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John was in full-on retreat-and-hide mode, an inclination made easier by the fact that most of Atlantis's personnel had taken advantage of their current--and John fervently hoped temporary--relocation to the Pacific Ocean to cash in some of their accumulated leave and vacation days, leaving the city in the hands of the skeleton crew that Homeworld Security had decreed was all it needed while on Earth. With his meetings and debriefings finally over for the day, John had retreated to one of Atlantis's more distant balconies to watch the sun set and contemplate the future.

"That's gorgeous," said a familiar voice behind him.

John half-turned, nodding a greeting to Carter. "Not many views like that in space," he agreed. "I didn't know you were back."

Carter joined him at the edge of the balcony. "I just got in yesterday. We're here for a month for repairs and maintenance. Which you'd know if you'd read any of the memos they give you." She gave him a playful shove; John's aversion to paperwork a longstanding joke between them.

"I read the important stuff!" he protested. "Anything that talks about threats. Or cool new weapons."

"Uh huh. So you know about the new weapons system we're installing on the Hammond."

"Sure," John said. He'd read those specs during a particularly dull meeting about possible changes to the organizational structure of the SGC, and had spent most of the next meeting wondering who he could talk to in order to get a smaller version installed on the puddlejumpers.

"And also about Vala's Halloween party. Which she invited you to last week."

"Threats and weapons," John reminded her.

"Trust me, there's plenty of danger if you ignore Vala's invitation," Carter said. "She's very set on having you there."

Actually, he could imagine Vala's reaction to being ignored. Maybe he should read his mail more carefully. "Is that why you're here? To save me from Vala?"

"And to say hello," she said. "And to see how you're doing." She paused for a moment, and he could feel her studying him out of the corner of her eye. "I hear you had a talk with General Landry today," she said.

Presumably the real reason Carter was here. "You mean the conversation about how I have to decide which is more important to me, Atlantis or my career?" John kept his eyes fixed on the darkening horizon. "Yeah, we talked."

Carter gave him a sympathetic smile. "Five years is a long time at one duty station."

"You spent longer than that on SG-1, and your career seems to be doing okay," John said. Admittedly, he wasn't quite as versatile and indispensable as Carter, but he thought the gene ought to count for something on Atlantis. It was why they'd sent him here in the first place, after all.

"Special circumstances," Carter said. "That was during the early days of the Stargate Program. We're a little more...institutionalized now."

Which was one of the reasons he wasn't particularly eager to transfer back to Earth. "Well, I never expected to make it past captain anyway."

"Earth really isn't so bad, you know."

"I guess," John said. "I've just never had much tying me here. I mean, that's kind of why I agreed to go to Atlantis in the first place." That and trying to salvage what was left of his career, but that had been before he knew what he was really getting into. What he would lose if he left.

"There's always ship duty," Carter said. "There are plans to expand the fleet. Put in a year or two running a gate team and they'll probably give you your own command. Maybe even put you on the Pegasus route."

"Yeah," John said. Landry had told him something similar, a gruff attempt at sympathy. Before Atlantis, he would have jumped at that kind of opportunity.

"Plus think of all the things you'd have again," Carter continued. "Take-out. ESPN."

"Overcrowding. Traffic jams." People looking over his shoulder, second-guessing every decision as he made it. An empty apartment on the nights he made it home. No Teyla. No Ronon. No McKay.

"It's an adjustment," she allowed.

"How long did it take you to adjust?"

"They kept me pretty busy once I got back," Carter said. "There wasn't really much time to miss it." She turned around, leaning back against the railing and looking up at the tower behind them. John followed suit, letting his gaze drift upward, breathing in the beauty of the fading sun on the glass.

He loved this city.

"So where's the rest of your team?" Carter asked.

"Lorne and Amelia took Ronon and Teyla on a grand tour of California," John said. He'd bowed out of the trip on the grounds that he was needed at the SGC. Mostly he'd been concerned that if he left, they might take the opportunity to decide that Atlantis was staying on Earth permanently. "And Rodney's in Wisconsin with Jennifer, meeting her dad."

Carter's eyes widened in surprise. "Really? Things are that serious?"

"I guess." He was happy for them both. Of course he was. But it was also a sharp reminder that he didn't have anyone's parents to meet. Might not ever again. Not that he really missed that part of a relationship.

"Huh," Carter said thoughtfully. She gave him a searching look, then turned back toward the ocean. "Good for them."

John thought he detected an element of relief in her voice. Not that he blamed her, after some of the stories he'd heard about her early days with McKay.

Carter glanced down at her watch. "I should get back," she said regretfully. "I have to go over the plans for the weapons installation." She straightened up, stretching. "Don't forget about the party. And wear a costume. Vala's very insistent about that part."

"I don't have a costume," John said reasonably.

"San Francisco's a short hop away. I'm sure you can find one." She gave him a mischievous smile. "Or Vala would be happy to supply you with one."

John shuddered dramatically and Carter laughed.

