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two little fish

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The town is grimy and the air reeks of fish and rot. The wind off the river is cold. Geralt stands by the board, reading the faded notices, looking for something that’ll pay. When he first hears the furious cry of, “get away!” for half a moment he think it’s aimed at him.

Behind him a woman stands on the doorstep of her shop, broom aimed at a scrawny little cat. “Get out!” she says, swatting at it with the broom. “Shoo!” She hits the cat again, hard enough to send it scampering off into the muddy street. Satisfied, the woman nods to herself and goes back inside.

The cat is grey with dirt, so filthy it’s hard to say what colour it is. It’s limping, holding up one paw as if it hurts. Geralt watches it trip its way across the street. It’s coming towards him, he notes with idle confusion, limping to a halt beside him, looking up at him with baleful eyes. He looks back at the notices.

After a moment, there comes a soft mewl from the ground by his feet. Geralt looks down at the cat; having got his attention, it mewls again, plaintive.

Cats usually hiss and spit at him. Maybe this one can’t smell him through the dirt. He stares down at it, grimy, miserable, rejected. “Yeah,” he says. “I know.”

He makes his choice and rips down a notice.

*

It’s two days before he rides back into the town. He collects what he’s owned and goes to the inn. It’s a good inn, clean and comfortable in spite of the griminess of the rest of the town.

Sitting by the stables is a cat. He doesn’t know it, at first, for the same cat. Doesn’t know it till it hops down from its perch and limps unsteadily towards him; isn’t certain until it mewls plaintively up at him.

“I don’t have anything for you,” he tells it. It mewls again. “What do you want?”

As if in answer to his question, it steps forward and butts its head, lightly, against his boot.

It follows him across the yard to the door of the inn; follows him up the steps into the warm, smoky interior. “Out,” he says, nudging at it with his foot. He can’t bring himself to kick it. He can tell by looking at it that it’s been kicked enough for one short lifetime. “Go on. Out.”

The cat looks up at him, eyes big and puzzled, and cursing he stoops to pick it up, meaning to put it outside himself, to drop it back down the steps and have down with it.

“Filthy creature,” says a scornful voice nearby, and Geralt sharply glances up. It’s the innkeeper, standing with her hands upon her hips. “Thank you, sir,” she says. “I’ve been trying to catch that thing for weeks. Give it here and I’ll see to it.” She reaches for the cat.

The cat, which at once begins squirming in his arms, hissing and writhing as if it understands just what she means by see to it. More likely it’s remembering being kicked or hit with a broom.

A sack, most likely. An old sack and then the river. It’s probably for the best. He knows that. He should give it to her.

Instead, he draws himself up to his full height and says, “no. I’ll take care of it.”

“Suit yourself,” says the innkeeper. “Would you be wanting a room?”

Upstairs, he washes up, the water in the basin turning grey-black. He calls for the innkeeper and asks for a second basin.

She hovers in the doorway to watch as he lowers the cat into the warm water, running his fingers through its fur, working out the caked-in grime. “Never knew a cat so patient about getting wet,” she offers.

Geralt grunts. The cat is shivering, eyes as baleful as ever, but it makes no complaint. It stands still and lets him wash it. He’s heard cats don’t like water. He’s never put it to the test.

“Funny creature, that,” she says. “Be sure you take it far away from here.”

“I will,” says Geralt.

The cat washes up tabby. He towels its trembling little body till its fur fluffs up. Then against his better judgement he lets it follow him down into the bar and sneaks it scraps of his dinner.

“You can’t stay with me,” he says to it that night as it curls up upon the bed, clean and fed and purring. “You can try your luck in the next town.”

The cat, to all appearances, is already asleep.

*

“Is that your cat?” says the little girl.

Standing by the water trough, Geralt looks down at the cat and weighs up his answer. “No,” he concludes. “He’s his own cat.”

Crouching, the little girl stretches out a hand. “Can I stroke him?”

“Ask him yourself.”

The girl giggles. “Hello, cat,” she says. “Can I stroke you?”

The cat nuzzles her outstretched hand and laughing she begins to pet him.

It’s been the best part of three months and the damn creature won’t leave him alone. He doesn’t know what he’d expected. He’d fed it. Of course it would keep coming back for more.

