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all the liars in the world

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"Geralt!" Jaskier cries, and drops gracefully to his feet from his perch on the edge of a trestle table. Geralt watches him weave his way through the revelers still milling around the village square this late in the evening -- he doubts there will be many shops open early tomorrow -- and fetch up beside him, a half-full stein in hand. "Oh, how I've missed your stalwart fellowship, dearest Witcher. It's been too long since I saw that smiling face."

"I don't smile," he says flatly. Which, fuck, is probably less fact and more aspirational, judging by the way Jaskier beams at him like he's made a joke, his eyes twinkling in the light of the torches. Geralt tilts his head as he looks back at the bard. "And it's been three hours, Jaskier."

"I stand by what I said. Just as I stand by... the man I said it to," Jaskier says, his grin turning cheeky as he waves the fingers of his free hand at Geralt. He pushes the stein into Geralt's hands, and then folds his arms around Geralt's biceps, dropping his chin onto the curve of his shoulder. "It's been three excruciating hours without the pleasure of your company."

His pout should look ridiculous on a grown man, but somehow, it doesn't. Even with the barley stalk tucked behind his ear.

When the fireworks had been set off earlier, Geralt had gone to check on Roach; she sometimes grew restive around explosions caused by anyone besides him. He'd then chosen to have a quiet drink in the tavern rather than return to the outdoor festival, seeing no need to inflict the presence of a witcher on any more of the locals than necessary and risk ruining the festivities for them.

Nor for Jaskier, who had found himself a table full of pretty young people to entertain and be entertained by, all of them obviously eager for the opportunity to meet someone from outside their village.

Most of that table is still occupied, though it's gained a number of empty steins and not a few damp spills; two or three of the occupants are staring at Jaskier with naked interest, their eyes sharp and greedy. Drawn to the newness of a stranger in town, or Jaskier's natural charm; most likely both.

"You've clearly suffered in my absence," Geralt says drily.

Jaskier sighs, and settles a bit more heavily against Geralt. He's essentially hugging Geralt's arm, and it makes him edgy; he feels exposed, somehow, and not just because his movement has been hampered. He tries to school his expression into neutrality.

"I have," Jaskier insists. "Most cruelly. But suffering, as they say, is good for the art."

He can smell mulling spices and apple cider on Jaskier's breath. Jaskier tends to be unexpectedly casual about touching Geralt, but not like this. This is -- this could be mistaken for affection, if he didn't know better. It makes him pause to sniff dubiously at the stein before taking a drink himself.

Turns out, it's a wonder the bard's still upright at all.

"Jaskier, how drunk are you?" he asks, and Jaskier breathes a laugh into Geralt's shoulder.

"I am excellently drunk, Geralt, I've done a very good job of it. I am as drunk as a Skelligen skunk."

"There are no skunks on Skellige."

"I am as drunk as a Skelligen monk, then."

Which is fairly drunk, all things considered; Skelligens don't fuck around about that sort of thing.

A few of Jaskier's tablemates are still eyeing the bard the way a hawk watches a mouse at the edge of a field, and it makes his jaw grow tight. Jaskier enjoys giving freely of himself, true, but in Geralt's experience, anyone who finds the impaired judgement of another to be that tantalizing tends to have a proclivity to take, and not take no for an answer.

So while he'd ordinarily never interfere in Jaskier's choices, he also wants to be sure that he'll not regret anything in the morning.

Carefully, so as not to dislodge the bard, Geralt works the hand of his confiscated arm around Jaskier's waist, palming his hip. He turns Jaskier in the direction of the inn, and Jaskier is surprisingly cooperative, shifting his hold down to Geralt's elbow and reorienting himself. Geralt is relieved not to have to drag him sideways like a soused sea crab.

Geralt gets a glimpse of disappointment on some of Jaskier's tablemates, the ones with the sharpest-edged gazes, He somehow doesn't feel the slightest twinge of guilt.

They make it back to the room mostly without incident; except when panicked or flustered, Jaskier tends to be sure-footed, able to dance and sing and play the lute at the same time even when he's in his cups. It's his continuing claim on Geralt's arm, clasping him as if they're courting lovers, that speaks to the extent of his inebriation. When Geralt stops to unlock the door, Jaskier gives a little sigh and rests his head against Geralt's shoulder, and it makes Geralt fumble awkwardly with the key.

He gets Jaskier sitting on the bed, and thus regains the full use of both arms. Jaskier looks up at him, and for a moment, Geralt forgets all of his resolve, forgets to ignore that Jaskier's cheeks are flushed warm, his hair scattered across his forehead, softening him into something nearly touchable, something Geralt might believe he could reach for, might think he'd be able to keep. Forgets not to notice that Jaskier's soft blue gaze is so terribly open that it seems like it must hurt, how can it not, to leave himself so bare and undefended.

It gives Geralt a twinge in his own chest, and he resists the urge to rub the heel of his hand against his breastbone. He's been foolish about many things in his long life, and every time to his detriment; he'll not make the mistake of deluding himself that someone like Jaskier, with all the world open to him and everything to offer in return, would ever really choose Geralt's company in that way. So he takes a steadying breath, and makes a few quick decisions about how to handle this evening without driving himself mad.

He shucks Jaskier out of his doublet, so that he won't have to spend the next three days hearing about wrinkles, and Jaskier cooperates, made loose and pliant by drink. When Geralt goes to slip off his boots, so that Jaskier doesn't give him any stiff-soled kicks in the night, Jaskier even lifts his feet and points his toes to ease the way.

Jaskier is quiet, too, so much so that the whole thing has a liminal, ritualistic feel to it. He's surprised to feel Jaskier's fingers trace down the side of his face as he kneels at his feet, and looks up to meet his eyes, half-lidded and numinous.

"O Witcher of Rivia, you do take such care of me," he murmurs, and Geralt feels pinpricks of heat ripple over his skin.

He taps the outside of Jaskier's ankle with the back of his hand. "Up."

Jaskier draws his feet up onto the bed with the rest of him, curling himself onto his side, still watching Geralt. "Are you going to tuck me in, as well?" he asks, a low tease to his voice that summons a twist of heat into Geralt's traitorous gut.

Geralt huffs, but draws a blanket from the foot of the bed up over Jaskier. Only because if he doesn't, the idiot will wake up freezing in the middle of the night, and wake Geralt up in turn when he clumsily hunts for the bedclothes.

There's a gleam of humor in Jaskier's eyes, a hint of smugness around his mouth; he has never been modest in his victories. His fingers fold themselves around the edge of the blanket, pulling it up to his chin. "Will you read me a bedtime story?" he asks, wriggling himself more comfortable, and Geralt gives him a stony look.


"Leave me a cup of water?"

... yes, but only to cut down on Jaskier's pleading of his head tomorrow.

"Kiss me goodnight?"

He blinks up at Geralt, but it's somehow less coquettish, which Geralt is accustomed to ignoring, and more softly fond -- which he is not.

It sets him off-balance, which is why he blurts out, "If I do, will you go the fuck to sleep?"

Jaskier makes a show of thinking this over, and then smiles sweetly up at Geralt. "Bargained well and done."

He means to do it sardonically, a hard little peck on the forehead, but finds himself gentling in the instant before he makes contact. Jaskier's hair is soft against his face as he noses it aside, and his skin is warm under Geralt's lips.

"Go the fuck to sleep," he mutters, his lips tingling, and Jaskier does, finally allowing him to breathe again.

Geralt kills a juvenile basilisk that had shut down a duchy's ore mine, collects a decent bounty from the miners, and gets an invitation to a party at the keep.

He might have considered refusing -- nobility being what they were -- but a witcher was almost never invited to court without there being a monster the court wanted killed, and he felt no compunction about taking noble coin.

"Finally, a civilized response to your hard work," Jaskier says, staring upward dramatically, as if thanking a god that happens to be perched in the rafters of their room at the inn. "And mine as well, of course," he adds, looking back down at Geralt and sweeping the hand still holding the invitation through a wide flourish. "You're welcome."

"Hmm," Geralt grunts, and Jaskier immediately starts reviewing his wardrobe.

Having Jaskier there with him will mean having a buffer against the local aristocracy. That's the only reason he's relieved that the bard invites himself along -- that, and the fact that by doing so, he spares Geralt the need to ask.

"Do you even know how to attend a banquet without being the center of attention?" he asks instead, because needling the bard is easier; other things that seem straightforward in his head often get tangled on the way to his mouth.

Jaskier scoffs, raising a finger at Geralt. "I'll have you know, Geralt, I can be the center of attention at any gathering I choose, thank you very much."

At Geralt's hard stare, he lowers his finger. "Which -- I will definitely not be doing tonight, no, just -- that's my choice, is what that is."

