Eskel genuinely enjoys his job as a fire lookout in the Kaer Morhen Wildlife Reserve. It’s stunningly beautiful, for one thing. The Blue Mountains are heavily wooded on their lower slopes, and live up to their name on the upper, the snow-capped peaks fading to a sort of deep blueish purple when the light hits them just right at dawn or dusk. And at night, the stars spread out across the inky velvet of the sky like some giant has spilled diamonds onto a vast table, gleaming and twinkling and seemingly so close that Eskel feels like he could reach out and pick them up, if he only dared.
It’s very peaceful, too. Eskel’s lookout tower is high above the Kaer Morhen Valley, in a rebuilt section of the old keep that, millennia ago, used to house the School of the Wolf. These days, nobody bothers to come up here but extremely dedicated scientists taking notes on the breeding population of archgriffins; equally dedicated historians who have paid obscene amounts of money for the opportunity to spend a few hours picking the brain of one of the last living golden dragons, who lives up near the top of the mountain above the keep, and is surprisingly good company if you don’t mind feeling extremely small and edible; and a rotating cast of park rangers who bring up the biweekly supply run so that Eskel doesn’t have to fall back on a hunter-gatherer lifestyle like his distant ancestors.
Which means that sometimes Eskel goes entire months without seeing another human face, which is just the way he likes it these days.
He used to be a lot more sociable, but, well…
These days, it’s easier to keep himself to himself, and not have to endure the flinching.
He’s got a lovely big stack of books, and on days with decent weather he can manage a satellite connection to the internet, and the radio works even this far outside of civilization; and when it’s miserable out, often Villentretenmerth will come down from his cave up on the mountain and curl up in the old great hall of the keep and tell stories in his deep sonorous voice, and Eskel turns on a tape recorder so the next historian who comes through won’t try to kill him for wasting the opportunity and sits back to enjoy hearing about the way the world used to be, many centuries ago.
And, of course, there’s his actual job. Eskel finds it pleasantly meditative to sit up in the highest room in the tower, the one that got fitted out with heavy-duty glass on all sides during the renovation, and let his eyes scan the forests for any trace of something out of the ordinary. He sees the most amazing things that way: archgriffin mating flights, beautiful and terrifying; enormous murmurations of starlings, rising like smoke above the forest and making endless ever-changing patterns; Villentretenmerth in flight, wings gleaming in the sun as he wheels and dives.
The Kaer Morhen Wildlife Reserve isn’t very prone to fires, but Eskel has spotted rising smoke twice or three times a summer during his eight years on the job. His radio connects him not just to the Reserve’s main office, but to Villentretenmerth’s den, and usually the first responder to any natural disaster is the golden dragon, who can move a lot faster than even modern helicopters. Eskel’s spotted avalanches a time or two, too, and once a wyvern carrying off a child - that one ended with Villentretenmerth eating the wyvern, but the kid survived, so Eskel’s definitely calling it a win. He’s spotted lost hikers fairly often - there are always idiots who think the Reserve can’t possibly be as hard to navigate as it truly is - but Villentretenmerth doesn’t bother responding to those; the park rangers have to come out with helicopters or patient, sturdy horses.
All in all, Eskel feels like he’s doing well, and doing good, too. His job is undeniably useful, and he’s saved lives and given advance warning for disasters that could have done immense damage.
And no one flinches from him. It helps that the park rangers often don’t even see him; he’s up in his tower when they come, of course, and they unload their heaps of supplies into the kitchen (much updated from the original fireplace and bread oven) and take the list he’s left of things he wants for next time, and go on down the mountain again, and usually don’t bother to take the time to come up the stairs and say hello. Eskel has perfectly friendly conversations with them over the radio, but most of them prefer not to see his face, if they don’t have to.
Which suits Eskel just fine, really.
And if he sometimes wishes there could be someone - anyone - who could look him in the eye without flinching from his scars...well, he can push that thought aside. He’s gotten very good at it by now.
Eskel glances down at the park ranger’s truck moving up the twisty, narrow trail toward the keep, and then up at the clouds gathering around the peaks of the mountains. It looks like it’s going to be a nasty storm, one of the ones that lasts entire days and soaks everything badly enough to cause rockslides, and he’s not entirely sure the ranger’s going to make it to the keep before the rain hits.
Which probably means the poor bastard’s going to be stuck here until the storm blows itself out, and possibly a while after that, if a tree comes down across the trail or a rockslide takes out a section, which has happened before. Thankfully, Eskel has a decent supply of nonperishable foodstuffs in case of just such disaster, so even if it takes a while they won’t run out of supplies, and there is a second bedroom in the renovated portions of the keep, though it hasn’t been used since the last hopeful historian came through a month and a half ago.