The cat follows at his heel, trotting along beside him down the street. When he goes into a shop it waits for him outside. It rubs himself fondly against his legs. He can’t imagine what’s possessed it. The promise of more free meals, he supposes.

He’d considered leaving it at the side of the road. The thought of the sack and the river had stopped him.

“Are you a witcher?” says the little girl, still petting the cat.

“Yeah,” says Geralt.

“My sister told me that witchers have tongues like snakes and they eat babies,” she says in that matter-of-fact way that only small children have. “Is that true?”

“No,” he says. “I eat the same food as everyone else.”

“What about your tongue?”

He shows her.

“Oh,” she says, disappointed. “What’s your cat called?”

“He doesn’t have a name.” Geralt is pretty sure the cat is a he.

“Can I name him?”

“If you like.”

“I’ll name him,” says the girl, considering, “Daisy.”

“He’s a boy cat,” says Geralt. “Probably.”

“Daisy can be a boy’s name.” From across the marketplace, the girl’s mother calls for her. “I have to go.” She gives the cat a last stroke goodbye. “I’ll tell my sister about your tongue.”

“Thank you,” says Geralt gravely.

“Bye!” The girl dashes across the marketplace, and is gone.

When he rides out of town, he carries the cat, holding it close to his body. If he didn’t the cat would only try and follow and might get hurt under Roach’s hooves.

*

The night is cold. The wildness is big. He builds a fire, and sits beside it.

The cat crawls into his lap. “You hungry?” he says, setting a hand upon the cat’s back. The cat mewls as if to say yes, please. “Hm.”

They were a week’s ride from the village. He hadn’t had the coin to stock up before setting out on the hunt; the village wasn’t the type to be generous. Pickings out in the wild had been slim. He tugs over his pack and fetches out his last handful of dried meat. “Here.”

He offers the cat a chunk of meat and watches as he gnaws on it happily. “Should’ve stayed in the village,” he muses. “You might’ve got a better meal there.”

“Mrr,” says the cat.

Geralt runs a hand down his back. There’s some burrs caught in his fur and he idly picks them out. “Why’d you follow me out here,” he says. “One of these days it’s going to get you hurt. You know that?”

There’s no reply but the soft sound of the cat chewing on the dried meat. Geralt goes on working out the burrs, dropping them in a pile on the ground, till the cat’s fur is free of them. He chews on the dried meat and strokes the cat’s soft back.

The cat finishes his dinner and lifts his head in a silent request for more. Geralt feeds him the scraps, his pink tongue flicking out, licking at his fingers. “Ought to find you a home one of these days,” says Geralt. “Somewhere they’ll look after you properly.”

As if in reply, the cat nudges his hand, nuzzling his open palm. “Mrr,” he says again, in a tongue Geralt might call scolding.

In spite of the cold and the hard clench of hunger the dried meat has done little to relieve, he laughs.

*

Standing in front of the board, he surveys the notices, the contracts that have been posted. “What do you think?” he says aloud to the cat.

The cat is a few feet away, enjoying a patch of sunlight, tail flicking back and forth as if in thought.

“I think you might be following me,” says a voice.

“Yennefer,” he says. There she is, walking towards him, a dark figure against the bright stone of the street. The sight of her aches a little. “Been a while.” Too long, he means. A little over a year.

“Hm.” She doesn’t argue. “How’s business?”

“Good,” he says. “And you?”

“Can’t complain,” she says. “What brings you to this neck of the woods? Come to bother me?”

“Looking for something to kill,” he says.

“Aren’t you always?”

“Sometimes I’m out to maim.”

She smirks – almost laughs.

A nudge, at his ankle. Looking down he sees the cat, butting his head against his boot, seeking attention. “Mew?” Stepping forward he noses at Yen’s skirts and she wrinkles her nose, twitching them out of reach of his dusty paws.

“Leave her be,” says Geralt, scooping him up.

“Is that your cat?” says Yen startled.

Geralt looks at the cat, dangling comfortably from his hand. “I guess.”

“Since when do you have a cat?” she says, sounding truly astonished at the turn of events.

“A while,” says Geralt.

“I thought cats hated witchers?”

“Yeah.” Geralt looks at the cat. The cat’s blue, guileless eyes stare back at him. “I think this one must be broken.”

“It’s cute,” says Yen. “What do you call it?”

Geralt shrugs. “Cat.”

