Geralt is falling out of the tree he’d been expressly warned not to climb less than twenty minutes ago, tumbling tail over teakettle as the world blurs green and gold and grey around him. It's a tall tree, a long way to fall, and he's more than likely going to break his arm when he hits the ground, until—
just like that—
It’s an uncomfortable space to inhabit, not-ness, and the longer he stays there the less Geralt finds he likes it. In it, only for a handful of heartbeats rabbit-fast in his chest but overwhelming all the same, he’s two boys at once: Geralt is there, curled over his broken arm and sobbing in the grass. His cheeks are scraped and his ego is bruised and his foot twinges where the branch had cracked under his weight, only—
just like that—
Geralt is also here, leaning against the kitchen doorway, barely listening and nodding in all the places he’s supposed to. His mother's voice never rises above a murmur, busy with her back to him as she works at the table. Tells him to keep out of that tree, please, even though Geralt already knows this. He’s already heard and ignored it once before, already ran round the back of the house to the sycamore standing watch at the top of the hill.
(He’d wanted the perfect branch to be his sword, sturdy and swift and true. The sort of sword a knight would keep with him always wherever he went. But his mother says she can't bear to see him hurt; they’re going on a trip soon, a long one, and he needs his strength. Except that’s why he needs his trusty sword, isn’t it? To keep them both safe? Isn’t that what the knights in the stories are supposed to do?)
On both the floor of the kitchen and in the shadow of the tree all at once, just past where his mother works, that first Geralt still sits crying. He clutches his arm, wailing Ma! Ma! Visenna! and Geralt remembers what came after. Remembers his mother running when he’d called, the tight flat line of her lips as she’d helped him home. Magic always makes Geralt feel like his insides itch but she’d used it on his arm anyway, because she hadn’t wanted him still hurting when they set out on the road.
That—That all had happened, hadn’t it?
But then this Geralt blinks, once and then again, and the boy sobbing in the grass is gone. As if that Geralt had never existed in the first place.
And, well—Geralt hasn’t left the kitchen. He’s still rocking back and forth on his heels over the threshold as Visenna leans over her work. Still has yet to round the house and make for the tree in the first place.
So, this Geralt supposes, perhaps that Geralt never really did.
The magic—the spell or curse or fucking ripple in chaos, whatever it is, each new day here Geralt learns more and more ways the world can make a person suffer—never turns him back to before Kaer Morhen ever again. Sometimes it will reset him, like a piece on a game board, to his first month here, his first week. The closest he'd ever gotten was when one of the grown witchers called his name at supper some three weeks after he arrived. Geralt jerked up from his food to blink into crisp spring sunlight instead, watching the towering doors of Kaer Morhen rumbling shut behind him for the first time.
Geralt ducks the flat of Osbert’s sword too late and gasps awake not in the infirmary, as expected, but mid-step halfway down a staircase the week before. The skin of an apple breaks under his teeth and then they ache with how hard he grits them, Rennes holding Geralt still in the dirt while Elias yanks his shoulder back into place two months ago. He fetches water from the well, clenches the rope of the bucket tight in his fist and hopes and hopes and hopes, but Eskel’s grip on the back of his shirt to stop him falling in becomes Vesemir’s fingers pressing firmly into Geralt’s shoulder just last night, when he’d crept out of the barracks to stare up at Kaer Morhen’s soaring battlements. If he didn’t know better, Geralt might wonder if the world outside its walls ever really existed in the first place. Sometimes, he wonders if he really does know better at all.
He thinks of how his mother’s name had echoed through the trees. Of the deep ruts in the road where a cart had just been spurred into motion; a quick getaway. Maybe it’s for the best that the life Geralt had before this is gone, a book closed to him and unwritten, so he can never be turned back to relive it while knowing what comes next.
(That’s what he calls it: being turned back. Like an hourglass, or a water wheel, or how the moon rolls hidden across the sky in the daytime to rise in its proper place at night. More than likely there’s a better name, an actual name that he could slot into place between the names of monsters and herbs beaten into him by rote, except he doesn’t really care to know what it is. Could ask the mages, surely, but in his bones Geralt knows it’s safer to keep his mouth shut.
If he tells the mages, they might bar him from the Trials. They might make him leave.
If they make him leave, Geralt has nowhere else to go.)
