses slightly, flattening his palm. His thumb lifts to brush along the side of Jaskier's finger. "You do push me. But I like it."

Jaskier licks his lips hesitantly.

"It was… like that with Yen, too," Geralt says. "When we met, it was like… everything collapsing on itself. Literally. We destroyed a building."

Jaskier snorts with interest. "We're circling back to that."

"She's got her own life. Obligations." Geralt shrugs. "We see each other when we can. And I'd never ask her to change her life for me."

"Can't imagine she'd take kindly to that," Jaskier says half-jokingly.

Geralt says, "Neither do you."

Jaskier thinks, It's never been you asking.

His brain indulges the hypothetical without permission. If Geralt asked—if he really did retire for a life of mild-mannered herbalism in the woods—would Jaskier follow? Would he abandon his grandiose ambitions to lead a peaceful existence?

"Not that I don't love a good tangent!" Jaskier cheerfully diverts. "But I think you were working towards a different point."

Geralt's nostrils flare with the beginnings of a laugh—perhaps in acknowledgement of Jaskier's avoidance. But he thumbs at the edge of Jaskier's knuckle and says, "You were right, the other night. It's not… that I don't want. But asking is too hard."

"No one's given you much practice," Jaskier guesses gently.

"It's good that you don't always make me ask," Geralt tells him. "You just give."

Jaskier smiles, feeling something dissolving where it clung to his ribs. "I can do that. As long as you'll tell me when you don't want what I'm giving."

"And you give because you want to," Geralt says.

Jaskier squeezes Geralt's hand and promises, "Of course."

Geralt nods, staring at where their hands are joined. He tilts his head, like he's only just now noticing them—or reconsidering their significance.

He pulls his hand away and says, "We should get back to work."

"Right, yeah." Jaskier folds his hands in his lap. "Um, what should…?"

He trails off, distracted. This doesn't feel like simple friendship to him—like huddling together at night because there's no one else and companions do that sometimes, or kissing dispassionately in the practical interest of examining a curse. 

But hardly anything feels simple to Jaskier. Love ripples through everything like a drop of blood into water. So maybe he's misread—maybe Geralt doesn't want most of what Jaskier would like to give.

"Can you look through her diary?" Geralt asks. He stands, brushing the dust off his trousers, and walks back to the stack of letters he left on the other bed. "See if you can figure out where she liked to go, or places she avoided."

Jaskier retrieves the book in question and cheerfully announces, "At your service!"

Geralt hums and gets to work.

 

~*~

 

"Well, there's not much that can point to what she was doing lately," Jaskier announces, closing the diary once more. "But it looks like Jan may have been her confidant—wasn't he the youngest down the road?"

Geralt hums. "Nothing in her siblings' letters is helpful. Looks like you've got our lead."

Jaskier preens smugly, giving the bound journal a little pat. "Shall we join our employers for lunch, then?"

Geralt tucks his stack of letters back under the pillow where he found them and says, "Let me do the talking."

"What?" Jaskier asks, offended. "Why? You hate talking and I am incredibly good at it."

Geralt glances at him side-long, leading the way outside. "I've been doing this a long time. I know how to handle these situations."

"Have it your way," Jaskier tells him with a roll of his eyes. "But we're going on record that I did offer to contribute to the process."

Geralt just grunts, setting off down the road.

Jaskier goes to follow, then changes his mind at the last moment—he darts up to their room and grabs his lute, then jogs to catch up.

Down at the farmhouse, the family is still getting the meal together. Jaskier seizes the opportunity to offer up a little performance, which their hosts accept despite the audible huff Geralt makes from the table.

Jaskier sticks his tongue out at him and opens up his case.

 

~*~

 

"It's been months since we've heard music," the old woman says wistfully, smiling at Jaskier when he comes to sit next to Geralt at the table. "None of us have the talent for it 'round here."

"Oh!" Jaskier tells her, clucking in disagreement. "It's hardly about talent, really—just the good fortune of an instrument and a teacher, I'd say. And, let me see here—I knew it! You've got the hands for it. Look at these lovely, strong fingers."

The woman blushes, her hand lingering in Jaskier's touch. "You're just flatterin' me."

"Flattering with the truth," Jaskier corrects with a wink, then sits back in his chair when he catches a sharp look from her husband. "And besides, anyone can sing! No outside fortune required."

"Did you learn to play when you were a boy?" asks the eldest daughter.

"Oh, yes—quite young, really. I was a rambunctious one, you could say," Jaskier explains. "My mother hoped it'd settle me."

"Hasn't worked," Geralt mutters.

Jaskier kicks him under the table.

"And you compose?" the old woman asks.

Jaskier smiles. "A charitable adjective for the amount of improvisation involved."

"Will you write about us?" Jan asks. "I mean, about Geralt defeating our monster?"

Jaskier's smile broadens. He drums his fingers on the table excitedly and says, "Of course! Ah, I already have a few ideas—" which is true, because they've sprung to his head as he talks. "—for it. Sort of a macabre jig, right, with all this dancing at midnight business, and each round the meter will increase until of course the valiant Witcher—"

"Jaskier," Geralt chides.

Jaskier pulls up short, blinking at the family's blank faces.

Right. Too soon.

"Anyway, it's still under development!" he says cheerfully. "I suppose we should let Geralt do his slaying bit first, too. How's the slaying bit going, Geralt? Any leads you wanted to discuss?"

"No," Geralt says flatly.

Jaskier kicks him again.

Geralt kicks him back and asks the woman, "Need any help in the fields?"

 

~*~

 

"Please explain to me," Jaskier says, puffing out a breath as he tills the soil, "why we're engaging in manual labor instead of just asking your silly questions at lunch?"

Geralt, who is doing shockingly little of his own work, has the nerve to smirk at him. "Your parents didn't use hard labor to 'settle' you? Might've worked better."

Jaskier glares, partially due to the sweat in his eyes. He leans his weight against the hoe and uses his other arm to wipe at his face—even with his shirtsleeves rolled up and the front laces undone down his chest, it's hot. He feels a little light-headed.

And Geralt's eyes on him aren't helping any. Jaskier feels rather pointedly observed.

"The husband doesn't like us," Geralt tells him. "Especially you. I don't trust him."

Jaskier sighs loudly and accuses, "You don't trust anybody!"

Geralt hums.

Something occurs to Jaskier, glancing between Geralt's bulging forearms and his hair glinting silver in the sun.

"Except for me," he realizes. "You trust me."

Geralt recommits himself to the cultivation effort. 

"Why is that?" Jaskier presses. "You—I mean, you literally let me sleep with you, of all things!"

"I trust I'd beat you in a fight," Geralt deadpans. 

Jaskier snorts. He takes his hoe back up, though, and swings it. "And you couldn't take White Bridge's balding mayor, or that old man?"

"That old man's in better shape than you," Geralt says drily.

"So you concede the point on the mayor?" Jaskier teases.

Geralt looks over again, his levity neatly crumbling.

"You want your curse lifted," he says. "And then you'll leave. Makes sense to me."

Fresh sweat drips into Jaskier's eyes. It stings. He says, "You can't honestly still think that's the only reason I'm here?"

"Hm." Geralt's lips twitch. "You also wanted a song."

Jaskier's expression softens, watching the expanse of gold in Geralt's gaze glitter when it catches the light. 

"And, most importantly," he says quite seriously, "for you to finish tilling this fucking field. I've got a delicate constitution!"

"I can't," Geralt says. "I need the energy for my Witchering."

Jaskier pelts him with a dirt clod.

 

~*~

 

A short time of carefully paced hard work later, Geralt and Jaskier position themselves close enough to Jan to have a conversation.

"Can I speak with you?" Geralt asks him, taking a rest from his work.

"Um," Jan says, "sure, sir."

"You were close with Ladana," Geralt says.

Jan chews his bottom lip. "Um, yes, sir."

"Who's Filip?" Geralt asks.

Jan's eyes widen, and Jaskier hastily jumps in, "You can tell us. We're here to help."

Jan glances between the two of them. He seems to weigh his options before admitting in a hushed voice, "He's our lord. Did you—you found somethin' about him?"

"We know Ladana didn't want to go with him," Geralt says. "I think you know that too."

"Pa don't believe me," Jan says unsteadily. "No one did. Her family said—"

Geralt's eyes narrow. "Did they know something?"

Jan looks down, blinking tears from his eyes. "We tried telling them how awful he was. They kept sayin' she was lucky."

The wooden handle creaks in Geralt's hand. "Do you know what happened?"

"'bout two weeks ago, he came through," Jan says, hiccuping back a sob. "So I took as much as Pa wouldn't notice and gave it to her, so she could run. I wanted to go with her, but she said—said I best stay, in case…"

Fat tears drop into the crusted earth. Jaskier pinches his handkerchief between two filthy fingers and hands it over.

Jan takes it, scrubbing at his eyes discreetly, and balls the fabric into his fist.

"I need you to show me the last place you saw her," Geralt says gently.

"Why?" Jan asks thickly. "She's—she's long gone by now, maybe to Vizima. You won't find her in Vizima. He won't—"

Geralt's face is impassive. 

Jan closes his eyes. The tears stream down his face, muddying with the dust. "You're here to kill our monster, ain't you? It's him you should be looking for."

"I know," Geralt says. "Show me the last place you saw her."

Jan jerks his head in a nod. He further soils Jaskier's handkerchief, wiping the snot and tears from his face, and composes himself enough to lead them away from the farm.

Jaskier follows, glancing behind them nervously—no one else moves to stop them from leaving.

Jan takes them to a small clearing near the edge of the woods bordering Ladana's farm. It's well-worn, with children's drawings carved in the bark near the tree roots and a dug-out for campfires in the center. 

The ghosts of children dance behind Jaskier's eyes, his fanciful heart spinning false histories in an empty wood.

"We met here at sunset the night he came back," Jan says. "She was heading west, to Vizima. Lord Filip's lands spread east."

"Thank you," Geralt tells him. "You can go."

Jan lifts his chin. "If she's out here—"

"You'll want to remember her like this," Geralt interrupts, firm and kind. "Not like what I'm going to find."

Jan seems to hesitate, his eyes glossing over with his own imaginations. He shakes free of them, looking between Jaskier and Geralt's somber expressions, and turns away.

Geralt waits for the sound of Jan's footsteps to fade. Then he says, "You should go too."

"Pfft," says Jaskier. "As-if. Let's finish this."

"Hm." Geralt heads deeper into the woods without warning. 

Jaskier follows him, unclear on how or why he's choosing their path—but content to follow. There's still good light, though it begins to filter through denser tree cover and wanes, casting a suitably melancholy glow over their search.

The birdsong, on the other hand, is discordant. Jaskier tilts his head up to look for the ruffle of feathers in the treetops; it's cooler in the shade, and without his muscles aching from the heat of labor. Time seems to skitter sideways away from him.

"Geralt," Jaskier asks warily, "are you sure we're going the right way?"

Geralt grunts and steps over a fallen log.

"How do you know?" Jaskier asks, and then says, "Oh," when the stench hits.

Geralt keeps going, seemingly unaffected. Jaskier cups a hand over his mouth and pinches his nose shut before following. 

By the time they reach the body, bile is rising in Jaskier's throat anyway. He stumbles into Geralt's back with a garbled gasp, peering with compulsive curiosity around Geralt's shoulder.

There's a lot of blood.

Jaskier turns and retches into a bush.

The backs of his teeth ache. His breathing echoes in his own ears, pounding against the base of his skull, and a hot flush of embarrassment crawls up his neck.

He looks over at Geralt, who's crouched next to the body with a clinical frown.

"How do you stand it?" Jaskier asks. The words hurt his throat.

"You get used to it," Geralt says.

"I didn't mean the smell," Jaskier rasps.

Geralt says, "You get used to it."

Jaskier pushes to his feet, swallowing against the urge to gag again. He comes closer, burying his disgust. It unearths fascination instead—the curiosity which killed the cat, and so on. Perhaps a bit of eagerness to please—to get used to it, so Geralt won't send him away.

"Is it… normal? For the body to be preserved like that?" Jaskier asks.

"No." Geralt takes a step back, pushing Jaskier away with him. "It means she's the nightwraith."

"I see." Jaskier tilts his head. "So how do you—"

Geralt lights the body on fire.

Jaskier watches it burn in shocked silence. The birds have left them; the smell follows.

He says, "Her friend deserved to bury her."

"Lots of people deserve things," Geralt says roughly. "Let's go."

Jaskier thinks of the old woman's sign to Melitele, of Jan risking the wrath of a strict father to make this doomed journey a little easier. He thinks that someone ought to do something that matters here—but he has no faith to offer, except for the way he chases after pretty words.

A twig crunches under Geralt's weight somewhere in the direction they came from. 

This empty place has no use for the things Jaskier could lay at its feet; he runs to catch up with Geralt instead, tripping over tree roots along the unmarked path.

When he arrives back at Geralt's side, Jaskier asks, "So that's it? You've banished the ghost?"

"No." Geralt's eyes are fixed firmly ahead. "Now I’ve gotta kill her."

 

~*~

 

"Honestly, Geralt, you'll hardly notice I'm even there!" Jaskier argues. "I'll be naught but silent backup, taking notes—"

"No," Geralt says for the fifth or possibly sixth time. "You're staying in the house."

Jaskier protests—

"No." Geralt finishes the last buckle on his chest piece and turns around, glaring sternly. "What part of 'lures humans to dance to their deaths' didn't get through the first time?"

"Oh, no, we're very clear on that!" Jaskier tells him. "But I don't see why I can't just stay out of magical dancing range? I mean, what if this ghost lady gets the jump on you or something?"

Geralt blinks. "Then I die."

Jaskier does not linger on this possibility. "All the more reason to bring me along! I can help—"

"You know what's more likely to get me killed?" Geralt asks irritably. "Worrying about saving your arse when I should be fighting the wraith. Stay. Here."

With that, he shoulders his sword and marches out of the bedroom.

Jaskier sighs loudly and plops down onto the bed, crossing his arms stubbornly. He waits, tapping his foot, until Geralt is likely a reasonable distance away, and then rushes to the window. 

It's already quite dark out, but the moon is somewhere around three-quarters full tonight. Apparently that's good for fighting wraiths—Geralt said they're strongest on a new moon. It also means Jaskier can see the path Geralt is cutting through the wheat.

He slips out the door and follows.

Geralt is making his way to a section of the field that seems to be fluttering in that same strange breeze as the previous night, big stalks of wheat swaying as if to some unknown rhythm. 

Jaskier hangs back a little, wary of Geralt's warning. He can stay perfectly out of the way over here. Actually, if he moves over this way he can get a better view of the action. Yes, here is good.

Geralt draws his sword and then sits cross-legged on the ground, the sword laid across his lap. He takes several bottles from his pocket, much like the ones he keeps in his bags and growls at Jaskier for touching, and drinks them in quick succession.

Then he pulls something else from a pocket—a book, possibly the diary?—and places it in the center of the swaying circle. A quick motion of his hand ignites the diary in a hot flash of light.

The air crackles briefly with the sound of burning paper. Goosebumps skitter up Jaskier's arms and the back of his neck, and something materializes in a haphazard fashion from the acrid smoke.

Geralt rises to his feet as the smoke twitches and jerks through the air, forming the piecemeal shape of a woman—first a crooked arm, then the tatters of a practical work dress, then a preternaturally long tongue.

She looks like someone tried very hard to remember what a person should be. She tilts her head up to the moon and wails.

Jaskier covers his ears, shrinking back in pain from the sound. He watches Geralt flinch, then snarl. He looks very much like someone tried to remember what Geralt should be—sharper edges, paler skin. Perhaps tricks of the moonlight. Perhaps the rush of blood through Jaskier's aching ears.

Geralt lunges; the nightwraith vanishes in a shimmer and reappears with a shriek at Geralt's back. He whips around and swings—the sword seems to stutter as it cuts through her translucent form and then beheads several stalks of wheat.

She vanishes again. Geralt curses and lifts his free hand, wheeling around with his head cocked as if to listen. 

Jaskier holds his breath.

Geralt makes another quick gesture and glowing purple runes alight on the ground in the same moment he takes a step back—the wraith appears screaming at his side and he pivots back through the purple glow.

She lunges for him, vicious claws suddenly appearing in shocking detail, and then her entire body solidifies with a kind of flickering opacity. The nightwraith shrieks again, but seems unable to follow Geralt back out of the trap he laid. 

Geralt adjusts his grip on his sword and swings. 

There's a terrible, hitching gurgle when the screaming stops. The wraith's head tumbles to the ground and looks, in the last prolonged moment, for all the world like Jan must remember her in his warm home across the road.

She vanishes into glittering dust. Jaskier hears, with a sympathetic tickle in his throat, the faintest sound of music.

Geralt sinks to his knees, fingers sifting through the remains.

Jaskier finds dominion over his feet and walks towards him, brushing his hand through the stalks of wheat to ground himself, and—

Geralt stiffens. "Go."

"What? Geralt, it's me," Jaskier says, and takes another step closer. "I stayed back like you said! I just wanted to see the fight, you know, for the song? And it was truly—"

"Leave," Geralt snarls. 

He doesn't even turn around. Jaskier backs up slowly, watching the subtle quake of Geralt's shoulders, his heels hitting sturdy stalks and shuffling out of the way while he retreats.

Once far enough away, Jaskier turns and walks normally back to the house. He finds candles and flint near the hearth and carries them upstairs, where he lights them in the bedroom. 

Jaskier sits on the bed with a dejected thud, pushing his fingers through his hair. Fuck. He didn't think it'd be such a big deal just to come watch, but Geralt sounded—he was angry. Maybe angry enough that he won't want Jaskier around at all anymore.

You always do this, Jaskier thinks bitterly. Why can't you stop pushing?

Part of him wants to grab his notebook and write—to turn this into something while it's fresh. But he shrinks back against the headboard and tugs the blanket around himself instead, sighing deeply. He'll remember the feeling; it's familiar.

A short time later, he hears heavy footsteps coming up the stairs. 

Jaskier perks his head up as Geralt pushes the door open, and then his breath catches in his throat.

Geralt's complexion, naturally pale, is a bloodless bone color against the flickering candlelight. His eyes are pitch black, pupil to sclera, and there are dark tendrils of obsidian vein showing under the thin skin of his face.

Jaskier's first thought is, Fuck, that's a bit sexy. His second thought is, "Gods, Geralt, are you okay?"

Geralt takes a step back again and says, "Sorry."

"What?" Jaskier sits up worriedly. "For what? Are you alright?"

Geralt closes his eyes, turns his head. His hair is still tied back, but it was loosened in the fight; messy wisps fall in his face against the tense line of his jaw.

"You're… sad," he says, nostrils flaring as if to scent the air.

Jaskier's voice is thick. "You sent me away."

Geralt's eyebrows furrow as he says, "You should be afraid."

