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Customs of Courtship and Marriage

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Later on, looking back on it all, Jaskier isn’t quite sure how it got so out of hand. It all seemed so natural at the time.

The first time is a misunderstanding. He and Geralt arrive at a small town in the late afternoon tired and hungry, but three separate people stop them on their way to the one small inn and ask them if Geralt was here to see to their ‘little problem’. So while Geralt is off finding an alderman to ask about the contract, Jaskier is here at the inn with the hope that they might have a warm bed tonight, and ideally some kind of meal.

‘It’ll be a bit quiet here tonight,’ says the innkeeper, eyeing Jaskier’s lute case slung over his shoulder. ‘But tomorrow night’s when everyone comes in, and if you’re willing to play, I could see my way to making the cost of the room a little less. Maybe throw in a meal.’

‘Oh, lovely,’ says Jaskier. ‘I’m not certain we’ll still be here tomorrow night, though. We might be, but we’ve just got in, and I’d have to check, see how long everything’s going to take ...’

‘Have to check with the wife,’ says the innkeeper nodding wisely. ‘Well, you do that and let me know.’

Jaskier is startled into a laugh. It isn’t an idea someone had had about him and Geralt before, but on the other hand, it isn’t completely wrong, either. For all that they are just friends, they do spend a lot of time travelling together, and he does have to check with Geralt as to how long the contract is going to take, and whether they will stay a second night. After all, if the alderman actually wants to pay Geralt some paltry sum in order to chase down a semi-feral flock of sheep rather than some monster, as has happened before, that wouldn’t even pay the cost of their first night’s stay here. If that’s the kind of contract that’s waiting for them here, Jaskier doesn’t want to burn through their collective purses on a second night. He’d rather buy some bread and cheese instead. The weather is warm enough that sleeping outside isn’t too much of a hardship.

‘I’ll let you know,’ he promises the innkeeper, and goes to find the ostler so he can arrange for Roach’s care and feeding. Goodness knows the old girl deserves it. He’ll have to tell Geralt about the misunderstanding later, he thinks. It’ll probably amuse him.

But when later comes, they are too busy having an argument about Geralt going off to fight some kind of vampire without telling Jaskier about it, and getting himself half-killed even with the vial of Black Blood he’d taken. The argument lasts through Jaskier half-carrying, half-pushing Geralt up the stairs to their room, getting Geralt to sit on the bed, taking Geralt’s boots and harness off for him, and getting Geralt’s bloodied self to lie down on the previously clean bedclothes. Geralt grumbles even as his eyes slip shut. Because of course he’s grumpy about having somewhere soft to lie down and recover. Idiot.

‘It’s a good thing you have me here,’ points out Jaskier, ‘otherwise you’d be, what? Passed out in some field somewhere, no doubt. Did you get paid? Or do I need to find the alderman in the morning?’

Geralt grunts and flaps his hand at Jaskier in a way which is probably meant to mean something, but whether Geralt is trying to say, ‘Yes, of course I’ve been paid. I saw the man the instant I got back into town, even though I was leaking from about five separate places,’ or ‘No, of course I haven’t seen the alderman. It’s very late, but I am foolishly optimistic enough that I’m convinced that I’ll be able to do that in the morning, even though it’s far more likely that my stunningly attractive friend will have to go and guilt-trip the alderman into actually paying up, possibly with the visual aid of the fleder’s head,’ or ‘Stop talking, Jaskier, I have a headache from the poisonous glop I put into my body in order to do fantastically dangerous things, and have not noticed that you asked a question,’ Jaskier isn’t sure.

Geralt doesn’t even rouse when Jaskier wipes him down with one of their linen rags, dipped in a basin of fresh water that he’d coaxed from the innkeeper’s wife, even though the water is quite cool. Jaskier’s already done his best to wash the road off himself first, before befouling the water with blood and fleder gore. He’d hoped that they’d be able to have a bath while they are here, but knowing their luck, even if the alderman pays for the successful completion of the contract, their coin won’t stretch to both a bath and a second night’s stay. Jaskier has just made the authoritative decision that they’re staying another day in order for Geralt to recover, based on the fact that he’s the only one still conscious and with all his own blood. Geralt can argue about it or not in the morning, but if Jaskier performs tomorrow night at least that takes away some of the worry about money.

The innkeeper is nowhere to be seen when he went back downstairs to arrange a second night, but his wife is still behind the bar.

‘I spoke to your husband about possibly staying a second night, and he said that he could do me a better price if I performed tomorrow night?’ Jaskier says.

‘He’s not my husband,’ laughs the woman. ‘He’s my brother. Our father left the inn to both of us when he died, no doubt because he knew Bellchior would burn it down within a week without help. But yes, we could probably stretch to that.’

‘I’m so sorry,’ says Jaskier, mortified. ‘I shouldn’t have assumed.’

‘You wouldn’t be the first visitor to do so,’ says the woman. ‘But no, he’s stepping out with Mistress Aveline who runs the mill. I’m hoping she puts up with him. We make enough bread; I could do with having a miller in the family. What else can I get you?’

‘My friend is injured, and it tends to make him feel ill. So if you have something easy to eat, like you might give an invalid, and a quart of ale for me, or however much you think would be required for me to drown myself in to ease this embarrassment.’

She laughs and says that they could probably do him some bone broth, and brings him a pint of the house ale.

Geralt wakes up long enough to drink down the bone broth, which is always a good sign. And in the morning, while Geralt is still sleeping, Jaskier goes out to see the alderman. The alderman pays up with barely any complaints (by the standards of witcher contracts, at least) and when Geralt surfaces at lunchtime looking a little bewildered but much better, he doesn’t even argue with Jaskier about the decision to stay another night. That might have been in part because Geralt always wakes as ravenous as his namesake animal after those long healing sleeps, and Jaskier has just put down a trencher of food in front of him large enough to feed two ploughmen, but still. It’s a far more agreeable day already. Especially since Geralt did not witness his misstep last night, and so the whole business can be forcibly put out of his mind.

*

Apparently, Jaskier is just a man who looks as though he has a wife, even though the only wives he’s ever had have been other people’s. And presumably he looks like the kind of man whose wife is overbearing, from the tone of the remarks sent his way as he and Geralt travel together. It doesn’t happen in every town, but it does seem to happen often enough that it’s no longer startling or surprising. It’s usually when he’s by himself, when Geralt is off doing his Geralty business. It isn’t just innkeepers, either; he hears it from shopkeepers and market stall holders. Even a mouthy drunk made rude remarks during his set one night, though why he thought the key to upsetting Jaskier was his fictional wife is perplexing to say the least.

It does feel a little like a marriage sometimes, this partnership with Geralt. Much as any comfortable partnership does, he supposes. Jaskier could almost be some poor merchant’s wife, waiting to hear if her husband comes home safe. Although in his case, it’s because his ‘husband’ has thrown himself into an entire nest of kikimoras armed with a pair of swords, an unshakeable confidence in his own martial skills and a general disinclination to die, rather than because his husband is travelling alone on a road with only his very stealable horse, merchandise and/or money to keep him company. It’s a shame that Jaskier doesn’t get the good parts of the marriage to go with the mucky boots and sniping arguments when one or the other of them is tired and/or hungry, and the occasional blood leaking on his person.

Well, no, that’s unfair. He has the pleasure of Geralt’s company, and it is a pleasure most of the time, when Geralt isn’t getting bogged down in one of his intermittent bouts of ‘I’m an inhuman monster whom no-one will ever love, and no-one will ever see the true dark heart I hold inside’ bollocks. Half the time when Geralt growls some nonsense about ‘I’m not your friend’ immediately before striding off in a snit, he does so while leaving Roach in Jaskier’s tender care, as though he trusts Roach to anyone other than his tenderest of close friends. Or he’ll make such a declaration and then immediately belie it by marching off to do some favour or other for Jaskier even though it will cost Geralt some small amount of time, and often a medium amount of personal embarrassment.

But usually Geralt is an excellent travelling companion. He has a ridiculous and dust-dry sense of humour, and occasionally a dangerously wicked sense of mischief. All of which is possibly made funnier by the fact that to all other observers, Geralt appears to be entirely humourless. He’s a willing listener to far more of Jaskier’s rambles than Jaskier deserves, and usually doesn’t complain when Jaskier wants to play his lute until it’s too dark to see the strings any more, or when Jaskier gets caught up in writing a new song and stops remembering that the rest of the world exists. Or that he needs to eat and sleep. Geralt’s a far more skilled hunter and trapper than Jaskier is, ensuring that they have fresh meat on the road, and he’s even taught Jaskier some of the plants of the continent that are edible, or which make good medicines, or which Geralt uses for his potions. Jaskier forgot most of what he was shown immediately, of course, but the attempt was kindly meant. And Jaskier can now reliably find mallow in most places they travel, and he does remember what celandine looks like. The first time he presented Geralt with a bouquet of celandine for potion making, Geralt had this quietly pleased smile that Jaskier has rarely seen on his face, and Jaskier wouldn’t mind memorising more of Geralt’s potion plants at some point if it means he manages to make him smile like that again.

And, of course, Jaskier doesn’t need to worry about his safety on the road, either. Whether they’re ambushed by bandits or whether wolves creep a little too close to towns in the early spring after a hard winter, Jaskier can feel comfortable knowing that he’s travelling with a far more dangerous creature than any that might attempt to harm them.

