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“I love you,” said Jaskier, and Roach’s brush slid from Geralt’s suddenly nerveless fingers.

“Hmm,” Geralt replied, a vaguely interrogative sound, faint and strangled. Roach turned and butted him in the shoulder with her nose. For a moment, the only sound was the light drip of the early morning rain off the stable’s roof.

“You may not need to hear it, but I need to say it,” Jaskier continued from the open door of the stable, his voice as steady as it had been the day they met, when he had approached an armed stranger in a seedy and hostile tavern.

Geralt stared at him, astonished and uncertain.

Jaskier smiled, less like a sunrise and more like a sunset. “You don’t need to say anything. I don’t want you to say anything. You’ve never said anything in all these years, while I’ve been all but shouting it from the rooftops. It’s fine, this is not…” he paused and closed his eyes briefly. When he opened them again they were a little moist, and very, very blue. “I just need you to hear me.”

“I hear you,” Geralt murmured, even though his ears were ringing. The distance between them, only a few yards, was an ocean. Jaskier held his traveling bag in his arms and his lute was strapped over his shoulder. He looked like a man with one foot already out the door.

“I always thought I’d follow you my whole life. I wanted to. But my heart is tired and my feet are heavy, and I’ll love you as long as I draw breath but I can’t walk behind you, not anymore.”

Geralt’s chest felt constricted, a band of iron around it. Roach nudged him again and he batted her weakly away. He cleared his throat. “What changed?”

“Oh, nothing much to speak of,” Jaskier replied with a breathy chuckle, falsely airy. “What isn’t as important as why.”

“Why, then.”

“I need someone to look at me the way I look at you,” he said simply. “I think you know what I mean. Surely you do.”

Geralt broke his gaze and stared at the straw beneath his own feet. Roach would need new shoes soon, he saw as she shifted her stance with a slow scrape. “Where will you go?”

“The inn we stayed at three days ago. The proprietress offered me a place there for a while. I didn’t say anything at the time, but...well, I couldn’t stop thinking about it. I thought I’d see what the sun looks like coming up through the same window twice. After that, who knows. Maybe Oxenfurt. I’ll have to wait and see where my feet take me. See if they get any lighter with time.”

“Jaskier,” Geralt began, then stopped. Faded out. Momentum, once lost, could not be found again.

Jaskier smiled at him again, and this time it was a serene thing. “I love you. I just needed to say it out loud.”

Then he was gone, stepping out into the last of the rain.

Geralt moved to the door and watched him walk away, the bright blue of his doublet and the warm brown leather of his lute case disappearing quickly as he melted into the quiet bustle of the street.

Roach’s brush lay where it had fallen, and he picked straw from its bristles before beginning to groom her coat once more. Outside a dog barked, the shrill sound echoing in Geralt’s ears, making him wince.

That morning he’d opened his eyes to find Jaskier already awake, but staring quietly at a crack in the ceiling above them. The bed was, for once, large enough that they didn’t need to touch, and Geralt found that they had both gravitated toward the middle anyway.

“What makes this inn different from any other?” Jaskier had asked, and Geralt had briefly contemplated the same crack in the plaster, the water stain around it.

“Not a thing,” Geralt had replied, glancing at Jaskier’s face in profile so near his own.

Jaskier had let out a long, strange sigh, and didn’t move when Geralt rolled out of bed. “It could be the same four walls, any four walls, holding up the ceiling just the same.”

Perplexed, Geralt had thrown him a strange look. “For now, at least.”

“The walls don’t matter to the ceiling, as long as they do their job.”

“Are you still asleep?”

A soft smile had curved Jaskier’s mouth, rosy pink in the dawn light that glowed through thin rain clouds. Geralt stared for a beat too long, then looked away. Jaskier lapsed into silence again, ruffling his hand over his tousled hair and watching Geralt dress with an uncharacteristically bold stare that made Geralt’s skin prickle.

“I’ll be in the stable,” Geralt grunted as he gathered his bags, when Jaskier made no move to rise. “Hurry up.”

Jaskier hummed and Geralt had left him there, still tangled in rumpled blankets.

Geralt wondered, as he slowly tacked up Roach, what Jaskier had meant about the walls and the ceiling. Maybe he should have asked. Maybe Jaskier had been waiting for him to ask. At the time all Geralt had wanted was to leave behind the sleep-warm scent of him in the sheets, the pinkness of his mouth, and with them the desire to stay.

I just needed to say it out loud.

Geralt gathered Roach’s reins in his hand and led her out into the morning. The rain had lightened nearly to a stop, and Geralt turned down the street in the opposite direction. He didn’t look back.

