He's going out, him and the other one. There has been a dispute about this. His mother had not wanted him to go. But their supplies were at a desperate low, and his mother's condition had degenerated to the point where she could neither go herself nor summon sufficient time in a conscious state to argue the matter further.

It was a gut wound, that much they knew. It might have been Sarkissian, but they'd had that one looked at. And there had been other matters since, only some of which they knew about. John is, as his mother put it, testing the boundaries, which means that he is doing things without telling her, and she is doing things without telling him. Some days, he would get a lead on a contact who might have information relating to the hard drive they had stolen. So he would drive off with that other one--Uncle Derek, he was called--and try to track it down. He had yet to come home with noticeable injuries, but his clothing had manifested visible damage more than once. His mother was just as bad, except that her clothing had manifested signs of actual penetration. And on more than one occasion, she had been alarmingly vague as to just where on her person the clothing had been when this happened.

Two days ago, there had been messages, one for him, one for her, and they had gone off again. She came home limping, her hands tucked up around her sides as if she needed them to hold her skin together. That night, there was vomiting. The morning later, she woke up with chills, and later, fever. She has not yet summoned Charley. He hasn't either. But they are almost out of food, and more vitally, aspirin, which is all they have to give her. So he is going out.

"I'm on him," Derek insists.

John rolls his eyes. "Come on. Doesn't your heart just bleed for humanity if its future saviour can't even be trusted to go buy some food?"

"This has nothing to do with that," Derek says. "Your mother..."

"Screw that. I'm a big boy now."

"Yeah. You know what big boys do?"

He smirks. "Buy groceries without their moms?"

"That. And they show some respect for those moms, especially when they've..."

"Whoa. Don't go there, man."

"Fine. She'll worry, you know. She worries, when you're not around."

"She worries when she can't keep an eye on me. I can handle things. She taught me to handle things."

"And if she were saner right now, she'd remember that. Do you want to push her when she's like this?"

He nods to the bedroom, where she's rolling in the sweat-wrapped sheets with audible whimpers.

"Call Charley," Derek says. "It's past due, John. Call Charley to take care of this."

"Her call."

"But you're being the leader, aren't you? Big boy now?"

"I mean it, Derek Back off on this. You'd better back off."

"She needs help, John. It's bad this time."

"It's always bad. And involving other people? That's more bad."

"That's a cop-out, and you know it. It's Charley. He can help this time."

"He can always help. Until his help brings them on us. Or worse, on him. Think she could live with herself if that happened on account on her? Think I could?"

"But..."

"No. Bringing Charley in, that's her call. Now, have you got the list?"

"Got it."

They turn, both remembering in time that she's here too.

"Watch her," John says. "Do what you can."

She nods. He rifles through his mother's purse, finds fifty dollars. Then he tosses something her way. "This is the last of it. Use it well."

And he leaves. He does not look down to see that she's caught it. She doesn't either. She can hear the last of the aspirin rattling around in its tiny plastic home as the bottle settles in her hands where it has landed.

They are gone now. She has downloaded a first aid manual from the internet, and she goes into the bedroom to examine the subject. Sarah, she reminds herself. Mrs. Connor. Mom. She knows John prefers it when she uses words like these. She decides upon 'Sarah' as she approaches the subject's bedside. It seems appropriate for a situation such as this one.

"Sarah," she says. And then "How are you feeling?"

The subject writhes again, turns a white, flushed face toward the sound of her voice with a choked laugh that breaks off into a whimper. And tears.

"Fucking hurts," the subject says.

"No cursing," she says. "It's bad for him. Isn't it bad for him, hearing that?"

The subject--Sarah, she firmly reminds herself--laughs again. "Least of our problems. Fuck. Fuck. Fuck."

And she makes the connection. "It makes you feel better, than."

"It makes me feel angry."

"And anger is better than pain?"

"Anger is energizing. I need that right now. God, why am I even talking to you?"

She ignores the question. "I can help," she offers. "I've downloaded a more recent first aid manual, and..."

Sarah sucks in a breath, trying to blink away the streaks from watering eyes. "I'm going to throw up again."

She watches as Sarah struggles weakly onto her elbows, then collapses with a moan, her eyes rolling backward, clenched lids fluttering quickly. She recognizes these, from the first aid manual, as signs of impending malfunction. A seizure. Like a glitch in a chip.

She does not attempt to restrain her. The manual is clear on this. That can cause damage, especially in a case like this one, where the full extent of the location and severity of other traumas has yet to be assessed. She stronger, anyway. She could hurt her unintentionally.

She waits until the thrashing ceases and Sarah's eyes roll back again. She pokes her gently. Unconscious. Probably for the best, given the state she's is in. She reaches over and lifts Sarah's right arm over her head, then draws up the knee and uses it as leverage to gently flip her over into the recovery position. The manual instructs that the subject--Sarah, she reminds herself again--should remain as so until medical intervention arrives to assist her.