Still, all the same. He wouldn’t object to some of the ... more intimate parts of a marriage, should they be offered. He’s not a fool. He’s seen Geralt. He’s seen Geralt’s everything, between bath house visits, and river swims, and a hundred shared rooms, not to mention Jaskier’s occasional ineffectual attempts to help Geralt keep his insides where they ought to be, even if it’s only tying the bandage off once it’s been wrapped in place. The point is, he wouldn’t turn down the privileges of a marriage bed with Geralt. And not simply because Geralt is convenient (though he is, providing one was merely considering the convenience of proximity), or because Jaskier’s desperately horny, because he isn’t, regardless of some of Geralt’s remarks on the matter. He just enjoys meeting new people, and sometimes the new people wish to celebrate their brief friendship by gathering nuts in May together, regardless of the season. And why not? It isn’t harming anyone, although occasionally his new friends have relations who disagree.

He doesn’t think he’s been carrying himself any differently. Perhaps the remarks and assumptions about his imaginary wife have always been there, and he’s never noticed them before? Because after the incident with the innkeeper, there seems to be a steady stream of comments.

He’s perusing the produce at a market stall, and contemplating whether it was worth getting some peaches to share with Geralt. Geralt loves stone fruit, and peaches in particular, but he’ll never buy them for himself, because they’re not very practical for travelling. And because Geralt never seems to think that getting himself things that he likes is worth doing, which is anathema to Jaskier’s very soul. He won’t so much as admit to having food that he likes, so Jaskier has been on an ongoing quest to try to find out.

‘Thinking of buying some for the missus?’ asks the stall holder.

‘Ah, no, actually,’ says Jaskier, a little embarrassed at being startled. He’d been a thousand leagues away. ‘For my friend. My travelling companion.’

‘Ah,’ says the stall holder.

Jaskier thinks that’s the end of that, and is about to ask how much it would be just to get a couple, when the stall holder speaks again.

‘Have you told her ... or him ... how you feel?’

‘How I—Uh. No. I—No. Um. Peaches. How much? Just two. Two peaches! For buying, I mean.’

He’s flustered, and entirely wrongfooted, and nearly leaves the stall without the peaches even after dropping the coins in the stall holder’s hand. And he hasn’t even bought what he was actually looking for. Which is annoying, because he can’t go back, and he isn’t going to admit to Geralt why he hadn’t bought the apples he’d intended to buy, nor the turnips and parsnips he’d promised to pick up.

He couldn’t explain to the man that the whole thing is completely out of the question. Geralt can’t even admit that they’re friends half the time, and they share beds in inns more often than not. Geralt will set up his bedroll next to Jaskier’s if it’s a cold night, and curl up along Jaskier’s back so that he doesn’t freeze. They live in each other’s pockets, and share a pool of money when they’re travelling together. They buy each other beer and cider, and eat together. Jaskier has his own pocket in Roach’s saddlebags. And Geralt won’t even call them friends. Even if Jaskier were so optimistic as to think that Geralt felt anything stronger than kinship, even if Geralt actually did lo—even if he could—

It’s out of the question. And it’s impossible to explain why to a new acquaintance without a good half-hour’s run up.

Which is why, the next time someone asks about his wife, he lies.

It’s a relief that no-one ever asks after his imaginary wife when Geralt is nearby, because Geralt would know he was lying in an instant, and would demand to know why.

But it’s fine, because Geralt isn’t here, so he doesn’t have to justify a polite lie to a stranger which he’s only telling to avoid awkward situations. Especially since trying to explain it to Geralt would be a heaping spoonful of awkward on top of an already awkward situation. Especially trying to explain it without admitting to the fact that Jaskier’s a little bit in love with him, but it’s okay because he’s at least a little bit in love with all of his friends, and if he’s a little bit more gone on Geralt, that’s probably just a reflection of how much time they spend together, really, but it’s all fine. He, Jaskier, has it in control, so he, Geralt, doesn’t need to worry about it.

He can’t even explain it well in his own head. Avoidance is the only tool he has left, and he’s going to wield it as fiercely as Geralt might his silver sword.

There’s a soap maker at the market he stops at in Gors Velen. She has her wares laid out on a vivid sheet of blue silk, just to emphasise their quality and (unfortunately) their high price. But Jaskier isn’t deterred; he has coin set aside specifically to get a cake of good quality Cintran olive oil soap in the Zerrikanian style when he finds the right kind. It’s far more pleasant than the cheaper Temarian-style lard-based soap, and what he’s hoping to find is a soap maker who makes some that smells, more or less, of nothing. He has his own preferred scents for soap, but he’s taken to only buying them when he’s not travelling with Geralt.

The only scented oil that he’s found that Geralt will tolerate is chamomile, and that’s only an infusion of chamomile flowers in almond oil. Barely scented at all, and only something Jaskier keeps around for aches and pains rather than perfume. It’s required something of an adjustment for Jaskier, who used to have a modest collection of tiny vials of perfume oil. He had different ones which he associated with the lovers who’d either bought them for him, or for whom he tended to wear a particular scent. He’d thought that it was one of his vices that was most compatible with travelling, especially since they took up so little room, even in their small leather case. But he hadn’t counted on a witcher who could smell on you the colour of your childhood dog. And so he’d given them away, or left them with lovers and friends. Geralt never asked it of him, but Jaskier is all too aware of the way that corks tend to fail or get knocked out of vials at the least opportune time, and how overwhelming the scent is for his own human nose. It doesn’t bear thinking about what would happen if his entire bag got dosed with perfume oil while he travelled with Geralt. Or worse: if it spilt into Geralt’s saddlebags. And so the perfume oil had to go.

The same happened with his scented soaps. If Geralt has noticed that Jaskier no longer smells of oakmoss and roses and sweet flag after he bathes, he’s never said anything. But he also doesn’t frown or rub his temples or get snappy after baths any more (or at least, no more than he does the rest of the time), so Jaskier considers the whole thing a kindness he is more than willing to bestow on his friend.

Which is why he’s paying for Cintran soap, and why he’s going to spend ten minutes smelling each type of cake until he finds one that is least likely to give Geralt a headache.

‘Present for your wife?’ asks the seller pleasantly.

‘Mm,’ Jaskier agrees. ‘She is sensitive to smells. Finds a lot of scents overwhelming.’

He only stumbles a little on the pronoun. He’s fine. He can do this.

‘Ah,’ says the soap maker, nodding. ‘My niece is the same. Can’t stand strong smells, or rough cloth, or wool, or loud noises. My sister’s thinking about sending her off to the Temple of Melitele to become a novice once she’s a little older. It should be soothing for her there. And it’s a good place for bright girls. Try this one. It’s my niece’s favourite.’

Jaskier takes the cake of soap, and sniffs it. It is scented, but it’s a gentle floral scent.

‘What is it?’

‘Meadowsweet,’ she says. ‘It provokes a merry mood, and also eases aches and pains.’

Geralt could do with a little more merriment in his life, it is true. And he doubtless has plenty of aches and pains, although that’s much harder to tell when the man takes delight and misery in the same stoic fashion.

‘Done,’ he says. ‘Just the one cake, to begin with. If it’s a success, I’ll have to find you again for more.’

‘Come back even if she doesn’t like it,’ says the soap maker. ‘Perhaps we can devise something else.’

Jaskier is so caught up in the joy of the new soap that he entirely forgets himself, and nearly asks she who? before he remembers.

‘I will,’ he promises. ‘Although we travel, so it may be a while before we’re back in town.’

‘I’m here every market day,’ she smiles. ‘I hope she loves it.’

‘Me too,’ he says, and wanders off to find the things he’s actually supposed to be buying today.

*

He gets quite good at using his imaginary wife to deflect questions. When he's in Vizima he goes looking for someone selling glassware. A couple of Geralt’s potion bottles were broken in a fight with a mated pair of gryphons, which means that he can’t keep as many on hand. Glass isn’t cheap, and it isn’t always easy to find, and Jaskier is sufficiently aware of how much Geralt relies on those potions. All of which means that Geralt has had to wait until they find a large enough town before he can buy a replacement.

But Geralt is currently occupied in the cemetery just outside the city’s gates, and Jaskier politely declined the opportunity to watch him wrestle with a dozen foul-smelling corpse eaters. Which means that Jaskier has an entire afternoon to wander through Vizima’s shops without Geralt making his grumpy face about how long Jaskier spends talking to the tailor, or smelling every single perfume that the apothecary has. Geralt doesn’t really like towns, so Jaskier might as well get the bottles while he’s here.

He finds the glassmaker in a small shop in the artisan quarter.

‘Looking for something specific?’ A rough but pleasant high tenor interrupts his thoughts as he peers at some of the bottles on display.

Jaskier turns to find the glassmaker by his shoulder. He’s a little shorter than Jaskier, perhaps a decade older, with grey speckling his tight black curls.

‘Small bottles about yay big,’ he says, gesturing with his hands. ‘My wife is something of a herbalist, and a couple of her older bottles broke on the road.’

‘Ah, yes. I haven’t any out at the moment, but I’ll bring you out a few sizes and you can tell me what you want.’

