It started with fish heads.
Not from small fish, either. Jaskier thought he probably could have handled small fish. But no--his stalker leaned towards larger prey, mostly swordfish or shark, though Jaskier had even seen one or two drowner heads. Those had almost given him a heart attack when he’d first stumbled on them.
Literally. They’d been deposited neatly on his front doorstep, the same as all the other heads had been for the better part of the past month. He’d found the first head by tripping on it, and while his ability to avoid them had improved, his mood had not.
Today’s doorstep decoration was fairly tame by comparison. Jaskier nudged the grouper with his boot--he never went outside barefoot in the morning anymore, not after the incident with the rotting walrus head--and glared at the ocean.
“Take your sabbatical on the coast, they said,” he muttered. “The ocean air will help your nerves, they said.”
Not that his nerves had needed any help. He hadn’t smashed his lute over Valdo Marx’s head because he was having a nervous breakdown. He’d done it because the bastard had deserved it. So what if Marx had gotten a concussion? Served him right for having ripped off Jaskier’s recent ballad, and no, changing the key it was played in and tweaking the end of the tune did not count as being derivative, thank you very much.
The Oxenfurt college disciplinary board hadn’t agreed, however. They couldn’t fire Jaskier--he had tenure--but they had sent him off on sabbatical for a couple months, and had rearranged his schedule so that he and Marx would be in different buildings when he returned the following semester. It was awfully naive of them to think that mere time and distance would be enough to stop his feud with Marx, but Jaskier wasn’t going to be the one to disabuse them of the notion, not when he was getting a paid vacation out of it.
The second he’d gotten the letter detailing his ‘punishment’ he’d rented a quaint little cottage on the beach, just far enough away from town that he wouldn’t be disturbed but close enough to walk to the nearest tavern. Then he’d packed his bags, chartered a boat, and skedaddled, pausing on his way out of town only long enough to give Marx--still bedridden, the dramatic bastard--the finger.
The storm that had later sunk his boat probably wasn’t Marx’s fault, seeing as the man was far too uncreative to have thought of hiring a mage to enact his revenge, but Jaskier wasn’t ready to rule him out, either.
And that should have been the end of Jaskier. He’d have been spread out like jam over the sharp coastal rocks, nothing but brunch for the seagulls--except, at the last minute, he’d been saved.
Well, saved physically, at least. Mentally, his savior was apparently trying to torment him into an early grave.
“What, only one fish head today?” Jaskier shouted toward the outcropping of rocks next to the dock. “I got two heads yesterday. You losing interest? Or just losing your touch?”
There was a blur of white behind the rocks, followed by a splash.
“And stay away!” said Jaskier, before going back inside to fetch a bucket and some soap. His front steps had taken on a disturbing number of bloodstains, and Jaskier didn’t even want to think what would happen to his security deposit if he didn’t get them out before it was time to leave.
In hindsight, taunting the creature had been a bad idea, but how was Jaskier supposed to have known that it spoke his language? And took things very literally? It had never said anything to Jaskier before, or shown any signs of understanding him. Their only communication to date consisted of Jaskier talking while the creature stared back at him and occasionally grunted.
Their first encounter could almost be described as romantic, though. Jaskier was actually in the middle of composing the whole shipwreck mishap into an exciting song of adventure and heartbreak. He was taking some pretty heavy artistic liberties, of course. Instead of a bard being rescued, it was a beautiful princess, and instead of barfing seawater onto her savior, she gave him a passionate kiss.
He’d keep the part where the rescued damsel returned to the beach everynight to serenade the creature--though the princess in his tale would be singing love songs, not working on half-composed ditties and practicing her scales--and the creature would watch intensely from a distance. The creature’s appearance in his song was similarly true to life: a merman, finely muscled, roguishly scarred, with long white hair, golden eyes, and scales that were either going to be as white as untouched snow or bleached bone, depending on what rhymed best when he got to that part.
The part about the fish heads would be left out of the song completely. They’d started to appear about a week after his rescue and hadn’t stopped since. Jaskier had stopped going to the beach at night after that, as much as it pained him to give up playing music in the moonlight, cool sea breeze in his hair and waves lapping at his feet. He’d had unappreciative audiences before, but none so hostile that they’d threaten him with decapitated heads every morning for weeks on end. One or two heads, sure, but dozens?
That seemed like overkill, in every sense of the word.
This, though...Jaskier stared at his garden, or what had been his garden, in shock. This overshadowed all the previous threats.
Up until now he’d been disposing of the fish heads by himself. He hadn’t said anything to anyone in town about the merman or its pranks, as irritating and vaguely threatening as the whole situation had been. The merman had saved Jaskier’s life, after all, and Jaskier didn’t want to set an angry mob on the poor creature over what might be a simple neighborly dispute about late night noise.
But he had his limits. Not only was the creature’s tormentation of him increasingly aggressive, but there was no way he could clean up this mess on his own.
“You’ve brought this on yourself,” he told the ocean, before setting into town to get back up.
“So. I don’t want to alarm you, but I need your help,” Jaskier said to the alderman.
The alderman glanced at Jaskier over the rim of his beer glass, his expression suggesting that he found it highly unlikely that anything Jaskier could say or do would alarm him.
Jaskier had, after some searching, found the alderman at the tavern. It was a decent tavern for a town so small, with passable wine and good food, and Jaskier usually whiled away his evenings there trying out new songs and earning some extra coin. Sure, the college was covering expenses, but a little extra gold to line his pockets never hurt. Especially now seeing as he’d need to hire help. The college’s bloated budget covered a lot of contingencies, but ‘being harassed by a merman’ wasn’t one of them. They'd probably think his mind had snapped if he tried to send them that expense report.