Geralt snorts, not bothering to hide his amusement, as Jaskier turns back to his pile of clothing. "What do you know of this duke?"

"Not much, really," Jaskier says over his shoulder. "He's not really a major player, tends to keep to local affairs. From what I've heard, he's a bit eccentric, but the, ah, bardic grapevine has it that he pays what he agrees to and doesn't stint on the libations."

Which nearly convinces Geralt by itself, but he has to be sure. "'Eccentric' as in 'likes to wear hats made from meat,' or as in 'has something against wearing pants in public'?"

"Are those the limits of your imagination? Geralt, you do need to get out more, my friend, expand your licentious horizons," Jaskier says, laughing merrily as Geralt just looks at him.

"You think I haven't seen enough of the world."

Jaskier stops, eyes going a little wide as his brain catches up to his mouth. "Ah, that's -- absolutely not what I am saying and please don't tell me anything horrible that I won't ever be able to not imagine while falling asleep at night." He shakes his head, giving Geralt a lopsided smile. "Well, anyway, I'd have heard if it were the pants thing, so probably closer to the meat hats, but I'm not actually clear on the details."

"Hmm," Geralt says, and decides, against Jaskier's lengthy objections, to wear his armor.

It turns out to be a good choice, in a way. "Eccentric" in this case turns out to mean that the duke likes to show off his collection of dangerous animals from distant lands -- to the point that there are several great cats being walked on chain leads by pairs of less-than-enthusiastic guardsmen. Geralt gets the distinct impression that he himself is considered something of a visiting exhibit. See the witcher, the beast that walks like a man.

Jaskier was right about the beer flowing freely, though, so he stands along the wall, and lets himself be stared at, and keeps an eye on the bard and his attentive audience, clustered a little ways off. Even the ones who are at all interested in Geralt seem happier to question Jaskier than Geralt himself.

And why wouldn't they prefer the bard's conversation? He's actually likeable.

All Geralt has to do is accept skewers of meat and vegetables, and other, more elaborate finger foods from the servers Jaskier diverts his way, and snort into his stein whenever Jaskier's tales grow particularly tall.

He's glad that Jaskier seems to have missed the subtext to Geralt's invitation; even delivered in unnecessarily small portions, the food is good, and it's been a long time since simply being stared at was enough to sour his appetite. Jaskier, on the other hand, sometimes takes issue with Geralt receiving unfriendly attention for being what he is. Geralt can only assume he's insulted that not everyone is swayed by his White Wolf nonsense.

The real reason for his invitation arrives in the form of one of the duke's servants, delivering him a message; when she leaves, Jaskier slips away from his admirers and lays a hand on his arm. "Everything all right, Geralt? I'm sorry, by the way, to have left you alone all this time."

Geralt huffs out a breath. "You're the reason I've been left in peace all night. Everyone's the better off for that."

"First, I register my disagreement about anyone at all being better off, and second, I note the particular and extremely personal exception of one decidedly pitiable bard," says Jaskier. "I've managed to deprive myself of your company, and that is truly the greatest of tragedies." He gives Geralt a sad frown, his chin dimpling.

Geralt takes in the flush on his cheeks, and glances back at the crowd Jaskier had abandoned. One of the women has made sure Jaskier never had an empty goblet, and now she's glaring daggers at Jaskier's hand, still on his arm. "Jaskier, how drunk are you?"

Jaskier tips his head, like he's considering the question quite seriously. "As a Lyrian lyricist."

"That means nothing to me."

"Moderately. Not excessively." He raises his eyebrows as a smile blooms on his face. "Mine is a genteel and fashionable inebriation."

"Hmm." He can handle his own affairs, then. Geralt drains his goblet, and says, "I've been told it's fashionable to leave a party before it drags to the very end."

"Yes, that's right, never want to seem too desperate, that's a time-honored -- wait, I'm the one who told you that." Jaskier's incredulous grin lights up his entire face. "Geralt! Do you actually listen to me?"

More than he should. Far more than he lets on.

He sets the empty stein on a nearby ledge, where he's confident one of the passing servers will find it at some point, and takes a step toward the doors at the end of the hall -- just one, because Jaskier tugs at his arm before he can go farther.

"Wait, what are you doing?"

Through the leather bracer, he can't even feel Jaskier's hand itself, just the pull of arrested motion, but he allows it to stop him anyway. "Being fashionable," he says, letting his lip curl into a smirk.

"Already? You can't be serious." Jaskier furrows his brow. "Though admittedly it's hard to tell, what with your whole…" he waves a hand in vague circles in front of Geralt, "face… thing."

"Jaskier," he says, deliberately, ignoring -- that. "Have a care which fields you furrow tonight. The chamberlain sent word that he'd have a contract for me in the morning." Jaskier starts to open his mouth, and Geralt tips his chin down to look at him more directly. "I'd rather not lose another one because the wrong person found you with your trousers around your ankles instead of your waist."

"That business with the farrier was not my fault," Jaskier says immediately. A small part of Geralt wonders why that incident came to mind first, but the rest of his attention is drawn to the faint flush that alights on Jaskier's cheeks. Jaskier meets his brief glare with a face full of innocence, and Geralt sighs, turning again to stride from the hall.

Jaskier takes two quick steps to catch up, and Geralt frowns over at him as he keeps pace.

"You should stay," he says. This is Jaskier's world more than it will ever be Geralt's, and while Geralt knows Jaskier thrives on performing, he can't imagine Jaskier wouldn't enjoy just being a guest every now and then. Entertaining himself as he likes, immersing himself in the world of courtly fashions and intrigues that he's always talking about, instead of being subject to the whims of others as the hired entertainment.

"In my lifetime, I've been told that I should and should not do a great many things," Jaskier says airily, glancing down at his hand as if examining his nails. "And what I absolutely should do is make for myself the very important decision as to where and with whom to spend my valuable time."

He looks up at Geralt, with a particularly stubborn jut to his jaw that Geralt sees only rarely.

It's a very Jaskier thing to do, to take the same kernel of thought Geralt has had and turn it in an entirely unexpected direction. That he's giving up one of the society parties he loves in order to spend time in Geralt's underwhelming company is a choice Geralt can't begin to understand, but he can't argue Jaskier's right to make it.

He just nods once, and Jaskier's expression shifts into an impertinent grin that makes his eyes twinkle.

On returning to their shared inn room, Jaskier drops himself backward onto the mattress with arms akimbo. He stares up at the unremarkable ceiling and sighs. "If we had stayed at the keep, though, I'm sure the duke would have given us a lovely room for the night."

"We have a room," Geralt says shortly, feeling wrong-footed and guilty, and angry at himself over the guilt. If he'd been better with words, he might have changed Jaskier's mind earlier. "And you could have --" he starts, but Jaskier cuts him off, raising his head from the mattress and spearing Geralt with a look.

"Oh, don't look like that, Geralt. I chose to be here, but I am a dramatist." His gaze softens, so much so that Geralt doesn't understand what it becomes, only that it's difficult to return. Jaskier's voice, too, becomes indescribably gentle. "I must be given leave to envision the roads not taken."

He can't place the other odd note to Jaskier's voice, but Geralt is not the musician here.

He also doesn't see the point of such flights of fancy -- a choice made can only be lived with, afterward, no matter who's done the choosing. But Jaskier's entire life sometimes seems fashioned around things that Geralt can't see the point of, because he was never expected to let them take up space in his thoughts. So he huffs out a breath, shaking his head.

Jaskier reads his surrender correctly, and rolls onto his side, bracing himself on an elbow to face Geralt. "We would have had an attendant to, to, to…" he waves a hand as if try to pluck a word from the air, then raises a triumphant finger, "to attend our every need."

Geralt resists a smile -- hardly the bard's best poetic effort -- and begins unbuckling his armor. "I have no needs that require tending."

"No?" Jaskier asks, something flitting across his face too quickly to follow. "No desire to have someone draw you a bath, or fetch you wine, or undress you?"

The bath is a tempting idea, but a luxury he can't afford right now. He'd bathed before the party, anyway; the thought of washing off extended proximity to the aristocracy is more a fanciful desire than a physical one.

But the last thing Jaskier needs is more fodder for his amusement, so he simply answers with, "I can undress myself." He lets both halves of his cuirass thunk to the floor in emphasis.

Jaskier's eyes flick to the discarded armor, then back up to Geralt. "As can I, but it's nice to have other people do it."

"All roads lead back to you having your trousers around your ankles, I see."

Jaskier sits up, then, leaning back a little, his palms flat on the mattress. "I know you're not immune to the allure of being pampered, Geralt." His eyebrows draw together. "Would it be so wrong to enjoy some of the riches that life has to offer, when you have the chance?"

Geralt looks down at Jaskier in his finery, fair-faced and glimmering like a dragon's hoard, and very carefully does not react at all.