“You’re hopeless,” says Yen. “Want to get a drink?”

*

The cat isn’t as scrawny as he used to be. It’s not a bad feeling, watching his belly round out and grow plumper; it’s not a bad feeling, looking at this defenceless little creature and knowing that it’s alive because of him.

As he steps out of the shop, the cat hops to his feet, pricking up his ears. “Hey,” says Geralt, dropping into a crouch. “Hungry?”

The cat paws at his knee, nosing at the package in his hands. “Mew.”

“Always, huh?” Untying the string, Geralt slips a fish out of the package. The cat falls on it happily. “There you go. You like that?”

“Myah,” says the cat.

Geralt looks down at the cat, happily licking his jaws. He doesn’t want to spoil the cat. Or rather, he feels like he shouldn’t spoil him.

He slips the cat another fish. The cat gazes up at him, a wide-eyed look of devotion; he looks awed, as if he’s never been shown such kindness as two little fish all to himself. Taking a step forward he butts his head against Geralt’s knee, nuzzling at it, eyes falling closed.

Later, on the ride out of town to his campsite, Geralt cradles the cat against his chest and the cat purrs all the way in deepest contentment.

*

Winter’s coming around again. Winter had been closing in, when the cat had first started following him. Looking back, thinking of how thin he was, how bedraggled, Geralt wonders if left alone he might have frozen to death.

He lets the cat share his bedroll when they’re sleeping out in the wilderness. He doesn’t feel the cold as a human would, but the warmth of the cat’s little body pressed against his, the softness of his fur beneath his fingers, it’s not a bad feeling.

The air is icy cold in the stable yard. He puts the cat down, leaving it to trot about and sniff at the frozen puddles as he ties up Roach.

He senses tension in the air a handful of paces into the inn. He ignores it. He’s used to the stares and frosty silences. Most of the time it goes no further than stares; confronting it only makes things worse. As if sensing the tension too, the cat comes in close beside him, brushing against his leg.

The innkeeper sets his hands firmly on the bar, watching with hard eyes as Geralt approaches.

“I need a bed for the night,” he says. “And to stable my horse.”

“No,” says the innkeeper.

He can hear bodies shifting around the room, men and women turning to look at him. He doesn’t look behind himself. “Are you full for the night?”

“Could be.”

“Is there another inn?”

“You’ll not find a bed in this town,” says the innkeeper. “We know who you are. Butcher.”

It cuts deep, even after so many years. He feels the cat bristle against his ankle.

“Then I’ll be on my way,” he says.

The silence as he’d walked in had been frosty; as he goes to the door, it’s like a frozen lake. The tread of his feet on the floorboards is loud and heavy. He hears a sniff. A nervous chuckle.

A voice says, “hey!” and on a careless reflex he turns.

The tankard strikes him hard on the side of the head, just catching his forehead. He grimaces, trying not to let on that it hurts – he’s had far worse, but it stings. Blood is dripping down his temple. It’s a nasty cut. He’ll need to clean it before it closes.

Laughter and jeers ring through the bar, shattering the silence. It must look funny to them, the infamous Butcher standing stony-faced and bloodied, driven away by a thrown cup. He lets them have their joke. What else can he do.

At his feet, the cat hisses; and before Geralt can stop him he springs forward, up onto the man’s table to sink his teeth into the exposed flesh of is arm.

Fuck!” the man cries, rising to his feet. He tugs the cat up with him, up onto his back paws on the table, biting down with all his strength. “You –”

Geralt steps forward, meaning to intervene before – but he’s too late. With his free hand the man rips the cat free of his arm and tosses him to the floor. Blood drips over the table and before the cat can get to his paws the man gives him a hard kick, sending him sprawling.

He scoops up the cat and as he does so the man fixes him with a furious stare, his friends getting to their feet, fists clenched as if ready for a fight. “Is that creature yours?” the man spits.

“Yeah.” Geralt holds the cat closer. Blood is dripping into his eye. The cat is shaking. He draws himself up to his full height and meets the man’s stare with a cold one of his own.

He could take them all apart, if he had to. They know enough to see that they’re outmatched. The man steps back. “You be off, butcher.”

“Gladly,” says Geralt. “I know where I’m not welcome.”

