DISCLAIMER: The Sarah Connor Chronicles and its characters are the property of James Cameron and Fox. No infringement intended.
AUTHOR'S NOTE: Written for The Sarah Connor Chronicles Virtual Season Judgment Day Challenge.
ARCHIVING: Only with the permission of the author.
FEEDBACK: To and
By Inspector Boxer and Anklebones
The word came out raw, anguished. If Cameron had been human her throat would have been scarred by its passing, but she was only a machine, and however real her pain might have been, it left her miserably whole. Unable to lay still, her agony burning like a fever that made rest impossible, she slid up onto her hands and knees, barely feeling the small pain of her skin tearing on the jagged dirty rocks underneath.
It was dark. The wind that swept over her bare skin was damp and cold. The air smelled like death and fire.
“No.” This time it was a whimper. Cameron's infrared gaze scanned the area helplessly, everything she saw making her wish that the night was as impenetrable to her as it had been to those she had left behind. Ruined buildings, overturned cars and empty streets... She was alone. No John. No Weaver. No Savannah.
Cameron shivered, and her systems automatically compensated, elevating her internal temperature, but they did nothing for the chill registering on purely emotional sensors. Cameron tipped her head back to study the night sky. She knew where she was. She just didn’t know when she was.
The stars, barely seen through a thick haze, gave her the answer. Cameron closed her eyes and hung her head, feeling the first stirrings of grief threatening to overcome her.
There were almost two decades between her and the woman she loved.
The clothes she'd managed to scrounge out of the wreckage hung off her slight frame. Cameron found a belt to cinch the jeans around her hips, and another to tie around the dusty plaid shirt before she tucked her feet into boots two sizes too big. She felt like Savannah playing dress up and the thought of her daughter made her hands shake as she finished tying the laces.
Cameron took a breath, trying to get a hold of the emotions that were making it hard to think let alone function. Weaver had played her for the fool and now here she was, back in 2027. Judgment Day had clearly still come and gone, but Cameron didn’t dare wonder what had become of her family. In that path lay madness, she knew, so she focused on the essentials - clothes and shelter from the storm that was brewing outside the bombed out apartment she found herself in.
She shrugged on a jacket against the chill that wouldn't go away, a chill that felt metal deep, before sliding down a wall to wait out the weather. She closed her eyes, calling up moments she’d spent with Sarah over the last few months to keep her warm. Somehow, Cameron vowed, she would find a way back to her. Failure was not an option.
Thunder boomed overhead as the skies opened up and toxic rain fell from the heavens. Cameron stayed dry and safe, curled up with the perfect recall of Sarah’s smile.
The sun shone weakly through an atmosphere made thick with ash and memories. Cameron could feel both coating her skin, the cremated remains of an entire world sticking to the sweat that beaded on the exposed skin of her arms and face. The nights here were cold, but the days were blistering hot, and Cameron wondered if this was what humans had imagined when they spoke of Hell.
If so, none of them had been unlucky enough to find themselves in it. The twisted metal and shattered glass of skyscrapers were her only companions. In the weeks since her arrival, Cameron hadn’t seen a single human.
Or a single machine.
It was as if she were utterly alone among the ruins, only the occasional rat or cockroach proving that not all life had been lost. The tiny scavengers ignored her utterly while she was moving, but she watched the rats when she took shelter from the rain that burned her skin at night, creeping closer to the heat of her body, but not quite daring to come within reach. She wasn't sure if it was the warmth they craved, or if they simply wondered what she might taste like in a world where there was little enough food for even their tiny bellies, but so far they scattered with the light of dawn.
The silence was wearing on her. She craved someone to talk to, for someone to share the even emptier nights with. As much as she wished Sarah was there by her side, Cameron was equally as grateful she wasn’t. Sarah didn’t need to see this. Any of it. It was her nightmares realized.
But Cameron clung to Sarah in her own way. As they days and nights passed, she’d begun replacing them with memories. Choosing a day with Sarah at random she relived it in place of a reality that offered nothing but pain. Fights, bedtime stories with their daughter tucked between them, slow kisses in the moonlight... Every touch. Every breath. Cameron re-experienced it all. The good and the bad. Sarah had been the anchor that had held her steady through the storms of her emotional awakening, and Cameron found the memory of her voice and eyes had the same effect now that she was more adrift than she had ever been before.
Cameron stopped walking. She stopped everything; unable to keep going, unable to move, to fall, even to breathe as grief and longing rolled over her. She missed Sarah so much she physically ached. Loneliness was supposed to be the feeling of something missing, but to Cameron the lack of Sarah had become a presence in and of itself, it gnawed at her, consuming her bit by bit until she hardly knew who she was anymore.
The moment didn't pass, but like a retreating tide, it ebbed, and Cameron reminded herself that Serrano point was just a few more days away on foot. If there were humans to be found they would be there. If the machines weren’t...
