Sarah wasn’t sure when she’d finally realized something was wrong with her boyfriend.
She thought things started to feel off about Kyle a few months into her pregnancy. Sometimes, he was absolutely fine, putting his hands or the side of his head on her belly - feeling John move would draw smiles, which otherwise were almost nonexistent. Other times, just looking at her seemed to send him to the brink of panic, and it was a coin-toss between whether he’d be completely silent or start regurgitating information about radiation sickness and plasma rifles and the various series of terminators that he’d seen.
Of course there was also that Polaroid from the Mexican boy, for which Sarah had paid the hefty sum of four dollars; Kyle practically had a stroke when he saw it, insisting that it needed to be wrapped in plastic and kept safe. She guessed by his reaction that it was the one he’d been given by John, and wrote it off as some kind of sentimentality thing because he’d lost it in a fire… until she remembered that Kyle didn’t do sentimental.
One morning, though, it finally occurred to her that there was something broken in him that hadn’t been fixed. Because Sarah noticed Kyle’s habits that for some reason were invisible until now - he always wore some kind of rifle on his back, even going so far as to sleep with a handgun under his pillow; similarly, his boots never came off except to bathe; he never sat still and was always pacing or fidgeting or something, often repeatedly disassembling and cleaning their weapons in a meticulous fashion even though they hadn’t been used.
Of course, the biggest sign that she’d somehow missed was his night terrors. Kyle would wake up screaming and thrashing at least once a week, and to be fair, for a little while Sarah had, too. Maybe a month after they’d “killed” it, she’d started having nightmares about the terminator going after them. The dreams were often smeary and didn’t make sense, but they were horrible. Eventually, they stopped happening for Sarah… but even on the mornings when he didn’t rouse fighting the blankets, Kyle always woke up covered in sweat.
Today, though, when she came across him, it was almost terrifying. He was just sitting there, M-16 in his lap, watching their three-month-old baby sleep. It took Sarah a second to place where she’d seen that look and that posture: it was the same as when they’d been hiding in the motel room and he’d been talking about pain, then about his photo, and doing everything he could not to start crying.
It had been almost a year. Sarah was back to normal, at least as much as could be expected given their circumstances. But Kyle wasn’t doing well at all. She wondered how she’d missed it until now.
“What are you doing?” she asked quietly.
He didn’t jump. He never did, not for her. He also didn’t answer her question. “Aren’t you scared?”
Kyle was so quiet. That wasn’t unusual, and he also had the capacity to yell very loudly. But this was a different, more unsettling quiet. Sarah was getting more and more unnerved by the second, and she didn’t know if she should be afraid of him. She wasn’t yet - mostly she was afraid for him, because she didn’t know what was going on and therefore couldn’t help.
“Scared of what, Kyle?”
“Of John.” He was silent for a moment. “He’s humanity’s last hope, but he’s so fragile… something could happen to him. I could fail.”
“You’re doing just fine,” Sarah answered, not sure if it was the right thing to say.
Kyle closed his eyes and breathed in. Impossibly, it only tensed up his posture even more. “He’ll have to learn everything from me. I learned everything from him and his officers when I was a kid.”
“Well, who else would he learn it from? We’re his parents.”
“I’m not good with kids,” he admitted. “The younger soldiers all stayed away from me. There were a bunch of them who were… they were like me. Their families were gone for some reason or other. But a lot of them still had at least one person taking care of them. Adoptive parents. Nobody ever ‘adopted’ me.”
“Because I was in one of the camps. One of my friends told me that, anyway. He said it made me act different from most people. Other kids could learn to trust again. I never did. When I was fourteen, Perry took me under his wing, but it’s not the same. Then I got promoted to sergeant and John took me.”
“What happened when he did?” Sarah wondered, finally sitting next to him on the floor.
“He asked if I wanted to be his protege. I took the job and he taught me all kinds of things about the different types of machines we were fighting. I learned a lot of the technical stuff about weapons, too. Like the crack-cans.”
“They were specialized explosives, based on frag grenades. It’s a big can with a valve handle on top. You twist it, the light flashes, and you throw. There’s twenty seconds to detonation and it’ll take down most machines. My squad were the first ones who got to test them out.”
