Hates Children and Animals
'I'm not sure if I should thank you for the reference.'
Anders hadn't known ears could suffer cramp until he'd met Merrill. He held office the phone away while he rubbed his ear with the other hand, pained. Kirkwall's people tended to quiet, practicing long silences in the overcrowded city as if to reclaim space.
He brought the phone back just in time to hear the last word. 'I'm sorry?'
'Oh, don't be. It was a very interesting cat, and the interruption certainly dragged me away from the daily grind. Is he a wildcat? I don't think he's domesticated. Sprayed all over my counter then bit me, without any of the usual warning signs. Though I suppose I was looking for a dog's body language, not a cat.'
For Fenris' sake, Anders was glad Garrett had followed through. But Anders had started to think of both cat and man as a fantasy, the rich man wearing stubborn dirt, the drug addicted giant cat. It sounded unreal. Something he had made up out of boredom. He found himself wondering about them at odd times of the day, and having Merrill talk about them like just another case made his musings seem shallow, mundane.
'Garrett's almost as bad.'
'What? No, really? I thought he was charming. He offered to pay for new curtains after Fenris— Well, "after Fenris", I suppose I should say, as he was an experience in itself,' peevish. 'Ah, everyone keeps telling me I'm too blunt. Or frank. Kirkwall is a strange place, even after these years. I had to void the bill after dinner, though, I just felt it wasn't fair to charge him after the amount we ate - and, oh, Anders. The wine was wonderful. I didn't even know there was anywhere in Kirkwall that cooked like that.' A heartsick sigh. 'So much of home seems attached to food. I felt like I was at home again. Shortages aside, it's not often I can really get my teeth into a decent hunk of meat here.'
'Garrett took you to dinner.'
'Well, he noticed I wasn't a Marcher from the accent. He's from Ferelden as well, did you know? Like us. But he's had an easier time fitting in here than I seem to have had, or you. Maybe it's because his mother was a Marcher. It was a magnificent piece of meat, just perfectly tender. Are you still there? Anders?'
'Sorry, it went so quiet, I couldn't even hear you breathe.'
'You can hear me breathe normally?'
'You're a loud breather. I always thought it was because of the broken nose.'
'My nose isn't broken.'
'Obviously not now, but in the past, seeing as it healed, well, into the shape that it is.'
'I've never broken my nose.'
'Well, don't feel too bad about it. It's a very charming nose, and functional. Why, listen to you breathing. I mean. Um.'
A sudden and powerful resentment shocked Anders cold, apart from his ears, which were flaming. But Merrill and Garrett were similar in ways he never bothered to think about. Physical ways. They would make a perfect picture. The glossy black hair. The lips neither thick nor thin, guarded in stillness, expressive more through words than shape. It was the eyes that betrayed both of them, but those fine details never made it to magazines; in the few pictures Anders had found, Garrett looked cold, almost calculating, tough, when Anders had seen him sulk, smirk, whine. Even smile. Fine black brows, arching. The pale skin. Blue eyes to Merrill's green, and the size difference of course, where Merrill could have probably turned sideways and fit through a paling fence if it wasn't for the breasts '" and now he was thinking about Merrill's breasts, about Garrett's large hands on Merrill's breasts, wonderful.
'Sorry - it's getting late. Did we come to a conclusion about the lesions yet? Do you want to bring her in or not?'
For once Merrill took the tone of his voice as a cue, and they spent the rest of the conversation focused on the progress of her problem greyhounds.
The cat stunk of lavender. Anders had little sleep the last few nights, tired enough the cat's wounded pride was more sad than hilarious. He moved through his usual check before he could steel himself to speak, as Fenris tried to rub the lavender away on his hands, coatsleeves and chest, and finally the exam table.
'Had a good time with Merrill, I take it?'
'Seems to know what she's doing.' Non committal. 'How did she get into the business?'
'I never asked. Finding meaning in a life of shallow history. Charity's always the first resort of the rich.' Every sentence made him feel like a worm. Shut up, Anders. 'You, uh, know she's old aristocracy? Actual aristocracy, not just a wealthy salesman.'
'Mm. She told me her family moved to estates near Kirkwall when they saw the war coming.' The mouth twitched. 'Smart. She got out before the rest of us.'
Reluctantly, but he wanted to be fair, 'I think she really loves the dogs. When it comes to charity work, you can't get fancy about the intent. There's no one else for them in a city like this.'
'She said she doesn't talk to her family any more. Estranged on her part or theirs?'
Garrett was definitely interested. Fishing. Anders breathed deeply. Lavender and unhappy cat musk.
