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Louder Than Sirens

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The road back from Lan Exeter is a long one. Kovir is at war. A place at war is no place for a witcher, Vesemir used to say. War makes for bad business. The strings of coin purses tighten almost as soon as the first banners begin to fly - the smell of human flesh burning on the wind makes people willing to forget the threats posed by leshens or alghouls. A silver sword can’t kill famine from a razed crop field, or the press of an oncoming army. If a witcher can’t kill, he isn’t useful. And when he isn’t useful, he becomes just another monster at the door.

Geralt knows this. It doesn’t make it cut any less sharply.

It’s been two days since his yellow eyes got them hounded from the latest inn with curses and stones and people frantically making the sign of the evil eye in his direction. At this pace, it will be another day to the bridge over the Braa river, then three more days to the border. Geralt yearns for a soft bed, a hot meal, a sharp, quick, meaningless fuck.

Instead, he has Jaskier.

“You know, I’d never been to Kovir before,” Jaskier continues, as they trudge through the mud, “and strangely, I have no desire to visit again.”

Geralt grunts angrily. Squints at the horizon and gets some sick kind of thrill from imagining watching the whole lot of it burn.

“And the appalling ingratitude of the Koviri people,” Jaskier is saying, “is really quite remarkable. I have to say, the crossbows were a particularly lovely touch.”

Geralt wants to point out that the crossbows only came out after Jaskier, fool that he is, took it upon himself to start cursing back at the miserable villagers, more viciously than Geralt would have thought possible. If it weren’t for the resulting flurry of quarrels and a shot that narrowly missed taking half of Jaskier’s ear off, he’d almost have said he was impressed. He grunts instead, not wanting to encourage Jaskier to talk any more than absolutely necessary. Lets himself stew in his misery, press against the bruise of it until it aches.

“I can only hope that each and every one of their nasty little inns are overrun with venomous ghouls. It’s what they deserve.”

“No such thing,” Geralt says.

“Oho! He speaks! Finally! I was worried you’d brooded for so long you’d swallowed your own tongue out of spite. What was that, Geralt?”

“Ghouls aren’t venomous,” he says, because it’s easier to be pedantic about it than to deal with how horribly tempting he finds the idea of the most recent innkeeper who spat at them being chewed to pieces.

Jaskier huffs petulantly.

“I meant what I said! Do you ever stop being a miserable boor?”

“Do you ever stop talking?” Geralt asks drily.

“I know it’s against your witcher code to kill them,” Jaskier continues, ignoring the jab. Geralt glares at him. “And yes, yes, I know, that’s terribly noble of you. Very admirable. But it so happens that I, humble bard that I am, am in no way bound to such lofty aspirations. So as far as I can see there’s nothing at all wrong with me hoping that their shitty bread is forever fucking stale and that they all choke to death on it and then have their corpses defiled by ghouls, venemous or otherwise.”

A little sick shock of gratification curls through Geralt at that. He tells himself that it’s all to do with the idea of the thing, and nothing at all to do with the fool that suggested it. That seeing Jaskier vicious and spiteful on his behalf doesn’t feel like satisfaction.

“Walk faster. I want to cross the bridge before nightfall,” he says, trying not to think about it overmuch, “and shut up.”

“I know, I know” Jaskier says, making no effort at all to shut up, or indeed, to walk faster. “this isn’t our finest hour, but come on Geralt, we’ll be over the border soon. And,” he adds, conspiratorially, “I happen to know of some particularly fine establishments that can supply us with whatever earthly delights you require to stop your brooding. The finest wines that coin can buy? Women so beautiful that you’ll be brought to tears? A hot bath?”

Geralt grunts. Stares at the sky. He’s trying to comfort me, he realises, all at once. It tastes like a mouthful of white gull. It’s warming and sharp all at once, bites like acid in his throat, burns all the way down until it blooms in his chest, knife-sharp and white-hot.

“Whatever it is that you want, we’ll get it,” Jaskier says.