‘Sounds perfect,’ says Jaskier.

He whistles a little tune while he waits for the glassmaker’s return. The tune arrived in his head this morning, but it hasn’t found words yet.

‘Here we are,’ says the glassmaker, laying out a few small bottles and vials of various shapes.

‘This one’s the most like what she already has,’ says Jaskier. ‘How much?’

‘Thirty orens each.’

He could afford two, but would it be worth getting a third as well? It isn’t as though Geralt will never break another bottle again.

‘Have you your letters?’ says the glassmaker abruptly. ‘You look like an educated man.’

‘Uh, yes,’ Jaskier says, surprised. ‘Yes, I studied at Oxenfurt.’

‘I went to school, but left soon after learning to write. My hand is not beautiful, but I wish to write a letter to my daughter’s sweetheart’s parents, inviting them to our house. My daughter Filia and her love are hoping to marry, you see, but his father is an educated man. Not like me. If you could write it up for me, make it look nice, so Eudon doesn’t think ill of me or my Filia, I could make it fifteen each.’

‘Certainly,’ says Jaskier, feeling for this man and his earnest love for his daughter. ‘I’m entirely at your disposal, my friend.’

It isn’t a long letter, but Jaskier takes his time, and uses his best penmanship. The glassmaker has a bottle of ink, and a feather that Jaskier can cut to his personal taste, which is good, as Jaskier tends to bring dry pencils with him on the road, rather than bringing bottles of ink that are easily broken. He gets four small bottles, and the glassmaker’s cheery thanks, and considers it an afternoon well spent.

*

‘I got you something,’ Jaskier says, tossing the little cloth-wrapped package Geralt’s way.

Geralt catches it neatly, and frowns down at it.

‘What is it.’

‘Open it,’ says Jaskier, rolling his eyes. ‘Perhaps then you’ll be able to discover its secrets.’

Geralt frowns harder, but unties the twine.

A small fragment of paper drifts slowly to the ground. Geralt picks it up, reads it, and his face darkens.

‘I don’t need the cast-off gifts of your lovers,’ he growls, thrusting the bundle back into Jaskier’s hands.

‘What? It isn’t—Let me see that.’

Jaskier snatches the parchment from Geralt and reads it. For your wife, with thanks is written in rough letters by someone out of practise with a quill.

‘Shit,’ says Jaskier. ‘You weren’t supposed to see that. I did, in fact, buy them for you. But the shopkeeper assumed some things about who I was buying it for, and I just ... didn't correct him. Sorry. But at least they really weren’t the discards of someone else?’

‘So I’m your wife now, am I?’ says Geralt, reaching for the bundle in Jaskier’s hands.

For all that his tone of voice has barely changed, there’s something tentative about Geralt, something almost vulnerable about him. Jaskier doesn’t know why, whether Geralt thinks he’s being made fun of, or if he likes the idea of belonging to someone. Which is a nice thought if it’s him that Geralt wants to belong to, but a much less nice thought if Geralt’s longing for the touch of someone else.

Jaskier doesn’t know what to do with this suggestion of softness, so he does what he usually does when he needs to pour oil on troubled waters: he makes a joke.

‘Well, you’re the person who I spend my coin on the most often, and the person most annoyed when I’ve slept with someone I shouldn’t,’ he says lightly. ‘And we don’t have sex. I understand that’s pretty common for husbands and wives, from what I’m told.’

It’s a stupid joke, but Geralt laughs, which is all that Jaskier had hoped for. He hasn’t ruined everything.

‘Oh, more potion bottles,’ says Geralt, finally having unwrapped his gift from the cloth. He has that little pleased smile again.

‘I found a glassmaker when I was in the artisan quarter,’ Jaskier says. ‘Seemed silly not to get some while I was there.’

‘Thanks,’ says Geralt roughly. It’s not a word that usually passes between them, and Jaskier feels awkward hearing it from Geralt for such a little thing.

‘It’s the least I could do,’ he shrugs. ‘Nothing but the best for my wifey.’

Geralt laughs again, and stows the potion bottles in his pack. And just like that, they’re back to normal.

*

The thing is, Jaskier is constitutionally incapable of leaving things alone. When he was a boy, when he had a loose tooth, he’d worry at it with his tongue constantly until it fell out, even if wobbling it hurt. He bit the inside of his lip at a banquet a few months ago, and he couldn’t stop touching the sore with his tongue for days afterwards, to see if it still hurt (it did), even though he knew he was probably making it worse.

He can’t help himself.

And now that Geralt found out about the whole ‘wife’ thing, now that Jaskier has deflected without giving himself away, the smart thing to do would be to drop the subject completely, and simply never mention it again. Perhaps people will tell him that the ring he’s coveting for himself would look beautiful on his wife’s finger; perhaps an innkeeper will apologise for not having a soft enough palliasse for his poor tired wife to sleep on. It won’t matter, because they don’t tend to do it around Geralt, which means that he can go back to letting them think what they will, and continue to not make things awkward with Geralt.

Instead, Jaskier starts making jokes about it regularly. The first few times it’s as though his mouth has spoken without the intervention of Jaskier himself, and he can merely listen in horror as to what’s tripping off his tongue. But Geralt just laughs, or teases him back, and it feels like a challenge. It’s as though he wants to annoy Geralt enough that he winds up alone. And he doesn’t! He truly, truly, doesn’t. But he can’t make himself stop.

‘I really should drop in on Oxenfurt since we’re so near,’ says Jaskier in early summer, while they wait for their supper to cook. ‘See a few people. I could meet you in Thrupp afterwards in about a week?’

Geralt makes a little rumbling noise of acknowledgement.

‘Anything I can get my little wife while I’m in town?’

He barely even realises what he’s said until after the last syllable drops into the warm evening air, and he wants to beat his head against a tree.

‘Hmm,’ says Geralt thoughtfully. ‘Get me a chicken without a bone.’

‘You would ask for something impossible,’ says Jaskier.

‘I don’t need anything else.’

‘That’s a lie and a falsehood,’ says Jaskier. ‘You’ve needed new gloves for a twelvemonth.’

‘These are fine. They just need a few stitches occasionally,’ says Geralt, shrugging.

‘They’ll be more stitch than leather soon enough,’ says Jaskier. ‘But fine. I’ll find you a boneless chicken, and then you’ll be sorry.’

‘Doesn’t seem like much of a threat,’ replies Geralt. ‘Don’t see how I’ll be sorry to get a chicken that requires less preparation for the pot.’

‘If you wanted a chicken that was less preparation, you should’ve asked for a chicken without feathers,’ points out Jaskier.

Geralt merely smirks, and rotates his makeshift spit.

*

When he’s in Oxenfurt, he wonders if the joke—nickname?—wasn’t getting a little out of hand.

Priscilla puts him up in her little townhouse on a palliasse by the downstairs fire. She apologises about twelve times, but Jaskier waves her away. He has a bed of his own. There are no biting insects buzzing around his head. It’s more comfortable than most places he sleeps these days.

She opens a bottle of wine that night and drops onto his palliasse, patting the spot next to her, and pours a generous measure into a couple of goblets. He drops down beside her, and suddenly it feels like they’re both undergraduates again. He has no desire to be fourteen again, but it’s a surprisingly nice feeling.

‘So, catch me up on your life, Julek,’ she says. ‘Any new passionate love affairs? Any new heartbreak?’

‘No, not really,’ he says. ‘I’ve been rather short on torrid love affairs lately.’

‘You’re not ill, are you, darling?’ she says, pretending to feel his forehead.

‘Ha,’ he says flatly. ‘How incredibly witty you are, Priss.’

‘Mm,’ she agrees, ‘I am.’

She pours herself another cup of wine.

‘Well, what about you?’ he asks. ‘Broken any blacksmith’s hearts lately?’

‘For your information, I have an arrangement with the Baroness Brunwich,’ she says loftily.

‘And you give me grief about getting entangled with other people’s marriages,’ he says.

‘Libe doesn’t have an intimate marriage with her husband,’ Priscilla says, waving a hand. ‘He is no impediment. He’s quite lovely, actually. We’ve met a few times, and he’s quite interested in the new Temerian approach to notating music. I don’t think he is interested in sex? Libe says that she offered him the chance to take up with someone, regardless of what kind of person they were, and he just patted her hand and said that he’d be a bit busy for a few days because he’d just bought a new book. Whereas you keep on taking up with married people whose partners disapprove.’

‘It’s not deliberate,’ says Jaskier, defensively. ‘Sometimes people lie. And sometimes I sort of ... forget to ask.’

Julian,’ Priscilla says reprovingly.

They’re the ones who are being unfaithful,’ Jaskier points out. ‘I’m not sure why that’s my fault. Besides. I haven’t done that for ages.’

‘What, a full seven days?’

Jaskier tries to work out how long it’s been.

‘Few months at least,’ he says. He’s a little surprised at himself, honestly. Not that he’s going to admit as much to Priss.

‘Forget being sick,’ says Priscilla, ‘are you sure you’re not dead?’

‘Ha,’ he says flatly. ‘I wonder at your wit. Mostly at how you managed to convince the academy to take you on when you clearly only got half way.’

‘Better a halfwit than a lackwit,’ she fires back. ‘Well, if you’ve not been scandalising the Continent’s upper crust, what have you been doing since I saw you last?’

