The Redanian countryside during the summer is one sweaty, humid breeze that never goes away. Dirt clings under his fingernails. Sweatstains never dry. It rarely rains and yet every road is covered in three layers of mud and horseshit.
Geralt has learned to live with the more unpleasant aspects of living on the road, but here in Redania, he hates it. This close to Blaviken brings back bad memories. Haunting voices star in every one of his dreams. He sees young, betrayed faces, the disgusted scowls of countrymen as they throw stones in the town square.
He sees the crumpled husks of dead men and a dark princess bleeding out in his arms.
“—what say we travel to Aedirn next, eh, Geralt? I hear they’ve got good tailors there and I’m in dire need of a new outfit.”
Geralt is brought out of his sulk by the sound of Jaskier’s voice fluttering on by his right side. He’s excited about a performance at the Aedirnian king’s next banquet, a fete for the ages. The tavern they’re in is likewise brimming with life. People flit about with tankards of ale and stronger spirits as they sing off-key to one of the bard’s better ballads. The tavern’s mistress had gifted the witcher with a mug of dark ale not so long ago, for the entertainment his busker provided.
She simply dropped the drink at his elbow and said no more than a strong, “on the house, master witcher.”
A free drink is a free drink so Geralt took it in stride, if a bit befuddled by the offer. He’s yet to finish it, preferring to nurse the cup as he took short sips of the deep-amber liquid.
Jaskier is smiling at him with that boyish lift of his eyebrows and doubtlessly waiting for the witcher to say anything of his suggested routes.
“As long as there’s monsters,” Geralt murmurs on another sip. “And I’m not forced to attend.”
“But Geralt, that’s the whole point! What am I to do at a party with no cohort?”
“I’m sure you’ll find a way to manage.”
They’re facing the tavern’s bar, which is why he catches the mistress and the barmaid-at-work giggling at the bard’s protesting squawk. Though Jaskier sits on the same bench as him, he’s twisted to face Geralt and has absolutely no idea they’re having a laugh at his expense.
Despite the heat, the noise and boisterous voices, all the usual annoying grievances that would have frayed at Geralt’s senses, he sits in comfortable reticence. His earlier mood is all but forgotten, replaced by the bard’s eager chatter.
Some of the cheer in the room dies when the door blows open for a man in heavy steel boots. At the sudden entrance, a couple of drunkards bump into each other and spill their drinks over a table. There’s a bit of a commotion with them, but that’s not where Geralt’s attention wavers to. This new patron walks like he carries a heavy sword over one shoulder, though his back is bare when he ambles around the central pillar in the room to reach the bar. Years of compensating for its weight, perhaps, that even unarmed he moves as if ready for battle.
He’s a soldier. No, not soldier. There’s no coat or arms over his chest. No shield with a flag painted on its facade. This is a mercenary.
Jaskier instantly edges closer to him, quiet when the man steps near his side to bid the barmaid for a drink. Geralt keeps his head down.
But it seems their easy rest is to be ruined for the evening. He knows it when the man turns to lean on the barstool and the telltale sound of disgust is spit in his direction.
“What’s a witcher doing here?”
His accent isn’t Redanian, so he’s searching for work in these woods. It’s not unheard of that mercenaries risk a monster contract on smaller beasties, but if an actual witcher’s in the field, local folk trust the forged monster slayer over a tripped up soft-bellied human.
That’s not on Geralt or his witcher brothers out on the path. He’s got no issue with coin-hungry men. He’s just here to do his job.
The problem is that the merc’s now found a problem with him. He projects as much when he kicks off the stool to beat the witcher’s tankard off the table.
“Listen well, mutant. We don’t need your kind stealing our coin—”
As Geralt sits up to rise from his bench, the most terrifying thing unfolds before his eyes. Jaskier—stupid, nobly foolish Jaskier—takes offense for him. And the bard’s faster standing up to push a string-calloused finger right on the man’s chest.
“Now you listen here, there’s no need for this gruff-macho, dick-swinging attitude. This is a fine establishment.” Geralt is quick to stand behind Jaskier to shut him up but the bard is having none of it, poking once more at hard leather armor. “We’re just minding our own business. I suggest you do the same and leave my friend be.”
It looks to be the start of a fight in the newcomer’s eyes. All because Jaskier wouldn’t let an insult go.
What stops Geralt in his tracks is that the barmaid, having come around to pour a few drinks to a private couple, stands by Jaskier with an equally indignant glower. She’s probably just as young and wistful as Jaskier, barely out of her teens and working for the only decent pay she might earn in a brewing town.