“I want,” Geralt says, suddenly feeling exposed, laid bare, “some fucking quiet.”

In a turn of events that can only really be described as miraculous, Jaskier stops talking. Geralt takes a breath. Lets the cold air sit in his lungs. He reminds himself that witchers do not feel.

Roach’s hooves clack against the stone. The landscape rolls by, great swathes of rocky emptiness and patchy lilac heath. The real winter snows haven’t fallen yet, but the mountains are still dusted with it. Somewhere far across the horizon, a trail of dark smoke is clawing its way up to the sky. Another burned village. He wonders, idly, how far it is to the bridge.

“Really, I hope they all die,” Jaskier resumes, apropos of nothing. “It would be a fitting end. I honestly have no idea why we even came to this horrible place to begin with.”

“I don’t remember asking you to follow me,” Geralt says, but there’s no real venom in it. “In fact, I distinctly recall telling you not to.”

“And what? Sit in some tavern while you go and enjoy noble, exciting adventures, like being thrown out of inns? You wound me.”

Geralt huffs. Jaskier snorts out a laugh.

“Oh, come on Geralt,” he says, and there’s hope in his voice that clenches around Geralt’s heart like a fist and sickens him right to his stomach all at once, “don’t brood. I’ll make sure to defame this whole miserable country in a song for you. They’ll sing it in every tavern from Bremervoord to Vicovaro. Kovir will be about as popular as an unwashed, scabies-riddled whore at a funeral.”

Geralt grimaces at that. Rolls his eyes.

“Please don’t.”

“I tell you, I’ll have half the continent slandering Kovir before the winter comes,” Jaskier continues, completely ignoring Geralt’s desires, as always. Because isn’t that always how this goes? Geralt goes, and Jaskier follows, loud and over-close, as if it’s his gods-given right to insert himself into every corner of Geralt’s existence. ‘Their grandchildren’s grandchildren will rue the way their idiot ancestors treated Geralt of Rivia.”

He grins then, conspiratorial and spreads his arms, sings loudly: ‘‘Hope herself died in the inns of Kovir, but not slain by its soldiers’ brutality - instead she was fucked by the louse-riddled dick, that the Koviris call ‘hospitality’.”

It shouldn’t make him feel anything. Jaskier has three days of unshaven stubble and dark circles under his eyes from too long without a proper sleep. The poem isn’t much better than the poet himself. It’s a stupid song, he tells himself, absolutely ridiculous, makes no sense at all. It’s stupid and he hates it. The ‘louse-ridden dick’ is completely unnecessary, and Geralt is quite sure he would be happy to never hear that particular phrase again as long as he lives. And yet, hearing Jaskier sing does something to him that he doesn’t dare name. It breaks through the cold, presses warmth under Geralt’s collar until the skin at the back of his neck is prickling with it.

“What do you think, Geralt?”

Geralt grunts. Feels hot, all of a sudden, despite the cold.

“I think that you should shut up for once in your damn life.”

Jaskier smiles at him then, in that maddeningly easy way of his, bright and honest like sunlight, even though they’ve not slept in a proper bed in a week, even though he must be feeling the cold right to the marrow of his bones. As though this whole thing is a game. As though nothing could possibly bring him more pleasure than being right here, with Geralt, in the miserable nowhere of the Koviri countryside.

It thrums right under Geralt’s ribcage, spreads in his chest like woodsmoke, thick and heavy until he feels like it might choke him. He turns away, not quite able to bear looking at Jaskier and not quite understanding why.

He scans the horizon instead. Sees, finally, the thing that he’s been searching for: far in the distance, there’s the thin line of the river, snaking down between the rocks. He urges Roach on towards it with a kick of his heels.

“Geralt! Wait! Geralt, stop, don’t- Geralt, don’t leave me!” Jaskier protests. Geralt pretends not to hear, but slows Roach all the same.

