Another foggy San Franciscan night greeted the lone, white-haired figure as he tugged the lobby's plate glass door closed behind him. Hearing the distinctive click of the latch as the lock engaged, the being paused on the front stoop, listening to the night breathe around him. A smile played on his lips as he lifted his face to feel the moisture bead on his skin, and golden cat's eyes slipped shut with the simple pleasure of experiencing fresh air and precipitation. If his purpose in leaving the house tonight hadn't been for something far more mundane, it would have been the perfect night for a hunt.
The fog had rolled in several hours earlier and decided to stay. Dense and cold, and smelling of the ocean, it deadened sound and coated everything with a thin layer of briny condensation as it wrapped itself around the city like a sodden white blanket and settled in for the night. Far from being cold or miserable, Todd reveled in the evening's bracing coolness, enjoying the sharp, salty tang in the air as he drew it deep into his lungs. Although he suffered not at all, he took a moment to pull on a pair of black knit fingerless gloves, zip up his jacket, and turn up his collar against the damp chill anyway. To a casual observer, the actions would have gone unnoticed, which was just what he wanted. The wraith had worked hard to make his movements appear as natural as possible; and this was something he'd observed Sheppard doing many times during the week they'd explored the city together when the evening turned cool. He felt secure in the knowledge that it was an appropriate – and expected – human response to the weather.
With a quick glance up and down the glistening, deserted street, Todd turned and strode silently toward the corner, moving with the sure-footed grace of a predator. He slipped his hands into his pockets – another studied gesture - fingers automatically curling around the items he carried with him: keys and cellphone in one pocket, and a small rectangular piece of embossed plastic in the other – one of John's credit cards. The smile still tugging at the corner of his mouth broadened. It pleased him that the human had gone to such lengths to see to his comfort. Thanks to Sheppard's unstinting generosity, he possessed not only a base of operations, but also abundant coin of the realm – and tonight he was looking forward to his first opportunity to actually purchase something with it.
The wraith slowed as he neared his destination - the corner convenience store. He paused just outside the pool of light bathing its entrance, watching the mist swirl around the glowing halo like a swarm of tiny insects. Although the shop looked innocuous enough, it was only Todd's second week on Earth, and the first on his own, and he had no desire to undo all of Sheppard's carefully-laid-and-executed plans with a reckless misstep. John had put himself at considerable risk by helping Todd escape from Atlantis to keep him out of the IOA's hands, and staging his death so that the government agency wouldn't come looking for him. The wraith felt he owed it to Sheppard to remain undiscovered.
Todd took a deep breath and quieted his mind, allowing millennia-old survival instincts to take over, which dictated that he get the lay of the land before committing himself to any further action. Keeping to the shadows just beyond bright sodium spotlight while he made his observations, the wraith casually folded his arms across his chest and leaned against the wall like he was waiting for someone. All the while he covertly peered through the mini-mart's plate glass window, extending his senses to assess the situation inside. Todd knew that in the mere seconds it would take him to pick up the frantic thoughts of a Lantean who had just recognized him in a crowd, it would already be too late; so without Sheppard around to identify other members of the Atlantis expedition for them to avoid, the extra precautions were a necessary evil.
Although encountering members of the Atlantis crew was his primary concern, it hadn't taken the wraith long to realize that even without consciously recognizing him for what he was, he still possessed the innate ability to unnerve the inhabitants of this world if he wasn't careful. Among his own kind, he stood out from his brethren for his human traits, with his out-going personality and curious nature; but on Earth his preternatural stillness and the intensity of his stare, alone, could set off primal human fight-or-flight instincts. In fact, it had - on several occasions. Tenaciously-firing at the base of their skulls in spite of their dulled, domesticated senses, that all-but-ignored, atavistic response to danger was still able to alert some of the more observant to the fact that there was a predator in their midst.
With the ultimate success or failure of Sheppard's plan hinging on his ability to hide in plain sight, Todd knew it would just be a matter of time before he came to the attention of the wrong people if he kept alarming the citizens of San Francisco. So like the survivor he was, he'd risen to the challenge and adapted.
