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The Midnight Lantern

Chapter Text

As you drifted back to the waking world, you noticed a couple of things.

One: that you had taken a client last night.

Two: that client was the witcher.

Three: that witcher's name was Eskel.

Four: that for the first time in the years he had bought you for a night, he left the candles lit.

Five: that you had asked him to stay until morning.

And...

Six: that he did.

You opened your eyes only to be met with a large expanse of chest. Pushing yourself up, you looked down and met his gaze. Eskel was already awake; it looked like he had been up for a while. A small smile curved his lips. The morning light fell across his face in soft rays, as the candles died out hours ago in the middle of the night.

"Good morning," he murmured, hand still cupping the back of your head even as you loomed over him in surprise. You didn't say anything, couldn't say anything. He had stayed? This wasn't a dream? His smile quickly turned sour as you stared at him, and he looked away almost immediately. "I... I should go." He made to stand.

You didn't let him get very far.

Moving rather quickly, you grabbed his face and pulled him back. He let out a surprised noise just before you pressed your lips to his. He jerked at the touch and nearly jolted back. But you held him there, rubbing your fingers across his cheeks and tracing the scars for a few moments before releasing him.

"Thank you, for staying." You looked away sheepishly, hands dropping to your sides as you swallowed. It was then that you realized how late it must have been for the sun to start shining in the room. "I need to leave now, else I won't get to the kitchens in time for breakfast... You still need to pay for the room." You stumbled out of bed and located your clothes that were still lying on the floor in a sad pile. Pulling them on quickly, you avoided eye contact with him. "If you ever come back to Ban Gleán, I would be glad to see you again." Steeling yourself, you turned to look at him. Eskel was still sitting on the bed, stunned. In the morning he looked even more breathtaking than before, skin littered with silvery scars that caught the morning light just so. He stared at you for a few moments as you located his braies and tossed them at him.

"I... What makes you think I wouldn't come back?" He asked, catching the article of clothing with a smile. Your cheeks burned and you rushed to the door in order to make it to breakfast.

Everything had changed since that night.

What once was simple, became complicated. Before now, you only knew him as the witcher. The man hired to take care of the various beasts that plagued the countryside. Now you knew him as Eskel. The man who held your face sweetly as you soared to greater heights of pleasure. Before now, every meeting between you two was a transaction. Impersonal. Now each of your joinings felt like something more. He still only had the time and coin to visit every month or two, but each of those visits had the heavy weight of something else now. Candles were lit, faces were seen clearly in the soft lighting. Gentle kisses were planted across jaws and throats; every coupling was face to face. Eskel would gaze deeply at you now, drinking you in. It made your cheeks burn and chest ache.

This wasn't supposed to happen. He was supposed to be a witcher. A patron who you entertained.

But now...

Now you didn't think things could ever go back to the way they were before.

Your job began to suffer for it. Whenever you were called upon by the Madame to service another man, you were less than enthused. Mechanical. Bored. Many clients caught on to your lack of interest and grew angry. Most wouldn't dare to lay a hand on you, but there were still the scant few who did. Even the Madame began to scold you for complaints that the men brought to her attention. The other workers tried to ask you questions, showing concern to someone they considered as a sister of sorts. No response. You couldn't tell them. A whore, falling in love? Unheard of; a story that could only end one way.

In tragedy.

On your days off, you took to wandering the town. Watching. Getting a glimpse into the lives of others. Butchers who brought down their knives with mechanical precision; merchants who hawked wares and flashed charming smiles; maids who laundered clothes and ran errands. It occurred to you that you never learned to do any of these things. Never learned a trade, other than whoring. You came to the brothel very young; it was the only thing you knew. Admittedly, you never wanted anything else. The Madame kept you safe and fed. The other whores took you under their wing and showed you the best ways to pleasure anyone. What else could you want? You had a family before. But they were ravaged by disease and you were left to the streets. The men and women of The Midnight Lantern were your family now.

The brothel never forced their whores to remain. But many of them never knew any better and chose to stay. There weren't a lot of options for women who had nowhere else to go. And with a dawning horror, you realized that you had become one of those women.

It was hard to keep this mounting feeling of panic and fear hidden from Eskel. At times you even thought that he suspected something was wrong. For on those nights he would often talk to you more. You learned about his own family. His brothers. The man that he considered the closest thing to a father. You learned that he brewed potions in order to slay monsters. He could set up a camp whenever he was turned away by a local tavern. He knew rudimentary ways to repair his equipment. He knew how to take care of a horse. He excelled in the simple magic that all witchers could cast. He knew so much.

And you knew nothing.

It was because of this that you began to spend even more time in the kitchens. Zond always regarded you with a sympathetic smile and scooted over in order for you to take a place next to him. He guided you through the methods of creating simple dishes. How to spice. How to know when meat was cooked all the way through. How to make something from scant resources in case of a pinch. You were so grateful to him. He never scoffed, never bemoaned a lack of skill on your behalf. He only taught with kind words and gentle corrections. It was almost as if he knew what was plaguing you.

