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The Tale of Two Trees

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Matthias Cooke Wing, Claremont Academy

Bayview, Freedom City, New Jersey

Saturday, June 22, 2019


12:18:54 PM


"... And to my fellow graduates, my most heartfelt gratitude and my congratulations."


Applause rippled through the crowd as the Mae Sweet, the valedictorian, stepped down from the podium and then the stage. The sun shone down, bright but not overbearing as rolling clouds softened the afternoon sky. No chance of spring rain today, graduates of the Batch 2019 sat in orderly rows in Claremont Academy's athletic field. They were comfortable in their togas and their mortarboard hats in place, attention rapt from the valedictorian speech.


Behind the mass of graduating students sat their parents and families. On one side of the graduation field, Claremont's teaching staff watched the proceedings and across from the students, on the stage, sat the senior staff. Ms. Summers held the position of honor as school principal and she stood as the applause subsided


Nicole shut the television off as Summers stepped behind the podium to introduce the guest speaker.


Her fingers held the remote in the vice grip as she glowered at the blank television screen.


They were alone inside Gabriel Marquez's office, the Head Counselor's office and besides some half-eaten food and barely touched drink it would have seemed that nothing else had been touched, so intent on watching the proceedings as the two students had been. Marquez had been there too. Now neither were present.


Nicole saw Corinne's reflection on the screen and without turning to face the other woman, Nicole spoke to her through gritted teeth.


"That was supposed to be my graduation." She spoke every word as if they scraped her tongue raw. "But I guess it isn't anymore, huh? I guess this is the last laugh after all these years. Is that the reason you had to make me wreck half the school?"


An exaggeration, though Nicole was not in the mood to argue semantics. Still, the dislike between her and Corinne's other half was known through the school, both by teachers and students alike, but rarely did it go past barbed words and one-upmanships. Not until this morning that is, when words turned to blows and a heated rivalry into an all-out brawl between two very powerful and very dangerous teenagers. A testament to the mistakes schools could make, even private ones, to let something fester for so long unattended.


Yet here they were again. Unattended. Alone.


One could only hope Marquez knew what the hell he was doing.

Edited by Zeitgeist Blue
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Of course this all played out in a manner that she didn't care about.  This was a stop on her road, at this point her control was measurably increased, something she didn't attribute to the staff here.  The treatment of her being potentially mentally unstable, or that her powers held a sort of addictive quality was the larger concern for them.  After all, despite worries over her repairs in the wake of the Krampus, they had been flawless, showing her control over her powers directly.  It what her tempestuous emotional state at times, and it's influence on her powers were in question.


Despite that, she was an exemplary student in all other things.  Funny that someone like her would be a perfectionist, A's across the board, and enough extracurricular activities she might be considered up for the whole valedictorian, barring her resistance to the heroing aspects.  Which, despite her protests, she did engage, but she dragged her heels.  Of course, her powers weren't a joyous thing to her, they were a leaden yoke that dragged her down, and had alienated her from her family in their emergence.


Corinne murmured something indistinct as she bounced the leg she had crossed over the other, sitting in her chair otherwise, with a flawless posture, though her arms were cross over her midsection.  She never looked at the screen, as it held no interest.  This wasn't going to modify her behavior, after all, she was graduating, the ceremony was irrelevant.  This school was irrelevant.


Point of fact she had asked her family not to come, as she assumed there would be an alien attack, or a demonic king showing up, or something.  They were safer in California, with only earthquakes and wildfires to contend with.  You know, little things.  Sane thing, in the grand scheme.

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One of her eyes twitched as Corinne met her with nothing but silence. She maneuvered her chair to better face the other girl and Nicole scowled, willing her to look back and acknowledge that someone was talking to her. And no, Corinne's murmurs only counted to piss Nicole off some more.


Finally and with a very long sigh, Nicole gave up. This whole bull**** didn't matter and it was obvious there was no getting a rise out of Corinne.


"Whatever, not like doing this will get me the valedictorian. Can't even break above the As if there're no letters above them."


