Setting: Just after "The Turk"
"Just a Boy"
Sleep often proved elusive for John Connor. In his more reflective moments, he thought perhaps his insomnia stemmed from never having one safe place to call home, his own bed in his own bedroom, the same branches from the same tall oak tree scraping menacingly against the same window and casting the same creepy, claw-like shadows across the same carpet his whole life. Some kids, John knew, lived in the same house their entire lives, even came back to that same house after they were grown-up and married with kids of their own. Having lived in so many houses and apartments in his sixteen years that he could hardly recall them all, John sometimes wondered if his inability to drop quickly off into blissful dreams derived from never having had such safety and security himself.
But reflective moments were rare for John. He didn't believe in spending too much time inside his own head, or too much time trying to figure out what made him (or anyone else) tick. So most of the time, he chalked his sleepless nights up to more obvious, less psychological reasons.
Like the fact that he was constantly being hunted, either by the FBI or programmed-to-kill robots from the post-apocalyptic future. (Sometimes, on a particularly bad week, both.)
Or that he drank way, way too much coffee for a sixteen-year-old.
Or that his mother routinely woke up from a nightmare in which (a) her son had been killed by said robots, (b) the world had been destroyed in a nuclear holocaust, (c) she had died and left said son and the world unprotected, or (d) all of the above. No matter how many times he heard his mother's strangled waking cry, John doubted he would ever be able to simply roll over and go back to sleep afterwards.
More recently, though, the interruption to his REM cycle could have had something to do with a certain Terminator who insisted on prowling the house at night. All night. Every night.
Cameron made very little noise, John had to admit. In fact, lying in his back bedroom with the door half-shut and the blankets pulled over his head, he had to strain to hear the soft slap-pat of her bare feet on the plank floor. Only rarely did she step on the creaking board in front of the stove, and then, in spite of her metal skeleton, she proved so light of foot that the sound wouldn't have registered with anyone who wasn't listening for it.
John, however, was listening.
He was listening because he couldn't not listen, knowing she was out there, awake, restless, vigilant. He felt like a disgusting, twisted pervert for picturing her slender feet moving endlessly over the wood and tile floors, yet each time he closed his eyes, there she was – first a foot, then a leanly-muscled leg, then a taut stomach, then –
Then his eyes would pop open, and he would order himself, for the umpteenth time, to stop fantasizing about the damn robot.
With fantasies firmly out-of-bounds, John would next find his wayward, sleep-deprived brain insisting on formulating questions about Cameron. She had seemed so human when he had first met her; looking back on it now, he realized he had thought she was a bit quirky, rather endearingly odd, in the charming way only strikingly gorgeous women can pull off without just seeming, well, weird. Now that he knew she was a Terminator, though, John couldn't view her strangely forthright mannerisms – her tendency, like a young child, to speak the truth, regardless of how uncomfortable it might be to hear – in the same forgiving light. He looked at her and saw a machine playing human. The same as all the rest of them, every other Terminator he'd ever encountered.
Even the one who had saved his life before Cameron, who had helped him rescue his mother from a psych ward and had tried to destroy SkyNet. Who had been the closest thing to a father John had ever really known. Even he had been thoroughly not-human.
Except Cameron was…
She had said it herself, not long after they had met, when the year was still 1999. She had intimated that she was in some ways human, or at least not totally a machine. And every time John's mind circled back to that memory, the way she had looked so earnestly into his face as she had reached into his bag of chips, he would start to wonder exactly which parts of her were machine and which parts were human. And then he would start to think about how soft her hair felt when it accidentally brushed his face in the car or how kissable her lips looked when she said his name or –
Which, of course, brought him right back to: Stop fantasizing about the damn robot!
The night after witnessing one of his new classmates leap to her death, John had plenty of reasons for not being able to sleep. For starters, he was furious with Cameron for preventing him from coming to the girl, Jordan's, aide; he could have saved her, John knew it in his guts, if he had only been able to talk to her. Because, really, who wanted to die at sixteen? Hadn't he occasionally flirted with the idea of stepping out into on-coming traffic when the going got tough? Everybody thought like that sometimes. Everybody got all messed up inside, saw things backwards and upside down, wanted out of whatever madness was encircling them bad enough to think death might be an option. But those thoughts were fleeting, momentary – and if they got stuck, well, that was when somebody else was supposed to step in, pull the desperate person back from the edge, remind her that life had a way of going on and working itself out.
