Quentin carefully counted the donuts as the clerk at Dynamo boxed them up-- two saffron, five spiced chocolate, three vanilla, two milk chocolate passionfruit, and a lone maple bacon to make the baker's dozen. He didn't want to bring too few donuts, for fear that the Luidaeg would be disappointed (Toby would have said he was crazy for not worrying she would tear his head off, but really people were too often concerned about things like that, if you asked him.) He bought himself a spiced cider, because Toby hadn’t quite managed to infect him with her caffeine addiction, and carefully settled the box of donuts into his tote bag.
“Have a nice day,” the clerk said with a smile. She was chipper and blonde, with brightly colored tattoos running up and down her arms. Quentin nodded back with a pleasant smile, easily dodging the ‘thank you’ by dropping a dollar in her tip jar instead. Dynamo, tucked away in a quintessentially San Francisco storefront in between a palm reader and a Latino church with faded pink stucco, always seemed to employ her type. Morning people, Toby would grumble. Hipsters, May would say.
It wasn’t really that early in the day, since fae were traditionally nocturnal; Quentin wasn’t really about to rouse himself before noon if he didn’t have to. But all the interesting stuff that he was allowed to go to-- as opposed to the interesting stuff that was 21 and over only-- took place during daylight hours. So if he wanted to convince the Luidaeg to go out with him and do something fun, it would have to be while the sun was up.
The sun, as it was wont to be in the Mission, was actually out, burning off the morning fog in just that small bit of the city, and sending dappled shadows down onto the street. If Quentin could have had a choice, he would have much preferred to live closer to the ocean, where the fog was rich and the city was significantly less likely to be so bright during the day. But this was where Duke Sylvester Torquill had set up his knight and her household and the squire didn’t get to have a choice in the matter. So sun it was. He downed his cider, warding off the chill of the bright morning, and tossed the cup into the corner trash can. The afternoon sun was the least of the things he’d faced down in the San Francisco area anyway.
He glanced up 24th, trying to decide if going out of his way to get roasted cacao beans from Dandelion, a chocolate roaster further into the dangerously hipster section of the Mission, was worth his while, and decided that he could bring them next time. He needed to get a move on if he wanted to drag the Luidaeg out to do something human.
A person could get anywhere in San Francisco without a car, provided they gave themselves at least an hour for the trip. Getting to the sea witch’s home took an extra half an hour for the multiple transfers. Her home was buried deep in Hunter’s Point-- one of the few areas to escape the slow but inevitable gentrification of the city and, not coincidentally, an underserved area for public transportation. The closer he got, the stronger the smell of sea air became. Stepping off the 19 bus, Quentin found himself enveloped in dense clouds, the sun giving way to the fog that was more common near the coastal areas of the city. He walked the handful of blocks into the shipyard area that the Luidaeg called home (because who was going to tell her that the zoning was incorrect for a residence?), the sun’s light getting dimmer until it looked almost like a downpour would start at any moment.
It didn’t rain, though. Quentin could feel the pressure of the Luidaeg’s wards, warning away any unwary humans who might be heading in that direction. It built as he crossed the last few feet to her door, pressing down on his sternum like fear, until it suddenly popped, leaving the non-sound of a soap bubble and the taste of her magic on his tongue. He knocked on the door, polite even though she already knew he was there.
Sometimes the Luidaeg liked to leave Toby waiting at the front door, but not Quentin. She pulled the door open and held out her hand expectantly. He immediately passed over the donuts. “What did you tell her?” the Luidaeg asked, turning to go back inside the house.
Quentin followed, closing the door behind him. “That I was going to see a movie or go to the zoo because I didn’t feel like being cooped up. I think Toby just assumed I was going with Raj.”
The Luidaeg snorted, dropping the tote bag onto a smudgy table in her living room and pulling the box open so she could inspect the contents. “What that girl assumes to be true is going to kill her one day,” she said. And then, “Only one maple bacon?”
“Maple bacon’s played out,” Quentin shot back. “Everything is bacon now. The spiced chocolate ones are better anyway.”
She glanced at him and stuffed the maple bacon donut into her mouth whole, barely chewing before she swallowed. “Brat. Babies think they can have opinions now.” She gave him a smiling look that was full of too many sharp teeth. Quentin smiled back. “Fine, fine. I don’t know what you’re eating, though,” she said as she popped another donut into her mouth, not even looking to see which one she’d grabbed.
“I figured I’d eat when we went out,” Quentin said. He gave the Luidaeg a hopeful look-- the one that Toby and May could barely resist. He knew that it wasn’t the sort of thing that would work on someone as old and world-weary as the sea witch, unless she wanted it to. Which it seemed she did, because the extra teeth sort of disappeared as she settled into a more human-like amusement. Quentin breathed a sigh of relief through his nose.