But the quiet told Cameron that she would find nothing when she arrived, only more ghosts. In this timeline, Skynet had seemingly gone too far.
In this timeline, no one won.
It was a detour she had no time for. Cameron knew that, had sworn she wouldn't give in to the temptation, but she needed to know. She needed to see it with her own eyes.
The house, her home, was in shambles. It still stood, but barely. The passage of time and the force of the nuclear storms that had come after the bombs had been too much for brick and wood to withstand, no matter how much love they had housed. Cameron stood there in the moonlight, her feet rooted to the cracked pavement of the broken road and her mind ranging back... she felt a gentler breeze, heard the echo of Savannah’s laughter in the backyard. Like a ghost she drifted through the remains of the gate, following flashes of sunlight on bright red hair, and the sound of James Ellison's soothing tones from the scorched remains of the picnic table. Terissa would be digging in the garden, and Sarah...
Cameron blinked away the traces of the past, understanding completely for the first time what the humans in the resistance had lost. Now she knew their grief, and their anger, and the memories that were both torture and blessing. Now she understood why so many of them had despised the machines for what they’d destroyed. She hated them too. Hated herself even more for letting Weaver do this to her. She’d failed her family, and the truth cut as deeply as any blade. Deeper. A knife wound would heal, this would not. As much solace as Cameron's ability to recall every moment of every day with her family offered her, the recoil was nearly unbearable. Not for her the softening of grief as memories faded. Humans could forget. Cameron would remember pain of her failure forever.
She felt like she had no right to be here, standing outside the home her absence had allowed to be destroyed, but there was no one left to turn her away, and she lacked the strength to deny herself.
Reluctantly walking up rickety steps, Cameron entered the house. She wasn’t sure what she expected to find, but there was nothing. Not even ghosts.
She prowled from room to room, finding the remains of a few of her clothes still clinging to blackened hangers in the closet where she’d left them. Only her leather jacket was recognizable, and she shed the one she’d been wearing to slip it on over her stolen shirt with a sliver of relief. It was a tiny piece of normalcy, a fragment of the past she could see and touch, and she took it without hesitation.
A faint beep drew her attention; a pinging sound so low that no human ears could have detected it. Cameron frowned, cocking her head as she listened and approximated its origin.
Sarah’s room. Cameron hesitated before pivoting on her boot and making her way out of her room and into Sarah’s, pausing at the decay that awaited her. The bed where they had made love was nothing but rusting springs bared by torn and shredded stuffing, like broken bones jutting out of a ruined body.
Cameron closed her eyes, trying to find a hint of Sarah’s scent in the space, some echo of the woman who’d once slept in this room, but the shadows that had haunted the backyard hadn't followed her here, and only the soft, intermittent beep answered her questing. Perhaps that was a mercy. It would have been too easy for Cameron to lose herself in the memories they had made in that bed. Too easy to curl up amid the jagged springs and never get up again.
Instead, Cameron knelt and glanced under the bed. There she found the source of the signal. A fireproof box, covered in a layer of dust and ash. She lay on her belly to pull it out, hooking her fingers through the handle and dragging it towards her. She sat to open it, curling her legs underneath her as she peered at the lock. There was no key, but that had never been a problem. Do what you do, girlie... A whisper across time made Cameron pause as longing engulfed her. The sides of the metal box cut into her hands, and she tore it apart, needing some small measure of violence to echo the storm inside.
A small device dropped out and bounced across the rotting floor. Cameron picked it up, turning it over in her fingers. It was a beacon of some kind, clearly of John's design, and she quieted it with a press of her thumb. Even after it was silenced, she stared at it, knowing what it meant.
Her family had left this for her to find.
Her gaze returned eagerly to the box, discovering a letter with her name printed across the front in Sarah’s familiar handwriting. The sight shook her with surprising force, and Cameron watched her hand tremble as she took it carefully, half fearing that it would crumble at her touch. Finally, she caught a faint trace of Sarah’s scent. Bringing the letter closer, Cameron closed her eyes again and breathed in deeply, blotting out the smell of fire and destruction and focusing everything she had on that fading reminder of Sarah.
She opened the letter reluctantly, not sure what she would find. Would Sarah condemn her? Hate her for leaving them behind to fight and die alone? Cameron wouldn’t blame her lover, but she was still terrified of the words that waited for her. She craved Sarah’s forgiveness, even if she knew she didn’t deserve it.
The paper sounded loud as it shook in her hand. It was a hastily scrawled note, some of the ink splattered by Sarah’s tears. Cameron’s jaw clenched as anger at herself, at Weaver, rushed over her. The thought of Sarah crying, of being the cause behind her tears, made the terminator want to smash something.
