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The Midnight Lantern

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When you awoke to the gentle feeling of fingers brushing through your hair, you let out a soft moan. You didn't want to get up yet, still chasing the remnants of a dream that even now faded from your grasp. Another hand smoothed its way up your back, along the length of your spine. It quickly became apparent that you wouldn't be able to fall back asleep. And yet, Eskel wasn't making any more moves to wake you or remove you from his bed. You didn't want to start the conversation, as it would be inevitably awkward. He would leave soon, probably as soon as he got payment for his contract. Maybe you could just lie here with him forever. Never have to address those lingering feelings in your chest, never have to even think about going back to the brothel, never lose him to some revolting beast.

A soft call of your name. It almost broke your heart, how his rough voice caressed the letters. You opened your eyes and tapped your fingers against his chest. You weren't ready for your time together to be over. Maybe you could convince him to agree to one last tumble before he left once more. He spoke your name again and you hummed in response.

"Would you like some breakfast?" Now that wasn't the question you were expecting. You moved your head from its place upon his heart and looked him in the eyes. Eskel seemed quiet, reserved. His expression was carefully schooled into curiosity, but you could see the anxiety hiding underneath. Almost like he was expecting you to refuse him.

"That sounds lovely," you smiled, lifting up your hand to cup his cheek. You traced a line down the longest of his scars, wondering when exactly the moment came that you could touch them without him flinching. He caught your hand with his own and pressed a kiss to your knuckles. Your heart leaped into your throat and you cleared it nervously. "I'll meet you downstairs, then?" You asked, indicating his lack of dress. Eskel nodded and sat up, following your motions as you stood. He stayed in the room as you left to go and secure a table in the dining area.

The innkeeper had dark circles under his eyes and merely nodded when you requested a table in the corner of the room. It had a clear view of all the early morning patrons and was shadowed enough for a semblance of privacy. Eskel would appreciate the location, as not many eyes would linger there for long. Witcher or no witcher. You placed a quick order of ale and two bowls of pottage to start with, making your way over to the table to wait. Once you sat down you became acutely aware of your own state of dress.

While not indecent, your clothes were rumpled from sleep. You looked like you had just rolled out of bed. Which, well, was absolutely true. Your hair was probably a mess too, and you began to run your hands over it in attempts to bring it to a semblance of presentability. The barmaid from last night came over after a few minutes, setting down your food and drink with a tired nod. Looked like everyone was a bit tired. Not long after she left Eskel slid into the seat across from you, already taking a deep sip of his ale. "Thirsty?" You asked, stirring your pottage with a spoon.

"I did just wake up from an elixir-induced sleep." Eskel cocked his brow and began eating. He was ravenous. Probably another side effect of the potions. But, you noticed as the both of you ate, he wasn't sloppy. In fact, he was almost overly cautious when he was eating, like something could go wrong at any moment. "I might have to order more food, are you still hungry?" He jerked his chin towards your almost empty bowl of pottage. You shook your head and instead rested your cheek on one of your hands as you watched him wave down the barmaid to order another two bowls.

It wasn't long before he finished those as well, and you wondered where in the world all of that food went. The bowls weren't small by any means, and they were deeper than those at most taverns. You wondered what would come next from this; what was a normal day in the life of a witcher? Going back to the brothel now filled you with dread, and you only wanted to accompany him to wherever the road took him. Your tongue was tied as you attempted to work up the courage to say something. "Any plans for today?" You asked once he finished. Eskel stacked all four bowls on top of each other and set them near the edge of the table, fixing you with a questioning gaze.

"I was just going to head to the alderman's and turn in the heads. I have them all tied up near the stables, but it was a bit too late last night to return them for payment." He cleared his throat. "I doubt you want to stay for that. The smell can be overwhelming, not to mention getting a fair price is always a hassle." He furrowed his brow at that and your heart ached. Here he was, risking his life in order to keep townspeople safe, and they didn't even want to reward him for his efforts.

