“Something’s wrong with him. I need you to fix it,” Geralt growls. He’s holding Jaskier by the back of his collar, and he pushes Jaskier forward now, in case Yennefer had any doubt who he meant.
“It’s really nothing,” Jaskier babbles. “A temporary affliction. I’ll be right as rain within the fortnight, don’t you fret.” He pauses. Then he goes limp in Geralt’s grip, causing Geralt to lose his balance for a split second. “On second thought, Geralt, I’m feeling quite weak, and also feverish, and there’s a strange ache in my right thumb. There’s nothing for it, I shall simply have to ride on Roach while I recover, though I warn you this illness is nigh incurable–”
“He seems fine,” Yennefer observes, speaking over Jaskier.
Geralt only shakes his head. He lets go of Jaskier, who crumples to the floor with a surprised cry, to shrug his pack off his shoulder and root around in its depths. After a moment, he pulls out something clutched delicately in a loose fist, and when Yennefer reaches out for it, he unfurls his fingers to drop a single dandelion into her palm.
Jaskier has picked himself up off the floor by now. He brushes himself off with exaggerated gestures. He is conspicuously silent.
“He’s been coughing those up for at least a week. Maybe longer,” Geralt explains. “He won’t tell me when it began.”
Yennefer examines the bedraggled flower. Half of its yellow petals are missing, and the brown center is coarse to the touch. “He’s been coughing full blossoms for the past week?”
“He is right here, and he’s telling you, he’s fine,” Jaskier insists again. He is summarily ignored.
“Yes,” Geralt says to Yennefer. “Is it a curse?”
Yennefer huffs a laugh and rolls the flower between her fingers, watching as a few more petals detach from its center and float to the ground. “Some might call it that.” She turns her gaze to Jaskier, and Geralt does the same. Jaskier’s eyes are wide, a plea writ large upon his face. When he catches Yennefer looking, he shakes his head slightly. Whatever he is asking doesn’t seem to deter her, though, because she smirks and says, “Your bard’s in love. Rather desperately so, if the state of this blossom is any indication.”
“Fuck,” says Jaskier.
“Love?” says Geralt.
“There is no cure,” says Yennefer. “At least, there is none that I can offer. The flowers feed on unrequited feelings; whoever he loves must return his feelings in order to starve the flowers of their fuel, and no potion in the world can force someone to love another. Now, I can offer a palliative measure--”
“No,” Jaskier says quickly, all humor gone from his voice. “I know the treatment of which you speak, and I don’t want it. I’ll deal with this myself.”
Geralt rounds on him. “You’re no healer,” he points out. “If there is a treatment, take it! Even a temporary reprieve may give you time to seek another cure.”
But Jaskier only shakes his head. “It isn’t that easy,” he says, and he sounds weary to the bone, stripped of all the pretenses he dons like a second doublet. “All magic comes with a price. Isn’t that right, witch?”
Yennefer nods. “The treatment temporarily removes the flowers by utterly eradicating the victim’s affections,” she explains to Geralt. “With nothing to root in, the flowers will wither. But the flowers are not uprooted entirely, and if he were to fall in love again, they would return, this time doubled in quantity. At that point, the only outcomes are true cure or death.”
“I would have to be a fool to willfully hasten my own death,” says Jaskier. Silence reigns for a long moment. Then Jaskier brightens, albeit with visible effort. “Do you both have cotton stuffed in your ears? As I’ve been saying all this time, this affliction is temporary, and this little detour was a complete waste of time. Come along, Geralt, you’ve got monsters to kill, and I, ballads to compose.” So saying, he heads for the door, leaving Geralt and Yennefer standing alone in the foyer of the abandoned cottage she has claimed for herself.
“He will die without the treatment, unless he is able to eradicate his feelings himself,” Yennefer says as Geralt shoulders his pack once more. She holds the flower out to him, but he shakes his head in silent refusal, and she crushes it instead, releasing a shower of brown and golden dust. Geralt can just make out patches of faint yellow smeared upon her fingertips. “The disease starts with petals and progresses to full-stemmed flowers. For him to have been coughing blossoms for a week already… It would be kinder to put him out of his misery than let him suffer through the rest.”
Geralt grunts in acknowledgement. With a final nod of thanks, he turns to follow after Jaskier.
“Men and their pride,” he hears Yennefer sigh just before the door closes.
Jaskier refuses to stay with Yennefer, going so far as to threaten to steal away on Roach in the middle of the night if Geralt tries to keep him here against his will.
“You could try,” Geralt says in a low tone. Nonetheless, he sets a course for the nearest town. It is a detour from the border they had originally been pushing toward, but Geralt would prefer to have a healer close at hand in case Jaskier’s condition deteriorates further.