When they finally reach the river, Geralt feels his mood lift a little. He even finds himself minding Jaskier’s wittering less. Jaskier talks the whole time, on and on. At some point he starts strumming his lute as he walks, serenading Geralt with tavern songs whose lyrics he alters to become increasingly filthy. Geralt rolls his eyes at Jaskier’s alterations, complains about the lack of space to think, but there’s no real bite to it. Jaskier must be able to tell, because he carries on regardless, smiling and winking at Geralt every time he manages to make a particularly obscene joke.

A few glimpses of sun start to creep out between the clouds, and the world starts to feel as though it is righting itself. The two of them follow the bank, cheered by the knowledge that each twist and curl brings them closer to crossing the bridge, and to consigning this whole side of the Braa to distant memory.

The river is hideously swollen and wild from the October rains, just about ready to burst its banks. The water is a raging mess of brown, too muddied to see the bottom. And yet, it holds the promise of something like comfort. Geralt gets greedy, then, and perhaps that’s his downfall. He lets himself indulge in thoughts of wants, not needs. A good night’s rest. Maybe, even a hot bath. Warm, practised hands against his skin.

Once they’re close enough to see the bridge itself, any burgeoning sparks of hope are instantly stamped out.

“This, er, wouldn’t happen to be the bridge you wanted to cross, would it?” Jaskier says, clutching at his lute strap and staring at the splintered boards of wood. “Because if so, I think we’re about, oh, I don’t know. About half a century too late?”

“Fuck,” Geralt snarls.

The bridge - or what remains of it - barely even resembles a bridge. On the bank, the remnants of the posts stand, charred black from flames. A few cracked, burned boards remain, caught against the many large rocks sticking out from the water. The current rushes against them, seething and angry and horribly fast.

Geralt swears, and damns Lan Exeter and Kovir and war all to hell.

He slides down from Roach. Feels her snort and quiver under his palm, scared by the churning water. He soothes his hand down her flank, shushes her. Takes her reins in hand and leads her to the bank to look closer.

The river is roaring loudly in his ears. He thinks, miserably, of a bed in a second-rate inn, of food that he hasn’t cooked in a kettle. There’s still enough light that the opposite bank is visible. When he looks across the water, he can just about make out a few boards, the posts of the once-bridge.

But it’s far off. The rocks standing out from the water are worn smooth from the current. They’re spattered with lichen and foam. He can tell, just from looking at them, that the footing will be bad. But the promise of a real bed and a proper meal and some blessed fucking relief is waiting somewhere across the river, maddeningly close, so he can almost taste it. And he’s starving.

“Oh, no, no, no,” Jaskier says, realising what Geralt is thinking. “No. No thank you. I know exactly what you’re thinking, and the answer is no. We are not going-”

“We’re going across,” Geralt says. Follows the stones and loose boards with his eyes, tracing out a path.

“There are other bridges. We’ll make camp, rest up, and then tomorrow-”

“It’s the quickest way.”

“To what, exactly? Drowning?” Jaskier says, looks at Geralt as though he’s the one who’s the idiot. He smells, faintly, of fear. “Have you lost your mind?”

“You’re being ridiculous.”

“Oho! Really? Really Geralt? I’m being ridiculous? This,” Jaskier says, gesturing vaguely to the river, “this is ridiculous. I know this hasn’t exactly been easy, but there’s really no reason for you to start plunging headfirst into dangerous rivers like an idiot just because you’re angry about things.”

“I didn’t ask you to come,” Geralt snaps, harsher than he means to. “By all means stay if you want.”

Jaskier stares at the river miserably. Picks at his lute strap. There’s silence, punctuated by the river’s rush and roar.

“Alright,” Jaskier says, eventually. (And, after all, isn’t that always how this goes? Jaskier being foolish enough to follow Geralt to the ends of the earth? Geralt being foolish enough to let him?) “But I want you to know that this is not one of your better ideas. In fact, I’d go so far as to say it’s one of your worst. And if I die horribly, I hope they write songs about your stupidity.”

“Your lute,” Geralt says, shrugging off the argument. He holds out his hand.

“Oh no,” Jaskier says, shakes his head, clutches the strap of his lute case the way people tend to clutch their children around witchers, “she stays with me.”