*

There’s a thick frost on the grass in the woods, crunching underfoot. By the light of the fire he checks the cat over, seeing that he isn’t injured. He wipes away the blood from his forehead and cleans the cut. He eats the last stale chunk of bread and some of his dried meat.

He’d hoped for a hot meal and a warm bed for the night. He’s used to his hopes being dashed.

It’s not far to the next town but he can’t count on his welcome there being any warmer. He gives the cat a little of the meat, setting aside the rest for the next few days. Though he must still be hungry, the cat doesn’t beg for more.

Roach is already asleep. He lays out his bedroll and climbs in, lifting a corner of the blanket for the cat. “Hoped for a bed tonight,” he murmurs, carding his fingers in the cat’s thick fur. “I know it’s cold. M’sorry.”

“Mrr.” Wriggling closer, the cat sits up. He licks at Geralt’s temple, running his rough tongue over and over it, licking the dried blood from his hair. Cleaning him as if he’s a kitten. As if he might lick it better.

Geralt scrunches his fingers tighter in the cat’s fur. He breathes out into the cold night air. It’s been a long time since he’s needed comfort. He knows he shouldn’t want it. On nights like this, cold, hungry, cast out into the wilderness, it can be hard not to want it.

He pulls the cat closer and buries his face in his fur. The cat smells damp, but not unpleasant. He smells of fur and musk, of something indefinable that Geralt has come over the past year to feel at home with.

“You’re a good cat,” he says into his fur, his voice low, muffled; then, the words spilling out without his really meaning them to, he says, “I love you.”

When the cat goes rigid in his arms his first thought is that he’s squeezing too hard, that he’s hurting him; but when he loosens his grip the cat is no less agitated. He wriggles in Geralt’s grip, squirming and kicking till Geralt lets go – then footsteps unsteady, he stumbles away across the icy grass.

He’s making a high pitched sound of distress and he’s shaking, twitching and shaking so hard that Geralt think he must be having some kind of fit, and all he can do is watch, frozen with horror, at a loss for what to do.

But then he feels a pulse of magic in the air. The cat jerks, as if every muscle in his body is contracted at once. He jerks again – and his body explodes outwards.

Limbs length, impossibly stretching. Fur recedes. Bones reshape. And where the cat had been only a moment before there’s a naked man on all fours, shuddering all over, gasping for breath.

Raising his head, the man says, “fuck!

He looks at Geralt, still catching his breath. His eyes are blue – the same shade of blue as the cat’s. “Thank you,” he says. “Thank you so much.”

The man kneels up, hands going unsteadily to cover his groin. Geralt stares, too shocked to fully process what’s happening. The first question on his lips, foolishly, is where’s the cat. But of course, there was no cat. There was never a cat.

He says, “what the fuck?”

“Ah.” The man shifts, trying to find a more comfortable position on the cold grass without exposing himself. “I, I imagine you have questions. And I will answer them,” he says, raising a finger. “But, um. Could you be a dear and lend me some clothes before my balls freeze off?”

Geralt stares.

The man flashes him a nervous smile. “It’s really cold.”

*

The man is young, or else looks young. Not much older than twenty-five, Geralt judges. Boyishly good looking. Geralt studies him, as he tugs on a spare shirt and set of breeches. He seems human – ordinary, unadulterated human. That’s a small relief.

He talks all the while he’s dressing. “I really can’t imagine what happened to my clothes,” he says as he laces Geralt’s spare boots. “It’s a pity – I recall I was wearing a very nice doublet. It was moderately expensive – wow, you have really big feet, don’t you?” He rises and stamps his feet experimentally. “I mean, they always looked big to me, but I figured it was because I was, y’know. Small.”

Looking over at Geralt he smiles sunnily, as if Geralt’s horse-scented clothes are the best thing to happen to him all day. He’s still shivering. Geralt tosses him a blanket.

“Alright.” The man bundles himself up. “Oh my, that’s better – I suppose you probably want an explanation for, um. All of this.”

A dozen questions have been crowding his mind since he watched it happen. But there’s really only one that he wants to ask. “Who are you?”

“Oh!” the man exclaims. “I suppose we were never properly introduced, were we? You can call me Jaskier. Most people do. I’m a bard – or, or I was, until I became a cat. And now I suppose I’m a bard once again.” He gesticulates as he speaks with his free hand, neat, theatrical little flourishes. “Although that could be difficult as I no longer have my lute. It’s a funny story, the last time I saw it it was actually with my clothes – I imagine it’s been sold. Goodness knows where it is now.”