‘Nothing in particular,’ he says absently. ‘Just following my wifey.’

Priscilla chokes on her wine.

‘Sorry,’ she gasps, ‘Your what?’

He frowns at her. ‘My witcher? You know, Geralt of Rivia?’

‘Darling dearest,’ she says, grinning from ear to ear, ‘That’s not what you said.’

‘Yes, it is?’

‘Darling,’ she says, drawing it out for the drama, and he hates her a little (he doesn’t, he never could), ‘You called him your wifey.’

‘Oh.’

He clears his throat and hopes to hell he isn’t blushing. His face feels hot, so he almost certainly is. Fuck.

‘It’s just a stupid inside joke,’ he explains. ‘Because innkeepers and the suchlike kept assuming that I was travelling with my wife, and not, you know, a tall lump of grumpy monster hunter.’

Priscilla hums.

‘So is that why you’ve not been ruining any marriages lately?’ she asks sweetly.

‘They’re not my marriages to ruin, and there are two people involved in any given affair, and neither of them are Geralt,’ he says. ‘So no.’

‘Do you want him to be?’ Priscilla asks.

She’s always seen straight through him. Damn her eyes.

‘No,’ he lies. ‘Give me the bottle.’

*

He mostly enjoyed his visit with Priscilla, but he’s still grinning as he reaches the edge of the tiny village of Thrupp. He’s looking forward to seeing Geralt’s stupid face.

Geralt’s already in the inn with a jug of ale ready on the table.

‘Did you miss me terribly while I was gone?’ asks Jaskier, stealing Geralt’s tankard and taking a sip. Walking is thirsty work.

‘The ale seemed to last longer,’ says Geralt wryly, taking the tankard back.

‘You have to be nice to me,’ Jaskier tells him. ‘I bought you a present.’

Geralt raises an eyebrow in challenge, so Jaskier fetches out the small parcel from his bag.

Geralt unwraps the first layer of fabric only to find another layer of fabric. He gives Jaskier another raised eyebrow, and unwraps that. And the next three layers. Finally—

‘An egg?’ says Geralt, turning it over in his hands.

‘You wanted a chicken that had no bones,’ Jaskier points out. ‘And it has no feathers too. Just as an extra little present.’

Geralt laughs, long and hard, and Jaskier can’t help grinning. He’s won this round.

*

There’s a little display of sweetmeats to one side of the fruit stall, where little baskets of sugared almonds and dried figs and suchlike delights sit arrayed. Jaskier has a terrible sweet tooth, and he can’t help but be tempted. They would travel well for the road, he thinks. But he doesn’t need them.

‘Sweetmeats for your sweetheart?’ suggests the stall holder.

‘Hmm, perhaps,’ Jaskier says. They have enough money now, but what if the next few of Geralt’s contracts fall through?

‘Perhaps your wife would like the sugared almonds,’ Geralt rumbles in his ear.

Jaskier looks at him perplexed. ‘My wife—?’

And then he realises: it’s the first time that Geralt has joined in properly. He isn’t annoyed with him. The ‘wife’ thing’s truly become a shared joke. Which also means that Geralt’s actually suggesting something he might like, for possibly the first time since Jaskier’s known him.

‘Do you think so?’ Jaskier says, trying to hide exactly how delighted he is by this turn of events. He turns back to the merchant. ‘I’ll take a bag.’

*

Geralt is manfully suffering through being in Novigrad when the two of them run into Essi again. She insists on buying the first jug of ale so long as they accompany her to a tavern so they can all catch up.

‘You ought to come with me, Jaskier! Bring Geralt, if you like. But think of it!’

‘Mm, no, can’t,’ says Jaskier. ‘My wife wouldn’t like it.’

‘You’ve never married,’ says Essi. ‘If you’ve married and you didn’t invite me to sing at the wedding, I’ll never forgive you. You wouldn’t be so cruel.’

‘No, no!’ Jaskier laughs. ‘No, I mean Geralt.’

‘Oh,’ says Essi, looking between the two of them speculatively.

Geralt shifts slightly under her gaze.

‘Oh! No! Nothing like that,’ Jaskier says hurriedly. ‘It’s a sort of joke between us. Because of travelling together and so forth. And being good friends. That’s all.’

‘Oh,’ says Essi again.

Geralt says nothing.

‘Well, that’s good, because I’d hate to have to disown you as a friend for not telling me such an important detail in your life,’ says Essi. ‘But it’s bad for you, because if the two of you had got married, I would have had to buy you both a demijohn of vodka. But now I don’t.’

‘Essi, no,’ Jaskier pleads. ‘You can’t just offer to buy me vodka like that and then snatch it away again. That’s vicious and cruel torture.’

‘Hmm, no, I don’t think so,’ she teases. ‘Maybe if you make an honest man of your witcher. But until then ...’

Essi,’ he whines, tugging at her arm.

She shoves him back, and then they’re scuffling like school children. A few moments later he has to give, because she’s got him in a headlock, and Geralt’s doing nothing but sip at his beer, which is a cruel betrayal. She lets him go after he declares (under sufferance) that she is supreme and he a mere worm only fit for grinding under her boot. Regardless of the divergent circumstances of their births, she’s his little sister, and he loves her to pieces.

Geralt snorts a laugh at both of them, and heads outside for a piss.

‘You should tell him,’ she says quietly after she lets him up again.

‘I can’t,’ he says, anguished. ‘Ess, I can’t. He’ll leave, and I won’t survive that.’

‘He won’t,’ she argues. ‘If you’re not man enough, then I’ll tell him.’

‘Essi, I will love you until the end of time, you know that,’ he says. ‘But if you tell him, then I swear to all the gods there are that I will never speak to you again. You will be dead to me. I am not even close to joking about this.’

Fine,’ she scowls, blowing her hair out of her face. ‘I won’t. But Julek, darling. Seriously. This is killing you.’

‘It’s not,’ he denies. ‘I have everything in hand.’

*

After Geralt has joined in, the nickname stops being reserved for towns, when other people are around, and starts bleeding out into their every day.

‘Wifey, I’m cold,’ he complains one starless night.

Geralt snorts at him, but he does shuffle closer on his bedroll and wrap an arm around Jaskier, pulling him closer. Jaskier hadn’t intended for that, but he is now much warmer, so he’s counting it as a win.

‘How’s my little wifey today?’ he asks, when Geralt appears early in the morning, pot in hand, having apparently walked to the nearby river for water while Jaskier was still asleep.

Geralt makes some grunt of acknowledgement, but he has this little half-smile that Jaskier’s realising he hasn’t seen before, outside of when Jaskier calls him his ‘wife’ or ‘wifey’. That’s my wifey smile, he thinks, and then immediately tries to scrape the thought out of his mind, like scraping a used piece of parchment clean so it can be reused. If he thinks the phrase ‘wifey smile’ ever again, it’s going to lead to him saying it out loud at some point, probably to Geralt. He can’t even picture what the outcome of that would be. His mind shies away from the very attempt. But he knows it would be bad.

He wants to see that smile every day.

He remembers viscerally, as though living through the moment again, the way that Geralt had once admitted that he hadn’t had a friend who wasn’t a witcher before. And Jaskier knows a little of what that’s like. He grew up being too odd, too loud, too passionate for most people. He’s spent his whole life desperately wanting to cling to the few people who can stand him, but being afraid that they’ll push him away for it.

Essi was right, he thinks. This is going to kill me, slowly but surely, like a wasting disease. But he still can’t help but crave those little snatches of Geralt’s happiness at being reminded that he has a friend.

‘Darling wife,’ he says a few days later, when they’re in a tavern that’s unfortunately jam-packed with people. ‘Kindly move your beautifully sculpted arse a finger’s length along the bench so that I may sit down and eat my food.’

Geralt turns to him with a look on his face like Really, Jaskier? But he still has a kind of banked amusement behind his eyes, so Jaskier finds it hard to be too worried. Besides, he does slide up a little and then he pats the bench, even though the only way that there’s enough space for Jaskier to sit down is if he presses himself right along Geralt’s side, so that he can feel the length of Geralt’s muscly thigh all along his own. It’s much closer than they usually are together, outside of sharing a bed, and Jaskier finds himself acutely aware of every minute movement Geralt makes.

‘Wifey, my dear,' he says a handful of days later, clambering out of the stream now that he’d cooled off thoroughly enough to get the shivers. ‘I feel blessed that I get to travel with someone who can find water to bathe in precisely when I need it most.’

‘It’s not hard, Jaskier,’ Geralt snorts. He’s already dressed again, although his hair’s still damp. He’s sitting on a nearby rock, his attention focused on the short length of branch that he’s whittling into the shape of something or other; Jaskier can’t make out what it’s supposed to be yet.

‘It’s a gift,’ insists Jaskier. ‘Or a skill, I suppose. But still! I was about to completely expire from heat, and you saved me. You’re my hero.’

Geralt snorts. ‘Get dressed, Jaskier,’ he says, without looking up.

‘I’m getting there,’ Jaskier protests. ‘Just let me wash my spare shirts while we still have the sun. No point in putting on dry clothes only to get them wet again.’