"What? Why? I thought you killed it!" Jaskier draws his knees up nervously. "Is that why you—"

Geralt opens his eyes. They cut against the swirling current of Jaskier's speech—haunting, flat ache.

"Of me," he says.

His sword is sheathed on his back, the leather-wrapped hilt dully illuminated by the candles. There's a thin cut on one of his cheeks leaking a slow trickle of dark blood.

Jaskier laughs.

It bubbles inappropriately out of him, evading the hand he clamps over his mouth to contain it. He looks at this tender, touch-shy man standing in his painfully literal armor and laughs.

"I'm sorry, yes, you're a horrible scary mutant," he says. "It's just—we've quite been over this, haven't we? Come over here."

Geralt hesitates, wetting his bottom lip.

Jaskier gentles his voice and coaxes, "I'm not trying to belittle you." Much. "I'm sorry. Just—I can tell you're hurting, Geralt, and I'm not frightened, so come here."

Geralt looks down. He unshoulders his sword, laying it against the wall, and then crawls into the bed boots and all.

It's a tighter fit with the extra layers; Jaskier presses all the way against the wall and finds himself with Geralt's head in his lap, the fierce Witcher curled up rather like a skittish cat.

Tentatively, Jaskier lifts a hand and pets it through Geralt's hair. He tugs at the tie where it's beginning to knot and pulls it free, setting it on the windowsill.

Geralt is staring, empty-eyed, across the room. "You wanted to know the feeling."

"Yes," Jaskier says softly. His fingers card through Geralt's loosened hair, gentle with the tangles. "I did."

Geralt closes his eyes. "I'm tired."

The edge of Geralt's shoulder pad is digging into Jaskier's thigh. He swallows down a bubble of sadness and leans over, over as far as he can manage to blow out the nearest candle.

"You can rest," he promises gently, resettling. "It's a while till morning."

Geralt hums and hugs himself closer, the dark veins under his eyes still faintly visible in the bleary light.

Jaskier watches the flutter of his eyelids as he slowly drifts. A pesky melody tickles at Jaskier's throat in the tender quiet, something about it still not quite right.

He composes softly, fingers twitching through Geralt's hair as if against his lute strings, and permits the thing to nudge itself along.

 

~*~

 

In the morning, Geralt's eyes are back to normal. He stretches and yawns languidly, catlike from the arch of his back to the shape of his pupils, and also in the way he shrinks rather unpredictably away from the contact he'd seemed to be enjoying just a moment ago.

"Sorry," he mutters, gaze flicking away from the confusion on Jaskier's face.

Jaskier lowers the hand he'd been lazily petting through Geralt's hair. "You'll have to be more specific as to what for. Pushing me away just now? Or perhaps the time you did it last night."

Geralt grumbles indistinctly.

"Ah," Jaskier says sagely. "Something I've already told you not to apologize for?"

Geralt scowls.

"If you want me to stop touching you, I will," Jaskier tells him with exasperation. "But if this is about you being all 'full Witcher mode' or whatever that was last night, I've already told you it didn't scare me. I'm not suddenly repulsed by the sight of you. Quite the opposite, if I'm being honest, and I know I can't be the first person who's ever told you that."

Geralt huffs out a laugh and resettles on the bed, still not quite touching Jaskier.

"Well, offer's open." Jaskier gives a yawn of his own, sitting up to peer at the sun's rather modest position in the sky. "We're not in a rush, are we? Being a horrible nuisance really takes it out of you."

Geralt snatches Jaskier's pillow out from under him and hits him with it.

Jaskier says, "Joke's on you," and flops sideways to lay on Geralt's pillow instead.

Geralt cuffs him on the ear with the pillow, then stands. He stretches more thoroughly, which gives Jaskier a fantastic extended view of his arse, then heads for the door.

"Wait, are you actually going?" Jaskier asks. He sits up. "Just let me get my shoes on, I'll—"

Geralt holds up a hand and gestures at the bed. He then jerks a thumb over his shoulder, towards the front door, and then tilts his head at their bags, which are still scattered on the floor.

Jaskier interprets this series of gestures to mean either, 'Stay here, I'll be back,' or possibly, 'Come find me when you're ready and bring our stuff.' In either case, Geralt doesn't seem to be inclined to grab Roach and run for the hills while Jaskier luxuriates in a little extra sleep.

So truly, there's no good reason for Jaskier crawling out of bed and grabbing his boots anyway, except the unfortunate truth that he might possibly die if he doesn't get to know what happens next.

"I know, I know," he says, waving Geralt's raised eyebrow off with a hand. "I'm as surprised as you are. Where're we going?"

Geralt just hums.

Jaskier follows him back to the other house, though they bypass it for the stables. An unsurprising but entirely adorable first stop.

Geralt greets Roach with his usual routine, which seems to lessen a line of tension in his shoulders. He murmurs to her under his breath—soft things Jaskier doesn't bother to try to overhear. 

Fuck, he really needs to write his sister.

Partway into their visit, the barn doors open again and the elder son slips inside. He hesitates when he catches sight of them and says, "Oh, sorry, sirs."

Jaskier glances over at Geralt, who doesn't seem inclined to respond, and then answers himself. "Oh, not to worry! Just seeing to our girl here. Would you like a hand with the other animals?"

"Um, sure," the man says. "I'm just leadin' them out to graze."

Jaskier helps him with the task, happily chattering up a storm while Geralt ignores them both. 

After all the animals are out, Geralt brings Roach, too, and allows her to eat her share of grass. He pats her affectionately on the rump and then looks at the man.

"Can you get your family together?" he asks. "News on the contract."

"Um, sure," the man says in a tone that clearly conveys, 'why didn't you say that first?'

He does like Geralt asks, though, and they all congregate back at the house.

When the last family member has shuffled inside, muttering about aborted chores, Geralt clears his throat to get their attention.

"You had a nightwraith," he says. "I banished it."

There's quite a bit of silence. Jaskier glances over at Geralt, who seems to be staring at the family expectantly, and prompts, "Perhaps you could… say more?"

Geralt narrows his eyes at him. But he turns back to the group and explains, "Your neighbor, Ladana—she didn't run away to marry Lord Filip. She wanted to stay here, so he killed her. Her spirit became trapped and I released it."

Jan is on the verge of tears again, a hand covering his mouth. The others gasp softly and share guilty looks over their doubt.

"She's at peace now?" the old woman asks wetly. "She's—she ain't suffering?"

"I released her spirit," Geralt repeats. His tone is not unkind, but neither does it take pains to soothe. "What comes next isn't my affair."

Jan's voice is quaking. "There should be justice for this," he says. He fixes Geralt with a determined stare. "You should kill him."

Geralt clenches his jaw. "No."

"I'll pay you," Jan insists, ignoring his father's harsh hiss in warning. "Whatever your price."

"I'm not an assassin," Geralt says.

Jan counters, "Got two swords, don't you? That's what all the stories say—silver's for monsters, steel's for men." He spits on the ground. "Wouldn't care which you used."

"Jan," the middle daughter says nervously. "Let 'im be."

"It ain't right," Jan tells Geralt desperately, the words breaking in his mouth. "What fuckin' good are you if you can't make it right?"

Geralt's eyes flash and downturn, and the shape of his mouth doesn't change but Jaskier can hear it— I'm tired, I'm tired—

"I will," Jaskier blurts, and eight pairs of wide eyes fall on him at once. He swallows, his sternum threatening to crack, and promises, "I'll make it right."

Geralt says, "Jaskier."

Jaskier looks at this family, feels the phantom sting of rot burning at his nose. These things matter. They are noble, important. 

He says, "I'll write your song," and it's not for any of them. His righteousness belongs to the charred bit of wood in his pocket, the weight on his chest when he sleeps. "I'll make sure the entire bloody Continent knows what he did."

"You can't do that, son," the old woman says. "You should know well as anyone the lord'll have you locked up for slander."

Jaskier, wayward viscount's only son that he is, rather doubts that. But more inherent to his being than even the nobility in his blood is his flare for the dramatic.

He smiles sharply and says, "Not if I ruin him first."

Jan smiles back, the first one Jaskier's seen from him their entire stay.

Geralt is watching Jaskier carefully. He glances at the rest of the family, then announces, "We'll be going."

The old man says, "I'll get the rest of your payment."

He retrieves a small lockbox from another room and counts out a modest sum, which seems to be the majority of the box's contents. Jaskier's not sure what the going rate for a nightwraith is, but he doubts it's this paltry, even with the kindness of a few hot meals added in.

Geralt takes the fee without comment, adding it to his purse. He addresses the old woman when he says, "Thank you for your hospitality. We'll get our things, and my horse, and go."

"Melitele bless your path, sir," the woman answers, making the same devotional as before.

Jaskier very much doubts that Melitele, if she's even real, cares about the travels of two vagrant men, but he keeps his cynicism to himself. He understands the function.

Geralt hums and steers Jaskier out the door. 

"I'll get Roach," he tells Jaskier once they're outside. "Can you handle our bags?"

"Sure," Jaskier agrees. He heads back to the house and gathers everything up—most of Geralt's things are still with Roach's saddle, so it's not that difficult to carry it all, just a little ungainly with the swords. 

Jaskier does a last look around the room before he goes. The tableau is strange—dusty furnishings with an unmade bed and freshly used candles, the evidence of their brief occupation stark in an otherwise abandoned space. What will happen to it, he wonders?

Presumably some new family will be afforded the land to work. Will they be told the history? Will someone discover all the letters and jewelry Geralt and Jaskier left behind?

Perhaps they'll hear it from Jaskier's song.

Geralt's hair tie is still on the windowsill. Jaskier grabs it and slips it onto his own wrist for safekeeping, then heads down the stairs.

He hesitates in the threshold, though he can see Geralt approaching with Roach in the distance. No one's around to think him foolish.

"Thank you," he tells the house. "I hope whoever comes next takes good care of you."

There's no answer, of course. Jaskier pulls the door shut behind himself and jogs to meet Geralt on the road.

They're heading further southeast—Jaskier confirms by glancing at the sun. Probably towards whenever Lord Filip lives, which suits Jaskier and his promise just fine. The lyrics are already tumbling in his head and he isn't afraid.

Geralt waits for them to pass Jan's house for the final time before he says, "Doesn't seem like you."

"What doesn't?" asks Jaskier. "The song?"

Geralt hums. "What happened to your macabre jig?"

"Oh, I might still write that too," Jaskier says flippantly. "But a scathing political commentary is quite the classic of the bardic tradition, you know. Reputation is currency."

"Then you're a bad gambler," says Geralt.

"I take offense," Jaskier answers on principle, smiling with amusement. "Explain."

Geralt wets his bottom lip and glances away, like he's already regretting the conversation. "Betting against the lord."

"Ah." Jaskier's smile widens, though Geralt isn't watching to see. "But that's just it—I don't care who I'm betting against. I'm betting on me."

Geralt snorts.

"And besides, everyone knows the enemy of your enemy is your friend," Jaskier says casually. "I'm not playing for Filip's subjects—I'm going to find someone who wants him gone and give them a reason."

"Hm," says Geralt, though he sounds a little impressed.

Jaskier flicks the strap of his lute case. He can't glance too far to his left without the sun glaring in his eyes, but he can find Geralt on his right.

"I'm betting on you, too," he says softly.

Geralt's cheeks are tinged by the sun, though it's still a mild morning. He seems to almost smile—a kind of preparatory softening of his features—but the shape of his mouth can't quite seem to change.

Neither does he speak.

But that's alright; Jaskier retrieves his lute from its case and begins to compose.

 

~*~

 

They make camp away from the main road again, despite Jaskier's rather strong argument for the likelihood that these farmers will know the farmers whose nightwraith Geralt just killed and would thus happily provide lodging.

But veering from the road reunites them with the river, and Geralt has apparently caught a whim to go fishing. Jaskier returns from his firewood-collecting duties and finds Geralt gutting several plump fish on a rock.

He gestures with the knife in offering.

"Oh, no thank you," Jaskier says. "I hate their horrible little eyes. Although, I suppose I could help if you took their heads off."

Geralt smirks. "Never meet a drowner."

He goes back to his work, implying that Jaskier is spared from fish cleaning duty.

Jaskier returns to his lute instead, tinkering with the second verse of his project. He makes good progress before dinner, and doesn't even seem to annoy Geralt too much in the process. 

Then, Geralt reaches into one of Roach's saddlebags and produces a rather large wineskin that Jaskier doesn't recognize.

"Do you drink?" he asks.

Jaskier snorts. "You've seen me drink."

Geralt opens the wineskin and takes a pointed whiff. "Pretty sure this shit's bootlegged."

That piques Jaskier's interest. He comes around the fire and sits himself down right next to Geralt, pressing their knees together. "Ooh, where'd you get it?"

"Jan," Geralt explains. He takes a drink, winces, then hands the container over.  "Said Ladana was brewing it. He didn't want it to go to waste."

Or drink himself to death, Jaskier supposes. 

He sniffs for himself—it smells like potent fruit wine—and declares, "Whew, that's the stuff! Happy to be of continued service to our good friend Jan, of course, and for that reason I will selflessly partake, if you'll join me."

Geralt says, "There's two," and procures the second one from his bag.

Jaskier blinks at the wineskin in his hands. If the liquor's as strong as it smells, he's liable to get well and truly tossed on the stuff if he tries to go through one by himself tonight. 

He wonders what a Witcher's alcohol tolerance is.

Jaskier holds his wineskin up in a toast. "To Ladana."

Geralt hums his agreement and pours a little out into the dirt at their feet. It looks uncomfortably like blood, forming rivulets and mixing with the dust. 

 

~*~

 

Jaskier loves being drunk. This is because he loves being alive, and life is smooth and strange and giddy when it's through the lens of a little benign poisoning. The rough edges of vision are blurred; touching feels clumsy and hungry all at once, like it's never been done before.

Jaskier is touching Geralt. Geralt, whose face is flushed and pupils are blown in the dying firelight.

Geralt, with his battle-roughened hand squeezing gently above the knee and a put-upon smile on his face as Jaskier wriggles to get comfortable tucked against his side.

"You," Jaskier says emphatically, tilting his face up where it rests on Geralt's shoulder, "have beautiful eyes."

Geralt snorts. He's a little more talkative when he's drunk, or tipsy, or perhaps sober but amused by Jaskier being drunk, and so he says, "Don't be dumb."

"It's true!" Jaskier argues, pouting fiercely. He reaches up clumsily and pokes Geralt on the tip of the nose. "Pretty kitty cat eyes. Have you ever looked at a cat's eyes up close? Your eyes are like that!"

Geralt grumbles, "Cats don't like me."

Oh. That's depressing. Jaskier refuses to be depressed.

"That's because you're a cat!" he decides triumphantly. "You're a big—a big Witcher-cat, and the little cats are scared of you."

"I'm already a Wolf," Geralt tells him, smiling indulgently. Oh, gods, Jaskier wants to touch that smile. His fingers drag down Geralt's face, all the way along the stubbled column of his throat, and catch on the collar of his shirt. "You can't mix up your metaphors, bard. It's sloppy."

Jaskier considers this. He becomes very focused on the shell of Geralt's ear, which is very much a human ear and not a cat or a wolf ear, which would be cuter.

"You should have wolf ears," he tells him, tugging at Geralt's earlobe. "You should've gone for those at the Witcher market. I think they'd be rather fetching."

Geralt draws Jaskier's hand away by the wrist. "You're ridiculous. Is your mind always like this?"

Jaskier blinks. "Like what?"

Geralt huffs out a laugh exasperatedly.

"Oh, wait! Wait, I had a—a thing." Jaskier frowns, tilts his head to the side, and frowns harder at the way the forest seems to spin. "I wanted to say something."

"Okay," Geralt says. "Say something."

Jaskier says, "Something!"

Geralt rolls his eyes and takes a swig from the remaining wineskin, which he's stolen from Jaskier. The first is empty, mostly from Geralt.

"Wait, I know! Wolves!" Jaskier tugs at the medallion on Geralt's neck. "You're a Wolf, but not all Witchers are Wolves."

Geralt hums in confirmation. He swipes the back of his hand across the dampness of his mouth and Jaskier wants to lick the lingering sweetness from it.

Fuck, he misses sex.

"Focus," Jaskier says out loud. He glances down at the medallion, still clutched in his hand, and then up at Geralt's face. "What's the difference between the—the…"

"Schools?" Geralt supplies—Jaskier nods, resting his cheek on Geralt's shoulder again. "Hm. Fighting styles, preferred armor. Some unique mutations. Philosophical disagreements."

"Philosophy?" Jaskier prompts.

Geralt hums thoughtfully. "We've… adapted differently. Some Witchers from other schools would've taken the contract on the lord."

"Really?" Jaskier asks, wide-eyed.

"Well," Geralt revises. "Probably not for what Jan could pay. But political hire."

Jaskier hums, running his thumb over the ridges of the howling wolf design. "Do you like being a Wolf?"

"Not like I got to pick," Geralt answers with a shrug.

"But if you could," Jaskier presses. "Would you be one again? Instead of a—whatever the others are?"

"Cats, Griffins, and Vipers."

Jaskier sits up indignantly. "Okay, if there's an entire Cat school, why do you all have cat eyes?"

"Take it up with the Mages' Guild three hundred years ago," Geralt suggests quite reasonably.

"Right, yes, I'll do that," Jaskier teases, then narrows his eyes suspiciously. "Wait, distraction! I wanted—answer my question, sir."

"Hm." Geralt rubs his thumb over the seam of Jaskier's trousers, sending a little thrill up Jaskier's spine. "Yeah. I guess I'd be a Wolf."

Jaskier nestles himself closer, peering up at Geralt's face. "Why?"

Geralt is watching the flames dancing in the skeleton of their cooking fire. He shrugs. "It's familiar. Don't see somewhere else being better."

"Reasonable," Jaskier allows. "What if you could be anything, hm? Not just a Witcher."

Geralt frowns, licking his lips in thought. "I…"

Jaskier's heart pangs through his drunken mirth. He smiles sadly and guesses, "Is it too hard to want?"

Geralt ducks his head, his hair tickling against Jaskier's nose.

"That's alright." Jaskier reaches up and pinches Geralt's cheek. "Maybe one day you'll have an answer, hm?"

Geralt shakes his head, squeezing Jaskier's thigh again. He asks, "Would you be a bard again?"

"Absolutely!" Jaskier declares boldly. He beams up at Geralt and delights in the way Geralt smiles tentatively in response. "I love music, and, more importantly, I love where I am right now."

"Hm," Geralt teases. "Maybe I shouldn't lift your curse, then."

Jaskier gasps indignantly and smacks Geralt on the chest—or, he intends to, but he's a little lacking in the coordination department and gets him in the ribs instead. "Rude! Rude, naughty Witcher."

