Actions

Work Header

time to wonder, do I dare?

Work Text:

Witcher Brothers Rare and Secondhand Books & Other Curiosities celebrates its fortieth anniversary in the early days of spring. It’s the perfect time for new beginnings, Yennefer and Triss keep reminding him with hopeful-slash-calculating smiles amid the celebration and the hullabaloo that a fortieth anniversary deserves.

Geralt knows that, for a bookshop owner, he’s never been all that appreciative of things like metaphor or simile or trite aphorism, but whatever this is, it’s particularly heavy-handed. They’re either becoming less subtle, or perhaps the finer points of literary and rhetorical devices found in all of the books he handles on a daily basis have finally wormed their way into his consciousness via osmosis.

Could go either way, really.

As he walks around the shop, dodging streamers and nodding at long-time patrons celebrating with good champagne, Geralt can’t quite believe that it’s been ten years now since he took over the reins of Witcher Brothers from Vesemir. His adopted father still works with them, albeit now entirely in acquisitions, literally scouring the globe for rare and unusual books (and other assorted odds and ends, emphasis on the odds, at Lambert’s loud and unceasing insistence). The shop is a year younger than Geralt, but by the time he found himself in Vesemir’s care at the tender age of six, it was already thriving, anchoring the corner of Kaedwen Street and Aedirn Avenue, and slowly becoming a pillar of the surrounding community.

He’s grown up in this shop, chasing his brothers through its warren of rooms that stretches back farther than one would expect when viewing it from the street, hiding among its shelves and display tables, clattering up and down its narrow staircases, trying to climb the floor-to-ceiling bookcases. It’s become a part of him. Him and Eskel and Lambert, Vesemir’s three boys, whom he brought to the shop and set loose among old books. He had warned them to be careful with the more fragile ones, of course, but otherwise, he had let them roam and read at will, seeking the comfort and connection that can be found by temporarily leaving this world behind for another one.

They had all gone off separately to college, but then they all found their way back over the years. They had spoken about it before, huddled over a table with a good bottle of scotch in the spirits bar on the other side of the street, about how the shop had a peculiar sort of gravity to it, a pull that they were all helpless to resist. Even Lambert, the one with the wandering foot, who’s slowly starting to become acquainted with Vesemir’s more squirrelly worldwide contacts, had felt the call pulling him back home.

(And I figured, well, I could do worse in this life than running a bookstore with you two jackasses, he had said, swirling around the dregs of his scotch before knocking it back.

You don’t run shit and you know it, Geralt replied, topping off his tumbler while Eskel devolved into helpless giggles.)

Change comes over Witcher Brothers steadily, gradually, water slowly wearing down a stone, rather than a hurricane uprooting everything in its path. But it does come, and everyone leaves their mark.

Eskel, willing to come help Geralt manage the shop, but unwilling to give up his business of restoring old weapons and making replica ones, simply took over one of the back rooms for his consultations, while continuing to do most of the actual restoration work at the warehouse converted into a studio space that he shared with five other artists. Worry not, Geralt, he had said with a hearty clap to Geralt’s shoulder, you’ll hardly notice we’re here. He makes allowing him the space worthwhile: if the customer decides to hire him, they have to buy a book as well.

(They usually leave with four or five. There always has been a top-notch selection to choose from at Witcher Brothers. You may not know it when you walk in, but we have what you need, so their motto goes.)

Then Lambert, returning from parts unknown, had insisted on adding the “Other Curiosities” to the shop title, displaying an astounding amount of insight into the clientele of secondhand book stores.

“You know what you need to sell, Geralt?” he had said, wandering around the shop for the first time in years, idly picking up books at random before setting them down someplace completely different, slowly driving Geralt mad. “Notebooks and other stationary shit like that. Don’t give me that skeptical look. There’s a large overlap between people who like to read or collect old books and people who like to write. Sell those notebooks that are all aesthetic and shit? With like, Van Gogh paintings on the cover and gilded edges? They’ll fly off the shelves.”

“This is a book store, Lambert. Books.”

Lambert dismissed that instantly. “Notebooks are books.” He grabbed Geralt by the shoulders and gave him a shake, looked him straight in the eye, made sure he listened, not just heard. “I know you don’t like embarking on new stuff. I know you get that from Vesemir. I know you’re worried about the risk. But you gotta trust me on this one, brother.”

Geralt did. And he hated to admit it, but Lambert had been right. Which, of course, had only encouraged him.

“You know what else you need to sell? Weird shit. Like, weird art prints and novelty mugs and tote bags with book-related sayings on them and, like, skulls that are actually candles and shit. We sell those things, especially stuff that local artists make? It’ll draw people in, Geralt, mark my words.”

He had been right then, too.

And then there was Triss.

Given how seamlessly she has slotted into the routine of the shop, it’s hard for Geralt to believe sometimes that it’s only been three years since Triss had walked in, her hand tucked in the crook of Yennefer’s elbow, and unceremoniously announced that she had just quit her job at their law firm and you could use some help around here, couldn’t you, Geralt? Her eyes, wide and guileless, combined with Yennefer’s steely stare over her shoulder, just daring Geralt to say no, had worked their magic. Thus it was that Witcher Brothers hired its first actual non-family-member employee.

(“You know, Geralt,” Lambert had said, toward the end of Triss’ first week, “I thought it would be weird, working with your ex-wife’s new girlfriend, but you know? It’s really not, not at all.”

Once again, Geralt found himself agreeing with Lambert. He might be willing to consider the possibility that Lambert had gotten wiser as he had gotten closer to forty.)

Within days, Geralt had realized that hiring Triss had been the best decision he could have possibly made. She took over a significant chunk of customer service responsibilities, freeing up Geralt to work on pricing books and making offers when people dropped off books to sell. She expanded their social media presence, meaning Witcher Brothers now had a social media presence, and Geralt learned more about hashtags and likes and follows and retweets than he ever wanted to know. She handled their advertising, working with Eskel to redesign their brand. She introduced herself to every other shop owner on this block of Kaedwen Street, convinced them that, as occupants of historic buildings, they needed to band together and market themselves as a whole as a quaint pocket of charm right in the convenient heart of modern downtown Cintra.

She had been there less than three weeks.

As a result, Geralt had been more than willing to listen when Triss had cautiously approached him six months after that with the idea of transforming the empty fifth floor--with its multiple skylights and floor-to-ceiling windows along the exterior walls--into a space for a selection of the best flowers from her home garden

“We can sell them individually, of course, but what I really want to do is match a particular flower to every book purchase made in the shop,” she had gushed to him, her smile as bright as the dangling sunflower earrings she had worn that day. “It would be so perfect for our brand new Instagram!”
 
Geralt had needed very little convincing about uniqueness and the good business sense of the idea. As a bonus, it would make Triss happy, which would make Yennfer happy, which would keep Geralt content. (He was on good and amicable terms with Yen; their relationship had weathered the transition from spouses to ex-spouses co-parenting their daughter to friends with surprising grace, but it was still best to try to stay on her good side.) 

Triss had been right, of course: much to Geralt’s bemusement, Instagram loved Witcher Brothers and its dedication to #aesthetic.

He remembers that day now, the last major expansion Witcher Brothers had undertaken, as he gathers the extra brochures detailing the history of the shop that Eskel had printed up special and sets them in a neat stack by the cash register. 

Geralt has gotten used to answering questions about the building, about the shop, about his family and all that they’ve brought to the neighborhood, but the brochures are his favorite idea so far. He’s never really been the talkative type. Now he can hand interested customers a sleek and informative brochure, and he won’t even need to say anything.

The anniversary party is winding down, but he can still hear Ciri’s shrieks and Dara’s delighted laughter as Vesemir takes turns swirling them both around in something that could possibly be considered a foxtrot. Some old jazz album that Yennefer had unearthed spins on an old victrola that they have never been able to sell, not even to the hipster crowd.

He’s brushing stray pieces of confetti off the counter and into the trash can when Yennefer and Triss sidle up to him, arm-in-arm, twin expectant expressions on their faces.

“I know those expressions. You’re about to say, ‘Geralt, we have an idea,’ and I’m going to end up doing something ridiculous to the shop. Lay it on me, then,” he sighs.

He can tell Yen is gearing up for a spirited discussion, but Triss heads her off with a gentle squeeze of her hand. “We’d just like to throw this out there as a possibility. The next logical area of expansion for us. We’re not asking you to start construction tomorrow, we’re just asking that you think about it.”

“This is going to require construction?” Geralt has a sinking feeling that he knows what’s coming.

“Only a little bit!” Triss hastily attempts to reassure him. “There are high ceilings in here already, but it might be nice to open up part of the second floor to make it even higher, and maybe, while we’re sprucing up the second floor, put in a coffee bar? Some tables and comfy chairs and a little lounge?”

Ah, there it is. As he has feared. “No.”

“Geralt!” Yen throws her free hand up in the air. “You’re not even going to consider it? It’s a great idea! People can buy some coffee or tea, maybe a pastry, sit in a goddamn nice chair and read a little bit of a book. And maybe they’ll like the book they’re reading as they sip their damn good coffee and they’ll decide to buy another book, and maybe another coffee, to-go this time, and look at all this money you’ll be taking in.”

“I don’t really want people to linger”--he resolutely ignores Yen’s incredulous what?!--“especially not if they’re going to be doing it with coffee or tea, which can very easily be spilled, and then I’m having to knock down the price of that first edition of Great Expectations a couple hundred dollars because now it’s got a coffee stain on the front cover.”

“Okay, okay,” Yen says, disentangling her hand from Triss’s, so she can have full gesturing capability. “We have so many points to make here, but I have got to return to this not wanting people to linger bullshit. You do realize that the longer people are in here, the more opportunities there will be for something to catch their eye, which means they might find something that they hadn’t even considered but that suddenly they realize they can’t live without. That’s like your goddamn shop motto or whatever. I know you don’t particularly like dealing with customers, I get it, no one does, but it’s not like you walk around holding their hands while they browse anyway. So let people do their shopping thing, let them buy a coffee, if it doesn’t have a to-go lid, make them stay in the designated coffee area, keep the really expensive volumes far away. Not a problem. Next objection?”

“I don’t want to have to hire a barista.”

“I’ll do it!” Ciri chirps as she wanders over, hugging first Geralt, then Yen, and then Triss.

“You have school,” Geralt and Yennefer both say, nearly in unison.

“Not in the summer! It’ll look good on my college applications: mornings doing filing at my mom’s law firm, afternoons making coffee at my dad’s rare bookshop. Colleges love kids who are industrious. Don’t you want me to get into a good college?”

Wow,” Triss mutters under her breath. “That was next level.”

“Thanks, Triss.” Ciri beams up at her and then gives her another hug.

“Do you even know how to make coffee?” Geralt inwardly punches himself as he asks this, he’s engaging in this lunacy, which has now embroiled their daughter, he needs to cut this off instead of drawing this out.

“Dad, please. You still call it maraschino instead of macchiato. I’ll learn! I already follow like, six different people on Instagram and Twitter who do latte art, they love giving tutorials.”

“You’re not going to be the barista,” Yen says, to a chorus of overly-dramatic groans from Ciri. “It’s possible you could be a barista, helping out, but you’re not going to be the only one. We’d need someone with a little more experience, love, but maybe they could teach you the ropes.”

“There’s not going to be any ropes because there’s not going to be any baristas because there’s not going to be any coffee bars in my bookshop!”

“Dad--”

“Geralt, look--”

“Wouldn’t we need permits and things, if we’re now selling drinks and food? We’d have to get that taken care of, and also--”

“Geralt. Please. I’m Yennefer Vengerberg of de Vries, Glevissig, and Vengerberg, L.L.P. I’m one of the best lawyers in the city, no, the state. You don’t think I can handle the permitting department of the City of Cintra?”

“You definitely can, love,” Triss breaks in, lightly kissing Yen’s cheek.

“Thanks, dear. Next objection, Geralt? I’m not hearing objections that are meritorious.”

“Aside from the fact that I’m in charge here and I said no? How about the fact that there are no fewer than five other places on this very block that serve coffee, and if we start doing it, they might riot?”

That actually gives Yennefer pause, and Geralt sees her running through the list of their neighbors. Renfri, the owner of Creyden’s Confectionary three buildings down, would be least likely to object, as her shop sells such a large volume of candy and pastries and other sweets that a coffee bar in Witcher Brothers wouldn’t do much damage to her bottom line. But the others--the old time ice cream shop and soda fountain, the gourmet coffee shop, the tea room, and the French bistro up by the park that has won the Best Coffee in Cintra Award four years running? Coffee and/or tea is a staple for all of them, and they all do brisk business in serving shoppers on Kaedwen Street who have first stopped by Witcher Brothers for a book or five and then found themselves thirsty. There’s a fragile peace among all of them, with the block getting just enough traffic to support each business. None of them would look kindly on what they would, correctly, see as an encroachment on their territory.

“Okay,” Yennefer begins, clearly hating every word that’s about to come out of her mouth. “That’s actually legit.” 

Geralt, despite very much wanting to raise an eyebrow and perhaps do a little gloating, keeps his face impassive. He’s made his point, and there’s no need to further antagonize Yen.

“We would need to gauge the reactions of our neighbors before moving forward with this plan, which, Triss, you would be well suited for,” she continues.

“I could have dinner with Renfri, send up a test balloon before approaching anyone else,” Triss readily agrees, her curls bouncing as she nods. “It’s been awhile since we’ve caught up, and I always enjoy seeing her, she makes sure to bring me some of her saltwater taffy every time we get together, so I could meet with her and accomplish many things. I’d be subtle about the inquiries, don’t worry.”

Yennefer nods, rallying a little bit after having the wind knocked from her sails.

“It was a good idea, Mom,” Ciri offers.

“It is a good idea, Yen,” Geralt agrees. “And one to keep in mind as a possibility for the future. But not for right now.”

“It’s the next step forward, Geralt,” Yen says, reaching out to punch him lightly on the shoulder. “You know it is.”

He does know that it is. It may not happen next month, or even next year, but it’s inevitable.

Later, when it’s time to head home, he stands at the counter and shrugs his leather jacket on and wonders: what will his enduring contribution to Witcher Brothers be? Maybe it’s enough that he gathers everyone together, that he hears their proposals, that he listens to how they want to change the way things are, and then he greenlights their ideas.

Well. Most of their ideas, anyway.

As he locks up that night he looks around. He looks up toward the park where they’re having some kind of family movie night (the first of the season now that it’s no longer so cold at night), down towards the bars on Aedirn Avenue where happy hour is in full swing, around at the street lights twinkling and the tourists wandering and the neighboring businesses, most of which have been open for decades, just like Witcher Brothers. He thinks about how change comes, even to Kaedwen Street. He cannot hope to stop it. He can only hope that the tides don’t sweep him away.

 

*

 

First encounters can be a funny thing. Sometimes you lay eyes on someone and you instantly know that you’re going to change each other’s lives.

That’s how it had been with Yennefer.

Geralt, a month into the first year of his MBA program, had heard a rumor that the law school library was a quieter place to study than the business school one. And it had been. Until Yennefer stormed down the sweeping staircase and demanded, at the top of her lungs, to know if anyone had any apple juice. Stunned, by the request as well as the audacity and the beauty of the person making it, Geralt had dug the extra bottle he had with him out of his bag and tossed it to her. She caught it easily.

“You don’t go here,” she had said, eyes narrowed, examining him carefully while she turned the bottle over and over in her hands, her nails tapping a short, staccato rhythm on the lid.

“Business student,” he had replied.

She raised an eyebrow. He responded in kind. They started dating two days later, and nearly two years after that, they attended their respective graduations on a Saturday morning and married that evening.

Later Ciri came into their lives, a frightened child, entirely alone in the universe but for them and she intertwined their lives forever. The marriage hadn’t lasted, although they were lucky to have settled into a deep and close friendship, bound together by their desire to give their little girl everything.

A chance encounter, an instant connection, at least three lives irrevocably altered. 

But sometimes you see someone from a distance, you smirk at their misfortune, and you dismiss them as irrelevant, only for them to waltz into your life a week later and, over the course of the next three months, completely upend it so that you’re drowning in blue eyes and the hum of a violin’s bow and the voice of everything you didn’t know you were missing murmuring in your ear.

That’s how it is with Jaskier.

 

*

 

Kaedwen Street has a lot going for it. There’s an eclectic mix of shops and restaurants. The largest park in Cintra is a block away. Skyscrapers are two blocks in the other direction. The light rail runs along by the park. There are bus routes galore. Something is pretty much always happening, and if something’s not happening on Kaedwen Street, then something’s happening on Aedirn Avenue, with its string of hipster bars nestled next to funky art galleries and bistros boasting cuisine from fifty different cultures.

But unless you’re standing right at the doorway to a shop or restaurant, close enough that you can hear what’s being piped over the stereo system, you don’t hear a lot of music.

It’s not something Geralt’s ever really contemplated before. Music, to him, is just background noise, really. He’s never felt particularly strongly about it in any sense; he just knows he doesn’t like it to be loud. Whatever it is, he can tune it out and continue on with his day as long as it’s not loud. Music is just . . . there. He can take it or leave it.

He’s sweeping the stairs leading up to the front door on an afternoon in early May when a commotion down by the French bistro draws his eye. He can’t hear anything--he’s too far away for that--but he can see just fine, and what he sees causes him to pause and lean on his broom.

