There is a bard at the inn - a bard who grins like there is nowhere he would prefer to be, who laughs as he is booed from the patch of floorboards he had claimed as his stage. A bard who trips his way to Geralt's side on unsteady feet, a bard who looks at him from beneath dark lashes as though Geralt holds all the world in his palms and he wants to take it. A bard who smiles, soft and low like he knows every thought in Geralt's racing mind. A bard who says,
"I love the way you just - sit in the corner and brood."
It is as much an end as it is a beginning, though Geralt doesn't know it yet.
They make their way from Dol Blathana side by side. The bard hums merrily to himself, sneaking glances at Geralt as he goes.
He still tries to touch Roach whenever he thinks Geralt isn't paying attention - for the most part, Geralt lets him. Roach knows her own mind well enough, and has recently been reshod if she decides she is tired of his fawning.
Soon, though, the bard grows tired of playing games with Roach, and turns his thoughts to song. His steps take on a giddy sway, his feet kick up the dust as he spins, and his smile is miles away.
The tune the bard hums is unfamiliar to him, but his fingers find the chords with such practiced ease that Geralt is certain he must have been playing it for years. Such an unconscious movement like that doesn't come easily, he knows, though his only frame of reference is the sparring drills that had been drummed into him as a child.
It isn't… a bad tune, as far as Geralt can tell with his limited knowledge. Catchy, if nothing else, so that by the third time the bard hums his way through it, Geralt finds himself - to his immense frustration - tapping his fingers against the pommel of Roach's saddle.
He forces them still, and arranges his features into a frown.
"Are there words? Or are you just going to hum all day?" Geralt asks finally, when he has grown tired of the repetition. The bard looks up at him with eyes that are softly fond, or perhaps fondly soft. No-one has ever looked at Geralt like that before. It makes the base of his skull itch and his skin feel too tight.
"There will be words," the bard says, and then he laughs a little to himself. Geralt begins to worry that the man has lost his foolish mind - surely he must have, to have followed Geralt as he chased a devil. "Oh Geralt, there will be words!"
There's anticipation in his voice and the curl of his fingers. There's affection in the slow pass of his gaze. There's something in his scent that Geralt doesn't recognise, but makes his heart twist deep beneath his armour.
He wants to ask what that's supposed to mean, and doesn't. Instead he stamps furiously down on the warmth that creeps over him as the bard finally begins to sing.
His voice is rich, but even Geralt can hear that it is unpolished - a few times it begins to crack as he strains over the notes like he is a boy with a voice that is still beyond his control. From the furrow of his brow, the bard notices it too; he looks perplexed, and smells frustrated.
But despite that, he sings the song as though he's known it all his life - beginning to end with no hesitation, no pause as he tries to compose the next verse.
It's impressive. It's baffling.
(It's the first time the song has been played, and the last time Jaskier will play it.)
It's utter horseshit.
"That's not how it happened," he grumbles, and the smile Jaskier shoots him holds a thousand secrets. "Where's your newfound respect?"
"Respect doesn't make history," Jaskier says, as though reciting something. Geralt huffs softly, only because he has no reply to that. It's true enough, he thinks.
"And you think your song will?" He asks. That must be it, surely. The bard is seeking infamy; and where better to find it than by the side of a witcher? Well - Geralt doesn't mind that, so much, now that he's figured out just what it is Jaskier wants from him.
He isn't disappointed. He isn't.
He should put a stop to this now, though, before the bard gets himself hurt. Human memory may be short but fear and hatred run deep; and witchers have been feared and hated for as long as there have been witchers. Geralt knows better than to think this bard could change that - the sooner Jaskier figures it out, the less it will hurt him.
But Jaskier laughs at him, hard enough that his eyes squint shut and crease at the corners. He looks, for a moment, like a man who has lived as long as Geralt and enjoyed every year of it.
"I know it will - this one and the rest! I will sing you a hundred songs, a thousand songs! I'll sing until all the world knows the story of the White Wolf, and still sing it for the rest of my days. You - you Geralt, will become history."
And Geralt - who feels flayed raw at the honesty in his words and heartbeat, who has never heard anyone speak the way this bard does - Geralt can only ask,
Jaskier's smile wavers and fades but doesn't fall.
"Ask me tomorrow," is all he says, in the end.
The next day, Geralt turns to him as they break camp; the dawn light is still sickly and pale, but the air is already thick with the promise of unbearable heat.
"It's tomorrow," he says. Jaskier glances at him and snorts.
"Well that's a matter of perspective," he says. Geralt takes a moment to parse this - Jaskier had been awake into the small hours of the morning, watching Geralt and cradling his lute to his chest as though terrified someone might try to steal it away from him the instant his grip loosened. It hadn't seemed to matter that the only other person for miles around was Geralt. Or maybe he was just worried that Geralt might try to smash the damned thing.
He wouldn't, if only because he doesn't know half of what the magic carved into the wood could do - but Jaskier probably doesn't know that.
"You said to ask tomorrow," Geralt says, already growing frustrated with the conversation.
Jaskier's eyes gleam. "Did I?"
"You did," Geralt bites, and Roach flicks her tail at his tone. She's been with him some years now, and is used to him speaking his thoughts aloud. She isn't used to the clipped edges of his words, or to him speaking them to another person.
"Refresh my memory?" Jaskier asks. Geralt takes a moment to wonder if all bards are this odd and infuriating, or if he is just spectacularly unlucky.
"Why -" he gestures expansively towards Jaskier, his lute, the forest around them, his swords now strapped to Roach "- are you doing this?"
A bard seeking fortune wouldn't watch Geralt across the fire with eyes half-full of tears that he didn't bother to blink away. An artist looking for a muse wouldn't press close, desperately close, against Geralt's side until he finally gave in and turned his head. A young man after a quick fuck wouldn't grip Geralt to him hard enough to bruise even a witcher.
The way Jaskier looks at Geralt makes him think he should know the answer already, but he doesn't, he doesn't.
"Because I know you," he says at last. "Because I have known you. Because I will know you. Isn't that enough?"
(One day, Geralt will understand that it was the closest thing Jaskier will ever have to a goodbye, and it's enough, it's enough. )
Not even close. It makes no sense. It shouldn’t make Geralt -
"You don't know fuck all," he says. Jaskier wears that smile again, the one that is soft, and slow, and sad. That is so fond Geralt can't bear to look at it.
