Always a hero. And always dead.
Those were the two defining characteristics of his father as far as John Connor was concerned. It sounded cold. Or flippant. It was neither. Those two absolutes ate at him, unmatched in intensity by any of John's myriad other emotional wounds. Even watching his mother relinquish her parental rights didn't make him feel like an orphan to the same degree. Because despite the pain, Sarah was there. She was available. And John could feel betrayed and unwanted and cast aside, but at the end of the day he could argue with her about it. He could force her to explain, to tell him she was coerced, that it was a plan. Sarah could take it all back. Sarah could make it better. At least for a little while.
But Kyle Reese was dead and nothing could change that. John didn't know if his father comprehended that he was his father before he died. It was possible – likely even – that Kyle Reese worshiped and respected John Connor as a leader, but died ignorant of their connection.
John's need to connect with his father was always present. Occasionally, Sarah indulged John's need. The two years they spent as Sarah and John Reese made him feel closer to Kyle than he ever had before. He made up elaborate stories about his father's past. But then Charley proposed and Sarah bolted and in a flash, it was all gone. And John was left with the reality that his lies were just that, lies. He still knew almost nothing about Kyle Reese.
That did change, eventually, with two sentences.
"Test my blood. Test me."
John's heart pounded in his throat as he said it, but he forced himself to stare down both Charley and Sarah. Because until that very moment, John had never had a true physical link to any human save his mother. His father was dead. His maternal grandparents were dead. All at the hands of the machines.
But the resistance fighter from the future bleeding to death on their kitchen island was a match to John's blood. Because they were family, John and this stranger. Because this man was his father's brother.
Derek was the key John had been missing for so long. Derek knew Kyle. He affirmed for John that Kyle was a real live, living, breathing man and not some fairy tale his mother invented. Derek also had stories. Endless stories of how Kyle had been as a child, what he was like as a man. Derek had funny stories and sad stories and really messed up stories that made him laugh in ways which reminded John that his uncle wasn't quite right in the head.
Then Derek took John to see his father. It was exhilarating and heartbreaking all at once. Because Kyle Reese, this Kyle Reese wasn't John's father. This Kyle Reese was a child to whom John meant nothing.
John knew in that moment, that was how his relationship would always be with Kyle. John grieved, both for himself and for Kyle. Because there was nothing that would ever assuage John's constant need for his father. Nothing. Not even a flesh and bone Kyle Reese.
But despite John's constant need for his father, and despite a lifetime of meticulously planning for the future, it somehow never clicked in John's head that there would be a time in his own life when Kyle Reese would be alive and a hero and an adult - all at once.
"We've got a volunteer," McManuss said, stepping into John's war room.
"Reese," John said, still staring at the latest tactical readouts. He glanced up at McManuss, noting the smudges of powdered rubble that marred the man's black skin. "Kyle. Not Derek."
McManuss's lips thinned as he looked at his General. "Yeah. Kyle. The younger one. Derek and the rest of his team have gone missing. Probably KIA."
John shook his head. "They'll turn up."
"That's not likely."
John shrugged. "Unlikely or not, they'll turn up."
McManuss frowned. "It's really creepy when you do that. Sir."
John didn't reply, turning his attention back to the files. "Make sure everyone's ready. We leave at 0200."
McManuss stood there, unmoving. He waited. Unlike most of the men who served under John Connor, McManuss wasn't intimidated by his General's passive dismissal. After a few minutes, John finally looked up at him in question.
"Are you sure about this, Connor?" McManuss asked. He was one of John's most trusted lieutenants. He'd been with John almost since the beginning. He was older, in his late 40s, though he looked like he was in his early 60s. But he was still a very valuable soldier. And he was fiercely loyal, taking nothing more than John's word on many occasions when everyone else said John was crazy.
"We don't even know what this place is," McManuss pushed. "If we make a move and the machines attack us, we'll be spread too thin, unable to defend."
"The machines will attack," John said with a solemn certainty. "It's only logical. And we will take some hard losses. But I promise you, taking this facility is worth the risk. Without it, none of the rest of this matters."
McManuss looked unconvinced, but John knew he'd do his part.
"Send him in, would you?" John said absently.
"Yeah," John replied.
McManuss left and John leaned over the table, bracing his hands on the top, staring down at the files. A good portion of the intel was written in Skynet's syntax. It was a trick to be able to not only understand the words, but to make any sense of them. John could do both. But right now, he was merely staring at the symbols, his mind elsewhere.
John heard the footfalls and he knew Kyle had entered the room. John didn't move. He stood there, staring blindly at the files. He sort of felt like a shit for making Kyle wait. It certainly wasn't something a friend should do to a friend. But regardless of what some of the men might have thought, he and Kyle weren't really friends. That wasn't possible. John kept Kyle Reese at arm's length, even when they were in Century together and Kyle was just a kid.
John could lie to himself and say the distance was a deliberate tactic. But it wasn't really. Sure it would have been difficult to form a close friendship with someone knowing you would one day have to sacrifice them for the greater good. But in these dark days, that could have been true of anyone, any friendship. McManuss was as close as John got to truly having a friend and both he and McManuss knew that if the situation necessitated it, John would sacrifice him in a heartbeat. It was how it had to be. Humanity was on the brink.
John could also lie to himself and say that he didn't want to risk anyone noticing the family resemblance between himself and Kyle Reese. But the truth was, the resemblance was fleeting at best. John always favored his mother in appearance. And even if he had looked exactly like his father, no one in their right mind would ever suspect that Kyle was John's father. No one expected the Spanish Inquisition. And no one expected a twenty-four year old kid to be John Connor's father.
