Title: Five Birthdays
Fandom: Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles
Characters: Sarah and John.
Rating: T. Mainly harmless, tiny amount of bad language.
Word Count: Approx 4,700
Notes: A companion piece, of sorts, to Five Christmases. I love playing around with the background of the show and I couldn't resist. I do hereby solemnly promise not to continue and write Five Easters or Five Thanksgivings… Dates, damn dates and statistics. Last time I went with movie dates, this time it's TSCC dates, so there are discrepancies. Sorry.
Thanks, as ever, to Cat for beta and Roxy for pointing out my British foibles and helping with the dates.
Disclaimer: No one seems to want these guys at the moment, so I guess they're ours to play with.
. . . . .
. . . . .
This wasn't the way it was supposed to be. There should have been a clean hospital room, and ice chips, and smiling, rosy-cheeked nurses who would be quick to reassure her and even quicker to numb her pain. And Kyle. Most of all, there should have been Kyle Reese, to hold her hand and then hold her gun when she couldn't.
Not this. Not the taste of cheap rum and bile. Not the smell of blood, the rich coppery stink made even worse by the humidity of the midday heat. There were hands holding hers, but they were only there to stop her from thrashing, and they were gripping too tightly. A man, Alvaro, the camp's medic, was apologizing over and over, in Spanish, in English. The words ran into each other like a prayer repeated by rote.
There was nothing to numb the pain. The rum they gave her choked her and made her gag, but for those few seconds it stopped her from screaming, and some distant, detached part of herself realized that was why they kept pouring it into her mouth. More words, more garbled Spanish. She recognized pull and now and finally oh fuck, because that seemed to be the same in any language. The man holding her right arm let go and quickly moved to help Alvaro. She dug her fingers into the dirt and leaves, driving splinters of wood beneath her nails as she tried so hard to stay conscious.
"Un niño pequeño." Alvaro's voice trembled and broke, and she knew he was crying. "Sarah, a little boy."
It took all of her energy to nod. A careful hand lifted her head slightly to enable her to see her son. She was gasping for breath, her chest heavy and her vision failing as blood pooled beneath her. The tiny baby in Alvaro's arms let out a thin, indignant wail as if protesting the violence of his introduction to the world. John Connor might have been small, but he was already fighting. Sarah reached out her hand to him, her fingers grasping for his, managing only the faintest of touches before everything faded away.
. . . . .
The creak of the door woke John. Within seconds, he was scrambling to his knees, instantly alert and intent on throwing himself beneath his bed. His mother had trained him well, but it was her own form that he could just about distinguish in the dim glow of his night-light. He hesitated, his brow crinkling with confusion. Sarah crossed the small room in a couple of paces, knelt by the bedside and placed a finger on his lips. He nodded in understanding, his eyes wide and hopeful.
"Jacket and shoes on," she whispered directly into his ear. "I'll get your bag."
There was always a bag, hidden away at the bottom of the closet and packed full of spare clothes, along with his favorite book and no more than three toys. He was dressed by the time she uncovered it, his boots completing an incongruous ensemble along with his sleep-scruffy hair and pajama bottoms.
He nodded and slipped his hand into hers, pulling a face at the warm, sweaty feel of her palm. The house was dark, and only the brightness of the moonlight showed him where to walk. As they passed the bedroom he could hear Jorge snoring, a thick, wet noise that John had always hated, until now, when it hid the sound of his boots crossing the floor. The click of the front door seemed impossibly loud and when the snoring suddenly stopped he caught his breath. He saw his mother reach for the gun tucked into the back of her jeans, but when the mattress springs creaked and the snoring started up again she left it where it was.
Outside, the air was moist with the aftermath of a summer storm. John took deep breaths to rid himself of the stale tobacco and fried food smell that seemed to have been clinging to him for the past four months. At his side he could hear his mother doing the same. She boosted him up into the front seat of the truck and fastened his seat belt.
"Go back to sleep, John," she said, starting the engine. He immediately shook his head, and she made no attempt to argue with him. An hour later, when they had crossed the state line and were still the only vehicle on the road, he curled up in his seat and looked towards Sarah. At her nod of reassurance, he pulled his jacket tighter around himself and allowed his eyes to close.
. . . . .
