The future belongs to those who prepare for it today.
John knew from bitter experience from the death of his mother that it didn't matter how well Leanna Albany prepared her child, it still came as a terrible shock for Zach when it was time for her to leave. As she moved towards the jumper, ready to board, Zach tried to be stoic but he was just a small kid watching his mother walk out of his life. She had already explained that she would send messages and would try to come back to see him as often as possible, but as Atlantis was only a week away from heading back to Pegasus, John knew Zach might not see his mother in the flesh for a long time - if ever again.
Zach stood rigid between John and Rodney, still a little unsure of the two relative strangers beside him even though John, Rodney and Leanna had done their best to help him adapt to the massive changes in his young life. Looking down, John could see Zach's lips quivering as he tried to hold back the tears. A glance across at Rodney proved he had noticed too - judging by the stricken look on his partner's face. For all his bluster and lack of social skills, Rodney wasn't completely oblivious to the feelings of others - and to small kids in particular, who had a tendency to cling to Rodney. John had noticed this on a number of occasions off-world, making him wonder if their innocence let them see beneath Rodney's prickly exterior to the warm center of the man. The problem was that Rodney didn't know how to react to those kids in return, often coming across as abrasive, rude, or even childish. Most kids shrugged it off, coming back for more, but Rodney had managed to reduce a few of them to tears over the years.
At least he'd been trying to bond with Zach, though perhaps a little too hard, and once or twice John had seen Leanna wavering on whether or not it was a good idea leaving her precious son with his biological father after all. John suspected that it was knowing Rodney had the support of not just John but his sister, Jeannie, and others on Atlantis that had swayed her. That and the fact that she was running out of time, and with no family of her own, she hated the alternative of placing her son in the Foster Care System.
John could tell Zach was a clever kid, but then both of his parents were exceptionally gifted in their respective fields so that was hardly surprising. Leanna had to know that leaving Zach with Rodney would give him a far greater chance in life than if he was left to the vagaries of foster caring, or she would never have come forward in the first place.
So far Rodney hadn't managed to reduce Zach to tears despite a few blunders, and if the way Zach was clinging to the material of both his and Rodney's sleeve was anything to go on, then Zach was already forming a bond of trust with them.
John turned and dropped his other hand on Zach's small shoulder as he leaned down.
"One last hug," he whispered. "Go."
John caught Rodney's eyes as Zach darted away instantly, running across the jumper bay, calling for his mom. She turned and her face crumpled with both pain and happiness as she caught him in her arms and held him close, hugging him tight. For a moment it looked as if she was never going to let him go, and he could see Zach's small fists bunched in his mom's jacket, holding her just as tight. Eventually though, she pulled back, brushing curling blond locks off his forehead as she leaned in and kissed Zach's cheek. From this distance John couldn't hear what she was saying but eventually she glanced towards them before very gently turning Zach and pushing him away. John took it as their cue to take Zach from her. He nudged Rodney and they met Zach halfway, drawing him back in close to them. This time they watched as Leanna boarded the jumper, and as it lifted and turned, John nodded to Lorne, who was piloting.
They watched as the jumper climbed up through the exit at the top of the tower, catching it shimmer as the cloak engaged before it headed straight up to rendezvous with the Tok'ra ship lying hidden behind the moon.
"How about we go to the mess and get some ice-cream. I think Rodney needs some," John suggested.
Zach nodded morosely, his face still upturned as if hoping to catch one last glimpse of the jumper taking his mother away.
The mess hall was crowded, and John found the sight of so many children still took a little getting used to after years of seeing just scientists and soldiers. He knew they had already opened up other eating areas at the base of the residential towers, to lighten the load on this mess hall. Otherwise the queues would have been horrendous.
Being back on Earth had made it possible to quadruple the number of construction engineers in the city, and they had opened up two more towers for the increasing civilian and military population. The quarters in those towers were not as Spartan as the ones in the main tower as they were intended to be permanent residences for families rather than temporary post assignments. John and Rodney had taken advantage of their position for once, and they had already picked out and moved into one of the best apartments at the top of the second, grander tower, close to the transporter. John guessed it could be considered a luxurious penthouse suite by Earth standards. He still felt a little guilty as it boasted four bedrooms when they really only needed the one, but Rodney had sold him on it by explaining that they needed an office each, and a spare room for when Torren or Madison slept over, plus they deserved it for the many times they had saved the city - and Earth. Of course the massive hot tub and the spectacular view from the balcony that swept from outside their bedroom all the way along in front of the main family room had nothing to do with it.
He smiled as he recalled their late night discussion just under a week ago, after Leanna's arrival with Zach and her startling news.
"I was thinking... I don't really need an office, Rodney, so why don't we make that Zach's room?"
"Or we could move? I could order the engineers to knock together two smaller apartments lower down into one. Of course, we won't have the spectacular view-."