Time becomes irrelevant during the Trial of the Grasses, during that first unspeakable week bound screaming next to his brothers’ corpses with Eskel’s voice cracking on a sob in the bed next to him. Or the endless torment of the trial afterwards just for him, alone in a room with the pain and the cold and all his noise echoed back at him a thousandfold, like all his dead brothers shrieking with him still. Geralt only knows that it all took nearly three weeks because it’s what he’s told. Eskel whispers it to him, voice raw and cracked still, when Vesemir steers him back into the trainees’ room with a gentle hand on his shoulder.
Geralt pointedly doesn’t look up to see how many of the beds are now empty.
He’s horrified, gut-achingly nauseous to discover that he doesn't have to. He can tell anyway by the smell of untouched bedsheets alone.
Geralt suspects he was turned back during the Trial, but he’s not sure. Doesn’t know if it really happened or if he’d only dreamed it, a nightmare dredged up in the terror of the first round of mutagens. Or maybe in the second (they saw how well he’d taken to them, an unprecedented surprise, and Geralt wants to lean over the side of the bed and retch when the mages tell him much later), or in the days afterward that he learns he’d spent tied down to a bed, out of his mind with fever and pain and begging for someone he refused to name.
In his dream, or the Trial-That-Wasn’t, Eskel had been strapped down to the left of him. He’d died halfway through the first day, choking on a scream with Geralt’s name in his mouth while Geralt had stared at the ceiling, trapped, the strap pressing his head back against the table keeping him from turning to look. All he could do was squeeze his eyes shut, clench his fists until the bite of his nails slicked his palms with blood.
And the screaming had stopped.
And Vesemir was standing over him still, only just fitting the strap across Geralt’s forehead into the buckle by his ear.
And Eskel was only just pulling himself up to lie on the table to Geralt’s left.
So Geralt had thrashed, jerking hard enough to whip the strap free of Vesemir’s fingers. Had levered himself upright to pull at the straps at his wrists and waist and screamed and screamed and screamed, a low animal sound deep in his chest, too terrified for words. In the end, it’d taken two grown witchers to pin him to the table, Stijn at his feet and Matej bearing down on his shoulders, and a mage to strap him back into place. He heaved against them anyway, sobbing and begging them to listen, please and keenly aware of Eskel’s eyes on him until Vesemir held up a hand. Geralt had shut up so fast it made Matej glance at Vesemir to see if he'd used Axii—he hadn’t, but Geralt bit his lip and the inside of his cheek to keep quiet and just waited, staring upside-down at Vesemir and sucking harsh, trembling breaths through his nose. He’d shaken so hard it rattled Stijn’s gauntlets where they rested against the table.
Finally, Vesemir had pulled his eyes away from Geralt’s face and gestured for Eskel to move. Geralt remembers sagging back against the table, dizzy with relief, as Vesemir directed Eskel around to the table on Geralt’s right. And dream or no, Eskel is alive when Vesemir brings Geralt back to the barracks, pale and shaking and different. Different than Eskel. Different than even the older adepts, the ones past the Trials of the Grasses and Dreams and working steadily towards their medallions.
If it did happen, if it wasn’t just a dream, Eskel never brings it up. And if it didn’t—Geralt watches the steady rise and fall of Eskel’s chest in the bed next to his, and decides he doesn’t want to relive this anymore either.
(He does get turned back, twice, during the Trial of the Medallion, both times within spitting distance of the Circle. Eskel still tells the story, both amused and a little bewildered, of how viciously Geralt had thrown one particular rock troll over his shoulder just before they’d cleared the Circle and passed the Trial.
Geralt still feels the phantom bruises sometimes, the burn in his legs as he broke through the treeline and sprinted for the Circle only for that troll to hurl him back down the mountainside, twice, so turnabout is fair fucking play.)
At the door of some shitty little inn in some shitty little town far from the coast—but not that far, not far enough that people don’t see his face and know his new name—Geralt stands covered in drowner guts, coin purse heavy with the mayor’s payment, and does nothing but blink when the innkeeper crosses his arms and says firmly, “No room for you here, Butcher.”
And no sooner does the man say it, the lamplight behind him flickering oddly just beyond this threshold Geralt is barred from crossing, than the world washes away as if under a downpour. Turns him right back, for the first and (blessedly, mercifully) only time, to his crowning moment in Blaviken. There he is, the butcher at his block, as momentum carries his hand and her dagger into the soft skin over Renfri’s pulse.