"Mhm," Geralt agrees. 

Jaskier is thirsty. He reaches for the wineskin, which Geralt grabs and holds out of reach.

"Hey!" Jaskier complains. "Give it!"

"You've had enough," Geralt says, sounding less stern than he probably meant to. "We've gotta travel tomorrow."

Jaskier sticks out his bottom lip and flutters his eyelashes. "But Geralt, I want it! Besides, I'm im-impervious to hangovers. It's inherent. I'm inherently immune, and also if you weren't a big meanie you'd let me ride on Roach if I were hungover and it wouldn't matter. Not that I can be hungover!"

"You're already drunk, Jaskier," Geralt chides.

"I know you are, but what am I?" Jaskier taunts, then frowns. "Are you drunk? Can Witchers get drunk?"

Geralt takes another drink of wine, the bastard, and says, "Not easily. I feel it a little right now, I guess."

"Oh," Jaskier says earnestly, patting Geralt on the knee. "You should keep it then. Is it because you're magic?"

"A mutant," Geralt corrects drily.

No—not dry, exactly. Bitter.

Jaskier smiles brightly and points out, "But you can do magic, can't you?"

"A little," Geralt allows.

"With your hands!" Jaskier tugs on Geralt's wrist; he obliges, putting down the wine and allowing Jaskier to trace curious fingers down his palm. "I like your hands. How do they work?"

Geralt side-eyes him. "How do hands work?"

"Your magic thingys," Jaskier says. He strokes his thumb across Geralt's pulsepoint, though he can't feel a heartbeat. 

"They're called signs," Geralt says. "There're five of them. I just make the sign with my hand and, uh, concentrate a little."

Jaskier drops Geralt's hand to clap excitedly. "Ooh, can I see?"

"They're not parlor tricks," says Geralt. "Especially not after a skin of wine."

"Oh, fine." Jaskier bats his eyes. "But you'll explain them, won't you?"

"Ugh. Fine." Geralt takes Jaskier's hand and gently arranges his fingers, bending his pinky and index finger. "You've seen this one—Igni."

Jaskier smiles. "For the fire."

"Mhm." Geralt splays Jaskier's fingers and bends back the middle finger with a steady pressure. "Aard. Like a gust of wind."

"For rescuing buttons," Jaskier teases. He curls his finger slightly, feeling the callus at the tip tingle against Geralt's skin.

Geralt shifts to cup the back of Jaskier's hand, folding his thumb and pinky inward. "This one makes a shield. Quen."

Jaskier nods, licking his lips. There's a swelling current under his skin, the urge to slip fingers other places, to—

Geralt nudges Jaskier's index and middle fingers together, then bends his ring finger at the second knuckle and his pinky at the first. He coughs lightly and says, "You're, uh, flexible."

"From playing," Jaskier answers faintly, his mouth going a little dry. "What's this one do?"

"Axii," Geralt says. He looks away. "It… influences people. I don't use it unless I have to."

"Oh," Jaskier says, thinking first about dead rabbits and then very nearly immediately about— "I bet that's an amazing sex thing."

Geralt drops Jaskier's hand. "What?"

"Consensually, I mean!" Jaskier clarifies excitedly. "I mean, if someone wants you to be telling them what to do—it's sort of a masterclass in power play, isn't it? How does it feel? There are so many possibilities, like—could you tell someone—"

"I don't," Geralt says roughly. His brow is furrowed unhappily. "Uh. I don't like… controlling."

Oh. The encounter with Yen recontextualizes itself and several fantasies frantically rearrange in Jaskier's brain. Regrettably, for the state of his heart, because he suddenly longs with the very core of his soul to press a kiss to the crown of this sweet man's hair while he kneels obediently at Jaskier's feet.

"Well!" he says, mustering an invulnerable cheerfulness. "That's perfectly alright. What's the last one?"

Geralt clears his throat and takes Jaskier's hand again. He splays all five fingers, bends back the ring finger slightly, and aims Jaskier's hand at the ground.

"Yrden," he says. "It sets a trap on the ground. Even works on specters."

"Like the nightwraith," Jaskier says. "Oh, that's clever."

Geralt says, "You weren't supposed to see that."

"Yes, yes, we're well beyond that," Jaskier teases. Then, staring at their hands, his thoughts tripping over one another, has a fucking brilliant idea. "Oh, Geralt! You're a fucking genius! I'm a genius! We're—"

"Ugh," says Geralt, but he keeps a loose grip on Jaskier's wrist. "What?"

Jaskier grins delightedly. "If your little trap can hold a ghost, do you think it can hold a—" he turns and coughs into his other elbow. "Bard?"

Geralt narrows his eyes. "No."

"No it can't or no because you're mean and never let me have any fun?"

"Yes," says Geralt.

"But Geraaalt!" Jaskier whines. He flops bodily against Geralt's chest, ending up half in his lap. "I just—I just miss it! I miss sex! I miss kissing strangers in taverns! Do you know how long it's been since I've kissed anyone?"

"Three days," Geralt deadpans.

Jaskier flaps a hand at him. "Besides your very noble sacrifice."

"Six days."

"Too many," Jaskier complains. "Don't you miss kissing? When's the last time you kissed someone?"

"Two days ago," Geralt says. "How drunk are you?"

Jaskier sighs. He tilts his head up to scrutinize Geralt's face, which is charmingly flushed. His lips are dry from worrying at them and Jaskier forgot to give him his tie back, so his hair is falling loose. 

"Was it a sacrifice?" Jaskier asks, his tongue thick and honest with wine. 

"What?" Geralt asks.

"I just think I ought to know," Jaskier tells him perfectly reasonably. "Or else I might do something foolish like pine silently about it for the next twenty years."

Geralt's gaze drops to Jaskier's mouth. "It…"

"If I kissed you again," Jaskier asks, and, Melitele, it hurts. It hurts even through the haze of wine and a superfluous hand on his thigh, but he will remember himself as many things but not a coward. "Without pretense, because I like you and I want to—would you let me?"

Geralt's slow Witcher breath hitches. He says, "You wanted to kiss a stranger."

Jaskier's smile is lopsided. "What makes you think that means I don't also want to kiss you?"

"Because it's me?" Geralt asks. "Or because I'm here?"

Jaskier frowns. There's a jumble of thoughts—something he wants to articulate carefully. He wants— "Because you're you," he says, staring earnestly. "And because you're here. Do you see?"

Geralt purses his lips.

Jaskier flounders, casting his eyes about, and takes Geralt's hand and presses it to his chest. "Being here means something. Anyone could be in the same place as you and it'd mean nothing at all. I'm—it's so clear. You don't see it? It's important."

Geralt says, "Poet," in the way someone says stranger— some unknown thing that could still cause harm.

And kisses Jaskier full on the mouth.

Jaskier muffles a relieved moan into the kiss, squeezing the hand he's holding pressed to his heart. He drops it to cup Geralt's jaw and brings his other hand to tangle in Geralt's hair, tugging gently. 

It's almost worse. It's worse to have him, to feel the ache boil through him and put it in such small places—the divot of Geralt's bottom lip, the secret place behind the shell of his ear—except that it hurts very beautifully, and that, too, is important.

Geralt pushes his fingertips against Jaskier's sternum, drags them over the cage of his ribs. He cups the back of Jaskier's head and holds him steady, so the ache has nowhere to go.

Jaskier's hands are restless. They card through Geralt's hair, fist in the straps of his armor and deepen the kiss. He licks into Geralt's mouth with a little sigh—of settling, of comfort. 

Geralt hums and allows himself to be moved.

"Could we lay down?" Jaskier asks, the backs of his knuckles tracing up Geralt's neck. "Fuck, I just want—"

"Yeah," Geralt murmurs. "Just be careful."

They part reluctantly, untangling from their kissing, and lay their bedrolls out next to each other.

"Are you cold?" Geralt asks.

Jaskier's doublet was abandoned some time ago. His chemise is half-unlaced—no telling whose doing. There's still a drunken detachment shielding him from the night air, but he can see the faint outline of goosebumps on his arms.

"A little," he decides, and Geralt wraps his cloak around them both when they lay together against the straw.

Geralt's eyes are glinting, inhumanly bright in the moonlight. He licks his lips and nudges their foreheads together, lingering a hair's breadth from another kiss.

Jaskier closes his eyes against the renewed ache in his chest and closes the distance. 

They're on their sides, hands caressing ribs and the edges of cheeks, soft murmured sounds to join the whisper of the river in the distance. Geralt wraps his arm around Jaskier's waist and tugs questioningly—Jaskier answers, rolling Geralt onto his back and pressing close on top of him.

Geralt's hand bunches in Jaskier's chemise. He slips his thigh between Jaskier's legs, offering a gentle friction, and Jaskier hums with pleasure. He's not hard; not scheming towards a way to circumvent his curse. 

He just wants to be here, like this. To feel the ripples of warmth up his spine, to know Geralt wants him. It's simple, uncomplicated.

The problem, then, is this—

Jaskier was born with a restless mind. He isn't suited for lack of contemplation, for lack of question, and he knows that nothing is as it sits on the page. 

"Is this odd for you?" he whispers, nosing anxiously at Geralt's cheek. "How—how quickly we're moving?"

"It's not like we're deflowering each other," Geralt rumbles with amusement, though his grip on Jaskier's chemise loosens.

"I don't mean like that," Jaskier clarifies. He sits up a little, still straddling Geralt's thigh, and finds humiliated tears springing to his eyes at the mere thought of what he's about to say. "I mean that I—" love you, love you, oh Lilit Julian you can't. "I care for you. And I know that it—that I can be somewhat overwhelming, of a person, and I've been trying to not be so much because I'm not ready for you to be tired of me and I think maybe I shouldn't've asked—"

"No," Geralt says roughly. But he sits up too, dislodging Jaskier from the places they touch. "It's that I'll… run out."

Jaskier bites at his tender lip. "Run… out?"

"Of things that make me interesting." Geralt is staring across the camp, where Roach is grazing. "Things to offer."

Jaskier's throat hurts. The world is still blurred, his tongue numb, and it comes out wet and distant when he asks, "Is that what you think of me? That I'm—that I'm some vapid magpie who will grow bored of you? That I'm not capable of—of devotion?"

"You think me heartless," Geralt snaps defensively.

"Oh, that's your fear writ-large, Geralt," Jaskier tells him with a harsh laugh. "Not mine."

Geralt stands abruptly, storming across the clearing with an urgency decidedly out of character.

Jaskier watches him rustle through their—through his bags—with a lump in his throat. "What're you doing?"

The air is still. No breeze or dancing specters to mollify the silence.

Jaskier closes his eyes, sucks in a breath through his nose. "Are you leaving?"

Geralt says, "I'm making your tea. And then I'm going to bed."

A flash of heat touches Jaskier's cheeks—he opens his eyes; Geralt's relit the fire. 

Naive hope flutters in Jaskier's stomach. He says, "If my snoring is so offensive to you, I can sleep—"

"I don't care about your fucking snoring, Jaskier!" Geralt interrupts. He runs a harsh hand through his hair.

It hangs in the air between them. Geralt crushes the herbs, pours water into the little kettle. 

There should be more. It hurts to breathe, the harsh woolen cloak that barely smells like Geralt anymore wrapped bruisingly around his shoulders, and there should be more said than three fucking sentences about tea.

But if Geralt's fears are true, then so are Jaskier's.

He clears his throat and asks, "Do you want me to move my bedroll?"

Geralt looks at him, burning eyes and kiss-wounded lips, and looks for all the world like a man about to run away.

"No," he says.

Jaskier blinks a hot rush of tears down his cheeks.

"Alright," he says. "Thank you."

Geralt nods and turns back to the kettle. He watches it closely, until steam begins to rise in earnest, and pulls it from the fire before it whistles. He steeps the herbs, stirring intently.

Jaskier places his head between his legs and tries to stem the tears. Fuck. He wishes he could sober up, could think about this—

Well, he never things particularly logically, does he? But he could at least be clear-headed, get himself under some measure of control. This is humiliating.

Geralt nudges the warm cup into Jaskier's hands and settles next to him on the ground.

Jaskier wipes his eyes against his trousers and looks up, clutching his tea tightly. He sniffs once, then leans down to blow on the steaming drink before taking a tentative sip. He can feel Geralt watching him; he doesn't trust himself to say anything else. 

Eventually, Geralt lays down on his side, facing away.

Jaskier finishes his tea slowly, eyes fluttering shut as he focuses on the warmth spreading down his throat and into his stomach. It's… he knows. He knows that Geralt still cares, that he hasn't decided that Jaskier is too much trouble. 

And yet it hurts.

Jaskier sets the cup off to the side and lays down too, keeping the cloak wrapped around himself. There's a paltry few inches between them—a gulf. He squeezes his eyes shut and moves closer, so their backs brush together.

Geralt doesn't move away.

He could, if he wanted. Jaskier knows that too.

Geralt shifts, which is unlike him—and their ankles knock together with a dull shock of pain. 

Jaskier breathes with deliberate slowness, feeling the air threatening to catch in his throat in a hiccup, and tangles their legs together.

Geralt exhales.

"Geralt?" Jaskier ventures gingerly. "Do you… want some of the blanket?"

A pause. Geralt asks, "Will you be cold?"

Jaskier's fingers curl in the wool. "Not if you stay close to me."

Oh, gods, the silence. Jaskier's eyelashes are damp. He tries to keep himself still.

"We can share," Geralt says quietly.

Jaskier fumbles to unwrap himself, at last managing to free an edge of the cloak that he can tug over his shoulder. Their fingertips brush when Geralt takes it just as clumsily—though he's careful not to yank the thing from Jaskier's grip.

They resettle. Jaskier croaks, "I'm sorry."

"Me too," says Geralt.

What else is there? Jaskier presses his heel into Geralt's calf and tries to succumb to sleep.

 

~*~

 

The morning—the assaulting light of the sun and the rotten taste in Jaskier's mouth, and the grating sound of a sword being sharpened nearby.

Jaskier says, "Blargh," and then clamps a hand over his mouth to suppress a wave of nausea.

"Good thing you have an inherent immunity to hangovers," Geralt says drily. "Imagine how shit you'd feel right now."

"I am begging you," Jaskier says weakly, "to stop making that sound."

Geralt, the absolute monster, gives it one more pass of the whetstone before setting his sword aside.

"Gods." Jaskier presses two fingers against the sore spot above his eye. "I'd gargle a satyr's bollocks to get rid of this fucking headache. Is there any of that fucking demon blood disguised as wine left?"

"Here." Geralt pelts Jaskier with some kind of peeled root. "Eat this."

Jaskier groans. "Will it kill me? Please say it'll kill me."

"Hangover cure," says Geralt.

Oh, thank Melitele. Jaskier pushes up onto an elbow and bites into—

The most disgusting thing he's ever tasted in his life.

Jaskier nearly chokes in his hurry to spit it back out, wheezing like a dying dog.

Geralt laughs.

It's particularly hard to look threatening when you are, firstly, dying from alcohol poisoning, and secondly suddenly viscerally grateful to still be looking at the person whom you are attempting to threaten.

Jaskier glares anyway, because his head still hurts and he refuses to burst into tears.

"You said pranks were okay if they were funny," Geralt reminds him.

Jaskier crawls over to the far side of their bedrolls, where the wineskin from the night before is still laid out. He shakes it, finds it a quarter full, and opens the container.

The first drink is to rinse out his mouth; he spits it into the grass. The second is a valiant attempt at the only hangover cure that has never failed him—hair of the dog.

Fuck, his head really hurts. And the rotten-sweet wine isn't agreeing with his queasy stomach. And, yes, he's glad that Geralt didn't pack up and leave in the middle of the night, but—

Where does that leave them? Can they really be alright like this, not addressing the night before?

He is, quite literally, not sure he can stomach it.

Geralt comes to sit next to him in the dirt and hands over a soft bread roll—something Jaskier doesn't remember being part of their existing rations. Perhaps another parting gift from Jan.

Jaskier narrows his eyes instead of taking it. "It's normal bread? That I can eat?"

Geralt rolls his eyes. "It's fine. Look." He takes a bite to prove it.

Satisfied, Jaskier accepts the peace offering. He tears off a little chunk and chews gratefully; bread will soak up the unpleasantness in his stomach.

He eats in silence for a little while. Every time he glances over, Geralt is watching his face.

"Jaskier, I…" Geralt wets his bottom lip, then looks away. 

The hesitation hangs heavily in the air. Jaskier isn't in the mood to rescue him.

"Think we'll make Carrera today," Geralt says gruffly. "It's a good town."

Jaskier takes another bite of bread. "We're in Temeria now, right? I don't think I've ever been this far east."

"Mm." Geralt rests his forearms on his knees. "Gets colder inland."

"Good to know," Jaskier says, though he doesn't know what he'll do about it. Buy a thicker cloak? Head back west when his curse is lifted and there's no more excuse to keep doing this? "Thank you."

Geralt says, "I don't know what you want me to do."

Jaskier looks over at him, blinking helplessly. He admits, "I don't either. What do you want me to do?"

"I don't know," says Geralt. "I don't like how we left it. But I'm not…"

"I don't think I'm ready to revisit it either," Jaskier confesses. The pain between his eyes throbs, hunching his spine against the glaring sun. "I'm afraid I wouldn't know how to say it."

"Then what chance would I have?" Geralt jokes self-deprecatingly.

Jaskier huffs out a laugh. 

"... Are you coming with me?" Geralt asks.

Jaskier's heart wrenches. Even if he'd been considering declining, he's not sure he'd be capable of it when faced with the choice.

"I'd like to," he says. "If you'll have me."

Geralt nods, gently rubbing his thumb and forefinger together in a restless gesture. "Yeah. I will."

 

~*~

 

For a lesser bard, the walk to Carrera may have become filled with unsavory things such as awkward silences and unhappy conversations. Thanks to Jaskier and his insatiable dedication to his craft, he spends the entire journey composing, or pestering Geralt to give his opinion on the composition, or practicing performing his new composition to a very flattering imaginary audience.

Geralt, for his part, contributes helpful comments such as, "That's not what happened," and, "You must have a death wish if you think you're gonna sing that in town."

"But Geralt!" Jaskier whines. "If I don't incite at least one minor rebellion before I turn thirty, what's even the point?"

Geralt hums and keeps walking.

They don't reach Carrera until after sundown, and that's at a rushed pace even for Geralt. Jaskier suspects there's some ulterior motive for getting to civilization, which Geralt doesn't seem to even normally prefer. 

Maybe he wants to avoid sleeping next to Jaskier again. Jaskier purses his lips and braces himself for rejection as Geralt leads them—

Past what looks like a perfectly respectable inn.

"Um, I'm sorry," Jaskier asks, turning to look at the bustling building disappearing behind them. His feet hurt. "Where're we going?"