"Well," he says. "Maybe not. But I will, I'm sure."
Geralt doesn't agree - but he doesn't stop Jaskier from meandering beside him for the rest of the day.
Or the next.
Or the next.
Jaskier makes no sense, though Geralt isn't sure if that's a quality shared by bards everywhere, or if his is unique in this as well.
He takes offense to the strangest of things - puffs himself and hisses like a cat the first time Geralt suggests they wind their way south towards Nilfgaard, and refuses point blank to set foot in the Cintran capital. He forgets conversations that are two days old, and yet he seems to know more about Geralt than he has ever seen fit to let anyone know.
And he touches Geralt all the time. And he speaks to him as he would to a lover he's known for years. And that smell that he still can't put a name to doesn't fade - is never, not once, soured by fear.
Geralt starts to think it never will be.
Geralt doesn't kill a striga, and by the time he makes it back to Jaskier's side that Spring, the song is impossibly already written. Jaskier agrees to never play it in front of company - it would be the height of stupidity to contradict King Foltest's story, no matter how absurd it is - with the sort of glint in his eye that means wonderful and terrible things both for Geralt.
"Why," Geralt starts, when Jaskier is gasping for breath after doing wonderful and terrible things to him, "would you write a song like that?"
"Like what?" Jaskier asks; he rests the point of his chin against Geralt's chest and stares at him, tracing his jaw with the backs of long fingers.
"That you can't sing to anyone," Geralt says, and watches understanding flicker across his face. Jaskier hums, somehow still musical though his throat must ache something fierce. Then he smiles, quick and sharp, and ducks his head to press a biting kiss to Geralt's chest.
"Ask me tomorrow," he says, between sucking a deliberate pattern of bruises across his skin. Geralt allows himself to be distracted, but he doesn't forget.
"Why would you write a song you can't sing for anyone?" Geralt asks the next day. Jaskier, who has been very occupied following the line of bruises he left the day before with calloused hands as though memorising them, glances up. He looks confused.
"I wouldn’t,” he says.
“But you -” Geralt says, and Jaskier reaches up to press a kiss to his mouth, his brow.
“All of my songs are yours,” he says. “And someday I’ll sing them all for you.”
Geralt doesn’t understand what has changed, but Jaskier is suddenly desperate to take him into the heart of Cintra. The bard may think he’s being subtle, but they’ve known each other long enough now that Geralt can tell what he’s doing. They keep moving - Geralt chases contracts while Jaskier chases pretty faces, and at the end of the day they come back together with hushed words and warm skin. And yet, Geralt can’t help but notice that they are moving in an ever-tightening spiral.
“I don’t understand,” he says as Jaskier works the guts out of his hair with deft fingers. Jaskier hums a little but doesn’t reply right away. His shirtsleeves are rolled up to his elbows, and his forearms are flecked with blood where it has splashed up his arms. Geralt tips his head to one side to press against the strength of Jaskier’s hand.
“You’ve never wanted to go to Cintra before - you’ve specifically avoided it. What’s changed?”
Jaskier is silent as he rinses Geralt’s hair.
“Haven’t I?” He asks at last. “No, I suppose I probably haven’t. Perhaps it’s just - time now.”
Geralt considers this as he leans forward at Jaskier’s insistence. The oils that Jaskier uses are mild, and the patterns he traces across Geralt’s back are familiar.
“You will get to peacock to your heart’s content,” he acknowledges. A request to play at a royal banquet is no small accomplishment, after all - no wonder Jaskier is keen to take advantage of it. If he does well enough, he may even manage to find himself a permanent patron among the guests tonight. He is famous enough already in his own right, but one of the lords, knights, or twopenny kings is sure to make him an offer.
Biting hard at his lower lip, Geralt allows the sharp pain to distract him. Jaskier has never spoken of finding himself a place at court, but neither has he spoken against the idea. No matter how many times he gasps promises of a life spent together into Geralt’s mouth, he knows it isn’t true. Not that he thinks it’s a lie, exactly - Jaskier's heart never falters, his scent never changes - but Geralt knows better than to hold humans to their word.
There is a murmur of agreement from behind him as Geralt stands and begins to dry off. Something about Jaskier seems uneasy tonight - perhaps it is simply nerves over performing at a banquet such as this, or maybe Jaskier really is worried that he'll be targeted by vengeful spouses.
Perhaps it isn't, though. Geralt has never seen Jaskier like this, shuffling in place as though his every nerve is alight and twitching. The man fidgets with the soap as he washes his own arms clean; then fidgets with Geralt's clothes as he dresses him to his apparent satisfaction; then fidgets with the hem of his doublet as Geralt reluctantly selects a scant few decoctions to tuck away as a precaution. At first, Geralt can ignore it - Jaskier is never still, after all. But when he begins to fidget with his lute, the soft sound of nails against hollow wood is enough to make him flinch.
Carefully, Geralt stills Jaskier's hands with his own and meets his eyes. They're wide and dark for an instant before Jaskier settles in his hold.
"You're nervous," he says. It isn't a question.
"Not nervous," Jaskier says. "I'm - not excited, I suppose, but…"
"But what?" Geralt asks. Jaskier bites his lip, and gently draws back, just far enough to press a hand to Geralt's cheek. He turns his head to kiss the offered palm - tastes soap and salt and skin.
"Ask me tomorrow?"
He doesn't. Instead he works himself into a quiet frenzy; restless and shaken, he can barely bring himself to look at Jaskier. Jaskier, who hadn't slept either, who has shadows under his eyes as dark as a bruise but never once looks away from Geralt.
Eventually, when the sun has long risen, he manages to slip into something like meditation for a few hours. Beside him, Jaskier must sleep, though he's awake and blearily rubbing at his eyes by the time Geralt comes back to himself.
"You knew," Geralt says. It's the only thing he's been able to think for hours, no matter how little sense it makes. Jaskier glances at him - his jaw works but he doesn't say anything. "You knew something would happen. The child surprise. How?"
"Does it matter?" Jaskier asks - there's a thread of desperation in his voice that Geralt doesn't think he's heard before.
"It does to me."
"You won't believe me," Jaskier says. Geralt's eyes narrow - he ducks his head close to Jaskier's exposed throat to taste the sweat that beads there. He smells human, tastes human; sweet and unafraid, even like this. As though he believes Geralt would never hurt him - as though he trusts him.
However much he thinks he trusts Geralt, it clearly isn't enough. Not enough to trust him with this.