“Why should I take the place of your kitten companion on this little expedition, priceling? You never explained that.” There wasn’t any menace in her question, even though there could have been.
He was glad she liked him-- because he thought that maybe she was a little lonely. That was the reason he wanted to take her out, even if it was an unspoken thought floating between them. She knew he knew, and that made a difference. “Because I really want to watch you make faces at the penguins,” Quentin said instead. “And I have Duke Torquill’s permission to use his credit card to learn about human society, quote ‘as long as the money spent is within reason,’ end quote. So I can buy you all the animal-shaped ice cream you want.” He paused, taking in her expression. “And the tigers have escaped twice in the past ten years to maul people,” he added.
The Luidaeg tilted her head, chewing on the last of the donuts as she considered-- but not really considered, he never would have gotten this far if she was going to say no-- his offer. “I suppose I can go outside before sundown today,” she said finally. “Let me go get my coat.”
It wasn’t as though someone as old as her was actually going to get cold. But she had her own disguises that Quentin never questioned. The old peacoat she shrugged into was threadbare at the elbows and wrists and too big for her thin frame, patched badly in worn brown fabric at the seam and hem. It went well with her electrical-taped pigtails and freckles. Quentin caught the thought and shoved it away.
Once the Luidaeg decided to do something, she was a force of nature, so it didn’t take more than another couple of minutes for them to be on the, fortuitously just arriving, 23 bus which would take them directly from her neighborhood to the San Francisco Zoo. The seats on MUNI bus lines ranged from easily warped brown plastic and patterned metal to solidly built and somehow constantly uncomfortable red and gray plastic to, most often, completely taken up by little old ladies. Since they hopped on at an early stop, the pair managed to find two seats next to each other, near the back because, as the Luidaeg murmured, people were less likely to sneak up behind them and hit them with an iron pipe if their backs were to the back of the bus. Paranoid, but Quentin took that as understandable after living with Toby for so long. He eyed the graffiti scrawled on the metal back of the seat in front of him-- “why don’t they try to save me?” in barely legible, scuffed yellow paint pen.
“No one saves you but you, sweetheart,” the Luidaeg said, licking her thumb and rubbing out the question mark at the end of the sentence.
They settled back, watching the ebb and flow of passengers, the demographics shifting as they passed through each discrete neighborhood. Quentin hadn’t been through some of the neighborhoods before and he watched each subsection of the city with interest. Glen Park, through the Sunnyside and St Francis Wood; he matched up the patrons to the neighborhoods they passed through (middle-class and white, middle-class and Asian, oh my god where did these mansions come from--?) . The Luidaeg let him, only occasionally turning a mildly shark-like grin on any passengers that came too close, so they always had a small berth around them.
The Zoo was at the end of the line, so they were alone again in the chill, salty air by the time the bus pulled up and the driver called the last stop. That close to the sea, the sky was a dull, comforting cotton grey. It smelled like rain clouds were hugging the ground. They walked around the outskirts of the zoo, towards the main entrance, and the ocean. Quentin caught the Luidaeg licking the salt air from her lips. Her eyes were midnight sea dark for a moment, and then she blinked and they were back to normal. He shivered, and she gave him a knowing look. “Get out of the kitchen, precious,” she teased, some mischief touching her smile.
Quentin made a dismissive sound. “Like something like that would freak me out,” he said, and the Luidaeg laughed a startlingly sweet laugh.
They showed their MUNI transfers to the bored gatekeeper, a young Filipino man with half his head shaved, and he calculated their entrance fees. “Enjoy yourselves,” he said, in a tone that was a clear attempt at pep, even though he would obviously rather be anywhere else.
On a day where the fog was enough to penetrate all but the thickest coats, the zoo was deserted. Quentin snagged a map from the entrance booth and started to peruse it. “Where do you want to go?” he asked, holding it up for the Luidaeg. “How about the primate center?”
“We’re constantly surrounded by primates,” she pointed out. “And you just want to go there because the cafe is at the monkey exhibit.”
He shrugged in acknowledgement. “Yeah, but I also like watching them get mad and make faces when I eat my food in front of the cage."
The Luidaeg made a face herself. "Cages, feh. We should have gone to Golden Gate Park to watch the bison."
"Toby says there's a centaur who hangs out with them," Quentin said thoughtfully. "I haven't met him yet."