"I'm meeting a friend," says Geralt, then turns them down multiple side streets until they're in a completely different district entirely.

They arrive at their apparent destination, which—judging by the demure sign Jaskier scrutinizes while Geralt stables Roach around back—is a high-end brothel.

The fucking nerve.

"Geralt," Jaskier huffs, gesturing at the sign even as Geralt plants a hand between his shoulder blades and steers him inside. "This is just cruel. I mean, to rub my predicament in my face like this, I can't even begin to describe the injustice!"

Geralt blinks at him. "I'm meeting a friend."

"That answers none of my concerns, thank you so much!" Jaskier says cheerfully, and then he's distracted by a rather lovely-looking woman dressed in very little clothing tossing herself directly into Geralt's arms.

"Geralt!" she says warmly, pressing a kiss to his cheek. "You're early."

Geralt squeezes her gently around the waist before releasing her. "Hey. Took a different route."

The woman—spright curls and a striking nose—smiles at him. "Well, I'm not complaining. It's good to see you."

"Sorry, I'm confused," Jaskier cuts in, looking between them. "Do you work here?"

The woman turns to him as if she's just noticed he's there. "Oh, I'm sorry, I do! I'm not available tonight, but you can talk with some of the other girls, or if you have a specific request, our bawd is in the back to discuss it."

Geralt says, "He's with me."

The woman raises an eyebrow. "Is he now?"

Jaskier feels his face heat up. He glances at Geralt for a response.

"This is Jaskier," Geralt deflects, because of course he does. "Jaskier, this is Agata."

Well, it's not like Jaskier's going to be rude about it. He bows pleasantly and says, "At your service."

"That's usually my line," she quips, and oh, he likes her.

"Geralt," Jaskier repeats out loud, "I like her."

"Stay out of trouble," Geralt says, and heads for the stairs.

Jaskier's eyes widen; he places a hand on his hip and raises his voice to hold Geralt's attention. "Um, excuse me? What am I supposed to do down here?"

Several nearby women giggle.

Bollocks. Jaskier looks around the room and quickly clarifies, "Oh, no, you're all lovely and under slightly different circumstances I would gladly—"

"He's cursed," Geralt says, sounding as gleeful as he ever does, the fucking bastard.

Jaskier… wants it to be funnier than it is. 

It hurts. He's standing in the foyer of this—this wonderful haven of sex and physical intimacy that he can't be welcomed into, and Geralt is quite literally leaving him behind.

Jaskier doesn't think that Geralt is a vindictive man. He's probably not trying to punish Jaskier for their fight, and Agata clearly isn't some random woman Geralt is using to get under Jaskier's skin. Geralt called them friends. 

But it rubs on a sore spot anyway, and Jaskier has made it clear that he thinks subtlety is overrated.

"Actually, this is a perfect opportunity," he says, grinning mischievously at Geralt. "Since you wouldn't indulge my very excellent theory—"

"No," Geralt warns.

"—about bondage!"

Geralt glares at him. "It's a stupid idea. We don't know enough about how the curse operates. You could break something."

"Duly noted! It looks like that's not your concern this evening," Jaskier says brightly. "I'll see you later, have fun!"

Geralt looks like he's about to argue—but then he turns away, nodding to Agata when she gives him a questioning look. They make their way up the stairs together without another word.

Standing in the middle of this room, therefore, becomes exceedingly awkward.

Jaskier looks around, making a quick calculation, and decides to join a trio of women who are playing Gwent at a nearby table—they probably overheard what just transpired, which at least saves time on the explanation.

"Erm, hello there," he says, gesturing for permission to pull up a chair, which he's given in the form of a nod for the woman next to him. "That wasn't my finest introduction."

"We all know Geralt," a woman clad in a pale green dress says understandingly.

"He's a good man," says another, wearing mauve. "But a little…"

"He always goes to Agata," the third woman, in blue, finishes as if in way of explanation.

Perhaps, if one knew Agata, it would be. 

As it is, Jaskier feels oddly defensive despite their ongoing tiff. If anything, he's the one being unreasonable about this whole business. Not that he wants to throw himself under the carriage either.

"Are you really cursed?" asks the Blue Woman. She touched consolingly at his hand, pouting with an affected concern, no doubt.

Jaskier doesn't mind; he's in the business of performing too, after all, and he admires a service skillfully rendered.

"I'm afraid so," he says. "It, erm, makes intimacy difficult to maintain, physically."

"Is it your cock?" Green Woman asks. "We've got plenty of tricks for that."

Mauve Woman adds, "Not everyone who comes here even has a cock."

"You know, people keep assuming that," Jaskier tells them. "Why do I look like I have a problem with my cock?"

Blue Woman looks between the other two for confirmation and says, "It's usually a problem with the cock."

"That's fa—wait, I've diverted us," says Jaskier. "No, I just need someone to tie me down? I'm pretty sure that will work, probably. Maybe?"

"Like, in a specific fantasy kind of way, or just in general?" the Green Woman asks.

"Generally speaking," Jaskier says. "But I am intrigued."

"Oh, you want Maja," says the Green Woman. "Maja, you don't have bookings, do you?"

Mauve Woman says, "I'm free for a while," and looks at Jaskier. "Are you interested?"

Jaskier smiles at her. "Yes, please. Would you like payment up front?"

"I'll show you to the back," Maja tells him.

He follows her, pays the bawd, then is led upstairs to her room.

Maja goes to the hearth, which already has a fire burning, and adds another log to the blaze. "Sorry, would you want more of a preamble before we start, or?"

"Oh, that's not necessary," Jaskier assures her. "As long as you're comfortable with a bit of a logistical experiment, so to speak, I'm fine with just getting to it. But if you'd find it more enjoyable—"

"Nope. How do you want me to tie you?" she asks matter-of-factly.

"Like you don't want me to escape," Jaskier quips, then laughs nervously at her blank expression. "Erm, I mean that literally. I need it to be difficult to get out of. Beyond that, whatever you enjoy, I suppose."

Maja shrugs and goes to a locked chest at the foot of the bed, which she opens and retrieves a length of sleek rope from. "Do you wanna fuck me?"

"You know, normally I'd be a little more adventurous," Jaskier muses, "but for our current purposes, straightforward is probably better."

"Alright." Maja nods toward the bed. "Clothes off?"

Jaskier has a sudden, visceral image of himself running naked through the Temerian streets.

"Better not," he says.

She appears unbothered by this and gestures with the rope, once again indicating the bed. Jaskier complies, crawling onto the plush mattress and sitting cross-legged in the middle.

"On your back," Maja says absently. She tosses the first length of rope onto the bed and quickly follows it with two more. "Against the headboard."

Jaskier bites his lip as he obeys; it's been some time since he's slept with someone who took a sterner approach. He wonders if his request affected her chosen disposition, or if it comes naturally. 

It's not that he doesn't enjoy a firm hand—quite the opposite, actually. But it puts the tenderness of Geralt's touch—the soft brushes of tongue and murmured affirmations—in stark relief. 

Perhaps it is, likewise, merely Geralt's nature.

Maja trails a hand along the edge of the bed as she approaches, grabbing the first rope with her other hand. She smirks playfully at him when he presents his wrists.

"You have some experience with this," she surmises. Her nails prick tantalizingly against his skin when she pins his hands to the headboard and begins to thread the rope into a knot.

Or knots, perhaps. Jaskier cranes his neck to try and sneak a peek, but finds he can't quite get the angle right. "Ah, yes, you could say I'm comfortable."

"It's nice," she says plainly, then tugs mercilessly on the rope to pull the length of his forearms flush. "I'm not a coddler."

Jaskier's sternum is buzzing with anticipation. "I noticed."

Maja taps on the bindings. "Test that."

Jaskier attempts to move his arms and finds himself entirely unsuccessful. He wets his bottom lip with the thrill of it, watching with his breath catching as she moves to tie his first foot.

"Not sure how long I could maintain it," he tells her, flexing his fingers to test the blood flow. "But it's good."

"Do you want a safeword?" Maja asks. She secures a taut stretch of rope to the footboard; Jaskier maintains limited but fruitless mobility in his leg.

He answers, "Let's go with 'Prana.' Oh, that one's perfect too."

Satisfied, Maja moves to his other foot. "You like getting into trouble, don't you?"

"What makes you assume so?" Jaskier asks.

"Educated guess about the type of people who end up with sex curses," says Maja. "And Geralt telling you to stay out of it."

Jaskier says, "I feel obligated on behalf of all persons sex-cursed to protest. Surely some of us are—ah, that's a little too tight—innocent victims of cruel outside forces beyond our control. And for the record, I was very clear when I had that threesome that I was leaving in the morning."

Maja looks up after adjusting the knot. "Someone got offended, did they?"

"Entirely uncalled for!" Jaskier agrees. He swallows when she slips a hand under the folds of her shawl and a pair of undergarments slip to the floor in a silken heap. "Although, between you and me, upon reflection there was perhaps a pattern of behavior which, erm, predicated the incident."

Maja straddles him, her bare thighs pressing into his clothed hips. "Such as?"

"Oh, the usual," Jaskier says, fighting the urge to hitch his hips. "Fucking half the patrons of a medium-sized tavern in a three day period, that sort of thing."

Maja's nails scrape against his stubble when she pats his cheek. "Good thing we've got you tied up."

Jaskier makes no argument—not just because of the curse. He watches her face, the way her eyes slide over the offering of his body, and asks, "What will you do with me?"

"Hmm." She taps a finger against his bottom lip thoughtfully, like there's nothing in particular that comes to mind, and, oh—he wants to convince her. He wants to earn a spark of desire in her eyes, make her glad that he paid for this. 

The impulse is inappropriate. It's a service; he's a customer. But she's a person. Someone who could want him. Someone who could—

"Let's see your cock, I guess," she says, like she hadn't already agreed to fuck him, and Jaskier's elbows twitch and smack against the headboard.

He winces; he hadn't meant to do that. But Maja smirks at his eagerness and drags her nails down his chest—his doublet is open and she tickles through his chest hair, a pleasant teasing sensation. Her hand drifts lower, the heel of her hand pressing down against his cock through his trousers, and—

Jaskier is arching his back, trying to get his heels under him.

"Um," says Maja, displaced from her seat on his hips. "What're you doing?"

Bollocks.

"Oh, it's fine!" Jaskier says cheerfully. The headboard creaks against his compulsive struggle, but her knot work remains true. It could almost be a little fun, couldn't it? Playing up the hapless victim at the mercy of a beautiful woman. "This is just—"

"Stop wriggling like that!" Maja tells him sternly. "Is this what you meant by a curse?"

Jaskier's body settles against the bed. He breathes a sigh of relief, then smiles disarmingly and assures her, "You don't have to worry about a thing. If we could just resume?"

"Sure," Maja says warily. "But if you break something…"

Her threat remains unspoken. But she straddles him once more and presses a commanding hand against his chest in warning. Her other hand returns to his trousers, which she begins to expertly unlace—

As Jaskier writhes underneath her, and—oh, fuck, twisting his foot like that hurts but he can't help it, and his shoulders ache from fighting for leverage against the ties around his wrists.

"If you need to safeword…" Maja reminds him.

"Nonsense!" Jaskier insists, wincing as her nails dig into his chest to hold him down. "This isn't even—it's a very popular movement in Toussaint, you know. Those Southerners love a good—"

Maja is scowling. "You're flopping like a dying fish."

"That's what it's called!" Jaskier hisses under his breath when his fingers attempt to scrabble at the ropes binding his wrists. "The dying fish! Wow, you really have remarkable ropemanship, I'm very impressed! I think if—"

"Prana," Maja deadpans, and Jaskier is compulsively flung to the floor when all three sets of rope spontaneously unravel at once.

He scrambles backwards and stops, thankfully, when his back hits the wall.

Maja stares at him with a raised eyebrow.

"Okay, alright," he admits, hanging his head dejectedly. "Maybe Geralt was right."

"I'm sorry," Maja tells him. He doesn't look up, but he can hear the creak of her resettling on the bed. "What do you wanna do, then?"

Fuck, Jaskier doesn't want to go back outside. Especially when Geralt's probably still having a lovely evening, and Jaskier is just—

Alone.

"Can I stay here?" he asks, glancing at her face to gauge a reaction. "I'd be happy to still pay you, of course, I just—a little non-sexual companionship would still be nice?"

"Sure." Maja hops off the bed and holds out a hand, helping him to his feet. "We've actually got a separate fee for that—you've overpaid. I'll return the difference to you after."

Jaskier smiles gratefully; she leads him back to the bed and reclines with him, arranging them so his head is pillowed on her chest. Her arm is draped across his front, fingers idly playing with the undone laces of his chemise.

"Do you wanna talk?" she asks him.

Jaskier allows his eyes to drift shut. He can feel his loneliness bubbling under the surface, the blue ache of it crawling up towards his lips.

What if Geralt can't fix him? What if the last time he'll ever be touched was by someone who didn't understand him—who didn't care?

"I don't know," he says. "I'm sorry, I'm normally better company."

"That's alright," Maja says.

Jaskier breathes. Focuses on the air flowing through him, billowing to the very bottom of his lungs. Holds it there, suspended—imagines his body lifting into the air, wobbling like a leaf before he breathes out and drifts down again.

He'll be fine. He thinks of holding Geralt at night, running fingers through his beautiful tangled hair and feeling the rumble of bashful contentment vibrating through his chest. These things have not been lost. He can still—

Gods, he wants Geralt.

"Do you play professionally?" Maja asks.

Jaskier opens his eyes and finds her indicating his lute near the door. He nods.

"And compose?" she asks.

A tentative joy prickles at Jaskier's mouth. "I do."

"You could play something, if you want," Maja offers. "I like music."

"You're sure?" Jaskier asks, but he's already sitting up in anticipation.

Maja shoves him gently. "Go."

Jaskier laughs, stumbling to his feet with a tiny skip towards the door. He retrieves his lute from its case and brings it back to the bed, where he flops backwards and reclines against her bent legs.

Maja brushes the fringe away from his eyes. "Have you been working on anything specific?"

"Mm, a few things," Jaskier answers, flexing his fingers through a few warmups. "I just finished something earlier today, actually, but I'm not sure it's, ah, appropriate for the moment."

"Why not?" Maja asks.

Jaskier adjusts a pair of strings which've gone out of tune. "Ah, well, I'm sort of hoping the song will incite mass vigilante justice against a local lord, best case scenario, or at the very least minor political upheaval."

"Fantastic," says Maja.

"Thank you!" Jaskier says brightly. He plucks out a few bars of the melody. "I thought so. Geralt seems to think I'll be arrested and-or murdered. Come to think of it, what's the political situation here?"

Maja explains, "We've got a council and a mayor, and our duchess maintains a property in the city—I think she's here right now. Don't tell anyone how you know that."

Jaskier mimes buttoning his lips shut.

"Who's this lord you want dead?" she asks.

"Lord Filip," says Jaskier.

"Who?" asks Maja.

Jaskier grins. "Perfect."

"I knew you were a shit-stirrer," Maja tells him.

Jaskier hums in agreement. He thinks, somewhat idly at first, of the other song he's been turning around in his brain.

"There's something else," he tells her, "but I'm still chewing it over."

Maja asks, "Do you wanna talk it out?"

"Mm, I'm just not sure what to do with it," Jaskier admits. He shifts his fingers against the strings and plays what he has of the chorus. "I wanted to write a love song, you see, and at first it was—well, not precisely fictional, but not about someone in particular, either. And I thought—love is grand, and cheerful."

"People definitely describe it that way," says Maja.

"I know, and I started by writing a song about love," says Jaskier.

"As opposed to what?" asks Maja.

Jaskier's fingers drift again, transposing to a minor key. Black eyes and toxic veins, a weary voice rasping behind sharp teeth.

"I decided it was for someone," he says. "A song for love. I've scrapped most of the lyrics, rewritten the melody countless times in my head. And I still don't know how to make it something he'll understand."

"Are you playing it now?" Maja asks softly.

Jaskier glances down at his hands, the easy curl of them. He says, "Yes, more or less."

"It sounds like a nursery rhyme," she says. "The kind my mother sang before bed."

Jaskier's eyes widen in recognition. He transposes again, shifts an interval or two with his fingers plucking unsteadily at the strings.

"Yes," he says faintly, with the throbbing bruises settling around his heart. "I suppose it does."

 

~*~

 

Jaskier stays with Maja until her next patron arrives, then gathers up his things and parts ways with her in the main room—he needs to settle his bill, but the bawd is assisting someone else, so he'll have to wait. In the meantime, he wonders what to do next.

He doesn't see Geralt down here, which means he's either still upstairs or left for the inn—perhaps the one they passed on the way here. Jaskier doesn't want to wait around like a fool all night if Geralt's already gone, but he also doesn't know how he'd find him otherwise.

He's about to go ask some of the women up front if they've seen Geralt leave when someone calls his name.

"Jaskier," says Geralt, emerging from the back. He's without his armor and his shirt is untucked from his trousers, hair looking decidedly rumpled.

"Oh!" Jaskier smiles with relief, masking the envy. "Geralt! I'm glad I found you."

Geralt frowns, his eyes fixed on something—he comes closer and grabs Jaskier's hand, turning it gently in both of his own. In the lamplit room, Jaskier can see the murky pink of bruises forming on his wrists.

"Um, Geralt," Jaskier asks. "What're you doing?"

Geralt says, "You're hurt." He brushes his fingers across a spot of rope burn, his touch light enough that it only hurts in anticipation.

"Oh, it's nothing," Jaskier promises, though he does feel a little light-headed. "It's—you did warn me, after all."

Geralt says nothing. His eyes are unblinking, fixated on Jaskier's hand.

"Erm, I was planning on looking for an inn," Jaskier says, unwilling to take his hand away. "Would you like to join me?"

Geralt shakes his head minutely. He seems to remember himself, dropping their contact abruptly and refocusing on Jaskier's face.

"I'm having a bath drawn," he says. "We could share."

"Oh?" Jaskier swallows thickly. "Erm. Yes? Yes, I'd—do you need me to contribute, erm, financially?"

"I'll ask Ola," says Geralt. "Wait here."

Jaskier, rather incapable of any other choice, obeys.

Geralt comes back a few minutes later. "She said she can balance it on your tab. Just see her before you leave."

"Works for me," Jaskier says. "Um, shall we?"

Geralt hums and leads the way.

Jaskier follows him into an extravagant bathroom on the first floor, where an impressive tub dominates the space. He stands there, gaping, until Geralt nudges him inside so he can shut the door with a quiet huff.

"Geralt," says Jaskier. "I want to live here."

"We don't typically employ men," Agata teases—she enters from another door, carrying a bucket of water against her hip. "But maybe Ola would make an exception."

"You tempt me," Jaskier tells her. "I could diversify your clientele. And I sing. Geralt, tell her about my singing."

"He sings."

