Hates Children and Animals
Her name had been Elaine. Or Ella? Probably still was her name, wherever she was. Someone else Anders had picked up without thinking, half because she was there and fit the criteria: young, available, talked to him. The other half to make Karl look at him with limpid disappointment, or anger, or something. Except Karl never played games, and Anders chased her off himself when her presence had ceased to offer any balm, even though he'd wanted her precisely because of the conflict; triggered by some flippant comment she'd made about Kristoff and him, old war buddies, sure, but cohabiting with a walking corpse? Come on, Anders...
Her return anger burned him. The fact of his lovers' independent existence had always been hard for Anders to grasp. Karl had told him so.
This time, Karl kept back the told-you-so's and diligently applied verbal salve, providing vodka shots without judgement.
I'm ready. Karl, I'm ready for this properly, for you and me, no one else. I want to take it seriously.
Karl laughed at him. Nicely enough to take the sting away from the impulsive tears. In the old tongue, from before his family sent him to Ferelden. You are years too old to pull that look, my friend. Karl braided his hair and loaned him a razor, took him to dinner with vet school graduates who made Anders feel fifty, and after held him up in the shower — decent water flow, in Karl's part of town — and jerked him off for the first time in six years, with such a companionably platonic commentary throughout Anders slid down the tiles afterwards, hysterical. Seduce your house captain before either of you were out of short trousers and what could you expect.
But there was no rage, no hurt. Emptiness. Maybe he could leave it all behind. Draw a line and just not think about it. Abstinence was nothing new, an old promise he used to make the Maker, if I go without this please, please give me back this! It had rarely been his libido pushing him to pursue. So stop running. The games and the walls. The theatre, the scripts he wrote for significant events in his life and followed in the absence of knowing what the other person was feeling. Of caring what the other person was feeling. Maybe tending to Kristoff had taught him some level of compassion. It had certainly helped maintain his general abstinence, Karl's rare intercession notwithstanding.
He restrained himself, always for the wrong reasons.
'Oh, hi. It's Anders, from the clinic.' Never more selfconscious than when saying the name. 'I just wanted to apologise for today.'
'I was out of line, I forgot—' what happened to your family. Saying it would give the apology context, but also make him an arse again for bringing it up. Can't think these things through, can you. He would never act if he paused to think.
'How did you get this number?'
'You left your contact details with Lirene. The assistant?' Anders could hear fingers scratching in that beard. 'I also wanted to say, you don't have to worry about Fenris. His bloodwork is clear and we'll be completing the procedure tomorrow. I have a friend come in for these things who is a qualified vet. Just in case you were worried about my lack of professional integrity after I dropped that bombshell on you.'
'I wasn't worried.' For the first time, or at least it felt like it, Hawke said his name. 'Anders. Do you have any idea what time it is?'
A trick question? 'Eight thirty.'
'At night.' That emphasis wasn't good.
'Were you sleeping?'
'But it's eight thirty.'
'Obviously you don't have a flight to catch at four in the morning.'
'Then I really am sorry. Did — something happened at the mine?'
'Read the paper.' A huff of breath. Garrett didn't hang up. 'Thanks for calling, I suppose. I appreciate it.'
As awkward as expected. But people did this, didn't they? Called each other to apologise, like adults...
'Yes, I can hear just how much you appreciate—'
'Look, Anders.' Abruptly. 'I do that sometimes. More than sometimes. Get nosy, then get angry. Storm out of places. Cut people off. Don't...don't worry about it. It's not you.'
'I haven't let it bother me before. I just thought. I wanted to apologise. I'm not the most sensitive person in the world either.'
Anders counted his breaths while the silence held, trying to keep them quiet.
'I know,' Garrett said. 'Thanks. I really do appreciate it. Even if you're an arse about me being an arse.'
'Pot calling kettle?'
'Yeah, literally.' How to describe the sound of a grin. 'I'll see you in three days. Don't kill my cat.'
Anders returned the phone to cradle, heart hammering.
Then he woke the dogs and played with them for half an hour instead of going back to his flat, too twitchy to give Kristoff the quiet he needed to sleep.