When you wandered town you found yourself skirting the edges more often than not now. The woods were dangerous, but you couldn't help but wonder. Ban Gleán was your whole life. You had never left the town, never thought to leave. But now everything was different. You found yourself envious. Envious of travelers, of bards who flitted from place to place wherever the coin flowed. Envious of Eskel, who roamed the Continent so often that it was just a part of his life now. His Path led him everywhere; he had complete freedom. It took you so unbelievably long to realize how sheltered you really were.

It was one of your days off. The Madame had granted you one after another dissatisfactory performance for a paying client the night before, ordering you to get out until you were ready to come back and actually try. That stung. But you left anyway, promising to return in the evening. The other whores cast sympathetic glances at you, knowing that you had been struggling recently. The market bored you. The tavern bored you. You wandered to the outskirts of town once again, stopping at a small field of flowers next to the northeastern road. Winter had just passed and spring was finally making itself known.

You kneeled down in the field, looking up at the sky. There weren't many clouds today, the clear blue stretching out and interrupted occasionally by tufts of white. You wondered if the sky looked the same by the coast. You'd never seen the coast. At that sobering thought you looked back down at the flowers brushing against your knees. It took you a minute to recognize the simmering feeling of rage pulsing throughout your body. You felt cheated. Used. Like your entire life up until now had amounted to nothing.

With an angry sigh, you threw yourself back into the field and closed your eyes against the bright sun. It was much too beautiful of a day for your sour mood.

Something sudden flashed through you. Eskel. If he had never come to The Midnight Lantern, then you'd never be any wiser. You'd have lived out your life never thinking it had been wasted. But no matter how badly you wanted to be angry at him, you just couldn't. It wasn't his fault. He probably still came to you only because you treated him with kindness. Yet another thing you wanted but could never have. Witchers may have emotions, but you were under no illusions that he felt anything other than a simple fondness for someone who didn't shy away at his touch. He'd even told you that witchers often took others to bed to ease the burden of the Path, not just whores. When you asked of love he had stiffened and denied any notion of it.

"Love would make a witcher weak. Love isn't something that we can feel."

That was probably the most saddening thing about this whole situation. The knowledge that Eskel didn't know what love was. That he didn't know how you felt about him. That he couldn't ever reciprocate.

"I never would have expected to see a maiden so fair outside of town," a familiar voice cooed from above. Your eyes shot open. There he was. Eskel was atop a palomino gelding, who leaned down to sniff at your hair. "Hey, Thunder. Leave the fair lady's hair alone." He tugged on the reins in order to pull his curious horse back. A smile crossed your face and you reached up to pat the beast on the nose.

"What a fearsome steed!" You said, sitting up and feigning surprise. "No doubt he strikes fear into any horrid monsters you come across." Eskel chuckled from his perch.

"Doubtful. Thunder couldn't scare a skittish fox if he tried." He rubbed the side of his horse's neck before swinging a leg off and dropping down next to you. "What are you doing so far away from town? You know it's dangerous to be near the roads on your own." He moved to kneel down next to you, looking out across the field as Thunder trotted off. He shook his head as the horse ran in a few circles before leaning his head down to nose at the little flowers littering the ground.

"I'm not working today, and I just wanted to go and get some fresh air," you replied, picking a flower and twirling the stem between your fingers. Anything to give you something to look at other than him.

"Oh, I... I don't mean to disturb you then. I wouldn't want to intrude on your free time." Eskel made to stand but was stopped by you grabbing at his arm.

"Just because we aren't in the brothel doesn't mean we can't spend time together." The flower you held had fluttered to the ground as you dropped it in your hurry to catch him. "I... I enjoy your company. It's the first time I've seen you since winter." You hoped that he wouldn't leave again now that he knew he couldn't pay you for your time. A niggling worry. Maybe that's all he needed you for. "Tell me about Kaer Morhen. How your wintering was." Eskel paused in his attempt to leave. But slowly, he settled back down beside you, looking up at the sky.

"It wasn't much different than any other winter. Worked on patching those old walls, Lambert bitched about the cold as always." You laughed at the mention of the younger witcher. Even though you'd never met any of the others, the way Eskel talked about them showed a definite fondness. It was the one thing that made you doubt his claim that witchers didn't know how to love. "He actually came close to beating Geralt in a sparring match once. He's getting better at reading that old man."

"Aren't you and Geralt the same age?"

"Yes, but he is infinitely more grumpy than I am." You shook your head and laughed, falling back onto the ground with your hands behind your head. You were happy that winter had come and gone; the air smelled of spring now. Eskel was still sprawled out next to you, moving to sit in order to rest an arm on one of his bent knees. The wind blew gently and swept his hair back out of his face. If only there were more days to be spent like this. Your fingers brushed back and forth over the ground, catching on stems and little white blooms of flowers. You picked one and held it up above you. The light from the sun caught the petals and shone through them. "Snowdrops." You turned away from it to fix Eskel with a questioning look.

"Hmm?"