The sound she makes is deep in her chest, soft and wretched. It reminds Geralt, hysterically, of the hinges of Kaer Morhen’s gates grinding shut.
Ah, but doesn’t that fit. Isn’t that the perfect metaphor—even before her blood spills over the hollow of her collarbone, onto his filthy, guilty hands, before he crouches to press her eyelids shut and grips her brooch tight in his fist and hopes, Geralt already knows. Before this, he can never go back. And now, beyond it, he has nowhere to go.
Ridding a village of its harpy problem is the first contract he takes after parting ways with Jaskier just east of Tretogor—for good he’d thought, assuming the bard had gotten his fill of adventure after traveling with a witcher for a season or two. That is, until Jaskier turns to amble down the road south towards Oxenfurt, promising over his shoulder that he'll head for Ban Gleán just after Imbaelk and wait until the passes clear enough for Geralt to join him.
So of course, before Geralt has any real time to mull over where the fuck Jaskier gets off just saying shit like that, the problem harpies ambush him far closer to the village than he expects. One kicks him square in the chest so hard it knocks him on his arse and definitely breaks something.
But he hits leather instead of snow when he falls, barely catching himself on the pommel of Roach’s saddle as she spooks under him. Geralt pulls himself upright, prods gingerly at ribs that are no longer cracked, and leans forward to murmur an apology against Roach’s neck. Above him loom the soaring rock formations of Upper Posada, waiting for him across the first flimsy-looking bridge into town.
He should ride on. If he stays, in the morning there’ll be a job he makes no coin from and an idiot bard he won’t be able to shake loose. If Geralt closes his eyes (which he won’t) and takes a deep breath (which he doesn’t), he can sense Jaskier’s path into town ahead of him, a meandering trail of chamomile and bergamot and ink from the little pot he keeps in his pack and never quite seals properly. It dots across town, winding over bridges and up the stairways jutting out over sheer rock faces and ends, as Geralt already knows, at the inn on the far side of the hamlet, right up against the edge of the world.
Geralt stares at the rickety bridge into the town-proper long enough for Roach to shift from leg to leg under him. He mutters a vehement fuck under his breath, then another one, a bit louder for emphasis. And then, Geralt wraps the reins once around his fist and nudges Roach forward, onto the bridge and towards town. There’s room for Roach in the inn’s stable, and for Geralt to sleep in her stall free of charge if he wants it. And by midmorning the next day, between the waves of travelers who’d stayed the night setting out and locals arriving to mill about and trade gossip—there he is.
Like before, Geralt’s long settled into his corner by the time Jaskier starts to perform. Unlike before, Geralt takes the time to watch him set up across the room. Jaskier thumbs through his composition book and tunes his lute—still an old, cheap thing, fit only to be broken in a handful of hours—with a care that Geralt hadn’t noticed until weeks into their travels together the first time around. Jaskier had celebrated his birthday while walking the Path with Geralt that year (in truly remarkable form, by managing to sleep with a woman and her husband, separately, in one evening), but it only now strikes Geralt how young Jaskier is. Stand them back-to-back to measure and Geralt will never be anything but old in comparison, he knows that, but this is different somehow. Jaskier isn’t just young; he’s new. Not necessarily clean, Geralt’s learned from the cheering crowd singing along in too many a tavern that Jaskier can be as filthy as he pleases when he puts his mind to it, but he hasn’t been dragged through the shit of it all yet.
He will be, eventually, will learn to look at that same newness in someone else with suspicion instead of wonder as surely as the moon rolls across the sky—you don’t get to be as old as Geralt without learning to count the spokes of the wheel as it turns.
(But how old is Geralt, really? How many times has he relived the same weeks, months, suffered the same training and taken the same potions and killed the same monsters? Did that time count? Did it matter?)
When he finally saunters over to his quarry in the corner post-heckling, Jaskier doesn’t shy away or flinch as Geralt pins his glare on the bard, tipping his chin to make his eyes flash in the light. It’s a cheap trick, far further up Aiden or Lambert’s alley than it should be Geralt’s, but he came to drink alone. He says so again this time, low and rumbling as he holds Jaskier’s gaze, and for one dizzying moment of free-fall Geralt finds himself in that place again. That not-ness. Two Geralts at once, crowded together in the space between his glacial heartbeats.
It would be better for everyone, safer for them both, if Jaskier were to turn and go. He sees it play out before him, how he can push, can snarl and snap and be the Butcher to make Jaskier back away, except—
Geralt wants nothing more, in this moment of gut-aching weakness, than for Jaskier to stay.
