Connor's just a kid, sixteen at most, a Judgement Day babe who never knew the world they're fighting to reclaim. Naked, shaking, all alone: Derek doesn't ask what happened; he's been in this war long enough to know that when the machines are bearing down, sometimes there's nothing to do but run.
Sumner has extra boots; Bedell finds a shirt to spare. They dress him up in Wisher's pants before he gets back from patrol. When Allison wanders off to find the kid a gun, Sayles regales them with a patchwork tale of a girl and an abandoned bunker, and the T-500 that ruined their date. When the weather's right, he swears he can still smell pussy on the trigger of his M16.
And in amid their raucous laughter, Kyle lets Connor keep the coat.
He's just a kid, like any other, in want of a family and in want of a home. Derek shepherds them to the mess hall, because a hot meal, these days, is maybe the next best thing. They're tucking into Sayles' famed and feared apocalyto-chilli--close your eyes, chew and swallow; don't ask what the lumps are--when the End of Times decides to show up for a repeat performance.
There is an almighty crash of rubble, a tunnel to the west caving in. Through the dust and grit and flying dirt comes the chilling screech of metal.
"Hit the deck!" Derek yells, grabbing Connor by the scruff of his neck. He topples the table just in time to shield them from a bullet spray.
"Stay down!" he orders the kid, cocks his head at Sumner; they fan out as best they can, to fire from all angles.
From the corner of his eye, Derek sees Connor poke his head above the barricade.
"Goddammit, kid! I said stay down!" But the machine has seen him too. It turns in that awkward, lurching way, raising both the guns it holds to fire, and just before it pulls those triggers, Connor hurls the vat of chilli over the metal bastard's head. In one crucial moment of hesitation, brown slop drips to its feet.
Derek doesn't mean to laugh, but fuck, kid, what a stupid way to ask to die. He skids across the now slick floor, tackling Connor to the ground and as he does, the sizzling hotplate flies through the air. Then, metal collides with metal in an explosive shower of sparks. The exposed element short circuits with the impact and the chilli. As they land, hard, Derek twists to take the impact with his shoulder. The momentum tangles them together in a bruising heap.
"Two minutes!" Connor yells, scrambling to his feet. Derek feels the barely there brush of a hand across his stomach; Connor yanks a hidden knife free of Derek's belt, deftly, like he knew without looking where it would be. In a flash, the kid's astride the machine, butchering its head, and while Derek's screaming, "Connor! Fall back, now!" he's counting under his breath: sixty-eight; sixty-seven; sixty-six…
At twenty-one, Connor yells, "Got it!" sags and slides down in relief. In the sudden stillness, blood still pounding through Derek's ears, the kid flashes them a triumphant grin. And for one startling instant, it's Kyle, young and cocky and devil-may-care, under those too-thick lashes.
Then, Connor closes his fist around the chip, and takes it with him as he stands, metal hidden close against his skin. Whatever it is he thought he saw, Derek convinces himself it isn't there.
Running his fingers restlessly through his hair, he helps Sumner to his feet, and as he turns to Sayles, he forces himself to laugh. "I knew your cooking would kill something one day."
And as they stand and watch the termite burn, everyone remembers John Connor killed it, forgetting that he brought it with him, too.
Everyone forgets, that is, but Derek.
The generator exists in a permanent state of 'on the fritz' but its death throes have been getting worse in the days since Connor pulled his stunt. Derek spends a blackout morning elbow deep in cogs and pistons. It's dirty, sweaty work, grease smeared across his hands and forehead; the glare from the flashlight gripped between his teeth shows the smudge of his reflection. In this dank, half-used, side tunnel, it sets his teeth on edge to be alone, surrounded by so much metal. Low tech is tech just the same and he hates that even as they fight, they're still dependent on machines.
A sputter turns into a roar and then the turbines furiously whir, the line of lights overhead flickering into life. Derek stands and cracks his neck, kicking at the generator, not hard enough to break it more, and murmurs threateningly, "You'd better not crap out again this week."
Wiping restlessly at the oil slick on his hands, he turns to find Sumner leaning casually against the far wall, his teeth bright white as he grins in the dim light. "My man Reese," he drawls. "You always did have magic fingers."
"Funny." Derek grins back, too. "That's what your momma used say."
Sumner laughs, loud and brash and human, punching him lightly on the arm. He jerks his chin at the rattling generator and asks more seriously, "How long you think it'll hold out?"