I know you’ll find this some day. I take comfort in that even in these final hours. We couldn’t stop Skynet. Maybe things would have been different with you here and maybe not. I just know that even though I’ll be dead in the timeline you find yourself in now, that you’ll find a way to fix this. You’ll find a way back to us. I have to believe in that. I’m counting on that.
What happened wasn’t your fault, Tin Miss. If you’re beating yourself up then stop.
Just be safe, Cameron, and come home. I need you. I love you.
Reverently, Cameron folded the note and tucked it inside her jacket. Her gaze drifted to the box once more and she went still when she saw the two remaining objects inside it.
A well loved stuffed giraffe and a simple pocket watch. She retrieved both, thumbing the catch on the watch and discovering that it now kept time rather than secrets. The second hand still ticked, reminding her of the time she’d spent with Sarah as much as the years that now lay between them. Years she was determined to erase.
There was only one way home, Cameron realized as she slipped the watch around her neck. But with no Skynet, it didn’t exist. Not yet.
She was going to have to build her own time machine.
Days later, Serrano Point was still and silent when she arrived. There was no hint of the resistance base that it had once become, or the busy staff of the nuclear plant it had once been. She walked the doubly familiar halls, listening to the mournful echo of her own footsteps.
“Car accident,” she murmured with a faint smile, remembering the excuse she and Sarah had delivered in tandem during their undercover operation at the plant. They had been a mess physically. She had still been healing from the explosion and Sarah...
Her smile faded when Cameron remembered who had been responsible for Sarah’s injuries.
The guilt had been there, even then. She simply hadn’t recognized it for what it was. Cameron now knew the glitch in her systems had been her emerging sense of self. The carefully constructed walls Skynet had designed to keep her mind and body separate had been dissolving. She had begun to feel and react without the control those walls gave her, and it had left her in chaos.
It was here, inside this facility, where Sarah had risked a high dose of radiation to save Cameron’s life. Cameron didn't know if that had been a mother's sacrifice to reclaim a weapon that could protect her son, or the first sign that Sarah considered her a member of the team, but something irrevocable had changed. That night, with no one else for either of them to unburden themselves to, they had quietly confessed their fears to one another.
They'd spoken aloud the fear of their own bodies, facing the possibility that they might fail, or turn on them at any moment.
Sarah Connor had always intrigued and fascinated Cameron, even before she had been sent to the past, but that was the first time Cameron had suspected they had anything in common besides their desire to protect John. She had looked at Sarah differently after that, and perhaps Sarah had looked at her a little differently as well.
Cameron stilled, feeling the now familiar ache wash over her with almost overwhelming intensity. The fingers of her right hand rose up and clasped around the watch, clutching it against the grief that wanted to well up and swallow her whole.
Minutes later, when she finally felt steady again, she headed for the reactor room, reminding herself that every action she performed from this moment forward was a step closer to Sarah and her family.
Radiation levels suggested that even if the people who had maintained it were gone, the plant had survived the worst of judgment day. Perhaps something was finally going right. She would need a big space and lots of power. And that was just the beginning.
Time was the enemy. When she stopped to rest, Cameron could hear it laughing at her down the dark hallways of the plant, mocking her efforts to replicate the work of a monster. Time slipped through her fingers, and dragged on her heels, there was never enough, but it was more than she could bear. She could have run the generators day and night, how many times had she insisted that she didn't sleep? But it wasn't sleep that she craved, it was escape.
She made herself a bed out of crates and the blankets that she'd taken from emergency kits left untouched by the fires. She found a little shelf in one of the staff rooms and took that too, using it to hold her small store of clothes and Savannah's giraffe. When she lay down at night she brought the stuffed animal with her, curling up around it and whispering the stories she used to tell her daughter into its ragged ears.
There too was where she remembered Sarah. She took her lover in her mind, torturing herself with the memories of Sarah's touch, the feelings that her own hands on her body could never replicate.
During the day she worked on the time machine. Some of the parts she found at the plant, others came from the wreckage of the city. Skynet had used teams of cyborgs and heavy machinery to shift the enormous jet engines and tear metal beams out of ruined skyscrapers, but Cameron was alone. It took her days to find enough gas to run the flatbed truck she righted and repaired, and weeks to bring everything she needed to Serrano Point.
Digging through the rubble, and climbing through collapsed buildings, Cameron was often bruised and battered, her soft skin tearing on broken glass and gleaming metal. She stitched up every rent and gash, knowing her endoskeleton would need to be completely covered if she was going to make it back through time.
The push of the needle and pull of the thread through her skin was achingly familiar. If Cameron closed her eyes she could imagine that it was Sarah putting her back together, and hear her voice, promising to be gentle.
"You're always gentle," she whispered to the empty room before pulling the coveralls back over her shoulder.