They turned towards the Lemur Cafe, a dull yellowish building, surrounded on one side by the zoo's primate center. The sounds from the center were muted by blocky grey concrete walkways that funneled patrons around and through the arboretum, making them as much an exhibit for the amused mandrills and howler monkeys as the other way around. "Well," the Luidaeg said thoughtfully, "that's probably because he's a shaggy asshole. Looks like a giant carpet with a bad attitude."
Quentin snickered and held the cafe door open for the Luidaeg. Politeness never hurt around her, even when they were having fun. After some dithering over the menu, they both ordered enough of the food for the worker's eyes to go wide. Quentin was a growing boy, and the Luidaeg always seems up for a snack-- even when that snack consisted of multiple orders of overpriced and undersalted chicken fingers.
"You're going to choke, and I have no intention of reviving you," she said, watching him scarf down his food. Toby had long since stopped commenting on his eating habits (not least because of the silent truce that he would stop commenting on her caffeine habit), but apparently the Luidaeg felt that it was still something fascinating enough to mention. Or, maybe just his death was worth comment.
"I'm sure they have someone who knows CPR around here," he shot back between bites of a burger. The Luidaeg waved that off with a hand and shoved the lingering remnants of her food to the side. Quentin was impressed. Even he couldn't manage to eat three baskets of garlic fries, and two orders of chicken tenders in under fifteen minutes. Not without choking and needing CPR for real, anyway. He swallowed another bite of his burger and laid the map out.
Before he could start planning their trip, the sea witch dropped her hand on top of it. "Nope, sorry kiddo. If we're doing the zoo, we're doing it the right way. No plans, just blisters on your feet."
"The zoo isn't that big," he protested, but folded the map back up.
As soon as they stepped through the primate center, the African area was directly up ahead of them. A giraffe came wandering over to the tall green fence that surrounded the plains areas, stopping beside it to eye them through the slats. The Luidaeg gave it a cheery wave.
"Why's it looking at us like that?" Quentin asked, holding his hand up curiously. The giraffe leaned down a bit, as though to sniff it.
"How the hell should I know," the Luidaeg said with a grin, "I'm the sea witch. This guy is totally outside my area of expertise." She also held up her hand and the giraffe snuffled at them both before realizing they had no food and losing interest. "Come on, I smell the penguins this way." She grabbed Quentin's wrist before his could say anything, and tugged him down the path, away from the African enclosure. Her grip on his wrist was loose. He could hear Toby in the back of his mind-- when the Luidaeg touches you, you know you're in for some pain-- but he ignored it. Her hand was rough with calluses, but small, barely large enough to wrap around his wrist, and he wasn't scared.
He let himself be led down the path towards the penguins' pool, watching as the Luidaeg's face started to light up with unholy glee. Her smile broadened, teeth sharpening into distinct points. With anyone else, he might have told them to cut it out, but why go to the zoo with the Luidaeg if you don't want her to freak out the penguins?
It took a few minutes of walking for them to find the broad reflecting pool that served as the penguins' home. The island was long, mostly flat and covered with pebbles and the occasional tree, tuft of grass and piece of driftwood, aside from the grand mound of penguin burrows at one end. The fiberglass burrows looked like they'd been made by a giant dripping large, partially-melted globs of vanilla ice cream onto the island, and then digging holes for the penguins to nest. The fence surrounding the exhibit was almost low enough that Quentin could step over it with a little bit of effort. When the Luidaeg let go of his wrist, he let his fingers drift up to tap the back of her hand. He didn't think she would hop over the fence in full view of the handful of human visitors, but he also hadn't survived his years as Toby's squire by letting assumptions of harmlessness stop him from being careful.
She paused, and turned to grin her overly sharp grin at him. "I promise not to take even a mouthful of the little creatures today," she said, but leaned over the railing a little, watching the penguins with the eyes of a predator. She tracked their movements, little waddling things on the island, and their quick sprints in the pool, her shoulders tense like she was about to pounce.
First one penguin noticed her, than another. They started to squawk in alarm, flailing their flippers and waddling desperately toward the burrows on the other end of the island. Slowly the entire flock began to cry, all of them huddling together and trying to get to the minimal safety of their lumpy fiberglass nests.
Quentin watched as the birds fought each other, to huddle in the little holes.
"Miss, what are you doing?" The rough tenor of a guard's voice caught Quentin by surprise and he jumped, turning a little guiltily. The Luidaeg, however just turned, her face suddenly rearranged back into youthful human features, her eyes widened in innocence.
"Nothing at all! I was just watching the penguins and all of a sudden they started flipping out. Is that normal?" She tilted her head, looking up from under her lashes at the tall man in his security company uniform. He was white, with a shaved head and frown lines between his eyebrows, like he was never completely sure of anyone's innocence.