Falling silent, he looks to Geralt, his eyes big and earnest and clearly expecting some kind of response.

Geralt says, “hm.”

“Would you like to know why I was a cat?” says the man, drawing out the would.

“No,” says Geralt.

“Seriously?” says the man. “You’re not even a little bit curious?”

“Somebody cursed you.”

“Correct!” says the man. “Spot on. Well done. You see, some years ago – I’m not actually sure how many years ago, to be honest, as it’s quite hard to measure the passage of time when one is a cat – some unknown number of years ago I got on the wrong side of a witch and she cursed me to become an animal until such a time as someone told me they loved me and meant it truly, from the heart.

“A circumstance I’d all but given up on arising, to be perfectly honest,” he goes on. “But!” He throws out his free arm in an expansive gesture of delight. “Here we are! And I really can’t thank you enough for doing this for me – thank you, Geralt, thank you very, very much, thank you.”

“It’s not like I did it on purpose,” Geralt says.

The man’s smile freezes, just a touch. “You still said it. Anyway,” he gestures at his own body, “thanks to you I’m myself again, and you have my undying gratitude.” He adjusts the blanket and then looking at his hand says, “oh, I’ve missed having thumbs.” Grinning broadly, he waggles his thumb at Geralt, opening and closing his hand. “They’re just amazing, aren’t they? Huh? They do so many things!”

When his thumb-waggling doesn’t get whatever reaction he was wanting, his smile fades. “You don’t seem as thrilled by this as I am.”

“I’m delighted,” Geralt says deadpan.

“Is,” says the man, “something wrong?”

Geralt rises from where he’d been crouching by his pack. “You can have the bedroll for the night.”

“Where are you going to sleep?” says Jaskier. Geralt turns away. “Where are you going?

“I’m going,” says Geralt.

“You don’t have to leave,” says Jaskier. “We can share. We’ve done it enough times.”

His stomach is sour. He wants to walk away, to let the icy air clear his head. He wants to punch something. He wants to scream.

His first thought, when he’d seen what had happened – when he’d seen that it was a curse, and that it had been broken – was that the man, having got what he needed, would want to leave as soon as he could. But it struck him that that isn’t what Jaskier wants. Jaskier wants to stay.

Somehow that’s worse.

Roach has woken up, roused by the commotion, and he goes to her, touching her muzzle. “There’s a town half a day’s ride away.”

“Alright,” says Jaskier, puzzled.

“You can try your luck there.”

He hears Jaskier shift his weight. “You said that once before,” he says, cautiously. “I seem to recall it didn’t take.

“I travel alone,” says Geralt.

“Oh, please,” says Jaskier. “We’ve been travelling for – what is it, a year now? There’s no need to be all –” He motions vaguely at Geralt. “– like this. We’re friends.”

“We’re not friends.”

“You were literally just hugging me –”

“Cause you were a fucking cat!” Geralt cries, wheeling on him.

Jaskier flinches. His face drops. “There’s no need to be like that,” he says, wrapping the blanket tighter around himself. “It’s not as if it was my fault – well,” he cocks his head to the side, “I suppose arguably it was a little bit my – that’s beside the point. The point is there’s no good way to communicate to people that you’re a human man tragically and unfairly transfigured into a cat. Believe me, I’ve tried. It just makes people throw things at you.”

He seems so earnest. Geralt can’t tell if he’s oblivious to the cruel trick that he’s played or if he’s purposefully trying to drive the knife deeper. There’s a sick, hot curl of humiliation in his guts and it’s growing steadily sicker and hotter.

Geralt can’t look at him. When he looks at him, he wants to punch him.

“Take the bedroll,” he says.

“Can we talk about this?” says Jaskier.

“Take the bedroll,” says Geralt again. “Go to sleep.” Turning, he strides away from the camp.

He’s surprised, when he comes back, to find Jaskier sleeping. He’d stayed in the woods for some hours, well into the night, but he’d half expected Jaskier to wait for him.