"Couple of weeks." Derek shrugs. "Month, tops. It's band-aids on a sucking chest wound," he adds. "The thing's leaking gas like it doesn't like the taste."
Sumner sucks at his teeth, frowning at the news. Then, he shakes his head as if to clear it, a mischievous quirk to his mouth again. "Guess that John Connor's bad luck, after all," he teases.
As he turns away, sauntering back out on patrol, Derek mutters darkly to his back, "That's what I've been saying."
Like a T-triple-eight that can't be shaken, it seems that bad luck just won't quit, because when Derek gets back to their quarters, itching to scrub the stench of diesel from his skin, Connor is there with a field stripped M16 spread over the bunk that abuts his. Instead of cleaning his weapon, or grabbing some shut-eye while he can, the kid's hunched over one his ghoulish trophies, scouring the crevices of the chip with the corner of a rag.
Derek's teeth click as he clenches his jaw; he can feel his hackles rising. Connor looks up quickly, startled, smiles sheepishly and ducks his gaze again, fumbling as he shoves the chip into his--Kyle's--coat pocket. In his mind's ear, Derek can hear Kyle teasing, "What's the matter, big brother? I know you're not afraid of a little metal…" But he is, they all are, if they have any wits about them, and it makes him sick to think of Connor's growing pile of Skynet brains, tech that might decide to reawaken while they sleep.
"You shouldn't get distracted," Derek grunts, nodding at the disassembled rifle, shrugging out of his damp, soiled t-shirt as he does. "In the minute it takes to put that back together, you'll be just another body we don't have time to bury."
"Forty-seven seconds," Connor amends, calm, matter-of-fact.
"What?" Derek's voice echoes as he dunks his head into the bucket that stands in for a shower, water that's barely clean enough to wash in, not safe enough to drink, trickling down his neck.
Connor shrugs, slaps the rifle butt back into place and checks the sight. "I can reassemble an M16 in forty-seven seconds. But you're right," he adds, voice cryptically even, scanning Derek's bare chest as he sluices down: pits, neck, fingernails, scrubbing roughly behind his ears. "I shouldn't get distracted."
"And yet," Derek says gruffly, "you seem to be enjoying the show."
The kid's eyes go comically wide; he has the decency to blush.
"Sorry," he mumbles as he clears his throat, busying himself, awkwardly, with a hunting knife that needs sharpening. He hunkers down, flushed bright pink to the tips of his ears, his face mostly hidden by the upturned collar of his coat.
But modesty has no place inside the bunkers. Derek's seen the kid: scrawny, lean, with skin so smooth and unbroken, it's like he doesn't throw himself at metal every chance he gets. Derek's known that glassy eyed stare before, from soldiers, green and wet-behind-the-ears, from Kyle when he was younger, still naïve enough to ask: "Did it hurt?"
So, he laughs dryly to himself, shakes his head when Connor glances up, shooting him a quizzical look, and taps two fingers against the gnarled scar below his clavicle.
"Gunshot wound," he explains, and drags his fingertips along the raised white line that travels transverse across his ribs. "Phosphorus burns."
He turns around, points to a gouge on his lower back. "T-888 that wouldn't let go."
Three puncture wounds nestled deep in the divot of his hip: "Shrapnel from when it did."
Connor follows in hushed silence, mouth just a little slack with awe, and when Derek traces the dragon tattooed on his forearm, "To celebrate my 21st," his eyes snap up to Derek's face. Slowly, he blinks, an eager grin pulling at his lips.
"For Kyle's 18th," Derek adds sombrely, pointing to his left shoulder, to the cross inked there while Kyle was gone, a prayer to an unfeeling god Derek begged to as a last resort.
He clenches his fist, flexes his wrist to show off a faint, mostly faded line of white. "Fell out of a tree, horsing around, just after Kyle was born."
"Yeah?" Connor breathes softly.
Derek nods and laughs again, nostalgic. "Picnic in the neighbourhood park. Our parents told me not to climb so high, but Kyle was watching, and I wanted him to see how brave his older brother was."
"And then I fell," he says, flashing the kid a rueful smile. "I remember thinking that nothing could ever hurt as bad as that. I was crying as my dad rushed us to the hospital, not because of the pain, but because Kyle was screaming too, and it was all my fault."
