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Louder Than Sirens

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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.”

“Hm.”

“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-”

“Jaskier.”

“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-”

“Jaskier!”

“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.”

“Hm.”

“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. 

Chapter Text

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.