Jaskier spreads his hands in a grand gesture. "There you have it! You won't find a better review than that."

Agata dumps the bucket into the tub, which is almost full. She wipes at her forehead with a determined sigh.

"Geralt, my favorite customer and handsomest friend," she says sweetly. "A little help?"

Geralt's lips twitch. He brushes past Jaskier and takes the empty bucket from her, then vanishes through the door she came in from.

Agata strides past the tub and opens a dresser drawer, from which she starts pulling out soaps and vials of oil.

"All joking aside," Jaskier tells her, breaking the silence, "you have a fantastic space here."

"Thank you," she says proudly. "How'd it go with your curse?"

"Eh," says Jaskier. He sets his lute down on the ground. "Can't win 'em all. Maja was lovely, though."

Agata hums. "She is."

Geralt returns, dumps his basin into the tub, and leaves without another word.

"Can I help you with anything?" Jaskier offers.

"You can pick out the soap you want," Agata says. "Since Geralt never picks for himself."

"Ooh, I love soap!" Jaskier claps his hands together and flits over to the selection. "These look lovely. Do you make them yourself? Do you have a favorite?"

"Jask," Geralt says tiredly.

Jaskier waves him off without turning around.

Agata laughs. "We don't—we get them at the local market. There's this sweet old woman who makes them."

"Sweet old ladies make the best soap," Jaskier agrees sagely, despite not having had an opinion on the matter three minutes ago. He sniffs a few options and chooses the gentlest smelling option, for Geralt's nose.

Geralt says, "Bath's ready."

Jaskier is busy perusing bottles of hair oil. "I'll join you in a moment."

Agata touches companionably at his arm before leaving him for the bath. He can hear the gentle sounds of clothing hitting the floor, and Geralt's contented sigh when he sinks into the water.

Jaskier's cheeks turn warm. He's washed with Geralt in the river a few times over the last week, and they've changed clothes after sharing the inn room. It's never been particularly awkward, and Jaskier isn't exactly shy in that—or any—respect.

But they are quite literally in a brothel, sharing a bath with Geralt's friend the prostitute.

Well, it won't get less awkward by Jaskier staring embarrassedly at the wall.

He grabs the soap and oil of his choice and strips out of his own clothes, then lowers himself into the steaming water between the two of them.

Gods, the heat feels transcendent. When was the last time Jaskier had a hot bath? Too long.

He suspects it's been even longer for Geralt, who looks for all the world like he could be asleep.

Jaskier pinches his nose and ducks under the water, wetting his hair. The heat caresses the thin skin of his eyelids, nearly to the point of pain—like just barely pressing on a bruise.

He resurfaces with a quiet gasp for air, panting out steam. Geralt's eyes are still closed, but there's a faint smile on his face.

I wish I could bottle this feeling for you, Jaskier thinks. Gods, if I could make you this happy.

He reaches for the soap and lathers his hair.

Agata, for her part, seems equally content to relax and say nothing. She's sprawled decadently, her hair pulled back out of the way and the water lapping gently at her breasts.

Jaskier rinses the soap from his hair, giving her another appreciative glance. She's beautiful, with a kindness to the start of wrinkles around her mouth and eyes and an easy confidence to the way she carries herself. When she catches him staring, she smiles with amusement.

Jaskier works a bit of oil into his dripping hair and then stoppers the bottle. He glances over at Geralt, who gives no indication that he realizes he's being observed.

The room is lit with tall, unscented candles and a fireplace crackling on the rear wall. Geralt's hair is iron-grey with water and shadow; his skin is oft-scarred—nasty, irregular things, some in the shape of teeth or claw. A few of them are shiny, almost glinting in the light.

Jaskier wants to trace them all—to decode them like an Elder cipher, as if rearranging the paths they trace will reveal some hidden story. Pain is useful because it means something, to Jaskier. He believes in transmutation. 

For Geralt it must be different. When you speak the same word over and over it begins to lose all meaning. Pain becomes suffering becomes nothing.

Jaskier's wrists sting where he struggled against the rope. He rolls his ankle and finds it a little tender.

"Geralt," he says softly. "Did you want to wash your hair?"

"Mm." Geralt's eyes blink open slowly, cat-like as ever. His pupils expand slightly when he looks over, making Jaskier's heart flutter. "Yeah."

Jaskier hands the soap over, careful to avoid the unpleasant sensation of his pruned fingers brushing against Geralt's skin.

Geralt hums, then slinks down to wet his hair again. He stays like that for a moment before sitting up—

And brutally scrubbing the soap against his scalp, his rough fingers ripping at the tangles in his hair.

Jaskier winces and steals a glance at Agata, whose lips are pursed in similar discomfort.

Geralt grunts, tugging at what looks like a particularly stubborn knot, and Jaskier's limited impulse control abandons him in spectacular fashion.

"Oh, would you stop it?" he asks exasperatedly. "Honestly, Geralt, it hurts just looking at you!"

Geralt stares at him.

Jaskier sighs and slides over, stilling Geralt at the wrist. He meets Geralt's gaze with earnest determination.

"Let me," he says, suddenly feeling very foolish. The words lodge in his throat. "I—"

Geralt ducks his head like a chastised child. He turns his palm up, offering the soap up for Jaskier to take.

Melitele. Jaskier is a fool. He's a horrible, wretched—

It doesn't matter. His fingers are carding through Geralt's hair now, coaxing the worst of the knots apart. His chest is aching, dipping Geralt's head back to wash the soap clean, watching the suds diffuse through the water.

He reaches for the oil. Oil is better for detangling. It smells like rosemary; a familiarity. He's so gentle that his knuckles ache, that his breath becomes an imposition. 

Geralt is trembling.

Jaskier ignores this.

(He does not. He thinks of the frequency of vibration. What note would resonate on his tender strings? Is it contained within the melody he's ruminated upon for seven nights?)

Geralt's hair. The oil overstaying its welcome in Jaskier's own. Agata watching Jaskier stare at the gentle quiver in the soft underside of Geralt's jaw, which he longs to bite. 

Jaskier untangles the final snare. He moves his fingers to the scalp, massaging gently, and nearly sobs when Geralt sinks another half inch into the water and purrs.

"You're…" Geralt murmurs. His eyebrows furrow fretfully. "Happy."

Jaskier swallows the ache. "Yes, I am."

"Hm." Geralt's chin droops, his body drifting towards Jaskier's side.

Agata gets up slowly. When Jaskier turns to her, she says, "I'll be up in the room. You're both welcome to stay the night—bed's plenty big."

Jaskier tells her, "Thank you."

She smiles warmly, then steps from the tub and towels herself dry. Jaskier returns to Geralt, petting soothingly at his hair.

The door clicks shut when Agata leaves.

"Jask?" Geralt mutters.

Jaskier finds a spot of tension at the base of Geralt's skull; he presses two fingers into it gently, hoping to relieve the soreness. "Yes, dear?"

"Can we stay here?"

Jaskier closes his eyes against the creaking of his ribs and promises, "Yes, of course. As long as you want."

Geralt presses his nose to Jaskier's neck.

 

~*~

 

The bed is luxurious. Jaskier hates to leave it, but he does when Agata says she needs to get ready for the day. He and Geralt gather their things, greet Roach in the stable, and head for the market.

"There's a noticeboard near the center," Geralt explains. "I'll look for contracts."

"I'll replenish our rations," Jaskier offers, smiling warmly.

Geralt smiles back.

Jaskier twirls a ring around his finger while they walk. "Soo… you and Agata seem, erm, close."

"We've known each other a long time," Geralt says. "She's a good friend. She was…"

Jaskier waits patiently.

"The first person who saw me in a long time." Geralt glances at the sky. "Until Yen."

I want to see you, Jaskier thinks desperately. Tell me I do. Tell me you feel me looking.

"I'm glad you have her," he says instead. "Both of them."

Geralt nods. He's leading Roach on foot, his fingers rubbing restlessly at the textured leather of the reins.

"You should play your song," he says.

Jaskier looks at him, surprised. "You seemed pretty convinced it'd make trouble."

"Yeah." Geralt turns his head, briefly making eye contact. "I'll look out for you."

Something knocks loose between Jaskier's ribs. He says, "I thought you didn't get involved in the petty affairs of men."

"I don't," says Geralt. His gaze is fixed on the street ahead of them, the bustling of townsfolk going about their mundane and fascinating lives. "But no one touches you."

Jaskier's voice barely musters; his words so infrequently fail him. "Thank you."

Geralt says nothing else before they meld into the market crowd.

 

~*~

 

Jaskier restocks their saddlebags as promised, though his coin is dwindling concerningly low—especially if they plan to stay in town another night. He still buys himself spare lute strings, painfully aware that they'll be in an even worse spot if one snaps and he can no longer perform.

Geralt finds him haggling over the purchase; the price magically drops by nearly ten percent with a Witcher at his back. 

"Found work," Geralt tells him, still leading Roach. "Just outside the city."

Jaskier smiles at him. "Excellent news! I'll see if I can get us a room somewhere in exchange for playing—that works sometimes."

"Hm." Geralt nods. "Might have to camp otherwise."

At least they're on the same page about being broke. Jaskier asks, "You're pretty familiar with the city, right? Where would I have the most luck?"

Geralt shrugs. "I usually stay at the brothel."

They certainly can't afford to go back there.

"Well, trial and error it is!" Jaskier says cheerfully. "Let's get started."

 

~*~

 

After a little wandering, Jaskier finds an innkeeper willing to make a deal. He spends most of the day playing for customers—which he proudly suspects becomes a draw, because the place only gets busier as the day goes on. Geralt, for his part, hides in their newly acquired room and prepares for some monster slaying.

When the sun begins to set and the clientele become a pleasantly rowdy drunken bunch, Jaskier unveils Ladana's song. He sings of her youth, of the love she had for her family and their land, of the petty jealousies of a small man. 

There must be justice, he tells the crowd. Why should this lord govern families he has destroyed?

He senses discomfort, of course. Especially from certain men in the audience—ones who might wonder if a song could exist for them, had they a title to lose. Jaskier sings louder, leaps onto a table, stamps his feet with the beat.

He knows Geralt is listening.

There's a final verse—one which Jaskier knows he shouldn't sing. It tells the story of a Witcher who came to free the woman's soul. He rescued the farmers when the lord condemned them, granted peace after violence. A grieving hero who could not rescue the damsel but put her to rest.

Jaskier shouldn't give these people that story. It offers them the opportunity to invent justice before it's sought—to cling to the bittersweet closure of ashes in the wind. People like to soothe, he knows. To find half-measures of comfort and water them down so the cup is full and their responsibility absolved.

It's not the story he promised to tell. He loves Geralt more than his word.

The song provokes murmurs. Jaskier hears them when he takes a respite to rest his voice and eat dinner—he hopes to play another set later in the evening, after the crowd has changed or at least gotten drunker.

Geralt joins him at the table, dressed in full armor with his swords strapped to his back.

"You're all ready to go," Jaskier observes. He takes a swig of his ale, watching Geralt carefully drag his chair around so his back can be to the wall. "I thought we agreed you'd wait until I could come with you."

"No, we didn't," Geralt says drily. "You said you wanted to come and I said no."

"Huh," Jaskier says innocently. "That's not how I remember it."

Geralt snorts.

"Honestly, Geralt, I'm a little concerned for your memory. Is it failing you in your old age?" Jaskier teases. "You better take me along so I can help you find your way back to town afterwards."

Geralt rolls his eyes. "You promised the innkeeper you'd sing."

"Give me an hour, tops!" Jaskier begs. He bats his eyelashes, allowing his knee to knock against Geralt's under the table.

Geralt glares at him for a prolonged moment before relenting. "Fine. But listen to me while we're out there."

"Geralt, my dearest," Jaskier says, resting his chin against his hands. "When have I ever not listened to you?"

 

~*~

 

"In my defense," Jaskier says through clenched teeth, hissing when Geralt dabs alcohol on the oozing wound on his calf, "you didn't tell me foglets could teleport."

"Yes," Geralt grits out, "I did."

Jaskier balls his hands up in the bloodied bedsheet. "You made quite the dashing hero, though, swooping in to rescue— fuck, Geralt, that hurts!"

"Shut up!" Geralt barks—then hangs his head when Jaskier flinches. "Fuck. Just—don't."

Jaskier swallows. He's giving himself a headache, clenching his jaw like this, but he doesn't want to upset Geralt by complaining about the pain again. 

It's not even that bad. Jaskier can practically already walk again, probably.

"No, you can't."

Jaskier blinks. "What's that?"

"You lost too much blood." Geralt tosses the alcohol-soaked rag to the ground. "You'll need stitches."

"Great, I'm sure there's a—" Jaskier processes the needle which has manifested in Geralt's hand. "Ah. You're the doctor."

Geralt closes his eyes. "We can't afford—"

"I know," Jaskier says quickly. He doesn't want to linger on why Geralt isn't getting paid tonight. "It's alright, Geralt, I trust you."

Geralt hands Jaskier the bottle of vodka and a clean rag. "Drink and then bite down."

Jaskier gulps down two mouthfuls and then balls up the cloth between his teeth. He squeezes his eyes shut and everything goes white-hot behind his eyes like the burning in his throat.

When he's cognizant again, there's two pretty lines of stitches peeking through the bloody hair on his leg and Geralt is slumped on the ground, his forehead pressed to the mattress.

"... Geralt?" Jaskier asks. He's still woozy—booze through a thinned bloodstream, and perhaps being in shock; it takes him three tries to nudge Geralt with his foot. 

Geralt wraps his fingers around Jaskier's ankle and says nothing.

"Will you come up here?" Jaskier asks faintly. "I want—I need to lay down."

"So lay down," says Geralt.

His hands are smeared with blood. Jaskier's eyes overflow with tears as he begs wetly, "Please don't be angry with me. I'm sorry. I'm—"

Geralt looks up. His own eyes are glassy and flat and there's another smear of blood on his cheek. "I'm not."

Jaskier hiccups with a sob. "Please come here. I don't want you to be angry."

"I'm not."

"You are," Jaskier argues. Fuck, he's so tired. It hurts to sit upright like this. He just wants to crumple. "I can feel it."

Geralt hides his face in the crook of Jaskier's knee. "Not at you."

"That's worse," Jaskier rasps.

Geralt's breath is unsteady. Jaskier's never seen it that way before. He wonders if it's the light-headedness, if it's his vision that's gone wrong. Is Geralt hurt too?

"No," Geralt says. "I'm fine."

Jaskier wobbles—braces a hand against the mattress. "Oh. That's good. I don't know how to do stitches and I don't wanna sleep without you."

"... Okay."

Geralt drags himself onto the bed without fully standing. He cups a hand at the back of Jaskier's head and takes them both down slowly, until they're laying on their sides with Geralt wrapped tightly around him. 

The pain in Jaskier's leg is turning to a radiating ache. He wishes he'd had another drink before trying to sleep, or that he'd asked about the salve Geralt used on his hand before. But he can't find the energy to move his tongue, to form a request, and besides—he can feel Geralt breathing, the soft mournful puff of breath warming Jaskier's neck and the nuzzle of his nose against Jaskier's throat when he inhales.

Like he's making sure Jaskier is still there.

Jaskier finds Geralt's hand where it clutches his hip and splays his fingers over top, squeezing weakly. I am.

All that remains is to rest.

 

~*~

 

Sleep comes fitfully and lingers beyond its welcome—Jaskier finds himself half-awake, tendrils of unpleasant dreams clutching at his chest, and his leg protesting when he attempts to turn in Geralt's arms.

"Fuck," he mutters groggily.

Geralt holds him tighter.

The room smells faintly of blood. It must be oppressive to Geralt—the sharp copper tang of it. Jaskier frowns, nuzzling against the forearm cushioning his cheek.

Jaskier drifts again, trying to chase down the threads of his dream. Sometimes when he focuses, he can alter them. Can fix the blood on Geralt's hands, or were they his own? It's too early, his bones ache—

A knock at the door rouses him. He grumbles, then squawks indignantly when Geralt smothers him under the blankets and asks, "Who is it?"

"Um," calls a nervous sounding male voice. "May I enter, sir?"

"No," says Geralt. "What do you want?"

The voice says, "Her Grace, the Duchess of Carrera, requests the presence of Geralt of Rivia and his bard at her estate. I am to escort you, sir."

Geralt sighs tiredly. "Come in."

Jaskier tugs the blanket back down and peers over the edge. A young man—perhaps more accurately an older boy—edges nervously into the room and seems to pale at the sight of the bloody mess.

"What's she want?" Geralt asks.

The boy is staring at the bloodstains on the floor. "She didn't say, um, sir."

"He's not my bard," Geralt says roughly. "And not in condition to travel."

"I can travel!" Jaskier protests, pushing up into a sitting position.

The boy yelps at the sight of him.

"Oh, terribly sorry!" Jaskier smiles disarmingly. "I must be a sight. Geralt, am I a sight?"

Geralt glares at him. "You should rest your leg."

"Yes, and to that effect it's a terrible shame neither of us has a horse," Jaskier says pointedly.

"You're not riding Roach," Geralt growls. "Unless you wanna break the other leg."

"Um, sir?"

Jaskier crosses his arms. "Honestly, Geralt, I know Roach and I have had our differences, but she will sense that I am wounded and her motherly instincts will—"

"Sir?"

"What?" Geralt snaps.

The boy takes a step backwards towards the door. "My lady sent a carriage."

Geralt pinches the bridge of his nose.

"Oh, splendid!" Jaskier pats Geralt on the back. "Let's go meet the nice woman, Geralt."

Geralt tells the boy, "We'll be down shortly."

The boy hesitates.

"I've gotta clean his wounds," Geralt says. "Don't think you wanna watch."

The boy flees down the stairs, leaving the door open behind him.

Geralt hooks an arm around Jaskier's middle and drags him to the edge of the bed, forcing him to sit up. "Stay."

Jaskier blinks woozily, a rush of blood leaving his head as he's brought upright. He means to say something—to comment on Geralt's still blood-drenched hands or quip about the poor errand boy—but instead he focuses on pressing his palms down against the mattress to keep from toppling over.

Geralt kneels in front of him with a half-full basin of water—was that there last night?—and a clean rag. He frowns, wetting the rag and cleaning around the stitches.

"I can speed up the healing," Geralt tells him, wringing the cloth out harshly. "But you'll be more likely to scar."

Oh. Is that why Geralt wouldn't use the salve last night? 

Jaskier smiles encouragingly. "Faster healing, please! Besides, a scar or two can be a bit sexy, don't you think? I think they'll suit me."

Geralt doesn't laugh. He grabs the salve from his pack, opens the window while he's up, and resettles at Jaskier's feet. 

A light breeze tickles at Jaskier's hair. He tugs his chemise over his face and sneezes violently.

"Fuck." Geralt knocks his forehead against Jaskier's knee. "Your tea."