He wouldn’t necessarily consider Madam Nenneke a friend (she insists on the Madam, even from him, and even though Geralt’s reasonably certain she’s not that much older than he is; she’s really leaned into being the proprietor of a French restaurant), but they’re friendly at least, the way nearby business owners tend to be. He’s seen her be stern--she doesn’t tolerate rowdiness in her domain, from anyone--but he’s never seen her do what she’s doing now, which is shoving a young man with floppy hair and a guitar slung across his back out of her door, brandishing her own broom and yelling.

The young man, clad in some kind of printed shirt so violently colorful Geralt can pick out the pattern from where he stands, spreads his hands, plaintive, and Geralt can see enough of his face to know that he’s apparently begging to stay. Madam Nenneke, expression thunderous, is clearly not having any of it, and she points down the street, obviously signaling that he is to move on unless he wants her foot, or her broom, or both, shoved somewhere unpleasant. The young man doesn’t quite hang his head, but his shoulders slump, and he grips the strap of his guitar before finally nodding and heading off down toward the park.

Geralt hums as he sweeps the last step. He thinks that was a mildly amusing diversion. And as he turns to go back inside Witcher Brothers, and achieve a well-deserved respite from temperatures that have crept up into the 90s, he puts it completely out of his mind.

Where it stays until the next morning, when he sees the same young man--still with his guitar across his back, this time in a garishly-purple button up, neatly pressed chino shorts, and outrageously large sunglasses pushed up into his hair--glumly walking away from the bespoke scarf shop next to Madam Nenneke’s restaurant.

Geralt tracks his progress down one side of Kaedwen Street and up the other, and as he locks up Witcher Brothers on Tuesday evening, he’s reasonably certain what he’s going to encounter at some point the next day.

Sure enough.

When Geralt arrives at seven on Wednesday morning to open up, there he is, leaning against the lamppost, idly strumming chords on his guitar. Geralt’s a little impressed: from what he’s seen of this guy, which hasn’t been much, just glimpses here and there, he hadn’t figured him to be a morning person. Most young musicians aren’t, especially if he’s the type that plays late-night gigs in bars and clubs, and he looks one hundred percent the type today: pink flannel shirt, skinny jeans, chucks, earrings running up the shell of his ears, the over-large sunglasses perched, yet again, in his messy brown hair. 

He hasn’t noticed Geralt walking up Kaedwen Street--Geralt’s light on his feet, even in combat boots--and there’s a faraway look in his eyes, as if he’s thinking of lyrics, or simply lost in the sounds he’s coaxing from the strings of his guitar. He’s humming along, too. It’s . . . not unpleasant, actually.

Geralt takes a moment to twist that unexpected thought a couple of different ways in his mind before discarding the effort and chalking it up to an unusually good night’s sleep and a particularly snuggly Roach. There’s obviously about to be a confrontation, and he would rather get this over with and move on with his day.

He clears his throat and is somewhat gratified to see the young man jump slightly, his fingers slipping off the strings with a discordant twang, his rings smacking against the wood of the guitar. His foot jerks and nearly knocks over two large coffee cups sitting perilously close to his feet next to his guitar case. Two coffee cups?

“Oh! Oh, you startled me!” the young man exclaims, his hand pressing over his heart, calming, soothing himself. “Good morning!”

Geralt just nods and looks down. Two coffee cups? Does this kid have that big a caffeine addiction? He supposes he can’t judge too harshly. He went through grad school, after all, and he saw Yen through most of her time in law school. If they could have injected caffeine directly into their veins, they would have. This guy’s probably the same. The guy, perceptive, follows Geralt’s gaze and jolts again when he sees the coffee cups, as if just now remembering their presence.

“Oh, right! This is for you!” He quickly checks the markings on the side of each cup before selecting one and handing it over to Geralt. Geralt, bewildered, can do nothing but accept. “I’ve seen you around, and I thought to myself, now there is a black coffee kind of man if there ever was one, so that’s what I got for you, although if you’d prefer my Columbian roast with four shots of espresso, you are welcome to it! I’m not usually wrong in guessing people’s preferred coffee orders, but it has, unfortunately, been known to happen. My name’s Jaskier, you know, like the flower? How are you? What’s your name?”

That is . . . a lot of information to process coming very quickly at Geralt, and he’s been up since a little past five, but it’s still early. Unless Ciri’s staying over, he doesn’t normally have to deal with people in any way, shape, or form before Triss wanders into the shop at a quarter to eight, with Eskel usually not far behind her. This is a lot more than he typically expects to deal with before even unlocking the door.

He has no idea what Jaskier like the flower means, so he’ll leave that one alone, but his name. He can manage that. “Geralt. The name’s Geralt.”
 
The young man--Jaskier, apparently--grins at him. Geralt can see the tiniest beginnings of laugh lines around the corner of his eyes. He seems as though he is made of sunshine and exclamation points, and the fact that that thought actually passed through Geralt’s mind is worrying, to say the least. He’s almost afraid that the coffee has had some kind of mind-altering substance surreptitiously added to it, but he’s not yet taken a drink of it. Perhaps it’s something airborne? Maybe Jaskier’s wearing some bizarre weaponized cologne that makes people think completely uncharacteristic thoughts? Honestly, Geralt’s willing to entertain anything at this point.

He raises the coffee cup. “Why?”

“Because I am here to ask you a favor on this very fine morning, and I figured the absolute least I could do was offer you a cup of very fine coffee. I promise I haven’t added anything untoward to it, although you’re probably thinking to yourself, that’s exactly what someone who has added something untoward to this coffee would say, so I’m asking you to trust me, even though I’m aware that you have no reason to do so. You don’t have to drink the coffee! I won’t be offended. It’s just. Surely you’ve seen my extremely bad luck with every other shop owner on this block, and I figured, maybe I need to change my approach? So a present! Of coffee, the nectar of the gods! But you might not even like coffee? I just assumed, maybe I shouldn’t have assumed? It’s possible I’ve made a complete mess of--”

There is still a lot happening--Jaskier is probably not someone who ever runs out of words, Geralt can tell that and he’s only known the man for five minutes--but Geralt bets, correctly, that he can stop this thought-spiral right in its tracks by taking a sip of the coffee. It’s good coffee, just how he likes it. It might still kill him--that remains to be seen--but if it does, at least it’ll be good coffee that takes him out.

“Okay, okay, good, yeah,” Jaskier says, starting to nod. There’s the beginnings of a cheeky grin playing about the corner of his lips. That’s also not unpleasant. “Did I guess right?”

“Hmmm.”

“I’ll take that as a yes!” The cheeky grin becomes a full-blown smile, his eyes, blue eyes, Geralt can see, so very blue, lighting up with it, and these are things Geralt does not need to be noticing while standing outside his bookshop at 7:10 on a Wednesday morning.

“What was the favor you wanted?” Geralt knows exactly what the favor is that Jaskier wants, how could he not know? When he had left the shop the previous evening, he had been sure of what he would say if asked: we’re not really a ‘live music’ kind of business, sorry. But that was before Jaskier had a name--like a flower, apparently--and before he brought Geralt coffee, the order guessed correctly based on nothing more than a look, and before he smiled at Geralt, as if nothing could possibly please him more this early in the day.

Jaskier clears his throat and stands up straight, like he’s making a business pitch; which, Geralt supposes, he is. “I would like the opportunity to play out here, at the corner, in front of your shop most days of the week. You’ve seen the abysmal luck I’ve had elsewhere on this block, and let me tell you, I’m a musician, I am used to rejection, but there’s only so much a man can withstand before his ego starts taking a real hit, you know?” Jaskier seems to be waiting for an answer, and Geralt gives him one--a sharp nod. “I’m sure you’re wondering why this street, why this block? There’s the entire downtown, why here?”

Geralt had, in fact, been wondering that.

“I’ve done a very formal, very scientific study, you see.” There’s a gleam in Jaskier’s eye, he’s all but winking, full of charm and cleverness, and Geralt feels himself being drawn in despite himself. He shouldn’t indulge this guy’s lunacy. He should chuck the coffee in the trash can--but it’s such good coffee, that would be a tragic mistake--tell Jaskier to go to hell, and head in so he can open his goddamn shop already. He does not do any of this. 

“I’ve studied every street in downtown Cintra, and this block, right here, is the absolute best for a street musician. How did you come to that conclusion, Jaskier? I hear you ask.”

“I didn’t say any such thing.” Geralt takes another sip of coffee to hide what seems to be a smile threatening to appear on his face. There’s something about Jaskier’s tenacity that reminds him of Yen. Something about his good humor that reminds him of Triss. Something about the gentleness dancing about his smile that reminds him of Ciri.

Jaskier waves that protestation off with nary a thought. “Oh, you were thinking it, I could tell. It’s as all the realtors on those home-buying shows say: location, location, location. This street gets the best foot traffic downtown. The stop on the rail line is right by this street, so everyone coming in from the suburbs and going to their fancy offices will pass by this corner on their way to and from the office. There are bus stops there, there, there, and there.” He points to four locations within a hundred feet of where they’re standing, swivelling wildly to face each one and finding them all with unerring accuracy. “Parking garages on the other side of Aedrin Avenue for commuters driving their cars. The park’s up there. It’s a tourist draw in itself because of all the activities going on in it, but the restaurants in the park and on this block bring a large number of office workers this way on their lunch break. The bars along Aedirn are happy hour central in the evening. And this block appears in all the guidebooks and all those what to do if you’re spending the day in Cintra websites and listicles. So much foot traffic, Geralt. So many people willing to toss a coin to a friendly, local, starving artist musician. This is the best possible place to be.”

Jaskier presses both his hands together in front of his chest, and his eyes turn pleading. Geralt sighs. He can never resist puppy dog eyes. He can’t resist it from his actual dog, he can’t resist it from Ciri, or from Yen (or Triss . . . or even Eskel, if he’s honest). And it looks like he’s not going to be able to resist it from Jaskier, a man he just met. 

“Please let me stay, Geralt. I’m a good musician, a good singer. I’ll sing songs telling passersby they should stop in. If there’s something you want to hear, I’ll play it. If there’s something you don’t want to hear, I’ll strike it from my repertoire forever and ever. If you don’t want to take note of my existence, I’ll blend right into the background, you won’t even notice me. Please.”

Geralt very highly doubts that he’s not going to notice Jaskier. Everything about him screams notice me!!! and yet . . . .

See. Music’s not Geralt’s thing, it’s never been Geralt’s thing, but people like music. They like listening to lyrics and being swept away by them, caught up in the poetry, searching for the meanings. They like rhythms that make them tap their feet, that make them dance, that make them hold a partner close so they can escape the world for a while, right?

(Geralt knows a thing or two about wanting to escape the world for a while.)

It makes a certain kind of poetic sense, having a musician--who specializes in taking you somewhere else with his songs while you’re stuck here, in the present--playing outside of a bookshop--which specializes in selling pages bound together by the hundreds that transport you to other places, other times. This young man, this Jaskier, he’s bright, he’s cheerful, he’ll draw the eye, you won’t be able to be within a hundred feet of him and not be curious, and if there are curious people standing right by a shop of curious books and other curiosities, well, the idea makes a certain kind of business sense, too.

He gives a nod, short, sharp. “Just don’t block the door. And don’t make me regret this.”

Jaskier claps his hands together and squeals in delight. “No, no, I won’t, I promise. You won’t! You won’t regret this.”

Geralt fishes the keys to the shop out of his pocket. He drains the rest of his coffee as he climbs the stairs. “It was good coffee,” he says.

And then he makes his fatal mistake. He turns back and looks at Jaskier. The morning sun’s gentle rays tease out the lighter shades of brown in his hair. He smiles at Geralt as though this, the opportunity to play in front of Geralt’s bookshop as the increasingly hot May days slide inexorably into summer, is the best thing that’s happened to him this year. It’s a smile that reaches his eyes, his so very blue eyes, and it softens and gentles them from excited to content. He’s almost unfairly lovely like this.

Fuck, Geralt thinks as he walks inside.

 

*

 

Twenty minutes later, Triss comes in from the back and immediately, without even stopping to put her purse down or visit her flowers on the fifth floor, walks to the front door and peers out at Jaskier, who has returned to leaning against the lamppost and is strumming away at his guitar, singing something that Geralt thinks might be a Beatles song. “Geralt, are you aware of this?”

Geralt doesn’t look up from where he’s inspecting the cash register to make sure they have enough change for the morning. “What’s this?”

“Don’t be obtuse. Have you adopted a musician? Is he ours now? Why haven’t I considered this as an option before? A cute guitar player outside of an independent bookshop? Well done, Geralt!” 

“I don’t think I can really take credit for this one. He . . . kind of adopted himself.”

“I need to know everything about how this happened,” Triss says, pushing open the front door. “Hello!” she calls to Jaskier. “Are you our new musician?”

Jaskier doesn’t quit playing, but he does execute a dramatic bow. “I am indeed, my fair lady, and I must say, I quite enjoy your daisy motif!”

Triss giggles and does a twirl around in the doorway, showing off the daisies embroidered all over her dress, before skipping down the steps to shake Jaskier’s hand. 

“I’m Triss Merigold. How on earth did you manage to convince Geralt to allow a musician to play outside? When I first started working here, Muzak was playing over the speakers.”

Jaskier shudders, and Geralt is quickly realizing that literally everything Jaskier does is dramatic. “I’m Jaskier.”

Triss nods knowingly. “Like the flower!”

“Just so, flower queen. And as for how I convinced your fearless leader: bribery! One of my many super-powers--aside from my voice that sounds like a choir of angels, of course--is my ability to correctly guess someone’s coffee order, even if I’ve only seen them from fifty paces while being unceremoniously escorted off the premises. Between the coffee and my considerable charm, he was positively powerless to resist.”

He winks at Triss, and then again at Geralt, lurking in the doorway, and then once more at Eskel, who sidles up behind Geralt’s right shoulder, gives a wave, and introduces himself.

Far too many pretty people working at this bookshop,” Jaskier sighs, pretending to fall into a swoon against the lamppost. “However am I going to cope? Probably by writing copious songs about all of you so prepare yourselves now, you’re about to be immortalized in verse.”

“Alright, that’s enough,” Geralt says, hoping his complexion doesn’t betray him with a blush. Pretty is a word for Triss, or Jaskier himself. Not Geralt, he’s never been that. “Perhaps I should add another rule: don’t block the door, don’t distract my staff.”

Triss and Eskel accompany him back inside with a chorus of boos and bye Jaskiers, and Geralt immediately busies himself with straightening a stack of newly-released mysteries that does not need to be straightened. He absolutely, under no circumstances, wants to see whatever looks Triss and Eskel are undoubtedly exchanging. He does, however, want to know the answer to a very pressing question. 

“Triss? Explain the flower thing?”

“Surely there’s a book on flower language in this shop somewhere, Geralt? Hmmm?” She laughs, knowing that she has at least three different ones up on the greenhouse floor, which she frequently shows to interested customers, but she immediately takes pity on him. “Jaskier. Polish. Buttercup. Pretty, but poisonous. Does that fit our new troubadour?”

“Can’t make a determination on poisonous, yet.”

Eskel grabs him by his shoulders and gives him a hearty shake. “But you don’t refute the pretty, hmmm? Interesting, Geralt, very interesting.”

“You must have some swords to throw in a forge, or some chainmail to link together, or whatever you do to occupy your time instead of harassing me.”

He turns around in time to catch Eskel and Triss sharing a significant look.

“Very well, brother, very well,” Eskel relents.

Geralt follows them both towards the back of the shop, and just as he leaves the main room, he hears Jaskier, voice clear and strong, singing of silver hair and eyes of the deepest amber. He looks back and catches Jaskier’s eye through the window.

Jaskier winks again, and Geralt wonders just what it is that he’s gotten himself into.

 

*

 

True to his word, Jaskier does not block the door to Witcher Brothers.

Not true to his word, Jaskier distracts Geralt’s staff, and he most definitely does not go unnoticed.

In fact, once Geralt notices him, he can’t stop noticing him.

 

*

 

Geralt is a creature of habit. He has developed and refined his routine over the course of years, and he likes it, likes sticking to it, it comforts him. Life . . . is unpredictable. It’s chaotic and it’s messy and it’s so much all at once. It’s fond of throwing curveballs at you and sending all of your carefully laid plans awry. Life is unpredictable, but there are some aspects of it that can be controlled, and when Geralt finds something that works for him, he keeps to it. (Clings to it, more like, Yennefer, Vesemir, and Lambert have all muttered under their breath at one point or another.)

He wakes up at the same time every day. He scratches and pats Roach for precisely five minutes before taking her for their morning run and then hopping in the shower. His clothes are similar--black, or maybe dark gray, or navy blue on the rare occasions he feels adventurous while shopping--and he never has to take time to figure out how to match them. He arrives at Witcher Brothers at 7:00 sharp, every morning, and does the same chores in the same order: alarm off, blinds up, computers turned on, books straightened. He’s behind the counter, coffee in hand, ready to fling open the door to the public at 8:00 on the dot.

Why waste time and mental effort on making mundane decisions such as these every day? Life requires so many fucking decisions, and Geralt hates making them because deep down, buried far beneath the surface in some remote corner of his brain, he’s always thinking, but what if I’m making the wrong choice?

Geralt assumes, based on their earlier conversation in which he was utterly unable to predict anything that Jaskier did or said, that having Jaskier around will leave him constantly unbalanced, always feeling unsure of his footing. He doesn’t know how long this can possibly last. How long they can go before Jaskier disrupts his routine in the wrong way and Geralt snaps and drives him away forever. He doesn’t have high hopes. 