“Tha’s right,” she says with not a quiver in her dulcet voice. “They’ve yet t’cause us trouble. I say quite the opposit’. I’ve nary seen these people so cheerful!”
The two of them combined look ridiculous against the heavily-clad thug. Together they barely make up the size of the merc’s frame combined. Geralt is just about ready to throw himself in front of their idiotic persons when the tavern mistress—with a stern, indisputable gait—does it for him.
She’s tall and straight-backed for her age, her arms puffed strong from a lifetime of brewing and serving fine ale. With her hands hooked onto her waist, she shields her charge and Jaskier, which means she also stands directly between Geralt and the vexed mercenary. Ruffians won’t mistake her for a pushover.
The crowd is silent the moment she speaks. Her voice could have been heard clear as day on the other side of the street. That’s the authority she held over her domain. She speaks, and the world inside the tavern listens.
“You’ve done more harm upon your arrival than they have, good sir. And I’ll have no more arguments under my roof. Either shut up and drink up, or you’ll find fair lodgings and beer to match it in the next town over.”
At the ultimatum, the man bends his bearing. Evidently he did not want trouble for himself, and the mistress has just announced that should he start a fight, no one will blame the witcher first.
But he is not one to stay and share the air with a monster. It shows in the scowl he wears and the dirty look Geralt receives.
“Then I’ll gladly take my leave.” With that said, he stuffs a hand in a string-tied purse and procures two coppers, slapping them on the bar. “For the beer.”
One of the drunks breaks the silence with a laugh and shouts that indeed, at least the bastard’s got manners.
In the awkward seconds after the man’s departure, Geralt juggles with whether he should stare at Jaskier, the young barmaid, the mistress, or the one drunkard hammered enough to get the last word in. He’d been fully prepared to leave the establishment to avoid any rising dispute. It’s not the first—nor will it be the last—that someone takes his presence as an offense. But then Jaskier opened his mouth and threw about his hands and then Geralt had been fully prepared to defend him. To ride out of town, much sooner than anticipated.
This is nothing short of a novelty in his long life. Jaskier had felt compelled to protect him, a witcher. There’s nothing to protect. There’s nothing he can protect any better than Geralt can do by himself.
But—that there were other people driven to shield him. To stand between him and an aggressor. That’s—he’s never seen that. There’s only one instance that comes to mind and it’s painful in its conception. Another young, indomitable woman who ran away to Blaviken, only to die by his traitorous blade.
Geralt feels—he’s not sure what he feels. It’s like he’s trapped in a silver-thread net, frozen stiff, tongue caught between his teeth. Everything returns to normal around him. The murmur of the crowd starts again, unbothered by the evening’s turn of events. The young, savvy barmaid skips behind the bar to pour a couple more tankards of ale. Only the mistress remains out of place, and Jaskier is quick to speak again in gratitude.
“Thank you for the hospitality, madam.”
“There’s no ‘madam’ in these parts, bardling,” she quips back amused. Amused and not miffed. Not a hint of remorse in her tone for sticking her neck out for them.
“But I insist that was a most madamly display—!”
Geralt leaves through the stable door in a rush before Jaskier finishes. He can’t take their—their casual chatter. They don’t—care. Long has he accepted that it didn’t matter what humans made of him so long as he could still do his duty as a monster slayer. There’s much Geralt is willing to put up with. The trials and tribulations of his witcher youth prepared him for a lifetime of cruelty and scorn.
No one ever prepared him for kindness.
In the stable, he finds Roach nickering into a trough. Her ears perk up at his stride, well-attuned to his scent and the rhythm of his gait. Geralt opens the door to her stall. In an instant, she is poised and ready to ride out. But Geralt doesn’t pull her reins to lead her outside. He doesn’t do much of anything other than pet her cheek.
Roach tilts her head in that curious way she does to show that she is waiting. Her snout, wet with the meal she’s forgone at his appearance, presses into his chest.
It’s then that Geralt notices he is breathing far too fast, that the leather of his armor feels like a prison smothering him on all sides. He tries to control it, to even out his breaths, but if he starts to mediate, then all he hears is his heart rabbiting unnaturally inside his ribcage, and if he tries to slow his heart down, his vision blurs and gives up on the white patch of hair over Roach’s muzzle. It’s a never-ending cycle of pointless distress.
“Geralt? Are you in here?”