Geralt blinks, once and then again, settling himself back into his skin with a thunderous scowl. Jaskier doesn’t so much as bat an eye. He meets Geralt’s eerie glare and slitted pupils with as much bland perusal as he would anybody else’s. Even has the astounding audacity to wink as he finally sidles over to sit down at the table, bread in his pants and a bright look in his own eyes that Geralt must’ve missed the first time—something warm and friendly and fucking idiotic to point at a stranger—and when he asks for a review, three words or less, Geralt already has them ready.
“It was fine,” he mutters. Then, just in case that’s too much, strays too far off course, he adds,” But they don’t exist.”
“Oh ho, that was downright verbose of you, might I say!” Jaskier rests his chin in his hands, a gesture Geralt is watching for both the first and hundredth time, “I counted at least seven words in that critique, and—wait, what don’t exist?”
(Geralt still punches him on the trail up to Dol Blathanna. For consistency’s sake.)
He’s turned back three times to the moment the ice cracks beneath his feet and the selkiemore swallows him whole, always with the heady taste of Cintran ale thick on the back of his tongue, before he agrees to go with Jaskier to Cintra again.
Nothing much differs from the first time around. Only the bemused and almost shy expression on Jaskier’s face when Geralt steers the cuckolded lord away not with a bullshit story about Jaskier’s gelding, but with an arm draped over the bard's shoulders and a pointed look at the fuming noble until he swallows hard and hurries off. Mousesack arches an overdramatic eyebrow at him from across the hall, but if he has a wise-arse joke to make about it, he doesn’t say anything to Geralt’s face.
And yet, it comes as absolutely no surprise to Geralt when things go tits up exactly as they had the first time.
(And Mousesack, of course, has some wise-arse shit to say about that.)
Geralt fucks up.
He stops to pay the mayor’s man when he demands it, fingers fumbling over the coins because he can’t fucking focus on anything but Jaskier’s rattling, blood-slick breaths against the back of his neck. Jaskier dies in Yennefer’s bed with a djinn’s claws sunk into his throat, a hair’s breadth too late, while Geralt was in the fucking bath.
Yennefer kisses him in the water, working her way into his head just as Geralt notices the empty stretch of silence where Jaskier's heartbeat should be and after that, there’s only the heady scent of lilac and gooseberries blotting out everything else. Geralt wakes up in a dungeon somewhere in Rinde, a blurry Chireadan sharpening into focus before him and opening his mouth to speak—but the world rocks beneath them before he can get a word in edgewise. Brings them to their knees, arse over teakettle as if tossed down a mountainside.
When Geralt gets his feet back under him, he’s standing ankle-deep in pond scum. His hands are tangled in fishnet, not irons, with the ruins of a clay amphora cradled in his palms and a new scratch smarting on his wrist. Behind him Jaskier is shouting, a sharp warning, telling him to look, the djinn!
Geralt doesn’t do as he’s told. He turns away from the water instead, just in time to watch blood bubble from between Jaskier’s lips as he chokes around Geralt’s name.
(And oh, where has he heard that before? In a dream, perhaps? How many times does he have to hear someone hold his name in their mouth like that?)
It’s just his luck that the whole thing ends in some kind of fucking disaster all the same—it’s starting to be a pattern, spokes on an endless wheel— with him tucking his dick back into his trousers in the ruins of the mayor’s house and hoping he can get out of town before they remember to hang him. Seeing as he wound up in prison either way, it’s not like he can predict if it would’ve ended any better the first time around. But he’d’ve appreciated at least being turned back after Chireadan had the chance to speak, to croak you are the one with the wishes while wiping blood off his cheek.
Had he known, Geralt could’ve used his last wish to fix Jaskier on his own and to hell with trying to get some sleep. Could’ve used his last wish to fix himself— it’s not until the djinn offers it that Geralt considers for the first time that he can, in fact, choose not to be a witcher. But on its heels comes the realization, sharp and final like a knife sliding home between his ribs: of course he can’t. He has nowhere else to go but the Path. Perhaps he could wish to only walk it forward from here on out, without this fucking backtracking that loops through his life like stitches pulled too-taut over a weeping wound, but to abandon it entirely?