It is, admittedly, partly an excuse to stay in the cool water, but he does need to wash his shirts. He grabs one from the untidy bundle he’d left on the bank, and wades back into the deeper part of the stream.

‘You’ll get sunburnt if you’re much longer,’ Geralt says.

‘Not all of us are quite so prone to sunburn as you are, my wife,’ sniffs Jaskier, swishing the shirt in the clear water. ‘Plague take it,’ he curses, as his momentary inattention snatches that self-same shirt from his hand, and he has to throw himself through the shallow water to catch it before it washes downriver.

There’s a quiet chuckle from behind him that suggests that Geralt might’ve looked up to see his naked arse flashing in the sun as he grabbed at the escaping shirt. Not his finest moment, but then he didn’t lose the shirt, so all’s well in the end.

(He does feel a little pink all over for the next few days, but he tries to hide his wincing from Geralt. He will die before he admits Geralt was right.)

A couple of weeks later, they pass into Temeria, and Jaskier is invited to play for the Marquis of Carreas. Jaskier goes in to see his favourite tailor in Vizima, since his old court clothes are now hopelessly out of date. And besides, the Marquis is footing the bill.

‘Wife of mine,’ he says, ‘Which of these do you think would be better for the Duke’s banquet?’

He holds up two bolts of silk cloth for Geralt’s inspection.

Geralt shrugs. ‘Either. You’re the one who cares about clothes.’

‘Yes, I know,’ says Jaskier, ‘but I can’t decide between them. Which is why I’m asking you.’

Geralt rubs the fabrics between thumb and finger. One is a wine-coloured brocade, and the other a densely woven blue silk that’s not quite a satin, but has a sheen to it like the well-brushed mane of a black stallion.

‘You always look good in blue,’ Geralt says at last, and turns away to examine a bolt of fine linen lawn, dyed the improbable black colour that usually indicates ichor was involved.

Jaskier pretends that he can’t feel his ears heat up.

*

It’s become something he just says without thinking about it. Which was probably what led to the mistake.

They’ve just arrived in Klucz, when they see two witchers talking outside the tavern up ahead. Geralt’s whole face lights up, and he leads Roach straight to the tavern instead of to the alderman to ask after the contract that had led them here. But then, with two other witchers here, it’s likely already taken care of.

One of the other witchers turns and sees them. He says something to the other witcher, who disappears in the opposite direction. The first witcher turns back to them and calls, ‘Geralt! Wasn’t expecting to see your ugly mug around these parts.’

The witcher has a similar medallion to Geralt’s, and they’re clearly familiar. Brothers in arms, maybe?

‘Lambert,’ Geralt returns. ‘Good to see you in one piece. Who’s your friend?’

‘Oh, just someone I’m travelling with,’ Lambert says carelessly. His eyes slide to Jaskier. ‘Have you time for a drink? I want to properly meet your bard.’

He sends Jaskier a leer but, judging by Geralt’s rolled eyes, probably doesn’t mean anything by it. Geralt hitches Roach out the front, and the three of them head inside.

Jaskier has their shared purse at the moment, so he heads to the bar to buy a pitcher of beer. He takes it over to the small table in the corner that the witchers have secured. He wonders if hiding in shadowy corners is a witcher thing in general, and not just a Geralt thing.

‘I might pop to the market, let you two catch up,’ he says to Geralt. ‘It’s a bit close to midday for my liking, and I want to replenish Roach’s bags so we don’t spend the next week starving. Anything you want me to get in particular, wifey dear?’

Wifey?’ Lambert says, his eyebrows climbing up his forehead.

Fuck. So much for making a good impression on Geralt’s comrade. Geralt doesn’t look enraged with him, but he has his jaw set in a way which Jaskier knows means that he’s deeply embarrassed.

‘I’ll just go,’ Jaskier says, and hastens back to the front door before Geralt can make him explain himself.

‘Get him a blanket without any thread,’ yells Lambert, just as the door closes behind him.

*

Jaskier has wanted to know more about Geralt’s life since he first met him, but when he heads back to the tavern after the market winds down at midday, he can’t help but hope that the other witcher has taken his leave.

As usual, he’s not quite that lucky.

‘Bard! Come sit down!’

Lambert’s still sitting at the corner table, and is enthusiastically waving him over. There’s no sign of Geralt, however. Should he go looking for him? Did he just miss Geralt in the chaos of the market pack down?

‘Geralt’s just gone out for a slash,’ Lambert grins. ‘Come on, there’s ale here with your name on it.’

There’s probably no avoiding it. He puts down his bag and sits on the bench opposite Lambert.

‘I’m not going to bite,’ says Lambert, seemingly amused. ‘I just want to know more about the bard following my brother around. So. Geralt’s your little wifey.’

‘Uh, sort of?’ Jaskier grimaces and rubs the back of his neck. ‘It was just sort of an inside joke? A shopkeeper made an assumption, and—’ He waved a hand vaguely. ‘It just became a thing.’

Lambert sipped at his ale, watching Jaskier over the tankard’s rim.

‘Huh, that’s what Geralt said, too.’

Well, thank Melitele and her graceful handmaidens for that.

‘Sorry that there isn’t a better story,’ he shrugs, although he isn’t particularly sorry.

‘Don’t you get bored?’ Lambert says. ‘Following after Sir Always Right, the only witcher without a sense of humour? I hear they burned it out of him with his extra Trials.’

‘That’s not fair,’ says Jaskier hotly. ‘If you know him at all, you must know he has a sense of humour. It’s dry, but that doesn’t mean it’s not there. And I like that he tries to do the right thing, even when the hand Destiny deals him is exceptionally shitty. He’s a better person than most of the bastards that criticise him.’

‘Yeah,’ Lambert smirks. His eyes slide past Jaskier’s shoulder, and his smirk grows into a grin. ‘Hey, Geralt. You’re back.’

Jaskier feels himself blanch, even though he wasn’t saying anything he hasn’t tried (and failed) to convince Geralt himself of over the years. He doesn’t attempt it all too often, partly because Geralt tends to get annoyed at being told he is, in fact, a decent person. But also because Jaskier suspects that the attempt makes his feelings a little transparent.

He turns around, already dreading the expression on Geralt’s face, only to discover ...

There is no-one there.

He turns back to Lambert with bemusement.

‘That answers that question,’ says Lambert, skolling the rest of his ale.

What question?’ demands Jaskier.

‘Just something I’ve been wondering about, that’s all,’ grins Lambert.

‘Has anyone told you you’re infuriating?’ Jaskier snaps.

Lambert laughs, loud and long.

‘Only everyone who’s ever known me,’ he says. ‘Tell you what, next jug’s on me.’

Geralt sidles back in while Lambert’s at the bar. He spots Jaskier at their table and gets an odd, cagey expression. Jaskier raises his eyebrows, and Geralt comes over.

‘You boys have fun while I was at the market?’ Jaskier asks.

‘Hmm,’ Geralt agrees. ‘It’s nice to catch up outside of winter. We don’t get to do that much.’

‘So ... Lambert’s a ... friend, then?’

‘A brother,’ Geralt says. ‘Of a sort. We’re two of the remaining witchers from the Wolf School.’

‘Ah,’ says Jaskier.

Geralt doesn’t talk about himself much. Or ever, really. But Jaskier can intuit that the rest of the Wolf School didn’t exactly resign in order to spend their golden years growing wine in Toussaint.

‘Did you not ... talk much to him?’ says Geralt.

‘I’ve only just got back,’ says Jaskier. ‘And most of our conversation was annoyingly opaque. He just asked a few questions about you. But I think he was mostly making fun of me.’

‘Hmm,’ says Geralt, and somehow he manages to make that hum loaded with meaning.

Lambert turns around from his conversation with the barkeep and gives them a sarcastic salute.

Fucking witchers and their fucking superhuman hearing. Ugh.

‘That makes a change from usual then,’ murmurs Geralt.

‘Aw, don’t sulk, Geralt,’ says Lambert, returning with the jug in hand. ‘I was making fun of both of you.’

Geralt glares at him, but Lambert merely grins back.

‘Ah, yes,’ says Jaskier thoughtfully. ‘I can see the family resemblance now. Let me guess, Lambert’s the younger one?’

It is Lambert’s turn to look annoyed, which is deeply satisfying.

‘I could be older,’ he returns. ‘I’ve got my shit together better than you two idiots.’

‘Yes, he is,’ says Geralt. ‘Much younger.’

Jaskier hides his smile in his ale.

‘I don’t know that I’m going to approve of your travelling companion, Geralt,’ Lambert snipes. ‘Can’t even complete a simple task on request.’

‘Oh, which reminds me,’ says Jaskier. ‘I had a bit of trouble finding it at such a tiny market, but luckily I managed to find just the right person.’

He digs in his satchel and pulls out a hank of unspun sheep’s wool.

‘It’s why I took so long,’ he says, putting it in front of Geralt.

Geralt picks it up, and rubs the fleece, still a little greasy with lanolin, and looks to Jaskier with a question in his eyes.

‘He said to get you a blanket without thread,’ says Jaskier. ‘Wool that’s not yet been spun is a blanket without thread.’

Lambert leans backwards on the bench and folds his arms. He looks grudgingly impressed.

‘I’ve changed my mind,’ he says. ‘Perhaps the bard is worthy of you after all.’

