Jaskier is, quite possibly, the most foolish man Geralt has ever met. That the bard hasn’t yet met a grisly end is a source of some relief and perpetual surprise. His frankly terrifying knack of walking straight into danger is matched only by his inability to do the slightest thing about it - Geralt has seen him in enough life-threatening situations to be well aware that not only can Jaskier very much not use a sword if his life depends on it, he can’t even hold one without making Geralt want to snatch it away from him before he injures himself. Worse still is Jaskier’s flagrant lack of sense of self-preservation. Geralt is quite sure Jaskier wouldn’t know mortal peril if it was riding his damn cock.
And yet, here he is, this bright-eyed fool of a man, this grinning idiot, dancing around in Calanthe’s court, at the centre of the most important event on the continent.
Jaskier’s audience is following his every word, pulled along like overdressed fish on the hook of his lute. Geralt would rather down poison than admit it, but it’s not all so far from the ‘triumphant performance’ he was promised. Past the flutes and the harps, Jaskier’s voice rings warm and true through the hall. It flows through the pillars, echoes in the archways until it feels like it’s in Geralt’s veins.
Of course, he’s not here to watch Jaskier, he reminds himself. He’s looking for danger. For malicious looks or people moving too close to Jaskier for comfort. For hands reaching for knives or swords or, hell, candlesticks. He doesn’t put it past these people to utilise whatever large, metallic object they can reach. He’s sworn, as ever, that he wouldn’t get involved, and yet, as ever, he has, because oddly, the mere thought of one of these self-important shits so much as touching Jaskier tastes like blood in his mouth.
But wherever he looks expecting to see murderous royal cuckolds, vengeful wives, or bitter once-lovers, he sees only delight. A woman who Geralt vaguely recognises as the Countess of somewhere-or-other is staring at Jaskier in enraptured joy, and almost squeals with excitement as he dances around her. Jaskier looks natural here, Geralt realises. At home, somehow, like he was born to wear gaudy golden silks and prance around singing The Four Drunken Maidens to the royal applause of every shitty little lordling on the continent.
So here he is, not watching Jaskier. Except, it’s impossible to look away. He’s already sick of looking at nobles as it is. And Jaskier is bright and sharp like a flame bursting to life. There’s a grace to him that Geralt would think impossible if he weren’t witnessing it with his own two eyes. Geralt’s seen Jaskier trip over roots barely bigger than twigs, but now he’s dancing across the room, lute in hand, with footwork that would put plenty of swordsmen to shame. He’s fluid and flirtatious in his every movement, skimming from royal lap to royal lap like it’s his divinely-given right to plant himself right on top of every noble cock and cunt in the room. It makes Geralt’s silk shirt feel hotter than it already is.
He drinks. Skulks in the corners of the room listening to Jaskier sing and keeping track of any noble who dares to look at Jaskier with anything less than ecstatic wonder. Eats a considerable amount of offensively tiny foodstuffs that seem to flow through the room in a never-ending procession. He watches the ridiculous boasting of wretched noble after wretched noble, all eager to demonstrate their prowess and self-importance. The smell of roasted meats fills the air, sweet and salt together.
“What a show, eh?” Mousesack says at his elbow, clutching what must be his fifth cup of wine. “He’s almost as good as they say he is.”
“Quite something,” Geralt says, raising an eyebrow as Jaskier all but leaps up onto a table, much to the delight of the Skelligan contingent. There’s a whoop of elation and damn near half a tankard of Cintran ale shoots up in the air as it’s banged on the table by some royal shit wearing more rings than Geralt thinks anybody has a need or right to wear.
Jaskier is singing some fucking banal nonsense about a fishmonger’s daughter that gives Geralt a headache to listen to. But the greatest leaders and most puffed up lordlings of the continent are stamping their feet along with Jaskier’s ridiculous little song as though it’s one of the great poetic masterpieces of the century. The eyes of a hundred nobles with more collective titles than Geralt has scars are following Jaskier’s every movement, delighted, like he is light itself, rather than the man who once tripped over a ghoul nest and almost died because he was too busy thinking up a suitable rhyme for ‘enormous cock’.
Geralt’s used to the way peoples’ mouths twitch when he enters a room, like he’s a bad smell they’ve just caught wind of. He’s familiar enough with the sidewards glances, the way mothers surreptitiously draw their children closer. It smarts a little each time, but he’s grown accustomed to their disgust, somehow. Wears it like a slightly ill-fitted gambeson. It chafes, rubs raw where it sits, but over time, the calluses have grown in, and he’s learned not to notice it over-much, or at least, not to let it distract from more important things.