"Is that something else you know?" He spits, jerking back. Jaskier doesn't try to stop him - watches him go with wide eyes and twists his hands into fists in the smooth fabric of his trousers.
He doesn't reply, and Geralt can only snort in disgust. Suddenly glad that he left his bags packed, ready to flee at the slightest notice, he turns towards the door.
"Geralt -" Jaskier starts, and then falters. Geralt waits, but doesn't turn back. "I'm sorry. I'll - one day, I'll explain, I swear -"
"When?" Geralt grits his teeth and laughs, just once. "Tomorrow? Fuck off, Jaskier."
Five days later, Geralt stumbles across him again - Jaskier never looks surprised when their paths cross, but now he doesn't even have the decency to look abashed.
"Thought I told you to fuck off," Geralt snaps, and ignores the guilty twist in the depths of his stomach when Jaskier shrugs. Guilt is an old friend, far more familiar to him than the easy line of Jaskier's shoulders or his guileless smile.
"Did you?" He asks, and to him, that seems to be the end of it.
When they leave town, they go together, and Geralt doesn't offer even a token protest.
"Geralt! Hello! What's it been, months? Years?" Three weeks, Geralt doesn't say, focused on the net. "What is time anyway? I heard you were in town - have you been following me, you scamp? I mean, I'm flattered and everything, but you really should think about getting yourself a hobby one of these days.
"What is it you're even trying to catch here, a late breakfast? Lunch? Might you be persuaded to share the fruits of your labour with a dear - not to mention hungry - friend?"
Jaskier has never needed his input to carry on a conversation, and so Geralt offers none. He gathers up the net and heads further along the shore of the lake, placing his feet carefully so he doesn't overbalance. Exhaustion pulls at him, drags his limbs and slows his reflexes.
"Oh, are we not using 'friend'? Yeah, sure, let's just give it another decade!"
Despite himself, Geralt snorts.
"Six years is hardly a decade, don't exaggerate," he says, and misses how Jaskier loses his footing, misses how he mouths six years to himself. There's a spot beside the bank that’s clear of thorns and trees both, and Geralt settles himself there to try again with the net. He’s been at this for a day and a half with no luck so far - but the lake is only so big.
Behind him, Jaskier crashes through the underbrush - Geralt can smell the alcohol on him, can hear the rapid fluttering of his heart. He isn’t afraid, not exactly, but he is - something. It reminds Geralt uncomfortably of Cintra.
"Should I expect something else to happen today?" He asks wearily, rubbing at his forehead with one damp hand. Jaskier stills, and then laughs. The sound is forced - grating.
"To happen? Like what? What could you possibly expect to happen today, of all days, while we fish quietly in the woods together?" Jaskier asks, and if he didn't sound so uncomfortable, Geralt might shrug off the creeping foreboding as paranoia born of a week without sleep. Meditation has taken the edge off, but still he can feel how his body has started to suffer with lack of true rest.
And the toll on his mind hardly bears thinking about, if he were able to think straight at all.
"You tell me," Geralt mutters, hauling the empty net back to shore and gathering it up to cast again. "You're the one acting weird."
"I - I - You! I'm not the one who's acting strange, here, I'm not the one who's been fishing for most of a day, and don't think I didn't hear the townspeople chattering about that, without a single fish to show for it! What is it you're fishing for, exactly, perhaps I can tell you where you're going wrong?"
"I'm not fishing," Geralt says. "I'm looking for a djinn - there's supposed to be one in this lake somewhere, but I can't fucking find it!"
Jaskier's breath heaves from him in one great gust.
"Oh, I was worried you'd say something idiotic like that," he groans - Geralt glances at him, and frowns as he sees that Jaskier has his head buried in his hands. It's rich, coming from him - Jaskier has less sense in his head than a ghoul. If it weren't for his sometimes uncanny knack for getting out of unpleasant situations, he never would have lived to see twenty, of that Geralt is sure.
But Geralt doesn't get a chance to answer, or to ask what Jaskier means - the net snags as he pulls it back, and at first the weight is little enough that he thinks he must have snared a rotten branch. Jaskier crowds close as he hauls the net up and unravels the amphora; stretches over his shoulder to grasp for it.
He tries, with a strange sort of desperation, to rip the amphora from Geralt's hands, and when it breaks, he tries just as quickly to covet the wishes. He yells, he postures, he wishes death upon another musician at the top of his lungs as though it will be enough to hide the way he shakes and sweats with fear from Geralt. He begins to shout another wish, a final wish, and doesn’t manage to get past the first word.
The wind whips up and snatches Jaskier's voice from him - curls around Geralt in a way he would call considering if he were prone to such fanciful descriptions. It lingers, with Geralt caught in the eye of a fierce storm, and it isn't until the djinn flees, taking Jaskier's voice with it, that he realises just how much he's fucked up.
There is a mage with purple eyes who stares at Jaskier like he's the most fascinating thing she's ever seen. Jaskier stares back at her like he's drowning - but that may just be because he can't breathe through the blood in his mouth.
Or maybe Geralt is the one who's drowning. It doesn't matter much, either way.
There is a mage with purple eyes who says she can help them.
There is Yennefer who helps them, who heals Jaskier, who rifles through Geralt's mind and throws him aside when she’s done like it doesn’t occur to her to be careful with her tools. She must leave a trail of destruction in her wake, Geralt thinks dizzily as he sits in the ruined mess of the manor house. She’s a summer storm after months of no rain - both a balm and a wildfire waiting to happen.
There is Yennefer, who is bound to Geralt because of a few poorly-spoken words and a flash of Jaskier’s face, bone white, as he drank in the sight of her like he might die if he looked away. Geralt doesn’t know what she means to the bard, doesn’t know what she may one day mean to him, but -
But watching her, knelt on floorboards that cracked beneath her chaos, he thought that he would never forgive himself if she died before he could find out.
For now, she is simply Yennefer, a mage with purple eyes that roll in his direction as she waves a hand and puts him to sleep where he sits.
He wakes to the sound of voices - Jaskier, he recognises almost immediately, even with the edge of strain, but it takes him a few moments to place Yennefer's. There's an odd muffled quality to the conversation, as though someone had stuffed his ears with wool. It isn't until he takes a breath that is so heavy with the scent of lilacs and gooseberries he can taste it that he realises Yennefer must be using magic.