So she moved to the window, as far from as she could within the confines of the room. Blinds hid the school grounds from Marquez's view but Nicole rolled them a smudge open, peeking out as if she would see the graduation if she tried hard enough.


"Of course you don't care. You don't care enough to even talk to me so why should you care about any of this." Lazily, she spun a hand in the air. Her voice was calmer but all the more judgemental because of it. "Corinne, the dancer. Corinne, going to Juliard. In a few months' time Claremont will be nothing but a bad dream. I really do wish I could be as grateful as you."

Edited by Zeitgeist Blue
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She made eye contact, coolly, imperiously, her brow arched slightly as she watched Nicole's tantrum, and before the other girl turned away Corinne brushed back her own hair, and pulled out her ear buds.  "I assumed your were just going to rant rhetorically to me until you were too hoarse to continue, or we were let out of this..."  She lifted her own hand and gestured at their surroundings, "Whatever this is supposed to be."  Her tone level, matter of fact, before she sniffed diffidently, "Certainly not a punishment."


"Besides," she continued, picking up a water bottle, "what precisely do you want besides a rise out of me?  For me to lose control, so you can lord it over me?  That I should feel contrite for having a plan in place for my life for as long as I can remember, and that I have managed to attain through hard work, despite the fact that my development of powers almost derailed it?"  Her eyes staring at the back of Nicole's head, her expression as flat as her voice was still level.  

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Corinne spoke for the first time and Nicole's face betrayed her surprise, head zipping back to the room, and just as quickly her features settled into a serene smile. Eyes half-lidded she matched Corinne's energy level and, cupping her chin by a hand, leaned forward.


"Maybe, maybe, maybe." With each word Nicole's smile grew wider until her teeth showed, white against dark skin, as she worked herself up. "Maybe all of the above or maybe none at all. Or maybe I was too subtle for you? Then let me say it straight." The smile turned into a sneer, body tense now, and she jabbed a finger at Corinne. "To hear you talk, it's like you're the greatest martyr to ever tread foot on this school. And that has never changed."


She threw tortured hands into the air. "Woe is me for I am cursed with great powers. That's what you sound like." Then her hands fell to her sides and her voice grew quieter but no less strained. "Like, would it hurt you so much to acknowledge that maybe you've been handed a gift a billion others would kill to have? To be thankful instead of so damn snide about it to everyone sane enough to understand this like you've been to me ever since Sophomore year?"


She sniffed and swiveled her wheelchair so she would face away from Corinne. "You think you're better but maybe it's just the opposite." 

Edited by Zeitgeist Blue
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There was a flicker in her eyes, not of the glow of her power, but something else, and she rocked back a bit in her chair.  But she wasn't taken aback, whatever Nicole thought she had in terms of armor piercing commentary, and slowly she stood up, and hey, Corinne was tall.  "he powers don't give someone the ability to handle the situations we've been asked - no that we have been demanded to be involved it.  A fifteen year old kid doesn't immediately accept what's happened.  Especially when the first time my powers showed I almost kill my mother.  When you learn some rich jackass is their father, and that led to be being almost kidnapped, twice!  And the three years since doesn't mean I magically have it figured out.  I am, at least, honest with myself, or less deluded and brainwashed than the rest of you!"


Even prior with that fight, she hadn't shown this much anger.  She hadn't been this pissed ever as Zenith.  "So, let me invite you to go F### yourself Nicole.  I am sorry you're envious of my circumstance, and don't try to pass it off like something else, I've been the tallest, the most gifted, and hell, prettier than most, I am used to it. I am sorry I do not meet your expectations for my life."

She started to turn, then another thing hit her, and she inhaled deeply, "For the record, it was our first meeting, you were too busy showing off.  Too busy trying to one up Huang, and impress the teacher, or show off how smart, cool, and how big your guns are, and then deciding since I wasn't in awe over you that I was some queen b****.  I've met your kind before, watching everyone else's progress that they trip and stumble in their lane.  Ever noticed why I, the supposed, selfish martyr is the one throwing the shields over the crowds!?"

