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The bard follows Geralt from Posada, along the road and into the woods and right to the other side of Geralt’s campfire, where he kicks off his boots and makes himself comfortable without waiting to be invited. He’s gangly with youth, limbs outstretched so he can warm his bare toes by the flames while he talks, same way he’s been talking for forty fucking minutes with no signs of stopping.

“-and then she said to me, ‘Julian, true artistry requires truly living’, and she was right, of course, not that I was going to admit that, so I knew I’d have to hit the road, so I made a detour home to plead for funding from my parents and I thought they’d be happy to see me, you know, only son and heir, incredibly talented and newly educated, except for then mother informed me that they’d arranged for my betrothal, can you even imagine?”

Geralt focuses on the hare he’s roasting on a spit, and doesn’t dignify any of that with a response.

Jaskier – Julian, he said? Can’t even be convenient enough to pick one name – continues, unflinching. “Well, anyways, I got the hell out.”

Yeah, Geralt assumed, based on the fact that he’s here. Fuck’s sake.

“What’s that?” Jaskier asks, though Geralt wasn’t aware of doing anything. “You just did your face, the one like you’re either thinking a thought or having severe indigestion, I haven’t worked out which yet.”

Geralt turns the spit. Feels Jaskier’s watchful, expectant gaze, and breathes out through his nose.

“You’re too young to get married,” he tells him.

“Lots of people get married at eighteen, Geralt,” Jaskier says reproachful and entirely too familiar, considering that their entire mutual acquaintanceship consists of Geralt punching him, the two of them being held hostage by elves, and Jaskier musically monologuing for three hours while trailing Geralt’s horse. “I’m not that young.” Then, as though the question is only just occurring to him, “Why, how old are you?”

“Old,” Geralt says.

“Yeah, you look it,” Jaskier quips, and grins, looking pleased with himself instead of terrified when Geralt gives him a dark look. “I’m only teasing, you’re actually not all that terrible looking, if you can get past the weird hair and the bad attitude and the, how to put it, pungent smell. Onions, was it? I’m not too young to get married, though.”

He doesn’t fucking quit.

Geralt engages despite his better judgement. “You literally just said that you ran away to avoid marriage.”

“Well, that’s a separate issue entirely, isn’t it?” Jaskier says, clearly enthused by being taken on. “Firstly, their choice of bride was someone I didn’t love, and even if I did, I’m opposed to marriage on principle. Would you like to know why?”

“No.”

“I’ll tell you why,” Jaskier says, and his voice takes on a loftier quality, a hint of a more refined accent as he slips comfortably into rhetoric. He wouldn’t be out of place as a lecturer in an academy somewhere.

“Marriage,” he declares, “is a regressive and archaic institution that is by nature oppressive to the mind, body, and soul of everyone involved. It commodifies love and serves as the death of emotion and of passion and of- of adventure, just a sham all around.” Then, recovering his original point, he adds, as an afterthought, “But a sham for which I’m absolutely old enough, if I wanted to be.”

“Hm,” Geralt says, then, because he’s never had an overlarge amount of patience with rhetoric, “No.”

Jaskier blinks. “No?”

“No.” Geralt doesn’t elaborate. He’s not about to start railing in defense of something like marriage that does not and cannot concern him; moreover, he finds that he enjoys the flustered look on Jaskier’s face, the first moment of real silence he’s had since entering that accursed tavern.

He lifts the spit from the fire and, with Jaskier still watching, uses his teeth to tear off a hunk of meat, savagely. The juices are scalding, but Geralt lets them drip down his chin, pointedly messier than he’d usually be, so the bard will realize the foolishness of meddling with witchers.

He was too optimistic – Jaskier looks only faintly disgusted. More just judgmental. “Right, well,” he says, tucking his legs in so he’s sitting cross-legged as he reaches behind him for Filavandrel’s lute. “Right, that’s great, the witcher stinks and has no table manners and also speaks in monosyllables, I’ll write those into the next verse of my song, thanks so much, Geralt.” He’s chiding casually, as though he’s talking to a pesky child instead of to a murderous mutant who could snap his spine with minimal exertion.

Geralt feels, not for the first time today, as though he’s missed a step, some logical bridge from this morning alone with Roach to being scolded by a human teenager strumming cheerily on a lute, barefoot by Geralt’s fire like he belongs there. Geralt doesn’t concern himself with the affairs of humans as a rule; he’s quite certain, nevertheless, that there are supposed to be at least a few intermediate stages between first meeting someone and teasing them while you camp together, particularly if one of the someones is a witcher.

The bard is now whistling. Whistling while playing his lute.

Slowly, Geralt lifts a hand and wipes his face clean with the back of his sleeve. His next bite is significantly less violent.

“Not as charred as it looks, then?” Jaskier asks, and continues chattering before Geralt can work out whether or not that was more teasing. “Care to share? I offer payment in friendship and serenades and occasionally sexual favours, but you’d have to get a bit of wine in me first for that last one, because, again-” He gestures in Geralt’s direction, snapping each syllable, “Pungent. Say, you haven’t got any wine, have you? Liven things up a bit? I won’t lie to you, Geralt, I sort of expected the whole on the road adventuring thing to have more of the adventuring and less of the walking and setting up camp and staring broodily into the fire-”

Geralt ignores him in favour of staring broodily into the fire.

He’ll leave early in the morning, while Jaskier is asleep. Use the head start to get the fuck away, chalk Posada and elves and bards up to a temporary breakdown in the, if not quite logical, then mostly predictable workings of the universe, and move on with his life. He doesn’t dwell on the twinge of guilt he feels at the prospect of abandoning Jaskier in the woods – it’s not as though he’ll ever have to see him again, after tonight.

And for one night, he reflects, as Jaskier starts again with the lute, it’s not the worst way to pass an evening, just this one time.

---

“Every fucking time,” Geralt curses, shoving Jaskier ahead of him into the alley and following at a run. His entire right side is aching, a throbbing pain where the basilisk’s tooth clipped him, though he doesn’t slow down, because he can hear the small army of extremely angry, extremely well-armed men gaining on them.

“You couldn’t fuck someone without an insane father?” he demands as he skids after Jaskier through the first door they come across, a back entrance to some sort of storeroom, it appears.

“It’s not like she told me,” Jaskier yelps, still protectively clutching the bag of coin that was their payment – Geralt’s payment, theoretically – for the basilisk. “I mean, when would that even come up, ‘oh, Jaskier, while you’re between my legs, please know that I’m the only child of a homicidal fucking madman who’s going to demand we marry, alright, carry on’, really-”

Geralt growls – this is why he sticks to whorehouses, a civilized and mutually beneficial transaction the way interactions with humans are supposed to be – then, having scanned the room for better options and finding none, crouches and clasps his hands to give Jaskier a boost up onto the bare rafters. Jaskier clambers up, extends a hand and helps Geralt haul himself up to the beams after him. Geralt rolls onto his side, concealing himself from the storeroom below just in time, as the door bursts open and angry shouting fills the room.

He holds himself still, chest heaving, and listens to Jaskier catching his breath, to the men searching below and the furious sound of the shopkeeper discovering the invasion.

Geralt tenses, startled, when Jaskier reaches out and touches the bloodstained patch over his shirt, just lightly.

“You’re bleeding,” he whispers.

“Oh, am I?” Geralt hisses back, sarcastic, and swats Jaskier’s hand away from the stinging wound. Two years, the bard’s always had a unique ability to state the obvious, at length and usually at the most inconvenient time possible. “Hands off.”

Jaskier’s mouth drops into a perfect ‘o’ of deeply dramatic offense, and now he jabs at Geralt’s chest with a finger, whisper-shouting, “Astounding though it may seem to you, Geralt, I wasn’t actually all that enthused by the prospect of getting your blood all over me, so-”

Geralt claps a hand over Jaskier’s mouth, effectively smothering the rest of his argument, and good thing, too, because the group sent by Jaskier’s lover’s father is directly beneath them, discussing how to find and violently kill them.

Jaskier exhales slowly – for once, silently – against Geralt’s fingers. It tickles.

Neither of them moves or speaks again until the voices have disappeared outside. They’re close, too close, so it’s a relief when Geralt can take his hand from Jaskier’s lips. He rolls onto his back, pats the side of the rafter gratefully. When he looks back at Jaskier, the bard is holding his lute like a baby, and looks thoughtful, which is mostly always disastrous.

“You’ve got to feel bad for the poor lady, don’t you?”

Geralt raises an eyebrow. “For her taste in men?”

Jaskier ignores him. “I mean, her father was about to force her to marry me all because of ridiculous ideas about honour and virtue. I could be a complete monster, the man doesn’t even know me!”

“Worse if he did,” Geralt says. He uses his teeth to rip off a strip of cloth from his sleeve and sets about wrapping his side, even as he can feel the skin starting to heal itself. It throbs, still, practically its own heartbeat.

“And what’s that supposed to mean?” Jaskier demands, eyes narrowed. “Please, Geralt, enlighten me, go on.”

Geralt snaps, irritable from the pain or the chase or the fact that they’re going to have to camp tonight because any lodgings in the city will certainly be full of people who want to kill Jaskier. “You’re too fucking annoying to marry. I wouldn’t inflict you on any daughter of mine.”

Jaskier laughs, over the top in the way that he knows grates on Geralt. “Oh, gods look mercifully on the child doomed to being your daughter.”

Now it’s Geralt’s turn to narrow his eyes, because it’s not as though he could ever have a child even if he wanted one, but that doesn’t mean he’s going to tolerate Jaskier having an attitude about it. “And what does that mean?”

“Knowing you, I suppose you’d have the poor thing, what, climbing ropes and stabbing things from birth, wouldn’t you-”

“What is it you think witchers do?” Geralt asks, and he’s feeling quite genuinely annoyed, by this point, even by normal Jaskier banter standards, which is why it takes him by surprise when Jaskier leans across the last bit of space between them and kisses him, apropos of absolutely nothing at all.

That’s the only reason Geralt lets it happen, the surprise. One minute he’s wondering what deity he’s unintentionally slighted enough to have earned their vengeance in the form of having the only person who likes him be a fucking bard, and the next, the neck of Jaskier’s lute is digging into his collarbone, Jaskier’s hands are on either side of his face, and Jaskier’s lips are hot against his.

Jaskier smells nice, somehow, Geralt notices. Mildly sweaty after observing a basilisk hunt and sprinting through back alleys, but… nice. Pleasantly summery.

Geralt jerks out of Jaskier’s reach and glares at him.

“What the fuck are you doing, Jaskier?”

“Kissing you, it’s this thing people do where they touch mouths-” Jaskier moves closer as though he means to do it again, and Geralt forcibly ignores the tiny piece of his mind that protests – a natural reaction to being kissed when he hasn’t in a while – when he pushes Jaskier back. A little too hard: he ends up having to clutch at the front of Jaskier’s shirt to stop him tumbling right out of the rafters, keeping him carefully at arm’s length.

Jaskier is pouting. Geralt did not need another reason to look at his lips. “What, it didn’t seem like that’s where that was heading?”

“We were arguing,” Geralt snaps. He is nearly a century old and currently experiencing some minor internal bleeding and Jaskier is twenty at best and completely, fundamentally, just entirely annoying as shit.

“That’s how the vast majority of my romantic and sexual encounters begin, yeah,” Jaskier agrees gamely, then, correctly interpreting the look on Geralt’s face as is more and more his custom, “Oh, what, you can’t possibly say I’m too young for kissing-”

“Too young for kissing witchers,” Geralt cuts him off, because it’s the truth. Not that he’s under any impression that he’d be deflowering Jaskier – their current predicament is only the latest in the stunningly large pile of evidence to the contrary, including Jaskier’s concerningly detailed knowledge of anatomy and tendency to put said knowledge to song – but because he’s seen Jaskier with his lovers, enough to know that he feels true affection for them, but only for a time. He’s flighty. Flighty and stupid, and even if Geralt decided to indulge him, he’d tumble him a couple of times and Jaskier would move on to someone else.

Geralt has no desire to be a flown-away from thing. Mostly, he tells himself stubbornly, because Jaskier’s demonstrated approximately zero ability to survive without Geralt looking out for him, and Geralt doesn’t need that on his conscience.

Jaskier, somewhat predictably, just gives an unbothered little shrug. “I’m fond of unattainable things.”

“I’ve noticed,” Geralt says darkly. Voices float up from below them again, and he tugs Jaskier closer from the edge, on instinct. It has the accidental side-effect of putting him back within kissing range, but fortunately, Jaskier seems to have gotten the message, because he doesn’t try it again.

“Are you going to be weird about the kissing thing?” he whispers, hardly audible.

You’re weird,” Geralt informs him, then, gruffly, “No. Shut up.”

Jaskier smiles. He gives them out too easily, his smiles. “You know what?”

Geralt sighs.

“I think we’re best friends, witcher,” Jaskier whispers.

“Stop talking, bard,” Geralt whispers back, and Jaskier listens, technically, but only inasmuch as he sings instead of speaking, soft and goading,

“I think we’re best fri-ends-”

Geralt shoves him out of the rafters.

“Fucking ow,” Jaskier says from down below, then, obviously peeling himself off the floor, “Ah, evening, gentlemen, you’re looking – erm – murdery. Geralt?”

Geralt sighs again, resignedly this time, checks his bandaged side, and drops down to save his bard.

---

Roach, Geralt maintains, is the ideal companion, as she limits her conversational contributions to judgemental looks and the occasional snort if Geralt takes too long to feed her. Jaskier, as the only other person with whom Geralt associates regularly enough to be called a companion, is a distant second, which still places him leagues above the rest of the people on the continent.

He’s-

Jaskier is compulsively irritating, for a start, arguing and chiding and teasing to the point where it’s something of a novelty to Geralt, someone being this unafraid around him. The other novelty – rarity, impossibility – is the fact that Jaskier seems to, for very few plausible reasons, actually enjoy Geralt’s company. Geralt suspects that he himself is something of a novelty to Jaskier as well.

It’s… nice. Stupid, of Jaskier for sticking around for Geralt’s glares and sarcasm and of Geralt for allowing him to, but nice.

He always comes back. They part after a week or a month or a couple of songs’ worth of contracts, and each time Geralt expects it to be the last and talks himself into being relieved to have done with the human who’s decided to be his shadow; each time Jaskier reappears at Geralt’s side a week or a month or a couple of songs’ worth of contracts later as though no time has passed.

There are sometimes letters from Jaskier’s family waiting for him whenever they travel through larger settlements. Without fail, Jaskier skims them over and tosses the pages into the nearest fire in the span of two minutes, no sentimentality about it.

“The usual,” he says, waving a hand as the parchment curls to a crisp, the one time Geralt inquires as to the letter’s contents. “Come back, marry and beget an heir, have you stopped with the mildly embarrassing habit of bedding men yet; my dear mother and father have never been particularly imaginative.”

Geralt doesn’t respond except for a grunt, but Jaskier hums along, like he understood.

“I suppose the witchers are above such pedestrian concerns?”

“We are,” Geralt says. Couldn’t beget an heir even if he wanted to. Couldn’t marry, either, because no one in their right mind would have him. Simple as that.

“Are you accepting new applicants?” Jaskier asks churlishly, prodding at the mostly-ashen remains of his letter where they sit among the embers.