The clothes she'd found on her first day in the future had long gone to rags. A search through the plant had turned up boxes of the one piece blue suits, and Cameron calculated time by how long they lasted. Counting the days was too painful, and marking the hours would have incapacitated her. She couldn't face estimating how long it would take her to finish the machine, the days, weeks, and months it would be before she could return to her family, so she tried to live in the moment, focusing only on the joint she was soldering, or the panel she was wiring.
John would have been fascinated by the project, and Cameron found herself telling him about it. She explained while she worked, seeing his frown of concentration as he tried to wrap his head around the calculations it had taken a machine to discover. Sometimes she would forget she was talking to herself, coming up short when she asked him to hold something steady, only to turn and find nothing but the silent and empty bay behind her.
It was the loneliness that wore on her, the silence that stole the strength from her arms, but as the time machine came together Cameron drove herself harder, stopping only when she had to leave the plant to find alternate parts, or replace faulty wires. The tips of her fingers blistered and tore, sparks bit her skin, and her eyes ached from the strain of focusing on tiny circuits for hours at a time. She could have chosen not to feel what she did to her body, she could have turned it off and been a machine in full. A machine had built the first time machine, and it might take a machine to build another, but she would not let go of the humanity she had fought so hard to achieve, even if it hurt her unto death, or the wish of it. Even if it meant she failed. She would not return to her lover as less than she had been.
Better not to return at all.
"You've been working all day..." The last word was drawn out in a theatrical whine, Savannah throwing her head back and rolling her eyes in a child's lament. She knocked her heels against the metal sides of the engine that was her perch, beating out an irregular rhythm that made concentration impossible.
"I have to finish it," Cameron said finally, teasing the ends of a wire to its mate. From deep in the panel she heard her daughter's sigh, and then a thump as tiny feet hit the floor. She felt more than knew Savannah's presence beside her, peering into the guts of the time machine with studied seriousness, her giraffe caught by its neck in the crook of her elbow.
"Is it going to work?"
"Yes." Cameron couldn't allow any other answer room to be possible.
"Will you be back in time for my birthday? Sarah said we could have ice cream and cake." This was clearly a great concession, and Cameron wondered if her own absence had prompted the generosity. Could ice cream fill the space left by a mother?
"I don't know," she answered honestly. "I'll try."
"You always say that." It wasn't a complaint, merely an observation, and Savannah moved on without dwelling on the uncertainty. "Can we play outside today?"
"It's raining." Cameron had postponed a planned trip for supplies when the dirty clouds had let loose a new flood of acid at dawn.
"Not out there." Savannah's tone was derisive. "We'll remember a better day, a sunny one, like the day when the baby robins hatched, and mama robin chased Walther under the porch..."
"And it took Sarah an hour to get him out," Cameron finished for her. She put down the pliers and turned to see her grinning daughter ankle deep in new spring grass, and then past her, knowing Sarah would be on the steps with a much chastened kitten in her arms, but the porch was empty. "Where's Sarah?"
Savannah's smile vanished. "She's not here."
"Why not?" Cameron clung to the memory but it slipped through her fingers, unraveling around Sarah's absence like a sweater around a single pulled thread.
Ash on the wind blurred Savannah's face, running cruel fingers through the colours of the dream until all that was left was the grey of the reactor room, and a mournful whisper, "because you don’t want her to see this."
Cameron blinked. With a shaking hand she reached out to pick up the ragged giraffe she didn't remember bringing to work with her. The hallucinations were becoming more frequent now, and harder to ignore. She was afraid that someday soon she wouldn't even try.
Time was running out.
Cameron's internal clock told her it had been nine months, five days and seven hours before she was ready to push the button. She had put off running the first test as long as possible, checking and rechecking everything until even John was accusing her of stalling.
She powered up the machine.
It hummed, whining up to the fever pitch of something that should have never been.
The indicator lights were green, and then they weren't.
There was no time to fix it, no time to even wonder what was wrong. The explosion threw Cameron from the launch pad, blue fire chasing her like long tangles of lightning after a ground as the time machine shorted out.
Pain and the hot smell of burnt flesh nearly sent Cameron offline. Knowing she had failed almost sent her crawling into the fire after her dream. She did neither. Instead she rose to unhook the fire extinguisher from the wall and drench the flames. When the canister was empty, she looked down and saw a machine.
The skin on her hands was gone. Bare metal flexed and grasped, ringing like a death knell against the metal of the fire extinguisher. She dropped it, hardly hearing the clang as it hit the floor and rolled away. Nausea twisted what her chip claimed was a stomach, not for the sight of herself, but for what it meant.
Metal didn’t go through.
A last spark from the main panel of the time machine lit the air, falling slowly like an electric dandelion seed. Cameron watched it drift, knowing that her perception of time was slowing, delaying the moment when it would wink out, taking with it everything she had worked for.