“There’s a notice board out front where you can post jobs,” said the alderman. He began to turn away.
“Wait! This concerns a delicate matter.” Jaskier leaned closer, his voice hushed, and said, “Please, I don’t want to spread panic, but I have to tell you: there’s a creature that lives off your northern shores. It’s some sort of merfolk, I think, and I know this is hard to believe, but-”
“What? Oh, you mean Geralt,” said the alderman.
“Gold eyes? White hair? Permanent scowl?”
“Yeah. That’s Geralt,” said the alderman. “We pay him to kill drowners, drive away pirates, rescue drowning sailors, that sort of thing. He helps out around the place and we give him first pick of the day’s catch in return. He’s mostly harmless.”
The alderman shrugged. “Well, he’s not human, is he? He’s some kind of mutant, and he doesn’t kill those pirates with harsh words. Still, if you stay out of his way, he’ll stay out of yours.”
“Yes, well,” said Jaskier. “About that…”
In the end, Jaskier didn’t need to spend his coin to hire help. A good chunk of the village showed up out of sheer curiosity, and after the spectacle had worn off, people began cutting up and carrying away parts of the carcass on their own.
“I still don’t see how he managed to get a whale this far inland,” said Jaskier. “Can he even walk on land? Or does he flop around? Not that it matters. This thing weighs too much for any person to carry, legs or no legs.”
“It’s not that big of a whale,” said the alderman. He looked utterly disinterested in the mystery of it all, and he wasn’t the only one. None of the other villagers seemed to share Jaskier’s alarm or confusion. They were less interested in how or why the whale was there than they were in getting their fair share of the meat.
“It’s not that small of a whale, either,” Jaskier pointed out.
“Not sure it’s a whale at all,” said a woman sawing at its stomach. Jaskier knew her from the tavern--Janina, or Jain, or something like it. She’d flirted with him a few times, and he’d flirted back, but he’d been too stressed out about the dead fish situation to consider bringing her back to his cottage.
Well, now she was at his cottage, and far from being shocked by a fish head she was elbow deep in a whale’s gut. Jaskier would be impressed if he wasn’t feeling so queasy.
“It’s big like a whale,” said Jaskier.
“Not that big,” said the alderman.
“Not that big? Not that big? It crushed my bench! Just forget about the roses that were starting to bloom. And the fence... well. The bits that aren’t splintered are shoved up a whale’s ass, now. No, keep that, I don’t want it,” Jaskier said as Janina offered him one of the fence posts that she’d dug out of the carcass.
“Well if you don’t want it, I don’t see why you’re griping about it,” she said, turning back to her butchering. “And it’s not a whale. ‘S got pointy little teeth. Some kind of monster is my bet.”
“Could be a fat dolphin,” chimed in one of the other butchers.
“Naw, too long for that. Wrong type of face, too,” said the alderman.
“Are you serious? Who cares what it is!” said Jaskier. “How did he get it this far up the beach? Why did he get it this far up the beach?”
“Maybe he doesn’t like you,” said Janina. “Funny, that. Never known him to interact with outsiders before. He mostly keeps to himself unless you have fish to pay.”
“Or seashells,” said a small girl gathering up blubber--and for something that supposedly wasn’t a whale, there was an awful lot of blubber. “I paid him my three prettiest seashells to help find Bunbun.”
She held up a small stuffed rabbit--Bunbun, presumably--with pride. And yeah, from the look and smell of it, Jaskier could definitely believe that it had been floating around in seawater for a few days before being rescued.
“Did you ask him to do something and then refuse payment?” asked the alderman. “He doesn’t take kindly to being cheated. If you owe him something, pay up, or it’ll be you we’re scraping off the garden next.”
“I don’t-” started Jaskier, then stopped. He’d assumed his rescue had been an act of charity, but it seemed like local tradition required repayment.
“Where can I buy a nice fish?” he asked. “A really, really nice fish? One that will get this Geralt guy off my back for good?”
Geralt’s favorite fish was tuna, because of course it couldn’t be something small, cheap, or easy to get. According to the locals, though, when they’d split one with him in the past he’d been so overjoyed that he’d actually stopped scowling for a few seconds.
There was no way that Jaskier was risking a second whale, so he spent a good chunk of his extra earnings on an entire tuna. He then spent the remainder of those earnings hiring several fishermen to help haul it from the market to the dock outside the cottage.
“If that doesn’t make you happy, nothing will,” said Jaskier, looking at the enormous offering with grim satisfaction. And because Jaskier was nothing if not a gentleman, he arranged some pretty seashells around it. He wasn’t sure what exactly a merman would find appealing, but, as he stepped back and surveyed his work, he felt confident that he’d presented the meal in a way that would make his old chef back home proud.
Judging by the lack of fish heads or whales the next morning, he’d done a decent job by Geralt’s standards as well.
When he checked the dock--which he walked to barefoot, because he could now without stepping on dead things--he found that the tuna and shells had been thoroughly cleaned away. In their place was a delicately woven necklace, decorated with what looked like bits of shiny shells, a couple shark teeth, and one large, black pearl.
Jaskier picked it up with a grin. As peace offerings went, it wasn’t half-bad. He hadn’t seen a pearl like that before, but if he had to guess he’d wager it would more than pay for the cost of the tuna if he could find the right buyer back in Oxenfurt.