Geralt very graciously does not point out that Jaskier wouldn’t last five minutes of witcher training; just sits with him and watches the letter burn, spends the night listening to Jaskier snore from one bed over, and the next morning, Jaskier in tow, moves on to the next contract.

Jaskier seems no more inclined to listen to his parents’ requests than he did when first Geralt met him, still taking a lover in every port, even though he’s old enough for marriage now by any standards. Handsome enough too, objectively, that it wouldn’t be a particularly difficult task for him to find someone willing – the baby fat is all but gone from his face, leaving him with a proud jaw and kind eyes that, for the uninitiated, would almost certainly be enough to hide the fact that he’s still deeply obnoxious. People want him easily. Love him easily. The odd part is that Geralt’s quite certain that Jaskier loves them back, sincerely, and it never makes a lick of difference: when Geralt leaves, so does Jaskier, and that’s that for the latest love affair, no marriage or betrothal or even a hint of a promise to return.

The next time the topic arises, they’re sat by the fire somewhere off the road in the north of Redania, Geralt cleaning troll guts from his sword while Jaskier is, by the sounds of it, attempting to wrangle a more festive version of ‘Toss a Coin’.

Toss a coin to your witcher, bring him to the party- no, that’s shit- tonight at your party- your- regional music festival- bollocks-”

Geralt slides the cloth along his blade, doesn’t bother looking up from his work. “Didn’t think it could get worse.”

“It’s a rousing and inspiring fan favourite, for your information,” Jaskier retorts, fiddling with one of the tuning pegs on his lute before giving up in favour of setting down the instrument and tucking his legs close to his body, settling in to bother Geralt, an endeavour at which he’s become nearly as proficient as he is at barding. “A teeny bit of ambition wouldn’t kill you, you know,” he says. Not the angle Geralt expected him to take. “Unless there are some subtleties of witcher biology you’re still keeping close to your chest, but I feel as though by this point we’ve seen each other naked enough-”

“How would ambition serve me?” Geralt asks, partly as a distraction, because indulging Jaskier’s talk about nakedness would be a helpful course of action for precisely neither of them, and partly, though he won’t admit it, because he enjoys allowing himself to be roped into Jaskier’s debates. Sometimes he argues the opposite opinion just for the pleasure of seeing Jaskier get flustered.

“Ambition serves everyone,” Jaskier enthuses. Older, but still with the tendency to commit himself flat out to the nearest capital-C Cause, or perhaps he just enjoys pissing off Geralt as well. “If I had no ambition to be the greatest bard on the continent, you’d still be getting chased out of every village we passed.”

Geralt tilts his sword, examining the blade to make sure it gleams in the firelight. “I lived like that for decades.”

“And you’re telling me you had no ambition to change that?” Jaskier challenges. “No desire to be remembered as something better than the butcher of wherever the fuck?”

Geralt doesn’t wince at the old epithet. Not here, not with Jaskier the one saying it. “Mankind,” he says, slowly, “is obsessed with legacy. Songs, stories, marriage, babies, you chase after them and die for their sake and all they mean is that every trace of you is gone in a century instead of a decade.” He slides his sword smoothly back into its sheath. “Not worth the effort.”

Jaskier’s sitting curled up like a cat, his chin resting on his knee. “Does the time in between count for nothing?”

“Forgotten now or forgotten later,” Geralt says, bluntly. “No difference.”

Jaskier breathes out, a thoughtful sort of almost-laugh. “You said ‘songs, stories, and marriage’,” he says, eyes finding Geralt’s. “You think marriage is comparable to story and song? An equivalent attempt not to be forgotten?”

Geralt holds his gaze, watches the flecks of gold from floating sparks speckling the blue there. “You disagree?”

“I never thought of it like that,” Jaskier says, frank. “Seems more a business arrangement than anything.”

Geralt tilts his head, allows, “Yeah, that too.”

And so, as near a truce as they ever get, they linger in companionable silence for the space of a few minutes. A twig in the fire snaps, and a new upswell of sparks makes shadows across Jaskier’s face.

“I enjoy it when you philosophize,” he says, bending down to flick a tiny escaped ember back into the fire with a fingernail. “Playing against type.”

Geralt rolls his eyes. “I’m not playing anything.”

“All the world’s a stage, Geralt,” Jaskier says sagely, him with his endless supply of aphorisms and snippets of poetry and out of context quotations of people who lived and died before he was born.

Geralt looks to Roach for support, can you believe this. She gives him a distinctly unimpressed look back.

“Don’t you start,” he tells her, and looks back in time to catch the lingering trace of Jaskier’s smile, more sincere than teasing, when Geralt’s attention wasn’t on him.

It’s one of the few topics where they tend to be in agreement. It is also, perhaps, a testament to why neither of them has many – or any, in Geralt’s case – other friends, the fact that a large majority of Geralt’s happiest memories are him and Jaskier making fun of other people’s foolish obsession with marriage.

“Will you two witness our wedding?” asks the young woman whose betrothed Geralt rescued from an aeschna under the docks, which he was in a convenient position to do, after rescuing Jaskier from getting tossed off a ship by the first mate he bedded.

“My lady, I will sing at your wedding, for a heavily discounted fee,” Jaskier says, the picture of generosity, and Geralt bites his tongue, because without Jaskier’s fee, heavily discounted or not – he quite suspects not – they’re not eating tonight.

Geralt has seen weddings in his time. Infinitely more fucking weddings than he would have chosen, if he’d had a choice in the matter. Humans love their needlessly elaborate ceremonies, and this one is no exception, the villagers carrying out the traditions with as much pomp and circumstance as the most extravagant of royalty.

Geralt and Jaskier stand toward the back of the crowd, both tall enough to see over most villagers’ heads as the bride and her groom have a prettily embroidered ribbon wrapped around their hands, binding them together as they say the old vows, voices overlapping and half-disappearing in the summer breeze.

“Go not far from where I go, though let me follow if you must,” a knotting of the ribbon, “for where you go, so will I go,” and another loop round their fingers, and Geralt wonders if a ribbon would do anything do improve the appearance of his hands, wizened and scarred, “from this day until my dying day.”

Next to Geralt, Jaskier sighs; a sound that Geralt expects to be one of boredom, but, when he glances over at the bard, realizes is one of contentment. “It’s almost quite sweet, isn’t it, the poor idiots,” Jaskier murmurs. For all of his philandering, he is, Geralt is reminded quite suddenly, genuinely a romantic. A fucked up, generally fairly blasphemous and habitually unfaithful romantic, but one nevertheless.

“It took one wedding for you to change your mind about marriage?” Geralt asks, matching Jaskier’s volume, and he’s intending to tease, but Jaskier doesn’t miss a beat.

“I change my mind about nothing, trust me, they’re in love in spite of this-” He gestures at the couple, now reciting some other tedious tradition, hands still bound, “-this slowly tightening noose of formality and commodification, not because of it.”

Geralt snorts a laugh, attracts dirty looks from several of the groom’s family members, and that’s the end of it, he thinks, until that night, when he and Jaskier are lying back to back, each on their own side of their bed at the crowded inn.

“It’s stupid,” Jaskier says sleepily, when they’ve been quiet for a while. It takes Geralt a moment to realize he’s continuing their conversation from earlier. Maybe a conversation from years ago. “All the things normal people do. But sometimes nice underneath the stupid, you know?”

He says it, normal people, in such a way that he’s excepting himself and Geralt both. It’s an oddly companionable thing. He tugs the covers towards himself while he’s at it, leaving most of Geralt exposed, but Geralt lets him. Jaskier’s flimsy, expensive clothes aren’t made for warmth as much as they’re made for being flamboyantly coloured and indecently unbuttoned and ensuring that no matter the crowd, Geralt’s eyes will always be drawn directly to him.

Stupid, but nice stupid.

“Hm,” Geralt says. He knows.

---

After the unmitigated shitshow of a disaster that is Pavetta’s betrothal banquet and all that follows, Geralt gets the fuck out of Cintra. He rides hard, until Roach flat out refuses to carry him any further, and then he walks at her side to the nearest inn, buys her more oats than normal as an apology, then plants himself at the bar with the intention of not leaving until he’s forgotten the entire accursed week.

He’s three drinks in and hardly spares the effort to be surprised when Jaskier turns up next to him, the way he’s wont to do. Last Geralt saw him, he was leaving arm in arm with a definitely-married countess, though now, by the looks of him, that’s well and truly over.

“Got sick of you?” Geralt asks, once he’s finished another swig of his drink.

“Offered to leave her husband and three concubines for me the first time we slept together,” Jaskier sighs as though no one has ever been more woefully inconvenienced. “Then got sick of me, or was about to, probably.” Geralt motions for the innkeeper to bring them two more drinks. Jaskier steals and finishes what’s left of Geralt’s ale anyways. Geralt doesn’t bother stopping him.

It’s not entirely untrue, what they say about misery and company. In any case, Geralt feels significantly less pathetic, drowning his sorrows with Jaskier at his side rather than alone. They’ve seen each other at enough low points by now, cursed out by pitchfork-wielding villagers or bruised and battered by bloodthirsty monsters, that it’s very nearly companionable.

“You know what my problem is?” Jaskier says, an hour or two or three later. He’s more than caught up to Geralt in drinks, though he’s managing to sound only a little slurred.

“Just one?” Geralt says, because if mocking Jaskier is the only solace left to him, he’s damn well going to take it.

Jaskier ignores him. “My problem,” he rambles, “is that I like people too much. I like them too much and I always talk myself into forgiving their stubborn obsession with, with- with convention, as if my unwillingness to hole up in some boring manor and resign myself to sacrificing everything I care about to settle in one place forever makes me the scoundrel.”

“You are a scoundrel,” Geralt informs him, because that’s just objective fact. Terrible, too pretty for his own good scoundrel who loves people and leaves them.

“Sod off,” Jaskier retorts, pointing an accusing finger and jabbing it at Geralt’s chest unsteadily. “You’re the exact same as me.”

Geralt gives him an incredulous look – he might, under duress, be willing to admit that they’re friends, but they certainly aren’t anything alike, much less the exact same.

“Oh, don’t even, with the-” Jaskier gestures vaguely at Geralt’s face. “One of us is a deadbeat father to a royal child surprise and it certainly isn’t me.”

“Fuck off,” Geralt says, then, with feeling, as the truth of Jaskier’s words sink in his gut like an anvil, “Fuck.”

He tosses back the rest of his drink, sent forcefully and firmly back to misery, company or not. It was supposed to be a night of bodyguarding; food, women, and wine, Jaskier said, and instead Geralt left with destiny looming over him like a gallows, the Lioness of Cintra glaring at him like she wants his head on a pike, and, in nine months, a fucking child, a mockery of everything witchers aren’t allowed to really have.

Fuck.

Some nights, getting drunk can make him feel nearly like he might have something approximating a sense of humour. Tonight isn’t one of those nights – Geralt doesn’t feel anything but maudlin and more scowly than usual by the time he makes the executive decision to cut himself off.

“C’mon,” he tells Jaskier, long since the only other person drinking, this time of night. “You’re buying us a room.”

Jaskier, for whom getting drunk never, ever does anything but make him even more talkative and prone to grand and often-musical declarations, doesn’t get to his feet. He spins in his seat so that he’s facing Geralt, and extends a hand to him, deadly serious.

“Swear an oath with me.”             

“I’m not doing that,” Geralt says.

“You and I, Geralt,” Jaskier says, urgent, speaking over him, “are too smart for the hideous death trap that is marriage and domesticity and, gods fucking forbid, children.” His hand lands on Geralt’s knee, and he leaves it there, apparently steadying himself. His eyes stay on Geralt’s. They look like cornflowers. Pretty flowers. Geralt is too drunk for this by half.

“As best friends,” Jaskier is continuing, increasing steadily in volume and dramatic gesturing as he goes, “it is our solemn duty to embrace, nay, to enforce the sanctity of love as it should be, as something free and spectacular and saved from- from boringness by the noble art of bachelorhood.”

“Is ‘boringness’ a word, then?” Geralt asks. He still hasn’t taken Jaskier’s proffered hand, not that it matters, because Jaskier removes his hand from Geralt’s knee and grabs Geralt’s hand for himself. It’s a stupidly mannish sort of handshake, much gripping of forearms and clearing of his throat.

“From now on, bollocks to everyone else, it’s about you and me,” Jaskier declares. “The boys.”

Geralt tugs at a stray thread poking out from the cuff of Jaskier’s sleeve. “You’re fucking weird.”

“Yeah, but I’m right, aren’t I?” He tugs at Geralt’s hand, as if there’s any chance he could move him. Geralt shifts anyways, finds himself stuck in Jaskier’s eyes again, the earnest drunkenness of his gaze. “You and I, sworn brothers, the boys, Geralt.”

In spite of himself, then, and absolutely only because of the dozen empty tankards grouped on the bartop, Geralt feels distinctly fond. Nothing in this world has given him enough of a delusion of constancy to be worth swearing by; Jaskier, if Geralt were to judge by his trail of lovers, is certainly no exception. And yet- he’s the closest thing to a marker of time that Geralt has ever had, stubbornly reappearing at his side even when it was to his own discomfort or disadvantage. Not as though Geralt’s a shining example of committed fidelity either.

He figures: if mutual inconstancy is the best form of a constant either of them can manage, they could do a lot worse.

Geralt squeezes Jaskier’s hand in his, just once, then extracts himself gently enough, fetches both of their drinks, and touches his tankard to Jaskier’s. It’s fairly nothing, as far as oaths go. Jaskier looks pleased anyways. Geralt lets himself enjoy that, making Jaskier look happy, more than he might if he were sober.

“You were saying something about you renting us a room?” Jaskier says, innocently, accidentally or maybe on purpose getting rid of Geralt’s inconvenient fondness.

“Brat,” Geralt says, and rolls his eyes, yanks Jaskier up by the nape of his neck, then shoves him along to go find them a place to sleep.

---

And in Oxenfurt, one autumn:

“I hate it here,” Geralt says by way of greeting, when he stomps through the instructor’s dining room to take his seat next to Jaskier, amid open stares and occasional surprised twanging of instruments. He has a very strong inkling that the Oxenfurt Academy is unaccustomed to receiving witchers with their guest lecturers.

“Guess how many times I’ve been asked when I plan on settling down, guess, Geralt,” Jaskier says, popping a stuffed mushroom into his mouth.

“And do you?”

“Much too focused on my work,” Jaskier says through a mouthful of food, with a jaunty tap on Geralt’s head before he returns to picking at his dinner, unbothered by either Geralt’s swatting him away or by the staring. “Any particular reason you’re in a tizzy, or just general witcher malaise with people using their brains instead of smashing things with swords?”

“Too many fucking bards,” Geralt grumbles. It’s a lie, mostly. He’s used to the staring. Less used to the way he hasn’t been sleeping right since Cintra, and any time he brings up the subject to Jaskier or in his own head, the only answer he gets is one about attempts to evade destiny, which, as Geralt refuses to believe in such fatalistic bullshit, means that sleeplessness is fast becoming a way of life, for him.