Seriously? Jaskier sniffs, wiping his nose, and then tugs admonishingly at Geralt's hair.

"In case you've forgotten," he says, "there were more pressing matters last night."

Geralt doesn't respond.

Jaskier sighs, feeling the tension building between his eyes. He cards his bloodied fingers through Geralt's dirty hair—feels strangely detached from the sight of it. So much for their bath.

"I can make it now," Geralt says. "Might make you tired."

"I'll sleep in the carriage," Jaskier answers. 

He used to do that as a child. He'd curl up against his mother's side and doze off before they'd even left the main grounds—after the distancing effect of time, he suspects they toured the Lettenhove estate much more frequently than was required of a viscountess in those years.

It was for her benefit, most likely. To grant her that gods-damn peace. Jaskier still thinks of it fondly; it's a matter of survival.

Geralt finishes applying the salve, wiping his fingers clean on his shirt. He packs up the medical supplies scattered about on the floor and trades them for the humble business of tea-making at the hearth.

Jaskier gingerly lowers himself to the floor and uses the damp rag to clean his hands, then the floor to the best of his ability. There's nothing to do for the ruined linens. He rests his head against the mattress, turning to watch Geralt work. 

They pass a few more minutes in silence; Geralt brews Jaskier's tea and Jaskier drinks it gratefully, his fingers soaking up warmth through the mug. The effect isn't instantaneous, but he's more optimistic about going outside now—and the salve is starting to numb his leg.

Geralt opens Jaskier's pack and tosses him a change of clothes. 

"Ah, right," Jaskier says lightly. "I'm not exactly presentable to nobility in this state. Or, presentable to pretty much anyone, really."

"You're never presentable once you open your mouth," says Geralt.

"Rude!" Jaskier accuses, grinning delightedly. "Rude and uncalled for. I need my mouth to sing of your heroism, you know. And for several other important functions you seem to enjoy."

Geralt rolls his eyes and begins fastening his armor. "Put your clothes on."

Jaskier wriggles into his trousers. "You'd like that, wouldn't you?"

"Yeah. I just said to." Geralt side-eyes him. "Did you hit your head last night?"

Jaskier cheerfully informs him, "You have given me several drugs."

"Hm," says Geralt. "C'mere. Don't put too much weight on your leg."

So saying, he helps Jaskier to his feet and slips an arm under both of Jaskier's, taking most of Jaskier's weight. Jaskier's doublet is still undone, but he decides to not point that out.

They pack their bags—all of which Geralt carries, except for Jaskier's lute—and make their way down the stairs. 

A few patrons are breakfasting at the bar. Most of them turn to stare as Jaskier hobbles his way across the room, unabashedly clutching at Geralt for support. The pain is almost entirely dulled by now, but at the expense of not being able to feel anything in that leg. There's a disorienting gap of information that makes him feel weak and unsteady—unsure of how he can move without aggravating the wound or tearing stitches.

Geralt guides him along, a firm hand fisted in his shirt under the doublet. They emerge onto the street, where an impressive carriage is waiting.

"I'll need my horse," Geralt tells the errand boy.

"We can tie her alongside," the boy offers. "Do you want me to fetch her, sir?"

Geralt shakes his head. "I'll get her. Wait here."

This instruction appears to be for Jaskier as well, whom Geralt helps into the carriage before abandoning him for the stable.

Jaskier slumps down against the seats, stretching his legs until his feet tap against the partition. He looks down at his clothes, which are poorly laced and thus ill-fitting. Maybe he can ask Geralt to fix it.

Speaking of, Geralt climbs into the carriage a few minutes later, leaving a respectable half-foot of space between them. 

Unacceptable. Jaskier flops sideways and then grunts in complaint when he remembers Geralt is wearing his armor.

At least the leather is supple.

Geralt huffs out a laugh.

The carriage begins to move, a pleasant rumbling of wheels against the streets. Jaskier sighs happily, focusing on the lulling rhythm. A grogginess begins to overtake him, perhaps from the tea—his eyes flutter shut.

"Are you okay?" Geralt murmurs.

He's sitting with his hands folded in his lap, deliberately not touching. Jaskier frowns and says, "Doesn't even hurt anymore."

"Emotionally," Geralt clarifies. "After…"

Jaskier blinks his eyes open with effort, glancing up at Geralt's pinched expression. He says, "My mother used to take me on carriage rides."

Geralt wraps an arm around Jaskier's shoulders, pulling him against his chest.

Jaskier plays idly with Geralt's fingers, staring at the whorls of fingerprints with a singular fascination. Wait. A question—Geralt wanted to know…

"I'll be happy to never see a foglet again," he says, rubbing his thumb over the edge of a fingernail. "And I think I've been a horrible inconvenience to you. Entirely useless, or worse than, and I'd like to pretend I haven't just pointed that out because now I'm afraid you'll have not realized it until now and you'll—"

"Stop," Geralt says gently.

Jaskier bends Geralt's fingers one by one, folding them over Jaskier's other hand.

"Are you listening?" asks Geralt.

Jaskier nuzzles against Geralt's shoulder.

"I wasn't lonely before I met you," Geralt says. He sounds far away, like he's looking out the window and not at Jaskier's face. "That would've meant feeling something. I couldn't… picture not being alone."

Jaskier tugs fretfully on Geralt's arm, hugging himself to it and shutting his eyes again. "But you weren't."

"Floodgates," Geralt says quietly. "I think you ruined me."

Good, Jaskier thinks selfishly. Let me.

But the rocking motion of the carriage is so soothing, and Geralt is holding him so tightly. And he wants to pretend the answer will be yes, so he doesn't ask at all.

 

~*~

 

Geralt rouses him when they reach the estate. He cranes his neck to look out the window—while Maja described a city residence, they've clearly been brought to the main property. It's a lovely quarter, with broad deciduous trees displaying gold-tinged leaves to announce the arrival of autumn.

"Careful," Geralt mutters, helping Jaskier out of the carriage. "How's your head?"

Jaskier pats him on the chest. "Don't fret so much! I'm in full control of—" he trips over a rock. "Bollocks."

Geralt grabs him by the arm with a raised eyebrow.

Jaskier glares at him. "That means nothing. Completely standard, run of the mill clumsiness. I'm perfectly clear of mind."

"I believe you," Geralt says with amusement. "Here, lean on me."

Well, far be it from Jaskier to refuse such a request. His leg still feels off, in any case, even if the extra rest has done wonders for his brain fog.

Geralt reluctantly leaves Roach in the care of a stablehand and follows the errand boy with Jaskier in tow. They're led through the castle and into a sitting room, where a surprisingly young woman is waiting for them.

"Geralt!" she says informally, though she presents her hand for him to take. "So good of you to come."

"Hm," says Geralt.

The woman turns to Jaskier, who is still leaning against Geralt for support. Her dark hair, braided in many rows, is pulled up into an intricate bun and her neck is adorned by fine jewelry. He forces his attention back to her face, where he finds amusement twinkling in her eyes.

"And this must be your bard," she teases. "What did you do to him?"

"A bard," says Geralt, much to Jaskier's disappointment. "You have foglets on your merchant road."

The duchess scrunches up her face. "The mayor has foglets. Did you take care of them?"

"I will." Geralt adjusts his grip on Jaskier's side. "Why have you summoned me?"

"Let's sit," the duchess answers, giving a commanding clap of her hands. "Much to discuss."

Geralt steers Jaskier over to a couch, where they sit together. The duchess—ah, what did the boy say her name was? Marzena?—sits opposite them, her ankles neatly crossed.

Jaskier affects proper posture for approximately ten seconds, at which point it becomes absolutely unbearable and he draws his legs up under him like a gremlin.

"I hoped to speak with both of you for a few reasons," Marzena says. She reaches for a mug, which Jaskier had previously not noticed, and takes a delicate sip. "Firstly, Geralt, I hadn't expected you back in Carrera for at least a week, and I thought you might have news."

Jaskier glances over at Geralt curiously. They were expected in Carrera?

"None yet," Geralt tells her. "I was planning on heading south today. Moon should be full tomorrow or the day after."

That's… odd. Jaskier chimes in, "I'm sorry, what's south of here?"

"One of my farming villages," Marzena explains. "They've been plagued by a werewolf for a few months now. Geralt has assured me he can cure the person in question, but whoever it is is clearly scared—no one has come forward to name the wolf."

Jaskier looks between them. "So you'll have to catch them while they're transformed?"

Geralt hums in confirmation. "They got away last time. I promised Her Grace I'd return after this moon cycle."

"And it's dead or alive this time, Geralt," Marzena warns. "My people cannot suffer another month's attack."

Geralt's jaw clenches. "I know."

Jaskier brushes his knee against Geralt's thigh.

"Which brings me to you, bard," says Marzena, tilting her head. "At first I hoped you were my cured subject, but clearly that's not the case."

"Oh, I beg your pardon, Your Grace—" Jaskier bows where he sits. "My name is Jaskier, and unless Geralt's been lying to me, I'm not a werewolf—nor Temerian."

Marzena says, "I see. Yet you seem happy enough to meddle in our politics, unlike our mutual acquaintance."

Geralt shifts surreptitiously, his weight leaning towards Jaskier.

"Ah," Jaskier says, grinning. "I see you've heard of my latest work! Might I entreat you for an audience? I'd be happy to provide—"

"Unnecessary," she says—though she smiles. "I've gotten the gist from a friend."

Jaskier toys with a ring—notices, belatedly, that it remains sticky with blood. "Might I request a review?"

"Useful." Marzena sets her mug down with a prim clink against the table. "I bloody hate that louse."

Geralt relaxes against the back of the couch, though he doesn't shift away again.

Jaskier, for his part, allows his grin to sharpen, and says, "I'd very much like to be at your disposal, then."

"Perhaps there should be a banquet," says the duchess. "Are you available for retainer?"

"For limited periods of time," Jaskier allows. "As you may have seen, my mobility is somewhat, ah, limited at present."

"I'm sure you could still give a… creative performance," Marzena says.

Jaskier's eyes flick down to her hands, which are adorned by many rings. 

"Then it's settled," she decides. "Geralt will take care of the werewolf while you entertain my court."

Jaskier's stomach lurches. Of course it makes the most sense to part. It's just—

"Geralt?" he asks, feeling rather foolish for how small his voice sounds.

Geralt glances over at him, lips pursed. He hesitates a moment, then argues, "You can barely walk, Jaskier. It'll be hard enough to fight this thing without killing them, without—"

Without Jaskier getting in the way.

"You'll be safe here," Geralt says instead, then fixes a harsh gaze on the duchess. "Won't he?"

Marzena appears unperturbed, spreading her hands. "The only danger at a banquet of mine is too much wine."

A pitiful flush rises to Jaskier's face—he is vulnerable often; he rarely feels exposed. Something is clogging in his throat.

"So you're going then," he says, not a question.

Geralt's eyes seem to flicker—pale honey in the sunlight through the windows. He asks, "Will you be here when I get back?"

"Yes," Jaskier promises. Burns with embarrassment at his own lack of hesitation, at his own willingness to— "If you want to find me here, I'll wait."

Nothing. The silence stretches between them. Jaskier closes his eyes and fights the tremble in his knuckles. Gods, he's just been trailing after this man, being quite literally torn to shreds against the baseless hope—

Geralt's mouth—such a rough and tender thing, such a blessing when it curls with contentment—brushes against Jaskier's forehead.

"I'll come back, Jask," he murmurs. Jaskier's fingers curl with held breath. "Promise."

Jaskier's aching throat flutters. He looks, allows himself to document the distance between them, the scant inches. It could widen to a gulf, could collapse on itself, and still his heart would live behind his teeth.

"I believe you," he says.

Geralt's eyes crinkle around the edges. "I'll be back in four days—maybe five. Stay out of trouble."

"Unlikely," Jaskier teases. "But I'll take it under advisement."

"Hm." Geralt brushes his hand against Jaskier's thigh when he stands, adjusting the way a bracer lays against his arm. He looks between them and says, "Better be going."

Marzena rises from her seat—Jaskier follows suit, carefully testing his leg—and says, "At least let me offer you lunch."

Geralt smirks at her. "Okay. I humbly decline."

Jaskier snorts fondly.

"We'll send you with something for the road," Marzena tells him in a tone that does not invite further compromise. "Jaskier, how do you prefer your wine?"

Jaskier bats his eyes. "As sweet as my hostess."

Geralt punches him on the shoulder.

"Careful, Geralt!" Jaskier tells him with a gasp. "I'm wounded."

Geralt tilts his head at him, smiling softly. "You'll live."

Jaskier smiles back. "Is Witchering like the theatre?"

Geralt furrows his eyebrows.

"Is it bad luck to wish you good luck?" Jaskier clarifies, his voice a teasing lilt.

"Hm. Don't believe in luck," says Geralt.

Jaskier scoffs fondly and says, "Of course you don't, you boor. Your Grace, throw him out of here at once before I have words with him."

He shoves Geralt playfully, which rolls his ankle at an angle it very much does not want to roll—he winces, catching his balance on Geralt's arm.

Geralt's eyes drop to Jaskier's leg, some of the mirth leaving his expression. He wets his lip, on the verge of saying something, before he collects himself. 

"I'm fine," Jaskier promises. "Don't worry about me."

Geralt says, "Hm," in a way that intimates, too late. But he turns to Marzena and addresses her. "Could someone show me to the stables? I'll collect my horse and be on my way."

"Of course," Marzena says. "Walk with us to the kitchens—I'll have whoever prepares your provisions go with you."

"Okay," says Geralt, and wraps his arm around Jaskier again.

"We'll have to fashion a crutch for you," Marzena tells Jaskier humorously. "Though I'm sure it won't be as pleasant as your current arrangement."

Jaskier huffs out a laugh, waggling his eyebrows at Geralt.

Geralt hauls him forward without further comment.

 

~*~

 

They part ways in the kitchens. Jaskier is aware they're something of a spectacle—the gruff Witcher and a brightly colored, hobbling stranger embracing awkwardly in front of a massive boiling pot of stew. But he presses his face into Geralt's hair and tucks benedictions behind his ear without shame.

Not at the behest of any god, not even to Destiny. To something tenuous and burgeoning between two stubborn men, unwilling to write a different story.

And then Geralt leaves.

Jaskier does acquire a crutch. He uses it to tour the castle and charm the duchess's family—no spouse to be found, but a gaggle of presumably adopted children who all chatter at Jaskier's heels and beg for nursery rhymes. 

He indulges them, though they're a fickle audience and his payment is mostly in frogs which have been unearthed in the garden.

Marzena has slightly grander plans for his musical talents. They speak of an ode to Carrera, and tales of heroism of her late father who has not been properly immortalized. He plays for her guests and the kitchen staff, stuffed in a corner while pie after pie is pulled from the oven for the banquet.

Proactively, and under the influence of several strong cups of black tea, he composes a stirring ballad about the duchess who deposed a vile lord and revitalized farmlands haunted by a mournful spirit. Her plush mouth is wonderfully smug when he performs it for her in her chambers, the servants long sent to bed to preserve the secret, and if circumstances were just a little different—

Well. She gives no indication that she's that way inclined anyway. 

And after—when he's retired to the guest room and the moon peers round and unblinking through his window—his fingers find the strings in a different melody. Something he's on the cusp of understanding, something that clings to his tongue. 

He finally writes his sister.

On the fourth afternoon, Marzena watches him rifle through a book of folktales he pilfered from her library in search of inspiration. Her teeth split the crisp flesh of an apple, the thought of which makes his mouth water despite having been well-fed.

"I don't like making offers I know will be refused," she tells him idly, reclining in her favorite chair. "But I feel compelled to offer, nonetheless."

Jaskier is sprawled on the floor, the book held above his face. He tilts his head back to evaluate her expression and says, "I dislike being a source of disappointment—but if your proposal is the one I presume, I fear I'll have no choice."

Marzena smiles. "I'm in want of a bard for my court. You would be well-kept here, and I believe your poetry would be a boon to the estate."

Poetry about the estate, she means—and about her. More songs of glory and beauty, which will be easy to make true in a place like this one. No more blood ruining his silks, no more blistering feet or the smell of horse and onion. 

Jaskier feels a strange peace settle over him—the clarity of a cold stream in a season very unlike this one. His heart clenches with longing and grasps for smoke-scented hair, for stained fingers slipping under the skin of a rabbit and murmured nothings in the place of good morning.

Once, he was fleeing containment.

Now he's turning home.

"A poet could not find a more blessed patron," Jaskier tells her warmly. "And yet, I must confirm your suspicion and decline."

Marzena's smile spreads wider. She spins the apple by its stem and says, "You have a very fortunate muse."

"Thank you," Jaskier answers, setting the book down upon his chest. "I hope so."

 

~*~

 

Jaskier retires earlier that night, glancing out the windows and tickling his nose with the end of his quill. He told himself he'd finish the song before Geralt returned, but time is running short. The melody, the chords—these things are there in pieces. But the story—the true gift?

His teeth worry at his lip until it bleeds.

Perhaps a brief rest. Jaskier stands and stretches, then slips his hands into his pockets to empty them.

Wait. His pockets. The trousers he was wearing when—

Jaskier rushes to his bags, rifling through them. Geralt must have thrown them out—they were shredded, splattered with blood. But that would mean it's gone.

Jaskier closes his eyes, willing his heart to slow down. It was just a button, Julian. Geralt even said so. You have to stop being so dramatic, so—so—

Something strange taps against the inside of the case that stores Jaskier's spare lute strings when he sets it aside. He frowns, fingers trembling as he opens it. 

There, nestled between the thinly spun animal guts, is a charred wooden button. 

Gods. Jaskier presses a hand to his mouth to swallow the sound he makes. This man. This beautiful, soft protector of a man who pressed his hands to the blood gurgling from Jaskier's calf and drew an ancient symbol for a little girl in the dust.

Dirty hair and a beheaded ghost. I'm tired.

Jaskier plucks the button from the case. He presses it to his lips, once—feels the jagged edge catch against the sore he's worried raw—and tucks it safely away.

He repacks his bags with shaking hands, watching himself in the moonlight. His quill's gone dry; he dips it in fresh ink and pours himself against the page.

 

~*~

 

Geralt returns on the fifth day at noon. The children see him first, having weaseled their way into having lunch in the gardens, and come dashing into the castle with grubby feet to announce the arrival of a guest.

Jaskier's leg is steady today. He still has to contain himself, setting a restrained pace for the front of the building. He meets Marzena on the way, who smiles mischievously at him and pretends to run ahead before returning to his side.

Geralt's hair is tied back in his usual fashion; there's a new, healing cut above one eye that looks like it might scar. He smiles when Jaskier waves to him.

"Geralt!" Jaskier exclaims, spreading his arms. "You're back!"

"Hey— unf." Geralt accepts Jaskier's enthusiastic embrace. "Eat this."