*

At some stage in their travels, it simply became Jaskier’s job to go to the market whenever Geralt is busy with some contract or other. Jaskier doesn’t mind, because he likes talking to people and Geralt doesn’t, and it’s a pleasant change of pace to talk to people for whom words aren’t weighed by the scruple.

Today he has all the time in the world, because Geralt’s off after some giant leech monster—

It’s a zeugl, Jaskier. It’s a giant shit-eating monster that likes sewers.

—which has apparently been infesting Maribor’s sewer system. For once, Jaskier is perfectly happy to be left behind. There’s some things that even the best launderer can never quite remove from wool. At least Geralt’s leathers more or less wipe clean. Jaskier suspects that his shirt might only be fit for rags after this, though.

According to Geralt, it’s not so much a frighteningly difficult job, but simply one which always seems to take a long time. He’d looked exhausted even as he checked the fit of his harness before heading off.

This town is, at least, just large enough to have a public bathhouse. Jaskier has already booked the pair of them in for this afternoon, and he’s quite looking forward to it.

But for now, he’s free to do as he will, since he’s already restocked their packs with a visit to the produce stalls at the market, he can wander among the rest of the market stalls, and pop into any of the shops that look interesting.

He doesn't need to peruse the jeweller’s wares. He’d been vaguely looking for some leather thonging for Geralt, so that he could tie his hair back in fights at least. But the jeweller has silver cylindrical beads with fine, fine engraving on them, and now all Jaskier can think is how fine Geralt would look with those braided into his hair, like some of the Skelligers do.

‘Admiring the hair beads?’ says the jeweller.

‘Mmm,’ agrees Jaskier.

‘Who were you thinking of buying them for?’ she asks. ‘Not for yourself, I’m assuming, short hair like yours.’

‘Oh, no, for my wife,’ he says.

Could he even convince Geralt to let him braid his hair? Probably not. He shouldn’t buy them. He really shouldn’t. But they are so pretty. And maybe one day Geralt will let him braid his hair, and then he’d regret not getting them for him, surely. Especially since they’d shine in Geralt’s white hair like points of moonlight. And he had the prize from the eisteddfod in Redania still burning a hole in his pocket. He could always buy them, and not give them to Geralt. Just ... save them. Just in case.

‘... I’m sure they’d be perfect,’ the jeweller says.

‘Me too,’ he says, a little wistfully.

He really shouldn’t. But they’re so beautiful. And probably easier to keep on his person than a large purse of coins. So it’s just practical, really, to get them. Never mind that he’ll never be able to give them to Geralt. Perhaps one day he’ll be lucky to find someone else. Someone who wants him back. Even though it won’t be Geralt. And he could always give them to that person.

‘... on the isle my clan is from,’ the jeweller is saying.

He starts guiltily. He hasn’t been listening to her at all. He’s been thinking about flashes of silver in fine white hair.

‘Yes, all right,’ he says, giving in. ‘I’ll get them.’

*

Possibly Jaskier’s favourite thing about the nickname is the way that Geralt actually asks for things now. Not all the time, not every time, but it’s still much more than he did before. It used to be that when Jaskier offered to go to the market, Geralt would tell him what they needed, and Jaskier would create a little aide-memoire, and repeat them back until he had them memorised, and then he’d ask Geralt if there was anything he’d like while Jaskier was there. Any special kind of fruit, or little treat.

And Geralt would growl back ‘no’, or on the very occasional instance that Jaskier had, uh, had a small affair that had, perhaps, mildly inconvenienced a particular witcher, possibly even with some itty-bitty financial consequences, Geralt would growl, ‘What I would like is for you not to slip your dick to the wrong person and cause us to be thrown out of town without payment. Again.’ Although, truly, it had happened so rarely that it had practically never happened at all, if you took the long view. Which a hundred-year-old witcher should be far better at, honestly.

But somehow, saying, ‘And is there anything my little wifey might like from the market,’ means that occasionally Geralt will actually ask for something.

Or rather, he’ll say, ‘She might like some more of those comfits, if you happen to find some. The aniseed ones were especially good.’ Or, ‘Are gooseberries still in season?’ Or, ‘Perhaps if anyone is selling any of that quince stuff. The marmalade stuff. Just a little pot will do.’

Jaskier has made more progress in his quest to discover the things that Geralt likes in the few months that he’s used the nickname than he did in all the years that they travelled together before that. It makes him feel warmed through, as though he’s sitting before a fire after walking all day in the cold and rain.

And best of all, he gets to see those soft little smiles that Geralt has every time he’s able to fulfil one of those wishes, and places a small package in Geralt’s hands.

It’s nice.

*

A few weeks later, autumn is starting to bite, but it isn’t actually too cold yet. It just means that Jaskier will finally sleep well because it’s stopped being far too hot. He used to enjoy these early autumn nights, but now they mean that the time that he’ll part with Geralt for winter is creeping ever closer.

But that isn’t just yet, so the two of them have set up camp in a clearing on the edge of a copse of trees and Jaskier is spending the evening composing before it gets too dark for him to see his notebook.

Geralt attends to setting the fire. He’s faster at it, and he tends to hover when Jaskier does it. Half the time Geralt will rearrange the wood and kindling to his liking before Jaskier is allowed to get his tinderbox out, so Jaskier has just let him take over lighting the campfire. It’s much easier that way.

Once the fire is blazing merrily, Geralt straightens up and grimaces, working his right arm in its socket.

‘Jaskier, have you still got some of that chamomile oil?’

Jaskier doesn’t look up from where he’s writing down the fingering he’s just worked out for a new melody. The lute is a lovely instrument, but a pain in the arse to sit in the lap. It keeps wanting to leap off and break itself on the ground, which is easily stopped when you’re playing, but rather more irritating when you’re trying to compose, and don’t want to put it away in its case and fetch it out again every five minutes.

‘In my pocket of Roach’s saddlebags,’ he says, waving his pencil in the vague direction.

Geralt’s got legs. He can fetch it himself.

And presumably he does, but he’s standing in front of Jaskier, his shins in Jaskier’s eye line. Jaskier looks up.

‘Jaskier,’ Geralt says, dangerous undercurrents in his voice. ‘What is this?’

It's the little velvet pouch from the jeweller. Fuck.

‘It's nothing,’ Jaskier says hurriedly. ‘Nothing you have to worry about.’

Geralt’s suspicion does not lessen. He rubs his thumb over it, trying to work out what the package contains.

‘It's a gift,’ Jaskier says. ‘So you should give it back.’

‘Who for?’ says Geralt, his eyes narrowing. ‘That woman, whatsername, the one whose husband chased you with horse and hounds?’

‘No,’ says Jaskier, feeling his face heat. ‘I’m quite done with Marian. Tearing my shirt to shreds on thorns running from baying hounds will do that. Also, I’m fairly sure that she ratted me out to the husband in question.’

‘We’re not going to have to leave town suddenly because you’ve given some token to an alderman’s daughter,’ says Geralt.

‘No! There isn’t anyone like that who I’m buying gifts for!’ says Jaskier, feeling peevish. ‘Which I would have thought you might have noticed.’

‘Hmm,’ says Geralt, sounding horribly unconvinced, which is just unfair. Jaskier really hasn’t been getting involved with people like that for ... a little while now, he realises. Which he refuses to think about the whys and wherefores of.

‘Why do you care,’ says Jaskier. He lunges for the little bag, which is complicated by the fact that he has his lute by the neck in one hand.

Geralt swaps hands deftly and holds the bag easily out of his reach, which is extraordinarily unfair considering they’re practically the same height now that Jaskier’s standing up.

‘You don’t buy jewellery for other people,’ says Geralt. ‘And you don’t bring jewellery on the road that you don’t wear. So what is this for?’

‘It’s for you, all right?’ Jaskier snaps. ‘I bought it because I thought they would look good on you, but I knew you wouldn’t want to wear them. So I didn’t give them to you. I thought maybe, if we wound up being invited to court or something ... But it doesn’t matter. Forget it. Give it here.’

He holds out his hand, but Geralt is frowning at the little pouch. He looks from the pouch to Jaskier with an expression Jaskier cannot read at all. Jaskier can barely think for the pounding of his heart.

‘For me?’ Geralt repeats, sounding perplexed.

‘Sort of? Just, just give it—’

Geralt opens the pouch and shakes its contents into his palm. His expression shifts, but it’s worse than Jaskier had feared. He’s not angry, or dismissive, or even dumbfounded. He looks pained.

‘Jaskier, I can’t,’ he says. ‘Not with what these are supposed to mean. You should save them for when you have someone worthy of them.’

‘What do you mean can’t,’ says Jaskier. He is thoroughly embarrassed, and the embarrassment is turning to annoyance. ‘What do you mean someone worthy.’

‘You haven’t been to Skellige,’ Geralt says, and it isn’t a question.

‘No,’ says Jaskier. ‘Stop talking in riddles. What does that have to do with the price of eggs in Novigrad?’

‘Jaskier, these are marriage beads,’ Geralt says. ‘I know you joke, but ... you’re supposed to give these to a woman you’re going to marry. They aren’t something you give a ... a friend.’

Jaskier wants to die.

‘She even asked me who they were for,’ he says, thoroughly appalled with himself. ‘And I said my wife. Geralt, I’m so sorry. I didn’t mean—I really didn’t mean to make you uncomfortable.’