Fear grips him until he manages to claw his way upright to see them, heads bent close together in conversation. He still can’t make out any words, but he recognises the easy slope of Jaskier’s back as he leans his elbows on his knees - all of the bard’s attention is on Yennefer and neither of them notice him pull himself up onto the broken chaise lounge. There is something about the look on Jaskier’s face, something that tugs deep at Geralt’s memory - something about the way he stares at her like he is trying to burn every detail onto his vision until she is all he sees when he closes his eyes. Like he thinks she’s about to disappear. Like he’ll never see her again.
(It’s almost the same as the way he looked at Geralt, all those years ago, in an inn at the edge of the world.)
It’s similar to last night, only Jaskier had been so injured then that he’d barely been conscious of the sorceress at all. He had tried to say something that may have been her name before she pressed a quelling hand to his throat and stopped the sound altogether.
Now, though, he can speak easily; free of pain but with a melancholic wrinkle at his brow. Geralt watches him silently - watches the broad sweeps of his hands, watches the quick dart of his tongue to wet his lips as he speaks. They are still bloody.
Geralt can’t tear his eyes away - can’t make himself focus past the dark spots of red-brown that stain Jaskier’s chin and shirt because the bard hasn’t managed to clean himself up yet. Because he is still here, talking to Yennefer, waiting for Geralt. Because Geralt - because he -
Jaskier could have died. Would have, if not for Yennefer, and for what? For Geralt’s desperation to sleep longer than an hour at a time without howling nightmares? For his fear of what will happen to the child that he bound to himself so thoughtlessly - and now he has done the same to this sorceress, twisted their fates together in the space of a few words, because he can never seem to find the right ones when it matters. Not like Jaskier - Jaskier, for whom words and songs and rambling epics trip so naturally off the tongue that Geralt is always surprised to learn they are new compositions. Jaskier, who is bright colours and softened silver hiding a core of steel, Jaskier who keeps secrets, and lies to him with such sweet words that he can’t bring himself to care. Jaskier, who is nothing like him. Jaskier, who isn’t safe with him.
He could have died because of Geralt - he won’t give destiny another chance.
Silence comes naturally to witchers, no matter how heavy their armour, how numerous their weapons. Neither the bard nor the sorceress look up as he leaves.
He doesn’t see Jaskier again for - months? Years? It’s hard to be sure - time means little on the path, and less still when he doesn’t measure it in songs and long nights curled around each other.
There is a bittersweet ring to Jaskier's new song that sets Geralt's teeth on edge. The bard has spent the last few days idly plucking it, but as of yet there have been no words - or at least, none that Geralt has been privy to. His face is dark when he believes Geralt isn't paying him any attention, and there is anger in his scent. He is spoiling for a fight, but Geralt won't give him one, not when he doesn't know why. Jaskier isn't like Lambert, his temper doesn't flare and cool as predictably as the tide. There's no way of knowing how long this most recent bought of fury will last, nor what has caused it.
There is no anger in the song, though. It is ponderous and mournful, and Geralt's tongue may as well be sewn to the roof of his mouth whenever he hears it, because he can't seem to manage a single word. Jaskier carefully doesn't look at him as he plays, which is more of an admission that the song is about him than if the bard glared at him all the way through.
No matter how much he racks his brains, though, Geralt can't pinpoint just what it is he's done to deserve such scorn within the past week, and nothing he has tried has eased Jaskier's mood any.
Which may be why Geralt is so short with Borch Three Jackdaws; why he refuses flat out, and why he is then so quick to change his mind when he catches a glimpse of Yennefer across the way. It will be nice, he thinks, to have another face that is, if not friendly, then at least familiar.
Yennefer is, after all, nothing if not consistent in her disdain of him.
Jaskier mutters to himself as Geralt and Borch smooth out the details, a continuous low grumble at the edge of Geralt's awareness. He doesn't quite listen to what Jaskier is saying - but he thinks Téa and Véa do, from the startled glances they exchange. They murmur to one another, just a few words that he doesn't recognise, before Téa turns her attention to the room while Véa unsubtly watches Jaskier.
It isn't, Geralt notes with some interest, the usual unsubtle way women watch him.
Regardless, he shifts his weight until his leg presses against Jaskier's from hip to ankle, and then stays there until they finally stand to leave. Jaskier doesn't stop his muttering, but neither does he move away - Geralt will take his small victories where he can.
The closer they come to the mountain, though, the more agitated he becomes. More than once, he tries to talk Geralt into leaving; in between glaring at the Reavers and shying away from Borch every time the man steps near, he is uncharacteristically still and silent. There's no time to pull him aside and talk, though, no way of asking what's on his mind without falling behind as the teams begin to make their way along the trail. Geralt barely has time to offer Roach a final rub between her ears before he has to leave, or risk being left behind.
It's at least three days to the cave system the dragon is suspected to be hiding in. There will be time enough to ask.
Jaskier watches Sir Eyck shuffle away from the fire with something conflicted in his eyes; he says nothing and Geralt doesn't ask.
But the next morning, when Jaskier presses a hand to his chest in a parody of horror over the bloodied corpse, he wants to.
Geralt can’t look at Jaskier - he can’t turn his eyes from the horizon to watch the bard approach, his steps hesitant and his heart racing. His teeth are locked together. His mind is racing. And through it all, through all of the futile anger, the helpless sorrow, there is one thing that is clear as a bell.
Jaskier hadn’t been surprised.
Oh, he’d called out to Geralt, had tried to throw himself past Yen to get to them until Geralt snarled at him to get back. He had tried to talk them out of following the dwarves, even if it slowed them by half a day, had tried to back away from the ledge the moment he saw it. But when the boards gave way, when they fell, when Geralt had to watch them disappear through the mist - he hadn’t been surprised.
Jaskier sits beside him, and still Geralt can’t look at him.
“There was nothing else you could have done,” he says, and Geralt scoffs, curls his lip at the reminder. That’s the problem, isn’t it? There was nothing else he could have done. He did everything in his power, and people still fucking died.
Jaskier has seen death before, he knows - has seen more of it than most, at Geralt’s side, but somehow it never seems to touch him. He never seems to grieve, doesn’t mourn as Geralt might have once expected of so emotional a man. Geralt, meanwhile, feels each death like another link on a chain around his throat, heavy cold iron dragging him further and further down. He doesn’t know how Jaskier does it, can’t decide if he should be jealous of the man or terrified.