Left to his own devices, the wraith would never have chosen to purposely-cultivate more human characteristics than he already possessed, but it was a simple task once he'd put his mind to it. After dealing with humans for literally thousands of years, it had only taken a few days of observation and practice before he was successfully mimicking his prey – the way they walked, the way they stood, even their inability to sit quietly for more than a couple of minutes at a time. His painstaking efforts had paid off handsomely, too. By the time Sheppard had reluctantly returned to Atlantis, Todd's proficiency at pretending he was harmless had reached the point where the disquiet he'd sensed from within the herd earlier in the week had dropped to negligible levels.
Fortunately, he had never had to pretend to be anything other than himself with John, much to his relief. As worthy adversaries, they may have offered each other half-truths and misinformation in the years spent on opposite sides of their alliance, but he and Sheppard had recognized each other for who and what they were, right from the start. In fact, that had been one of the things which had drawn Todd back to the human, time and again. John had seen him at his worst, and in spite of it, still actually seemed to prefer it when the wraith let his true nature off its leash.
Pushing aside fond thoughts of his absent consort, Todd focused on the small crowd of humans inside the store, a frown of consternation creasing his brow. He hadn't expected quite so much company at 3 A.M., and had chosen the time for the express purpose of avoiding humanity, if possible. The plan had made perfect sense to him when he'd implemented it, but it seemed that San Francisco didn't keep regular hours. The side streets – the neighborhoods – were quiet enough, but apparently this close to Market Street and the clubs, there were still a number of people out, regardless of the time.
He completed his scan of the group inside the market, finding not a single mind occupied with anything even remotely-related to Atlantis or the Pegasus Galaxy. Satisfied that it was safe to enter, Todd pulled the door open and stepped inside, blinking against the blinding fluorescents lighting the interior. When he could see again, he grabbed a basket from the stack by the entrance and nodded absently at the clerk behind the counter, stopping a few meters away when he sensed the female's sudden, intense interest. Looking back over his shoulder, his golden eyes narrowing when he met her gaze. The woman arched her brow and smiled saucily, and the wraith was treated to the unmistakable lure of her pheromones as she brazenly considered the way he filled out his faded blue jeans, apparently liking what she saw.
With a low growl Todd turned and stalked down the nearest aisle, more than a little surprised by the shop assistant's boldness. While the female's unexpected offer had been... appreciated, he'd only come in for milk and oranges.
He was much more accustomed to the reaction he received in the Pegasus Galaxy, where humans knew their place and exhibited mainly fear and trembling in his presence. Even members of the Atlantis expedition were, for the most part, still gratifyingly-nervous around him, regardless of the fact that he was probably the one Wraith who could be counted on to not run at any of them – with the exception of Sheppard, of course – but John could be particularly maddening when he wanted to be.
Being on Earth was a very different experience for him, with humans who kept insisting on treating him as an equal instead of deferring to him as their Master. Although, to be fair, he was trying to pass himself off as one of them, and these people had no knowledge of Wraith. They hadn't a clue, actually - regardless of his exterior - as to who or what they were really dealing with. A wolf in sheep's clothing John had called him, and indeed he was, living among those he would normally prey upon, unbeknownst to them. It made for a fascinating study, and one he was certain no other Wraith had ever had the opportunity to participate in. He found the whole situation mildly amusing.
Todd stopped halfway down the aisle, stealing glances back toward the young female at the front of the store while he feigned interest in light bulbs and automotive supplies. Distracted by customers who'd come to the register, her attention was focused elsewhere, so he had the opportunity to observe her unawares. Heavily made-up with bright pink lips and rainbow hues painted across her eyelids, she sported shaggy, disheveled hair dyed several shades of purple and cut in a style reminiscent of John's, while her revealing summer dress showed off the multiple tattoos that marched up her arms and across her chest in vivid reds, blues, and greens. While many people in San Francisco displayed similar, vibrantly-colored markings, the woman's collection far surpassed any he'd seen on Wraith or human in quite some time, and he wondered briefly at the significance of her chosen designs.