Fenris was a few hours out of the anesthetic, unhappy with lingering discomfort and vocal about it. Garrett poked at his requested jar of extracted teeth with interest, an oddly boyish fascination beneath the beard.
He also slurped his tea, one finger through the handle and no cup big enough. Have to get some mugs.
'I could get it made into a necklace. A cattooth necklace trumps shark teeth, right?'
'Make sure you fit some elastic in somewhere. Cats aren't good with collars.'
'I meant for me.' Amused. Garrett held out a jagged tooth. 'That was fight damage?'
'It's an assumption, but typically yes. Cats aren't made for grip and pull fights like dogs. I never told you about the xrays because there was nothing alarming, but he's had a few broken bones over time.'
The amusement faded so quickly Anders was wary, but Garrett's face smoothed just as quickly as the frown. 'I still owe that cunt a fist to the face when he gets back.'
'Doesn't take much more sophistication to keep a mining port entertained.' The wrong thing to say, from the diamond-drill stare Garrett turned on him. 'No opera or poetry readings in Lowtown. Beer, barbeques and blood sports all around.'
The stare continued unabated. Garrett broke first, looking away. 'All right. I fall asleep during movies. Especially foreign ones. Haven't tried opera, maybe next time I have insomnia I'll wake you up at a ridiculous hour and you can serenade me with some culture.'
Anders could remember a time when everything had been this unpredictable. His heart seemed to have forgotten, veins alight with the thudding pulse. 'Doer, not a thinker. Nothing to be ashamed about, leaping in first and managing the consequences later. You sound like I used to be.'
'Really? My father—' Garrett paused. Pale enough naturally his cheeks flushed in broad, bright blotches, adolescent. 'My father was from here before we migrated out the first time. He didn't mind Lowtown. It was honest in its dishonesty. But he used to say you'd get more culture out of a tub of sunripe yoghurt than from Hightown, never mind the university.' A wistful smile. 'Fuck the university, was what he actually said. He was a blunt bastard. Funny, though.'
Anders wondered how to talk about it. What were you supposed to say to someone whose whole family died? 'More tea?'
'Thanks.' Walking to the kitchen gave time for Garrett's flush to fade, coaxing Fenris to ride his arm like a surfboard for the walk. Garrett set the kitchenette's bulb to swinging with his free hand, then backed onto the benchtop, heels leaving scuffmarks on the peeling paint.
Anders filled the kettle to boil. Awkward silence. He swiped at the ant trail on the bench and belatedly realised the sponge wasn't normally green.
'How come your family left Kirkwall the first time?'
An I don't know sound, grand shoulders rolling. 'If not for the war, we wouldn't have come back. The city's falling apart. Economy dependent on finite resource, the government exploits profits off the mining industry for government folly and puts nothing back into sustainable infrastructure, and the streets are full of gangs. The departments snipe budgets from each other without even trying to hide it. Bribery is the only way to get things done here, and integrity is a dirty word because it means you're contrary to progress.' A mocking twist of mouth.
Either he'd actually thought about it, or it was trucker philosophy. Distil enough opinion and you could sound almost informed. 'But was it like that, what, twenty years ago, when your father would have left?'
Dryly, 'Thirty years. I wasn't born here. My mother's family didn't like my father.'
'The Amells.' The rich ones.
'That was a big part of why they left. Arranged marriages were in vogue, and she didn't like their choice. Maybe there were other reasons. My father used to say there was something in the water here that made people mad for blood. I almost believe him now.' A headshake, eyes inward. 'When I think about the amount of money I've poured into occ. health and safety on that mine. The geologists, the independent consultant reports, into training, and still more people die there than in car accidents across the Marches.'
'So the Financial Times reported.'
'The city's cursed.' Distant, not glum.
'I— Really? You believe in things like that?' And so is the Golden City blackened / With each step you take in my Hall. / Marvel at perfection, for it is fleeting. / You have brought Sin to Heaven / And doom upon all the world. He always remembered the Canticles in the old tongue. The beliefs had no place in this world.
'I don't know.' The country boy lilt again. 'I have to believe in something. My life is unbelievable otherwise.'
