Christmas Spirits


luther_icon.gif nicole_icon.gif zachery_icon.gif

Scene Title Christmas Spirits
Synopsis The Spirit of Christmas is a bit more literal than expected.
Date December 6, 2019

Park Slope

In the days of old, if a New Yorker wanted to pick and cut their own Christmas tree, they had to go at least an hour outside of town to one of the many farms that grew Spruce and Firs and other common Christmas Trees.

This year, however, there’s a grove in the city itself. On the edge of Park Slope, where it borders Williamsburg, a plot of the parkland has been rejuvenated into a grove of firs and spruces. The grove has been in operation for over two years, though this is their first season for selling. Based on the height and health of the trees, they might have employed an agrokinetic at some point down the line to increase their yield. Last year the main seller of Christmas Trees in the safe zone had burned, and this year word of mouth favored the newest grove.

Prospect Lane Christmas Trees, is what the sign says. Rows and rows of trees, variating from short two-foot-tall trees all the way to six feet tall, of multiple varieties. Canaan Firs, Blue Spruces, Balsam Firs, White Pines… So many different kinds of trees, with a handful of people walking down the rows trying to decide which one they want to cut down. Pre-cut ones sit near the entrance, as well. A man is loading one now onto the bed of a truck, A sign states that there’s free delivery to curbside within the Safe Zone (extra fee if set up requested).

Wreaths and other Christmas decorations are around, along with a stand for lights, garland (often made from recycled materials) and handmade ornaments and tree toppers sits near the front, catching people on the way out with little stands. A speaker plays Christmas music from a small portable device.

The whole place smells like Christmas.

It smells like birthday.

Nicole’s eyes close for the space of time it takes her to walk three steps forward. Her hand is entwined with Zachery’s, whether he likes it or not. Given that she’s like a portable furnace, it’s likely not the worst fate, given the chill of winter in the air.

“There’s so many,” the dark-haired woman remarks, just a little bit of wonder in her eyes when they open again. It wouldn’t look misplaced on the face of her daughter. It’s been so long since she’s done something so normal for the holiday as pick out a tree.

“This reminds me,” she begins with an absent smile, “of when I used to do this for work. Pick out these enormous trees to decorate the lobbies.” For this season, she’s looking for something far more modest. The shorter trees have her attention, but would it look too small with the tall ceilings of her home to contend with?

There are worse fates, but holding hands is decidedly not one of Zachery's most honed skills. This whole place, this trip? Is him indulging Nicole, and he has made no qualms about it. Even now, he looks askance at a couple passing them by with a small tree as though he'd rather stick his foot out to trip them rather than simply keep walking until this thing is over.

"Of course you did." Deadpan, head dipped down, a streak of half healed bruises across his nose and under his fake eye. He looks and sounds the very example of someone who simply does not understand this time of year to be anything other than the thing that comes before January.

This place? It smells like dirt.

Even so. Something - maybe the warmth in Nicole's voice, maybe the look on her face when he finds himself looking at it - tightens his grip on her hand in a squeeze he does not necessarily look aware of, himself. "What kind's your favourite?"

Green. It's supposed to be a calming color. The holidays, too, supposed to be a happy time. Christmas tree shopping in all its festive affair seems innocuous enough an activity for Luther to participate in. A bit further down the path from Nicole and Zachery, he stands. He's alone, both of his hands shoved into the pockets of a dark navy jacket. As much as he might try to look less stern about his examination of a medium height Canaan fir, it's hard to do so when he's sporting a pair of butterfly bandages holding together a cut over his temple and angled brow. Hard to miss that he's been in a fight recently. But at present, Luther doesn't look like he's spoiling for another. The fir he's sizing up is for entirely different reasons.

There’s movement in the surrounding areas, a mother and father continue to move along the rows. A six-year-old in dark pigtails trails along in front of them, then suddenly stops and starts to say, “This one! This one!” pointing at the tree that towers a good three feet over her tiny head.

“I don’t know, it looks like it’d be expensive,” the father responds, looking back toward the shorter trees longingly. “I think a smaller one would fit better in our front room.”

But all Santa’s presents won’t fit under a small one,” the child complains, kicking the dirt.

