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In The Embers

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Eskel can't remember a time without Geralt.

Technically, he knows of early childhood years spent elsewhere; they are a blurred memory at best and utterly unremarkable compared to what followed after his calling, yet the moment he and Geralt crossed their wooden swords for the first time shines brightly in his mind.

It's a time Eskel likes to return to, every now and again. Still brown-haired and energetic like a young hound, the other witchers used to joke they were like two sides of a coin: Eskel was the lighthouse to Geralt's storm, a point of serenity to the chaos that followed his would-be-brother's every step.

Oh, if only they knew – at least half of the trouble they caused was Eskel's idea. Geralt's execution was simply less... subtle and thus he got most of the blame.

Until they went through the Changes. The Trials.

Until Geralt was singled out and taken and returned, hair white as snow and eyes dark with the horrors he faced in solitude.

He never talked about the experiments, and Eskel never asked. Instead he stayed by his side, through meals Geralt barely touched and nights they spent awake, Eskel's quiet voice keeping the shadows at bay with every story he could remember, and some he clumsily made up. Eventually the absent stare gave way to wary half-smiles and bone-dry wit.

It took years for that mischievous glint to return to Geralt's eyes; it was rare, well-hidden. Eskel recognized it regardless.

Almost a century later, they sit side by side again but with a foot of distance that feels like miles, and even the warm glow of the hearth in front of them can't banish the blankness from Geralt's expression.

Eskel recognizes that one, too.

They haven't spoken a word since their heated confrontation – clash? – hours before; even Lambert is quiet, withdrawn as he first tends to the fire and then starts preparing what smells like stew, and while the cagey look in his eyes is gone Eskel's heart grows heavy. As a kid Lambert's way to cope with conflict was to invest all his energy in being helpful, useful tasks and duties that kept his hands steady, and it's not hard to deduce where that habit came from.

It was Geralt who had nudged Eskel's knee with his own and nodded to where the new apprentices sat, all grouped up and eating like a ravenous pack of wolves except for one. By then Eskel knew what that face meant, the pensive twist to his mouth and the deepening of the worry line between his brows – and Eskel took in the too-thin arms and the yellowed bruises on pale skin and shrugged, idealistic enough to brush aside the odds.

Yet Lambert had survived, and while he grew bitter and spiteful about his fate as a witcher, he followed their every step until they left for the Path, one by one.

A deep sigh is trapped in Eskel's lungs, swallowed down along with the anger still simmering within him. It has nowhere else to go, really: like the world is tilted just so, spinning further and further from its axis without control, and the only thing that could right it is a miraculous return of what's missing.

Idealism won't save them this time. Ciri can't be saved, not anymore – and the man who tried his damnedest to do it anyway is utterly still beside him, devoid of life if not for the dull beating of his heart.

“Here”, a low voice says. He nearly startles. The haze of his thoughts clears: Lambert is calmly waiting for him to take the steaming bowl in his hand, too calmly, and Eskel reaches for it, careful not to touch skin. “Thanks.”

It's indeed stew. Eskel's stomach rumbles, gone ignored for so long; his first thought goes to Geralt, however, and he can't find it in himself to be surprised to see Geralt's portion set aside.

“Geralt.”

In the seconds that stretch on without movement, Eskel's gaze wanders from the prominent line of Geralt's cheekbones over the sharp jut of his clavicle to fingers that look fragile in the flickering light. Finally, the witcher's head turns enough to indicate he's listening, eyes still fixed on the flames ahead, still out of focus.

The bowl scrapes against wood as its pushed further along the bench.

“Eat. Please.”

Geralt looks up then, like he just remembered they still exist – and there is guilt in his eyes, almost as old as its bearer, and the impassive mask cracks a little. A quiet breath passes through his lips, or maybe a word too indistinct to understand even by witcher standards. He nods at Lambert after the first bite, “It's good”, he murmurs a little louder, and Eskel can practically feel Lambert's relief.

The snappy response of “Don't get used to it” elicits a soft snort from Eskel and Geralt's slow blink, too, could be mistaken for an eye-roll.

They eat, the resulting silence close to relaxed, filled with the crackling of fire and clattering tableware. Around them, Kaer Morhen's stony chill gradually yields; already done with his portion, Eskel gets up on silent feet to rummage through the pile of assorted belongings for his own bag. Only once his searching fingers meets the stiff leather of his second set of armor is he satisfied, and on second thought he also grabs a bottle of White Gull.

The latter is tossed straight to Lambert, who's expression considerably brightens, while the former is shaken out and promptly dumped on Geralt's bared shoulders. “You'll catch something”, Eskel answers the other's raised eyebrows. Returning to his spot, he spreads out more comfortably, now thigh-to-thigh with Geralt, and pretends not to notice how he leans into the touch.