It was easy to dismiss Merrill, brain racing faster than her mouth could keep up. She never quite connected to her surroundings, lending an appearance of uncertainty. But it was less that than self-sufficiency; Merrill never changed her behaviour for anyone, never sought to make other people comfortable first, blithely apologising if she offended but never afraid of the offence to begin with. That sort of strength could be attractive, Anders supposed. With her background, Merrill probably knew how to deal with the media shitstorm that flared up around Garrett every time some new disaster hit the Bone Pit, highest deathrate on a mine worldwide.
Now he was fantasising them getting married and Merrill fielding media scandals. Soon he'd be naming their children. Two boys and a girl, glossy black braids and grass-stained feet - Stop it!
'Uh. It was a mutual estrangement, I think. "You can come back if you stop living with poor people and touching scabrous dogs", and "I'll come back if you let me live with poor people and offer succour to scabrous street dogs".'
Left to himself momentarily, Fenris settled to groom with great distaste. Anders watched him lick and hack.
'Stop that,' Garrett told the cat sharply. 'You'll be sick again. I warned you what would happen if you attacked the bottle.'
Anders took the opportunity to reclaim the cat and finish his examination. Somewhere through the handling, Fenris stopped grumbling and started to purr, as loud and wholehearted as the cat's growls and grunts. How long had it been since he last held a purring cat?
'He got out again. Only once this time. Tried to go home for another lick of the dust, but I grabbed him mid leap for the fence.' Garrett rolled his sleeve to show off the wounds on his forearm. Thick wrist. Fur. Even the watch looks strained. 'One day I'm not going to be able to get him back.'
'Is your neighbour still away?'
A shrug. 'I think his boyfriend's moved in,' with heaving scorn. 'Nine to five shirtless and goes for an hour run twice a day. If there's anything he does besides work out I've yet to see it.'
'Shower. All that working out.' Anders ignored the knot in his stomach, curled guilt. Fenris spread out like a starfish under his hand, eyes wide open. Well, you knew he was straight. Or is it the purring cat? Now he felt queasy.
'Oh yeah. In Danarius' bathroom with it's all glass walls.'
'You're not serious, are you?'
'Overlooking the river, no curtains.' A great sweep implying the expanse of view. 'I know this guy's tattoos better than he does. My brother used to have a paintball gun, should be somewhere in the garage, I keep thinking my roof deck, there's a palm up there for cover, we could lay down interference across the glass—' Garrett cut off sharply.
'Maybe you could pass on a politely worded letter about curtains.'
Abruptly, almost apologetically. 'How about you? How did you get into this?'
'Not important. Uninteresting.'
Garrett picked fur off his horrible lumberjacket. 'I asked, didn't I? I'm interested.'
'I'd hate to disillusion you as to my generous nature.'
'Generous? I think you're a moody old bastard who probably takes this on out of a selfish love of penance. You remind me of my dad.' Garrett laughed, a little stupidly. 'Shit, I didn't mean— He died when he was young, if that helps. Young and handsome.'
Anders went with it, even if his laugh was dry, tired. The knot in his stomach eased with the smile. The cat headbutted Garrett's hand.
'Yeah, it helps. But I'll leave the penance to someone with better shoulders.'
'You haven't answered me. Why here? You could work at the tracks, or the big franchises.'
'Maybe I live in the tenements and like to walk to work.'
'Sure. And maybe you really love the slop they call teriyaki from the truck stop across the road.'
'If you really have to know,' a pause, in which Garrett arched one eyebrow. 'I'm not a qualified vet.'
'No wonder you never reported the lyrium abuse. Staying away from attention?'
'Something like that.'
'I don't— Do you work for one of the gangs? Feeding up street dogs and handing them over for the pits to use?'
'Maker, no. There's no gang,' and because he was pathetic enough to need a veneer of honesty, 'no one gang. I don't fluff for dog fights, they respect that, because I patch up afterwards with no reports to the relevant authorities. It's enough to get by, after paying the rent for this place, for my apartment...' He leaned on Karl too much for supplies. 'You had it easy. You came from Ferelden into an inheritance. Not all of us had that. This is just a job.'
'Did you desert?'
If there had been even a hint of accusation in those eyes. But instead just a long, steady blue. Cool as horizons.
'I was conscripted. What do you expect? I left the first chance I got.'
'Deserted.' Grim satisfaction.
'Along with the rest of the Fereldans in this city. I wasn't even born in Ferelden, I don't— What's your point?' Anders was done feeling guilt over that, at least. Surana might still kill him if they found him alive, but it wouldn't be for leaving. He thought.
Garrett heaved his shoulders, more than a shrug. The breath he let out was a shudder. 'I was army. I joined a few years before the war.'
'Are you expecting congratulations?'
Garrett rubbed his beard, a scratchy sound. 'Just... I don't know. Some kind of loyalty?' He sounded so young.