“I think I’ve quite softened you toward bards, you know,” Jaskier says, guileless enough that someone who didn’t know him might think, mistakenly, that he wasn’t being a shit. “I think you might even admire our – ahem, read, my – ability to speak so freely and openly on any topic under the sun.”

Geralt doesn’t dignify that with a response, just steals Jaskier’s plate and helps himself. He already speaks too damn freely around Jaskier, and he has no desire to be open or eloquent or whatever the fuck with anyone else. One best friend, when that best friend is Jaskier, is very much sufficient.

---

And in a rowdy tavern near the port district of Novigrad, a particularly rainy spring:

Geralt has spent a ridiculous amount of time watching Jaskier flirt since they’ve known each other, which, he decides, is the only reason he’s so annoyed by it happening when they’re trying to drink.

Jaskier’s got his legs up on the table, one folded over the other, looking for all the world like some young, arrogant godling as he jokes with the pair of women that stopped to indulge his barrage of words on their way past.

“It’s really quite efficient, ladies, you can even have your pick of either of us, though, if you don’t mind the suggestion, only one of us regularly uses soap without needing to be reminded, so-”

Geralt rolls his eyes, and the redheaded woman, the taller of the two, gathers up courage enough to ask him, “Are you really a witcher?”

He grunts the affirmative. “Hm.”

“Do you always let your bard flirt for you?” She bursts into giggles as her friend takes her hand and tugs her away, and Geralt scowls.

“Oi, wait a moment, maybe he’s my witcher, have we considered that?” Jaskier calls, indignant, after their retreating backs as they leave. Geralt jerks him back by the scruff of his neck before he rises out of his seat to further defend their honour, or whatever the fuck.

Jaskier sighs, slumping back against Great’s side and not even moving at Geralt’s half-hearted attempt to shove him aside. “I believe we just ate shit, old friend.”

“You just ate shit,” Geralt corrects, and does not acknowledge the ‘old friend’ comment, because that’s not what they do. “The redhead liked me.”

“Yeah, sure, mm-hm, practically swooning, that’s why she booked it out of here like we’re a two-headed kelpie?”

“Kelpies don’t have two heads,” Geralt informs him, then, dry, mimicking, “Maybe he’s my witcher?”

“Oh, shut up,” Jaskier says, but he’s grinning reluctantly as he leans on Geralt to sit up properly, muttering something about the boys, and there’s a perfectly good brothel a little ways into the city, but Geralt stays, and neither of them ends up having sex that night, but it’s an enjoyable evening all the same.

---

And in a crystalline pond in a clearing in the absolute middle of nowhere, a clear summer’s day:

Geralt is accustomed, by virtue of the practicalities of needing to bathe when the opportunity arises, to being around Jaskier when he’s naked. It’s hardly a remarkable occurrence. They undress, they get clean, they get dressed again, and Geralt suspects that Jaskier takes the same perspective until one day, when Geralt happens to glance over at him and sees him peering at his reflection in the water as though it’s a mirror, pulling his face this way and that, scrunching his brow.

“Do I look older?” Jaskier asks, angling his head this way and that.

“You always look the same to me,” Geralt says, unthinkingly honest. Moreso than he might’ve chosen to be, with more thought, after Jaskier gives him a long look, almost appraising. Geralt doesn’t miss it when Jaskier’s eyes glint downwards, just barely, to where Geralt’s torso disappears into the pond, his skin speckled with droplets of water.

It’s a look that Geralt has seen before from him, pressed together silently in the rafters of a storeroom and a couple of times in the intervening years. He wonders, for a moment, if Jaskier will kiss him again. Wants to kick himself for wondering it at all.

“Still too young to marry, though,” Geralt adds belatedly, and Jaskier’s laugh is slightly breathless but otherwise sincere as he splashes water toward Geralt, and the moment, if it existed, doesn’t anymore.

Nakedness between them is nothing noteworthy. Today, nonetheless, once Jaskier is focused again on bathing, Geralt-

He looks.

He didn’t mean to lie about the aging thing. He wasn’t, at least not intentionally. It’s only now that he’s really allowing himself to stare, to catalogue what he can see of Jaskier’s body, that he realizes how much the bard has changed, in ways normally hidden under his ridiculous clothes. The gangly limbs of youth are gone, leaving in their place defined arms, broad shoulders, and a surprising amount of chest hair, which- Geralt splashes himself with water, sharply, at his reaction to that last one. Jaskier looks like a man, properly, and he touches Geralt easily, as one man does another, affectionate shoving around and the occasional fond elbow.

One kiss years ago in the rafters, a moment of misdirected adrenaline spilling over into the nearest – true – and least deadly – incredibly untrue – person was just that: one kiss.

Still, even as they’re drying off in the sun, buttoning back into their clothes, Geralt wonders, in some quiet yet annoyingly persistent part of his mind, whether, if he were human, things would be different. If he were human, he thinks, and he and Jaskier were human friends who spent years and years living and nearly dying and talking – Geralt, talking – together, friends who occasionally gave each other lingering looks while bathing-

He’s seen marriages founded on less, is Geralt’s first thought, and his second thought is shut the everloving fuck up, Geralt, you idiot.

He is not human, and such concerns are certainly none of his, so he does.

They complete the current contract. Jaskier goes his own way when the path forks, off to woo some duchess with his new ballad. Once they part, Geralt’s sleeplessness returns with a vengeance. The two things, Geralt decides, convinces himself, refuses to believe otherwise, are unrelated.

---

Neither of them decides in as many words to leave Rinde together after they meet Yennefer of Vengerberg; they set out side by side anyways, Geralt keeping pace next to Jaskier in case he has to catch him if he stumbles.

Geralt wants to chalk it up to that, Jaskier still being weak from nearly dying, that it’s the longest silence they’ve ever shared. Suspects, somehow, that he can’t, at least not entirely. He can’t- he can’t think, not since lacing himself back into his clothes after he and Yennefer finally finished. Maybe not since he first saw her. His brain feels clouded, foggy with wishes and witches and longing and lust and also something curiously sickly, a feeling not wholly dissimilar to the one he had after the disaster in Cintra. The feeling of running from something inevitable.

Jaskier didn’t fuck any witches, as far as Geralt knows. Still, he hasn’t played his usual travelling songs since they left Yennefer’s manor, and begins to slow down far earlier than usual. When he does, Geralt follows him off the path, exchanges his own coin to rent them a room at the first inn they encounter.

Geralt takes his time settling Roach in the small, cramped stables. He brushes her down, presses his forehead to hers – she tolerates it, because she always knows when he needs to calm himself – and tries to pretend like he’s not hiding.

He’s not so much a coward as to stay out all night, certainly not when he doesn’t even know what he’s worried about. When he arrives at their room, Jaskier is sat on the woven carpet dressed in one of Geralt’s shirts, his own having been thoroughly ruined with choked-up blood. Because of the disparity in the width of their shoulders or Jaskier’s preference for clothing at least a size too small – “To show off my figure, Geralt, oldest trick in the book” – he looks rather smaller than usual. That impression might also be due to the fact that, even since they arrived, he’s barely said a couple of words to Geralt. Understandable, Geralt thinks, with a whip-sharp sting of guilt, given that Jaskier probably wasn’t expecting to almost be painfully killed by a djinn at the behest of someone who’s supposed to be his best friend.

Another letter, addressed to Julian, not Jaskier, was waiting for them with the innkeeper when they arrived. As Geralt watches now, behind the closed door of their rented room, Jaskier tears the parchment in half, then in half again, and again, slowly and methodically until it’s nothing but fingernail-sized scraps, which he throws one by one into the fire.

Geralt sits down beside him. Jaskier barely glances up. The collar of Geralt’s shirt is loose on him, threatening to slip off of one shoulder.

“Bright side,” Geralt says, two words that, more than anything, he thinks, are a mark of the years he’s spent with Jaskier, sure as a brand. “No one’ll ask to marry you like this.”

Jaskier gives a despairing, hoarse laugh. “I’m too ugly for marriage,” he says. “My throat torn to shreds, great dark bags under my eyes, and, nothing personal, but black is so decidedly not my colour-”

“It’s not,” Geralt agrees, and his heart leaps at how normal it is when Jaskier throws one of the scraps of letter at him. It doesn’t make it far, just floats the ground and lodges itself into a crack in the floorboards. Jaskier doesn’t make a joke about it. Geralt wishes he would. Wishes he’d do something more himself, even start a debate with Geralt about something stupid, just to get rid of the stifling and unmistakable awkwardness that’s been lingering between them since Rinde. Geralt doesn’t want things to have changed. Feels, instinctively, that they have anyways.

“I saw you going at it with scary witch lady,” Jaskier says, and Geralt turns to look at him, sharply. “Quite vigorously, actually, I wasn’t sure whether to be turned on or mildly terrified.” He says it casually enough, but he’s staring into the fireplace, and doesn’t turn to meet Geralt’s eyes.

“Jaskier,” Geralt says, uselessly. He doesn’t know what to do or feel with the idea of Jaskier watching him being ridden in the wreckage of the house, being pinned by his wrists, caught up in the fierce, burning-hot combination of arousal and near-death adrenaline and the conflation of the two in Yennefer of Vengerberg. Not like Jaskier hasn’t seen Geralt entering brothels before. Not like Geralt hasn’t heard Jaskier fucking or being fucked through the thin walls of various taverns for something like fifteen years. But he’s never seen-

Unbidden, his mind conjures up images of Jaskier flushed pink with pleasure, Jaskier with tousled hair and bruises kissed along his neck, images he shouldn’t be imagining, images that Jaskier can now remember – not even imagine, remember – of him.

It’s the sort of thing they should be able to laugh off, a mutual embarrassment among friends. Men. Geralt, instead, feels a bizarre urge to apologize.

“I’m happy you’re alive,” Jaskier says before he can, and he’s biting his lip when he finally meets Geralt’s eyes. There’s a tinge of the bittersweet to it; Geralt is reminded, unbidden again, of Yennefer filling in the blank when he stumbled on how to describe Jaskier. A friend?, she said, coy, as though she knew something Geralt didn’t. Doesn’t.

“You like her, don’t you,” Jaskier says. A question, though it doesn’t sound like one.

Geralt is the one who looks away this time. He’s scowling without meaning to, scowling though his face is turned away from Jaskier, certainly cast into shadow by the quavering lines of firelight.

This isn’t the sort of thing they talk about. Their conversations are functional, divvying up coin obtained through a hunt and through singing about it, mutually antagonistic, generally, and occasionally antagonistic together at someone else’s expense. Liking, for all it sounds like the topic of discussions giggled between schoolgirls, has an echo of something sincere to it, a hint of vulnerability. Not for them.

“Going to go get married?” Jaskier asks, and something about the lightness in his voice is stiffer than it usually is, more determined. “Break our sacred oath?”

“Too ugly for that,” Geralt says, and he’s trying to sound light as well, to the extent that he can.

It earns a flash of a smile from Jaskier, and then, reflexively, it seems, he blurts, “Don’t-” then cuts himself off.

“What?” Geralt asks, when Jaskier doesn’t continue.

Jaskier shrugs. That’s stiff, too. “I don’t know,” he says, then makes a face as though he wants to laugh at himself. “’Don’t fuck her again’, I was going to say. How prudish of me. Fuck who you like, just don’t nearly die doing it again in future, Geralt, alright?”

“You too,” Geralt says, a moment late, once he recovers. His mind is a blur.

Jaskier’s smile deepens. His eyes are flecked with golden sparks again, stirring something half-remembered in Geralt’s chest. “If I’ve ever given the impression that I’m not fucking who I want-”

“Don’t die,” Geralt clarifies, and he sees the surprise appear on Jaskier’s face before it melts away. Not melts- before it is removed, consciously and determinedly, and replaced with an ironic grin.

“Careful, someone will think you actually care about me.”

It’s as much as if he were to say, no more emotions now, Geralt. Geralt isn’t sure which of them Jaskier is deflecting for, but he’s grateful for it anyways.

He elbows Jaskier, no heat behind it, because he does care about him, really. Jaskier nudges him back, because he knows, Geralt thinks. Hopes.

Truce in place and comforting normality blessedly restored, they stay side by side, warming themselves at the fire. Geralt leans back, arm braced against the floor, angled just slightly behind Jaskier’s back. It could nearly be an embrace, something protective or maybe possessive, if he were the sort of person who was allowed to feel those things, but he’s not, so it’s not.

A friend, Yennefer of Vengerberg said. She was right. Of course she’s right. Geralt doesn’t know why he keeps mulling over the word and finding it wanting. Jaskier is his friend, his best friend, even though perhaps ‘only’ and ‘best’ are mutually exclusive adjectives, when it comes to friends. Still: Jaskier is both, and that suits Geralt fine. Jaskier forgives him his wish and their arguing and is at Geralt’s side, alive and whole and wearing Geralt’s shirt so he’ll smell of Geralt for days; and that, all of it, suits Geralt perfectly fine as well.

---

It’s almost underwhelming, when it finally happens again.

That’s the wrong word. It’s-

Logical. The inevitable endpoint of the last near-twenty years, and of all the inane things to precipitate it, it’s the stars.

“-and that one is the swan maiden’s beak, you see, the tip of it.” Jaskier’s narrating the entire night sky, has been since they lay down after making camp. It’s a cool night, the darkening shades of autumn appearing around them, though, for tonight at least, it is cloudless and even comfortable without blankets. They’ve got their bedrolls placed beside each other, close enough that Geralt could reach out and touch Jaskier’s face, close enough that he will be able to fall asleep to the sound of his heartbeat as though it’s the way it always has been and the way it always will be.

“-so she was turned into a swan by either a jealous witch or an ancient curse, I can’t recall which,” Jaskier’s rambling, ostensibly from some half-remembered astronomy elective from his days at the academy, though most of what he retained is superstitious poetic bullshit instead of anything useful, which is just typical.

“That’s how the story ends, you know,” he goes on, dragging a hand through the air as though tracing the outline of an outstretched wing, or maybe mimicking one. “The maiden took to the skies, doomed never to be with the man she loved, trapped in the skin of a swan for the rest of her days.”

Geralt squints up at the supposed swan, feels a slight twinge of emotion – sympathy? – and reacts accordingly. “That’s the dumbest fucking thing I’ve ever heard.”

Jaskier makes a grotesque face, groaning exaggeratedly. “Y’know, you would hold that opinion, Geralt, you probably use the stars for something like navigating.”

“Yes,” Geralt says, flatly and cluelessly on purpose to make Jaskier roll his eyes and pretend not to be smiling the way he does every time Geralt does something particularly witchery. It’s not something Geralt has had before, a knowledge complete enough of someone to plan ways to make them laugh, to know the reaction to his words before he speaks them.

Jaskier, who is apparently following a similar train of thought, or at least reaching a similar conclusion, rolls onto his side so he’s looking at Geralt, still on his own bedroll. “I enjoy your company,” he says, frank. Almost playful. Pushing, always, to see how far Geralt will let him go.

“Sadist,” Geralt says, and Jaskier laughs up at the night sky, the sound outshining the stars, and Geralt is pleased by it, by Jaskier being happy and by being the one to have made it happen.

He doesn’t realize that he’s staring until Jaskier lets out a quieter half-laugh, biting his lip for the smallest moment. “What, have I got something on my face?”