The smell of lilac and gooseberries is long gone by now, clear sunlight sluicing across the road instead of the soft shadow of a half-wrecked room, but air stoppers up in Geralt’s lungs as he walks. The road he stalks down, lined first by short grass and squat bushes before twisting into the forest proper, is too crowded and too exposed in turn. A jittery energy builds under Geralt’s skin. His hands shake. Everything is too much and not enough like he’s coming down from a potion; something thrums in his chest, his guts, makes his insides itch the farther he moves from the destroyed house. Leftover magic from that mage, from her stupid petty mind games, hopefully, and not—
Not this again. Geralt jerks to a stop and sways on his feet before lurching forward again, setting himself back in motion. He doesn’t know if his chances of being spared are greater whether he’s standing still or not but when in doubt, he’ll always move on. The world around him is still a smear of colour and sound, but Geralt suspects that’s more because he can taste his own heartbeat in the back of his throat than because he’s being turned back. Or so he hopes, because he can think of only one true difference between this try and the last. If he’s destined to repeat this for eternity because here is where Jaskier is always supposed to die, then Geralt will run them both as far away as he can every time and never set foot on the fucking Path again.
And the realization that he means it, that if he only honoured one oath for the rest of his long, long life, it would be this one, well—that thought threatens to bring him to his knees easier than any monster ever could.
But it hits him as soon as he veers off the packed earth to stumble through a familiar break in the trees: chamomile and bergamot and ink, lit up like a trail towards where he left Roach tacked nearby. At the end of it, he thinks maybe he hears the idle picking of lute strings and soft humming, and maybe, maybe that’s all that matters. There’s mortar dust in Geralt’s hair and he’s still sweating the spell’s aftereffects through his too-tight conjured shirt and he needs a fucking bath, a real one, but—even if all of this is horseshit it’s worth it, isn’t it?
It ended as well as it ever could have, because Jaskier is alive.
Geralt doesn’t notice that Jaskier is talking until he stops, cutting himself off with a muffled, “Bollocks!”
The sudden vitriol makes Geralt twitch, startling him out of the idle meditation of sharpening his swords. Which should be concerning on its own, that Jaskier’s presence and constant monologue about anything and everything that strikes his fancy is familiar enough to blend into the background of Geralt’s awareness like it belongs there. That somewhere along the line Geralt began to take for granted Jaskier and all his loud—the way he sounds and moves and smells—as part of his world, the metronome he measures his life against, and now its absence is what’s suspicious.
Jaskier’s muttering stays vehement but steady, a dissatisfied grumbling that doesn’t imply imminent danger, so Geralt drawls, “What did you do?” without looking up from his whetstone.
Only then he smells the blood, head already snapping up to where Jaskier sits nearby.
The bard jumps when he looks away from frowning at his finger to find Geralt’s scowl pinned on him. Jumps in surprise, anyway, not fear—never fear, not even when he was coughing blood and barely clinging to Geralt as they rode for Rinde, Jaskier was terrified but he wasn’t afraid, not of Geralt. His shoulders drop again almost immediately, a small sheepish smile tugging at his lips as he twists his wrist to show Geralt the bead of blood welling up on his fingertip.
“Needle,” Jaskier says by way of explanation, with a wide sweeping gesture at his lap. Geralt sees the sewing kit and a piece of his own armour balanced on Jaskier’s knees for the first time. “Should’ve worn a thimble, I suppose, but I wanted to get this done while I still had the light.”
With one last withering look at his still-bleeding finger Jaskier turns back to his work, picking up the vambrace and thumbing at the new tear he’d been trying to stitch over. “Think you might need to take this to an actual armourer,” he goes on, and he sounds so sorry about it. Genuinely contrite, like it pains him that he can’t fix Geralt’s shitty old armour by the power of his tiny traveler’s tin of needles and thread alone. “Though I can probably take a look at that,” Jaskier gestures at the torn seam on the shoulder of Geralt’s shirt and flashes him a grin. “I have to earn my keep somehow, so come on. Off with it, hand it over!”
“Hmm,” Geralt says again. He doesn’t know what else he can say; if by now Jaskier doesn’t understand what a waste of time it is to spend his time and energy on Geralt’s comfort, to mend a shirt he’ll likely destroy in a day, a week, then telling him again won’t make a difference. Not that Jaskier would listen, anyway. For all that Jaskier is so fucking loud, his silences speak almost more than all his words and songs and coy blustering put together. It’d taken Geralt far too long to notice that all the fussy peculiarities his traveling companion insisted on with stubborn persistence were as much for his benefit as for Jaskier’s, and longer still to accept Jaskier quietly going out of his way to make Geralt’s life easier with any modicum of grace. (Though likely if anyone were to ask Jaskier, he’d say Geralt still accepts his efforts with extremely little grace at all.)
