The incident happens five weeks after they start travelling together. Up until then Geralt is something of a legendary figure in Jaskier's mind, awe-inspiring and intimidating and ever so vaguely terrifying. Every moment he half expects Geralt to turn around and kick him to the curb, to snap and snarl and finally lose his patience and order Jaskier to leave.
The fact that he hasn't already is something of a surprise in itself, to be honest. When they had started travelling together, Jaskier begging Geralt's indulgence so that he might come along and witness one of his adventures, he'd half expected Geralt to leave him in the woods somewhere, to just take his coin and leave him. But he hadn't. And then, when the first contract had been done and they'd made their way back to town, Jaskier handing over the promised coin in recompense, Jaskier had expected that would be it. Deal done, adventure finished, done.
But Geralt hadn't told him to leave, and Jaskier hadn't left, and instead the next morning when Geralt had picked up a second contract Jaskier had found himself going along with him. Jaskier had handed Geralt a handful of coin and Geralt hadn't said anything, tucking it into his pocket, and then one quest had become two had become three had become more, until it was five weeks later and Jaskier was still travelling with him.
In the back of his mind Jaskier is still waiting for it to happen - for the threadbare patience bought with Jaskier's coin to run out and for Geralt to snap, leaving him abandoned out here while rides off, fed up with Jaskier's ceaseless chatter and deciding he's had his money's worth. He wouldn't even blame him if he did. Jaskier knows that he can be overbearing, too loud and too nosy and too talkative, never quite mastering the trick of when to keep talking and when to not-
And Geralt- Well, he's Geralt. Taciturn and short tempered and impatient and tight-lipped, so stern and hard-wrought that he might as well be carved from stone. He's like no man Jaskier has ever met, and it's no wonder, because he isn't quite one, not really. There's a reason people are scared of witchers - unfailing, unfaltering, untiring creatures of death, made for the hunt and only one step removed from the monsters they kill.
In all those weeks travelling together, Jaskier has never seen Geralt sleep. His skin is pale, almost bloodless and icy to the touch, eyes such a vivid gold that they seem to glow in the dead of night, pale as a specter. He doesn't eat like Jaskier, doesn't sleep like Jaskier, doesn't tire like Jaskier - needs food only once per day, walking and fighting for hours without rest. When Jaskier wakes in the middle of the night, Geralt is always up, kneeling before the fire, mediating in silence, gold eyes slipping over to watch Jaskier silently as he rouses and turns, making a sleepy noise as he adds more wood to the fire.
Geralt wouldn't bother with one of those either, Jaskier knows, preferring to camp without one when it's just him alone. If he feels the chill at all, it doesn't phase him.
And no wonder, perhaps, that Jaskier views Geralt as something of an untouchable figure in his mind. He is something more than a man, and it only takes watching him fight once to know it. Geralt is- He's born for killing, made for it, taking to the field with such a brutal sort of efficiency that it sends a cold shiver down Jaskier's spine. Seeing him in the aftermath, black blood spotted across his skin as his eyes seem to glow, dark veins pulsing around his eyes as he stands in a field of carnage, bodies knee high, creatures of nightmare lying torn in pieces across the forest floor as Geralt stands without even a scratch-
Yes, Jaskier can understand why people fear witchers.
He will admit to it- Jaskier feels it too for a moment. The first time he follows Geralt out on a contract, as he stands there, frozen to the spot and paralyzed as he watches Geralt cut through a nest of endrega. An endrega warrior screeches as one of its legs is severed with a heavy crunch of chitin, black ichor spilling over the ground as it throws itself at Geralt, and Jaskier flinches, drawing back, when Geralt's sword runs it through in a single easy movement, the corpse slumping off his sword as he already turns to face the next, eyes cold and indifferent-
His throat had been dry, watching it, heart thundering in his chest, painfully aware that if Geralt wanted to he could cut Jaskier down in seconds, that he wouldn't even have to think twice about it, it would be easy . Because Geralt was terrifying, he was , and only a fool wouldn't admit it. It was only in the weeks that followed, as Jaskier accompanied him on more quests, when he saw the care Geralt took when protecting those under his charge, the way he watched over Jaskier, making sure the fight never spilled over in his direction, even if it cost his own blood to stop it, the way it wasn't cruelty but mercy that guided Geralt's hand, that made every strike brutal and killing, ensuring that nothing ever suffered for longer than it had to, deaths quick and clean-
Jaskier began to understand Geralt better after that, he thinks.
Still, even then he thinks Geralt remained something of an untouchable figure in his mind. No longer terrifying, so longer so intimidating perhaps, but still- Still something more. Larger than life, undefeatable. So often does Geralt come out of contracts without getting even a scratch that the first time Geralt gets injured it catches Jaskier completely off guard.
The monster is an abomination, some sort of dragon kin that's been unsuccessfully bred with a griffon, the twisted and abandoned project of some sorcerer's hubris, left to rot when their laboratory was abandoned. It is not the first monster to wander out of the maze of tunnels in the hills beyond Gwenderth, but it is the first to sink its teeth into Geralt, coming upon him when he was already exhausted and worn down after clearing out the rest of the laboratory.
In the aftermath, the creature's body lies broken on the floor, head severed from its neck, it's sickly purple blood hissing as it pools on the floor, ever so slightly acidic. The room is in shambles, broken glass and instruments strewn across the floor, unidentifiable potions splattered across the stone and turning the air noxious now with their rising fumes, things that Jaskier doesn't dare look too closely at still floating in jars on the shelves. Geralt is in no better state, bloody and bleeding, shoulder torn open and limping from a gash that cut him hip to knee.
They make it back out of the laboratory in good time, but only after Geralt makes them take the dragon-creatures head with them, carrying it along by one of its malformed horns even as he limps through the tunnels, dripping blood with every step but still refusing to sit down and rest. He takes care of the wounds themselves at camp, cleaning the jagged cut on his leg and sewing it shut with neat stitches as the monster's head stares blankly at him from across the fire, Jaskier doing his best not to look directly at the blood where it oozes in slow streams down Geralt's leg as he closes one stitch after the next.
Then comes time for Geralt's shoulder, and that's when things get- Difficult.
Jaskier doesn't realize what Geralt is asking for at first, and when he does he quails at the thought, going pale faced. "Really, Geralt, I'm not sure- I don't think-"
"Jaskier, just fucking get over here." Geralt snaps, even as he eases away the last portions of his armor and sets them aside. One of his pauldrons has been torn clear away, the chain beneath warped and torn, and he sets it aside with a grimace, teeth clenching on a pained breath as he straightens and starts working on cutting away his shirt.
As he does, the full extent of the wound is revealed, and it just makes Jaskier pale further. He'd known the beast had bitten Geralt, had seen it with his own two eyes, had watched the way it has twisted its great neck and sunk its teeth in with a snarl even as Geralt's sword flashed and served its head from its body, but he hadn't expected the extent of the damage - a jagged circle of deep bleeding pits that circle his shoulder, front and back, where its teeth had sunk deep and then been torn free. It had died biting him, its teeth still buried in his skin - and Jaskier knows that because some of its teeth are still in him, embedded deep and caught there in a line of bloody tombstones.
"Jaskier." Geralt growls again, more tightly now, and Jaskier realizes abruptly that its not the pain making him sound tight and drawn. This isn't a wound that Geralt can deal with by himself and he knows it. More than the blood, more than the pain, more than the torn jagged flesh and the fangs still sunken into his skin, it's this that's making Geralt stands drawn and tense - having to ask for help, to admit that he is weakened, vulnerable, forced to bear his back to another, knowing that they could use the chance to slip a knife against his neck-
" Jaskier. " Geralt snaps, voice hard and sharp, a growled command, angry and glaring because he can't be anything else when he's this vulnerable. The sound is enough to snap Jaskier out of it, and he jerks, finally rising to his feet. He's tentative as he approaches Geralt, circling around behind him, swallowing thickly as he lays eyes on the full extent of the damage, nausea threatening to rise in his throat at the sight.
Geralt sits there, shoulders tenses, eyes set on the fire, and Jaskier knows he expects it, an attack, a knife sunk in, some sort of threat or demand, taking advantage of his vulnerable state - expects it in the same way Jaskier had expected it, all those weeks on the road, half certain that Geralt would up and abandon him even as his rational mind realized it was less and less likely.
