1257 - Jaskier’s 35th Birthday
“Thank you for coming to this.”
Geralt shrugged languidly. “It’s your birthday.”
“It is my birthday. And don’t I deserve a banquet?”
Geralt chuckled and glanced over at Jaskier, riding his own horse for once, even if it was just a rental for the night’s event.
“They hired you to play the event, not attend.”
The bard smiled at him, bright and unperturbed. “Same. Thing. Wine and food and company. Excellent music.” He waggled his eyebrows. “And I walk away paid . If that’s not a party, what is?”
Geralt hummed and kicked Roach into a trot. They’d spent so long in their room at The Dappled Mare , if they didn’t hurry they’d be late. Jaskier’s fault, of course. The lyrics for a new song exalting the kingdom of Kaedwen and the Lady Fallon’s beauty in particular were almost, almost done. Just another minute.
They’d arrived several days earlier, with enough time to buy Geralt a suitably non-threatening set of clothes and meet the lord and lady. Rubbing elbows with aristocracy was more Jaskier’s game than Geralt’s, and so the witcher simply followed him around the manor house, producing pleasantries when expected. He felt less like Jaskier’s guest and more like his bodyguard. Or worse, pet.
Look how well trained. How well behaved. It even wears clothes!
He suffered it. And Jaskier smiled at him. And slid an arm around his waist when he thought no one would see.
“You don’t have to stay,” the bard whispered, knowing only Geralt could hear. The tour was winding toward the east wing now.
Geralt glanced at him and lifted an eyebrow.
“I’m here to learn their names, their likes, what dances they want.”
Lord and Lady Fallon lifted their gilded arms and waved down the hall.
“Glyn! Come, come.” Lady Fallon gestured. “We’re just showing the bard Jaskier around. Formal introductions to the guests who have arrived.”
A man slightly younger than Jaskier with short, blue-black hair strode up to them and bowed slightly.
“Jaskier, my cousin, Earl Glyn Camran.”
“A pleasure,” Jaskier replied, with a practiced bow of his own and only a hint of how much pleasure, by the response of his pulse.
Geralt tuned them all out as he felt Jaskier’s attention slide over the young man, his charms surfacing to flash and entice. For this, a witcher was entirely extraneous. And as the four of them gabbled in gentrified tones, he simply stopped following. Found his way out and headed back to the inn. If anyone even noticed, Jaskier would tell them how simply like that a witcher could be.
The Dappled Mare filled to bursting that evening, and Geralt watched from a corner with a clear view of the door as Jaskier returned. Saw him check the sightlines quickly and identify his destination. Rowdy games of Gwent filled the tables between them, and the bard dodged excitable patrons and busy barmaids with the surefooted nature of a cat.
He had a look on his face, though. Geralt blinked slowly at him and tried to muster up a smile. Something genteel and pleased. But Jaskier only narrowed his eyes when their gazes locked, and Geralt set his tankard of mead down.
At last, only a table separated them.
“That was rude, you know,” Jaskier said, his hands resting on his hips, tone more matter-of-fact than angry.
Geralt lifted one shoulder in a shrug. “I wasn't adding much to the conversation.”
Jaskier stared at him for a long moment before tilting his head back and letting out a sigh as his arms fell. “That's not the point ,” he said with an exasperated gesture. “You may be shocked to discover that I enjoy your presence.” His lips twitched. “Speaking is a bonus.”
The witcher leveled a flat look. “Thanks.”
Jaskier slid around the corner of the table to come closer and then leaned down, placing a kiss along Geralt’s hairline. Two fingers tilted the witcher’s chin. And a second kiss graced his lips. A statement of warmth and affection that kneaded at the tensions he’d harbored since leaving. Jaskier hummed with relief of his own and released him.
The bard stretched his lower back and rolled his shoulders, looking worn. “Remembering names is so tiring,” he said. “And Lady Fallon wants a new dance. So… I’m off.”
He picked up Geralt’s tankard and drained the last of his drink. Set the empty cup back down in front of him.
As Jaskier turned to go, Geralt slid along the bench to get up.
The bard turned back.“You can stay,” he said, with an amused little frown.
Geralt pointedly glanced at his empty drink. “What for?”
Jaskier’s only answer was a smirk.
They went to the room together, and while Geralt undressed, Jaskier hummed a tune. Or part of a tune. He was working through a melody that sounded very little like music. It was Geralt’s turn to wear the night shirt. Without fabric between them, too skin contact would drive Jaskier mad. Mad with lust. Annoyed from lack of sleep. Everywhere their skin touched, he felt arcane fire seeping through his flesh, licking deliciously at his nerves. Geralt counted it unfair and unsurprising that he felt nothing so magical. But they took steps for comfort. To save such exposure as intimate pleasures. And so, a night shirt and smallclothes—just enough fabric to defy the magic and still feel the heat of one another’s skin.
And sometimes, they switched.
Geralt slid into bed to the mumbled melody and rolled onto his side to face the wall, a small emptiness gnawing at his belly. He wasn’t upset. No one had asked him to leave. And he didn’t quite think this feeling was jealousy.
It was simply… hard not to feel uninteresting when the only person who looks at you with delight turns their eyes to someone else.
It happened often. If only briefly. But he’d never quite mastered the knack of not caring. And doubting, just a little.
Behind him, Jaskier snuffed the candle on the bedside table, plunging the room into silvery darkness. The mumbled tune stopped. And Jaskier’s hand found him in the silence. He shuffled closer, draping his arm across Geralt’s middle without quite molding himself against Geralt’s back.
He sighed, the sound dispersing Geralt’s doubt like so much fog, and then they slept.
Faobhar na Coille, Lord Fallon’s manor house, loomed before them, a dark cut against the pink orange sky. Carriages rolled up the long drive and settled on the estate grounds like geese. Every window of the house was lit with a lantern, the room beyond glowing as though filled with bottled sunlight.
Nothing should be that bright at night.
Geralt glanced over as Jaskier whistled. “Did they hire a mage?”
The bard shrugged. “Must have. Hopefully no one we know.”
