Chapter 12 We Gather Once More, Part Two

Outside Davisville, California, 9:30 A.M. Friday

The demolition teams were working with an effortless efficiency. Sarah watched admiringly as they moved along the outside of the buildings stopping here and there to attach a satchel to the wall. Without seeing them she knew that similar groups were practicing their deadly expertise inside. Skynet's construction capability was about to be seriously eroded.

"We got here just in time didn't we?"James Ellison was standing between Sarah and Catherine staring intently back at the buildings. His question floated in the air directed to both and to neither.

Catherine's response was measured and exact as always. "I believe that Captain Connor's plan had only a thin margin of error in timing. If we had come two weeks from now, we might have been unsuccessful."

What an understatement, Sarah thought. If the dormant cyborgs and uncompleted metal terminators she and Catherine had found had been active, if the attack vehicles Ellison had discovered had been ready for use they would not have just been unsuccessful. The attackers would have been obliterated. They would all be dead now. Even Catherine could not have saved them.

A random thought abruptly passed unbidden through Sarah's mind and she laughed involuntarily.

"You find something amusing, Sarah?" Catherine glanced at her.

"I just realized something. I haven't fired my weapon, not even one time."

"Is that a bad thing?" Ellison asked.

Sarah shook her head. "No, I suppose its not."I didn't kill anyone today.

A sporadic burst of rifle fire, followed by a disjointed chorus of yells and screams broke her concentration. Christian and three of his men had herded their prisoners--the employees who had lacked the good sense to run--down to the rear gate where Christian had unleashed some kind of shouted harangue. His exact words didn't carry up to them but the ferociously threatening tone certainly did. As Christian fired his rifle into the air the captives broke into a wild scramble down the service road.

"What did you say to them?" Ellison asked as Christian came walking back toward him.

"I told them we were the soldiers of god and they were all servants of the devil. I said if we had to come back again we would kill them all."

"That ought to spawn a little paranoia," Sarah said.

"If that doesn't, this will." Christian gestured at the western horizon. Three large black Bell helicopters came skimming in, low and fast. The rhythmic thump of their engines grew steadily louder as they settled to the ground just outside the fence. The lead helicopter had barely touched down when the side door flew open and a tall, graceful, dark-haired woman leaped out. She came striding purposefully toward them while the armed guard who jumped out behind her frantically tried to keep up.

Christian grinned lasciviously as she approached. "Hey Emma," he said teasingly using the nickname given to her by her colleagues.

"That's Mrs. Peel to you, Captain."

"Colonel, actually," Christian replied.

"Self-promotions don't count, Christian."

The head of Zeira Corporation's Security Branch for Overseas Relations surveyed the scene.

"Looks as if things are going well. How much longer do you need?"

"Demolition squads are almost done. We should be ready to go in a few minutes."

The smile on Marie William's face froze into icy immobility.

"Christian, you should know that 'a few minutes' is not an adequate response to my question. I want to be wheels up out of here in no more than seven minutes. I suggest that you make that happen."

Christian swallowed hard before he responded, "Yes Ma'am."He turned and trotted, then ran toward his men.

Smiling, Sarah whispered to Ellison. "Are you sure she isn't a machine?"

Ellison tossed Williams a mock salute."Actually, I think she is tougher than that."

Marie Williams’ toughness was confirmed as the first helicopter loaded with Christian's mercenaries lifted off at 9:36 A.M.--one minute early. The dust, gravel and other debris still swirled around the landing zone as the remaining members of the assault force piled onto the second helicopter. From their vantage point by the fence Sarah and Catherine watched as Christian first shook hands with Ellison before kissing Marie Williams’ hand with a flamboyantly excessive bit of ceremony. He was still grinning when he dove into the waiting helicopter.

"I guess it’s time for us to go too," Sarah observed.

"Yes, the detonation timers are set for 9:40."

Sarah's limp became more pronounced as they walked toward the last helicopter. Catherine glanced at her with an expression that almost looked sympathetic.

"I regret that you’re injured...."Catherine paused and appeared to reconsider her statement."I am sorry that I hurt your knee, Sarah.It was not my intention to do so."