~*~

The Green Stag had, unsurprisingly, the head of a stag stuffed and mounted on the wall in the public room. It wasn’t green, which led Jaskier to wonder about the name, but so far he hadn’t quite worked up the desire to ask for the story. It was odd, that, because he usually loved teasing out these little eccentricities of the places they visited--

Not they. Not anymore.

The innkeeper of The Green Stag was a stout woman with a kind face and a steel backbone, and of all things it was the fact that she hadn’t batted an eye about renting a room to a witcher that made Jaskier take her up on the offer of a job. She’d been genuinely pleased to have him return, and beyond narrowing her eyes and glancing at the doorway, which had stayed empty behind Jaskier, she hadn’t asked what had become of his traveling companion.

He had his own little room off the kitchen, next to the larger one shared by the innkeeper and her husband, which he held for half the price of a regular room. It was barely big enough for a narrow bed and a desk, but that’s all he needed really, and the sun came through the east-facing window just the same way each morning. He told himself that it was novel and would take some getting used to, and that’s why it left him unsettled. He did not miss sleeping in the woods. He did not miss the hard ground, or the way that campfire smoke never seemed to leave his clothes, or bathing in cold streams.

But for someone who had rarely spoken, Geralt left a huge silent space in Jaskier’s life. That silent space rang in Jaskier’s ears, and he tried to fill it with his own voice with anyone who would listen. At least there were plenty of people who would listen in the decently sized town, and a good crowd who came to hear him sing every night. Soon he was holding court like a king.

Jaskier had everything he needed.

And he’d said the words out loud.

There was a barmaid who worked there who had been giving him slow, warm glances, but it was too soon. He knew that a distraction might help, but the loss was still too fresh.

Loss wasn’t the right word though, nothing had been lost because he couldn’t lose something he never had. And Geralt wasn’t one to be had by anyone, certainly not Jaskier. It was merely a closing of a door, a forking of a path, a decision that Jaskier had made with his eyes open and his heart tired. He’d had a life before Geralt, and he’d have one after him too.

Never mind that most of his life’s work had been dedicated to writing songs about the White Wolf, and that’s what people wanted most to hear.

The hardest times were the nights alone in his narrow bed, cold sheets and a draft through the sill of the window, and no one there to share warmth. Even that narrow bed felt too wide sometimes. He thought of that last night before he’d said goodbye, how he’d lain awake for hours while Geralt slept, listening to the slow cadence of his breathing on the other side of the bed. That morning he’d let himself look his fill as Geralt dressed, had memorized the curving line of his back, the round, bunching muscles of his arms, the white fall of his hair in a curtain over his bare shoulder. He’d let himself imagine, just one more time, that someday he’d get to touch with more than his eyes, if only he had the patience.

His heart had known better, though.

~*~

Geralt didn’t crack until he found the notebook in his saddlebag two weeks later.

Before that he’d simply tucked his head down and followed the Path where it led, and enjoyed the silence. He didn’t need Jaskier. True, it had been useful to have him around to help set up campsites, and he was a passable cook, and his songs helped the sometimes tedious hours pass faster on the long roads between towns (though Geralt would never say it).

But Geralt didn’t need him.

He was a little surprised to find that he was more distracted during hunts, expecting to be more focused once he didn’t have Jaskier chattering in his ear or stumbling into harm’s way. Instead, he found himself listening harder for that second, nagging heartbeat than he was for the creature he was hunting. A slyzard nearly took his head off for that kind of lapse. No one needled him for details about the hunts afterward, and no one helped him stitch his wounds.

But it was fine. Until it wasn’t.

The notebook was tucked into a little-used pocket where Geralt had gone searching for his smallest pair of shears. It was worn at the spine and the edges, rubbed down by lute-calluses over time until the leather binding and the parchment were both butter soft. Geralt held it too hard in his rough hand as he carried it over to sit by the fire, examining it in the fading evening light. He shouldn’t look at it, he knew it would be in some way a violation, but he turned the pages anyway. It was just a notebook, just a bound bit of thoughts and heart, left by accident in Jaskier’s sudden departure. There were crossed out lyrics and fragments of words, some rough sketches of creatures he’d seen when he was surely supposed to have been in camp, some wildflowers pressed between empty pages. It was a frenetic collection of the things that made up Jaskier, color and sound and meaning condensed into Geralt’s hands.

There were journal entries as well, written in tiny, precise lettering unlike that of his hasty lyrics, but Geralt’s eyes shied away when they snagged on his own name. He wanted to know, but then again, he didn’t.

I just needed to say it out loud.