He’s not looking forward to sharing his space with someone who is undoubtedly going to spend the whole time looking carefully anywhere but at him, but he can bear that for a little while.
The storm hits just as the park ranger reaches the courtyard, and Eskel goes trotting down the stairs to help bring in the supplies - no point staying up in the tower, he can’t see anything through the driving rain.
He doesn’t really get a good look at the park ranger, just a blurry impression of white hair and broad shoulders and a gruff voice calling, “Thanks!” as Eskel heaves a box out of the back of the truck. They work in surprisingly easy unison, hauling the boxes in and stacking them just inside the door, until the truck is empty and Eskel points the ranger at the stable, which currently holds a big placid stallion named Scorpion who is sturdy enough to carry two, useful when Eskel has to bring a historian up the mountain, six chickens, and three goats who are more than smart enough not to want to be out in a storm like this. Half the stable has been turned into a garage of sorts, and the ranger parks the truck neatly and comes trotting back through the rain to the door Eskel is holding open, slipping a bit on the wet stairs just as he reaches the doorway.
Eskel catches him, hauling him back to his feet and into the shelter of the hallway, and the ranger looks up and meets his eyes.
There’s a long, long moment of utter stillness, the only sound the pounding rain just outside.
The ranger doesn’t flinch, but his eyes go very wide. “...Eskel?” he breathes.
Eskel stares. The hair is different - white as snow instead of red as fire - but the eyes are the same, the brilliant near-golden hazel that’s been his favorite color since he was five.
“Geralt?” he asks incredulously.
They were five when they met, the day Eskel and his mother moved into their new house next door to Mister Wolfe’s, and for ten glorious years they were utterly inseparable. Geralt’s foster-father and Eskel’s mother had resigned themselves to either having two children or none at the supper table each night, and the boys hadn’t so much had sleepovers as a pair of shared bedrooms. They’d gone to the same school, played on the same sports teams - Geralt and Eskel on a soccer team together were terrifyingly good, taking their team to the championships that last year they’d played together - and generally been a pair of perfectly matched hellions. They’d been very nearly telepathic by the time they were fifteen, with no secrets between them...except one, and Eskel had been trying to figure out how to bring that one up. He’d been pretty sure Geralt wouldn’t mind.
And then Eskel’s mother had gotten a job offer she really couldn’t refuse, all the way down in the south of Nilfgaard, and though they’d tried to keep in touch, and managed reasonably well until they were eighteen, between time zones and college and everything else, somehow they just...lost that connection.
Eskel tried to get it back, once, just after he got out of college, but the letter he sent to Mister Wolfe’s house came back marked undeliverable, return to sender, and the email he sent to the address Geralt used to use never got any sort of reply.
And yet, somehow -
Somehow here he is, in a Kaer Morhen Wildlife Reserve uniform, dripping an impressive puddle onto the hallway’s slick stone floor and staring at Eskel like he’s just seen a miracle.
And not flinching.
“Holy shit,” he whispers. “Eskel.”
Eskel shakes himself a little. Life-changing revelations can wait a little; right now they’ve got eight boxes of perishables needing to be put away.
Also he has no fucking idea what to say, apart from What the hell happened to your hair?
“Let’s get this put away and get you some dry clothes and a towel,” he says. “And then I’ll dig out the good whiskey and we can talk.”
“Always the sensible one,” Geralt says, smiling broadly.
Eskel grins weakly back. He doesn’t - he doesn’t know how to deal with this. What the fuck is a man supposed to do when his childhood best friend, who also incidentally was his first crush, if you can call it a crush when it’s never really gone away, shows up unexpectedly after fifteen years, looking different - so different, the white hair is really quite startling - and yet so very familiar it almost hurts, like the setting of a broken bone?
They get the food put away, Geralt staring around in wonder at the ancient stonework of the keep, and Eskel goes and digs out a set of clothes and a towel and points Geralt at the guest room so he can get changed.
Which...well, he could hardly do anything else, but Geralt comes padding down the stairs to the kitchen ten minutes later, just barely after Eskel himself has gotten back down from getting changed into dry things, wearing Eskel’s clothes - and they’re a little too big on him, because they’re close to the same height but Eskel is broad and Geralt isn’t - with his hair down and a little messy, looking soft and mussed and hopeful, and Eskel’s heart turns over in his chest. Gods, that’s not fair. He wants to bundle Geralt up in his arms and kiss him senseless, or possibly sit him down and feed him several bowls of stew, or maybe both.
Well, he can do the stew at least. He’s had a pot simmering on the back of the stove all day. He dishes up a bowl for each of them, and settles across the table from Geralt, hungrier for the sight of his friend than for the meal.
“So,” he says, once they’ve spent a few minutes staring at each other in baffled silence. “It’s...been a while?”