Sarah had driven all night and most of the morning; her hand shook with exhaustion as she turned the key in the motel door. At a dubious car sales lot, she had made the owner's day by trading Jorge's truck for a battered Jeep, and John was still dozing on the torn leather of the Jeep's front seat. When she gently rested her hand on his forehead, he blinked at her and smiled.
"Are we there?"
She laughed quietly. She really hadn't had a destination in mind. "Well, we're somewhere," she said, "and it has a pool."
His smile widened, but that pulled on the bruise which covered the left side of his face, and he put his fingers up to his cheek, tears filling his eyes. Sarah bit her lip hard, and lifted him from the seat.
A bath, a dose of Tylenol and a story-chapter later, and he was sleeping again, sprawled on top of her with his fist tucked beneath her chin.
It had been her mistake. Jorge had been too useful. He had excellent contacts, military training, and expertise with all kinds of plastic explosives. That had made her tolerate the occasional slap or bloodied nose, and he had never raised a hand against John. She knew now that she should never have stayed after that first time. It was a harsh lesson, but no knowledge or skill was worth the price that John had had to pay.
She could barely remember what had started the argument, but she remembered the fist across her son's face that had ended it. Her back ached where Jorge's boot had pounded her as she crouched over John's prone form. After a final frenzy of curses and kicks, Jorge had lost interest and returned to his bottle of Tequila. Throughout it all John hadn't made a sound, but he had whimpered softly when she lifted him, his eyes full of hurt and betrayal. The lesson had been harshest for him.
The fact that Sarah had stolen most of Jorge's money along with his beloved truck was scant consolation to her.
. . . . .
"C'mon, mom, you promised."
"I know. I'm coming. One minute." Sarah finished wrapping the parcel and placed it carefully back into her duffel bag. A quick check in the mirror reassured her that her shirt covered her swimsuit and her bruises. She went out into the main room where John was fairly dancing with impatience.
It was late afternoon and the pool was deserted. Even at that hour, a heat haze shimmered across the tattered grass verges. Sarah lifted her face into the sun and felt the muscles knotted at the back of her neck begin to relax slightly. A loud splash announced John's entrance into the water. She sat on the warm tiles, dangling her feet over the edge, and watched as he swam strongly towards a ball that someone had left behind. For half an hour no-one disturbed them, and when he begged her to swim with him she shrugged out of her shirt and did as he asked. The sun was low in the sky and he still hadn't mentioned his birthday, but she hadn't forgotten. She had packed his present and his card, and they had more than enough money to go out for dinner. The only thing she hadn't managed to find when she had stopped hours ago at the 7-11 was five candles to put on his cake.
. . . . .
"One name? Is that all?"
"Yeah." John peered up at his foster mom through the mess of lank hair that fell down into his eyes, as if daring her to contradict him.
With a sigh, she didn't even try. "Fine. Invite Tim over. We can go for burgers or to the movies."
John shrugged and went back out into the garage. He really didn't give a shit either way. Rock music blared when he switched the cassette player on. It was loud enough to drown out the laughter of a small girl running alongside her brother's push bike, and the persistent tinkling of the wind-chimes Janelle had hung across the porch. Twisting the handle hard, John revved the bike twice, and then took up a cloth and began to polish the red plating of its bodywork.
He didn't want a birthday party. Birthday parties were for normal kids with lots of friends, not the weird foster kid whose mom had been locked up for being a psycho.
A dog barked suddenly, its distress picked up by several others to form a frantic chorus. Ducking low, John automatically scanned the street. He saw nothing but lawn sprinklers and sunshine and scattered children's toys. The dogs quietened one by one and he stood up, scuffing his toe against the concrete and feeling like an idiot. He turned the music up another notch and went back to work.
. . . . .
The movie had been crap, but the burgers had been good, and the half-glass of beer that Todd had let John and Tim have back at the house had been even better. For a few hours, John forgot. The new lights his foster parents had given him for his bike were pretty cool, and he liked the Public Enemy T-shirt that Tim had probably stolen, because there was no way he had the money to buy it. Janelle had smiled and ruffled John's hair when he had blown his candles out, and they had eaten cake and candy and watched a better movie on television.
It was after ten by the time Tim's stepdad came over to collect him, and John walked out with them. He nodded and made the right noises in the right places as Tim chattered on about a girl in their class, but he wasn't listening. Mostly he was hoping that Tim would hurry up and leave, and that his foster parents weren't watching.