Stretching out her hand, Cameron caught the spark, wanting to feel the heat, but she felt nothing.
Fury clenched metal rods into a fist, and Cameron buried it in the middle of the ruined panel. Unhindered by pain, she ripped out wires, smashed keys and shattered circuits. In her mind, it was Skynet's throat she was tearing out, and the wound was bleeding hope all over the floor.
She didn't realize she was sobbing until she sank to her knees. The shrapnel stung the remains of the skin and muscle on her legs, but it was a good hurt. She clung to the panel with what was left of her hands, resting her forehead against the edge and feeling coolness there as well. Likewise the tracks of tears down her cheeks. She had not been completely scoured of her humanity, only enough to ensure that she would not be making another attempt any time soon.
"Sarah..." The whimper was a rasp scraped off the sides of a throat nearly closed with grief.
There was no answer.
She was alone.
Cameron reached up to clasp the watch around her neck, finding it slippery with blood, and nothing but the cold shell of her chest plate in a circle behind it. Metal scraped against metal, a sickening sound to her ears. She let the watch fall slack, feeling it swing in time with the beating of her heart, a pendulum ticking away the seconds and carrying her pitilessly forward.
She had used the best of what she could find to build her time machine, and it had failed. Another promise broken, even if it had been one she'd only made to herself.
A future spent alone stretched out ahead of her, approximately sixty three years, seven months and five days of power left in her core. Death would be preferable, but for all the modifications Cameron had made to her systems, that one directive remained. She could not self terminate.
They never gave up, and they never stopped.
Cameron wanted to stop, wanted it almost as desperately as she wanted to see Sarah again. She wanted an end to the pain, an end to the loneliness, to the guilt and the thwarted love that was devouring her from the inside out. Soon she would be nothing but a shell full of memories, a broken record that just went round and round and round...
Leaving a trail of blood, Cameron left the reactor room and closed the doors behind her.
Her bed didn't promise relief, but there was nowhere else for her to go. She curled up on the rough blankets, cradling Sarah's watch and Savannah's giraffe within the circle of her body, careful to keep the horror of her hands away from them. One by one, she let go of the senses that connected her to the real world, sight, sound, scent, taste, touch... wrapping herself instead in an insulating numbness. She retreated farther into her mind than she had ever gone before. If she could not have oblivion, than she would at least have forgetfulness.
Sarah was waiting for her there.
A warm breeze came over the grass to ruffle Cameron's hair, and she breathed it in, taking determined steps into the dream, not noticing when it closed behind her, cutting her off from an empty nuclear plant and a broken time machine. Without a backwards glance, she ran away from her body and into her lover's arms.
The clock had stopped.
Cameron frowned at the alarm clock beside their bed, the glowing red numbers that hadn't changed since she and Sarah had fallen into an exhausted slumber the night before. She tried to remember if they had been the same the night before that and couldn't. Nor could she decide what time they should read. It was morning outside, the birds were singing, and from downstairs she could smell coffee brewing. Sarah was up.
The puzzle of the clock took second place to getting dressed and descending into the kitchen. Sarah was cooking breakfast, and Savannah and John sat at the table, their backpacks ready at their feet, so it was still early. Sarah greeted Cameron with a welcoming smile and a kiss, curling her fingers around the back of her neck and drawing her in where the heat of the stove mingled with the warmth of her touch.
"Morning," she murmured, ignoring Savannah's wrinkled nose and exclamation of disgust at such an open display of affection between her mothers. John rolled his eyes but otherwise didn’t comment, bolting the last of his pancakes and hoisting his backpack over his shoulder.
"Coming, little sister?" He tousled Savannah's hair affectionately, and she mimed a swat at him, missing as he leaned back out of her range, not without tweaking one of her braids.
"I'll get you, John Connor!" she threatened, leaving her own breakfast to follow him out the back door, her pink and black bag bouncing against her back. The bright silver name tag snapped to the zipper caught Cameron's eye. Savannah Connor, she read before the door slammed shut.
"Don't forget your helmets," Sarah called after them, sighing for the sudden emptiness of her kitchen and the uneaten pancakes in the pan. "More for us," she decided, serving up two plates and handing Cameron a cup of coffee.
Cameron ate her breakfast slowly, unsure as to why the moment felt both familiar and strange at the same time. This was their life, wasn't it? Sarah sat across from her, absorbed in the newspaper the way she was every morning, but her foot rested against Cameron's under the table, pulling her away from her musings. Sudden hunger for the other woman made Cameron forget her disquiet. She rose from the table and went around it to stand behind Sarah. At her touch, Sarah craned her head back with a smile and Cameron bent to cover that willing mouth with her own.