Once bitten, twice shy - and they both are, each for their own reasons. Geralt had been betrayed before, had been hurt before, knows better than to think there is anyone in the world out there who would spare kindness or pity for a witcher like him, not when they spit on the road when he passes, throw stones and glare. He might know that Jaskier wouldn't stick a knife into his back, but he still expects it. Is still waiting for it, in the way all scarred and broken creatures do, keeping close watch on the places they've been bled before, fault lines forever engraved into their being.
One look at the wound is enough to make Jaskier feel faint, the sight of the blood and torn flesh draining the blood from his face, but Jaskier forces himself to take a deep breath, pushing it down. "Right." Jaskier says, and is grateful when Geralt doesn't comment about the fact Jaskier's voice cracks on the word. "Right, we're going to need to boil some more water. How much more clean gauze have you got?"
Geralt sits silently as Jaskier works on his shoulder, fingers gentle and tentative as he first works on wiping away the blood and cleaning the cuts that are open. Close to the edge of his shoulder the bite is shallower, fewer teeth embedded, and Jaskier starts there, cleaning each wound and stitching them closed as he gets Geralt to hold a balled cloth against the rest, keeping pressure while he works.
His fingers shake on the first few stitches, nervous and unsure, but Geralt never flinches, and after a few tries some of the nervousness fades away, Jaskier learning how much force to apply, how tight to pull, how to knot it off cleanly without fumbling. The fire burns low, crackling gently, the forest quiet and dim around them as Jaskier works, Geralt's blood bright in the firelight where he sits at an angle, Jaskier behind him, so that Jaskier might have light to work.
There is blood on Jaskier's hands, on his wrists, splattered in pinprick dots on his face, slick and wet and warm, but his hands no longer shake as he ties the stitches cut, one by one, reaching down to dip his cloth in the warm water as he wipes the next wound clean, gently clearing away the blood so that he can wash it with a cleansing solution. One by one, fangs tumble to the forest floor, falling with quiet thuds as they hit the leaf litter. All the while Geralt is still and steady beneath Jaskier's hands, chest expanding and contracting, skin warm beneath his fingers, sure and strong, pulse beating beneath his touch.
Silence, as another fang drops from beneath Jaskier's fingers and he leans forward, quiet and concentrated, fingers gentle as he wipes away the blood, revealing pale skin and the raw edge of the deep gouge. The tensing of Geralt's jaw as Jaskier cleans the wound, not a sound passing his lips. The tug and sting of the needle, as the thread pulls through, a low exhale as Jaskier pulls it tight, tying it off one by one with careful practice.
Geralt sits there as Jaskier wipes his shoulder afterwards, his profile cast in shadow and flickering firelight as Jaskier wipes away the fresh beads of blood that have gathered, the line of of three dozen weeping punctures, now sewn closed. He's silent as Jaskier carefully lays out a thin layer of gauze and binds it in bandages, lifting his arm and shifting as Jaskier motions him to as Jaskier winds the bandages around his chest, his neck, the careful spiderwork game required to keep them bound with gentle tension across his shoulder.
This close, Geralt smells of blood and sweat and something herbal, almost pungent and bitter. He smells like sword oil, like the smoke of spell fire, like well kept leatherwork. He has scars on his skin, Jaskier realizes, more than he can count, some so aged and faded that they're almost invisible, others knotted and red, months and years fresh. Some are younger - days or weeks old, just beginning to heal, and Jaskier realizes that maybe Geralt has been getting hurt, he's just been taking care of it after Jaskier went to bed, always so cautious.
Jaskier's fingers brush Geralt's skin as they draw the bandages tight, not lingering but not avoiding the contact either, and Jaskier realizes abruptly that this is the closest he's ever gotten to Geralt, the longest he's ever been in his space. Quietly, Jaskier finishes tying off the bandages and sits back. Geralt lets out a low breath, not looking at him, but Jaskier can see the way the tension in his shoulders seems to loosen, melting away somewhat as Jaskier turns as starts focusing on cleaning himself up, washing the blood from his hands and going to tip out the bloody basin.
In the background, he can hear Geralt moving, getting out a new shirt from his saddlebags and slowly easing it on. He doesn't make a single noise of pain the whole while, even as he lifts his arm to slide the shirt on. He hadn't made a single noise the whole time, not one - not a grunt, a pained breath, not a single curse or growled complaint, silent as the grave.
Geralt is still silent afterwards, the two of them readying for the night without saying anything, Jaskier laying down his bedroll and Geralt taking up his customary position across the fire, but Jaskier can feel his eyes on him as he falls asleep, the weight of his gaze lingering.
During the course of the next two years Jaskier helps Geralt with injuries more times than he can count. It's rare for Geralt to be seriously injured during a contract, and even rarer for the wound to be one that Geralt can't take care of himself, but when it happens Jaskier steps in. Jaskier doesn't know exactly when the moment is that marks the change, but at some point Geralt no longer stands tense when Jaskier is behind him, his shoulders loose and relaxed as Jaskier leans around him, trying bandages or applying salves or threading the needle.
It's probably, Jaskier reckons, the same time that Jaskier stopped going pale at the sight of blood. In his youth he never would have been able to imagine it, never would have thought of himself as having an iron stomach, the sight of the lightest injury enough to make him feel dizzy and light headed. He doesn't know when that changed. He grew up, maybe. Realized that there are worse things than just blood, that wounds of the flesh are just that - nothing but blood and skin and bone beneath.
This time it isn't a wound Jaskier can help with, not really. The last contract had left Geralt sore and exhausted, sporting three broken ribs and a nice dosing of poison. He'd taken the cure already, but even that can't do anything about the fact that they had spent seven hours fighting their way through a set of caves, with Geralt poisoned for the better part of that time, before he'd finally gotten his hands on what he needed to make the antidote.
It'd taken them another hour and a half to limp back to the village, Geralt presenting the creature's head in exchange for the promised coin, and by the end of it Geralt is limping heavily, worn down and exhausted and still splattered with gore, armor slathered with blood and mud. His face is almost black with it, hair stained black with ichor and sour water where the creature had dragged him down into its filthy pool.
By the time they make it back to the inn, Geralt is almost wavering somewhat. It would be imperceptible to anybody else, but Jaskier can tell. His minute limp is gone, his back straighter than ever, glowering fiercely, holding himself all the more tightly for the fact he's verging on stumbling. It's a trick Jaskier learned early with Geralt - the more relaxed he looks the more on guard he is, the more controlled he holds himself the more exhausted he is, iron control tightening to compensate, not slipping for a second.
He slumps into a chair the moment they make it into their rooms, collapsing heavily, a split second of bone-deep exhaustion crossing his features before his expression smooths out once more. "Hold on." Jaskier tells him, earning a disinterested grunt. "I'm going to order some food, and water for a bath."
Geralt doesn't look up as the serving girl knocks on the door, first bringing food and then returning a few minutes later with the first bucket of boiling water. Geralt doesn't spare her a glance, busy stripping away his armor piece by piece. By the end of it he looks ready to collapse right there, visibly exhausted, but Jaskier nudges him towards the bath instead.
"Come on," Jaskier tells him, tone too exhausted to be truly chivying. He might not have done any of the fighting, but he was in that cave just as long as Geralt. "If you sleep like this you'll stain the sheets, and I can only imagine what that stuff will do if you let it seep into those cuts for any longer."
Jaskier busies himself stoking the fire as Geralt strips down, tossing aside his shirt and unlacing his boots, belts slithering free one after another as he steps out of his trousers. He doesn't step into the tub immediately, wiping himself down with a cloth and nearby pail inside, trying to get the worst of it off him. The faint scent of lavender rises from the water as it sloshes, still steaming and almost scalding hot, as Geralt finally sinks into the bath with a low groan.
For a moment it looks like he's going to fall asleep then and there. Jaskier leaves him to it, making a start on the food and checking on the tear in his doublet as Geralt washes up, the soft noises of water shifting coming from across the room as Jaskier keeps up a quiet stream of chatter all the while. Eventually Jaskier ends up peering around the privacy screen to check on him when five minutes go by without a single noise from the tub.
"You haven't actually fallen asleep in there, have you?" Jaskier asks. He finds Geralt leaning back, head resting against the lip of the tub with his eyes closed, wisps of steam rising from the soapy water. His head tilts when Jaskier steps around the partition, tracking his footstep as they carrying him around the side of the tub, one golden eye opening to glare at him as Jaskier stops beside the tub.