Sarah leaned her head on his shoulder, mostly because she thought it might help. She drew her thoughts back in about his mental state and tried to come up with a way to talk about it that wouldn’t scare him.
“Why do you wake up screaming so much?”
“I can’t help it.” Kyle was tensing up again so she reached for his hand. “My squad-mates used to get mad at me for it. I fucked up their sleep schedules.”
So this wasn’t a new problem, then. “How long has it been going on?”
“I don’t know. I can’t remember, but it’s been years.”
She squeezed his fingers. “How often do you come here to watch him like this?”
“Whenever I think you’re not looking.”
“Why are you so afraid of him?”
“Because…” Kyle looked like he didn’t know if he should be frustrated or sad, now, and the thing that concerned Sarah about it was that he usually did a better job hiding his feelings. “Because this isn’t my commanding officer. I keep looking at him and thinking about him rescuing people from camps and blowing the fuck out of Skynet, but he’s so small right now. It makes me feel like I can’t put that on him. I know I don’t get a choice. He doesn’t get one, either. But it’s different now. I don’t want him to have to do any of the things he’s done. I wish I knew more about kids, and about teaching them, but it’s not something I learned in the army.”
“It’s different now that you know he’s your son,” she summarized.
“Yeah.” He rubbed his other hand over his hair. “And I don’t know if I can make him into that man, even though he made me who I am. He made everyone in the army into who they were.”
“You know you’ve got me to help you do that, right?”
Kyle seemed a little confused for a second when she said that, and Sarah realized - he was used to doing things alone. Even after a year, he hadn’t shaken the mentality that his missions were up to him and there was nobody else to rely on. The reason he hadn’t gotten back to normal and stopped waking up to the sound of his own terrified howls was because that was his normal. There was no way to fix him after he’d been broken so long.
That made Sarah start wondering what kind of environment John would grow up in. Kyle freely admitted to not being child-friendly, he was always on edge, and if he couldn’t even cut himself a break once in awhile then he probably couldn’t for anyone else, either. But on the other hand… Sarah could also see how much he loved their son. If Kyle didn’t love John, he wouldn’t be so afraid and intimidated by the task of raising and teaching him.
Kyle had made a study of John, too, checking and then double checking and then triple checking that he was always holding the baby correctly during the first few weeks until he got used to it. He paid careful attention to John’s behavior, to the different types of crying, to what got the crying to stop most effectively. And often, watching this interaction was beyond adorable. There was a lot that Kyle knew, but there was so much else that he didn’t understand, and even after three months he still looked confused and intrigued any time John grabbed onto one of his fingers and wouldn’t let go.
Kyle finally broke the silence with a complete non-sequitur: “We need to get a dog.”
“What?” Sarah laughed. “Isn’t a baby enough for you?”
“For security reasons. Train the dog, the dog guards John and then I won’t have to do it all the time. I can start teaching you some stuff. We can work on making contact with people who have resources we need.”
John waited apprehensively as the report came in: this many dead, this many wounded, this many missing, without listing names. They’d be arriving in ground vehicles within the next two hours. With all these uncertainties, there was one thing John could see clearly: Perry’s 132nd Infantry was decimated. The dead numbered 43%, the wounded another 29%. The ones who’d managed to retreat in time would be folded into other units, the wounded would be treated (and some would ultimately still die), and the dead would be buried with the typical honoraries.
Incomplete reports bothered him even under normal circumstances. He understood that sometimes it was impossible to get all the names, sometimes soldiers were MIA and couldn’t be accounted for in any direction. But this wasn’t any other unit. His father was in the 132nd, and John needed to know whether Reese was alive or not. He tried to logic his way out of it: Kate always told him he was the result of a predestination paradox, which meant Reese was safe. But who fucking knew in this war? John could never be sure.
Tiny arms suddenly wrapped around his right leg: Sarah Jeanette Connor The Second was attacking.
“Daddy will you read to me?”
John scooped her up and kissed the spot where neck met jaw: “Not right now, baby, but later, okay? Daddy’s busy with some stuff.”
