Disclaimer: I own nothing

AN: This is not intended to be a ship piece. Enjoy and review

Strays

Sarah bit back the laugh that threatened to erupt after Charley had cracked a joke. John had been sick with a sore throat and high fever for over four days and she had had no choice but to call for help. Charley had easily agreed, bringing John some antibiotics and instructions that if he didn't feel better in two days, he had to go to a real doctor. Sarah promised she would take him, John asked for some soup, and now somehow Sarah and Charley were joking with each other about her cooking while making John supper.

The laugh died on her lips as she saw headlights pull into their drive, Derek was back. She felt a knot in her stomach, she had been trying to ignore, finally relax. He had been gone for nearly three days with no contact. Which, in and of itself, wasn't that odd or worrisome but the fact that his errand shouldn't have taken more than a few hours was cause for concern. She had told him the morning he left, to be back before supper. He hadn't made it. Both she and John had been quietly going out of their minds with worry but neither had spoke of it directly.

He was like a stray dog, she had decided after the first few weeks. He breezed in and out of their lives, coming and going without asking anything more than a warm place to sleep and maybe some food. He was shaggy, threadbare, and tatty. He could be snappy, overly aggressive, and extremely suspicious of strangers. But to those that were kind to him he was loyal beyond compare. He would die for them without thought or question and maybe that made her feel a little bit safer at night.

She stood to greet him and hopefully offset the argument over having Charley there. He entered; deliberate as always but slumped and stiff. "You're late, dinner was three days ago," she deadpanned, quickly looking over the two huge bruises on his face, the one on his jaw line so large and dark it was visible through three days worth of stubble. She also took note of the odd angle he held his left arm and shoulder, the dried blood crusted to almost every square inch of him, and the scorch marks on his clothes. "What the hell happened to you?"

"Your little chola friend walked me into the middle of a gang war and right into the sights of a T-800." His voice seemed as dull and listless as his eyes.

"Where is it now?"

"Trunk," he motioned back towards the car, while fishing in his pocket. He tossed her the terminator's CPU. It was badly damaged and probably useless.

"I'll have John look at it, when he's feeling better." She held it tightly in her hand, noting the almost complete lack of affect and reaction to his surroundings. He was on autopilot and he was dangerous, when he was like that.

Charley watched the entire exchange from his spot by the stove. "Are you hurt?" He ventured.

"Scrapes and bruises," Derek shook his head and finally dropped the large duffle bag he was carrying at Sarah's feet. She opened it, inspecting its contents. The weapons looked good, though some were in need of repair. There were grenades, sabo rounds, and remote detonators. It was everything she had asked for.

She looked up at him where he slumped against the island, his eyes half lidded. She suspected he was nearly asleep standing there, until Cameron walked in and made a beeline for the weapons. Almost as fast as Sarah could follow, Derek drew on her, his pistol poised at her head at the same time, she reach out for his neck. "Stop it you two!" She shouted in her most commanding voice. They both slowly backed down but his gun remained out. She turned away though, almost as if she were showing contempt for his skill.

"This is the processor from a T-840," she picked up the chip, turning it over in her hands. "The basal prongs have been dented. It is too damaged to be reused."

"Why the hell would we want to reuse it?" Derek snapped. Sarah had quickly learned that his hatred of her was 10 personal, for some reason she couldn't fathom, and 90 that he was just plain scared to death of Terminators and what they could do.

"Where did it come from?" Cameron completely ignored him.

"The terminator sitting in the trunk of the car. Go get rid of it." Sarah moved her along.

She stopped, though and cocked her head, looking at Derek. "This one must have gone through early. Skynet upgraded the armor around our chips after it was determined that a human could make that shot."

"What shot?" John asked as he entered, still in his flannel pajama pants and carrying a blanket. He looked all of 13 rather than like the savior of mankind.

"The T-800 series had a more advanced chip but once the living tissue was added, the processors ran too hot so there by the T-830s, the plates around the front part of the CPU were thinned to allow better cooling. However, the chips were vulnerable to bullets if the terminator was shot through the corner of the right eye." She pointed to the spot that couldn't have been more than ½ inch to ¾ of an inch wide.

"That's impossible, no one could make that shot." Charley piped in.

"Not impossible, just unlikely but a trained sniper and expert marksman can make it, even with a pistol." She turned to Derek, "Special Operations Command officer Reese deactivated 5 Terminators that way. He was the reason that the upgrade in plating was ordered." She turned to leave, returning shortly with the remains of the Terminator. It looked like it had been through the wringer. Very little skin was left on it, the eyes were shot out, the arms were disconnected and the port in its head was blown open. She examined the skull, showing them the angle of the extremely difficult hit.