“You can have it back on the other side,” Geralt says, impatient, “now give it here.”

Jaskier hands over his lute, reluctance clear on his face. Geralt straps it to Roach’s saddlebags. He tugs a couple of times, more to satisfy Jaskier than himself. The bard makes an unhappy little sound.

Geralt steps onto the closest rock, and then onto the next. Guides Roach with him. She whinnies and snorts. He shushes her, pats her flank until she calms. He glances back to where Jaskier is standing eyeing up the rushing water. Geralt can hear his heartbeat, racing like the water.

“Slowly,” he tells him.

“Oh really?” Jaskier says. “You mean we aren’t going to have a race across this terrifying death trap?”

Geralt ignores him.

They move across the stones, little by little. Geralt holds Roach’s reins in his hand, guides her along with him. She snorts, wide-eyed, at the raging water around them. Tosses her head nervously. He hushes her, reassures her with every cautious step. The three of them edge across the river, one step at a time.

“Well this doesn’t feel remotely dangerous,” Jaskier says loudly. Geralt keeps going, doesn’t bother to reply. Jaskier swears. “Oh, sweet Melitele’s fucking tits, this is- If I drown, Geralt, it’s your fault.”

Geralt rolls his eyes.

“Tread carefully then. I won’t pull you out if you fall in.”

“Don’t patronise me, Geralt!” Jaskier says, sounding far more offended than he has any right to be, “I’m always careful.”

Geralt snorts at that. Smiles, despite himself. Feels fondness well in his chest.

“You’ve never been careful a day in your life.”

“I’ll have you know that the Countess de Stael,” Jaskier says, indignantly, “who, may I remind you, is a woman of exquisitely good taste and fine culture, evidenced by the fact that she is, of course, madly in love with me, thinks that-”

Geralt could not find it in him to care less about what the Countess de Stael thinks.

Which turns out to be fortunate, because he never gets to learn. Just as Jaskier is about to tell him, he loses his footing.

“Geralt!” he yelps, more surprise than fear.

Geralt feels his veins fill with ice. Time seems to slow. He watches Jaskier slip, falter, grab helplessly for something to hold onto. Feels his panic as if it’s his own.

Then Jaskier is snatched away by the current.

Before he even has time to think, Geralt has jumped into the river. Realises, instantly, that it’s deeper than he thought. The water is cold enough to burn. Even with his mutations he feels it shoot through him like a kick to the chest, snatch the air from his lungs in a rush. He gasps involuntarily. Gets a mouthful of water that tastes of pondweed and earth for his trouble. He kicks up to the surface, breaks out into the air. Takes a breath.

“Jaskier!” he yells over the sound of the water. Scans, desperately, for any sight of him, for a snatch of blue silk amongst the seething white and brown. He takes a breath and swims, willing Jaskier to be close, to be safe, to be breathing.

The river drags him along, too fast.

He glances around wildly. Feels the pounding, racing heartbeat that can only be Jaskier’s, and follows it blindly. Grabs onto it with every fibre of his being. Geralt can sense Jaskier gasping, struggling against the water. Don’t fight it, he thinks, helplessly, the water’s too cold, stop struggling, you’ll drown, I can’t-

“Jaskier!” he calls again, half frantic. He turns his head just quickly enough to see a rock rushing towards him. The current throws him against it, head-on, so hard that his teeth clack. The force of it shocks right through his skull, whip-cracks up his neck like lightning, and he sees stars. Knows, rationally, that there’s pain. Can’t feel it. Only feels the stammering of Jaskier’s heart. He grunts, forces himself to keep swimming.

Finally, blessedly, he sees the blue of Jaskier’s doublet amidst the seething water. Grabs for him, frantically, only to have it torn right out of his grip. He grits his teeth, pushes through the water as quickly as he can until his muscles burn. Snarls with the effort of it all, with how unfair this is.