And yet, and yet. For all that he is chaos incarnate, for all that he is the proverbial unstoppable force, Jaskier somehow slots in absolutely seamlessly to life at Witcher Brothers, almost as if he’s been there for years, and it’s no time at all before he’s woven into the fabric of their daily lives.

On that first fateful day, Triss takes him out for a late lunch once the rush of people visiting the shop on their breaks dies down.

“Any preference for where we go?” she asks, patting Geralt on the arm as he takes over at the register for her, stepping aside to make room for Jaskier’s guitar case.

“Uh, maybe not Nenneke’s?” Jaskier requests, sheepishly rubbing the back of his neck.

Both Geralt and Lambert, who’s indolently lounging against the rolling ladder, not even bothering to try to work when he can needle this new curiosity, snort at that. “Get caught flirting with her daughter?” Lambert asks.

“Her son, actually,” Jaskier replies, the barest hint of steel in his voice, nearly daring Lambert to find fault with the son part of the equation. He stares coolly at Lambert, taking his measure. Geralt respects that. So does Lambert.

Lambert just inclines his head, serious for once, before allowing a tiny smile. The change in Jaskier’s demeanor is instant. The tension that had been building in the room vanishes as quickly as it had come as he smiles warmly at Lambert.

Jaskier, Geralt thinks, should probably always be smiling.

He does not indulge that thought any further once Jaskier and Triss leave the shop.

(His resolve lasts five minutes, until he gets a text from Renfri that just reads sucker.

Am I? Geralt thinks. Am I just a sucker for pretty blue eyes and a smile that reminds me of lazy afternoon naps curled up with Roach in a sunbeam and a voice that’s celestial-sent?

He waves the thought away. That’s for later contemplation, meaning never, he does not ever want to think about this.)

When they return, arm-in-arm, Triss doesn’t let Jaskier pick up his guitar and head back outside right away. May in Cintra can be perfectly encapsulated in one word: warm, and it only promises to get worse when they move into summer. The muggy breezes rolling in off the bay bring afternoon rain showers, but those offer no true relief. The rain is but a brief respite, leaving behind air that’s hot and steamy, as opposed to just hot. By two o’clock, it’s utterly miserable outside.

“Jaskier, no,” she says, looking deeply concerned. “You can’t possibly go out there now, not when it’s already in the 90s, we nearly roasted on our walk back! There’s not many people out and about right now anyway, it’s far too hot. You should stay inside for at least an hour, wander around, read a book, come sing to the flowers I have upstairs, I bet that’ll encourage them to grow. Geralt won’t mind.”

She doesn’t consult Geralt before saying this; she just glares, surprisingly sternly, a vestige of the days she and Yennefer wreaked havoc together in the courtroom before she left her lawyerly life behind. It’s a glare that warns Geralt not to test her on this. Geralt knows that there are some battles that it’s best not to fight, and he holds up his hands. “Just don’t--”

“Don’t distract your staff,” Jaskier says with him. “Don’t worry.” He winks, and that wink means trouble.

Jaskier manages to keep to himself for most of the hour, meandering through the shop, occasionally selecting a book and reading a few pages before moving on, but he can’t resist coming over to where Geralt stands at the counter. He asks Geralt question after question about the shop and its history and Geralt’s history and how he became a shop owner and how he got into the book business. Geralt shoves one of Eskel’s brochures from the fortieth anniversary celebration at him in the hope of having some peace--the last time so many questions were put to him in a row, Ciri was eight and still in her but why? phase--but that lasts maybe five minutes before Jaskier decides that’s not enough, he wants to know more.

“You’re an enigma, Geralt,” he says, leaning on the counter and resting his chin in his hands.

“I’m really not,” Geralt replies, fiddling with the earpiece of his reading glasses while he scans over the spreadsheet laying out Witcher Brothers’ sales from the past month, trying to determine what has been selling best lately.

“Hmmmm.” Jaskier runs a finger over a mug bearing Shakespearean insults. “You should let me be the judge of that. I think you’re probably more interesting than you know.”

There’s a flirtatious lilt to his voice, possibly, maybe? Geralt’s not sure, it’s been such a long time since anyone’s tried to flirt with him, he’s out of practice. Perhaps he’s just imagining it. Jaskier had said he was pretty earlier that day, but Triss and Eskel had been there too so he was probably just being polite. He doesn’t know how old Jaskier is, but the idea that he--he, with his floppy hair and bright smile--would be seriously interested in a fortysomething divorced bookshop owner is nigh-on laughable, hardly worth contemplating. But maybe he should say something, just in case the May heat got to him before Triss could drag him inside? It’s on the tip of his tongue to shut it down, nip it in the bud, not let it progress, but--

The door opens, the bell rings, and customers enter. A young mother and her two sons. Jaskier drums his fingers on the counter, his rings clacking, drawing Geralt’s attention. “I should get back to it out there,” he says, nodding at the doorway and the foot traffic picking up again outside. He’s smiling, as always, perfectly polite, perfectly pleasant. “Thanks for letting me stay.”

Geralt nods. He says nothing.

They all establish several routines that first day. Lunch becomes a standing appointment for Jaskier and Triss on Wednesdays and Fridays. They take a break, grab a quick lunch, a walk around the park, and return arm-in-arm, always with smiles on both of their faces.

Someone--Eskel, it looks like, judging by the handwriting--writes Jaskier’s schedule on the dry-erase board in the back room that serves as their calendar: Monday mornings, Tuesdays only over the lunch rush, all day Wednesday, Thursday mornings, all day Friday, most Saturdays and for most of the day. Within two weeks, every one of them finds themselves, at times Jaskier isn’t there, wandering by the front windows and door. They stare out at the sidewalk by the lamppost, as if they can manifest his presence through sheer force of will. They glare up at the shop’s speakers, as if insulted that it’s not Jaskier’s voice they hear singing.

“Just too damn quiet without him here,” Lambert mutters.

Geralt likes quiet, he always has. He typically doesn’t mind being alone with his thoughts. Quiet does not bother him.

Jaskier is obviously many things but quiet is not one of them. He seems constitutionally incapable of not making noise. Singing, strumming, sighing. That should bother Geralt.

It doesn’t.

Jaskier is more than capable of carrying on a conversation by himself; he is noise without any expectation or pressure of a reply. Geralt can still be alone with his thoughts, but yet, he’s not alone. Jaskier is there. There’s something almost comforting about that, he thinks.

(That’s also a thought for later contemplation.)

From two o’clock to three o’clock on the days he’s there in the afternoon, Jaskier comes inside and wanders, sometimes lightly strumming his guitar, sometimes humming softly to himself. He is unceasingly curious and curious about everything. He carefully looks over every single shelf of books, softly exclaiming when the shop receives a new book he hasn’t yet seen. Eskel’s weaponry work fascinates him, and he always stops in and asks about Eskel’s latest commission, genuinely delighted to learn more. He chats with Lambert about his travels through Europe--Jaskier, too, has traveled extensively, or so it seems--and they’ve actually been to many of the same places (and gotten drunk in many of the same pubs, they learn to their mutual delight). And he spends at least five minutes each time he’s inside lightly crooning to Triss’s flowers, singing about how excited they should be to grow, how happy they’ll make someone who gets to take them home.

(It should be ridiculous. Geralt should roll his eyes and dismiss this as lunacy. But instead he stands on the second floor at the staircase and listens for Jaskier’s attempts to create a rhyme with rhododendron and Triss’s giggles of delight.)

Jaskier delights in Geralt’s extensive knowledge of Witcher Brothers’ wares, and every time he’s inside, as he wanders around the shelves and the displays, he asks Geralt questions about the books, pulling him away from the counter, from his office, on a tour of all the nooks and crannies in the shop. 

Which is the oldest book here? Which book never found a home and has been here the longest? Which book has the prettiest illustrations? I’ve been thinking of redecorating my home and want to have a shelf in my bookcase filled entirely with books that are yellow, how many will I be able to find here? How many of the books in here have you read? I have to defeat a cunning monster armed only with my wits, which book would help me the most? Which book in here have you re-read the most? If I were going to a deserted island and could take five books with me, which ones would you recommend? Geralt, what’s your favorite book here?

Geralt answers the last question without thinking. “Chronicles of Narnia.”

He could kick himself for answering. Nobody knows his favorite book, although Vesemir has likely long suspected, and now Jaskier, seemingly effortlessly, draws forth the answer as if he’s a walking truth spell.

“Really?” The surprise is clear in Jaskier’s voice--he obviously had not expected the answer to be a series of children’s fantasy books--but the surprise isn’t mocking, it’s not judging. He asks with earnest eyes, disarming and open. “Why?”

“I’ve read every version that’s ever come into this shop. Read it when I was six. Read it again two years ago. Read it probably twenty times in between. Read it in Spanish once, although that was . . . challenging.” He pauses, not sure if he really wants to say why, but there’s so much warmth in Jaskier’s eyes right now, he has to say something. He must. “They got to escape the world.”

Jaskier doesn’t ask why that would appeal to Geralt, why he would identify with the Pevensie children. He just nods, his soft smile turning contemplative. “That they did.”

They speak about books frequently after that, and other things, too, everything and nothing, and their conversations while Jaskier meanders around the shop, absently trailing his finger along the spines of the books, stopping when something catches his fancy, slowly become as essential to Geralt’s day as his morning run with Roach. It’s like a kind of coming home, almost. 

It’s strange, Geralt thinks, how quickly some people become indispensable.

 

*

 

Geralt doesn’t realize that he was nervous--not nervous: unsettled, maybe; agitated, perhaps; but no, not nervous--over the prospect of Jaskier meeting Yennefer and Ciri until it goes off without a hitch later in May, as Ciri’s school year starts to wind down and she’s able to come to the shop more frequently.

Yennefer, as a general rule, doesn’t like many people. With few exceptions, such as her family and her law partners, people either bore her, irritate her, or, in the case of some of her rival lawyers, outright anger her to the point of wishing them grievous bodily injury.

Jaskier, though. Jaskier interests her.

He’s been playing at Witcher Brothers for two weeks when Yen and Ciri meet him. They approach the shop from the direction of the park, having taken the light rail from Ciri’s school into downtown, and they encounter Jaskier outside before they see Geralt at the counter.

“You’re our bard!” Ciri shouts, dumping her bulging backpack and her chemistry textbook at the bottom of the stairs.

“That I am!” Jaskier beams back. “And you must be Cirilla! I have heard so much about you, you are beloved by all.”

“I am pretty awesome,” Ciri agrees. “You can call me Ciri. And Triss calls you a walking jukebox. Can you play some Taylor Swift for me?”

“You have to get some studying done before you go home with your father. Your chemistry final is next week,” Yen says, brushing a strand of Ciri’s long hair back behind her shoulder.

“Mom--”

“No, you know this. You have to study first.”

“But I hate chemistry!” Ciri doesn’t stamp her foot. She’s sixteen now, and therefore much too mature for such antics, but it’s a near thing, and Geralt, still inside and thus at a safe distance from the impending explosion, stifles a laugh.

“Cirilla. You only have one more week of it, and then you never have to take it ever again if you don’t want to. Study.”

“How about I make you a deal?” Jaskier breaks in, not backing down an inch when Yennefer turns a glare on him for interrupting what is clearly a family matter. “I remember how awful it was to study chemistry, and I always needed some extra motivation. So how about you study chemistry to the satisfaction of your parents--say, for at least an hour--and then I’ll play nothing but Taylor Swift songs for you for another hour. Deal?”

“Uh, hell yeah, you’ve got a deal.” Ciri and Jaskier shake on it, sealing their agreement, and Ciri gives Yen a kiss on the cheek, her ire forgotten. “Bye, Mom, love you.”

She scoops up her stuff and practically races into the shop, barely pausing to give Geralt a hug around the middle before seeking out her favorite study spot, tucked in a corner by Triss’s hibiscus plants.

“So,” Yen drawls, “your name is Jaskier, yes?”

She looks like she’s about to dissect him, like she wants to open up his head and go climbing around inside. Geralt considers intervening, although he knows that Yennefer will read a lot into that, a lot that he might not necessarily intend, but Jaskier holds his own, easily meeting her gaze. He does not yet require Geralt’s intervention.

“It is indeed, yes.”

Yen smirks, just a little bit, and Geralt wonders if Jaskier realizes he’s being cross-examined. He also wonders why Jaskier’s being cross-examined, but Yennefer’s motives are often obscured, and he’s long since accepted that she just operates on a different plane from most people.

“Do you play any other instruments aside from guitar?”

Jaskier looks down at that, the tips of his battered chucks suddenly becoming very interesting, and he chuckles, although it sounds somewhat strained to Geralt’s ear.

“I do indeed.”

He meets Yen’s eyes again, a sheepish smile on his face, and Geralt’s struck by the contrast between that and Yen’s smile, which has turned positively shark-like. It’s her I’m about to end your entire career smile, and it abruptly throws Geralt back nearly two decades in time to the first time he saw that smile when he was serving as a witness for her mock trial team practice. Once upon a time, that smile had meant very good things for him, for them; now it just brings a rush of fondness for her.

Geralt sees Yen’s eyes quickly dart over to the shop, right where he’s standing inside, not quite visible to her, but definitely visible to Jaskier, and Jaskier’s gaze follows. Caught out, he steps fully into the doorway.

“Geralt,” Yen says, “Make sure Cirilla studies. Don’t let her chat with Dara all night.” She turns back to Jaskier and gives him one last appraising look. “I would be very interested in seeing you play something other than guitar some time. Ta, gentlemen.”

She picks up her briefcase and heads back towards the rail line, obviously very pleased with herself.

Yennefer works in mysterious ways, Geralt knows this, but that doesn’t stop him from inquiring, “What was that--”

Jaskier claps his hands together. “Well! Wasn’t that fun! If you excuse me, Geralt, I need to brush up on Taylor Swift’s back catalogue, so I can give your adorable daughter the concert that she deserves for mastering chemistry. If you don’t mind?”

There’s something pleading, something fragile, about Jaskier’s expression, and Geralt doesn’t know what this means, he doesn’t know what the fuck is going on, but he knows he doesn’t like it. He knows that whatever is going on, Jaskier clearly needs space, and he gets that. Of course he gets that, he is a champion at dealing with things he doesn’t want to deal with by not dealing with them at all. So although every fiber of his being is begging him to finish his question--what was that all about?--he just takes a step back inside, nods, withdraws.

“Looking forward to the concert.”

He doesn’t think about the flip his heart makes right there in his chest at Jaskier’s relieved smile.

 

*

 

The next day, Jaskier starts bringing other instruments with him.

He still brings his guitar, but he also carries . . . a smaller guitar with him.

“Geralt,” Eskel says, mostly succeeding in covering up his exasperation, “that is a ukulele. Do not let Jaskier hear you call it a ‘tiny guitar.’ You might offend him. He might never speak to you again. And then he might leave. And who would play and sing for us, Geralt? Would we have to press Lambert into service? He would make all of our ears bleed!”

“Hey!” Lambert calls from where he’s wrangling boxes of a new shipment of classic literature themed coloring books into the store room. “I’m just minding my business back here, and you’re being an asshole for no reason?”

“Shut up, Lambert,” Eskel yells back. “Geralt. Don’t you dare call it a tiny guitar in Jaskier’s hearing.”

Despite the warning, Geralt does anyway, and Jaskier laughs so hard he has to lean against the side of the shop to keep himself upright.

(The joy and mirth in his eyes sure is something, Geralt thinks.)

Jaskier brings a weirdly shaped guitar with a funny looking neck and intricate detailing around the strings the next day. Geralt doesn’t even know where to begin with what this thing could possibly be.

Triss is duly impressed. “You don’t see many lutes around these days,” she says, marveling at the sound it makes when Jaskier lets her pluck one of the strings.

“See, now you’re just showing off,” Lambert complains, but he, too, smiles when Jaskier shows him how to strum a few chords.

“Sorry,” Jaskier says, “which of the greatest hits of classic rock are you requesting that this show off play on this magnificent lute today?”

“Hmmm. How about ‘Satisfaction’?”

Jaskier laughs, but, as it turns out, the Rolling Stones actually sound quite good on a lute, and it draws quite a crowd.

Yennefer really had been on to something because Jaskier’s proficiency with instruments doesn’t end there. He brings a banjo, a harmonica (although he plays that sparingly since he can’t sing at the same time), and even a cello borrowed from his friend Essi. (The rich sounds he draws from it stops all of them in their tracks; the whole shop is distracted while he plays, and Geralt has to stop and start over while ringing up more than a few customers. “It’s alright, sweetheart,” an older customer says as she pats Geralt’s hand, “he really is very good, you just take your time now,” and Geralt wishes he could crawl into a hole and perish from embarrassment.) 

And then there is a keyboard.

The keyboard causes problems. It requires a lengthy extension cord to run to the plug behind the counter, and the front door doesn’t close right with the cord running inside. Jaskier frets over that, saying that maybe the keyboard was a mistake, and I brought my guitar, too, I can just play that, and really, Geralt, I shouldn’t have made you go to all this trouble. He looks so genuinely distressed that Geralt, who has never particularly cared about piano music ever before, becomes extremely invested in the prospect of hearing Jaskier’s fingers dancing over the keys and decides that they’ll just keep the door open, warm breeze be damned.

