Caught in the Undertow
Derek had given up pacing to keep himself occupied, and dropped down on the lone lounge chair on what passed as a lawn, to wait for John and his mechanical shadow to come home. The last week of school had been filled with half days and John's frequent complaints about tests, and he compounded his whining by adding a layer of gripe regarding the ridiculous practice of having to go to school for only two hours. Over and over again, until the sound of his nephew's voice had been like nails on a chalkboard.
The machine had hung onto John's every word with a look of adoration so nauseating that Derek had had to make a concerted effort not to gag around the breakfast table. Retching noises weren't regarded kindly in the Connor household. And Sarah? The sixteen year old messiah walked on water as far as the queen mother was concerned, and her tolerant flashes of smiles over John's bitching only added fuel to the fire.
So here it was, the last day of school, and Derek was laying in wait, ready to pounce the second the kid came home.
Their bright, shiny, recently acquired Jeep pulled in front of the house. The machine got out, slammed the door, walked to the curb, and waited. The passenger side door opened, but John only managed one foot out the door before he turned and listened to whatever Sarah was saying. Even from this distance, there was no missing the body language of John's teenage annoyance at his mother's words.
"Okay." John's voice was loud enough to be heard up and down the block. Sarah's response was muted, but her face was clouded in anger. John slammed the car door, shoved a piece of paper in his back pocket and strode up the walk, his backpack slung over his right shoulder. The machine fell into step with him the same time as the Jeep peeled away, but John just shook his head, mumbling something under his breath that Derek wasn't privy to.
"Hard day at school?" Derek asked sarcastically, stretching languidly on the chair.
"Backpack weighs a ton." John slung it off his shoulder and let it fall to the ground with an impressive thud.
Derek himself wasn't impressed by the thud or John's inability to bear the backpack's weight. "Your mother drove you to school. Your mother drove you home. You were in school for what, two hours?" He finished the question with a disdainful chuckle.
At first, John was shocked into silence, then silence gave way to confusion. But Derek saw the anger begin to overshadow the confusion, the narrowing of the eyes, the fists at his side. Derek sat, glaring up at John and said nothing as the kid's anger bubbled over into words.
"I'm sorry, if you don't mind me asking, what exactly did you do today?"
Derek's laughter did nothing to appease John's anger, which increased when Cameron lifted the backpack with ease and followed John into the house. Derek gave them a respectable amount of time, conceding that maybe he was even a little disappointed in John's willingness to yield, before getting off the chair and entering the house.
Frustrated, John tried another series of keystrokes, trying to dig up the plans his mother had requested. He'd hit one dead end after another and was no closer to attaining his goal.
"Damn it." Nothing was working. Angrily, he stripped off his shirt while staring at the screen and dropped it on the floor. Something had to be missing. He had to be overlooking something, but what? Leaning down, he untied his sneakers and took out some of his frustration by flinging them across the room, his balled up socks following in their path.
The wood floor felt great against his feet and he clenched and unclenched his toes, trying to leech every iota of coolness, which lasted maybe all of a minute. The room was stifling. The windows were closed, the blinds and curtains drawn but instead of trapping cool air, the effect was claustrophobic.
He got up, paced across his room exactly once before he began to dig through the basket of clothes on his dresser, looking for his thinner, well worn, tattered tee shirt his mother absolutely detested. "Gotcha." Giving the shirt a quick sniff, he ascertained that it was semi-clean and slipped it on with an exhalation of satisfaction. "Better."
"Ow." John rubbed his forehead with the heel of his hand. The headache had come out of nowhere and he sat back in his chair and closed his eyes for a few minutes. He rued the fact that he was now too close to give in to an afternoon nap. He opened his eyes and leaned forward with a groan. Hopefully, one more time would be the charm.
But it wasn't. The link was just out of his reach and he was getting nowhere fast, no matter how much he tried to convince himself otherwise. "Need a break," John muttered, not even bothering to save anything on the computer, because there was nothing worth saving.
Barefoot, he padded into the kitchen and stood in front of the opened window, allowing the shallowest of breezes to wash over him. Water, Tylenol - first order of business.
The Connors had the warehouse-sized container of Tylenol. Extra Strength was stored in the cabinet right next to the Bacitracin, alcohol, bandages and a myriad of other drugs. One never knew what the next hour would bring in their household so his mother was prepared. Always.
John teased two Tylenol out of the gigantic bottle and dropped them on the countertop, putting the cabinet back in order before closing it. His mother was anal like that and she'd rip him a new one is the supply closet had a box of bandages out of place. Priorities in their home were a tad skewed and John had learned to deal.
He tore open the fridge door, grabbed a bottle of water and flipped the top, swallowing half of it before coming up for air and reaching for the Tylenol. When the Tylenol were history, he finished the rest of the water.
"Enjoy it while you can." Derek was leaning against the door frame, arms crossed, the wall bearing the majority of his weight.
Derek cocked his chin at the empty plastic bottle in John's hand. "Water. Medicine. In another few years, you won't be able to leave your room and go get a bottle of water. Or Aspirin. Or any food you might have a hankering for."
"It's going to be different."
"Yeah? Not from where I'm standing." Derek untangled himself and bore down on John. "Those people you try to save, in the future? They're tough. Most of the sick and the old and the infirm, they died when Judgment Day came. Long, horrible deaths in some cases. Food's scarce. Water's hard to find. Medicine... Well, if you're hurt, you either live, or you die. There'll be no first aid kits. No jumbo-sized bottle of Tylenol. Painkillers will be worth more than gold."
Derek began to pace around John. "I seen some guys – big, strong men, the type you'd want fighting by your side. But they were the first to crawl into a corner and give up. And some others, men and women who'd spend most of their lives sitting in front of a desk, they were the ones who rallied. The ones who toughened up. The ones we could count on."
"The ones who shoot off their mouths?" John slammed the bottle on the counter, unsure of whatever was up his uncle's ass. "Who speak without thinking?"
"Kids in the future, they gotta be tough to survive," he responded, ignoring John's statement.
"Like you? Like my da... like Kyle was?"
"Like you'll never be."
That hurt. John struggled to hide how much those words stung. As hard as it was, he was willing to admit defeat because there was no way he wanted to get into a pissing contest with his uncle, discussing a him he had yet to be. Or a father he'd never met. "You've got the upper hand."
"Yeah, I do," Derek replied sarcastically. "Lucky me." He poked John in the chest, laughing.
John jumped and Derek, who damn well had a healthy fear of his mother, stepped back, tucking his hand into his pocket at the sound of the door slamming, followed by the thud of a heavy box hitting the kitchen floor. "Am I missing something?"
"No." John shuffled two steps to the right. "Derek was just giving me a history lesson."
"That's what they're calling it nowadays, huh?" The raise of her eyebrows was a dead giveaway that she wasn't falling for his bullshit.
Derek had the good grace to turn away from his mother's scrutiny and John smiled as his uncle tucked his tail between his legs and headed off in the direction of the living room.
"Not so fast, Derek. There are bags in the truck." She tossed him the keys. "Tin miss is out there already. Help her."
"And him," Derek jangled the keys at John. "He doesn't have to do anything?"
"What? Are you twelve, Reese?" She shook her head. "Get your ass out of this kitchen."
John wore his emotions on his sleeve. He sucked at lying and his body language was a blinking neon sign alerting the world to his anger and every other feeling known to mankind. In that regard, John was his father's son.
Head down, he studied the box by the table. "You bought a fan?"
"Yeah. Three more in the truck. And some groceries."
"We needed Nestle's Quik."
"I got the chocolate stuff. The cow is grazing in the back yard." Good, she was able to get at least a smile out of him and she smiled back, but his slid from his face as Derek's argumentative voice preceded him into the house.
"I can't believe—"
Quickly, John glanced at Derek as he dropped the box he was carrying on the floor. "I haven't been able to find the plans you asked for." John lifted his arm and pointed to the bedroom. "I need to—"
"No." Sarah grabbed his hand and placed it on the handle to the cabinet. "Lunch first. Plans can wait."
"Set. The. Table."
Silently, her son acquiesced to her demand, the poor mismatched dishes bearing the brunt of his misplaced anger.
"The Corelle didn't do anything to you," Sarah hissed in his ear.
He shrugged his apology and placed the next plate down with enough exaggerated gentleness that Sarah wanted to smack his head.
Derek ate three grilled cheese sandwiches to John's two and her one. John kept his head down while he tucked into his lunch while Derek ate mechanically, staring at the top of John's bent head.
"You're glaring," Cameron accused, positioning her body on the chair, protectively inching closer to John.
"She's right," Sarah interjected before Derek could object. "You're glaring."
Derek tore the last part of his sandwich in half. "It's early and I'm just wondering how John's going to spend the rest of his day."
John's head shot up and it was his turn to glare. "I'm researching."
Derek snorted. "Researching?" He made it sound like a curse. "Researching doesn't improve your survival instincts."
"Mom?" John turned to her confused.
"What's your point?" Sarah was pretty sure where Derek was going with this and it wasn't sitting well.
Derek shoved the last piece of his sandwich into his mouth, chewed, swallowed and washed it down with a sip of beer. He used the neck of the bottle as a pointer. "A strong breeze would take John down."
John threw down the remainder of his sandwich, and, to Sarah's surprise, remained silent, allowing his expression to say what he couldn't or wouldn't. The set of his jaw, the rigidity of yet to be broadened shoulders and the morphing of hazel eyes to slate, aged him before Sarah's eyes. This wasn't her John; this was a stranger to her but not to Derek as she observed a flash of recognition flit across Derek's face. And there was fear. And more than a touch of sadness.
It was the slightest of touches from Cameron that broke the spell. John ended up just shaking his head at Derek, excusing himself from the table and disappearing before Sarah had a chance to stop him.
Tin miss stood and watched John, hesitating only a heartbeat before following him.
Sarah turned towards Derek. "What the fuck was that about?"
Derek leaned back, pushing the chair so it balanced only on two legs. "You can't really be that blind, can you?"
"Obviously I need things spelled out." She mimicked his position, rocking back and forth on her chair's back legs. "How about you humor me. Explain, slowly and in great detail. I wouldn't want to miss anything."
"John can load a gun and his computer knowledge is astounding, but that's not going to help him survive in the future. He's soft."
She leaned forward and her chair hit the floor with a resounding bang. "Soft?"
"Yeah, soft. The kid goes to school. Comes home and is sequestered in his damn room until he falls into bed. He needs—"
Sarah laughed. "Go ahead, Reese, feel free to tell me what my son needs."
This time, it was Derek's chair that dropped into place and he leaned forward into Sarah's personal space. "John needs to understand that in four years, water isn't a turn of a faucet away. Milk isn't something that—"
"John does understand that."
"I don't see it."
"What do you see?"
"Sure, honesty is always the best policy."
"John's a whiney, broody, self-centered, lazy kid."
"I think that falls under the fact that he's a teenager."
"No, he's the savior of mankind, he has no time to be a teenager." Derek ran his fingers through his hair. "You're saving him only to send him to his death in the future."
The room was dark and as hot as Hell. John's nose was inches from the monitor and while Cameron glanced up, her son didn't even acknowledge her presence.
"Where do you want the fan?"
He shrugged. Cameron stood, took it from her and placed it on the dresser. She plugged it in, flicked it on and watched the blades move while it turned. "Cool breeze."
"Charley had air conditioning."
Bad thing for John to say following on the heels of Derek's conversation. "Too bad. This isn't Charley's house. Do you want the fan or not?"
Now John glanced up at her, surprised. "Oh."
"It'll cool the room off." Cameron stood in front of the fan, her hair moving in the breeze.
Sarah moved the fan to the other side of the dresser. "Yes, it will, if you stop blocking the flow."
"Thank you for—"
"Explaining that, yeah I know," Sarah answered, walking behind John and peering over his shoulder. "How's it coming?"
"It's not." He slammed down the top of his laptop then tugged at the hairs at the base of his hairline while he hung his head.
"How about taking a break?"
'A break'? Who was his mother kidding? Take a break and do what? Go to the movies? He had enough drama in his own life, thank you very much. The mall? So he could gaze jealously at the things he couldn't get or the friends he didn't have. Don't think he was up for that much torture. Go hang out and bond in the living room with his dear uncle? Not today.
John reopened the laptop and shrugged off the hand resting on the base of his neck. "Stop it."
John endured his mother's kiss to the top of his head with an eye roll which she, thankfully, wasn't privy to because he truly hated the look of surprise she wore when he backed away from her inconsistent mothering.
"If you need me..."
"Yeah." John dismissed her from his room with a wave of his hand. "I know where to find you."
John looked over his shoulder and snorted at Cameron. "Worried? Well, he has a funny way of showing it."
"He doesn't see you as the man you'll become."
"I should hope not. I'm thinking I wasn't really a well-liked guy."
"You have many friends—"
"This is one of those lies, isn't it? The ones you tell me just to stop me from asking too many questions about myself."
"I'd rather not answer that."
"Yeah," John said with a sigh. "I was afraid you'd say that."
"Derek thinks you're weak."
Great. It was one thing to think that's what his uncle was referring to, it was another to hear the thought spoken out loud. "Jeeze, thanks for sharing that."
As always, sarcasm took wings and flew right over Cameron's head. Why did he bother? "Derek can think whatever he wants."
"He thinks you're unable to—"
"Look, I know what he thinks."
"Don't you want to change his mind?"
John gave a huff of exasperation and pushed his bangs off his forehead. "Change his mind how?" He wiggled his thumb at Cameron. "Challenge him to a thumb wrestling match?" Frustrated, he turned his attention back to the monitor. "I can't change his mind. He looks at me and sees..." John so didn't want to bring Kyle into the conversation. "Derek looks at me and doesn't see..."