There's still blood in Geralt's hair, still smears of it on his skin, dried there and now stained deep, refusing to come clean - and the poison must really have had a greater effort than Jaskier thought, if Geralt only managed to get this far before getting too tired. It's the first time Jaskier has ever seen Geralt look so worn out. "Come on then," Jaskier tells him, turning to rummage through the bottle of oils and potions on the benchside. "Sit up, I'll give you a hand."
"Jaskier..." Geralt says warningly, not sounding amused, eyes tracking Jaskier as he picks up a couple of the potions, opening one and giving it a sniff before putting it down again quickly. He looks ready to begin arguing, but Jaskier just steam rolls right over him. "Up, up! Come on, we can't leave your hair in such a state. This stuff already looks ready to stain as is, and then where will you be?"
Geralt lets out a noise, exasperated and annoyed, glaring, but in the end he sits up, heaving a haggard sigh. His back is tense as Jaskier moves around behind him, checking the temperature of the water and going in search of a towel and a comb, the lines of his back so taught and tight that it feels the muscles might snap beneath the skin. There's a stool tucked in the corner of the room, probably just for this purpose, and Geralt tenses even further as Jaskier drags it over to the head of the bath.
"Lean back," he tells Geralt, as he lifts a pitcher of warm water. Geralt looks at him for a long hard moment, eyes narrowed, so stiff he might as well as have been made of stone. In the end he turns his back to Jaskier, leaning back. He tenses at Jaskier first touch, leaning over to carefully gather his hair, fingertips brushing against his temples and the line of his neck ever so lightly as he does, pulling it all back behind him.
From this angle, the scars on his shoulder are on full display, the ring of mottled skin that circles his right shoulder stark against pale skin. If Jaskier looked closely he would probably be able to count out every tooth, mapping the topography of every fang he'd had to pull from Geralt's flesh. It's not the oldest of Geralt's scars, or even the worse, but it stands out to Jaskier all the same - the pinprick marks left by his sutures immortalized in Geralt's skin, as surely as the monster's bite.
With gentle fingers, Jaskier tilts Geralt's head back, not saying anything when Geralt doesn't close his eyes. Carefully, he starts pouring the water over his head, his other hand working carefully through his hair as he coaxes the worst of the mud and blood out. Geralt's hair is longer than that of most men Jaskier knows, reaching well down to his shoulders. He kept it tied up most of the time, and it's easy to forget how long it really is. Its startlingly smooth beneath his fingers, rich and full for all that it’s bleached a pale colourless white, not the grey of age but something different, as pure as fallen snow.
Jaskier keeps up a steady chatter as he works, talking about everything and nothing, just useless nonsense to fill the silence, until the lines of tension in Geralt's shoulders start to ease, fraction by fraction. "-and then, can you believe it, it turns out he was having an affair too, with his rival's wife no less. And of course the Countess of Montmere couldn't have that, she slapped him right there in front of the whole court and everything, which only outraged the other woman, which mean that Duke de Dailmar got dragged into it, trying to stop his wife, who was pulling the Countess of Montmere's hair. It was the talk of Lyrian court for months, months-"
Geralt just gives a low grunt, disinterested, not really paying attention, but Jaskier doesn't really mind. "-anyway, everyone had thought it had died down, everyone appropriately regretful and all that, but then nine months later it turns out someone hadn't been too careful with their protection while having the affair, because guess who got pregnant? And so that set the whole affair off again and that's when it gets really spicy-"
Minutes get lost in the soft burble of falling water and the chatter of Jaskier's voice, in the soft rise of lavender-scented steam and the bubbles that lather around Jaskier's fingers as he works them through Geralt's hair. At some point, Geralt's eyes had fallen closed, and he leans back now, the weight of his head resting fully in Jaskier's hands, tilted back against the edge of the tub. He looks relaxed like this, strangely soft as he lies there, trusting himself to Jaskier's hands, the lines of his next open and exposed as he tilts his head back, body lax and languid in the water, unashamed where the clear lines of his skin slip free from the bubbled surface of the water.
It takes more than one pass to get all of the blood out and Jaskier lets himself take his time, not hurrying through the processes as he lathers the soap through Geralt's hair, combing it through the length of it with carding fingers and tracing the lines of Geralt's skull as he winds his fingers through the roots. Lets his nails catch and scratch ever so light as he drags his fingers across his scalp, lets his thumbs linger and press with just a hint of force, earning a slow sigh.
When it finally comes time to rinse for the last time, Geralt lets Jaskier tilt his head back without even saying anything, following the soft touch at his jaw with a soft sort of submission, eyes not opening. Jaskier holds a hand across his forehead as he pours, careful to keep it from flowing into his eyes, angling the jug back so he can card his fingers down through his hair, chasing away the last of the soap. If he were doing anyone else, this is where he might start combing through hair oil, but he's probably already tried Geralt's patience enough - and also, Jaskier doesn't have anything that isn't scented, and he knows how sensitive Geralt's nose is.
"There, done." Jaskier says as he steps away, reaching over and tucking away a wet strand that threatens to fall across Geralt's face, pulling it back to lie with the rest. Jaskier can't resist giving him a cheeky smile, pleased. "Let me go find a towel. If we leave you in there any longer then you really might fall asleep in the bath, and then where would we be?"
"Jaskier." Geralt says, voice coming in a low rumble as he sits up, water streaming over his shoulders, cutting rivers over the hard lines of his body. His skin is slightly rosy from the heat of the bath, and he lets out a grumbling yawn as he sits up. "Shut up."
"So rude! And this is how you thank me for all my toil, slaving over your pearly locks, really, a man feels unappreciated around you, Geralt, I hope you know that-" Jaskier says, but he's already grinning as he steps away, going to fetch a pair of towels even as Geralt scowls and makes a face, growling for him to stop prattling.
Jaskier doesn't let himself think on it much, that night with the bath. Jaskier's a physically demonstrative person, he knows that, and what he'd done for Geralt isn't anything he wouldn't happily do for any other good friend if they ever asked. It's not the fact that Jaskier had done it, so much, that makes his mind return to it again and again, but rather the fact that Geralt had let him do it.
The thing is, Geralt doesn't touch people. Occasionally, yes, sure, for contracts and the like - hauling someone out danger when they stray within range of an attack, grabbing Jaskier by the shoulder and pulling him up when he threatens to slip on a steep climb, pinning someone in place when they try and make an attack on him, all the better to snarl in their faces and make them wilt back, rethinking their actions.
And occasionally, too, for other stuff as well. Jaskier has seen Geralt wander off with working girls every now and then, knows that he makes sure of their services every now and then, even if he seems to mostly wait for them to come to him rather than the other way around. And Jaskier isn't innocent, he knows what booking time with a prostitute entails, has done it himself from time to time when someone catches his eye and seems keen for a customer.
Geralt doesn't touch people. There are no hearty back slaps, no clasped arms or hands shaken, no arms thrown over shoulders or teasing nudges. There is a bubble of space around Geralt that people stay well clear of, and Geralt encourages it - he doesn't like it when people touch him, when people get too close, tenses up when people stray into his space, his eyes cold and suspicious, and Jaskier can understand it. People don't like witchers and many of them are more than willing to fuck one over if given the chance. Where the two of them are not met with suspicion and mistrust, they're met with open violence, raw and hostile. And Jaskier can understand, he thinks, why Geralt doesn't like having people in his space when that is how life reacts to him.
Geralt doesn't let people close, he doesn't let people touch him - which makes it all the more egregious, Jaskier thinks, that the scene with the bath even happened. Jaskier stitching Geralt up when Geralt has no other choice, sure, okay, it makes sense, better than Geralt letting himself bleed out after all, but that?
Leaving his hair a mess wouldn't have killed him, even if it would have been gross. Geralt could have lived without it. And Jaskier knows he'd been the one to offer, the one to initiate, but the fact that Geralt had let him had still surprised him. It is, in living memory, the only time Jaskier can ever remember really touching Geralt outside of tending to his wounds or being yanked out of the way of some danger or another. It is, in fact, the only time Jaskier can remember seeing Geralt let anyone touch him, rare prostitutes not included.
And Jaskier tries not to overthink that fact, he really does - it was a friendly act of service between two companions, nothing more, nothing less, certainty Geralt didn't intend for Jaskier to draw any sort of deeper meaning from it- And yet.
It makes Jaskier feel a bit flattered, really, when he thinks about it too long, something going warm in his chest. Proof that maybe Jaskier really is something a bit special, that he really is a true friend to Geralt - Geralt wouldn't never let someone else do that, after all, would never let them that close. And maybe it's self-flattering, this train of thought, maybe Jaskier is making something out of nothing, blowing an isolated, meaningless incident out of proportion, but still. It makes him feel a little proud regardless.