Geralt smirked at that, but his guts took the caution seriously. Jaskier had insisted on proper attire for the event and graciously found him something that included a fair bit of leather and a cut like a military uniform. It wasn’t armor, but it didn’t have ruffles, and he could hide a dagger in his boot.
Once inside, he would be mostly on his own. Jaskier had work to do. And with a small smile and “Don’t kill anyone” whisked himself off to the front of the main hall to do it. Glances and mutterings filtered in Geralt’s direction as he paced the raised perimeter of the space, inspecting the tables lined with food, the guests lingering in cliques whose battle-lines he could not see. Glowing balls of light hung suspended in glass lanterns from the ceiling, and the slight hum of his medallion against his chest confirmed the magical origin.
The effect was nice, though.
Below the outer perimeter was a wide mezzanine where guests sat eating and drinking. And another step below that, the central floor, would soon be filled with dancing.Geralt plucked grapes from a silver tray, cubed cheeses, thinly sliced and folded meats, keeping himself occupied by slowly stalking around the food tables as he watched the buzzing humanity and tried to avoid thick clots of perfumed air. A wide-eyed waiter managed to get a glass of red wine into his hand, and he found a place by a large column to station himself and drink it without guzzling.
The music began. And Geralt watched as Jaskier paced and twirled around the room, strumming and singing over a smile. Everyone’s attention turned to the bard, and in a moment they were his. His circuit brought him to a table where the cousin, Glyn, sat with a group of similarly-aged men. Jaskier lingered at their table while he played. Came around several times, accepting drinks offered to him between songs and trading belly laughs and cheers.
It was not jealousy.
It was not.
Jaskier loved to be loved.
The songs moved into dances, and the tables emptied of their occupants, giving Geralt a chance to pile a plate high and eat with relish in peace. The fifth dance was the last, and he slipped himself back to his observation post as the music ended and the applause started.
Jaskier shook hands and smiled with dozens of appreciative guests. And Geralt could tell the precise moment the bard’s attention shifted. It was something in his expression, and the way it went flat and searching. The way he lifted up onto his toes and stopped smiling automatically at the people in front of him.
Geralt wasn’t hiding, but he did stand a little straighter and stretch his shoulder a little broader, waiting for the moment when Jaskier’s gaze touched him. The first time the whole evening Jaskier had looked for him in the crowd, and when he started over, Geralt made sure he moved to the lee side of the column slow enough for the untrained eye.
He heard Jaskier’s heavy breathing first. Then the scent of sweat and his mint and lavender soap, and red wine. A moment later, the man himself. Flushed cheeks and blue eyes.
“There you are,” he breathed and smiled.
“Here I am.”
Jaskier gave him a look that slid down his body and back up to his eyes. He moved a step closer, from casual friend to intimate acquaintance.
“Do you know what I love about that outfit?” Jaskier asked.
Geralt glanced down at himself and lifted an eyebrow.
Jaskier put a hand on the column just above his shoulder and leaned in, lips almost touching the witcher’s ear.
“How much I want to rip it off you.” A susurrus whisper.
A responding smile. “In front of all these lords and ladies?”
“No,” Jaskier said lowly, savoring his words. “They don’t get the pleasure.”
Geralt huffed as the sibilant whistled down his side.
Jaskier drew back, eyeing him, and then his gaze slid out across the room and held still. Suggested eye contact.
Geralt narrowed his eyes. “You aren’t here just to give me compliments.”
The bard delicately cleared his throat and gave him space.
“Please,” he said. “Please please please, please please—”
“Dance with Lady Fallon?” A hopeful, impish smile.
“I don’t dance.”
“Bullshit. You’re a ballerina with a blade. Just pretend like you’re going to kill someone, and then don't!”
Amusement plucked at Geralt’s belly, and he scowled. “You’re an idiot.”
“So that’s a yes?”
His cheeks could heat even though they didn’t color, and Geralt tucked his chin, his gaze flicking downward.
Quietly. Embarrassed. “I don’t know these dances.”
“Then she’ll teach you! That’ll be even better. She’ll be thrilled .”
Geralt cast his companion a skeptical look. Jaskier bit on his lower lip, eyes wide. If there had ever been armor made for such assaults, Geralt had never found it. He sighed and looked askance.
“Happy birthday,” he muttered.
The bard pumped his fist in the air with a laugh of triumph. Then took Geralt’s face in his hands and kissed him quickly, sealing the deal. He headed, jauntily, back across the room to spread the good news and get the court musicians ready for another set.
Geralt shook his head, but he was a man of his word. He joined the throng on the dance floor and made his apologies to Lady Fallon for needing a tutor. Her eyes sparkled, and she led him through the steps. He copied it with ease and assured her she must be an excellent teacher. Courtesy demanded compliments, and Jaskier would want his hostess happy.
Through the first song, her gaze swept over him constantly, and he could hear her pulse beat too quickly at the simple exertion. As they danced, she smiled and didn’t flinch from his mutant golden gaze. To her credit, she looked shocked only once when their hands touched and eldritch sensation suffused her skin. Unless he was mistaken, she did it several more times on purpose.
And despite himself, for the span of several dances, Geralt forgot to be cautious and ever wary. He closed out the final movement genuinely smiling and bowed to the Lady Fallon in sincere thanks. Before anything could pierce his good mood, he returned to the edge of the room and relative quiet, pleasant memories in hand.
The party wound down quickly after that. Geralt picked at the food and drink until the servants carried it away. And he watched Jaskier carouse with Glyn and his friends, eventually following them out a different way than they’d come in, the earl’s hand guiding on his back. Geralt watched them go with a small, bittersweet twist.
Happy birthday , he thought, and headed back to the inn to sleep.
The door creaked, and Geralt roused from a light slumber at the sound. The lingering scent of the snuffed candle by the bed suggested the passage of several hours. Not more than three, which was strange. Jaskier should have been awhile yet, if he was going to return to the tavern at all. And yet… an uneven step, and the door clicked shut.
The unfamiliar tread brought Geralt’s drowsy senses to focus, and he picked up more.
The copper of blood.
Musk of seed.
Pallor of salt.