"Thanks. He doesn't see him and no amount of convincing or posturing or beating the crap out of or shooting the bad guys is going to convince him otherwise."
The touch to his shoulder was lover-gentle. "Don't do that, Cameron." John stood up and strode over to the fan, standing in front of the meager breeze.
"No shit." He hated when she did that. Crossed the line. Confused him. He was confused enough already without adding her to the mix.
"Derek doesn't hate you."
John sighed. "I never thought he did."
"Now it's you who's lying, John Connor."
"I need a break."
John managed two blocks before Cameron appeared by his side. "I know how to find my way home."
"Your mother said that I should tell you 'no one is ever safe'."
"I know that. It's... Never mind." He turned around and started back. "Break's over."
"No." Cameron walked around and put her hand against his chest.
Cameron shook her head, dug into her pocket and pulled out a twenty. "Your mom asked if you could walk to Dunkin' Donuts and pick up some chocolate crème and some—"
John plucked the money from Cameron's outstretched fingers. Leave it to his mother to always find some mission to send him on.
John dropped the bag of donuts on the table. "Donut delivery," he shouted. "You," he said pointing to Cameron, "stay here, I know how to safely get to my room. Honest."
The walk had helped clear his head, and after the heat from outside, his room felt slightly cooler thanks to the fan. He took off his sneakers, socks and padded back to his laptop, hoping this time was the charm.
So engrossed in his search, John jumped when his bedroom door was pushed open hard enough for the doorknob to bang against the opposite wall. "What the hell did you—"
Derek's face was thunderous. "Dinner."
"Sure, fine. Whatever."
Derek walked the door closed and approached John and for an instant in time, the look on the man's face sent a frisson of fear down John's spine. He swallowed and straightened his shoulders. Inches shorter and pounds lighter, he stood up to his uncle. "What's your problem?"
"Your mother won't always be around to fight your battles."
"Where is she?"
"Now? She's in the kitchen waiting for you, but it won't always be so."
"What are you talking about? What do you know that I don't know?" He pushed on Derek's chest, catching the older man unaware, causing him to stumble backward a few feet. "Tell me!"
Derek glanced down then back up at John and applauded. "Well look at that, I didn't think you had it in you."
"I'm going to fuckin' wipe the floors with you one day, Derek Reese." John backed up when Derek reached out to touch his cheek.
"I'm thinkin' you need to wipe your tears and your nose first before you decide to take me down."
Derek came to the table first, sat down and dug into the bowl of spaghetti and meatballs. John followed, subdued, head down and slid into his chair.
"I found the plans." He continued to stare downward at his empty plate.
"I never had any doubt."
His smile was uneasy and set off all of Sarah's alarm bells.
"Do I get a hint?"
John reached over and scooped some spaghetti onto his plate. "There's a series of underground tunnels and from what I can figure, their entrance has been sealed off." For the first time he picked up his head and glared at the person sitting opposite him. Derek. "I would've printed them out—"
"After dinner is fine. Derek can clean up the dinner dishes." Sarah ignored the man's flash of consternation. "And you'll show me what you found."
Dinner was a hastily eaten affair, and once again John disappeared, this time without asking to be excused. Sarah wanted no witnesses when she ripped Derek a new asshole.
"Take this to John," she ordered Cameron, shoving a tray with a donut and a large glass of chocolate milk into her hands. "Tell him I'll be right there. Do me a favor and close his door, the fan will work better if the door is closed."
They cyborg wasn't stupid. "Do you need help?" Her gaze faltered, then settled on Derek's back as he stood by the sink rinsing the dishes.
Sarah shook her head and patted the machine's arm. "I got this one covered."
"You talk a good game, Sarah Connor." Derek turned, rested against the counter and began drying his hands on a dishtowel.
"I don't know how to get you to believe me that John has received—"
Sarah threw up her hands. "You want to take him into the backyard and wrestle with him?"
Derek tossed the dishtowel to the side, grabbed a kitchen chair and straddled it. "I want him to prove to me that he can—"
"Can what? Outrun a terminator? He's done that. Got the tee shirt and the nightmares to prove it."
The top of the chair bore the brunt of his frustration. "Damn it! I want the same thing you do. For John to grow up—"
"For Judgment Day to be nothing but a day on the calendar. No different than any other day. For my son to be safe. To make his own life choices and to live happily ever after. That's what I want. Tell me what you want?"
"For John to be able to stand on his own two feet. Without you. Without me. And without the machine watching his back, because there will come a time when he will be alone. No matter how much you play with time."
Defeated, Sarah dropped into a chair. "John can withstand whatever you throw his way." Sarah shifted her position and brought one leg up to hug her chest, her gaze on Derek, her thoughts a million years past. 'John's his father's son. I made sure of that'.
"I believe you, Sarah. I just need to see it for myself, because if something happened to him, my... I would never forgive myself." He squirmed under Sarah's unblinking stare as if she were able to read his thoughts. 'And Kyle, he'd never forgive me and the SOB would probably haunt me 'til the day I died'.
John turned sideways in his computer chair to face his mother. She sat on the edge of his bed, her fingers nervously smoothing out the plans he'd printed out.
She'd smiled in all the right places when he'd handed them to her. Studied them. Asked all the right questions, but something was off. Wrong.
"What's the matter, Mom?" John fought the urge to stick his fingers in his ears and not hear her answer. "We're moving?"
Her sad smile didn't make John feel any better.
"Charley? Is something the matter with—"
Embarrassment colored her face and she ducked. "Charley's fine."
"You? Are you okay?"
"Are you sick? Mom, are you..."
His mom paled, and for a second, John was positive she was going to say she was dying, but she smiled, broadly. "Not going anywhere. Not for a while."
He exhaled slowly and tried to make himself smile. "Good, I'm going to hold you to that."
Carefully, she slid the plans off her lap and leaned forward, grasping his hands in hers. "Derek has this bug up his ass—"
"Derek always has a bug up his ass."
"True." Her broad smile faltered and slipped away.
"I'm not going to like this, am I?"
"Then again, I might not." John sighed. "What? He wants to take me shooting? Wrestle me to the ground? Beat me to a pulp?" Uh oh. Based on his mother's expression, he wasn't too far off the mark, even though he'd only been kidding. "No. I don't need to prove anything to him."
"I know that," she said softly.
"You told him I would." John jerked his hands from under her grip. "Why?"
"To prove to him that he's wrong."
John studied his mother, shaking his head. "The problem is, you don't believe Derek's wrong, do you?"
"I never said that."
"You didn't have to, you never would've agreed to this if you thought Derek was wrong. I wouldn't have to prove anything."
"It can't hurt."
John snorted. "Easy for you to say."
His mother rolled up the plans, then stood. "Tomorrow morning, Derek's taking you out—"
"Give a whole new meaning to the word 'field trip'," John replied sarcastically.
"Do me a favor," his mom said softly, "prove both me and Derek wrong out there, okay?"
Derek got out of the Jeep and slammed the door, leaving John inside. For a moment John contemplated refusing to get out of the car, but the strength of the sun, even after a minute, began to heat the interior, chasing away the comfortable chill of air conditioning.
He really had no option but to get out and get this over with. Derek was ignoring him; he was standing there looking out over the vista before him. John reluctantly slid out of the Jeep and the morning's heat hit him like a slap in the face.
"There, see that stand of trees?" Derek pointed across the valley, to a hill where there was a gigantic tree, dead, obviously from a lightning blast. "That's where we're heading."
John groaned. "That's at least five miles."
"We're going to walk five miles to get to that tree? It's going to take forever." He eyed the hill they'd need to climb to get there with trepidation.
"No, we're going to run to the tree. You're going to pretend you've got a machine on your tail and you're going to do your damnedest to get there before I do."
John turned to squint at his uncle. "I'm not running."
"You're going to run, because if I catch you before you get to that tree, we're coming right back here and starting over." Derek had a half smile on his face, and John wasn't sure if his uncle was kidding or not. "You've got a ten minute head start. You go... Now."
John stared at Derek, who was staring back.
"Time's a ticking." Derek tapped the face of his watch.
"You want me to run, to those trees over there," John repeated, starting to think that after this morning, his uncle had truly lost it.
"As if your life depended on it." The smile was gone, his uncle had gone serious. Deadly serious.
"Great." Obviously he had no choice in the matter, considering that his mom was backing his uncle in this. The quicker he got this over with, the sooner they'd turn around and go home. "Give me some water."
"No water. You go now. You've got nine and a half minutes."
"Damn you." John turned around and began jogging into the woods. The leaves offered some protection from the sun but the heat was just as stifling. He ran at half speed, warming muscles stiffened from riding in the Jeep for two hours. Within a few minutes the terrain got steeper, and he was heading uphill. He kept to the edge of the mountainside so he could keep his destination in sight. It wasn't like he needed to lose the terminator who was following him; the goal was to get there first.
He followed a small path, probably used by animals, or possibly hikers, which made the run a little easier. He glanced back, spotted the Jeep between some trees as well as his uncle, who was leaning against the car. This was going to be easy.
At first anger fueled him, giving him energy and speed. But ten minutes later, he was starting to get winded. Still he pushed on, not wanting to give his uncle the satisfaction of catching up to him. By the time he passed what he figured to be the halfway point, he slowed almost to a slow jog and then a quick walk, breathing deeply, trying to convince his aching legs that it would be easier going downhill on their way back. He cursed both his uncle and his mom for this. Yeah, a part of him understood why he needed to do this but damn it, at the start of his summer vacation?
He looked for the dead tree, hoping he was closer than he thought he was. He couldn't see it but he knew he was still on the right track. Once he caught his breath, he started jogging again, running when the going was easier, keeping to a speed just short of getting winded again.
"You're a sucker for punishment, aren't you?"
The voice surprised him and he stumbled as he looked over his shoulder. His uncle was right behind him, moving fast.
Frantically John sped up. He caught a glimpse of his goal off to the side as he ran, where the terrain curved. Encouraged by its proximity, he pushed himself, running as if there truly were a terminator at his heels.
Derek was fuming. Either John wasn't taking this seriously, or else his mother had let the boy's training slip in the past two years. She'd gotten soft, thinking they were safe. So much for her motto, the one she kept reminding him of: No one is ever safe.
He put on a burst of speed, intent on showing his nephew he meant business. They were going to run this trail again, this time to the Jeep, and he was going to bust the boy's ass the whole way down. John had sped up, running all out now, the way he should have been in the first place. Derek shouldn't have been able to catch up to him this easily. The kid was sixteen – he should have twice the stamina Derek had, despite his better trained muscles.
John was tiring, even as Derek ignored the pain of pushing his own body to the limit, he closed the gap between them. Another minute and Derek would have him. Trees blurred on his left as he ran, a contrast to the open sky and valley to his right. He was almost there, almost within touching distance when John stumbled. He overcorrected, staggered to the right and to Derek's horror, went over the edge.
"John!" Derek skidded to a stop, praying that John would be able to stop his descent. He watched, helpless, as John slid down the mountain, hands grasping for purchase to slow him down. For a second he thought John would be able to stop, until his foot caught on something and his momentum threw him head over heels. Derek saw the moment John's head slammed into a tree and he continued the tumble, as limp as a rag doll.
Without thinking of his own safety, Derek began running down the mountain. Roots and branches tried to trip him and it was only when he nearly followed his nephew down after a rock gave way beneath his foot that he began to slow down. It wouldn't do him or John any good if he managed to kill himself before he got to him.
John finally came to a stop halfway down the slope. Derek kept looking at John, waiting to see him move, heedless of his footing. But John lay there, not even twitching a finger. It seemed like forever before Derek reached him. With a trembling hand, he placed fingers on his neck, searching out a pulse.
He gasped in relief when he felt the racing pulse. Moving around so he was facing John, he began to take stock of his nephew. At first glance, there was no blood visible on him except for scrapes on his arms and cheek, and a bump on his forehead that was already swelling.
"John? John, can you hear me?" He touched his nephew's cheek, felt hot sweat and grit as he brushed his bangs out of his eyes so he could get a better look at the blow he'd gotten to his forehead.
He ran his fingers along his limbs, searching for broken bones. When he found none, he moved to his chest, felt his ribs, then his abdomen. John didn't move, didn't stir.
"Shit. Shit. Shit." He'd been stupid – so damn stupid. He grabbed a water bottle from the small backpack he was wearing and dribbled water onto his palm, then wet John's face with his hand. "C'mon, kiddo. You're made of harder stuff than this. Wake up, so I can see if you're hurt." He repeated the action twice before John's eyelids twitched.
"Hey," he said softly, tapping John's cheek lightly. "That's it. You awake?"
Derek saw it coming, had seen many head injuries in his time and despite his fear that there could be neck or back injuries, he grabbed John when he surged forward, heaving, and held him as he struggled to prevent him from continuing down the hillside. John's fingers scrabbled against his arms for purchase, tightening his grip as Derek held him. Coughing, gagging, gasping for breath and cursing, John threw up the remains of his breakfast.
John collapsed when he finished, falling into Derek's arms. Eyes tightly scrunched shut, he continued to pant.
"M... Mom?" Eyelids slid open only to slam shut.
"No. No. It's me."
"Derek?" One eye opened just enough to look at him.
"Yeah. That's right. I need you to tell me what hurts."
"What happened?" The other eye opened slowly and John looked around. His eyes were slightly off focus as they came to rest on him.
"You fell. Can you tell me where you hurt?"
