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Gardens In The City

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Michelle’s family had never been close.

Not many wood nymphs were excited to take up the parental role. The call of the woods and trees, with their music and promises of peace and excitement, was stronger than the one to take care of their children. The trees and older spirits were usually good about making sure the children didn’t accidentally kill themselves, but otherwise, they were left to their own devices.

So, when given the first opportunity, Michelle had no qualms about leaving her home in the redwood forests of California to head to the dangerous world in New York City. Her mother gave her a kiss on the cheek, but neither pretended like they would keep in contact.

New York was overwhelming: the sheer amount of energy flowing through the city left her with a constant headache, and the dirty air had her almost feverish. She spent the first three days in the city in a dark hotel room with a wet cloth over her eyes, regretting every choice she’d made. A kindly fairy working in a pharmacy recommended some potions and pills to alleviate the pain.

“It’s really common for fae to feel sick when they first come here,” the fairy explained while she mixed up the herbs. “You’ll get used to it soon, I promise.”

Michelle mumbled her thanks before retreating back to her hotel room to nurse her aching head.

Sure enough, the medicine helped while she grew used to the new environment. When she was able to stand without her whole body screaming in pain, she started her job search, popping into every store and restaurant she came across.

Prospects weren’t looking too good. Not many people wanted to hire someone so obviously fae, and the longer she stayed in the hotel, the more her funds dwindled and her anxiety swelled.

One of her friends in California had told her about a group of dryads who lived in a park and would give her a place to stay until she got on her feet. While she wasn’t keen on spending an indefinite amount of time camping, it would be a good way to save money. She decided to split the difference and spend her first week in a hotel, and then try to meet up with them.

As promised, they were nice enough. One of them greeted her with a tight hug when she introduced herself, twirling Michelle around before setting her back on her feet.

The woman smiled as she pulled away. “Joneses are always welcome here,” she said warmly. “C’mon, let’s find a place for you to stay.”

It was a much better setup than she had anticipated. She never in a million years thought she would find herself sleeping in a nest of woven, living branches in a tree, wrapped in a sleeping bag for warmth and comfort. She almost wanted to laugh at the sheer oddity of it all, but still managed to sleep fitfully.

Being unemployed was boring . Hanging around in the park with the dryads and other fae was too reminiscent of the time Michelle spent with her family in California--lounging around in the trees, tending to the gardens, and ignoring or viciously mocking the humans that walked by. So as soon as she found a cheap apartment, she made excuses and left as politely as she could, pretending that she didn’t see their disappointed and vaguely haughty expressions.

She sat at a table outside of the third cafe she’d visited that day, filling out the application and giving the owner her most winning smile (judging from the man’s face, it wasn’t particularly convincing). She ordered a cup of coffee afterwards and allowed herself to rest, sketching the passersby and the scenery. 

“Oh wow, you’re super good!”

Michelle was shaken out of her concentration to see a woman bent down, examining the art that she’d strewn over the table. She swallowed down a wave of self-consciousness, positioning her arm to cover her latest drawing.

“Thanks,” Michelle said, clearing her throat. 

The woman looked up and smiled at her. “How much for a portrait? I’d love to get one done!”

Michelle blinked a few times before straightening her back. “Twenty bucks.”

A half hour later, Michelle was left with twenty dollars (plus a tip) and finally an idea of how she was going to support herself in the city.

Drawing wasn’t enough to completely make a living, of course, and she started hunting for something else in much higher spirits. She found a job as a waitress at a chain restaurant, working during the nights after it got too dark for her to stay out and draw portraits. The customers were usually drunk, and the manager kept hinting strongly that she should come meet his friends (“they’re a good court, and have a strong presence in this area. If you’re gonna stay here for awhile, might be smart to introduce yourself”), but the tips were alright and they gave her good hours.

When she got her first paycheck, Michelle went to the first greenhouse she saw and bought as many plants as she could. The plants she’d stolen from the public gardens were nice, but they lacked the magical touch that allowed forest fae to feed off of their energy and get a stable life force.

“If you come back next week, we’ll have a new shipment of some plants that work better for forest fae in the city,” the florist--her nametag said Liz--explained, ringing up the total. “There’s a mix of plants we sell, too, that’s sort of meant to be a beginners’ pack: plants that’ve been living in the city for multiple generations and ones that’re straight from the forests.”

“I’ll think about it when my bank account forgives me,” Michelle said dryly. Liz laughed and told her to have a good day.

It took two trips to carry all of the plants to her apartment, and by the end the apartment still had no furniture or food but it now smelled fresh and hummed with energy. The weird nest she had had with the dryads in the park was infinitely nicer than the apartment, but the place was already feeling like home, much more than her perch in the trees. 

Not to mention that the apartment came free of court debts--the dryads seemed nice enough, but they were still strangers, and Michelle had learned not to trust any favors or deals from people she didn’t know intimately.

Michelle lied down in the center of the room, surrounded by her plants. Tilting her head to the side, she smiled softly and ran her finger along the leaves of a lysimachia.

“I’ll get you into something more comfortable soon, I promise,” she said, feeling the way one of the tendrils tried to curl around her wrist in affection.

She might not have had a bed or even a pillow, but that night was the first time she fell asleep content and hopeful for her future in the city.