Privilege of the young. Anders kept the condescension to himself. And the more juvenile urge to trade unbelievable stories. Anders' brief association with the Chantry's Special Forces had convinced him to stop provoking the Maker for intercession. Who do you think you are, sniveling for attention like that, Andraste's second coming? It was just a fucking cat!
Anders breathed deeply. Forget it. Years gone. 'Kirkwall's not so bad.' The calm found in an unexpected silence, greater for the proportion of noise. City of contrasts. If you learned to look away, it was better than anything Anders could have expected, even without divine intercession. 'You get used to it.'
'You might. I keep thinking we never should have come back here.' Garrett trailed off.
'Did they catch the bastard? Who—'
Killed your mother? Well done, Anders. Fenris was no help for distraction, having decided to drink the offensive sponge water. Anders moved the sponge out of reach and set the tap to dripping, which Fenris steadily ignored.
'They prosecuted someone.' Neither flat nor hurting; Anders wondered what that control cost Garrett. 'This detective. She said the lab had a whole crew when they raided the basement, over a hundred people, about six women taken...taken apart. Everyone who wasn't shot in the firefight was prosecuted. Aveline — that's the detective — Oh, Anders, it was awful. Really bad. She came over, made me coffee and with an awful, horrible lot of brandy in it. Sat with me. Held my bloody hand. Really tried with the empathy stuff. I nearly threw her out. She meant well, but I just couldn't take it right then.'
As if admitting his mother's murder had hurt him would be the worst thing in the world. Anders' chest ached in sympathy.
Garrett put down his tea for Fenris to drink, an inch remaining. With both hands, he kneaded at Fenris' fur, his expression softening.
'Cats shouldn't drink tea.'
Garrett rolled his eyes. 'Like you're a vet or something.'
'How about you, Anders? Any family here?'
Surprised, Anders answered without thinking. 'No. No, I haven't seen them in years. Boarding schools, I told you. They're old country. Deep, old country. Electricity was a distant myth where I grew up, and regarded with intense suspicion.'
'You never visit? Want to visit?'
'Not particularly. We're not close.' He wanted to shut down the conversation. Or this would end up like it had the other night, Garrett leaving abruptly, Anders regretting every barb. 'My father had me prosecuted for arson.'
The eyebrows climbed. 'At twelve?'
'Ten, actually. The legal system was different there. Probably still is. And the insurances.' The bitterness was thick now. Impossible. Surely this was old enough not to matter. He remembered the day he'd given up hope, reading and learning about his own country in one heartbeat, and sundering the last hopeful threads with the next when he'd realised why his father let them take him. The detention centre, and later the schools, had never been intended to rehabilitate. 'Crime needs a criminal before it exists as a crime. Before the insurance companies will pay out. You know the stereotype.'
'Yea olde lynching country. Did you do it?'
'Burn down his barn? Yes. Maybe a little bit not by accident, but yes.'
'That is the most horrible thing I have ever heard.' Garrett didn't sound it. 'How much was it worth?'
A shrug, insouciant. 'If your family's selling you to state-run labour camps for insurance money, at least you should know how much you were worth.'
Charming. Anders thought about it anyway, guessed the exchange rate. 'Five hundred sovereigns.'
Garrett's eyebrows climbed. 'If I ever need to put a bounty on your head, I'll know the starting mark.'
'Already got a bounty, thanks. Be sure to let me know if you see Interpol sniffing around. Maybe I can top the offer and buy your silence?'
'I like generous fugitives.' So magnanimous. 'Want to shake on it?'
Ridiculous. Garrett's hand was heavily calloused. Not from mine work, Anders suspected. What physical labour would an owner do?
'There's no one for you here? You mentioned a housemate.'
'Kristoff. We came to Kirkwall together, I had another friend here, the real vet. He sponsored me on a work visa.' Anders made a face. 'Lapsed two years. Kristoff was harder to sneak in.'
An expectant nod. Garrett poked Fenris idly until the cat creaked, plaintive.