He stuffed it into his pocket and waved to where Geralt was lurking as usual, with only the top of his head and his eyes showing from behind the rocks.
“Thanks!” Jaskier called.
Geralt hesitated, then an arm appeared over the top of the rock and waved back before he slipped down into the ocean.
Jaskier was nothing if not a risk-taker, and so, when the sun set, he headed out to the dock with his lute.
Was pissing off a powerful creature who could probably kill him easier than blinking a bad idea? Sure. But Jaskier couldn’t get the image of the little girl and her Bubun out of his head. Anyone who would search the sea for a child’s lost toy couldn’t be all that bad, right?
And it seemed like it was the lack of payment that’d been pissing Geralt off, not Jaskier’s music, so he set himself up at the edge of the dock and began to run through his scales, warming up his fingers while dipping his toes in the water. When his fingers felt limber he segued into the latest rendition of his princess and merman ballad, trying out a couple of the new verses, and jotting down notes on a spare scrap of parchment as he found lines that worked and ones that needed changed.
“And the creature's eyes glowed as if of liquid gold, and--hm, no. Molten gold? Melting gold?” Jaskier tapped his pen on his lip. “Glowed the gold of setting suns? No, that’s Valdo Marx level tripe, I can do better.”
“You’ve got it wrong.”
Jaskier dropped his pen. He looked around, and for a moment had the sinking feeling that he was neighbors with both a merman and a ghost. Then he spotted it: a couple yards away, in the shadow of the dock, a set of golden eyes shone back at him. It was the closest he’d been to Geralt since his rescue, where Geralt had cradled Jaskier gently to his firm chest, and Jaskier had vomited sea water--and the remnants of dinner--up into his face. When he thought of it that way, he supposed he couldn’t blame the merman for keeping his distance.
Geralt was even more striking now that his features weren’t dripping in vomit. Jaskier fumbled with his lute, trying not to drop that as well. “What? I got something wrong?”
“My eyes. They don’t glow. They reflect light.”
By Melitele’s tits, his voice was deep. Jaskier swallowed, then offered him a shaky grin. “‘And the creature’s eyes reflected ambient light, creating the illusion of heated yellow metal’ doesn’t really fit the meter, I’m afraid. I have to take a few liberties. I am an artist, after all.”
“Oh? Not a princess?”
“Ok, I have to take a lot of liberties.”
Jaskier waited for a moment, but Geralt seemed content to lurk silently in the shadows, staring at him. Or rather, staring at the necklace around his throat.
Jaskier fiddled with it, suddenly uncertain. “Oh! This. Um, if this wasn’t for me, let me know.” He reached around for the tie in back, but Geralt was already shaking his head.
“It’s for you,” he said. “Just wasn’t expecting you to put it on so soon.”
“Why wait? It’s beautiful,” Jaskier said, and if he wasn’t mistaken, Geralt blushed a bit at that.
The rest of the evening was spent in relative peace, with Jaskier continuing to test his song, and Geralt listening quietly, getting closer and closer to the dock until his front half was resting on it, his head pillowed on his forearms, apparently lulled to sleep by the music. Which normally would have been a bit insulting--Jaskier wasn’t singing a lullaby, after all--but in this case it was a bit of a relief. Singing about their counterparts falling wildly in love, all while Geralt’s glowing eyes bored into his, was a bit unnerving. Though if it was awkward at all for Geralt, he hadn’t shown any sign of it.
Jaskier hesitated before leaving. It didn’t seem right to leave him there looking so vulnerable, floating out where anything could take a chunk out of him. Plus, there was something about how soft and--dare he say it--sweet Geralt’s normally tense features were when they were relaxed in sleep. It seemed like a crime to wake him.
Still. The idea of a shark nibbling on him…
Jaskier reached out, fingers hesitating over Geralt’s cheek. From this close he could see the faint shimmer of silver scales scattered across his cheek bones, interrupted by the odd scar, and there was a hint of fins folded up behind his ears and along his throat. He was beautiful, really, in a strange way.
After a moment of thought he moved his hand from Geralt’s cheek to his arm--less chance of getting bitten--and gave it a shake.
“Hey,” he said as Geralt opened his eyes. “Time for bed.”
He hadn’t intended it as an invitation.
He hadn’t thought it had been taken as one, either. Geralt had blinked at him, nodded, and slipped off into the ocean, presumably to whatever sort of lair merfolk lived in. Maybe a cave? Jaskier didn’t know. He could always ask tomorrow, or better yet, write his best guess into the song and wait for Geralt to correct him.
But when he woke up the next morning, it was to a decidedly less-than-empty bed.
“Er,” said Jaskier. Geralt’s face was closer than ever, now, smooshed up against Jaskier’s pillow. A thin line of drool trickled from his mouth, and from the dampness of the pillow, had been doing so for some time.
Jaskier was no stranger to waking up to beautiful men and women in his bed, sometimes with Jaskier having no memory of how they’d gotten there, but usually there was alcohol involved. And usually they were human.
Jaskier glanced down and yelped.
Geralt was awake in an instant. “What? What’s wrong?”
“You have legs!” said Jaskier, pointing towards the offending limbs. “Oh, and you’re naked, ok, I’m just going to look over here now.”
“You’re naked, too,” Geralt pointed out, which--yes, thank you, Jaskier was well aware of that, especially as it was making his reaction to seeing Geralt naked more difficult to hide.
“It’s my bed,” said Jaskier. He wrapped the sheets around his waist and angled himself towards the far wall, where he could study the very nice and very boring still life painting until he could get himself back under control.
