Green Ash


ali_icon.gif emily_icon.gif

Scene Title Green Ash
Synopsis What starts out as a normal study session for Emily Epstein leads to the discovery of another victim in the Dendrolatry case.
Date February 1, 2020

Brooklyn College: Student Apartments

“I missed our study sessions!”

It wasn’t the first time the dark blonde-haired young woman had said something of the like. Together the two of them had studied their way through some of the harder classes, learning to identify plants of various kinds in winter, dead or alive. Ali’s apartment near the campus hadn’t changed at all, with a large window on one side to let in eastern light and shelves set up with a small collection of plants in pots. Not just any plants, though, bonsai trees which she had bought in Yamagato Park, careful trimmed often and spritzed with the right amount of water. She had said it was Saitama, one of the other Biology majors, who had introduced her to the art.

Because it was an art. Tiny little trees whose growth was controlled so they could live long healthy lives inside tiny little pots with specific amounts of light. She had a dozen different kinds now, including two that were new.

“Are your classes going well this year?” She asks, moving toward the small kitchen to open the fridge to a bunch of diet cokes and bottled waters. Most of them waters. “Want something to drink?”

Were her classes going well, Alison asks Emily. All the latter blonde can do is press her lips into a thin smile, a vague pretending that everything is fine, even when it's not.

"Water's fine," she insists softly. She's not a diet soda fan normally, and she could probably use the water. She's been running on a steady diet of too much coffee and a lack of sleep. Curled up on the couch, Emily runs a hand back through her hair to push it away from her face, resetting the frame it creates. Her fingers tangle in her hair, resting on the side of her head as she props herself up with an elbow on the back of the couch. "Honestly, I've barely been keeping up with my classes so far. The, um… the internship, it's really picking up. Real agent work. It's making it hard to focus on studying, lately."

It's not a lie, just not the entire truth.

"What about you?" Emily asks with a touch of warmth to her thin smile. "You doing okay? How's your classes?"

“Oh my god, I have English this semester. It’s so awful,” Ali exclaims in her usual over-exaggeration of emotion. “If it were all short stories and essays I could handle it, but it’s a lot of grammar rules and following specific publishing formats and it’s pretty awful. The professor is kind of ruggedly hot in a Clark Kent kind of way, but man, he’s pretty heavy in the grammar rules. I don’t know what I’d do if I wasn’t also taking the Horticulture class.” She hands over the bottle of water and then closes the fridge, grabbing a diet soda for herself before she plops down on the stool next to the counter.

“We get extra credit work at local greenhouses, which is pretty fun, learning how to grow food in different conditions. After last year the class is pretty important to the Safe Zone.” The food shortage had made a lot of people rethink food distribution. They couldn’t sustain everyone, but they could sustain a lot more if they utilized the lands and resources they had access to.

“But wow, real agent work. I wanted to see if I could get an internship, not as an agent, but there’s this big greenhouse that’s a joint operation between Raytech and Yamagato. Saitama is trying to get it too, with his dad working for Yamagato it’s probably a shoo-in for him. But what all are you doing?”

Ali's hot take on the physique of her English professor leaves Emily half-grinning in amusement despite herself. "Oof, I don't know if that makes it better or worse than what mine was. The professor was dry as hell in his delivery, but at least he wasn't a grammar nazi. He also put up with so much shit from my friend Joe— constant questions."

The other internship is interesting, bringing her smile to fade, expression growing thoughtful instead. It's a look that freezes up at the question of what she's doing in hers. "Uh…" Emily stalls out. The flash of a roaring crowd engulfs her mind's eye, animal-mask faces baying for blood while clutching flutes of champagne. She tries and fails to force a smile.

Courtney Baldwin's face comes to mind, an image just as painful.

"You know, um, sometimes it has to do with trees, for something I've been working on?" Emily voices a little too lightly. She looks down at her lap, at the water bottle as she twists the cap free, trying to hide the heaviness to her gaze. Her voice puts on a great show. "Weird trees, though." she says, forcing a small laugh. She quickly takes a drink of the water.