Jaskier is bundled up in the bedroll, only half of his face visible. Geralt sits by the fire and studies him once again. Asleep, he looks even younger, even more fragile and human. Geralt’s hands clench against his knees. He’s aware, suddenly, of how used he had grown to holding the cat in his lap on nights like this; how used he’d grown to the weight of the cat’s body, the warmth and softness of his fur.

The cat is gone. In his place in this stranger. The night is cold, and Geralt doesn’t sleep.

*

“I suppose this is where we part ways.”

Geralt grunts in agreement.

The town is smaller than the last. The weather warmed up in the night and the ground underfoot squishes with mud. He doesn’t think his reception here will be any warmer; he’s already noticed people shooting him ugly looks.

There’s an inn. He takes out his purse and starts counting out the coin for a room. “Here.”

“You don’t have to do that,” says Jaskier.

Geralt glances at him. “Fine,” he says, and puts his purse away.

“No!” says Jaskier hastily. “No, I – I was just being polite. It would be amazing, if you could – I would prefer not to starve."

He pockets the money. He’s still wrapped in Geralt’s spare blanket and dressed in his dark clothes, a size too big. Geralt wonders what kind of reception he’ll get, in a place like this.

“Are you,” says Jaskier, “sticking around?”

Geralt turns away to adjust Roach’s tack. “No.”

“Well.” Jaskier clears his throat. “Thank you for the coin, and for the clothes. And for the food. Oh, and, thank you for not letting that awful woman drown me when we first met. I really appreciated it.”

Geralt grunts.

“Alright, then,” says Jaskier. “I’ll see you around, I suppose.”

He squelches away in the direction of the inn. Geralt doesn’t watch him go.

Roach is drinking from the water trough. As soon as she’s done, he tells himself, he’ll ride away and find another town, a way to earn back the coin he’d just given away. He rests his forehead against the warm leather of Roach’s saddle.

Footsteps come rapidly squelching back towards him and he jolts upright. “I’m really not so bad,” Jaskier declares. “You might like me if you got to know me!”

“Jaskier,” says Geralt.

“Many people consider me charming company, as it happens!” says Jaskier. “We could give it a shot – see how it goes?”

“I already said no.”

“You liked me fine when I was a cat! I’m the same person, just – bigger, and less furry.”

Geralt doesn’t answer.

Jaskier fidgets. “Alright, look,” he says. “I didn’t want to play this card if I didn’t have to. But I was a cat for, for I don’t even know how long. I have no money, no way of earning a living, I literally don’t even own the clothes on my back, and I have a,” he motioned at the town around them, “very hazy idea of where on the continent I am just now. I’d really appreciate some company while I – I don’t know. Get back on my feet.”

Roach is done drinking. She raises her head and looks at Geralt, her eyes dark and soft. “No.”

There’s a soft noise as Jaskier shifts his weight. After a moment, he says, “can I at least hug you goodbye?”

Geralt looks at him – and wishes he hadn’t. Jaskier’s eyes are blue and very big. There’s a plaintive look in them that Geralt recognises; it’s the look the cat used to wear when he wanted a bite of Geralt’s dinner or to sit in his lap.

For the first time, he sees the cat in Jaskier. Then his thoughts flip-flop and he remembers that that isn’t how it is; it’s not that the cat is inside Jaskier, it’s that Jaskier was, always, inside the cat. It’s an uneasy thought, the idea of a human consciousness – an entire person – squeezed into such a tiny creature.

He ought to refuse. But just as he always fed the cat scraps of bread and meat under the table, just as he always let him climb into his lap, he finds he can’t say no.

He says, “fine.”

The strength of Jaskier’s embrace takes him off-guard. Jaskier hugs him so tightly, as if he can’t bear to let go, as if he fears being ripped away at any moment. He’s so close his breath tickles Geralt’s neck. It’s been a long time since anyone held him like this, warmly, unreservedly, like there’s nothing else in the world they’d rather be doing.

At length, Jaskier draws back. He wipes at his eyes with the back of his hand. “Thank you,” he says, his voice unsteady. “For all of it. The curse, it was – well, you made it bearable for a while. I’ll miss you very much.”

He steps away, gathering the blanket around himself. “Bye, then.”

This time Geralt watches him walk away. He watches him go, a brown, hunched figure wrapped in his blanket. For the first time, he lets himself consider it. He considers it.

Just as Jaskier turns the corner – just before he vanishes from sight – Geralt calls out.