“Look,” Jaskier says, taking a steadying breath. There’s desperation in his voice and fear in his scent. It’s not a combination Geralt knows well, not from Jaskier. “Why don’t we leave tomorrow? We could - could head for the coast. Get away for awhile.”
It’s a dream; a soft and wistful thing with hidden claws that hook into Geralt’s thoughts faster than he can react to. He can see it too easily - can almost catch the saltwater mist on his tongue, can feel sand and sun on his bare skin. Somewhere they can have a thousand conversations that Jaskier forgets the next day, even as he burns applewood because he’s somehow always known how Geralt loves the smell. Somewhere that has contracts on sirens and drowners, somewhere Geralt can talk to mermaids and let them tease him for being too in love to be worth luring to -
“Sounds like something Borch would say, doesn’t it? Life is too short - do what pleases you, while you can.”
What pleases him? Everything that pleases him is inextricably wrapped up in Jaskier.
He could say yes. They could pack up their bedrolls in the morning and head back down the mountain at first light. Yennefer is more than capable of defending herself, and resents any of Geralt’s efforts to help her. Their employer is dead, and Geralt cares little for a dragon hunt that will likely as not end with the Reavers dead, if not the slightly more canny dwarves too.
Geralt wants to say yes, he wants to -
He wants a lot of things; but now, what he wants is to know why Jaskier wasn’t surprised. There’s a suspicion, an itch at the corners of his mind that has long frustrated him. Between Yen’s snide comments every time they cross paths and his own long years travelling beside Jaskier, he thinks -
“You really want that?” He asks finally. From the corner of his eye, he sees Jaskier straighten suddenly - can smell the warm flush of pleased surprise that sweeps through him. Geralt clears his suddenly aching throat. “For us to - leave? Together?”
Jasier’s stare is like a brand on the side of his face. Geralt shifts, just enough that he can meet Jaskier’s eyes and drown in the hope he finds there.
“Of course,” Jaskier says. He brushes Geralt’s hair back, leans forward just far enough to press a kiss to the corner of Geralt’s eye. “Geralt, do you - I mean - is that what you want?”
Geralt bites his tongue. Turns his face away and presses his lips together until he’s sure he has a grip on his voice.
“Ask me tomorrow,” he says - Jaskier’s words, repeated a hundred times over. He doesn’t wait to see the expression on his face before fleeing to Yennefer’s tent.
Jaskier doesn’t ask. Geralt hadn’t expected him to - even before he spits venom and vitriol at an unprotesting Jaskier, even before the bard turns away with pain and regret and not a bit of surprise colouring his expression. Even before everything, Geralt had known that he wouldn’t, just as he had known, when he saw the dragon, why Jaskier had been so fascinated by Borch. Why he had slept so soundly, even after watching them fall to what seemed to be their deaths.
What Geralt hadn’t understood, what he had never understood, was why he felt he couldn’t say anything. He didn’t understand what it was about him that had left Jaskier silent at every chance to tell him.
Well. At least now he knows.
(But he had looked so hopeful, like he wanted nothing more than to believe Geralt. He had looked so surprised, for perhaps the first time since they met. Like Geralt had finally managed to do something he hadn’t seen coming.)
Nilfgaard advances on Cintra - Geralt hasn’t been back since the banquet. For all he knows, the child is long dead. For all he knows, the child is safe behind walls and shields and Calanthe’s steel.
For all he knows, it’s not.
Without really pausing to consider, he turns Roach back along the road they’ve been travelling down. Geralt doesn’t have the same keen political sense as Jaskier, who could predict almost to the day when a kingdom would rise or fall or a new power would come to play, but he knows that times are changing. Something’s coming, something the likes of which Geralt, in all his long life, hasn’t seen before. His instinct - the same as all witchers - is to run, to dig himself in for the winter and wait for the storm to pass. He doesn’t concern himself with the squabbles of men, it isn’t his place in the world. A witcher knows monsters and coin and long stretches of time on a thankless Path, travelled alone, not
(laughter and warm touches traded on a cold night and sweet songs lulling him to sleep when he’s in too much pain to move)
an army of humans blazing a path through the countryside and calling it reformation.
He thinks of Jaskier’s desperate avoidance of Cintra in the early years of their travel together, thinks of
(one day I’ll explain, I swear )
the child, who would be by now about the age of the boys taking the first trials. He tries to picture a boy with Duny’s dark hair and Pavetta’s bright eyes, and thinks only of himself at that age, hair white except the very tips and eyes already cat-yellow. Thinks of the stench of fear that used to flood the dorms in the nights before the trials with each new generation of witchers.
He urges Roach into a canter.
Jaskier isn’t surprised when he almost literally stumbles over them - but then, he never is. His eyes barely widen as he takes in the sorry sight they must make - Geralt, pressing a poultice against his side with his face twisted in a rictus of pain while Ciri hovers anxiously by his side. He eyes the wound, clucks his tongue, and waves Geralt's hands away; he always does a neater job, and his touch is far softer than Geralt's own, far softer than he deserves.
Ciri watches him, almost unblinking, her eyes huge and pale in the low light of the forest. Jaskier finishes his work swiftly, utterly focused in a way he so rarely is, before he turns to her.
Geralt has seen that look on his face before - he had wondered, in the years after Pavetta's betrothal, if Jaskier had ever gone back to Cintra alone to play at the courts without him. If the way he looks at Ciri now is any indication, he thinks the answer must be no. Jaskier stares at her like she's the last thing he'll ever see and he wants to burn the image behind his eyelids.
“Princess,” he says, and dips his head in a show of such reverence that Ciri startles. Her eyes flash to Geralt, fear clouding her scent, and he smiles as reassuringly as he knows how. It takes her a few minutes to settle again, tucked against his side like she thinks she might protect him from Jaskier, or whatever else the woods may throw at them. Although, if she takes after her mother at all, perhaps she could.
"This is Jaskier," he tells her softly, and recognition sparks in her eyes. She offers Jaskier a hesitant smile that he gladly returns, and it's only because Geralt has known him for so long that he can read the fierce sorrow and pride in the expression.
"May I say what an honour it is to meet you at last?" Jaskier says, a curl of strange humour in his voice. Ciri tucks in tighter against Geralt's good side in an effort to hide how she preens at that - there is an honesty beneath his showy manners and exaggerated posturing that is impossible to miss. To Jaskier, seeing Ciri now, like this; it must really be an honour as much as a heartbreak.