For a long moment, Ali looks both curious and thoughtful, as she considers the bottle of diet soda in her hands. She turns the drink in her hands and glances over to the bonsai trees for a moment as if considering something. They’re all carefully trimmed, with the sheers carefully cleaned and taken care of. “Well, I’m glad he’s not dry at least. He’s interesting to listen to most the time, it’s just— yeah. Grammar nazi.” She laughs before she seems to ponder again, looking back toward the window this time.

After a few moments, she asks simply, “Weird like— suddenly there fully grown when it wasn’t there last semester kind of tree?” She doesn’t wait for a response before she barrels on. “Cause there’s a tree near Rickham Hall that wasn’t there before the winter break. An absolutely beautiful Green Ash tree. But I’m pretty sure it wasn’t there before we came back from break and it’s there now. I asked Dr. Marten— he said it was probably just some SLICE doing hired to do groundskeeping.”

Though he probably didn’t use that hip new slang for SLC-Es popularized by one of the DJs at the local radio station.

Emily's facade fades in an instant. Yeah, actually, exactly that type of weird. She means to say the words, but they don't come. Instead, she listens just a little too-intently, a little too still.

"Groundskeeper," she echoes faintly, then sets the water aside to open a message up on her phone. "Wouldn't that be something?" Emily wonders aloud, her tone even. Her thumbs tap across the screen, a frown coming to her. "An ash— ash are endangered, because of those beetles." She retained at least something from their course with Marten last fall.

"Why would they…" Trailing off, she looks back up to Ali, blinking slowly. She makes a gesture of reaching over to the other girl, leaving her hand on the side of the couch. "Hey, do you think you could show me?"

“They are. This one is so healthy-looking, though. I mean leafless, but winter trees are still beautiful. I can’t wait to see it once Spring really gets going,” Ali seems to be excited at the idea, not weirded out by the fact that it sprouted up overnight. But then, trees suddenly appearing might not seem as odd as it had ten years ago, with people who can use their abilities in city work. She imagined Yamagato had at least one Agro on their staff, or they would have had a pretty lame Cherry Blossom year the first few years.

Without even a second thought, she gets up out of the chair and leaves to get her jacket from the hook and pull it on. “Yeah, definitely. It’s not too far. I like to study back there cause it’s quiet and people aren’t throwing frisbees at my face.”

Cause that was the first time they met when she had been trying to study in the green space.

Behind Rickham Hall

The walk doesn’t take more than ten minutes, even at a slow pace and dodging people hurrying across campus. They pass the library, and one of the science buildings, and then approach Rickham Hall, which housed History and Political Science classes. Behind the building, led around by paved walkways, there’s a few small seating areas, benches, and even a stone picnic table. And one very large Green Ash tree, the bare branches reaching up into the sky for almost fifty feet, the trunk over a foot wide in diameter. The bark has the smooth gray texture of young ash, despite its size, not fissured with age as they often were. There are small winter buds on the branches, velvety in texture, waiting to burst forth with the first flowers of spring.

“It really needed it. All they had here last semester was those bushes,” she gestures to where a small hedge had been recently trimmed in preparation for spring.

God, look at the size of it. Emily thinks to herself, reluctantly extracting her hands from the pockets of her coat to pull out her phone and take a picture of it while they get closer. She tries to listen to Ali and keep her demeanor light, but her expression is grave as she thumbs out a text to Corbin, withholding the photo for now in the hopes the message reaches him more quickly. Maybe she should have done it sooner, but she needed to see it for herself to be sure.

think I found another tree. It’s on the College campus directly.
it wasn’t here before winter break, and it’s giant.

She keeps her phone clutched in her hand as she looks up, all the better to feel a reply and immediately acknowledge it when one comes through. Emily belatedly catches up and reacts to Ali’s commentary, looking from the tree to the hedge. Her pace slows to a stop and she slowly looks one way and then the other to check for other students nearby— maybe other staff. Her expression tenses, no more smiles able to be forced for her friend’s sake. It’s trended warmer than normal most days this winter, and today’s no exception, but she can’t help but feel on edge at every face she sees nearby, because…

What if it’s them? What if they’re nearby?