Eventually, Jaskier sighs, and stands up, hands going to the fastenings of his doublet. "And despite his best efforts, the witcher continued to deny himself," he murmurs. Geralt turns away to continue stripping off his armor, because he can't tell whether Jaskier meant that to sound like -- like some kind of offer -- but it makes his hands itch with a vague, restless urge.

After a few minutes, Jaskier breathes, "Bollocks," and Geralt turns back before he can think better of it.

Jaskier's still fully dressed, hands at the collar of his doublet, his brow furrowed. "I thought you said you could undress yourself," Geralt says mildly, and Jaskier gives him a snort that's half amused and half annoyed.

"See, here's where a valet would come in handy," he mutters, chin jutting out a little. "The clasp is stuck."

Geralt is tempted to see exactly how long Jaskier will continue to struggle with the uncooperative garment, but he's already dealing with a lingering sense of having disappointed the bard by taking him away from the party. Alleviating that guilt is worth the loss of a passing bit of humor.

He steps in close, raising his hands in an offer, and Jaskier blinks at him for a moment, as if he'd spoken in an unfamiliar tongue.

"Fine, yes," he eventually huffs, as if he's the one doing Geralt a favor. "But if you tear it, I'll -- fill your saddlebags with that jasmine soap you hate, see if I don't."

Geralt represses a shudder; the soap in question smells like a Nazairi brothel on a boiling summer day.

Jaskier chooses his outfits to trim down his appearance and hide his physique. It's another convention Geralt has always found bizarre, but apparently bards aren't supposed to appear healthy or robust. It means his clothes tend to be somewhat tight in strategic places, so when Geralt reaches for the wayward clasp, the backs of his fingers brush across Jaskier's throat.

Jaskier's breath catches on an inhale, and when he breathes out, a little unsteady, it stirs the loose hair along Geralt's temple.

"Lift your chin," he rumbles, trying to get a better view, and Jaskier does, his throat bobbing in a swallow that presses against Geralt's knuckles.

The hidden clasp is tiny, meant to give the illusion of not being there at all, and he has to look very closely to pick out the glint of true metal from among the shiny metallic threads of the doublet.

This close, he can't not smell Jaskier -- soap, clean sweat, a hint of wine from the party. Other scents that have no name in the languages of the world, that Geralt knows only by the feelings they trigger in him: warm and fond and longing.

The sharp ache that follows is almost welcome, like penance being paid for having the temerity to want.

"You've done this for me before," Jaskier says, casual, teasing, though his voice is a bit off. "Speaking of undressing."


He catches movement from the corner of his eye, and glances down. Jaskier's hands are held away from his sides, and his fingers are flexing, like he doesn't know what to do with them. It's a rare sight; Jaskier's hands are as expressive as his face or his voice, often more honest than his words, and Geralt likes to idly watch them. It's all so foreign to the way he's learned to live. Move only with purpose, with deliberation, with forethought, when around humans. Sudden movements tend to scare them; while he might avoid trouble that way, he might also bring it down on himself, or chase away the possibility of a contract.

Looking back to his task, he sees the problem -- there's a loose thread caught around the clasp. He considers snapping it, but it's not worth the risk that the whole garment will unravel and Jaskier will blame him, even though the bard's the one who chose pretty over practical. Instead, Geralt maneuvers the two halves carefully apart, though it means having to press his knuckles against the warm skin over Jaskier's collarbone, feeling the silky hair there tease at his fingers.

He does his best to ignore Jaskier's sharp exhale.

Jaskier shouldn't need help with any of the other clasps -- the one under his chin is the only one he couldn't see for himself -- but Geralt lets his fingers trail down the front of Jaskier's doublet anyway, before he pulls them away.

He shouldn't have; every burr and callus and dry patch on his hands rasps against the fine threads of Jaskier's doublet, just loud enough to remind him that none of this is meant for him. He is coarse, crude, a rough beast that should keep his hands away from things that need gentle handling.

He makes the mistake of looking up, and Jaskier's face is -- complicated; there's a glint of something in his eyes, though, soft and steely at the same time. Apropos of nothing, it drifts through Geralt's mind that sapphires are one of the toughest gemstones, second only to diamonds.

Jaskier reaches out, touches the back of Geralt's hand as he's about to step away, and he stills. "I seem to remember there being a goodnight kiss, as well," Jaskier says lightly.

His gaze drops to Jaskier's mouth, entirely without him meaning to let it. He'd watched that same mouth earlier tonight, watched it press against priceless crystal goblets and silver-plated forks and delicate candied fruits from far-off kingdoms, as if it would never belong anywhere else. "Your memory is faulty," he grates out, and turns away.

"We both know it's not," Jaskier says to his back, but Geralt pretends not to hear.

Were he a stronger man, he would have chosen a different tavern. Some dingy shithole where the terminal drunks gathered, where the value of one's coin was the only thing anyone cared about. Somewhere to drink until the dregs of the potions had left his system and the bleakness had eased from his mind.

But after the night's work -- a nightwraith, wandering from its fields and ravaging neighboring farms -- and the accompanying hours spent in drizzling rain, he is cold, and tired, and the thought of having to navigate any kind of social interaction with anyone new leaves him vaguely nauseated.

As he passes through the public room of the inn at which they're staying, he doesn't meet the eyes of anyone save the barkeep, and acquires a bottle of vodka with coin so freshly acquired from the alderman that it's barely seen the inside of his purse.

Jaskier's voice rises behind him, leading the crowd in a repetition of the chorus of his song, some merry jig to beat back the pall of the weather outside. Geralt takes a heavy breath, just one, and then heads for the stairs amidst the tumult. He does not stop, nor does he turn, nor does he take down the hood of his cloak.

When he reaches the room, he wants nothing more than to collapse on the mattress. But he has no excuse of illness or injury, and the habits of a lifetime are a groove worn too deep to ever sand away. So he takes a hefty drink from the bottle, lights the fire with Igni, wipes down his armor with a dry cloth, and sets it by the wall, far away from the heat. Then he takes another drink, cleans and oils his swords, wipes his scabbards with the drying cloth. A third drink, and he drops onto the thin hearthrug to kneel by the fire.

In truth, the vodka was a waste of money; the potions linger in his system, negating the effects of even so voluntary a poisoning. At best, the world is dulled ever so slightly, his body a fraction warmer than before. But he is spent, and hollow, and the rote rituals of life are all that propel him forward.

He takes another drink, feeling a grim kinship with the bottle: it, too, is now near-empty and all but useless. Then he sets it aside and slips into meditation, with only the flames for company.

Time passes. Awareness brings with it the certain knowledge that someone is staring at him.

The fire is quieter, lower, the heat less substantial against his face, and someone is staring at him. Geralt knows that someone's scent, the sound of his heart and his breath, the very shape he makes in the air of the world, and he knows the feel of his eyes as they linger.

"Jaskier," he mutters, his voice a dry rasp, and hears the bard start from somewhere to his right.

"You know, Geralt, I would tell you it's very creepy when you do that, but I suspect that's the effect you're going for and I'd rather not give you the affirmation, you scoundrel."

Though he knows that it's meant to tease, it pricks at him, like briars sinking into soft flesh, and he barely covers a growl. The peace he'd hoped to find has eluded him, but the numbness, too, has fled, and he's left raw and ragged.

The nightwraith had roamed uncharacteristically far before he'd found her. She'd claimed a final victim before becoming one herself, and two fatherless children had stared at him through a grimy, rain-streaked window before being dragged away by their wailing mother.

The fire before him has done nothing for the cold that has seeped into his very bones.

"You should have gotten my attention when you returned," Jaskier says lightly, but the last thing he wants right now is to hear about something else he's fucked up.

"Leave off," he snarls, his head snapping to glare at Jaskier, his lips curled away from his teeth, and Jaskier's eyes go wide.

The bard's sitting on the floor, back against a chair, one forearm propped on his bent knee. He's the very picture of casual and carefree, with his pale blue outfit and open shirt collar, but for the alarm that Geralt has put on his face.

Because that's what witchers do -- that's what Geralt does: meet death with more death. Crush the life from things. All joy and warmth and light leave a room when a witcher steps into it; they are fundamentally incompatible ideas.

It's what he will do to Jaskier -- is probably already doing to him -- and he shuts his eyes, unwilling to watch Jaskier's face go closed-off and cold.

Instead, he listens to Jaskier moving -- most likely getting up to leave, to find another room, one less haunted by the ghosts of Geralt's own creation, the spectres of grief and failure. But instead, there's a warm presence by his side, a warmer hand on his arm. "Oh, Geralt, I'm so sorry," he says, soft, barely above a whisper, and it soothes the rawness, just a little.