"Maybe I can help," you blurted out suddenly, before you could stop yourself. Quickly, so as to not lose momentum, you continued, "I mean, it couldn't hurt to have a citizen vouching for you, right? With me there maybe they'll be more inclined to pay you." It was a harebrained plan, cooked up in the desperate desire to spend more time with him. And Eskel must have known it. He stared at you for a long moment with his face twisted in thought. Maybe he didn't know and was trying to work out why in the world you were making such an offer.

"Alright," he finally said just as the barmaid came over to clean up. He paid her without a fuss and drained his mug of ale before standing. "If you can handle the stench of nekker heads then you're welcome to come with me. No need to attempt to haggle, though. I can handle that on my own." You nearly leaped out of your seat with joy as you made to follow him. Eskel watched with a small grin curling the corner of his mouth.

He was right.

The smell was overwhelming.

It was hard for you to keep your composure as he slung the heavy bag over Thunder's back. If he had smelled bad last night before you helped wash him, then this was around ten times worse. At least the both of you had the chance to groom yourselves a little bit before leaving the inn. The heads had all night to stew and fester together, and even Eskel seemed affected by the stench. "I usually don't let trophies sit, but it was impossible to turn them in last night," he explained apologetically as you walked together to the alderman's house. It didn't take long for him to get an audience, and he dropped the bag of heads on the doorstep for the guards to count. Everyone there was clearly uncomfortable with the smell, but Eskel just stood there stoically as the heads were counted.

"Twenty Ducat." The alderman said once the guards finished. Eskel stiffened next to you and you cast a concerned glance over to him.

"That price is fair for a smaller nest. With what I dealt with, that would be less than a Ducat per nekker killed."

"Well, my guards here only counted fifteen heads. That's the size of an average nest, is it not?" The alderman crossed his arms and pursed his lips, clearly uncomfortable. He probably just wanted Eskel to leave as soon as possible. What people never seemed to realize is if they just paid a fair price, then the witcher would go away.

"That's all I could fit, the nest was much larger than expected. Probably thirty to forty beasts were there that I had to kill." You could tell Eskel was getting agitated; one of his feet had started to tap impatiently on the ground. "Even if that was all I killed, that still wouldn't be a fair price. I can take you there, show you the aftermath. Then you’d be less inclined to underpay me."

“Allow you to swindle me like that? Preposterous. I’ll not let you lead me off to some secluded forest just to confirm that you killed some monsters.”

"Alright!" You decided to interrupt before things got any worse. From what you heard, you could piece together what needed to be said. Even though Eskel had told you to keep silent, you just couldn't watch this any longer. "Good Alderman, this nest of monsters has been terrorizing the wood for how long now? Since the start of winter? That's more than enough time for it to grow to a greater size than we expected." You cast a quick glance over to Eskel before continuing, "and this witcher here has eliminated the threat as well as brought you ample proof. Wouldn't it be wise to pay him fairly so that next time he stops in our town, he'd be more willing to accept our contracts?" You swallowed when you finished, sucking in a deep breath. If this didn't work, then Eskel would have to settle for subpar compensation. And you couldn't bear to see that. But it didn't take long for you to realize what a mistake that you made.

"And I'm supposed to take the word of a local whore?" The alderman spat, smirking and cocking his brow. "You just want me to pay him more so he can afford another visit to the brothel." You grit your teeth at his words and clenched your fists. You were more than used to insults like this, but it was another matter entirely to be embarrassed in front of Eskel. Your face flushed with anger and you opened your mouth to say--

"Apologize." Eskel's deep voice rumbled from next to you. You whipped around to him in order to tell him that there was no point in it, when you saw that he had a hand raised. "Apologize, and pay me fairly. Do so, and I will ignore the slight of this woman's honor."