The way all of these nobles are looking at Jaskier couldn’t be further from the way people look at him. People love Jaskier, Geralt realises all at once. Love him with all of the simple gladness and delight that humans have to give. He feels that settle in his chest, just about as comfortably as a crossbow bolt. And yet, somehow, somehow, just seeing the sheer joy Jaskier provokes from every corner of the room feels like hearthfire on a winter day.
“All this fanfare,” Mousesack is saying, “it’s almost enough to make you wish royals got betrothed more often.”
Geralt looks to where Lord Rainfarn of Attre, stuffed into a burgundy velvet doublet like offal into a sausage skin, is loudly holding forth on his various daring - and improbable - military exploits, to a flock of cooing ladies young enough to be his granddaughters. With a roar, he demonstrates something that Geralt can only assume is meant to be a fatal stab, but looks rather more like an obscene gesture. His audience gasps and claps enthusiastically.
Geralt raises an eyebrow.
“Hm,” he says.
“It might not seem this way to a miserable sod like you,” Mousesack continues, “but some of us rather enjoy earthly delights once in a while.”
Geralt glances up to where Pavetta is sitting beside Calanthe. She alone is looking away from Jaskier, fiddling with a ring on her finger. Her misery is so palpable Geralt can almost taste it, like wine turned to vinegar.
“Not sure she’d agree.”
“She doesn’t have to,” Mousesack reminds him.
“Then neither should I.”
“You really are one miserable whoreson.”
The song concludes with a strum of the lute, and the nobles clap and cheer as Jaskier falls into one of his ridiculously low bows that emphasise the tight cut of his trousers. Geralt curses all the silk traders and royal tailors of the continent for the sight he’s being forced to witness. He feels entirely too sober. He hurriedly throws back a mouthful of his wine.
“You ever think about it?”
“Hm?” Geralt asks. Jaskier has thrown himself across the room, and is now busy drumming up rhythmic applause as he launches into yet another piece of his unfortunately expansive repertoire. Geralt realises, too late, that it's one of the many awful songs Jaskier has taken to composing about him. Some rubbish about silver and steel swords. He downs more of his drink.
“Marriage. Settling down. Come, Geralt, even you can’t enjoy sleeping alone in a cold bed.”
Geralt wants to retort that a bed is a bed these days. On the Path, there are plenty worse things than sleeping alone. Not that he doesn’t enjoy company - he thinks of long winters at Kaer Morhen with Eskel, whiling away the boredom or the ache of training with hands and mouths and the peculiarly soft little sounds that Eskel makes when he’s fucked. Sometimes there’s enough coin for a whorehouse, and the thrill of another hot body moving and breathing next to his, the sickly-sweet rush of release. It’s enjoyable, of course - he’s a mutant, not a priest, or an idiot. But it’s an itch to scratch, a want to satisfy. Not a need. Not a feeling.
Besides, he’s not alone these days. Not really. Jaskier travels with him, despite every protestation and attempt to throw him off.
“You must be drunker than I thought, Mousesack. Witchers don’t marry,” Geralt says, eyes pinned to Jaskier.
“You lot don’t usually wear silks, either,” Mousesack says, and Geralt can hear his damn self-satisfied smile even if he’s deliberately not looking at him, “and yet here you are. Although I do hope, for your sake, that love suits you better than silk jackets do. You’re making me miserable just looking at you. You look like you skinned some unfortunate silk merchant on the way here and wore his corpse as a coat.”
“Since you’re apparently so well-informed about witchers and our habits,” Geralt grumbles, “I’m sure you’ll be well aware that the trials we undergo aren’t what you’d consider conducive to a happy marriage.”
“Oh,” Mousesack says, surprised. There’s a pause, contemplative and thoughtful. Geralt has a brief, savagely wonderful moment of relief. Jaskier is still singing, and perhaps it’s the amount of wine Geralt has been frantically consuming, or just that everything sounds better if it’s wrapped in gold, but there’s a clarity to Jaskier's voice that feels like krupnik in Geralt’s chest, warm and honey-sweet and bright enough to burn. And, like too much krupnik, it makes Geralt want to smile. He almost does - before he glances over to see Mousesack staring pointedly, and a little mournfully, at Geralt’s crotch.