Geralt reaches again, and this time his fingers find purchase. Wet silk, cold skin. He grabs. Pulls Jaskier, soaked and limp, to his chest, feels the weight of him, and holds on. So tightly he feels his knuckles ache. His ears are ringing so loudly that he can’t think, can’t parse Jaskier’s heartbeat. Jaskier’s head is heavy against his shoulder and Geralt can barely breathe for it.

With all the strength he can manage, he drags them both to the riverbank. He tugs Jaskier out of the water, drags him up onto the stone, feels his legs almost buckle. Lays him down to the ground, as gently as he can, rolls him onto his side. Crouches down next to him, nauseous, aching. The rush of water is still loud in his ears.

For a moment that seems to last a lifetime, he barely dares to hope.

But Jaskier is breathing, he realises. He’s gasping from the cold, deathly pale, eyes feverish and wild, but his heartbeat is pounding a frantic staccato in Geralt’s ears and he’s alive.

“Damn it, Jaskier!” Geralt snaps. Feels the acidic rush of something at the back of his throat, sharp and cool like steel gutting him from the inside, slicing him open. It tastes like blood in his mouth. He tries to tell himself that it’s got as simple a name as ‘anger’.

Jaskier makes a thin, groaning sound. Chokes up a mouthful of water onto the stone. Shudders. Retches, wetly, heaving for breath, and the sound alone is enough to make Geralt want to be sick himself. He feels taut, overstrung, as though he’s in the middle of a battle, not crouched by the banks of the Braa, soaked through, watching some idiot vomit up river water.

He stares, uselessly, as Jaskier shivers and coughs. His hands tingle with the need to do something, because Jaskier is lying in front of him, half drowned, and there’s nothing that Geralt knows how to do except kill. He grits his jaw so hard that it hurts.

There’s a desperate thing flailing and bleeding out under Geralt’s ribcage like a dying rabbit. It’s fear, he realises, belatedly, stupidly. I’m afraid. Next to him, Jaskier is lying on the ground, trembling from the cold, spluttering up water. Jaskier is human and fragile and shivering and Geralt is afraid.

Why am I afraid? he thinks, not wanting to know the answer.

The silence seems to stretch forever. Jaskier, as always, is the one to break it.

“Fuck,” Jaskier says. His voice is raw, scraped thin. Slowly, agonisingly so, he sits up. Geralt steps forward to make sure he doesn’t pitch straight over again. Steadies Jaskier with a hand on his shoulder. He’s shaking so badly from the cold that Geralt can feel it. Some miserable, unfortunate little thing in Geralt’s chest clenches.

You’re okay, Geralt thinks, you’re okay.

“You’re an idiot,” he says instead, viciously. Fear is clawing in his veins.

“Fuck,” Jaskier says again, reaches up to brush wet hair out of his eyes, and Geralt doesn’t miss the trembling of his fingers, “Geralt, I didn’t…” he trails off.

“Didn’t what? Think? Look? Use some goddamn sense for a change?” Geralt snaps, feels the weight of it stamp the air out of his lungs. “You could have drowned!”

Jaskier says nothing. Just stares at the river, wide-eyed, as it continues to churn and snarl. He’s shivering furiously, great shudders that seem to go all the way through him.

The silence is broken by a snort, a sharp whinney. Geralt looks up just in time to see Roach plodding up to them. Must have made her own way across, Geralt thinks, vaguely. Good girl. At least one of us isn’t a complete fool.

“Thank you,” Jaskier says, “I owe you my life. Again.”

All at once, something falters under Geralt’s ribcage, like a candle flame snuffed out and gone to ash. The fight goes out of him. His neck is aching from being slammed against a rock, and he’s soaked through. The fear is burning itself out like a fever, leaving only exhaustion and a bone-deep ache.

Geralt squints at the sun, where it’s sinking quickly down below the mountains. The sky is yellow and purple together, like a bruise.

He tugs his cloak down from where it’s rolled up behind Roach’s saddle. Wraps it awkwardly around Jaskier’s shoulders. He’s shivering hard.

“Can you stand?”