Yen has always refused to tell him what she and Jaskier spoke of, that day in Rinde; just like she has always refused to tell him why she’d watch him when she thought no-one could see, with a look of such pity.
But then, she often looks at Geralt pityingly as well, so perhaps it meant nothing at all.
He tries not to think of it too much while Jaskier and Ciri bustle about in the half-collapsed barn they’ve been sheltering in. The roof has long since fallen in, but the stone walls do at least provide some respite from the wind, and hide the light of the small fire that Geralt manages to light with his third igni. It’s as good a place as any to camp - far better than he is used to. Ciri still shivers, though, even with Geralt’s cloak pulled tight around her shoulders, until Jaskier roots through his own bag and produces a pair of gloves lined with rabbit fur that are far too small for him, but will fit Ciri perfectly. He must have bought them several days ago, for them to have been so deep in the pack. She pulls them on hastily, and though Jaskier won’t look at him, he must feel Geralt’s gaze burning the side of his face.
“I should apologise,” Geralt says when Ciri has fallen asleep at last, watching Jaskier’s face carefully. There are tells - subtle but there, in the creases beside his eyes. He hesitates, and when he does smile, they don’t deepen with mirth the way they should.
“Oh, certainly,” Jaskier agrees, studiously casual.
“And when I do,” Geralt says, one hand mindlessly following the line of Jaskier’s jaw. He hums, faintly, though Geralt couldn’t say if it’s because of the contact, or just to show that he’s still paying attention. “When I apologise, will you know what it’s for?”
Jaskier stills. He doesn’t tense, he’s far too good a showman for that, and he must have grown accustomed to forcing his way through vast gaps in his knowledge, but no part of him moves save the fluttering of his pulse at his throat. Geralt swallows hard, and brushes the hand back through Jaskier’s hair until he relaxes, breath by breath.
“I suppose this means I never told you,” Jaskier says, and shudders just once.
“No, you won’t,” Geralt agrees, and just that - the simple confirmation, is enough to make Jaskier’s face twist. One of Geralt’s hands stays threaded into his hair, and the other shifts to brace against his shoulder, to offer whatever paltry comfort he can.
“I’ll want to,” he whispers, something terrible and nameless in his voice. “Gods, Geralt, you can’t know how much I’ll want to.”
“I wouldn’t have believed you, not for the longest time,” Geralt says, as though that will somehow make things better. It doesn’t - of course it doesn’t - but it does at least make Jaskier smile a little. He covers Geralt’s hand on his shoulder with one of his own, and his eyes drift shut when Geralt slides their fingers together. It’s the most peaceful Geralt has seen him in years - he can’t help but wonder how long it has been for Jaskier. Will they sit together like this again tomorrow? Every day from here until they reach Kaer Morhen, and longer still? He wants to ask, but something traps the words behind his teeth and locks his jaw tight.
“No, I suppose not,” he replies.
Even now, Geralt barely believes it. He’s never heard of such a curse, never even imagined the sort of chaos that might result in a man living backwards through time.
“I’m sorry,” Geralt says, teeth still gritted. Jaskier huffs; not quite a laugh but something like it.
“Sweet witcher, it isn’t your fault,” he says. Geralt shakes his head because that’s not - that’s not what he meant, but words can be devious things sometimes, and he needs to tell Jaskier this, needs to make sure he knows.
“No, this is - I need to apologise to you, because I was cruel, and I was wrong, and I wanted to hurt you,” he says, all in a rush before he can twist it all up inside his head and fuck this up too. “I said terrible things to you, and I need you to know that I regret them, that I’m sorry, that I wish I could take them back, and I need you to remember that, please, I -”
“Geralt! Oh, my dear,” Jaskier says, sharp and then sweet, cutting him off as the words start to blur together. “Do I forgive you?”
Geralt - pauses. But of course, even knowing what he does, he’s been thinking about everything all wrong. He searches his memories of the days before the mountain, of Jaskier’s agitation and his mournful song. He thinks of the careful words and the sweet comfort Jaskier tried to offer him, sat together and staring out across the valleys - for Jaskier, the hateful words would have been less than a day old, and still raw. Had Jaskier - will Jaskier forgive him?
“Yes,” he murmurs, and presses close. “Melitele preserve me, yes.”
Eskel greets them at the keep, and Jaskier can’t look away from him for longer than a minute at a time. Though uncomfortable with the scrutiny, his brother bears it with grace, and Geralt is at first too flush with the joy of being back to say anything to Jaskier. Eventually, though, when they are alone in the room he’d insisted they share, he’d turns to Jaskier with a rebuke ready on his lips - surely he must know how Eskel feels about his scars, he must know how much he hates the stares they draw - but is shocked to silence at the sight of tears in Jaskier’s eyes.
“They don’t know me,” he murmurs, and turns to face Geralt, stricken. “They don’t trust me, they don’t even recognise me, I’ll never come back here, never come back home , I’ll never see them or this place again, Geralt, I can’t -”
“You can,” Geralt says, because what else is there to say? He opens his arms and Jaskier falls into them. He smells sweetly familiar, even caked in mud and sweat and horsehair. “You will, because you already have. I’ll be with you, I swear it, and you’ll be home again.”
He can only hope that he’s right; that when he can’t return to the places he’s known for so long, when the people he must love so dearly look at him as though he is a stranger, that for Jaskier, he will be enough.
There is a simple joy to be found in the winters at Kaer Morhen, and Jaskier slots into place as though - well, as though he’s always known how. He knows the kind of jokes Lambert likes and the songs Eskel can’t help but sing along to. He’s gentle with Ciri, and engaging with Vesemir, and every night he’s in Geralt’s bed like he was made to be there.
“You’d do well to respect your elders,” Vesemir chides Ciri one evening when she sticks her tongue out at Geralt as though he can’t see her perfectly well in the dim light; Geralt snorts.
“Respect doesn’t make history,” he says without thinking, and almost misses the way Jaskier’s eyes flare delightedly at the words.
Geralt tells Ciri the tale of how he and Jaskier met, and if he speaks a little louder than he might if Jaskier weren’t stretched out in front of the fire, well, no-one points it out
Jaskier spends the dark and stormy days at the keep reading through their collections of history tomes; claims that he is learning to pretend that the knowledge is first hand. Geralt sits beside him, sometimes, when even the thick rugs and blazing fires aren’t enough to banish the chill of the mountain, and tells him of his hunts, of the songs that are Jaskier’s as much as they are the continent’s. Tells him of the striga and the selkiemore, tells him of ghouls and cockatrices and vampires. Tells him of a banquet and a djinn, and the thousand times he was too blind to realise he’d fallen in love along the way.