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It was then that Nicole averted her eyes from Corinne, not just to get a rise but so she wouldn't need to meet the other girl's eyes. There was a pause, a break in the storm, as Corinne ended her tirade and Nicole brought her hands together in that silence, fingers interlocking. A second passed, turning into several more, and for a few minutes it seemed the only sound in the room was the clock's ticking.


"My family died in a fire," Nicole finally said, still looking away so that Corinne couldn't see much of her face. "That was what the police said anyway. But I know magic and I know it was my family's hubris that got them killed. It speaks volumes that I have yet to shed a tear for their deaths but you care, even today, for merely almost killing your mother."


"I lost the use of my legs from the backlash of magic and try as hard as I could and I can't remember what happened, but I sure as hell remember the rest of my life as if it were a minute ago. Bare feet through grass and streams, shivering on cold marble and baking on a summer afternoon. Those little snippets of freedom and all I chose to slip off my pumps. Of all the things--"


Her hands balled into fists, trembling, before she spun as far as she could in her chair to face Corinne.


"So maybe I've wished I was you. Maybe I still do sometimes. Put us side by side together and who wouldn't pick you at the drop of a hat? You and your... plan that you love and chose for yourself. Your poise and your mile high legs and your pretty face. When you beam the room stops, cool yet approachable, friendly. Hell, even walking away from all this mess is admirable in its own way. Gifted, beautiful, a billionaire's kid while I'm a cripple," she spat. "One who runs on damn spite and the power high whenever I bear the name of Salvo."


She moved her wheelchair forward until she was right in front of Corinne and she had to crane her neck to meet the other girl's eyes. "But I'm still better than you and you know why? Because there are three thousand people and their families who don't care about any of that. Three thousand dead from when the Terminus invaded and there would have been thousands more if it weren't for us deluded, brainwashed, spiteful people."


Her voice quavered and her eyes were wet but still she looked defiant and she jabbed an accusing finger at Corinne. "I was there, in the middle of the fighting for days. Where were you Corinne? Tell me, where the hell were those shields when the three thousand dead needed them?"

Edited by Zeitgeist Blue
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Corinne just let it happen, let her try to score on her, to try and push past, to win.  Because that was what Nicole tried to do, win everything, and then, well... she went too far.  It fit that she'd try scorched earth tactics  "You don't get to do that," her tone had dipped back to level then as she looked dead on into Nicole's eyes, and it was very, very clear that she just breached a line.  There was no theatrics.  There was no flailing.  There was stillness.  

"You don't get to use memory people who died in a tragedy to shame me Nicole, to boost yourself over others."  Leaned right down and grasped the arms of Nicole's chair going nose to nose with the girl.  "And if you can't see why that's a problem then no one can help you."

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She couldn't help but whimper as Corinne invaded her space, an inch or two separating the girls noses. Corinne's stare made her squeamish and her own eyes flickered to the sides as if searching for an escape, before she averted the whole of her face to the side. Her wheelchair moved backward in an attempt to escape Corinne's grasp until she hit the wall beside Marquez's office and she could go no further.


"You're... Right."


Two words and they made her feel terrible unlike anything else said since. Emotions warred across her face - defiance, anger and shame - before the light in her eyes went out and she let her whole body sag. Defeated. Tired.


Those were her last words to Corinne in their last afternoon together, though they did not just refer to the now.


Corinne was always in the right.

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Corinne was not normally intimidating, she never really tried.  She could be bitchy, but she generally wasn't direct in her aggressive behavior, now though?  Well now Nicole had invited her, and she moved after her, not letting her get away. "No, you don't get to run away.  You don't get to start the fight, again, and claim higher ground, or anything else.  You don't get to finally tell me off because you were right all along, when you never were.  Got it?"  Still standing there, uncomfortably close, just not nose to nose.