"If you truly want me to leave, I will," Jaskier says, rubbing his arm in slow, careful strokes. Afraid of another outburst, surely.

"If you don't, but you just want to be a wolf with a sore head for a while, that's fine, too," Jaskier says, his voice threaded with humor, but still so quiet that it doesn't grate as it should. He squeezes Geralt's arm and says, "Not like I haven't worked around that before."

Part of him wants to lash out again. Part of him, not all, and so he knows, he is reminded, that there is more to him than a beast.

A beast would not ache so.

Almost against his will, Geralt mutters, "It's 'a bear.' With a sore head. Not 'a wolf.'"

Jaskier scoffs, a puff of air against his shoulder. "After all the effort I've put into changing your nickname, I'm not about to start confusing the issue now, White Wolf."

His hand never leaves Geralt, sliding up and across to his back, and then freezes. "Your shirt is damp -- Geralt, did you not even change when you came back?"

He grunts. He hadn't seen the point of it.

"Oh, for -- honestly, I don't care whether you can get sick or not, you should still take better care of yourself," he grumbles, and stands up, pushing himself off from Geralt's shoulder. Geralt hears him padding across the floor on bare feet, a rustling from his bags, and then Jaskier is back, patting that same shoulder. "Come on, then, Witcher. Let's get you sorted."

He should push the bard away. Geralt is as hard and base and dangerous as the life that formed him, and he will grind all of the fine edges off of Jaskier, if he stays. But he is weak, and wounded, and though his first instinct is to withdraw, to crawl away and lick his wounds alone, there's a competing urge in him, the other half of his nature, to lay down and rest and let those wounds be tended to.

Man conquers beast, at least for now, and he stands, surrendering himself to the ways of civilization.

At Jaskier's urging, he pulls off his clothes, trading them for the dry bundle in Jaskier's arms. Jaskier drapes the damp items over the same chair he'd been leaning against, then directs Geralt to sit on the bed. He brings the washbasin over -- Geralt hadn't noticed it warming near the fire -- dunks a cloth in it, then wrings it out.

"May I?" Jaskier asks, and Geralt's not even sure what he's asking, but it doesn't matter, the answer will be the same. He nods.

Jaskier kneels in front of him and, bringing the cloth to his face, wipes down Geralt's forehead in slow, even strokes, hairline to eyebrows, midpoint to temples. He moves down Geralt's nose, then, when Geralt closes his eyes, both eyelids, his cheeks, a quick swipe over his mouth and chin. The rain had dealt with most of the sweat and dirt, but it feels like Jaskier's washing something else off, something nameless and heavy that he hadn't even known was clinging to him, something Jaskier is laving it away with his delicate care.

When Jaskier pauses, fingers light on Geralt's jaw, Geralt looks down to meet his eyes. Jaskier's smile holds the warmth and weight of a sunbeam, pressing gentle heat into all the cold dark places it can find.

"There you are," Jaskier says, a little breathy with something like relief. "Knew you were under all that somewhere."

"Jaskier --"

"Shhh." He taps a damp finger against Geralt's lips. "Not done yet."

Jaskier bends his head to wet the cloth again, and Geralt finds himself awash in the urge to bury his nose in Jaskier's hair, to drown in the scent of him, warm and human and vibrantly alive, to remind himself how to be those things, too.

He doesn't, but in resisting, he curls his hands into fists where they rest on his thighs. "Ah ah, none of that, now," Jaskier says, and he cups his hand around Geralt's left fist, smoothing the cloth down his forearm. Then he works his thumb into the palm of Geralt's hand, and Geralt lets him unfurl his fist, lets him rub the damp cloth over his palm and around each finger.

Then he presses a kiss to Geralt's knuckles, and Geralt's breath catches.

He desperately wishes to see Jaskier's face, but Jaskier doesn't look up, and Geralt can't bring himself to interrupt his work. Jaskier gives his right hand the same attention, rubbing his thumb over the sword calluses on Geralt's hand.

Geralt very carefully does not hold his breath to see whether Jaskier will repeat the kiss, as well, and very carefully does not sigh when he does. His fingers curl around Jaskier's without conscious thought, and Jaskier squeezes back, tight.

He raises his head, then, pressing Geralt's hand against his cheek. "Thank you, Geralt," he says, his voice faintly hoarse, his eyes a little too shiny.

"Thank you for coming back to me," he says, and Geralt thinks he's not talking about the hunt.

Geralt has always found a stark kind of comfort in the notion that fitting in nowhere meant he was no more or less suited to any one place than another. Even the comforting familiarity of Kaer Morhen is marred by the memory of the lost.

And yet somehow he feels even less suited for Oxenfurt than for anywhere else he's been. Even royal courts have a good chance of dissolving into blood and violence, the kind of social interactions for which he's well suited. Here, the fights involve more words than swords, and the only poison comes from pens, and a witcher fits in as well as a raven in a flock of starlings.

Jaskier, however -- it's clear to see that this is the environment that made him and molded him, a sea of bright impractical clothing and ringing laughter, clever conversations and ink-stained fingers. He'd been invited to perform at some celebration leading up to Oxenfurt conferring degrees on its new graduates, and for some reason, he'd invited Geralt along.

For his own reasons, Geralt had accepted.

What he'd said to Jaskier had been true: big cities often have something unsavory lurking around the sewers that they'll pay something marginally less unsavory to rid them of. (He'd ignored the frown Jaskier gave him at that.)

What he hadn't said to Jaskier was also true: that the spring had been a lean one, few folks willing to spare coin for either songs or monsters, and he could see that life on the road had been wearing on the bard.

And Geralt found himself willing to bear a trip to the city, if the respite allowed him to keep Jaskier beside him longer when they left.

Tonight, Jaskier's playing in a tavern that he'd told Geralt was more popular with the students than the faculty or townsfolk, and the crowd seems to bear that out. They love Jaskier, with a kind of fresh-faced adoration that is nearly tiring to watch.

Geralt, they don't seem to have any idea what to do with, and thus he's been largely ignored. That suits him well; with so many of their customers the scions of wealthy families, the tavern's beer is of a fine quality, and he's mellow and content to watch Jaskier work the crowd.

He's been doing so well that Geralt's not sure the bard has bought his own drink even once. Geralt has watched the same small drama repeat itself, the barmaid signaling Jaskier between songs, Jaskier taking a drink from the tankard she hands him, setting it safely back behind the bar, out of the way, and then gesturing at Geralt in the corner. He's been sending a drink to Geralt for every one he's received, and it's not a terrible recompense for having to share the bard with the rest of his audience.

Sooner than he's expecting, Jaskier wraps up his set, thanking the crowd and introducing another performer, a young woman. Her starstruck gaze follows Jaskier away from the stage -- every tavern and public house in town has a stage, it seems -- to no avail; Jaskier fetches a cup of wine from the bar and makes his way to Geralt's table without looking back.

"I do so prefer the students to the faculty," Jaskier sighs, settling beside him, and then darts a look around; his expression shifts from panicked back to pleased as quickly as it had gone the other way. "Er, don't mention that to any of the robe-and-silly-hat crowd, if you would be so kind."

"A hard secret to keep, as often as we talk," Geralt says flatly, and Jaskier snickers into his wine.

Jaskier radiates warmth against his side, sitting so close that their elbows bump when Geralt reaches for his tankard. Geralt doesn't move away.

"You yielded the stage," he says, and Jaskier shrugs, rubbing his thumb against the rim of his cup.

"It's only fair to give the bards of tomorrow a chance to practice, as well, After all, I've had years to perform -- let's not say how many, thank you -- and these darlings are just starting out." He takes a drink, giving Geralt a sideways glance over his wine. "Perhaps, with a touch of experience under their belts, they can avoid getting pelted by baked goods when they go out into the world to ply their trade."

"Some might argue it builds character."

"Builds reflexes, more like -- sometimes they throw cutlery instead," he says, and narrows his eyes. "As if I've ever lacked for character, you rogue." Jaskier elbows him in the ribs, though not hard enough to make him spill his beer. His outrage is given the lie by the grin he's barely hiding. "But I quite like where I've ended up, so I shall magnanimously allow the insult to pass."

He wants to ask what Jaskier means by where he ended up, but it sounds too needy; he can't push past the brambles in his mind. Instead, he glances around the room and says, "Back where you started?"

"Yeah, that's -- a fair point, yeah," Jaskier says, not taking the bait. His eyes go distant for a moment, and then sharpen again. "Listen, would you like to go for a walk?" he says, drumming his fingertips quietly on the tabletop. "I, well, I'm feeling a bit antsy and I'd rather not drive you mad all night."

Geralt raises his eyebrows. "Not like it won't happen anyway."

"Yes, well," Jaskier says, but he ducks his head and doesn't continue the thought.

