“That makes sense,” I said. I could hear snuffling noises around the base of the door, and the familiar sound of blunt claws clacking against the floor. “Are the dogs in there?”
“Yes.” Nathan lowered me back to my feet. “You may want to brace yourself.”
Grinning, I did exactly that, dropping to one knee in the hall and spreading my arms. Nathan chuckled and opened the door.
There is nothing truer in this world than the love of a good dog. Beverly and Minnie surged out of the room, both wagging their tails so hard that their entire rear ends were vibrating, and commenced to the essential business of licking every exposed inch of my skin. I laughed and folded my arms around them, letting them butt their heads against my middle and buffet me with their tails. Beverly shoved her cold, wet nose into my ear. I bit back a shriek.
“They missed you,” said Nathan, standing back and folding his arms as he watched this edifying scene. “Beverly’s been looking for you all over the building. Minnie just sulked a lot.”
“Who’s my little diva?” I asked Minnie, rubbing her jowls. She rewarded me with a cascade of drool and more tail-wagging. “Aw, that’s my girl. You don’t care that I’m a tapeworm, do you? You just want pettings and love and food and all that good stuff. It doesn’t change anything when I tell you I’m not human. You just want me to be here with you.”
With wagging tails and wiggling bodies the dogs agreed that yes, yes, I was quite right, they didn’t mind anything I wanted to do, as long as I would keep on loving them and being their person.
I glanced up. Nathan was frowning now, his joviality gone. “Sal…”
“I know you don’t care either.” I climbed slowly back to my feet. The muscles in my calves felt like they were on the verge of giving up completely. “It’s just that sometimes I feel like my life would have been a lot easier if SymboGen had been a veterinary medicine company.”
“You’d rather have been a dog?” asked Nathan.
I stepped into the welcoming circle of his arms, the dogs still circling my feet with tails wagging, and said, “They aren’t as complicated as people. I think I would probably have made a pretty good dog, if the option had been on the table.”
“I think you make a pretty amazing woman,” said Nathan. He embraced me briefly before letting go and tugging me into the room. “Welcome home.”
The dogs followed closely at my heels, making it easy for him to close the door behind us while I considered our new living space. It was obvious that this room had started life as a working lab: the room’s origins were visible in the industrial shelves bolted to the walls and the perfunctorily efficient kitchen that took up one wall completely, laid out in a straight line that would never have caught on with private homeowners. Everything else about it, however, was entirely new, and had clearly been designed to be entirely ours.
The room was divided roughly into thirds. Nathan’s side was taken up by bookshelves and a desk that looked like it had been scavenged from the nearest Ikea. His laptop was set up and running, displaying a slide show of pictures. Most were of the two of us, although there were a few of the dogs, and some of his friends from the hospital. A picture of Devi—Minnie’s original owner—flashed by. I winced. The rest of the desk was taken up by sheaves of paper, and by stacks of scientific equipment that I couldn’t identify or name. It all looked very important.
My side of the room was mostly empty shelves, although my throat tightened a little when I saw that my few belongings had been unpacked and placed carefully wherever they seemed to best fit. There was a small pyramid of dog food cans, and a basket full of squeaky toys and rawhide chews.
“I’m amazed Beverly hasn’t knocked that over yet,” I said faintly.
“Oh, she has,” said Nathan. “I just keep picking it up again. She’s mostly stopped making trouble for the sake of making trouble. She missed you a lot, Sal. We all did.”
There was a broken note in his voice that made me pause in my study of the room to twist around and look at him. He met my eyes unflinchingly. I’d never seen such a depth of pain in his dark brown eyes, not even right after Devi died. “I missed you too,” I said. “But I’m home now, and we’re never letting that happen again.”
“Good,” said Nathan.
I turned back to my study of the room, finally allowing myself to focus on the part that had interested me the most. In the portion of the room that was clearly intended for us to share, a garden was blooming. It wasn’t food or herbs or medicinal plants—although looking at Nathan’s cunning hydroponic systems, I had to wonder if we were growing them somewhere in the building, if part of Captain Candy’s had been converted into a working farm now that necessity was demanding it—but it was something better, and much more important, all contained in a raised bed with high Plexiglas walls to keep the dogs from going digging. I guessed that those walls would come up to my waist, making it easy to bend and get to the plants when I needed to.
Carnivorous flowers and sticky-leaved stalks twined in a riotous explosion of hungry color, reaching toward the grow lights and misters that were keeping their environment at the optimal levels of heat and moisture. I gasped a little, tears forming in my eyes. “It’s beautiful,” I sighed. Nathan and I had really started bonding as a couple over our mutual love of carnivorous plants. They were chimera too, in a way: they grew like plants and they ate like animals. The sundews in front of me might be some of the last ones blooming in captivity. It was a sobering, heartbreaking thought.