The car back-fired twice, a burst of filthy smoke polluting the sweetness of the air, and Tim flipped him the bird out of the passenger window as it disappeared down the street. Turning back towards the house, John wiped his clammy hands on his jeans and walked over to the Voights' mailbox. He knew Janelle had already emptied it. He knew he had opened all five of his cards, but he stubbornly clung onto the hope that something had been missed or maybe misdirected. The hinge squeaked as he opened the box, and continued to squeak as the lid swung freely in the gentle breeze. It stopped squeaking when he slammed the lid shut and ran back inside.
"John." Janelle was standing in the kitchen, cradling a mug of coffee, her face fixed with concern. He ignored her, storming past into his bedroom and slamming his door closed, as Todd's lazy drawl told Janelle to leave him be.
Sitting cross-legged on the floor, John pulled his duffel bag from the bottom of the closet and unzipped its inner pocket. The plastic wallet was still exactly where he had hidden it. He reached his hand up, his fingers scrabbling around on his bedside table until they found what he was looking for. When he flicked the Zippo lighter open, its flame made a sudden flare of light. Tears burned in his eyes as he stared at the only photograph he had of his mother. She had lied to him for years, fed him a load of bullshit about the machines, forced him time and again to leave behind the few friends he had ever made. And she had forgotten his birthday.
The tip of the flame began to melt the corner of the Polaroid's protective covering. He watched the plastic contort and ooze, and then he drew a shuddering breath and smothered the flame. Without bothering to undress, he crawled beneath his sheets and curled up on his side. His fingers still clutched the Polaroid tightly. He would put it back in the morning.
. . . . .
The sound of a dish smashing in the kitchen woke John up. There were still six minutes to go before his alarm was due, which meant that his mother had only had around four and a half hours' sleep. She was cursing softly in a creative mixture of English and Spanish. Trying not to laugh at some of her more choice phrases, he pulled on a tattered sweater and followed the smell of burning into the kitchen.
At the sound of his voice, Sarah turned away from the smoking skillet and smiled ruefully at her son. "Hey." She moved a step to her left, as if attempting to hide the carnage that remained on the stove. "Me and your birthday breakfast…" Something popped loudly behind her and she winced, "…we had some issues."
"Yeah." It was an effort to keep his face straight as he pushed the kitchen window open as wide as it would go. "I noticed."
With a hand on each of her shoulders, he guided her to sit at the kitchen table. Taking up the skillet, he squinted at the charred remnants. "So, what was this supposed to be?"
"Pancakes and bacon." Mortified, she covered her face with her hands.
He dumped the skillet into the sink and began to run hot water over it. "Anything you didn't destroy?"
"There's spare mix on the counter and bacon in the fridge. I can…"
He gestured at her to stay seated. "You were at work till two. You should be in bed, mom."
There were dark circles beneath her eyes. She had pulled three double-shifts that week and they were still struggling to make ends meet. They did have money, hidden away in caches with weapons and other supplies, but it was never easy to access, and she had been determined not to come to rely on it if she could earn a wage instead. For now, they were managing, and the caches remained untouched.
She watched John as he arranged strips of bacon in the freshly-scrubbed skillet and then poured her a mug of coffee. Taking hold of the mug, she let the steam warm her face and sighed contentedly.
"You stopping by the diner after school?"
"Is the shake machine fixed?"
"Then I'll stop by the diner after school." He grinned and handed her her breakfast before sitting down to his own laden plate.
"Happy birthday, John."
He hesitated, halfway through drowning his pancakes in maple syrup. "Thanks, mom," he said quietly.
She smiled, and then started to laugh as a thought occurred to her. "Would it make your day any easier if I promised not to make you a cake this year?"
The expression of relief on his face was answer enough.
. . . . .
"Here you go. Tony says it's on the house." Sarah set the glass down in front of John, who raised the milkshake in a salute of thanks to the diner's owner and then sucked a huge mouthful up through the straw. Acknowledging the impatient gestures of a man sitting in a booth with three plump children, Sarah pulled her notepad from her apron. "Give me half an hour, then I'm done, okay?"
John swallowed, his eyes wide with surprise. "You're coming home? I thought…"
She smiled. "I swapped with Wanda. I have to work Saturday instead, but I have tonight off." A pause as she studied his face almost hopefully. "Unless you have plans, that is."
He shook his head. "No, no plans."