“Yes,” said Geralt slowly. “It is your bed.” He waited for a moment. “Is this a human thing? I don’t understand the problem.”
Jaskier took a deep breath. He could keep his equanimity while there was a hot, naked man in bed with him. He could. He just needed a moment.
“For adult humans to be in bed together, naked, that usually means...Well. It usually signals an intent to mate. Do merfolk...you know? I mean, you must, obviously, you reproduce somehow, but do you lay eggs, or…?”
It occurred to Jaskier that this might not be the most polite line of questioning. He glanced over his shoulder to see if Geralt was about to punch him--or bite or claw him, or whatever it was merfolk did when pissed off--only to see Geralt watching him with obvious amusement. He wasn’t exactly smiling, but there was a definite twinkle in his eyes.
“We don’t lay eggs.”
“But we do mate. And I think, in some ways, merfolk and human traditions aren’t so different.”
Geralt’s eyes tracked over Jaskier’s body with obvious intent, and--
Oh. Ok. Jaskier could work with this. He hadn’t started his sabbatical with the intent of having a summer fling with an improbably sexy merman, but hey--he wasn’t one to look a gift horse (gift fish?) in the mouth.
He turned fully around and reached out, allowing himself to touch the scales on Geralt’s face that he’d wanted to stroke so badly the night before. They were softer than he’d expected. Jaskier grinned.
“Alright,” Jaskier said. “But you’re in human form, now. Do you know how this set of, er, equipment, works?”
Geralt smiled back, and Jaskier felt his breath catch because of course the man had the most beautiful smile, too.
“You tell me,” Geralt said.
It turned out he didn’t quite know how to use this set of equipment, but--to Jaskier’s delight--he was a quick learner and good listener.
And if he wasn’t perfect? Well. Jaskier was more than happy to help him practice.
It wasn’t until later that day that Jaskier thought to ask Geralt how he’d gotten his legs. To tell the truth, for a while there he’d gotten too wrapped up in appreciating them to question where they’d come from. Now, though, as he watched Geralt wobble with obvious inexperience--but fierce determination--along the path towards town, he couldn’t help but wonder what the hell was going on.
Geralt made for a surreal picture, all scowls and wobbly knees as he tried to master the art of walking. It didn't help his image that Jaskier’s clothes were comically small on him, and none of his shoes had come even close to fitting. After some searching, Jaskier had managed to find a pair of larger boots that a previous tenant had left, but Geralt outright refused to wear them.
“Walking is hard enough already,” he’d said, after trying one on and promptly kicking it off. “Don’t need to tie up my feet.”
“You’ll get blisters,” Jaskier had pointed out, but Geralt was already out the door, flexing his toes wide like that little bit of extra surface area was going to be what kept him upright.
Geralt hadn't headed off on his own to explore the wide world of dry land, though. He'd puttered around, sticking to Jaskier’s side even when Jaskier announced he had errands to run. Jaskier hadn’t expected Geralt to stick around through the night, much less on a trip to town, but Geralt was full of surprises. And Jaskier wasn’t about to pass up the chance to spend a little more time in his company, and maybe get a few more of his questions answered while he was at it. Questions like: where did those legs come from?
“Don’t even try telling me that you’ve always had those,” said Jaskier, pointing to Geralt’s lower half. “Because I distinctly remember seeing a tail. I didn’t imagine it. I’m not crazy. At least, I don’t think I am.” He poked Geralt’s arm, but no. Still solid. Not a hallucination, though he thought he could be forgiven for wondering if he had gone a bit mad and dreamed this crazy scenario up. Valdo Marx would certainly claim he had if he ever tried to tell people back at Oxenfurt about this.
Geralt rolled his eyes. “You’re not crazy. I have a tail. Got legs because I found a witch willing to sell me a transformation charm.”
“A witch? That sounds dangerous. I mean, what sort of price did you have to pay? Don’t tell me: your soul? Your firstborn?”
“I paid in gold.”
“Oh.” Jaskier would have to spice that part up for the song. “I didn’t know you used gold as currency.”
Geralt shrugged. “I don’t, but the pirates I take down do. I started collecting it when I found out I could trade it to humans for things of actual value.”
“Like a transformation charm?”
“Or a portal that would transport a whale carcass to your doorstep.”
So that’s how he’d done it. Jaskier glared at him. “Proud of yourself for that one, are you?”
Jaskier sighed. “Well, I suppose it worked.”
Geralt smirked. “Sure did.”
By the time they got to the village Geralt was almost steady on his new feet. The man really was a fast learner. But feet or no feet, he was still unmistakably Geralt, and the villagers were starting to notice.
The first couple of people they ran into did double takes. As they moved on to busier streets there were some gasps and even a couple screams, but word of Geralt traveled faster than Geralt himself, and when they got to the main square people had already begun to gather.
Jaskier gave the definitely-not-an-angry-mob his best smile and wave. Geralt scowled at them, and the fins around his throat puffed out. It was probably meant to be a threatening display, but it just made Jaskier want to squish him.
Maybe his reaction was atypical, though. The people around them shrank back, giving Geralt’s fins and spines frightened looks.
“Be nice,” Jaskier whispered, nudging Geralt with his elbow.
“I am. No one’s got any bites out of them yet, do they?”
The alderman approached them slowly, looking nervous.
“Didn’t know you could walk on land,” he said to Geralt, frowning.
“Couldn’t until recently.”
“Oh. Er, are you here to collect on a debt?”
They all stared at each other in silence for a moment, before Jaskier coughed pointedly.