Zachary can notice, absently, that the father’s back isn’t quite as good as someone of his age and size, which might explain his reluctance. Such things aren’t uncommon, and might even go unnoticed, but there’s something on the edge of his senses that feels… off.

“Scotch Pine,” Nicole responds easily. “But they shed like mad, so I tend to opt for the Blue Spruce.” Her hand in his doesn’t squeeze back. Not because she doesn’t want to return the affection, but she’s afraid to draw attention to it. This is nice, and a bit unlike Zachery. She’d rather not spoil the moment.

Her gaze is drawn by the little girl in pigtails, who makes her think of her own daughter. Letting her pick out the tree would mean coming away with one too large to fit in her front door, for certain. Trailing along the row, she spots Luther and greets him with a smile and a wave. That he’s worse for wear is noted but not commented upon. She always likes it when her various injuries are left unremarked about.

"Fuck blue spruces, trees should be green anyway," Zachery spits out the words past the ever-shrinking personal bubble he's failing to maintain, probably aware that the tree's name is a slight exaggeration. "You're getting a Scotch pine and a good vacuum cleaner."

Between the child in front of them stopping and something else pulling at the sleeve of his brain, he's lagging behind. His head turns, a little more abruptly than it might if he had both eyes to work with, gaze drifting over a group of people nearby.

But lagging behind means a little more when your hand is in someone else's, and both his arm and attention is pulled back toward Nicole. Then - following her line of sight - he squints at Luther. There's a familiarity he can't quite place. "Who's that?" Until suddenly, he can place it, and he hears himself saying absentmindedly, "… I think I shot him in the head, once."

On normal occasion, Luther is as any other New Yorker, focused on his own thoughts and tasks to be done, not busying himself with paying attention to families and couples. But the interjections of the young girl twang a heartstring over the drum of an old memory, and he can't help but turn his gaze to watch.

Which in turn brings his notice to the waving Nicole, and companion. It's like both men have thought bubbles with visibly turning cogs overhead to turn on a lightbulb. Recognition flickers, then illuminates. Luther steps away from the fir, approaching the pair like Nicole's wave was a summon. "Drang," he greets Nicole first, old callbacks pulling forth first, perhaps expectedly so given the man's old wartime reminiscent appearance.

Zachery, though. Anatomical intuition presents a veritable deluge of information for him to study about Luther should he so choose. At present, starting with the split skin above his right brow being barely held together, the swelling beneath it from blunt force trauma affecting some scope of his vision, and slight affectation of slurred speech from the level of blood alcohol in him. Especially as he asks, "How's it goin'?"

The speakers finish the more somber song they had been playing and switches to something much more cheery, very appropriate for the Tree Lot.

Rockin’ around the Christmas tree

At the Christmas party hop!

The young child with the pigtails gets picked up by her father, an ache running up his back as he does from the strain and he carries her over to one of the smaller trees. “This one will look much better, don’t you think? Mom sure thinks so.” There was a woman nearby who was looking at that tree, short and fat, with thick green needles. She nods in agreement, offering him a smile.

Mistletoe hung where you can see;

Ev’ry couple tries to stop

The kid will not be persuaded, however. She pouts and kicks her legs a little in protest, until she finally points a finger toward the tallest tree on the entire lot, well over nine feet tall, much taller than most ceilings, likely intended for one of the bigger buildings. It’s one that Nicole would have picked for one of the office lounges, though not the biggest one she’d ever seen. “I want that one. It has to be big and tall!.”

Rockin’ around the Christmas tree

Let the Christmas spirit ring!

“Well that one definitely won’t fit,” he states.

As attention gets drawn to that tree, Zachery can feel a strange sensation he never has felt from a tree before. That tree, somewhere inside all the needles and branches that felt like the sinew of muscle and blood vessels— that tree had eyes.

Later we’ll have some pun’kin pie

And we’ll do some caroling

“Going well,” Nicole greets, cheery in a way she never was during the war. Peacetime suits her. “Haven’t been called that in a long time,” she comments about the nickname. It’s definitely not a complaint. In fact, she stands a little taller, pleased to be recognized by one of her fellows in that way.