Geralt considers that care, spooling out before him in a myriad little ways. Like this: the way Jaskier blindly holds out a hand to him for the shirt, face already turned away to search for something in his kit because he’s certain Geralt will indulge him. Will help Jaskier help him, as easy and as expected as breathing. It makes Geralt want to indulge him, to show him the same effort—not to pay back a debt or as a transaction, but just because he can. A choice that is somehow both one he makes freely and one he’s been inexorably led to all this time.
So it’s natural as anything else, in the end, to lean over and brush his hand up Jaskier’s outstretched arm, along the back of his neck. To turn towards him and sink his fingers into Jaskier’s hair and swallow his startled gasp as Geralt fits their lips together, pressing his advantage to lick into the bard’s mouth with a hum. Beneath the high, surprised sound Jaskier makes before he grabs at Geralt’s shirt and yanks him closer, pulling at the very tear he’d wanted to fix, something flickers in Geralt’s periphery: Jaskier’s heartbeat, picking up speed. Geralt can taste it when he moves to bite a mark against underside of Jaskier’s jaw, how it jumps against his thumb where he presses it to the hollow of Jaskier’s throat—yet another thing he’s grown so accustomed to that he doesn’t notice it at all until it changes.
One of Jaskier’s hands gives up its grip on his shirt to tangle in Geralt’s hair, tugging loose the braid he’d insisted on plaiting the night before. The sharp sting makes Geralt hiss and catch Jaskier’s bottom lip between his teeth in retaliation, but when Jaskier pulls him farther back still, Geralt follows as he’s led. He barely keeps from scowling at the cool air that rushes to fill the space between them, but he waits.
“Fuck, okay—Geralt, fuck—this is happening?” Flushed pink from the sliver of his chest peeking from his undone doublet to the high arches of his cheekbones, Jaskier’s eyes search Geralt’s face. He’s not sure what for, what could make Jaskier look at him with such wondrous admiration, somehow still new after all these years. But Jaskier must find it, because when he repeats himself it isn’t a question. “This is happening.”
Something akin to misgiving prickles in Geralt’s chest at Jaskier’s decisive nod, because it may not quite be a question but Jaskier sounds like he’s trying to talk himself into it. Geralt frowns and opens his mouth to—to say something, surely, to ask if Jaskier is certain—to do nothing more than grunt in surprise as Jaskier moves, slinging his leg over Geralt’s thighs and winding his arms back around his neck. Jaskier’s not-insubstantial weight settles over his hips (he’s so much sturdier than he looks, Geralt forgets that), and Geralt leans back against his bedroll to accommodate the lapful of bard.
Mending entirely forgotten, Jaskier presses against him from chest to hips, bracketing Geralt’s thighs with his own. For a long time all they do is rock against one another, foreheads pressed together and gasping against each other’s mouths and it’s good, so good—time doesn’t matter here, stretched syrupy slow in the space between Jaskier’s lips and his. Geralt’s hands skim down Jaskier’s shoulders, his back, just to watch the bard shudder against him. He stops for a moment to grip at Jaskier’s waist and marvel at how his fingers nearly meet if he squeezes, at how Jaskier groans and kisses him when he does, before groping Jaskier’s arse and using the leverage to grind them together harder. The friction makes Jaskier gasp and throw his head back, and Geralt is torn between the urge to close the space it makes between them and to just watch Jaskier take his pleasure, rolling his hips down at the pace Geralt’s hands set.
“Jaskier—” he starts, focused more on Jaskier’s bitten-red lips, on the mark at the hinge of Jaskier’s jaw just starting to edge blue, than on the words leaving his mouth. “Jaskier,” he says again, a whole statement unto itself.