Jaskier gasped in his breaths as he shuffled a few more steps. A pained, small, halting sound, dragged on sharp edges. Alarm scoured through Geralt’s body, and he shifted under the sheets to show he was awake. Jaskier froze, his short breaths ceasing, his heart gone wild.
Geralt rolled over and pressed up onto his elbows. The bard was a line in the moonlight, a silhouette limned by the angle of the glow.
A short, wet-sounding breath. “I was trying not to wake you,” he said, voice hoarse and slowly losing composure.
The bottom fell out of Geralt’s stomach, and he twisted to light the candle by the bed while sliding to his feet. Jaskier shyed and turned his face away. Continued his limp to his side of the bed. Geralt moved with swift strides, almost beating him there, and lit the second lantern while his nose said blood blood Jaskier blood.
The bard flinched from the light as though it scalded, but dropped his hand as he felt for the mattress and lowered onto it, expression twisting.
For the briefest moment, the witcher thought his heart might not reach the next beat. He stared, horror hot ash in his throat. A cut above Jaskier’s brow still dribbled blood. One eye swelled with a purple bruise that covered the breadth of his cheek. His lip bled, like a burst overripe plum. And he held one hand to his side in obvious pain, hitching on every breath.
“Glyn and his friends.”
Geralt swallowed, his gaze roaming across the damage to Jaskier’s face. “They… attacked you,” he offered carefully.
Jaskier hesitated over his reply. Blinked at the floor. “Yeah,” he whispered.
Hot anger unfurled into the witcher’s blood, but he held himself steady. Breath even. “Can I see?”
“I really don’t want you to.” Jaskier’s voice became vanishingly small.
“I know.” The bard’s shoulders tensed, and he would not lift his gaze. “I can smell the blood,” Geralt said, agitated. “Please.”
His hands flexed and hovered. Jaskier let his arm drop from holding the pain in his side, then slowly lifted his limbs like a child. Geralt curled his fingers under the heavy linen and eased the fabric off, careful of the brush of his hands. His breath caught as the warm candlelight revealed ink-spilled bruises across Jaskier’s stomach and side that disappeared into the thatch of hair across his chest. Discolored welts along his arms. Dark circles around his wrists. Patches of white crust marked his skin.
Geralt’s throat burned. Fury tumbled through his chest and emerged a growl that finally, finally pulled Jaskier’s eyes to his with a look of fear. And then the witcher turned with clenched fists to find the shirt he’d tossed over a chair.
He threw the shirt on. Stalked a pair of breeches, breathing like a blacksmith’s bellows. Attacked. “ Attacked” , like they were brigands . A sanitized word to hide a truth too ugly.
“It”—a hiss of pain—“happens sometimes,” Jaskier said.
Dressed, barefoot, Geralt rounded and stared at him across the bed. “What?”
The bard adjusted to look at him without twisting, face screwed in pain. He lifted one shoulder in a shrug. “They think one entertainment is as good as another. And they’ve paid for it.”
Geralt blinked at him in fresh acid horror. It happens sometimes meant it had happened before. He hadn’t known. Some arrogant… criminal —
“Well, they’re wrong,” he ground out, outrage a fire beneath his skin. He turned, looking for his boots.
Jaskier sucked two pained hitching breaths. “Please don’t,” he whispered. “Don’t cause trouble.”
Geralt appeared in front of him glaring down at the evidence of abuse. Each mark a knife in his gut. A knot on their noose. “The only justice in this world is what we seek for ourselves. So tell me why you don’t deserve it.”
Shame flushed up the bard’s neck and across his face, and he looked away. “What are you going to do to them?”
They’d laid no claims to one another. Made no heart’s promises or breathy bless è d oaths between a kiss and a sigh. But he knew. In his soul where the wild things lay watchful, where they paced in patient circles around their hoard of meager treasures, that the world would always, always seek a crack and send a thief. And that was how precious things are lost.
He needed boots and his swords.
Jaskier was silent a moment longer, watching.
“I don’t want you to go,” he said as Geralt pulled his a boot into place.
Quieter, like snowfall. “Please don’t go.” As he reached for his swords.
And he saw, through the veil of anger and outrage, the tremble on Jaskier’s lip. The man who had limped home to him in fragments and shame, expecting neglect and silence if he could only be small enough and quiet enough to slip into bed unnoticed.
And now exposed, asked only this. Don’t leave me here this way.
He could not. Any more than halt the passing phases of the moon, he could not.
Geralt’s hand fell to his side, and his resolve was but a snowflake on heated skin. “Stay here,” he said, and started for the door empty-handed.
“I’m drawing a bath.” Gently, over his shoulder as he eased the door closed.
It was too late to rouse the innkeepers, so he made the preparations himself. Pumping water from a cool well. The sign of Igni formed naturally to his fingers, but he itched to work. Let the labor absorb the outrage, blunting his need to rend something with his hands. He let the sign drop and went about lighting a fire in the hearth. Filling a basin where it could heat. Then the tub once he saw steam.
Jasker hadn’t moved. Geralt returned to find him sitting. Staring blankly. He flinched at the sound of the door and looked up with gathering focus as the witcher drew near. Geralt motioned with his hands, and Jaskier pressed his lips thin, bracing before standing. He favored one leg, and Geralt swept under his arm on the bad side for support. Jaskier stared at his shirt, still on the bed, and his free hand drifted to his chest.
“They’re all asleep,” Geralt told him. “If you’re worried.”
Jaskier glanced at him. Nodded. And they lurched into motion. The bard made a pained sound but didn’t complain as they maneuvered slowly out of the room and down the hall.
Geralt could have carried him and been quicker, but he sensed the indignity would be a step too far. Left Jaskier the pride of moving under his own power. The washroom was a small space, well-lit by several candles and lanterns on the walls, and the quiet privacy made it seem smaller still. Jaskier pulled away as they reached the tub and started to undo his trousers. He got several buttons down before his trembling hands stopped. Geralt watched him, heart thudding, trying to chart a course from the expression on his face. The way his mouth drew down, chin dimpled. Damaged flesh pinched into a scowl.
“Do you want me to—”
“No!” Jaskier rocked unsteadily from the outburst, paused to gather himself, and forced his finger to motion.