Jaskier tells him little in return, and Gerealt thinks he understands. It may be the past to Jaskier, but the future isn’t something to be changed at a whim.
He doesn’t know how Jaskier can live like that - starts hunting through the libraries himself in search of something, anything, that might help. Another wish, perhaps, or a strong enough spell, or if this was some kind of curse after all, then maybe they could -
“It won’t work,” Jaskier tells him without looking up from his own book one evening. He turns a page with affected disinterest. “Whatever it is you’re planning, it won’t work.”
“Not even if I ask you tomorrow?” Geralt grumbles, and then winces. His mood has been steadily worsening after days without luck, but he knows better than to take it out on Jaskier. There’s a snort from the chair instead of a reply, and Jaskier lifts his arm to beckon Geralt over. He goes immediately, and settles himself into the narrow space at his side, forehead resting against the comforting rhythm of Jaskier’s heart.
“It won’t work, because if there was anything, it would already have worked,” he says gently, folding the corner of the page over and resting the closed book on Geralt’s back. “I remember you looking, and I know that I’ll continue to look for as long as I live, but my love, if there was anything in either of our futures, it would have worked already for one of us.”
He’s right - Geralt knows that he is. Between them, they remember all of their lives together, with each moment of the present the only thing they have in common.
Geralt won’t stop looking, though. He can’t. If nothing else, Jaskier remembers that he will - but that’s alright. There’s plenty of time.
Years are somehow always longer than they should be and still far too short, no matter which way round you face them. Geralt stares down their life one way, and Jaskier looks to the other, and still the time slips away as easily as breathing.
They come apart and come together on the Path - Geralt knows them a little more and Jaskier knows them a little less, but the love in his eyes doesn't wane. He is never surprised when they say hello because how could he be, and Geralt knows with each goodbye that there will be time for another, and another, and another.
"What about Ciri?" Geralt asks one night, throat tight. He isn't sure he wants to hear the answer. He knows that he needs to hear it.
Maybe Jaskier's answer won't change anything - and maybe it will change everything. Geralt doesn't know if this is how parenthood is supposed to feel, if all fathers are supposed to feel this dread that clambers laboriously through his ribcage at the thought of their children setting out into the world. If he can ask nothing else, if he can know nothing else of the life Jaskier's lived, the things he remembers, he has to know this.
If there is anything, anything at all that he has to do, has to change, to make sure that she is safe, that she is as happy as she can be in this life he's forced on her -
"What about her?" Jaskier replies sleepily, cracking one eye open just far enough to stare up at Geralt.
"Your memories of her - of who she'll be," Geralt says, and then hesitates. "Is - is she -"
He can't even bring himself to say the words.
Jaskier blinks himself awake - his forehead creases as he watches Geralt's face, smoothes the lines of worry at the corner of his mouth and scratches his nails through the short beard along his jaw. They are both silent for an instant that stretches, until fear twists Geralt sharply enough that he jerks his head away.
"Geralt? Dear, look at me, won't you?"
Geralt likes to pretend that he is a man possessed of a strong will - Vesemir would call him stubborn, Eskel would call him steadfast, Lambert would call him a fucking mule that'd had the sense kicked out of him like an ass.
But Jaskier calls him dear, and Geralt is helpless in the face of it, always.
Looks at the smile adorning Jaskier's face; looks at the tears that cling to his lashes and somehow refuse to fall; looks at the way his hand shakes as he tugs gently at the chain of Geralt's medallion. He looks, and looks, and looks, and thinks he could be happy if he never looked away.
"Your daughter, the woman I remember she will be?" Jaskier asks, and laughs - there's no humour in it.
He sounds awed.
"Oh, my love - she's magnificent."
A hundred times, Geralt begins to ask about them. He turns the question over in his mind, tests the shape and the feel and the weight of it. Sometimes he gets as far as opening his mouth, as drawing in a breath, but never further.
Jaskier speaks of Yen, of Ciri, of so many people that Geralt barely knows, people that he doesn't yet know. He talks endlessly of their lives, and he never bothers to censor himself, never watches his words around Geralt - not anymore.
And never, not once, does he speak of their time together. Of their future.
A hundred times, Geralt opens his mouth to ask; at Jaskier's curious look, he always closes it again and shakes his head ruefully. He thinks of all the things Jaskier doesn't tell him, thinks of all the ways he might answer such a question
(ask me tomorrow)
and decides not to ask.
He already knows the answer.
They are running out of time.
Jaskier doesn't say anything about it - but that's part of the problem. Jaskier doesn't say much of anything to him anymore. There are long stretches of silence, there are moments when Jaskier looks at him as though seeing him anew. There are old jokes that Geralt lightly tells that make him laugh like he's never heard them before. There are nights that Geralt spends alone in the bed that should be theirs.
There are nights that Jaskier wakes panting and screaming and clinging to Geralt so hard that his fingers turn bloodless white.
It isn't hard for Geralt to put the pieces together. He doesn't know how much time they have left; only that it wouldn't matter if he did. Jaskier has tried (will try) a thousand different ways to change things, anything, big or small - but destiny, Geralt knows, does not take kindly to being outwitted. So he doesn't
(ask me tomorrow)
pry. He doesn't push. When Jaskier turns solemn eyes on him and tells him don't. When the time comes, please don't. Just - turn away, make sure you're somewhere else, stay beside Ciri instead, and - don't, Geralt promises him nothing.
Geralt is woken by a body crashing against him, pinning him in place. He doesn't move - even asleep, he knows Jaskier's scent, trusts himself to those hands. There aren't many people that can get as close as Jaskier without waking him. He opens his eyes slowly, savouring the sight of Jaskier above him, wild-eyed and desperate. There's something strange, something he struggles to pinpoint. His sluggish mind turns it over as Jaskier twists the chain of his medallion around his fist and tugs sharply.
"Why?" Jaskier hisses at him. Geralt blinks, nonplussed. He doesn't respond for a few seconds, which for Jaskier must be a few seconds too long. "Why? Why would you -"
His voice breaks; his chest shudders. Geralt settles his hands cautiously at Jaskier's hips to hold him steady - his knees dig into the thin mattress on either side of Geralt as he curls forward, back bowing under some emotion that is too muddied by the strangeness of his scent for Geralt to guess at.