"Didn't even tell anyone, huh?" He had made a few friends at school, but no-one had ever been to the house and he seemed determined not to put down any roots this time. He shrugged and slurped his shake, and she didn't push the point any further.
The man with the children was getting progressively redder in the face. Sarah started to move in his direction, but stopped and looked back to John. "How's burgers and fries followed by cherry pie sound?"
His face brightened instantly. "Perfect," he said, and then looked faintly worried. "Mom, you better get over there before that guy explodes."
The look she gave him implied that she was quite sanguine about such a possibility, but when she turned away her smile was back in place and she greeted the customer cheerfully. Waitressing had always been an easy job for her to fall back on. It provided a regular income, there were often free meals, and the hours allowed for a certain amount of flexibility.
"Sorry for keeping you waiting, sir. Would you like to hear the specials?"
She was already writing the man's order down. He was never interested in the specials and his order never changed. She nodded and pretended to listen, and ignored the youngest child as he blew spitballs at her through his straw. Being a waitress was exhausting and tedious and often annoying, but for those hours she was playing the role Sarah was afforded the rare luxury of not having to think.
. . . . .
John held the magazine up in front of his face and squinted inconspicuously over the top of it. His mother had changed out of her work clothes and was standing at the counter waiting for the last of their order. She was talking to a uniformed man perched on one of the counter stools and her face was lit up with laughter, not the polite laughter that she could turn on and off at will to charm a target, but laughter that reached her eyes and took the tired lines away from her face.
In a matter of seconds, she sensed John watching her and gestured for him to come over. "Just waiting for the pie," she said, and then took a slightly nervous breath. "This is Charley. He looked after Trish when she burned herself last week; he's a paramedic."
Charley had close-cropped hair and an open, easy-going smile. He held his hand out to John. "Good to meet you."
John nodded, pleasantly surprised that Charley didn't follow up with the usual your mom's told me a lot about you, because that would've been a lie. Instead, he sipped his coffee, ate his burger, and made small-talk about motorcycles and the previous night's television. By the time Sarah had collected their pie, he was sketching an engine part on a napkin, and a barbecue had been penciled in for the following weekend.
He carried one of their bags out to the truck with them. "Sunday, then, about two?" he said, holding the driver's door open for Sarah.
"Great. I should have that part for you by then, John."
John took the bag from him and tried not to smile too broadly. He already liked Charley, but there had to be a catch. There was always a catch. As Sarah pulled the truck out of the parking lot, John tried but couldn't for the life of him figure out what it was.
. . . . .
"He good with fake paper?"
"Black market drugs?"
His brow furrowed with curiosity, John dipped a fry into a lake of ketchup.
"First aid skills? Y'know, mom, it's been a few years since you last got shot."
Sarah narrowed her eyes at her son and bit down into a pickle. "Maybe I just like him. He's a nice guy."
John choked over-dramatically on his fry and then realized that she wasn't laughing. "Wait. Seriously?"
"No ulterior motive?"
She shook her head, a faint flush coloring her cheeks.
"Background check out?" he asked, quietly.
"Yes," she answered, just as quietly.
Standing to gather their empty plates together, John wrapped his arm around her shoulders and gave her a quick half-hug. "Then what the hell; I like him too, mom."
. . . . .
They ate pie and then cake on the front porch, as the sun dropped low in the sky and the air began to pick up a cool edge. When John had finally laid his spoon down, Sarah lifted the parcel that had been lying by her feet and carefully placed it on his lap.
"I hope you like it."
He raised an eyebrow, genuinely baffled. The thing weighed a ton and definitely wasn't the computer game he had been dropping so many hints about. The light on the porch was dim, and even after tearing away the paper he struggled to work out what it was. When he finally did, he held it up, balancing its base on his knee.
"A flak jacket?" His tone implied that he was less than impressed.
Sarah gave him a troubled look. "I thought you'd prefer the black, but they had it in khaki as well, if that'd be better."
"It's not really about the color, mom."
She managed to maintain her composure for another few seconds before she started to laugh. "They were on special, and you do need one. But, here…" She held out a white envelope, "I figured the rest of your present might be better left to you."
There was money in the envelope, more money than he knew she could afford. "Mom…"
She cut him off. "Double-shifts, John. I've been saving that for months, so we're okay, really."
"Yeah?" He still didn't sound convinced.