Because of the open door, another problem arises: Geralt can hear Jaskier’s voice more clearly than he ever has been able to before. Thirty minutes into the day, and he’s ready to start banging his head on the counter because he just can’t take it. Jaskier’s voice isn’t perfect; it breaks sometimes when he’s singing a song that’s particularly emotional, but Geralt, even with his untrained ear, thinks it might somehow be all the better for it. It’s more . . . honest, somehow. Genuine.

His voice is crystalline clear, and the theatrics that he puts into his singing amazes Geralt. His voice is by turns quiet, drawing people in closer to him, but then he turns on a dime and belts like he’s singing to the back of a theatre. He sings angry songs, he sings sad songs, he sings songs where it’s obvious--even to Geralt inside, wishing he was watching Jaskier’s fingers, nimble and quick, on the keys--that he’s grinning while he’s singing. He sings songs with different accents. He sings songs in French. He sings a song in a language Geralt doesn’t know until he catches his name--Jaskier--and Geralt smiles. Polish.

There’s a large crowd over the lunch hour that day, watching him play, and Jaskier keeps reminding them to leave space on the sidewalk and around the door. He sticks his head in and asks Geralt to call for the others to come outside for a second, I have a surprise, he says, voice soft, eyes sparkling. It’s a song about Witcher Brothers, of searching for something, even though you don’t know quite what it is you’re searching for, and finding entirely new worlds, finding something you didn’t even know you needed. Much of the poetry, the metaphors, are lost on Geralt, but the emotion is undeniable. Jaskier sings a verse about Triss making her flowers grow, another about Eskel and his art and his patience and dedication to creating a masterpiece, a rollicking romp about Lambert’s travels and about how he always has the best book recommendations. And then he ends with soft, lilting couplets about Geralt’s kind eyes and how his gruff exterior and quiet reserve hides a heart that has so very much to give.

Geralt can’t remember the last time he felt this seen.

He feels, for a moment, as though his heart is too big for his chest, and any second now, it will burst out, visible to all. Everyone will be able to see how this young man with messy hair and dazzling blue eyes and a shirt with violently yellow dandelions embroidered all over it has reached inside of him and carved out a little place for himself. Geralt doesn’t know how this has happened, he hasn’t allowed this. His knees go a little wobbly. He’s only vaguely aware of Triss, openly weeping but also laughing, bending down to plant approximately four hundred kisses on Jaskier’s cheeks, and Lambert muttering well goddamn, kid, you’re going to have to stay forever now, part of the fuckin’ family under his breath, yet just loud enough for Jaskier to hear.

Eskel clasps him on the shoulder, subtly holding him upright. He doesn’t say anything, for which Geralt is profoundly grateful, for if he tried to engage in conversation right now, he’s quite certain he would be incapable of mustering up anything close to a coherent response.

The entire crowd standing outside listening seems to decide as one that Witcher Brothers is the place to be, and they have their best sales day since the anniversary party.

As the last person on the sidewalk trails into the shop, Jaskier turns in his seat and looks up at Geralt. He looks as vulnerable as Geralt feels.

Thank you, Geralt mouths. 

The inadequacy of those two words is almost overwhelming, but Jaskier simply smiles. Thank you, he mouths back.

 

*

 

Jaskier is a born showman and performer, that much is immediately obvious. Geralt’s initial assessment that he does everything dramatically proves itself to be completely accurate. He is in no way surprised by this.

He is surprised to learn that Jaskier is also, apparently, a born teacher.

Jaskier has no qualms about interrupting whatever song he is singing to answer questions, or take another request, or show someone of any age how to play a few notes. He is infinitely patient, willing to demonstrate something over and over and over if he has to, and his hints and suggestions are always kindly phrased and well-received.

His most frequent students? Ciri and Dara.

Once school lets out for the summer, they spend hours upon hours at the shop, as they have every summer since Geralt and Yennefer first adopted Ciri. In the past, they would pick a random topic and read all of the books they could find about it. This summer? They spend it parked out front of Witcher Brothers, dancing under the awning while Jaskier plays everything from Lizzo to Nirvana, and then teaches both of them how to play.

(Jaskier dances too, fluid and graceful. Geralt gives up trying not to think about these things.)

Ciri films everything, no doubt posting it to her Instagram, and a large number of their classmates start showing up, spending an hour or two at the shop and then wandering on up the street to the park. At school, she and Dara are both in the band, and one day, Geralt, in the middle of showing a potential buyer a fine first edition of Oliver Twist, sees Ciri rush by, reed in her mouth, clutching her clarinet like a club, while Dara buzzes warm-up scales on the mouthpiece to his trumpet.

“Oh, Ciri, no,” Geralt says just as they reach the door. “Don’t bother him--”

“Jaskier said we could, Dad,” she replies around her reed, already impatient with the obstacle that is Geralt. “He’s going to teach us how to improv today.”

“It’s true, Mr. Rivia,” Dara says as he fits his mouthpiece onto his trumpet and opens the door. “We both want to try out for jazz band, and Mr. Jaskier says improv skills are very important for that.”

“Just Jaskier, Dara!” they all hear from outside. “No Mister necessary.”

“I’ve been telling him to call me Geralt for eight years now, and I’m still Mr. Rivia, so you’re fighting a losing battle on that front,” Geralt calls. Jaskier laughs, and somewhere deep in his chest Geralt feels a jolt, as he does every time he makes Jaskier laugh. Perhaps it shouldn’t surprise him so much, Jaskier is so genuinely cheerful and has a tendency to find contentment in the most mundane things. Still. That he can say something, or do something, and someone like Jaskier, who is sunshine and bright flowers and unfiltered joy, will find amusement in it, that it will brighten Jaskier’s day, when he does so much to brighten Geralt’s? It’s, well, it’s gratifying and it’s humbling and it’s deeply intoxicating, all at once.

“I don’t see anything wrong with being polite to adults,” Dara sniffs. He then blasts a note right in Ciri’s ear, and, once she affixes her reed, she responds with a perfect scale up before letting her clarinet deliberately shriek. They both dissolve into giggles, and Geralt can see Jaskier smiling indulgently. He must have been a high school band student once, although Geralt can’t imagine what instrument he would have played. He’s pretty sure Ciri and Dara’s band doesn’t have a guitar or a piano.

“What’s that lesson going to be like today, do you think?” the customer whispers as he starts moving toward the counter.

Geralt sighs. “Honestly, there’s no telling.”

The lesson, which lasts most of the day (with an interlude in which all three of them make flower crowns with Triss), turns out to be interesting, if not particularly great music-quality-wise. Both Ciri and Dara have trouble deciding what to play when they don’t have printed sheet music in front of them, and it’s difficult for them to come up with counterpoints to play to Jaskier’s melodies on his guitar.  Geralt hears more than one exasperated huff from Ciri, who clearly wanted to be immediately fantastic at improving. Luckily, Jaskier turns out to be excellent at diffusing rising frustrations, and they end the day by each picking a song and looking up the parts on Ciri’s tablet and sight reading off of that. While all three of them are packing up their instruments and Geralt’s closing up the shop, Jaskier gives them both suggestions for further practicing, and they nod seriously.

“You’re voluntarily going to practice?” Geralt asks Ciri, not even bothering to hide his skepticism. “In the summer? Seriously?”

Ciri gives him an extremely unimpressed look that is one hundred percent Yennefer. “Of course, Dad.”

Jaskier just smiles as he slings his guitar case across his back. There’s a light spray of freckles across the bridge of his nose and on the top of his shoulder, bared by the neck of his oversized shirt. Geralt does not know what to do with this discovery. 

“I was always much more inclined to practice when I didn’t have a grade depending on it,” Jaskier says with a wink. “I’ve always been contrary like that.”

Geralt’s curiosity gets the better of him. “What instrument did you play in the band?”

Ciri eyes him for a moment, clearly not used to her father asking questions to continue a conversation, and then she and Dara share a look that Geralt doesn’t understand.

“Oh, I wasn’t in the band,” Jaskier says, either oblivious to Ciri and Dara’s nonverbal communiques or intentionally ignoring them. “I was in the orchestra.”

Geralt’s been to the symphony before with Yennefer, although it’s been years, and he’s not entirely sure, but he doesn’t think there are that many different string instruments in an orchestra, and there’s only one that he’s seen Jaskier actually play before. “Cello? But no, you had to borrow someone’s cello when you brought one here.”

Ciri and Dara share another look.

“You’re right, I don’t have a cello,” Jaskier says, and he’s still smiling, but it’s gone a bit brittle again, like it did when he first met Yen. “No, I’m a violinist.”

“Oh,” Geralt says, herding them all out the front door and locking the door behind them. “You’ve never played a violin here.”

“No, no I haven’t.” It’s as succinct a reply as Geralt’s ever heard from Jaskier, and, honestly, that says just as much as the way Jaskier chews lightly on his bottom lip and doesn’t meet any of their eyes.

“You should bring your violin tomorrow, Jaskier! I’m sure Dad would love to hear you play!” Ciri says, and her tone is innocent, but Geralt has the sinking suspicion that she’s up to something.

Jaskier does look at him then. He would actually love to hear Jaskier play the violin, and he tries to say so, but the words get lost along the way somewhere from his brain to his mouth. He can’t quite bring himself to say I would love to, so he settles for merely nodding, and he resolutely ignores Ciri’s look of exasperation.

“Well.” Jaskier seems to make a decision, and he squares his shoulders. He smiles again, and at least there’s most of his usual good cheer in it. “If you would love to hear it, far be it from me to say no.”

They part ways at the rail line, going in opposite directions, and just before Jaskier crosses the platform to get on the westbound line, he turns back and raises his hand in a jaunty half-salute/half-wave. His smile is at full force and wattage again, and when Geralt raises his hand in a returning wave, he feels like something in the universe has clicked back into place.

The next morning, he walks up from the rail, Ciri and Dara nearly skipping along beside him, far too excited to be out of bed at seven in the morning during their summer holidays, and there’s a kind of breathless anticipation churning within him. He enjoys his job, loves it, in fact, considers it almost a calling. (He remembers what it was to be six, sixteen, twenty-six and desperately losing himself in fictional worlds, and bringing that to other people, helping them find something that they didn’t even know they needed, a book that could change their life, always brings a rush of satisfaction.) But he’s never felt like this before--like he knows he’s about to witness something spectacular and the prospect of it fills him with awe--while walking to work on a Thursday morning in June.

He’s not entirely sure why he feels this way. He doesn’t have any particular great love for the violin or know anything at all about the intricacies of playing it--it’s just kind of there, like every other instrument--but something about the idea of Jaskier playing it for them, the way he had said I’m a violinist, like, this is his instrument, it’s a special part of him that he’s now going to be sharing with them, something about that makes a tendril of warmth curl around Geralt’s heart. It’s as though he’s discovered that there are hidden depths to Jaskier, things that he didn’t even know were there to know, and now he just wants to know more, he wants to know everything.

It’s a surprising feeling, but as they reach the shop and he sees Jaskier already there with his instruments, kneeling down by the window boxes that house some of Triss’s flowers and admiring a pink daisy that has just blossomed, he decides that it’s not an unwelcome one.

Jaskier looks up when Ciri shouts his name, and his grin is easy, light. There’s none of that strange uncertainty that had been there yesterday, and a little bit of tension that Geralt hadn’t even realized that he had been carrying in his shoulders eases.

“Good morning!” Jaskier calls. He holds up a tray with four cups. “Somehow I just knew that Ciri and Dara would be here, inexplicably giving up their lazy summer mornings to hear me scratch and howl on the violin, so here we are: coffees for Geralt and I, bubble teas for the young ‘uns!”

“We’re only like ten years younger than you or something,” Dara mutters, but he accepts his bubble tea with no further gripes.

“I can have coffee,” Ciri says, a dangerous gleam in her eyes. “Mom lets me.”

“No she does not.” Geralt immediately squashes that notion.

“Fine,” Ciri pouts, dragging out the word. “But that means I get to play Jaskier’s guitar today, while he’s playing his violin. And Dara, too, because he was making really good progress with those chords the other day.”

Jaskier chuckles, and if he’s perplexed by the logic of Ciri’s reasoning, he doesn’t let on. “Very well.”

Inside, when he takes his very expensive looking violin out of its very expensive looking case, Ciri gasps. “Is that actually a Stradivarius?” She looks like she might actually commit a crime in order to touch it.

“Alas, it is, unfortunately, not an original,” Jaskier says, and Geralt knows he’s not imagining the way Jaskier’s voice goes mournful, despairing over a lost opportunity. “But it is still about two hundred years old, so you can touch it, but, you know, carefully.”

While Ciri and Dara run reverent fingers over the violin, Geralt mutters, “You brought a two-hundred-year-old violin to play on the street?”

Jaskier shrugs. “I did think about bringing one of my other ones, but this one is my favorite, and it’s the best, and if this is the first time for you to hear me play the violin, I have to sound my best, don’t I? Although, much like with Essi’s cello, I will defend this violin with my life, so nobody out there better try anything stupid today.”

Geralt privately agrees, knowing that if someone were to try to harm Jaskier’s violin, then he would have to get involved as well. It’s been a few years since he was in a fight--something more than just grappling with Eskel and Lambert, like brothers do--but his right hook is as good as it ever was. Defending a two-hundred-year-old violin, and, more importantly, its owner, would not be the worst use to which his fists have been put. 

“How many violins do you have?”

Jaskier tilts his head while he thinks. It’s adorable. Geralt has become the kind of person who uses the word adorable in conjunction with something other than his daughter. 

“Let’s see. Six? Six. Well. Seven, if you count the one I first started learning on, but when you try to play it now, it really just sounds like a lot of croaking? So. Six.”

“So when you say that you’re a violinist . . . .”

Jaskier just smiles and lifts his violin and the bow out of their case. He taps the tip of the bow twice on Geralt’s shoulder and closes the case, leaving it on top of the counter. “Maybe you should do a little research later, hmmmm?” He nods at the case and winks before letting Ciri tug him outside.

Geralt doesn’t really know what the violin case has to do with anything, but as he zips up the covering around it to move it off of the counter, he sees, right above the handle, embroidered in gold cursive, Julian Pankratz. He abruptly recalls what Ciri took to shouting when she was ten and eagerly devouring every Nancy Drew and Hardy Boys mystery she could get her hands on in the shop: that is what we call a clue!

He pulls out his phone and googles the name Julian Pankratz and his eyes go wide. That’s Jaskier alright, but not as he’s ever seen him before. He starts to enlarge the black and white picture, clearly Jaskier’s professional headshot, but as he does, Jaskier begins to play, and his phone clatters to the counter, forgotten.

Geralt doesn’t have the words, the music vocabulary, to describe what he sees, what he hears. He knows that Jaskier is playing a violin and that he is using a bow on the strings, but then his knowledge of the terminology runs out, and all he’s left with is what he feels when he watches, when he listens. And what he feels is enraptured.

The song isn’t one that he recognizes--he can count the number of composers that he knows on one hand and have fingers left over, so of course he’s not going to know this song--but he’s pretty sure that in the ten minutes it takes Jaskier to play it, Geralt feels nearly possible human emotion. He doesn’t know how this is happening, how this music seeps into his skin, his veins, and moves through him as if it’s part of him, his fate now tied to what Jaskier does with his bow. He should be bothered by this. He very much is not.

Jaskier’s face while he plays is open, unguarded, absolutely vulnerable, feeling everything, and Geralt cannot look away. He cannot look away from the furrow that develops between Jaskier’s brows during a fast section with a lot of quick bow work, from the way his eyes close and the tiniest of frowns appears on his face during a quiet and somber section, from the way he smiles at Ciri and Dara during a section that requires nimble plucking of the strings, from the way his gestures go grand and bold and exuberant until he finishes with a flourish. Geralt is aware of nothing else in the universe. There is only Jaskier and his violin and the spell he has just weaved around Geralt and his heart.

Jaskier lowers his bow and looks up, right at Geralt standing in the doorway. Ciri and Dara are shouting and clapping, the early morning commuters on the other side of Kaedwen Street who stopped in their tracks to listen are clapping, Triss is bouncing up and down on the balls of her feet. Eskel and Lambert both have their hands on Geralt’s shoulders, muttering something; oh brother, you’re really in it now, he might hear if he were paying attention. But all his attention is on the vulnerability still clinging to Jaskier that slowly gives way to the sweetest of smiles.

Did you like it? Jaskier’s smile asks.

I loved it, Geralt’s answers.

The morning passes with very little actual work being accomplished on anyone’s part, everybody instead focused on Jaskier, and Geralt can’t even tell anyone off for it, because he is too. Because it’s Thursday, and Jaskier’s only there until just after lunch, hardly any time at all passes before he warns everyone listening that he only has an hour left, so they should let him know if there’s something they want to request, popular or classical.

A clack of heels coming from the back room causes Geralt to look up, and he sees Yennefer, conceding to the fact that it’s summer by wearing a dark gray suit, instead of a black one. She has a purple scarf tucked into the neckline of her blazer, and she must be stifling hot, but she looks thoroughly unbothered, as if she travels in a perfectly climate-controlled bubble. “Taking a break from justice and eating Stregobor’s heart in the courtroom?” Geralt asks, kissing her on the cheek when she tilts her head.

“Oh, Stregobor’s heart can wait until next week. This is far more interesting. I’ve received rapturous reviews of your bard’s performance today, so naturally I had to drop by.”

“Ciri.” Geralt nods knowingly, choosing not to remark on the your bard comment. That will surely be the focus of a later conversation.

