He’s aware of his shortcomings. He knows all too well how others view him, what he is and how ugly he looks. Usually, Eskel fades into the background, because the best way to go unnoticed is to be as unremarkable as possible, to try to avoid drawing attention to himself. People look at the hulking great oaf trying to shrink and hide behind a bookshelf, but they don’t look at the bookshelf itself.
Or, at least, that’s the theory, and it’s been working well enough for the last year. Students and teachers sometimes look, but they do little more than stare for a few seconds and then turn away to gossip about the ugly, scarred brute they’ve just seen. Being in his final year has afforded him some measure of relief, although he misses classes with Geralt, and the cruel words have never really stopped. He hears them still muttered, the whispers and rumours about how he got his scars, how he’s dangerous, has had run-ins with the police, has been kept back two years because he’s too stupid to leave school.
He’s used to it. He knows that’s just how it is, how it will probably always be. The world is rarely kind, especially to people like him.
Which is why he can’t understand why the transfer student is approaching him in the cafeteria, his tray laiden with food. Eskel looks around, but no one else is nearby. Geralt is tied up with extra study, as he is every lunchtime except Wednesdays, so he’s alone. His heart thumps with a dull, unpleasantly heavy rhythm, and he tries not to show his unease.
“Hey, mind if I sit here?”
Eskel stares up at the guy, dumbfounded at the lack of hostility. It must be a trick.
But he can’t see one, or find a reason to say ‘no’, so he shrugs and looks down at his food, hearing the brightness in the guy’s voice as he thanks Eskel.
“I’m Jaskier, by the way!”
Jaskier is smiling, the expression making his already handsome face remarkably beautiful. He must be a year younger than Eskel, and has already lost most of his boyish youth. Eskel can see where he’s nicked his chin shaving, and the little detail disorientates him, leaving him breathless. He looks away again, bowing his head. “Eskel.”
“That’s a really pretty name!”
Eskel snorts at the words before he can stop himself.
“Nothing,” Eskel says, not wanting to point out the irony of what’s just been said, or linger on the pain it causes.
They lapse into an uncomfortable silence, in which Eskel pokes at his food without eating any of it, because he feels like any movements will be clumsy and oafish.
“Do you normally sit alone?”
He shifts in his seat, unsure how to hide while under someone’s full attention.
“Um, am I making you uncomfortable?” Jaskier asks.
Eskel tries to shrug off the answer. “I’m not used to company.”
“Is that a ‘go away’, or…?”
He almost tells him to go. It would be easier, because Eskel isn’t in the mood to sit across from easily the most beautiful guy in the school. It doesn’t make him feel good. It truly is beauty and the beast, only with no fairytale behind it to lead to a happy ending, no enchantment that can be undone to make him less hideous.
Instead, he shrugs again, keeping his mouth shut.
“I thought you looked like you’d like some company,” Jaskier continues. “I mean, there’s nothing wrong with enjoying your own company, but every time I’ve seen you you’re alone and, well, I thought I’d come over and say hi, you know, you seem pretty cool and—.”
Eskel frowns at his neglected food, and then looks up at Jaskier. “Why are you talking to me?”
“What?” He looks confused. “I just said…”
They fall silent, unable to pull their gaze away. Eskel wonders how anyone’s eyes can be so blue, so beautiful and full of expression, so devoid of loathing or fear, and his heart clumsily trips over itself as he falls into Jaskier’s gaze. He doesn’t even notice he’s doing it, that the moment has lingered too long, until he realises that Jaskier is starting to blush. Before his eyes, the colour rises in Jaskier’s cheeks, even reaching the tips of his ears, the younger guy looking flustered.
“Well, um,” Jaskier stammers out, and then looks down. “Better eat up before it gets cold.”
His plate is overloaded with salad and cold cut meat.
“What class have you got after this? I’ve got art, but I can’t for the life of me ever remember how to get there, this place is a labyrinth, do you ever learn your way about?”
Jaskier seems to like to chatter. Eskel doesn’t need to say much in return, which is just as well because he’s still confused by it all, and wondering why the gorgeous new guy has chosen him of all people to talk to.
It happens every lunchtime, except Wednesdays. The first week Jaskier met Geralt it hadn’t gone badly, exactly, but Jaskier had seemed uncomfortable.
“Is he your boyfriend?” he’d asked the next day.
“Do you want him to be?”
It seemed like an even stranger question. “He’s like a brother to me.”
“Ah!” Jaskier had exclaimed, and then not elaborated any further.