Of course Jaskier goes looking for him the moment he notices Geralt disappear. Geralt can’t even answer, his voice stolen from him by his own body.
From the corner of his eye, Geralt picks up the vague shape and color of Jaskier stepping into the stall. Roach snuffles, her ears flopping forwards and back. She’s excited to have them both visit, but her attention is currently solely reserved for her witcher.
“Hello there, girl. I hope the stableboy is treating you well?” Strange, how he always tries to make conversation with his mare. “Don’t mind my interruption, I was just wondering where our mutual friend here went?”
Geralt tries to think of a response but comes up blank. He just—ran out of the tavern, for no real reason. He doesn’t have an answer.
Even when his eyes are trained on Roach’s white-stripe pattern, Geralt can tell that Jaskier is making a monumental effort to lighten the mood, or comfort whatever bout is afflicting the witcher. As he babblers about the short story the mistress had told him about a rapscallion that came by some months back and left them all with a good long laugh, it stirs something in Geralt. Something fierce and wildfire, suddenly bursting at the seams of his body.
“You didn’t need to do that.”
That gives Jaskier pause. He walks around to stand beside Roach, close enough now that Geralt cannot avoid looking at him in some way.
“Do what, exactly?”
“It—” The words get stuck in his throat. Geralt has to wrestle them back under his command again, to force out what’s at the root of the problem between them. “You put yourself in the way for my sake and it was completely unnecessary.”
“Is that what this is about? Geralt, I can take care of myself—”
“I don’t need your protection.”
It comes out too harsh. Geralt hadn’t meant to start a fight, but he apparently can’t control anything anymore and it’s so easy to take it out on the bard. He’s always there, always treating him like he’s—he’s just another human on the road, when Geralt is the farthest thing from it. If anyone needs to be taken care of it’s Jaskier and his silken tastes, him with his unscarred hands and soft, perfumed hair. He’s careless and a quick match to light and doesn’t know when to stop—
Jaskier pitches low, interrupting the downward spiral of his thoughts. “Did you maybe consider that I want to?”
There, Geralt lets go of Roach to confront the bard and—whatever it is his face is pulling, it makes Jaskier’s mouth fall and his eyebrows pinch together.
“You. You want to what, exactly.”
As Geralt drags the words out, he blinks and something hot threatens to spill out of him in waves, clinging to the precipice of his eyelashes. It aches like a dreadful itch. Before it overflows, Jaskier lifts his hands to cover the witcher’s face in gentle strokes.
Heat like summer’s sun explodes against his skin, but nothing comes out. If anything, everything begins to fall down again, back into place. His hearing, his heart, his vision.
Jaskier has done this before. This soft, grappling touch like he’s afraid of hurting Geralt when that’s an impossibility. He’s sooner hurt his hand than leave a bruised impression on the witcher’s skin.
“In your words, I want to protect you.” The smile that climbs up Jaskier’s rosy cheeks is bitter. It doesn’t suit him. “By my power, there would be nothing but praise and gratitude said about witchers and the good they do. Is that so terrible? That I hate the lies spread about you and your character?”
That doesn’t make sense. Jaskier doesn’t make sense.
His throat burns like he’s swallowed a powerful phial of poison, but Geralt has to ask, “Why do you care?”
There is so much hidden between the lines of that simple question. What has he done to earn the bard’s loyalty? Whatever possessed him to take that stance, that responsibility against the world? So much Geralt wants to know but cannot ask because asking is admitting he might just want it—the loyalty, the dedication, the affection—, when all he needs is a horse and a sword, and whatever coin is won for his work.
Jaskier’s smile turns sweet and that—that does suit him better.
“Because I do.”
Three simple words, spoken as a blind observation of the natural world. Why is the sky blue? Because it is. Simple and childlike. It is not enough, and at the same time, too much. Just like the hands rubbing gently over his cheekbones. A too-much-not-enough sensation over his heated skin.
Geralt does not press forward into the touch. But he does hum deep in his chest, a disappointed sound, when Jaskier lets him go to clap his hands together.
“Now stop this brooding and let’s go back to the nice, rowdy tavern with the only good beer in this entire kingdom, you big gloomy oaf. There’s dinner on the plate, free of charge.”
In the next instant, before Geralt has time to process everything and go into another catatonic state, Jaskier wraps one easy hand over Geralt’s gloved wrist and keeps it there, warming it from the outside.
“Well...if it’s free.”
When Jaskier tugs him out of the stall, Geralt follows.