“I’m just in town to buy some food,” he said. “Geralt is accompanying me. I’m thinking we can buy him some pants while we’re here, if you can recommend a tailor.”
“You grew legs and came into town because you want...pants,” said the alderman, slowly.
“I want pants?” said Geralt.
“Yes,” Jaskier said. “Pants. And maybe some shirts.” Not that Jaskier had a problem with the way Geralt was wearing his shirts, unbuttoned and stretched tight across his shoulders, but Jaskier could already spot some of the strained seams beginning to tear.
The alderman hesitated.
“If that’s not a problem?” said Jaskier.
The alderman gave Geralt a look that clearly said that it was, in fact, a problem.
“Silly me, I don’t even know why I asked,” Jaskier continued. “I can’t imagine how it would be a problem to sell goods to the defender of your village. How many people has he saved from drowning, again? How many drowners has he killed?”
“He rescued Bunbun,” called a small voice from the crowd.
“Thank you. And he rescued Bunbun. So,” Jaskier said, smiling, and if he showed too many teeth in his smile...well. Geralt wasn’t the only one that could play at being feral. “Where can we find the tailor?”
Their stop at the tailor’s was short and awkward, with the tailor clearly afraid to approach Geralt and Geralt equally as uncertain about being approached. Jaskier barreled his way through the encounter with a combination of bullying the tailor and jabbing Geralt with an elbow whenever he started to hiss or flare his fins.
They left with the promise of new clothes in a week, and no one was bleeding--unless you counted the soles of Geralt’s feet, which Jaskier didn't because he’d told him to wear boots--so Jaskier considered the trip a solid success.
Buying food was a better experience. Geralt already had a passing acquaintance with most of the fishermen, and seemed to share a special language with them consisting of nods and grunts. And sure, Jaskier ended up with ten times the amount of fish he’d intended on purchasing, but the happy little smile on Geralt’s face when he looked at the giant bag of seafood Jaskier had bought made it all worth it.
After being together all day, Geralt staying for dinner just felt natural. He even helped prepare the meal, though he was skeptical about Jaskier’s whole ‘cook the fish before eating it’ plan. And since he was already over, and it had gotten late, it seemed silly to say goodbye when it was so much more convenient--not to mention fun--for Geralt to spend the night in Jaskier’s bed.
The next morning found Geralt still snug in Jaskier’s bed, drooling away. Jaskier couldn’t say he minded, even if the experience was quite different than his other trysts, who usually left before the first night was over.
Normally he might be feeling antsy about a lover staying so long, but Jaskier needed Geralt to stick around. He couldn’t eat all that fish by himself, after all.
Geralt’s transformation charm seemed to adapt easily as Geralt transitioned between land and water. Jaskier watched with fascination--and okay, a bit of admiration as well--as Geralt dove off the dock and resurfaced with a splash of his tail.
A splash that, in what Jaskier was fairly certain was no accident, landed squarely in Jaskier’s face.
“Hey! Watch the lute!” he said, checking to see if water had gotten on the wood.
“Sorry,” said Geralt. “Didn’t mean to splash your instrument.”
“But you did mean to splash me?”
“Yeah, I thought so,” said Jaskier. He began to play, his feet dangling in the water as usual, and as usual Geralt listened, though he seemed more at ease now than he had in the past. Instead of sitting still and staring, he flitted around, diving underwater occasionally to pick up a clam or snail that caught his eye.
By the time Jaskier was done playing there was a substantial pile of critters to eat, and Geralt was floating on his back, watching the clouds drift by and occasionally commenting on Jaskier’s narrative choices.
“I still think it’s silly that he gives up the ocean for the princess,” Geralt complained as Jaskier packed up his notes and started back to the cottage. “She lives right next to the sea. Why not keep both?”
“Because it’s a love story,” Jaskier said, not for the first time that day. “You need drama! Conflict! Sacrifice! It makes their romance more intense.”
“Makes their romance more stupid,” muttered Geralt, popping a snail into his mouth.
Jaskier tried not to gag. “You sure you don’t want to cook those, first?”
“We could sautee them in butter.”
That made Geralt pause. He wasn’t sold on the concept of cooking, but they had discovered that he was a big fan of butter.
“I’ll try it,” he allowed. “And see? That’s compromise. That’s what real love stories are made of.”
“Oh? You’re a love expert, now?”
Geralt gave him a soft smile. “I think I know a bit about it, yeah.”
His gaze was strangely intense, and Jaskier found himself turning away before he could blush.
“Well, love expert, go fish out a frying pan and some butter and we’ll see how well your compromise works.”
Snails were, apparently, better tasting with butter, though they lost some of their texture in the cooking process. Jaskier had to take Geralt’s word on that one since he flat out refused to eat one raw, compromise be damned.
Geralt didn’t spend the entire week at Jaskier’s cottage. He slipped off into the sea occasionally, though he’d always be back before nightfall. Still, he was over often enough that when the clothes they’d ordered for him arrived, it made sense to store them in Jaskier’s dresser.
It took Jaskier over a month to notice that Geralt’s clothes weren’t the only things that had migrated to his place. Interesting sea shells, bits and bobs from what Jaskier could only guess were shipwrecks, and a collection of combs were among the strange items Geralt dragged back and stuffed away in corners of the cottage. Jaskier couldn’t bring himself to protest the intrusion. The more stuff Geralt had at his place, the more time he’d spend with Jaskier.
He drew the line at having his bathtub filled with lobsters, though.
“Come on, Geralt, I almost sat on one! I could have lost bits that both of us would miss.”