They pushed the plates aside and made love on the tabletop with the sunlight warm on their skin. Cameron devoured her lover with the appetite of one who has been starved. She didn’t understand what drove her, only that it felt like years instead of hours since she had last held Sarah in her arms.
Afterwards, Sarah kissed away the suspicion of tears from Cameron's eyes without remarking on them, and led her upstairs where their bed proved a far more pleasant place to spend the morning.
This time when Cameron roused she didn’t bother to look at the clock. Sarah was still drowsing, so she left her with a soft kiss pressed to her temple and made her way downstairs to clean up the breakfast dishes. Silence wrapped the house save for the sound of running water and the quiet clinking of dishes. Wondering when John and Savannah would return, Cameron glanced up at the clock on the wall and was puzzled to see it reading the same time as the clock upstairs. The second hand wasn't moving, but Cameron heard a quiet ticking, as if from a clock in another room.
Drying her hands, she followed the sound, but none of the clocks she found were working. Time, it seemed, had stopped. Cameron shook off that fancy, distracted by the sound of the back door opening and John and Savannah's cheerful voices calling out that they were home.
Sarah had come downstairs and they all sat down in the kitchen over a plate of cookies and the news of the day. Savannah was bubbling with enthusiasm for a new project at school, and John had a test the next day that he wasn't ready for. The conversation sounded familiar, as if it was something Cameron had heard before, almost like a script they had all practiced, but she didn’t question it, too caught up in the swell of happiness that lasted well into the evening when she helped Savannah with her homework and watched a movie with Sarah and John after the little girl had been sent to bed.
They snuggled on the couch, Sarah resting against Cameron's chest, while John lounged in the armchair on the other side of the room. Cameron had little attention for the movie, focusing every ounce of her being on the feeling of Sarah in her arms, trying to save it up, as if it might vanish if her concentration wavered.
They went to bed when the credits rolled, John grousing about how little sleep he was going to get once he'd put in a few hours of studying, and Sarah lecturing him good naturedly about managing his time better.
Their bed was warm and welcoming, and they used their time well, falling into an exhausted sleep long after night had slipped over into morning.
Days passed like this, each as alike as beads on a string. Some afternoons they played in the backyard with Savannah after school, others were spent inside, but always they were together, and the stillness of the clocks bothered Cameron less and less. She learned to ignore the ticking she couldn't find a source for, and the lack of variety to their days, even the fact that neither she nor Sarah ever went further from the house than the backyard. The front door was a barrier no one talked about. Only Savannah and John passed in and out, and only through the back.
But why should she want to leave? Everything Cameron wanted and needed was here. Here she would never be alone again.
When had she been alone?
The question was out of place. Cameron was peeling potatoes into the sink, helping Sarah prepare dinner while they waited for the kids to get home, and something, some reflection of the knife in the silver sink, caught her eye, fracturing for just an instant the domestic moment.
The knife slipped, dancing a cruel path through the palm of her hand and away, leaving pain and blood in its wake. Cameron dropped it into the sink, shivering at the silver now stained with red. Metal and blood... he sight stirred a memory, and the throbbing of her hand became the ticking of a watch, the steady marching of time going inexorably forward, carrying her where? When?
Cameron looked down at her hand, seeing only flesh and blood, and not understanding why that was wrong, but knowing it was so.
Sarah covered the wound with a towel and an exclamation of sympathy, and Cameron let her dab away the blood, standing while Sarah rummaged through the cupboards for a box of bandages and understanding that this too was wrong. There should have been a well stocked first aid kit in every room.
There should have been guns... computers... John and Savannah... where were they? Who was watching over them? She had to get back to them!
She had to get back... but to where?
“Cameron?” Sarah entreated, but even that was wrong. She was too gentle, too soft, with all of the sharp corners rounded away. Cameron had banished all of the pain from her memories, cobbling them together to make something as beautiful as it was false.
She raised her hand, searching for the metal that should be there beneath the torn skin, but of her true nature she found no trace. This was not her body, this wasn't her life. It was what she had sometimes wished her life could have been.
Caught between an illusion that offered her peace and a reality that had nearly destroyed her, Cameron stepped away from Sarah’s comforting hands, though the hurt in the other woman’s eyes was almost enough to hold her there.
“I have to go,” she explained, though her voice wavered and verged on breaking, a more human weakness than she was used to displaying. “I have to go back to you.”
“I’m right here.” Sarah’s voice held only safety from hurt, only comfort. She tried to take Cameron’s hand again but the glamour had been well and truly broken. Cameron longed to give in, to forget again where she was, and what she had sought, but it was not Sarah in front of her, it was only what she remembered of Sarah, and not even all of that.
She’d sought to take the pain out of her lover’s life as well as her own, but what was left was a shallow thing, a picture without substance. Cameron had accepted long ago that pleasure had no depth without pain. If she blocked one she denied the other. She had endured bullets in order to have what they had had together, and she would not make a mockery of that sacrifice now. She would not allow Sarah’s place in her heart to be taken by nothing more than a reflection.