Enthralled, he watched as she interacted with her customers – or more significantly, at the way they interacted with her, curious to see their reactions to her unusual appearance. Todd was well-aware that he didn't look human at all, with his pale green complexion, sharp teeth, and unique bone structure, and so it had surprised him that he'd been accepted at face-value from the very first day he had walked the city's streets. Although he'd mostly kept his misgivings to himself for the sake of Sheppard's peace-of-mind, the wraith had been mistrustful of the warm reception, and had been finding himself waiting for the grace-period on humanity's tolerance to expire.
Apparently it wasn't scheduled anytime soon, if the patrons' utter lack of response to the woman's kaleidoscopic skin and unnaturally-colored hair was anything to go by.
Their reaction intrigued the alien, and seemed to confirm something Sheppard had been trying to tell him: that his appearance mattered less than he'd thought it would. Although he trusted John's judgment – he'd placed his life in the human's hands many times, after all – Sheppard's assertion that Todd's best disguise was none at all, had seemed simplistic and ill-advised.
John may have been right, after all.
Spying a row of glass cases at the other end of the aisle which contained cartons resembling the one Sheppard had left in the refrigerator, Todd set the bottle of brake fluid he'd picked up back onto the shelf, and ambled deeper into the store. A close second to his astonishment at being thought of as human regardless of his very obvious physical differences, was that he was being found attractive – and had been found so several times since he and John had begun wandering the city together.
Although in Pegasus it was unusual to find human/Wraith pairings anywhere other than on Hives, with Worshippers, it seemed that on Earth, Sheppard was not alone in his fascination with Wraith – he had simply been the first from his galaxy with the opportunity to cross the line. Todd suppressed a grin as he faced down the bewildering array of dairy products, idly wondering how many others in the Atlantis expedition, and on the planet, for that matter, might choose one of his kind if given half a chance.
He was still lost in thought when he sensed a presence hovering hesitantly by his elbow. A soft, male voice followed close behind, timidly whispering Excuse me even as a pale, black-nailed hand reached for the handle in front of him. The wraith took a step back, watching as a lean young man, sleek and muscular and wearing only a pair of black leather shorts and a series of straps and rings in place of a shirt, pulled open the case and took a carton of half-and-half off one of the lower shelves.
Black leather bracers graced the man's wrists, and a pair of gladiator sandals, his feet. His long, blue-black hair, thick and lustrous, was pulled back smoothly from his face into a club at the nape of his neck, which was encased in a wide, studded collar. All of this Todd observed dispassionately, although his curiosity was piqued. He'd seen many unusual sights in his lifetime, but he could honestly say he'd never before encountered a man who was spotted from head-to-toe like a predatory cat. A leopard, to be exact, if he remembered correctly from one of the nature shows he and Sheppard had watched together.
The man looked up and caught his eye, offering a small smile as he closed the door, and setting Todd's pulse racing when he beheld how thoroughly the human male had transformed himself. Bright-green slitted pupils gazed back at him from almond-shaped eyes thickly-outlined in black, with two parallel lines running down either side of his nose to its equally-blackened tip. At second glance, Todd could see that the man's eyes were covered with artificial lenses of some sort and the markings on his face had been done with artfully-applied cosmetics, but the spots on the rest of his body were skin-deep.
Fascinated, the wraith gave him an openly-appraising once-over, the uniqueness of the man's appearance temporarily overwhelming his carefully-crafted human responses. The scent of embarrassment mixed with lust assaulted his senses as the human nervously edged closer to the person holding the end of the leash hooked to his collar, reddening under the wraith's blatant stare.
"You are upsetting my pet, Sir," the small red-haired woman murmured tartly, as she reached up to stroke the male's spotted face with gentle, reassuring fingertips. The collared human gazed down at his Mistress with rapt adoration, and Todd sensed the returning calm her touch engendered in the man, before pulling away from his mind and turning his attention to the female.