The hand linked with Zachery’s swings gently. “Luther Bellamy, this is Zachery Miller,” Nicole makes the introductions, further explaining to Zachery, “Luther and I fought together in the war.” She doesn’t bother to explain to Luther what Zachery is to her. He’s more than intelligent enough to make the inferrance. “It’s good to see you,” she tells him.

The little girl’s enthusiasm provides a momentary distraction. Nicole follows her pointing finger and gives an appraising look to her chosen tree. “Kid’s got good taste,” she muses.

There is an attempt, from Zachery, to don a mask of pleasantry - the polite sort that usually accompanies this season and the people you may not choose to be around. But the thin smile he conjures up disappears before it can even ostensibly be considered good manners. The introductions only partially register, only just enough for an idle response: "… We've had the pleasure. Sort of."

Next to Nicole's cheeriness, he is all dour focus elsewhere. His attention is pulled toward the trees, scanning over them one by one until visuals match intuition as well as he can estimate. Which isn't… very well, in this case. None of this makes sense, even when his eye lands where it ought to, gaze locking onto the evergreen and mind reaching in order to try and make the puzzle pieces fit.

"Nicole?" He says firmly, shoulders squaring and his grip on her hand tightening a little, instinct pulling her arm back. But even then, still something else draws him forward. "Something is… wrong."

"'S good to see you too, holiday spirit keepin' you warm," Luther says. The pair of 'Nichory' gets a short once-over, from odd eye to held hands and up to familiar faces. "We've met once. World's Fair," recognizes Luther of Zachery, then positing to Nicole. "He's prettier than his mugshot in the RayTech file." It's a joke of the former Chief of Security, even if Luther's delivery falls flat of full on dry humor. Mainly, because the man's following Nicole's pointing out of the little girl and her family so Luther looks over to the insistent daughter. The next, because Zachery's pointing out something is wrong. For all his injuries new and old, Luther still has sharp hearing and hears the comment made over the cheery Christmas classic coming over the speakers. He shifts his attention from the family back to Nicole and Zachery, angled brows furrowing. "What's wrong?"

You will get a sentimental feeling when you hear

Where the limbs of the tree should be, Zachery can feel lines of veins and human muscle, shifting ever so slightly in the wind. Where the trunk is, he can feel elongated, deformed organs, some that still seem to function, if oddly. There’s the eyes, hidden under needles made of nerve-endings and hair, bark made from skin. Parts of the tree are invisible to his senses as if made up of matter he can not sense the way he does human anatomy, but the parts that he can sense are more than prominent enough.

Voices singing, let’s be jolly

Deck the halls with boughs of holly

There’s a man around the tree, as well, looking up at it with a thoughtful expression and talking to a woman beside him. Nicole would recognize what’s probably happening here. A businessman’s representatives choosing the tree to display in their bosses lobby.

Rockin’ around the Christmas tree

Have a happy holiday

“Be reasonable, Button. We can’t really fit a tree that big in our apartment— but we can probably do the other one.” the father says with a small sigh, and the child beams with a big smile. That child knows how to get what she wants, it would seem. The mother, nearby, just shakes her head, knowingly.

Everyone dancin’ merrily

In the new old-fashioned way

“Of course you’ve met,” Nicole chuckles. “The Safe Zone is such a small place.” It isn’t, really, but the kind of world she inhabits always seems to be a shrinking one. “I completely for—” Zachery’s hand tightens on hers and the words die in her mouth. Her gaze turns to him, then follows his line of sight back to…

The tree?

He tugs her a little closer and she readily complies, brows furrowed with confusion. “Wrong how?”

Any other day, Zachery would be happy to speak of the last time he and Luther met, or of the coincidence of them meeting again, here, and both knowing Nicole. But.


"That… tree is a person." The words leave him before he's able to process intuition into more coherent thought, barely loud enough for anyone else to hear. Luck would have it, though, that he seems so utterly baffled that he repeats it again, in an unnerved sounding chuckle: "That tree. It's a person."