Jaskier frowns, pulling away enough to stare at whatever nonsense Geralt has in store for him. It's a rich green, leafy plant with small clusters of yellow flowers in the shape of little studs.

"It's lovage. It'll cure your curse," Geralt offers.

"Oh, no no no," Jaskier says with a laugh, smushing a hand in Geralt's face. "It's very nice to see you too, I'm not falling for that one again!"

Geralt shrugs, moving to put the herb away. "Suit yourself."

Jaskier hesitates. It seems like a rather anticlimactic way of curing a curse, doesn't it? Shouldn't curses be lifted by some magic spell or ironic twist—the nonsense of true love and all that? But then again, he's hardly the expert, and Geralt does seem sincere this time.

He snatches the plant from Geralt's hand and bites off a mouthful of flowers—then immediately scrunches up his face with displeasure. Ugh, fucking Witchers and their ridiculous senses of humor.

Geralt snorts fondly.

Jaskier glares at him petulantly and, given that they're in mixed company, forces himself to chew and swallow. 

"You know, Geralt," he says, crossing his arms. "They say, 'fool me once, shame on me, fool me twice, shame on you?'"

Geralt furrows his eyebrows. He opens his mouth as if to say something, but—

"Not to interrupt… whatever this is," says Marzena. "But Geralt, what became of our werewolf?"

Geralt turns to her. "Cured him. No trophy, but there's a letter in his hand."

So saying, he retrieves this from his pockets and gives it to Marzena.

"I'm sure it's all in order," she tells him. "And the foglets?"

"You mean the mayor's foglets?" Jaskier teases.

She shoots him a withering look.

"Handled," says Geralt. "I'll fulfill the contract with the mayor."

"Good," Marzena says. "We can discuss your payment over lunch. You'll stay another night, won't you?"

"Hm." Geralt looks at Jaskier. "How's your leg?"

Marzena pinches Jaskier between the ribs—which Geralt obviously sees. Regardless, Jaskier answers, "It could use another day of rest."

Geralt tells Marzena, "Thanks for your hospitality."

Her smile is rather self-satisfied.

 

~*~

 

The afternoon and evening are taken up primarily by conversation, and a walk in the gardens after Geralt takes a look at Jaskier's leg and deems it serviceable. Marzena has a bath drawn for Geralt—fussing over his smell—and seems entirely nonplussed when Jaskier leaves her company in order to join him.

Afterwards, when Geralt is drying his carefully detangled hair and Jaskier is lazily redressing, a nervous servant knocks on the door and asks if masters Jaskier and Geralt of Rivia will be taking separate rooms.

Geralt smirks at Jaskier, eyes twinkling, and says, "No, thanks."

Oh. Jaskier bites his lip around a smile. He expected to be sharing his bed tonight, but he was preparing to make it an offer. That Geralt feels comfortable enough to claim it himself—

He dresses a little faster.

Jaskier's room is, to put it mildly, a disaster. It is a well-known fact that, given more than twenty four hours in one location, his belongings will gain sentience and attempt to devour every usable surface. His dormitory at Oxenfurt was untenable.

"Can't leave you anywhere," Geralt comments drily.

"Obviously not!" Jaskier says brightly, kicking his only other doublet across the floor to make a path to the bed. "Here, have a seat, I want—oh!"

Geralt withdraws his arm from around Jaskier's waist, looking rebuked. "Uh. Sorry. I thought—"

"No, you can!" Jaskier reassures him hastily. "Erm, I was just—I had something I want to show you? I mean, um, I sort of promised, in a way."

Geralt blinks. "Okay."

He goes to sit on the bed while Jaskier retrieves his lute—Geralt's without his armor, dressed in leather trousers and the black shirt Yen gave him, and the sight of him waiting there patiently sends Jaskier's heart into his throat.

"Maybe you could, um." Jaskier swallows thickly. "Lay—lay down or something? I want you to be comfortable."

Geralt frowns skeptically.

"I'll come sit next to you," Jaskier promises, and proves it by crawling onto the bed. He reclines against the pillows, sitting up enough to be able to play properly, and Geralt mirrors him.

Fuck, maybe Jaskier should have practiced more. He could've waited a night or two before—

"You're nervous," says Geralt.

Fucking Witcher senses.

Jaskier looks up from drumming his fingers against his thigh. "Erm, yes, I suppose I am."

"You're not normally." Geralt is frowning with worry. "What's wrong?"

Jaskier shakes his head. "I just… need to show you. It's for you, I mean—because I promised you a song, and if it's for you, you could find it… lacking."

Find Jaskier lacking.

"Hm," says Geralt. "That payment for lifting the curse?"

"You could say so," Jaskier says, and then there's nothing else for it. 

He closes his eyes, fingers sliding into position. The song is simple—slow and sweet. In a major key, but to comfort rather than vitalize.

There are no impressive vocal tricks, no beats to welcome the stomping of feet. There is a story: of monsters under beds and brave little girls, and the friendly Witchers who protect them. There is a chorus: when you are alone with the dark, and there is scratching on the floor, sing this song and be alone no more. There is no pain.

Jaskier opens his eyes during the second verse. He finds Geralt with his eyelids fluttering, sinking lower and lower against the pillows and curling his body towards the music.

Towards Jaskier.

The song ends: a banished monster and a single button left under a pillow to thank the Witcher for his protection.

Geralt says, "It's different from your others." He doesn't open his eyes.

"It's a lullaby," Jaskier whispers. He sets his lute in its case and turns to face Geralt on his side.

Geralt blinks slowly, revealing the earnestness of his face. He asks, "Why?"

"Because I'll never be bored of you," Jaskier answers quietly. "Because I want to follow you even when there's nothing you can give me besides your company. Because you deserve to rest."

Geralt's smile is a thing of softness and fear. "Hm. Boldly declaring your intentions?"

"Yes, well." Jaskier reaches out tentatively, brushes the still-damp hair from Geralt's face. "I hoped the song would entice you first."

Geralt says, "Siren," the way he says poet.

Jaskier smoothes the wrinkles on Geralt's brow. "Does that make me a monster?"

"I don't like killing sirens," Geralt murmurs. "It's not their fault men get too close."

"Are you too close to me?" Jaskier asks softly.

"Always." Geralt turns his face into Jaskier's hand. "Drowning."

Jaskier kisses him. Sinks against his lips, the softness of his shirt, the taut lines of his muscle. There's nothing else. The barely-waning moon bathes them in lurking light, catches in the mirrors of Geralt's eyes when they briefly part.

It's beautiful, isn't it? Such a beautiful pain in Jaskier's leg when his scars brush against Geralt's knee.

Geralt's hand slips under Jaskier's untucked chemise, exploring the bare skin of his spine. His gaze is piercing, but short-lived—he mouths at Jaskier's neck instead, sucking a hungry bruise into his throat.

"Fuck," Jaskier gasps, ducking his head. He wriggles restlessly, finds Geralt's thigh between his legs. "Oh, Geralt."

Geralt hums, hitching his hips. His other hand tangles in Jaskier's hair with a questioning tug. 

"You must be trying to get rid of me," Jaskier teases breathlessly. "Fuck, I need—"

"What?" asks Geralt.

Jaskier mouths at Geralt's earlobe. "Any more of this and I'm afraid we'll trigger the curse, dear."

Geralt says, "Jaskier."

Jaskier blinks. "Oh," he says. "That's—odd."

"I told you—"

"Oh, Geralt! How'd you do it?" Jaskier laughs giddily, presses a kiss to Geralt's mouth. "Was it—" more kisses, peppered all over his darling's face. "The song?"

Geralt says, "No."

Jaskier can't stop moving his hands. It's bubbling over—the joy, the—

"Oh." Jaskier's eyes widen. "It's love, isn't it? Of course it's love, it's always love—" he pulls Geralt into an embrace, suddenly horrified by the idea of doing anything else. "Because you want me? Because I let you?"

"Jaskier."

"I know," Jaskier agrees warmly, clutching Geralt tightly. He noses at Geralt's cheek, cups his jaw in an adoring palm. "The irony of it—but it's beautiful, isn't it? I asked a Witcher to break my curse and I did it by falling in love with him."

"It was the lovage," says Geralt. "Wait. You're in love with me?"

Jaskier sits up abruptly. "It was the lovage?"

Geralt says, "Yeah."

Jaskier blinks. "You're not taking the piss?"

"No," says Geralt. "Are you in love with me?"

"Why didn't you say something?" Jaskier demands, smacking Geralt on the chest, blushing furiously. "I just needed to—to chew on some gross plant?"

"You also could've waited three months," Geralt adds.

Jaskier huffs in outrage. "How long have you known that? I mean, I've just been walking around—"

"Yen told me," Geralt says. He's watching Jaskier's face with a crease between his brow. "It's rare in this area. I didn't wanna get your hopes up."

"So instead I've been thinking—"

"Jaskier." Geralt's voice is rough. His hair's fallen back in his face, sticking a little to his jaw. "I can't… ask again."

Jaskier's indignance leaves him in a rush. He presses four fingers to his chest on impulse, a useless attempt to contain the ache.

"Of course I do," he says helplessly—pleading. "And I'm well aware it's ridiculous and you'll say we've just met and I'm sorry, I wouldn't have told you and I don't want it to make you uncomfortable, there's no expectation—"

"Hey," Geralt says softly. He cups the back of Jaskier's neck and pulls him in until their foreheads touch, until Jaskier's eyes close on instinct. Geralt's scarred hands, the little tremor in the way he carries himself. "I'm tired—not of you. You're not too much."

Everything else fades away; Jaskier melts. His hands clutching Geralt's shirt, their bodies sinking together. He whispers, "Oh."

"You said something by the fire," Geralt recalls. His breath brushing Jaskier's lips. "Do you love me like the rest of the world?"

Jaskier nuzzles Geralt's nose. "You're the very best of it."

"No one lets me be a part of it," Geralt says. "Except for you."

Jaskier kisses his cheek, the corner of his mouth. Cups the side of his jaw, shifts to rock his half-hard cock against Geralt's thigh. "Show it to me. I want to see it with you."

"There's wineries in Toussaint," Geralt murmurs. A scrape of teeth where Jaskier's neck meets his shoulder. "Festivals in Skellige."

"Dol Blathana?" Jaskier asks with a gasp. "I've always wanted to see it."

"In the spring," says Geralt—promises, maybe. Oh, Melitele, Jaskier hopes it's a promise. "When it's in bloom."

Jaskier laughs, turns it into a baring of his throat when Geralt kisses back up his neck. "I might snore even with your fancy tea."

Geralt's smile presses into Jaskier's skin. "Okay."

"Oh, darling." Jaskier slides his hand down Geralt's chest, catching his fingertips against the perfect fabric. He rocks his hips again, feeling the hot coil of arousal building. "I can't believe we get to—I've wanted."

Geralt tightens his hand in Jaskier's hair. "I know."

"Fuck, I love that," Jaskier breathes. "You can— yes, like that. I love touching you. I love how you kiss me."

Geralt hums. His other hand slides down, thumbing at Jaskier's hip, and squeezes cheekily at his arse.

"What should we do?" Jaskier asks. He nips Geralt's earlobe, chasing it with a flick of tongue. "What do you want, love?"

"Don't care," Geralt says. "You."

Jaskier chuckles, lowering his voice. "You must want something. Have I been the only one imagining it?"

"No." Geralt presses his thigh up between Jaskier's legs, delicious friction against Jaskier's aching cock. "I wanted… you to feel good."

"I don't think that'll be a problem," Jaskier teases. He nudges his fingers underneath the hem of Geralt's shirt, tickling them against the soft trail of hair on his stomach. "But I want you—oh."

Jaskier slips his hand lower to cup Geralt's cock and finds him soft in his trousers.

Geralt turns his head into the pillow. "Sorry."

Jaskier's hand retreats to Geralt's hip; his other thumbs soothingly at Geralt's cheek as he coaxes, "No, it's alright. Is something wrong?"

"Just," Geralt mutters, "nervous."

"Oh. Oh, sweetheart." Jaskier presses his forehead to Geralt's temple and drops a chaste kiss to his cheek. "That's alright! You don't have to apologize for that—I wish you'd told me sooner. I don't have your nose, you know."

Tentatively, Geralt slides his hand up to Jaskier's lower back. "Sorry."

Jaskier clucks his tongue. "You don't have to apologize for that either."

"Sor—"

"Geralt."

Geralt glances at him, a faint smirk playing across his lips.

Jaskier flops to the side so he's no longer straddling Geralt's thigh. He takes up one of Geralt's hands and toys with his fingers, trying absent-mindedly to mimic the signs Geralt taught him.  "Why're you nervous?"

Geralt says, "I don't know," and then amends, "You haven't had sex in a while. You've been looking forward to this."

"I have." Jaskier nudges Geralt's hand into a shoddy Igni. "And that's scary?"

Geralt watches Jaskier bend and adjust his fingers. "I might disappoint you."

Jaskier's heart pangs. He smiles sadly and says, "I highly doubt that. And for the record, it's in my nature to be horribly histrionic about everything—yes, I haven't had sex in two weeks and no, my world has not imploded, Geralt. In fact, I think I could even make it through the night without it."

Geralt curls his fingers, lacing them through Jaskier's own.

"Tomorrow, though," Jaskier says, affecting the utmost seriousness. "Tomorrow I must copulate, or I will surely perish."

Geralt's lips twitch with uncertainty.

Jaskier cups Geralt's face in both hands and kisses him fondly on the nose. "In case it wasn't abundantly clear, that was absolutely a joke. Geralt, you could tell me that you never wanted to have sex with me—not once, ever—and I would still follow you across this bloody Continent."

Geralt's voice is small. He ducks his head, the crown of his hair pressed to Jaskier's brow, and says, "Okay."

Jaskier presses his lips the nearest spot he can reach. "Do you want to just kiss for a bit?"

"Yeah," Geralt says quietly. "That sounds good."

He rolls onto his side facing Jaskier and wraps an arm around his waist, tugging him a little closer.

Jaskier smiles and closes the distance for a kiss. It's soft at first—shy, even. He marvels at it—how this swell of music in his heart can burn with such lust and innocence in equal parts. There is something so singularly beautiful in the way Geralt wants him.

"I love you," Jaskier marvels. Winds his arms around Geralt's neck, nuzzles against him. "Gods, I love you so much I want there to be another word for it."

Geralt's fingers curl into the dip of Jaskier's waist. He kisses delicately at the edge of his jaw. "Why?"

"Because I'm selfish," Jaskier confesses. There's a dizzy flush creeping up his neck, sweat pooling in the small of his back.

"Should love be selfish?" Geralt rumbles indulgently, punctuated with a nip of teeth.

"My word will be," Jaskier decides. His breath shaking, the repression of fear. "I want everyone to love you, you know. And I'll write you a hundred songs—a thousand, and I'll sing them everywhere we go and share you with anyone who sees how beautiful you are, and do it happily."

Geralt ducks his head.

"And yet," says Jaskier. 

Geralt doesn't stir.

Jaskier closes his eyes, listening to the stillness surrounding them. He can feel his heart thumping against Geralt's cheek—knows that Geralt feels it too.

"And yet," he repeats slowly. "I want it to be special. I want it to matter that it was me, that I wrote it and you heard it in my voice first. And I'm horribly selfish for it."

Geralt kisses above Jaskier's left breast, his chapped lips catching on the linen of Jaskier's shirt. "Thank you."

Tears spill down Jaskier's cheeks. He sniffles quietly and nods—tucks his chin and kisses the damp spot in Geralt's hair.

Geralt uncurls himself, thumbs away the wetness from Jaskier's face, and presses his mouth to Jaskier's forehead.

Jaskier blinks his eyes open.

"I'll get your tea," Geralt says quietly. 

Jaskier tastes salt when he smiles. "Thank you."

 

~*~

 

The morning comes like mornings always do. This seems strange to Jaskier, laying in his bed. Not that time shouldn't pass, but that it should do so with less grace, perhaps—that some wheel must turn, some grand, intrepid hand must refill a pot of ink before dipping the quill anew.

His life has so grandly changed, and still the sun burns his eyes and sweat pools in the backs of his knees. Still he creaks his human bones.

Geralt is kissing drowsily at the edge of Jaskier's bare shoulder.

Jaskier smiles, considers stretching languidly or mustering a yawn. He settles for a, "Good morning," first.

Geralt only hums, planting another kiss further down, near Jaskier's armpit. He inhales deeply, breathes out with an almost-sigh.

Jaskier considers this.

"I'm sorry," he says, suppressing a giggle. "Did you just… smell me?"

Geralt stiffens.

"You did!" Jaskier says gleefully, trying to keep his voice low. "Oh my—no, darling, come back, it's alright! I'm just teasing, love—" he laughs, tugging a fleeing Geralt back to him by the wrist. "At least tell me it's because I smell good, because if it isn't I shall have the children bury me in the garden with the frogs and you'll never see me again."

Geralt's face is rapidly approaching the color of beetroot. He seems caught between the impulse to scowl or smile, and Jaskier wants desperately to smooth out the wrinkles on his brow.

"Alright," Jaskier decides, pressing a distraught back-of-hand to his forehead. "Alas, to the garden I must—"

Geralt seizes him around the waist, tugging him back onto the bed and into Geralt's lap. He laughs again, then moans lightly when Geralt's lips find the curve of his throat.

"There's my Witcher," Jaskier teases. "Oh, hello, you're really there. Not to make assumptions—"

Geralt grinds his hips, rubbing his morning erection tantalizing against the small of Jaskier's back.

"Yes," Jaskier says emphatically. "Please."

Geralt hums, kissing and sucking at a tender spot on Jaskier's neck.

Jaskier turns his head, nuzzling against Geralt's temple. "Will you be able to tell me if you don't like something, or if you want to stop?"

Geralt nods.

"Alright, love." Jaskier kisses him, while he's there. "What do you want?"

Geralt takes them down to the mattress, cushioning the back of Jaskier's head when it hits the pillows. He kisses the corner of Jaskier's mouth, ruts greedily against his stomach.

"You like that, don't you?" Jaskier teases. He tilts his head back, guiding Geralt's mouth back to his neck. "Ah, so do I. Can I take your trousers off?"

Geralt hums in the affirmative. He sucks another mark into Jaskier's skin, the sharp prickle of pain in pleasure, and brushes a questioning hand against Jaskier's laces.

"Yes," Jaskier tells him, frantically working to tug the leather down Geralt's arse. "Yes, please."

Geralt fumbles to untie the fastenings. Jaskier hinders rather than helps—too preoccupied by his demand for kisses—hot, open-mouthed things that send shocks of lightning down the ladder of his ribs.

They manage it eventually, and underclothes are more efficiently divested, and—

Oh, gods. All of them, any goddess who might care for him at all to describe how it feels. 