She knows this isn't imminent. She ponders her other options and recalls that Sarah was rendered unconscious before she had opportunities to refuse or accept her offer of assistance. The manual was clear that while consent is generally preferable (and she did follow the steps to obtain it, identifying herself and stating that she was trained in first aid) unconsciousness is considered life-threatening and is therefore implied consent. That's all she needs to know. She pulls back the edges of Sarah's tank top and shorts, and appraises her body for signs of injury.

There is a bump on the head, a large one, probably caused by a blow from a blunt, heavy object. Running down the side her torso, from the point of the neck just underneath this blow, is a clean line of bruises consistent with a fall one might endure after taking such a hit. There are other bruises, elsewhere. These do not concern her. The cause of the immediate crisis is obvious even with an exam as cursory as this one: a gut wound, as she suspected, a large gash with jagged edges oozing a puss-like fluid from rank, blackened cuts. Infection.

She avails herself of the opportunity to clean the wound and apply a fresh bandage. Sarah's skin is hot when she touches. Black-market antibiotics are easy enough to come by, but it may be past that point right now. Beneath her fingers, Sarah stirs.

"Sarah?"

The groan is unintelligible.

She spies a half-filled water bottle dripping on the bedside table.

"Here," she says. "Have some. You're sweating too much."

"Hot," Sarah says. Her breathing is shallow and coming in sharp, short bursts.

"You have a fever," she says. "A high one."

Sarah flinches, and tries to move again.

"You also have an infection," she says. "A bad one. You should never let a gut wound go untreated."

The subject--Sarah, she tells herself one last time--scrunches shut her eyes again, trying, with a desperate heave of her body, to get in a good breath.

"He...could have..."

"What?" she prompts.

"Could have...called Charley."

"He seems to think that would be up to you."

The shake of her head is vehement, in spite of the pain. "He's...leading. I'm...letting him...feel it out..."

"You're suffering."

"He...needs..."

"You need medical attention. You need Charley."

She coughs, then struggles to slip into a more comfortable position. "Too hot."

"Drink this. Please."

She makes her sputter down a few sips, then watches as her patient drifts into uneasy sleep. She remains vigilant. It really is past the point where aid should be summoned here. They require pharmaceutical products administered by well-stocked professionals. She knows that John, however independent he might wish to be right now, does not want his mother to die. Surely he doesn't want that?

Sarah stirs again, but she seems calmer this time, and her breathing is smoother again. She flips onto her side with a laboured grunt.

"Can you help me up for a second?"

She is instantly alert, and attentive. "You shouldn't be moving right now."

"Yeah. So, can you help me up?"

"Where to?"

"Look, Robot Nanny, I'm not really in the mood for negotiating, I just want to stretch for a second."

She helps her up, keeps two firm arms around her and helps her limp to the bathroom. She hears noises, then flushing. Then retching.

This can't be good. She'll pull the wound, if she's at it very long. Or worse, she'll dehydrate, which will only make her sicker. She puts a hand on the door, knocks lightly.

"Sarah?"

It's a mess in there. She's obviously suffering, bent over the toilet bowl in a piteous collapse as she tries to cough and cry and breathe all together. She looks up, red-faced, tear-streaked, and there is panic in her eyes. Then she crumbles, falls hard on her back and stares up at the ceiling, breath coming in panicked, desperate gasps.

"Sarah?" She leans over, assesses the fast, thready pulse. "Deep breaths, okay? Let me help you. Let me help."

She says nothing more, picks her up, moves her back to the wet, sticky bed. "Deep breaths," she says again. Calm down, it will be easier. Deep, steady breaths."

A moment later, they can talk again.

"Wow," Sarah says. "Fuck."

"Yes. Fuck. Fuck. Fuck."

That gets a small smile. "You learn fast."

"Yes, I do. Very fast."

"So, can you...can you fix any of this? Without Charley?"

"You have an infection. And possibly a concussion too. You require medical attention."

"His call."

"Your body."

"Yeah, but his call. This time, anyway. He wants to be the leader. I'm letting him see how that goes."

"And how is it going?"

At once, it's bad again. She coughs, then spasms into a fit of thrashing as she struggles to catch her breath.

"Sarah. Slow down. Stay calm."

"Can't...can't...can't..."

"Stay calm. Stay calm."

"Can't...breathe..."

"You can. Breathe. Breathe."

Her body slackens, exhaustion taking over where will does not. But there are rattles in her chest as it rises and falls in painful hitches.

"Call for help," she says again.

Sarah blinks again, trying to clear the desperation from her eyes. "His...call..."