"Okay. Thanks, mom." He folded the envelope carefully and tucked it into his pocket before standing up and kissing the top of her head. "I'm gonna go to bed. G'night."
When he had headed back into the house, she leaned forward on the bench seat and rubbed a hand across her face. Her feet ached and her eyes burned from lack of sleep, but John seemed to have had a good day, and that was all that concerned her. She had had her son back for almost five years now, and he didn't need to know that she was still fighting to make up for the time they had lost.
. . . . .
The gun felt cool and heavy in Sarah's hand, and she tightened her grip on it even though she knew that it wouldn't be enough to stop the machine. She shifted slightly, trying to relieve the persistent ache in her abdomen. The smell of incense mixed uneasily with the cloying sweetness of the blood seeping through her dressings. She licked her dry lips, feeling sick.
In front of her, stretched out across four chairs, John had finally fallen asleep. With the main lights extinguished, Cameron's outline was barely visible in the blue glow of the crucifix, but Sarah could see the machine clearly enough to know that it was keeping its distance from her son. After the day's events, that small concession didn't offer Sarah much comfort. If it had been up to her, Cameron would have been a pile of ashes in a car-wrecking yard. But then it hadn't been up to her.
She looked up when she heard the steady tread of footsteps moving down the aisle. Derek set another duffel bag beside the three he had already brought over from the ruin of their house, and then dropped to a crouch beside her.
"You should try and sleep, Sarah," he said in an undertone, holding out a mug of coffee that smelled strong enough to see her through the hours that remained until daylight.
Unwilling to relinquish her gun, she automatically tried to take the mug in her left hand but lowered it again with a hiss of pain.
"Need me to take a look at that?" He nodded towards the stained bandage on her upper arm.
"No." When she shook her head, the throbbing at the back of it intensified into a dull roar, but the lie still came easily to her. "I'm fine."
Sensibly, he chose not to push the point. He placed the mug on the floor, close enough to stop her having to reach for it, and left her to her vigil.
John seemed to sense Derek's movement and stirred restlessly, mumbling beneath his breath but stopping short of waking fully. Without thinking, Sarah brought her hand up to try to reassure him, but this time it wasn't the sudden bite of pain that made her hesitate. Her son didn't want her comfort and he didn't want her near him. When he had come out of the bathroom, the expression in his eyes had told her more than the few words he had managed to utter, and she had barely recognized the young man standing before her. It was only later, when he had settled himself down to sleep, that she had realized what he had done to his hair.
She swallowed a mouthful of the coffee, and gagged at its strength and the sugar Derek had put in it. Despite his insistence that she not take pain medication on an empty stomach, she hadn't eaten the sandwich she had made, but she hadn't actually taken any pain medication either. She told herself that pain meds would make her drowsy and dull her reactions, but her injuries and the concussion were already doing that. At least the codeine would have allowed her to be comfortable, and she wondered at what point she had given into the voice telling her she didn't deserve that.
Crouched beneath the altar of a god she didn't believe in, Sarah silently made her confession regardless. It was her fault. When her son had needed her, she hadn't been quick enough or strong enough, she hadn't fought well enough, and she had let him down. By the time Sarkissian's hands had left her throat she had barely been conscious, and it had taken all of her strength to drag herself over to the radiator and attempt to free her wrists. She had taken too long. The snick of the plastic finally breaking hadn't been enough to mask the sickening crunch of bones snapping or the sound John had made as the man died. In less than two minutes, everything had fallen apart.
"He won't come back."
Sarah closed her eyes and felt the tears spill down her cheeks. The only time her son had really looked at her since the attic, he had been holding a gun on her, his face blazing with defiance. Suddenly angered by her own self-pity, she pulled herself up straighter and swiped the tears away with the back of her hand. That hadn't been her fault. She had never raised him to be so fucking stupid. Handing Cameron his own weapon had been nothing more than an idiotic piece of symbolism, when the machine could have torn his throat out in less than a heartbeat. Sarah understood that he was punishing her, and she understood his reasons for lashing out at her, but placing his trust in Cameron had been a game of Russian roulette where every fucking chamber held a bullet, and Sarah wasn't sure she would ever understand that. He was her son and she would always love him, but, she realized with a sudden sense of emptiness, this was the first time she had ever been so bitterly disappointed in him.
. . . . .
. . . . .