“Yeah Ciri. And Triss. And Eskel. And Lambert. He does draw quite a crowd for you, doesn’t he?”

Jaskier draws so much of a crowd, in fact, it’s been weeks since Geralt has heard a peep about opening up a coffee bar in the shop. He decides he is not going to bring this up to Yen and run the risk of putting the idea in the forefront of her mind once more.

“We’ve done well, it’s true. You know who he is.”

Yennefer scoffs. “Geralt, he’s first violin for both the Novigrad String Quartet and the Oxenfurt Chamber Orchestra. I’m a benefactor for both of those groups. Of course I know who he is. I’ve known who he is ever since Triss mentioned his nickname the first day you let him start playing here.”

“You could have said!”

Her shrug is insouciant and also infuriating. “This was more fun. You haven’t looked him up yet?”

“I did this morning, but then I was distracted by all the”--Geralt gestures vaguely outside--“and then I haven’t gotten back to it.”

“Well,” Yennefer says, lightly punching his arm, “looks like you’ll have some homework for when you get home. Enjoy. I’m going out there to make him play something ridiculously complicated before I have to get back to the office. Tissaia has been on a tear today. Fringilla’s opposing counsel on one of her cases, and it’s a fucking nightmare, what with all the former too-harsh mentor/former ungrateful student vibes swirling around all over the goddamn place. I could use some entertainment.”

By the sour expression on Jaskier’s face when Yennefer speaks with him, she does indeed choose something ridiculously complicated, but he plays it as his last song and ends with a triumphant so there! expression aimed right at Yennefer. She just raises an eyebrow and gives him a slightly mocking golf clap.

Five minutes later, Jaskier comes inside to pack up his instruments. He’s flush with exertion and exultation, and he’s so fucking beautiful like this Geralt almost can’t stand it. He doesn’t know what to do with everything he’s feeling today. Jaskier hesitates before walking to the door. “Well! I’m off, Geralt.”

Geralt wishes he could say I’ve never heard such playing or you were magnificent or I think I might want to listen to you play violin forever, they’re all on the tip of his tongue, but it seems too much, too . . . revealing, of something Geralt can’t quite put a name to yet. So he just says, “If you wanted to bring your violin again, well, that’d be alright.”

He could kick himself at the massive understatement, he really could, but it makes Jaskier laugh, and things that make Jaskier laugh can’t be all that bad. “That’d be alright, huh? I’ll keep that in mind. Until tomorrow!”

The quiet that settles over Witcher Brothers that afternoon in Jaskier’s absence is nearly oppressive.

 

*

 

That evening, after Geralt takes advantage of the long days of early June for a late run with Roach and then supervises Ciri in her attempt to cook spaghetti bolognese, he settles in front of the laptop at his desk and googles Jaskier again.

Now that there are no immediate distractions, he can take his time in looking at Jaskier’s headshot. It’s . . . different. Jaskier is smiling slightly, looking straight at the camera. The top of his violin rests against his shoulder, over his tuxedo jacket. His hair is neat, he has no visible earrings. He’s handsome in it, obviously (Geralt decides then and there that he’s no longer going to waste any mental energy in trying to deny, in the privacy of his own mind, that he finds Jaskier attractive), but there’s just something so strange about seeing him in black and white, totally devoid of the vibrant colors and wild prints that Geralt has come to associate with Jaskier.

He has his own Wikipedia page, and once Geralt’s able to move on from the headshot, he starts there, jaw dropping as he reads through Jaskier’s accomplishments.

Son of two apparently legendary opera singers, who moved from Poland to the United States right after Jaskier was born, he was playing with well-known orchestras by the time he was in his mid-teens. His first set of recordings was released when he was sixteen. Bachelor’s and Master’s at Juilliard. One of his orchestral recordings from when he was in college was nominated for a Grammy. Currently plays with two professional ensembles. Is well-known on the indie music scene in Cintra, both as a solo singer and guitarist, and sometimes with a group of other classically trained musicians called Bardically Yours who like to perform their own music but also do weird things like all-brass arrangements of Metallica songs and Lady Gaga songs re-written for seven-part harmonies and mid-song switcheroos where they all suddenly play someone else’s instrument. Seriously?

“Roach,” Geralt says, jostling her where she has her head lying on his bare foot, “what the actual fuck?” Roach offers no insight, but instead just snuffles and settles back down.

There are literally hundreds of videos available, and he doesn’t even know where to start. He stares at his laptop, nearly overwhelmed with the choices, before clicking on one at random that turns out to be a college recital for a string ensemble. 

He watches professional recordings of Jaskier on stage wearing a sharp tuxedo, looking serious and focused. He watches recordings taken in bars of Jaskier knocking back a tumbler of scotch and then playing Flight of the Bumblebee so fast his bow is practically a blur. He watches recordings of recitals Jaskier set up for the students he teaches through private lessons, everyone from kindergarteners learning Chopsticks to Cintra University music students playing Beethoven, Jaskier’s enthusiasm and encouragement for all of them so completely obvious. He watches recordings on Ciri’s Instagram taken outside Witcher Brothers of Jaskier dancing, wild and free, while he sings, smiling for the camera, smiling at the crowd, smiling over Ciri’s shoulder, where Geralt knows he had been standing that day.

From Ciri’s Instagram, he finds Jaskier’s (all of her videos recently tag @moderndaybard, so it doesn’t require a large inferential leap on Geralt’s part to conclude that that must be Jaskier), and he loses the rest of the evening that way. Jaskier’s Instagram is . . . chaotic, to say the least, and Geralt feels on more sure footing as he scrolls through: this is the Jaskier that he knows.

There are his own videos of recent performances outside of Witcher Brothers, a striped kitten curled up in a sweater, Ciri and Dara mugging for the camera with their instruments, an archway covered in red and pink flowers where the first comment, from @trissmerrygold, is OH MY GOD. The battered notebook that Geralt has seen Jaskier carry around makes several appearances; in the most recent one it’s open to a poem scrawled in green ink. Eskel’s most recent installation piece standing tall. Jaskier in an open waistcoat and skinny jeans with his arm around a tiny woman with long blond hair artfully draped across one eye and clutching a cello. A stack of books sitting next to a stack of sheet music, Jaskier seated at a piano with his eyes closed behind rectangular glasses frames, a grinning selfie in front of Witcher Brothers’ front door with @witcherbrosbooks helpfully tagged.

He goes further back. There are pictures from a trip to London, a trip to Paris, a trip to Berlin, a trip to Vienna, a trip to Prague, clearly a tour of some kind. He’s dressed up in all of them, but he looks more Jaskier, with colored shirts and ties, waistcoats and chucks, hair askew, and wearing a couple dangly earrings. Jaskier under the marquee of the Radio City Music Hall, a broad grin on his face. Jaskier at his grad school graduation ceremony. Jaskier at clubs and bars with an array of instruments and an array of different people and an array of empty glasses strewn about the table. Outtakes from the same photoshoot as his headshot: his earrings back in and his hair disheveled; his bowtie undone and staring at the camera, no smile; his bowtie undone and staring at the camera, laughing; slouched in a chair with his violin over his knees; his dress shirt undone, three additional piercings and the hint of two tattoos visible on either side of his ribs as he turns to look over his shoulder.

Christ,” Geralt breathes, overwhelmed. “Roach, what the fuck am I doing? Thinking someone like this could . . . thinking someone like this could ever possibly want . . . . It’s lunacy, that’s what it is. Sheer fucking lunacy. And what the fuck is he doing? Playing outside my shop when he could be the rockstar of the classical music world? Or an actual fucking rockstar? Jesus.”

Roach, predictably, has no answers. She just stares at him, balefully, and then leans up to have her head scratched.

“Yeah girl,” he says, obliging her. “Yeah, I don’t know either.”

 

*

 

The next day, during the now-daily afternoon rainshower, Jaskier picks up a skull carved from some kind of crystal or mineral and turns it this way and that, holding it up to the light. The one he’s chosen is mostly blue with some gold and orange shot through it, and he stares it, perplexed.

“Hmmm. Immediately, I love him,” he finally announces. “I’m buying this one, and I’m calling him Yorick. Entirely unoriginal, I know, but I can’t resist.”

Geralt simply takes it from him and sets it behind the counter on his guitar case. “You’re not buying anything.”

Jaskier looks up at that, surprised. “Geralt--”

“Nope. You ever try to pay for anything here, I’m refunding your money by filling your case with small change.”

Jaskier heaves the kind of sigh Geralt hears from Ciri when she’s practicing her lines for the school play. “Fine. If you insist.” He drums his fingers along the counter and then rests his chin in his hands. “So. Yesterday. You did a little research, hmmmm?”

“Hmmmm. Juilliard?”

Geralt manages to surprise Jaskier twice in one conversation, and he laughs, short and sharp. “Wow. That’s like, the least interesting thing you could’ve found by googling me.”

That is, in fact, probably true. “I had already heard of it, at least,” Geralt says. “Parent of a band kid who also sometimes does drama, you know?”

Jaskier nods; he definitely does know. He looks off, out toward the street, where the rain is still streaming off the awning. “Juilliard was practically my destiny. Ever since I first played a violin at four years old and didn’t suck at it.”

“You were a prodigy. You are a prodigy.”

“That word has been used, yes.” Geralt knows: he read the news articles, he saw the performance reviews, he braved Twitter to read the tweets.

“Did you like it there?” he asks. Jaskier’s voice hadn’t been sad exactly, more . . . pensive, but Geralt is suddenly very invested in making sure that Jaskier wasn’t some child prodigy who was taken advantage of, forced into things he didn’t want to do. “Did you enjoy it?”

“Oh, yes, I did. I did.” Jaskier turns back to look up at Geralt, his chin still resting in one hand. He traces a finger over the counter, nonsense patterns that resolve into something Geralt recognizes from stray pieces of Ciri’s music as a treble clef. “I arrived there, two weeks after my eighteenth birthday, thinking I’ve already recorded albums, I’ve played with symphonies, I’m hot shit, these people don’t have anything really to teach me, and I was very fucking wrong, and it was the absolute best thing for me. I loved it. I met Essi there, a couple of other people who are in our band now. I acquired a nemesis, the Salieri to my Mozart, of course. All good musicians and composers need a nemesis. I loved Juilliard.”

Geralt vaguely recalls Salieri and Mozart from watching Amadeus with Yennefer years ago, and he feels proud of himself that he doesn’t have to ask for clarification. “So why . . . “ He tries to search for a polite way to ask why the fuck are you wasting your time playing here? but he can’t quite find the words, so he just trails off, and hopes Jaskier catches his meaning.

“Why am I playing outside your bookshop instead of working my way up through the first violin section to concertmaster of the Cintra Symphony Orchestra?”

“Ah. Yes.”

That sweet smile Jaskier had given him when he finished playing his first song yesterday? It’s back, and just as devastating as it was the previous time. “Because I want to.”

“It’s not that simple. It can’t be.”

“It is that simple. Some things are that simple, Geralt. Why do you run this bookshop? I know you have an MBA. Why aren’t you working for some Fortune 500 company, making a bazillion dollars and picking up new stock options and dividends and whatever-the-hell every time you turn around?”

Geralt suppresses the urge to growl. He doesn’t want this turned around on him. That’s too . . . too personal, he can’t. He can’t. “We’re not talking about me, we’re--”

“Oh, of course,” Jaskier says, sweet smile from a minute ago entirely gone, as if it had never existed, just a memory. “We’re examining and criticizing my life choices today, not yours. I get it.”

“Jaskier, there’s a big difference between a good-but-not-great MBA student deciding to stay and help run his family business and a literally famous violin player deciding to play for pocket change outside of a bookshop.”

Jaskier blinks at him, stunned. “I see,” he bites out. “If I had known this was on the agenda for today, I would’ve just called my fucking parents. I’m used to it from them, I don’t need it from you, too. Why is it still fucking raining?”

He pushes off from the counter and walks over to the door, staring outside as though he can change the weather patterns through the sheer force of his desire to be out of this building. Geralt despairs. He knew that he would fuck this up eventually, he knew, he always does this, he says this wrong thing and then can never recover and make things right, back to how they were, every time he--

A loud snapping sound coming from the direction of the next room grabs his attention and he looks over at where Eskel, Lambert, and Triss are all glaring at him. What the fuck? Lambert mouths. Fix it! is Eskel’s contribution. Triss just crosses her arms over her chest and makes a shooing motion toward the door with one hand. Geralt raises his hands in the universal gesture for what do I do? and Triss mouths Apologize!

Fuck. He shouldn’t have asked why, he shouldn’t have opened his mouth, he should have just accepted his good fortune that Jaskier spends most of his days here, when he could be teaching even more students or playing with the symphony or recording albums or dazzling the world. Oh. That might not be a bad route to take.

Geralt rounds the edge of the counter, briefly glancing up, as if some deity up above might take pity and bestow upon him the proper words, for once. He stands next to Jaskier, close, but very carefully not touching him. He counts himself lucky that Jaskier doesn’t move away. Jaskier also doesn’t look at him, but he doesn’t move away. That’s . . . something.

“I apologize. That was way out of line. It’s none of my business why you do whatever you want to do.”

Jaskier sighs, but he doesn’t immediately respond, and Geralt starts to panic. Should he say more? He should probably say more. He has no idea what to say. He is in unbearable agony.

“You can ask why I play here,” Jaskier finally says. “I’m honestly surprised you haven’t and just accepted what I said when we met. That didn’t bother me.” Geralt really, desperately wants to know what actually bothered Jaskier, so he can apologize for it, and then never ever do it again. “The insinuation that I’m just a stupid child who doesn’t know what’s good for him and good for his life is what bothered me.”

Oh. That is enlightening. “I don’t think you’re a stupid child,” Geralt reassures him. He decides to put some of his newfound knowledge of Jaskier to good use. “You have a Master’s degree.”

(Oh, Jesus Christ, he hears from the direction of the next room. To his surprise, it’s Triss who says it.)

Amazingly, it appears some deity actually is smiling upon him, because Jaskier starts laughing, a kind of helpless laughter that at first sounds like he’s laughing despite himself, but eventually, it turns genuine. “Oh, Geralt.”

“That was a dumb thing to say.”

“It kinda was, yeah.”

“May I try again?”

“You may.” Jaskier looks at him this time. Geralt considers that a victory, even though he’s pretty sure looking into those eyes will make it even harder to find the right words.

“I don’t think you’re stupid. I don’t think you’re a child. I don’t think you don’t know what you’re doing or that you don’t know what’s best for you. I just . . . I saw those videos last night? Of you playing? In all these amazing places I’ve never even seen? You are . . . so fucking talented. And this is a bookshop in downtown Cintra. It’s a good bookshop, a fucking great bookshop, actually, but it’s not Carnegie Hall. When you play out there, you’re playing with Ciri on her clarinet trying to learn how to improv, not the London Philharmonic. You . . . I . . .”

“Geralt--”

“You deserve more.”

The bookshop goes completely silent. Jaskier looks stunned. Geralt has no idea what is going to happen next, and he holds his breath, as if that can prevent everything from shattering. He doesn’t dare look to see what Eskel, Lambert, and Triss are doing, but he imagines they’re clutching each other’s hands and holding their breaths too, waiting, in agony, like him.

“Geralt.” Jaskier’s voice breaks the tiniest bit on the last syllable, and Geralt’s first inclination in response to someone in distress has never been physical affection or comfort, but he can’t help but offer his hand now. He has to offer something. Jaskier reaches for it, blindly, clutching it, and at least four people in the bookshop finally breathe again. “Can I tell you a secret?”

Geralt doesn’t trust his voice. He can only nod.

“I’ve played in Carnegie Hall. I’ve played with the London Philharmonic. I’ve toured all the great capitals of Europe and played in places that are goddamn legendary for classical musicians. And you know what? There is nowhere I’d rather be than on the sidewalk outside your fucking great bookshop in downtown Cintra, sometimes accompanied by your amazing daughter who’s trying to learn how to improv on her clarinet. If I wanted to be playing for a symphony, I would be. I could be. And maybe someday in the future, I will be. But right now . . . right now, I want to be here. This is exactly where I want to be. So trust me to make that decision, yeah?”

“Yeah, yeah, okay.”

Jaskier smiles, but it’s a little wobbly. “Can you hug me now, please? Is that okay? You don’t have to if you don’t---oh!

With the exception of Ciri and sometimes Triss, Geralt is not a hugger. For Jaskier he can be a hugger.

He can’t help but think: Jaskier feels right in his arms, like they’re meant to hold each other. Geralt’s hand clutches the back of Jaskier’s waistcoat, probably wrinkling it all to hell, but from the way Jaskier tightens his arms and shifts and buries his face in Geralt’s neck, he doesn’t seem to mind all that much. “I apologize,” Geralt whispers.

“Apology accepted,” Jaskier whispers back, his lips brushing against Geralt’s neck.

“You’re a really great musician,” Geralt says, thrilled beyond the telling of it that he finally managed to say what he’s been thinking for weeks.

“I have the best possible audience. Brings out the best in me.”

Geralt doesn’t want to let go, he really doesn’t, but they’re standing right in front of the door, and the rain outside is finally slowing to a halt. He gives Jaskier one last squeeze and steps back. “It’s finally stopped fucking raining.”

The corners of Jaskier’s lips twitch upwards. “So it has.”

“I probably shouldn’t push my luck, but I have to ask one other thing.” Jaskier raises both eyebrows, a clear go ahead. “Did you not want me to know about all this? The professional thing?”