“Mama’s busy too!” Sarah whined, grabbing onto the shoulder strap of his body armor.
“I know, kiddo, but there’s nothing I can do. A bunch of hurt soldiers are coming back and I have to help mama take care of them.”
“Can we play later?”
“Sure, baby, I’ll play with you once I’m done with this. Go wait for me in my office, okay?”
As he set her down and she scampered away, John sighed quietly. It was the same empty promise: I’ll play with you later, I’ll read to you later, we can have lunch together later, I’ll tuck you in later. Because later wasn’t defined. And he always meant to do those things, too, but something inevitably stopped him: reports, mission planning, and a thousand other problems that meant his daughter always came later. At least Bobby (named for Kate’s father) was ten, and understood to some extent why his father was always too busy.
John didn’t want this to be more important than his children, because his parents had never had time for him either, except when they were training him for this shit. Sarah was always grilling him: are your rifle skills improving, can you tell me what type of body armor stops this type of weapon, can you show me how to hotwire a car. With Kyle, it was even worse, a cold expectation that John simply had to understand this that and the other thing even if it wasn’t very well explained, only to yell at him when he couldn’t get it right on the first try.
Being a working parent, now, John finally understood why they’d been like that to him. It wasn’t because his parents hadn’t loved him - they had, even if they were really bad at showing it most of the time. But they were so stressed out and preoccupied that it was impossible not to sacrifice something. With the future of the entire fucking human race riding him, John was forced to sacrifice time with his kids, no matter how much he didn’t want to.
While he waited for the remains of the 132nd to return to base, John absently scribbled through some paperwork, thinking about how fucked up his family really was. He barely got to see his wife most of the time, because whenever she wasn’t passed out with exhaustion, she was in surgery, stitching some poor bastard back together. Bobby was almost big enough to start training for the army, and seemed to feel pressured over it considering who his father was, so he used every extra second learning as much as he could about the war against Skynet. Sarah would be in “school” soon, where she’d be taught to read and how to understand Geiger-Muller counters and various other things. His parents were long dead, but John wished so much that they weren’t. They’d always been smarter than him, better at this shit, and he could really use their insight on so many topics.
Of course, that thought was complicated: because Kyle-John’s-Dad had died the year before the war, and Reese-John’s-Soldier was born in 2007. Assignments for soldiers after boot camp were handled by his subordinates, so John had no say in where Reese had been placed. Now, though, he could fix that, because the unit Reese was previously part of was essentially destroyed. John looked through his papers and reports - Reese was extremely competent, despite the mental issues noted by his commanding officers, and was promoted to sergeant last month. He was more than familiar with those psychiatric issues; John still occasionally woke up expecting to hear Kyle having night terrors in the next room over and Sarah eventually quieting him. It all begged the question: how can you miss a dead parent when he was alive again? Nobody but John had ever been faced with this idea.
The wounded were finally brought in, and the lists were handed to John. He read through the missing and dead ones first: Reese wasn’t in either. Nervously, he checked the wounded list:
Phillips Evan J. CPL
Plimpton Andrew T. PVT
Plymouth Aimee E. SPC
Polak Nathan A. PVT
Pollock Erin D. PVT
Putney Anna L. PFC
Quinn Axel R. 2LT
Raymond Wayne D. PVT
And then the one he’d been dreading:
Reese Kyle M. SGT
John closed his eyes and sucked in a breath before looking at the brief medical notes: 2nd degree thermal burns, minor concussion. He reminded himself that this was Reese-John’s-Soldier, not Kyle-John’s-Dad. Reese was just twenty years old, he would heal quickly.
John dropped off his stack of paperwork in his office, told Sarah he’d be back in a few minutes (knowing it was probably another fucking lie), and headed straight for the infirmary. Kate and the other doctors were running off their legs with so many injured, to the point where John had to stop and squish himself against the wall to let several medics carrying stretchers pass. The second to last one was holding the soldier he wanted to speak with, so he followed them to triage.
Reese was far from the most badly injured, but that didn’t mean much. He had to lie face-down on the stretcher without his body armor, fatigue tunic or undershirt; there were bandages taped all over his back and left arm. A few had spots of blood dotting them from underneath.