The reason John maintained his distance was because Kyle Reese had always made him nervous. It was absurd. John knew that. He knew objectively that Kyle had a serious case of hero worship for him. But it didn't make John feel any less nervous when staring into the eyes of his much younger father. John had thirty-four years (forty-two if you went by his actual DOB) of pent up daddy issues that didn't care if Kyle Reese was just a kid. Kyle Reese was also his father. And the one thing John Connor had wanted more than anything for his entire life was to know his father. And for just as long, he'd known it wasn't possible.
Looking up, John said, "Reese," in acknowledgement.
"Sir," Kyle answered.
Since they broke out of Century, John saw Kyle every month or two, a nod in the tunnels here, shared water rations there. In fact, it was only a couple of weeks ago when he last saw Kyle. But it had obviously been a long time since he truly assessed the young man. John looked – really looked – at Kyle and was more than a little shocked to realize that the kid from Century wasn't so much a kid anymore. He was a man.
Kyle was tall and leanly muscled, far healthier looking than should have been possible given the circumstances. Even with humanity spinning on the edge, Kyle Reese was a man in his prime.
Kyle was tired, John could see the fatigue clearly etched on his features. And like everyone else, Kyle would have benefited greatly from a shower and a shave and a hot meal. But he wasn't going to get any of those things. And yet Kyle stood rigidly at attention, the perfect soldier.
John pushed away from the table and stood, openly watching his father. Kyle was slightly taller than John, maybe even a little taller than Derek, though Derek was broader shouldered than either of them. Despite what Derek might have said when John was younger, John saw little resemblance between himself and his father. But he did note somewhere in the back of his mind that his eldest son, Joe, looked quite a bit like Kyle.
"Sir," Kyle said again, shifting his weight uncomfortably on the balls of his feet.
John pursed his lips together, looking away. Even after all this time, the sound of Kyle's voice never failed to surprise him. He somehow always expected Kyle to sound like Derek. And he didn't. Where Derek was loud and brash and gratingly bitchy with his dry wit and biting sarcasm, Kyle was unnervingly soft spoken and almost painfully earnest.
"McManuss said you volunteered," John said, reaching in his pocket for a cigarette and lighting it. He noticed Kyle watching the cigarette and he shrugged. "Bad habit," he said. "I should quit. It's how I lost my uncle." He omitted the part where Derek used the cigarette to light the plastique's fuse and blew himself and one of the triple eights all to hell.
Kyle didn't respond. He just stood there, watching his General.
John sighed, dragging his free hand through his hair. "I have a message for you, Reese. They briefed you, right? You know where you're going. When."
Kyle nodded, swallowing thickly, eyes downcast. "1984. To protect Sarah Connor."
John could see the blush staining Kyle's dirty cheeks.
John looked away, unexpectedly disturbed. He had known his entire life where Kyle was going. And why. Hell, it's why he gave Kyle the picture of Sarah. And yet, now, thinking of sending Kyle back in time solely for the purpose of impregnating his mother was decidedly uncomfortable. John chuckled under his breath, finding a perverse reassurance in the emotion. He thought of the gagging noises his own children made when he and Kate were openly affectionate with one another. For one perfect, singular moment, he felt absolutely like Kyle Reese's son. And he would rather stab himself in the eye than think about what Kyle and Sarah were going to do.
All those thoughts occurred within the space of a heartbeat and John covered the chuckle with a cough, holding up the cigarette for cover.
"A message?" Kyle asked, canting his head slightly to the side.
John sobered completely, looking at the young man, knowing his mission would invariably end in death. Suddenly, it was incredibly important that Kyle understand the gravity, that he have a chance to decide. John knew it was crazy. Kyle had to go back. But John couldn't stop himself from giving Kyle the opportunity to back out. "Nothing dead can go," John said. "Just you. No weapons, no notes, no proof of where you came from or who you are. You'll have to fight the machine. And you'll have to convince Sarah. And no one can help you."
Kyle met his gaze, held it for a long moment and nodded firmly. "I can do it."
John smiled grudgingly, relieved even though his existence was proof of what Kyle's response would be. "I know."
Kyle's brow furrowed in confusion, but before he could ask John to elaborate, John cut him off. "I have a message for Sarah. You'll have to memorize it and repeat it to her."
"Yes, Sir," Kyle said.
John reached in his shirt pocket and pulled out the aged piece of paper. Not that he needed it. He could have easily recited the message from memory. But he didn't feel like saying it aloud to Kyle. It felt somehow too intimate, too much. So he withdrew the paper, written in Sarah's own hand. And he handed it to Kyle.
Some children grew up with fairy tales. John Connor grew up with an intricate series of mindfucks, the majority of which, it turned out, had been orchestrated by himself, so he figured he wasn't exactly entitled to bitch about it. As he'd told Cameron, his mother had often read him the story of the Wizard of Oz – in Spanish – as a bedtime story. But many, many nights as he was drifting to sleep, Sarah whispered Kyle's message against the shell of his ear like a prayer.
Thank you, Sarah, for your courage through the dark years. I can't help you with what you must soon face, except to say that the future is not set. You must be stronger than you imagine you can be. You must survive, or I will never exist.
Kyle read the passage several times and then folded it and put it in his own pocket. "Is this really real?" he asked quietly.
John nodded. "It is."
John smiled. "I did it myself once. Hurts like a bitch. I wish there was something that I could do about that, but I can't."
Kyle nodded solemnly, looking John directly in the eyes.
John swallowed thickly, forced to look away. "You're a hero," he said, marveling inwardly that he'd said this innumerable times about his father, but this was the only time he would ever say it to his father. "Without you, we wouldn't have won."
Kyle smiled that same slightly lopsided grin Joe had. "We haven't won yet," he said, obviously uneasy with such praise from the usually taciturn John Connor.
"We will," John answered firmly. "We will."