Eye trained on the needles-not-needles, seemingly unable to look away, something not quite fear and not quite curiosity pulls at the corner of his mouth. His grip on Nicole's hand is forgotten and released as he starts to move forward. Closer. Sales pitch be damned. There's a twitch of his shoulders, a shudder, despite the cheery and eager tone with which he adds, as he walks, "Shit. I hate this."

It’s not every day someone goes around proclaiming trees to be people too. But this is New York City, still. And still, Luther casts an extremely puzzled look that switches between Nicole and Zachery, and back to Nicole. “This one’s on you,” he bids the woman in taking on the strange statement and behavior of her Christmas tree shopping companion. Ladies first, and all.

But given that he’s not got anything better to do aside from pursue a broken conversation and tree shopping, Luther drifts on after the pair, lingering back a couple paces to be easily eaten up by elongated stride. “Care to elaborate?” he asks Zachery, paused to examine what looks like a perfectly fine specimen in a tree lot.

You will get a sentimental feeling when you hear

As the chorus of the cheery song repeats, Zachery gets closer and closer to the tree. Under the ground, hidden in the dirt, he can feel bones for roots. And that eye. It seems to have a film of skin over it, like a lid closed. The sap is blood, veins pumping through the tree that has a heart. The needles shift as he gets closer, moving in the wind, and sending small tendrils of activity up the tree toward what should be a brain. Many of the organs were not functioning like the heart pumping warm sap.

Voices singing, let’s be jolly

Deck the halls with boughs of holly

The thing that looked like a tree shouldn’t be alive. But he could tell it was. Somehow.

Rockin’ around the Christmas tree

Have a happy holiday

The young woman leaves the man beside the tree, moving toward the front, likely to pull out a checkbook or corporate credit card and purchase the tree that would need to be cut down. Meanwhile, Button, likely a nickname, gets sat down and runs over to her tree of choice, while the father sighs and goes to do the same.

If anyone else has noticed Zachery’s distress, it has not changed their mood or intentions. Yet.

Everyone dancin’ merrily

In the new old-fashioned way

“I’m sorry, what?

Nicole stares incredulously first at Zachery, then to Luther when he puts that ball in her court, then at the tree. Horror slowly dawns on her. Even though she cannot see what Zachery sees and sense what he senses, she knows what he’s saying is, impossibly, true. She’s heard the chatter around Fort Jay.

Fuck,” Nicole hisses, pulling out her cell phone and punching a number into the screen. She holds the mobile up to her ear and moves forward briskly, and irritated that it takes even one ring for her call to be answered. Lifting her shoulder to pin the device to her ear, she starts digging in her jacket pocket. This is not something she wanted to have to do. At all.

“Bells.” It’s a summons. A call to action. “Nobody cuts down this tree,” Nicole instructs, gravely serious in spite of how ridiculous this is. “And he stays nearby.” And if Zachery is having her on, by god, this will be the end of her entire career.

Finally finding the prize in her pocket, Nicole flips open a leather book and holds it up as she walks toward the front, long strides carrying her past the woman and her open wallet. “Varlane,” she announces herself to the person tending the lot. “SLC-Expressive Services Agency,” she announces what’s on the credentials in her hand. “I need you to shut this place down immediately.” She’s still listening to the phone ringing against her ear.

Even Zachery has some of the colour drain from his face, though fascination remains easily communicated through keen regard of the offending tree. Only when Nicole's those last few sentences register through the haze of everything else assaulting his senses does he tear his gaze away and sharply to her, with utter disbelief painted clear across his face.

Disbelief — and something more bitter that pulls a somewhat pained looking grin to one side. "I'm…" Words fail him, but his mind is still alight with distraction. Turning his attention back to the tree, he steps closer until he's near enough to touch its needles should he want to. "I'm learning all sorts of things today, tree," he mutters darkly, as if part of him expects a reply of sorts.

He probably shouldn't touch it. But, in a stiff motion that easily communicates his underlying frustration, he reaches anyway.

Last to realize what Zachery is saying is Luther, still following after the other man with concern and a small amount of confusion amidst a large amount of skepticism. Luckily Nicole is more reliable source amidst the crowd of statements. And it's her concern, her authority, that has him paying much more attention to the situation. "Don't touch it," he warns Zachery despite not moving to stop the distracted man. A split second later he thinks better of it and reaches out to grab for the other man's wrist.