If Jaskier notices Geralt nudging Roach further to the west, he says nothing of it. Instead, he keeps up a constant stream of chatter, pausing only to retch dandelions into the tallgrass every so often. They set up camp once the sun has sunk beneath the horizon, leaving in its wake a painted sky and a noticeable chill. As Jaskier works on setting a pile of kindling aflame, Geralt leaves to hunt down dinner; when he returns, wild fowl in hand, he catches Jaskier trying unsuccessfully to hide the growing pile of dandelion blossoms tucked in against his lute case.
“Who’s the unlucky woman?” Geralt asks, stepping into the firelight.
Jaskier starts, dandelions spilling from his hands. He hastily brushes them away. “Gods, Geralt, must you always sneak up on me? This is why you have an image problem, you know. Don’t get me wrong, the whole tall, dark, and murderous vibe is fantastic -- really brings out the color of your eyes -- but the skulking tips you firmly into the realm of, well, somewhat unhinged.”
Geralt only glares at Jaskier, waiting for him to tire himself out, and sets about roasting the fowl.
“Anyway, killing my beloved won’t cure me,” Jaskier continues blithely, “so don’t even think about it. Not all problems can be solved by whacking away at them with those oversized butter knives you carry around.” He settles cross-legged next to the fire with his lute balanced across his knees and strums a few chords.
Jaskier shrugs, picks out a quick flurry of staccato notes. It is not a melody Geralt has heard Jaskier play before, and with a flash of surprise, Geralt realizes Jaskier is nervous, is using the lute as a shield, seeking a familiar comfort in the midst of an uncomfortable conversation. “The same as any disease: by letting it run its course.”
“You mean to let it kill you.”
“Would you miss me?” Jaskier asks, and he sounds genuinely curious, as though he has no idea how Geralt might answer. “Would you think of me, from time to time? When you have to bathe yourself and can’t quite reach all the parts that ache, you’ll regret showing no thanks when I was there to handle such unpleasantries for you.” Jaskier clicks his tongue. “I can’t bear the thought of you downtrodden with guilt, wishing you had shown me proper appreciation while I was alive. For the sake of sparing you such a depressing fate, I shall fall upon the sword and graciously allow you to shower me with compliments. Go on, Geralt, do your worst.”
“How can you be so nonchalant about your impending death?” Geralt snarls.
Jaskier scoffs. “Oh, that’s rich, coming from you. Geralt, you have, on multiple occasions, willingly waded into the cavernous maw of a selkiemore. You have lost all right to comment on the nonchalance with which I may or may not approach my impending death.”
Geralt shifts uncomfortably. It’s different for him. Every bone in his body, every ounce of blood that flows through his veins, has been intentionally tailored to keep him alive even in the face of certain death. Jaskier, on the other hand, is indescribably fragile. Geralt could break him without expending any conscious thought. Quite a few things could break Jaskier without expending any conscious thought. Including, apparently, Jaskier himself.
“Besides, this whole conversation is pointless, seeing as I won’t die of this,” Jaskier adds. “Feelings are ephemeral, as you well know, Witcher. These, too, will fade, and the garden in my lungs with them.”
“Then take the treatment. If you mean to cast off your feelings regardless, quicken the process and spare yourself this pain. This uncertainty.”
Jaskier smiles and strums another series of chords. Something about the notes infuses the air with a melancholy that lingers even after the song fades. “A fool’s errand. Have you ever been in love, Geralt?” He doesn’t wait for Geralt to answer. “You would find as many descriptions of love as creatures that have walked this soil. For a cuckolded husband, love is an empty promise, a harbinger of heartache; for the devilishly handsome man climbing out the window, love is sweeter than wine and indescribably more potent. And yet there is one overarching constant, and that is that love burrows into your soul. It builds itself a little house and plants its roots into your heart, until it is so intricately braided into the core of your being that to rip it out would be almost more painful than letting it tear you to shreds in the first place.” He looks up at Geralt, and his smile doesn’t reach his eyes anymore. His fingers dance absently across the strings of his lute, repeating certain sequences once, twice, before tripping into another partial melody. “I would simply be trading one pain for another, don’t you see? It’s as much a part of me as all the rest. And what good is a life without the things that make it worth living?”
Geralt watches him in silence. In Geralt’s experience, the things that make life worth living only carry meaning if one is alive to enjoy them. “No love is worth dying for,” he says finally.
With a loud gasp, Jaskier clutches his lute to his chest and shoots a scandalized look at Geralt. “He doesn’t mean it, darling,” he croons to the instrument. His eyes flutter shut as he presses his cheek to its neck. “You are worth the world to me. I would face a coven of succubi without fear to keep you free of harm.”
Geralt studies Jaskier: the tension stiffening his shoulders, the way his lips are pursed as though to suppress a cough. After a moment, Geralt decides to allow Jaskier the out. “And where would you find a coven of succubi interested in enticing you?” he asks with a raised eyebrow.