"Or the hot tub," John added, and watched Rodney scrunch up his face, knowing how much Rodney loved that hot tub already, especially after they shared it on that one occasion. Hell, he loved that hot tub after sharing it with Rodney. The memory distracted him for a moment, recalling Rodney's skin all pink from the heated water, and slippery; remembering the glide of skin on skin as they moved together.
"Well, I guess if you really can do without..."
John smiled at Rodney's tentative yet hope-filled expression.
"Rodney, I have just one laptop, and an office in the main tower. Unlike you, I never bring work home with me. And even if I did, I can work just as easily at the kitchen breakfast bar... if I need to."
"You're sure? I mean... really?"
The sacrifice of a little private space at home was worth the happiness shining in Rodney's eyes, plus he could always turn the guest room into a private den for times when it wasn't occupied, which was likely most of the time. He'd discovered early on that there were hidden drawers in most rooms that could be keyed to a specific DNA marker for privacy. Atlantis liked him, so even Rodney would be hard pressed to break those seals unless John gave his permission, so he could lock anything... unsuitable or potentially unsavory... away from the inquisitive eyes of anyone staying in the guest room - young or old. That included locking away his sidearm for when he wasn't on duty; something that hadn't occurred to him until the first night Zach slept over.
Rodney grabbed one of the large empty tables on the balcony area that looked out over the distant San Francisco harbor and Golden Gate Bridge. He seemed to be subdued as he toyed with his ice cream rather than bolting it down, no doubt picking up on Zach's emotions. John wasn't surprised when Jeannie and Kaleb sat across from them, letting the two young cousins go sit together on the next table to eat their identical bowls of ice cream.
"Sometimes kids need other kids," she explained, knowing Madison was close enough in age to Zach that they could share a few of their fears.
Both had been uprooted from familiar homes and schools, and taken away from people they knew and trusted to start on this new adventure. They all knew it had to be harder for Zach, losing his mother and being placed with relative strangers, but John had seen how hard both Jeannie and Rodney worked to rebuild their previously estranged relationship, and even more was at stake now. Together they would give Zach an extended family that stretched beyond his biological father, and Leanna had seen that.
As Teyla joined them, John smiled because Zach had gained several honorary aunts and uncles as well, forming a family bond that would be the envy of many. Plus John had every intention of being more than just a step-father to Zach. He wouldn't spring it on them immediately but as he and Rodney were married by both Canadian and Pegasus Galaxy law, he'd already asked Richard to draw up all the paperwork needed for a formal adoption of Rodney's son.
Rodney tapped his radio suddenly. "Yes," he stated abruptly, rolling his eyes and glancing at John in apology. "Yes, I'm on my way."
John gave a tiny smile. With just a week to go before lift-off, the different departments were starting to panic. There was still so much to do and so many supplies still to load into the city. The engineers were working in shifts to cover every single minute of each day, and even though a third of them intended to remain on Atlantis, the loss of the others would have an impact. They were focusing mainly on the central part of the city even though the outer buildings had taken more damage from both water, Wraith darts and the meteor storm from when there was not enough power to shield the entire city. Rodney had moaned once that they should have left Atlantis in the hands of the Replicators for a few more weeks as the Asurans would have made the repairs far more quickly once they'd gained access to the raw materials they needed.
"I wasn't so keen on the decor change," John recalled saying at the time, recalling how the soft blues and pales yellows had been replaced with darker blue-green aquamarines and golds, and the delicate workmanship replaced with a heavier hand. Atlantis was still beautiful though.
Rodney had huffed and rolled his eyes but then Rodney had the worst color-sense of anyone he'd ever met, not thinking twice about wearing clashing colors and designs - checks with stripes. It was one of the reasons why John had been convinced for so long that Rodney was straight - even though John didn't usually go for stereotyping.
He'd refused to allow Rodney to choose any colors in their new apartment, willing to endure the Martha Stewart comments from both Rodney and Lorne rather than suffer a possible orange and bright purple clash of colors in the bedroom. The only color off the table as far as Rodney was concerned was lemon yellow - for obvious reasons.
John looked across at Zach and smiled as he saw Zach slowly lifting out of his despondent mood as he chatted with Madison. At least Zach hadn't inherited a citrus allergy from his father, but he had inherited Rodney's curly blond locks. John's smile widened as he recalled the incriminating photos that Jeannie had shared of Rodney as a child and young adult. Quite a heart-breaker, he thought in remembrance.
Lorne stopped beside him. "Sorry, Sir, but we need to go over-."
"Sure. Meet me in the central armory in ten minutes."
Lorne nodded. Rodney was not the only one in demand this close to the city leaving Earth for Pegasus. The military fell under his jurisdiction, though he had at least handed off most of the Family and Single housing requirements to Richard's people. They were better equipped to deal with the housing demands. However, armaments - equipment and weaponry - was another matter entirely. When they first stepped into Atlantis, all they had was what they could carry on their backs or push through the Stargate during that 38 minute window. They no longer had that same restriction, and the six months spent on Earth had given them a chance to stockpile, with armories scattered across the city for obvious defensive reasons. The Genii invasion during that first year had taught him the wisdom of that.
