Symbiont Page 85

“We had to make several supply runs into San Francisco,” said Nathan, putting his hand on my shoulder. “Putting together a lab this size—we’re three times larger than the bowling alley now, so we would have been forced to move even if not for the quarantine, just because we couldn’t fit in the available space anymore—meant gathering equipment from anyplace we could. I made a few extracurricular stops while we were there.”

“You could have been killed,” I said automatically, still staring at the impossible garden.

“I know.” Nathan took his hand off my shoulder and stepped past me, walking toward the vast wooden edifice that was our bed. I stayed where I was, unsure of what to do next, until he looked over his shoulder, smiled a little, and said, “Come over here. Please.”

I bit my lip and nodded before walking across the room and sitting down on the edge of the mattress. The frame looked like it had been stolen from the same Ikea as the desk, and had drawers built into its base, providing more storage space. Beverly leapt up in a single easy bound, curling up next to me and dropping her head onto my knee like her skull had suddenly become the heaviest thing in the world. Minnie climbed up, using a set of steps fashioned from an old milk crate. She stretched out at my back, providing a warm, furry bolster.

“I thought you were dead,” said Nathan, without any more prevarication or pausing. “We lost you in that parking lot, and we knew that USAMRIID had you. Mom has some contacts in the military—not enough to break the quarantine, and don’t think that they wouldn’t betray her in a second if they thought they could take her—and she contacted them within the hour, saying that one of her lab technicians had been taken. They got back to her a week later, reporting that someone of your description had been there, but had been abducted by a person or persons unknown. Then they started asking her some fairly pointed questions, since whoever took you had killed a bunch of their men in the process.”

“That was Ronnie,” I said. “He’s one of Sherman’s chimera. He has impulse control problems.”

Nathan blinked slowly. “Impulse control problems don’t usually come with a body count.”

“From Ronnie, they do. He’s frustrated and angry, and I don’t think he likes humans very much.” We’d never really talked about it. I hadn’t wanted to upset him, not when I was trying so hard to get him to like me. Seeing Nathan’s frown deepen, I added, “What he did was wrong, but he’s the one who got me out of Sherman’s compound thingy, so I’m not really inclined to throw stones, you know? I owe him.”

To my great relief, Nathan nodded. “I owe him, too. He gave you back to me. But at the time, the news that you’d been kidnapped by people who didn’t care who they hurt… it was terrifying, Sal. We all knew that you were dead, or dissected, or worse. I kept Mom looking for you. I couldn’t stop. Stopping would have meant admitting defeat, and if that happened…” He took a deep, shaky breath. “I thought about killing myself. I decided not to, simply because I knew that I had work to do, and I knew that my death would do nothing to clear my family name. But I didn’t have anything left to live for.”

I bit my lip again. The world had ended while I’d been sitting in my nicely gilded cage. There was just one factor unaccounted for… “Your father?” I asked.

Nathan shook his head. “He stopped answering calls shortly after the primary outbreak started. He lived in Orange County, in a very densely populated area, and all the CDC and USAMRIID maps we’ve been able to purloin have shown high sleepwalker activity in that area. If he’s alive, it’s a miracle, and I’m not holding out much hope for miracles just now.”

“I’m so sorry.” The words weren’t enough. Words never were. They were all I had to offer him.

“He was a good man, and he had a good life. I think he’d be happy to know I found Mom again, and that we’re at least trying to be a family. I know he’d be happy to hear that I found you again, that we somehow went through this horrible thing and wound up in the same place.” Nathan reached out and cupped my cheek with one hand. “He liked you a lot, you know. He used to ask me when you’d be his daughter.”

“I already said I’d marry you,” I said, blinking back tears.

“Fishy’s ordained,” said Nathan. “I think it would be a Jedi wedding—”

I couldn’t help myself. I broke out in giggles at the very idea.

Nathan smiled. “This is where we live now. This is where we’re going to find a way to save the world. Do you need anything?”

“Sleep,” I admitted. “Ronnie knocked me out before he moved me to the house where you found me, but that wasn’t real sleep, and I had…” The teenage sleepwalker, all life gone from her eyes, reaching for me out of the pure, desperate need to survive. “… I had a hard day. I just want to sleep.”

“Okay.” Nathan leaned forward and kissed my forehead before he started shrugging out of his lab coat. “I could use a nap.”

I didn’t say it, but I was grateful that he was staying with me. Good as it was to see my dogs again, I didn’t want to be alone.

It didn’t take me long to be ready for bed—all I had to do was squirm out of my bloody clothes, which Nathan whisked away and dropped into a sealed, dog-proof hamper. It took him a little longer, since he was somewhat more properly dressed. When we were both naked, we stopped and just looked at each other, me tracing the new starkness of his ribs and pallor of his arms and chest, where his slight tan had faded back to his natural light brown skin tone, him studying the bruises on my arms, legs, and side, all the snipped-off bits of skin and the tracks left behind by Sherman’s needles. I was white as a ghost after a month without seeing the sun, and when he came to me, I felt like paper pressed against stone, devoid of anything but emptiness.

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