Another year passes, then two, then three, and Jaskier still spends most of each year traipsing around in the vast countryside with Geralt, looking for adventures and searching out trouble, the two of them meeting up again every spring after Geralt's return from Kaer Morhen. Their travels have taken them up through the back hills of Kaedwen this year, further north than they've ever before strayed, and it doesn't take long for Jaskier to figure out why Geralt doesn't usually come up this way.
Kaedwen is a harsh land, fierce and unforgiving, what many of the gentle southern kingdoms would call barbaric. The people live hard, simple lives here, making their living where they can. The distance between villages stretch long in these lands, the distance between towns even longer, the wilderness swelling to fill the space. There are more monsters here, older monsters, nastier monsters, ones that have grown proud and fat on the pickings of this wild land and the freedom that its hard circumstances afford them.
Every village needs a witcher here, and desperately, and they hate them for it, hate Geralt for it, hate him for it viciously. Witchers, they make their living profiting off misery, off cleaning up the pieces after a tragedy, earning coin from people who often haven't yet finished even burying the casket. It breeds resentment, all the worse for the fact that any witcher is only just passing through - all often too late to make a difference, offering a temporary reprieve only before the next monster settles in to fill the empty nest.
They are hard people living in a hard land, and they hate Geralt for it, because there is no one else to hate. All that grief, all that rage and resentment, all that helplessness against the forces they can't control, that this is the nature of their land and it cannot be changed, all of it is aimed at Geralt, at any witch or witcher that passes by.
Carrion crow, they spit at Geralt's feet as he walks into town, even as they press coin into his hand and make use of his service. Bone picker, blood eater, witcher, witcher, witcher-
It is no wonder, Jaskier thinks, that Geralt prefers not to linger in towns in Kaedwen. The work is good here, the contracts plentiful, but Kaedwen is dangerous for an entirely different reason. There are villages they don't dare stop in at all, in Kaedwen, villages where one glance is enough to make them keep moving, even as the villagers start reaching for their pitchforks. They camp out in Kaedwen, rather than staying at the inns, because at a certain point dealing with the monsters actually feels safer.
The side effect of this, though, is that Geralt's beard starts to grow out. He prefers it short, Jaskier knows, stubble if not clean-shaven, but in Kaedwan there isn't really a choice. Usually Geralt would go to the nearest barber once it starts getting this long, his irritation palpable once the stubble grows out beyond a certain length, but in Kaedwen Geralt just lets it grow out. Better that, Jaskier knows, than to risk someone putting a razor through his throat.
Still, it makes Geralt miserable and that means it makes Jaskier miserable, because if Geralt is miserable then so is everyone else. And Jaskier would tell him to just cut it himself, except even that isn't that easy when the two of them are camping out, because it's not like Geralt carries a mirror, and so week after week Geralt's stubble just grows out longer and Geralt just gets more and more irritable until at last Jaskier can't stand it.
"Gods above, Geralt, if you glare at that fucking pheasant any longer it's going to burst into fucking flames! Look, if I help you shave will you stop being so beastly? You've been in a mood for days! You almost made a grown man cry in the last village, for heaven's sake!" Jaskier says, throwing up his hands, and his outburst must be startling enough, because Geralt actually blinks, turning to glower at him.
"I'm not in a mood." Geralt snaps, scowling at him furiously, even as he rips another handful of feathers off the poor pheasant, tossing them to the ground. It's starting to look less like a clean plucking and more like the scene of a homicide, with the viciousness he's going at it with.
"Yes you are!" Jaskier shoots back. "You're being awful and you know it, and I refused to tolerate it for another day!" He turns, stomping off to his pack to go pick out his things. Jaskier doesn't have to shave often, it was perhaps the only gift his family had ever given him, him being so fresh faced, but he keeps a full kit of toilette on hand all the same, and-
Aha, shaving soap, Jaskier had known he'd had some. It's a small brick of it, smaller than the palm of his hand and rock hard, a creamy white colour. Scented with rose and sandalwood, but oh well, if Geralt wanted to complain he should have brought his own. Jaskier digs out the rest of his things, the lather brush, a small wetting bowl, and the soft doe-hide wrap that holds his straight razor and whetstone.
" Sit. " Jaskier tells Geralt as he turns around, pointing at him firmly with what he hopes is a stern glare as he moves to set some water to boil, laying out his kit.
"Jaskier, this is fucking ridiculous." Geralt glowers, glaring at him across the fire. "I'm not a fucking dog to be taken to the groomers, you know. If you think I'm just going to fucking sit here and let you shave me-"
"Sorry, not listening!" Jaskier says loudly and obnoxiously, humming to himself loudly when Geralt attempts to keep grumbling. Geralt glowers at him flatly the whole time Jaskier goes about preparing his things, heating the water and testing the edge of the blade and whipping up a lather, fetching out his cleanest towel, owned especially for this purpose. Then Jaskier and Geralt stare at each other, Geralt glaring murderously while Jaskier just stares at it stubbornly back.
"Not happening." Geralt says flatly, voice coming in a threatening growl. The noise is enough to make Roach's head lift, ears flicking with concern as the horse glances about.
Jaskier just stares him down, stubbornly holding a bowl of steaming water, scented with soap and smelling ever so slightly of rosewood and elderberry. "Wash your face, Geralt."
"It's not fucking happening, Jaskier, you can fucking forget it-" Geralt snarls, drawing up to his full height to glower at Jaskier viciously. Five minutes later he's sitting on a log in front of the fire, head tilted back as Jaskier happily hums, dipping the brush into the bowl and moving to lather up the side of Geralt's jaw, making sure it has an even distribution.
Geralt sits tense, body drawn in hard lines, in a sulk, ungracious in defeat. He glowers at Jaskier the whole time Jaskier is applying the lather, responding in curt surly grunts when Jaskier asks him to turn his head this way or that. Jaskier lets him sulk, turning happily to test the edge of the razor instead, scraping it along the back of his hand.
"I can't believe you're fucking doing this." Geralt growls sullenly even as Jaskier steps forward, motioning for him to tip his head back. Geralt complains all the while, but tilts his head back regardless, exposing the long lines of his throat, now wet with a layer of smooth creamy lather. Jaskier checks one last time to make sure he has everything ready - towel on his arm, blade clean and sharp, bowl of lather and brush sitting just to the side, perfect.
Geralt tenses when it comes time for Jaskier to put the blade to his throat, Jaskier stepping in, the razor hovering in his hands. His eyes meet Jaskier's for a fraction of a second, and Jaskier knows he's thinking about it, knows that he's thinking about the fact that Jaskier's razor will be at his throat, sharp enough to kill, that if he wanted to he could slit Geralt's throat, that a single mistake would be enough to leave him bleeding-
Geralt meets his eyes and for a moment Jaskier can see it all - the split second hesitation there, the indecision, the flinching urge to call it all off, golden eyes tempered with a hard edge of something jagged and raw. And then Geralt's eyes are slipping shut as he lets out a put upon sigh, almost theatrically annoyed, and he tilts his head back fully, throat open and exposed.
The first stroke is slow, Jaskier's movements careful and guarded. A slow scrape, blade following the subtle curve of skin as it craws a clean line up Geralt's throat, leaving pale skin in its wake, and then Jaskier is wiping the blade clean on his arm and coming in for the second, and the third, the quiet rustle of clock and scrape of the razor filling the silence of the camp.
Jaskier's movements grow more certain with each minute, a loose sort of confidence returning, strokes turning smooth and clean, though still painstakingly slow. Beneath his hands Geralt comes back together, stripped off the fog of irritation that had been hanging over him, like watching a painting bleed back into its true colours beneath the careful touch of a conservation, clean lines cutting through the haze of age and exhaustion.
Geralt's eyes are closed, and he tilts his head when Jaskier touches his jaw, guiding his head to the right angle as he reaches for the lather brush, wiping up Geralt's jaw and the side of his cheek in smooth circles. The lather smells sweet and clean, leaving the skin soft where it comes away, Jaskier careful not to let the blade catch on the knotted skin of Geralt's scars. At some point Jaskier had stopped humming, silence slipping upon him as he concentrates, lost in the gentle motions of the blade, one smooth stroke after another.