“You need to shave,” Geralt says. A blurt, an instinctive deflection from he doesn’t know what.

Jaskier raises an eyebrow. “Do I?”

“Hm,” Geralt hums his assent, then, instinct again, an infinitely more dangerous one, reaches out and touches the back of his hand to the barely-there two days’ shadow on Jaskier’s jaw. It’s a nothing of a touch, casual and nearly clinical. Jaskier is warm against Geralt’s knuckles, his pulse thrumming gently, barely perceptibly.

Geralt’s fingers flex, a subconscious reaction to the feeling of someone else’s skin. To Jaskier’s skin. The extent to which he touches other people is restricted to perfunctory, purposeful groping with prostitutes or to blows in a fight. Nothing like this, touching for its own sake, a proprietary sort of lingering in contact with another person. He suspects most people wouldn’t let him near enough to try.

A muscle in Jaskier’s cheek jumps. Geralt drags the blunt edge of his thumbnail along the line of Jaskier’s jawbone. It must tickle, or close: Jaskier scrunches up his nose, a funny little face that shouldn’t be endearing, but is. It is, and it’s very distinctly Jaskier as well, and Geralt can say that with authority because he knows this man, knows him as thoroughly and comprehensively as he knows anything. Monsters and killing and Jaskier, sure as he knows how to breathe.

They lay by the fire, on their sides, each facing the other. Jaskier turns his face just slightly into Geralt’s hand. He looks like he’s thinking, deliberating something in his mind, and then – quickly, because Jaskier has never been one for long contemplation – his gaze finds Geralt’s.

“If I kiss you again, will you punch me?” he asks, simple as that.

“Maybe,” Geralt says, and doesn’t realize that he’s hoping for it until Jaskier kisses him, lifts himself up on one arm just enough to lean across the inches-wide space between their bedrolls and ducks to press his lips against Geralt’s. Simple as that.

Geralt thinks: witcher or not, he wouldn’t be able to stop himself from noticing every minute detail of this kiss. It is chaste, testing but not tentative, as though Jaskier took the punching threat seriously. His lips are soft, two thin, wet lines of warmth pressed to Geralt’s, barely parted enough for Geralt to feel Jaskier’s breath, but he does; he feels that and he feels the familiar slope of Jaskier’s nose against his, smells the forest and the undercurrent of Jaskier’s arousal, hears Jaskier’s heart beating steadily. He likes the taste of him.

Not markedly different from kissing women, on principle. Something about it makes it almost unrecognizable, nonetheless. Geralt wasn’t expecting gentleness.

When they part, Jaskier draws back hardly at all. Geralt makes a fist and taps it, barely even a touch, much less a punch, on Jaskier’s forearm. It makes Jaskier laugh, quiet and still slightly out of breath. His hair brushes against Geralt’s brow.

“Don’t go thinking I’ve spent the last eighteen years pining away about doing that again with you,” Jaskier orders, not quite stern. “I haven’t. I’m much too practical for that.”

“I know you are,” Geralt says, truthfully, because Jaskier’s a cynic of a romantic and a romantic of a cynic, dumb enough to follow Geralt around for music and coin and adventure but smart enough to survive it for this long. He has other people to kiss, should he wish to. Geralt wonders if Jaskier will kiss him and fly away. He wonders if other people who make a habit of having friends feel this much about them.

“So?” says Geralt, mostly expressionless, he hopes. He watches Jaskier’s tongue dart out and wet his lips.

“So,” Jaskier says, “Still much too young.”

“For marriage?” Geralt asks.

“For kissing a witcher,” Jaskier says, leaning down again. His eyes are hooded, pupils blown big. “Should probably- practice-”

He’s resting his weight on Geralt’s torso, his hands in Geralt’s hair as he kisses him again, no hesitancy to it this time. Geralt lets himself be kissed, even finds himself able to respond, this time, splaying his hands on Jaskier’s back, opening his mouth so Jaskier can nudge their tongues together, and that-

Geralt is as practical as Jaskier is, more; he pulls Jaskier properly onto his bedroll so the two of them are pressed close, overlapping, their legs slotting together. Jaskier is hard against Geralt’s thigh, and Geralt cannot think, cannot speak, does what he has always done and lets his actions do the brunt. He thinks stupidly, banally, that this must be what it’s like to be human, this feeling so preoccupied with the person in front of him that a dragon could emerge from the forest and he wouldn’t notice a thing.

They’re pushing up against each other, an inelegant, instinctual seeking of pleasure like they’re a pair of virgins, though Jaskier keeps enough of a mind about him that one hand is scrabbling along Geralt’s front, blindly seeking to undo his shirt. Geralt rips it off for him, then does the same to Jaskier’s shirt – literally, this time, tears it right in half without really even intending to, and isn’t sure whether or not he’s supposed to feel embarrassed at getting so caught up.

“Sorry,” he says. Jaskier is already shaking his head.

“Shush,” he says, “shush, quiet,” and Geralt doesn’t even get to appreciate the sheer ridiculous irony of Jaskier telling someone else to be quiet, because Jaskier is reaching down to unlace Geralt’s trousers, his fingers deft and capable even like this, half rolled on to the grass, rutting against each other where anyone could come across them.

They’ve had twenty years to dispense with bashfulness around each other; still, Geralt has a moment of uncomfortable awareness of the vulnerability of it, when Jaskier wraps his fingers around Geralt’s length, obviously fully erect, obviously because of him.

“Let me,” Geralt says, and makes quick work of Jaskier’s pants, then spits into his palm – “That’s disgusting,” Jaskier breathes, sounding rather more fond than disgusted, then, “Fuck, your dick is massive,” which does wonders to soften the blow – and wraps his hand around the both of them, and it’s a good thing that neither of them is trying to impress the other one, because it’s not twenty seconds before Jaskier is crying out, the sharp edge of a tooth sliding against Geralt’s tongue as he spills into Geralt’s fist, and Geralt jerks himself into the warm slickness of his hand and finishes too, striping Jaskier’s bare stomach. It’s a possessive thing to do, not one he plans but one that he thrills in, even as Jaskier rolls off of him, even as they both lay in the no man’s land between their bedrolls, catching their breath.

Geralt wipes his hand on the grass; feels his damp skin drying cool in the night air. Somewhere in the nearby trees, crickets chorus. The stars, Jaskier’s infernal swan among them, glimmer in the darkness. Geralt wonders if Jaskier has ever fucked in the woods before. The thought almost makes him laugh, which is strange enough that he feels it again, that odd vulnerability, because laughter isn’t something he tends to associate with sex. Laughter isn’t something he associates with anything at all, actually, except Jaskier. Good things are usually Jaskier.

Jaskier, limbs clumsy as if with sleep, drags a finger through the mess on his torso, then brings it to his mouth and sucks thoughtfully.

“And I’m disgusting?” Geralt says, mildly indignantly, and Jaskier’s lips twitch with humour, and things feel abruptly normal again.

“This is actually a fairly ideal solution, you know,” he says, without clarifying the problem they’re apparently trying to solve. Geralt gets the distinct feeling he’s pre-empting something. “Neither of us expects anything of the other. No one’s going to make me marry you to protect your virtue, and you certainly don’t have to be concerned with mine, and, cherry on top, we save the coin we would’ve spent at brothels and can afford to get more drunk more frequently.”

It takes Geralt a beat. “Who says I want to do this again?”

Jaskier doesn’t need a beat. “Well, it’s happening at least once more, so that I can show you how to give a proper jerkoff, honestly, you’re like a teenager.”

“Hundred year old teenager,” Geralt corrects affectionately, then makes a face as a thought occurs to him.

“What?”

Geralt folds his arms behind his head. “Do you go to bed with all your sworn bachelor brothers?”

“Shove off,” Jaskier kicks at Geralt, almost managing to sound irritated, except for how widely he’s smiling. He leaves his ankles sandwiched with Geralt’s. “Ugh, that is fucked up, how do you even manage to ruin sex, with your personality, is nothing sacred?”

“You’re the one who said it!”

“While drunk off my ass, you pedantic bastard.”

Geralt blinks at him reproachfully, mock-stern. “Is that any way to talk to your brother, Jaskier?”

“I loathe you,” Jaskier says, shaking his head up at the stars. “I cannot stand you even at all, Geralt of Rivia, you heathen, I loathe you entirely-”

He doesn’t. He never has, Geralt knows.

It’s a nice thing to know. Stupid, maybe, but nice.

---

In the year that follows that first time, what happens, in approximate order, is this:

They attend another betrothal banquet – no destiny bullshit this time, small graces – and Geralt watches as the two minor nobles with whom Jaskier is trying to ingratiate himself have their hands laced together with a golden-threaded ribbon as they swear not to part from each other, followed by multiple hours’ worth of deeply boring speeches.

“Fucking hell,” Geralt grumbles, because even at the best of times, he hates courtly settings and the way they remind him of Cintra and the wide berth he’s kept thereof. Insult to injury, the ale at this particular courtly setting tastes like piss.

He’s too old to spend the speeches trading drinks with Jaskier every time someone uses the word ‘unity’ and elbowing each other under the table. He’s definitely too old to sneak out after Jaskier and shut the door of an untended pantry behind them before dropping to his knees and crowding Jaskier against the shelves and using his mouth to take him as deep as he can until Jaskier is biting into his hand to avoid being noisy and causing a scandal. They’re quite good at leaving things unsaid, when they have to be.

Most things can be made tolerable with Jaskier, court included. Geralt likes it best, though, when they set out on the Path, away from civilization and manners and prying questions from insignificant people, when it’s only the two of them with no responsibility but finding a way to survive.

Tolerating life is Geralt’s custom. Enjoying it is a novelty. He and Jaskier spend the spring trekking up and down the continent; Jaskier sings for their dinner when contracts are scarce, and Geralt earns them money when they aren’t. They spend a (all things considered) peaceful couple of weeks tracking down a creature that the local farmers insist is a giant badger, most of Geralt’s time spent arguing with Jaskier about whether or not ‘tadger’ is a word suitable for rhyming or even a word at all –

“The fuck does it even mean?”

“Just because you have the vocabulary of a cobblestone, Geralt-”

When the road is flat enough, they kick around a patched leather ball that Geralt is fairly certain Jaskier stole from a group of children in the last village they passed, and when the sky is dark enough, they make camp in the mouth of a small cave and split the last of their rations sitting by the fire.

“Did you think your life would be like this?” Jaskier asks, contemplative, once they’ve brought each other off a couple of times and are lounging about, relaxed from either the sex or the fact that giant badgers almost certainly don’t exist.

Geralt nudges the ball forward then back again. “A loudmouth bard eating all my supper?”

“And gracing you with his loyal and stalwart friendship and personal theme songs, you ingrate, yeah,” Jaskier makes a grab for the ball, half-heartedly. Geralt tugs it easily out of his reach. Friendship, Jaskier always says. Geralt wonders if Jaskier has seen all of his friends naked this many times.

“You?” Geralt says.

“What did I think my life would be like?” Jaskier asks, then, when Geralt nods, “You know I try to avoid thinking whenever possible, as a rule.” He’s jesting. For someone who sings about matters of the heart so incessantly, he does have a tendency to stiffen when the conversation veers towards those things as pertains to him. Him and Geralt both. The pace of his heart always quickens.

Perhaps sensing that Geralt is dissatisfied with the response, Jaskier adds, offhandedly, “Mostly you, I suppose.”

Geralt fixes him with a look, skeptical.

“I mean it,” Jaskier insists. “I do, I’m unconscionably close to forty years old, I’ve known you practically half my life.”

“Misspent youth,” Geralt observes, instead of even attempting to cope with reality phrased quite so starkly. Half his life, already.

Jaskier grins crookedly. “Nah, someone’d have offed me ages ago.”

He’s not wrong. “Because you never shut up?”

“Because they were driven mad with jealousy about my gigantic co- ow, I’m joking, I’m joking!” Jaskier breaks off, laughing, as Geralt flings the ball at his face.

It fits quite naturally into the way they were before, the two of them fucking each other regularly. More than regularly – Geralt has long known of Jaskier’s seemingly indefatigable libido, but he surprises himself with the extent of his own wanting. It’s- it’s all stupidly indulgent, frankly, by human standards, let alone by a witcher’s, but it’s damn near addictive, the joint realizations that Geralt has been wanting Jaskier for decades and that he can finally have him, as often as he wants.

He’s never fucked someone he actually cares about before, aside from Yennefer, the once. It’s-

Nice. It’s nice, as stupid and benign as that sounds. Jaskier still annoys the shit out of Geralt, and he’s still the only person Geralt would allow to do so, and Geralt has memorized his body, now, as well as his mind.

Months pass, and slowly, Geralt allows himself to believe that it’s real.

They skirt around Cintra, taking the long way where necessary. It often is: the Nilfgaardian army is growing bolder with every passing day, and Geralt recognizes the signs of coming war in every settlement they pass, rich humans preparing to profit and poor humans preparing to survive and mages teleporting about being more mysterious than usual.

A side effect of the panic is the sudden rush of weddings, Geralt suspects of the ‘odds are we’ll both be dead soon anyhow’ variety. He looks to Jaskier when their inn one night is host to not one but two different elopements, expecting a typically scathing diatribe on the scam that is marriage.

“None of our concern,” is what Jaskier says instead.

“Weddings or war?” Geralt asks.

“Both,” says Jaskier, leaning against the wall of their room and watching Geralt come closer. “Either; we swore an oath, remember?” His voice is casual, easy as ever. There’s a frisson of something to it all the same, something to how watchful his eyes are, not unlike the way Geralt’s been looked at with the anticipation of a fatal blow.

“I remember,” is all Geralt says, and the look on Jaskier’s face doesn’t disappear, just grows more thoughtful.

“Have you sworn many?”

Geralt presses closer to him, a hand braced on the wall on either side of Jaskier. “I don’t make a habit of it.”

Jaskier presses his face into the crook of Geralt’s neck. “The lengths you go to retain my legacy-building services,” he quips, muffled.

“That’s why I keep you around,” Geralt says, and feels Jaskier’s breath of a laugh against his collarbone.

“I’m being kept, am I?”

It’s there again, the unsaid something that reappears every so often, with Jaskier. That has reappeared, even before they became- whatever they are now.

“Are you?” Geralt murmurs.

Jaskier’s smile is fleeting; in the instant that it’s there, it’s sad. Just sad. “I haven’t made a habit of it.”

Geralt wonders what Jaskier would do if he said he loved him.

He doesn’t know, is the thing. Geralt has never seriously approached the word before, love, not even to himself. He does now, and it echoes in his head like a drum, and perhaps that’s why there’s something newly intense it about it that night, a near-wild desperation that feels like sprinting away from the inevitable as he fucks into Jaskier, the rhythmic noise of skin on skin obscene in the confines of their room and still not drowning out the whispers of war steadily increasing in volume outside the walls.

He’s never been in love. He doesn’t know if he’s supposed to be physically capable of it, technically, isn’t sure how to recognize it himself even now that he suspects its presence. It doesn’t feel the way that people sing about love in ballads, or the way he felt with Yennefer, constant heart-pounding intensity and the whole world thrown into sharp relief. Geralt doesn’t know if it’s because Jaskier is a man or because he’s Jaskier, but it’s just- easy. He is easy to be around, and preferable to be around than being alone.