“What a pity. I always knew your kind were sterile, but, well, I had no idea there were… other… effects. It’s a shame, but not all is lost, my friend. Let me tell you, there are more ways to please a woman than-”
“Feeling!” Geralt says, exasperated, wishing for more wine. “Emotions, Mousesack. Love, fear, hate, the lot. Haven’t you heard the rumours? Witchers don’t feel. The mutations take it out of us. We don’t love. Can’t love.”
He looks back at Jaskier. It’s then that Jaskier whirls around. Stares right at Geralt. Smiles, warm and genuine and alive, and it’s like liquid gold and the spark of a flint all at once. Too bright, too sharp, too hot. His chest thrums. Geralt quickly looks away. Turns his eyes instead to Calanthe where she’s sitting on the throne, and pretends to be occupied with finishing his wine. Feels every painful second like it’s water dripping right down his spine. The drink sits heavy on his tongue. Too rich, all of a sudden. Violets and earth. When he thinks he’s managed to wait long enough, he glances back. Jaskier, damned nuisance that he is, is still looking straight at him. Grins. Winks.
Something hums, unbidden, deep under Geralt’s sternum, like the tremble of his medallion. Like bells. Like drums in his blood.
“That old rubbish?” Mousesack’s voice cuts through his thoughts, reel him back to safe footing, “you’re really giving me that drivel?”
“It’s true,” Geralt says, looks at him just so he doesn’t have to be looking at Jaskier dancing around singing highly elaborated nonsense about Geralt’s swordsmanship, “Witchers don’t have emotions. We’re mutants.”
“You know me better than to think I’d believe such horse shit. I’m wounded, Geralt.”
Geralt glances back to where Jaskier is beaming at his audience, moving around and around the room as they clap and cheer. He’s shining like all the greatest treasures Geralt has ever seen, golden silk gleaming where it catches the candlelight. In his chest, something thrums.
“Seeing as I can’t feel guilt, your being wounded doesn’t bother me at all,” he says.
“The years have made you even sourer than you used to be,” Mousesack complains, jabbing Geralt with his elbow, “it makes me wonder if you didn’t kill your emotions yourself. Drink and bitterness do as much to kill a man’s feeling as whatever it is you put in your witcher potions.”
That smarts, unexpectedly. Like touching a piece of metal, unaware that it’s just come from the furnace, and feeling the cold burn of it tear into the skin.
“Drink and royals do as much to improve your advice as a blow to the head. There are worse things than being alone, Mousesack. I’ve ridden the Path for enough years to know what I want and need.”
And he does, somewhat. He needs food, shelter from the worst of winter. A good rest in a proper bed, when he can get it. Armour good enough to stand a nekker claw, or a drowner bite. His swords. He doesn’t need a human body lying beside his in the darkest hours of the night. He doesn’t need a companion fit for one of Jaskier’s romantic songs.
“I don’t believe a word of it. You feel as well as I do. You’re just loathe to admit it.”
“That’s not-” Geralt begins.
“Here, bard, tell our friend the witcher that it’s about time he found a woman,” Mousesack says, and Geralt turns just in time to see Jaskier coming towards him, wine goblet clutched loosely in his hand, a dazed, blissful smile on his face. There’s a faint flush of pink across his cheeks, a fevered kind of brightness to his eyes. The top button of his doublet is open, and Geralt can see the pale, soft skin of his throat.
“Don’t bother,” Jaskier says to Mousesack, “you’ll give yourself a headache even trying. He’s even more stubborn than he looks.” He claps Geralt on the shoulder, ignores the grunt of disapproval that it provokes. “Did you ever experience anything more glorious, Geralt? Every available bliss, every experienceable pleasure, right here, for us to savour.”
“He’s too miserable for it,” Mousesack says, dryly, “I think it might actually kill him to be joyful. That is, if he’s capable of feeling joy at all, which he assures me he isn’t.”
Geralt tries to remind himself that he has known Mousesack for many years, and stabbing one’s friends is generally considered indecent amongst pleasant company.
“The Toussaint red,” Jaskier continues, leaning into Geralt, seemingly quite oblivious to Geralt’s desire to strangle Mousesack right in front of him, “is so exquisite that I think I’ll die if I ever have to drink anything else ever again. You, my closest friend, will have to bury me. Remember me fondly. It’s so wonderful that songs should be composed in its honour. Perhaps I’ll write one. Even the finest Mettina vintage will taste like vinegar to me now. What rhymes with vinegar? The flavours are just so rich, it’s like an aria in a bottle. Hrm. There’s a nice line… aria in a bottle...”
“Your bard has good taste in wine,” Mousesack says, approvingly, “almost makes up for his sadly terrible taste in silks.”