“You’re a horrible friend, Geralt,” Jaskier comments, but there is no heat in his voice, and his shoulders loosen fractionally. He turns away to litter the ground with more dandelions, and Geralt has an unsettling feeling that he has only acquired more questions in his quest for answers.
Jaskier wakes up with a rasp in his voice and dandelions clustered on either side of his bedroll, evidence of a fitful sleep interrupted by his need to periodically clear his airways of detritus. The yellow blossoms are interspersed with flecks of green from leaves and budding stems that have joined the mix. Geralt frowns at the sight. Despite Jaskier’s protestations, it is clear his disease is worsening. The realization sits uncomfortably in Geralt’s stomach, like days-old meat or sour milk.
They break down camp in companionable silence, with Jaskier pretending his sleeplessness was due to the rough ground and humid air and Geralt pretending he doesn’t see the flecks of blood painting the ground near Jaskier’s lute. Despite the obvious pain Jaskier is in, he acts as though nothing is amiss, and he spends most of the day working on a ballad to commemorate Geralt’s recent victory over a pack of drowners.
It is easy to let Jaskier’s voice fade into the background as Geralt mulls over what little he has gleaned in the past 24 hours. Desperately in love, Yennefer had said, and yet Jaskier has given no indication of having fallen in love at any point in the past few months; he has not slipped away to engage in any clandestine trysts, nor has he bemoaned the abrupt and dramatic departure of a paramour. He has prattled about fair-haired maidens here and there, but never for long. Certainly never to the extent of suggesting someone had built a home in his soul.
Nonetheless, some such suitor must exist. If the flowers were not evidence enough, Jaskier had all but admitted it when he’d cautioned Geralt -- rather unnecessarily, in Geralt’s opinion -- against violence the night before.
That must mean, then, that Jaskier is willfully keeping the identity of his beloved secret from Geralt.
The irritation churning in Geralt’s belly grows. Of course Jaskier owes Geralt nothing, not company nor gratitude nor his heart bared upon his sleeve, and it is his right to keep whatever secrets he wishes. But Jaskier has never been one for discretion, has in fact made a point of oversharing and bestowing upon Geralt knowledge he had never asked for, and Geralt doesn’t know how to respond to being locked out by the bard now.
Anger coils tight in Geralt’s chest, leaves the taste of wood ash ground into the backs of his teeth. Would Jaskier have ever told Geralt that he had fallen for someone if Geralt had not seen the flowers tumbling from his lips? Would he have waited until his throat was bloody from the violence of his coughing, until he was gasping for breath between bouquets of dandelions? Or would he have left Geralt to wake up only to find Jaskier cold to the touch, lute cradled delicately in his arms, chest still, a spray of dandelions peeking between his lips--
“Oren for your thoughts?” Jaskier says, breaking Geralt out of his reverie. “You’ve been quiet today, Geralt. Quieter than normal. Don’t tell me my melodic stylings have finally wooed you! I appreciate you coming to your senses, of course, but perhaps you could delay that epiphany by a day or two? This unfinished mess of a song is hardly a shining exemplar of my talents. It would be the height of embarrassment to have rendered you speechless with this.”
Maybe Geralt still feels a little wrong-footed by realizing Jaskier is a better actor than Geralt had thought, or maybe it is simply the nature of things that churn in the belly to come rushing back through the mouth, but Geralt blurts out, before he’s quite figured out the rest of what he wants to say, “Why didn’t you tell me earlier?”
“Tell you what, exactly?” Jaskier asks slowly, sounding lost. “That the ballad is unfinished? I wouldn’t have thought you needed that made explicit, considering your two very functional ears and all.”
Geralt grunts impatiently. “Your disease,” he says. “You knew what it was from the start. Why did you hide it?”
That hunted expression is back, thinning Jaskier’s lips and hunching his shoulders and sending his gaze skittering sideways. “Because there was nothing to tell,” Jaskier hedges. “I’m simply a fool who has given my heart to another, and now I’m on a quest to retrieve it. It’s not really a team activity, is it?” His lips quirk up in the ghost of a smile.
A shadow passes over his face then, and he holds up a finger, says, “Give me one moment, please,” and disappears into the underbrush just as wretched coughs begin to wrack his body.
Geralt nudges Roach to a stop and waits. Jaskier emerges some minutes later, breath ragged, a yellow floret clinging to his bottom lip. “What was I saying?” he asks.
Geralt’s eyes are drawn instantly to the splash of yellow, such a stark contrast against the pink of Jaskier’s lips, the piercing blue of Jaskier’s eyes. He is no closer to knowing who has planted dandelions in Jaskier’s lungs, nor why Jaskier is running away from them instead of into their arms, nor what Geralt has done to lose Jaskier’s trust and confidence so thoroughly. But it is becoming glaringly evident that Jaskier doesn’t want to talk about this, least of all with Geralt, and Geralt refuses to push him on the only boundary he has ever set for the sake of slaking Geralt’s own selfish curiosity.