He feels . . . almost hurt by the prospect, the thought that Jaskier wouldn’t want him to know this.

“No, Geralt, no,” Jaskier says, plaintive, reaching out to grab one of Geralt’s hands. “I knew you’d find out, and I was fine with that. I just . . . I kinda liked the idea that you only knew me as Jaskier. That I was just Jaskier for you. Not Julian, with all the . . . everything that comes along with being him. For a while, I could just be Jaskier, a guy who you let play some instruments and sing outside his shop. I guess I was a little . . . hesitant to let that go.”

That makes a certain kind of sense, actually, and Geralt nods. “There’s a problem with that, though. I don’t think you’ve ever been just Jaskier, honestly.”

Oh, that sweet smile again. Geralt hopes it never gets less devastating.

 

*

 

“So remember,” Jaskier says, fiddling with the pencil holder on the counter that has been repurposed to hold all of the various Pride flags, “unless the weather continues to be like that gross nonsense out there”--he gestures to the rain, which has become omnipresent over the week, and especially the last few days--“I won’t be here tomorrow because Bardically Yours is playing at one of the Pride adjacent events.”

Geralt nods. While he will not enjoy having to go from Friday afternoon to Monday morning without seeing Jaskier at the shop, it’s not that much of a problem, as Witcher Brothers will be closing early on Saturday for the main parade. “Right.” He does, however, have a question. “So if you’re playing at Pride tomorrow, why are you wearing that today?”

That is a rainbow striped button up open over a crop top that says Gettin’ Bi, skinny jeans with blue, pink, and purple flowers embroidered on them, and rainbow chucks. If you added up all the outfits Geralt wore over the course of three years, they wouldn’t have as much color in them as the outfit Jaskier wears right now. Jaskier wears it effortlessly and looks fantastic doing so.

(The crop top, in particular, caused difficulties for Geralt all morning. Every time a breeze blew past, lifting the tails of the button up, he saw the ends of the as-yet-unidentified tattoos on Jaskier’s ribs, and it had been a lot. Several times Geralt had caught the tail edge of a sly smirk on Jaskier’s face. Geralt suspects Jaskier knows it’s a lot and that is, in fact, why he’s wearing it.)

“Oh, Geralt.” Over the past few weeks, Geralt has undertaken a project to classify all of Jaskier’s different smiles. This one, he has decided, is fond. “Bold of you to assume that this is the only Pride-themed clothing I have in my closet.”

Fair enough. “That was foolish of me.”

It’s become easier, somehow, admitting things like that. Jaskier has this way, when talking to you, of giving you his entire attention and making you feel as though you’re the only person currently in the world for him. And along with that, there’s something about the look in his eyes when he’s listening, like he truly understands, or is trying very hard to understand, and he’s not going to judge, he’s not going to call what you’re saying stupid, even if what you’re saying is, well, that you may perhaps have been a little bit stupid. Words just come easier around Jaskier.

“Maybe so. Also, the next Saturday, I’ll only be here in the morning because OCO is playing with the Cintra Symphony down in the park for the Fourth of July extravaganza. Here are the details.” He hands Geralt a brightly colored flyer and draws a heart with a J inside of it next to Oxenfurt Chamber Orchestra. “You’re all invited, yes, even Yennefer, and you better come. You’ll get to hear the cannons, it’ll be great.”

Wait.

“The cannons?”

“Yup.” Jaskier takes the flyer back and starts sketching something at the bottom.

“Like, the old timey weapons? Those cannons?”

“Yup! The very same!” Jaskier hands the flyer back over, and, sure enough, there’s now a series of tiny cannons at the bottom of the page, firing cannonballs into the abyss.

Geralt supposes that cannons at a Fourth of July celebration is not actually the weirdest thing he’s ever heard of, but he does not at all understand why Jaskier is so enthused about it. “Okay. So, what, exactly, does that have to do with you?”

Jaskier looks right at him and his eyes go wide. “Oh, Geralt. You’ve never heard the 1812 Overture live. Oh, Geralt.” He drums his fingers on the counter, his rings clacking loudly on the lacquer. “Oh, Geralt, how I wish I could be there with you while you experience this for the first time, but alas, I will be on stage playing. You, my friend, are in for a treat! Don’t look it up beforehand,” he says, pushing Geralt’s hand away from where it’s reaching for his phone, “allow yourself to be surprised.”

“I don’t particularly like surprises.”

Jaskier’s bright smile turns a little softer, a little more gentle. “You’ll like this one.”

“Hmmmm.”

“You know, since we’re talking about music, I’ve always wondered something.” That adorable little furrow between Jaskier’s brows is back, and Geralt wants to reach and smooth it out with his fingers. “Everyone here is not shy about requesting that I play certain things. Which is amazing? I love it! I adore an enthusiastic audience. I have an entire setlist now of songs written and performed by ladies for Triss, and it’s great. It’s like three days long. I’ve had so much fun trying to translate all the electronica stuff Eskel likes to a single guitar. Now that I think about it, I might actually have more luck with that and a keyboard, but that presented logistical challenges for us before.”

“If you wanted to bring your keyboard again, we could work something out, be a little bit better prepared,” Geralt offers, more than willing to overcome those logistical challenges.

“Why Geralt, is this your way of saying that you liked it when I twinkled the ivories? Or, you know, the portable keyboard equivalent, as the case may be.”

Geralt very much hopes that he isn’t blushing, and he ducks his head slightly. “Not as much as the violin, but. Yes.”

“Duly noted,” Jaskier says, looking extremely pleased with himself. “The keyboard is a go. So we’ve got badass ladies for Triss, electronica for Eskel, insanely complicated orchestral pieces for Yennefer, and, by the way, she really needs to stop picking songs with six flats in the key signature, I hate them, which is certainly why she chooses them. Ciri and Dara enjoy literally everything, although that might be less them actually loving everything and more them trying to see if there’s something I can’t play.”

Geralt, who has overheard Ciri and Dara taking deep dives into Spotify playlists and saying things like oh, there’s no way he knows that one, knows that this is true.

“For Lambert, I think I have played nearly every single song ever written by any member of Led Zeppelin? Even for projects that weren’t the Zep? Which is awesome, I’m so here for it, but in all of this it occurs to me that you’ve never requested, well, anything? And I think I would . . . really like to play something that you want to hear. So what’s your fancy, Geralt?”

And now it comes to this. Geralt having to admit that a great musician has been playing at his shop most days for nearly two months now, but he doesn’t actually know anything about music. Or even have any real music taste at all. That, for the vast majority of his life, music has just been background noise to him, something that can be put on so that he’s not working in complete silence, but that’s it, it’s never really, he’s never really allowed it to have any meaning for him. Maybe he can bluster his way out of this? Say something like, oh, you know, I like everything? Say something like--

“Geralt?” Jaskier prompts, starting to look concerned.

“I’ve never really been into music,” he blurts out. “Especially not music with lyrics. It’s never been . . . it’s never been something I’ve really thought about. It’s too close to poetry, I can’t . . . I can’t get it.”

Jaskier looks surprised. “Oh. What do you mean by that? That you can’t get it?”

Geralt closes his eyes. He doesn’t want to say this. He’s never actually said this to anyone. His eyes fly open when Jaskier’s hand covers his own on top of the counter, the lightest pressure, the barest touch. There are calluses all over his fingers. It’s grounding, almost, or soothing. Something real, anyway.

“When I was in school”--understanding almost immediately begins to dawn on Jaskier’s face--“I never really got analyzing poetry or the books we had to read. I loved reading them, I’ve always loved reading, but I just wanted to be in the book or the poem, I didn’t want to think about what the symbolism meant. And it seemed like every time I had to offer what I thought something meant, I’d be told no, that’s not it, and there was always that undercurrent of you idiot, so I just . . . stopped trying to find some kind of deeper meaning. I kept reading books, but I just stopped reading poetry. And song lyrics are poetry. So for a while, they just pissed me off, like, I’d get actually angry when I would listen to music, angry about how I didn’t get it. So I just stopped. And for a long time, I haven’t really thought about music at all.”

Jaskier doesn’t say anything for a while, and he looks sad, almost, but it’s not pitying, so Geralt feels no need to spit something like don’t you dare feel sorry for me, something that would ruin the moment. Finally, Jaskier reaches for his phone in his back pocket.

“Can I play something for you? A recording. And all you have to do is listen, and at the end, tell me how you feel. There are no wrong answers. Listen to the lyrics, but don’t worry about what they mean, don’t try to parse a turn of phrase, don’t worry about references to things, don’t fret if you don’t get it. Just tell me how you feel, okay?”

“One of your songs?”

“One of my songs, yes. Okay?”

Geralt nods, and the song starts. It starts with Jaskier playing guitar, and it moves along, not fast, but quick, maybe? It’s not a complicated melody, but repetitive, soothing, and then Jaskier’s voice comes in and oh, Geralt is lost, utterly and completely lost. It’s a love song, he gets that right away, and there’s also something about stars and also being strong, and it’s a happy song. It’s about love, a good strong love, but it also feels kind of sad sometimes, somehow, and there are some lines that he doesn’t quite get, like the meaning of them is eluding him, just out of reach. He feels his brow start to furrow, and then Jaskier’s hand brushes his and he remembers don’t think, just feel. Jaskier’s voice is lovely, so lovely, soft, and this song is so gentle and it makes him long to be held, held by this man standing in front of him, maybe?

And then it’s over, why is it over, and Jaskier stops the recording, but he doesn’t move his hand from where it’s brushing Geralt’s, still, and he whispers, “How did that make you feel?” and Geralt doesn’t even think before he murmurs back, “Peaceful. Wistful.”

“Perfect, that’s perfect, Geralt. So you liked it?”

And Geralt wants to say, it was the best thing I’ve ever heard, and he wants to say, your voice is the softest caress I could ever dare to imagine, and he wants to say, I want you to sing about me this way, and he wants to say, I could listen to you sing this song to me every day, for an eternity. But that’s too much, it’s too much, he’s feeling far too much, but he’s also not enough for this beautiful man who is kind and gentle and who coaxes magic out of strings and sings like he is blessed by all the gods, so he doesn’t say any of those things.

Instead he just whispers yes and simultaneously hopes and fears that Jaskier hears all the other things anyway.

And maybe he does because Jaskier smiles at him and whispers back, I just want you to feel something, that’s all I want.

 

*

 

“Geralt, I know you’re the big boss man and all, but I’ve got a bone to pick with you.” Lambert looks up from where he’s helping Geralt remove weeds from the window boxes containing Triss’s flowers. He has a smudge of dirt on his cheek. They’re both hot and sweaty and really tired of having their hands in dirt. Jaskier has been on a David Bowie kick all day, and the sound of him steadily working his way through Ziggy Stardust on his lute somewhere behind them is practically the only thing making this day worthwhile. “Two of them actually.”

“Fine. What are they?”

“One: why do we have so many of these flower boxes anyway? And two: why do we have to be doing this now, the worst day of summer thus far, when it is approximately as hot as Satan's asshole out here?”

“Charming.”

“Hey, I’m not the one you keep around for their pretty words,” Lambert says, not-at-all subtly jerking his head towards Jaskier.

Geralt stares at Lambert for a beat, then two, and then he grabs a handful of dirt from the flower box and just chunks it at him. It hits Lambert square in the face, and he stares, stunned, at the bits of dirt suddenly falling down his shirt and onto his jeans.

“Oh, motherfucker, it is on, you better--”

Hey!

The rest of Lambert’s threat is lost to the sound of Jaskier, yelling at the top of his lungs.

“You better get your hand away from her purse, asshole! I’ll beat you with my lute, don’t think I won’t!”

Geralt and Lambert both jump to their feet, and, sure enough, they see a man snatch his hand away from a startled-looking young woman standing about five feet from Jaskier. She clutches both her purse and her bag from Witcher Brothers closer to her and he moves so that he’s standing in front of her, protecting her.

Lambert, thinking quickly, snaps a picture of the man with his phone and meaningfully looks up at the camera mounted above the doorway to the shop. “I think it’s probably time for you to move on now,” he says, voice cold as ice.

The man looks around at Lambert, Geralt, and Eskel, standing in the doorway, all of whom with their arms folded across their chests. He takes a look at Jaskier, now holding his lute like a baseball bat. He slinks off down Aedirn Avenue before breaking into a run.

“Yeah, that’s right! You better run!” Jaskier calls after him. “Should we call the police?”

“Nope. I’ll send this picture to Vilgefortz, the barber across the street? He’s also the one who upgraded all the security systems in the area, he’ll make sure everyone is on high alert, probably post some signs.”

Eskel punches Lambert in the shoulder and walks over to give Jaskier a complicated handshake that turns into a hug. “Quick thinking, Lambert. And as for you,” he says to Jaskier, an admiring look on his face, “bloodthirsty, aren’t you?”

“You have no idea. And now this miscreant’s dastardly deeds need to be immortalized forever to his everlasting shame in a song. So! It’s time to compose!”

He spends the next twenty minutes bouncing ideas for rhymes off of Lambert and Eskel. Geralt, not having much luck in suppressing his laughter as the rhymes become increasingly vitriolic, heads back inside to find Triss lingering by the counter.

“I saw everything from upstairs. Everyone’s okay? The woman didn’t get hurt?”

Geralt gives her a pat on the shoulder and points to where the woman stands laughing with Lambert. “She’s fine. But at least we now have an answer to the question that you asked me on Jaskier’s first day.”

“What do you mean?”

He nods towards the sidewalk, where Jaskier is now trying to get the meter right for his song. “Jaskier. Pretty and poisonous.”

“Not going to try to refute the pretty, I see,” Triss says.

“Would you believe me if I did?”

“No, indeed I would not.”

“Well,” Geralt says, “I figured I’d save myself the mental gymnastics of trying to deny it.”

Triss leans up to give him a kiss on the cheek. “You’re a smart man, Geralt. Very smart indeed.”

 

*

 

Geralt leans back in his desk chair in his office, wishing he could be doing anything other than trying to put a value on an early  illustrated edition of The Chronicles of Narnia. The illustrations themselves are superb and the set is complete, which will please collectors. But the books aren’t in the best physical condition, with torn pages and some water damage, which will knock down the price. He runs a finger along the spine of The Horse and His Boy, forever his favorite, remembering every time he’s ever read it. He fires off a quick text to Coen, a restoration expert they’ve worked with on some of the more fragile volumes that come into their custody, and asks him if he would mind doing a consultation.

He’s waiting for a reply when he hears the telltale sound of stilettos clacking their way through the back rooms. “Hello, Yen,” he calls.

“Geralt.” She leans against the doorjamb, crossing her arms and surveying with disapproval the absolute mess that is his desk.

“If you’ve come to harass Jaskier with more impossible songs on the violin, you’re out of luck. It’s Tuesday, and he’s only here over the lunch hour on Tuesdays.”

She rolls her eyes. “As if I wasn’t aware that Oxenfurt has rehearsals on Tuesday afternoons and evenings. I know exactly where he is. That’s why I’m here.”

Geralt gestures expansively with both hands, a do go on. “Have a seat.”

“No thanks, this shouldn’t take too long. You know he’s invited us all to see him and his band with the dumb name play at Passiflora on Friday night, right?”

“I did, in fact, know that,” he says, suppressing a snort at the slight on Bardically Yours’ name.

“And you are planning to attend?”

“I am.” There is a lot of intensity in Yen’s eyes at the moment, and it sets Geralt on edge. Intense Yennefer has been the precursor to things both very good and very bad in his life. “What’s this about, Yen?”

She hums and gives him an appraising look. “Did you know that Jaskier’s birthday is Friday?”

Ah. “No. He neglected to share that information with me.”

She nods like she was expecting this response. “I figured as much.”

“What does that mean?”

“It means, Geralt,” she says, walking into the office and leaning against his desk, “that he doesn’t want to put any pressure on you. He doesn’t want you to feel like you have to do anything for him. It means . . . .“ She pauses, and for a long time, too, searching for the right words. It’s very unlike Yen, who rarely opens her mouth unless she knows precisely what she wants to say. “It means he wants you to know that he thinks that you’re enough. Just you. Just as you are. But he also doesn’t know for sure how you feel about him. So he hasn’t said anything, so he doesn’t pressure you, if that’s not what you want.”

Yen can’t be saying what he thinks she’s saying. She just can’t be. “Yen, how--”

“Do you actually think that I’ve never joined Triss on her lunch dates with Jaskier? Sometimes it’s just the two of us, in fact. He’s surprisingly good company. I always tell him about Stregobor’s exploits, and he writes absolutely scathing verses about him. I have a selection of them that I keep at my desk, and every time I’m forced to deal with a Stregobor email, phone call, or other headache, I read what Jaskier’s written about him, and it actually calms me. Aside from that, Triss adores him, so does Ciri, and so do you. I already knew that he’s an excellent violinist, so I thought I’d see what all the fuss was about, and he appears to be a pretty excellent person, too. Although if you ever tell him that I said that, I’ll shove my Louboutins up your ass, so I wouldn’t try it.”

Geralt is still stuck somewhere around the you adore him statement, and the terrifying shoe-related threat doesn’t even register with him. “I don’t--”

“No, Geralt, if you say I don’t adore him, if you say, I’m not ass-over-teakettle in love with him, then there’s just no hope for you. Of course you are, I mean--”

“I don’t deserve him!”