That seems an unromantic definition of love, reduced so starkly to the facts that Geralt enjoys bickering with Jaskier and staring at the curve of his ass as he walks and would kill any creature that so much as looked at him wrong.

He gets the chance to do just that when they get backed against a cliff by half an army’s worth of drowners. They’re both filthy and sweat-soaked an hour later – Jaskier hit a few of the creatures over the head with his lute – but alive, and well enough to clean off in a nearby stream and even to scrub their clothes before finally collapsing in their underthings, waiting for their washed clothes to dry in the sun.

Jaskier clambers so he’s half in Geralt’s lap, half kneeling atop him, and runs his thumb thoughtfully along the arch of Geralt’s brow. He goes against the direction of the hairs there, and it tugs, but doesn’t hurt.

Geralt allows himself to be touched, watches Jaskier watching him, near-studious about it.

Jaskier presses lightly at the corner of Geralt’s eye. “You’ve got lines, here.”

“That’s how skin works, Jaskier,” Geralt reminds him, just to be an asshole.

“You’re aging, I mean.”

“That’s how time works, Jaskier,” Geralt says again, and this time Jaskier flicks his cheek, hard, before caressing it again – as though Geralt is the kind of person to be caressed – stroking the barely there crease with his thumb.

“I know, you oaf, but- you never look like you’re aging, because you do it so slowly, only now I can see that you’ve got lines at your eyes where you didn’t before, so, you know” He makes a face, silly. “Congratulations, time’s going to fuck you over like the rest of us, and then you won’t be pretty anymore and how on earth are you going to find someone to marry then?”

“You think I’m pretty?” Geralt asks, dry, raising an eyebrow and Jaskier’s thumb with it.

Jaskier nods, with the utmost seriousness, except for that he’s very obviously hiding a smile. “Devastatingly,” he says, then, flippantly, “Although it might just be because I like you, I used to think you looked absolutely ancient and quite hideous.”

Geralt huffs, a surprised laugh.

“Don’t be offended,” Jaskier says, as though either of them has ever pulled any punches with the other. “You wouldn’t even so much as look at me for damn near a decade.”

“You were a fucking baby, Jaskier,” Geralt says, because he’s undoubtedly an asshole and almost certainly a monster but at least he doesn’t fuck teenagers, for whatever moral weight that holds.

“And now I’m a sworn brother who’s intimately acquainted with all the horridly embarrassing faces you make during sex, ‘cause that’s so much better,” Jaskier says. Mostly, Geralt would bet, because they both hate it when the other brings up the sworn brothers thing, and so both do it at any given opportunity.

“Gross,” Geralt says.

“You’re grosser by all objective standards, old friend.” Jaskier tucks Geralt’s hair back behind his ear, an absent, automatic sort of gesture. “Though, I’m sleeping with you, so I suppose that, moral of the story-”

“Both of us have shit standards?” Geralt interjects, and Jaskier nods.

“Absolute dogshit, yeah,” he agrees readily. “And thus did the bard and his witcher resign themselves to the reality that they had finally developed a sense of humour so deeply stupid as to be incomprehensible to anyone else on the continent and were thereby condemned to eternal and mutual bachelorhood, amen, the end.” He pats the side of Geralt’s face, cheeky.

Geralt crooks a finger in the fabric of Jaskier’s undershirt, pulls him in, and kisses him quiet.

He finds himself pleased by the idea of aging visibly in however small a way, more than he ought to be if he had any sense of self-preservation left when it comes to Jaskier. He’s been alive and in approximately the same stage of adulthood long enough, witnessed enough births and deaths and pointless in-betweens, to feel generally quite outside of time, a thing stood still while the world goes on around him. Being a visibly freakish social pariah for much of his life didn’t help. He feels, now – here, with lines at his eyes and with Jaskier kissing him, clumsy and comfortable in their underthings – a part of the inanity for the first time in his memory, in a way that he never thought he could be. He allows himself, just this once, to feel it, and finds that he likes it.

He wonders how many years it would take him to age more noticeably. Wonders – hopes, imagines – that Jaskier might be willing to stay and find out.

The thought is equal parts terrifying and calming, and of course. Of course, Geralt loves him. Of course Geralt always has.

It feels obvious, logical like nothing Geralt has had before. The two of them- of course, he thinks. Of course.

---

A year is a finite space, just one out of the more than twenty that Geralt has known Jaskier and of the more than a century that he’s been alive, and then the year ends.

The river is cold on Geralt’s skin the first time that he submerges himself, clothes and all. He’s covered in blood, dried dark and crusted over most every inch of his body. Still better off than the kikimora. It’s an optimistic sort of thought, stray as it is. He might be going soft. It seems like the afternoon for it, if it was ever going to happen: the sun is green-tinted through the forest cover above his head, hot enough at a summer’s midday to make the water of the river refreshing instead of jarring as Geralt scrubs himself down.

“Black blood,” Jaskier says, from his perch on the grassy shore. He’s sprawled out, obviously watching Geralt bathe, the picture of relaxation. “That could be something, right?” He sings, experimentally, “Dark as the night within its veins, the witcher looks at what remains and- some clever rhyme, blah blah, you see the mood, very atmospheric and grandiose and whatnot. Throw in some metaphor about a storm there, maybe, that’s actually quite good, isn’t it?”

Geralt scrapes his sopping wet hair out of his face, spits out a mouthful of water that hardly even tastes like kikimore blood, which means he’s getting mostly clean. He gives himself another cursory dunk in the water, uses the hem of his shirt to wipe the last bit of gore off of his belly, then turns to Jaskier for appraisal.

“Better if you’d take my advice and invest in some pleasant-smelling oils,” Jaskier says, in response to the unspoken question. “Smelling nice exists, you know, conceptually I mean, outside of me massaging your arse.”

Geralt makes a face, mostly out of pride, and the very distinct sense that if his fellow witchers got an inkling of him indulging in such pointless frivolities as being massaged with scented oils by a handsome and handsy bard, they’d laugh themselves to death and then he’d be alone in the world.

“You don’t mind how I smell,” Geralt says, deciding that he’s clean enough and has been far from Jaskier for long enough, and hiking up the shore.

“I’ve just grown immune from long exposure, actually,” Jaskier says, leaning back on his arms and peering up at Geralt as he approaches. “Oh, gods, maybe I’ve spent enough time with you that I smell, too.”

He’s joking, running his mouth aimlessly the way he does when he’s relaxed, but Geralt raises an eyebrow at him.

Do I?” Jaskier asks, mouth dropping open. “Have you ruined me with your witcher stink?”

Probably, yes. Probably Jaskier wouldn’t even mind, though, if he knew the way that it makes Geralt feel half-mad with lust every time he catches a whiff of his own smell on Jaskier’s things, the kind of sharing that only happens with more-than-usual closeness over an extended period of time. Half-mad with something else, too, infinitely better than lust, because it goes both ways: Geralt can smell Jaskier on his clothes, on his skin, staking his claim without even meaning to.

“You smell like you’re with me a lot,” Geralt says, brusquely. “It’s good.”

He drops to his knees so he’s level with Jaskier, then shakes out his hair like a dog, soaking Jaskier and relishing in his incredulously offended stammering as he shoves at Geralt, not even budging him.

“Geralt of fucking Rivia, you are not fit for polite company-”

“Lucky for me it’s just you here,” Geralt retorts.

“Just the both of us, actually,” Jaskier says, and there’s the hint of the performance back in his voice, something promising to it as he lays back on the grass, his hair splaying out under him, the sunlight shimmering through the leaves, dotting his face like freckles.

Beautiful, is the word for him, if Geralt was the sort to use words like ‘beautiful’.

The mood has shifted almost imperceptibly, goofiness giving way to a lingering sort of heat. Jaskier is being coy, playing at seduction as he bats his eyelashes up at Geralt. “No one else for miles, probably. Almost makes public indecency seem perfectly reasonable, wouldn’t you say? I suppose it’s a philosophical quandary, if a bard fucks a witcher in a forest and there’s no one around, does it still make a sound, or whatev- oof-

Geralt pounces, pinning Jaskier with his body. If this was a fight, he’d have the upper hand; as is, Jaskier surges up and kisses him, greedy, and Geralt concedes defeat, surrenders wholeheartedly to this day, the two of them here, the promise of what’s to come.

He’s still soaked through with river water, not that Jaskier seems to mind being dripped on as Geralt parts Jaskier’s lips, as he braces himself above him and laces his fingers with Jaskier’s, pressing their entwined hands into the now-wet grass. And it’s that, perhaps, the sight of their fingers woven together that awakens some long-ago memory of ribbons and hands and don’t go far from where I go, and Geralt understands it, he thinks, the desire to prolong a person, a moment, past forgetting.

“Are you still too young for marriage?” he asks, impulsively. A joke, or meant to be, at least.

“Why, witcher, is this you asking?” Jaskier says, teasing, his face crinkled elfishly with laughter.

“And if it was?” Geralt shoots back, his own laugh rumbling through him, and he meets Jaskier’s eyes, more sarcasm on the tip of his tongue, but he hesitates a split second and sees Jaskier do the same, and the problem with knowing someone twenty-one years is that they come to know the meaning of your silences as well as you know the minute expressions of their face.

It is a second, less, of looking into each other eyes and hesitating, and Geralt knows with abrupt certainty: neither of them was joking, not as much as they should have been.

Jaskier’s face falls, and his head lolls back onto the grass with a small thud. He looks stunned. He looks horrified, at himself or at Geralt or both.

Geralt’s heart sinks.

He scrambles back, off of Jaskier like he’s burning. “I wasn’t-”

“Obviously,” Jaskier says, wide-eyed, voice pitchy. “No, I know, I- yeah, obviously you weren’t.”

“I wouldn’t even want-” Geralt cuts him off, harshly, and gets cut off in return.

“Right, I get it,” Jaskier says. “Me neither, obviously.”

Obviously.

“It’s not like we’re not even-”

“I know we’re not,” Geralt snaps. He hears his voice as if from someone else.

“Good,” Jaskier snaps back. “Fantastic.”

Geralt pushes himself to his feet, wades into the river and dunks his head under without looking back.

It’s not a noble retreat as much as it is a desperate, panicked escape. The noise of the world is numbed, dulled by the cocoon of the water closing over Geralt’s head, and he squeezes his eyes shut, feels a small fish dart by his ankle, and thinks: Fuck.

Fuck.

He doesn’t know what the fuck he was thinking. He knows Jaskier, hell, he knows himself, knows that the only thing either of them has ever once been willing to swear to is a promise to swear to nothing and no one. No one but each other, reminds the traitorous voice in his head, and Geralt knows he’ll choke on it but wants to scream all the same.

He’s made an idiot of himself. He’s no bloody better than every other idiot who got overly attached and started expecting of Jaskier something he’s not willing to give, and why would he, he’s made his opinions on marriage abundantly clear and even if he hadn’t Geralt is Geralt, a witcher and a monster and a not human, it’s delusional to the point of insanity that he’d ever have considered mentioning, even as a joke-

Fuck, he practically fucking offered himself up. Offered himself up and had himself turned down, at that, because he saw the look on Jaskier’s face and it was as much a rebuke as if Jaskier had hit him. Geralt would have preferred if Jaskier had hit him.

Love, Geralt thought. Fucking love, of all things.

By the time he needs breath and surfaces, lungs aching, Jaskier is further away on the shore, his back to Geralt as he buttons himself back into his doublet, and the curdled embarrassment seeping through Geralt hardens in his veins like ice. He is a witcher, and he forgot himself enough to want what he cannot have, what does not and cannot concern him.

He won’t make the same mistake twice.

---

“Why don’t we leave tomorrow?” Jaskier says, quietly, when they’re halfway up a mountain with a witch and several groups of mercenaries and possibly a dragon. “We could head for the coast. Get away for a while.”

Geralt doesn’t think he’s imagining the pity in Jaskier’s voice. The tentative hope, like he thinks that if he throws Geralt a bone in the form of a seaside holiday things will go back to normal between them.

Geralt doesn’t need or want his pity. Geralt controls his temper enough not to shove the bard off a cliff then and there, stays silent the way he’d all but forgotten how to do, around Jaskier, and then, in the night, makes his way to Yennefer’s tent. She doesn’t need him, not remotely, but she makes no pretentions about wanting him, and Geralt- she’s easy to want, intoxicating to feel wanted by. Not human, and not pretending to be.

He knows that Jaskier saw him go to her tent. He made no efforts to hide it – the opposite – because, he thinks, defiant even only in his head, he’s perfectly within his rights to do so, he made no promises to anyone, at least no promises against this. Not as though Jaskier would want his promises even if he’d offered them.

This, of course, Yennefer and the hunt and all of it, goes to shit as well once she finds out about his wish with the djinn, and then she’s storming off and Jaskier is prattling away like he always does and Geralt finally snaps.

He believes it when he says it, that he’d be better off never having met Jaskier. Never would have started entertaining stupid ideas, never would have become accustomed to speaking so much and so openly, never would have pretended to himself that he could ever be something he’s not.

There’s nothing stopping them from parting once Geralt has finished tearing into Jaskier, nothing binding them to each other save for a year’s worth of mutual diversion with bodies and words, and a decade’s worth of a half-broken oath, and twenty-two years’ worth of friendship that Geralt never asked for in the first place.

Jaskier leaves. Geralt does not follow.

---

It’s new to Geralt, the way love was, this feeling of missing someone. Missing them in the truest sense of the word, not as a feeling but as a state of being, something tangibly and markedly absent from his life where he’d grown accustomed to it being. A good portion of a normal lifetime, he had Jaskier, and now he doesn’t.

Heartbreak is a new sensation as well. Geralt has no time for its melodrama. He refuses it.

He does what he’s always done, kills monsters, butchers them for parts, makes enough coin to scrape by. He goes where he wants, when he wants, and comes very close on several occasions to feeling a justified sort of bitterness, so there, I never wanted to be tied down in the first place.

Jaskier would agree with him, on that matter, as he made abundantly clear. It takes the enjoyment out of the imaginary arguments. Geralt lays on his bedroll, listens to Roach poking around in the grass, and wants for Jaskier to be at his side, rambling on about the importance of love as something free and majestic as a unicorn or some other contrived poetic metaphor that only sounds ridiculous when Geralt thinks it.

Destiny, apparently deciding that Geralt hasn’t been through enough recently, decides to rear its head again.

For once, for now, with Geralt alone in the world and absent the one friend he’d come to rely on, it is an improvement. It’s the rest of his life, he realizes, given willingly, for a child that he spent more than a decade trying to avoid.

“You’re quiet,” Ciri observes, one of the first nights they’re together. She’s peering at him, eyes like saucers from across the fire, where she’s planted herself what she’s deemed a safe distance away. She’s still oscillating between affectionate and wary, instinctive trust undercut by learned caution that Geralt is, in some cowardly place inside himself, grateful for, because he doesn’t think he’d know what to do if this slip of a girl expected him to be doting and sweet instead of quietly protective.

“I am,” he says.

