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Adjustment Period

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Weeks pass before they’ll let him even go to the bathroom alone. It’s not that he doesn’t get it, because he does; he’s a mystery to all of them, claiming to be from the past. Claiming to be Sarah Connor’s son. He’s a threat, possibly a plant. That they don’t kill him immediately is a surprise, that they even let their guard down that much is another. Maybe it was another test, stepping back to see what he does and if he betrays them all. The more John thinks about it, the more he’s sure that’s what it is. They’re still watching him, he just can’t see them anymore.

He wasn’t going to tell them who he was, he’d planned on keeping it to himself, on sticking with one of a dozen cover stories he’d used during his life. But seeing Derek there, alive, with the man that was supposed to be his father that made him tell them. Everything that had happened back in his own time, it was all because of him, because of something his mother had believed. That others had believed too, enough to try and kill him or to save him, depending on the side they were on. Seeing this place, seeing the future that Cyberdyne and Skynet engineer, he wishes he’d believed his mother sooner. That he hadn’t resisted and fought for so long, half-convinced she was crazy until they started coming for him and he couldn’t deny it any longer.

It’s Derek who questions him, at first. Asks him things about Sarah Connor, about Kyle. Asks him things that should be impossible to know. But even when he answers them, even when he knows he’s said the right thing they don’t believe him. Stories can be taught, information can be gathered in creative ways. They know Skynet isn’t above torturing people for the information they want. There are gaps in his story, he knows that. He can’t explain Cameron or Derek. He can’t tell Derek that he’s dead, that he came back to protect John. It’s his future and that’s something he can’t screw up. Not more than he already has just by being here. All John can do is stick to his story, stick to the truth.

It’s months before they have him doing anything but the most menial tasks, always in a group, always with a guard. It’s Derek who shows up, nods at him and says a few words to his guard who fades away into the dark tunnels they’re living in this month. “You’re with me.”

Just those words before he turns, John running to catch up. He doesn’t ask where they’re going or what they’re going to do. He knows from experience that Derek won’t answer, his expression more surly each time John presses. They move away from anywhere John knows, eventually the lights cutting out leaving them in the dark. Their eyes adjust and John keeps following, picking his way through tunnels that are crowded with debris. An hour passes, maybe more, before Derek finally stops them both, pointing to a hatch. “We’re going up.”

Derek jumps onto the ladder, ignoring the way it sways as he climbs, pushing open a hatch at the top. Cool air rushes in and John realises that they’re not just going up. They’re going outside. Probably to kill him, he thinks bitterly. There’s a fleeting temptation to run but John doesn’t give into it. Where would he run to? What would it prove? He’s here to help, to find a way back and figure out how to fix things. How to stop this future from happening. He’s already messed up once, and running won’t solve anything.

John follows, aboveground for the first time in months, the moonless night nearly as dark as the tunnels. What he sees is nothing like what he remembers. Fields of wreckage, the shells of buildings all around them. In the distance there are lights, noises. Something’s out there and John knows it’s not friendly. Any industry, any settlements, they’re Skynet.

He looks to Derek to see what’s next, only to find the other man watching him, guns in his hands. “Here.” He tosses one to John, letting out an unfriendly chuckle. “Hope you know how to use that.”

“They’re gearing up for something. We’re just watching tonight, reporting back. We don’t get close and first sign of trouble back here. Think you can manage that?”

“Yeah.” There’s no question in John’s mind that he can. Surveillance, not getting caught, these are things he’s done a hundred times before. He’s just never done them here, and he’s never done them with this Derek. Maybe he never will. The distrust he sees in Derek’s eyes is frustrating but understandable. He reins in the annoyance, reminding himself of all of that. “Yeah, I can manage that.”

“Good,” Derek responds, even if his tone says we’ll see. “There’s a building a few blocks ahead. Structure’s still okay, clear line of sight. Keep up and keep quiet.”

They’re instructions that Derek doesn’t need to give, and John almost says so. Lips clamped shut, he just nods tersely, gun slung over one shoulder and at the ready if he needs it.

It’s different up here, John quickly realises. Large areas with next to know cover followed by a block filled with rubble that threatens to tumble and crash, pinpointing their location to anyone patrols that might be out. His legs start to cramp hunched behind the burnt out carcass of a car, waiting for Derek’s signal to bolt to the next point of shelter. It’s harder than the tunnels, than it had been at home, but he manages. They make it to the building and up a staircase that looks like it’s ready to fall at any point. Only one corner of the building still stands and only six or seven floors. They stop at the fourth, and John can see signs of occupation, cleverly hidden. There are blankets shoved in a corner and empty food tins amongst the rubble.