Sarah waved her hand in an almost flippant expression of unconcern. "It’s okay, Catherine. As John would say, it’s a long way from my heart."

They were about to enter the helicopter when Sarah abruptly stopped and turned back to face Catherine.

"Are we friends?" Sarah asked.

"No."

"Do you think we will ever be friends?"

"No."

Sarah shrugged and turned to pull herself into the helicopter when Catherine spoke again.

"But it does appear to me that contrary to every rational inclination I possess, we are becoming sisters."

Sarah looked back at Catherine before shaking her head wearily."God help us both."

As she was climbing inside the helicopter, Sarah suddenly thought hey, I think I just got the last word.

"Amen," Catherine whispered.

DAMN.

The shock waves from the explosions caused the helicopter to buffet momentarily before steadying its flight path. Evidently the detonators had not all been set at the precisely identical time. The storage warehouse and the administrative building went up first. The shattered residue was still raining down and the man-made thunder still echoed when two fiery eruptions consumed the construction buildings. Looking down from above, Sarah smiled grimly. When the fires finally died below, there would not be even two unscorched bricks standing.

Sarah leaned back in her seat and closed her eyes. We have done our part, John. It’s all up to you now, she thought. I believe. I believe. I believe in you my son.




Los Angeles, Friday 9:26 A.M.

Emilio and Chola were waiting on the second floor landing as John and Cameron descended. Emilio shook his head with a look of bemused appreciation. Chola simply looked relieved.

"I still question your sanity, John Connor, but you seem to have succeeded." Emilio smiled. "The building is secure."

John looked quickly at his watch."That sounds good but we’re running late. Get the upper floors ready to burn. I want to take a look in the basement."

"You might want to look at this first."Hector stepped out onto the landing."We got some prisoners."

"Prisoners?" Emilio sounded surprised.

"Yeah, there were five in a back office trying to hide in a closet." Hector looked at John. "One of them claims that he's the guy in charge. Says he wants to make a deal."

"Come on, Cameron. Let's go see this guy that's in charge." John's tone was bitterly sarcastic.

"I think you are the one in charge, John."Cameron's dry humor asserted itself.

"Damn straight,"John replied.

The five men huddled in a group glancing nervously at the weapons Anton, Yadi, and Joey K pointed at them. Two wore white lab coats, two others were wearing the dark blazers favored by the Burkes and Armes Security people. The fifth stood a bit apart, his expensive Italian suit rumpled from being crammed in a closet with four other terrified fugitives. His pale blue eyes looked up as the office door opened. A faint glimmer of optimism faded as he realized who stood in the doorway. Hope fled. All that remained was the feral courage of a trapped animal.

John recognized him instantly. He had not seen that sallow complexion, high forehead and long boney nose since the Board of Inquiry. But there could be no mistake. The identity was beyond question.

"Major Larry Rankin." John's voice hid his loathing in dry and measured tone.

TheLegend was not intimidated. When the end is inevitable, fear has little to seize on to.

"So," Rankin sneered, "the great John Connor did desert after all." His voice dripped an acid bitterness. "And I had hoped so much that it wasn't true. You have no idea how much I wanted to believe you were still in the tunnels somewhere and had your nuts roasted with the rest of the scum."

John felt a clammy sense of horror wash over him.

He grabbed Rankin's shirt and pulled him forward. "What are you talking about?"

Rankin jerked himself loose. "You don't know. You really don't know do you? Two weeks after you so conveniently disappeared, the boss smuggled a small low-yield nuke into the tunnels." Rankin laughed aloud. "In a box labeled green beans. Everyone who didn't die in the explosion was finished off by the Triple 8s." Rankin paused savoring the shocked disbelief on John's face. "They are dead, Connor. All the idiots who chanted your name. The ones who thought you were such a great hero. They are all dust."

Cameron stepped by John and put her hand on Rankin's neck. She looked back at John with a mournful expression of almost unbearable resignation.

"He is telling the truth John."

The Legend pulled sharply away as if Cameron's touch had burned him. John stared at him. There was no anger, no grief, no despair on John's face. The only expression visible was oneof implacable determination.

"Cameron, leave the room."John's voice had taken on a chillingly inhuman precision.