He imagines, in spite of himself, the snort of disbelief that Jaskier would give at that. Him, quiet? he’d say, teasingly. Sure, if you haven’t heard him bloody monologuing to his horse; Geralt of Rivia, quiet, ha, and Geralt would roll his eyes but not bother correcting him because he wasn’t, really, for a time, not around Jaskier.

He thinks: he used to be incapable of loneliness, or numb to it, at least.

“I used to have more to say as well,” Ciri says, near-prescient the way that children sometimes are, wizened with suffering in the way children shouldn’t have to be. Geralt stares down at his feet, and Roach gives a weary sigh, and none of them says anything more.

---

They’re followed into the town square, at a distance, but gaining fast.

Too fast.

“Geralt,” Ciri says, hiding it well enough but obviously petrified.

“I know,” Geralt says, reaching for his swords and barely holding back a curse. He’s going to have to fight, which in itself is fine – he’s fought more and better men in one go – but it will attract attention, which is the opposite of what he’s been trying to do. Half of Nilfgaard will be on them within the hour, and whatever northward progress he and Ciri have made over the better part of the six months they’ve been on the run, doubling back and veering off course to avoid her pursuers, will be lost.

That’s when Geralt hears the music.

It’s only for a second, sound spilling out through a momentarily opened door, but it’s enough: He’s tugging Ciri with him into the tavern without consciously deciding to, his feet moving of their own accord toward – because he knows even before he sees him, he has no ear for music but would recognize this music through a fucking hurricane – Jaskier.

Jaskier, Geralt’s heart thuds, and the passage of time is suspended into a series of drawn out moments. Jaskier is performing the way he has at most every tavern they’ve ever passed, leaning roguishly against a table full of middle-aged ladies, all of whom are various shades of red, presumably at the crisp lines of Jaskier’s elegant, navy blue doublet, because he always has known how to dress to flatter his colouring.

Geralt sees the moment that Jaskier notices him, watches his eyes widen, and time starts properly again, the reality of the situation crashing Geralt back to earth.

He can only tell the abruptness of Jaskier’s ending to his song because of decades of hearing it performed in full; Jaskier wades through the tables much the way he did a lifetime ago in a tavern in Posado, and Geralt half expects him to crack a joke about having bread in his pants, but Jaskier only says, “Geralt.” Hell of a time for him to learn restraint.

He looks precisely as Geralt remembered him. Maybe slightly more tanned.

He looks so, so good.

“I need to hide her,” Geralt says, all business, and Jaskier glances down at Ciri, back at Geralt, then nods.

 He fishes in his pocket and tosses Geralt a key. “Third room on the left.”

Geralt doesn’t waste time: he ushers Ciri ahead of him, toward the wooden staircase toward the back of the room. They’ve only barely made it up when he hears the sound of the tavern’s door opening and, in the same moment, the sound of Jaskier’s lutestrings again.

“Alright, everyone on your feet,” Jaskier’s saying, voice loud and jovial, giving not the slightest hint of any interruption. “This next one is meant for dancing- you, fellows in the lovely and terrifying black capes, come on, surely they teach you to dance in Nilfgaard-”

The key unlocks the third door on the left of the cramped hallway, and Geralt herds Ciri inside, shuts it behind them, quickly. The place smells of Jaskier, his things littered about as though he’s already been here a few days, a few pages of scribblings stacked on a small table. It’s almost overwhelming, the presence of him, but Geralt doesn’t get to be overwhelmed, not now with the men who want to kill Ciri stomping about below in their heavy boots, so he just positions himself by the door and waits, one hand on his steel sword.

“How do you know him?” Ciri asks, from deeper in the room. She’s standing upright, fists clenched as though ready to fight as well. “The bard?”

Geralt keeps his gaze on the ground, keeps listening downstairs. “He’s…”

“Your friend?” Ciri suggests, when seconds pass without Geralt managing a sufficient answer. He gives a noncommittal grunt.

He doesn’t stand down, not when he hears their disgruntled pursuers leaving, expertly misdirected, or when he hears normal conversation pick up over loud lute music, or when the music stops, after a while. Not until he hears a soft knock on the door does Geralt take a step back and spend one ridiculous, childishly frantic moment wondering what to do with his hands before Jaskier is slipping into the room, his lute slung over a shoulder, his arms full with a platter of bread and cheese and meats.

For a brief moment, he and Geralt are chest to chest in the doorway, the proximity suggestive enough of a dozen times before, with significantly fewer clothes involved, to be arresting. Geralt stands frozen, uselessly, and hears Jaskier’s breath hitch in his throat.

He’s close enough to kiss; instead, his gaze slides past Geralt, over his shoulder.

“This is…” he says, and doesn’t finish the question. They were both at the betrothal banquet; he saw Pavetta, knows her daughter is her double.

Geralt nods, and Jaskier steps around him and into the room, leaving Geralt to lock the door behind him. He hears Ciri’s heartbeat pickup at the presence of a stranger, but Jaskier stops midway across the room, keeping his distance, perhaps seeing the way she’s standing, tensed as though to run.

Jaskier offers a smile, kind. “Princess,” he says, with a deep bow that, while not technically flawless, is easy enough to feel natural. “Jaskier, world-renowned bard at your service.”

“Thank you,” Ciri says – serious, she’s the most serious child Geralt has met – though, curiosity clearly getting the best of her, she asks, “You’re Geralt’s friend?”

Jaskier’s glance at Geralt is quick enough, the hesitation subtle enough, that Geralt thinks it must escape Ciri’s notice.

“Yes,” Jaskier says, perfectly steady. “Yes, why, has he told you a hundred embarrassing stories about me in my youth?” Then, when Ciri shakes her head, no, he lowers his voice, conspiratorial. “Ah, no matter, I can tell you embarrassing stories about him. D’you know about the time he got knocked out by a goat?”

“A faun,” Geralt corrects, though he can’t manage to make himself sound truly irritated because Ciri is, somewhat unbelievably, smiling, delighted. Geralt can count on one hand the number of times he’s seen her smile; he counts them all, miserly and still mildly disconcerted by the extent of his own fondness.

Jaskier straightens slightly from where he was bent to meet her eyes. “Well,” he declares, with another barely-there glance at Geralt and another smile for Ciri. “I brought food, whatever I could coax out of the barmaid, though I warn you, establishment like this, there’s a not-inconsiderable risk that some of the sausage is some kind of possum-”

Possum or not, it’s the hardiest meal that either Ciri or Geralt has had in weeks. Geralt, at least, is accustomed to roughing it; still, the feeling of a full stomach and a roof over their heads and Jaskier chatting away has the approximate effect of a small, particularly bright sun. The world is not safe for a witcher, and even less so for a little girl in a witcher’s care. It feels safe, here in Jaskier’s room, nevertheless.

Ciri relaxes bit by bit, obviously made comfortable by Jaskier’s easy friendliness. Geralt listens to him talk, feels inclined to relax as well, but the spectre of how they parted looms large in his mind. Between the two of them, hardly a handful of words are directly exchanged, most of them carefully and obviously guarded at that, and they fall into an only-just-uncomfortable silence while Ciri falls asleep, one of Jaskier’s nightshirts hanging baggy on her like a dress.

She sleeps curled against Geralt’s side, same as when they’re in the woods. He’s got one hand in her hair, moving with small strokes like with a cat, because she has fewer nightmares when he does. He wonders if her grandmother used to do the same, and has trouble picturing the Lioness of Cintra doing anything quite so domestic. Supposes he would have had trouble picturing the same thing of himself.

He’s aware of the sensation of Jaskier watching him, sat on a chair across from the bed as they warm themselves by the fireplace. Geralt would be embarrassed by the softness of the gesture if it were anyone else, but Jaskier knows every side of him. Knew, maybe.

It’s the longest they’ve gone without seeing each other since they first met.

The silence stretches, elastic, until it breaks.

“Only you,” Jaskier says, unprompted, then, reworking his sentence mid-speech as he sometimes does when songwriting, “I’ve been picturing you this whole time in the same outfit, which wasn’t realistic, I thought, but I should’ve known- only you would be wearing the exact same patched-to-hell black shirt after three entire years, it’s like you walked out of a bloody memory.”

It doesn’t quite manage his usual eloquence. Geralt forgives the attempt, and returns it.

“You’re still-” He gestures vaguely at Jaskier with his free hand. “Embroidered.”

“The more things change,” Jaskier agrees, winsome, and both of them look, in unison, toward Ciri.

Her brow is slightly furrowed, her breathing even with the lull of sleep. Years, they spent, Geralt and Jaskier both, running from her. From this. He wonders if he looks a stranger to Jaskier, beneath the identical shirt.

“So,” Jaskier says, bluntly. Never one for tip-toeing around anything at all. “You have a child now. So that’s fairly massive.”

It’s the first time that someone has referred to Ciri as Geralt’s child. Geralt doesn’t correct him.

“You?” he asks, not sure whether he really wants the answer. “Married yet?”

The answering guffaw of Jaskier’s laughter at their old inside joke echoes in Geralt’s heart like a symphony, more relief than he has any right to feel. “Gods, no,” Jaskier says, leaning forward in his seat, arms braced on either knee. “It turns out that in addition to being too young and attractive for marriage, I’m also far too much a coward.”

Geralt watches him carefully, cataloguing the way Jaskier pauses for breath, the way his steady gaze into the fire belies his flippant tone.

“You see, I cared very much for someone, a real grumpy arsehole of a man, prone to sarcasm, bouts of philosophy, and heretical musical opinions, but then he suggested that he cared for me too, and I panicked and, I think, hurt him.” He tells it like a story. He’s good at those. Always has been. Geralt hasn’t taken a breath since Jaskier started speaking.

“It now occurs to me that perhaps my fondness for the unattainable might stem from the fact that-” Jaskier falters, reaches up and scratches at the nape of his neck, still not looking at Geralt. “That love, in my experience, when it’s not an idea in a song, tends to be a very conditional thing.”

He was alone when Geralt met him. Alone always, except for fleeting lovers and a scornful family and Geralt himself. Geralt thinks of Jaskier asking him not to sleep with Yen then backtracking, censoring himself; thinks of Jaskier clingy and callous in turns like a beaten dog.

Jaskier clears his throat, swipes a hand across his eyes quick enough that Geralt doubts he even saw it happen. When Jaskier speaks again, his voice is more normal, if still quiet. “Which is to say, y’know, that with regards to attempts to make something permanent of it, of love, it’s easier to just. Not.” He inclines his head, glances at Geralt, just quickly. “More fool me, maybe.”

Geralt knows it for the apology it is, verbose and circuitous because that’s the only way Jaskier has ever known how to be. Geralt expected to feel more… vindicated. Instead, he just wants, abruptly and fiercely, to have done with this whole stupid mess, to have his best friend back. He says, frank, “I shouldn’t have said what I said on the mountain.”

“We’re both dicks,” Jaskier says, shaking his head even before Geralt’s done speaking.

“You more,” Geralt says, instinct, and a good one, because Jaskier retorts just as quickly.

“Geralt, if you took being a dick out of your personality, you’d have nothing left.”

They exchange grins, and something that’s been out of place inside of Geralt since that day on the mountain is set straight, something missing returned. He’s been imagining Jaskier’s smile most nights since last he saw it; his imaginings were nothing, pale ghosts of the real thing. It’s a smile like absolution, like knowing the ugliest parts of someone and forgiving them anyways.

Geralt doesn’t get up from the bed and stride the two steps’ space between them and kiss Jaskier breathless. He wants to.

“Where are you two heading?” Jaskier asks.

“Kaer Morhen,” Geralt says. It’s a long ways away, halfway across the continent and may well be twice that at the pace they’re travelling, but it’s the most secure place Geralt knows. “It should be safer for her there.”

“Ah,” Jaskier nods, and Geralt does as well, uselessly, and watches the shadows shift on Jaskier’s throat as he swallows. The scant distance between them, so much less than it has been but so much more than it was before, is suddenly unbearable.

“Come with us,” Geralt says. Just says it, asks without pretense or posturing.

Jaskier shuts his eyes, looks as though he’s just taken a blow.

“Geralt,” he says, quiet as he’s ever been, and Geralt cannot lose him again.

“It’ll be like it was,” Geralt says, dignity be damned, then, striving for a joke, “The boys.”

It gets the barest trace of a smile from Jaskier; reluctantly, it looks like. “And your child of surprise,” he corrects, wry. “And the literal army chasing you. And your insane witch girlfriend, if we ever find her.”

“Yeah,” Geralt says, because… yeah. Fucking- the two of them, fugitives in an inn trading tender forgiveness and speaking in undertones to avoid waking a mostly-helpless princess, they’re not what they used to be, when they were young and couldn’t speak without arguing and everything they did together was the stuff of epic ballads.

Well. When Jaskier was young.

He looks it now, young as he ever has, when his eyes find Geralt’s. “I’m not-” He bites his tongue, looks as ashamed of himself as he ever has. “I don’t think I’m cut out to be anyone’s parent, Geralt.”

“You don’t have to be that,” Geralt says, speaking up almost before Jaskier’s done, and finding himself sounding irritated, forceful, because he’s never once in his life known how to do romantic. “You don’t have to be anything, just-”

Just be with me again, he doesn’t say, annoy me beyond endurance with your trail of vengeful cuckolds and wake me up tuning your lute before sunrise and look to me like I’m a real person while we make fun of the idiots who try to make such things as we have together last.

“Just come,” Geralt says, gruffly enough that it unintentionally comes out more like an order than any sort of romantic entreaty, harsh enough from the mouth of a witcher that any sane human in possession of a scrap of logic would go running.

“Alright,” Jaskier says, the way he always has, because some things, Geralt thinks – hopes – haven’t changed, even now.

---

They learn each other’s presence again in intervals of minutes, stolen half-conversations that are the consequence of a new existence as fugitives from a powerful, dark magic wielding, apparently genocidal empire.

“Where were you these years?” Jaskier asks, as they walk off the road at night, and Geralt tells him; Jaskier, in return, is tentative for about thirty seconds before launching into an incredibly, obnoxiously detailed breakdown of every one of his new compositions, the backstories behind them, and – it seems – every meal he ate while they weren’t speaking. Geralt forgot, somehow, just how fucking much he talked.

Geralt missed him.

He’s taken aback sometimes, surprised by Jaskier where he didn’t think it was still possible.

“No more letters waiting?” Geralt asks, another in a string of evenings in a string of interchangeable inns.

Jaskier gives him a wry look. “My parents have been dead for years, Geralt,” he says, quite matter-of-factly.

Geralt restrains himself from wincing. Humans live such short lives, even when all they seem to do with them is harass their son to marry advantageously and procreate. “Sorry.”

Jaskier’s little half-shrug is inscrutable. “I was a terrible disappointment, they made that much very clear,” he says, speaking like he’s put thought into the words. Geralt doesn’t doubt he has. He doesn’t sound sad, exactly, more- wistful. Distant. “Never even went back to visit, you know. Not once.”

Geralt knows guilt when he hears it. He lays a hand on Jaskier’s shoulder, bracing, and only realizes as he does it that it’s the first time he’s intentionally touched Jaskier since their reunion. Jaskier must realize it too, because he blinks at Geralt, eyes wide and blue and as searching as the first time they kissed.

Geralt does not move his hand, and Jaskier touches his knee in return, and that’s all it is, that night, but Geralt lays awake all the same, and hears from Jaskier’s breathing that he’s doing the same.