“Ali, did you happen to come by campus at all on break? Would you have any idea when exactly the tree popped up?” Emily knows the answer is most likely no, but the question comes from her anyway as she swivels her gaze back to the tree, brow creased. She takes a tentative step forward onto the lawn to approach it.

Ali seems more preoccupied with looking up at the huge tree than in what Emily is doing with her phone, moving around it as if to check for signs of damage, cause those beetles could have started to work on it with such little notice. It doesn’t seem to have any issues, though. The bark looks healthy, not even scuffed up by people kicking it, or carving their initials into it as some people do. A chattering draws their attention to a bird that has taken up residence, a chattering sound that isn’t quite a song. Almost as if the bird was trying to get them to go away. The bird briefly comes into view and seems to be yellow, white and black, a little common chickadee.

No response comes on the text message immediately, but there’s a check to show it was delivered. At least phones do their jobs better than they used to.

“Yeah, I stayed near campus during the break, but I don’t always come back here. It was cold. I think… hmmm.” She pulls out her cellphone now, flicking through something before she nods. “Yeah, I saw it on January 17th. I took a picture of it— “ She turns the phone around to show the picture, with the timestamp on top. “I actually took a bunch, but— yeah, that’s when I noticed it the first time.”


With a ding, Emily’s phone gets a response:

Send address. I’ll get a crew out there asap.

A few moments later it dings again.

stay safe.

The bird twittering in the tree draws Emily’s gaze up from the phones, eyes flitting among the branches until she finds the tiny chatterer. Her attention lingers there with a small frown before she taps a reply to Corbin absently, but quickly. His concern for her is noted in the same way she noted the distressed notes the bird makes, though it’s only the latter she wonder who it comes from. It didn’t— she didn’t think— seem like a normal, territorial act.

It felt like a warning.

“That’s fine,” Emily assures Ali. “Maybe that’s as good a date as we can get right now…” She looks up to the bird and then down the trunk of the tree again. The girl found at the Christmas tree lot had been a telepath. What if this victim was also Expressive?

She continues her approach to the tree, meaning to lay her palm on its trunk.

The bird continues to watch them, chirping every so often in that strange kind of way. At least it isn’t doing something like dive-bombing them, though, as it flaps its wings to move to a higher branch, budding with the newest signs of life. Spring was not quite here yet, but some animals and plants didn’t follow everyone else’s calendars. To the touch, the tree feels much as Emily would expect, a healthy texture for the rarely healthy tree, unmarred and new. It doesn’t even look as if a squirrel or raccoon has scratched it up.

No voice rings in her mind like she’d heard tell of the tree that had been a telepath. No sense of emotion emanates off of it. The branches shift in the wind, giving the faintest sound as wind chimes might. A faint whisper.

It also, in a way, sounded like a house creaking in the night. Or a skeleton rattling in biology class.

Fingers touch on a piece of bark that feels as if she could pull it away, take a sample, but otherwise, there’s little else that seems off. Other than the fact there’s a perfectly healthy fresh full-grown tree that hadn’t been there a month ago.

“Is this kind of thing illegal? It seems like it would be a little silly for SESA to be investigating rogue trees. Trees don’t hurt anything.” Ali seems to be taking the whole thing as to be minor. This had to be a minor case, right? Emily was just an intern!

Emily knows better than to dig into the tree, to mar that surface. If it is what she thinks it is— and she feels there’s no doubt— she knows what that could do to it. To… her. Whatever her this happened to be. Lost in those thoughts, it’s hard to immediately put back on an easygoing face, to wave this all off.

It’d be so easy to peel back the layer on her story, to tell Ali the truth. But she was also told not to.