A moment later, arms clasped for stability, Geralt saw the source of the hesitation. Jaskier slipped his smallclothes off revealing sharp red lines across his bottom and thighs, some crusted with strips of dried blood. More purple-green bruises in the shape of fingers on his hips, where hands might go. On the globes of his ass… where hands might go.
Geralt stopped breathing, his throat gone tight, as he let Jaskier balance himself against his immovable bulk. The bard hissed and flinched as hot water touched his wounds. He shook his head, holding back a cry. Geralt had, perhaps, made the water too hot. He was always making the water too hot.
“Can you stand?” he whispered.
With an unsteady nod, Jaskier released him, and he pulled a fresh, cold bucket from the pump and added it slowly. Jaskier bobbed his head to let him know when to stop, and he resumed his steadying grip on both arms.
Jaskier whimpered as he lowered in, and thin ribbons of blood rendered the water pink. The sound congealed Geralt’s stomach into an icy gel. Hot, vengeful anger turned to cold fury, and he could see Glyn and his friends in his memory across the lord’s hall, a rictus of laughter frozen on each animated corpse.
Crouched behind the tub, Geralt’s gaze fell across Jaskier’s hair, stuck together in clumps. It stunk of seed. And the witcher closed his eyes, turning away. Hands balling again into fists.
“Do you have any idea how hard it is to sit here,” he said. “I could leave my swords.”
“Please stop talking about violence.” A tired whisper. A lap of water.
Cold wind blew through the witcher’s body and he sagged, leaning into the back of Jaskier’s head. His hair really did need washing.
Geralt cupped some water in one hand and poured it gently onto the bard’s scalp. He got no response. Standing, Geralt rolled his sleeves as high as they would go, not quite over the bicep, and plucked a sea sponge from a basket. Selected the least offensive bar of soap. He found a cup to use as a scoop. But before he turned he heard a sniff and wheezing breath.
Then that even, panted sound of tears that refused their confines. Another slosh of motion and a thud of impact. Geralt turned then and watched Jaskier slam his fist into the side of the tub twice more before hissing in pain. He tried to shake the sensation out and dropped his hand back into the water in defeat.
The tears still fell. Angry, defiant. And Jaskier huffed over a tight throat until the energy fled. Geralt gave him a moment’s illusion of privacy before moving closer and crouching at the side of the tub. He had no words to make anything better. Instead searched for the hand Jaskier had beaten against the tub and pulled it from the depths. Kissed the soft side where surely another bruise was already forming. And set the fingers over the lip to give him a chance to wet and lather the sponge before starting on that arm.
He tried to be gentle. To let the soft sponge graze against Jaskier’s body without too much pressure. Without their skin touching. A witcher’s skin sent fiery sensation through human flesh, and he did not think now was a time to feel more and more deeply. Jaskier did not comment when he flinched or his expression turned pained. Geralt uttered “sorry”s to dull eyes and limp limbs, and the cold in the pit of his stomach leeched chill fear into his veins.
Geralt switched the sponge for the cup and poured water into Jaskier’s hair so it ran down his face, small rivulets washing the blood away. And then he cleaned the bard’s hair properly, with soap and massaging fingers until the scents of smoke and spit and seed were gone. And then a little longer, after that.
Jaskier was deathly quiet.
The witcher stared at the back of his head, the curve of his neck, that cold fear growing needles. He had done the task he’d given himself. And now... and now…
Geralt dropped his hands into the water, the tub wide enough that he could avoid contact with Jaskier’s arms. He left his palms up and nuzzled into the bard’s wet hair.
“I don’t want to put them in the wrong place,” he said, moving his fingers for emphasis.
After a moment of quiet study, Jaskier took one hand and wrapped it across his body to the opposite shoulder, so Geralt hugged his collarbone. Then surfaced the other hand to pull the witcher’s fingers under. The angle jammed the lip of the tub into Geralt’s chest, and he could feel his muscles working to hold a crouch. But such small pains could be set aside. And he resolved to endure until he had bruises of his own.
Jaskier interlaced their fingers and placed their hands on his better side, arms barred across his middle. He wrapped himself in borrowed strength, and from the safe cage of Geralt’s arms, cried.
Different than before. Devoid of anger, impotent frustration. Uninterested in shame. This was an innocent sorrow. Jaskier gripped the arm across his chest as though he might slip away and dissolved into gasped blubbering.
Geralt felt it in his own chest. So rare a pain, he had spent decades avoiding it.
The quiet shattering into broken faith.
On instinct, Geralt began to sway from side to side. He had nothing to say. No platitudes to offer, because he had rarely ever seen much good in humans to be so scorched by its loss. Eventually, the tears ran dry, and Jaskier leaned back with a sigh. He dropped his grip.
Geralt hugged him tight across his clavicle and kissed him just behind the ear. “Time to dry off,” he said, and stood slowly. He held out a hand.
He should have held out both. Between the injured leg and slippery surfaces, he ended up with armfuls of wet bard and a soaked shirt, but they got him standing. Jaskier stood staring meekly at the floor while Geralt did the drying. He missed, suddenly, the childish smile so often his reward for ruffling the bard’s hair with a towel. The biting commentary about his lackluster technique.
Jaskier’s clothes needed washing, so Geralt wrapped him in the towel the way a woman might, under the arms to cover the chest. To hide the bruises, he thought. Seemed less exposed that way.
Jaskier blinked down at it, not seeming to notice until he was done.
“Protecting my modesty?” he asked.
Geralt looked at him, unsure what the right answer was. After a moment of silence while Geralt’s lips formed silent words, Jaskier managed a small brittle smile, looking on the edge of more tears. He found Geralt’s hand and squeezed it lightly. Didn’t let go.
The bard’s focus fell to the tub, and Geralt glanced between his face and the water, frowning.
Whispered. “Funny. Still don’t feel clean.”
Thin strips peeled from Geralt’s heart like rose petals dropped to the snow. He swallowed hard and tugged at their linked fingers.
With a slow blink, Jaskier lifted one arm so Geralt could slip under it, and they shuffled their halting way back to the room. No complaints when the towel went into the hamper. Not a word when Geralt left him standing by the bed and retrieved herbal oils and salves from his potion bag. He submitted easily to a closer examination of his bruises and wounds.