"Other than your head—"
"Head. Did we crash?" John's voice faded as his head began to loll.
Reaching for the half-spilled water bottle, Derek dribbled water over John's cheeks. Moaning, John turned his face into the fabric of Derek's tee-shirt.
"C'mon, John. Focus. I know you can move your arms. What about your legs? Can you move your legs for me?"
Slowly, John shifted his legs just enough to satisfy Derek. "Good. Good. What else? Does it hurt here?" He pressed a hand against John's abdomen, feeling muscles contract at his touch. He pressed lightly. "Does it hurt?"
"No. What happened?"
"You fell. Does this hurt?"
"No. My ribs."
"Here?" Derek placed a hand high against John's right side.
He switched to the left side.
Derek pulled John's tee-shirt up. There was definite bruising beginning to show. He pressed against the ribs. John moaned in discomfort, but his reaction was definitely not one of broken bones.
"Head. Where are we? Did we crash? Where's Mom?"
"Your mom's fine. Do you understand? Your mom's fine."
John began to nod, but the movement must have hurt because his breath caught in his throat. "Yeah," he whispered. "I understand. Mom's fine."
"Good. We're going to need to walk back to the Jeep. Do you think you can sit up?"
"Sit?" When John didn't answer, Derek did the work for him, shifting so that John was sitting rather than half-lying. "How's that?"
"I know. Give it a minute. Hopefully it'll pass."
"John, listen to me. We're five miles in the wilderness and there's no way I can call a rescue team, even if I could get cell reception here. We're on our own, just you and me. We're going to have to walk out of here and I know it's going to be damn hard, but..."
"Just give me a minute."
"I can give you ten."
John was quiet for a while, his breathing slowly returning to normal.
"You should drink some water." Derek planted the bottle on John's thigh. "You worked up a pretty good sweat and it's hot."
John's hands were shaking as he picked up the bottle and drank. He coughed and choked on the water and some of it dribbled down his chin. "How'd we get here?" He wiped his mouth with the back of his hand, smearing the dirt from his hand across his chin.
Derek felt guilty as sin as he said, "We ran. Remember what we came here for?"
"I don't remember..." John drank a bit more, then gagged suddenly. His hand came up to cover his mouth and Derek felt his shoulders heave once, twice, and then relax as his stomach settled.
"Yeah." The word came out sort of strangled. "I... Uh..."
"Yeah. You hit your head pretty hard on that tree. I'm sure you dented it."
"My head?" John's hand came up to finger the bump on his forehead.
"No. The tree."
John made a sound that was a half laugh and a half moan. "Mom's gonna kill me."
"Oh no. Your mother's going to kill me."
"I'm the one who fell." John closed his eyes, letting his head fall heavily against Derek's chest.
"And I'm the one who pushed you. My fault. I should have chosen a safer route." He patted John's shoulder. "Come on, your ten minutes are up. We need to get started."
John crawled onto his hands and knees, listing heavily to one side. Derek put his arms under him and got him onto his feet. He held onto him, expecting the sideways stagger with the rough terrain. Without a word he got an arm over his shoulder, turned them so they were facing downhill, and started climbing down.
"How far?" John was squinting, trying to see forward.
"Five miles. But first we gotta get off this mountain. Probably easier to go down than up. Then we'll just follow the valley and it's a gentle climb back up to the—" He hurriedly grabbed at John as he tripped over something, catching him before he did a repeat performance of his tumble. "We'll take it nice and slow."
John's feet slipped out from under him again, rocks and dirt slid from beneath both of them as Derek held on desperately to John and to a tree trunk until he was sure of their footing. "C'mon."
The descent was a nightmare, more tortuous on both of them than the five mile run. When they were on flat ground once more, he led John to a large tree and lowered him to the ground beneath its shade.
"Are we there yet?" John mumbled, sliding across the tree and onto his side.
"Almost there." Derek sat down wearily, shrugged off his backpack and pulled out another bottle of water and an energy bar. "Here." He tore off a piece of granola and nudged John's arm with it. "Eat something."
"Not hungry." John batted Derek's hand away. Derek dodged the slap, and nudged him again. "You need energy, this will help."
"I'm not hungry." John dropped his arm over his head, then yelped when he obviously hit his forehead. "Damn."
"John. I'm serious here. After you eat this, I want you to drink some water."
The watery glare he got was reminiscent of the man John was going to become one day. Iron-willed, resolute, but willing to listen to advice. This was the look he usually portrayed when he knew he was in the wrong. A look that usually offered no invitation for comment from those who followed orders. He took the instant meal, stared at it a moment, and nibbled at a corner of the bar.
Derek devoured the other half. He wasn't hungry; stress and the heat were taking a toll on him but he'd had years to adapt to eating whenever he had the chance, and his body rarely complained.
"Drink." John had eaten half of what he'd given him; that was more than he'd expected the kid to manage to choke down. Still lying on his side, John dropped the power bar and reached for the water.
"What happened up there?" John asked after he'd taken several sips of water and handed the bottle back to Derek.
"You said something about pushing me."
"I meant figuratively. I was right behind you, chasing you. You tried to speed up and you were tired—"
"And so I fell off the mountain?"
"Clumsy. Weak. I'm not your general. Don't know if I ever will be..." His voice faded, and he sighed deeply.
John was right. This wasn't THE John Connor. Not yet. This was John Connor – his nephew. His brother's child. A young man who filled him with pride. Not his brother's killer. His hand tightened on the water bottle, spilling the warm wetness over his fist, startling him. No, this wasn't the John Connor he knew. This was someone who cared. He'd seen how much he cared for the machine. How much he cared for his mother. For Sarah's ex, the one who'd saved his life. Hell, if he even allowed himself a little leeway, he thought that John cared for him, too.
So how could this boy become the man who had sent Kyle to his death? He'd known, all along, hadn't he, that Kyle was his father, or would be his father? He'd known that he'd have to send Kyle back, send him back to the fate that awaited him.
He rubbed the sweat from his face and looked down at his nephew, who was lying there, eyes closed, breathing slowly. This boy knew, even today, of the decision he'd have to make in the future. He grew up, knowing he'd have to kill his own father one day. He could have chosen to stay far away from Kyle, make him a stranger so he wouldn't have to feel much of anything when the time came. Instead, in the future, he chose to befriend Kyle. Kept him by his side. Made him his confidant. Got to know his father before he technically became his father.
"You're not weak," Derek whispered. "But we gotta move," he said loudly. He shook John's shoulder, getting a soft moan in response. "Hey, no sleeping now."
"Derek? What..." John looked around dazedly. "Did we crash?"
"No," Derek said gently. "You had an accident. Fell down the mountain. Remember?"
"Yeah," John muttered. "If you say so."
"Come on." He managed to get John to his feet again, picked up the water bottle and handed it to him. "Drink."
He finished off the water John didn't drink and got an oddly pliant nephew walking in the right direction. He was limping, but moving on his own steam. As Derek took position behind him, he glanced at his watch. It was late, getting close to noon and the temperature was only going to get hotter. At this rate, they'd be at the Jeep in two hours – or maybe two and half, Derek amended as John went down to one knee.
"Yeah." His nephew got up, staggered a step, and kept on moving.
"Next time we go running, I'll choose someplace that's got a bit more traffic than here."
John kept walking.
"That way we could at least have hitched a ride back to the Jeep."
John's silence was making him uncomfortable.
"It was bad planning on my part. I'm sorry. I'm sorry I made you fall—"
John didn't reply. He kept walking, one hand hugging his ribs, the other barely moving to brush branches aside.
"John?" Derek didn't like the silence so he hurried to catch up to him. Face pale and sweating, John's jaw was set. "How are you feeling?"
When he didn't get an answer, he reached for John's arm and tugged. John stopped walking, swayed in place, and turned his body so as not to move his neck or head.
"How are you feeling?"
Pain-riddled eyes looked at him before blinking slowly. "Awful."
"I wish I had some Aspirin or something to give you."
"Me, too." John took a step, then another, moving stiffly until he got the momentum going.
"How're your ribs?" Derek kept pace, walking alongside John while the terrain allowed them to. "John?" He asked the question again when he didn't get an answer.
"Anything else hurt? Other than your head and ribs?" Derek was pretty sure John was covered with bruises under the clothes and the scratches on his arms must sting, but he also figured that at the moment, he probably wasn't feeling much of anything other than the headache thanks to the tree colliding with his forehead.
They walked in silence for the next hour. Derek moved them out of the shelter of the trees and into the valley, the meadow spread out before them making walking a whole lot easier. The downfall was that the sun became more oppressive and both of them were soaked with sweat.
"Okay, let's take a break." Derek pointed to a fallen log right at the edge of the woods. John eased himself down, using a tree for leverage, then leaned his head against the tree. He looked exhausted. Sitting down next to him, Derek took out another bottle of water and handed it to John.
"Not thirsty." John closed his eyes.
"You need to drink."
"I'll throw up if I drink."
Derek reached out and cupped John's nape, feeling sweat-damp hair beneath his fingers. Hazel eyes opened, looking at him in surprise. "You need to drink. I know you're feeling dizzy and sick to your stomach but the heat's going to make it worse."
"I don't... I..."
"Try. Just a swallow."
He took his hand away, and John reached for the water. He took a sip, grimaced, waited a moment, and took another. To Derek's relief, he managed a good third of the bottle before stating he couldn't stomach any more.
"We could stay here, wait until it gets cooler. Might be easier on you."
"How far are we?"
"At least another hour."
John closed his eyes. "I want to keep going."
"Hot walking, hot sitting." John started to stand, ended up on his knees, and it was only with Derek's help that he got to his feet.
"Look, it's probably smarter to stay here."
"Heat too much for you?" John asked sarcastically. He turned, stepped into the meadow, and started walking the way they'd come.
"John, this way." Derek didn't say anything when John stopped, turned around and continued walking past him.
Forty minutes later Derek was sorry he hadn't heeded his instincts and kept John in the shade. After collapsing to his knees and spewing everything he'd eaten, John had only been able to get up with Derek's help. He stopped trying to convince him to come and rest; their goal was now their car. The Jeep, with a first aid kit containing Tylenol, a half case of water bottles but more importantly, blessed air conditioning.
John was walking blindly, tripping over everything that could possibly trip, face smacking more than once into low lying branches. Derek had reached out twice to help him dodge trees that wouldn't move out of John's nearly-staggering stride.
The third time John landed on his knees, he stayed there, head down, braced on his arms – an utter representation of defeat. Derek lost no time in crouching next to him and putting a hand under his arms, raising him up so that he was kneeling. "I know I said earlier we were almost there, but we are. Look, you can see where we parked."
Not waiting to see if John would raise his head, Derek pointed to the raised area they would need to climb to. "I know you're tired. We can stop and rest for a while."
"How long?" John didn't raise his head to look. Derek had a good view of the bruised lump on John's forehead. His face was pale, his hair damp and stringy, his neck and cheeks beaded with sweat.
"Twenty minutes. It's uphill, but the climb's not as rough as what we ran."
"We can rest a while." In answer, John caught Derek's arm for support and got to his feet unsteadily. Derek rose and with his arm around John's waist, they began trudging uphill.
"Wait here." He left John underneath the meagre shade of the one lone, nearby tree and hurried to the Jeep. "It's too damned hot in the Jeep to even think of getting inside."
A blast of overheated air hit him in the face, several degrees hotter than the outside. Reaching into the automotive oven, Derek started the motor, turned the air conditioning to high, and shut the door. As hot as it was outside, it was paradise compared to the interior of the Jeep.
He went to the back, retrieved the first aid kit and a bottle of water that felt nearly hot enough to boil an egg, and put both on the car's hood. He found the Tylenol, pushed three out of the blister pack, and hurried back to John.
"Here, take these."
John, who was leaning half his body against the tree's trunk, opened one eye to stare at the pills.
"Tylenol. They'll help with the headache."
John's fingers groped at the pills. When he put them in his mouth, Derek offered him the water. "Water's warm," he warned. "Just take enough to swallow the pills for now."
He watched John's throat work as he sipped and swallowed, capped the bottle and returned to the first aid kit. He grabbed two sterile wipes and went back to John, tearing one protective envelope as he walked.
"This might sting a little." He began cleaning the cuts and scrapes on John's face and arms, keeping clear of his forehead. John hissed at the first touch, then turned his head to the side, allowing Derek to do what he wanted, moving only when Derek needed access to his wounds.
"Okay, Jeep should be comfy by now." He waited until John moved away from the tree, then hurried to open the Jeep's door. The cold air wafted out, promising relief. John caught the top of the Jeep's hood, slid inside, and carefully laid his head back on the headrest. Without a word, Derek reached for the seatbelt, buckled him in, and shut the car door as softly as he could.
He returned the first aid kit into the back, hurried around and got in. He put the Jeep in gear, turned it around, and headed for home. He ignored the single lone tear sliding down John's cheek.
The moment the car started moving, John felt like throwing up. He closed his eyes, the blur of trees and sky so nauseating to him that he felt like he would slide right off his seat. The cold air helped, though, and he concentrated as much as he could on simply breathing while his stomach cramped and his head pounded.
"You got your phone with you?"
It took John a moment to think where his phone might be. He moved his arm to his pocket, moving slowly due to the stiffness in his elbow. He pulled his phone out and held it mutely to Derek.
"Call your mom."
Derek had a phone, John knew his mom had bought him one the moment his uncle had shown proof that he had some sort of ID. But as John squinted at the blurry screen, he realized he'd never seen Derek use it. He found his mom's number on speed dial and made the call.
A moment later he got the telltale sound one always dreaded to hear. "There's no signal."