Geralt has no real objection, so he finishes his drink and lets Jaskier lead him outside.

His claims to restlessness aside, Jaskier is quiet as they walk the cobbled streets, pointing out landmarks here and there, but without the kind of commentary Geralt has come to expect when Jaskier shows him a city. There are a fair number of people out in the streets, mostly groups -- students, he guesses, happy to be done with their studies, or instructors relieved to be freed from their duties. He glances to the side once to see Jaskier with a crooked little smile, and it does something liquid and warm to his insides.

Being in Oxenfurt is like being surrounded by all the things that make up Jaskier, and yet, none of it compares to the totality of him: bold, pushy, inappropriate, demanding… and also gentle, generous, loyal beyond measure. A talented artist who chooses to spend time he could be performing trudging through swamps and storms and cheerless towns with a witcher instead, never receiving anywhere near the reward he deserves.

A noisy group interrupts his thoughts, pouring suddenly from a tavern and into the street, and Geralt sets a hand on Jaskier's shoulder to guide him out of the path of a man who's gesticulating wildly without watching his steps, a mannerism Geralt is all too familiar with. Jaskier gives him a look, part grateful and part rueful, which melts into -- something else, something like resolve, and he can feel Jaskier's heart beating faster under his hand.

Then Jaskier raises his own hand to the small of Geralt's back, and presses him toward a side street. "This way," he says, and his touch is so light that Geralt has no choice but to follow.

The next few streets are a blur to Geralt, focused as he is on the fleeting touches as Jaskier directs his course. They end up in a walled, wood-paneled courtyard, empty but for a few benches and carefully planted trees, with irregular markings covering the walls.

"Geralt of Rivia, welcome to the Court of Destiny," Jaskier says, hands raised toward the walls as he walks a few steps further, turning all the while. "Oh, don't look like that, I didn't name it, generations of self-impressed graduates did."

Geralt stops glaring at Jaskier in order to take a closer look. The markings are inexpert carvings in many different hands: bundles of letters, the occasional word or symbol. He turns back to Jaskier, eyebrows raised in a question.

"It's something of a tradition, to carve one's initials and those of one's sweetheart, or something to indicate the path one intends to pursue," Jaskier says, brushing a finger over plywrt in one spot, phil in another, a tiny depiction of a harp in a third. "It's sort of a joke, and sort of not? A way to leave one's mark on the world. Literally, if nothing else." He traces the outline of a heart around a set of initials. "To immortalize that to which their young and reckless hearts intend to dedicate their lives."

He can't even imagine what that would be like -- not what it would mean having so many paths to consider taking, nor the kind of certainty a person would need to have to declare their aspirations so publicly and permanently. He'd never had a choice; the path his life would take had been decided for him, and his only certainties were pain and violence.

Jaskier chuckles over something near the bottom of one of the panels, bringing Geralt out of his dark thoughts, as he so often does.

"Where are yours?" he asks, because 'ambitious vandalism' seems like exactly the sort of thing that the overconfident young fool he met in Posada would have enjoyed.

"Right… there," Jaskier says, pointing to a high upper section where the writing was less dense -- presumably because the amateur woodcarvers would have to climb up to and balance on a narrow stone ledge while working.

JAP stands out in a bold hand; he would have expected nothing less. But there are no words or initials to join Jaskier's on the wall. "Couldn't decide which lover to immortalize?"

"No one ever felt that permanent," Jaskier says, shrugging. Then he breathes a laugh. "And believe it or not, I hadn't decided what to do with my life yet. Couldn't abide the thought of limiting my options."

"So, nothing's changed, then."

Jaskier gives him a sidelong look, with a faint twist to his mouth. "One might perhaps be forgiven for thinking so."

He slings off his lute case, setting it carefully on a bench, and steps to the bottom of the wall, placing his hands on the ledge. "Be a dear fellow and boost me up?"

"Jaskier…" he begins, but Jaskier looks back at his shoulder at him, something unexpectedly serious in his face.

"You can refuse and watch me struggle, or boost me up and I'll be done in two shakes." His voice is casual, at odds with his expression. "Well?"

Geralt tilts his head. "Still deciding. The first one sounds amusing."

Jaskier huffs at him. "You're a churl and a villain, Geralt of Rivia. You're fortunate I have decided to overlook your poorer qualities."

It's all too true, and so he joins Jaskier at the wall, though he sighs heavily as he makes a cradle of his hands for Jaskier to step into. "I take it back, you're a prince among men," Jaskier chirps, and Geralt uses more force than he needs to propel the bard high enough to make the ledge.

Jaskier flails for his balance, gives Geralt a dirty look, and kicks a few loose pebbles down on him.

Then he draws out the small knife he uses for things like trimming his quill or unsealing a wax stopper, and begins adding something in the gap beside his initials. His body blocks the carving from Geralt, and so he just waits, angling himself to see the faint frown of concentration as Jaskier works.

It's not long before he blows on the carving, brushing it with a thumb and making a satisfied noise. Then he looks down at Geralt, and at the ground farther still.

"Didn't really think this through," he says slowly, sliding the knife back into his doublet. "The descent seemed a lot less daunting back in our young and frivolous days."

"Can't imagine you ever being frivolous," Geralt mutters, and reaches up to help Jaskier down again.

He lands with Geralt's hands on his waist, his hands on Geralt's shoulders, and a ridiculous grin on his face. Geralt just has time to think about how bright Jaskier's eyes are, and how well he fits in Geralt's hold, when there's a shout behind him, and Jaskier's expression flashes into oh shit in an instant.

"Run," he hisses, and scoops up his lute case, heading for one of the archways leading out.

Jaskier running away from danger is such a novel occurrence that Geralt finds himself following without question as they dart down alleyways and side streets. They slow once they're in the area of the residences where Jaskier has a room, and Geralt is fairly certain they've lost any pursuit, but Jaskier ushers them inside quickly, locking the door behind them.

Then he tosses his head back and starts laughing, falling back against the door, lute case thumping beside him.

"I thought you said that was a tradition," Geralt says, trying not to stare at the column of Jaskier's throat, the hair curling against his neck. He fails.

"I did," Jaskier says, grinning hugely. He sets his lute case aside and pushes himself upright. "I didn't actually say it was sanctioned."

Geralt feels his jaw tense, forces himself to relax. "What would they have done to us?"

"Oh, such horrors scarcely bear thinking about. We would have been subjected to… a very stern talking-to." Jaskier says it with a didactically raised finger and mock solemnity in his face, and sets himself off again, on a high choppy laugh that should frankly be obnoxious and unattractive.

But Geralt no longer minds the former, and no longer believes the latter.

"Why did we run, then," he asks, and it should be stern and admonishing, but it's too soft, too… fond. The unexpected (and apparently unnecessary) alarm has sharpened his senses, but his defenses have been laid low.

"For the principle of the thing, Geralt!" Jaskier spreads his hands, grinning and red-cheeked and happy, and Geralt drops his head, huffing out a laugh and trying to hide his smile. This is not the kind of assault he was ever trained to withstand.

"Oh, that's lovely," Jaskier murmurs, suddenly hushed. He chucks Geralt gently under the chin, his finger rasping against Geralt's stubble, and Geralt draws in a quick, surprised breath.

"Jaskier…" He means it to be forbidding, but exactly what he means to be forbidding won't allow itself to be grasped, refuses to take shape in his head, the way that mad, passionate hopes are best left formless, and unseen, and uncovetable.

Jaskier is so close, his eyes sharp and clear and fixed on Geralt, and the very air between them feels thick and hazy. There's a gentle lilt in his voice as he says, "You know something, Geralt, I have had a very good night, and there's only one thing that could make it better." He rubs his thumb along Geralt's jaw, making the short hairs prickle, sensitizing his skin. "Would it be all right if I kissed you?"

It -- the words don't make sense, can't mean what it sounds like they mean. But he's a witcher, his body trained to keep going when waiting for his mind to catch up would mean a quick death, and so he finds himself leaning in, closing the distance between them.

Jaskier's breath whispers over his lips, a hint of cloves and beer, and Geralt stops him, stops them, with a hand on Jaskier's chest, his elbow flexed between them to keep Jaskier back.

"Jaskier, how drunk are you?"

"Not in the slightest," Jaskier says, and Geralt frowns at him, tries not to get distracted by the way Jaskier's gaze keeps drifting down to his mouth.

"People bought you beers all night."

"Eh…" Jaskier says, a sly grin slanting across his face. "People bought you beers all night, they just didn't know it. I merely took a sip of each as a finder's fee and --" he flicks his fingers "-- sent them on."

Geralt pushes aside the thought that his lips may have settled where Jaskier's had on those tankards. "Why, then," he rumbles.

"Why, what?" Jaskier's expression pinches together, then his eyebrows shoot up. "Why… do I want to kiss you?"