The bard arches an eyebrow in response, sucking his bottom lip between his teeth with a sly hmm? and a crafty gleam in his eye. Like he doesn’t know what he does to Geralt—Geralt surges forward to meet him, brings his knees up to brace his heels on the ground and crowd Jaskier closer to him. Pressing his face to the crook of Jaskier’s neck, he can feel Jaskier’s throat work as he mutters praise and bit-off curses, and Geralt let the smell of chamomile and bergamot and sun-warm skin crowd out every other little thing that just doesn’t fucking matter in comparison. When he ducks his head to drag first his tongue and then his teeth along the sharp curve of Jaskier’s collarbone, the bard’s babbling cuts off with a ragged gasp that Geralt tries and fails not to be smug about. Jaskier scowls at him with no real heat behind it, twining his fingers into Geralt’s hair to tug again. He looks downright delighted when Geralt bares his teeth with a snarl. “Geralt,” Jaskier says back, with an open warmth that makes the world rock under Geralt’s feet.
Jaskier’s clever fingers make short work of the placket of Geralt’s trousers and shove inside with no preamble to wrap a hand around his cock, achingly hard from the second the bard had dropped into his lap. He strokes firmly from root to tip, with a flick of his wrist and drag of his thumb at the head, drinking in Geralt’s reaction with half-lidded eyes. Geralt groans like it’s punched out of him, forgetting himself for a moment and grasping at Jaskier’s waist hard enough to bruise. But Jaskier laughs breathlessly and rolls his hips down harder, and Geralt fights through the haze in his brain to return the favour, cupping Jaskier through the fine fabric of his trousers before yanking at the blasted fucking laces in his way.
He snaps a good half of them in his haste but rather than scold him, Jaskier’s breath hitches when Geralt fumbles past his smalls to take him in hand. His hips jerk up to chase the friction and Geralt worries it’s too rough, too dry, even as he curls his fingers over the head to swipe precome down the length of him. But when Geralt pulls back to reach for his sword oil or at least spit into his palm Jaskier groans, trembling against the hold he still has banded around the bard’s waist. He rocks into the tight circle of Geralt’s fist and mumbles, "It's alright.”
Geralt arches an eyebrow, but he can’t keep the fondness out of his voice. “Alright?”
“Good—it’s good," Jaskier amends with a grin. His finger swipes the crown of Geralt’s prick, catching at the slit, and his laugh is a bright and wild thing when Geralt gasps. "Just like this, darling,” he murmurs between open-mouthed kisses trailed up Geralt’s neck to meet his lips again, “just like this."
His free hand cups Geralt’s face, tracing his bottom lip with fingers that taste like iron and salt. Jaskier flinches when he realizes he’s still bleeding, mouth dropping open to apologize, but he only manages a weak wheeze as Geralt kisses the smear of blood on Jaskier’s finger. Geralt watches his eyes zero in on the movement, pupils blown as dark and wide as Geralt’s must be, but Jaskier’s are ringed by that brilliant, endless blue—
He drops his arm from around Jaskier’s waist and slips his hand down the back of the bards’s trousers, digging his fingers into the meat of his arse to grind them together faster again, as Jaskier works him with harsher strokes and kisses him and kisses him and kisses him—
Geralt snaps awake to stare up at the brilliant, endless blue of the cloudless sky above him.
He entertains the possibility, just for a moment, that this is the first time he’s lived through this morning.
Perhaps he’s been the unlikely recipient of a prophetic dream. Perhaps this is the first time he’s woken up to this particular rock digging into his shoulder blade. The first time Jaskier interrupts his own rambling with a smug little aha! there’s the bastard! as he finds what he was looking for in the saddlebags to start on breakfast. Midday will be the first Geralt hears of the lone aracha terrorizing a local village, and tonight, once he’s done, will be the first time Jaskier bullies him out of his armour and settles down to mend it.
When he kicks his legs free of his bedroll and levers himself upright to start pulling on his armour, Geralt pointedly doesn’t let his gaze fall to the smooth black leather of his vambrace, where there isn’t so much as a scratch.
“Oh, you’re awake!” Jaskier glances up from the block of salt pork he’s slicing but doesn’t wait for an answer. “I was starting to worry, actually, a bit! Not often I wake up before you, especially not this early. Come to think of it, I can’t think of any time I’ve woken up—”
The temptation to wrap himself back in his bedroll, tight as a shroud, is so overwhelming that Geralt doesn’t come to his senses until his fingers are twisting back into the threadbare wool, ready to pull it over his head and block out this waking nightmare. With a snarl of disgust, he whips the blanket away and forces himself to his feet instead. He keeps his back carefully turned to Jaskier as he stands, debating with no small amount of venom just kicking his bedroll into a wadded lump like a vindictive child. Churlish dramatics that Vesemir would tan his hide for if he were here, as hollow and melodramatic a gesture as Geralt keeping Jaskier in the corner of his eye. Not that he needs to see the bard to track his movements: the rasp of his trousers as he crosses and uncrosses one leg over the other, the muted slice of the knife through cured meat as Jaskier cuts it directly against his palm despite Geralt telling him off for it a thousand times. How he smells more of ink and woodsmoke and the lingering warmth of sleep than anything else, having gone long enough between inns that the smell of his oils and soaps is faded and faint.