"I-- Of course." The alderman said haltedly and without argument. You looked back and forth between the guards, Eskel, and the alderman. All except for the witcher seemed to be distracted, eyes slightly glazed and distant. The alderman reached for his coin purse and unhooked it from his belt, tossing it to Eskel. "Fifty Ducat, as fair payment. I am dreadfully sorry, my lady, for my harsh words towards you." One of the guards slung the heavy sack of heads over his shoulder and made his way around the house as the rest went back inside. Once you were left alone, the reality of the situation hit you.

"What in the world just happened there?" You asked as he hefted the coin purse. "How did you do that?" Eskel sighed and motioned for you to follow as he began walking away.

"I would have ended up accepting the paltry sum he offered if he hadn't insulted you like that." He spat. "But he had no right to say such things to you, so I had to do something. Axii is not used often unless in more dire circumstances." Eskel sighed and stopped in his tracks, turning to face you. "But, please. Next time, you don't need to attempt to defend me. It's not worth trying to change their minds." He had done that because of you. The apology from the alderman meant nothing to you. It was Eskel's intentions that meant something. You didn't know how he did it, but you found yourself not caring so much about that. He had mentioned before the simple magics that witchers could cast. Perhaps that was one of them. He had defended you.

"But--" You started, wanting to talk more about what just happened. "The alderman was right. I am just a common whore. I've heard worse from paying clients at The Midnight Lantern!" You said, shaking your head with laughter. What you meant to be a small joke only seemed to worsen Eskel's mood.

"That... That's horrible."

"And accepting mediocre pay as well as mistreatment isn't?" You retorted, crossing your arms.

"Sometimes it's the only way to resolve the argument without being run out of town." Eskel began walking again, grip tightening on Thunder's reins. "People tend to not tolerate witchers for long periods of time, and I know when I'm not welcome." You bit your lip and followed in silence after that, heart heavy.

You knew that Eskel had faced discrimination before due to his mutations, but all of those cases were either mild or heard about second-hand. This was the first time that you truly saw the effect that it had on his life. Just the thought of him having to endure mistreatment across the Continent was enough to send your mind reeling. Was there nothing you could do? When he next left, would he have to unfairly deal with prejudiced townsfolk just for room and board? These thoughts swirled through your head as you accompanied him back to the tavern. Eskel was tense the whole way back, jaw set and eyes kept stubbornly forward. Every now and then he would reach up to drag his fingernails across the lines of his scars.

"How long are you going to stay?" You asked as he brought Thunder to the stables. Eskel turned to you with a surprised gaze before leading his horse to his stall.

"Planning on leaving soon. Today, if I can. My welcome to Ban Gleán is swiftly running out the longer I stay." He moved to leave the stables but found you standing in the doorway, blocking him for the time being. If he wanted to leave, he would have to move you out of the way. You had contemplated this for a long while, but it took until the fiasco with the alderman and his guards for you to truly and finally understand. This town was just no longer right for you. For either of you, in fact. It was time for you to leave. It was time for you to ask. "What is it?" Eskel moved to stand in front of you, looking down as your mouth worked to form words. Why was this so difficult? Sex was easy. Easier than this. You knew how to make people writhe in pleasure, had no shame when it came to your body or others. Feelings weren't involved. It made everything easier. But this? Your emotions were all jumbled up in your chest in a tight knot begging to be unraveled. Your throat froze and your nose burned; a deep pit in your stomach threatened to swallow you whole. But if you couldn't do this now, then you doubted you ever could again.

"Take me with you," you finally blurted out, covering your mouth with your hands instantly afterwards. Eskel looked dumbstruck by your admission.

"What?"

"I..." You lowered your hands and steeled yourself. "I want to go with you when you leave. Please, take me with you?" You swallowed your fear and balled your hands into fists. It would take determination and persistence to get through this conversation. The conversation that you dreaded oh so much, but was necessary now. "Ban Gleán has nothing more to offer me, and I have no other way to escape besides you." You tried to mask whatever feelings you had for Eskel under your reasonings, but your voice was absolutely dripping with emotion. He would be able to see through it in a second. Probably. The two of you had never really talked about your relationship and what it exactly was. It just... ended up happening. First things were strictly transactional between you, but along the way everything changed. Got more personal. Intimate, even. More than just physical intimacy. Emotional intimacy. And that scared you. But you longed for it, you really did.