He pauses, inhaling deeply, rubbing at his wrist. "I had to wear a cast all summer, this heavy thing that went halfway up my arm. Itched like a son of a bitch," he spits, "but I figured I deserved it for making Kyle cry. Promised myself right then that I'd never be the reason he cried again."
"How'd that work out?" Connor's eyes tick to the barcode on his inner arm.
Derek looks away, buys himself a moment, pulling that grubby t-shirt back over his head. He brushes his thumb over the thick repeating lines, a mark he won't ink over until they win the war.
"Skynet prison camp," he says, leaving Connor's question deliberately unanswered.
The kid stares at his hands and at his knees, and though he won't meet Derek's eye, he recites softly into the solemn silence, "Oh-nine-one-two--"
Derek's head snaps up, his hand already on his weapon.
"How do you--?" he splutters, because from that angle, from that distance, there's no way Connor can see.
"--one-three-oh-four." He smirks enigmatically, taps at the corner of his right eye, coolly eyeing the knife point Derek brandishes half an inch from his neck. "20/20."
"That so?" Derek snarls, disbelieving. "With eyesight like that, we should send you topside. On point. Right into the hot zone."
But if Connor understands the threat, he doesn't flinch. Derek wants to sink the blade down deep, carve until he reaches bone, to prove that there's no metal there, even if it kills him, but Allison is suddenly in the doorway, three tracker dogs winding around her feet. They snap apart when the mutts bound into the room, tails wagging up a storm as they slobber over Conner's fingers.
Those dogs can catch the scent of metal half a mile away.
So, Derek sheathes his knife, still uneasy; Connor trips over the dogs scrambling at his feet, nicks himself on the retreating blade, and instead of feeling reassured by the welling, all too human blood, Derek grits his teeth at the contrivance of the sight.
"Kyle needs you." Allison's words slice through Derek's thoughts. He hesitates a moment longer as she wads a rag and holds it to the cut on Connor's chin. She casts a stern, wide-eyed look between the two, and adds more firmly, "It's important."
He finds Kyle sequestered in the dugout room that passes for tactical HQ. Sumner's leaving as Derek walks in. Their footsteps ring loud on the trampled dirt floor.
"The generator's fucked?" Kyle asks by way of greeting, head bowed over a battered map with hand drawn tunnel schematics overlaid.
"You called me down here because Sumner's been tattling?" Derek laughs, but Kyle stays silent. It's enough to snap his mind away from where it dwells on Connor. He studies the tightness in Kyle's shoulders, the grimness of his expression. Derek clears his throat but the tension doesn't break.
"It's only acting up a little worse than normal," he soothes. Kyle grunts in lieu of words; Derek bites down on the urge to snap off a sarcastic 'sir, yes sir' whenever his little brother insists on playing leader of the human resistance with just the two of them, alone. More confidently than he feels, he adds, "Salvage the right parts and we can patch it."
Finally, Kyle looks up. His face is drawn; he hasn't been sleeping, but then again, no one has, since rogue metal took a swan dive straight into the mess hall. Through gritted teeth, he growls, "You think we can salvage anything with Centaurs sweeping overhead, two, three times a day, now?"
"We've done better under worse conditions."
Kyle cracks his knuckles dismissively. "The hot zone's getting nearer."
"I noticed," Derek says easily, pauses, and waits for Kyle to say what it is that really has him rattled. The silence thick between them, and when Kyle's fingers simply curl tighter around the table's edge, Derek finds the words that he can't seem to. "You think we should move out, don't you?"
"I think it isn't safe here anymore," Kyle hedges. Derek can hear the resignation in his voice, the guilt, and the remorse.
But still, he pushes. "I think here's as safe as anywhere these days."
"Derek…" Kyle's eyes are a piercing blue, bright and clean in a world that's been nothing but cinder since Judgement Day rained down. His breath hitches on Derek's name, his mouth straining around the word and when he throws Derek that pleading look that begs him to understand, all Derek can see is Connor, John Connor, wrapped up in his brother's features.
He focuses on the wall beyond Kyle's ear and swallows down the lump that's growing in his throat. "Moving on means splitting up."
"I know." Kyle's chin juts up defiantly; he refuses to look away. When Derek comes to stand beside him, rocks back on his heels, at ease, they both know the decision is made. They study the carved wooden markers laid out on the map. "Wisher, Sayles and Sumner: north-west," Kyle explains. "Allison, you and me: south-east."