"No, it's your call. It's always been your call. He needs you."

Sarah looks at her, eyes briefly clearing and body relaxing as she makes her choice. "I know he does. I just...need him to be the one to let me in..."

She groans, then flips over onto her side and retches, coughing out sputtering drips of water and acid and agony. When John walks in on them, his mother is so far gone that she's conceded to trying to restrain her. He finds them spooning on the bed together, her body hugging tight against his mother as she thrashes against her, desperate hands clenching the air in front of her as if she could get it in by will alone. At once, the bravado leaks from his eyes and he is a boy again.

"Call Charley," he says. " Mom! Mom!" He bats her away and takes over the vigil for her. "Call Charley. Mom, I'm here. I need you. Mom! Mom!"

They are talking again, and as usual, they forget that she can hear them. Charley has come and gone. His alarm at their inaction--she told them herself, you should never leave a gut wound--fades to brisk business as he gets his eye on the job ahead of him. He stabilizes her with pain-killers and antibiotics, an IV drip to rehydrate her, and an exam assess the concussion. She sleeps for awhile. When she wakes up again, she is peaceful and numb from the medication, and John is, as Derek puts it, climbing the walls, desperate to see her.

And they talk.

"You scared the hell out of me," John says.

She still sounds sleepy. "Yeah."

"You should have called Charley."

"Your call," she tells him.

"No. He was yours. Charley was always yours."

"Not this time. Your call. That's what you wanted, isn't it?"

"What, this? Mom, how can you..."

And he remembers. Remembers how angry he was, how he blamed her, how he shut her out.

"I was trying to be the leader."

"Yeah."

"And I should have made that call. I should have got Charley."

"Uh huh."

"And I should have been with you, shouldn't I? When it...when it happened? I shouldn't have gone off. WE shouldn't have gone off."

They are both quiet for a moment.

"So, you're done?" she finally asks him.

"What? Done what?"

"Done punishing me."

"Mom!"

"No. You were angry. And I deserved some of that. You screwed up this one. But maybe I screwed up the other, and you were angry. We never talked about it."

"Mom, I wasn't angry. I was scared."

"You were angry. At yourself, maybe, for being scared. And at me, for making you that way. We crossed a line, John. I crossed it, no going back. And then you..."

"I crossed it too," he says. His voice breaks a little. "I'm not ready. Mom, I tried, and I screwed it up and almost lost you, and I'm not ready..."

"Shhhh, baby, it's okay, it's okay. Breathe, John. Slow, deep breaths. I'm here, baby. I'm here."

They cry together, and hold each other. "Mom, I need you," he says.

"John, I need you too."

"Could we try again? Together, maybe? I mean, I need to learn, you see that now, right? I need to learn."

"Yes. You need to learn."

"So you'll teach me. And yeah, on some things, you maybe do need to start letting go a little."

"Yes. Fine."

"But I can't shut you out again. Cause you know, I can maybe learn to be my own boss a little. But I can't ever learn to be my own mom..."

It takes her a moment to answer him. And when she does, she surprises him.

"Your cake," she says.

"Mom, are you..."

"I'm fine. John, I'm sorry. We never had your cake."

"What?"

"When all this started. Sarkissian, the fire...we were getting you cake, for your birthday."

"Mom..."

"No, you're right. Mom first, fighter second. I'm sorry. We never had the cake."

"Mom, don't worry about that. Just worry about getting better, so that we can..."

"Time enough for that. We'll have a party first, celebrate your birthday. After that, we can talk about saving the world."

"It'll be better now," he says.

"Yeah. It will. Look how late it is."

"You tired?"

"Maybe. But you..."

"What about me?"

"It's a school night."

"Aren't I sort of home-schooled now?"

"John Connor, I am still your mother, and as long as you are living under my roof, you are in bed before 12 on a school night, Saviour of Mankind or not, do you understand me?"

"Cause you still get to be the mom?"

"Damn straight. Now, let me sleep a little. And John?"

"Hmmm?"

"You know I'll be up on my feet again in a day or so."

"Okay..."

"So I am sending Derek out for cake supplies. You have until noon tomorrow to tell me which flavour, or I make an executive decision."

"Tomorrow? But Charley says you need to..."

"Charley likes to err on the side of caution. Now, you know how this works. You want to be the Big Decision Making Boss instead of me sometimes? Here's your chance. Noon tomorrow."

"Yes ma'am."

"I suggest chocolate."

"Mom!"

"Sorry, sorry. I'm letting go. I am letting Mr. Big Adult Decision Maker rule us all."

"Vanilla," he says.

He waits for her. When she is true to her world and does not seek further influence, he relents. "Chocolate, then. For the good of the team."

Morning finds them curled up in bed together. Healing.

The end