"Okay. Try again in ten minutes."
John let the phone fall between his legs and swallowed bile.
"You're going to be okay."
He didn't bother answering; from the way he felt, he was pretty sure he was dying.
"You've obviously got a concussion; but a few days' rest and you'll be good as new."
Derek patted his leg awkwardly. John turned his head slightly and opened his eyes to look at his uncle. His face wavered in and out of focus. What John could see was a grim expression, until Derek turned and met his eyes. Then his expression changed, and he smiled. For a moment, his smile reached his eyes, and then the Jeep hit a rut and bounced.
Pain exploded in John's head and ribs and he cried out despite himself. He felt the Jeep slow as Derek apologized. "Sorry. We've got a bit of rough road for a couple of miles. I'll take it slow."
Even with the Jeep moving at a pace that would make a tortoise proud, the going was tortuous. Between his vertigo and excruciating headache, John lost track of time. It was only when Derek shook his leg again did he focus on his surroundings again.
"Wanna try your mom again?"
John didn't want to open his eyes, and he fiddled with the phone by rote, waiting until the last moment until he had to actually look. As he sat there, phone held to his ear, he realized that the road had evened out at some point and that they were now on asphalt.
John? How'd the training go?"
The moment he heard her voice, he wanted to cry. "Mom?" His voice sounded odd, strangled, almost. He wanted to be there with her. To have her arms around him, tell him he'd be all right, that everything would be okay.
"John? John, what's wrong?"
"Mom, I..." He fought so hard not to cry that he couldn't speak. Derek plucked the phone from his fingers and John turned away, embarrassed.
"Sarah? It's me. We had a bit of an accident—"
John heard his mother's exclamation through the earpiece.
"No, he's not. He hit his head. Got himself a bit of a concussion."
He strained his ears, trying to hear what his mother's words were to that, but she was speaking too low.
"We're on our way home now. Should be there in about two hours. I just wanted to give you a head's up—"
John startled when Derek nudged his arm. He felt like he'd been woken up from a light doze. Derek had the phone in his hand, holding it in front of him. "Your mom wants to talk to you."
He took the phone and brought it back up to his ear. "Mom?" The word came easier this time.
"Hey, sweetie. Derek says you hit your head?"
"I don't remember falling."
"That's okay. That happens often when you get a concussion. How are you feeling?"
"My head hurts," he grumbled.
"Are you feeling dizzy?"
"Sick to your stomach?"
"Sometimes. Mom, do I need to go to the hospital?" Hospitals were a no-go; he knew, even now, that while their IDs were secure, for one thing they had no insurance and for another, the more places they were listed under, the greater the chance for the FBI or Cromartie to find them.
"No, no hospital," Derek blurted while his mom said, "We'll worry about that if the time comes, okay?"
"I'll be okay. Derek said I'll be fine."
"You will. You just rest until he gets you home."
"I'll see you soon."
"Yeah." He couldn't remember how long it had taken them to get here or how far away they were from the house, or how long they'd been travelling. He turned the phone off when he heard the dial tone and held it loosely in his hand.
When he tried to relax, he realized his headache had eased a little, probably due to the Tylenol, although the vertigo and nausea were just as bad.
Derek's grip on his knee tore him from the edge of sleep. He woke up with a startled gasp, and for a second his headache was concentrated in a small section of his forehead before it spread out and tortured the rest of his brain. His nausea grew, threatening to make him sick again.
"How're you doing?"
"How much further?" John wanted to rub the spot Derek had just squeezed. From the residual ache, he was pretty sure it was bruised from the fall.
"Another hour. How's the head?"
He turned his face so the vents blew cold air directly onto his face and breathed until the urge to throw up passed.
"—So I couldn't go home, because I knew my mom was going to kill me."
John turned his head to look at Derek, wondering when he'd started talking.
"So I walked around the mall, over and over again, looking for Kyle, each time getting more and more desperate. I must have been at it a good two hours, until I ran into my father. He didn't say a word, just motioned for me to follow him. I had no idea how he'd found me, had no idea how to tell him I'd lost Kyle. Every time I tried to say something, my dad would tell me to wait. The two blocks to our house felt like a death march. And when we got home, the little shit was sitting on the porch steps, playing with his Legos. He had the nerve to yell at me for getting lost and forcing him to go home and find our dad."
John mumbled something about being glad he didn't have a younger brother, and closed his eyes.
Derek grasped his knee again, painfully shocking him out of a doze.
"How are you doing?" He shook John's leg and John instinctively grabbed Derek's hands and brushed them away.
"Tylenol's helping a little." He rubbed gently at the throbbing muscles around his knee.
"Good. We'll be home in a half hour."
John started to give Derek a smile but stopped the gesture when it hurt his face.
"You holding up okay? Are you cold? Want some water?"
"I'm fine." He settled back into his seat, this time leaving his left hand curled protectively just above his knee.
He came back to awareness at the insistent and tinny sound of Queen's We are the Champions filling the Jeep.
"I think that's your phone." Derek brought his arm over John's chest and pointed downwards. John followed his finger, and saw his cell phone sitting by his feet.
"That's Mom." Moving slowly, he leaned forward. The struggle to reach the phone without actually bending his head was impossible until he nudged the phone closer to his questing fingers with his foot. He caught his prize and connected the call as he brought the phone up to his ear. "Hello?" He leaned back slowly as spots floated before his eyes. Even with his eyes closed, he could see them behind his eyelids.
"Hey. Just wondering how you were doing." His mom's voice was loud in his ear and he adjusted the receiver.
"About the same."
There was an awkward pause and he heard his mom sigh. "Where are you? I was starting to get a little worried ."
"Um..." Reluctantly he opened his eyes a little and peeked out into the sun-shine bright exterior. They were in the city; exactly where, he had no idea. "Mom's wondering where we are."
"Tell her five minutes. We hit some construction on the I20, slowed us down a little."
John swallowed, his mouth pasty with thick saliva. "Derek says... Five minutes."
"I heard. Five minutes. Okay. We'll see you soon ."
"Soon..." The Jeep turned suddenly, and the motion caused a sudden surge of vertigo. With a hand braced on the dashboard and side window, John swallowed a mouthful of saliva. The Jeep turned again then slowed, and sped up again. The movements, with his eyes closed, were disorienting.
"Hey, you okay?"
"How far?" John ground out between clenched teeth.
"We're almost there. You gonna hurl?"
The panting started up, and John couldn't answer. The Jeep stopped and that was the final clincher. He lost the battle with his stomach and brought up a mouthful of hot, burning bile. The invisible spike poking into his head was hammered a quarter inch deeper when he coughed and spat, making those spots he'd been seeing turn into supernovae. Warm fingers touched his cheek a moment before something damp pressed against his lips and chin.
He cleared his throat. "Yeah."
"Good." Something crinkled loudly and through a crack of his eyelids, he saw Derek folding the ends of a plastic bag together. He opened the car door, dropped the bag to the ground and shut the door. "We're two blocks away from the house." He put his hand on the gear shift and John shut his eyes.
He felt the Jeep begin to move. Two blocks. He could do this. Two blocks. He started counting each breath, trying to distract himself.
By the time Derek pulled into the driveway, he'd counted up to sixty.
The door jerked open even before Derek turned the motor off. Immediately the heat jammed that spike even further into his head.
"Charley? You home early?" John turned his head sideways and forced a smile as he tried to unbuckle his seat belt and sit up.
"You could say that." Charley laid his hands over John's, pushed them aside, and unclipped the seatbelt. "How about you stay put for a minute so I can get a look at that bump on your head?"
"Okay." He sat still, letting Charley's finger play around on his forehead, trusting that they'd never actually go and touch the area that hurt so much.
"You got yourself whacked pretty good there."
"Tree. Derek says it's dented."
"Yeah, I'm sure that poor tree's aching just as much as you are right now." Charley's hand moved down to his cheek, warm against his chilled skin. "I need you to open your eyes for a minute. This might be a little uncomfortable.
"Ow!" The light that flashed into his left eye just about hammered the spike all the way to the back of his skull.
"I know. I know. Come on, I gotta do the same on your other eye." He tapped the area just below, near his cheekbone.
John opened his eyes again, not realizing he'd shut them. "Argh!" He grabbed at Charley blindly, trying to pull his hand, and the penlight, away.
"Okay. It's okay. I'm finished. See? I'm putting it away now."
"Mom? Where's Mom?"
"I'm right here, John." Her voice came from where Charley was and he chanced the sunlight again. She was leaning over Charley and she gave him what looked like a very worried smile.
"John. Can you tell me how many fingers I'm holding up?"
Concentrating on Charley's three slightly out of focus fingers held before him, John stuttered out the answer.
"Good." The three digits became one. "Keep your eyes on my finger." John trailed it from left to right, back to left, up, down.
"You're doing great. I guess you're head's killing you and you're feeling kind of dizzy?"
"Yeah. Dizzy. Sick."
"Did he throw up?"
"A couple of times," Derek confirmed.
"That's to be expected with a blow to the head. Did he lose consciousness?"
"Yeah." Derek hadn't yet left the Jeep. "He was out for a couple of minutes. Woke up pretty disoriented."
"John, do you know where you are now?"
"Home. In L.A.," John added.
"Okay. Good. We can go inside now. Do you think you can walk?"
"I can carry you, if you can't walk." Cameron stuck her head into the Jeep, peering over Derek's shoulder.
"I can walk."
"You heard the man. He can walk. Now, get out of my way, little girl." Cameron gave Charley a blank stare, hesitating just long enough to show him that the decision to retreat was hers, and not his.
John's legs, though, had a different opinion. Embarrassed by Charley's quick save when his knees buckled, he realized, as he went past the metal gate and up the three steps leading to the porch, that Charley had anticipated this very thing.
Stepping into the dark interior, John sighed in relief. With Charley holding on to one arm, he held his other arm out, using the wall both for guidance and support.
"This way." His mom brushed past them, rounded the corner, and hurried into his bedroom. By the time he and Charley got there, his mom had half-straightened his sheet and was waiting for them.
"Do you have any ice?" Charley asked as he helped lower John to the edge of the bed. His mom nodded. "Crush it and put it in a towel."
"You. Scary robot. Get me John's pajamas." Charley grabbed John's shoulder before he could lie down. "Just another minute, okay? Let's get your clothes off."
"I can do it—" Again Charley was there to catch him when John bent over to untie his sneakers. With the room spinning, it was all he could do to not topple off the bed while Charley and Derek took his clothes off.
"Wow, you're going to have some interesting shades for a few days." John managed a quick peek at his torso; his ribs were already a nice shade of bruising, as were a few spots on his legs and arms. "Does this hurt?"
John jumped when Charley pressed lightly against his ribs.
"I don't think he's got anything broken."
"No, you're right. Just bruised." Charley crouched, slipped his pajama pants up past his feet and his hips as John leaned forward off the bed. "Your friend did a pretty good job at cleaning out your scrapes; I don't think we need to put any bandages on them." A clean tee shirt replaced the dirt-stained one he'd been wearing. "Okay. Let's get you horizontal."
John wanted to moan in relief as he stretched out in his bed. Derek pulled the sheet up, patting it gently against his chest.
"Did you give him any medication?"
"Okay. Good. How long ago?"
"Couple of hours, just before we left."
"Get me some water?" Charley asked softly as he sat down next to John on the bed. "Get my bag. It's in the living room," he ordered Cameron.
"I know." Cameron left the room, passing his mom in the doorway. Charley took the towel she handed to him. "John, I'm going to put this against your forehead. The pressure may hurt a little so..."
John jumped at the combination of cold against his forehead and the pain it caused him. But after a moment the pain eased and the chill actually felt good.
"How is he?"
"Well, he's got bumps, bruises, cuts and scrapes. He's also got a Grade Two concussion and while I'd normally insist he be brought to Emergency for observation—"
"No hospitals. We already discussed this."
"I know, Sarah." He took the bag from Cameron and rifled through it. John watched, feeling like he was viewing a movie playing, and that he wasn't really in the room. "He's photosensitive; dizzy and nauseated as well as a killer headache.
"John, I'm going to give you some Compazine for the nausea. It may make you a little sleepy, and that's all right. You won't be hurting so much if you're sleeping." Charley took the ice-filled towel and put it to one side and motioned for John to raise his head. "Here, swallow these." He held out two pills and John took them blindly, and put them in his mouth. Charley took the water from Derek and held the glass up to his lips. "Just a sip, to get the pills down. When your stomach's a little more settled, we'll see about getting water and maybe some broth into you."
"Should we wake him up every couple of hours?" Derek asked as Charley helped John back down onto the pillow.
"You've seen head injuries before?" Charley resettled the ice pack once more on John's forehead and John reached up to hold it in place.
"Yeah. Make sure his condition hasn't deteriorated?"
"If it has..." He turned to his mom. "Then you're to take him straight to the hospital. No argument."
"No argument," his mom whispered.
"For the headache, the Tylenol will do. Let him sleep for an hour or two, then get some water and broth into him with more Tylenol." He put a hand on John's leg. "How about it? Think you can sleep?"
It took a lot of concentration for him to follow the conversation and it was a relief to be able to say yes. He closed his eyes, only to open them again when Charley patted his shoulder, and again when his mom kissed his cheek.
"Leave the ice for another ten minutes, then reapply in a couple more hours," was the last thing he heard Charley say as he drifted off.
"What the hell happened?" Sarah hissed the moment they stepped out of John's room and she was sure that the closed bedroom door would separate her anger from her sleeping son. "You were taking him out for training, not put him through a war!"