"Look, it won't be that bad," she said. "Half the SGC will be there; it's a good chance for you to make connections. Plus, if nothing else, it's worth it to see Teal'c's costume."

"What's he going as?" John asked.

"I have no idea," Carter said, "but it's sure to be interesting. Besides, what else are you going to do?" She looked up at the dark, empty towers surrounding them. "Shell out?"

Maybe it would be worth going to see what aliens thought of as appropriate Halloween costumes. "I'll see what I can dig up," he said.

***

They added three more meetings to his schedule before the party, which didn't leave John with much time to go costume shopping. He considered cancelling twice, considered what Carter--or worse, Vala--would say if he did, then dug through his quarters until he found the Wraith mask Jinto had given him.

"What the hell," he said, slipping it on. "It's Halloween."

Solid black clothing--of which he had plenty--made up the rest of his costume. With a last glance in the mirror, he headed for puddlejumper bay.

Vala, it turned out, really had gone all-out for the party, including renting a hall to host it. John left the puddlejumper at the SGC and caught a ride with a major he'd met during his last stint on Earth. The woman, dressed as a twenties flapper, bubbled enthusiastically about the party all the way there. Apparently Vala's Halloween parties were something of a legend.

They parted ways at the entrance, the major heading toward a group of similarly attired officers--there was a prize for best group costume, she told him--and John heading for the bar. Drink in hand--and mask pulled up so he could drink it--he circled the room slowly, nodding to the people he recognized. He had to admit that Vala really had done an impressive job of decorating the room: spiderwebs, startlingly-lifelike ghosts, and a few motion-activated sound effects that made him jump the first time he encountered one.

He was contemplating the door to what he'd been told was a haunted house when Carter found him, the red of her costume a splash of colour against the blacks and browns that dominated the room.

"Somehow I can't see you needing rescued from the wolf," John said.

She flashed him a smile and pulled back the red cloak to reveal a miniature arsenal hanging from her belt. "I was going for the modern incarnation," she said.

"Red Riding Hood, Wolf Hunter?"

"Yep," she said. "Or possibly werewolf hunter, depending on which movie you watch."

"Probably an improvement over the original story," John said.

"Well, you haven't seen the movies." Carter took a sip of her drink. "So what do you think?"

"I think I could have gone a lifetime without seeing Mackenzie in leopard print," John said.

Carter laughed. "It was an interesting choice," she agreed. "Did you see Daniel and Vala?"

"Bonnie and Clyde?" John grinned. "Seems appropriate."

"Just wait until--" Carter began, and then she stopped, grimacing at something over John's shoulder. He turned, trying to figure out what she was seeing.

"I didn't think Vala was going to invite him," Carter murmured. "Listen, I need to--" She stopped again as her phone chirped. She pulled it out and looked at the number, then frowned. "I've got to take this. John, can you do me a favour? Go rescue Cam?"

John looked back again. Mitchell, apparently dressed as some sort of space cowboy, was talking to a dark-haired man sporting fangs and a black cloak. Now that Carter said it, Mitchell did look a little uncomfortable. He turned back to ask Carter what he was rescuing Mitchell from, but she was already heading for the door, phone to her ear. John shrugged. Why not? He liked Mitchell--what he knew of him--and it wasn't like there were a lot of other people there he wanted to talk to.

He snagged fresh drinks for himself and Mitchell and headed toward the two men. The other man was leaning in, talking intently. Mitchell was shifting uncomfortably and glancing past the man. He looked visibly relieved when he saw John was coming to join them.

"Hey," John said. He offered Mitchell a drink, which Mitchell took with a grateful smile.

"Wasn't sure you'd make it," Mitchell said.

"Carter told me it was worth the trip for Teal'c's costume," John said. The other man, he noticed, looked annoyed at being interrupted.

Mitchell apparently noticed too. "Sorry," he said. "Lieutenant Colonel John Sheppard, this is Lieutenant Colonel Jason Moore."

"Sheppard, " Moore said, shaking John's hand with a touch too much aggression. "You're the military commander of Atlantis."

"That's right," John said, increasing pressure himself. He suppressed a smirk as Moore released first. "And you're--"

"He's with the Pentagon," Mitchell said.

"Yeah?" John said. "Any word on when you guys are going to let Atlantis head back to Pegasus?"

"Sorry, I have no idea." Moore's tone was polite, but with a clear undertone of impatience.

John looked back and forth between the two men, trying to figure out what was going on. "So how do you two know each other?" he asked.

"We met when Cam was with the Snakeskinners," Moore said. He shifted a little closer to Mitchell, who took a half-step to the side, bringing him closer to John. "I was a liaison with the SGC at the time. And you…?"

"Afghanistan," John said. "Back in our regular Air Force days. Flew out of the same base for a while."

Moore looked oddly disappointed. "Right."

There was a moment of awkward silence, then Mitchell turned to look more directly at John. "Who are you calling for the National Championship this year?" he asked brightly, clearly worried that John might leave.

"I don't know," John said, still watching them both. "Haven't really been paying attention."