Worry scratched the witcher’s throat at so much silence. At the dead expression on Jaskier’s face. Chamomile, meadowsweet, and lavender around the open cuts. Arnica and comfrey for the bruises. He started with the slices on the backs of Jaskier’s legs, kneeling to wind thin bandages around thighs that quivered at his touch. Jaskier kept a hand in contact with his shoulder. Perhaps for balance. Perhaps, by the anxiety pouring off him like ammonia, for something else.
Geralt stood and urged him to sit on the bed. He dabbed more oils lightly on the wounds on Jaskier’s face and tried, tried to imagine it was someone else. That he was patching up Lambert. Or a stranger. Not perfunctory, but not personal.
That his heart wasn’t mired in cold anguish and beating too hard.
The examination moved on. He touched Jaskier’s side where the purpling was darkest. The bard sucked a breath, let out a wounded sound.
“Hmm. A few cracked ribs, I think,” Geralt told him and smoothed on the arnica salve as lightly as he could.
Jaskier squeezed his eyes shut but didn’t complain.
And then… that left…
The witcher felt himself go hot with shame. “I…” He had assumed so far, but… he didn’t know. Not with certainty. Not exactly what happened. The words did not want to come, and Jaskier stared up at him blankly, one eye almost swelled closed. “Should I check for any… internal bleeding?” he managed.
That could mean any number of things, really. Ruptured organs. A punctured lung. None of it what he meant. If he didn’t say it, Jaskier couldn’t hate him for saying it. But that… was a coward’s way.
Geralt swallowed and blinked slowly. “I mean, did they—”
“I know what you mean.” Uttered on the ghost of a breath.
Jaskier stared at the wall a moment, shame flashing briefly up his neck before he tipped himself over onto his good side, arranged himself, and hitched his top leg. The blush of shame gone. All expression gone. Unease crawled across Geralt’s chest at the mechanical resignation in the motion.
With a good amount of healing oil on his fingers, Geralt made a quick examination. Touched torn, tortured flesh still angry and red. Jaskier hissed and jolted, but endured.
That, somehow, frayed the witcher’s composure to its end. He patted the bard’s knee and turned away as emotion heaved through him, blotting out even the fury.
“You should get some rest,” he managed to say, as sorrow like magma boiled and burst.
He headed for the door.
“I’m going downstairs.”
“I’ll be back.”
He slipped out before the plaintive question in Jaskier’s voice could reel him in. Held the door shut against anyone coming after him as he leaned his head against the boards. Squeezed out tears over harsh, panting breaths.
It didn’t make sense. They weren’t his wounds. And he’d seen worse beatings a hundred times. Worse rapes. He squeezed the doorknob until his hand ached and went numb. Then pushed away, scrubbed at his eyes.
He made his way down to the bar on silent feet through the dark. Found himself a tumbler and a bottle of Undvik whisky that would taste like peat smoke and salt. Ashes and tears. He stood behind the bar nursing it, so the burn could wear off his edges. It took awhile. And quite a bit of the whisky.
He set the glass and bottle next to one another on the counter so the innkeeper would see it and looked toward the stairs. His feet felt glued. And it occurred to him that he had been absent too long. A quick break to corral his emotions back into place had stretched into hiding in the silence, where Jaskier could not follow.
Witchers were taught not to fear anything. But there was no lesson on lovers. No chapter on the transmutation of their hurts to your soul. No lore for the excision of the piece of your heart they carried. Not even a warning.
He’d been gone too long.
Guilt crept up the back of Geralt’s neck as he headed back to the room. He winced at the creak of the door and pressed it slowly shut. The room was swaddled in darkness and the scent of candle wax. Jaskier’s heart beat slow and steady, and Geralt moved to the bedside to look at him. Study his face in only the dim moonlight.
He fought the urge to brush Jaskier’s hair back from his forehead. Rest, more than anything. Humans needed lots of rest.
Geralt sighed, and Jaskier stirred at the sound.
Startled and heaved a strangled cry. He thrashed against the blankets and scuttled back across the bed. Keening. Heart racing.
He kicked. Flung pillows as his hands landed on them. Held up his arms and pressed against the headboard.
Geralt called an Igni fireball into his hand, instantly bathing the room in bright light. Possibly one of the few times a sudden fireball was a calming gesture. Jaskier wheezed and lowered his arms, his panicked gaze settling on Geralt’s form. Finding his eyes.
“It’s just me,” the witcher said, holding his other hand up, empty and placating.
Jaskier deflated. “Oh, fuck…” he muttered. Panted. “Fuck.”
He leaned against the headboard, breathing deep and shaking.
Geralt plucked a candle from the side table and held it to the fireball to light the lantern, then lit a sconce on the wall before extinguishing the flame with a thought and a curl of his fingers. He turned, concern furrowing his brow, and watched Jaskier hide his face behind one hand and cover his wounded ribs with the other.
The witcher edged closer and moved to sit on the edge of the bed, but the hand covering Jaskier’s face flew out toward him. A warning. The bard shook his head, his eyes squeezed shut.
“You smell like alcohol.”
Geralt tipped his head to the side. “I’m not drunk,” he offered, not sure why that might matter.
“No…” Jaskier’s voice cracked over the word. “You smell like alcohol.” He looked up and gestured weakly at his sternum with trembling hands. “I can’t— I can’t…” He gave up trying to explain, while the gesture lingered, and it looked like he might start to cry.
Geralt backed away, frowning. “Hmm.” He pondered that. Filed it away to study later. “Sorry…” he said, and turned to look at his potion bag as an idea warmed through him.
It only took a few seconds to find. He kept the White Honey in a jar rather than bottle and scooped out enough to cover two fingers. Despite the thickness and consistency of creamed honey, it was a proper potion. He licked it from his fingers and swirled the melted substance around his mouth like a wash. It tasted like floral mead, and after a moment he swallowed it down.
He felt the burn reach his stomach. Closed his eyes. Waited.
Then jolted as his blood jumped to the left. Gooseflesh rippled across his body, and the dulling effect of the whiskey his nerves vanished.