Geralt frots their cocks together, all delicious hot skin and almost-painful friction, and buries his face in Jaskier's neck with a hopeless sound.

"I know," Jaskier soothes, slipping a hand into Geralt's hair, panting already. "Oh, believe me, fuck, I know."

You were so worried, Jaskier thinks—knows it's unfair, and still chokes back a wounded noise. You could kill me and you had no idea.

Geralt scents Jaskier's neck, nose through the pooling sweat, and it feels like delirium. Like the breaking of a fever—

(He was ten or twelve and so, so quiet, more convenient on the edge of death.)

—and Jaskier thinks he could cry, if it would help, if that would make sense of it.

Geralt slips away, kissing down Jaskier's chest with purpose, and rests his chin on the jut of Jaskier's hip with a pleading glint in his gaze.

"Yes," says Jaskier, and nearly draws blood when he digs his teeth into his own lip.

Geralt keeps a steady hand wrapped around the base of Jaskier's cock, working him over gently while his mouth explores the rest. And, oh, the wet heat of him, the curious curl of his tongue.

Jaskier wonders if he's done this before. Is distracted by the temptation of Geralt's hair, by his incurable urge to tangle his fingers in the shimmering silver and tug.

Geralt pushes into the contact with a muffled moan.

"That's good?" Jaskier confirms shakily, his thighs twitching weakly.

Geralt hums and takes Jaskier deeper.

"Alright." Jaskier's heels slip against the sheets, kicking against the pleasure. He wants—well, to tighten his hand in Geralt's hair. To sob with it, to make the joy a kind of grief. "Oh, fuck, Geralt, you're incredible. You're perfect, darling, I won't last and it'll—I'll— please."

Geralt makes a wounded noise—something Jaskier can't place at first but becomes the same echo from the heart. It doesn't hurt, which means that it used to. When this is over it'll hurt again.

But not now. Maybe less, tomorrow, because this happened. Gods, he hopes it will have mattered tomorrow.

"I'm so close," Jaskier warns. His voice wobbles and catches with the pull of his fingers in Geralt's hair. "So— ah, Ger!"

Like the snapping of one of his precious lute strings, the sympathetic constriction of his throat. The way he wants words, words, words and can barely speak and Geralt is sitting up with a scrunched up face and spitting into Jaskier's mug from the night before—

And suddenly it's laughter. 

Tears leak from the corners of Jaskier's eyes as he giggles and hiccups and coos, "Oh, sweetheart, you poor thing, come here!"

Geralt grumbles, a smile tugging at his lips as he obeys. He straddles Jaskier's hips and dips down for a kiss—Jaskier can taste himself in Geralt's mouth, the nose-wrinkling sharpness in beautiful counterpoint to his come-drunk haze.

"Is there a potion for that?" Jaskier teases, trailing a line of sloppy kisses up Geralt's jaw. "I wonder if you could make it taste like— ooh, like a cherry tart, or—"

Geralt kisses him so filthily that he forgets to be offended by being shut up.

Jaskier slides his hands up Geralt's back, marveling at the flex of his muscular shoulders, fingers skimming over jagged scars. His leg throbs faintly. "Can I get you off, love?"

"Mm," Geralt hums, nudging at Jaskier's jaw with his nose.

"How do you want it?" Jaskier asks, tilting his head back.

Geralt kisses the soft spot under Jaskier's chin, down his throat to the hollow between his collar bones. He seems to hesitate—with indecision or nervousness, Jaskier can't say—before he takes Jaskier's hand by the wrist.

"I can touch you," Jaskier says softly, but Geralt isn't guiding Jaskier to his cock—he drags Jaskier's fingers up the back of a thigh. "Oh—do you want me to finger you?"

Geralt shrugs, then kisses Jaskier's clavicle with a curtain of hair hiding the blush on his face.

"I can very much oblige." Jaskier smiles, brushing the hair from Geralt's face. "I've got oil for it… somewhere in my things. I'll be right back, alright?"

So saying, he slips from the cage of Geralt's arms and begins to rifle through his belongings.

"It's in here somewhere," he prattles. "Ooh! No, that's hair oil. I mean, you could use hair oil in a pinch, but I bought this special—this being the sex oil—from a mage… somewhere in Redania, you see—it's enchanted to last longer so—"

Geralt snorts.

"I beg your pardon." Jaskier rounds on him with a hand on his cocked hip. "That sounded suspiciously like you doubting my powers of endurance, sir."

Geralt, reclined against the pillows, shrugs jauntily.

"Laughs at my magic sex oil," Jaskier mutters, then dumps the entire contents of a bag onto the desk. "Brat."

He sorts through the chaos of his personal effects and eventually emerges victorious. Biting at his lower lip with anticipation, he brings the vial with him back to the bed and slots himself against Geralt's side.

"Hello again," he tells Geralt, dipping down for a kiss. "Erm, do you want me to just…?"

Geralt pushes up into the kiss. "Mhm."

"Right, yeah." Jaskier adjusts his positioning, shifting so he can reach between Geralt's legs and still stay in kissing range. He goes to uncork the vial and finds it shaking in his hand. "Oh. It, um, seems it's my turn to be nervous."

Geralt steadies his hand, looking up at him questioningly.

Jaskier coaxes himself into a smile. "It's alright. I just, erm—have you done this before? I worry that I won't…"

Geralt squeezes Jaskier's wrist with a nod. Then he frowns, wetting his bottom lip as if about to speak.

"You don't have to," Jaskier says quickly. "I mean, of course if you—but not on my account."

Geralt cups Jaskier's jaw instead—kisses him tenderly, Jaskier's bottom lip caught between Geralt's teeth, such a gentle and hungry thing. And Jaskier understands.

"Okay," he says softly. "Alright. I love you."

He uncorks the bottle and smears a generous helping of oil onto his fingers, his mouth watering a little at the faint herbal smell; he hopes it isn't overpowering for Geralt.

Right. Jaskier is a plenty-competent lover. Some would even call him gifted in that department. And he's attentive, and warm, and very giving.

It really does feel significantly more intimidating when he's already come—no pleasant cloud of lust to dull his anxieties, just the slightly desperate desire to be found worthy.

Jaskier teases his index finger around Geralt's hole, feeling Geralt flutter with anticipation. He nuzzles against Geralt's cheek, huffing out a laugh, and pushes in gently. 

Geralt relaxes beautifully for him—a soft sigh, sinking into Jaskier's touch, a brush of lips in search of Jaskier's own—and Jaskier feels his heart unclench. He grows bolder, pulling back out a little to toy at the rim, his knuckle making Geralt shudder and moan softly and, oh, the way Geralt curls towards him to clutch at his arm.

"Is that good?" Jaskier murmurs warmly, trying to find a rhythm. "I want… oh, well—someone's impatient."

Geralt laughs, rocking his hips back again. He's laying half on his side, twisting to close the distance between them. There's so much of him—expanses of muscle, the all-consuming brightness of his eyes and crooked teeth that seem sharper the longer Jaskier stares.

So much of him, and he gives it over to Jaskier.

"Another?" Jaskier asks, and Geralt hums eagerly. Jaskier gives carefully, savoring it and delighting in the petulant growl Geralt answers with. "Oh, hush. I'm being thorough. It won't do to half-arse the—well."

Geralt bites his shoulder.

Jaskier laughs and curls his fingers, working them deeper slowly and closing his eyes—focusing on the feeling of it, the intimacy. He's inside Geralt, touching him, and Geralt is—

He's taking. Allowing himself to be touched, to be lavished upon, snatching up carrots from the proverbial dinner plate. He trusts Jaskier to give him this—offer it in a way he can receive. The way he twitches and nips with his teeth when Jaskier touches him just right, the way he finally relents and rolls onto his side to intertwine their bodies, a leg hitched over Jaskier's thigh.

Jaskier aches. He wants to come again. He feels Geralt hard against his hip and wants to spend the rest of his life feeling the slick slide of his fingers take this strong, beautiful man apart.

"Do you want me to touch your cock, love?" he whispers.

Geralt shakes his head, nose pressed to Jaskier's neck.

"More of this?" Jaskier asks, slipping his fingers deeper.

Geralt hums.

The angle is limiting, holding Geralt so closely. But Jaskier shifts and manages to adjust his wrist, twisting his fingers experimentally.

Geralt's cock twitches between them, smearing precome against Jaskier's stomach.

Jaskier kisses Geralt deeply, feels the tender bruising bloom in his lips. Too long with teeth, too long with wanting. He shifts, fingers slipping deeper, and kisses down Geralt's chest until he can suck a nipple into his mouth.

Geralt grunts and pushes gently at Jaskier's cheek, pulling him off.

Jaskier blinks up at him, smiling softly. "Gentler, or not at all?"

Geralt slips fingers into Jaskier's hair and guides him back down.

Jaskier swirls his tongue instead of sucking, a light flick to tease. He crooks his fingers again, searching for the right spot, and his eyes slip shut with a smug flutter when Geralt's hand turns to a fist.

Oh, fuck. Jaskier loves having his hair pulled. He can feel arousal, contentedly dormant, stirring anew in the seat of his belly—he whines softly, quickening the pace of his fingers.

Geralt pulls Jaskier up, pressing them almost flush together and kissing him hard on the mouth. Jaskier loses the leverage to move his hand, especially with the flex of Geralt's thigh pinning his hips down, but Geralt is plenty capable of fucking himself with greedy little thrusts.

"Oh, love," Jaskier breathes. He bares his throat, welcoming Geralt back there—wonders how many marks he'll find on his skin after this. How many times he's been laid claim to. "Fuck. You're incredible. I think I can get hard again, do you want…?"

Geralt makes a needy sound low in his throat, teeth pricking at Jaskier's pulse.

"Let me…" Jaskier gasps, shifting to get friction against his timidly swelling cock. "Can you…?"

Geralt worms a hand between them.

"Gently," Jaskier warns, but he knows Geralt is. "Oh, that's perfect, love, I knew you— ah."

Geralt pauses mid-stroke.

Jaskier chuckles breathlessly. He kisses Geralt's hopelessly sweaty hair. "No, that's good—it's sensitive, but I like that. I'll tell you if— oh, Geralt, I'll be ruined by the end of this, it's so good."

Geralt hums, back to mouthing at Jaskier's neck. He seems drawn to it almost to the point of obsession—a thrilling bit of animalistic hunger, though Jaskier would never dare voice it that way.

He kisses Geralt's temple, holds him by the hair and keeps his teeth at the best, toe-curling spot. 

Not much longer, and Jaskier is whispering, "I'm ready," like it's some precious secret.

Geralt shivers with anticipation. He pulls away, freeing Jaskier from the tangle of their limbs, and settles onto his stomach.

Jaskier drags an appreciative hand down the stretch of Geralt's spine, settling at the small of his back. He slips two fingers back inside Geralt, double-checking—the enchanted oil has done its job, staying pleasantly slick while Jaskier stretched him open. But…

"Do you want it wetter?" Jaskier asks, thumbing teasingly at Geralt's hole.

Geralt's hips shift against the mattress.

"I'm not sure what that means," Jaskier admits. He shifts to squeeze Geralt's arse, smearing a glistening trail of oil against the pale skin.

Melitele, he hasn't even begun to touch. He wants months—no, years to kiss every inch.

Geralt pushes up onto an elbow and reaches for the oil. He hands it over with a shy smile, wavering at the corners.

"I'll take that as a yes," Jaskier says, delighted.

Geralt resettles with a little sigh, propping his chin up on the edge of a forearm.

Jaskier drips a generous portion of oil onto his cock, biting his tender lip as he spreads it along the length. He adds more to his fingers, too, swiping them inside Geralt to add to the slick.

"Right, well." Jaskier sets the vial aside again and brackets Geralt's thighs with his knees, one hand spreading Geralt's arse so he can line himself up. "All ready, love?"

Geralt hums.

Jaskier shifts to push inside, fighting the impulse to rush—he wants to savor, wants to make sure Geralt feels no discomfort. He smiles when Geralt's hips cant back to meet him, a hand sliding up to Geralt's hip.

And, oh, it's so wonderful. The way Geralt breathes out through his nose and the muscles of his shoulders shift, the feeling of being welcomed in, and how could anyone mock the poetry of it? How could it not describe a coupling, a making?

Jaskier curses, falls forward with a helpless vye of his hips as Geralt takes him deeper. His lips taste the sweat on Geralt's shoulder blades, tingle up the ridges of his spine. He feels the strangest envy—that he wishes to be the one laid bare. Wants to know how it feels to take Geralt inside him, to be wet and open and whining into the sheets for more.

And yet—gratitude.

His mouth finds the best, most lovely place on Geralt's neck; his teeth lay claim. He wants to say something, to supplicate, but nothing would be sufficient. He'll write sonnets and filthy poetry and songs to make roses grow and he knows already he will find no name for the sound Geralt makes when he hides his face in the crook of an elbow.

"I've got you," Jaskier promises softly. Another kiss, another cradle-rock of hips. "Oh, darling, the way you feel—"

He sighs.

Geralt burrows further in the shelter of his arms. He was greedy while Jaskier fingered him, almost demanding, but now his thighs seem to tremble and he barely moves, even to rut against the mattress.

"Is this how you like it?" Jaskier coaxes. He kisses the shell of Geralt's ear, scatters featherlight touches down the back of his neck. "You're—you amaze me, Geralt. I never thought—to make love like this, to you. Gods, I can barely—"

He laughs helplessly, nuzzling the curve of Geralt's shoulder.

"I'm so lucky," he marvels. "I can't believe I get to be in love with you."

"Jask," Geralt croaks.

It skewers Jaskier's heart. He asks, "What's wrong, love?"

Geralt shakes his head.

"Nothing's wrong?"

Another shake.

"Do you just…" Jaskier swallows his own breath. "Want to say my name?"

Geralt nods, his face still tucked away.

"You can say it," Jaskier rasps. "You can—"

"Jaskier," Geralt says. He shudders—effort or relief. He twists and curls himself, like it's suddenly unbearable, the expanse of his overheated skin pushing back against Jaskier's chest. "Jaskier. Jaskier."

A surge of emotion—the tightness in Jaskier's throat. He covers Geralt's body with his own and sobs like he's never been renamed before—like he was born to be the thing he is, as if he isn't some unwanted creature that crawled from the mud and took shape around the teeth of a life that spat him out.

"Jaskier," Geralt says. Like it's enough.

"Can I kiss you?" Jaskier asks wetly. "I don't think I can come again but I want to kiss you."

Geralt hesitates.

"It's alright." Jaskier inhales sharply, trying to— "You don't have to—"

Geralt lifts his head as fresh tears spill down his face. His beautiful golden eyes, swimming with ache.

Jaskier lifts a hand uncertainly. "Oh, love—are you alright? Do you want me to stop?"

Geralt shakes his head. He brushes his knuckles against Jaskier's own damp cheeks.

"Me neither." Jaskier purses his lips around a bittersweet smile. "Oh, look at the state of us! Can you believe it?"

Geralt kisses him. It's so simple—the press of them together, Jaskier's bottom lip gently welcomed into Geralt's mouth. They begin to move again, Jaskier rocking his hips slowly and Geralt meeting him in kind.

"Jaskier," Geralt murmurs.

"I'm here." Jaskier covers Geralt's hand where it clutches at the sheets. "Do you want to come?"

Geralt nods, nudging his head against the side of Jaskier's face.

"I want to make you," Jaskier tells him. "How can I?"

Geralt guides Jaskier's other hand to Geralt's cock. 

Jaskier drops a kiss to Geralt's shoulder. "Alright." 

Geralt turns his head for another kiss; Jaskier obliges, working over Geralt's cock with gentle strokes. Gods, he's so hard, so wet where Jaskier slips and aches inside him—such a beautiful, delicate thing.

So Jaskier tells him.

"You're wonderful, love," he breathes, steals the air for it between kisses. Praise pressed to the corner of a mouth, to the dimple of a chin. "The most incredible thing I've ever seen. It's driven me to madness, to—I can't begin. You know I'd follow you, don't you? I'd—I'd go anywhere, Geralt, fuck, I can feel you—"

Geralt spills into Jaskier's fist with a broken shout, his head bowed with the shock. He's trembling, muscles quivering, and Jaskier wants to gather him up and hold him like a child until the shaking stops. He pulls out, instead, and cleans his hand on a sweat-soaked patch of sheets

"Oh, darling," Jaskier says softly. He pets at Geralt's hair, brushing it away from his face. "That was beautiful. I… look at you."

Geralt rolls to a sitting position, looking up at Jaskier with a dazed half-smile. He blinks slowly, eyelashes glimmering with the last of his tears, and says nothing.

"Can I…" Jaskier wets his bottom lip. "Will you lay with me, just a bit longer?"

Geralt sprawls against the pillows, moving away from the wet spot and offering an arm in welcome.

Jaskier tucks himself into place. They're both hot and horribly sweaty and just as sticky—Jaskier's hair immediately plasters to Geralt's chest; he doesn't care. He'd suffer much worse to be held like this by the man he loves.

Geralt hums contentedly, resting his chin on the top of Jaskier's head. Jaskier suspects that, if he were to look, he'd find that Geralt's eyes have slipped shut.

Just as Jaskier's have.

He dozes a little; wonders about breakfast and the weather outside, and whether Geralt will set them off on the road again today or indulge the duchess another night.

It matters little to Jaskier. There are songs to be inspired, there's more love to be made. He will do it anywhere Geralt leads.

"It's devotion," Geralt mumbles.

Jaskier frowns softly; he doesn't open his eyes. "What is, love?"

"Your word," says Geralt.

Oh. Yes, yes—the sound of his restless feet, the abrasions on his scratched-up heart where it pounded against his battered ribs.

Jaskier looks at the drowsy peace on Geralt's face, the fresh glisten of blood near his cut eyebrow, which must have reopened. It doesn't seem to pain him.

"Told you we'd make you a poet," Jaskier teases, and squeals with delight when Geralt growls in great offense and pins him to the bed.

Geralt assaults him with a series of kisses, pressed with grumpy fervor down the side of his jaw and neck. "Take it back."

Jaskier laughs gleefully. He slips a hand into Geralt's hair, kicks out a foot when Geralt finds a ticklish spot with his teeth, and declares, "Never!"

"Hm," says Geralt, and squashes Jaskier under his full weight.

Jaskier shakes with the aftershocks of laughter. His fingers card through Geralt's hair, tenderly undoing the mess of tangles their lovemaking made. Geralt exhales in a contented whuff of air, slowly melting into the touch.

The sun rises even still. It speaks of things to do, plans to be made. Jaskier can hear the children shrieking in the garden all the way from here, and servants bustling through the castle outside their borrowed door. 

From the pace of Geralt's gentle breathing, Jaskier thinks they may hide away in here a while yet—but that's alright.

There's nowhere else he needs to be.