Geralt finally gets some control back, and he presses Jaskier further away from him. "You don't want this."

"Fuck off I don't," Jaskier says on a laugh, and then he blinks at Geralt. "Wait, do you really believe that?"

Geralt shakes his head, back on solid ground. "You could have anyone."

Jaskier stares at him, hands on hips, as if waiting for him to continue. When Geralt doesn't, he says, "And so I don't need to settle for, what, for a witcher, is that it? For you?" He throws his hands out to the sides. "Fuck off with that, too. As if there's anything about you that counts as settling."

"Jaskier…" He's not even sure what he means to say, but Jaskier's eyes flash at that.

"We're really doing this?" Jaskier cuts a hand through the air. "Fine, yeah, fine, we're doing this, good. Let's."

He steps away from Geralt to strip off his doublet, throwing it over the back of the desk chair with little of his usual care. Then he unbuttons the sleeves of his shirt, rolling them carelessly into uneven cuffs.

That accomplished, he turns back to Geralt, one hand on his hip and a look of determination on his face.

"You want to know what I see in you, Geralt?" Jaskier's voice is low, a little tight, and so serious that as quiet as he is, it cuts right across the empty space between them. He's not sure, not at all sure that he wants to know what Jaskier truly thinks of him. But if he were to leave now, he just knows that something between them would snap, some tether he's not sure could be repaired, leaving him unmoored and adrift.

And so he straightens his spine and sets his jaw, steeling himself against whatever may come.

"That, right there," Jaskier says, pointing his chin at him. "You're strong. And I don't mean this," he waves his free hand at Geralt's body, "though we will definitely circle back to this, believe me." He drops his hand against his thigh. "You're the strongest person I've ever met. Too strong, sometimes. Take it from a musician, things that can't ever bend or flex or relax have a tendency to break." He presses his lips together, breathing out through his nose, and his voice is a little gentler when he says, "Though I can understand why it's hard for you to see that."

Geralt stays very, very still. Jaskier drops compliments like a tree drops leaves in an autumn wind, scattered and careless, but this is different. This is different, and his heart is speeding up, his lungs drawing deeper, and he can't take his eyes off the bard.

Jaskier nods, as if to himself, and says, "And you're kind, too, though I think it physically pains you to have anyone notice it." Geralt watches his throat work as he swallows. "Even the ones who would never use it against you."

His muscles twitch, an instinct building to dodge, to turn aside, to deflect, but Jaskier is stepping closer, and he's pinned by the absolute conviction in every line of his body.

Jaskier stops in front of Geralt, his eyes intent -- but then he softens, somehow, his cheeks faintly pink, his voice still firm, but with a trace of apology to it. "And you're clever, but you like to hide it, for that advantage it gives you when people mistake you for just a big scary brute."

He flicks a finger against Geralt's biceps, but Geralt barely notices the tiny sting. This close, Jaskier fills his senses, and there's no mistaking the fact that he believes every word he's saying to be true.

Jaskier smiles at him then, like he can't quite help himself. "And you're funny, when you forget to be a bastard," he says, but then shakes his head. "That's not true, sometimes you're funniest while you're being a bastard." He huffs out an offended little noise. "A clever funny bastard? That is unbelievably attractive, you ass, the utter nerve of you."

He reaches up with both hands, shoving against Geralt's chest with just his fingertips. It shouldn't be anywhere near enough force to move him, but this, too, is a conditioned response, his legs carrying him where Jaskier directs. Too many times he's returned from a hunt exhausted or hurt or heartsick, and it's the bard's clever fingers that hand him food or blankets or bandages, that patch him up and settle him down, telling him what to do and where to go through the wordless language of touch.

His mind may be awhirl, but he lets Jaskier back him across the room, because it never occurs to his body to object.

Jaskier stops when Geralt fetches up against the bed, then studies him for another long moment. "And you deny it so often it's like taking a breath, but you try to do the right thing, even when it hurts you." He reaches up, slowly enough not to startle, and trails his fingertips across Geralt's brow, brushes back strands of hair that came loose during their flight through the town. "Even when that means denying yourself something that I think you've wanted for some time." His fingertips slip past Geralt's ear, trailing down the side of his neck. "I get it now."

Geralt can't tear his gaze away from Jaskier's, those blue eyes sure and knowing.

"You're not wrong about one thing, Geralt. I do have choices -- lots of them, really. I've made quite a few in my time. Enough to get a good idea of what I want." Jaskier takes a breath, and Geralt can't help but mirror him. His nostrils flare as it hits him, the sure and certain knowledge of what Jaskier wants.

"There are a lot of other people out there I could be with," Jaskier says, and his voice wavers a little, the way it sometimes does when he's trying to hide the true extent of his feelings. His thumb brushes over the corner of Geralt's mouth, and he whispers, "And yet, here I am."

It should be easy, to just reach for Jaskier. To reach back for Jaskier, who's more than met him halfway, to just take that final step. But for all his experience in brothels, in back alleys, barns, attics, the rare bedroom -- it's all been about sating his body's base urges, quelling the need to touch and to fuck the way food and drink quell hunger and thirst.

What Jaskier wants -- what he's offering in return -- is unquestionably more; it calls to the nameless, shapeless thing inside him that's squeezing his lungs and making his slow heart pound, the thing that he's spent so long looking away from that he has no idea how to let himself see it.

"Jaskier…" he tries to say, and it rasps in his throat.

"What is it?" Jaskier asks softly, eyes searching his face. His hand moves to cradle Geralt's cheek, and that warm contact grounds him, gives him the breath to say what he needs to.

"I don't know how to do... this." Jaskier's eyes go a little wide, and it seems like he might say something. But Geralt shakes his head sharply, because if he lets Jaskier interrupt him, he might not have the strength to try again. "How to want this," he says, because Jaskier deserves to know that there might not be enough man left inside the monster, deserves the chance to change his mind. "It's not…"

"Shh, love. It's all right." Jaskier's eyes gleam a little wetly, but he gives Geralt a gentle smile. "I do."

"Show me," he breathes, and Jaskier lights up.

"I will," he says, and brings his other hand up to frame Geralt's face. "I've got you, Geralt," he murmurs, shaping his name so sweetly that Geralt suddenly needs to know whether his mouth tastes of it, as well.

Jaskier opens up for him without hesitation, and it sends a tremor all the way through him, shaking loose the stranglehold inside. A hot curl of hunger winds its way through his body, has him biting back a groan. When Jaskier slides his fingers into Geralt's hair, tugging a little, Geralt slips an arm around his waist, wanting to feel him close, wanting to get closer still.

And this, this too, his body understands, has ached for. He's had to furtively get himself off too many times to deny that he wants this, wants heat and skin and friction, wants to work Jaskier until he loses all his pretty words to moans, until his scent is thick and heady with satisfaction and it's all Geralt's doing, wants him sweaty and slick and trembling, the clean sweetness of his skin turned to salt and musk and the leather-metal tang of Geralt himself rubbed into his every pore.

He rolls his hips into Jaskier's, finding the hard line of Jaskier's cock with his own. Jaskier inhales sharply and responds in kind, then urges him down to the bed, cradling his head as he crawls over him, until Jaskier's solid warmth is bearing him into the mattress.

All of his senses are drowning in Jaskier, leaving no room for uncertainty, for hesitation, not when he's overwhelmed in the best possible way. All that matters is that Jaskier has awakened a hunger he didn't know he could feel, and he's the only thing that can sate it.

He leans up just a little, and they're kissing again. If he'd allowed himself to think on it, he would have expected Jaskier to be skilled at this, given the amount of trouble he's gotten himself into over the years -- and he is, lighting Geralt up like a bonfire. But there's a hitch in the breaths he takes, and he's quiet, too quiet.

Geralt wraps his hands around his waist, pressing them against each other in a clothed slide of friction and heat, and Jaskier groans into his mouth. He likes that, the sound and feel of it, and buries a hand in Jaskier's hair to keep him close while he squeezes his ass with the other to see if he does it again.

He does, and then pulls back far enough to breathe, "Fuck," across Geralt's mouth.

His cheeks are pink, and his lips glisten when he licks them, and Geralt nearly looks away, a habit driven deep into him by years of denying himself. But stronger still is the instinct to not let a second of this get away from him.

Jaskier's hot gaze flits about Geralt's face. Geralt quirks an eyebrow, and Jaskier ducks his chin, his hair brushing Geralt's forehead as he shakes his head. "Fuck, Geralt," he pants, his breath puffing against Geralt's chin. "You'd think after enough fantasies, reality could scarcely compare. And yet."

He's clearly trying for a breezy tone, but it comes out in a kind of breathless wonder; Geralt can hardly believe he's the cause of it.

