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The Perfect Present

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The air smelled like rain.

Sarah leaned against the door, the damp breeze blowing in through the open window chilling her. She could smell the rain coming as she stared out into the deepening twilight, her eyes fixed wearily on the brick building at the end of the street. It was another day where she was still alive at the end of it, but that was about the only good thing she could say for this one. Sarah would have loved solitude with her churning thoughts, but Cameron sat next to her in the Jeep, for once mercifully silent.

Sarah's fingers tapped on the steering wheel, a vague anxiety brewing in the pit of her stomach. She was tired, tired of waiting, tired of watching dark empty warehouses that led to nowhere. Another dead-end, like so many things about her life. She glanced at the terminator, who was fully intent on the warehouse, on the surveillance, on the mission, and Sarah sighed. Another year, she thought, feeling every one in the ache of her body in the cold wet wind. Another year and nothing to show for it.

Happy fucking birthday, Sarah.

When was the last time she spent a birthday doing something other than fighting or running? It had been so long she could barely remember. She sighed again, trying to recall, and Cameron looked over at her with a puzzled expression. Sarah ignored the question in the terminator's gaze and kept her eyes fixed on the warehouse. It was fully dark now and a fat drop of rain plopped down on the hood of the Jeep, the innocent beginning of the deluge that unleashed and obscured her view. Great, she thought sourly, feeling like the world was trying to tell her something as her ability to help with the mission was ruined by a wall of rain.

Sarah snuck a glance at Cameron. There was one difference about this birthday, though. This year she was sitting beside the very thing she was usually either fighting or running from... Fate had a really twisted sense of humor.

"Are you alright?" asked the terminator tentatively, her light and melodic tones at odds with her status as a relentless killing machine. Sarah shrugged, not really answering, not ready to let go of her melancholy mood. A second later, Sarah frowned and cast an aggravated look at Cameron, who was fussing with the brown paper bag she had insisted that they bring. Sarah's barbed comment about 'terminator snacks' had gone over Cameron's head, and the terminator had ignored any other attempts by Sarah to discern the contents.

Sarah turned back to the window with a sigh, her eyes now focused on the sheets of rain that battered the Jeep. A few drops blew in, sprinkling her face and wetting her jacket so that the smell of damp leather warred with the clean scent of rain in the small space. The sound of metal scraping over metal brought her attention back to the terminator. "Cameron, what the hell...?" Sarah swung around just as Cameron turned, shielding a candle atop a cupcake from any inadvertent gusts of wind. Almost spellbound, Sarah watched as the light from the flickering candle danced over Cameron's face, warming her hazel eyes and sparkling in the wet gloss of her lips.

"What are you doing?" asked Sarah. The sharpness of her voice was moderated by a hint of wonder as Cameron offered her the cupcake.

Cameron's eyes flicked up from where they were watching the candle, a shy, uncertain smile pulling at the corners of her mouth. "It's tradition to celebrate a birthday with a cake and candles."


"Yes, you were born approximately..."

"I know when I was born, thank you..." Sarah snapped, cutting off the recitation of the date and time of her birth. She stared at the cupcake and watched the wax melt and slowly drip down to the chocolate icing, trying to remember when she last had cake on her birthday. She couldn't recall the last time someone tried to celebrate her birthday with anything more than a bottle of tequila passed around a campfire. "Did John put you up to this?" Sarah asked at last.

"No." Cameron replied softly. She tilted her head and regarded Sarah through the flickering flame. “You need to make a wish.”

The smart remark Sarah wanted to make died on her lips as her gaze met and locked with Cameron’s. The flame from the lonely burning candle bathed the girl’s face in warm gold and fascinating shadows, playing over the angles of her cheekbones and lighting her eyes. Beautiful came the word, unbidden, to her mind.