She was dressed in a tight, black leather skirt and jacket, and knee-high boots with such tall, spiked heels and pointed toes, the wraith wondered how she managed to walk in them. A small, veiled hat completed the look. Perched at a rakish angle on her forehead, it accentuated to perfection her pale face and copper-red hair which was pulled into a severe chignon. At least a foot shorter than Todd, himself, the human female nonetheless possessed the bearing and attitude of a Wraith Queen. In fact, the tiny, leather-clad woman exuded such an air of imperious authority that the wraith's first impulse was to bow.
He caught himself – but only just - his spine stiffening before he actually moved. A master at the intricate power struggle otherwise known as Wraith politics, Todd had faced down much more compelling monarchs and prevailed - he just hadn't expected to encounter one here on Earth. The human female had the regal bearing and red mane of a fertile Queen, and caught off-guard, he'd instinctively reacted to her like one. He recovered quickly in spite of being blindsided by the woman's forceful personality, suppressing a snarl as he drew himself up to his full height. He'd felt the unyielding grip of a female's hand on the back of his neck often enough to know he did not welcome it, regardless of the galaxy.
"My apologies," Todd replied cordially enough, offering a conciliatory smile instead of a bow, although he sensed that she would have preferred his submission. "He is certainly a rare breed, the likes of which I have never encountered before. It was not my intention to discompose him."
The woman's blood-red lips split into a feral grin. "You must be new to the neighborhood," she replied, oozing charm and pheromones. "I haven't seen you around here before." Icy blue eyes took in his face and form with an acquisitive intensity Todd recognized from countless experiences with a multitude of Queens, and it only served to confirm his initial impression of the little female.
"You are a rare breed, yourself," she purred, as she studied his rugged, angular features. "And as you've probably already figured out, I do love exotic pets." She reached out to the leopard's chest and ran a perfectly-manicured red-lacquered fingernail slowly down his bare torso from sternum to navel, her smile widening as Todd's gaze, which had followed the trail she'd blazed on the man's skin, returned to hers.
"Maybe we could work something out," the redhead continued breathlessly, rising excitement lending a husky quality to her voice.
The wraith steeled himself and stood his ground as she inched closer, warming to the subject. "I can tell you like my pet, and I guarantee you - he likes you, too. Perhaps you two could get better acquainted – under my watchful eye, of course." She glanced up at her plaything. "I know he wants that very much. Don't you, dear?"
The man nodded, his unnaturally-green gaze never leaving the wraith's face.
Todd regarded the woman and her charge with impassive golden eyes. This was an occasion. He'd been on the receiving end of smoldering looks and open stares and coy, come-hither glances for two weeks - but this marked the first time he had actually been approached. Although he would have been lying to himself if he'd claimed he wasn't intrigued by the woman's proposition just a little – he was male, after all – in the end, her offer wasn't really even a consideration. The wraith had only just acquired the prize he'd been chasing with single-minded intensity for three years. He wasn't about to toss it aside for a moment's pleasure – no matter how tempting it might be.
"I appreciate your generous offer, "Todd replied, bowing his head slightly. "However, I must respectfully decline. I would never presume to touch so wild and dangerous a creature."
A frown marred the female's porcelain brow as she gazed up at him with cold, blue eyes and an expression of incredulous indignation. She'd been certain she'd held the winning hand.
"Pity," she spat, although even without scanning her mind, the wraith could tell she probably felt very little of that tender emotion. "You don't know what you're missing." Her calculated scowl coincided with a genuine smile from the leopard, who seemed to stand a little taller in the traces for the wraith's remark.
"So sorry to disappoint," Todd ventured mildly, his tone as carefully-neutral as he could muster. If this scenario had played out on a Hiveship, with a real Queen, his life might very well be hanging in the balance at this point.
The redhead rolled her eyes and feigned an ill-concealed yawn. "Bored now," she drawled, as she coiled the leather lead around her small, pale hand. The woman raked her eyes over Todd one last time, then turned on her stiletto-clad heel and tugged sharply on the leopard's leash. "Come along," she snarled over her shoulder as she stalked away, boots clicking loudly on the tiled floor.