Some argued that they no longer needed so many weapons or military as the Wraith were no longer a serious threat. The Hoffan virus - made more deadly by Michael before his death - had reached every corner of Pegasus, making their human food inedible. The remaining hives had united, building a superhive to attack Earth, but the destruction of that superhive by Atlantis had wiped them out. Carson and Jennifer Keller had created a retrovirus between them that altered Wraith DNA so they no longer needed a human life force for energy. The few Wraith who were unwilling to take the treatment had gone back into hibernation rather than risk feeding on an infected human. Those like Todd, who had taken the retrovirus, were now building on the uneasy alliances originally formed to stop Michael from taking over the whole galaxy.
Of course, no one was going to trust even these de-fanged Wraith with the coordinates for Earth - just in case.
John had argued that even though the Wraith were no longer a major threat, there was still a whole galaxy to explore and they had yet to decide what to do about the renegade Asgard, or the strange aliens John and his team had encountered when the Daedalus was jumping between parallel universes. Just because they hadn't met up yet, there was no guarantee that this other race wasn't heading towards them with hostile intent.
"You really are a boy scout, Sheppard," Rodney had remarked at the time.
"I just like to be prepared for any eventuality," John had retorted.
His thoughts came back to the present and he glanced across at Jeannie; she smiled indulgently.
"I'll look after Zach until you or Rodney are free."
"Thanks," he replied softly, and gratefully.
He had a feeling they'd be relying heavily on that extended family but he hoped not to repeat history where he and his own father were concerned, by always putting work first. Once Atlantis was back in Pegasus, he fully intended to spend as much time as possible with not just Rodney and Zach, but with all the people he cared about.
"Zach?" John leaned down. "I have to go to work now, but Aunt Jeannie's going to take care of you until we get back. Okay?"
Zach gave a noncommittal shrug of his thin shoulders. John glanced back at Jeannie and saw her give a similar shrug as Kaleb stood up too.
Everyone was busy during this final week on Earth, making sure they had all the equipment and resources they needed, or in Kaleb's case, preparing classrooms and going over the curriculum with those taking up teaching posts. Kaleb had been the Vice Principal of a large school in Canada, and had happily accepted the position as Principal of Atlantis's first school, covering all age ranges from kindergarten through college. Certainly they had enough top-level scientists on Atlantis in an amazing variety of disciplines, who could also teach classes rather than have the older kids sent back to Earth for future studies.
John had a feeling Richard's dream was to see Atlantis become a prestigious place of learning for the whole of Pegasus, and it was not just Kaleb who shared that dream. Other scientists saw a bright future for their children here on Atlantis.
What it meant for John was knowing Zach would get an enviable education, and in the short term, heading back to school next week here on Atlantis would help Zach and the other kids settle into their new home faster - or so everyone hoped.
Many hours later, John returned to their new apartment and had to smile at the very domestic scene before him. Rodney was frowning at the Ancient equivalent of a microwave cooker as if his stare could bend time and make the countdown move faster. Zach was seated up at the breakfast bar with a cleaned dinner plate in front of him, watching Rodney intently but his eyes widened a fraction when he spotted John.
John pressed a finger to his lips as he crept up behind Rodney, casting a conspiratorial grin towards Zach. He leaned in as close as he could without touching, knowing Rodney was completely distracted, and whispered into his ear, "What you cooking?"
Having expected the yell and flailing arms, John had moved back swiftly, but he had gained the desired effect of startling Rodney and putting a grin on Zach's face. The tiny alarm sounded before Rodney could start ranting about heart attacks, and when the door slid open, the aroma of fresh popcorn filled the area.
"As I saw you in the mess hall with Lorne and Teddy..."
"Teldy," John stressed.
"...I assumed you'd already eaten." Rodney's chin lifted a little as if worried he'd assumed wrong.
"Yeah, I grabbed something earlier."
"Aunt Jeannie lent us Despicable Me."
Smiling, John kicked off his already unlaced boots before he sank down onto the couch, letting his arm reach behind Zach and drop onto Rodney's shoulder as the movie started. He leaned over, and was met halfway as he pressed a soft kiss against Rodney's lips, tasting popcorn and butter. A small, bony elbow nudged him as Zach looked between them with slight disapproval at the 'parental display of affection'.
"The movie's starting," Zach stated.
John grinned at Rodney across the top of Zach, and gained a crooked smile in return. Home and family, he thought, smiling contentedly as Zach snuggled back against the both of them with the bowl of popcorn held tightly in his lap, already distracted by the movie.
John relaxed as his fingers played with the short wisps of hair feathering the back of Rodney's neck. He didn't expect their future to be perfect, but maybe neither of them would be so terrible at this family thing after all.