Sometimes, it reminds him of the way they were before, when they were friends and nothing else and mortal danger was so commonplace as to be, on occasion, mildly amusing; like the time when they’re cornered in a stable, Ciri and Jaskier frantically saddling Roach while Geralt holds the doors closed with all his might.

“Ride south to the water, I’ll lead them off your trail and catch up by morning,” he orders, through gritted teeth.

“What about Jaskier?” Ciri asks.

Jaskier waves her off, voice admirably calm, even as he’s hopping about, antsy the way he gets when they’re inches away from death. “I’ve been running after Geralt on horseback for decades, Princess, trust me, my legs can handle it.”

Ciri looks deeply offended on his behalf as she turns to look at Geralt, momentarily distracted from the angry mob attempting to break in and kill them. “You made him walk?”

“Ooh, I like her,” Jaskier quips, and Geralt heaves all his weight against the door, straining to keep it shut.

“Not- the- time, you two,” he grunts, and Jaskier shoots him a grin, and Geralt’s heart flutters, so, fantastic, it really is like the damned good old days.

Sometimes, things are a fair bit more morbidly terrible than before; like when an ambush threatens to get out of control and Ciri screams, a mind shattering sound that rends through the air like an explosion. Geralt barely manages to stay upright while their attackers crumple to the ground, unconscious, but so does Jaskier.

“I didn’t mean to!” Ciri sobs, still unused to harming people. Geralt wants more than anything, in a way that increasingly feels futile, for her to stay that way.

“I know,” he says, doubled over to lift Jaskier’s limp form into his arms. Breathing. He’s breathing. “He knows, Ciri, this isn’t the first time he’s been knocked out, he’s got a thick skull.”

He carries Jaskier cradled in his arms back to their camp, doesn’t truly relax until his eyes blink open hours later.

Jaskier follows when they start on their way again. He doesn’t appear to even consider leaving.

When Geralt and he have finished filling in the years they were parted, they circle around to the why. Geralt was dreading it, a little, but something about having wounded each other and been without and choosing to come back for more has made honesty a default, for them.

“I thought- you’d sort of proved my point for me,” Jaskier admits one night, late enough that it’s practically morning. “You cursed our ever knowing each other on the mountain, and I thought, there it is, Julian, you were right, he’s finally got sick of you the way that was always bound to happen, the inevitable way of good things if you try to make them last past their time.”

His hands are busy, because they’re always busy; currently moving as if of their own accord even in the dim light, knotting the stems of wild buttercups together into a chain that’s rapidly piling up at his feet. He was teaching Ciri to make them earlier, and she’s still draped in flower jewelry now as she sleeps, stretched out on the other side of the fire.

“That’s what your songs’re for, right?” Geralt asks, sat next to him, where he’s got a good view of the whole campsite. “Making things last?”

Jaskier gives him a smile, obviously recalling their similar conversation long ago. “Songs and stories and marriage and babies,” he chants, nearly musically, then, seemingly an unrelated thought, “Imagine, Geralt, how long we’ve known each other.”

They’re opposites in more ways than not. In this way, though – Geralt wonders if he was Jaskier’s first, best, only real friend, as well. He thinks he might’ve been.

The night is quiet, just the hushed rustling of the breeze across tall grass.

Geralt knows, somehow, what Jaskier is going to say before he says it.

“Were you going to ask me, that day?”

Geralt holds Jaskier’s gaze as he shrugs. It’s not him being obstinate, for once. He thinks- he was joking, because he’s not the proposing type and can never be, no more than he can retire from the Path and become a cobbler. It was too true for a joke, though. Jokes aren’t supposed to be something you want.

He knows he was in love. Doesn’t know absolutely fuck all else.

Jaskier goes on, his voice purposefully innocent in the way that means he’s being a shit and knows it. “Even though you’re a witcher with no feelings and I’m a notorious libertine and we’re both big, strong men, hurr-durr-”

Geralt kicks at Jaskier’s ankles, gently. “You’re not big or strong.”

“We’re the same height!” Jaskier protests, indignant, and kicks Geralt back, leaves their knees just slightly touching. Geralt listens to the steady one-two of Jaskier’s heartbeat, like steps of a dance or the ticking of a clock.

Jaskier is still looking at him, thoughtful. This time, Geralt doesn’t expect what he asks.

“You feel differently about it than I do, don’t you?” It’s a question, technically, but he says it quite certainly.

No secrets between them. Still, Geralt thinks he might be physically incapable of doing emotions without a fight. “About us being the same height? We’re not, I’m taller.”

Jaskier doesn’t allow the change of subject. “About betrothal and marriage and the rest of the horseshit.”

“Witchers don’t-”

“Not as a witcher, as you-”

“I am a witcher,” Geralt says, firmly enough that Jaskier doesn’t attempt to interrupt again. “I am, so it would be stupid for me to think about any of that, because there would be no point.”

“But you do think about it,” Jaskier pushes. “You did.”

Geralt shuts his eyes.

The fire needs more wood. He doesn’t move to find any, just stays where he is, and when he opens his eyes, Jaskier is looking skyward, shaking his head slowly.

“You’re so human,” he says, pained; then, when Geralt scoffs, “No, Geralt, you are, you’re-” He clutches the buttercup he’s holding to his chest, the little flower dwarfed in his hand. “Gods, since the day I met you, you talk yourself out of wanting conventional things because you think you’re not allowed to, and here I am, denying you of the chance to have what you want because I’m too much a bastard to think real life can live up to-”

“Stop,” Geralt cuts him off, because Jaskier is right, mostly, and perceptive, inconveniently, but not on this, not wholly.

He hasn’t left yet, Geralt reminds himself, and admits, quietly, “If I want any of- of that, it’s not for its own sake. It’s because of you. Just you. You keep expecting me to get sick of you, but I haven’t. I won’t.”

Everything Jaskier has coaxed from him, everything this bard has made Geralt that Geralt thought he’d never be, is in those clumsily patched-together sentences. It’s as much as he’s ever said to anyone, as close to romance as he thinks he’s able.

Because he’s still himself, he tacks on, “Now stop making me fucking talk so much.”

It’s a half-hearted admonishment at best, no real anger behind it – how odd, for a witcher to become a domesticated thing – and even if there was, Jaskier’s reaction would be the same. He uses his thumbnail to pop off the flowered head of the buttercup he’s holding, then drops the stem as well, brushes off his hands on his knees and turns where he sits, enough that he’s looking squarely at Geralt. Without meaning to, Geralt’s hand has landed on the outside of Jaskier’s crossed knees, turning them to face him as well.

It’s not an accidental nudge of their knees. Not a mannish, comradely clap on the shoulder, either. It has intent, clearly felt by the both of them, and Jaskier is the one who speaks, but it has the distinct feeling of something decided in tandem when he asks, low, “May I kiss you again?”

Geralt nods, and his hand tightens on Jaskier’s knee as he lets himself be tugged in, Jaskier’s hand broad and warm on the back of his neck as their lips meet.

They waste no time on hesitation, this first kiss: it is a homecoming and a celebration and maybe a little bit a challenge, too, because they’re both incapable of not goading the other on, see, this is how much I’ve missed you, go ahead and try to top this, and they both do. Geralt slides his hand up Jaskier’s thigh, tightening his grip on his hip to pull Jaskier impossibly closer, relishing in the feeling of the lean muscle of his legs, the way that Jaskier gasps, a breathless laugh at himself as Geralt kisses his neck, his jaw, his dimple when he smiles. It’s the first time Geralt has touched him this much since everything went to shit; if Geralt has his way, the first of many for as long as they’re both able. Jaskier smells of flowers, a little, but mostly just like himself. Geralt feels monstrous enough to howl up at the sky, mortal enough to curl up at Jaskier’s side and lose himself in his kisses and waste away the rest of his days like that

“You could crush my heart underfoot, Geralt of Rivia,” Jaskier whispers, lips brushing against Geralt’s, fingers wound tightly in Geralt’s collar. He sounds astounded by the realization. “You could ask for my hand and I’d consign myself to waiting at your bedside and vanity and table in some boring domestic tableau and only resent you a little.”

“I wouldn’t crush your heart,” Geralt says, nosing against Jaskier’s cheek, then, teasing, because he knows what it meant, how monumental it was for Jaskier to offer that, “Wouldn’t ask your hand either, not now, you stink too much of buttercups.”

Jaskier laughs, and his arms around Geralt’s neck are something like an embrace, now. Maybe have been the whole time. “I don’t suspect we’re doing any of this the way we’re supposed to,” he says.

“When have we ever?” Geralt asks, flat. “Who gives a fuck, alright?”

Jaskier nods, and he’s very obviously terrified, the way he always gets when they talk about something he could lose, but this time he doesn’t pull back, doesn’t move to loosen his grip on Geralt at all. “Alright,” he says, nodding, “Sure, alright,” and they’re kissing again, properly, hungrily, Jaskier’s tongue fucking into Geralt’s mouth like a promise, his hand cupping Geralt’s stiffening cock through his trousers as though he intends on making good on that promise quite expediently.

The hardest thing Geralt has ever done, including a century and a half of battles to the death with horrifying monsters and impossible odds, is stopping Jaskier before he can go further. To his questioning, mostly incredulous look, Geralt clears his throat. “It- Ciri.”

Jaskier glances over to the other side of the fire, where Ciri is asleep, peaceful and – thank the gods – oblivious. He looks unsure whether to laugh or cry. Geralt relates. “Gods, we are old and responsible now, look what you’ve done to me.”

Their eyes meet, and of the two choices, they wind up laughing, giddy and stupid and entirely blue-ballsing themselves, and the whole situation is just ridiculous enough, like most of Geralt’s life has been since Jaskier entered it and refused to leave, that their laughter even wakes up a bemused Ciri, because of course it does.

Sometimes, this time, after that night, it is better than it was before. Better than it has ever been.

 Geralt, only somewhat reluctantly, finds himself conceding that destiny, if it exists, which recent events seem to suggest, might not be so terrible a thing, not really. It brought him and Jaskier back to each other, after all, and it means that he gets to listen to Jaskier singing old Cintran drinking songs as they travel; and that Geralt has someone to tease him out of it if he finds himself in a foul mood; and that, eventually, when they finally manage to get a room to themselves at an inn, Geralt gets to spend most of a night becoming thoroughly reacquainted with Jaskier’s body, its sensitivities and ticklish places and gasped out fond curses, at least before Geralt has to stumble into a pair of pants and chase down a possible assassin, half-naked.

The journey is shorter, or feels it, since Jaskier returned to his side: they reach the base of the mountains near Kaer Morhen as the first winds of winter begin to blow and, far too soon, face down the inevitable again. They’ve been putting off their parting, this time. They’ve always parted.

Geralt watches from a ways away, ostensibly loading Roach’s saddlebags, as Jaskier bids farewell to Ciri, looking bemused and then just fond at her tight hug. Jaskier squeezes back, says, quietly enough that Geralt suspects he’s not supposed to overhear, “Look after him for me, darling, alright?”

Ciri nods, and Geralt hears her laugh, reluctantly, when Jaskier pulls back and taps her on the nose. “And practice your scales, next I see you we’re duetting.”

“I told you I can’t sing.”

“None of that, you’ve just spent how many months with me? You’re more talented than half the continent just by proxy!”

Geralt pats Roach’s flank and retreats into the stables, half because the sight of the two of them laughing together will never not be somewhat overwhelming. Half in anticipation, seeking out some facsimile of privacy, anticipating and dreading both at once when Jaskier comes to find him.

“If you’re planning on ravishing me here, I think I’m honour bound to tell you that Ciri is right outside and almost certainly eavesdropping,” Jaskier quips, stood silhouetted in the doorway, though he approaches once Geralt looks at him, winds a finger in an untied string of Geralt’s shirt. It might’ve been meant to be flirty; Geralt understands it for what it really is, the instinct to hold on.

He crowds Jaskier against the wall, gently, both his hands at Jaskier’s hips, bunching up the untucked hem of his shirt. Geralt doesn’t think he’s the only one feeling a slight dread at their forthcoming parting; last time they did, it lasted years.

Now isn’t then. Now, since Jaskier joined Geralt and Ciri, has been like something from a dream, it’s been so easy to slip back into being the two of them.

They parted, back in the early days. Frequently. Always found each other again. Now, Geralt thinks – believes – can be like then, in that way. It will.

“I’ll find you in summer,” Jaskier promises, up close. It’s not an excuse. Not an apology either. They’re on the same page now, enough to render excuses or apologies unnecessary. “I’ll come back.”

“Like a fungus,” Geralt says, and Jaskier pinches him, which means that Geralt has to muss his hair, and it turns into a minor shoving context, even though they’re much too wise and mature for that sort of thing, and then that turns, somewhere along the line, into a fierce hug, Jaskier clinging and Geralt clinging right back. He folds his arms across Jaskier’s back, wrapping him up completely.

Keeping someone means letting them go, means letting them be what they are, Geralt understands. Still he wants.

“Old friend,” he says, and it comes out curt, grumpy with his attempt to sound unaffected. Jaskier kisses him once, then again, both times quite quick as far as kisses go, since neither of them is the sort for tearful goodbyes.

Geralt forces himself to let go first, shoves his hands into his pockets and watches as Jaskier slings his pack over his shoulder, adjusts the strap of his lute across his chest. He manages to hold out until Jaskier is in the doorway, halfway out. “Jaskier.”

Jaskier stops and looks back, and Geralt hesitates. He doesn’t want to open an old wound. Settles for saying, simply, “Don’t marry anyone else.”

Jaskier gives a jaunty grin, cocky as ever. “Couldn’t,” he says. “Haven’t earned anything in months, I’m far too poor. No dowry to speak of.”

“Good,” Geralt says, and gets a glimpse of Jaskier’s real smile, softer about the eyes, before he turns and goes.

---

It goes like this:

They’ve mostly stopped remarking upon the follies of marriage, which, in retrospect, they might have been slightly too harsh about, in favour of circling the topic like a dance, for Jaskier, or a swordfight, for Geralt. They’re getting quite good at it, this many years in, always with some new, increasingly outlandish excuse to maintain what it, by this point, a fairly shambolic excuse for bachelorhood.

“I’m far too tired for marriage,” Jaskier yawns, the year that Geralt finds him in Aedirn. All greetings and heartfelt reunions and mocking of each other’s appearances properly dispensed with, Geralt is currently sprawled on Jaskier’s bed with Jaskier sprawled mostly on him, a wall of heat and bony elbows and knees that is infinitely more pleasurable than it should be. “I might just not get up from this bed and then you’ll have to lug me about and pay the innkeeper for at least an extra week. You?”

“Hm,” Geralt agrees, too spent from the journey and from multiple thoroughly enthusiastic rounds of fucking to pretend at keeping up with Jaskier’s wordplay. “Couldn’t get through the vows.”

“Pity,” Jaskier murmurs, then toying absentmindedly with the hair on Geralt’s chest, says, after a moment, “Did you know, bloody Valdo Marx tried to perform one of my white wolf ballads? Remind me when I wake, I’ll tell you about it, it was-” He breaks off, yawning again. “Scandalous.”

