Title: Atlas Shrugs

Author: Philote

Fandom: Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles

Characters/Pairing: Derek, Sarah, John

Rating: PG

Disclaimer: The characters and situations of Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles do not belong to me. I make no money from this story. Please don't sue.

Warnings: Spoilers through 2x06, "The Tower is Tall but the Fall is Short"

Summary: Derek has never viewed this fight as a choice. John's problem is that he knows the same. Tag for "The Tower is Tall but the Fall is Short."

Author's Note: Written for the 'mortal coil' prompt at Taming the Muse.

"Mortal coil is a poetic term that means the troubles of daily life and the strife and suffering of the world. It is used in the sense of a burden to be carried or abandoned…" —Wikipedia

oOo

You're a soldier. You fight.

He's sitting in the kitchen eating peanut butter and jelly, but his mind is elsewhere. It hasn't left the hotel room. His thoughts cling to Jesse.

Her way of thinking here is utterly foreign to him. How could she manage to walk away, to have a new life? How does anyone just walk away from war?

Derek has a new life too. But while different, it's really no less dangerous. And there's actually more responsibility now. The weight of the world rests on this household, on this family.

He fights the fight. He's never thought of it as a burden he could choose to take up or lay down. After Judgment Day his only choice, such as it was, was to fight or die. Dying would have meant letting Kyle die, so that was really no choice at all.

But now, listening to Jesse, being with her here and now…well, she's made an intriguing point, to say the least.

His thoughts are interrupted as footsteps approach the kitchen. He attunes to them immediately—too light for John, not perfectly measured like Cameron. He doesn't bother to turn, so Sarah comes around into his line of sight. She meets his gaze for a moment and he actually puts his glass down because it looks like she has something important to say. Then she turns away without a word and goes to the sink.

Derek blinks at her back. "Everything okay?"

"Peachy."

And people used to tell him he was difficult to communicate with. "John?"

She turns back with a sigh. "I don't know. Doctor Sherman says he needs to talk. And maybe their sessions will do him some good. But there are things he can't tell a therapist."

"Almost everything that matters," Derek agrees.

Sarah nods slowly. She's studying him a bit unnervingly. "But he won't talk to me. Or he can't; I don't know anymore."

She falls silent, but keeps staring at him. It takes him longer than it should to read between the lines and realize that she's asking him for something.

There's a certain degree to which Sarah trusts Derek, as much as Sarah Connor trusts anyone, but asking him for help is unusual for her. Asking for help in handling John is nearly unheard of. They may pace each other to John's room when a gunshot sounds, but they're certainly not co-parents.

But here she is, refusing to say the words but still clearly wanting him to talk to her son. He could make a big deal, but he won't. He just nods once. Message received. She gives him a tight smile and turns away.

Later that evening he makes his way to John's room, where the teenager is holing up more and more often. The door is open. Derek leans silently against the doorframe. John's eyes flicker up, but he says nothing before directing his attention back to the book in his lap.

Derek waits a long moment, just studying him. "Hey."

John's gaze comes back up, expression dark. "I'm not gonna shoot myself."

"I know you're not."

"Cameron keeps quoting random suicide statistics. It's getting a little annoying."

"You're not suicidal."

John blinks, apparently a little surprised by his certainty. "Thank you."

Derek shrugs. "I'll know suicidal when I see it." John gives him an odd look, which he ignores as he steps in and closes the door behind him. He saunters forward and settles on the end of John's bed. "Your Mom's worried."

"She sent you in here? Wow, she really is worried."

"Hey," Derek complains, only half-heartedly, because John's right. John grins in response, so its worth it. It fades too quickly, though.

Derek nudges his knee. "You like the shrink?"

John considers for a long moment. Not thinking about the answer, Derek thinks, but whether or not he wants to give it. Finally he says, "I don't think 'like' is the right word. I think maybe I need the shrink."

"Nothing wrong with that."

"No?"

"Hey, if ever anyone had issues that were shrink-worthy…"

"It would be John Connor?" John grins again, but it doesn't reach his eyes. "But is that me now, or the man you'll know?"

"The fact that you have to ask that question proves my point." Derek pauses and watches the boy carefully. "You've already been through a lot, John. And recently? Cameron turning, Charley's wife and the fallout…watching your Mom kill someone to save you."

John winces, but stays silent.

Derek forges ahead. "I don't have all the answers. Hell, maybe I don't have any. But I do understand, probably more than you think."

Still no response. Derek waits, but the silence stretches. Eventually he reaches out, squeezing John's knee. "Anyhow. You know where to find me."

John lets him stand and get halfway out the door before he speaks. "I didn't."

"What?"

"I didn't see my mom kill that guy. Because she didn't." He pauses and looks away, refusing to meet Derek's eyes. "I did."

It takes a bit to process that. "Oh," is all he manages. He shuts the door again and just stands there. He's a little surprised by how unsurprised he is. He knew something was up. This totally fits, in a horrific sort of way.

John is studying the bedspread like the answers to life are embroidered there. Derek steps back over and retakes his seat. "You had to?" he asks, though he already knows the answer.

John's voice is quiet. "He would have killed us both."

"You know you had to. But it still hurts like hell, makes you feel dirty and guilty and wrong."

John finally looks up at him. The pain is his eyes makes Derek want to reach out and hold him. He doesn't. That's not what he needs, not right now.

"It sucks, but feeling things—even bad ones—is kind of a gift. It lets you feel your humanity."

John nods slowly. "I know what I have to do. Who I have to be. I just don't…" he breaks off and swallows hard. "Sometimes I don't think I want to be John Connor."

"I know you don't." That's how he's come to love this teenager, even when he hated the man. He holds onto hope that by being here, by striving to help stop Skynet, John won't have to fully become that person. Some, though, is unavoidable. John still has to fight. "Tell me what happened," he instructs softly.

John starts to talk, slow and halting, and Derek doesn't see the leader of the resistance. He just sees a boy with a too-heavy burden on his shoulders. Because the boy is important to him, he wishes he could take it for him. But all he can do is share the weight.

John can't lay it down. And Derek can't let John down.

There was never really any choice at all.

oOo