Abruptly-dismissed as unworthy of Her Highness' further consideration, the wraith watched the pair disappear down the snack aisle. Torn between amusement and relief, he finally just shook his head, then turned to face the dairy case again. It was time to get what he came for and get out. Without hesitation Todd tugged the door open and grabbed the first carton his hand came in contact with, hoping it was something that would go well with coffee. He was just closing it again when the same presence he'd sensed earlier returned to haunt him.
Todd spun around with a low growl, surprising the leopard, who gasped and jumped back a step.
The man was alone.
"What happened? Did you slip the leash?" The wraith inquired gruffly, relaxing from his defensive stance.
The leopard just shook his head and smiled meekly.
Of course not. For all that the man was collared and tethered, he was with the woman willingly. He obviously enjoyed the domination in a way Todd never had.
The human stepped closer, holding out a business card. "Mistress says that once you've had time to think about it, and realize you've made a mistake, you may call her at the number on the back."
It was the alien's turn to smile as he accepted the card the man pressed into his upturned palm. "She apparently does not know how to take 'no' for an answer," he murmured.
The leopard-man shook his head. "Not when she sees something she wants."
Todd snorted, grimly amused, but before he could offer a comment as to the insatiably-avaricious nature of Queens, the man flashed him a wide grin and scampered off to find his Keeper.
Alone again, the wraith took a moment to study the card. The front announced in elegant script that the red-headed woman was a 'Dominatrix' who specialized in several very interesting practices. The back revealed her name and phone number scrawled hastily in blue pen.
Todd chuckled softly as he ran the pad of his thumb over the bold, raised lettering. He'd apparently rated her consideration, after all.
He was just slipping the card in his pocket, when the wraith was suddenly slammed into from behind with a crash and a clatter, the full-body impact knocking him off-balance. Anger surged within him at being taken by surprise, and dangerous reflexes took over as he turned with a snarl, feeding hand raised with fingers splayed in a rictus claw. Ready to defend or attack, he came face-to-face with his erstwhile assailant, a tall male in his prime, dressed in nondescript black sweatpants and a sweatshirt. The human looked as astonished as Todd felt, having just bounced off the all-but immovable wraith like he'd hit a brick wall.
"S – sorry, dude," the man stammered, holding up empty, placating hands; the apology dying on his lips when he got a good look at the wraith's game face. Bloodshot brown eyes widened in slowly-dawning horror as he took in the narrowed, golden cat's eyes glaring daggers, pale lips pulled back to reveal wickedly-pointed, shark teeth - and a hand that looked like it was poised to rip out his heart.
"What is the meaning of this?" The wraith growled and took a step forward, invading the other's space in a menacing way that countless centuries of experience had perfected.
He paused as the man shrank from him, focusing on the human as an individual for the first time, as opposed to simply seeing him as a potential enemy in the heat of battle. As tall as the wraith, himself, and as broad as a drone, it wasn't the male's size that arrested his gaze, but the fact that almost every inch, every plane, of the human's face was covered with silver studs arranged in designs that flowed from one to another by virtue of the channeled scars cut into his skin.
Sensing no malice emanating from the human – only confusion and rapidly-escalating fear, Todd cautiously stood down, rearranging his features into a more civilized expression as he slowly dropped his hand by his side, thankful the open maw was concealed by his glove.
The abrupt shift in the wraith's demeanor broke the spell that had frozen the other in place, and the man gulped nervously as he desperately tried to separate reality from imagination, wishing he hadn't smoked that last bowl before he'd left the house.
"I was reading a magazine, and wasn't paying attention to where I was going." The human gabbled apologetically, the wild hammering of his heart clearly audible to the wraith's keen senses. "I didn't hurt you, did I?"
Already looking suitably distressed, the man's expression grew even more dismayed when he glanced from Todd to the floor. The wraith followed his gaze to a crumpled and torn gardening periodical lying on the tiles by their feet. It was liberally strewn with greasy orange triangles smelling of salt and stale cheese, which had spilled from an open, brightly-colored foil bag that had come to rest close by.