Yennefer looks taken aback at the outburst. She blinks, reassessing what she knows, the tact she needs to take. “Geralt--”

“Yen, he is so beautiful. Physically, sure, but it’s . . . everything about him. I don’t have the words--I don’t. It’s like, I hear him play and I hear him sing and I talk with him. I talk with him, Yen! Like, actual conversations in which I share things about myself! And he does, too, and it’s like. Through all of this? I see his soul. And he is so lovely, Yen. I don’t know how else to say it. He’s lovely, and I think I love him. But it’s like, sometimes I’m afraid that if I touch him, I’ll break him, I’ll steal away all the good things inside of him, I’ll ruin him. I don’t want to ruin him, Yen. I think . . . I think that would also ruin me.”

Yennefer leans down and places her hands on Geralt’s cheeks, lightly, but there’s steel there, too. “I’m going to say this because you need to hear it. Please don’t interrupt me. Alright? Answer out loud.”

“Alright.”

“Good. I know you blame yourself for the end of our marriage. You shouldn’t. You are not the sole reason why we didn’t work. You played a role, sure. But so did I. We had all the passion and all the fiery desire and we had the love, yes, but at that point in our lives, we didn’t have the communication, we didn’t have the patience. We heard each other, but we didn’t listen. We both had rough edges that rubbed up against each other the wrong way and neither of us were willing to put the time in to figure out a fix. We’re both older now, and we’ve both learned a lot, I think. I don’t think you give yourself enough credit: you are far better at communicating now than you were seven years ago. I mean, not even in the same fucking ballpark, Geralt. You and I loved each other but it wasn’t enough to save our marriage.”

“I don’t want to repeat the same mistakes, Yen, I don’t--”

Yennefer places a finger over Geralt’s lips. “I’m not done. You feeling like you’ll ruin him--you think I don’t feel the same every time I look at Triss, surrounded by all her fucking flowers? We both love these creatures of light and joy, and we look at our rough hands and think, I can’t care for something this delicate, I’m not worthy of this, I don’t deserve this. But you know what I also think? Say ‘what do you think, Yen?’”

Geralt huffs a laugh, but it comes out sounding more like a sob. “What do you think, Yen?”

“I think love has nothing to do with what we deserve. I think love has everything to do with choice and choosing to love someone, and choosing to do things that make them happy, and choosing to apologize when we wrong them--because we will, I have wronged Triss in the past, I will do it in the future, and you will do it to Jaskier, not because we’re terrible people, but because we’re fucking human, Geralt, and we make mistakes, and it’s how we respond to those mistakes that’s important. Love is choosing to put effort in, it’s choosing to work together, it’s choosing to hear and listen, it’s choosing each other. Do you want him in your life?”

“Yes.” There’s no hesitation. Absolutely none. “Unquestionably, yes.”

“Good. So let me tell you something else. Jaskier doesn’t give a fuck about some nebulous notion of what he deserves. He gives a fuck about you. You’re a good man, Geralt. You’re kind and you’re strong and you’re smart and you’re empathetic, far more than you think you are, and you love with your whole fucking heart, no, your whole fucking being, with everything you have and are. Do you honestly think I would trust you with Ciri if I didn’t think you were an amazing person?”

“No, no you wouldn’t.”

“No, no I wouldn’t. Everything I see in you, about what an amazing person you are? You better fucking believe Jaskier sees it too. He wants to give you the fucking world, Geralt. You should let him try. If we’re going to keep throwing around the word deserve, even though you know what I think about that, I think he deserves to try. I think you deserve that, too.” 

She leans down further and kisses his forehead. “I’m going to let go of your face now because you’re crying and this is getting kind of gross.”

“Well, I may be crying, but you’re definitely crying,” he shoots back, hunting around in his desk drawer for a kleenex or two. “Bunch of messes, we are.”

“Two messes in love,” Yen replies, carefully swiping a tear away. “So. Have you listened to me?”

“I have heard and listened,” Geralt confirms. “But I should probably still get him a birthday gift, right?”

Yen chuckles. “He expects absolutely nothing. And will not be disappointed if you get him nothing. Your presence is all that he wants, I wasn’t lying about that. But”--she gestures out towards the shop--“I daresay you’ll be able to find something he likes out there.”

 

*

 

Geralt stays late that day, and the following two days after that, scouring the shop, laying his eyes on every book on the premises to find the perfect one. He finds two, actually, mid-morning on Friday, and while Jaskier’s outside improving with Ciri and Dara (who really have made strides with two months of instruction and practice), he slips away to Triss’s lair to wrap them and select the perfect flowers.

Triss stops him on the way back downstairs, looks at the aster, the gardenia, the white violet. “Oh, well done,” she says. She kisses him once on the cheek and brushes her thumb across his cheekbone. “I don’t even know what books you’ve chosen, but I think the reception will be one that you will like. And I am so very happy for you.”

“Triss, I’m nervous,” he admits, surprised at himself for daring to say it.

She doesn’t say don’t be, she doesn’t say that’s foolish. “I understand,” she says, pulling him into a hug. “It’s difficult, admitting how we feel, laying ourselves bare. I am very proud of you.”

Geralt arrives downstairs to find Ciri and Dara lingering by the counter and no one standing outside. Ciri’s eyes light up when she sees what’s in Geralt’s hands, and she does a little dance, unable to contain her excitement. “Jaskier’s still outside,” she says, anticipating Geralt’s question before he can even open his mouth to ask it. “He got a phone call and went around the corner. What’d you get him, Dad?”

“You will surely find out,” Geralt replies, tucking the books and flowers underneath the counter and ignoring Ciri’s groan of protest. He wants to run outside and give the gifts to Jaskier before he talks himself out of it, convinces himself that this is a ridiculous idea, loses his nerve.

Ciri, sensing his unease, hugs him. She murmurs, “It’ll be fine, Dad,” and tugs Dara away. 

Geralt takes a deep breath and forces himself to relax.

He doesn’t see Jaskier until the skies open up and rain starts pouring down--the lightning crashing and the thunder rumbling so loud the walls shake--and he dashes in from around the corner, violin and bow tucked underneath his gauzy, paisley-printed shirt in a desperate attempt to keep them dry. His face resembles the thunderclouds outside, and he nearly tosses his violin on the counter before setting it down gently at the last moment. He plucks a few notes on the strings, a short, sharp pizzicato that signals his agitation.

“Are you alright?” Geralt asks before Jaskier can wander off. He is hyper-aware of the presence of the books and flowers, but he needs the right time, this definitely isn’t the right time, he can’t force the right time.

It almost looks as though Jaskier will refuse to say anything, give a quick non-answer, and then start clattering about the shop, a moody and morose presence. But he finally leans heavily into the counter, settling in for a long conversation, and Geralt’s heart is glad for that, at least, his willingness to talk. “Just had my semi-annual phone call with my parents.”

“Because it’s your birthday.” Jaskier raises an eyebrow. “A little bird told me.”

“Ciri,” Jaskier says, and not even his otherwise gloomy mood can stop the tiniest of smiles from starting to form on his face at the mention of her. Geralt loves how well he gets along with his daughter, he truly does.

“Yen, actually. She wanted to make sure I knew.”

“Hmmm. Anyway, yes, they called because it’s my birthday. That was what they led with, and it was the only nice part of the conversation. The rest of it was all, you’re 28 now, Julian, the New York Philharmonic is having auditions, the Met Opera is having auditions, when are you going to audition, and then there was the it’s time to grow up and play real music and compose real pieces, not your little ditties, and then we took a detour into you’re squandering your talent, playing for people who can never appreciate it, and then that was followed up by one of these days you’re going to find yourself all washed up and no one will take a chance on you, and then finally their closing volley was you’ll be a has been, or maybe a never was, your true potential never fully realized. Honestly, I don’t even know why I bother to take their calls, I could recite their script nearly verbatim by now.”

Geralt doesn’t quite know what to say, but he senses that Jaskier’s not quite done, that there’s more he needs to let out, so he stays quiet. He holds out his hand, hoping, perhaps foolishly, that Jaskier might be able to draw some modicum of comfort from it. Jaskier takes his hand immediately, and when he speaks, his voice wavers. “Ye gods, Geralt, I am sick to death of it! I am sick to death of how every time I speak to them, they’re doing nothing but criticizing, like, just because they’re famous fucking opera singers, their path is the one, true, correct way, and I must follow along in lockstep, the perfect dutiful son. I am sick to death of how every time I speak to them, I just hear nothing but how disappointed they are in me. And I am especially sick to death of how every fucking time I speak to them, there’s a tiny part of me that wishes and hopes that maybe, just maybe, this time, they’ll just be able to fucking say, Julian, we’re proud of you, but they never do, and I’m left ending the call and wondering why I even still bother to chase their approval. Like, how fucking stupid am I, Geralt?”

His grip on Geralt’s hand is near bruising, but Geralt will bear it, of course he will, he must. He rests his other hand on top of Jaskier’s, but not before reaching up to wipe away a tear escaping from his eye. Geralt knows a thing or two about hoping a parent would say I’m proud of you or you’re doing okay or I love you. He heard all of those things from Vesemir, but that never stopped him from wishing that his mother would magically come back into his life and say those words herself. But this is Jaskier’s time, not Geralt’s, they’ll have time for that later. “You’re not stupid.”

“I can’t help but feel it.” Jaskier sniffs and dries his eyes on the shoulder of his shirt, mostly ineffectually. Geralt has kleenexes stashed under the counter, but like hell is he going to let go of Jaskier’s hands now.

“I know. I know.” And he does. And then, he has an idea. “Jaskier, tell me.” He waits until Jaskier looks up from their joined hands to meet Geralt’s eyes. “Why do you play outside of Witcher Brothers? What is it that makes you know that this is where you should be? You play with professional ensembles; you clearly love it. But why do you play here?”

Out of the corner of his eye, Geralt can see everyone standing in the doorway leading from one of the smaller rooms. Ciri has both of her hands clasped over her mouth, and she looks like she’s about to come running over to engage in a hug attack. Both Lambert and Eskel have their hands on her shoulders, holding her in place. Dara’s hidden mostly behind Triss, who looks cautiously optimistic, and Yennefer, standing with her arm around Triss’s waist, just mouths good job. They’re all in their corner. They all want this to succeed.

Geralt removes one of his hands and brushes his fingers through Jaskier’s hair, slightly damp from getting caught in the rain. “Why do you play here?”

“I . . . I love being on the stage. The difficulty of the music, the getting dressed up, the journey, we take the audience on a journey over the course of a show. We all experience something together, only the people in that room will have that unique experience. It’s like some kind of magic or something. And I love that, and I need to feel it. But it’s . . . it’s not quite enough, I guess, for me?

“Playing outside here, playing in a bar or a club or a coffee shop, it’s so much more immediate. The energy is entirely different. When I’m playing or singing out there, people are right there next to me; I let them feel my energy and I feed off of what they give back to me. It’s this circle, it’s, it’s intoxicating. I play out there because sometimes life just totally fucking sucks, Geralt, and we’ve got to go on like it doesn’t. We have to go to work, trudge through the dreariness, when we want to be doing anything else. But music, it lifts you up, even the sad songs, they say I see you, they say you’re not alone, when I play, there’s a part of me that goes someplace else, someplace . . . not here. And I want to be able to do that for people, for everyone, not just people in concert halls, but people walking down the street. I want to give them all a moment where I can transport them somewhere else. Maybe somewhere better? That’s why I play here. I’m most at home here. Doing this. That’s where I want to stay. If you still want to have me?”

Oh. Here’s the right moment.

“I got you a birthday gift.”

Jaskier laughs at the non-sequitur, but it’s still a little brittle, a little fragile. “I didn’t want you to go to the trouble, I--”

“I know. It was no trouble. None at all.” He reaches under the counter and sets the two wrapped books down. “It occurred to me that I own a bookshop. And if I couldn’t find something for you here, well.”

Jaskier runs a finger over the flowers. “This is an interesting group of flowers.”

“We’ll get to those in a minute. Books first.”

“You’re very demanding about how I open my gift,” Jaskier says, but his smile is stronger, and there’s a hint of mischief playing about the corner of his lips. He unwraps the first one and lets out a bark of laughter. 

Smart Ways To Use Poetry In a Street Fight, oh Geralt, I think it’s quite possible that no one has ever known me as well as you do.”

(I want to know you even better, Geralt thinks. I never want to stop knowing and learning you.)

Jaskier unwraps the second book and gasps. It’s exquisite, bound in a beautiful shade of blue and almost as old as Jaskier’s violin. It’s a book of musical instruments through the ages. In near perfect condition, the illustrations are still bright and crisp, stunningly rendered and detailed, with the edges of the pages marbled to show different shades of red and blue and gold. Geralt couldn’t find a record of when Witcher Brothers purchased it, which means it has been there for years. This book has been well-loved and cared for, and it was waiting for someone who would love it just as much as its previous owner.

Tears start falling down Jaskier’s face when he flips to the section on violins, but these are happy tears, and Geralt sees no need to wipe them away. “Geralt, there is absolutely no way I can accept this, it must be worth hundreds of dollars.”

Thousands, actually, but that is information that will remain in Geralt’s mind and Geralt’s mind only. 

“Vesemir once told me, when I was about fifteen or so and starting to play a role here that was more than just running around causing mischief and reading everything that I could put my hands on, he told me that sometimes, sometimes, books wait for the right owner, and they call to them, and there’s nothing the rest of us can do to stand in the way of that. I always thought that was kind of silly, but I also believe this book was meant for you. It’s a gift. It’s yours. Please take it.”

Jaskier’s laugh is clear as bells. “I’ve heard people say it’s not wise to meddle with Destiny. Alright then, very well. The flowers?” His anticipation is open and obvious and adorable.

Triss’s book on the language of flowers rests on the corner of the counter, and Geralt nudges it closer to Jaskier. “The three tabbed ones.”

By the time he reads the entry for white violets, he’s smiling wider than Geralt has ever seen, and it’s the most beautiful thing. “Oh, Geralt.”

Geralt walks around the counter and rests his hands on Jaskier’s cheeks. “Jaskier, may I kiss you?”

Jaskier leans into him, his long, clever fingers threading through Geralt’s hair. 

“Oh, you absolutely may.”

Geralt is vaguely aware of the cheering he hears from his family (he’s pretty sure he hears Lambert roaring it’s about fucking time!), and he doesn’t know if there are any patrons in the shop at the moment to witness this, but he finds that he cares not a whit. His world has narrowed such that the only thing he can perceive is Jaskier. He absolutely fills Geralt’s senses. The only things in the world for him right now are the press of Jaskier’s lips against his, the wispy strands of messy hair that he can sense at his fingertips, the feel of Jaskier’s body, lithe but solid, in a long line against his own. Jaskier’s hands can’t stay still, running over Geralt’s shoulders, burying themselves in his hair, and he makes a lovely, desperate sound when he opens his mouth, ever so slightly, tasting of spicy cinnamon and sweet cream from his coffee. It is all-encompassing. It is everything.

For a bookshop owner, Geralt’s never been all that appreciative of metaphor, but as they stand there, in each other’s arms at last, Geralt understands the appeal as he suddenly feels so many of them all at once. The last three months have been a prelude, and now they are finally crashing into the symphony proper. His veins, his bones, his skin, his body, they can no longer contain him. He feels too much, he is too much, and he is going supernova where he stands, white hot and scorching and bursting forth, infinitely. He is out to sea and he is drowning in Jaskier and he does not want to be rescued. He has wandered in the wilderness for a hundred years, lost and desolate, and now, now he is home. He has found his way home.

They break away; it’s necessary, but they’re reluctant, so they breathe together, barely apart, still pressed close, so close. Geralt doesn’t want to leave just yet, what they’ve created right here, so he leans back in and Jaskier meets him halfway. Jaskier laughs against his lips, and it’s joy, joy is what Geralt is feeling right now. He had gone so long without it, he thought it was lost to him forever, but no, he just needed this man, the one here in his arms, to help him find it. And now that he’s found it, he’s loath to ever lose it.

They part once more, but remain clasped together. Geralt traces his fingers along the line of Jaskier’s shoulders, Jaskier trails his up and down Geralt’s spine, each pass sending a tremble through him. Jaskier rests his head against Geralt’s, and Geralt can tell that he’s smiling about something. “Anything going on back there?” he murmurs. “I never did develop eyes in the back of my head.” 

“Eskel’s opened up a bottle of champagne,” Jaskier whispers around a chuckle. “Did he buy it special for this moment? Was it a birthday gift? What’s happening here?”

“It’s probably left over from the fortieth anniversary celebration, but we can pretend he bought it special for this.”

Jaskier hums in agreement. “How very fanciful of you, Geralt.”

“I do have my moments.”

“I think I’d like to experience many more of your fanciful moments with you.”

“I think I can arrange that.”

“Geralt.” Jaskier pulls back, just enough so they can look each other in the eye, not so much that he leaves the circle of Geralt’s arms. He looks almost bashful, which is an expression Geralt never thought he’d see. “Come home with me tonight? After the show? If that’s not too forward.”

Geralt leans forward to press his forehead against Jaskier’s. They’re so close, he doesn’t have far to go. He’s done so much overthinking, he nearly overthought himself right out of this, nearly convinced himself that this was not a possibility, that this could never be, that Jaskier could never want this. He’s not going to overthink this. Not anymore. 

“Not too forward at all.”