He left Eskel and Geralt alone on those days, but spent every other lunchtime with him. Eskel even saw him dismiss others who wanted him to join them, breaking away from a friend or two to head over to where Eskel sat alone. It was confusing. It was bizarre, really, but Jaskier wasn’t unkind, and did more than enough talking for the both of them. Eskel was content to let it all happen and then, terrifyingly, came to enjoy it. He looked forward to lunchtime, to the exaggerated stories Jaskier would tell and the terrible jokes he’d try to recount but instead end up butchering. He’d hum absentmindedly, usually tunes Eskel had never heard of.
Sometimes, when Eskel catches Jaskier looking, the younger guy blushes. He gives an awkward, somehow shy little smile that turns into a full-on grin, and Eskel finds himself with no idea what to do with the way his heart aches.
It’s no surprise to realise that he has a crush on Jaskier – who doesn’t? It’s not unexpected, but how terrible it makes him feel takes him by surprise. As the days go by, Eskel finds himself wishing that Jaskier would leave. It hurts too much, like it did the first time they sat together and Eskel realised how painfully different they are. Jaskier deserves better than to be wanted by someone as worthless as him. Eskel isn’t remarkably smart or particularly skilled at anything, he’s never been pretty or handsome, and never will be. The scars on his face are just fading from red to pink, and in a few years might even dull to silver, but he will never be sightly. He will never be desirable.
Their lunchtimes fall into more silence than speech. Jaskier seems uneasy, as if he can sense Eskel’s discomfort, but he never asks about it. Even though it seems like he might, he never leaves.
It’s been just over two months, and Eskel has decided he needs to persuade Jaskier to go. He tells himself he prefers being alone anyway, so that maybe when he says it he’ll believe his own lie.
Jaskier is different today. He seems uneasy, and chatters endlessly. Eskel can’t figure out how to get a word in edgeways. It feels wrong to be blunt, even though he knows that no matter how delicate his efforts he’ll end up being clumsy and tactless with his words anyway. The impending humiliation makes it harder to speak up.
He doesn’t get a chance. The conversation lulls, and he opens his mouth to speak, but Jaskier beats him to it.
“I need a smoke.”
As far as Eskel knows, Jaskier doesn’t smoke.
“Come with me?”
He should say no. He knows he ought to decline, and he wants to say no…
Only, he’s helpless in the face of Jaskier’s request, the softness of his voice and pleading in his eyes. He nods, pushing his empty plate away and standing, letting Jaskier lead the way. There are several smoking spots favoured by students, but he has no idea which one Jaskier prefers.
He’s led towards the bike shed, the cobalt blue metal of it standing out in stark contrast in the overcast gloom. It might have been a good idea to fetch his jacket first, but there are little more than five minutes left before class, so Eskel decides it won’t be too bad. He shoves his hands into his pockets, stepping round the end of the shelter to where they’re hidden from sight.
Jaskier gives a heavy audible sigh, muttering to himself. “Right, okay, okay. Um…”
He hasn’t produced a cigarette from anywhere. Eskel looks at him, wondering where he would have hidden them.
“Okay,” Jaskier says again, just as Eskel opens his mouth to ask if he’s forgotten his cigarettes.
He falls back a pace, bumping up against the bike shed as Jaskier steps forward. “Wha—?” he starts to ask, before realising that Jaskier isn’t going to stop. He keeps going, his momentum carrying him past Eskel’s guard and into his personal space. Soft, warm lips press almost clumsily against Eskel’s, leaving him stunned, unable to think or breathe as the weight of what’s happening hits him. Jaskier is…
He’s still numb with shock as Jaskier pulls away, his face creases with unhappiness. “I thought you should know…”
He still can’t breathe. He still can’t think. All he can do is feel, the ghost of Jaskier’s kiss heavy on his lips. He wants that touch again, more than anything in the world.
Reaching out, Eskel gently touches Jaskier’s cheek, clumsy fingers trembling as he tries to bridge the distance between them.
Jaskier looks at him, sorrow turning to surprise, and then giving way to hope. Eskel would never ask for Jaskier to kiss him again, or presume that he could initiate such a thing, but it doesn’t matter. Jaskier closes the distance between them, somehow forgiving everything Eskel is and seeing someone worth kissing, worth touching and holding close. He gives Eskel a chance to be gentle, to be more than the ugly, undeserving oaf nearly everyone else dismisses him as, and in that moment Eskel falls a little bit in love with him for it.
In the distance the bell rings, and they pull apart, breathless. Eskel gazes at Jaskier, dazed, and sees the other teen smile gently at him, leaning in to give Eskel one more kiss before they have to go. As they walk back to the building, he feels Jaskier’s hand slip into his, and he squeezes it gently.
The world is rarely kind, but when it is, it’s beautiful beyond measure