“How are you doing, sergeant?” John asked, not really knowing how else to start this conversation.
“It’s not bad, sir,” Reese answered, even though he was clenching his jaw and holding the sides of the stretcher so tightly his knuckles were discolored.
John almost laughed - he remembered his dad saying that every time he got hurt, from insignificant scrapes to broken bones - but caught himself just in time. Apparently that habit had been an old one before he was even born.
“You’re a terrible liar, soldier,” John told him, desperately biting the inside of his cheek. “Unfortunately, I’m not really here to make things better, either. Your unit is so decimated by this that we’re going to have to disband it. The survivors are going to be reassigned, including you.”
“I understand, sir.”
“I’ve read your file, sergeant. Your officers have all written good things about you.”
“You’re pretty competent with weapons… Perry assigned your squad to test the crack-cans, right?”
“Yes, sir, he did.”
“Can you give me a report on them?”
“They work the way they’re intended, sir… but they’re heavy and really big.”
“That’s what the engineers thought, too. Now… I actually wanted to offer you a spot in Tech-Com for your reassignment.”
Reese twisted his head around as much as he could, grimacing in pain. “Sir?”
“Like I said, you’re good with weapons… you’re also just a good soldier to begin with. We’ll train you with technical missions and communications, but you’ll be sent out for reconnaissance every so often, too.”
“I…” Reese looked shocked. He was an infantry sergeant being offered a slot in John’s own elite technical unit - of course he was surprised. “Thank you, sir. I’m honored.”
“Thank you for accepting,” John replied, only now letting himself smile. “You won’t be fit to return to combat for a few weeks, but we can use that time to get in some technical skills training on-base. We don’t have any recruits graduating basic to come into the unit soon, so there isn’t a group you can sit in with, but I can take you on as a trainee.”
What the hell was he doing?! This was such a shitty idea and John knew it; not only would he be constantly fighting not to call Reese “dad” (which was exactly what his father had been trying to avoid all those years ago), but now he’d have even less time for his family. On the other hand… who else could teach Reese? As swamped as John was, he could delegate to subordinates. Not all of his subordinates had subordinates of their own to reassign tasks to. Besides, John had personally trained soldiers in Tech-Com operations before, so it wasn’t likely that anyone would think it was weird or accuse him of favoritism.
“I’m… I don’t know what to say, sir,” Reese finally told John. His expression was so surprised that the pain almost couldn’t be seen underneath it. “Thank you for giving me this opportunity.”
“You deserve it,” John assured him. “Alright, I’m done dropping bombs on you for now. Get some rest and come talk to me once you’re discharged.”
“Yes, sir. Thank you, sir.”
Reese was trying to run a weapons inventory on the kitchen table, and apparently that was a mistake, because John came running in and started climbing on him. It made him think back - forward - whatever - to John’s daughter, at exactly this age, doing the same thing when John was training him. It was strange to think about, because Little Sarah was his granddaughter and he’d been younger than his son when he’d met her. Time travel was so fucking confusing.
John’s tiny foot lost its grip on the chair, so he grabbed for the nearest thing - even as Reese was catching his son, his left ear was given a vicious yank.
“Stop,” Reese ordered, setting John safely on the floor and rubbing his ear in annoyance. “I’m busy.” He tried not to get too angry about it, because John wasn’t old enough to understand things yet. Besides, it made Sarah mad when he yelled at their son.
“But I wanna play!” John whined.
“You can’t always get what you want,” Reese answered dismissively, turning back to the boxes of 5.56 ammunition he was counting.
“Can I help?”
“No. Go play with Bruno.”
This particular load of assault rifles and accessories were his payment in return for smuggling cocaine into the States for some Mexican drug manufacturers. Reese knew in the back of his mind that it was wrong, but the money and arms needed to come from somewhere, and “honest” work couldn’t get him nearly as many resources in exchange. Besides, the drug lords liked having him work for them - a blonde white guy was considerably less likely to be searched for illicit materials. Sarah, on the other hand, didn’t work for drug cartels - instead she helped an arms dealer named Enrique Salceda with his shipments. They’d made contact with Enrique in the first place because he was the one they’d bought the dog from.