"John, I--" Cameron tried to reply but she was cut off. "Leave the room, Cameron. Now."

Cameron nodded her assent and walked away. As the door closed behind her, Rankin chuckled.

"So the other rumor is true too. John Connor got himself a mechanical sex toy. Cameron, huh? Is that what you call it?"Rankin leered at John. "Tell me Connor, can Cameron do anything special? Does it screw any better than--"

John drew his pistol from his shoulder holster and swung it a slashing arc that crashed against the left side of Rankin's face. As he lurched backward a fierce back swing smashed into his right cheek. Blood poured from Rankin's mouth as he spat out a tooth.

"You will not speak her name," John said. "You will not speak of her at all."

Rankin's voice slurred as he tried to talk through his battered mouth."Or what Connor?You'll kill me?Hell, you’re going to do that anyway. Just remember this. The boss won the war in the future. He'll win it here. You are going to fail Connor. And just think, somewhere out there is another me, a boy that'll grow up to laugh at you."

John turned his back and looked at the far office wall. As he stared, the solid structure of the room dissolved into a dark gray mist--a swirling fog with faintly seen human forms drifting by. Two figures took form as they stepped out of the mist. It was Ceasar Delgado and Martin Klein. They had marched with him and fought at his side from the beginning. They waved and then faded away. As they vanished, Elise Jividen stumbled by with the rope still tied to her wrist. She turned her blind eyes toward him and smiled. Kyle and Derek, the father and uncle he could never acknowledge, strode past, their attention locked on some distant objective. And then there was a little girl. She held a doll with a carved wooden head and the grime on her cheeks was marked by the lines of long dried tears. Her name was Sarah.

John spun back to face Rankin."Maybe I can find the younger one and kill it too."

He fired his pistol once and then once again. Rankin staggered backward, his knees crumbled and he fell to the floor. John stepped over and looked down at him.

"Say hello to your father for me." John spit into Rankin's face as the life ebbed from his body.

The room was funereally quiet. Rankin's four companions held their breath as if their silence would hide them from the wrath that had just ended Larry Rankin's existence. They were mistaken.

John looked at Hector. There was no hesitation, no doubt in his voice."Kill them,"John snapped. "Kill them all."

Chola heard the screams cut short by the crack of gun fire. She stopped outside the office door. She felt no need to go inside. Her young life had educated her to a reality that did not exist in more orderly worlds. She knew what had just happened. The door opened and John stepped out. Chola took a deep breath, almost a gasp, as she looked at his face. There was fury there, a deep well of anguish and an unmistakable aura of death. At that moment John Connor frightened her.

"John." Chola's voice trembled involuntarily. "Cameron wants you in the basement. There is something she wants you to see."

John nodded without speaking. As he walked by, Chola felt the air turn cold.

Cameron heard John's footsteps on the stairs. Like Chola, she knew without seeing what had just happened upstairs. She also understood why John had sent her away. He had not wanted her to watch him exact his terrible vengeance. He was afraid that she might love him less if she were to see that part of him. Cameron desperately wanted to tell him that nothing he could do would ever lessen her devotion to him. But that would have to wait until another time.

The basement was essentially a large laboratory. It gleamed from the multiple overhead florescent lights reflecting off the shining metallic surfaces of various pieces of equipment. In the middle of the room a medical examination table was flanked by two large computer carts. A human form was lying on the table with multiple wires extending from its head to the nearest computer. Cameron was waiting by the table when John entered.

"It’s one of the 500 series cyborgs, John,"Cameron said. "They were getting it ready to go active."

John looked down at what first appeared to be a tall, muscular young man. A portion of his scalp had been folded back exposing the chip socket. The wires from the computer were attached at the top of the chip. The computer was turned on and a series of pictures were flashing one by one on the monitor. The 500 was being given its targets. In a carefully measured and deliberate sequence, images of James Ellison, Tarissa Dyson, Catherine Weaver and Savannah appeared and faded away.

John lifted the computer off the cart ribbing the wires loose from the prone figure. Grunting with a furious exertion he hurled it across the room.

"Take its chip out Cam."