It takes two passes to get Geralt to a clean shave, and by the time it's done the light is starting to fade slightly, sun beginning to sink low and casting the forest clearing in shadow. Jaskier cleans away the last of the lather, fingers soft of Geralt's skin as he tilts his had first this way than that, checking he hasn't missed anything, and only realizes he's standing there staring, Geralt's chin still balanced on his fingers, when Geralt makes a noise and opens his eyes, exasperated.
"Well?" Geralt asks, eyes seeming to glow molten in the low angle of the sun, like liquid gold. His skin looks like snowfall, so pale it looks almost inhuman, run through with more scars than Jaskier can count - and it strikes him then, that he doesn't think he's ever seen a more beautiful sight. "Is it done?"
Jaskier comes back to himself, clearing his throat abruptly and straightening. "Oh- Yes, of course. And a fine job too if I say so myself. Hang on, let me just go fetch the mirror-"
As Geralt looks himself over, checking the cut, one hand testing the skin up his neck and jaw, Jaskier busies himself cleaning and packing away his things. The thought lingers with him regardless. And it's not that he hadn't thought of Geralt as attractive before, he's a handsome man, Jaskier has known that since the minute they first met, but there's a difference he thinks, being struck by it in such a manner. This isn't the distant appreciation Jaskier might give anyone in the street, admiring a pretty sight like one might a painting. This is something different.
It wasn't just that Geralt is beautiful, but- Geralt i s beautiful. Geralt with his glowing eyes and his scowl and all his scars, so rough and warm, hard edged and tempered like steel - but there is a beauty in that too, isn't there? The fold of metal and the slick slide of oil on the blade, smooth lines stamped into steel and the curl of filigree, the sharp lines of the snarling head of a wolf. All swords have elegance, beauty drawn from the design of their purpose, pure and uncomplicated.
And then Geralt is calling to him, tossing the mirror back in his direction as he grunts about going to hunt some game, telling Jaskier to start readying a fire, and Jaskier doesn't have time to think on it more, caught up once more in a hustled motions of putting together a camp. That night, the two of them sitting across the fire from one another, Jaskier grinning and picking at his lute even as Geralt scowls and glares, as forever put upon as he always is, even as his fingers sneak up again every now and then to trace the edge of his jaw, pleased at the smoothness, Jaskier thinks-
I'm glad you're my friend.
It happens in an accident.
Or well, maybe not an accident - there is an angry sorcerer involved, and several dead bodies and a furious squadron of the Redanian army besides, because really, that's about typical for anything involving Geralt. The sorcerer screeches a curse as he flees, ducking for his fizzing portal, and Geralt's quen comes up in time to stop the bolt of vicious purple magic that comes flying at him. The curse gets blocked, admittedly, but that doesn't stop the force of it from sending Geralt flying backwards, crashing through a shelf and sending the whole lot collapsing on top of him, jars of suspicious powders and glowing liquids shattering against the floor and leaving him coated.
Geralt looks more annoyed than concerned as he picks himself out of the mess, snarling back at the Redianian officers as they try to accuse him of letting the sorcerer escape on purpose, and it's only when they're outside and stepping down into the streets that Jaskier even realizes that something is wrong. As soon as the door clicks shut behind them, locking, Geralt stops moving, jaw working, expression grim.
It takes Jaskier a split second to realize he's not following, and he blinks, turning around to glance at him as Geralt just stands there. "Geralt? Did you forget something?"
For a second Geralt is silent, jaw clenched, expression caught in a hard, jagged sort of thoughtfulness, so cold it looks like his face might be carved of stone, staring straight ahead. His jaw works, every line of his body tense, and finally he speaks. "Jaskier. I'm going to need you to lead me back to the inn."
"Huh?" Jaskier blinks, taken aback. "But I thought you wanted to go run up that lead of the coroners, and then we were going to stop by and pick up my mended doublet-"
"Jaskier." Geralt cuts him off, and his voice would be harsh if Jaskier couldn't detect the note of very real panic hidden in his tone, as if he's struggling to barely keep it reigned. "I can't see."
Jaskier's stomach drops out of him, the world seeming to sway beneath his feet, and Jaskeir has to struggle not to flinch. He takes an urgent step forward, glancing at Geralt. "Can't- What? How? I thought the curse missed-"
"It must have been something on the shelves. An unlucky reaction." Geralt says tightly. One of his hands is still clenched around the hilt of his sword, grip white knuckled, his gaze set dead ahead - and gods, no wonder- "It started going while I was talking to Cainhurst."
"Wait, then the whole walk out...?" Jaskier asks, startled, and Geralt gives a curt nod, movement sharp.
"Remembered the layout from when we came in." Geralt says, voice coming with a hard edge. "Couldn't let them find out." The they would have arrested us if they did goes unsaid, or worse . The Redanians are ostensibly their employers and allies in this latest venture, but Jaskier wouldn't put it past them to try and get rid of Geralt while he's in a state of vulnerability, and it seems Geralt wouldn't either.
"Then- How much-?" Jaskier asks, sending Geralt a concerned look as he steps closer, only to realize Geralt can't see it. Geralt's head tilts slightly, tracking the sound, and it's a testament to his skills, Jaskier knows, that he'd managed to make it back out of the house without his step even faltering once, never once flinching at the crowd of soldiers still picking through its halls.
Geralt shakes his head tightly, a jerked movement, jaw clenched. "Nothing. I can't see anything at all."
Jaskier lets out a rough exhale, something tightening in his guts. He sends a wary glance around the street, the town of all sudden seeming much more dangerous with all its passersby, wondering if any had heard, if any had noticed. Their inn is more than a dozen blocks away, and they're going to have to navigate their way there without letting on. If anyone finds out Geralt can't see the results would be disastrous.
Jaskier curses beneath his breath, wind whirring. "A carriage...?"
But Geralt is already shaking his head sharply, expression grim. "Too suspicious." And Jaskier curses, knowing he's right. Fuck. Right, they're going to have to do this the hard way.
"Right." Jaskier says, taking a fortifying breath, trying to quell the terrified thundering of his head. "Right, okay, he's what we're going to do. Walk behind me, keep a hand on my back - you'll look like you're just my bodyguard or something. I'll try and keep us out of the crowds. I'd say take the alleys, but-"
"Too dangerous." Geralt says, already shaking his head, and Jaskier concurs. Usually Geralt is more than enough to ward off any unfriendly eyes, few willing to risk tangling with a Witcher, but if anything happens they might not be able to fight it off so easily this time.
Geralt's hand settles on his back, fingers spread just above the small of Jaskier's back, his hand a warm weight, Geralt stepping in close until he's looming over Jaskier's shoulder. Like this he looks like he could just be a possessive lover, an paranoid bodyguard perhaps, and it's not the strongest cover but it will have to do.
"Six steps." Jaskier murmurs, earning a jerk of Geralt's chin, and then they're moving. The first steps are terrifying, Jaskier's heart thundering in his chest, so hard it feels it might burst free from his ribs, a cold sweat prickling his spine. Geralt's hand tightens on his back as they step out into the crowd, the noise of the street enveloping them and Jaskier reaches out and squeezes his arm.
Then they're off, Jaskier taking off at a slow and steady pace through the streets as Geralt keeps time, weaving through the crowds with careful deliberation. He keeps a cheerful smile plastered on his smile the whole while, keeping up a constant stream of inane chatter and plastering himself against Geralt's side, one hand always staying in a tight drip on his arm, hidden behind the fall of Jaskier's cloak, looking to every eye like just another lovestruck fool.
He tightens his fingers on Geralt's wrist as they near the corner of a street, pausing to let a pair of carriages pass, and then Jaskier squeezes again and they're walking on, Geralt falling into step once more. Geralt replies just enough to keep the conversation going, his head turning every now and then to scan the crowd, pulling Jaskier to a halt when a group of laughing children come sprinting past, and if Jaskier didn't know better he wouldn't think there was anything wrong with Geralt at all.
Geralt keeps up the mask until they're back at the inn, the doors of their rooms locking firmly behind them, Geralt leaning down to murmur something in Jaskier's ear as they pass through the main room of the inn, Jaskier deliberately catching the matron's eye and sending her a wink as he takes Geralt by the hand and leads him up the stairs.
"Send us up a bath in an hour or so, won't you?" He grins as they pass her, tossing her a handful of coin, and then the two of them are up the stairs, Jaskier murmuring the numbers of stairs in each flight beneath his breath, urgently making their way the last meters down the hall and into their rooms.