"Maybe we could have a heart to heart, and admit we were both wrong if you weren't trying to not just claw me down from whatever pedastal you think I place myself on, but to drag me to the dirt so you can run me over.  See, I've gotten better Nicole, if I didn't I'd've slipped to Zenith now, my powers that you want so desperately would have just pushed whatever anger I have out and done something with it.  What have you done?  Except wallow in your bitterness and pushed everyone away because you hate yourself."

She leaned forward again, and she grasped at the arms of that chair again, "I am not even really mad at you. Just sad and disappointed that you haven't grown an inch in the years you've been here."  It was a lot, but she simply wasn't going to let Nicole pull away from the thing she started, she could finish it.  Or Corinne would let her leave.  There was no running today.


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Nicole tried to pry the other girl's hands off her wheelchair but Corinne had put her weight forward, leaning down so that Nicole and her were eye-to-eye. Neither would she budge an inch from Nicole's attempts to push her away. And with the wheelchair pushed back against the wall, Nicole found herself with nowhere to escape.


So she shut up, kept her lips pressed tight as Corinne spoke. Each word said put another weight on Nicole's shoulders, made her flinch and blush just a bit more from embarrassment. She knew these things about herself, even admitted to some of them the past few minutes, but there was a difference between keeping your faults deep down inside and ignoring them, and having them spoken out in the open by another. Laid bare, all she could do was struggle feebly and even that stopped by the time Corinne was done speaking.


Her own hands laid tired and unmoving beside Corinne's as the silence wrapped around them.


"S-- so what do you want?" Nicole said so quietly Corinne barely caught it. Then she drew her eyes up to meet Corinne's own.


"What do you want? An apology? To talk?" She said again, still quiet but also frustrated, and her hands balled into fists. "What the hell does it matter to you? You'll be leaving and we'll get to never see each other again."


"You win, Corinne. You win."

Edited by Zeitgeist Blue
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"You're right, I do win Nicole.  All the damned time, and it's exhausting, because I put in the work.  That's why the stupid dancer was in AP classes.  And the funniest part?  The f***ing funniest part Nicole? All that labeling of how I am a bitch, well darling, honeypie, I never really have been.  I can demonstrate, if you'd like?"

She leaned in closer, making it more intimate, and in some level even more devastating.  She was a Queen B, after all.  She came from that performance arts background, if she was a good dancer, she was just flat out godlike in her ability to rip people apart, "You know what the worst thing I do to you is?  Right now?  It's not calling you names, or tearing you down.  No, it would be to fix you, right here, right now.  Fix you so you don't need this chair, so you wouldn't have this to hide behind, and you'd still be miserable.  You'd find something else to hide behind, to blame for your failings on."


 She pulled back and looked back into Nicole's eyes, "Maybe you should leave to actually move forward, before all that bitterness and that toxic pit in you just eats you up, and me, or some other hero throws you into Blackstone, when you snap."

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"Then do it!"


The desperation in her voice surprised even herself and she paused, pursing her lips as her hands wrapped around Corinne's wrists. Not a few seconds before she had wanted to be anywhere but trapped under the other girl, but now that the offer was dangled she wouldn't let go. It was a lightbulb turned on, a rubber band pulled so far that it broke. Now Corinne couldn't take what she said back. It was a challenge to be accepted then and there.


"Your-- you've all been talk," she stuttered, hands cold, and while no doubt the dancer could easily free herself from the grip, Nicole held on like Corinne was a lifeline. "Prove that you aren't. Use your power to fix my legs and maybe evI'd just find something else to latch on to. Maybe you'll be right a second time but I'll be damned if I let you dictate to me what'll happen to my life. I'll freaking show you otherwise."


Slowly, like an eggshell cracking, her mouth parted into an ugly half-smile, half-sneer that both reached her eyes. "Do it or are you so scared of what you can do? C'mon, help someone in need."

Edited by Zeitgeist Blue
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"I don't need to prove to you Nicole.  I never have.  That's how I win.  I don't wake up and look in the mirror and see your face, so I just have to meet my eyes."  And she started to wrench her right hand free, then stopped, and she smiled, "No... with my left hand I destroy."  And she slipped her left hand out, before her form shimmered, as her power exploded out, scattering bright white light around her, and it was almost enough for Nicole to feel it.