"The phosphorous treatment will--"

John interrupted her. "I don't care about that. I don't want to examine it. I want you to smash it."

Cameron was extracting the chip when the sound of sirens, multiple sirens began to echo through the building.

****! John looked at his watch. 9:45 A.M. They had been here too long. He turned and ran for the stairs.

Emilio knelt by the window in the front reception area. With a growing sense of apprehension he watched the police cars pull into the parking lot across the street. It didn't look like SWAT was there yet but they would be soon.Yadi dashed up and squatted beside him."They got the back covered too."

"Looks like we aren't leaving the way we came in."

Emilio looked up as John Connor reached his side. Peering out the window he seemed casual, nonchalant as if nothing concerned him at all. To John this all appeared to be no more than a minor irritation.

"Are you sure we are leaving at all?" Emilio gestured toward the window while trying to maintain his cool persona."It appears there are a number of people who want us to stay."

"We will disappoint them," John replied with a barren, humorless smile. He turned to face Cameron who had come up from below.

"We have to go to Plan B, Cam."

"I suspected that was the case,"Cameron replied."I will need five minutes." She rose and headed back toward the basement.

"Emilio, have your men fire a few shots out the window. Aim high and try not to hit the police. I just want them to think twice about storming the building."

Emilio shook his head with an obvious air of resignation. He whispered to the men around him and they moved into position.Gunfire crackled as the shots from inside the building provoked answering fire from the police.

"Still doubting my sanity?" John asked.

"For the moment I am withholding judgment," Emilio answered.

John glanced quickly at his watch. Cameron had wanted five minutes and three had passed.

"Light the fires," John ordered.

For one of the rare times in his life Emilio Garza actually looked aghast.

"John, we would all prefer not to be burned alive."

"I didn't bring you all here to die or to be captured. We are getting another way out. Trust me."

Emilio looked at John and to his surprise he found that he did. He did trust John Connor.

"Light the fires," Emilio called out.

The acrid odor of smoke was filling the lower floor when the building seemed to shake. A grumbling roar of an explosion thundered up from the lower level.

"What was that?" Emilio asked.

"That was Plan B," John replied with a look of grim satisfaction. "Get everyone to the basement, now."

Emilio shook his head in disbelief. It was too late to change course now. If this gringo was crazy they were all going to die. But somehow Emilio Garza, who had never truly followed anyone in his life,did not believe John was crazy. He motioned for the others to move toward the basement. Today Emilio Garza would follow .

The oil-based fires were surging through the building. Visibility in the stairwell had already been reduced by the spreading smoke. In a few more minutes the suffocating blanket would make the stairs unusable. John and Emilio trailed the last of their people into the basement, coughing as they closed the door behind them.

"It’s over here, John," Cameron called out. She was standing by the entrance to what appeared to be an employee restroom. John looked inside and saw the huge gaping hole in the floor.

"The plastique did its job," he said.

"It usually does," Cameron replied.

"Okay." John turned back to face the basement laboratory. "Is everyone here?"

Chola and Emilio both nodded simultaneously.

"We go out through the floor. It leads to a utility tunnel. There is access to the street about three-fourths of a mile away. Cameron knows the way and she is going to lead. Everyone follow her."

Cameron's expression revealed her sudden concern. Why didn't he say follow us?

"Come with me now, John."

"You go," John said. "Get our people out. I'll catch up."

Cameron looked at John and once again she knew. He was the leader. Sometimes the leader had to be first and sometimes he had to be last. At this moment John had to be certain that all of his people were safe before he would go. Cameron knew she could not change his mind.

Chola walked over and took Cameron's hand."Come on, hermana. Let's do what your man says."

Cameron wanted to protest. She wanted to cry. But she did not. The woman John Connor loved had to live up to what he expected of her. She turned and climbed into the ragged crater she had blasted in the floor. In rapid sequence the other members of the attack team followed her down. Bringing up the rear, Emilio looked at John who had moved over to the table where the defunct cyborg lay.

"Go on Emilio," John said. "I just want a moment and I will be right behind you."

Emilio tried to speak but no words would come. He nodded and slipped out of sight. John looked down at the lifeless face of the 500.