The prognosis, Geralt tells him two hours later, once he's examined himself as best he could and taken a bath loaded with what seemed three dozen different powders and potions from his pack, cleansing away any possible remaining traces of the spills, is that it will likely wear off by itself within a day or so. "It was the reaction of the halflan's tincture with some form of dreamwert powder, mostly likely." Geralt tells him. "Temporarily damaging, but it would need multiple applications to build up enough toxicity to be permanent."
The news is a relief, but it doesn't manage to entirely burn away the curl of cold anxiety that has settled in Jaskier's gut. Not least that even if Geralt is going to be cured, it doesn't make him any less afflicted now, especially since Geralt says there's nothing to be done but wait it out.
There is something terribly wrong about seeing Geralt this way. He sits in a chair by the window, shoulders tense, the lines of his body brittle, and every now and then his head twitches to the side, almost flinching, as he hears some distant noise and has to fight not to react. Geralt's hearing is sensitive, his smell too, but Jaskier doesn't think he ever realized just how much until now, didn't realize how much Geralt relied on his vision to temper it, filtering out what could be blocked out and ignored.
Survival in Geralt's line of work relies on quick reactions, on being able to take note of the smallest detail, react to an attack before it's even begun, and now it works against him. There is too much noise, too much sound, and the fact that Geralt is so vulnerable only makes it worse, everything working on overdrive to make up the difference. There's a clatter from one of the neighboring rooms, the sound of something shattering on the floor, voices flaring in surprise and anger - a cup dropped maybe, a jug, something - and it makes Geralt flinch so hard that he almost knocks over his chair, sword halfway out of its sheath before Geralt realizes what it is.
"Geralt," Jaskier says, one hand reaching out, only to freeze in mid air, stopping himself before he can take a step forward. "Are you..." Okay? Obviously not. Anyone would suffer in a state like this, but for Geralt it must be worse than anyone. So much of what he does relies on his senses, his ability to fight - to be so incapacitated, to weakened, unable to defend himself and drowning beneath the onslaught of his senses- Jaskier can't imagine it.
Geralt just closes his hand round the hilt of his sword, sliding it back into the sheath and lets out a rough breath, jaw working as he turns his head away from the noise. He looks haggard in that moment, so worn and defeated, so brittle, and in the end Jaskier can't stand it. He takes a step closer, two, until he's standing just before Geralt, Geralt's head tilted as he tracks his footsteps, gazed fixed on him with unerring accuracy.
"Geralt." Jaskier says, a warning, tone soft, as he reaches out, fingers finding Geralt's wrist. Even with the warning, he flinches at the first touch, tensing as Jaskier brushes his skin, then catches himself. That flinch seems to be the thing that finally does it for him - that even when he knows Jaskier is coming, even when he can hear him, smell him, trace every footstep, he still can't help his recoil at the unseen touch.
"Just- Fucking- Shit." Geralt snarls, face twisted, hands clenching, fist slamming against the frame of the chair with a loud bang, Geralt's jaw working as he grits his teeth. Jaskier doesn't let go of his other hands, fingers still gentle on his wrist, and eventually Geralt sags, all of the brittle tension leaving him in an instant, shoulders slumping.
Jaskier squeezes his wrist gently. He doesn't try to suggest that Geralt put his swords away, that he try and make himself more comfortable as he waits it out. Instead he just lets his hand fall to fold through Geralt's, squeezing his fingers softly as his thumb traces those scarred knuckles. There's an old scar that circles the curve of his wrist, ragged and curved, the skin pitted in an odd pattern, and Jaskier's thumb traces the length of it.
"How did you get this one?" He asks, and Geralt turns his head as if to look at him, golden eyes bright and glowing - and totally unseeing as they fix on Jaskier with perfect accuracy all the same. He doesn't even have to ask which scars Jaskier means.
"A wight, in Kovir. I had it by the neck and it summoned a pack of Barghests - bit me when I turned to cut them down." Geralt says, voice coming flat and a little clipped, as if he's not sure why Jaskier is asking him this, nor why he's indulging him.
Jaskier just hums, turning Geralt's hand over and tracing his thumb along the neat circular puncture that cuts through the meat of his palm. "And this one?"
"Crossbow bolt, point blank range, poisoned - an assassin in Aedirn." Geralt says, something loosening in his shoulders a little as he catches on. He gives a story for the next three scars without prompting, Jaskier not having to even say a word as his fingers find one after another, tracing a winding path up Geralt's arm. If Jaskier were Geralt he wouldn't be able to remember them all, but Geralt knows them all without even having to look. Some days Jaskier doesn't know if Geralt's good memory is a blessing or a curse.
"The one on your shoulder seems to have healed well." Jaskier says. Geralt is still just in his shirt, his armor set aside after his cleansing bath, and though the open drape of his collar Jaskier can just make out the ring of knotted flesh - teeth prints, set to permanent pattern in Geralt's flesh.
Jaskier doesn't know how long they spend like that, Jaskier kneeling before Geralt's chair as his fingers trace his skin, finding one scar after another. The room darkens at some point, the sound of footsteps in the hall marking the passing of the maids as they begin to start lighting the candles, the world outside the window turning dark and soft. Geralt's shirt is untied now, hanging open after one too many stray brushes as Jaskier traces the scars on his collars and shoulders.
He's looser now, less tightly bound, some of that frantic, hard-edged energy draining away, voice coming in a smooth grumble as he tells Jaskier about one scar after another - stories Jaskier has heard before and a dozen more he hasn't, an entire library of fairy tales and nightmares written out on Geralt's skin. He doesn't flinch at Jaskier's touch, his body lax and open as Jaskier's fingers travel across his skin, comfortable with the touch.
"And this one?" Jaskier asks, fingers finding a broad slash just below Geralt's left shoulder blade. The wound is an old one, so faded it's almost invisible, yet it runs almost the length of one side of Geralt's back to another, crossing across his spine - if it had been any deeper, it could well have killed him, or worse.
Geralt tenses at the touch, not breathing for a moment, and then lets out a slow exhale. When he speaks, his voice is quiet, coming in a low grumbling murmur. "Gwenelech, almost two hundred and eighty years ago. It was my third ever contract. Killed a Shalemaar and almost died doing it, thought the danger would be over afterwards. The man who's hired me cut me down the moment I turned to start cutting off it's head."
Jaskier's breath freezes in his chest, hands stilling on the scar. Something black rises within him, cold and twisting, rising until it presses against the inside of his throat. His voice comes slightly hoarse when he speaks. "What happened to him, that man?"
"I killed him." Geralt says, and there is nothing in his voice, no satisfaction, no vindication, no fury, no grief or guilt. His voice is blank and smooth and even, as placid as the waters of a lake.
"Good." Jaskier says, voice coming with a hard undertone of satisfaction as he turns once more, hand pressed firm and warm to the scar for a moment before he's moving on, tracing on to the next. Beneath his fingers, he can feel the way Geralt's muscles relax, a last tiny line of tension that Jaskier hadn't even known was there fading away, melting away into nothing.
Later, when Jaskier helps Geralt fasten up his shirt once more, pressing his sword back into his hands as he ducks out of the room to go order them some food, he pauses. Takes Geralt's hands in his and squeezes, just once, gentle, before raising them and pressing two gentle kisses to the skin of Geralt's knuckles, one on each, pressing a kiss to those blood-stained and scarred hands.
He doesn't say anything, and neither does Geralt, but the meaning is clear nonetheless. I'm glad you're alive. I'm glad you killed him. You're worth more to me than he could ever be.
Jaskier's lost track of the number of years he's been friends with Geralt now. Ten years, or maybe twelve. Sometimes it feels like it's been so long that Jaskier feels like he's known Geralt his entire life - that he will know him for the rest of his life too, the endless span of days trickling on in the same cheerful rhythm as they have, so bright and fond and cheerful.
It's funny, when Jaskier let Lettenhove all those years ago, he'd never begged himself as particularly brave. Bold, yes. Attention drawing and outspoken, of course. but not brave.
There is a moment, almost a dozen years in from known Geralt now, where Jaskier looks at himself and realizes that he's changed - that the person he is now is a completely different man from the one he had been, the one he would have been, had he not met Geralt. The path of his life was irrevocably changed when he met Geralt, and Jaskier can't even say he regrets it. He's a better man for it, knowing Geralt. A braver man. A kinder one too.