John, in typical fashion, didn’t listen to him, and instead climbed on top of the table. Reese had to snatch a pistol from his son. “Get down from there, go sit in your room!”
He had to get this done. Inventory was important, because they needed to know the exact specifications of all their resources in case something happened. This was the excuse Reese gave to himself as John sulked on the way out of the kitchen; a tiny part of him wanted to do other things, like read ridiculous stories to his son from board books, but counting munitions took priority. John was future resistance commander first and Reese’s four-year-old son second, because it had to be that way.
Sarah got home about an hour later from one of her arms deals, grimy and sweaty and somehow more beautiful like this than when she was freshly clean. When he kissed her she tasted like cigarette smoke and dust.
“Payday?” she guessed, looking at the table.
“Yeah. Almost finished sorting it all out.” Reese kissed her again. “John’s been underfoot all day.”
“So business as usual… have you given him dinner or should I?”
“No, I’ll do it,” Reese decided - she deserved a break and by this point he knew enough about food that he could be trusted to actually make something edible. That something ended up being chicken with beans and rice, easily-acquired food here in Mexico, and dished out three plates. The only thing he kept for himself was a bag of potato chips - he always got one on his drug-running trips to the States.
John climbed into the chair and looked at said bag: “Daddy can I have some, too?”
Reese debated briefly - potato chips were bad for him anyway and he’d spent the afternoon counting ammo boxes instead of interacting with his son. Trying not to look too reluctant about it, he pulled out a small handful and set them on the edge of John’s plate. “That’s all you get, so don’t ask for more.”
“Okay!” John agreed as he was stuffing the first chip into his mouth.
Reese ate his actual food first before going after the bag of Lay’s, during which time Sarah sat at the table in clean clothes and started stealing them from him. He let her do it without protest, though. There’d been one time when he’d gotten annoyed by it - Sarah was four months pregnant at the time and asked why his mother never taught him to share. Reese’s response, that his mother died when he was six, had made her start crying and he felt so bad about it that he’d given up the entire bag without eating a single one for himself. Now, they shared the chips.
“I’m cutting your hair tonight,” Sarah informed him in her don’t-fuck-with-me voice.
“I thought you liked my hair.”
“I do, but you don’t look dangerous anymore, so it needs to go,” she grinned. “Those drug-dealers need to keep being scared of you.”
Reese scowled a little but didn’t argue. It always seemed like whenever he got his hair cut, no matter how carefully he showered after, some loose pieces stayed with him to itch and drive him insane for several days after. Unfortunately, Sarah had a good point about people being afraid of him. He could handle himself easily in a fight, but it was still better to not get into one in the first place.
The first week in the fallout shelter was nightmarish - John had been groomed since birth by his parents to become the leader of all mankind, but he still wasn’t fucking ready for this shit. Everyone trying to yell over each other on the radio, military and civilians and law enforcement and survivalists… the headache got so bad that it almost drowned out the pain from a near-crush fracture in his ankle. He’d sat at the radio and slept for maybe twenty or thirty minutes at a time, then talked to people for a couple hours, rinse repeat.
Things were… a little more sorted out now. Many of the voices had gone silent within half a day once the bombs fell. But now that John had spoken to them, gotten them talking to each other, assured them they weren’t alone, a monumental task lay ahead - getting everyone to fight under his banner when he, technically, had no valid combat experience. So it came down to lying by omission. John explained to everyone he could reach that he was talking to them from a government facility, that he was the man in charge at Crystal Peak, and he understood why this happened. They didn’t need to know he wasn’t some army general.
In the meantime, between his brief period of radio silence beginning and having a nap, he really needed to piss. John had barely eaten anything, but kept water rations nearby to stay hydrated. This was practically the only reason he left the radio right now, limping along with a splint on his leg. Which reminded him - he hadn’t seen Kate in a little bit, not since the last time she’d tried to make him eat (which he’d mostly been able to do before the radio started yacking at him again). That was yesterday morning.