Geralt feels his skin prickle at that, without really understanding why. Something cold and sharp, like pride and anger together.
Jaskier continues his extended and somewhat inebriated ode to the many joys of the wine, gesticulating and grinning, pausing only to sip at more of the drink in question. Mousesack continually nods along in drunken agreement, laughs along with Jaskier as he describes all of the things that he’d do to drink nothing but Toussaint red to the end of his days.
“And the pork,” Jaskier is saying, making a loud groan of appreciation that Geralt thinks is frankly indecent, “have you tried the pork? Did you ever taste pork sweeter?”
He harps on about all of the foods he’s managed to sample, all of the fine fabrics he’s been able to see, all of the lords and ladies he’s sure he’s managed to charm. Jaskier is excitable, as people go, much to Geralt’s constant displeasure. But Geralt’s not sure he’s ever seen him quite so animated as he is now. He’s so full of energy that it’s almost sickening. He’s so gloriously alive, so horribly delighted by everything, like a child. What a foolish man, Geralt thinks to himself. Something stirs, deep in his chest, in the dark, secret place underneath his ribs where he’s not accustomed to feeling anything at all.
“Isn’t it all supremely wonderful, Geralt? Aren’t you glad that I, Jaskier, your most noble and delightful friend, so kindly invited you to accompany me to this spectacular feast for the senses?”
“No,” Geralt says.
Jaskier huffs petulantly. Looks about ready to stamp his feet in frustration. It’s almost endearing. Geralt carefully restrains a smile.
“You oaf,” Jaskier laments, “what am I to do with you? A cornucopia of sensual bliss, the finest wines and food in the world, the most elegant men and women to enjoy with your eyes and hands, and all you do is stand around brooding about it all.”
“And just look at you,” Jaskier continues, “your shirt is getting all rumpled. I think you’ve made it wilt by being so fucking miserable around it. Well, I know how it feels. Here, hold this.”
The next thing he knows, Jaskier is handing him his half-empty wine goblet. Geralt barely has time to register why he’s been handed it before Jaskier is in front of him, taking hold of his shirt collar.
Jaskier’s hands are small, unscarred. Delicate. Geralt has seen them hundreds of times, and yet, somehow, he’s never quite noticed how elegant they are, how dextrous. It’s the wine, he tells himself. Just the wine. He’s drunk. Jaskier is so close to him that he can hear the sound of his heart, the steady beat of it.
“Oho!” Mousesack says, delightedly, suddenly and unwelcomely reminding Geralt of his existence. Geralt looks up at him, sees the poorly contained glee on his face. “I see that I have misunderstood. My help is no longer required here. Farewell, my friends. I will leave you to enjoy the festivities together. Farewell.”
“Farewell, Mousesack,” Geralt mutters between his teeth. Good riddance, he thinks.
Jaskier says nothing. Just continues to fiddle with Geralt’s shirt as if it’s the most natural thing in the world for him to be so close. He tugs at Geralt’s collar, muttering and cursing under his breath as he adjusts it this way and that, neatening the folds of it until it sits the way that he wants it to. Presses himself into Geralt’s space because that’s what he always does - pushes himself in where he’s not meant to be, where he has no right to be, and then refuses to leave. Like a splinter, or a thorn. Catches against Geralt’s skin and sinks right down to the blood.
“There,” Jaskier says, stepping back to admire his work. Moves Geralt’s medallion to sit better against the silk. Geralt is almost sure he feels it tremble in Jaskier’s grasp, thrum and sing under Jaskier’s clever fingers. Geralt takes a breath he didn’t know he was holding. Swallows. “Try to keep it that way. You have to look like the dashing, romantic hero of my ballads or people will think I made them all up.”
“You did make them up,” Geralt points out dryly.
“Well, yes, but that’s not the point,” Jaskier says. “Please don’t undo my hard work. I spent a lot of time composing songs to convince these people you aren’t a monstrous lout, and I won’t have that ruined because you couldn’t wear a silk shirt properly.”
Geralt’s about to retort that the silk shirt isn’t going to make any difference to the fact that he’s a yellow-eyed mutant who kills monsters for a living and steals children away, but Jaskier seems so pleased with himself that he lets the words die in his throat.
“Anybody else tried to kill you yet?” he says instead.
Jaskier glances around without a single trace of subtlety. Geralt sighs. Fool.