His fantasies were only ever half-formed things; he never let them coalesce, and the two of them have moved far beyond such vague imaginings already. The words won't come to him, though, so instead he squeezes Jaskier's waist, meeting Jaskier's gaze for a long moment, hoping that it's enough.

"Oh, my dear heart," Jaskier breathes, and traces Geralt's mouth with featherlight fingers.

He runs that same hand down Geralt's cheek, his jaw, the side of his neck, painting a tingling swath across Geralt's skin with his fingers. His mouth follows the same path along the other side, planting kisses along his stubble, nipping at his jaw. They meet at the top of his chest, on the bare skin above the collar of his shirt, and Jaskier grumbles a noise of discontent against his throat.

"What," Geralt rumbles. Jaskier looks up with a playful frown, though Geralt has to brush his hair away from his eyes to get the full effect.

"I would blame myself for an inexcusable lack of foresight, but someone distracted me at a crucial moment," he says, and noses into Geralt's open collar to press a kiss to his chest. "You see, I'd really prefer this shirt not to be here."

"You'll need to move, then," he says, stroking his thumbs down the long muscles of Jaskier's thighs.

"Hence my annoyance," Jaskier says, nuzzling into his neck; Geralt hums and turns his head to give him better access. "You see, I fear I shall hereafter regret every moment I miss an opportunity to touch you."

"Hmm," Geralt says, and tugs Jaskier's shirt free of his waistband. He runs his palms over the warm skin of his back, letting the fabric bunch against his forearms as he slides his hands up, until Jaskier has to lift his arms or let himself be bound up in his own shirt. He tosses it to the side, and Jaskier's arch look is only slightly spoiled by the way his hair's even more disheveled now.

"That in no way solves my problem, you know," he says, but Geralt is distracted by the flush that's marching down his neck and into his thicket of chest hair.

"Wasn't trying to," he murmurs, and takes hold of Jaskier's waist again, shifting him far enough to the side that he can roll onto his elbow. Then he leans in to press an open-mouthed kiss to the hollow of his throat, tasting salt and skin and the remnants of cologne, and Jaskier gasps, fingers curling over Geralt's shoulders.

He drifts down, savoring Jaskier's scent and taste, even the faint tickle as chest hair catches on his stubble. He lets Jaskier fill his senses, and almost doesn't notice the scratching of Jaskier returning the favor, dragging Geralt's shirt up and forcing him to make the same sacrifice.

Jaskier makes a hungry noise and dips his head to kiss Geralt again, fast and messy, then leans away and nudges Geralt's thigh with his knee. "Off, all of it," he says, bending to pull off his own boots. "Can't believe we let you into bed like this."

Geralt breathes out a laugh as he strips himself, then rests an arm behind his head and watches Jaskier stand up to deal with his fussier clothing, nimble fingers plucking at his fastenings. Even though he's clearly hurrying, he takes the time to quickly fold his pants in half and drape them over a side table, and something warm and soft settles in his chest. They may be venturing into new territory, but Jaskier is still Jaskier, and traveling is… better, with the bard by his side.

Jaskier turns back to him, and stops at the side of the bed, his jaw dropping open. He blinks a few times, and then breathes, "Fucking hell, Geralt." His eyes track down Geralt's body, then slowly back up. "I said we'd circle back, but I'm afraid that's all I have for you: reverent profanity. Fucking hell."

Geralt has been on the receiving end of countless stares in his life, most of them tinged with some degree of revulsion or fear or horrified fascination. Rarely has he been stared at with anything like this kind of unalloyed heat, and it makes his cock twitch against his stomach. "You've seen me before."

"Not like this," Jaskier says, with a sort of dreamy distraction. "Not like a feast for a poor, starving man who's been out in the cold so long he's lost even the memory of warmth."

Geralt has to scoff at that; Jaskier insists on his need for poetic license, but this is more like delusion. "You've hardly starved."

Jaskier narrows his eyes at him, then places a knee on the mattress and crawls up Geralt's body, never breaking contact with Geralt's gaze. "There's a difference between keeping body and soul together, and, and…"

"And?" Geralt prompts, when Jaskier stops, a breath away from him.

Jaskier's face softens, and his voice, when he speaks, is lower, all teasing left behind. "And finding everything you've never dared to want offered up for the taking."

Then he kisses Geralt again, so sweetly caring that he has to wrap his arms around him, draw him down, something solid to hold on to.

Jaskier spends a few moments taking him apart, then slips free, taking Geralt's hands and pressing a soft kiss into the palm of each. Then he sets them on his own shoulders and leans in to pepper kisses over Geralt's forehead, brow, cheeks, silly little touches that make him smirk. Jaskier grins above him, incandescent, and Geralt rubs his thumbs down the side of his neck, feels the strong thump of his pulse.

"I know what you're doing," Jaskier murmurs, and leans in to scrape his teeth over Geralt's neck. Geralt swallows a groan. "Of course I'm having a good time, you ridiculous man."

He hadn't been checking, not really, just -- enjoying the moment, the permission to touch. But then Jaskier grinds his hips down against Geralt's, and Geralt chokes out a harsh breath at the spike of pleasure.

"Fuck," Jaskier breathes against his shoulder, running his palms up Geralt's ribs, firm enough not to tickle, not so firm that Geralt can't feel them shaking.

"Jaskier." His voice comes out rougher than usual, and he can feel Jaskier shiver. He cups his face in both hands, not entirely steady himself. "Don't hold back. Show me."

Jaskier makes a tortured sound, deep in his throat. "What you fucking do to me, Geralt," he groans, and then kisses him, hard and deep and dirty.

He sets mouth and hands to work with keen urgency, tracing along Geralt's muscles with sure, greedy fingers, following after with lips and teeth and tongue. Jaskier licks along one of his scars, eyes darting up at him through his dampening fringe of hair, and Geralt scratches at his scalp in return; after that, each long-healed injury is treated with the same filthy reverence as the rest of him.

All the while, he's wreathed in Jaskier's scent, a heady mix of want and determination and fierce joy thrumming through him, in time with Jaskier's heartbeat. It thickens as a hot breath washes over his cock, as Jaskier watches him intently, taking him in a firm grip, warm mouth giving the head a shallow, exploratory suck.

Geralt breathes out hard, keeping the hand in Jaskier's hair relaxed only by fisting the other so hard that his knuckles crack.

Jaskier grins at him, nearly innocent but for his shiny-red lips and the heat in his eyes. "That's good, yeah?" he breathes, and it doesn't really seem to be a question, because Jaskier dives back in without waiting, with firm strokes and agile tongue, his skill matched only by his enthusiasm.

It's not long before he's close, his skin tingling with it, and he abruptly decides that this isn't the way he wants it, not their first -- not right now. He tugs Jaskier free and hauls him up, dumping him on his side, and catching his mock-offended noise with his mouth. Jaskier tastes of Geralt, musky and bitter, his lips soft with overwork, and Geralt kisses him as gently as he's able.

He reaches down to wrap his hand around Jaskier, finds him stiff and eager, and Jaskier's hips jerk against his; he grips Geralt's forearm and buries his face in Geralt's neck, whispering pleas and encouragement and vulgar compliments, yes and like that and so fucking good, I knew you'd be, fuck.

On every stroke, the back of Geralt's thumb rubs against his own cock, enough to keep him close, but not too close. He doesn't try for more, wants to focus only on Jaskier, who's filling his senses with hunger, and need, and, and --

Jaskier spills hot between them, Geralt's name a strangled whisper pressed into his skin, and though he shouldn't tell the bard for fear of insulting his profession, it might be the best noise Geralt's heard him make.

He works him through the last few pulses, gathering everything he can, then wraps his wet hand around himself, chasing his own release.

"Fuck, that's hot, Geralt," Jaskier breathes, looking down between them, his sweat-damp forehead resting on Geralt's shoulder. He slides his hand down to tangle their fingers together. "Show me what you like, love, that's it," he urges, low and promising, like he's taking note for the future.

It's hardly even a surprise, surrounded as he is by Jaskier, breathing him in on the very air, that he finishes quickly. It rolls over him like a flash flood, powerful and almost without warning, and it's like something has been dragged up from his murky depths, sweeping through him, changing his very composition.

Jaskier nuzzles him into a kiss, their hands still twined around him, and it's languid and messy and perfect.

They ease out of it slowly, until they're simply lying beside one another, breathing together. Jaskier raises a hand, grimaces at it, and gives Geralt a rueful look. "Wait here?" he says, and rolls away before Geralt can respond.

He's disinclined to move anyway; his pleasant lassitude is compounded by a tremulous relief, the feeling he usually associates with fading adrenaline. Jaskier doesn't go far, snatching a cloth and a waterskin from beside the bed.