“I’m sorry,” Cameron managed, not sure if she was apologizing to herself or to Sarah, nor even if they were truly separate, here in her mind.
She had to get out.
Whirling, Cameron bolted for the front door, ignoring Sarah’s cry to stop, to come back, to stay. The handle gave easily under her fingers, and Cameron knew she left a smear of blood on the brass knob, but she gave no thought for it, bracing herself only for her return to her body and the power plant she had fled.
She fell out the door and into the back yard, landing on her hands and knees in the grass.
The gate was closed behind her when she looked, the latch firmly shut. Hanging her head between her arms Cameron knew real fear. It was a loop. This house and this yard were the sanctuary she had fled to when she had locked out the world, not realizing that she had locked herself in as well. In her grief she had made them real, and now she didn’t know how to unmake them.
Sarah hadn’t followed her. For that Cameron was grateful. She was alone in the yard, with only the ever present sound of the birds and the wind in the grass for company.
It was there when she stopped listening for it, the quiet but insistent ticking of a watch in this place without time. A phantom weight around her neck, as if from a thin chain, had Cameron grasping at the air, but the pocket watch wasn’t there. Cameron hadn’t allowed time to follow her here, but some part of her knew it passed. Some part of her was still awake.
She knew what she had to do.
Closing her eyes, Cameron focused her entire being on the sound, letting it draw her up and lead her forward. She had searched for it before, but with her own illusion in front of her she hadn’t been able to find the path. It was there now beneath her feet, a road she followed from the depths of her mind, moving outwards, not towards light, but pain. She sought to reclaim that which she had rejected, knowing that until she did she would never be whole.
Distantly she heard Sarah call out to her, joined by Savannah’s pleading wail, but she went onwards. Went on until her limbs were heavy around her and the air she breathed lifted a ribcage long stilled. Her body was stiff, cold, and Cameron automatically sent a command through her systems to warm it, feeling the power core in her chest respond as smoothly as if she had been offline for only a moment.
Cameron opened her eyes; blinking away the film of disuse and something else... she sat up slowly, almost unable to comprehend the layer of dust that cloaked her. Running a hand over her arm she brushed it away, revealing not the metal that had been there when she had fled, but skin, new and whole. She had healed while she slept.
But how long had it been?
It took only a moment to consult her systems, and the answer filled Cameron with an aching regret. She had spent nearly a year lying insensible. A year while her time machine had stood untended and unguarded. The wiring would be gnawed by rodents and the delicate internal workings clogged with the same dust that had fallen to coat her body.
Cameron almost wanted to give up and lay back down, but having rejected that escape once, she could not go back to it. There was no way home but forward. With shaking hands, Cameron picked up the watch that had brought her back, and hung it around her neck once more.
She would try again, and this time she would not fail.
She’d checked everything.
Every bolt. Every weld. Ever calculation.
Then she’d checked them again. And again.
This time it would be different. This time it would work. It had to. Cameron didn’t know if it was possible for her to go insane, but if she failed again, she knew she would find out. She didn’t dare think that she could be just a few short hours away from holding Sarah again. For now there was only the time machine. Only the mechanisms that had to function to make it work. If she looked beyond them, the fear of what she could lose became so great she could barely move.
Hand shaking, Cameron bushed the button, listening with laser intensity as electricity hummed through the time machine, spinning it up and bringing it online. One by one, green lights lit across the board, confirming what all her senses and calculations were telling her. She was going home, or she was going to die trying.
A snap cracked through the air as the first wisps of the time bubble began to form, twisting and curling, reaching upward and inward to form the ball of power that would cocoon her for her journey. Satisfied with the readings from the board, Cameron stepped away from it, her hand reaching out to snare Savannah’s stuffed giraffe with one hand, her other curling over the watch around her neck.
You could take nothing with you, Cameron knew, but she was going to hold on to the parts of the past for as long as she could. They had saved her, grounded her, and she didn’t want to turn them loose until time and technology made her.
Stepping inside the bubble, she felt the fine hairs on her arms rise in reaction. Electricity began to arc from the walls, from the floor. The engines grew louder. Spun faster.
Cameron closed her eyes and did something she had never done before.
A damp chill settled on her bare shoulders as she slowly stood, the scent of ozone and burning asphalt filling her nostrils with her first harsh breath of the present. Cameron looked around, hearing the faint sounds of traffic in the distance. Nearby, a neon sign buzzed and sputtered in the early morning hours of the coming dawn. Signs of life. Signs she wasn’t alone. Rather than reassure her, the knowledge nearly made her weak in the knees.