What was the good of being some big-deal hero in the future if he wasn't allowed to do even the simplest, smallest acts of kindness and decency in the here-and-now?
All of the things he wanted to say to Cameron flooded John's mind again as his alarm clock ticked toward one in the morning. Down the hall, if he squeezed his eyes shut tight and focused only on his sense of hearing, he could just make out the robot's footsteps tracing back and forth, back and forth through the kitchen and living room. Next door, his mother's breathing was, for once, slow and even. Now was his chance – if he wanted to take it, if he wanted to march out there and explain to that thing, that machine, why human life was valuable, even one human life, certainly worth the tiny little risk he would have been taking to run up that fire escape and offer some help…
Thinking back on the terrible, stomach-dropping crunch of bone and skin meeting pavement, John sprang out of bed, unable to contain his anger for another second. Quickly but quietly (his mother was not a very sound sleeper, a fact which had kept them out of jail and alive on several occasions), John pulled a Counting Crows tee-shirt on over his blue flannel pajama pants and stalked out into the kitchen.
Where he found Cameron just turning from the window above the sink.
Moonlight spilled over her fair skin, catching the sun-kissed highlights in her dark hair. Since Sarah had given her The Talk about wearing clothes, Cameron was clad in black yoga pants that skimmed her ankles and an oversized white tee-shirt – one of his shirts, John realized with a jolt – which left the curves underneath to John's fully-developed imagination.
Stop. Fantasizing. About. The. ROBOT.
Seeing him there, frozen in the doorway, Cameron paused mid-step and cocked her head at him, in that adorably inquisitive way that had so taken John when he'd first met her. "Is something wrong?" she asked.
"Shh! Keep your voice down." John cut a glance over his shoulder toward his mother's bedroom. The door was closed; he listened for a moment, waiting to see if Sarah would appear, but her door stayed shut.
"Is something wrong?" Cameron repeated, this time in a stage whisper that almost – almost, not quite – made John smile.
He was trying to recapture the self-righteous fury that had propelled him out of bed and into the hallway, without much success. Savior of humankind he might be, but for the moment, John was still a teenage boy, and hating himself for being prey to the unaffected wiles of a beautiful girl.
Robot. Whatever. She looked like a girl, so couldn't he be pardoned for getting confused about the fact that she wasn't human? Didn't popular philosophy insist that perception was reality?
"No, nothing's wrong. What would be wrong?"
Proud of himself for managing to sound disdainful of her protectiveness, John forced himself to walk right past Cameron like her beauty didn't phase him in the slightest. An adept liar (by necessity, not by choice), he bought himself time to recover his typical cavalier façade by pretending to be on the hunt for a midnight snack. "I got hungry's all. You want something?"
"No. I keep thinking about that girl. The one who died."
John, hand hovering inside the cabinet about to grasp a jar of peanut butter, froze. He couldn't name all of the emotions wiring through him: amazement, at Cameron's audacity in bringing up the one subject she should have been loathe to discuss with him; rage, at the apparent unconcern in her voice as she calmly referred to such a terrible tragedy; compassion, for the innocent honesty that prompted what he recognized as genuine puzzelement in her tone.
For a machine programmed to be alert for any danger, Cameron proved, as usual, oblivious to human emotion. She didn't appear to notice the effect her words were having on John as she continued, "Humans always talk about survival. The instinct for survival. Fighting for life. But you kill yourselves. Why?"
"Are you serious?" Rage won out amongst John's warring emotions. By a force of will, he managed not to slam the cabinet door before spinning around to face Cameron, his jaw set. She gazed evenly back at him. "You're seriously asking me why people commit suicide when you stopped me from helping that girl?"
"You couldn't get involved. You would have drawn attention to yourself. You can't draw attention to yourself."
"So what?" John demanded, moving a step closer to Cameron, practically shaking with anger. In his mind's eye, he kept replaying that horrible, slow-motion moment when Jordan's body had toppled over the edge of the roof – not flailing, not fighting, simply falling.
"So we get noticed, and we run again. Big deal. We're always running. I can't remember a time when I wasn't running, from something. At least this would have been something worth fighting for."
Cameron's eyes flashed, a brief yet unmistakable spark of that humanness John could not deny he saw within her, despite the unavoidable fact that she was a machine. "You have something worth fighting for," she began.