Sarah’s stomach flopped when she realized the turn her thoughts had taken. She leaned forward suddenly and blew out the traitorous candle, plunging the interior of the Jeep into darkness once more and breaking the spell Cameron held over her. “Thanks,” she whispered in the dark hush, turning her gaze to the distant warehouse.

Several quiet moments passed as Sarah focused intently on the rain, refusing to look at Cameron until she had her heartbeat under control. She could feel the terminator’s relentless scrutiny, though, and she struggled not to squirm under the unblinking gaze. “What?” Sarah finally asked, crumbling under the pressure and turning to the terminator once more.

Cameron was still holding the cupcake. The scent of the spent candle came to Sarah’s nose as Cameron pushed the birthday offering toward her. “Don’t you want your cake?”

Reluctantly, Sarah reached out and accepted the gift. Their fingers brushed and Sarah snatched her hand back, nearly crushing the cupcake in her haste. She swallowed. “You didn’t have to do this,” she said quietly.

“I know,” was Cameron’s simple answer.

Sarah licked a dab of icing off her thumb before pulling out the candle and sucking the chocolate-covered end. She risked looking at Cameron whose attention had returned to the rain and warehouse. “Did you bring more than one?”

Cameron looked at her. “Do you want more than one?”

“No. I meant…” Sarah rubbed the back of her neck self-consciously. “I just wondered if you brought one for yourself.”

“Should I have?” Cameron asked hesitantly. “I thought the occasion was about you.”

“It is. I mean… it’s…” Sarah gave up trying to explain. Instead, she carefully tore the cupcake in half and handed a piece to the terminator. The fact that she’d just given a cupcake to a killing machine wasn’t lost on her, but it seemed like the right thing to do.

Cameron looked at the cupcake in her hand as if it were a grenade, and then glanced back to Sarah as if asking for an explanation. Sarah sampled her own, managing to smear icing across the corner of her mouth, as if the intensity of the terminator’s gaze caused her hand-eye coordination to misfire. She licked the traces of icing off her lips, noting that Cameron watched the progress of her tongue with fascination before her eyes returned to Sarah’s. She wasn’t sure what she saw in those hazel depths, but suddenly the interior of the Jeep no longer felt so chilly.

Cameron dabbed her finger in the chocolate then tasted it cautiously. Her eyes widened.

“Yeah,” Sarah chuckled at the delighted expression on Cameron’s face. Sarah finished the rest of her cupcake in silence as Cameron did the same, letting the simple pleasure of chocolate ease the darkness of her earlier thoughts a little. She considered asking if Cameron had actually made the cupcake on her own, but the thought of the terminator puttering around in the kitchen was nearly enough to make Sarah’s head explode. It just didn’t… compute.

A rustling drew Sarah’s attention back to the bag at Cameron’s feet. The machine was rifling through it again, and Sarah had a silly, unexpected surge of hope that the girl had actually gotten her a gift.

This time, Cameron extended a box toward Sarah, wrapped with military precision in paper adorned with festive red balloons against a midnight blue. Sarah accepted the present with more gratitude than she had the cupcake, but as soon as she felt the heft of the box, she knew, and her heart sank along with her hand at the weight of the gift. The darkness returned as the realization struck that this was her life, and the bullets under the bright, silly wrapping paper summed that up to a sad degree. Under the terminator’s watchful eye, she tore through the wrapping with feigned enthusiasm and uncovered the expected box of 9mm rounds.

"Thanks." Sarah managed to sound almost convincing to her own ears. "You can never have enough bullets," she added quietly as an afterthought. She shook the box, hearing the brass rattle and clink. It fit, she thought: if her birthday were spent on a stakeout, what other gift should she get but bullets?

Cameron watched her, her head tilted to the side and a blank expression on her face. But her question was surprisingly perceptive: "Did you want something else?"

Sarah shook her head, a bitter smile gracing her lips. "No, no, it's fine." Her voice sounded lifeless to her own ears.