"Connor?" Derek asks reflexively, and for the first time tonight, Kyle's lips curve into a smile, a teasing glint in his eyes.
"Sumner," he says with a magnanimous sweep of his hand, "has offered to take the sainted John Connor, as one last act of mercy to a superstitious man."
He claps Derek on the shoulder, but Derek shrugs him off. "I don't trust him."
"Connor," he spits, watching as the laughter fades from Kyle's expression.
He studies Derek quietly, a frown line deepening on his brow. Carefully, he says, "Melts down an awful lot of metal to be a grey."
"He knew my barcode."
"What?" Kyle blurts; disbelief shades the edges of his voice.
Derek slams his hands down on the table; the wooden markers jump and topple, rattling, unheeded, to the floor. "Sight unseen, number for number, by heart. The kid reeled it off like it's his goddamn phone number."
"You think he's--?"
He cuts Kyle off, pressing the heel of his palm to his eyes. "I don't know what to think. Can't figure him out."
"What do you wanna do?"
Derek pulls his gun from its holster, the metal warming to his skin, and he strides determinedly from the room, calling over his shoulder, "I want to figure him out."
"Patrol. Topside. Now."
Allison jumps up from where she's been huddled on the bunk with Connor in secretive conversation. The dogs move with her, whining low and instantly alert. Her face is pinched, her movements quick and angry, and as she shoulders past him roughly, Derek wonders when she started taking Connor's word over his.
The kid zips Kyle's coat all the way up to his chin, grabs his M16 and moves to follow, but Derek barks, "Connor, you're with me."
He jogs through the darkened recesses of the bunker, forking left when Allison heads right, leading them through paths that have been disused for months. And all the while, Connor lopes easily at his side, because if there's one thing the kid seems to know, it's how to run.
Dust hails down over them, the ground quaking underfoot and just beyond the steel trapdoor, Derek can hear Hunter-Killers roaming past. They're as close to Skynet heartland as it gets while still being underground; Kyle's voice in Derek's ears rings like a warning beacon, "Stupid. Stupid. Stupid." but Derek has to know.
So, he slings his rifle on his back, hauls back the door, two-handed, on rusted, wailing hinges. Through the opening gap, Connor darts, leaving them both exposed.
"Hey!" Derek hisses, flattening himself against the bunker wall. He scans the ruined horizon, ducking from the roving search light of an HK-Recon overhead. "Hey, kid!"
As brash and bold as bright brass tacks, Connor turns and says, "You said I should take point."
Now, Derek's following at his heels, and maybe there is some Reese in there somewhere, somehow, because Connor's nimble and surefooted, keeps the cyborgs at their backs and, even as he weaves a path to his own execution, he doesn't waver. He guides them to a concrete outcrop, sheltered on the lee side, and over the whistling harshness of the weather, he challenges, "You got something you need to do?"
With the swift swish-slide of a handgun drawn from his belt, Derek aims, one hand over the other to keep his grip from shaking. Through gritted teeth he spits, "Who are you?"
The kid takes two steps closer, until the muzzle presses to his chest, and through the sight, Derek's staring at the khaki of Kyle's coat.
Derek barks a laugh, whipped away on the bitter wind and his voice is hoarse as he parrots back, "John Connor."
"I don't know you," he shouts, shoves forward until Connor grunts, and his footing finally falters, tottering on the remains of a world he's too young to have ever known. The kid's throat works as he swallows, the cut beside his jaw still fresh and pink, and his gaze flicks to the gun, seemingly uncertain for the first time since this began.
"I don't know you," Derek says again, softer now, almost pained. "But you know me."
And Connor's pressing forward, leaning into the gun, with that same damned, knowing look, the one that itches under Derek's skin and makes him want to shoot; that piercing, pleading gaze that looks so much like Kyle. Derek's hand jerks back, the barrel pointing at the sky and with slow deliberation lets the safety slide back on.
Connor shakes his head. Derek twitches with the urge to thrash the answers from him. In a needy, desperate hum, he whispers, "You won't believe me."
Gruffly, Derek snarls, "I don't believe you now."
Connor's eyes are fever bright, determined: "Topanga Canyon."
He grabs at Derek's arm as he tries to turn away, his palm pressing like a brand where, beneath Derek's coat, there's a barcode etched as deep as bone. "That's where all the answers are."