"These flowers. They're called snowdrops." He took that moment to pick a flower of his own and twirl it between his fingertips. "They always bloom in Kaedwen just after winter passes. One of the earliest flowers to do so." He looked down at you, tilting his head to the side. "The surefire way of knowing that I must go from Kaer Morhen." The hand that held the flower moved towards you, tucking it gently behind your ear along with a few strands of your hair. "How I know that it's time to come and see you again."

Your heart thundered in your chest. He couldn't just go and say things like that and expect you to not harbor any sort of feelings. Eskel was still looking down at you, hand just under your jaw. A small smile was across his lips as he trailed his hand down to cup your chin. Oh, how you wanted to tell him. How you wanted to pull him down and claim his lips with your own. How you wanted to ask him to take you too when it would be time for him to leave.

"Kiss me." His eyebrows raised in surprise at your words. But it didn't take long for that look of surprise to morph into something much softer. He leaned down, still cupping your chin, to press his lips to yours. It was a small kiss, chaste. Nothing like any of the ones you shared in the brothel. You lifted up a hand to tangle your fingers in his hair. It was longer now after winter; he probably hadn't had the chance to crop it short again. A smile curled your lips while you kissed, and you pulled away in order to catch another glimpse of those beautiful golden eyes of his. But not before placing a gentle little peck on the upturned corner of his mouth, right where the scar marred his top lip. A small noise escaped him at that, sounding almost like a whine or a shudder.

When you pulled back to look at him his eyes were lidded, pupils wide. At this point you knew that was a sign he was pleased. You hummed lowly and slid your hand away from his hair, tracing fingers over the lines of his scars. Eskel's eyes fluttered shut and he leaned into the touch. It had taken so long for you to be able to lay your hands on him like this. So long for him to no longer shy away from your touch. "How long do you plan on staying?" You asked with a whisper, wind whistling through the grass.

"Not sure," he replied, opening his eyes and looking back down at you. "Any news of work for a witcher in town?" He cocked a brow and smiled playfully.

"Well... There's always pay for drowners by the river, and I hear there's some trouble with foglets and nekkers up in the northeast by the mountains." You strained to remember the notices you saw on the contract board. He let out a thoughtful hum at that, probably contemplating how much he could be paid per head. "There should be a free room at Nan's Tap, if you are inclined to stay for a night or two," you said, hand trailing down to trace the stripes of his jerkin. "And... I could accompany you, if you wished it of me." Eskel's brow furrowed at your offer and you nearly retracted your hand. Maybe you read him wrong?

"Hmm... I wouldn't be opposed to lining my pockets with some easy coin. And a room for the night does sound nice." But he didn't say anything of your proposition. He leaned back on his haunches and you rose in order to face him better. "But... Wouldn't you prefer spending your night elsewhere? You said that you weren't working." You regarded his words with careful calculation. It wouldn't do to misinterpret him now and undo all of the progress you've made thus far. "I wouldn't want to take up time that you could be using for other activities."

"Eskel," you said, scooting closer. "I offered because I wanted to. I enjoy spending time with you. Wouldn't it be nice to have a night to ourselves, no worry of payment in the morning? I know that The Midnight Lantern's prices can be quite steep, especially right when winter ends." Eskel didn't seem convinced for a second, so you lifted yourself up on your knees and swung one leg over him. You settled down in his lap and cradled his face in your hands. "I'd relish time away from the brothel, and I'm sure you'd enjoy my company for the night as well."

"I..." He cut himself off and brought his own hands up to grip at your wrists. He pulled your fingers away from his face and fixed you with an inscrutable look. "I'll meet you at Nan's Tap, later. Let me check the contract board. I should be back before sundown." Eskel moved to get up and you slid from his lap and to the ground. He held out a hand for you, an offer to help you stand. You shook your head and stayed on the ground, looking out at the expanse of snowdrops. Thunder was still frolicking in the field, cut short by a piercing whistle from his rider. He cantered over and Eskel stroked his nose with a smile. "I could give you a ride into town?" Eskel outstretched another offer for you, but you still felt as if he had rejected you. Maybe that was all he wanted, your charms that were offered for coin.

But if all he wanted was your body, wouldn't he have leaped at the opportunity to get it without paying?

"I'm fine, thank you. I want to stay here a while longer. I'll see you before sundown?" You tested the waters once more, wanting to see if he would confirm or deny.

"Yes. You have my word." Perhaps he picked up on your soured mood, for he kneeled down one last time in order to meet you at eye level. He took your hand in his and planted a kiss upon your knuckles, and that made a smile curl your lips. Any kind of unpleasant emotion towards him was always quickly snuffed out by an unbelievably caring action that he took. Eskel grinned at you before standing and swinging himself up onto Thunder. "Until this evening, then. Take care, my fair maiden!" He kicked the sides of his mount and took off towards town. You watched him go, hand reaching up to brush at the snowdrop he had so carefully tucked behind your ear.

Maybe you were mistaken.

Maybe Eskel did feel something more than a passing fondness.