“Not yet,” he says, in what he must think is a surreptitious tone, “but it’s hard to say. I’m quite certain that Lord Strept keeps looking at me with those tiny, malignant eyes of his. I know, I know, who wouldn’t look at me, after that performance, and you’re right, but the last time I was in Cintra I-”
“The less I know, the better,” Geralt says hurriedly. He glances across the room to where Lord Strept and his sons are lingering, preoccupied with some discussion or other. Lady Strept, hair coiffed elaborately, her slim neck decked with jewels, is smiling, hanging from her Lord’s arm.
“Hrm, well, suffice to say,” Jaskier continues, “that his son, the eldest one, Fodcat, was really something, knows just what to do with his-”
“Yes, yes. Anyway, there’s Strept to worry about. Look threatening so he won’t come near me. I’ve not seen Count Broinne or his rather lovely wife, which is fortunate because the last time I saw them, I was caught in a position that you might describe as compromising, largely because his lovely mother happened to be dressed in very little clothing, and her beauty was so exquisite that it really would have been a crime not to-”
“All right, all right! Marshal Vissegerd seems to have been assuaged by your horrible destruction of my reputation - which, by the way, I still resent, but will unwillingly admit is convenient, because his daughter is here with him, and her smile is so radiant that the poets will write of it in years to come, and I really do think that she might-”
“I hope they all kill you,” Geralt says, rolling his eyes, and feeling that the only thing worse than Jaskier might be a drunk Jaskier with his ego stroked. He downs the rest of Jaskier’s wine to a shout of protest. “I really do. If you get stabbed in the morning it’s nothing to do with me. I’ll sleep more peacefully for it.”
“Don’t be like that,” Jaskier says, “and stop with your pretence. You wouldn’t have asked me if you weren’t getting involved. I know that you really consider me your finest, dearest friend and would be greatly wounded at my unfortunate demise by royalty.”
“You’d have to tear them limb from limb to avenge me. It would make such a glorious poem. A tale of heartbreak and revenge, lust’s sweet poison and a friend’s close bond.”
“Sadly, you won’t be around to hear it,” Geralt says.
“No,” Jaskier says, suddenly a little crestfallen. He frowns, and it’s so ridiculous that it’s endearing in ways that it shouldn’t be. “Which is really a pity, because that means that someone else would have to write it, probably Valdo Marx, and he’d make an absolute mess of it, he’d turn it into some awful rhyming ditty, it would ruin the whole gravity of the thing. Oh Geralt, this is awful.”
Fool, Geralt thinks to himself, and it’s half-fond. He’s a complete fool.
“Bard!” Queen Calathe calls across the room.
Jaskier brightens immediately. Transforms, in front of Geralt’s eyes, from Jaskier the intolerable nuisance to Jaskier the beloved bard.
“I’m afraid I must resume my performance,” he says, straightening his back a little, “Please try your very hardest not to kill anybody or to incite any major political incidents.” Without any warning, he places his hand squarely on Geralt’s chest, right over his heart, as if he has any right to touch Geralt in the first place, as if Geralt couldn’t snap his neck with barely a thought. His hand is warm and solid. Jaskier grins, as though he can hear Geralt’s thoughts turning in his head, as if he can feel Geralt caught between pulling him in to ask what the fuck he thinks he’s doing and slapping him away. Leans in. He’s so close now that Geralt can smell the perfumed bath salts that he uses, the slight sweetness of juniper and pine. Geralt feels that thrumming in his chest again. In his head. “And for fuck’s sake,” Jaskier says, softly, “try to keep your shirt neat.”
He winks, and with that, he leaves. Saunters over to his lute, picks it up with care, caressing it as though it’s one of his innumerable lovers. Begins to strum the strings to claps of approval and cries of excitement. Geralt is left leaning against a cold pillar, holding two empty wine cups, at a betrothal he does not want to be at.
“Your bard, hm?” Mousesack reappears, takes a long drink of his wine. His eyes are positively glittering with mirth, “Geralt, I had no idea.”
“You’re drunk, Mousesack.”
“Drunk, but not blind,” Mousesack says. “No feelings indeed. And yet you followed him here without even a whiff of coin.”
“I agreed to protect the idiot because I owe him a debt.”
“Oh, I’m sure you did,” Mousesack grins, staring at where Jaskier is gleefully serenading the room with The Bastard Prince, to howls of laughter. “I’m just not sure you know quite what you’re repaying him for.”
Geralt thinks of all the words he could say to that.
“My thanks, Mousesack, for your interminable fountain of wisdom,” he says instead, “but it seems that I’m out of wine.”
He makes for the nearest servant holding a silver carafe, already realising, miserably, that there isn’t enough wine in the world to make a royal betrothal bearable.