The cheerful song ends and a more subdued one starts up, but the owner of the stand comes over as to listen to Nicole, his dark eyes widening in surprise. He looks around wordlessly, working his mouth for a moment, and then slowly nods. It looked for a moment like he was going to argue, but he saw the badge and decided against it. “We’re closing down early for today, everyone. Paul, turn off that music!” he yells, and a younger man goes to follow those instructions while the owner continues to wave at people. “Come back tomorrow. Don’t worry, we have all our papers, it’ll be fine.” He doesn’t know the reasoning behind the shut down, but he seems to assume it’s because the trees are much too big for a stand that only started growing them a few months ago.

The family looks especially disappointed, but the owner focuses far more on the business-like people, trying to make a joke that maybe SESA wanted the big tree instead.

The subdued Christmas song stops suddenly.

But Zachery, at least, hears none of the hustle and bustle. Luther’s grabbing of his wrist was a few seconds too slow. His fingers brushed the needles and suddenly he was aware of everything about the tree. Even the parts he could not sense before. The parts that he shouldn’t have been able to sense, but had become part of the organic structure of the human inside the tree. Plant cells merged with human cells in a strange amalgamation that belied science and medical expectations.

The person inside the tree, the person who was the tree, had ovaries, a uterus, making them, by birth at least, a female. Nourishment and energy came from the parts that were a tree. One of the eyes was buried in the trunk, useless, while the other actually fluttered open as she too felt his touch. The tree doesn’t have ears, or a mouth, though he can feel the teeth near the base of the trunk, where the mouth was melded with the beginning of the roots made of bones. The stomach and other organs were useless, stomach non-functional, lungs useless. It shouldn’t be alive at all, but somehow what parts were plant kept the parts that weren’t functional.


Meanwhile, on Nicole’s phone, a voice answered lazily as if he might have been taking a nap or something at his desk (not uncommon for him, really), “Agent Corbin Ayers.”

As he falls deeper and deeper into the tree, Zachary hears the brush of a soft voice on his mind, barely above a whisper.

Help me.

“Ayers, it’s Varlane.” The greeting is short and to the point. “I need you down at the Christmas tree lot.” That sounds ridiculous even when she says it so plain. Flipping her wallet closed and stuffing it back into her pocket, she puts her now-free hand over the receiver of her phone to address the owner. “Thanks so much for your cooperation.” Her tone has softened a great deal in gratitude for the lack of resistance. “I promise we’ll have you back up and running just as soon as possible.”

She flashes a smile and goes back to her conversation with Corbin. “Sorry about that.” Her tone is suddenly lighter, more airy. “This is normally a USDA affair,” she says casually, like what she’s pursuing is no big deal, but she’s dropping names from the alphabet soup to make this all sound very routine. “Christmas Tree Board and all that.”

Yes, that’s actually a thing. Look it up.

“But I know you’re working a thing? With the juniors? And I thought you would really like to come down here and check it out.” No, Corbin. Seriously. “I’ll go through the paperwork while you’re on your way over. Don’t want to leave them hanging too long,” meaning time is of the essence here, “so could you come down first thing?”

Where Nicole is tactful and Luther of attempted assistance, Zachery is… absorbed in what he is shown, what he feels, and then, hears. Luther's grasp to help might have been too late, but as Zachery nearly topples sideways and forward, he reaches blindly for something to hold onto, fingers finding the other man's arm just in time for him to go falling into the needles properly.

"FffuCK!" He shouts, because even without the knowledge of what this tree is, this is unpleasant. Something on the border between a laugh and shudder leaves him, drawn out in an exhale as if against his will. He struggles to pull himself back, the grin that's forming on his face a poor match for how pale it's gotten.

He looks wildly off to the side, first at Nicole but — then whips his monocular attention back to Luther, barking out a sharp, humourless laugh as his white-knuckled grip tightens. "THANK YOU, LUTHER BELLAMY." He says, or maybe yells, it's so loud, still half peering through branches of fuck knows what this is. "Who isn't ON ThE PHONE HAVING a PLEASANT CONVERSATION with her SESA COWORKERS about this ACT AGAINST GOD! IF GOD Had LITERALLY. FUCKING. ANYTHING TO DO WITH THIS."