'He was a patient, from Amaranthine. Soldier. Something bad happened — we didn't really have a supply run, not after Denerim fell. He was left for dead. I had only lyrium to treat him with.'
Surprise. 'WSR had lyrium?'
'No. Special Forces, standard issue.' Anders said it with an affected lisp; the specials irritated him. Special religious sanction my fucking arse. Like we need another Exalted March. Garrett didn't seem surprised; the military grapevine got at least half the secrets right. 'Supersoldiers or not, a cohort still managed to get themselves massacred in Amaranthine. My commander gave me their lyrium for the infirmary, she used to serve with ex-Special Forces and knew it was good for some things, injuries, forced speed healing. I just didn't know enough.'
'It sounds like you did the right thing.'
'You weren't there.'
'Your friend's alive, out of an occupied country, living with someone who cared enough to smuggle him out.'
'If you call a walking zombie alive. And it's a stretch to call a tenement living.' Anders sighed. 'I shouldn't say that. The place doesn't leak, and Kristoff has good days. Sometimes even two in a month.'
'You shouldn't feel responsible. I'd bet a week's wage a doctor wouldn't.'
'I'm not a doctor. I am responsible.'
'Listen.' Anders saw Garrett's swallow, the tongue flick across lips. 'My brother was Special Forces. He was an addict. That's how I suspected about Fenris, not just from the mine. I mean, we don't eat what we mine, but Carver... I know when I say, you aren't responsible.'
'Your brother—' Dead, of course. Anders fumbled.
'Not that lyrium killed him. King hit in a Fereldan barfight by a monster bouncer.' Garrett put his hand over his heart. 'I tried to tell mother, it was how Carver wanted to go.'
'You...want another cup?'
'Yeah, thanks. Maybe one without cat vomit.'
The cupboards were bare, and the sponge truly was feral. Anders remembered a clean cup in his office and excused himself. The clinic felt different at night, sleeping dogs whuffing, a closed, special world. Traffic a distant drone, Anders could even hear crickets between the trains.
By the time he found the cup, Garrett was pacing around reception, mobile cupped to his ear. Fenris had already found his place inside the abominable lumberjacket, head poking out just above from the zipper. Garrett slapped the phone against his thigh to hang up. The conversation thread Anders caught had sounded cool, calm, no trace of the farmboy accent, but Garrett looked unhappy. His eyes flicked to the cup in Anders' hand.
'Sorry, I have to cut this short.'
'Girlfriend trouble?' Anders forced a grin. 'Not Merrill, is it?'
Garret looked confused, then bemused. 'Ex. Friend. Ex-girlfriend, now friend. Maybe ex-friend.' Suddenly angry, 'I'm just not in the bloody mood to be dealing with Bela's shit right now.'
Anders collected the pill packet from behind the counter. 'Here, the other vet did these for Fenris. They're antibiotics to make sure nothing nasty gets in through the gums, two pills a day, one in the morning and one at night.'
Garrett read the sticker. 'K. Thekla, hey?' Garrett grinned awkwardly. 'Hey, Anders. You know what I just realised? You're a vet...and a vet.'
'Yes, hilarious.' Anders tapped the packet. 'Karl tried the same line when he got me this job. The veteran part is less funny when you're beating off nightmares with a stick.'
'Probably doesn't count if you never demobbed.' A crooked smile. 'Do you want to get a beer or something sometime? Cat vomit free. Not that I don't love tea.'
'Sure. Free of charge on my end, too. Shit, I mean—'
Garrett touched the pocket on baggy jeans, where the phone had disappeared. 'My hours aren't usual, it's easier if I call. You don't have a mobile?'
'No.' Not with the bloody call rates. And they said the gangs were bad. 'I'm always here.' Or living in the flat directly across the tracks, but the hairy billionaire didn't need his suspicions confirmed.
'I thought I was bad. You need a life.'
'Thanks, Garrett. Really.'
Anders locked the clinic door behind him. He found a fresh sponge in Lirene's hidden stationery stockpile, and washed the cups twice, absentminded, before Karl came back after his dinner obligation as promised, bearing a stack of foreign movies and the promise of a decent night in.
Continue to Chapter 6 →
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