He carefully closed the jar and washed the remaining potion from his fingers with water from the basin on the dresser. Jaskier watched him in quiet interest, his look turning wary when Geralt drew closer again.
“How’s this?” he asked.
The bard scooted over to give him room to sit, and Geralt slid onto the mattress so their legs pressed against one another through the blankets. Jaskier unexpectedly touched his face and leaned closer. Kissing close. Inhaled.
“Did you… just drink an undrunk potion?”
Geralt tipped his cheek into those unsteady fingers and met Jaskier’s gaze. At least from his good eye.
“White Honey. It neutralizes toxins, and alcohol’s a toxin.”
The bard frowned at him and slowly smiled. “So… you can make people instantly sober, and you’re not selling this why?”
Humor touched the witcher’s lips. “It makes me sober. It makes you dead. Bad for repeat clients.”
Calloused fingers caressed Geralt’s cheek for just a moment. Just long enough to send a shiver to the base of his spine before they fell away, and Jaskier leaned back with a wince of pain. He held his side again, and Geralt’s gaze traveled to the raw circles around the bard’s wrists. He reached out and touched lightly beside the mark.
“Rope burns,” he said. Not a question.
Jaskier’s shoulders tensed, and he slipped his free hand out of sight. Geralt watched with a sinking feeling in his gut. He shouldn’t have drawn attention—shouldn’t have said. Cursed himself inwardly and got up, plucking one of the pillows Jaskier had thrown at him earlier from the bed. He dropped it on the floor and went to investigate the lower drawers of the dresser for any spare blankets.
“What are you doing?” Jaskier asked.
“Sleeping on the floor,” Geralt said quietly, laying a folded blanket down.
“Geralt that’s… not necessary.”
He paused and glanced up; the bruises on Jaskier’s face looked black in the warm light. The swelling misshaping his fine, familiar features. The man needed rest. Several days free of pain and terror. Not—
Not some blundering fool, reminding him of his shame at every turn.
“I disagree,” he said, straightening.
He extinguished the sconce with a puff of breath and moved to the side table with the lantern. Jaskier’s gaze followed him, heavy but silent. And then darkness enveloped the room. He undressed down to his smallclothes, making enough noise for his movements to be tracked. So he wouldn’t be another nightmare shadow. The moon had moved, and barely any light spilled through the window.
He heard Jaskier moving on the bed and glanced over to see him shuffling carefully back onto his side. He sat playing with his hands, picking at his fingernails. Took a breath like he was about to speak. Didn’t and scowled. Then lifted his chin in Geralt’s direction.
“I would really rather you were here with me,” he said quickly, a tremor in his tone.
Geralt hesitated. Stared down and the little pillow and folded blanket on the floor, a knot tightening in his chest.
“I don’t know how to help.”
Silence, in which Jaskier’s heart beat a little faster.
Then, “ Be here...”
It was a small cruelty to make him beg. Geralt dipped to pick up the pillow and tossed it onto the bed. He watched Jaskier turn to the sound, and search the dark for him. The bed creaked with his weight as he climbed in and slid under the covers. He reached for Jaskier’s hand, to make himself charted territory, and waited.
Jaskier rolled onto his good side, facing him. Traced from Geralt’s hand to his arm to the nape of his neck, pulling him closer. So close their breaths mingled.
The bard drew a breath and sighed. In relief. In exhaustion. He sighed, and Geralt watched his expression twist with anguish as fresh tears shook their way free. He sobbed, sucking in short, thick breaths, and Geralt searched for some place to put his hand. Cracked ribs. Bruised cheek. Raw wrist. He settled for returning the gesture and cupping his hand around the back of Jaskier’s neck and sliding his fingers up into his hair.
“Really”—a gasp—“really wish this would stop,” the bard managed.
Geralt swallowed hard and massaged his fingers slowly. “I’m fairly sure it’s normal,” he murmured, also wishing it would stop.
It was a gentle rain this time. Unwinding the tension in Jaskier’s shoulders as exhaustion pulled at his threads. His fingers against Geralt’s neck went slack, and the witcher placed them down onto the bed. He caressed his thumb across the back of the bard’s hand, tracing the fine bones, and listened as the rhythms of sleep settled through Jaskier.
If Geralt slept at all it happened by accident, between bouts of guilt and outrage and sorrow as fruitless as a wolf chasing its tail.
Dawn broke too bright and cheery to be trusted, and Geralt roused without remembering having fallen asleep. Jaskier’s fingers lay curled in his loose grip, and he slid his hand away with a frisson of guilt. The light changed… everything. He’d opened his eyes to Jaskier’s sleeping face and a true tally of the night’s events.
Candlelight hid the sickly yellow of the breadth of a bruise. And now in daylight he could see the details. How much farther the damage had been done. His body went cold at the sight, and he was glad that Jaskier’s shirt and blankets hid the rest. His fury wanted focus, not tantrums. Concentrated ice and the well-hewn edge of pitiless steel. Wildfires were furies for a dragon. Not a wolf. And not a witcher.
And if he saw a full accounting written across flesh he had kissed and made hallowed by the worship under stars…
Fire. Fire… ravenous and brutal. And he turned his thoughts from it as his muscles itched for Igni’s sign.
Geralt set his jaw and slipped out of the bed. He made a quick, quiet trip to the washroom and padded back with practiced silence. He dressed with one eye on Jaskier’s sleeping form, choosing a shirt the color of red clay, in case there was any blood. He considered his armor resting against the wall. But these were humans. Rich, entitled. Weak. If he needed armor against such prey, he deserved his wounds.
Potions were equally out of the question, as amusing as it might be to have them shit themselves when they opened the door or turned the corner and an abyss smiled back. One didn’t waste good potions, though. And he would hardly need the sharpened senses.
Simple gear, then. The steel sword and a dagger for surprises. He dropped the strap across his chest and secured the belt around his waist, looping the loose end around the buckle to keep it tight and out of enemy hands.
Jaskier drew a deep breath and groaned, and Geralt swiveled to look at him, stretching cautiously as he pushed the covers off. An automatic smile touched his features when their eyes met, but Jaskier’s gaze flicked to the pommel over Geralt’s shoulder, and the smile died.