“I think so,” Jaskier says, “I’m just- fuck, Geralt, it’s so fucking cold.”

Geralt hasn’t felt cold like that since he was too young to remember, sheltered by the mutations running in his blood.

You need to get warm, he thinks.

“We’ll make camp,” he says.

“Gods, I didn’t think it was possible to be this cold,” Jaskier groans, and Geralt wants to be reassured by it, to find some comfort in the fact that he’s not harmed enough to shut up. But Jaskier wobbles a little as he gets to his feet, smells like exhaustion and bile and river, and that unnerves him more than it has any right to.

There is a cave not far from the bank. Geralt finds enough wood for a fire, and it’s not long before the sparks are snapping and blazing, filling the cave with warm light. Jaskier shuffles close to it, sits bathed in the flames’ glow.

“You need to eat,” Geralt says. “Wait here. Roach is in charge.”

Roach snorts in assent. He leaves before Jaskier can protest.

When he returns with a couple of scrawny rabbits, Jaskier looks up at him from beside the fire, and the corner of his mouth twitches up stupidly. Geralt scowls. He’s still in his soaked clothes, he realises. The idiot hasn’t had the sense to get dry.

“I’ll immortalise your heroic battle with the river,” Jaskier tells him, as Geralt puts down the rabbits and starts unbuckling his armour. “People will sing of your sacrifice for years to come. I’ll compose such stirring poetry on the loyalty of Geralt of Rivia to his dearest friend that maidens will weep at just the sound of the opening notes.”

“You can compose that shit all you like, but don’t expect any applause.”

“Well fuck you too, you ass. You’re lucky you so recently saved me from a watery death, or I’d-”

“I didn’t save you from anything,” Geralt says, “except your own idiocy. Now stop wittering and get out of those wet clothes.”

“Geralt!” Jaskier says, grins deviously. The three days of stubble, the dark circles under his eyes, should ruin the effect, and yet, Geralt feels his skin prickle. Jaskier is a mess. He’s cold and shivering with his hair plastered to his forehead. And still, there’s somehow a sultriness about him that’s almost predatory. “I’m flattered, truly, and I’m sure there’s nothing like an exquisitely good fuck to warm up after nearly dying in a river, but really, this is hardly the time to be thinking with your cock, absolutely marvellous as it-”

“I should have let you drown,” Geralt says, flatly, tries to ignore the way his mouth goes dry.

“Yes, yes, I know” Jaskier says, and his expression softens, then, becomes something horribly, sickeningly fond that could sink its teeth into Geralt and pull him undone piece by wretched piece. “You’ll feel so much better when I die, which is exactly why you all but threw yourself into a freezing cold river, heroically risking life and limb to pull me out.”

Geralt’s chest thrums like thunder about to break. Dangerous and wild.

Jaskier, seemingly oblivious to it all, starts undoing his doublet. Geralt watches his hands, bone-pale and trembling from the cold, struggle with the absurdly tiny buttons. Thinks, briefly, stupidly, about undoing them himself. About the pale, unscarred skin of Jaskier’s chest underneath his hands, the soft curl of his chest hair, the rise and fall of his heartbeat under Geralt’s fingertips. The thought makes something prickle hotly at the base of his belly.

He pushes it down. Witchers don’t feel, he tells himself, repeats it until it’s all he knows. He strips out of his own wet clothes instead, and if it’s a little more aggressive than it needs to be, he tells himself it’s because of the cold. He lays his wet gear out by the fire to dry.

When he’s in dry clothes and the kettle is boiling, he skins the rabbits, more aggressively than he ought to, slicing away the fur in quick, sharp cuts. Slips up and catches the edge of his thumb on the knife blade, hisses as blood wells up to the surface, bright and hot.

“Fuck,” he snarls. Sticks his thumb in his mouth. Tastes iron, dirty coin.