“I am so sorry,” Geralt says, reaching across the table to lay his hand atop Eskel’s.
“For what?” Eskel says, startled.
Geralt sighs. “I got sick when I was nineteen. Spent a year in hospital, another year recovering. By the time I got out, it’d been so long since I talked to you that I...didn’t know how to start again. Didn’t know what to say. And then...y’know how the longer you put something off, the harder it is to do? And then of course when I finally got my head out of my ass, I had no idea where you were, or how to get in touch with you, and there’s...there’s a lot of Eskel Hillmans out there.”
Eskel snorts. It is a common name; there was another in his year at college, and they got mixed up twice by the registrar. “I should’ve looked harder for you,” he offers.
Geralt grimaces. “Well, it might’ve been a little difficult...I changed my name, after I recovered. It’s Geralt Wolfe, now.”
“Huh,” Eskel says. Geralt had talked about that fairly often when they were kids. “Suits you better’n Haute Bellegarde ever did.” Very slowly, he turns his hand over under Geralt’s. Geralt laces their fingers together without hesitation. “And now you’re a park ranger.”
They’d both always loved the Reserve. Mister Wolfe had brought them out on weekend camping trips at least once a month, except in winter, for ten years. It’s a dangerous place, but it’s always meant safety to Eskel; that’s why it was the first place he thought of, after...well. After.
“And you’re a fire lookout,” Geralt agrees. “Always figured you’d be - I dunno. A professor or something.”
Eskel lifts his free hand to rub his scars. “I was...planning on it, yeah.”
Geralt gives him a long, thoughtful look that seems to see right down to his soul. “I’m not gonna ask,” he says quietly. “But I’ll listen if you want to tell me.”
“Not now,” Eskel says. That’s not a story for this moment, this reunion.
“Alright,” Geralt says easily. They lapse into silence, staring at each other again. Eskel has no idea what Geralt is seeing - how he can bear to look without flinching. Geralt, though - Geralt looks good. The white hair is strange, but he’s grown into his ears, and he’s just as handsome as Eskel always guessed he would be. He looks a lot more settled in his own skin than he did at fifteen, too, which is only to be expected.
“Fuck,” Geralt says after a while, soft and almost reverent. “I have missed you.”
“Same,” Eskel says, tightening his grip on Geralt’s fingers. Geralt squeezes back, and picks up his spoon with his other hand.
“So, tell me what you’ve been up to since we lost touch,” Geralt says, and Eskel picks up his own spoon, clumsy with his left hand, and starts talking. He’s got a lot of stories to tell, about college and his summers traveling around Nilfgaard in a battered old truck, doing odd jobs and meeting odder people, and his discovery that goats are hilariously chaotic animals.
Geralt matches the stories with his own, about his college roommate Jaskier who’s bidding fair to become a successful pop star, and his distant cousin Pavetta whose kid is Geralt’s goddaughter and a complete menace, and the way he accidentally acquired a horse and named it, of all things, Roach.
They talk their way through two bowls of stew apiece, and most of a tin of cookies, and the whole long stormy evening, until finally they fall silent again, smiling at each other across the table, as comfortable in each other’s company as they were fifteen years ago, sitting up at Mister Wolfe’s kitchen table with their homework spread out between them and half-empty mugs of hot chocolate at their elbows.
Which, come to think of it - Eskel gets up and starts making hot chocolate, the proper way with milk and chocolate and a little vanilla in a saucepan, and Geralt laughs softly and comes over to root through the pantry for marshmallows. Which Eskel does, in fact, have, because Villentretenmerth happens to be vastly amused by toasting them.
Marshmallows successfully located, Geralt turns around and leans against the counter, looking at Eskel solemnly, and says, “Alright. I promised myself ten years ago that if I ever managed to find you again, I’d say this. And I don’t think you’ll punch me for it, but if you do, I’d appreciate not having a broken nose when I have to drive back down the mountain.” He takes a deep breath. “I think I’ve been in love with you since we were fourteen, and I’ve had three long-term relationships since then and I still have never felt like this about anyone but you.”
Eskel stares at him in shock, and then gestures to his own face, to the scars that make him as hideous as the drowners that infest the lake at the bottom of the valley. “What - but - still? With these?”
“What the fuck do those matter?” Geralt asks. “You’re still Eskel.”
Eskel gapes, utterly at a loss for words. Geralt meets his eyes, waiting patiently, until the hot chocolate starts to bubble in the pan and Eskel has to hastily root through a cupboard for a pair of mugs and pour the hot chocolate into them before it scalds, flicking the stove off with a reflexive motion.