"I am not sure how much damage we did to your master today. I do know that you will never have the chance to kill anyone."

John let his gaze wander around the laboratory. The smoke was becoming visible and overhead the building seemed to cry out in pain as the fires consumed it.

"Can you hear me Skynet? I didn't destroy you today. But you didn't kill me either. Maybe all I have is three repetitions. But that's enough to keep me fighting and you won't win while I am alive."

John turned away from the basement and walked purposefully toward the hole in the floor. Suddenly he chuckled bitterly as he remembered something.

"You were right, John Henry. We are back in the tunnels."



West Los Angeles Regional Airport, Friday 12:37 P.M.

Sarah wanted to pace. Actually, she had tried but the pain in her knee caused her to limp. She felt foolish hobbling back and forth across the floor of the executive waiting lounge. Slumping into the chair she stared at the news channel images of a burning building on the television screen. The sound was turned off but the pictures of the blazing structure surrounded by Los Angeles police cars still caused her heart to race.

"You know he isn't in there, Sarah." James Ellison's efforts at reassurance were unavailing.

"Then where is he?" Sarah demanded.

Catherine looked up from her seated position She had been waiting with her usual equanimity, with that boundless mechanical patience that irritated Sarah beyond all measure.

"John Henry reports that they are out, they are unharmed, and they are on their way here."

Sarah struggled to her feet. "That was almost an hour ago." Sarah glared at Catherine. "They should be here by now. Where are they?"

"We’re right here, Mom."

Three heads turned in unison as John and Cameron walked through the door. Their clothes were dirty. John's face was streaked with perspiration and dust.Cameron's hair was damp and matted but they still clung to each other with an undiminished fervor. The stepped into the room with their hands linked together, their heads held high.

Sarah practically hopped across the floor. She embraced John, pulling his head down to her shoulder before reaching out to Cameron. As she had done the day before, she enfolded them both into her arms. Sarah held tightly to them as if by the force of her will she could pull them into her heart.

Catherine stood to the side watching the reunion, watching as James Ellison waited for his opportunity to greet John. She wondered if Sarah had seen the pain in Cameron's eyes or the tightly repressed anguish on John's face. John and Cameron had paid a price for whatever victory they had won today. And of one thing Catherine was absolutely certain, Captain John Connor would never speak of it.

Cameron waited until all the hugs, handshakes and greetings had passed. After Catherine announced that the airplane would be ready to leave in twenty minutes she moved over to the side of the room and subtly motioned for John to join her.

"John," she asked softly, "would you help me get the bullet out of my back? It hurts."

"Wouldn't you rather have Catherine or Mom...?"

Cameron vehemently shook her head. Her face was locked in an almost child-like expression of adamant refusal."No," she whispered. "No one touches me but you."

John took her face between his hands. "All right Cam. Don't get upset. I'll do it right now."

John felt his pulse race as the expression of relief passed across Cameron's face. She feels better because I am going to be the one to cut on her, he thought. What did I ever do to deserve that kind of trust?

In the bathroom, Cameron took off her jacket and her blouse while John knelt behind her with the first aid kit and his now carefully sterilized knife. She had not bled as much as an ordinary human would have but the wound was still ugly. After cleaning the surface he probed into her flesh and located the bullet. As it came out he caught a glimpse of the metallic silver that made up her skeleton. Once that sight might have been disturbing but that time was long past. Everything he saw was part of her and he loved it all. After placing a bandage across the wound John stood and looked into dark brown eyes.

"How does it feel now, Cam?"

She smiled, a genuine unforced expression of complete happiness."It’s much better now, John. You did very well."

John pulled her into his arms. The pain was gone now but Cameron had experiencedit only because she had chosen to do so. She had chosen pain solely because she wanted to be with him,because she loved him. He held her tight touching the bare skin of her shoulders and caressing her hair. Behind her he could see his reflection in the mirror. You have a lot to live up to Connor.

Leaving Cameron to finish dressing, John went out for a last conversation with James Ellison.

"They were coming after me with a Terminator?" Ellison seemed both dismayed and oddly flattered.

"You, Tarissa Dyson, Catherine, and Savannah."

"So Skynet must think we are all valuable somehow?"