“You would have been fine,” said Geralt. He frowned at the tub. “You’re sure this wasn’t made for storing lobsters? It seemed perfect for it.”
“No! It’s for getting clean.”
“But you’re right next to the ocean!”
“Exactly! Why not store your lobsters there? Anyways, the sea is too salty to bathe in.”
“So is your tub, now.”
In the end they bought a second tub. Any hope Jaskier might have had of dining on lobster every night were dashed, however. These ones were, apparently, pets.
It didn’t take long for the villagers to start coming to Jaskier’s cottage when they needed Geralt for something. Jaskier supposed he hadn’t been the most discreet about his relationship with Geralt. They’d been going into town together more frequently, and the last evening they’d spent at the tavern Geralt had been holding Jaskier’s hand. At least, Jaskier was pretty sure he had, though that whole night was a bit fuzzy. He’d gone with the intention of introducing Geralt to beer, only to find that, while Geralt very much liked beer, it didn’t affect him as strongly as it did humans.
His attempt to outdrink Geralt had ended with them having to rent a room upstairs, and now that Jaskier thought of it they’d probably made enough noise the next morning that it didn’t really matter whether Geralt had held his hand in public or not.
The contracts the villagers brought Geralt were pretty tame for the most part. Kill a few drowners here, chase off some sirens there, nothing Geralt couldn’t easily handle. The ones that got Jaskier on edge, though, were the pirate contracts.
“I don’t like not being able to follow you,” said Jaskier one night as Geralt prepared to go take care of a problem ship. “What if you get stabbed and I’m not there?”
“What would you do if I got stabbed and you were there? Take notes for your next song?” Geralt asked.
“Well, it would make for a good song,” said Jaskier. “You never give me enough details to do anything with when you go places without me.”
The next day Jaskier sent in an order to Oxenfurt’s library for a delivery of their best medical texts. He wasn’t sure how much would be applicable to merfolk biology, but it couldn’t hurt.
It wasn’t until the heat of summer started to fade and leaves began to turn colors that Jaskier realized how much time had passed. It seemed like just yesterday he’d been walking into the cottage for the first time, and now he was coming home--at some point, Jaskier wasn’t sure when, the cottage had become ‘home’--to a picture of domestic bliss. Well, apart from the bit where Geralt seemed to be assaulting one of the door frames with a hammer. He was presumably trying to fix it, though Jaskier wasn’t sure how much, if any, progress he was making.
“What did that poor door frame ever do to you?” Jaskier asked, squeezing past Geralt into the kitchen so he could put down the shopping.
“It’s drafty. Going to bend it back into shape.”
Geralt blinked at him. “So that it’s not drafty anymore. It’ll be cold soon. Don’t want snow getting in.”
“That’ll be the next tenant’s problem,” said Jaskier, shrugging. “Leave it for the landlord. Now, what do you think of this cloak? I think it looks dashing, but I don’t want it to look too dashing, you know? Like I’m trying too hard?”
He shrugged on the cloak and twirled for effect, but stopped when he saw the confusion on Geralt’s face.
“What’s wrong?” Jaskier asked.
“You’re not going to be here in the winter?”
“Hm? No, of course not. I work in Oxenfurt. I’ve talked about it quite a bit, actually. Don’t tell me you weren’t listening.”
“I was listening. Oxenfurt is where Valdo Marx is.”
“Ugh, yeah. That bastard,” said Jaskier, wrinkling his nose.
“The offer to take him out still stands.”
“Let’s call that Plan B, after humiliating him and destroying his career, alright?”
“Alright,” said Geralt reluctantly. “If you’re not going to murder him, though, why do you want to go back?”
“I don’t want to go back, not really. But it’s my job. In a few weeks class starts back up, and I need to be there.”
“But,” Geralt started, then stopped, looking lost.
“What is it?”
“I don’t want to live in Oxenfurt,” Geralt said.
Ah. The upcoming goodbye. Jaskier knew their summer fling was just that: a fling. Brief and beautiful and on borrowed time from the very beginning. This wasn’t news, but suddenly being confronted by it was more difficult that he’d anticipated.
Jaskier knew he loved easily and quickly compared to most people. Even one-night stands stung him a bit when they ended. But this…
This felt different. He’d gotten used to spending his days watching Geralt nap in the sun, and scowl at seagulls, and walk with increasing confidence into town. What would mornings be like without Geralt there to drool on his pillow? Meals would be so boring without Geralt’s constant experimentation with human food, and without his insistence that Jaskier try merfolk food as well. Jaskier had eventually caved and tried some raw tuna, and he was willing to admit that it wasn’t as bad as he’d been anticipating, but he still refused to eat the live snails.
His throat felt tight, and he tried to smile.
“You don’t have to move to Oxenfurt,” said Jaskier. “Don’t think you could, really, unless you wanted to live on land full time. They have rivers, but they’re not saltwater. Or are you a saltwater and freshwater merman? Is that a thing? Nevermind, nevermind--either way, the rivers there are gross. You wouldn’t want to swim in them.”
“I don’t want to live on land all the time, though,” said Geralt.
Jaskier nodded, doing the best to ignore the tiny, irrational part of him that had been hoping Geralt would want that. “I wouldn’t ask you to,” he said.
“Then what are you asking me to do?”
“Nothing,” said Jaskier.
Geralt started pacing. “I don’t understand. You’re going to Oxenfurt?”
Jaskier blinked at him. “Why would you move with me?”
Geralt stared at him like he’d grown a second head.
“Because we’re married,” he said.