"I know. I'm sorry. We were running near the edge of a cliff and he lost his footing—"
"Running near the edge of a cliff? Now what reason would you have for running near a dangerous area to begin with?"
"It wasn't dangerous. There was plenty of space—"
"My son's lying in that room with a concussion. Don't tell me it wasn't dangerous."
"Sarah." She shrugged off Charley's arm as she continued glaring at Derek.
"Look. It was a bad judgment call on my part, but at least he wasn't seriously hurt."
"Seriously hurt? We don't know that—"
"Sarah." This time Charley shoved his way between her and Derek. "John's sleeping. I think you both can take this somewhere else, right?"
She ran her fingers through her hair and nodded. "You're right. I'm going to go sit with him—"
"He's going to be fine. Probably have a headache for a few days. Oh, and it looks like he may have some bruising." Charley pointed to his eyes. "It probably looks worse than it is. If you want, I'll come back and check on him when I finish my shift tomorrow."
She stared into Charley's eyes, ignoring Derek as he walked towards the kitchen. Everything she'd given up eight years ago, it was all reflected in Charley's eyes. "I... I'd like." For John, she told herself. He's only coming back for John's welfare.
"I'll see you tomorrow." Charley gave her a sad smile and left her. She stood there, a hand on John's doorknob, waiting until she heard the front door close before going back to sit with her son.
"John? Wake up, John."
Bruised and puffy eyelids blinked slowly as John's eyes trailed across the room, searching for Sarah.
"Hey," she said when his sleepy gaze found hers.
"Yeah. How are you feeling?"
"Terrible." He rolled onto his back, his hand coming up towards his face.
"Don't touch." She caught his hand before he could finger the lump on his forehead. "Do you know what day this is?"
John made a half-hearted attempt to roll his eyes at her. "Yeah. The beginning of summer vacation. I'm off to a great start, huh?" he mumbled sleepily.
"Well, you do have the rest of the summer to enjoy." She pushed back his bangs from his face, being careful to steer clear of his injury. "Wanna tell me what happened out there?"
"Derek said I fell."
"Yeah, I know that. Do you remember how it happened?"
He shifted slightly, eyes closed. "Running. And it was hot. So hot. Derek was right behind me. He said I wasn't fast enough..." His voice drifted.
His eyelids flickered open.
"What happened? You were running?" she prodded.
"Derek said I wasn't fast enough," John repeated, closing his eyes again.
Sarah stiffened, a horrible thought coming to mind. "Did Derek push you?"
"What?" John seemed to wake up; his eyes popped open as he stared at her in horror. "No. He didn't touch me. Not while running. Told me I wasn't fast enough."
"Yes." John sat up, struggling to untangle himself from the sheet. "Mom, Derek didn't touch me. He helped me. It was so hot. Derek helped. I swear. Gave me water. Drove us home. I puked."
She gave him a relieved smile and picked up the glass of water she'd brought with her. "Charley said you should drink something. I've got Tylenol."
John took the pills from her. As he drank, Sarah looked at him carefully. Despite the black eyes and the bruise on his forehead, he looked a little less dazed. "Derek made some soup."
A small quirk raised the corner of his lips. "Derek? I guess you figure I'm sick enough and won't survive your cooking?"
"Oh, look at the funny man." She grinned, took the empty glass and traded it with a cup of lukewarm soup. John sniffed at it, gave the broth a tentative taste, and began drinking. She had to admit it did smell good. Derek surprised her at times.
"You want more?" she asked when John tipped the cup, trying to get every drop out of it.
"There's more?" He handed the mug back enthusiastically.
"I'll be right back." She stood and went to leave, but stopped when John pushed back the sheet.
"I gotta go pee."
She was ready to help him but he got to his feet without wavering. He was still walking with his head held stiffly, his arm wrapped around his ribcage, but didn't look like he was going to fall flat on his face at any moment. She followed him until he turned towards the bathroom, then headed for the kitchen. She barely had time to ladle out another cupful of soup when John yelled.
Ten seconds later, Sarah, Derek and Cameron barged into the bathroom. John was standing in front of the mirror, leaning against the sink, staring at himself. He caught her gaze through the mirror.
"What happened to me?" He touched the bruising around his eyes.
"Just a little souvenir from the bump on your head." Derek brushed past Sarah to get a closer look as he peered over John's shoulder. "Does it hurt?"
"No, not really, but it's hard to tell."
"Get some more ice," Sarah ordered Cameron. "Charley said the bruising was normal."
John's eyes met hers again. "Okay." He turned around and leaned against the sink. "Um, if you guys don't mind."
"Oh. Right." Derek clapped John on the shoulder and left the bathroom on Cameron's heels.
"I'll get your soup."
Sarah was waiting for John in his bedroom when he came back. She sat down next to him, handed him the soup and watched him drink it. Cameron showed up a moment later, ice-filled towel in hand. Her hands were covered with icy particles. That, combined with the lack of hammering sounds, indicated she'd crushed the ice cubes with her fists.
She took the ice from Cameron and exchanged it with John's empty cup when he finished. John lay down slowly, eyes closed, with the towel pressed against his forehead.
"Headache any better?"
"Not really. But I'm not as dizzy and sick as before." He opened his eyes to look at her.
"That's a good sign." She gave him a smile, and felt a measure of relief when he smiled back.
"Are you still mad at Derek?"
She pursed her lips, contemplating lying to her son. "Yeah. I'm still a little bit angry at him."
"I remember that he was scared. Really scared. In the Jeep, he kept checking on me."
"He'd better be. He brought my son home with a busted head."
John shifted on the bed. "He was scared. Worried. I don't remember the fall. Everything else is blurry... but I remember Derek's voice. He helped me. Made sure... I was okay. Told me to call you. That was his idea."
"Well, for that alone, I won't shoot him."
"Are you mad at me?"
"Why would I be?"
"Because I came home with a busted head."
"No. No, I'm not mad." She leaned over and kissed the tip of his nose. "It was an accident."
"So you're not mad at Derek, either, right? Because it was an accident?"
"I'm not mad at Derek," she answered with a put upon long-suffering manner. "You're right. It was an accident. Now, why don't you close your eyes and see if you can sleep a little more?"
"What time is it?"
"Just after six."
"I should get up—"
"You should stay in bed."
"But it's not even night."
"It will be in a few hours. Do you think you can go back to sleep?"
"I'm not really sleepy. My head's throbbing too much."
Sarah didn't say anything about how John had just had no trouble sleeping with a throbbing head a couple of hours earlier. "Can I get you something? Books? Magazines? Your laptop?"
"I don't think I can concentrate enough to read or work on the computer."
"Of course." She figured he wouldn't be up to either but she'd hoped she was wrong, which was why she'd asked. "Do you want me to read to you?"
"Mo-om." John rolled his eyes at her. "I'm not a kid."
"I know that," she added with a knowing grin, "but you loved it when you were a kid and couldn't get me to do it often enough. Anyways, I just thought, if you couldn't read, I could, you know, to help pass the time. If you wanted me to."
"So, do you have any books lying around that you'd like to finish?" Sarah stood and started to rummage through the handful of second-hand paperbacks that lined his rickety bookshelf.
"Mom, it's okay, you don't have to—" John had rolled himself onto his side and had one arm out, almost supplicating her to stop. And stop she did when the second and third books of the little pile had pictures of scantily-clad women in very suggestive poses.
She flipped through the dog-eared novels, noting many of corners of the pages were folded over. She stopped to skim through one or two of these pages, and if she hadn't actually been crouching in front of her son, she might have sat down, made herself more comfortable, and read through some of the smut, just for entertainment purposes. As it was, trying not to laugh at John's mortified expression, she flipped the two books to the bottom of the pile and continued perusing the choice of her son's literature. There was nothing that interested her and nothing that would lull John to sleep.
"I, Uh..." John was lying on his back, staring at the ceiling when Sarah straightened, empty handed.
"I think I have just the thing. I'll be right back." She headed for her own room and the stack of novels she'd purchased shortly after they'd found this house. She told herself it was more for curiosity's sake than sentiment, despite the fact that Charley had owned the first three of these novels that were geared specifically for children. She grabbed the first of the series and hurried back to John's room.
"Mom, Harry Potter? That's for kids," John exclaimed with a groan when he caught sight of the cover.
"Exactly," Sarah replied with a smirk as she settled next to him on the bed.
"He still sleeping?" Derek paused, coffee cup halfway to his mouth, and watched as Sarah walked to the fridge and opened the door.
"He's still sleeping." She looked tired as she poured herself an orange juice and swallowed a handful of the vitamin pills she'd been popping every day. Derek suspected she hadn't gotten much sleep last night.
"How was he? When you woke him up during the night?" he continued when Sarah glanced over at him as she chugged down the last of her juice.
She licked her lips. "He was in pain the two times I woke him, but he was pretty lucid. He had trouble falling asleep each time but once he was out, he was dead to the world until I woke him up again."
"So, bland breakfast sound okay when he wakes up? Oatmeal? Hard boiled egg? Toast?"
"Don't worry about it." Sarah rinsed the glass and placed it in the sink. "I'll take care of breakfast."
"You have to go to work today—"
"I'm not going."
"I'm not going. I'll call in sick or something."
"You just started the job—"
"So? I'll call in sick or tell them my son's sick—"
"You can't afford to lose this job. It's the only lead we've got towards finding the Turk and Sarkissian."
"I don't ca—"
"Derek's right." The piece of walking and talking tin can didn't even glance at them as she strutted through the kitchen on her way to god knew where. "We can't lose this chance to find out who Sarkissian sold the Turk to."
"I'm just missing one day. It's no big deal."
"It is a big deal." Derek raised his voice in anger. How could Sarah even consider sabotaging all the hard work they'd done over the past months? "We can't do anything that could jeopardize you losing your job. You're in the best position to overhear something at the diner—"
"I'm not leaving John alone."
"He won't be alone—"
"I'll be here," the machine said, talking over Derek as she stopped her strut and turned to stare blankly at Sarah. "John's vitals are strong and there's no sign of cerebral edema."
"You're sure?" Sarah's voice sounded almost frantic.
"You just said he was doing good last night." Derek knew he sounded sarcastic but the metal bitch always brought out the worst in him. "We'll be fine." He forced himself to smile at the robot. "And if John needs you, we'll call you."
"We'll call you," the robot parroted when Sarah looked like she was starting to relent.
The headache wasn't so bad if he didn't move. Which would be okay, if he didn't have the most god-awful urge to pee. John knew there was no way he could stay in bed any longer so he pushed back the sheet and sat up.
Or rather, he'd planned on sitting up, except his abdomen seemed to have other thoughts.
"Mom?" He glanced around his bedroom, expecting to see her sitting either at the foot of his bed or in the chair next to it, like she'd done during the night. But no, he was alone.
Okay, so sitting up was out of the question. There were other ways of getting out of bed. He moved slowly, partly because of his headache and partly because every inch of his body that he concentrated on was either stiff or aching. Once on his side, he slid his legs out from under the sheet and aimed for the floor. Pushing up in tandem with his arms, he managed to half slide, half roll out of bed.
He padded to the bedroom door and found that prodding the sore spot on his ribs only made it more sore.
"Hey, you okay?" Derek asked from the living room.
"Yeah. Just going to the bathroom." John shut the bathroom door as quickly as possible and hurried to the toilet.
"Are you hungry? I can fry you some eggs," Derek called through the door.
John steadied himself with one hand against the wall and began to pee. "That's okay," he called over his shoulder, shuddering at the thought of eating something fried. "I'm not that hungry."
"Eggos? Cereal? Toast?"
"Toast," John decided, the easiest on his stomach.
"Toast it is." He heard Derek walk away as he finished up. He stared at himself in the mirror; the lump on his head had gotten smaller but the whole area was bruised, as was the area around his eyes. He stared at himself for a long moment, thankful he didn't have to go to school. By the time he'd washed up, brushed his teeth and splashed water on his face, Derek was calling him to come and eat.
There was an assortment of peanut butter and jams on the table before his plate containing two small pieces of toast, as well as the bottle of Tylenol and a glass of water. He sat down slowly, wincing as different body parts woke up as he used each muscle group.
As he reached for the Tylenol, he asked Derek, "Where's Mom?"
"She went to work." Leaning against the counter, Derek watched him.
John glanced at the clock, he hadn't realized it was so late.
"How's the head?"
John shook two pills into his palm, eyed them a moment before adding a third and then tipped them into his mouth and drank half the glass of water before answering. "Hurts."
"Sore." He reached for the butter and began to spread it over his toast. "Where's Cameron?"
"I'm not sure. Your mother sent her out to do something or other. It's just you and me."
John grabbed the peanut butter jar and dug out a large dollop on his knife.
"Look." Derek, normally a man of minimal movement, squirmed in place. "About yesterday. How much do you remember?"
"Is there coffee?" John wondered if he ignored Derek, whether he'd change the subject.
Derek got a cup and poured coffee into it. "Do you remember the fall?"
"Would you mind getting me some cream? It's going to take me forever to get up out of this chair and get to the fridge." He finished spreading the peanut butter, licked the knife and set it down next to his plate.
Derek placed the cup next to John's plate and walked over to the fridge. "Do you remember what led to you falling?"
John acknowledged that Derek wasn't going to let this go. "I went over this with Mom earlier."
"But not with me."
He bit into his toast, chewing slowly as Derek brought him the cream. He swallowed, put cream in his coffee, and took a sip. "I don't remember falling, But I remember other things. Kinda. Sorta," he finally said, wishing he didn't. The shame he'd felt at Derek's words as he was catching up to him, that he remembered, and it hurt; he'd been embarrassed and shown up, and the worst thing was, Derek had been right in the first place. It was hard, very hard, but he turned to look at Derek. To his surprise, his uncle appeared uncomfortable.
