We walked downstairs and out the brownstone's door, into a street unlike any I've ever seen. And remember, I live in New York.
Above all, there were trees. Huge, wide, trees towering next to skyscrapers, tiny, whip-thin saplings weaving themselves around lightposts, full, flowering beauties interrupting sidewalks. It was New York, but as if it had been seeded irreverently and uncaringly every which way. Oddly enough, it seemed natural, as if the city was just another plant, growing entwined and in time with the vegetation.
And the people. Well, they weren't really people......the inhabitants, then, I'll call them that. There appeared to be fey businesses in place of those that I knew--similar, almost the same at first glance, but...different. Across from my apartment, where Honore's Foreign Outdoor'n Cuisine was, there was the same building; but nestled in a grove of oaks and apparently frequented by a large amount of satyrs and centaurs. There was no Honore at the order window, but instead a rather beardy, dwarvish-looking man with a nose ring and a booming laugh I could hear across the street. A crowd surged and rolled around me in New York size, but not content. A tall, willowy woman walked by, her blood-red hair piled into a flowery nest; an apparently normal businessman with a briefcase that stared and growled as it passed; an ogre-like creature with reeds in its hair and dripping clothes but kindly, brown, water-beetle eyes.
There were humans, too, none of them particularly out-of-the-ordinary, but with certain features I could pick out that probably caught the faeries' eyes--green eyes (like mine); white-blonde hair; tiny hands or feet; elvish features or a graceful walk. They didn't, however, look unhappy--actually, some were laughing, walking with creatures I've never seen the like of, perfectly comfortable.
I stared and stared and stared, drinking it in like a man who's found water after days in the desert.
My musings were cut off when the swan-girl grabbed my arm roughly. "Come on, this way." I reluctantly turned back to her and began following her quick steps down the sidewalk. It took all of my effort to focus on where I was going...I wasn't sure, due to the extraordinary otherworldliness, but we appeared to be heading towards one of my favorite hangout spots, a gritty, warm little coffee bar called Radisse. My thoughts were confirmed when we turned onto the right road.
"Uh....can you tell me why we're going to get coffee?" I asked to Swan-Girl's back. As I expected, I got no other answer but a glare and an ushering into the bar, which looked, to my surprise, exactly like it usually did.
As my eyes adjusted from the bright greenness of the city, I was even further shocked to see Dean, the owner, behind the bar. I mean, all the other shops had different employees--so why was he still here? I squinted and blinked in the cozy yellow light.
Swan-Girl strode forward. "Got one that needs an ACE, Dean." I could hear the capital letters in her haughty voice. Dean looked up and looked me over appraisingly. He smiled and I stood silent, still confused.
"Figured they'd pick you up sooner or later, kid," he sighed, wiping down the wooden counter with a rag. "You're just too damn odd. And those eyes. But I guess that's it, then." He looked at the swan. "I've got one in the back that'll fit her just right. I had a feeling she would need it." He nodded and stepped out from behind the bar to a door in the corner of the shop that I'd never seen him open. He did now, however, and it led out to a small, flower-bedded garden.
"Well, come on, then," he said, and stepped out. Swan glided regally after him and I followed--like I always did.
Dean led us through the floral haze to a twisting, ancient oak in the middle. I realized the reason why I had never noticed the garden from outside was that it was nestled in an alley. Buildings rose up around it, walling it in.
Underneath the tree sat a boy, maybe a little older than me, his hair shaggy and red-brown and with skin the tan of someone who was perpetually in the sun. He was obviously fey.
Dean called out to him. "ACE! I finally found someone for you." He pointed to me and I nervously pushed a strand of hair behind my ear. "This is Charlotte. You belong to her now."
"Wh-what?" I squeaked. "Hang on, he can't belong to me! He's a person!"
"He's an ACE," Swan explained, rolling her eyes. "That stands for Assigned Changeling Escort. He'll be your guide and companion so that you don't become instant meat here in the City."
The boy--the ACE--and I stared at each other.
"Well, now that that's been taken care of, I'm off," dismissed Swan-Girl, smoothing her skirts. "Don't let her die too quickly, ACE; the Councellate took a special interest in her for some reason. So long." And she brushed past me like a melting snowflake on a child's cheek.
Dean turned to me. "Well, get to know each other, then. I have work to do." He dipped his head at me and left the garden looking already preoccupied.
Soon the only ones watching us were the oak tree and the sky.