Over the course of the summer, Jaskier and Geralt had found several differences in merfolk and human culture. There was the cuisine, of course, but there were other things, too, like merfolk’s insistence on grooming one another every day. Jaskier had deeply offended Geralt the first day when he hadn’t offered to comb Geralt’s hair and help him wash, apparently, and it had taken him a solid week of trying to figure out why Geralt got sulky every morning after breakfast before he finally got the story out of him.
There were some differences in body language as well. Geralt used his fins and tail--when he had it--to express his feelings in ways that didn’t translate well into human body language. And some human customs, like smiling and saying ‘hi’ when first meeting someone, didn’t seem to have an equivalent in merfolk. Though that might just be Geralt being a surly bastard. It was hard to tell.
In general, however, they’d found far more similarities than differences, which made it all the more startling when a big culture gap tripped them up.
For instance: marriage.
“But you accepted my necklace,” said Geralt. His fists were clenched, and his fins were flared in a way that Jaskier had learned meant he was feeling defensive.
“I thought it was a peace offering after all those threats you’d been giving me!”
“The fish heads staked out on my front lawn? Remember those?”
“Those were trophies! I was showing you my hunting prowess. They were courting gifts!”
“Oh.” Jaskier stared at him. “I thought you were mad that I didn’t pay you back for saving me from drowning. When you sent me the whale...”
Geralt was slowly turning an alarming shade of red. “You told me one fish head wasn’t enough. You challenged me to prove my interest, so I brought you a killer whale! Do you have any idea how far I went for that? How hard it was to kill? And it worked! Or I thought it did. You gave me a courting gift back.”
“Wait, so it was a whale?”
Geralt paused. “What did you think it was?”
“Maybe a fat dolphin?”
Geralt’s eyes flashed. “A fat dolphin? A fat dolphin? ”
“Anyway, that’s not the point. The fish I left you was payment for having saved me from drowning!”
“I don’t charge drowning victims for their lives!”
“Well, how was I supposed to know that? You were just a shadowy figure in the water up until then.”
“You must have had some interest, though. You sang to me every night after I rescued you.”
Jaskier opened his mouth, then shut it. He hadn’t been singing to Geralt. He’d been practicing his songs, and Geralt had just happened to be there. He found himself suddenly reluctant to say so, though--Geralt looked lost in a way Jaskier had never seen before, and didn’t want to see again.
He sat down, and took a deep breath. “So,” he said, slowly, “in your eyes you courted me with gifts, and I signaled interest by giving you a gift as well. And picking up the necklace meant we were married? Just like that?”
“Putting on the necklace meant we were married,” said Geralt. He deflated, sliding down to sit in the chair opposite Jaskier’s. “Gifting it was a sign I was serious. If you were interested in exploring something serious as well, you’d have kept it for the duration of the courtship, then put it on when you were ready to commit. If you weren’t interested, you’d have left it.”
“Oh. I...didn’t know.”
“Yeah. Gathered that much.” Geralt looked down at his hands. “Should have known--you put it on so fast. I thought maybe you just really liked me.”
They sat in silence for a moment.
“I really like you now?” Jaskier said.
Geralt nodded. “But not enough to marry me.”
“I didn’t say that! It’s just so fast. And I have my job, and I--”
Geralt stood up suddenly and headed for the door.
“Geralt, come on now. Don’t-”
But Geralt was already out the door and, by the sound of his footsteps, hightailing it to the ocean.
Jaskier sighed. For someone who fearlessly took on pirate ships and drowner nests all by himself, Geralt could be incredibly shy of conflict.
Geralt didn’t come back that afternoon, or evening, which left Jaskier plenty of time to think. And to stew.
When the sun began to set and there was still no sign of Geralt, Jaskier grabbed his cloak and stomped off to the dock.
“Do merfolk typically toss their proposal necklaces onto the ground and just hope their intended stumbles upon it and picks it up the next day?” Jaskier said, taking his normal seat at the end of the dock. He couldn’t see Geralt, but he’d bet his salary that the merman was sulking behind the same rock that he’d favored before all this had begun.
Silence, except for the waves.
“Because my guess would be that they don’t. They probably offer it to their intended by hand, right? Possibly with some sort of words accompanying the act? Tell me I’m wrong.”
A pair of gold eyes peeked over the edge of the rock.
“You’re not wrong,” said Geralt.
“And you didn’t do that...why?”
A sullen shrug was his only answer.
“You know what really helps communicate your intent? Communication! With words! Why wouldn’t you just tell me what you wanted? We could have--oh. I think I just figured out why the princess and her merman don’t immediately get married. He could have sold his voice for--no, you know what, this isn't the time. I’ll circle back to that. Anyway, you should have talked to me. But I suppose I should have talked to you, too.”
Jaskier held his hand out towards the rock, and Geralt reluctantly swum over to take it. Jaskier gripped him tightly--partly to offer comfort, and partly to make sure he didn’t swim off halfway through the conversation again.
“I shouldn’t have assumed that we were on the same page about this being just a summer thing. I should have taken the time to talk to you directly about it. I guess I didn’t want to. Things were going good, you know? I didn’t want to ruin it by looking at it too closely. But here we are.”
“Here we are,” said Geralt.
“Don’t give me that look. I’m interested in you! I am! But I can’t just leave my job and live in a rural village for the rest of my life.”
“Just like the merman couldn’t give up the ocean,” said Geralt. “I didn’t realize how much you loved your job.”