Geralt ran his thumbs over the closed cover, wondering if there were any other forgotten bits of Jaskier hidden away in his bags, and resisted the urge to dig through them to find out. He could pretend, if he wanted, that Jaskier was seated nearby, just out of his periphery, his hands at rest on his lute. His blue eyes would be pensive, his mouth pink and pursed as he silently composed. As long as Geralt didn’t look over, the illusion could remain possible.

Then an owl hooted in the tree above him, and Jaskier didn’t jump and laugh and exclaim about having heart palpitations, and Geralt kicked a twig into the fire with more force than necessary. He returned the notebook to his bag and lay back on his bedroll, dinner forgotten.

The walls don’t matter to the ceiling, as long as they do their job.

Geralt flinched.

What had he ever given back, while Jaskier had given his all to Geralt for years? It was so easy to see now, so clear, now that Jaskier was no longer there. His absence was cutting, now that Geralt let himself feel. Had he ever truly let himself feel? Had he ever let himself look?

A gnawing hunger in his gut reminded him of how he’d never let his eyes linger on Jaskier’s lips for more than a moment, on his earnest features that were so open and expressive, on his hands that were long-boned and roughened. Now that he was gone, though, Geralt could piece him together by memory like a stitched quilt, into the shape of something real, something beloved. It tore at him, it ached, that emptiness, that desperate urge to see him again, for the first time.

He could be better. He could try. He could look at Jaskier the way Jaskier looked at him.

He’d wanted to all along.

~*~

There was a little stage set up in the corner of The Green Stag, a perfect size for Jaskier to pose and strut for the audience while he played. He had a boot-stomping rhythm going with the crowd, a reverberation that visibly rattled the window glass in its frames. Dorit, the innkeeper, cast him a fond but warning glance from behind the bar, and he grinned at her. They’d already had words about the windows.

Like this, it was easier to forget, but thoughts of Geralt still sometimes snuck through. His eyes immediately sought the dark edge of the room to see if Geralt was watching with an exasperated half-smirk, only to find the table empty. Jaskier stumbled but quickly caught himself, his composure briefly slipping.

After his performance he sat and drank with the locals as was his tendency, slickly rebuffing ladies and men alike, in such a way that they felt complimented rather than rejected. Gone were the days of falling swiftly in and out of obsessive fascination with someone, a night’s revelry and a tender goodbye. Attraction felt hollow.

One by one the patrons departed to their own homes, the baker staggering off while drunkenly humming one of Jaskier’s songs, the two silk merchants walking just a bit too close, their hands brushing too innocently as they went. Jaskier watched them, his heart burning.

He rubbed his chest and turned his tankard around and around. Dorit paused as she passed, squeezing his shoulder with a surprisingly strong hand.

“The first month is the hardest,” was all she said, continuing on to clear a nearby table.

Jaskier felt tears pressing at his eyes and blinked them away. He tossed back the rest of his ale and decided to go for a walk, unable to face his lonely bed just then.

It was a clear night, and the black sky glittered with stars. Jaskier took a deep breath of crisp autumn air and tugged his doublet closed around his chest. He wondered where Geralt was, if he was bedding down in the open or under the canopy of a forest, if he could see the stars. If he was alright.

“Don’t look at me like that. Have a little faith.”

Jaskier stopped abruptly as he passed the inn’s stable, his head whipping around. He could have been imagining that the voice had belonged to Geralt, but the rough tones had rolled down his spine the way they always had, and he knew.

He drifted to the open stable door without feeling his feet, his heart rushing like a river. He saw Roach first, her russet coat glowing in the lamplight. He let out a shaky breath that he hadn’t realized he’d been holding, and Roach turned her head to look at him. She made a soft whickering noise, as though she recognized him. Geralt’s golden eyes met his over Roach’s back, and his hand gripped her mane tight enough that the leather of his gloves squeaked.

“You’re still here,” Geralt said, his voice hushed.

“My feet are still heavy,” Jaskier replied, soaking in the sight of Geralt as he stepped around his horse and came closer, though not close enough to touch. His expression was hungry, intent, his shoulders tensed and his hands in fists at his sides.

“I love you. I needed to say it out loud.”

Jaskier pressed his shaking hand to his mouth. He felt flayed open, shattered, mended all at once. “What.”

Geralt took a half-step closer. “You’re not a wall, and I’m not a ceiling. I don’t want you to hold me up, I want you to walk beside me. I want to make your feet light again.”

Tears gathered in Jaskier’s eyes and his vision swam, Geralt’s shape turning wavy and distorted. His throat made a choked sound, no words. Geralt stepped closer, tentatively touching Jaskier’s cheeks, catching tears with his gloved fingers.

“I thought it was better if I didn’t look at you at all,” Geralt murmured, and his eyes were bright gold. “If I didn’t look, then I wouldn’t want, and we could just go on as we had been.”