“Where are you going?”
The muscle in Geralt’s jaw twitched, and he resisted bolting for the door only by the chastening memory of the night before.
“I’m sure you can guess,” he said instead, words tight as his determination.
Jaskier stared at him and pressed himself up to sitting. He huffed and gasped from the effort, putting a hand to his ribs.
“I thought”—he said between gasps—“we went over this.”
The scowl on Geralt’s face deepened, every pained wince evidence in his favor. “They commited a crime, and they will pay for it.” That was justice. That was fairness, with the sweet bitter sour of revenge.
Jaskier blinked at him slowly, then pressed his lips thin and tossed off the covers. He swung himself out of bed, grimacing as his weight tottered on his bad leg. Hopped mostly on the good one as he used the footboard of the bed for balance and moved to the dresser. He huffed and jerked open the drawer where he’d stashed his clothes.
The witcher stared at him, distress coiling in his guts at each pained movement. “What are you doing?”
“Coming with you.” Jaskier draped trousers and a clean linen shirt over his shoulder. Limped back toward the bed.
Of all the ridiculous… “No, you’re not.”
The bard whipped around to face him on unsteady legs, eyes flashing. “And why not? Because you say so?” A sneer cracked open the scab on his lip. “I can take care of myself.” His words struck like vipers, burning with hurt and anger.
Geralt paced up to him, raked him over with an implacable, assessing gaze, and reached out slowly. He pressed two fingers against the broken ribs, and Jaskier flinched away from him with an involuntary jolt and gasp. The bard glared at him in outrage.
“You need to rest,” Geralt said, calm, reasonable. He could deal with this.
Jaskier’s expression twisted. “I am not some helpless maiden who needs rescuing!” he shouted in Geralt’s face, and the witcher let him.
“In my experience, maidens are rarely helpless,” Geralt replied softly, his own guilt putting pins in his throat.
Jaskier shoved at his chest and let the clothes on his shoulder fall to the floor. “You—” He shoved again, and Geralt gave ground to it. “You don’t get to seek my justice,” he hissed. “I am not your broken toy! When it’s you”—he jabbed a finger—”you get to decide.” Rage shook through him like a gale, and for a moment they glared.
There was… truth there. Geralt looked away first, scorched by the anger. Some of it at him. It wasn’t— He wasn’t—
Geralt paced the room, breathing like bellows. It wasn’t… like that. Jaskier was hurt. The ones who hurt him needed to pay. It was simple. Easy.
You don’t get to seek my justice.
But he wanted to. Had no excuse for doing so except that wanting. That it would feel good. And what right did he have to feel better.
He felt the weight of Jaskier’s gaze as he stalked to the corner, unstrapped his sword. Tossed it roughly down with a thunk and clatter. He glared at the blade. At the broach. His fingers clenched and opened, pulsing into fists quicker than heartbeats.
“Impotent rage,” the bard said slowly, voice rough and dark. It grew softer. “Tell me about it.”
Geralt flinched. Uncurled his fists. And glanced back over his shoulder, chastised into apology. They looked at one another in rending silence. The gullies gouged away by anger began to fill as the quiet stretched on, rushing the heat of tears to the witcher’s eyes. He steeled himself against it and moved closer. Cupped his hand to Jaskier’s nape and saw the tension ease out of him. Combativeness fade, leaving only something sad and wanting and tired. Geralt leaned in and kissed the unbruised corner of his lover’s mouth.
He did not voice the guilt at being a failed protector. Or try to explain the stamp empathy left on his heart, too confusing a wound for words. The unexpected realization that he, too, felt violated. If he had a right to such a feeling.
The words scalded in his throat. And all he could manage, ghosting a touch along the least bruised skin, was a look of sorrow.
“I’ll be in the tavern,” he said, and turned away.
“That was the best whisky in the house,” the innkeeper said, as Geralt drew up to the bar.
Their glances both fell to the half-empty bottle.
“I know. Undvik’s a rarity. How much?”
The man’s eyes narrowed, and Geralt felt himself assessed for the quality of his clothes or perhaps the sturdiness of his anger. How much would he be willing to pay without causing either of them trouble.
Geralt paused to make it look like he might cause trouble after all, but this man had done him no crime. And if a full bottle fresh off the island cost thirty, well… He extracted a coin purse from his pocket and counted out the sum below the level of the bar.
“Add on a lager,” he said, and released the coins onto the bartop with a metallic shush.
The man’s eyebrows lifted as he swept the coins into his hand. “Startin’ early?”
Geralt returned a steady, unblinking stare, and the innkeeper hurried his hands and his judgments to the taps. A moment later, the witcher sat at the bar ensconced in his cups and his silence. The innkeeper and the barmaid went about their labors happy to ignore him, until he flagged the girl down to have breakfast brought up to the room. She bobbed once, and all was silent except for the scrape of chairs against the floor and dry scratches of a broom.
The third lager officially counted as a meal. Townsfolk had started to filter in, livening the bar with their chatter and laughter and the smell of farm animals. Geralt’s brooding brought him no answers. There were no secret stairs around Jaskier’s simple declaration that he was not property whose owner deserved recompense.
Leaving? Doing nothing? How could he live with himself? Why would the bard count him friend if he failed to come to his aid?
He had thrashed men in bar fights but must leave this unaccounted?
Geralt shook his head and downed another swallow of beer. He doubted there was an answer at the bottom of the cup, but one had to look to know.
“Oh! Witcher!” someone said.
Geralt lowered his cup and turned to look at the middle-aged man in fine clothes hurrying toward him. He frowned and waited, watching as the man glanced around the room searchingly before arriving at his side.
“Witcher, what luck. Lady Fallon would like to see the bard right away.”
The frown already set comfortably on Geralt’s forehead deepened, and he straightened in his seat. “No,” he said. And after a second thought to add, “He’s ill,” before turning away.
“W-what?” the man stammered, and his pulse quickened.
“I said,” Geralt cut him a sidelong glare, “he can’t go see your lady.”
“But… look, I was sent to fetch him.”