With the same careful, intent look that he has while dressing wounds, Jaskier runs the damp cloth over the planes of Geralt's stomach, then wraps it around Geralt's hand, using both of his own to rub down the small muscles as he cleans him up. He scrubs himself down far more quickly, then drops the cloth onto the floor beside the bed, before shifting back down to face Geralt again.

This time, when he raises his hand, he combs Geralt's hair back from his face, traces along his brow, his cheek, his mouth, watching him with the same kind of seriousness that Geralt has seen traces of all evening.

He's expecting the bard to break the silence, and surprises them both by beating him to it.

"Your fantasies," he murmurs, and Jaskier looks up from thumbing over the divot in his chin. "Did that live up to them?"

Jaskier blinks, then his face settles into a smile, his eyes going soft and liquid. "Truth be told, there were so very many of them. Can't really say without more comparison, can I?"

Geralt huffs out a breath. "Planning to study an eighth liberal art?"

Jaskier ducks his head, and Geralt sets gentle fingertips under the curve of his jaw to bring him back, to bask in his grin, small and bright and brilliant. "For as long as I'm allowed," Jaskier breathes, and Geralt draws him into a kiss.

In the morning, he wakes to find himself curled around a warm, nude, eager bard, who hums delightedly when Geralt presses a kiss to the back of his neck. He jerks him off slowly, while rutting against his back, and the way Jaskier gasps his name as he comes, reaching behind his head to twine his fingers into Geralt's hair, sends him over the edge with him.

He's afraid to let Jaskier know how much he enjoys that, the sound of the name he chose shaped by Jaskier's passion. Geralt might never win an argument again.

Afterward, he lies back and lets Jaskier pillow his head on his chest. It's nothing like a hardship; he gets to thread his fingers through Jaskier's soft hair, and Jaskier drops the occasional kiss to his skin as the fancy takes him.

He's also tapping lightly at Geralt's medallion with a fingernail. Geralt doesn't mind; Jaskier tends to fidget sometimes, either verbally or physically, when he has something on his mind, and the fact that he's fidgeting with something that's a part of Geralt, in a way, makes him feel oddly satisfied.


Jaskier's voice is wary and careful, and Geralt props his head on his free arm, the better to meet his eyes.

"Something you said last night," he begins, and then visibly stops himself. "I -- not to hold anything against you that you might have said only in the heat of the moment, but I, well."

"Spit it out, Jask." He rubs at Jaskier's scalp with the pads of his fingers, and Jaskier leans into it just a bit, maybe not even consciously. "I won't bite." He smirks, letting his lips part enough to show off one of his canine teeth. "Unless you ask."

"Oh, well, that's not incredibly distracting, thank you so much." Jaskier gives him a pout, curling his fingers into Geralt's chest hair and tugging, just enough for a small twinge.

Geralt grunts something like an apology for taking the low road when Jaskier clearly has something on his mind, but he files away the idea of biting to explore later.

Jaskier eyes him for a moment, then shifts himself to prop his chin on Geralt's chest, facing him more fully. "You said you're not good at… at wanting things." He must feel Geralt tense up a little, because he flattens his hand over Geralt's heart, pressing a tender kiss to Geralt's skin, in the stretch between his own thumb and forefinger. It eases him, just a little, and Jaskier looks back up at him with somber eyes. "I myself don't have a lot of experience in wanting things that I have any chance of holding on to."

His hand twitches against Geralt's chest, and he curls it into a loose fist, staring down at it. "Honestly, there's really just been the one? And until last night, I didn't fancy my chances with that one, either."

Geralt takes a deep breath, his chest rising, and the silver chain rasps gently against the back of his neck as it shifts with the movement; the medallion it carries is tucked into Jaskier's fist.

"And yet you asked to kiss me." His throat is dry, and it comes out gravelly. "Not knowing your chances."

Jaskier meets his gaze again. "You were just so…" His jaw trembles, and he swallows. "Have you ever had one of those moments, where the course of your life seemed clearer than it ever had before?"

He's always known what his future would hold -- a hard life, and a lonely death. But those thoughts don't belong in this bed, and so he just shakes his head.

"Well." Jaskier's tongue darts out to wet his lips. "I just -- knew I'd regret it, if I didn't dare." He smiles then, but it's small, and strained, and doesn't sit well; Geralt doesn't like the look of it on his face.

And that's when Geralt realizes how little he's given back. No wonder Jaskier smells so uncertain, why he's showing Geralt what he belatedly recognizes as his brave face. Geralt hasn't offered him anything that can't be written off as in the heat of the moment, in Jaskier's own words.

Jaskier has taken all the risks alone.

Everything Geralt wants is here for the taking, as impossible as it seems. All he has to do is believe he might.

All he has to do is be with Jaskier in this, as Jaskier is with him. All he has to do is give him a sign.

And suddenly that doesn't seem hard at all.

He pulls his hand from behind his head and wraps it around Jaskier's fist, pressing both their hands against his chest. "I'm glad you did," he says, and Jaskier's eyes widen. His smile turns bright and beautiful and wild, and the long, slow kiss he gives Geralt tastes that way, too.

He settles again, after, still smiling. Geralt suspects that he is, as well, but it would be so much harder not to, with the way Jaskier is radiating joy and contentment.

"You never asked what I added to the wall," Jaskier says, and Geralt feels his eyebrows draw together. Even for Jaskier, the non sequitur seems particularly random.

"It's not my business."

"Isn't it?" He opens his fist and lets the medallion slip out, finally; it settles against Geralt's chest, warmed by the heat of Jaskier's hand. "Do you know, I have spent so much time looking at this wolf that I can draw it from memory."

Another non sequitur. Apparently, happiness has addled his brains even more so than usual, but Geralt feels a bit addled himself, so it doesn't seem fair to call him on it.

Jaskier leans up and lays a kiss on the little silver disk. Geralt wants to make a joke -- do you have any idea where that's been -- but Geralt has been everywhere the medallion has, and Jaskier hasn't seemed to mind putting his mouth all over him.

Jaskier then leans up to kiss Geralt, too, and drives the matter entirely from his mind.

After lunch, Jaskier is summoned to a meeting with one of the senior professors -- kissing the ring is how he refers to it after reading the note, his face puckered in a moue of distaste.

"With that mouth?" Geralt mutters. It sends Jaskier into a gale of laughter, and he's still smiling as he kisses Geralt instead.

"If I didn't have to make sure I still have a position this winter, I'd take the time to show you what else this mouth can do," he murmurs against Geralt's lips, hands bunched in the fabric of his shirt almost possessively. It's still hard to believe that Jaskier might want to keep him that way, but the thought of it tightens his hands around Jaskier's waist, in a way that the bard seems to enjoy almost as much as Geralt does.

It occurs to him that he could invite Jaskier to winter with him at Kaer Morhen, instead. But that feels too momentous, too large to leave his throat, just now. Perhaps, in time. "I look forward to it," Geralt says instead, and Jaskier's filthy smirk melts into impossible fondness.

"Don't have too much fun without me," he murmurs, his palm soft against Geralt's cheek, and Geralt can only shake his head.

After seeing to Roach, Geralt is restless, and decides to work it off by wandering Oxenfurt, letting his feet choose the path to take. It is perhaps inevitable that he finds himself back in the so-called Court of Destiny.

There are a few people around, sitting under the trees, enjoying the weather, chatting animatedly with one another. None of them seem particularly interested in him, more dedicated to their own pursuits; he's found this to be one advantage cities have over smaller towns, the chance to be relatively anonymous, for once.

He recalls Jaskier's words this morning, and decides that it's not an invasion of privacy if Jaskier carved something in public, for all the world to see.

Looking up to where Jaskier stood last night, he finds the weathered initials carved into the wood. Beside it, he expects to find a lute, maybe. Or some kind of medal; he remembers Jaskier mentioning that as the prize for one of the big bardic competitions. Something to commemorate his life's work; something he wants to be remembered for.

The new cuts are lighter, the raw wood standing out against the dark finish. Even at a distance, to Geralt's eyes, the depiction is unmistakable.

A snarling wolf's-head emblem.

"To immortalize that to which their young and reckless hearts intend to dedicate their lives."

An emblem that Jaskier carved before they returned to his rooms, before everything that came later. Before he took a chance on being brave enough for the both of them.

He's hyperaware of the emblem's twin resting against his chest, a weight so familiar he barely notices it most of the time, now suddenly impossible to ignore.

He's not human. He's not meant to declare his own fate. It can't be that simple, to choose what his future will hold, however much he wants it to be.

But what if you're wrong? he hears, as if Jaskier were standing beside him. What if it is?

What if all it takes is having something to hold on to, and the courage to try?

He presses his palm against his chest, against the medallion, imagining he can still feel the heat of Jaskier's hand.

And decides that it's worth the risk to find out.