Given he’s got one hand on Zachery already, Luther plants himself back in an attempt not to get dragged down into the pine needles. Not entirely successful at it, he squints in natural attempt to protect his face from pointy tree bits and frowns at the other man’s yelled(?) thanks. “The hell ‘re you on,” he grumbles, warm-handed grasp tightening as he pulls to bring Zachery back to a wobbly stand. Who’s the real drunk here? He wonders. Still, sobering concern returns to Luther as he looks around at bystsanders and witnesses, then back to Zachery.

He hasn’t let go of the other man, yet. Not until he’s sure the other isn’t going to topple back. “You alright?” he asks. A questioning glance shoots to Nicole, and his bandaged brow wrinkles in a furrow. Is he alright? that look asks her.

There are needles brushing against Zachery’s skin, sending small signals of sensation up the branches and toward the tree’s brain. He can still hear that whispered request, growing louder, almost as if it could make out a response from him at the same time, the frantic thoughts of horror and surprise. Her eye opens.

A thin film of plantlike matter blinks closed over the eye, a nictitating membrane much like an animal might have, and perhaps even primitive humans might have once had. This tree has one too, which acts as the lid. It opens and closes, blinking at him as if trying to see through the needles and see him. Through the needles he might catch the white of the eyes and the pale blue of the iris.

Please help me, the woman-tree says again, pleading. I can’t… move. Please help me.

On the other end of the line, Corbin gets up from his desk, kicking his chair away as he quickly moves about. Nicole can hear the rustling in the background, just as he no doubt hears the yelling. “I’ll head that way. I know what one you’re talking about.” There weren’t that many Christmas Tree groves in the Safe Zone, and he had heard about it at one point. “Sounds like you have a commotion. I’ll be there as soon as I can.”

Even if he had to see if a chopper was available. But he’s sure an emergency Ferry would be almost as fast.

The bystanders and witnesses, while the owner is trying to motion them off, still look around trees at the strange activity going on, but they keep their distance, which might be as much as anyone could ask right now.

Can you hear me?

“Yes, that’s right,” Nicole responds mildly, as though things are totally calm and totally normal. “We’ll see you soon then.” She ends the call and slides her phone back into her pocket, turning a smile to the lot’s owner again. “You work with an agrokinetic for your trees, is that right?” Zachery’s antics behind her are being pointedly ignored, though she spares a glance toward Luther that asks him to just help him keep it together. It’s apologetic. This is not his problem, but she appreciates his support anyway.

“If you could get me their name or names? As well as a list and contact information of your employees.” Nicole is in perfect customer service mode, polite smiles and mild tones. “Nobody’s in any trouble. We just need to ask them some questions. So, if you could get that while we’re waiting for the agent in charge…?” That’s a dismissal. If he doesn’t comply, that’s Corbin’s issue. Right now, this keeps the man busy and gives her a chance to get back to the tree in question.

“Zachery, I swear to Christ,” Nicole hisses between her teeth, demeanor having turned a one-eighty now that her back is to the crowd and she’s taken a few steps away. “Get it together,” she demands, taking a gentle hold of his shoulders. The implication is that they can talk about their issue later. As she pulls him gently toward her, she reaches out with one hand to brush aside a branch that’s tried to tangle in his coat.

Nicole stops cold. Gentleness is replaced by horror, her spine going rigid as she stares at the tree. Help me, it — she — tells her. “My God.”

Ayers cannot get here fast enough.

"I'm incredibly not alright, thank you." Zachery answers Luther, now standing with the help of two people and still looking a little unsteady, his attention on still on the… tree? Person? The whole time.

"I can-" He starts to explain, but words fail him with a pained grimace, as something specific within the branches catches his attention. "Evolved." Apparently that's all the answer he's able to give for now. Once more, he moves toward the thing that's got him so on edge, reaching to brush a few branches aside with a careful push of a hand. His shoulders draw up at the resulting sight, stifling a shudder at the eye being where there could not possibly be one. Where there SHOULD not be one.