 

*

 

Jaskier leaves the shop early that evening--I’m going to be playing five instruments during this show. I need to collect them and change clothes, but I’ll see you there. Eight o’clock sharp.--but when he leaves, he kisses Geralt first, a long, slow, deliberate kiss. It’s new and it’s novel and Geralt’s heart is about to burst right out of his chest. He never ever wants to stop feeling this way, he never wants to stop feeling delighted and enchanted by Jaskier.

By the time they arrive at Passiflora at a quarter to eight, Geralt has endured more teasing from his brothers than he has in probably the last twenty years combined. But they both teased him with gentle smiles on their faces and hearty slaps to the back, and it was all balanced out by Triss’s good cheer and Yen’s quiet good, good for you, I’m happy for you both and Ciri’s exuberance. Her soft admission, murmured into Geralt’s ear just before she and Dara hopped on the rail to head to Yen’s house, that I like him, Dad, I like him so much, and I’m so happy sent a burst of warmth through him that still reverberates around his heart.

Passiflora is low, red lighting and heavy tapestries on the wall and plush carpets, and Geralt wonders if walking through the front door flings you back a century in time. (“Apparently, it used to be, shall we say, a den of iniquity in a previous life, and the current owners just decided to lean into it,” Jaskier had said. “Good place to play, though. Good acoustics.”) Jaskier’s already there when they arrive, setting up his instruments, and, for some reason, wearing a trenchcoat, even though it’s mid-August. A tiny blonde looks up from where she’s tuning her cello--this must be Essi--and waves enthusiastically when she sees them taking their seats and placing their drink orders. That catches Jaskier’s eye, and he smiles when he meets Geralt’s gaze. He tilts his head toward a nearby hallway and starts walking, and Geralt follows because he can’t not.

“What is this, in August?” Geralt asks when they’re alone. He tugs lightly on the belt of the trenchcoat.

Jaskier’s smile slides from sweet straight into naughty, and he undoes the belt and slips the coat off and lets it drop to the floor. The skinny jeans and red chucks are nothing out of the ordinary. The plain white button up with the sleeves rolled up his forearms and the buttons undone as far as Geralt can see, down past where the buttons of his red waistcoat start? Also not unusual, although no less alluring. Jaskier turns, slowly, and Geralt sees that the waistcoat has decorative laces up the back, and now Geralt knows that they’re there, and he knows he’s going to spend the entire evening thinking about ways to leave them, and Jaskier, utterly undone.

“You’re too much,” Geralt whispers into a kiss, one that’s unhurried, one that takes its time, one that lingers, the outside world be damned.

“I trust you’ll be able to handle me quite well,” Jaskier murmurs back, accepting one last kiss for good luck.

“Oh, brother, he’s got your number,” Yen mutters as Geralt returns to their table and takes a long drink of the scotch that has arrived in his absence.

Jaskier winks at him from the stage, a promise, a promise that Geralt can’t wait to see fulfilled, and then he’s stepping up to the mic, and they’re off.

Bardically Yours is . . . an experience. Geralt would like to say that he pays close attention to every performer--there’s at least ten of them crammed on that stage, somehow, most of them playing instruments that definitely are not typically played at a club show--but that would be a lie, he has eyes and ears only for Jaskier, who takes the energy that he displays when he’s dancing outside of Witcher Brothers with Ciri and Dara and amplifies it by at least an order of magnitude. He chats with his bandmates and with the crowd. He hops around and swings his hips and dances like a madman. He engages in whip-smart repartee with Essi, whom he clearly adores. He makes Lambert stand up and scream when he says, “And this one’s for you, Lambert, you asshole, because you wouldn’t fucking shut up about it.” And he plays, as promised, five instruments, including a flute while Essi takes center stage with her cello and her lovely voice.

Jaskier thrives with a crowd that is allowed to be noisy and appreciative, he’s an absolute vision when he’s playing off the energy of an enthusiastic room, but it’s his quiet moment that sends Geralt reeling. Two songs from the end, the rest of the band backs off and leaves Jaskier on stage alone with his violin. He hesitates for a moment before clearing his throat. “This one doesn’t have a title yet. It doesn’t even have lyrics, or, at least, not ones that are ready to be sung around other people, as opposed to in my shower, but it needs to be played tonight. This one is for Geralt.”

Geralt still doesn’t have the vocabulary to describe what Jaskier does, although he’s looking forward to Jaskier teaching him. He wants to close his eyes, drown in the music, but Jaskier’s eyes are open and looking right at him, so very blue, even in the low red lighting, and Geralt can’t look away. He can only listen and let himself feel, and what he feels is love.

There is absolute silence when he finishes. And then Yennefer sniffles and mutters--deliberately loud enough that it carries--goddamn it, Jaskier, and it breaks the spell. At once everyone’s screaming and everyone’s clapping, and there are tears on Geralt’s face, and on Jaskier’s also. But he blows Geralt a kiss and turns to the band and hurtles into the last song of the night, a wild romp of a song in which everyone has at least two solos and lasts nearly twenty minutes.

They find each other in the post-performance chaos, Jaskier flushed and vibrant and so very radiant Geralt wishes he could preserve the image of him in this moment, forever. 

“You wrote me a song,” Geralt whispers, the sounds of a hundred people chattering and equipment being packed up no obstacle when they’re standing as close as they are, sharing space, sharing breath.

“I will write you so many songs, Geralt,” Jaskier promises, his arms snaking up around Geralt’s neck. “Every song I write from now on will have a little bit of you in it somewhere, something just for you.”

“I don’t know how to appreciate them properly, not yet.” He rests his hands on Jaskier’s hips and pulls him even closer.

“The way you were watching me, feeling that song, letting it wash over you, immerse you? You’re already doing just fine. But I’ll spend ages teaching you how to appreciate what I play, if that’s what you want.”

“Hmmmm. It is,” Geralt murmurs against his lips. “Now I believe someone had a terribly forward idea about me coming home with him tonight?”

Jaskier’s smirk is saucy, and it promises everything. “Yes, yes, terribly forward indeed.”

 

*

 

From what Geralt sees of Jaskier’s townhouse, it is a perfect reflection of his personality: bright, colorful, chaotic. The bookcases in the living room draw him in, bookcases always do, he always has to see what books a person has, but after depositing the various instruments in the living room, Jaskier takes his hand before he can wander over and become lost in literature. 

“There will be time for that later, so much time for that later,” Jaskier murmurs. He slips his trenchcoat off his shoulders once more and starts walking them toward the staircase. He looks back at Geralt, eyes bright in the low light. “Take me to bed, Geralt.”

He wants it to be flawless. He’s wanted this for . . . a long time now, he’ll admit that to himself, and if Jaskier asks him how long he’s wanted this he’ll probably even admit it to him, too. He needs it to be flawless because that’s what Jaskier deserves, he deserves a lover who can wow him, who makes the earth move, who makes him see stars. He deserves everything.

Geralt’s long out of practice, though, and his fingers shake and trip over one another in their haste while removing Jaskier’s waistcoat. His hands tremble and quake, and he’s not quite sure if he can do this. He’s nearly fourteen years older than Jaskier and he hasn’t been with a man since he was in college, twenty years ago now. He suddenly feels old and inept, he’s never been less suave in his entire life, and his treacherous brain is kicking in, saying why did you ever think he would want you? His thoughts are spiralling, hard and fast and--

“Geralt. Love.” Jaskier tips his chin up and their eyes meet. “We’re sight-reading each other. It’s not going to be perfect. Don’t think. Just feel.”

“How do you always know what to say to me?” He lets Jaskier guide his fingers along down the buttons, there, that’s better. Jaskier has chosen him, he has chosen Jaskier, they can do this, together.

“Talk as much as I do, you’re bound to stumble upon the right words some of the time.” Jaskier slides his undone shirt off his shoulders, letting it pool at his feet. “Let’s start again, shall we?”

Geralt, determined to regain his confidence, traces his fingers up one of the tattoos along Jaskier’s ribs. Now that he can fully see it, he recognizes it. “It’s like your violin.”

“Very good,” Jaskier murmurs, his voice going dreamy at Geralt’s touch. “Not quite as much of a violinist cliche as getting the f-holes tattooed on either side of your spine, but I just couldn’t resist them on my ribs. And besides, I had a better idea for something on my back.”

He turns, and sure enough, there’s a tattoo along nearly the entire length of Jaskier’s spine, beginning just below the nape of his neck and disappearing down past the waistband of his jeans. It’s music; Geralt recognizes the treble clef, inked bar lines and notes. He trails his fingers on down, reveling in the way it makes Jaskier shiver. He wants to taste the path that his fingers have just forged, so he undresses Jaskier completely, his own clothes following, carelessly thrown about the room. He lays Jaskier out on the bed and applies himself diligently, his tongue and his fingers wandering down, learning the notes on Jaskier’s skin. 

“What is it?” he whispers, the words nearly lost among Jaskier’s sighs. “Is it a part from your favorite piece?”

“Mmmmm, probably, yeah? Do you really want to talk about this now?”

Jaskier’s voice is strained, but Geralt, he’s finally regained his equilibrium, and he decides now is the perfect time. He kisses his way back up, up up up, so that he’s whispering into the shell of Jaskier’s ear. “I want to know everything about you. I want to know why you got these notes in particular tattooed along your spine. Tell me?”

A sigh, long and breathy, as Jaskier turns his head toward him. “Professional violinists, we tend to be show offs. This probably doesn’t surprise you.” It does not, and Geralt says as much as he kisses the ridge of Jaskier’s cheekbone, just below his eye. “Mmmmm. So if you ask a violinist what their favorite piece is, they’re likely to say something terribly complicated, something insanely fast, with a billion notes and crazy techniques and a thousand things in the piece that command the audience to look at me, I’m a fucking violinist!

“But not you.”

“No, not me. Geralt, don’t you dare stop touching me. If I’m going to be talking about my love for fucking Adagio for Strings while I’ve got you, the most beautiful man I’ve ever seen, in bed with me, you are going to be touching me.” As demands go, it’s both a reasonable one and a pleasurable one, and Geralt doesn’t mind assenting to it. Eventually.

“So this piece? It’s not fast?” It’s an effort to keep his voice level, it’s an effort to keep his hands to himself, it’s an effort not to let the want that’s simmering low in his belly boil over and consume them both, when all he wants to do is flip Jaskier over and absolutely drown in him. It’s an effort, but he’s always thought good things come to those who wait.

“No, no. Adagio, slow. Oh, yes, please.” Jaskier must be quite close to the edge indeed if he moans like that just from Geralt kissing the calluses on the tips of his fingers. He quite likes the idea of taking this adagio, of wringing every bit of pleasure he can from them both, until they’re both pleading, desperate wrecks.

“It’s a sad song, sad, but so fucking beautiful,” Jaskier continues, voice faint as Geralt’s lips travel up his arm, across his shoulders, and then down, down down down, along the notes to the beginning of the music on his back. “It’s not technically complex, it’s not, oh, there, yes, it’s not flashy or full of quick bow work or tricky shifts between the bow and pizzicato.”

“But you love it.” Geralt moves so that he’s lying next to Jaskier, their faces bare centimeters apart on the pillow. He feels every one of Jaskier’s breaths against his own lips.

“I fucking adore it. Every time I play it, I discover something new about it, some new bit of phrasing, or the harmonics of the instruments will strike me in a new way, and it’ll just leave me breathless. I can’t ever be complacent with that piece; it always keeps me on my toes. I’m always going to be learning from it, and playing it slightly differently each time. Every time, I experience nearly the entire spectrum of human emotion during the piece. It’s like, I feel everything, I am everything, and when it’s over, I always feel temporarily bereft, but then I play it again, and the cycle continues anew.”

Geralt reaches out and dances his fingers down. “So now you have it on your skin, forever.”

“Forever reminding me. Now.” Jaskier touches Geralt’s face, his chest, as far down as he can reach. “If you don’t kiss me and then get inside me right now, I will actually spontaneously combust. And I think that will make us both very upset.”

Well. He’s not wrong about that.

They find their rhythm quickly, the words that set them both alight, the hidden places that leave them both speechless. Geralt discovers something, as they take each other apart and piece each other back together, over and over and over again, moving in one another, with one another, reverent touches and gentle caresses and kisses so blazing Geralt feels as though he’s on fire: Jaskier is full of joy in this, too. Passion, yes. Desire, of course. But joy above all.

He laughs frequently, delighted when Geralt runs his fingers along his ribs and behind his knees, practically euphoric when Geralt bends down and takes the ring through his nipple into his mouth and pulls ever so lightly, just so. (“Oh, Geralt,” he breathes, nearly overcome, “if you can’t laugh when you’re being fucked into next week, honestly, when can you? Don’t stop, that feels divine.”) He can’t stop smiling, not even when he’s so far gone that all his vaunted words have deserted him and he’s left with nothing but dreamy breaths and languid sighs. And then, and then, he devotes himself to making sure Geralt feels that same joy, his fingers dexterous and determined and dedicated to bringing Geralt to the same heights, the same peaks of bliss. Geralt could weep from the tenderness of it all, of how he feels cherished and precious, Jaskier’s devotion so obvious, it nearly sweeps them both away.

They lie there, together, Jaskier’s head pillowed on Geralt’s chest, and he whispers into the skin over Geralt’s heart, “An excellent first run through, I think. And second run through. And third. A piece we’ll know well.”

“I never want to stop knowing you, learning you.”

He feels Jaskier’s grin against his skin. “And you say I’m good with words.”

They lie there, together, dreams on the horizon and rushing in fast, and Geralt knows he shouldn’t question things. He shouldn’t overthink, he should just accept that this man has, for whatever reason, chosen him, but he also needs to know, he needs to hear why

“Jaskier?” he asks, his voice so soft in the stillness of Jaskier’s bedroom, he doesn’t know if he’ll be heard.

“Mmmmmm?” Jaskier blinks, and Geralt can feel the brush of his eyelashes.

“When did you know? That you wanted . . . well, this?”

“This?” Jaskier asks, gesturing down the length of their entwined bodies. “From the moment I saw you?”

“Jas--”

“You apparently are not aware of this, but you are an astoundingly beautiful man, Geralt. And I saw you at the door to your shop from down the street, and I wanted to climb you like a tree. Of course, I later realized that we’re nearly the same height, and then I wanted to metaphorically climb you like a tree because come on. As for when I knew I wanted to do this”--he tilts his face up and their lips brush, restrained, gentle, his hand sliding up Geralt’s chest and neck and up to cup his cheek--“the romance?”

“Mmmmm, yeah, the romance.”

“It started that day we met. When you didn’t tell me to get the fuck out of your sight? When you let me in the shop after lunch with Triss, and you didn’t yell at me, you just let me . . . be there? You let me stay, Geralt. You let me stay. But as for when I knew? Remember that day I met Ciri?”

It’s a good memory for Geralt, and he says so.

“Well, I was playing T. Swift for her, and you were standing in the doorway, watching, and you had your hands resting on her shoulders and you were smiling, watching your daughter tap her foot and bop her head and sing along. And then she started dancing, and your smile, Geralt, oh, it was devastating and it nearly brought me to my knees. You hummed a bit, along with the melody. You didn’t know the words, but Ciri has obviously listened to the songs enough that your subconscious knew.”

“I can’t carry a tune,” Geralt says, remembering how embarrassed he had felt when he realized that he had been humming along, out loud, where other people could hear him.

“Oh, I know, believe me,” Jaskier says, smiling as broadly as Geralt has ever seen him. He places a kiss at the corner of his lips. “I know. But you love your daughter and you were humming along for her, and it was so beautiful, and I thought to myself, he’s so very kind, and he deserves the world, and I want to deserve being the one to give it to him. And Geralt? I never want you to stop not being able to carry a tune with me. Hum along with me while I sing and play, and we’ll make something beautiful together.”

 

*

 

The next morning, Geralt makes pancakes in Jaskier’s kitchen while Jaskier, clad only in boxer briefs and Geralt’s unbuttoned shirt, stands in the living room and practices a piece so insanely complicated Geralt nearly burns a batch because he’s staring in awe.

“Keep your eye on the prize there, Geralt,” Jaskier teases with a grin, his hair wild, a pair of rectangular glasses perched on the tip of his nose.

How?” is all he can say.

“Practicing Sibelius at six in the morning after getting less than four hours of sleep is the perfect start to the day! It’ll wake you right up.” Jaskier lowers his violin and bow and settles his glasses further up his nose. “You know, I think I could get used to a beautiful man making me breakfast.”

Geralt rescues the final batch of pancakes from the griddle and brings the plates to the table. He pulls Jaskier to him by the open tails of his shirt. “I think I could get used to making breakfast while a beautiful man plays absurd things on a violin.”

“I think this is going to work out well for us, then,” Jaskier murmurs before drawing Geralt into a kiss.

 

*

 

After stopping by Geralt’s house for a change of clothes, they arrive at Witcher Brothers, only fifteen minutes past seven.

Jaskier leans against the lamppost, re-tuning his violin, just in case the trip on the two rail lines didn’t agree with it. He tilts his head to the side as he listens, his gaze faraway. Geralt pauses at the door, his hand on the knob. “Jaskier.”

He doesn’t look over. “Hmmmm?”

“I don’t regret it.”

Jaskier looks at him then, and Geralt knows when those particular words said in this particular setting register. The morning sun’s gentle rays catch in his hair, throwing the lighter shades of brown into sharp relief. His eyes are blue, so very blue, and when he smiles, it’s as if he’s alight from within, and Geralt wants to make a home inside of him, with him. He is unfairly lovely. Still. Always.