Having heard time and time again how vital his survival was to the continuation of humanity, John cut Cameron off with a bitter laugh. "Right, I know. In the future. Well, you know what I think, Cameron? I think there's stuff worth fighting for right now. And sometimes," he concluded, stopping as he came toe-to-toe with this unfathomable creature, whom he alternately found infuriating and captivating, half-hoping she would strike him so he could pound out his frustration on her near-invincible frame, "I don't give a damn about this 'future' you and my mom are so obsessed with. Sometimes, I'd just like to spend one day – no, I take that back, just one second – in the present."
A weighty silence fell over the room. The ticking of the living room clock sounded loud in John's ears; he half-expected his mother's voice to sound over his shoulder, demanding to know what all the commotion was about. The house remained quiet, though, the clock and his breathing the only sounds.
The world, the future, the senseless death of a young woman, his anger, it all began to melt, to narrow, to blur into a pair of dark eyes gazing unblinkingly into his, a sweep of dark hair tumbling around a lovely female face…
"You're angry with me."
Cameron's simple observation shattered the silence but not the spell holding John inches from her. "Yes," he heard himself say hoarsely. "I'm angry with you."
"Because of the girl who jumped. Because you wanted to help her." Without waiting for an answer, Cameron continued, "My mission is to protect you, John. That's why I'm here. To save you. Even if you don't want to be saved."
You, John. That's why I'm here.
"You're wearing my shirt."
It was a stupid, nonsensical thing to say, yet the words slipped out without John even realizing he meant to say them.
"I found it in the laundry. It smells like you."
John's knees went positively weak when Cameron's eyes flicked ever-so-quickly to his mouth before returning immediately to his. Trying to smooth the tremor out of his voice, he managed, "That's, uh, that's some Terminator thing, right? Like, smelling me, it makes you better able to track me, or whatever?"
Cameron shook her head. Her hair bounced prettily against her shoulders when she did so, and John decided if he stayed this close to her much longer, he was going to pass out. "No. I just like that it smells like you. Are you angry with me for taking your shirt without asking, too?"
"No. I'm not – it's – you can have it. The shirt." John was telling himself to back up, ordering himself to in fact.
He could hear his mother's voice in his head: She is a MACHINE, John. She is not a girl. She's certainly not your girlfriend. So, for the last time –
Stop fantasizing about the damn robot!
And go to bed!
Only, John's feet seemed disconnected from his brain. His entire body seemed disconnected from his brain, actually, as if some vital circuit had been blown and he was operating completely on desire and instinct, outside the realm of rational thought and logic. Because rationally, John knew he couldn't lift his hand, brush a stray lock of hair off Cameron's cheek, and tuck it behind her ear, allowing him to then deftly cup her chin in his hand; logically, he knew he couldn't dip his own mouth toward hers, watching her stare back at him, wondering if she knew what a kiss was, if she would hit him, or scream, or press harder into his embrace –
Their mouths met, tentatively, and the universe didn't explode. Dimly, wherever in his fogged brain thought was still occurring, John realized he had half-expected the natural order of the world itself to rebel against the concept of a human being kissing a machine. The stars stayed up in the heavens, though, the earth did not spew forth lava, time itself did not stop.
Well, not literally, anyway. From where John was standing, with his fingers tangled in Cameron's hair and her body molding itself to his and her lips warm and sweet and soft and pliant under the pressure of his, fireworks lit up the night sky, the earth shook to its foundation, and everything in the world ceased to exist except for the girl in his arms.
Who was not a girl, but who was kissing like she knew how to be one. Who was wearing his shirt because it smelled like him, which was, in John's estimation, a very girl thing to do. Who was responsible for saving his life, yes, and thereby protecting the future of humankind, yes, yet who also seemed quite interested in who he was, as a boy. As a person.
The kiss gained fervor after a few tentative seconds. Cameron's palms splayed on John's chest, clutching the front of his shirt and urging him closer; John, in thoroughly unfamiliar territory here (his kissing experience was limited to a few painful and hastily-forgotten encounters with rather trashy girls desperate for attention, even from the new oddball geek), gave himself over to the heat rising from deep within him. Her tongue brushed across his lips, drawing a small, smothered moan from him, and then their mouths were open, and the kiss was building in passion, stealing John's breath.
Down the hall, a floorboard creaked.
John leapt away from Cameron with a speed that would have done a Terminator proud – a speed only a son about to be caught red-handed doing the last thing he would ever want his mother to see him doing (kissing a girl, and not just any girl but a non-human one at that) could manage. Cameron ducked her head to one side, her fingers resting lightly against her slightly-swollen lips, a flush coloring her high cheekbones.