Mouth agape and expression a deeply perturbed shade of fascinated, he breathes out, "Someone's on the way." To do what, he's not quite sure. Best not to specify. There are so many questions to ask. The one that surfaces, is perhaps the simplest of the bunch, spoken as calmly as he can manage in his state of discomposure. "What's your name?"

A lack of trust keeps Luther's fingers curled around Zachery's bicep, the man continuing to echo the grimace on the other's features with a funhouse mirror style pinch and wrinkle of his angled brows. In shift of the main responsibility for the unsteady Zachery back to Nicole, Luther by chance brushes along the needles. And he hears the whispers. Eyes widen, his stare caught on Nicole's horror in another mirroring of her expression.

He lets go of Zachery fully, pulling back from the tree where the other man presses forth. Sure, he's slow to put pieces together, but Luther eventually does and he looks from SESA agent to Zachery, back to Nicole, seeking confirmation of what he thought he heard. Or felt. It was something and doesn't quite match up with his own regular traumatic experiences or nightmares.

"Did you all hear that? What in the hell," rumbles Luther when he finally lands his accusing, bewildered stare on the big tree.

The tree is a majestic, perfect-looking Blue Spruce, which would have made it a prime candidate for a business. Good thing they had come along when they did, because it would probably not have lasted another day with the business-like people hovering around it. It would be perfect, if there wasn’t a blue eye looking out from the bark, a small break in the branches to allow it to look out through the needles, but obscuring most of it’s — her — vision at the same time.
Perfect if not for the bones that made up the roots, if not for the nerves and blood vessels and organs that somehow existed within it and a part of it.

If what Nicole had heard about the tree that started the investigation was right, it would have been a bloody affair when they started to cut into it.

Stacy, the soft voice responds, quiet and almost sounding like a whisper, but at the same time as loud as a normal thought. My name’s Stacy. I’ve tried to talk but no one heard me.

Until now.

In the meantime, while the phone call has ended, the man in charge of the stand, Mr. Scott, looks a little nervous suddenly. “We— I am sure I have the paperwork back at the office. We hired someone. It wasn’t me. I didn’t do anything. I’m normal.”

Probably not the best choice of words, but…

Maybe slightly bigoted people aren’t the biggest worry of the day, as the tree is still whispering to them in a soft mental voice.

Because that’s what it seems to be. Could a tree be Expressive? Maybe when the tree also happens to be a person.

With her back firmly to the lot’s owner, Nicole’s eyes widen and her posture goes rigid as she attempts to keep her temper in check. One breath, a second, then Nicole’s shoulders relax and she turns around again, even with that voice echoing in her head. While it’s been a long time since she’s been in that situation, this is not her first experience with this phenomenon. “That’s great,” she assures politely. “You’re not in any trouble,” might even be the truth, “we just need to make sure everything’s orderly.”

Nicole places a hand on Mr. Scott’s arm to gently encourage him to step away from the tree. From Stacy. “If you could get that information for me, that would be a huge help. The sooner we have that, the sooner we can let you get back to business. We’re very excited to see you succeed here in the Safe Zone.”

Compartmentalising is hard. Harder still when there's so much talking going on, both in and out of your head. Zachery does not seem to have a great handle on this whole thing, glancing somewhat helplessly to Luther as if he's just as baffled.

"'Normal'." This is the word he eventually echoes, in a spot of silence, exhaling stiffly past the pit in his stomach that he can't seem to quell. The fact that he's still got his hands in the branches might not help. "Alright. Stacy." He swallows back some unease, looking back up toward the eye. "I'm going to… step… away-" He sounds uncertain, as if he regrets the words the moment they leave him, and a grimace gives away conflicting feelings all on its own. "But you'll be taken care of. Just one thing. Can you, ah- can you feel anything?"

Please say no, is what he doesn't say, but creeps into his thoughts anyway.

Luther stares in silence at Zachery as only a bystander - a helpless one - ought. But he slowly comes to the same disturbed realizations as the other man. “The fuck,” he breathes out, head shaking and blinking at the sense of impossibility made possible. “There’s a person in there? Did someone do this to it - her?” Since Zachery’s asking questions, Luther can’t quell the horrified curiosity pressing him to inquire too.