Cameron picked up on her tone, if not the reason for it. "What else would you want?" she asked, the question innocent.

Sarah looked off into the rain, her grip tightening on the steering wheel. "Nothing, I guess."

Cameron frowned, still trying to understand. "But bullets are practical."

"Yeah," Sarah agreed quietly. “They are.”

"John said you would like them."

Sarah snorted in weary amusement. “Revenge for the Kevlar vest I gave him," she muttered under her breath.

"That was a tight present,” replied Cameron, with conviction.

"Serves me right." Sarah slid open the box and shook out a bullet, rolling it between her fingers and feeling the smooth, chill of the metal warm with the heat of her touch. The brass shone in the dim light from the street lamps as she stared at the bullet with rapt contemplation. Finally, "This is all I am, huh? A weapon, a mission." She tapped the tip of the bullet on the steering wheel and then sighed with a small shake of her head.

A long silence descended, with Sarah lost in thought and Cameron watching her closely. Finally, Cameron eased her hand into her pocket and reluctantly pulled out something clutched tightly in her fist. She extended her closed hand toward Sarah tentatively. "I made you this. But I thought the bullets would be better."

Curious, Sarah reached out to accept whatever made the terminator seem uncharacteristically timid, feeling the heat of Cameron's fingers as they brushed her hand and dropped a small item there. Her palm was in shadows, so Sarah brought her hand up to catch the faint glow of the streetlight. A wink of fire made Sarah’s breath catch. Resting in the palm of her hand was a diamond, nestled into an intricately silver woven inset. The design looked Celtic and it appealed to both the woman and the warrior in her. Sarah blinked at the gift before letting her hand tip and the chain slide down to catch on her fingers so she could look at the whole necklace in the light.

In a quiet whisper, Sarah asked, “Where did you... how…”

“I made it.” Cameron paused, and then admitted, “I didn't think you would like it.”

Sarah could barely get the words out as she gazed at the diamond shimmering like a star. "Why did you think that?"

“I made it,” Cameron repeated, without emphasis or intonation to tell Sarah which part she thought would be the problem. "And you don't like diamonds."

“What...?” Sarah reluctantly shifted her eyes to the terminator, not following the line of the conversation.

“You said diamonds weren't a girl's best friend. At least not yours.”

Sarah remembered with a touch of unexpected regret. “Then why make this?”

Cameron looked at the necklace twisting slightly between them, the diamond sparkling in the low light. “I… wanted to.” She seemed surprised by her own answer.

"It's beautiful," Sarah told her.

Cameron's eyes were puzzled as she looked between the diamond and the woman. "You don't need it." Sarah gave Cameron an uncertain half-smile. "Beauty. You don't need it."

"I don't?" Sarah wasn't sure if she should be angry or insulted by the suggestion.

"No. You are beautiful enough,” Cameron explained and Sarah turned to stare, her shocked green eyes meeting perplexed hazel.

"You think I'm beautiful?" Sarah questioned, remembering her thoughts from earlier, remembering the way Cameron had looked in candlelight.

"Yes," Cameron replied, simply and instantly.

Sarah's response was similarly instantaneous; she slid her hand under Cameron's hair, curving her fingers around her warm neck before urging Cameron closer and kissing her, there in the dark, the sound of rain and wind almost forgotten. After several intense moments, Sarah pulled back, her voice huskier than it had been before. "Is this okay?"

Cameron tilted her chin up, already angling to recapture Sarah's lips as she murmured a decidedly breathless, "Yes.”

Hours later, after a long, unproductive stakeout, Sarah fastened the clasp on the necklace and watched the diamond sparkle in the glow of her bathroom nightlight. She stared at her reflection, liking the way the gift nestled in the hollow of her throat, a tiny spot of beauty in an otherwise drab guise. A small, pleased smile curled the corners of her lips. It was, as presents went, completely impractical, simply irresponsible, and thoroughly ornamental. It was, in a word, perfect.