“Go to sleep, bard,” Geralt orders, fond, and he’s sweating in minutes from the heat of their skin pressed together and the fact that Jaskier tends to run hot, but he doesn’t move away.

---

And then:

“I’m too much a dedicated friend to marry,” Jaskier says a couple years later, when they end up sharing a cramped cabin on a ship bound for Skellige, not that they’ll let that distract them.

“I mean, just imagine,” he goes on as the boat rocks beneath them. “If I were to give in to one of the many women yearning after my attentions and decide to go sedentary, you would hardly last the week without me smoothing over all of your social interactions.”

“Selfless of you,” Geralt says, only half-listening, preferring to dedicate his attention and considerable hand-eye coordination to unbuttoning Jaskier’s ludicrously complicated vest, discarding it carelessly once he does. Jaskier’s body is different again than it was when Geralt first saw it thirty-something years ago, and Geralt still doesn’t have an eye for beauty or an ear for poetry, but he can recognize both in Jaskier.

Jaskier is noisy, shameless even with the other passengers equally cramped on the other side of thin walls. He’s always been a performer, even in bed, and Geralt takes it as a point of pride when he can make the performance fall apart, can reduce Jaskier to desperate panting and whispered oaths and nothing remotely sophisticated at all.

---

And then:

The world narrows to a single, panicked instant, when, after they’ve been travelling together consistently for three years, Jaskier catches a stray arrow through his side. It missed anything vital, Geralt realizes, once he’s snapped the neck of the bandit fool enough to touch Jaskier, but optimism isn’t something he can muster when Jaskier’s blood is on his hands and he’s ghastly pale.

Geralt rides him to the nearest healer at a gallop, cleans the dried blood from his hands with a damp cloth and watches the local healer tip healing droughts down Jaskier’s throat. He passed out a while ago; Geralt sits vigil by his bedside until he falls asleep too, from sheer exhaustion, and when he wakes, it’s to daylight streaming in and Jaskier’s hand stroking through his hair, the way Geralt used to do for Ciri

Alive. He’s alive. He’s alright.

He, being Jaskier, starts mocking Geralt immediately.

“You look tragic.”

“You were almost dead, Jaskier,” Geralt says, not quite a retort. He stretches as he sits up, automatically reaching to smooth down the thin sheet covering Jaskier. More to feel useful than because it truly does anything. Loving someone is irrational and terrifying and mostly painful, even when it’s wonderful.

“You saved me?” Jaskier asks, though before Geralt can answer, he says – quite confidently, considering his eyes are squeezed shut with pain as he shifts his position – “Yeah, you did, it’s part of the hero thing, I know. Was it incredibly dashing?”

Geralt can’t bring himself to stop touching Jaskier entirely, leaves a hand resting on his stomach, just to feel it shift as he breathes. “Very, yeah.”

 Jaskier hums tiredly. “Marry me.”

“Can’t,” Geralt says, then, when Jaskier opens his eyes in anticipation of a witty excuse, says, blunt on purpose, “You’ve got a massive fucking stab wound, see.”

Jaskier’s laughter sets him clutching at his ribs, wincing. “Ah, well, bollocks,” he sighs, blinking at Geralt, fondness written plainly on his face. “Suppose I’ll have to stick to scoundrel-ing.”

“S’pose so,” Geralt says, and Jaskier’s fingers half-circle his forearm, a loose, barely there grip. Reassuring himself of Geralt’s presence, grounding himself the same way Geralt is with him.

Geralt realizes – not for the first time, but perhaps for the first in so many words, and with such clarity – he’s forgotten entirely how to live without this man. He’s always thought humans fragile. He knows it now, with a terrifying kind of hyperawareness.

Jaskier squeezes his arm, just once, his thumb pressing a line along the back of Geralt’s wrist. It brings Geralt back.

They’re here, now. Jaskier is alive, now. Best, only, most enduring- all Jaskier is to Geralt, he is here, now, at his side.

It’s enough. More than.

And then-

---

Ciri’s got a sword of her own and a deeply frustrating new tendency not to let Geralt kill things for her anymore, by the time they track down the ogres’ campsite.

“Doing alright, Jaskier?” she asks, impaling a charging ogre through the heart. She’s a more than capable fighter. Believes too much in her own heroism; it makes her reckless. Though, Geralt supposes, some recklessness is probably necessary to charge, vastly outnumbered, into a camp of hungry ogres.

“Mmph,” says Jaskier emphatically, though quite a bit less eloquently than is his custom, which is understandable, given that he’s currently gagged and tied upside down over the ogres’ fire.

“Focus,” Geralt grunts, cleaving with one blow through the two particularly massive creatures reaching for Ciri, sparing a glance over his shoulder to make sure the fire under Jaskier isn’t growing too large. Between the two of them, if he weren’t already grey…

He and Ciri dispense with Jaskier’s captors easily enough, between the two of them, and once they do, Geralt steps over one of the mottled blue corpses, cuts Jaskier down, and sets him down beside the firepit.

“Jaskier,” he says, slipping Jaskier’s gag out of his mouth. “You left Oxenfurt.”

“Geralt,” Jaskier says, shaking off the remains of the ropes around him. “Considered staying the semester, got bored once you left, picked a spot on the map at random to grace with my music, and look at us now.” Geralt allows himself to be yanked into a hug, hugs back, tightly, and buries his face in Jaskier’s hair – shaggy, he’s been on the road awhile, then, and greyer than the last time they were together, but still smelling like summer and scented oils and himself – and gets to enjoy his presence for all of a few seconds before Ciri tugs him out of the way, impatient.

“Ah, Princess, remind me never to piss you off, hey?” Jaskier grins and he can’t have all the feeling back in his legs yet, but he only staggers a bit at Ciri’s jumping hug, even spins her around the way he would when she was only small. He’s never stopped using her title, always a fastidiously proper ‘Princess’, and Ciri always rolls her eyes but brightens every time at the artefact of a life lost. “I mean, truly, you can’t have learned all that from Geralt- no, don’t even tell me, you’ve been hanging about with the witch some more.”

Geralt cuffs him on the back of the head, lightly, for the dig at Yen. He suspects that, in spite of themselves, she and Jaskier are quite fond of each other, deep down. Bottom of a near-infinite pit, buried under a few layers of solid rock and fossil, deep down, but still.

“She’s going to teach me magic,” Ciri says, with barely-concealed eagerness. She’s so young, Geralt realizes with a pang, for about the millionth time that day. Young, and covered in splattered blood, and taking Jaskier’s offered arm as he launches into a meandering story that has a point, probably, theoretically.

The evening takes on something of a celebratory feel, once they’ve dragged the dead ogres out of seeing and smelling range, at least for the other two. Geralt can tolerate the odour: death, danger, the actual reason he and Ciri set out before detouring to rescue Jaskier, all of it seems quite unimportant, the way things tend to do when he gets his bard back.

Geralt lets Jaskier and Ciri catch up – mostly courtesy of Jaskier, “A humble bardic genius can’t even take a shortcut on his way to avoid getting roped into teaching an advanced string instruments seminar, what’s come of the world?” – while he stokes the remains of the ogres’ fire into something sturdier and less deadly, then, eyes meeting in a silent conversation, he and Jaskier leave Ciri to brush down the horses and wander off a ways.

The area is hilly, stony ground, only a few sparse trees dotted here and there. Geralt picks a spot on an outcropping of rock, one with a full-on view of the fast-approaching sunset, and takes a seat next to Jaskier there.

“We might not have gotten to you in time,” he says.

“I knew you would,” Jaskier says, and kisses Geralt’s hand, then, settling cozily against his side, his shoulder. “Cynic.”

Geralt snorts.

“Tell me what I’ve missed,” Jaskier requests, so Geralt does, and then Jaskier retells a few of his stories with the details that he left out in front of Ciri, and Geralt just listens, lets the melody of Jaskier’s voice wash over him.

The sun looks massive from where they sit, casting Jaskier and everything else in a golden-tinged, soft-edged glow. Geralt kicks a pebble, listens to it skittering down the steep drop-off.

“Any plans to marry?” he asks, for the sake of their game.

“I did consider it,” Jaskier says, very seriously, except for the twinkle in his eye. “Thought about asking you, actually, only it didn’t seem right, now I’m so much older than you.”

“You look older,” Geralt corrects, because he does, even if it’s not overly egregious yet. Geralt’s hair probably helps. “That doesn’t mean shit all.” He quite likes it, actually. Jaskier looks older. Geralt’s got him beat by a century. It evens out.

“Well, in any case,” Jaskier presses on, “even if I were so inclined, you’re entirely too young for me now. Just think of the scandal.”

Geralt tilts his head, conceding the point. “Wouldn’t be our first.”

Jaskier leans back, settling against Geralt’s chest with a contented sigh, perhaps also thinking back on the days when they couldn’t enter a tavern without receiving glares (Geralt) and muttered curses (Jaskier) and general disdain (both of them, at least partially deservedly).

“I’m far too old to marry, you see,” he says, in his most logical rhetoric voice, the lofty and wise one he adopts whenever he’s preparing to say something to get a reaction out of Geralt. Geralt will never, not on pain of death, admit to it being his favourite of Jaskier’s voices. “I’m settled in my ways and firmly ensconced in all of my bad habits, and even if I did decide to make a mockery of love by formalizing it, it would take ages more time than I’ve got left to get acclimated to a suitable spouse.”

“I agree,” Geralt says, lightly enough, stretching his arm comfortably across Jaskier’s shoulders. “It’s foolish, the idea of spending a whole life with one person.”

“I agree,” says Jaskier, his own arm wrapping snug around Geralt’s waist so the two of them are holding and held at once. “We’re far too clever for that.”

They sit awhile, content to share in their superior cleverness, watching the sun dipping below the horizon inch by inch. Jaskier is a warm weight against Geralt, his heartbeat slow and relaxed and familiar as Geralt’s own.

“I’m going to take more contracts,” Geralt says, conversational, because he can be, around Jaskier. They’ve time yet before Ciri will miss them. “When I’ve dropped Ciri at the school.”

Jaskier hums, thoughtful. “Anywhere in particular?”

Geralt shrugs, careful not to jostle him too much. “Coast, maybe.”

Jaskier hums again. “In a fortuitously coincidental turn of fate, I’d planned on reasserting my musical superiority at several bardic festivals down that way.”

Geralt turns his smile against Jaskier’s temple. “Might run into each other.”

“We might, yeah,” Jaskier agrees, and goes willingly when Geralt tilts his chin and kisses him. It’s not leading to anything – it’s still mostly light out and they’re sitting on a craggy pile of rocks, it would be a bit much even for their considerably more adventurous than average tastes – just kissing for its own sake, because he can. Geralt can kiss Jaskier when he likes, like it’s something he could ever deserve. The knowledge is heady, still somewhat mystifying, near forty years in.

Geralt stays wrapped around him, doesn’t muster more than a perfunctory disapproving look when Jaskier slips his fingers between the fastenings of Geralt’s shirt and moves in for another kiss after the first, because he can’t quite debate Jaskier’s ambition when the result is the two of them like this. They’ll travel together for the foreseeable future. The prospect is a good one.

A breeze stirs up Jaskier’s hair, sending it fluttering across his forehead, chestnut brown streaked through with silver. The stray ends of it tickle where Geralt is still bent close.

“It doesn’t have to be the coast, you know,” Jaskier murmurs. Geralt would slay dragons for the timbre of his voice, the softened vowels. “You could pick the filthiest hovel or the most terrifying creature’s lair or-” he snorts, amused at himself, “-or an ancient and secret mountain keep only accessible to witchers, and I’d go and annoy you the whole way, if you’d have me.”

“I would,” Geralt says simply. Truthfully. “You know.” He flattens Jaskier’s collar against his neck with the side of his thumb. “You know what you are to me.”

Jaskier’s fingers flex where they’re still tucked against Geralt’s chest, his pulse picks up a little, the way it does every time they draw too close to this particular truth. To anyone who doesn’t know them, at sight, they are two aging bachelors. Good friends. Old friends. To the extent that they’ve ever verbalized it, that’s precisely what they are.

Geralt exhales, bemused. “Relax, I won’t say it.”

Jaskier blinks at him, a slow dawning of something like realization on his face, though Geralt can’t imagine what about. “But you would,” Jaskier says, then, somewhat opaquely, a crease deepening in his brow, “You would if I asked you to, wouldn’t you, you’d say- feelings, and all the rest of it, you’d say all those words to me.”

“Hm,” Geralt says. I’d say most words to you. I have.

Geralt wonders if Jaskier can truly still be surprised by that, that were he to ask anything, the fucking stars, Geralt would complain, shoot him a scowl, and set about figuring out how to retrieve them from the sky.

He has seen every minute detail of Jaskier, knows them the way only a witcher can, from the sound of his footsteps to the way the world stops and stares when he smiles to the habitual, nigh-inaudible double hitch in his breath when he’s about to come. He can’t recall seeing this particular look before, the way that Jaskier stares at him, eyes somehow bigger and bluer than usual, still like pools, still with a spark of something reflected there though they have no fire.

Jaskier is, for once, silent as he reaches up to where Geralt’s arm is still draped around his shoulders. He ducks from under it, out of Geralt’s grip just for long enough to take Geralt’s now-free hand in both of his own, clasped together between them.

Geralt watches him, uncertain. The rocky hill is painted pink in the last of the daylight.

Jaskier’s throat bobs as he swallows. He is watching their hands, and Geralt is watching him. “Don’t go far from where I go,” he says.

Geralt’s watching is staring, now. He knows those words. Has spent forty years mocking those words and resenting them and craving them and discovering – he thought – that whether or not he was allowed them, he didn’t need them.

“Let me follow if you must,” Jaskier goes on, quietly but clearly. Steadily. He laces their fingers. “For where you go, so will I go, from this day-”

“’til my dying day,” Geralt finishes. His voice comes out rougher than before, unpracticed, and Jaskier’s gaze comes up to meet his. Geralt holds his hand tighter, and they sit in silent wonderment as the light washes over them. Until-

“Well,” Jaskier says, tilting his head innocently. “That wasn’t so hard. Don’t really see what all the fuss is about.”

Completely fucking typical.

“Fucking bard,” Geralt growls, exasperated, and pulls Jaskier in by their joined hands to a crushing kiss, or- or it would be, but he can’t wipe the idiotic smile from his face, like a fair maiden in a song or a witcher who, at the moment, doesn’t have to feel like one, and Jaskier is smiling too, laughing at himself or at Geralt or at the both of them, and Geralt will needle him for it later but for now he just kisses him and kisses him, utterly overcome with it.

They’ve no village or court full of witnesses, no ribbon, embroidered or otherwise, joining their hands; no binding of destiny or a wish or anything but their word- but then, Geralt reflects, they’ve sworn an oath before, and they’ve proven quite adept at keeping it, all things considered.

He’ll make a dry comment about being doubly sworn brothers, later. Make Jaskier make a face and ramble on about Geralt being unromantic and childish, argue more and kiss more and pretend to be irritated when Jaskier turns it into a song. The future – their future, ‘til dying days – stretches ahead of them, and on the whole, Geralt decides, that future, this moment, with Jaskier laughing against him, at home in Geralt’s space the way he’s been since they met, it suits him just fine.