Not to mention, rethink his stance on the practice of cutting and decorating traditional Christmas trees.

Dave, go get that paperwork from the trailer,” the owner yells, moving away as he gestures to the younger help, oblivious to his insult for the moment. Or not caring. The majority of people have moved on, some disappointed, like the family with the pigtailed girl. The dad might be relieved for the moment, but no doubt he will be back in a few days, unless they cord the whole place off.

Meanwhile, the tree whispers in that soft voice, needles shifting delicately in the wind, a shudder that almost seems to not be caused by the wind. And Zachery, at least, can tell it’s not all the wind. Tiny muscles running along joints in the branch start to contract, the small membrane of skin that blinks over the blue eye shudders and shifts. It’s almost as if the tree-person— Stacy — were trying to move and unable to figure out where all the muscles are, like how a child might try to walk for the first time. Or how a paralyzed person might attempt to wiggle their toes.

With some success. As she responds, her voice seems to become less and less… coherent, growing softer and softer, further and further away. Zachery can also feel a new change in the tree, the heart buried within the trunk pumping more and more quickly, like someone might go through when they were panicking.

can’t hear

except you

like leg is asleep


all at once


can’t drink

can’t breathe

can’t speak

where did my mouth go











As the mental voice fades away, the lid over the eye closes once more. That heart continues to beat quickly, pumping the blood deeper and deeper… and Zachary can see it with his mind before his eyes.

The needles start to fill with blood.

The deep, beautiful color of the needles turns to red.

Thank you,” Nicole responds with a big smile. “Now if you could just make sure all you’re ready to meet the lead agent at the entrance and show him where to find us? That would be fantastic.” The request is delivered firmly, though still cheery, even though she’s definitely issuing an order. Once he’s complying with it, Agent Varlane turns around to regard Stacy again.

Her mouth falls open as the colors of the needles slowly begin to shift like a chameleon, in shock. Now she hurries forward to pull Zachery away from the tree, lest they discover it’s about to begin weeping blood. Her attention is fixed on the horrific transformation happening in front of them. Blindly, she reaches out for Luther as well. “Bells…?” Whether she’s asking if he’s seeing it too or if he’s okay is unclear. Maybe she just needs to know he’s present.

"Stacy?" There is real concern in Zachery's voice as he's pulled away and finally sees what's happening, urgency adding haste to his words when he says (probably a little too late), "Shit, what's- what's your… last name? Stacy! Fuck."

Frustration has him sending a glare over to Nicole as he takes one more step back, and he opens his mouth to answer Luther only for the words fizzle out to a clueless, deflated sputter of- "I think it - was - a person."

Luther stares stonily at the tree, the reddening pine needles have caught him in the hypnotic, horrific color change too. The noises of others around him drown out to a muted sound even as he can feel his heart drop at what the transformation within the transmogrification could mean for ‘Stacy’. Did he see the blue eye hidden there in the needles? Was he just imagining?

Not until Nicole calls him does he snap back to the present, and Luther suddenly twitches, blinking rapidly and turning to the woman. “Yeah. Yeah I’m here.” He may not want to be, but he is. Zachery’s assessment draws a grim nod. Luther wipes a hand over his paled pallor and he steps back from the red-needled tree. Turning back to Nicole and Zachery he can only stand there in shared, shocked silence.

It’s the worst feeling, to be in no position to help.

At Nicole’s orders, the owner moves off toward the entrance, wringing his hands and looking nervous. Maybe he’s not as sure that they checked the agrokinetic’s paperwork as they said they were, or perhaps he’s just worried about the lost business by closing the place down early. He’s not even trying to keep on a good face. His business wouldn’t have been able to be open this year if it weren’t for an agrokinetic, but perhaps he’s rethinking the investment next time around. Even if it takes two years to get his trees.

The soft voice does not return to answer, a breath of wind shifting the branches once again, making it look more alive. Though not quite as alive as it actually was. The needles of the Blue Spruce settle into a bright red, like fresh blood, and stay there, a deep contrast from the fields of various shades of green all around and beyond it. Not the Christmas colors anyone probably wanted.

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