He hands one mug to Geralt, who puts a handful of marshmallows on top of it - his sweet tooth always has been ridiculous, even more than Eskel’s - and takes a sip, then gives Eskel a crooked smile. “Just gonna leave me hanging, then?”
“Shit,” Eskel says, and shakes his head, putting his mug down so he can cover his eyes with one hand. “Sorry, I’m - I’m just - fucking hell, Geralt, I’ve been in love with you since before I knew what being in love was.”
“Really,” Geralt says softly, and a hand closes gently around Eskel’s wrist and pulls it away so Geralt can meet his eyes again. And Geralt is so close, his breath warm against Eskel’s scarred cheek, his almost-gold eyes level with Eskel’s own.
“Really,” Eskel whispers.
“Huh,” Geralt says, very quietly. “Gonna kiss you now.”
Eskel swallows hard. “Please.”
Geralt’s lips are slightly chapped and very warm and absolutely perfect.
Their first kiss is slow and careful and gentle, an exploration and a conversation and a promise all in one.
Their second kiss is rough and hungry and desperate, fifteen years of longing coming out in teeth and tongues and clutching hands.
“Fucking hell, tell me your bed isn’t up too many stairs,” Geralt gasps as Eskel busies himself putting a nice thorough love-bite on his bared throat.
“Two flights,” Eskel says, and Geralt groans like he’s been punched.
“Bed,” Eskel says, because he is not having his first time with the man he’s loved for more than half his life be over a damned table, and also it would be deeply unhygienic.
“Then move,” Geralt growls, and oh, that goes right to Eskel’s dick. He kisses Geralt again, hard, and then turns and leads the way up the stairs.
His bedroom is quite a nice space, really, cozy and well-appointed, but the important thing is that his bed is big enough for two, and Geralt tumbles him into it, yanking at the hem of Eskel’s shirt.
“Get this off,” he snarls, and Eskel squirms away far enough to obey, kicking out of his sweatpants while he’s at it, and then has to stop and stare as Geralt wriggles out of his own borrowed clothes. Fuck, he’s fucking beautiful, pale as he ever was, long and lean and well-muscled -
Eskel pounces. Geralt squeaks in surprise, a high shocked noise that makes them both dissolve into giggles, and then Eskel pins him to the pillows and kisses him, and the laughter fades away into soft moans and whispered words and a pleasure Eskel never thought he’d feel: Geralt, in his arms at last.
“Think the storm’s over,” Geralt says, muffled by the pillow under his face.
“Mm, yeah,” Eskel agrees. He rolls out of bed and feels his way carefully over to the window, opening the curtains enough to peer out. The clouds have rained themselves out and gone scudding off towards the plains of Kaedwen, there to hopefully not cause too much trouble now that they’ve dumped most of their moisture onto the Reserve. It looks like it’s going to be a beautiful night, in fact.
“Hey,” Eskel says. “C’mon. I want to show you something.”
“Is it something that requires pants?” Geralt asks.
“Boxers maybe,” Eskel says. Geralt groans. “Promise it’s worth it.”
“Ugh,” Geralt says, but he pushes himself out of bed and finds the sweatpants Eskel loaned him in the heap by the foot of the bed. Eskel pulls on a pair of boxers and leads the way up the stairs to his lookout room.
Geralt steps out into the glass-walled observatory and sucks in a sharp, awed breath.
Above and around them, the stars spill out across the sky. The rain has washed all the dust out of the air, and the stars look so close that Eskel thinks he could open one of the windows and put out his cupped hand and draw it back filled with glittering points of light.
“Fuck,” Geralt whispers. “Alright, this was worth putting pants on.” He pads up behind Eskel and hooks his chin over Eskel’s shoulder, looping his arms around Eskel’s waist. “Damn, that’s gorgeous.”
“Yeah,” Eskel says, wrapping his hands around Geralt’s wrists and leaning back against the warm skin of Geralt’s chest. “One of the best bits of this job.”
Geralt hums, and they stand there in silence for a while, admiring the glory of the stars.
Finally Geralt says, very quietly, “You know, I bet Rennes down at the Reserve office would be really happy to have a ranger stationed here full-time, to go deal with whatever trouble the lookout spots.”
Eskel goes still. “You’d - want to stay?”
“Well, it’s either way too fucking soon or about fifteen years too late, so...that averages out, right?”
Eskel snorts a laugh. “Yeah,” he says, and turns his head to kiss Geralt’s cheek. Geralt tilts his own head until their lips meet, clumsy and ridiculous from the awkward angle. “Yeah. Stay. I’ll introduce you to Villentretenmerth.”
“...That also requires pants, I’m guessing,” Geralt says, and Eskel puts his head back and laughs, joy blossoming in his chest as exuberantly as the trees flower in the spring, as golden as Geralt’s eyes, as brilliant as the endless glory of the stars.