Geralt stared at the row of bottles along the wall behind the bar. Blinked slowly once. And removed his hand from his mug. He slid off his seat and faced the stranger, stretching his spine and shoulders. A scowl slipped over his features, and the man shrank away, lifting his hands.
“L-look, I’m just the messenger.”
“What does she want him for?”
The messenger looked askance at the bartender nearby and licked at his lower lip, hesitating.
Geralt snorted. “If she wants to fuck him, the answer is no,” he said, and crossed his arms over his chest.
The man’s face turned to a beet, but he stayed where he was. Courageous, stupid, or loyal. Hard to be sure. Geralt narrowed his eyes, and he thought of Lady Fallon leading him through a new dance and following him through several old ones. He recalled the look in her eyes. Slightly awed. Appreciative. Several lustful ones when her hands settled on his arms.
“She can have me,” he said suddenly, “if that’ll preserve her good graces.”
The messenger blinked at him and remembered how to speak. “I… wasn’t given any contingencies.”
Geralt shrugged lightly. “Then you can return empty-handed.”
He turned back to the bar and reached for his drink, not bothering to sit.
“Let’s— ah—” The messenger reached for his shoulder but thought better of it. “Why don’t we go see what she thinks, hmm?” His look turned wide-eyed and desperately hopeful.
The witcher cast him another sidelong glance as he finished off what was left of his drink and set the mug down slowly. He made like he was thinking about it. As if it hadn’t been his idea. And then nodded.
If this is what it would take to give Jaskier some peace. Some privacy. Even if Jaskier wanted the lady’s advances, he wouldn’t want them now . And Geralt couldn’t be sure if he wanted them at all.
It wasn’t exactly beating the bastard Glyn’s skull in. But who knew what opportunities another trip to the estate might arouse. Geralt gestured, and the messenger spun to lead the way.
Several hours later, Geralt stepped into The Dappled Mare alone. He wove between loud farmhands and sweaty bakers. Came to a quick stop before a barmaid backed into him. And flagged the innkeeper to the patch of bar that opened with a murmur around him.
“Has Jaskier been down yet?”
The man shook his head. “I’ve not seen him.”
“Hmm.” Concern creased Geralt’s brow as he glanced toward the stairs. “Do nettles grow around here?” he asked, while he still had the man’s attention.
“Uh, yeah? Field by my sister’s place is full of ‘em.”
“I’ll pay you extra if you can make a stew with nettles and bring some up.”
The innkeeper’s expression went flat. “Witcher, this ain’t some—”
Annoyance warred with greed on the man’s expression.
“Please. He’s hurt, and it’ll help.”
Surprise. “The bard is?”
“Some broken bones,” Geralt said with a nod.
That tipped the scales somehow, and the innkeeper lifted onto his toes to peer around the room. “Marsaili!” He waved the girl closer. “Go to Jorja’s house for a bushel of nettles, will you?”
The girl offered a stunned, slightly confused look, but nodded. And Geralt set several more coins on the counter.
“Anything else?” the man asked.
Geralt thought a moment. “Put chicken feet or beef knuckles in the pot, if you have them.”
And then he headed up to the room. And even though it was his room, he knocked lightly on the door before opening it.
He found Jaskier lying in bed with several pillows propped beneath his knees. The bard set aside a book and looked at him. He did not smile.
“You’ve been gone awhile.”
An ache formed between Geralt’s shoulder blades. It wasn’t quite an accusation, but it should be. Some observations were self-incriminating.
“I had things to do.”
And in a blink, Jaskier had written the whole story of it. Filled in the blanks like he so often did when Geralt offered him only silence. The witcher watched it happen. The blank expression bounced off of betrayal and into anger, which quickly snuffed to bitterness. Jaskier looked away from him, showing the bruised side.
“Get what you were after, then?” he said, his voice a sliver of onyx.
“Maybe, but not how you think.”
He hadn’t worked out this part and went to pour a cup of water from the jug on the dresser just to buy himself time to arrange his words. He offered the cup, and it forced Jaskier to look at him. Assess the calm concern in his expression.
The bard took the cup warily and shifted his legs so Geralt could sit.
“What do you mean?”
He eased onto the bed and settled a hand on Jaskier’s knee just below the bandages. Skin to skin.
“Lady Fallon wanted to bed you today,” he said. “She sent a messenger. I told him no and went instead.”
Jaskier gave him a hooded look. “Lucky you.”
“Stop it.” He shook his head. “She was more interested in why you weren’t available.”
“And you…” An uneasy breath. “... told her?” He went ghost-white and nearly dropped his cup of water before setting it aside. “You did, didn’t you!” In a flash of anger, Jaskier punched him on the arm. “You ass! You had no right!” He wound up for a second strike.
Geralt caught his wrist, scowling. Trying to keep his own temper under control.
“I told her she should ask Glyn.”
“How”—Jaskier struggled against the grip—”is that better! Let me go!”
He did, and shut his eyes, focusing on the feeling of Jaskier’s knee beneath his palm. The heat of his skin.
“Because,” he replied evenly, “she’s the lady of the house. She invited you. His actions impugn her honor.” Geralt opened his eyes and met Jaskier’s furious glare. “And… if she ever wants another bard to grace her halls, she will see justice done.”
The bard’s eyes narrowed, his gaze flicking briefly to Geralt’s hand on his leg. Thumb brushing gently. Geralt hadn’t noticed he was doing it and stopped.
“That was… her interpretation?” Jaskier asked.
A shrug. “I suggested I know a lot of powerful people in a lot of powerful courts.”
Another shrug. “And others.”
The fury seemed to wither the more Jaskier thought on it, and Geralt took a chance. He leaned forward. Brushed his fingers above the bruised eye and back through Jaskier’s hair. Brought their foreheads together and just breathed for a moment.
“I couldn’t… do nothing,” he whispered. Willed Jaskier to understand. “It was the least something I could think of.”
The moment stretched to spider silk. His heart dangling on the end of the line. Then hands traced down his body and settled on the small of his back.
“I want to leave,” Jaskier whispered.
“I know.” He drew back and alighted a kiss on the spot their heads had been touching. “Soon.” Jaskier shuddered and tightened his grip, and Geralt kissed him lightly a second time. “Soon, I promise.”