Which was why you had to cut your losses and take a leap of faith.

Right here.

Right now.

It took you a long while to realize that what you sought would never be found in this drab town. You wanted a life on the road. A life with Eskel. And now you had finally mustered yourself in order to chase it. "I... I've given it thought, and..."

"You... You want to leave, with me?" You held your tongue immediately at those soft spoken words. Your shoulders began to tremble with barely restrained emotions. Eskel's brow was furrowed as he stared down at you. The hole in the pit of your stomach grew until you could feel it resonate throughout your soul. Just below the surface you could feel an agonized moan welling up in your throat. But you kept silent. Eskel shook his head and murmured your name, reaching up to touch your shoulder but thinking better of it at the last second. His arm fell to his side and he let out a low breath. "You know I can't do that."

"Why not?" You couldn't hold it back anymore. You were almost ashamed at the shaking of your voice. Eskel looked away, hiding his scars. His mouth and fingers twitched.

"You know why."

"I don't." You took a step towards him but he moved away. He was retreating from you. Memories of years ago flashed through your mind; a time when he would barely speak to you. When he would pay for your body and leave as soon as he could. "Please, I don't understand." You took another step forward and he jerked away like a frightened animal. What happened? Why was he acting like this? "Eskel." You could feel tears welling up in the corners of your eyes but you blinked them away. Crying would only make things worse.

"I am a witcher." Eskel suddenly pivoted on his heel and stalked back to Thunder's stall. No. No no no. "The life of a witcher is deadly, the Path is not suited for humans. Living on the road and scrounging for whatever scraps the townspeople will spare you is not what you deserve."

"And living in the whorehouse is?" You shouted, suddenly angry. He was trying to decide for you. Make a choice that you never wanted. Speak for you. He had never done this before. Eskel had done similar things, but never spoke for you before. He had always removed himself from the situation before it came to that. "You think that my current life is better now?"

"It's a safer one. You were there with the alderman today. That is only a small part of the hardships of my life. Do you really want that?"

"I'd want anything, so long as I can have it with you." Your voice warbled. Eskel had wrapped Thunder's reins around his clenched fist tightly, his mouth set in an unpleasant grimace. He stayed quiet, though. "Please, Eskel. I know that... Our meetings are few and far between, but." You swallowed and walked over to where he stood, still facing away from you. "I've grown fond of you. You've opened my eyes to a world that is so much larger than the tiny piece I inhabit." Eskel shook his head and whispered your name, grip tightening so much on the reins you worried they would snap. Your heart was pounding. But he hadn't made any more moves to leave. Not yet. "A long while ago we spoke of love, did we not?" You asked, breathing heavily through the nerves. You couldn't hold it back anymore. It had been too long, with too many feelings repressed. "And you said that witchers could not feel it. I see your face when you talk about your brothers and father. You love them, as I loved my own family before they passed."

He closed his eyes at your words and you continued, "And it's not just that anymore... I've tried to push you from my mind when you're gone. But I can't. I don't want to see you leave again, not knowing whether or not you'll come back. Not knowing where you are, if you're hurt, if you were able to get a warm bed for the night. I've never had such feelings, such worries, about anyone before. Not until you." It was hard to say everything, hard to articulate yourself properly for him. Never before had you ever had to say such things. This was what you had agonized over night after night, mulling over words and ultimately discarding them all. "What I'm trying to say is... Eskel, I--"

He whirled around to face you, stopping your confession in its tracks. His eyes were wide and his lips were ever so parted in surprise. He stared at you for a moment as you floundered. It was a lot harder to talk when he was looking at you, scrutinizing everything you said. A soft breath of your name escaped him as the tension all but disappeared from his shoulders. It was like a switch had been flipped.