"I know what you mean," Mitchell said. "I've got six games saved up on my PVR. Been off-world too much to watch them. You could come over while you're here, if you want to catch up."

Moore no longer looked annoyed. Now he was giving John full-on stink eye.

What the hell did I do? John wondered, and then realization struck as he saw Moore once again move closer, and Mitchell once again move away. The SGC's golden boy and a Pentagon liaison officer. Who would have thought?

Well, John could have fun with this.

"That'd be great," he said. "We're a little behind in Atlantis." He moved a little closer to Mitchell, offering him the same smile that had won John a first date with Nancy.

Mitchell looked confused for a second, then his gaze sharpened as he caught on. He tilted his head as if asking, Are you sure? John responded by turning up the smile another notch and moving closer still.

Mitchell gave him an answering smile so brilliant that for a moment, John forgot they were putting on a show. If Mitchell had looked at him like that back in Kabul…

If he had known about Mitchell in Kabul.

Mitchell slid closer. A lot closer. "There's a game in a couple of days," he said, a scant inch away from John. "If you want to watch live, you're welcome to come over."

"Sure," John said, leaning in even more. "Sounds good."

Moore was looking between them as if he'd swallowed something sour. He pulled out his phone, making a show of checking the time. "Sorry, gentlemen, I have to go," he said. "Catch up later, Cam?"

"Yeah," Mitchell said, attention still on John.

"Later, Moore," John drawled. He waited until the disappointed Moore was gone before he pulled back a little. "Ex?" he asked casually.

"If you call two coffees, one dinner, and one stupid decision a relationship," Mitchell said ruefully.

"You could just tell him to fuck off," John said. "He's not going to out you for revenge. He cares too much about his own career to do that." He'd seen enough of Moore's type during his own time in the regular Air Force to know that much.

Mitchell shook his head. "I don't think his career would be in any danger," he said. "His family's got more connections than you can shake a stick at. I mean, he's probably not that petty, but...thank you."

"No problem," John said. "I didn't realize that you--"

"You weren't supposed to," Mitchell said. "No one was. Or nearly no one."

But Carter has presumably known, since she knew enough to send John over. And she'd known about John too, thanks to a late-night, inadvertently-consumed truth serum-fueled confession. John wondered how she would have arranged for the two of them to collide if Jason Moore hadn't shown up.

"So, space cowboy."

Mitchell shrugged. "I was actually supposed to be off-world tonight but we got back early. I had this lying around from that time Jackson and I ran around half the galaxy figuring out how to separate him from Vala, so…"

"It works for you," John said. It did, too, and he let his eyes linger a little longer--and a little more appreciatively--than he usually would.

Mitchell sipped his drink and returned the look. "And what are you supposed to be?"

John pulled down the mask. "Wraith," he said, and pushed it up again.

"Interesting choice."

"Well, I had a kind of limited wardrobe to work with," John said. "It was this or Johnny Cash, and I was afraid if I brought my guitar, people might expect me to play."

A flicker of interest crossed Mitchell's face. "Do you play?"

John gestured noncommittally. "Enough to earn me a third date with my ex-wife," he said. He'd never tried playing for a guy that way.

Mitchell downed the rest of his drink in a single gulp and set the glass on a nearby table. "So you only play for people you're dating?"

"Why?" John said. "Hoping for a performance?" He kept his tone light, but he was looking Mitchell in the eye when he said it.

"Never could learn to play myself," Mitchell said, meeting his gaze. "I might be willing to buy dinner, if it gets me a show." He paused, looking suddenly worried. "I mean, unless--"

"Wow," John said, attention caught by the crowd gathering at the entrance.

"What?" Mitchell asked, turning. His laughter rang out over the applause as Teal'c entered the room.

John thought he wouldn't mind hearing that laugh again.

"What exactly is he supposed to be?" John wondered.

"I'm guessing rock star," Mitchell said. "Based on the guitar. Although I'm not really sure where the glitter comes in." He cocked his head as Teal'c bowed gravely to the crowd. "You know, I think that look works for him. "

"It'll have to be a good dinner," John said abruptly.

"What?" Mitchell turned back at him, puzzled.

"To get me to play on a first date," John said. "You can't just feed me a hotdog and expect me to come over and entertain you."

Puzzlement gave way to hope. "I can do better than a hotdog."

"All right," John said. "You provide dinner, I'll bring my guitar. I'll warn you, though, I might be a bit rusty. Not a lot of opportunities to play on Atlantis." To put it mildly.

"Well, that's one of the bright sides of being back on Earth," Mitchell said cheerfully. "All sorts of new opportunities."

Maybe there was something to be said for being back on Earth.

"Do you have last week's Air Force game?" John asked.

"Sure," Mitchell said easily. "Why? You a Falcons fan?"

"Not really," John said. "But I figured you might be."

"In the right company," Mitchell said.

"Now that Teal'c's shown up, do want to get out of here and go watch it?"

Mitchell's smile was just as brilliant as before. "Sure."