*

They share the bedroll. As Jaskier had said, it’s nothing they haven’t done before.

It’s still dark when Geralt wakes up, but he judges it isn’t long till morning. He rolls onto his side and looks at Jaskier, fast asleep beside him. His hair is mussed.

He’s a stranger. His face, his voice, are wholly unfamiliar. But there’s something comfortable about his presence. The warmth of his body against Geralt’s is comfortable. The scent of him is somehow familiar. It’s unsettling, to look at someone and know them and yet not know them at the same time.

Not thinking about what he’s doing, he strokes Jaskier’s hair away from his face, tidying it. He goes on stroking it, even after it’s tidy, longer than he should.

Jaskier stirs, and he flinches; but without opening his eyes Jaskier gropes behind himself, finding Geralt’s hand and putting it firmly back where it was. “Don’t stop on my account.”

“I’m sorry.”

“Don’t be.” Sighing, Jaskier rolls over, sits up. Something in the way he muzzily blinks and stretches is achingly familiar. “Is it the morning?”

“Almost,” says Geralt. “I’m sorry,” he says again.

Jaskier looks down at him. “For what?”

For the things I said, he wants to say. For not noticing what you really were. “I just am.”

Lying back down, Jaskier props himself up on an elbow and regards him. He’s looking at Geralt so fondly, and Geralt knows that look. It’s the look of adoration he’s using to get in exchange for a fish or an especially good stroking. He hasn’t done anything, now, to deserve it. He can’t imagine what he’s done to deserve it.

Having a human look at him like that is like a soft punch to the gut. But then, he remembers, it was always a human looking at him like that.

“Why were you following me?” he says.

“I don’t know, really,” says Jaskier.

“Were you hoping I’d –” Geralt catches himself before saying fall in love. “Break the curse?”

“Goodness, no,” says Jaskier. “I just liked the look of you. Thought I’d try my luck.”

“Why me?”

“Why not you?”

“Did you know what I was?” Geralt says.

“Of course,” says Jaskier. “I was a cat. I wasn’t blind.”

Geralt doesn’t know what to say to that. He says nothing.

Jaskier sighs to himself. “It wasn’t so bad, at first,” he says at length. “The curse. It was interesting. I remember I kept thinking to myself, oh! I shall write so many songs about this. But after a while it gets to you, you know? People looking at you like you aren’t even a person. It’s horrible.”

“Yeah,” says Geralt. He knows.

“I thought I was going to die like that,” says Jaskier, matter-of-factly. “I suppose I thought if I had to be a cat for the rest of my life, I might as well find something interesting to do.”

“Was I interesting?”

Smiling, Jaskier prods his shoulder. “Very.” Lying back down, he rests his head on Geralt’s chest as if it’s the most natural thing in the world. It’s not a bad feeling.

Tentative, Geralt puts his hand on Jaskier’s back. He runs his hand down the length of his spine, stroking slowly up and down, feeling the cloth of his shirt moving against his skin. It’s nothing he hasn’t done before, after all.

Jaskier’s eyes fall closed. A long moment passes, and Geralt thinks he might have gone back to sleep. Then he feels a steady vibration, in his chest, as Jaskier starts to purr.

Geralt stares down at him, incredulous, more than a little amused. It only lasts a couple of seconds before Jaskier jolts up, wide-eyed. “That’s new,” he says. He looks to Geralt, to all appearances mortified. “I. Um.”

He can’t help himself. At the look on Jaskier’s face it starts to laugh. “Stop it!” Jaskier swats at him. “Stop laughing! It’s not funny.”

“Yeah it is,” says Geralt, and Jaskier’s eyes crinkle at the corners.

“Yes, it is,” he concedes, and he collapses across Geralt’s chest in helpless giggles. “Oh,” he says, shoulders shaking. “Oh, my.”

“Uh-huh,” Geralt agrees. He stares up at the brightening sky, turning grey-blue with the dawn.

“Do you think it’s permanent?” says Jaskier into his chest.

“Could be,” says Geralt. “Work it into your set.”

Jaskier aims a feeble punch at his arm. “I hate you.”

Lying back, watching the sky grow still brighter, Geralt puts an arm around Jaskier’s waist. Jaskier says nothing; he breaths out. It’s quiet. It’s a good feeling.

It’s a good feeling.