Sometimes Jaskier loses track of how much things have changed over the years - not only him, but Geralt as well. It hits him all at once one night, when the two of them wind their way into a run down inn in the back hills of Povis. The inn is a humble one, but cheerful and full, the local farmers and tradesmen gathered in good spirits to celebrate the end of a long working day, a travelling bard playing merry in the corner of the room, the sound of laughter ringing above the clamor of a dozen talking tables.
The two of them have just managed to squeeze a table in the corner of the room, eeking out a space at the edge of what seems to be some local celebration - Jaskier thinks it might be a celebration in honor of someone's daughter getting married, or maybe a difficult lambing coming through alright, or was it the christening of a new barge for the river crossing? Honestly, Jaskier doesn't know, perhaps it's all three, but whatever it is there's something going on and everyone is in a cheerful mood about it.
Geralt grunts for him to take a seat, disappearing towards the bar, and while he's gone Jaskier does his best to negotiate for a second chair, interjecting into a cheerful conversation at the neighboring table and coming away with a slap on the back, a second chair, and a plate of honeycakes beside. By the time he's set them all down, Geralt is back, bringing with him two tankards of ale - or rather one tankard of ale, and a fine glass of wine.
Jaskier takes one sip of it, and does a double take. "This is a Cintran vintage! A westfold Elderberry!" He says, surprised, giving Geralt a look - who just shrugs, as if he doesn't know that it's Jaskier's favorite, as if he wouldn't have had to ask for it especially, and pay a fortune for it besides. This sort of wine is rare enough in these parts, it must have cost a pretty penny to convince the matron to pop the bottle.
"Drink your wine." Geralt just tells him as he takes his own seat, taking a long drought of his ale, snagging one of the honeycakes as Jaskier pushes the plate towards him. Jaskier grins at him, beaming unstoppably, and Geralt just rolls his eyes, looking away, already grumbling some complaint, and it hits Jaskier then and there that there is not a single person in the whole world that knows Jaskier as well as Geralt, nor Geralt as well as Jaskier.
He knows what Geralt's blood feels like on his hands, knows what he looks like when he's sick and hurt, when he's outraged and furious, when he's bemused or exasperated or delighted but pretending not to be. Knows the exact number of potions that Geralt carries in his pack at any one time and the order in which he checks his gear after every fight, swords then roach then armor then bags. Knows where every one of his scars sits on his skin, every stitch in that patchwork hide, and knows every story to go along with them.
Geralt is the best friend Jaskier has ever had. The best friend Jaskier will ever have.
The thought stuns him silent, the entire world seeming to spin beneath his feet at the realization, something warm surging in his breast - cresting like a tidal wave, like a storm, like a tsunami - and Jaskier only realizes he'd been staring when Geralt makes an irritated noise and kicks him under the table, grunting for him to stop gawping.
Jaskier breaks free from it, shaking himself, and turns to his wine, picking it up and raising it in a toast. Geralt rolls his eyes, exaggerated and grumbling, but clinks it with his tankard nonetheless, snapping for Jaskier to stop grinning like an idiot. "Sorry, sorry!" Jaskier laughs, tapping his glass against Geralt's, but keeps grinning the rest of the night regardless, unable to help himself.
When they retire to their rooms that night it's late, well past midnight and into the hours of the next morning. The celebrations downstairs had continued long into the night, and the two of them had somehow found themselves dragged into it, swept along in the flowing drinks and boundless good cheer. By the time they make for bed, Jaskier is more than slightly drunk, and Geralt is- Well, not drunk probably, but maybe a little tipsy, he is a Witcher after all.
They only managed to book the one room for the night, the rest of the inn's other scant accommodations already booked out when they'd arrived, but it's not the first time they've had to make do like this, so neither of them minds. When they finally reach their room, Geralt makes for the bed, laying down his swords, and Jaskier accepts that he's probably going to spend the night on the floor.
Most times they book out an inn, Geralt doesn't sleep. Even on those days where they do end up sharing quarters, Jaskier's usually the one who ends up with the bed. If Geralt wants it this time then Jaskier is more than happy to let him have it, even if it means a bit of a harder bedding for him instead - turn around is only fair, after all.
"Don't be an idiot." Geralt says, when Jaskier goes to start unpacking his bedroll, setting himself up for a night on the floor before the hearth. "We can share."
Jaskier, more than slightly tipsy and swaying ever so faintly, stops in his tracks and stares at him, caught utterly off guard. "Huh?"
It's not that he expected to get shunted to the floor, but- Well, he did. Jaskier can count on one hand the number of times he has seen Geralt sleep, properly sleep, for reasons other than being drugged or injured or otherwise incapacitated, and even then its something of a secretive affair. Geralt will tuck himself away, cloak pulled close around him, swords propped against his side, stealing a few hours at a time.
Those first years they'd traveled together, Jaskier hadn't known if Geralt slept at all - and to tell the truth, Geralt probably hadn't. He doesn't need it the same way Jaskier does, doesn't require it, can make do with his meditations, though they are slightly less restful, and as a result he rarely risks it - it's too dangerous, letting down his guard like that, sleeping properly, especially when someone else is near.
The first time Geralt had felt comfortable enough to sleep in Jaskier's vicinity, he'd been touched. And maybe anyone else wouldn't think anything of it, but Jaskier knows Geralt. Geralt, he holds himself apart, forever and always, always so cautious, always so on guard. That he would relax his guard enough to actually sleep around Jaskier, to let himself be vulnerable in his company- It's a mark of his trust in him, and Jaskier had known it, been honored by it.
This is something else entirely, though. Because even if Geralt is comfortable enough to steal a few hours sleep in Jaskier's presence every now and then, to sleep with him, next to him, is- It's-
Look, just, let's put it this way. Geralt doesn't let people touch him, not ever, not anyone except Jaskier. In the last dozen years of knowing each other, Jaskier can count on three fingers the number of times he's seen Geralt take someone to bed, and every single time it had been someone who approached him. Working girls, every time, who came to Geralt first and smiled regardless when he sent them the first flat disinterested glance.
Every single time, they'd been women who were desperate. Ones who needed the money, who needed the extra customer, an edge of brittleness to their smiles as they weathered his harsh stare - and Jaskier thinks that that, more than any reason, is why Geralt said yes, had walked upstairs with them, coin in hand, the women leaving again within the span of an hour, the edges of their smiles a little less brittle, eyes a little less hunted, backs a little less hunched.
Three exceptions, in twelve years of knowing him, and all born from an act of kindness - Geralt seeing someone in need and knowing that he could help. The only three times Jaskier has ever seen Geralt let someone touch him, just for the sake of it.
Geralt doesn't touch people, nobody except Jaskier, and even then not like- Like this.
"Are you just going to keep standing there all evening?" Geralt grunts, glancing over at Jaskier from where he's setting aside his armor on top of the chest by the bed, his swords already leaning against the headboard. He's halfway out of his armor now, pulling a fresh shirt and breeches out of his pack, and Jaskier is still standing there dumbly in the center of the room, bedroll in his arms as he gapes.
"I'm going to put out the candles if you take any longer." Geralt says impatiently, toeing off his boots, and when Jaskier does nothing but stare mutely, still stunned silent, Geralt just rolls his eyes and reaches over, grabbing Jaskier by the collar and hauling him down onto the bed as he leans over and blows out the candle, plunging the room into darkness.
The bed shifts, creaks, wooden boards groaning beneath the shifting weight, and by the time Jaskier comes to himself he's lying in the bed next to Geralt, the covers drawn above them. His face is pressed to Geralt's chest, Geralt's body a wall of warm solid muscle beside him, and when Jaskier breathes in all he can smell is him - sword oil and leather, the faint hint of sweat and the scent of horse. It's dizzying, and for a moment all Jaskier can do is lie there, heart hammering in his chest. He wonders if he's drunk. If he's already passed out and this is just some outlandish dream - that would be more likely than reality.
"Geralt?" Jaskier says some time later, earning a grunt from Geralt, acknowledging. Jaskier feels vaguely stupefied, his head spinning, pulse thundering in his ears. "Your arm is around my waist."
"Jaskier." Geralt says, his voice coming in a low smooth grumble in Jaskier's ear, even as his arm tightens around Jaskier's waist, pulling him in close until Jaskier is pressed up along the front of him, tucked against his side, able to feel the rise and fall of Geralt's chest with every breath, the warm puff of his breath against the top of Jaskier's head. "Shut up and go to sleep."
"Alright." Jaskier replies, somewhat dizzily, and then does just that.
Jaskier spends three minutes dead.