It's been years since Jaskier's scent was strange to Geralt, years since he had to guess at what each subtle shift meant, but now it's… It's…
There's something missing, Geralt realises suddenly. Something that he'd come to know as an intrinsic part of Jaskier's scent, something he hadn't expected to miss because he had foolishly assumed it had always been there. He takes a deeper breath and holds it on his tongue to taste, to make sure he isn't mistaken.
He thinks he knows what Jaskier is asking, and why. It means their time is almost done - it means he has one chance to get this right.
But, he's already had that chance - he's had a lifetime of proof that he did get it right, that whatever he says or does now is enough. It settles the fearful pounding of his heart, and he manages to make himself let go of Jaskier long enough to move his hand, to shift until he can cradle Jaskier's jaw and smooth a thumb along his cheek. There's a salt crust of dried tears - his chest aches with it.
"Because I love you," he says, and hears the wounded noise Jaskier makes low in his throat. He doesn't - can't - stop. "Because I have loved you - because I will love you. Isn't that enough?"
Because he has had their life together - now it's Jaskier's turn.
(It is the last time he will say the words and the first time Jaskier will hear them.)
Jaskier folds over him, presses their mouths together with an urgency that is familiar and terrible - and Geralt responds in kind. This is all he can have, now, and he is greedy enough to take it.
Greedy enough to tilt Jaskier's head with careful pressure at the back of his neck, greedy enough to slow the near-frantic movement of his hips, greedy enough to lick gently into Jaskier's mouth with all the years of feeling he's carried in his chest, feeling he'd never thought a witcher would get to have.
Greedy enough to press his face into the curve of Jaskier's shoulder, and breathe the barest beginnings of the scent he knows so well, that he realised so many years ago was Jaskier's love.
There's shouting outside when Geralt wakes - too far away for a human to hear, but plenty loud enough for a witcher, and he knows the fighting will reach them soon. He throws himself from the bed, knowing that Jaskier will wake slowly and alone behind him. It is still better, he thinks selfishly, than watching him wake without any recognition in his clear eyes.
Geralt raises the alarm - they are prepared for battle, as much as they can be with the warning Jaskier had given them (will give them) a week ago.
Prepared, but not ready.
There's a reason, Geralt thinks grimly, that witchers don't involve themselves in the affairs of humans; but it's been a long time since he's tried to use that as an excuse to run away. There are humans he loves, humans he would - will - die for.
Humans like Ciri, who leads the charge with all the ferocity of a wolf, of a lion, and with all the love that Geralt has to give her. Ciri, who he knows will lead as her grandmother never could; holding that love close, but never so tight she smothers it. Ciri, who is everything that Geralt has done right with his life.
Humans like Jaskier, who fights by his side; wild and afraid, well-practiced with a sword but not with Geralt's movements. He smiles when he sees Geralt, but it is an acknowledgement - a nod to a man he knows by reputation alone. It cuts to the quick, but Geralt can't let it distract him. Battle is already overwhelming to a witcher's senses, and he can't afford to get caught up in a scent, a sound, a flash of movement -
A flash of movement behind Jaskier, that he hasn't seen.
Geralt has wondered, sometimes, in the depths of night when he wakes with his heart pounding and throat closed tight, what would happen if Jaskier were to die. If he would wake the next day to find Jaskier by his side again, because time for him means something different than it does for Geralt - or if Jaskier would have to wake the next day, instead, having lived only a day, the first and last thing he remembered being his death.
Geralt has wondered, but in that moment, he realises that it doesn't matter. However death may come for Jaskier, it won't be here. It won't be like this.
He moves, he runs, he swings a second too slow. He feels the bite of steel, deep and hot. He hears the shout from behind him, and then he hears only the rushing of his blood in his ears.
The bed is still thin and uncomfortable, but now it is soaked with blood that won't be stemmed. Geralt's vision is clouded - he sees figures come and go, even thinks he recognises some of them, though he can't be sure. He wishes he could see Ciri, see Yen and Triss, see his brothers; but he's also glad that this won't be their last memory of him.
It's difficult to smell anything over the heavy, metal stench of his own blood, but Geralt has had years of practice catching Jaskier's scent. It's different, now - he isn't accustomed to smelling fear on him. Geralt rocks his head to the side, catches sight of him pressed against the wall and wringing his hands as the healers finish doing what they can to make him comfortable. He'd tried to tell them not to bother - that he can barely feel anything, now - but Jaskier had hushed him carefully, bade him let them work, and he hadn't been able to refuse.
Jaskier's hands and arms are crusted with dried blood. He picks at it with quick, darting motions, and Geralt watches him as the healers bow and duck away.
He holds out a shaking hand and works a small smile onto his face.
"You don’t have to just stand in the corner and brood," he says, and there is laughter and blood both in the back of his mouth. Jaskier stumbles forward until he's close enough to grasp Geralt's hand.
"You know me," he says, face twisted. Geralt hums slowly. He almost feels young again, watching Jaskier look at him for the first time. He feels so old.
"Yes," he says. "And you'll know me."
Jaskier blinks furiously against tears, then looks surprised at himself. Geralt reaches for him, and succeeds only in smearing blood across Jaskier's cheek. He wonders if Jaskier woke the day before
(tomorrow, tomorrow, tomorrow)
with Geralt's blood still staining his skin, not knowing then who it belonged to.
"I know the stories," he says. "Geralt of Rivia, the White Wolf. I know the songs."
"Your stories," Geralt says. It's getting harder to breathe. "Your songs."
"I don't - Geralt I don't understand," he says. He's shaking, though Geralt only knows because he can feel the tremors running up his arm. Jaskier is a barely-there outline.
"Sing them for me?" He asks. The words come from far away. "I want to hear them all, I want to hear you sing them."
Jaskier's breath hitches over a sob. It must be so strange for him, Geralt thinks, to meet him this way. But he has so much still to come, to look forward to.
"I - yes, I will, you know that I will, but Geralt - you could've - I don’t understand, you… Why?"
Geralt thinks he feels Jaskier trace the shape of his jaw, the scars across his cheek and over his eye with long, soft fingers. He can't be sure, but he thinks he feels Jaskier bring their hands to his mouth.
He thinks he smiles.
"Ask me tomorrow," he says.