***

It was weeks later that Michelle met Peter for the first time.

She was sitting on a bench in the subway, still in her waitress uniform and reading her book to pass the time, when a group of fae approached the scrawny teenager standing alone. 

She still hadn’t mastered the art of minding her own business. Butting into situations that were escalating and where she didn’t have any background information wasn’t smart, and if her mother knew she would likely have a conniption, but she couldn’t sit by and do nothing.

The teenager was studiously not looking at the men, loud music echoing in tinny tones around the subway. But it had the opposite effect, causing one of them to yank his headphones away violent, making him grunt in pain as the orc snarled at him to pay attention. 

Michelle clenched her jaw, heart racing as she stared at her book and tried to gather her nerves. She had to step in. That orc was easily twice the kid’s size, and the other two weren’t much better. 

She was going to step in, but in the end, the decision was made for her. She had stood up to do something (she wasn’t quite sure what), holding her place in the book with her finger. Until he said something that must have been particularly offensive, and the orc picked him up bodily and threw him across the platform and right into Michelle, knocking her bag over and sending her book skittering across the dirty floor. The air was expelled violently from her body as she stumbled down and fell, the teenager on top of her.

“Ow,” she said blandly, groaning at the pain in her side.

“Oh my god, are you okay?!”

He was off of her almost as fast as he’d landed on her, scrambling to his feet. He hovered over her nervously, going to reach for her but not quite touching her. She let out a tight breath, pushing herself into a sitting position. When she looked up, he was gazing at her in awe. 

He stared wide eyed at her, mouth slightly agape. Her hair was tinged green on the ends, and strands of actual vines and ferns grew from her head. She rolled her eyes in annoyance when it became apparent he wasn’t going snap out of his daze anytime soon.

“You done staring?”

His cheeks flushed and he ducked his head in chagrin. “Sorry,” he apologized. He accepted her hand as she helped him to his feet. “Are you alright?”

Michelle raised an unimpressed eyebrow. “I wasn’t the one who just got thrown ten feet,” she pointed out, crossing her arms.

“Yeah, but I was thrown into you ,” he said. He crouched down and picked up her book, brushing some dust off before handing it to her. “Here. Sorry, the cover got ripped a bit.”

“It’s a secondhand paperback. I knew it was gonna tear at some point.”

“Are you two done ?” the orc seethed, storming over to him. 

“You should get going, honey,” one of the other men simpered as the other two followed their companion, his voice sickly sweet. “It’s a bit dangerous here at night.”

Michelle’s brows furrowed, indignance rising in her chest. “Fuck you, too,” she said behind gritted teeth. “The only people around that’re causing trouble are you clowns.”

The kid was slipping between her and the three beings before they could snarl back a response. 

“Just hurry up and go away,” the kid said shortly. He had seemed to grow a backbone in the few moments he had talked to Michelle, and his dangerous tone surprised her. “I don’t want anything to do with your court. 

Oh, gods. She was in the middle of a dispute about a court. Michelle really knew how to pick her battles. “Jesus,” she mumbled under her breath, running a hand over her face. 

“That’s not something you get to decide so easily,” the second man said, mouth twisting into a humorless grin. “Why don’t you come with us for awhile? We can talk you into it, I’m sure .”

“That sounds like a threat,” the boy stated simply. 

“Because it is.”

Red and blue sparks raced across the kid’s fingertips. He smirked at them, and took a step forward. 

***

Spiders ?”

The teenager shrugged, giving her an unapologetic grin as he waved away the oversized illusions. 

“I think they’re cool, but those guys seemed the type that would get scared by them. It was worth a shot.”

Michelle supposed she couldn’t complain; the gamble had paid off. 

But she had definitely not been expecting the boy to be able to defend himself like that. He had seemed so...meek, but almost transformed into a different person as he summoned high level illusions to frighten the men away (and that had been such a lovely sight—she’d never seen the color drain from a face so quickly). He had even conjured a few dog-sized spiders that crept close enough that they brushed against the men, enough proof for them to not check the others. 

Heaving a sigh, Michelle bent down and gathered her things from the bench, tugging on her sweater. “Well, that was an exciting way to pass the time. Good job, and all that.”

“Do you need me to--I dunno, walk you home or something?”

Michelle couldn’t help but scoff, shaking her head in disbelief. Even if he was a powerful witch, she was fae. She could more than take care of herself, and she told him just that.

“I just figured I should offer,” he said, cheeks flushing.

“I only live a couple of stations away,” she said. There was a rush of air and a quiet rumble as the train approached. “Do you need someone to walk you home?”

“No, no, I’m okay,” he said, shaking off her scathing offer. The tips of his ears were flushing red. He cleared his throat, fiddling with his tangled up headphones. “I, uh, I’m glad you’re okay. Sorry again.”

His words were drowned out by the arrival of the train. Michelle chose to nod at him instead of responding, not enjoying the awkwardness that was expanding between them. 

She got onto the train without looking behind her, easily finding a seat in the nearly empty car. As the train pulled away, she glanced out and saw the kid still on the platform, shifted awkwardly from foot to foot as he put his earbuds back in and turned his back to her.

Michelle mentally shook herself and looked down at her book, trying to find the place she’d left off. She pushed all thoughts of the evening’s excitement out of her mind.