He doesn't know exactly how it had happened - except that there had been a monster, and blood, and dark magic sizzling across the floor like liquid fire as it surged towards him. An impact against his back, blood on his lips as Jaskier looked down and realized there were claws sticking through his ribs, pale and curved and bloody. Knees hitting the ground even as Geralt shouted his name, and-
An illusion, Geralt tells him later, reality twisted to create the image of the unreal - except that even that was dangerous. Fey creatures, they obey no know rules of man and nature, the illusions they create more real than not, and when Jaskier had gone down with claws between his ribs and poison in his veins he had gone down, he'd been dead, and he would have remained that way if Geralt hadn't forced the feykin to break its own illusion, twisting back time and shattering it upon itself.
For three minutes, Jaskier had been dead, and when he woke on the forth it was to Geralt leaning over him, green blood splattered across his face and eyes wild, hands clutching him so tight they bruised even as Jaskier coughed and sucked in a breath, choking on a mouthful of blood from a wound he no longer had, but that he could still feel, still feel-
And gods, it had gone right through him, right through, and he'd been choking, blood rising in his lungs and world going hazy as he dropped to the ground, and he'd felt it, felt his heart stop. He'd felt it stop, he'd been dead, fuck, he'd been dead-
Jaskier doesn't even realize he's shaking, that he's sobbing, until he's in Geralt's arms, held in a burning, bruising grip, tucked against his side. There is blood on Geralt's hands and blood splattered on his face, both Jaskier's and the feykin's, but Jaskier doesn't care, he doesn't care. Geralt holds him tight, Jaskier shaking to pieces in his arms, except it isn't only him that's shaking, is it? Geralt's hands are trembling, so slightly you might never notice it, but they are.
Jaskier doesn't say anything when Geralt spirits him from the scene, the two of them slipping back quickly through the forest and leaving the body of the feykin where it had fallen - Geralt will be back for it later, maybe, or maybe he just doesn't care, maybe the contract can go fuck itself. Even when they make it back to camp, Jaskier doesn't dare stray from Geralt's side, one hand tangled in his sleeve like a frightened child, shadowing his every step and flinching at every noise in the forest. The moment he stops concentrating he can feel it - the claws, the blood dripping down his side, the burning in his lungs as he breathed his last, how easily had happened, how quickly it had come. A split second and then Jaskier had been done, dead within the span of a minute, and-
A fire. Food. A water-skin pressed into his hands as Geralt moves to unpack his saddlebags, laying out the bedroll. Jaskier eats numbly, drinks numbly, barely tasting it, barely feeling it, still desperately lost in the memory of what it had felt like, to have his heart slow in his chest, to have it stop - that ringing, empty silence swallowing him whole, dragging him beneath the veil and-
He doesn't say anything as Geralt pulls him into the bedroll, folding him between his arms, holding him close, just buries his face in the side of Geralt's neck and winds his fingers through the front of his shirt, so tight it threatens to tear, letting himself drown in the feeling of Geralt's breath as his ribs rise and fall, the warm thud of his pulse beneath his skin, the siren song of life, so warm and beautiful.
And when Geralt shifts, tightening his arm around Jaskier and pressing his face to his throat, something so broken and brittle in the desperate tenderness with which he holds him, when Geralt threads his fingers through his and squeezes and presses an open-mouth kiss to the point of Jaskier's pulse and murmurs " Please" in a voice that is so raw and broken, Jaskier squeezes his fingers back and lets him and says "Yes."
Jaskier had thought about what it would be like to lie with Geralt, had thought about it more than once, back in those early years before his puppy crushes faded to something warmer and deeper, settled into the layered vibrant hues of their comfortable companionship. When he'd imagined it, he'd thought it would be rough and frantic, fast paced and rough edged, bitten out in teasing laughter and snapped growls to shut up - vigorous, fierce, because Geralt was vigorous and fierce, and witcher's were supposedly insatiable besides and-
It's not like that.
Geralt is slow. He's soft. Gentle. He kisses his way down Jaskier's neck and every kiss tastes of reverence, fingers tracing the lines of Jaskier's pulse where they map his skin with something like devotion, fingers winding together as he presses a kiss to the beat of Jaskier's pulse at his wrist, his arm, his shoulder. He holds him so close that there is not an inch of space between them, skin to skin, bone to bone, breath to breath, and when he opens Jaskier's shirt it is to kiss down his ribs, finding the place Jaskier (would have, should have, did, did not) die and kisses that too.
Armor falls away, one piece at a time, dropping with soft thuds amongst the leaf-litter, Geralt's shirt drawn over his head to reveal pale, scarred skin, still splattered with blood - and ivory would not be enough to set this beauty to art, marble would not be enough to carve its likeness, no silver or gold enough to make it shine with the same pure, simple, uncomplicated beauty, flawed and rough-edged and so very very human.
Geralt says his name, again and again, pressing the vowels of Jaskier's name into every kiss, every touch - and Jaskier isn't the only one who needs this, he thinks, this reminder that he is alive, that he is here. He feels Geralt's hands tremble as they touch him, and knows that he feels it too - this terror, this desperation, this bone deep loss, the what if.
It hadn't been a what if. Jaskier had died, and it was only luck that had brought him back - luck, and Geralt.
"Jaskier, please." Geralt's voice is raw and hoarse, something cracked within the foundations of him, and Jaskier winds his arms around Geralt's neck and kisses him soft as Geralt reaches and comes back with oil. And it is soft fingers after that, scarred and strong, warm with slick heat, and it is pressure, the presence of them, pushing, entering, so slow and gentle and patient as Jaskier turns his face into Geralt's neck and breaths in the scent of him - sweat and blood, horsehair and leather, breaths in and feels the beat of his pulse against Jaskier's jaw and the press of his breath against Jaskier's chest.
Movement, rocking, Jaskier's head falling back, fingers curling within him, the slow and steady addition of pressure and heat, until Geralt's fingers are deep inside him, the endless eternity of Jaskier’s breath against Geralt’s skin, and then- Readiness, removal, the shifting lines of Geralt's back, the ring of scars on Geralt's left shoulder, still dotted with the marks of Jaskier's own stitches. A change in the balance of weight, hand pulling back, oil slick as it's poured across fingers, and then something new, the press of a greater pressure.
Jaskier breathes out as it sinks inside him, turning his face to Geralt's, forehead pressed to forehead, one hand coming up to cup his jaw as Jaskier presses a kiss to one eyelid, then the other, and then Geralt is inside him. Geralt's eyes open, glowing like molten gold, meeting Jaskier's own, and for a moment Geralt doesn't move. Holds him there, just holds him, pulse beneath his skin and breath against his body and heat and slick pressure, Jaskier's body against his own and Geralt's body against his, together, above, inside, so close that Jaskier can't breath without Geralt feeling it.
"Jaskier." Geralt says, just that. He doesn't need to say more. Jaskier knows what Geralt means.
"I know." Jaskier says, even as he draws one hand up, winding around Geralt's neck and cupping the back of his head, fingers sliding through that beautiful, soft, snowfall hair of his. "I know." Jaskier says again, and closes his eyes, pressing his face to Geralt's, cheek to cheek, breath warm against his neck.
Geralt draws in a shaky breath, arms tightening around Jaskier, and then he's moving. This moment of theirs, this time together, it’s not a fast thing, not hasty or impatient, not a race towards the finish. When Geralt moves it is slow, almost painfully so, a deep roll of his hips that seems to almost grind, so deep Jaskier can barely breath for it, for the feeling of Geralt within him, a pressure that seems to reach to the back of his throat, filling him until it feels like his skin will split.
Fingers wind through his, pressing them to the blankets, and Geralt kisses him. Kisses him low and slow and deep as he takes him the same way, a slow deep rocking that presses through Jaskier's whole body. His fingers tighten around Geralt's, and Jaskier takes it, he takes it, everything Geralt has to give him, everything he is and ever will be, holds it in his hands and swallows it down, pulls in into that deep place in the center of him and keeps it there, tucked in the space behind his ribs alongside his heart.
And at the end of it, when Geralt spends inside him, face pressed against Jaskier's neck as his breath stutters and deepens, Geralt stays there, inside him. He turns them onto their side, arms curling around him as he tucks him close, holding him there, turning his face so he can kiss him again. And Jaskier squeezes his hand, wrapping his arm around Geralt's neck, and holds him close in turn.
Tomorrow, they will be as they once were - merry and careless and free, two companions on the open road. Tonight Jaskier just lets Geralt hold him, feeling the beat of his heartbeat, and says nothing.