In the silence that comes from her, brow creased in concern as she looks back at her friend, it’s obvious that to Emily this is no small thing. The words describing what they’re looking at are an impossible thing for her to openly say, both due to what Corbin asked, and from the gruesome reality the tree almost certainly posed. But she tries anyway to share what feels necessary; what feels owed. What feels like it could keep her safe.

“There’s been girls from the College going missing, Ali,” Emily explains quietly, her eyes not leaving her friend. “Blonde-haired, blue-eyed… and after they go missing, trees unnaturally spring up.” Her hand falls back to her side. “Like this one.” She takes in a breath that shudders, even as she steels her spine. “ To… to see one on campus like this, it’s…”

For want of a better explanation, she can only opine, “It’s bad.”

“Oh,” Ali whispers softly, hearing the explanation and fingering her hair slightly. It’s darker blonde, but still blonde. “I mean, I heard a lot of people going missing in the last few years, but it’s usually been assumed they just— left? I guess. I hadn’t really given it too much thought, I mean a few people going missing is nothing compared to what happened during the war.” When a lot of people died. Even the increase of missing persons didn’t really affect most people. Some of the ones they had found had not even been officially reported. Like the poor young woman in the tree at the Monastery school. Her roommate had just assumed she ran off with a boy or something.

And she’d had no family to report her.

Ali worries at her lip as she goes back to looking down at her phone, flipping through some more pictures quietly. “I hope you figure it out. It seems to be bothering you terribly.”

Emily tries to grasp for more words to impart the seriousness of the matter onto Ali, but she falters in producing them. She knows, she knows she could reach down deep and make Ali realize but—

No. she has to think to herself, a chill touching her spine. No matter how her fear gripped her, she didn't have the right. Her eyes closed.

"Yeah," Emily says, her voice shaking a touch. "Me too." She exhales and opens her eyes, the worry in them impossible to shake. "Listen, I should stay here 'til someone shows up, but… you don't have to. Just take care of yourself, okay? Like if you see anybody weird or someone tries to get you to go anywhere with them, call someone. Call me, okay? Just because it's called the Safe Zone doesn't mean bad things don't happen to good people." Her hand tightens around her phone, and she's aware of the healed but visible scar on the right side of her neck that serves as a reminder of her own warning.

“So I can just bypass the police and just call you?” Ali says with a small sound of surprise, but then she shakes her head in amusement, an amusement. Amusement that shows she still doesn’t quite take this whole thing seriously. But she does add, “I guess it’s good to have a friend that’s a junior agent. Next time one of the frat boys gives me trouble, I’ll be sure to call you.” Cause clearly that’s the biggest danger she can think of. Even with everything that goes on in this world.

After a moment, she tucks her phone away and steps over a few steps to give the other young woman a somewhat abrupt hug. “Good luck on the case. I really will call you if anything creepy happens.” From the way it sounds, she means it as a promise, a friendly smile touching her eyes, before she continues, “But I gotta go meet Dr. Marten for my summer internship application. He’s been helping me out. It might be the only way I will manage to beat Saitama to it.” It’s said as a joke, but it still seemed likely that the son of a Yamagato junior had a better shot at a job affiliated with Yamagato than a no name undergrad.

Emily returns the hug more fiercely than she expected, her worry overflowing. When Ali steps back, she tries to meet the smile with one of her own, but it never forms. "I'm not saying bypass them, just— if you don't feel comfortable calling anyone else, know you can always call me. Anytime." The thinnest of smiles finally makes itself present, accompanied by a tightness in her chest.

It eases some at the thought of summer, even though it feels like an eternity away. "Yeah, don't let me keep you," she says, lifting one hand in half-wave, half-wave-away toward the appropriate hall out on campus. "They're crazy if they don't accept you, but I get it." Yamagato in particular seemed pretty nepotistic, with a single family still being in charge of it. "Tell Dr. Marten hi for me."

Emily furrows her brow for a moment in thought, realizing belatedly if there were someone to consult about trees, maybe she should visit Dr. Marten herself in the near future. It's a thought she files away for later, looking back down at her phone to check for an updated ETA from Corbin in the meantime.

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