"How on Earth can you do that?" John asked amazed, even Sarah was impressed.

"They have to be facing you. You need a high powered riffle or high caliber hand gun with armor piercing bullets." He stared fixedly at the endoskeleton as he droned, "take out their eyes first, that way they have a harder time tracking you. Then their hands, so they can't use a weapon. Then burn them so you can find the power source and deactivate them." He may have been standing in their kitchen, but it was obvious he was a million miles or maybe 20 years away. Sarah watched him, though, remembering that Andy, the gangster, and everyone else she had ever seen him kill or try to kill he had chosen to shoot head on, in the face.

John took the chip from her, examining it critically before tossing it back to his mother. "I guess it is 6 kills now."

Cameron reached for the chip and Derek fingered his gun again, "want to make it seven?" She released it and turned to him.

"My plating was upgraded."

Sarah decided to end this before it became any more of a pissing match. "Shebot, get rid of that thing." Cameron left without preamble as she tended to do everything. "Derek, sit before you fall down." He also listened without question. How she loved soldiers. You could order them like dogs and they listened and obeyed. "John, take the chip upstairs and hide it and Charley stir the soup before it sticks." There was still no arguments. Derek finally started to take off his coat and gloves, exposing a bloody bandage on his left hand, and an ugly bruise around his neck. "What happened to your hand?" She grabbed at it, unwinding the bandage.

"Gunshot."

"You don't say that you only have scrapes and bruises and forget to mention a gunshot in my house, Derek." She scolded. "Charley can you look at this?" Derek looked about to complain but one glare from her shut him up.

Charley took the red and swollen hand gently examining it. "The wound is sealed, what did you do to it?"

"Cauterized it with the cigarette lighter in the car."

"What were you thinking, why would you do that? The chances of infection and damage to blood vessels," he shook his head and tssked.

"It was bleeding, I needed to stop it."

Sarah came up beside him, where he could see her, and put her hand on his back, he flinched away from her. She could see through rips in his shirt that his back and torso were black and blue with bruises. "Did you get shot anywhere else that we might need to know about?" He shook his head 'no,' even as he stared blankly at the bloody rag he had used as a bandage. "Anything broken?" She pulled up the side of his shirt and could see that he was swollen and lumpy.

"A left rib, maybe more. They'll heal." He shrugged.

She lowered his shirt and put a bowl of soup in front of him along with some rolls. "Eat." He picked up the spoon and began to mechanically eat. He would pretty much eat anything she put in front of him, no matter how badly she had ruined it. Another way she supposed he was like a dog, he was simply happy to have regular meals. Charley brought her thoughts back by looking at her, eyes full of confusion and concern. He was not used to or comfortable with the idea of someone having broken bones yet completely ignoring them.

After a few bites, he gave up all pretense of eating and just crumbled the bread up unknowingly and stared out of the window. John came back then and reached around him to help himself to some bread. Derek grabbed John's wrist in a snake like motion, grinding the bones together. Charley looked fit to panic but John calmly spoke, "let go of me, Derek." Derek seemed to come out of his stupor and looked over at John.

"Sorry,"

"No problem, my fault." John plopped down beside his uncle. "Are you ok?"

"Fine, tired." His voice was more monotone than a machine and he was still staring at something only he saw.

"Derek, go to sleep." Sarah told him. And he pushed his food aside and laid his head on the table to sleep sitting up. She rolled her eyes, "Reese, on your feet." She grabbed the back of his collar and hauled him into a standing position then began to push him towards the couch. "Lie down like a normal person and sleep."

"Yes, sir." She rolled her eyes at him, as he pushed him down on the couch rather than fight with trying to get him into a bed. "Is Kyle back yet?" He mumbled to her and she felt her heart constrict. In many ways, they were very much a like. Both had had their innocence stripped from them at a young age. She was a single mother training to become a mercenary at the age of 21, while he had become the de facto father of his 8 year old brother at barely 15. Both of their lives had completely revolved around taking care of someone smaller and weaker than themselves but the biggest difference came in that he had suffered her worst nightmare, he had lost his child, while she still had John.

"He's already here resting, Reese, you need to do the same. Connor's orders." She whispered to him, so John wouldn't here. He needed no more guilt over what would and had happened. Derek shook his head and closed his eyes, his guns still in their holsters, digging into his side.