"Since you asked so bitchily." Came the beautifully cacophonous voice of Zenith as she then dove her hand into Nicole, though not in the way it should be, as Corinne just reached into her, past her physical form and into something. "With my left hand I destroy... your excuses."

For her there was patterns, and... the world wasn't viewed precisely the same way.  Despite the protest of the Headmistress during the aftermath of the Krampus, Zenith never made a mistake in her restoration of the world around.  What she made could be as flawlessly real, as right, as what she wanted it to be.  This was something she hadn't done, but she could feel the flaw in Nicole, the damage and the wasting that stemmed from it, and then that power filled the other student, and she could feel directly how depthless, how chaotic it was, and the light was pouring out of Nicole's eyes, and mouth.

It was over as suddenly as it had started, with Zenith perched on the edge of the counselor's desk, one long leg crossed over the other, and idly bouncing as she tilted her head, and watched Nicole with the curiosity of cat watching a mouse.

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Zenith's power coursed through her body and went deeper than that still, then filled her with a corruscating light. It spilled forth from her and the room was bathed in power and while she felt her limbs changing, restored into a different state, it did not hurt. She stayed still, sitting in her wheelchair, until the last of Zenith's power subsided, leaving behind spots at the back of her eyelids. Her body no longer felt ablaze with fire but for long seconds she merely concentrated on her breathing.


Then she opened her eyes and remembered she was still inside the counselor's office, which felt so dull after everything. Brown desks and furniture, a little scraped. Paper documents scattered in neat little piles. Sunlight shining dully through the curtains. Then there was Zenith herself, so colorful and dynamic amid all the mundane things, though she was stock still perched on the edge of the Marquez's desk. She almost seemed unreal.


Now seemed so unreal.


Her toes squirmed as pins and needles shot through her foot, and she could feel her eyes begin to water. She shook her head silently and pinched the bridge of her nose, composing herself. Then she put one foot on the ground. Her other foot followed.


Unsteadily, as if unsure if her legs could support her weight, she rose to her feet, using the wheelchair as support. Her face was unreadable as she stumbled forward, almost falling but catching a nearby filing cabinet to steady herself. Features scrunched tight in concentration. Her hands reached out for support and she slowly made her way to Zenith until she was almost in front of the otherworldly being.


One of Nicole's hands was pressed against the wall and she leaned heavily against it, arm rigidly straight. Hair was matted across her forehead and Zenith could see beads of sweat. Nicole eye's met her own. There was a fire behind it and it only grew as Nicole opened her mouth in a snarl.


"I don't owe you a damn thing. We make that clear, Zenith. Corinne."

Edited by Zeitgeist Blue
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  • 3 weeks later...

Zenith looked at her, with that inscrutable, if somewhat b*****y expression.  Which was her face, if anyone asked.  Her arms pulled back, and step stepped back, folding them across her chest.  "Fair warning, I've never done that, I don't know... how well it will work.  My powers are more art than science.  So, if you're able to dance and your hair turns colors... well..."  She trailed off before Nicole was pushing herself to standing.

Then came the snarl, as if Nicole couldn't escape her script, even if tried, wanted, or needed.  She hummed to herself after that, watching clinically, like an alien observing it's first human encounter.  Or something akin to that.  She didn't need to throw any parting snark or shade.  After all, she was right.  She won.

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Her eyes roamed the office, as if not hearing Zenith's snarl, as if the technicolored teen wasn't there anymore. Then her gaze settled on the office door and without another word Nicole stumbled her way to it, using furniture and the walls for support.


She managed to reach it, leaning heavily against the wall, and she pulled it wide open. The hallway beyond was empty and quite, so unlike what it would be during lunchtime in a normal day. Nicole chanced one more glance at Zenith, their eyes meeting, and Nicole's own face was a mask.


Then she pushed herself off the wall and out the room, leaving Zenith alone in the counselor's room.


Somewhere, a bell rang.

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