"I want to apologize. There was no reason for me to be that rough on you. If I hadn't been so bent in trying to make you into someone you're not, then—"
"There's no need for this. I'm not angry." Now it was John's turn to feel uncomfortable. He bit into his toast for something to do and this time, the cloying feel of the peanut butter made him nauseous. He swallowed as fast as he could and rinsed the taste out of his mouth with the coffee.
"You've every right to be angry."
"And you had every right to do what you did. Look, it's over. Let's move on." He tossed the barely-eaten piece of his toast on top of the untouched one and wiped his fingers on his pajama bottoms. The upset stomach was making him dizzy and his head hurt more.
"I'm not hungry. I'm going back to bed." As he slowly stood, his headache rose in intensity as well.
"John. I'm sorry."
"So am I." He knew he'd just hurt Derek but at the moment, he didn't want to deal with anything other than getting rid of his headache.
Part of the reason John left the kitchen was so he could be alone with his misery; what he hadn't expected was for Derek to follow him to his bedroom. "I don't need to be tucked in." He sat on the edge of the bed, undecided if he wanted to lie down and sleep or just lie down and rest. Or just sleep sitting up.
"Believe me, that wasn't my intention." Derek glanced around the room, then back at John, as if he were waiting for something.
John stared back.
"Aren't you getting into bed?"
"I thought you weren't tucking me in."
"I'm not. I just want to make sure you're all right."
"Yeah, right," John mumbled, just loud enough that Derek could hear as he slowly shoved his pillows up against the headboard and half-sat, half-lay against them.
"Well, if something happens to you while your mom's out working, we both know she'll skin me alive." Derek seemed to relax now that John was in bed. He picked up the Harry Potter book his mom had been reading and checked out the back cover. "This any good?"
John shrugged. "Mom was reading it last night."
"Really?" He held it out. "You want it?"
"No." Reading was the last thing he wanted. Making conversation was right up there also.
"Can I borrow it?"
John hoped he kept the surprise from his face. "Sure."
"Thanks. Want anything? Magazines? Laptop? Want me to bring the small television into your room?"
John was tempted by the last one, and obviously it showed somewhere on his face because Derek pointed a finger at him and said, "Give me two minutes."
True to his word, two minutes later, the portable television was resting precariously on a table next to his bed, the remote was in his hand, the DVD player was on his nightstand and he had a stack of movies which Derek had magically procured from somewhere. John picked up one movie and the cover gave no information. Confused, he waved it towards Derek.
"Rentals. Figured you might want some entertainment. Wasn't too sure what you liked so I got a bunch of different ones."
"You went to a video rental place and got me movies?"
Derek shrugged. "Yeah. Let me know if there are any particular ones you'd like to see and I'll go back and get them."
"Yeah. Thanks." Surprised, John began rifling through the dozen movies. Most of these he'd heard of through the grapevine at school. He picked one at random, stuck it into the player and sat back to watch, and never made it past the credits.
Twenty minutes into the movie, Derek retrieved the remote and turned it off, holding his breath, waiting for John to wake up, but there wasn't even a hitch in his breathing. Derek appraised his nephew as he silently paced from one side of the bed to the other.
Even in sleep, the bruises made John appear older than sixteen. Based on the lines of pain etched in both his forehead and the corners of his mouth, the Tylenol had probably accomplished diddly squat.
John made a futile attempt to turn sideways, and a mewl of pain escaped his lips before his arm cushioned his ribs. Like a drunken man, John sat up, his head bobbing, and with eyes closed, he pushed his bangs off his forehead with one hand and with the other pushed the pile of pillows down.
"Whoa, easy, guy." Derek rushed to his side, adjusted the pillows, fluffed them and guided John back down.
His eyelids fluttered, then opened, his gaze unchecked and unsure. "Where's Mom?"
"Oh." John's hand lethargically, and with extremely poor coordination, pulled weakly at the neck of his tee shirt. "Hot."
"I know," Derek agreed sympathetically. "Want something to drink?"
"No." John paused, his eyes slowly closing. "No, thank you," he amended.
Derek moved the fan, balancing the base on the seat of John's computer chair. He plugged it in and moved it as close to the head of the bed as the cord allowed. At the lowest setting, the breeze was gentle, but hopefully just enough to take the edge off.
The fact that John inched forward on the bed, closer to the fan was answer enough to the question Derek didn't have to ask. With deft, light fingers accustomed to wiring bombs and breaking into locked buildings, Derek folded down the sheet John had pulled up to his chin.
Blindly and obviously still fast asleep, John reached out, searching for the sheet. Derek stepped back, watching as his nephew latched onto the corner and pulled it right back where it had been. Derek smiled and shook his head. "Stubborn kid, just like your old man." Derek set the fan on a higher setting. "Let's try it your way."
Derek sat down to watch TV. Got up. Paced. Changed the channel. Checked on John. Adjusted the fan. Watched him breathe for a few minutes. Then went back to watch TV again, cycling through the whole song and dance at least three more times before he gave up and turned off the television. Derek abhorred inactivity. Which must have been the reason he found himself cleaning the kitchen, putting away the remains of John's breakfast, smiling at the memories of being on kitchen duty while he was growing up.
Something rang - an unfamiliar sound. Derek closed the fridge door, cocked his head and listened. A cell phone. Not John's. John's phone had music. Very loud music. This was... His phone. Shit. Wiping his hands on his pants, Derek ran into the living room, threw the cushions off the couch, and opened the phone seconds before the call went to his non-existent voice mail.
"Sleeping. He ate something. Managed some Tylenol. Managed two minutes worth of movie—"
Sarah's laughter was soft, barely discernible over the cell. "Busy day."
"He's fine." There was only silence in response to Derek's statement. "John's a pretty damn amazing kid."
"Yeah, he is," she answered sadly. "Too bad I didn't remember that yesterday."
Okay, if Derek didn't feel like a shit before, he certainly felt like one now. "I screwed up."
"We'll discuss how to split the guilt when I get home."
John turned his face into the cool breeze of the Nebraska night. He'd forgotten how cool the evening got, and his mom was going to be pissed that he hadn't brought his hoody, especially after just getting over being sick. The headache was still there and he brought his hand up to massage his temples...
But sleep-heavy limbs missed the mark and made contact with his forehead and for a second, the world exploded in an off the scale flash of pain, so intense that his arms jerked outward, knocking over the fan.
He curled into a fetal position, knees up to his chest, arms over his head, riding through the worst of the pain.
"What the hell?"
Derek's voice cut through his confusion and slowly, and very carefully, John unwound himself and lowered his arms. "What happened?"
"I think..." Derek bent down and disappeared from John's field of vision. He stood, holding a bent, squeaking, but still turning fan. "The fan's probably seen better days."
"Sorta like me," John groaned, pushing himself into a sitting position.
Derek turned the damaged fan off, pulled out the plug and stuck it in the corner. "How do you—"
"Fine." John pushed himself to a standing position and angrily pushed away Derek's offer of assistance. "Got this," he chimed in shuffling steps away from his uncle.
Derek stepped back, hands raised in surrender. "Okay."
He got as far as the door. "Where's my mother?" he asked without turning around. He didn't need her holding his hand, he just, well, needed her near.
"Your mom's at work."
"Oh." One hand on the doorframe, John used it as a counter balance so he could turn without falling flat on his face. "You told me that already, didn't you?"
Derek gave a stiff nod.
John forced a half smile. "Think I'm going to be a sandwich short of a picnic for a while, huh?"
"No different than usual."
"Funny." This time John managed to connect with his temple and his fingers rubbed a slow circular motion. He must have stood there too long for Derek's comfort.
"Maybe you should get back into bed."
John didn't dare shake his head. "No. Maybe a shower..."
"I was thinking more like a handful of Tylenol. A glass of iced tea. And the living room, which I have on good authority, has a fan that's still alive and functioning."
"Stop hovering." The fact that Derek was sucking in all the breathable air in John's corner of the couch wasn't helping how he was feeling. Headachy, hot and all around pissy with a touch of nervousness.
Derek sat back with a sigh. "I am, aren't I?"
John used his bare toes to point to the iced tea, the bottle of Tylenol, the uneaten pieces of toast, the bottle of water, the handful of Saltines and the stack of DVDs. "Ya think?"
Thankfully, Derek moved down a cushion. "Better?"
"Better would be just sitting here. Actually me here. You there." John pointed to the farthest end of the couch.
Derek raised his hands. "I can do that." He moved to the opposite end of the couch. "See? Already done. Now what?"
"Stay there." John wrapped an arm around his midsection. "Right there," he ordered as Derek's glance strayed to where he was hugging himself. "I'm medicated. Watered..."
"You didn't eat."
"I'm. Not. Hungry," he growled, annoyed. Hands down he'd take the Derek of only less than two days ago rather than this guilt-ridden man.
"Fine," Derek answered, sounding more like a disgruntled teenager than John's elder.
John ground his elbow into the arm of the sofa and gently placed his chin in his cupped palm. With his arm providing counterpoint to the throb of his ribs and his head supported, John figured he had a good ten minutes before his body would demand a change of position.
Between the heat, the headache, the nausea and Derek's sidelong distracting glances, John found it impossible to concentrate on the DVD. He'd lost the storyline somewhere, and if he were really truthful with himself, he'd admit that his ability to focus was shot. Literally, he had to bite his tongue to ask Derek for the third time where his mother was.
The doorbell rang and a gentle restraining hand pressed against the arm John still had around his midsection. "Don't move."
Stiff, sore muscles had melted heavily into the cushions, so the 'don't move' order was a hell of a lot easier to follow than if Derek had yelled "run."
"You've got company." John glanced up and offered Charley a full blown smile, which fell from his face at the sight of the gun Derek still held in his hand. "You can put your toy away."
Derek tucked it into the back of his pants but to John's annoyance, still shadowed Charley.
Charley smiled at the litter on the coffee table and just put his carryall on the floor by his feet.
John lost the battle to smother his grin. Charley's ability to ignore Derek was definitely worth a chuckle or two. Payback for smothering John with nauseating kindness, though the look Derek tossed John's way from over Charley's shoulder forced him to quickly swallow the chuckle.
"House call?" he managed to choke out, ducking his head.
"Oh, that's what they call it nowadays?" Derek moved in front of Charley.
Shocked at Derek's rudeness, John's head shot up, the action sending shards of pain though his head. "Rude much?" John hissed at Derek through clamped teeth. "Charley saved your life—"
"It's okay, Johnnie," Charley placated, but not before his gaze bore a hole into Derek's tough exterior. "I came to see how you were feeling."
Both Derek and Charley drew John's attention by snorting. Loudly.
Charley pulled the ottoman over in front of John. "You're fine?" Charley asked incredulously as he straddled the ottoman and sat.
John would've nodded if he didn't think it would hurt so much so he answered with a one shouldered shrug.
"He's not fine. He..." Derek answered smugly.
John's glare at Derek fell short.
"He's got a headache that's off the scale. Watching TV is a chore. Concentrating is next to impossible. He forget things. He's tired but can't really sleep. He's—"
"Hello. He'sright here."
"Yeah, he is," Charley agreed with a gentle squeeze to John's kneecap. "Now, is he going to be honest?"
"You forgot nauseated," John admitted sheepishly.
"You're jumping the gun. Didn't get to that yet."
John rubbed his stomach. "I did."
Derek was banished from the living room while Charley performed an assessment. So now, he hovered at a safe distance. Stealthily inching closer... Two steps forward then one step backward when John glared at him.
There wasn't any surprise in either the questions Charley asked or the rote, monotone way John answered them. The surprise was how John averted his face when Charley cautiously lifted his tee shirt.
Holy shit. The bruising had spread and the colors were damn impressive.
"Jesus, John," Derek couldn't help but comment with a whistle, "It friggin' looks like a box of crayola crayons threw up on your chest."
Quickly, John tossed a scathing, narrowed eyed glance at him which was interrupted with a loud "Ow" as Charley began to palpate the exposed area.
It looked tender. Hell, it looked more than tender, it looked downright painful. Very painful and from the set of John's jaw, and the way his eyes were focused on something, anything but Charley's poking and prodding, led Derek to believe the bruising was just as painful as it looked.
John hissed and tried to move away from Charley's inquisitive touch, but there was nowhere to go to or nothing to hide behind.
"Yeah, that's what I thought," Charley answered with a head shake.
"Are you sure nothing's broken?" Derek couldn't believe something could look that bad and not be busted.
John tugged his shirt from Charley's grasp and pulled it down. "I don't need an audience, Derek."
"Nothing's broken, though I'm sure it hurts like a sonofabitch, doesn't it, Johnnie?"
'Compared to what'? John wanted to ask. The pain in his head, the inability to focus or his loss of short term memory was freaking him out more than the rainbow of colors spreading across his chest. Bruises faded. Memories lost had a tendency to remain that way.
"Hey." Charley brought him back to the here and now with a light tap on his arm.
"Sorry." John hated the fact that Charley was gazing expectantly at him as if he were waiting for an answer to a question. "Did you ask me something?"
"Yeah, he wanted to know—" Derek helpfully supplied.
Charley raised his hand, stopping Derek mid-sentence. "I wanted to know if you were hungry."
Just the mention of the word made him want to barf. "God, no," he groaned, wrapping a hand protectively around his midsection.
"You? Not hungry? I can't believe that."