But still, Geralt doesn’t look at him. If he does, he’ll remember all sorts of things—the sharp, helpless sound Jaskier makes deep in his chest when Geralt presses an open-mouthed kiss to his neck, how he shudders and wedges himself closer when Geralt skates his palms up his sides—things he shouldn’t know at all, because he’s never even done them.
Meanwhile, unsurprisingly, Jaskier is still talking. Just like he had been the first go-round of this morning, just as he is every morning unless he’s too busy running from the consequences of a wild night—and even then, more often than not, he manages to keep up a lively commentary while they sprint out of town. Blessedly unaware of Geralt’s thoughts as he takes the piece of hardtack the bard offers him and crams it into his mouth, Jaskier seems perfectly content to carry on his one-sided conversation whether the witcher contributes to it or not. But this time, rather than occupy himself with his own thoughts as he breaks down their camp and readies Roach, Geralt keys into the lilting cadence of Jaskier’s voice and listens.
“—and allegedly Valdo Marx will be there! Not that it’s a metric of healthy competition, mind you, and to be quite honest I’m not terribly keen on listening to his grandstanding so soon after trouncing him in Toussaint last year,” Jaskier tilts his head and grins, waving his knife in an elaborate gesture, “but I’ve been looking forward to this competition for weeks. I’m hardly going to skip it because I can’t handle a bit of Valdo’s peacocking.” He tosses Geralt another piece of hardtack that he catches easily, and there’s a crinkle in the corner of Jaskier's eyes when he tries to keep from smiling at Geralt’s bemused expression. Geralt hadn’t even noticed he’d finished the first piece, let alone that he’d wanted more. “One of these days you really ought to meet him, Geralt. Not that I need your backstage help to win in the arena of bardic innovation—at a competition in Gors Velen, no less, it’s hardly Oxenfurt—but really I think they’d give you some sort of trophy of your own if you threw him into the sea or something. At the very least a medal for the public service.”
This is what Jaskier misses, Geralt realizes, by being here with him. This is what he’d be pulling Jaskier away from—already does pull him away from for seasons at a time, for years, even before he got it in his head to stick his tongue down Jaskier’s throat—an actual life. Jaskier is so much safer singing about the monsters Geralt faces than tagging along with him to potentially die in the teeth of one of them. There’d be no one to write a song about that. There’d be no one to write a song about Jaskier, and that would be the real tragedy.
That night, after they’ve set up camp and Jaskier finishes fixing the hem of his own cloak, he arches an eyebrow at the ragged disarray of Geralt’s armour and the torn seam of his shirt where his bare shoulder peeks through. He doesn’t even ask, only stretches out the hand not holding a needle. His fingers are clean and uninjured; he’s wearing a thimble.
Geralt turns him down with a sharp shake of his head. Instead he unfurls his bedroll, reaches for the whetstone in his pack, and thinks very carefully about nothing at all.
Jaskier walks away from him on the mountain and the world stays stubbornly still under Geralt’s feet. He takes the long way down back to where Roach waits for him with her saddlebags half-empty, missing all the fiddly little things that Jaskier had known not to take up the trail with them, and Geralt’s mouth tastes like nothing but spit and bile. The smell of chamomile and bergamot and ink is long gone from the Pensive Dragon when he passes it, and Geralt clenches his jaw so hard he thinks his teeth might crack when he turns away from the fading trace of it that winds down the road towards Hengfors. When he sets up camp and the fire doesn’t flicker or flash or melt away, when he blinks and the stars stay sewn fast to the darkening sky above him, Geralt climbs into his bedroll and waits for sleep to take him.
He doesn’t remember falling asleep, or whether or not he dreams. Geralt only remembers staring at the line in the sky where day and night still blur together against the setting sun, remembers blinking once and then again, and then—
just like that—
Geralt wakes up. The fire is dead, the ground next to him stretches out cold and empty, and it’s tomorrow.