"No. You may have just been frightening them by leaning too close," he said, trying for a reassuring smile, that just made him look like he was gritting his teeth.
The Luidaeg stepped away from the fence with her hands up slightly. "I'm so sorry," she trilled, and Quentin had to cough to swallow a laugh.
"Yes, well." The security guard cleared his throat. "It's nothing."
After that, there was no more fun to be had in terrifying the penguins, so Quentin beckoned her towards the nearby big cat house. The Lion House doors were painted a weathered brick red which reminded Quentin of the Golden Gate Bridge, and they contrasted with the salt-water taffy peach of of the squat building. It was the sort of place that architects thought was modern and attractive in the '40s, but just looked dully utilitarian to Quentin. The Luidaeg pointed towards the fishing cat enclosure-- a two-story glass and metal contraption stuck to the front of the Lion House like a jungle-filled tumor. "Your little kitty friend must hate these sorts of things."
Quentin stepped closer to the glass box, peering at the the lean little cat who was paddling around in a pool which took up nearly a third of the area. "Cats go where they please," he said. "The last time I tried taking him here, he nearly tried to break into the big cat house and let them all out. I'm lucky he still talks to me after that."
She laughed, and raised her hand as though about to cast magic.
"You wouldn't!" Quentin raised his hands too. He wasn't about to grab the ancient Firstborn-- he had more survival instinct than that-- but it was an automatic reaction or need to stop her somehow.
The cat looked up and made a breathy barking sound at them before turning its back and paddling away to bat at some little fish that had been added to the pool's water.
She dropped her hand and patted Quentin's shoulder. "Okay, okay. Calm down, princeling." She let go of him and started around the Lion House. The inside was just feeding boxes and "cat management", he knew, so instead they made a circuit around the outside of the cat zone. The Luidaeg made laughing comments about the size of the moats keeping the lions and tigers in. The visitors were skittish by the tiger enclosures anyway, since even the twenty-foot moat hadn't managed to keep the tigers in during the last attack-- which had been nearly five years ago, but humans had long memories for predator attacks.
As the pair headed out and around towards the insect house near the entrance, following the zoo loop took them past the zoo's herd of chacoan peccaries-- "what in Mother's name is that? It looks like a boar mated with an anteater while a wolf watched"--, the bears-- "Polar bears, this far south. Do you think they'd enjoy it if I iced up the pen?"--, and the sea lions.
The Luidaeg paused, watching the two animals lazily roll around on the small outcropping of stone-studded concrete by a deep pool which reflected the foggy air by turning grey-green instead of blue. "What are they doing here?"
Quentin glanced at the explanatory sign. "One got shot in the face, and the other went blind from malnutrition, so the zoo took them in." The look on the Luidaeg's face was mild, but her eyes had gone sea lion dark-- black from side to side. "Their tank is 85,000 gallons, and they can't be released back into the wild since they're both blind," he finished hurriedly.
She huffed out a sound, reaching for the fence that surrounded the enclosure. Not knowing what to do, Quentin stayed where he was, just watching the way her chest rose and fell as she breathed. She wrapped a hand around the wire fence and for a moment Quentin was worried she'd pull it so hard the fence would rip from the ground. But after another long moment she let go again.
"Next time," she said, "I'll just go introduce you to that centaur in Golden Gate Park."
One of the sea lions rolled over into the water and barked at her.
That was the end of the zoo. The Luidaeg had to blink a few times before her eyes went back to human-normal, and then she declared that she was utterly done with caged animals.
The zoo was designed so that you could see everything in one long loop, but with the judicious use of shortcuts, and the Luidaeg opening a few employee-only doors, they left the park in a record time. Quentin felt a small pang of disappointment for the camaraderie they'd been having, until the Luidaeg reached out and took his hand.
"Come on, we're right by the ocean," she said.
"You don't mind staying out longer?" he asked, worried that he'd accidentally overstayed his welcome with her. She wouldn't hurt him, but he liked bringing her donuts sometimes.
She rapped him sharply on the top of his head. "Don't be an idiot. I'm not a teenage girl with a curfew. And the sun's only just going down. It's going to get colder and foggier from here. I'll introduce you to the pa'-nawi-s-- they avoid most other fae like crazy. I don't think anyone in this area has spoken to them in centuries. You'll be the first."
Determinedly, she headed across the Great Highway towards the beach, the cold salt wind blowing her hair around her face and the grey-blue light of the fading sun through the clouds painting her in shades of wild perfection.
Quentin felt himself surge with strange affection for this ancient woman, and lengthened his stride to catch up.