Caught in the Undertow By devra and JoaG

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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.

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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.

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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."

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"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.

"Enjoy what?"

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."

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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."

"But≈"

"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.

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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?"

"Honestly?"

"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."

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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?"

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'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."

"Sorry."

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."

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"Derek's worried."

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."

"You're welcome."

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..."

"Future John?"

"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.

"You're upset."

"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."

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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.

"No?"

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 crХme 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.

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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.

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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."

"One more≈"

"Now."

"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."

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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."

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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."

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"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≈"

"Past tense."

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'.

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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?"

"No. No."

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?"

Silence.

"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?"

"You might."

"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?"

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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."

"Yup."

"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."

"But..."

"Tick, tock."

"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.

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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.

"John."

"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?"

"My head."

"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.

"No."

He switched to the left side.

"Ow. There."

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.

"Anywhere else?"

"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?"

"Dizzy."

"I know. Give it a minute. Hopefully it'll pass."

"Not passing."

"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.

"You okay?"

"Yeah." The word came out sort of strangled. "I... Uh..."

"It's okay."

"No. Dizzy."

"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 fell."

"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?"

"I'm sorry."

"I'm not."

"What?"

"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.

"You okay?"

"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.

"Throbs."

"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.

"Just those."