John felt uncomfortable under Charley's fake enthusiasm. Uncomfortable and more than a bit put out by the false smile on his face. "Not hungry," John repeated, forcing a bit more authority into his voice.
"I tried," Derek said, pointing at the stuff he'd moved aside to make room on the coffee table.
"Not hungry," John reiterated for what seemed like the millionth time.
"Really?" Charley appeared hurt. "Not even one of my omelettes?"
Hesitation. Oh. Omelettes sounded good. Charley's omelettes sounded great, much better than the crap Derek had tried to force on him. Much better than his mother's pancakes. Until he thought of the greasy bacon, and the peppers and the—he closed his eyes and swallowed. "Not hungry."
"Do you do hash browns with those omelettes?" Derek asked and John forced himself not to listen to the drool at his uncle's question.
"He does," John answered, forcefully swallowing a mouthful of bile.
"Best you'll ever taste," Charley answered with more than a hint of pride. "Onions and shallots shredded into the potatoes. The secret is in the length of time you brown the potatoes. They have to soak up the butter."
"I'm not," John hissed, waving his right arm lethargically around the room. "Could you guys take your Rachel Ray moments into another room?"
"Who the hell is Rachel Ray?"
"Cameron's newest heroine." John opened one eye and nailed Derek with a single ocular accusatory stare. "Speaking of Cameron, where is she?"
Derek shrugged. "Out. Your mom's doing."
John dragged his thought process through the muckiness of his brain, trying to figure out how truthful Derek was being and surprisingly couldn't come up with a reason not to believe him. "Okay." Slowly he moved his head from Derek to Charley. "You're staring. Both of you."
"Sorry," Derek apologized. "I was thinking omelettes. With hash—"
John picked up his hand and clamped it across his mouth, the effort of breathing through his rebellious stomach kicking his headache all the way up the ladder.
"Open your eyes for me, John."
And he did. Because the request came from Charley and he let the man gently guide his hand away from his mouth and turn it over, palm side up. "Try these. May not take away the monster-sized headache, but it'll do a number on your stomach."
The two pills were nauseating pink, but John took them because he trusted no one in this world as much as he trusted Charley. He waved away the offered bottle of water and dry swallowed them instead. He stuck out his tongue when finished to show Charley they were all gone.
John and Derek were sitting at the kitchen table, Derek was slicing onions and crying, red rimmed and sniffing, grumbling under his breath. Charley was busy frying bacon and glanced over his shoulder, smiling at John who grinned back. No longer nauseated though still not hungry, watching his uncle and Charley was more entertaining and less taxing than either TV or a DVD.
"I can help, you know."
Derek pushed the plate of onions towards John. "Feel free."
"Not if you value your life."
"Why?" John asked, not that he wanted to cut an onion, but still...
"Yeah, why?" Derek wiped his eyes on the hem of his tee shirt.
"Because at this moment, or any other moment," Charley checked his watch, "within the next forty minutes or so, I wouldn't trust John to tie his shoe, never mind hold a sharp, pointy object."
With an exaggerated sigh, Derek slid the plate of onions back in front of him. "You're mother'd kill me," he said, pointing at John's forehead with the tip of the knife. "I'm surprised I'm not singing soprano after that fuck up. I'm not stupid enough," he said, glaring at John as if daring him to contradict, "to push my luck."
Sarah was tired, worried, and could only think of three things: getting out of these clothes, showering, and John. Okay, not necessarily in that order. She'd wanted to call, but the day had gotten out of hand, her boss's attention hadn't wandered from her side and she didn't even have time to pee, never mind sneak about to call home again.
Smoothing down her ugly polyester uniform, she tried to school her features, not allowing herself even the barest hint of a smile at Charley's car in front of the house. He was here to check on John. Just John, like he'd said he was going to. Nothing more, nothing less. Though... and her heart gave one of those weird flutters, what if something was wrong? And suddenly Charley's appearance took on a whole new meaning and Sarah broke into a run and burst into the house, flinging open the door, her worry and concern dying instantaneously at the scene in the kitchen.
It was a three-way tie - Charley's deft handling of the spatula while standing guard over a frying pan, the tears Derek was shedding over a plate of chopped onions and John's barely controlled enjoyment of the scene. "Oh god." Sarah swallowed the bubble of laughter, sucking in her lips so it wouldn't have any chance of escape.
"Look." John gave her an obviously, feeling no pain waggle of fingers. "Mom's home. Hi, Mom."
"Not my idea," Derek said gruffly, pushing the chair away from the table with a loud scrape along the linoleum. He grabbed the plate of onions and dropped it on the counter next to Charley, who acknowledged it with a nod towards the green pepper.
"Don't put away your knife, just yet," Charley said, using the spatula to roll the pepper towards Derek.
"Oh, don't break up the party on my account." She sauntered over to John, lifted his chin up so he met her gaze. Pupils nice and dilated. Good stuff. "How're you feeling?"
"Much better," he slurred. "How about you?"
"I think you're feeling a little bit better than I am."
"Charley's making omelettes," John said, his voice filled with innocent awe.
Sarah was pretty sure John needed to be horizontal, but at the moment, this was way too much fun. "He is? I'm going to go check."
Sarah ignored Derek's battle of cutting the pepper into tiny pieces and peered over Charley's shoulder. "Nice bacon. Too bad John's going to be asleep before you get to scramble an egg."
"Compazine will do that to a person."
She reached around and snagged a piece of bacon draining on the paper towel-lined plate. "Thank you for taking care of my family."
"John," Derek hissed, shaking his shoulder. "Come on, John."
Charley held up the dozen eggs. "Should've bet ya, Sarah, he didn't even make it to me cracking one egg."
"Time to get horizontal, kid." With a gentleness that brought tears to her eyes and evoked a memory of Kyle, Derek helped John stand. "Bed's way more comfortable than the table. Take it from me," he said with a conspiratorial whisper.
John swayed in placed, eyes still closed as he complained loudly, muttering nonsense as Derek pushed, prodded and guided a barely awake John towards his bedroom.
She stood, ready to follow and/or pick up her son, unsure if he was going to make it to the bed unscathed, not totally trusting Derek.
Charley placed the spatula across her midsection as she went to leave the kitchen. "Stop. Let him go tuck John in. He'll be fine."
"John or Derek?"
"Go set the table."
Open-mouthed, she stared at Charley, feigning indignation.
"You don't scare me, Sarah."
"I'll just have to try harder."
The omelettes were delicious, doubly so because someone else had cooked them. "Hey." She pulled the platter away from Derek's fork back to the middle of the table. "Save some for John." Sarah tossed him a slice of toast instead. "Gnaw on this."
Derek grabbed the toast and ripped it in half. "Not the same," he complained around a mouthful of buttered toast.
"Suffer," she said with a pat on his bicep. Taking his plate, she stood, put the dirty dishes in the sink and excused herself from the kitchen with a 'be right back'.
"Damn." John's room was a hot as an oven, and there wasn't a hint of a breeze, even with the opened windows. There was a sheen of sweat on John's face and Sarah wiped away the moisture, using the edge of the sheet before folding it down below his thighs. Where's the hell was the fan?
Oh. Sarah picked up the damaged, bent, destroyed fan. "Nice." She glanced down at John. "Hope you used this to beat Derek over the head."
"Thank you," Sarah repeated as she walked Charley to the front gate.
Charley dropped his hands on her shoulders and turned her to face him. "John is amazing and I miss him."
Sarah lifted her hand and wrapped her fingers around Charley's wrist, with a squeeze. "He misses you, too."
Charley didn't smile. He just studied her, as if committing her to memory. "John has injuries that would bring an adult to their knees. Ribs. Head. Nausea. His strength has totally overwhelmed me."
"But I wasn't impressed..." Charley drew a deep breath. "Damn it, Sarah, he's barely sixteen. A kid. And he's hurting. Badly."
"He needs to be strong."
Charley shook his head, pulled her close, planting a kiss to the top of her head. "John is strong," he whispered. "He's doing his part, now it's time for you to do your job and be his mother. Bear his hurts, be strong for him. Let him be a kid."
"I can't, Charley. I wish I could."
"He's just a kid." The sadness in his voice cut through her like a knife.
"You don't understand."
"No, I guess I don't." Charley hugged her even closer. "Does John understand?"
"He has no choice," Sarah said, Charley's sadness bleeding into her heart.
Sarah was antsy after Charley left and she paced the length of the house, opening John's door on the first trip. Closing it on the second. Derek grabbed her by the wrist as she headed to his room for the third time and she turned, her free hand clenched in a fist, stopping just short of connecting with his jaw line.
He swerved, sidestepped her loss of control, but never released his hold on her.
"Let go of me, or next time I won't check my swing," she growled, jerking her hand from his grasp. His slow smile infuriated her. "What's so funny?
"Nothing." Derek stepped back and raised his hands in capitulation.
"Then wipe that smile off your face before I do it for you."
"Great pick up line, do you say that to all the guys?"
"Of course I do," she said seriously, "just before I castrate them."
Derek protectively cupped his hands over his groin. "Remind me to hide all the sharp pointy instruments in the house."
Sarah did what one does when they're unable to find something to do to keep their hands busy and away from the neck of the only other adult in the house. She began to clean the guns. Trunk opened, she sat in her bedroom, stopping occasionally, one ear cocked towards the door, listening for any movement from John's room.
She got up to get a drink the same time the tin miss returned. She looked bedraggled, mussed and she stood there in the kitchen holding a brown paper bag while her gaze flitted around the room.
"This is for John."
"What is it?"
"Ben and Jerry's ice cream. Chocolate Fudge Brownie. His favorite. Though," Cameron crinkled her face in confusion, "I think it's melting."
Sarah plucked the bag from her outstretched hand and cautiously peered inside just to check that the contents were what the machine said they were. "I think it's already melted." Placing her hand underneath the brown paper bag to catch any spillage, Sarah opened the freezer door with her free pinky and shoved the ice cream inside, bag and all. "John thanks you."
"Where were you?" Derek asked, giving her the once over. "You look like you were playing in the dirt."
"The tunnels were dirty." Cameron glanced down as if noticing her appearance for the first time. "I'm dirty as a result."
"What did you find?" Sarah filled a glass with water and drank, one hip leaning against the counter, studying the cyborg.
"They haven't been used in many years and they'll be a perfect storage place."
"Storage for what?" Derek asked suspiciously, narrowing his eyes at Sarah.
"A place to store the bodies of people who piss me off." Cameron blinked at her, and Sarah swore she could hear the gears turning. "It was a joke. A funny. Ha. Ha."
"Oh, thank you for explaining."
"Would someone explain to me?" Derek asked impatiently.
"An arsenal. An extra computer. Food. Money, in case the need should arise that we have to vacate this life in a hurry. Sometimes one bag isn't enough to carry one's life." Sarah put the glass in the sink. "Not anymore."
Derek nodded. ""Okay, that I understand, but the ice cream? What? John told you to buy ice cream while you were out?"
"No. I bought it for him as a surprise."
"Excuse me?" Derek stuttered. "You what?"
"I bought John ice cream." She turned towards Sarah. "John doesn't like ice cream?"
"He does." It wasn't any secret John loved anything chocolate. "Did John tell you to buy ice cream for him?"
"No, it's a surprise." She paused and stared at the freezer. "A melted surprise."
"Shit. Shit. Shit." Derek paced in a tight little circle. Stopping, he slammed his fist into the freezer door. "Do you know what this means?"
"I don't have to make out shopping lists anymore because the tin miss will anticipate our every want and desire?"
"Independent thought," Derek yelled in Cameron's face. "You walked into a store and made a conscious decision." Derek's burst of laughter wasn't pretty. "The words conscious decision in relation to a cyborg is an oxymoron."
"Did John tell you to buy the ice cream next time you were out?" Sarah repeated the question, wording it slightly different.
"John told me Ben and Jerry's Chocolate Fudge Brownie was his favorite flavor." Damn her, she paused for effect, Sarah was sure of it. "In the future, John will miss ice cream very much."
"Fuck." John rolled over with a groan because for a few seconds, as he'd hovered between sleep and awareness, he'd believed that the pounding behind his eyes was a residual shadow of a bad dream. Wrong. The headache wasn't part of the nightmare, it was the nightmare.
He hurt. John pieced together the reason for his not so little aches and pains. It took a few moments for his memory to play catch up with his body. Some were actually his memories, others had been supplied by the others. Driving. Running. Falling. Tree. Head. Ribs. Charley. Omelettes. Got it... especially the omelette part, because not only was he sore, but he was damned hungry.
Incrementally, he sat up. Taking his time, he breathed through the pain, keeping his eyes closed against the undulating floor boards. John sure as hell hoped that this was the 'getting worse before it could get better' scenario, because as he stood by his bedside, one leg pressed against the mattress, his hand gripping the lamp on his nightstand, he was pretty positive, short of being dead, there was no way he could feel worse than this.
John managed to shuffle to his bedroom door, eyes closed, one arm searching the space in front of him as he traveled forward until his hand rested on the doorknob. He'd like to say that getting up and mobile was working out the kinks of injury and drugged sleep, but in the few feet from his bed to the door, there wasn't a hint of improvement.
Happy summer vacation, John Connor.
John was shaking by the time he made it to the kitchen. Hungry or not, he needed respite before he needed a bite of sustenance and with a groan, he eased himself down into a kitchen chair.
The fridge and the cabinet bore the brunt of his staring, willing the doors to open and the food, Tylenol and drink to make like a stupid Disney movie and prepare and present itself to him.
"What are you staring at?" His mother stepped out from behind him and squatted by the side of the chair, bringing herself to his level.
"The fridge. There food in there. Like Charley's omelette."