With a forlorn sigh, the human bent to gather his scattered items, allowing Todd to get a better look at him. The deliberate scarification continued over the top of the man's bald head in a web-like network of lines. Tiny metal balls adorned the elaborate pattern at regular intervals as it wove its way to the base of his skull, where the tracery and implants petered out. The overall effect was strangely compelling. Like the leopard-man and the cashier, this one had transformed himself into a piece of living art.
The man stood again, bag and book in-hand, offering the wraith a wan, uncertain smile. "I'm really sorry about that. Are we good?"
Todd suppressed a start of surprise. Although he'd realized it must be an Earth expression, he still had not expected to hear one of Sheppard's oft-used phrases coming out of someone else's mouth. While the casual remark threatened to release emotions the wraith had carefully wrapped in a protective cocoon a week earlier, soon after John had left, he managed to wrestle the wave of yearning that washed over him back into submission behind a calm, impenetrable mask.
"Of course," he replied mildly, smiling and nodding. "I understand it was not intentional."
Social contract successfully-fulfilled, the human heaved a sigh of relief, finally convincing himself his initial impression that the green-skinned man was actually a terrifying monster had only been his overactive imagination. He wished the wraith a good night then turned and meandered toward the front of the store, clutching his damaged goods to his chest.
Todd stared after him, berating himself that he had come so close to blowing his cover with such little provocation. Thankful that his great age and the iron control he'd acquired over the years had given him the time and clarity he'd needed to avoid making a grave mistake, the wraith was nonetheless amazed at how easily he'd been able to bring the rapidly-escalating confrontation back under control.
The human had been terrified of him - and rightly so - but even with the man's instincts screaming for him to run from the wraith's true visage, the situation had been successfully diffused with with just a few civil words and a pleasant expression. Once Todd had pulled himself together and put the mask back in place, the man had calmed almost immediately, to the point where he had dismissed his own survival instincts in favor of playing nice. As an outsider looking in – and an apex predator at that - it was a fascinating sociological study, learning the extent to which he was able to manipulate unsuspecting humans with their own societal rules.
Until this moment, the wraith had been certain his appearance would be the one insurmountable obstacle in his attempts to integrate into the city's population. However, as the same creature who had just almost frightened a man to death, and then was able to soothe him with the bland platitudes of expected social interaction, in reality it seemed that the key to fitting in was ultimately linked to his actions, and not his looks. Even though he'd seen evidence of this willful blindness when he and John had been out together, Todd had been hesitant to test the theory independently. Now - forced to interact with humanity on his own, he realized that as long as he acted like a human, in the eyes of the many he would be seen as no more monstrous or alien than the shop girl or the leopard man. Exotic - yes, but of decidedly terrestrial origins.
Todd chuckled, delighting in his newfound anonymity. Apparently, in the big scheme of things, a lone Wraith wandering the streets of San Francisco wasn't going to draw much attention, after all. He was only one curiosity among many, and a rather minor one, at that.
His chuckle evolved into a full-throated laugh as the weight of uncertainty he'd borne for the past two weeks lifted, startling an old woman who was muttering to companions he could not see while she counted out small coins by the cat food. The fact that she glared at him like he was the crazy one only made him laugh harder, aware that his sudden outburst in the middle of an all-night mini-mart just confirmed his place among the ranks of freaks who called San Francisco home. He was invisible in a sea of the unusual and strange, and for the first time since he'd landed on Earth, Todd felt the exhilaration of true freedom.
As he lifted a hand to wipe his streaming eyes, the wraith suddenly remembered he held something and glanced down, relaxing his death grip on the waxed cardboard container of milk in his hand. The smile that lingered on his lips widened as he hefted the only slightly-crushed carton, then headed for the Produce section located against the far wall.
His mind eased and his spirits lifted, Todd committed the details of this night to memory. Sheppard had promised to be back in a week - two at most, and the wraith looked forward to telling him all about it.