They looked, John was sure, guilty as sin.
He groped blindly for the peanut butter in the cabinet, glad to have his back to the hallway and a moment to compose himself before his mother entered the room.
"What's going on out here?" Sarah called. "John? What are you doing up?"
Deep breaths. It's like being shot at: Focus, and you live.
Hitching his best "angry teenager" glower into place, John turned slowly and held the peanut butter jar aloft for his mother to see. "Snack," he replied. He crossed his fingers behind his back that his preternaturally-perceptive mother would chalk his clipped tones up to continued fury over being prevented from saving Jordan's life.
Sarah's eyes bored into her son before switching to Cameron, whose normal, placid expression was back in place, John noted with some relief (and perhaps a little disappointment that she could recover from their kiss so swiftly). "And you?"
"I don't sleep."
"So I've heard." Sarah arched a sardonic eyebrow at her son's protector. John winced at his mother's obvious disdain for Cameron; he wished she could look past the machine, see what was underneath…
What is underneath? Just metal, or something more?
That way, John knew, lay madness, so he ordered himself, once and for all, to give it up. Because whether he liked it or not, his mother was nearer to the mark than he was: Cameron was not a girl. She was a machine.
"Finish your snack and get back to bed, young man," Sarah commanded. She was already turning back toward her room. "You have school in the morning, and I don't want to hear any excuses about you being too tired to get up."
"Since when have I ever not wanted to go to school?" John muttered, stashing the peanut butter back in the cabinet. "It's the only normal part of my whole goddamn abnormal life."
Cameron started forward as John made to beat a hasty retreat from the room. He reluctantly slowed; the desire of minutes earlier had left a strong undercurrent of something dark and nameless between them, something John – who, after all, was not accustomed to spending much time in his own head, and wasn't eager to start – found himself unwilling to confront just then. He wanted the sanctuary of his room, the softness of his sheets, the possibility of sleep to clear his mind.
"Look." He cut short whatever Cameron had been poised to say, though he could hardly look her in the eye as he spoke. "That was…whatever that was, it was just for then, for that one time. You get it? You understand that this, that, can't happen?"
Automatically, Cameron nodded. "You're human. I'm not."
"Exactly. So…We'll just forget about it then, 'kay?"
She studied him quizzically. "How do we do that?"
Both annoyed and charmed by her innocence, John answered impatiently, "By never talking about it. We'll just pretend it didn't happen. Everything will go on like before. You're a Terminator, and I'm, well, I'm me. Got it?"
"Got it." Cameron nodded like a dutiful soldier. "It never happened. Everything is just like before."
The falsity of her words resonated deep within John. His own guilt, a sense of shame for desiring something that wasn't even human, and his fear that if he remained a moment longer, he might seize her by the shoulders and kiss her again (and something in her somber eyes told him she would not fight against that), chased him down the hall, where he closed his door with a firm click and dove into his bed, like a child afraid of monsters and hiding under the sheets.
To John's surprise, in spite of his hammering heart and racing mind, he started to drop off to sleep almost as soon as his head touched the pillow. He could still taste Cameron on his lips, still feel her body pressing into his, yet despite all the tumultuous emotions their kiss had raised within him, for the first time in a very, very long time, John felt strangely peaceful inside.
It was a kiss. One kiss. With a machine made to look just like a beautiful woman – a machine designed to pass as human. A machine with what could only be called a "personality," and the root of that word, after all, was "person." Whatever else Cameron was, she was unique, and special, and good. Whether she was those things because she had been programmed to be or because she was, in some essential way, different from any other Terminator John had so far encountered, he suddenly realized, that it didn't matter. That he didn't have anything to feel guilty about.
If perception was reality, then for one blissful, passion-hazy moment, Cameron had really and truly been a girl, a lovely, amazing girl. And for that moment, he, John, had finally been what he had always wished he could be.
Someone with the same bed to sleep in, night after night, in the same house, with the same roof over his head and the same school to go to the next day and the same name to give when he was asked. Someone without the weight of the world on his shoulders. Someone who wasn't destined to save millions of lives, to fight in a war he could hardly conceive of.
For an instant, John had seen himself as Cameron seemed to see him, and he thought, as the sweet waters of sleep closed over his head, that he understood why it affected him so. Because in that moment, he hadn't been John Connor, savior, kissing the machine sent back through time to save his life. To him, Cameron had just been a girl; to her, John had just been a boy.
Just an ordinary boy.