Why was this his life, now? He’d done everything he possibly could to fucking avoid this shit, but somehow it’d happened anyway and that really pissed him off. It meant both of his parents nearly getting killed in a steel mill by the T-1000 had happened for nothing, Miles Dyson had died for nothing, the T-800 from that incident had sacrificed for nothing. Robert Brewster had probably died for nothing, too. The war wasn’t stopped, because nobody was in a position to stop it. Robert maybe could’ve, but he’d likely been pressed by his superiors and hadn’t known better.
That didn’t make it okay, though.
Kyle came to his mind: What am I supposed to do now, dad?
There was no answer from the empty silence of the bunker. Kyle had been gone for a little more than a year, now, and couldn’t tell him anymore which actions he should or shouldn’t take. And John fucking missed him so much right now, because he’d know what to do. Kyle had always known what to do, no matter what happened.
Then John came across Kate - she was just sitting on one of the military cots, crying soundlessly, and he immediately understood why. It was finally hitting her that everything and everyone she’d ever known was gone. The realization was a crushing one, and he couldn’t leave her to deal with it alone because his entire life was spent being told that nothing around him would last. Which made him think of Sarah: Mom, what should I tell her? It’s never going to be okay again.
“Hey,” he offered lamely, mostly to get her attention. “Do you… wanna talk about it?”
Kate wiped her eyes on the back of one hand while John slowly sat next to her.
“My father should be one of those voices on your radio,” she answered softly, not looking at John. “I watched him d… I was there when it happened, but I still keep thinking sometimes that his voice should be with the others’.”
It came to him then, what he should tell her. Maybe it would help.
“Me and my dad were both there when my mom died,” John began. Just thinking about this was making him start to choke on his own voice. “She… it was so quiet. I just remember being really pissed about that for awhile. It’s not how she should’ve gone out, because as far back as my memories go, even when I was little, she was such a fighter. She ran arms deals with Mexican gangsters and could kick anyone’s ass in a fight. And so I thought that’s how she’d go, fighting with someone… but she was just lying there. It was… horrible…” John paused and took a breath. “My dad was on the bed, holding her, and… like I said, it was so quiet. I was sitting on the other side, holding her hand. That’s the only time I ever saw my dad cry, too, was when my mom died, because he just stayed with her the whole time. Waiting. So that she wouldn’t be alone.”
“Where’s your dad now?” Kate wondered, finally turning to look at John.
“He… he’s gone, too. But he didn’t have a disease or something. It was thirteen months ago last week, on the anniversary of my mom’s death, and he just disappeared that afternoon. I had to go out and find him. When I finally did, he was so drunk he could barely walk, and he didn’t even say anything. I don’t think he did this on purpose, but he tried crossing a street and got hit by a car. And so while we waited for an ambulance, I was just sitting on the road, holding him up. It’s stupid, but all I could think about was that he was drooling blood onto my shirt. And… and he died in my arms. Right there in the middle of the street. My friends in Mexico had him cremated, just like with my mom, and I scattered his ashes in the same place as hers so they could be together again…”
John couldn’t keep talking about this, and now he was the one rubbing his eyes clear. Kate hugged him, then, so they could cry into each other’s shirts over the losses they’d faced so far. Thinking about his parents made John remember that Kyle would be born four years from now… and then a very unnerving comment from the T-850 as they were escaping the cemetery in a shot-up hearse. Later your children will become important.
This sobering thought was what made John get a fucking grip on himself, the idea that this was his future wife and someday they’d have kids… John already knew he’d be a horrible dad, because everything he understood about being a father came from Kyle, and Kyle had never even come close to mastering that particular set of skills.
So maybe just don’t do what my dad did? he thought to himself.
Except there’d still been a few things Kyle got right. When he’d been a kid, it was always Kyle who read books to him, it was always Kyle who came running when he woke up from nightmares and started crying, it was always Kyle who picked him up out of the dirt when he fell off something and hurt himself. John had lost his father more recently, too, and that ache was sharp again, because there were so many things Kyle hadn’t had time to explain to him - about the resistance and being a leader and probably dozens of other topics.
“I miss my dad,” Kate mumbled against his jacket.
“I miss my dad, too,” John answered, squeezing her tighter against himself.