By the time she returned to the table, she could hear from his breathing that he had fallen asleep. She envied that he could do that, fall asleep in an instant and wake up in one as well.

"Is he going to be alright?" John asked, eyes full of concern and the ever present weight of the world.

"Yes," she smoothed his hair back behind one ear, "he's just exhausted. I don't think he's slept in three days."

The three of them began to eat and it struck her that this could have been her family. This could have been what she had every night if not for Skynet. A loving husband with a sense of humor that wasn't so dark it bordered on morbid. A brilliant son that could grow into being anything he wanted. Maybe even a daughter, thin and pretty with eyes full of life. She could almost fool herself but her eyes kept moving to the stray in the other room. It was one family verses another, one vision of a perfect life verses the everyday reality they lived under.

Cameron stood between the two rooms, she had the body ready to be incinerated but held off until daylight as to not attract attention. "His heart rate is rising." Sarah looked over at her as she moved to lean over Derek's prone form. "Rapid eye movement, release of serotonin, dopamine, and adrenaline with suppression of cortisol." She cocked her head. "He is frightened in his sleep,"

"You mean he is having a nightmare?" Sarah clarified. Cameron reached out to touch him to get a more accurate reading. "Step off, missy," she warned, "the last thing he would want to wake up and see after a nightmare is a terminator staring down at him." She turned to leave just as a dog a few houses down started to bark and bay loudly. He shot up, gun drawn and cocked, swerving between the indistinct targets backlit in front of him. His eyes were wild and frightened. She had learned quite early on that he woke instantly to the sound of dogs' barking no matter how out of it he seemed.

Charley looked like a deer caught in headlights, while John stayed perfectly still with his hands visible. Cameron moved slowly and calmly to stand in front of John, even as Sarah rose and walked towards Derek. She didn't need Cameron's terminator readings to tell that he was scared out of his wits. She knew how he felt, waking from a night terror so vivid that the real world felt like a sick dream. Though through it all, he remained the expert marksman, his hands and his gun were steady as a rock.

"Reese, Derek, put the gun down." She stood to his side, and gently started to push his gun down even as he uncocked it. "It's ok, you're safe for now. Get some rest, you're tired. You need to sleep." She pushed him back down, but didn't take his gun from him. She knew he wouldn't be able to sleep at all without it.

"Safe?" He looked at her and the sense of desperation in his eyes was heart breaking.

"Yes, you are safe here. Please relax and sleep. You're hurt and you need to rest." She had him lying down with his eyes closed. She sat with him for a moment longer, making sure he was going to go back to sleep. Sadly, this wasn't the first time this has happened.

Sarah returned to the table to finish her supper and Cameron moved back to stand between the two rooms. "Sarah, I hate to sound negative or disparaging to your friends, but that guy seriously seems like he has a couple screws loose." Charley slowly relaxed enough to point out.

"You mean our walking, talking, poster child for post traumatic stress disorder?" She tried to lighten the mood.

"I'm serious, Sarah, he grabbed your son by the arm and pulled a gun on you. He is dangerous."

"No he isn't." John piped in, feeling he needed to defend his uncle.

"He tried to hurt you, John"

"No he didn't, not on purpose anyway. It was my fault. I know better than to sneak up on a combat trained soldier, especially when they are so out of it."

"Don't make excuses for him. It wasn't your fault. If someone hurts you, it isn't your fault."

John smiled at Charley even as Sarah was about to jump in, "Charley, I appreciate the concern and anyone else, you would probably be right. But his entire reason for being here is to keep me safe. He won't hurt me on purpose."

"But,"

"Don't worry, I wouldn't let him stay around if he were a danger to John."

"I guess." Charley sounded less than convinced. She marveled at how he could still love John so after eight years.

"Really, this is nothing. At leas he isn't pacing." Sarah completely agreed with her son. Derek had a tendency to pace, jitter, tap his feet, fingers, and generally not be able to sit still. He also compulsively cleaned things, was obsessed with things being done in a specific order, and habitually exhibited pointless repetitious behaviour like checking loaded guns or already locked doors. But the pacing was the most annoying, back and forth from one end of the house to the other for hours at a time.

John yawned hugely, still very much run down and ill. "Say good night to Charley and go to bed. You need your rest too." She shooed him from the table.