"You are valuable, James," John said with a fierce conviction. "Don't lose sight of that for a second. I want you to use every precaution, employ every element of protection we have and take no unnecessary risks. I do not want to lose you."

James Ellison put hishand on John's shoulder. "You won't. Like you, I'm in this to the finish."

"What about Tarissa?"

"I have had Zeira Corporation security around her since your mother visited. I'll increase it."

"You are a good man James."

"So are you, John."

You may be wrong about that, John thought. There may be nothing good about me.

******

Ellison breathed a deep sigh of relief as the Zeira Corporation jet sped down the runway. The Connor family was about to be safely out of Los Angeles. By now Christian and his mercenaries should be two hours over the Pacific well on the way back to Northern Australia. All records that could link Zeira Corporation to today's operation were being carefully and thoroughly obliterated. John's plan had worked.

Walking across the airport parking lot toward the waiting corporate limousine, Ellison found himself whistling an old tune his father had taught him on a fishing trip. He had not thought of it in years but now he recalled something else his father had said on that same trip."When a man works hard and does good work, he is entitled to a fishing trip once in a while."

The limousine driver opened the door and Ellison slipped into the back. I may get that fishing trip someday, Dad. But today its still early and I have work to do.

"Let's get to the office, Martin."



Airborne,Central California, Friday 2:15 P.M.

The flight back toward San Francisco was as quiet as the trip south had been. But now the atmosphere in the passenger compartment was noticeably different.

Catherine, Sarah, and Cameron all shared a silent communal understanding that John was not going home in triumph. Words were not required to discern the aura of profound depression that surrounded him.

Sarah tried to watch him without seeming too obvious. If Catherine thought she had not immediately sensed the despair John was carrying, she was wrong. With the special perception that came with motherhood Sarah had known instantly that her son had suffered another wound. The fact that the new injury was not visible did not mean the agony was any less.

John was staring out the window, his right hand intertwined with Cameron's. Even there in that casual sign of affection, Sarah could sense a difference. John was holding on to Cameron not simply as an expression of love,but as an act of desperate self-preservation. He was balanced precariously on the edge of a precipice holding the only lifeline that would keep him from falling into the abyss.

Sarah made eye contact with Cameron. In that moment she felt a near telepathic connection. “Hold on to him, Cameron”, Sarah pleaded. "He needs you."

Cameron looked back at Sarah and her understanding was unmistakable. She nodded and Sarah could hear Cameron's words in her mind. "I will. I promise."



San Francisco, Friday 3:45 P.M.


Home.

John turned off the ignition as the garage door closed behind them. Just over twenty-four hours. They had only been gone that long but John felt as if a lifetime had passed. An interminable journey had finally come to an end and they had returned not just toa place but to a healing refuge. Here their past, their present and the promise of their future all reached out to embrace them--to welcome them home.

John chuckled--the first feeling of pure pleasure he hadexperienced for what seemed like an eternity as Cameron, Sarah and Catherine all bolted from the car in unison. It looks like they are going to race to the headquarters, he thought. I think I'll put my money on Cameron.

He would have won. John Henry had opened the massive hidden door just seconds ahead of their arrival and Cameron went bounding down the stairs. Catherine and Sarah were in close pursuit. From the doorway John could hear the laughter and joyous greetings rising up the stairslike a bright sun.

Savannah had run to Catherine and literally jumped into her arms. The carefully constructed facade of mature dignity that usually characterized Catherine collapsed. She was not simply holding Savannah, she was hugging, caressing and slowly turningin an impromptu dance of heart-felt pleasure.

Cameron was on her knees with Marissa almost wrapped around her, the little girl's arms clinging tightly to her mommy's neck. And Sarah--John almost laughed aloud--the badass soldier held Allison over her head before gently lowering the child into an embrace that cried out devotion. At that moment Sarah would not have cared if granny was part of Allison's vocabulary.

John tried to take another step down the stairs but his body refused. An involuntary will seized him. There was love and light and joy just a few feet away but he felt unworthy of it. Worse, he senseda poison about him that could only harm that world of beauty. He could go no further. His will would not permit it.