“What? Gods, no, I hate my job. Stuffy faculty meetings will be the death of me. I do like money, though. I couldn’t rent the cottage or buy you all that fish without it.”
“I already proved that I can provide you with food, though,” said Geralt, irritably. “I caught you a whale.”
“And a very lovely whale it was. But what about shelter?”
“Dunno. How many piles of gold does the cottage cost per month? Three? Four?”
Jaskier blinked. “You measure gold by the pile?”
“How else would you measure it?”
“Geralt. How many pieces of gold do you have, exactly?”
Geralt shrugged. “Never bothered to count. It’d take too long. When the pirate ships have trunks of it I just put them in my spare cave.”
Jaskier took a deep breath. Then another.
“Alright. Okay. So, money probably wouldn’t be a problem.”
The question, then, was what would he do with his life if money was no object? He’d thought about the question hypothetically, but facing it in actuality was a different matter.
Jaskier fiddled absently with his necklace--something that had become a habit when his fingers were idle--but stopped when he noticed Geralt watching his movements closely.
“I’m going to take this off, and I need you not to panic, okay?” Jaskier said. He untied the strands holding the necklace in place, and turned it over in his hands, really looking at it for the first time since picking it up.
“Did you make this yourself?” he asked.
“Wouldn’t be a betrothal necklace if I hadn’t.”
“It really is beautiful,” said Jaskier. The weaving on it was incredibly intricate, and since it was a special necklace Jaskier was willing to bet the black pearl in its center was rarer than he’d originally thought. “It seems like a shame for something so important to be worn by accident. If it’s alright with you, I’d like to do what you said merfolk traditionally do, and keep it for the duration of the courtship. Then later, if we decide to make this formal, putting it on will really mean something.”
Geralt looked at him, eyes wide and fins twitching. “The duration of the courtship? Does that mean…”
“No more fish heads,” Jaskier said firmly. “But...how would you feel about a trip along the coast? I’ve always enjoyed traveling. We can bring a pile of gold, and earn any extra we need by playing at inns or taking monster contracts.”
“For how long?” Geralt asked.
“Until we feel like stopping? We can always buy the cottage and winter here if we feel like resting.”
Geralt was silent for a minute. “And your job?”
Jaskier grinned. “I think I can live without the world of academia. Though if I’m quitting, there’s something I’d like to do first.”
Watching Valdo Marx squirm on his office floor, trussed up in ropes and sat on by Geralt, was just as satisfying as Jaskier had imagined it would be.
“Mmmph!” Marx said, his voice muffled by the resignation letter rolled up and stuffed in his mouth.
“You know, I almost don’t hate you when you’re like this,” said Jaskier, staring down at Marx thoughtfully. “It’s the lack of a voice, I think. Makes you so much more palatable.”
“You sure you don’t want me to kill him?” Geralt asked. He was sort of smiling as he said it, and Jaskier was pretty sure he was joking, but there was no reason to let Marx know that.
Marx’s eyes had gotten wide, and he’d stopped squirming and started shivering with terror. Again, not a bad look on him.
“Naw, let’s just leave him here to think about the evils of plagiarism. There’s a faculty meeting later today. Someone will come looking for him when he doesn’t show up, and they’ll find him along with my note. That is, assuming people notice his absence. If, say, he was a forgettable hack, his absence might go unnoticed and he’d have to wait for the night janitor to get untied.”
Marx’s eyes bulged, and his face turned a deeper shade of red, and yes--that was the high note Jaskier wanted to leave on. That was the image he wanted to treasure in his mind’s eye as his last Oxenfurt experience.
“Alright, play time’s over,” Jaskier said to Geralt. “Let’s get you back to the water.”
“Finally,” Geralt muttered. He got off Marx and started to leave, but not before giving the man one last threatening flare of his fins.
Marx’s eyes somehow, impossibly, widened further.
Jaskier grinned, and found that once he’d started he couldn’t stop grinning for their entire walk off campus. Well, it was more of a sneak than a walk, really. Jaskier didn’t fancy some hysterical staff member calling security on Geralt, and since he’d cut classes plenty as a student, he was familiar with the best routes to avoid detection.
The grin persisted all the way down to the docks and lasted the entire time they were boarding their ship. By the time they were setting sail, Jaskier’s face was starting to hurt, and Geralt looked torn between being amused and concerned.
“You know, we’re just wasting money on spots on these ships,” Geralt said as they pulled out of the harbor. “It’d be easier to just swim.”
“You can swim, sure, but if you haven't noticed I’m missing fins and gills,” said Jaskier.
Geralt shrugged. “Could always get a second transformation charm. They’re pretty cheap: only a couple piles of gold.”
Jaskier laughed. Geralt had been thrilled to find out that buying the cottage from the landlord cost only part of a pile of gold, which was how Jaskier discovered that Geralt’s measure of a pile was larger than he’d anticipated. Hiring some locals to tend to the garden and watch after the lobsters while they were away had been such a small measure of Geralt’s fortune that it was hardly even pocket change, even with him paying generous rates.
“Oh, only a couple piles of gold? It’s practically free! Let’s pick one up on our way out,” Jaskier said. There’d be time later to teach Geralt the value of currency. Maybe he could teach him during their trip.
Though in some ways it was more of a journey than a trip. It might even be called an adventure. They’d be seeing new cities, meeting new people, fighting (or watching Geralt fight) new creatures. Jaskier was going to write so many songs.
And when they got tired and came home? Well. Jaskier looked at Geralt, and his grin softened into a smile, which Geralt returned.
He still had that necklace. And after he put it on, they’d have a honeymoon to plan.