‘It’s fine,’ Geralt says, although anyone with eyes could tell that he is lying through his teeth. ‘Forget about it.’

Geralt drops the beads back into the pouch and drops the pouch into Jaskier’s hand as though he can’t wait to get rid of it fast enough.

Jaskier feels like the worst kind of villain, and like an utter fool for buying the beads in the first place. He wonders if he would have been brave enough to buy them had he paid attention to the jeweller.

He thinks about it as Geralt walks away to the far side of the clearing and takes out his sword and whetstone. Jaskier suspects that he would’ve bought them anyway, and hidden them away against the microscopic chance that Geralt might ever look his way.

His is a hopeless case. His hand tightens around pouch until he feels the hard lumps of the beads digs into the flesh of his palm. He should put these away so he doesn’t crush them. Maybe Geralt is right, and he’ll find someone to give these to some day.

He buries the pouch as deep as he can in his pocket of Roach’s saddlebags, and finds his eyes seeking out Geralt’s form without his really meaning to.

He might find someone else to give them to. And pigs might fly, he thinks bitterly, watching Geralt methodically stroke the blade of his steel sword against the whetstone.

*

The nickname seems to have gone sour in his mouth after that. He can’t quite make himself call Geralt his with the memory of the beads in his closed fist. He knows he’s more subdued than usual, and all he can hope is that Geralt isn’t observant enough to ask him about it.

He’s pretty sure Geralt’s noticed. But he hasn’t asked, thank the gods. Because Jaskier doesn’t have any answers for him except for ones that are far too truthful.

He’s actually glad when the autumn chill starts to bite too sharply, and he knows it’s time for him and Geralt to part for the winter. Some time apart will let him get his head straightened out. Give him some distance from his hopeless pining for his best friend, which he’s let get away from him this year. He’s allowed himself too much indulgence in expressing that love. He needs to wind it back to just good friends again, and that will be easier to do away from Geralt.

He’ll miss him so much that it will ache like an old wound, of course. He always does. But a little bit of distance will help.

Hopefully.

‘See you next year, Geralt,’ he says, when they part in Lapisfelde.

Geralt’s taking the road north, and Jaskier’s heading back to Oxenfurt. Priscilla promised to find him some work, and she’d already offered to let him stay with her. He’ll probably wind up writing some songs for the choir for her in exchange. And he knows she’ll take him drinking, and listen to him cry about his own foolishness.

Normally he’d attempt some kind of affectionate goodbye, even if it was just clapping Geralt on the arm. But he’s going to turn over a new leaf, where he stops trying to let his feelings for Geralt bleed into everything. Maybe he’ll have a fling or two over winter.

He adjusts his lute case on his shoulder, and turns to go.

‘Jaskier,’ Geralt calls, before he’s even gone a dozen steps.

For the briefest of moments, for the space of a breath, or a heartbeat, he thinks that Geralt might be about to confess something. Or even ask Jaskier to come with him. He turns back.

‘Geralt? What is it?’

Geralt is frowning, but it’s in the way he does when he’s trying to explain some esoteric witcher thing to Jaskier, not as though he’s upset or worried for him. And definitely not as though he’s bursting at the seams to tell Jaskier he loves him.

‘... Travel safe,’ is all he actually says.

‘You too,’ Jaskier says, and swears anew that he’s really going to lock his feelings up in the tightest chest, throw away the key, and bury them as deeply as he possibly can.

It’s a long, long walk to Oxenfurt, and without company he has nothing to distract him from his feelings.

*

Priscilla is much less sympathetic than he’d expected.

‘Rejected you how? Because Essi wrote to me, and we’re both in agreement that the pair of you are utter dunces.’

‘He told me that I’d accidentally given him wedding beads and then couldn’t give them back to me fast enough.’

‘And that’s all he said?’

‘Something about that I should save them for someone who I cared about, or something.’

‘But he didn’t laugh at you,’ says Priscilla, drumming her fingernails against her tankard.

‘No?’ says Jaskier. ‘But Geralt doesn’t laugh at people, as a rule.’

‘Did he actually say that he wouldn’t accept them from you?’

‘I think “Save these for someone else” is enough, isn’t it?’ says Jaskier, bitterly. His tankard is unfairly empty. So, it turns out, is the jug that Priss brought back from the bar a while back.

‘Mm,’ says Priscilla noncommittally. ‘So if Geralt gave you a posy ring, and it had a nice little inscription on it that said something like, oh, I don’t know, “Love me, and leave me not”, and said that it reminded him of you, and how you were the one friend who stood by him, and that he was glad to have such a good friend in you, would you accept and wear it? And you’d know that everyone else who wasn’t a witcher would assume immediately that you had a sweetheart, even though that wasn’t at all how Geralt had meant it. And that people might ask after said sweetheart in Geralt’s presence, especially if they knew you. Or would you tell him that he’d made a mistake?’

Jaskier feels his heart make an awful swooping. ‘I don’t think I’m drunk enough for this conversation,’ he mutters.

‘Well? Would you wear his ring?’

‘No,’ he admits. ‘Probably not.’

‘But you just spent the last three pints telling me that you are desperately in love with him,’ Priscilla says, her eyes wide and her whole face contorted in a mockery of innocent surprise. ‘So why not?’

‘Because it wouldn’t mean anything if Geralt was giving it to me as a friend,’ he snaps. ‘And ... I would hate to see him embarrassed like that.’

Priscilla hums obnoxiously, as though that is enough to prove her point.

‘That doesn’t prove anything, though,’ he says, jabbing at the table with one finger for emphasis. ‘You don’t know why he didn’t want the beads.’

‘No, we don’t know why,’ she agrees. ‘I’m sure you had plenty of other evidence why he couldn’t possibly ever love you. Like all of those complaints he made when you first started calling him your wife.’

‘Geralt’s desperately starved of affection,’ says Jaskier. ‘I know what you’re saying, but I don’t think the fact that he enjoyed an affectionate nickname means that he liked it because it was me saying it.’

‘You don’t know that it wasn’t either!’ she says, throwing up her hands.

He folds his arms. He thinks he would have noticed if Geralt had been harbouring some kind of crush.

‘Jaskier.’ She holds his head in her hands and shakes it gently. ‘TALK. TO. HIM. With words, ones with a direct and unambiguous meaning, and not stupid jokes that could be misinterpreted. I know it’s frightening, but you keep telling me how kind your witcher is. He’s unlikely to laugh at you. But sweet Melitele, if you carry on like this, you are going to lose your mind and take mine with you, and I need my mind. I still have to finish last Wednesday’s composition. Talk to him, so that you both know where you stand. Because even if he really does just want to be your friend, the past year has probably been just as confusing for him. You owe it to him to stop fucking about.’

‘And you always talk through everything with all the people you fancy, do you,’ he says, lying down sulkily on the table as soon as she lets him go. The surface is sticky with old beer, which is probably like a metaphor for his life, he thinks blearily.

She laughs at him. ‘Of course not! Sometimes the advice we give other people is the advice we needed ourselves. It’s very much advice forged in the fires of poor personal decisions.’

He sits up just enough that he can rest his chin on his folded arms. ‘If I go and buy the next round of beer, will you tell me about one of those terrible personal decisions to make me feel better?’

‘Possibly,’ she concedes. ‘Will you actually talk to your witcher in the spring?’

‘Perhaps.’

‘Jaskier—’

‘I’m getting there, all right? I’m not seeing him for weeks. I have time to screw up my courage.’

‘You have plenty of time to talk yourself out of it again, too.’

‘I know, I just—I know you’re right.’ He sighs. ‘It’s not fair to him either. I just wish ... I wish I could keep on as I was before this whole thing with the beads. It was nice, you know, to be able to call him sweet things, and do little things for him. Even if he’s nice about ... my feelings, I’m afraid that he won’t let me do nice things for him any more. Because they’ll have, y’know, meaning. But he should have sweet things. He should have sugared almonds, and pretty beads, and gooseberries when he wants them.’

He sighs deeply. He feels melancholy, and worn down by it. Priscilla pats his arm.

‘I know, love,’ she says. ‘Why don’t you go get that ale, and I’ll actually listen to you wax lyrical about hair spun from the finest polished silver while we drink it.’

‘It’s so pretty, Priss,’ he says sadly.

‘I know.’ She pushes him gently. ‘But ale first, lyricism afterwards.’

*

That winter seems to simultaneously drag out as it always does, and also flash past far too quickly. He has plenty of time to contemplate Geralt’s few comments, to see if he can guess at his friend’s feelings, but winter’s end seems to loom closer and closer before he is ready for it. He isn’t at all sure he knows what he wants to say.

The weather is already milder when he decides to spend a day in the library with a book of folk customs of Kaedwen. He and Priss usually spend their days off together, often in one of Oxenfurt’s coffee houses, but he knows she’s going to want to hear if he has a plan yet, and ... he doesn’t.