John Henry had been beaming with pleasure at the reunion when he realized that John had not joined it. Looking up he saw John rooted on the stairs. With a growing feeling of unease he watched as John pointed toward him and then raised his right hand in a precise military salute. Before John Henry could respond, John turned, walked up the stairs and vanished from sight.

John slipped off his jacket as he entered the bedroom. Tossing it on the chair he continued into the bathroom and twisted the faucet until the cold water pounded into the sink. Scooping up the water in his hands, he splashed it on his face feeling the needle sensation of the cold liquid against his skin. He looked into the mirror and studied his reflection. At first it was simply his face with water dripping from it. But the longer he looked the more the image changed. His skin lost color becoming gray and chalky. The animation in his eyes faded away as his face tightened against the bones of his skull. At last the reflection became nothing but a living skeleton that glared back at him and snarled "Kill them. Kill them all."

John jerked himself away and stepped back into the bedroom. He pulled his pistol out of his shoulder holster and stared at the gun as if it had become something putrid, vile. Flipping the release he allowed the clip to fall into his other hand. He drew back his right arm preparing to hurl the gun against the wall.

Don't be stupid Connor, he thought. That won't accomplish anything except damage the wall. He laid the gun and the clip on the dresser and sat down on the bed. How many John? How many died today because of you?How many did you kill? John buried his face in his hands.

He lost any sense of time. Uncounted minutes slipped by before he heard the bedroom door squeak slightly as it opened. He looked up to see a little girl with shiny black hair, large dark eyes glistening with tears and a trembling chin.

"Daddy, did I do something wrong?"

John felt as if a hot poker had been jammed into his heart.Marissa had asked Cameron if she could call her mommy but she had never made a similar request of him.

Marissa moved further into the room. "I didn't mean to, really I didn't. If I did something wrong I'm sorry."

John exploded off the bed andswept Marissa up into his arms."Sweetheart, why would you ever think you had done anything wrong?"

Marissa looked intently at his face and he could see she was still trying to hold back tears.

"When you came home you didn't come downstairs to speak to us. I could see you on the stairs and you looked so sad. I know Ally is too little to do something bad so I thought it must be me that made you sad." Marissa took a deep breath. "I don't want you to be sad Daddy."

John kissed the child on both cheeks and folded her into an embrace that offered all the love, all the devotion, all the tenderness he could summon.

"Marissa, please listen very carefully to me." John's voice struggled with his words. "You did notmake me sad. You didn't do anything wrong. You are my little girl and I love you more than I can say. Nothing you can say or do will ever make me stop loving you."

Marissa threw her arms around John's neck and buried her face in his shoulder. As he ran his hand through her hair, he looked up at the new sound in the doorway. Cameron stood with Allison firmly in her grasp smiling at him--a soft smile that reflected more than just happiness. It was an expression of forgiveness...of absolution.

Without speaking, Cameron walked over and sat down on the bed beside him. Allison giggled in absolute delight and reached out to grab John's collar. Cameron slipped her free arm aroundhiswaist and tilted her head to the side until her lips almost touched his ear.

"Listen to your own words, John," she whispered. "Marissa, Allison and I are your family. We all love you. Nothing you can do will ever make us stop loving you."

In the hallway, peeking into the bedroomas unobtrusively as possible, Sarah could not hear Cameron's words. She could, however, clearly see John's reaction. She watched him reach out and pull Cameron and the girls into his arms. She saw four heads incline toward each other until for one moment they all touched together.

Sarah quietly moved past the door and continued down the hall toward her room. John has scars, she thought. Some were visible on his body, others were hidden away inside him. They were the price her son had to pay to do what she had trained him to do. The scars would never completely fade but the pain that accompanied them could be eased. A mother could only do so much. John had found his own solace. The tender caresses Cameron, Marissa and Allison gave him would soothe his pain and give him a precious measure of joy. Sarah looked back at their bedroom and smiled.

For now Sarah thought that a bathtub filled with warm water to relieve the pain in her knee sounded like heaven. Maybe later she might go back downstairs and let Savannah read to her. Perhaps she could think of something to do that would really tick Catherine off. Oh, that does sound like fun.


<<Chapter 11 Epilogue>>

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