The hand at her chest uncurled, empty now of everything but the hope she was afraid to feel. Cameron staggered forward a step, climbing out of the slight crater the time bubble had created on its arrival. All was relatively quiet, no indication that her violent arrival was detected or had alerted anyone in anyway. The years keeping her and Sarah apart were gone in the blink of an eye. Now only miles separated them, and Cameron set out with fierce determination for some clothes and a car to take her home.
Soft and cold, the sand slid between her toes as she stepped off the asphalt and made her way down the familiar path.
Cameron blinked, wondering when she had decided to come here. She had charted a course for the house, and was in route when some part of her she couldn’t explain had caused her to detour. She drove on instinct, unsurprised when she arrived at the beach.
There was no reason for Sarah to be at the beach house, and yet Cameron couldn’t seem to turn around and go back to the car. Her steps took her closer and closer, around the rocks as the waves rolled up on shore and gently kissed her feet. Everything felt like another dream, another construct she had created for herself to escape her reality, and Cameron listened for the ticking of the watch to lure her back, but there was only the sound of the ocean.
Cameron went still when she saw the single light burning in the house. A jolt went through her systems, feeling as if they had all suddenly awakened after being dormant for too long. Her pace increased, and when she saw the lone figure on the deck, watching the moonlit waves, Cameron started running.
Sarah turned her head, whether sensing her presence or detecting footfalls in the sand, Cameron wasn’t sure. She only knew the lines of that familiar body were straightening as Sarah caught sight of her. Even at that distance, Cameron heard her lover whisper her name.
Then Sarah was moving, clambering down the steps and moving to intercept her. Cameron couldn’t run fast enough to eliminate the distance between them. She needed the space gone. She needed to feel Sarah, smell Sarah, needed to hear that voice whispering in her ear. When Sarah’s arms finally came around her, Cameron felt something inside her shatter at the same moment she experienced her first taste of real peace in two years.
“About time, girlie,” Sarah breathed, a gentle laugh escaping her as she clung to Cameron with abandon.
“Please be real,” Cameron pleaded, holding Sarah too tight but unable to let go.
Sarah leaned back, cupping Cameron’s face in her palms as she studied her lover’s features. “What else would I be?” Sarah asked, the faint smile still curving her mouth.
Cameron reached out, running her fingers down Sarah’s cheek, her whole body trembling. Sarah’s smile slowly faded as her green eyes sharpened with concern. “Cameron,” she said gently, reaching up to clasp Cameron’s hand and bring it to her chest.
“How do I know this is real?” Cameron met Sarah’s worried gaze, not sure whether to believe her lover was truly there or not. They had never shared this moment, this was new, different, but was it real or her fractured mind playing more tricks on her? Cameron didn’t know, and that truth scared her.
Sarah stared at her, her internal struggle to find the right words, to understand what was wrong, clearly conveyed on her features. “Cameron...” she said again.
“Every night, I would dream about you. About this moment. How do I know this is real? How do I know this isn’t another dream? Just my mind’s way of coping with a reality I can’t take?”
Cameron heard Sarah’s sharp intake of breath before she felt the return of Sarah’s wind-chilled touch on her cheek. “How long were you gone?” Sarah whispered.
“Two years, forty three days, sixteen hours, and seventeen minutes.”
Sarah’s throat rippled around a rough swallow. “How did you...?”
“I built my own time machine. It was the only way. I had to come back to you.” She’d barely finished the sentence before she was wrapped up in Sarah’s arms again, feeling her lover’s warm breath against the curve of her neck. Cameron breathed her in, savoring the sensations even if they weren’t real. Sarah was solid and warm. She smelled like the ocean and oranges.
“I’m real,” Sarah murmured against Cameron’s skin. “I’m real. This is real, and I’m never letting you go again.”
Cameron clung to her, feeling tears brimming in her eyes. “Do you swear?” She felt Sarah’s grip on her tighten almost convulsively.
“I swear,” Sarah promised with an intensity Cameron had never heard her use before. So much about this moment seemed new. It was nothing like the reunion she imagined time and time again. The smells. The feelings. Her own emotions. She had expected to feel euphoric when she had Sarah in her arms again. Not terrified.
“This is real,” Cameron realized, her voice catching on a sob. Suddenly too overcome, Cameron sank to her knees, dragging Sarah with her. But true to the other woman’s word, Sarah didn’t let go.
“This is real,” Sarah said again, leaning back just enough to brush the hair from Cameron’s eyes. “You’re home.”
“Home,” Cameron mouthed. “I’m home.” The kiss that followed was soft and gentle and the most real and right thing Cameron had ever felt. The years apart became the bad dream as her present became the only reality Cameron could accept.
“Welcome home, Tin Miss,” Sarah teased carefully, finally feeling the hint of a smile forming on Cameron’s lips as they brushed against her own once more.
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