The exams are over for this term, so he has the library nearly to himself. There are no packs of students having quiet breakdowns anywhere. There’s just one of the older scholars, who’s poring over about four books at once on one of the standing book carousels, and one of Priss’s composition students, who has fallen asleep on her notebook. He’s able to secure his favourite desk, right at the back of the library, underneath the enormous world map, painted with creatures all over, so that there’s a stylised sea monster in the North Sea, and a dragon in the Dragon Mountains. Whoever it is that painted it has clearly never seen an actual sea monster, and Jaskier laughs quietly to himself when he realises how much he sounds like Geralt’s early complaints about the inaccuracies of his first songs.

Still, it’s quiet back here, so he can spend the day absorbed in his reading. Inaccurate sea monster aside, the map is almost as good as a window for giving him something to look at while he thinks. Or daydreams. Whatever. He feels a little more emotionally prepared for the imminent coming of spring when he falls onto the palliasse by the fire that night.

*

Spring moves through the continent borne by the southerly wind. It arrives in Oxenfurt earlier than it does in Kaedwen, and high in the mountains last of all. Jaskier has plenty of time to say goodbye to Priss, and take a couple of his promising students out to a coffee house to discuss their futures, but eventually he can’t stall any longer, and it’s time to take the road northeast to meet his witcher.

He makes it as far as Daevon without hearing tell of a white-haired witcher, so he finds an amenable innkeeper, and books a room. The innkeeper is more than willing for him to play in the evenings, and possibly lure some of the caravan travellers away from the other tavern and into his bar.

Jaskier has his days largely free, though, so he makes friends with the baker’s assistant, Jacz, who gives him a little discount off the pączki he buys each day, and Helzbieta, a widow who keeps an orchard, who is delighted to have him visit with pączki, and they wind up talking for hours over coffee about music—she’d played viol before her children were born, and played duets with her husband when they were courting. She finds the viol, which must have been picked up by someone in the past few decades, because the strings are intact. With a little coaxing, she improvises a harmony to his simple lute tune, although she apologises for every sour note. Another afternoon she teaches him several of the local folk songs, and laughs at his pronunciation. Although her voice is clearly not what it was when she’d been a young woman, it’s still clear and strong, and listening to her is a pleasure. Before he goes down to perform that night, he writes down copies of them in a letter to Priscilla. She has been making a small collection of Lyrian folk songs, and might appreciate them, even if they’re not from her area of study.

He’s been there perhaps five or six days—far longer than he usually gets to stay somewhere—when he sees a familiar figure outside the Ratusz, talking to one of the aldermen. He hurries to the bakery to pick up a few things, and then to Helzbieta to let her know he won’t be around.

He manages to find Geralt in the other tavern, working his way determinedly through a bowl of pottage, and a tankard of ale for his lunch. He should probably order his own lunch, but all of his insides are too twisted up with nerves.

‘Geralt!’ he says, slipping onto the bench opposite. ‘Good to see you. Hope you had a good winter. You’re looking well.’

Geralt nods, his mouth full.

‘Good, good,’ Jaskier says, meaninglessly. ‘I have a kind of gift for you.’

He fetches out the small parcel he’d picked up from Helzbieta, and hands it over to Geralt. His hands aren’t shaking, which is something to be thankful for.

Geralt raises an eyebrow, but takes the parcel. He frowns down at it as he picks at the knotted string that holds the fabric closed.

‘I did a lot of thinking this winter,’ Jaskier says. ‘And even a little bit of reading. I hope I wasn’t presuming too much, but, well. You’ll see.’

Geralt unties the twine, and unwinds the scrap of fabric, to reveal—

‘It’s a stick,’ he says gruffly. ‘Why.’

‘It’s a twig, technically,’ says Jaskier. ‘A twig from a cherry tree, specifically. And those are flower buds. I was hoping to bring you one in full blossom, but—Well. It’s been cold this year, and cherry trees don’t normally blossom up here for a week or two even when it’s warmer.’

Geralt is still frowning. Jaskier rubs his thumb and finger together and tries to explain.

‘It’s the third gift,’ he says. ‘You asked for a chicken without a bone, and then your brother asked me to bring you a blanket without thread. I haven’t had your father ask me, but I thought I could bring you a cherry without a stone anyway, and hope that the offering would be enough, and that I wasn’t reading too much into the requests.’

Geralt’s face shifts into that vulnerable look he’d had the first time Jaskier called him his wife.

‘If that was what you wanted,’ Jaskier says hurriedly. ‘If it isn’t, we’ll say no more about it. If I’ve misunderstood, or if Lambert was overstepping in asking me, you merely need to say. But I seemed to have spent half of last year accidentally plighting my troth, so I thought I’d undertake the task properly, and show you that I meant it.’

Geralt is silent, running his thumb along the twig and over one of the buds, and back again. Jaskier desperately wants to press him, but Geralt struggles with words at the best of times. There’s no good to be gained in making him feel harried now.

‘You can’t want this,’ Geralt says finally.

He still hasn’t looked up from the twig, but he hasn’t let it go, which Jaskier is trying to take as an encouraging sign.

‘Can’t, in that it’s impossible?’ Jaskier asks carefully. ‘Which part is impossible?’

Geralt looks up at him finally, and says, ‘This! This life! Walking the roads of the Continent without a proper home! Binding yourself to a—a mutant, and being separated from the rest of human society as a result! No-one would want that.’

Geralt drops his gaze again and hunches into himself, as though he’s waiting for a barrage of blows from behind.

Ah, Jaskier thinks. Well, that isn't I don’t want you. That’s you shouldn’t want me. That’s a different kettle of fish altogether.

‘Geralt,’ he says, keeping his tone gentle. ‘You may have noticed that I’ve been doing that for years. I’ve returned to walk these roads beside you again and again. That part is not new to me.’ He takes a fortifying breath. ‘As to the rest, well. You already know that I think that the way you and your kind are treated is unfair, and even were we to stop being friends, I’d still do what I can to fix that. I had already chosen to live the life of a travelling bard before we met, and I regret to tell you that also leaves me outside of civilised society. I’ve been turned away from towns when we’ve not been travelling together. They accused me of “begging”, even when I proved I had enough in my purse to cover a night or two in an inn, should one be available, or to offer to a farmer for a stay in their barn.’

Geralt is looking at him, at least, and he hasn’t tried to talk over him, so Jaskier presses on.

‘I know that there will be hardships that come my way as a result, but Geralt, I’ve chosen most of them before. I think it would be worth it. I think you are worth it.’ He takes another deep breath, and tries to will his hands to stop shaking. ‘You don’t have to accept my troth if you don’t want it. We can go back to travelling as friends. Or if you don’t want that either, we can part. But obviously I hope it doesn’t come to that.’ He draws another breath, and continues. ‘But you don’t have to reject me because you think I don’t want this. That I don’t want you.’

He stops, and waits. Geralt is turning the twig over in his hands. He still hasn’t said no, at least.

‘I know this is a lot to put on you,’ Jaskier says. ‘You, um, don’t have to make a decision now.’

‘Lambert asked after you,’ Geralt says finally.

Jaskier is lost. ‘Oh?’

‘When I saw him at winter. Said that I should’ve done something last year. Brought you home with me, at least. Let the others meet you.’

He looks up from his hands at Jaskier again. Jaskier waits, his heart pounding.

‘He said that it was clear to anyone who cared to look that you ... cared for me. And not only as a friend. That you would follow me to the end of the earth.’

‘Well ... yeah,’ Jaskier admits. ‘Technically I did that when we’d first met, and I wasn’t even in love with you then.’

Why?

‘I don’t know, Geralt. Why does anyone love anyone else.’

‘Yen is beautiful, and clever, and has a biting sense of humour. You’re handsome, and witty, and kind, and you sing beautifully.’

‘And you didn’t even like me when we met, but you fought to try to get the elves to release me, and you were willing to die in my place.’ Jaskier shrugs. ‘That’s not nothing. It all built from there.’

‘I’m not beautiful, though,’ Geralt says, gesturing. ‘Don’t you want someone—’

Jaskier catches his hands and holds them still.

‘Geralt. I know that the way you look has meant that you’ve been treated badly, and that it’s hard for you to think of those visible differences as anything other than monstrous. But—and you’ll have to take this on faith, here—you are, in fact, absurdly attractive to those of us who aren’t bigoted dickheads. If I didn’t know you, I’d still be interested in propositioning you based on your looks alone.’

Geralt stares at him as though Jaskier has announced that he is entirely sick of music, and he is intending on joining one of the obscure and strange religious orders that banned their adherents from partaking in any kind of sex.

‘I did say you’ll have to take that on faith,’ Jaskier says, leaning back. ‘But honestly, I think if you were able to summon Yennefer here, she’d agree with me.’

He let go of Geralt’s hands, but those self-same hands interlaced themselves with Jaskier’s.

‘Does that mean you’re at least a little bit interested,’ says Jaskier, trying desperately to be calm and not get his hopes up.

‘Yes,’ Geralt says, and it sounds like a confession of fault.

‘Well, good,’ he says, still trying to keep a lid on his overwhelming joy. Geralt is clearly going to need to be eased into all of this. ‘Obviously we don’t have to plight our troth right now, unless that was something you’d want.’

‘It is,’ Geralt says. ‘Could I wear the beads now? Just the first two, to signify that we’re engaged?’

‘I—Yes,’ says Jaskier. ‘Can I—’

‘—Will you braid them into my hair?’

Please,’ says Jaskier. ‘Yes. I’d love to.’