“Careful,” Jaskier says, as if he has the slightest right to be giving Geralt advice on the subject. He sits himself down right beside Geralt, with no warning. Inserts himself easily into Geralt’s space as though he belongs there. Presses in until they’re almost touching. He’s wearing a dry shirt under Geralt’s cloak. The smell of river isn’t quite as strong, masked by the smell of the chamomile soap Jaskier keeps tucked into his pack with his spare clothes. Geralt looks up sharply.

“What are you doing?” he says.

“It’s cold,” Jaskier says, as though that’s a reasonable explanation.

The fire should be big enough, Geralt thinks, frowning. He glances up to the mouth of the cave, and realises, awkwardly, that he’s managed to place himself in the most protected spot, away from the howl of the wind outside. Jaskier is freezing, and Geralt, guarded as he is from the cold, has managed to put himself right in the warmest place.

“Sorry,” he mutters, gets up, moves to the other side of the fire. “Habit.”

“What?” Jaskier says, eloquently.

“Habit. To sit away from the wind.”

“Well that’s... sensible?” Jaskier says slowly, as if he’s confused by it somehow. He’s looking at him strangely, in a way Geralt can’t quite decipher. Geralt shrugs it off and starts adding the pieces of rabbit meat to the kettle. Rummages in his pack to find herbs.

The cave starts to fill with the smell of salt and cow parsley. Geralt watches Jaskier across the fire, out of the corner of his eye. He’s trying to strum his lute quietly, testing out rhymes for ‘water’, Geralt’s cloak thrown about his shoulders. The firelight is dancing across him, little golden splinters of it shining in his hair. But there’s a tremble in his fingers, so sharp that Geralt can see it. He keeps fumbling the chords, cursing under his breath. His skin seems paler than usual in the half-light, drained, as though the water has washed the life out of him somehow.

Once the stew is ready. Geralt pours it into bowls, and brings one over to Jaskier. Thrusts it at him. Jaskier takes it, and then stares at it, suspiciously.

“Well, thank you, I think, but what is it?”

“Stew. Rabbit.”

Jaskier eyes it, clearly unimpressed.

“It looks more water than rabbit. I think I’ve had quite enough of water for one day.”

Geralt grunts.

“It’s hot,” he says, and then, against his better judgement: “you should eat. It will help.”

“Aha!” Jaskier says, and his eyes shine dangerously. “I knew it! You do care about me after all! I’ll write a ballad about this. ‘The White Wolf and the, er-” he glances down at the bowl again “the, er, delicious Rabbit Stew’”.

“If you don’t shut up and eat it,” Geralt tells him, tiredly, “I’ll shove it down your damn throat myself.”

Jaskier grins at that, opens his mouth to make what he clearly thinks is an incredibly witty comment, but when he sees Geralt’s face he has the good sense not to press it any further.

Geralt settles back by the fire. Watches Jaskier sip half-heartedly at the stew. Some of the colour starts to come back into his face. Geralt hates how relieved that makes him feel. He drinks his own stew, and thinks, unwittingly, of Cintra. Of Jaskier, blazing bright in golden silks, showered with applause, where he belongs, instead of here, at the edge of the world, drinking thin rabbit stew with nobody but Geralt.

It isn’t long before Jaskier is yawning and stretching, making his excuses and tucking himself into his bedroll. Geralt stays up, staring into the flames, feeling the heat lick against his skin.

The night gets darker. The wood on the fire crackles lazily. Jaskier is snoring faintly, his breathing slow and even. Geralt lets himself glance at where he’s sleeping, and feels something sink in his stomach. Jaskier has set his bedroll right by the fire, but Geralt can still see him shivering in his sleep. Still cold.

This is my fault, he thinks, finally admitting to what he’s known all along. Turns it over, again and again, like picking at a scab, worrying at it until it tears, and Renfri’s blood wells up from it, stains his fingers like it does every time.

He looks up at Jaskier again, at this old mistake made new. He looks so exhausted that it makes something ache, unasked for, in Geralt’s chest. He clenches his fists on the canvas of his own bedroll. He won’t miss the heat, for one night. Always did run warm, and the fire is still burning.