"I had longed for this moment, but feared for the time when it would come to pass." Your mouth dropped open.

"Eskel..."

"Let me speak." You silenced yourself and took in a deep breath in preparation. Your heart was racing, threatening to beat out of your chest. Eskel looked away for a moment before focusing his gaze back on you. "The life of a witcher is dangerous. I walk in the shadow of death. I had gone so long passing through towns, completing contracts, wintering at Kaer Morhen with my family. They were the only ones I could bring myself to trust completely." A small wistful look crossed his eyes as he talked of his fellow witchers. But it quickly died when he moved to the next vein of his thoughts. "But while I loved them, there were desires I had that the love of a family could not sate for me." He cleared his throat before continuing. "I'm not proud of admitting to wanting more."

A low sigh escaped him and you so desperately wanted to step forwards again, to wrap your arms around his waist and bury your head into his chest. But you didn't dare risk sending him away again. "And then... Then one night I felt that ache inside grow unbearable, and I indulged myself in another rare visit to a brothel. I crossed the threshold into the Midnight Lantern. And I met you. And ever since that one night, I could not bring myself to forget you. I kept coming back. At first it was merely a physical want I needed to sate. I was ashamed of using you the way I did."

Your throat burned with unspoken words. You could feel your nails digging into your palms with how hard you were clenching your fists. "But you... You didn't shy away, didn't judge my wants. You wanted me to come back, wanted me to stay. I couldn't even fathom why. I was scared of what awoke within me." He shook his head with a rueful smile. "A beauty like you, actually wanting to spend time with me?" He chuckled lowly. "Whenever I would leave Ban Gleán, you always stayed in my thoughts until I returned and saw the town over the horizon. And now? You want to come with me?" At his words you couldn't hold yourself back anymore.

"Eskel..." You said, bringing up a hand carefully in order to trace the line of his cheekbone. He was baring his heart to you now, and you wouldn't take this moment for granted. The very least you could do was offer something of equal value. "Whenever you would leave Ban Gleán, I awaited your return with bated breath. I couldn't bear the thought of you not coming back." You laughed with a broken sob hitched at the end. "A poor trait in a whore, no doubt. Becoming... Infatuated with a customer." Eskel's hand came to rest upon your waist, leaving a burning brand through your clothes. He was pulling you closer, no longer shoving you away. You swallowed and attempted to blink away your tears. "And you left the candles lit, and I couldn't look away. I could only watch from then on as you looked at me with something in your eyes I only heard about in stories." At this you brought yourself to look up at him, cupping his jaw and finally feeling the first tears escape you. "And deeper I fell."

Eskel brought up a thumb to wipe away the crystalline drops, trying to dry your cheeks. But they kept flowing, kept dripping down from heavy eyelashes. "What I wanted to say, what I've been trying to say..." You sucked in an unsteady breath. "Is that... I've fallen desperately, hopelessly, in love with you." His eyes flashed and you could hear a deep choking in the back of his throat before he pulled you tightly to his chest, hand on the back of your head locking you in the embrace. You clutched at his leather jerkin and felt his heart race against your ear. It was so quick, much quicker than its normally sluggish pace. "And I can't bear to watch you leave me again."

He pulled away, only for a moment. With a quick tug, he leaned down and pressed his lips to yours. You whimpered into the kiss, twining your fingers in his hair and keeping him close. This kiss wasn't charged like any of the others. It was soft, emotional and desperate in a way you had never felt before. Bright buds of ambrosias bloomed in your mind at his touch, coloring your vision and filling your nose with their sweet scent. Eskel ran the tip of his tongue over your bottom lip before leaving a scant distance between your mouths in order to take in a shuddering breath. His hands were trembling.

"I love you too." A sob escaped you as you smiled, still with your eyes closed. "I love you so completely that I can no longer imagine a life without you in it." He brushed a hand through your hair. "So ask me again. Ask me. Ask me to take you away from here." The words that left your mouth were but a whisper:

"Take me with you?"