“Hmm,” he says after a moment, instead of what if you’re wrong, instead of what if you fail, and he pushes Roach forward so he won’t have to see Jaskier spitting blood into his handkerchief.
Moonlight illuminates the planes of Jaskier’s face, highlights the bridge of his nose and the expanse of his forehead peeking out from beneath messy night-blackened locks. The fire has died down to a pile of glowing embers littered with the bones of their dinner, and in the distance, Geralt can hear a coyote calling. Geralt can hear a great many things, actually, even without having consumed the appropriate potion: the rhythmic chirping of crickets permeating every inch of the night, the whisper of wind rushing through the foliage, the way Jaskier’s breath rattles in his chest.
He traces Jaskier’s recumbent figure with his eyes and wonders how long Jaskier will be able to sleep tonight before the need to breathe wrenches him awake. Nearly every blossom passing through his lips now is anchored to a stem, though the stems extend only a few centimeters before tapering to jagged ends sticky with sap. Even without knowing when Jaskier first started coughing up dandelion petals, Geralt can see that Jaskier doesn’t have much time left, but the nearest town is still a day’s ride away, and a longer journey by foot.
Getting Jaskier to a healer quickly won’t matter, though, if Jaskier refuses the treatment anyway. Jaskier seems hellbent on throwing his life away, and for what? The thrill of butterflies in his stomach? Some poetic notion of embodying the same grandeur he romanticizes in his songs?
Respect may not make history, but dead bards tell no tales. Or something like that. Geralt has never been good with words, not like Jaskier.
That’s why Jaskier was the one to finally rehabilitate Geralt’s reputation, after all, and that, too, with only a single song. Geralt has no doubt he would have spent his whole life trying unsuccessfully to outrun the shadow Blaviken had cast upon him had Jaskier not chanced upon him in Posada. It is Jaskier who can sway whole courts in his favor while Geralt stands aside and watches, Jaskier whose coin pays for rooms in inns and bath salts and new clothes. Jaskier is the one with the ability to grasp at straws and spin golden tales from them.
It is not a talent Geralt has ever wanted -- silence is a powerful weapon in its own right -- but it is one he has come to appreciate. He cannot deny it is easier to rend a wyvern in half when he has the prospect of a warm bath to look forward to, and Jaskier’s gentle hands washing the grime from his hair besides. It is easier to stomach three nights of tasteless wild game when he knows Jaskier’s songs will earn them flagons of mulled ale at the next tavern. It is easier to shrug away the insults still occasionally hurled his way, the fear and disgust that so often paint the faces of the very people who hire him, when he has only to look to Jaskier to find admiration and fascination and laughter and--
“Ah,” says Geralt, realizing quite suddenly that there is a warmth in his chest, as though someone has snuck into his heart and built a home there, a crooked little thing with a furnace that heats him through to his core. Somewhere along the way, Jaskier has woven himself indelibly into the tapestry of Geralt’s life, and the thought of untangling their threads no longer fills Geralt with the relief it once did.
And then-- “Fuck,” says Geralt, remembering that Jaskier is desperately in love with someone who isn’t Geralt, so deeply that he is willing to die for them. Come morning, they will both be coughing up flowers, side by side. And isn’t that disgustingly poetic, to offer a garden to someone who already has one growing in his lungs? The both of them hurt, both of them hurting, wanting and unwanted, together and yet both so utterly alone.
The story of Geralt’s life: It’s like something out of one of Jaskier’s ballads.
Geralt awakens to Jaskier’s face blocking his field of vision. Jaskier’s eyes are wide, his lips slightly parted. It is a rare sight, as Jaskier has never been one to relinquish the comfort of a lazy morning without incentive, and Geralt immediately fears the worst. His gaze flies to Jaskier’s bedroll, where he prays he won’t yet see the long stems that signify the final stages of the disease.
Thankfully, he doesn’t.
In fact, he doesn’t see any flowers at all, only a handful of loose yellow florets scattered upon the ground, occasionally being shuffled about by the light morning breeze.
“If you change your mind,” Jaskier says shakily, drawing Geralt’s attention back to him, “I’ll kill you. Not only for breaking my heart twice over, but for sentencing me to death by dandelion, of all the blasted flowers on the Continent. Do you know how few things rhyme with dandelion? I couldn’t have had roses or lilies or sage growing in my lungs, just waiting to be immortalized in song?”
“If I change my mind, I’ll give you the sword myself,” Geralt tells Jaskier, and drags him into a kiss that tastes of dandelion and desperation and something worth dying for.