“Slobs,” Derek says with a shake of his head. “Grab the blankets. It’ll get cold.”

Any glass that was in the windows is long since gone. Derek is right, there’s a decent enough view of the compound, especially once he pulls out a coveted set of night vision goggles and binoculars. “Now we watch.”

Surveillance is fundamentally boring, John is familiar with that. It’s a waiting game, staying alert and paying attention to any little thing that might happen. That the person he’s with is silent except to note the numbers in patrols or the trucks arriving, it makes it even longer. He itches to say something, but has no idea what he could say. As much as he thinks that he knows Derek, this isn’t the man who came back to help him. At least, it isn’t yet.

John repeats the counts, points out a few places that look like they’re ignored by patrols. It’s nearing dawn when Derek moves, getting up and jerking his head back toward the stairs. “We should get back before it’s light.”

“Yeah. Sure.” John agrees, shouldering his weapon and shoving the blankets back where he’d gotten them from. It’s easier getting back, having traversed the path once before. He almost regrets slipping back down through the hatch into the tunnels, but he does it, closing it behind him.

Another two nights of surveillance. Each exactly like the one before, spent in near silence counting the patrols and anything else of interest. John feels ready to scream, to jump up and do anything to get a reaction from Derek. But he doesn’t, he does what he’s supposed to. He stays awake and watches. He reacts rather than instigates. He waits.

It’s the third night it all goes wrong. There’s a flyover, a patrol that veers away from the compound and heads toward them. Derek swears and jumps to his feet and John does the same. He doesn’t know how or why, but they’ve been found.

They’re nearly at the hatch down to the tunnel when the firefight breaks out. They detour, going around a building and coming back up what was once an alley. Derek bites back a scream, falling and clutching at his gut. Now it’s John’s turn to scream, returning fire and grabbing Derek. He helps the man up, gets them to the hatch and down it, gets it closed behind them. They’ve barely gone ten metres when something explodes above them, sending debris and collapsing the tunnel behind them into a pile of rubble, rock and twisted steel.

“Come on,” John hisses as he bears more of Derek’s weight. He can’t carry the other man entirely, he needs Derek to keep walking. He wants to stop, to pack the wound or bind it or something, but they need to keep moving. “You’re not dying again.”

“He’s lucky,” the doctor rubs his eyes, the circles under them dark. “But it could still turn septic. We don’t have the drugs to treat that.”

John’s hanging back, letting Kyle take the lead. His father, he thinks to himself, though he doesn’t feel that inside. Biology makes Kyle his father, and little else. But he’s also Derek’s brother, and has more of a right than John to talk to the doctor. “Rest, keep the wound clean. I’ll send someone to check on him in a day.”

They’re still talking when John slips back through the cordoned off area. The clinic is makeshift, everything down here is. When they rarely stay anywhere more than a few months, it’s hard to build anything real.

“I guess I owe you one,” the words are gruff, but they make John smile. Derek looks bad, but it could have been worse, John knows that. “Told them we could trust you.”

“Just good you’re alive.” John can’t think of what else to say. It was Derek who vouched for him? He hadn’t expected that.

“Yeah. Thanks to you.” His head back on the pillow, Derek shuts his eyes. “I heard what you said.”

“What?” John knows what he said, scrabbling their way back to what passed for civilization. He’d finally stopped, ripping his shirt up to make bandages, repeating that Derek couldn’t die, that he wasn’t allowed to. He’d hoped that the pain and the adrenaline would have made Derek’s memories fuzzy. He wasn’t that lucky.

“Again. You said again.” Derek cracked open an eye, staring at John through the narrowed lid. “I couldn’t die again.”

“Yeah, I-”

John starts to explain, reaching for something that would be believable and make sense. Derek cuts him off, the pain and exhaustion too much. “Later. You’re not off the hook.”

John nods, moving back when Kyle comes in, leaving him alone with brother. It’s Kyle who stops him, shouting for him. “Don’t go far, kid.”

He turns and nods, looking at the two men. One a father, and one a friend, and neither of them with any idea of who he was, not really. “Where’s there to go?”

Other than back home, there isn’t anywhere else for John. Not here in this place. There’s only this fight, and this family.