After John left, Cameron made herself scarce and Charley fixed coffee for them. Sarah unfolded a checked blanked and covered Derek's sleeping form. She knew he disliked being cold and the night was growing cooler. He had told her that after the first strike, nuclear winter had set in and the temperature rarely went above 50 degrees during the day, with the nights much colder. She wanted him to be warm now, to feel safe, and remember that he was here and now not where he had come from.

She stroked his filthy hair back, almost bending down to kiss his forehead but thought better of it. He stank of sweat, blood, and gunpowder. Charley came up behind her, handing her a cup of coffee, but keeping a safe distance from the future soldier. "You really care about him don't you?"

"He's useful. He's another safeguard, another weapon to use against Skynet. He would die for John." He had proved that to her almost the first time they had met. He had put himself between a T-888 and John without hesitation, even knowing he would be unlikely to survive.

"So would Cameron and she seems more stable."

Sarah's lip quirked up not even wanting to think about how angry Derek would be, if he knew he was being compared to her. "Yes, she is and she is stronger, faster, and almost indestructible. But Derek loves John in a way that she never could. He is creative, resourceful, and sometimes just plain too stubborn to give up." She rose and returned to the kitchen table. "And he gives John a man to talk to, like he used to talk to you. But he doesn't have hold anything back. It's been good for him, to have that male influence."

"I don't doubt what you are saying, what I doubt is your reason for saying it," he swirled his coffee and looked down into it. "You care about him. You looked so relieved when he came in, you seemed worried when you saw he was wounded, and you were concerned with him being cold even though it isn't that chilly. You don't worry about a weapon's comfort." She looked away. "What does he mean to you?"

"I'm not sure." She finally admitted.

"You should figure it out, and soon. You can't afford to let your personal affections for his brother cloud your judgement if he is dangerous but you also can't risk John not being well protected."

"I know." She closed her eyes and he took her chin, making her look at him.

"I'm glad I'm not you. Thinking about all this makes my head hurt." He winked, "I have to go. If you or John need anything else, let me know." She showed him to the door and hugged him goodbye.

Afterwards she settled herself in the chair beside Derek, watching him sleep. Her grandmother had once told her that you could always take the measure of a man by watching him sleep. Derek always seemed wary in his sleep, like he was expecting to have to wake up any second. It was like no matter what he did, he never seemed to completely relax. That intensity was extremely off putting on a personal level.

Kyle had also had that intensity but it disappeared when he slept. When he fell asleep he looked innocent and trusting as a babe. She supposed it could be because Kyle would usually have had Derek or John to watch over him while Derek would not have had anyone. She didn't think that was entirely it. There was just something so much darker about Derek, not necessarily evil, just deeper and hidden. Kyle had been like an opened book, everything read on his face, in his eyes. Derek was like a cipher, almost as if fighting the machines had completely stripped away his humanity. She knew it wasn't true, it was called compartmentalization. It wasn't that he didn't feel, it was just that he learned to separate his feelings from his actions. There was no room for morals or guilt when holding a little girl at gun point. It wasn't just him, almost every life time soldier she knew had done it too. In a way, it made him seem colder than Cameron. She didn't know right from wrong, he did but chose to ignore it.

But she knew it took a toll on him. She could see it every time he stood in front of a window, but only to the side, never directly in front. She saw it every time he checked, rechecked, and triple checked guns, doors, and alarms, often hundreds of times in one day. She saw it in the way he couldn't stand to be near Cameron unless there was some physical barrier in between them, be it a table or John himself. The way he became very uncomfortable if they were out in the open daylight for more than a few hours. She noticed it in how he hated loud noises, even though he tried to hide it, and that he had nearly had a panic attack during the fireworks show on New Years. It was obvious as he paced the house at least one night out of three because he couldn't sleep. But mostly, she saw it in his eyes, in the way he stared constantly looking for movement or signs of danger. Constantly looking for the next attack that might kill him or someone else he loved.

And it made her sad to see it because she knew one day John would do it too. But she also wondered what Derek would have been like if not for the war. She had seen signs of a wicked sense of humor under his walls, though it was very morbid. She suspected that he was quite intelligent even though he tended to act like he wasn't following John. But she realized that he was making John think things through rather than being told the answer. He was teaching John how to make the strategic leaps of logic he would one day need. She had seen love, loyalty, and compassion in him that had rivaled her own. She wondered if he would have grown up to be a doctor, a lawyer, an engineer, or an actor. She wondered if he would have married and had children or if he would have used that smile, those long legs, and those pretty eyes to keep himself in causal company.