“Why?” Jaskier leaned his cheek into Geralt’s glove, feeling the warmth bleeding through the leather.

Geralt hummed and looked away. “I’m not made for this, and you’re made for so much more.”

“I’m made for you,” Jaskier protested, and Geralt’s eyes flared, his breath catching. He started to lean in, then made a frustrated sound and pulled away. Jaskier said, “No!” and grabbed at his sleeve, but Geralt was only biting the fingertips of his gloves and yanking them off, dropping them into the dust.

He cupped Jaskier’s cheeks with his bare hands that smelled of leather and sweat and horse, so familiar that it made Jaskier’s heart clench with the sense memory of home, then Geralt was kissing him. It was soft and searching, and Jaskier melted like wax near a fire. He slid his arms around Geralt’s neck and was tugged forward until his hips brushed Geralt’s. He’d removed his armor, and Jaskier could feel Geralt’s heart thudding against his chest.

“Do you...have a room…” Geralt murmured against his mouth, his lips catching as he spoke. “I want to see you.”

Jaskier swallowed hard and nodded, slipping back until only his hands remained touching Geralt, clutching at his wide shoulders. He tried to make his fingers release Geralt’s shirt but they wouldn’t open. Geralt gripped his wrists and tugged them away.

“Show me,” he said, and Jaskier led him around the back of the inn through the kitchen door, avoiding the last of the patrons in the public room. His little room was cold and dark, but Geralt lit a lamp with a flicker of Igni and warm light glowed into the corners of the small space.

“It’s not much,” Jaskier said, gathering up clothes and sheets of parchment from the bed and placing them on his desk. “Sorry.”

Geralt crowded into him, his fingers grasping at Jaskier’s hips. “We’ll make it work.”

He eased the doublet from Jaskier’s shoulders and pulled the shirt over his head, his eyes so bright they shone like coins. He trailed his rough fingertips over the curve of Jaskier’s waist, pressing his mouth to Jaskier’s jaw and breathing him in.

“I dreamed of you here,” Jaskier whispered, leaning into his touch, shaking. “It was so cold.”

Geralt stripped off his own shirt and heat radiated out against Jaskier’s naked skin, burning. Jaskier gasped and pressed closer, sliding his hands into Geralt’s hair and holding on, trying not to tug. Geralt sighed and trembled, and Jaskier tentatively pulled until Geralt made a broken sound and tipped his head back.

“How long has it been since someone touched you?” Jaskier asked, brushing his lips down Geralt’s throat. Geralt shook his head.

“Later. I just want to look at you. The way you look at me.”

Jaskier’s heart skipped in his chest and he slowly leaned back so that he could meet Geralt’s eyes. There was longing there, and desperation, and love, an echo of what burned in Jaskier’s chest, and Jaskier let Geralt look his fill.

“I didn’t think you’d ever…” he whispered, touching Geralt’s cheek.

“I should have all along,” Geralt replied, and kissed him until he was dizzy, until he couldn’t imagine a time when Geralt’s lips weren’t against his, when Geralt’s hands weren’t tugging him closer and closer until there was nothing between them but the hammering of their hearts.

~*~

When the lamp was finally burning low, Geralt closed his eyes and learned the line of Jaskier’s spine by touch alone. Jaskier shifted into his hand, arching against him and resettling. Sweat still beaded his skin and Geralt pulled the sheet over both of them.

Jaskier idly drew circles over Geralt’s chest, an unbroken curve over his heart. Geralt let out a long sigh, the iron band around his lungs finally easing. Jaskier smelled of warm sandalwood and salty sweat, and Geralt kissed his forehead, breathing him in. He tightened his grip, rubbing his thumb over the notches of Jaskier’s ribs.

He could hear the smile in Jaskier’s voice when he said, “If I wasn’t so spent I’d beg you for more.”

“I’d give it to you.”

Jaskier tipped his head back, angling for a kiss, which Geralt gave gladly. Jaskier’s mouth was warm and reddened, and Geralt couldn’t help the little flicker of his tongue over Jaskier’s upper lip. Jaskier shivered.

“Come with me,” Geralt said, his voice roughened with too many emotions to untangle.

Jaskier leaned up on one elbow and smoothed loose strands of hair from Geralt’s cheek. “As long as I can walk beside you and not behind, I’ll go anywhere with you. For my whole life if you want it.”

Geralt inhaled shakily at the enormity of it, at the earnest shine to Jaskier’s blue eyes. He said it as if it was so easy, as natural as breathing, all Jaskier’s years offered up as a gift. All Geralt could do was kiss him and murmur, “Yes, yes, yes,” until Jaskier broke away to smile, and it was a sunrise.