His mother laughed, leaned over and moved the tip of his nose from side to side. "Sometimes a little nose wiggle works."
"Huh?" John hated when his mother's silliness, which was far and few between, was never at an opportune time.
Her hand fell to cup the back of his neck. "Bewitched... The lead could do anything with a little wiggle of her nose..." Her answer died out. "Never mind," she added sadly, "that's before your time."
"Was hoping for food the old fashioned way."
"You want me to cook?" she asked incredulously.
"No. food from the fridge to the microwave."
"That's my boy."
John hurt too much to even muster a smile.
The omelette, even reheated, smelled mouth-watering, but John hesitated even picking up a fork to take a bite. It was Derek who came to the rescue before his mother even put two and two together.
"Try these first." Three Tylenol rolled off Derek's palm onto John's plate.
John didn't even glance at his mother for the okay, he scooped them up and swallowed the three at once, not even coming up for air until half the glass of iced tea was gone.
He felt the weight of Cameron's hand as it skimmed his neck. "I'll save you the trouble," he said, tentatively cutting into the omelette. "I hurt. My head. My ribs. I probably couldn't finish a Sudoku puzzle if my life depended on it. But I remember my name, my birthday and where I live as of today. I have no fever. My blood pressure isn't great. I'm starving and if I'm really lucky, those three Tylenol I ingested will stay down, this omelette will stay down and we'll all live happily ever after."
"Judgment Day is still four years away, John, doesn't that put a damper on your happily ever after?"
"No one likes a smart alec terminator. Okay," John amended, around a mouthful of omelette, "for today we'll have a happily ever after."
Sitting wasn't the answer. Watching TV was out of the question. Sleeping was impossible. And working on his computer, even with the Tylenol, wasn't going to work. So John paced, one arm wrapped around his midsection. He moved from room to room, picking up a shadow as he passed through each and every room. His mom was in the kitchen, Derek in the living room and Cameron was in his bedroom.
John turned and bumped into Cameron. "Stop it," he yelled, grimacing at the pain the volume of his own voice caused. "I don't want you—"
"There's ice cream in the freezer with your name on it."
"There's what?" John brought his fingers up to rub his right temple, wishing the damned Tylenol would finally kick in and do its job.
"Ice cream. Ben and Jerry's. Your favorite."
"I never told you I had a favorite ice cream."
"Yes you did. In the future, you shared with me—"
"Tastes change. People change." Inexplicably angry, John pushed past her, for once not caring about his future self.
He couldn't swing. The back and forth motion when he first sat on the swing had caused bile to rise and he'd had to swallow a number of times and just focus. John sat in the late afternoon sun, enjoying the fresh air.
"You yelled at Cameron."
"She tattled?" John cupped his hand over his eyes to cut out the sun's painful glare and gazed up at his mom.
"She mentioned it." His mom, thank god, sat on the empty swing, out of the line of the sun.
He dropped his hand, but didn't look at her. Head bent downward, John took great interest in the toes of his Converse. "Great. I wonder whose idea it was to write that into her program."
"I feel like crap. I think I'm entitled to a little whine."
She scooted her swing towards him then snaked her hand around the chains, resting her opened hand against the side of his face.
John leaned into her touch as her calloused fingers extended to his temple and massaged away some of his hurt.
"I'm sorry," she said softly.
"For what?" John sighed, closing his eyes.
"For everything. For nothing. Guilt goes with the motherhood territory."
"Guilt and guns, perfect combo," John chuckled.
She took back her hand and wrapped them around the chains of the swing. Slowly moving back and forth. "Want to come back inside?"
"No. Not yet. It's cooler outside."
"Speaking of cooler, about that new fan in your room..."
"Fan? Oh... Ummm, nightmare?"
"Was that a question or a statement?"
John thought a moment. "Statement."
"Do I really want to know?"
"About the nightmare? Garbage in. Garbage out."
"Hate when you spit my words back to me."
"Doesn't it show that I've been listening?"
His mother smiled and shook her head. "That's not exactly what I call attentiveness."
"Why was Derek taking me out running?" Based on the expression on his mother's face, John could pretty much stake his life on the fact that his ability to smoothly segue from one topic to another sucked big time.
"What do you remember?"
"Pretty much nothing. Not even what I had for breakfast. I'm pretty much a black hole. I remember what you told me. And that I was running. And so was Derek. Flashes of things here and there. Other than that—" John shrugged. "I'm drawing a blank. Not sure what are memories and what's an imagined dream."
"Concussions can do that."
"What did I lose? What memory?"
"Derek believed I was failing in the 'training John to grow up to be a warrior' department."
"So he was taking over my training?"
His mother's silence hurt more than his headache. "That wasn't it. Derek didn't trust me, or believe you, did he?"
"I think he's changed his mind," she finally answered. "Derek was going to prove to himself..."
"And to you," John added, "that he was right."
"No, he was going to push you..."
"Yeah, until I fell down a mountain."
"No. Until you cried uncle."
John's laughter was unexpected and his mother's echoing mirth followed seconds later. "That was really bad, Mom."
"I didn't mean to. Sorry." She cleared her throat, trying to regain composure.
"Me, too," John said, pulling himself up, using the chains of the swing. "Didn't mean to disappoint everyone. Not you. Not Derek, and especially myself."
"You didn't fail, John."
"I have the bruises and concussion to prove you're wrong."
"Getting hurt does not equal failure."
"No, but in the long run, getting dead does."
John couldn't sleep. He'd been tired on the couch, eyes closed, drifting to the point even Cameron had said that maybe it was time he went to bed. But now that he was horizontal in the darkness of his room, between his lingering headache and the lack of air, John was awake. Couldn't even say he was tossing and turning, because the act of moving took too much effort for him to even attempt.
He feigned sleep when his mother opened his bedroom door then opened his eyes and listened to her footsteps padding down the hall, strangely comforted by the creak of her bedsprings as she settled for the night.
Cameron did her rounds, and this time John closed his eyes for real and slept. According to his bedside clock, he'd managed about forty minutes of sleep before the background hum of the downstairs television sliced through his uneasy slumber.
Canned laughter meant Derek was watching and not Cameron. She had a tendency to watch news programs and Derek had a tendency to recapture what he'd lost with stupid sitcoms from the TVLand cable channel.
John got up to pee, washed up and ignored his battered reflection in the mirror. Sleeping wasn't on his agenda tonight, so he quietly crept down the hallway, ignoring all the creaky floorboards, so not to awaken his mother.
He pulled out three bowls, three spoons and the container of Ben and Jerry's. One for him, one for Derek, and the third he handed to Cameron as she completed her circuit. "Let me know what you think."
"It's your favorite," she repeated blankly.
"I know, you told me that already, but I want to know if it's your favorite."
Derek looked up at John. "Couldn't sleep?"
The 'no shit, Sherlock' was on the tip of John's tongue, but it was safer to just overlook Derek's remark and hand one of the dishes of ice cream to him. "Chocolate Fudge Brownie. Try this, I'm supposed to love this in the future." John shrugged, dropped down into the recliner and began tucking into his own bowl, ignoring the fact that Derek was just staring at the dish in his hands. "I don't know about you, but future stuff gives me a headache on a good day."
Derek grunted as he tentatively scooped up a spoonful of ice cream.
"It's not bad," John begrudgingly admitted. "I wouldn't exactly classify it as my favorite, though."
"The machine's right. It is your favorite."
"She told you?" John began to stir the ice cream, slowly creating a soupy mixture.
"I don't know how the fuck the machine knows. Kyle told me. According to my brother, 'these are a few of my favorite things' was a topic discussed numerous times to help pass the long nights at Century City."
"And this ice cream came up in conversation?" John picked up the bowl and examined it.
"Among other things," Derek said with a smug smile. "Kyle was privy to—"
"Oy." John slunk down in the recliner. "I don't think I want to know... I'm sorry," John blurted out in the next breath.
"Whoa, John." Derek leaned forward and placed his dish on the coffee table. "I think I should be apologizing to you. I mean..." Derek pointed to his own head.
The ice cream suddenly was more nauseating than sweet. He hadn't meant to say that, and based on the pitiful and sympathetic look Derek was trying to hide, his uncle had totally misunderstood. John inhaled then exhaled slowly. "I spoke to my mom about what happened."
"I remember falling. Well, kinda. Sorta. But I don't remember too much of what happened that day. The ride there. That morning. Breakfast. Totally dead air on my part. My mom helped to fill in the blanks."
Derek squirmed, looking uncomfortable. "Look, John..."
"I understand," John said, because he did, in some strange fucked manner. "You couldn't get angry with the other me... in the future, so you..." The breath that John drew wasn't as sure as his previous one. "You got angry with me for taking Kyle away from you. I'm sorry about that."
"No." Derek shook his head adamantly. "That's not the reason."
John forced the look of disappointment from his face. He'd hoped for the truth.
Derek sunk back into the couch, defeated. "At least I tried to pretend it wasn't the reason. Guess I failed?"
"I'm not him. And right now, I'm not so sure I ever want to be that man."
Derek picked up his bowl of ice cream, removed the spoon and pointed it at John. "Eat your ice cream, kid."
John stood and dropped the bowl on the table. "I don't think I like it."
"You'll be a great man, John Connor."
"No, I think you have it confused. I'll be a great leader, but I won't be a good man, will I?"
"You brought hope."
"But Kyle... I... "
"You did what needed to be done."
"That doesn't make me a good man."
"No, it doesn't, but it makes you the damned bravest man I've ever met."
John healed slowly, the headache slowly waning, the bruises taking longer, his pissiness and erratic sleeping habits taking the longest.
The weather was dark and angry, John didn't need to check the computer to know a storm was headed their way. He stood on the porch, arms folded, watching his mother's hair sweep across her face at she said goodbye to Charley. The wind kept playing havoc with her long strands, no matter how many times she impatiently tucked them behind her ears.
Charley laughed. He said something, then he tucked her hair behind her ears with exaggerated gentle force.
His mother smiled a smile John hadn't seen in a long time.
"You go, Mom," John whispered.
John knew that Charley's visit today was more of a way to stay in contact as opposed to a check up. And that was fine with him as long as it made his mom smile like that.
Thunder sounded in the distance and with the slightest of shrugs, his mother stepped back from Charley. He reached out with one hand, then let it drop when she shook her head and pointed to the sky. John cursed under his breath, damning Mother Nature for destroying the moment.
The wind suddenly changed directions and the temperature dropped, and in response, goose bumps popped up, peppering his arms. He rubbed at them absentmindedly, his gaze now glued to the approaching clouds and he backed up, pressing himself against the house. Sixteen years old and he hated storms. Lightning and thunder was the closest thing to Judgment Day that his imagination could come up with. Like fireworks. Fourth of July was a hated holiday in the Connor household.
The rain began and his mother's goodbye to Charley was now hurried. A smile, a protesting hug to his mother, a quick wave in John's direction and he was gone. By the time his mom made to the safety of the porch, she was soaked.
She shook like a dog, her wet hair spraying John.
"Hey," he said, shaking out his arms. "Thanks."
"My pleasure." Her grin was wickedly evil. "Storm's coming."
A flash of lightning lit up the sky and John barely was able to count to three before a rumble of thunder shook him to his core. "Storm's here."
His mother slung an arm over his shoulder and brushed her lips across his temple. "Not if I have any say in the matter."
"Going to take on Mother Nature?"
She butted her shoulder against his. "Don't think I'll win the battle?"
"The bitch doesn't stand a chance against you."
His mother laughed. "You say the sweetest things."
"Charley said you're okay."
John remained silent.
"Are you okay?" his mother prodded.
"Yeah." John nodded. "I am."
"Good. Now let's go inside and try some of that ice cream that—"
"There's none left," John said with a touch of guilt.
"I thought you said that it wasn't your favorite?"
"It was the only ice cream in the house, so I made do." John stepped forward and stuck his hand into the downpour. "Think I can order Cameron will do an ice cream run?"
Derek awoke with a curse and reached for the gun under the pillow. "What the fuck?"
John stood over him, eating a bowl of cereal. "Morning to you, too."
"Don't do that."
"Do what?" He chased the last of the Lucky Charms marshmallows around the circumference of the bowl.
"Wake me up like..." Derek scrubbed at his eyes, then blinked. "What the hell time is it?"
"Five thirty." John lifted the bowl to his lips and drank the last of the fruity-tasting milk.
"In the morning?"
"Yup." He used his sleeve to wipe away his milk moustache remnants. "Come on." John kicked at the edge of the couch with his leg. "Get up."
"Do you have a death wish?"
"Nope." John dug in the front pocket of his jeans then dropped a set of keys on Derek's stomach.
"Come on, Derek, we're going to do it right this time."
Derek scooped up the keys and sat up. "You don't have anything to prove." He juggled the keys from one hand to the other before tossing them onto the table. "Not to me. Not to anyone else."
"I never said I had to prove anything." John put the empty bowl on the table, picked up the keys and tossed them back to his uncle. "I said we were going to do it right this time around. Cameron's loaded the car with water. And food. I picked out the place, hope you don't mind if we don't go back to—"
Derek shook his head. "New place is fine."
"Needed a wider trail. One where we could run side by side. Not with you chasing me. It works better that way. Having someone by your side."
"Yeah, it does." Derek tossed the keys to John and stood. "Hold these while I go get ready."
John was just stuffing the keys into his pocket when Derek surprised the crap out of him and pulled him into a crushing hug.
"Your father would be so proud."
John was unable to squeeze any words past the lump in his throat and he stood mutely rooted to the spot, and smiled.
to contact devra
to contact JoaG