As quietly as he can, he gets off his bedroll, and picks it up. Carries it over to where Jaskier is sleeping by the fire. Jaskier makes a little groaning half-sound, and Geralt freezes. Then Jaskier huffs in his sleep, and continues snoring. Geralt watches, for a while. Stares at the rise and fall of Jaskier’s chest under his bedroll.

Carefully, he puts his own bedroll, canvas and all, on top of Jaskier’s. Eyes his work. It looks warmer. He looks around for anything else he can use, and sees the cloak that Jaskier has spent most of the night wrapped up in, folded neatly by the fire.

He unravels it and brings it back to where Jaskier is snoring. Crouches down beside him. Jaskier’s hair is mussed on his forehead, finally dry. The firelight is dancing across the bridge of his nose, the line of his unshaven jaw. The two bedrolls rise and fall slowly as he breathes.

He realises, apropos of nothing, that he’s close enough to touch Jaskier, to run his fingers through the soft strands of his hair. To brush it back from his forehead. To press his nose to the sweet spot where Jaskier’s pulse is hammering in his throat, and breathe him in. He’s seen Jaskier asleep more times than he cares to count, but the crinkle of his eyebrows, the little twitches he makes as he dreams, make something like relief tug inside Geralt’s chest. Maybe it’s just the half-light.

He shakes the thought from his mind, and drapes the cloak over the top of Jaskier, as gently as he can.

It’s then that Jaskier grunts in his sleep. Twitches.

Opens his eyes.

Jaskier stares up at him, half-awake. Geralt freezes, still holding the cloak. He suddenly feels exposed. Dangerously so. As though Jaskier might sink into him and leave him bleeding, might sneak under his ribcage and slit him open.

“Geralt,” Jaskier says blearily, voice slurred and rough from sleep. He smiles, just a little. Smug, in a way he has no right to be. He’s drowsy, sleep-soft, and yet something about the way he looks at Geralt cuts him right to his core, bright and sharp like steel. Heat prickles at the back of Geralt’s neck.

Geralt stares down at him. There’s a thrumming in his chest, so heavy that he barely dares to breathe. Smoke in his lungs.

“If I didn’t know better,” Jaskier says, and there’s something in the blue of his eyes, the flash of his teeth, that makes Geralt feel afraid all over again. As though Jaskier has pressed a knife to his throat. “I’d say you actually care.”

“Don’t get ahead of yourself,” Geralt says.

“I know, I know. Witchers don’t feel,” Jaskier says. Smiles, and it’s keen and bright and hungry. Like this is all a joke, and he’s playing dirty, and the punchline is going to rob Geralt blind. Geralt almost swears he feels his medallion twitch and hum against his chest. Danger.

What am I afraid of? he thinks.

He grunts. Drops the cloak unceremoniously on top of Jaskier. Stalks back to his place on the other side of the fire. Doesn’t meet Jaskier’s eyes. Feels like he might break open if he does. He stabs at the fire with a stick. The logs crackle and spit, sparks flying up into the air. He wonders, without wanting to think about why, if this is how Jaskier feels every time he’s caught wrapped around somebody else’s lover. That thought alone makes vertigo rise up in his stomach.

“Shut up and go back to sleep, bard,” Geralt says. And if it comes out gentler than he means it to, well, perhaps it’s just because of the warmth of the fire, and the joy of being one step closer to the border, and the soft, tousled mess that the river has made of Jaskier’s hair.

“Thanks for the blanket,” Jaskier says, into the silence. Always did need to have the last word on everything.

He doesn’t dare to look up until he senses Jaskier’s heartbeat slow, hears his breathing get deep and even. He waits a moment. Fears, ridiculously, that it’s some kind of a trap. Lets himself watch Jaskier out of the corner of his eye until he feels satisfied that he’s really asleep.

Roach stares at him balefully with her big, dark eyes.

“Don’t you judge me,” he tells her. She tosses her head, snorts.

Geralt watches the sun come up over the horizon, and tries not to think about the fact that he’s oddly comforted by the sound of Jaskier’s snores.