'Look, Garrett. I've been in an out of boarding schools since twelve years old. I'm a drifter. I've lived in more apartments than I've had birthdays. Never really had much of a sense of loyalty except to myself.' Anders tried to close the topic. 'I know what you want me to say, but I'm not going to say it. I wasn't conscripted in Denerim, it was Amaranthine they got me, after the surrender— There was no point in me staying. I couldn't have made a single bit of difference.' He hated this. Raking up coals. Bloody Garrett Hawke. 'What was your division?'
Because he was helpless but to ask. Had to know. Once in, never out, denials notwithstanding. Kristoff proved that.
Garrett looked conflicted. 'King's Seventh.'
'You were on the front.'
'Me and my brother.' The trace of a country accent there, me bruvver, a time before the inheritance. Maybe the worn boots and dirty denim weren't trying to fool. No one joined the army if they had a choice, Anders thought. A guaranteed three square meals and a bedroll. Anders preferred hunger.
And also couldn't stop himself. 'What really happened? You hear rumours'"'
'We lost, the King died when he shouldn't have even been there, and then we ran.' A grin that looked horrible. 'You? The action at Amaranthine was one of the few successes.'
'Uh. WSR.' When Garrett looked immediately impressed, 'Don't get any ideas, though. I was in the infirmary.'
'You're...a doctor, not a vet?'
'Never finished my medical training. I had a few jobs in medical offices and vet clinics. Orderly in a few places. Worked a bar in a brothel once, if you can believe, and wound up running general first aid services for the staff.'
'Oh, I can believe.'
If he winks or nudges at me I'll really do something to remind him of his father. 'By the time I got to Amaranthine, they were desperate, and I was the closest thing to a doctor.'
Garrett tilted his head. It was a vulnerable position, the pale skin of his neck stretched bare of beard and the high, bulky collar. 'I won't dob you in.'
'I didn't think you would. Not when you've stolen your neighbour's lyrium addicted cat and have a death trap mine on your hands. There's more important things in your life than me.' A sharp breath. 'I mean. Thank you. Yes.'
Garrett accompanied him into the back room to put Fenris into his cage to fast. The place was lit up during business hours as it hadn't been the last time Garrett came through, and he peered curiously into the other rooms on the way out, stopping at the room with the missing wall. Anders had turned it into a daytime dog run with the addition of chicken-wire fencing, and heavy bar locks on the door to the hall for after hours. Two mongrels crouched in the dirty light.
'Who pays for these rescue jobs? Not the gangs.'
'Uh, donations, sort of. Tips, when a race dog's I've fixed up does well.'
'I thought you didn't do charity.'
'I don't. But I have a hard time saying no. Some of kids in Darktown, they haven't learned to stop caring when the dogs get their tails run over and bring the poor bastards in. Then I spend half my energy resenting the fact I said yes and try to get the mutts out the door to starve to death again as quickly as possible. Merrill only takes on pedigrees. Sorry if that ruins this for you.'
'But you fix the damage for nothing.' The dogs backed away as Garrett stepped over the gate, but he dropped to a crouch on the concrete and waited.
'What I do is pointless,' Anders argued, without knowing why. No more idealism. Not from Garrett, please. 'This is fixing a frayed rope, instead of getting rid of the knife that keeps cutting it. Makework. But this city, you know. Probably swallow you whole if you tried to understand why things are the way they are, much less try to change anything. And its not even my place or right to judge. I'm a stranger here. What do I know of Marchers.'
'The way you tell it, you're a stranger everywhere.' The bolder bitch crept closer as if approaching her doom, neck offered to Garrett's hand. Anders could see the conflict in her skin, not knowing if he'd hurt, but needing the touch just the same. 'Does that mean you never try?'
'Now you sound like Kr— my housemate.'
The dog softened into the palm, bandaged tail easing. Garrett stroked the arching neck. 'So why did you desert? You just had to get out of there?'
'It was time to move on. They were almost around to demobilising us anyway, I was just...early.' Bile in his throat, stinging his nose. Anders sniffed the lavender off his fingers, but it only shook him more. The cat had purred. For me.
But Garrett didn't look upset. Just thoughtful. 'We were never officially demobbed, whatever the rout. I suppose I deserted to try to reach my family in time. Me and my brother. We fought to get them out of there before the front hit our village.'
'Now you're here, they're not, and you're rich. What more could you ask?' Anders felt like an arsehole even as the words slipped out.
Garrett didn't move, but the dog suddenly flinched, eyes to the floor. Slunk away. 'You're right. I can't complain.'
Awkwardly, Anders saw him to the clinic door. Garrett collected his riding gloves from Lirene her with a stiff smile, giving Anders a nod. Not meeting his eyes.
'You don't really ride a bike here every time, do you? That's not safe with a cat in your jacket. What if he farted or scratched you or something?'
'Us rich people.' A humourless smile. 'We do what we like. Didn't anyone tell you?'
Continue to Chapter 5 →
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