She supposed it didn't matter. He had been changed, irrevocably so on Judgement day. He could no longer dream of what might be because he could only have nightmares of what was. Just as the knowledge of it had done to her. She realized that was one of the worst things about this. None of them dreamt anymore. None of them hoped anymore, all they did was concentrate on their mission. Maybe the ability to dream of a better life was one of the first parts of one's humanity the machines took.

She looked closely at him, easily discerning he was in the grips of another nightmare. She wished she could help him but knew nothing she did would erase what he had seen and what he had done. She knew he had been required into defending himself and his brother with deadly force almost immediately. She knew that the innocence that Kyle had maintained hadn't existed in Derek for a long time. And maybe that was what she liked about him. No matter how bad she thought she was, no matter how far she was willing to go, no matter how insane she sometimes felt, she knew he was always worse. Maybe he was her magic mirror on the wall and with him around she could never be the most screwed up of them all, she thought darkly.

Maybe she liked him because he was a guard dog even more rabid than Cameron. Or maybe it was just the thought of having a strong man around. Kyle's brother or not, she could appreciate him on an aesthetic level. It could also be that in a way she and John were also strays and every time he put himself between her and a machine, every time he took the shot and killed someone so she didn't have to, or even every time he got up and made John breakfast so she could sleep in; he accepted them a little bit more into his family. The family that was John's by right and hers by wish.

She didn't have anymore time to ponder as he shot up again, this time not even trying to remain seated. He took one look around then all but ran outside. Cameron had mentioned that he had been a prisoner of some Skynet facility once and she understood his actions based solely on that. Sometimes the only thing that would stop your heart from feeling like a jack hammer was to get out into the fresh air. To know that you could leave, that you could run if you wanted to, that you were free.

She followed him outside and watched his back. He was breathing deeply, no doubt trying to calm himself. She was terribly curious as to what had happened while he was gone, and as soon as he was rested, she would have her answer but not now. Now he seemed as vulnerable as a child. She continued to watch him for a moment, before sitting beside him on the porch. She looked over at him and saw tears swimming in his eyes but as usually, they didn't fall. He wouldn't let them.

Part of her saw the hurt and fear in him and wanted to comfort him. She wanted to treat him like the mother she was and pull him to her breast and allow him to weep. She wanted to shelter and protect him like the child he had once been. Another part of her wanted to shake and scream at him. The soldier wanted to get in his face and tell him to snap out of it. They were at war and his personal baggage could wait. Then there was the human side of her that just wanted to be his friend for the night. That part wanted to rub his back and tell him it was ok to talk if he wanted but he didn't have to. That part wanted to get him drunk so that maybe he would open up and make himself feel better.

Rather than picking one side, she settled for talking to him. "I have this reoccurring dream about the war. I'm on the outside of the chain link fence of a playground, and I know the missiles are coming. I keep yelling and screaming for the people to run, but no one listens. Then I watch as all those lives are destroyed, as all those innocents are lost. I watch as the everyone's entire life comes to a screeching halt and changes forever." She had never told anyone other than Dr. Silverman about her dream. "Sometimes, I forget that you were one of those children on the playground." He closed his eye and a single tear fell.

She sat with him for the next few hours, as he worked through whatever was bothering him. She didn't press him to talk or tell him to get over it. She just stayed beside him, letting him know that he wasn't alone. That she would be willing to shoulder the burden for him for awhile if he needed it just as she knew he would do the same for her.

As the sun rose, they still sat quietly beside each other. He looked terrible, pale, stubbly, dirty, and tired but the hollow despair was again pushed back behind the wall. His eyes were again mostly dull, dead, and blank. She was glad, and it had nothing to do with him being more effective when content. She turned to him, as she heard John calling her name from inside the house. "Come on, let me buy you a cup of coffee."

"I don't like coffee." It was the most coherent thing he had said since he had gotten back.

"How about some toast and orange juice then? You have barely eaten since you got here, and you must be starving." She stood and offered him a hand up. "After you eat, you are taking a handful of ibuprofen, a long shower, then you are going to lie down in my bed and sleep for the next 12 hours or I'm going to hit you over the head with a bottle of tequila." He held the door opened for her. "And this time, no dreams."

"No dreams," he repeated.

"And by the way, welcome home, Derek." She said to him as John came in. He gave her a real smile for the first time that week. It was just as she suspected, every stray wanted a home and this one had managed to find not only a home but also a family. She hoped he realized that the family was also glad the stray had showed up.

-FIN