Of course Lambert doesn't have such reservations. “Uh oh, Mama Eskel is back”, he comments around a slug from the bottle, “Better wipe that sad look off your face or he'll be your second, more helpful shadow all night.”

Eskel is about to shoot back when Geralt tugs the edges of the too-big jacket tighter around himself and shrugs, “I don't mind”, and doesn't avoid Eskel's warm look.

Lambert rolls his eyes, drinks some more. “Urgh, I forgot how disgustingly close you two are.”

“Stop complaining and give me that.”

The bottle wanders to Eskel and then Geralt, who takes the liberty to polish off half its contents in one go. They exchange a glance over his head before Lambert mumbles “Alright then” under his breath and goes to get more.

Everything looks decidedly fuzzier by the time they run out of supplies: bottles with all kinds of labels, from self-made brew to high-quality wine from Toussaint, occupy half the table, and if there's one thing Eskel's certain of it's that tomorrow's hangover will be murderous.

While Lambert mainly looks sleepy – guessing by when and how he arrived, he must've ridden day and night to reach Kaer Morhen in time, something Eskel can relate to a little too well –, Geralt's slurred speech and clumsy movements tell a worrying tale altogether different.

It's Eskel who shakes the last dregs at the bottom of his flask and announces it's bed time. Lambert blinks awake and shuffles to follow wordlessly; yet Geralt stays where he is, the line of his shoulders suddenly tense.

Previous hesitation melted away by the alcohol coursing through his veins, Eskel automatically places a hand on the back of Geralt's neck, a grounding touch. “You coming?”, he asks softly, and there's something almost pleading in the glance Geralt throws his way.

That's a no, then.

Eskel doesn't suppress his sigh this time, and out of the corner of his eye he sees Lambert sit back down as well, on Geralt's other side. “Gonna nap though”, he grumbles before swiftly passing out with his head pillowed against him; and while Geralt seems startled by this, Eskel watches the tension bleed out of him little by little.

A fond chuckle is huffed between scarred lips. “Hasn't changed a bit, has he?”, says Eskel, low enough not to disturb the sleeping witcher. “Skittish as a cat whilst sober but get a few good drinks in him and he's the polar opposite.”

Geralt hums. “A cuddly drunk. Something to keep in mind.”

“Yeah.”

After a beat of silence, Eskel takes a deep breath and finally gives voice to the question burning on his tongue:

“Why?”

And going by Geralt's unmoving expression, he already expected it. Again his eyes grow distant – struggling through his drink-addled mind, perhaps, or in search for words.

“I...” His throat clicks as he swallows once, heavily. “She's there. In my dreams.”

Eskel clenches his jaw to prevent himself from reaching out, barely breathes, in fact. It's an unwritten rule amongst the Wolves never to press Geralt for more than he's ready to give; Gods know he struggles to trust anyone as it is. There's no need to add their names to the list, as well.

Yet Geralt continues without prompting, drawing his face into a pained grimace: “It's– There's a portal. She is there, and so is Avallac'h”, he spits the name out, anger coloring his words for a brief, helpless moment, “and I try to stop her but–“

And it's the crack in his voice that spurs Eskel into action. Without thinking he's sliding his fingers inbetween Geralt's clenched ones, prying apart the fist with gentle pressure. Geralt stills then exhales shakily.

“But she won't listen. And it's not enough, I'm too late, too fucking late to save my own fucking daughter–“

“Stop.” Eskel's thumb brushes over Geralt's knuckles. The pulse he feels there is rabbit-quick, stressed to its limits. “Nothing about this is your f–“

“But it is”, Geralt cuts in. “It is. She didn't trust me with the truth, I– 's something I said, or did. Maybe from the start, I don't– Gods–“

The last word is but a strangled whisper. Geralt's back bows, his grip on Eskel's hand turning crushingly hard as a low whine forces it's way out out his throat, one even the trembling hand on his mouth can't stop.

Eskel's vision mists over as Geralt shatters into pieces in front of him. Close to a century of existence, and still he feels like that scared clueless little boy that tried to keep his only friend alive, one day at a time. “We're here”, he says, again and again, forehead pressed against Geralt's shoulder that shakes and shakes and shakes.

“You're not alone, brother.”

Somewhere far away, he hears Lambert repeat his words – Eskel catches sight of wet tracks shining on his bearded cheeks, eyes that were tiredly drooping now bright with moisture and stubbornly fixed on Geralt.

How long they listen to Geralt's dry sobs, Eskel can't say, just that by the time it stops he's slumped against Eskel, delirious in his exhaustion. Eskel's mouth is moving, a constant murmur of meaningless platitudes muffled against Geralt's hair, gaze on the distant fire as it burns low and eventually goes out.

In the glow of its embers, Geralt finally gives in to sleep. And without saying a word, Eskel and Lambert stay awake and keep watch.