nicole_icon.gif pippa_icon.gif seren_icon.gif zachery_icon.gif

Scene Title Eight
Synopsis A child's birthday can be a bit of a roller coaster, but magic wins out in the end.
Date February 21, 2020

Bay Ridge, Nicole's Home

This isn’t the party Pippa Allyn Varlane hoped to have for her birthday, but she got the wish she made the night before when she blew out the candles on the cake her big sister and her wife had made for her.

She gets to spend the day with her mother.

There’s no cake at this celebration, but there are warm chocolate chip cookies and the biggest bowl of ice cream the girl’s ever been allowed to consume. She’ll be so hopped up on sugar by the time she’s returned to Ingrid and Sofia’s care.

The blonde child sits at the head of the dining room table — nothing less than the place of honor for the birthday girl — and happily pushes a spoonful of ice cream into her mouth. It’s vanilla ice cream covered in butterscotch syrup, her favorite. Pippa offers a wide smile to her mother.

“Don’t eat yourself sick now,” Nicole warns the little blonde girl. “You still have to save some room for when you head over to Jonah’s party tonight.” That’s a bittersweet situation. Once she drops Pippa off with Peyton, she won’t be coming back to the house again. Nicole doesn’t know when she’ll see Pippa after that.

But she puts on a brave face, a bright smile for her baby girl, who — now at eight years old — isn’t such a baby anymore.

“Yes, Momma,” Pippa replies. Gradually, she slants a look over to Zachery, her eyes wide and blue as she offers him a smile, too. For all that she doesn’t know her mother’s boyfriend (that he’s more than that at this point is a cat that has not yet been let out of the bag) all that well, she’s friendly with him. Her mother trusts him and apparently loves him, so that’s enough for her. For now.

Besides, Zachery was there when they were scared and alone. She’s glad he’s here when she’s not so frightened, too.

Though he doesn't offer her a smile back from where he sits, that's probably not unexpected. Much of his interaction with her has been the passive sort, letting Nicole take the reins during moments he assumes are precious to her and Pippa both. For all intents and purposes, and as far as he's aware, he's treated her mostly just like he might have treated any other person.

Which is maybe why it's strange that today, when she looks in his direction, the slack in his posture doesn't get corrected. That he holds eye contact when he says without a trace of doubt, "No, actually, I think you should just eat it all. If you get sick, you can just throw up on Jonah — stomach empty, problem solved. Eat more ice cream."

Why, he almost looks comfortable, eyebrows raised ever so slightly as he refuses to look in Nicole's direction for a response. It's not her party, after all.

Zachery,” Nicole hisses tersely in response, which helps Pippa decide how she’s supposed to feel about his suggestion. The child giggles loudly, pushing her spoon into the soft ice cream and glancing at her mother a little sheepishly. She’s not supposed to find that stuff funny. She’s supposed to be good.

“He reminds me of Uncle Dirk sometimes,” Pippa decides. Judging by the smile on her face, this is a good thing.

Judging by the dismay on Nicole’s, it’s not. “He’s not making you Pippamint mochas and don’t even ask him to,” she warns her daughter. Because she knows Zachery would make one of those coffee-and-sugar monstrosities for her.

“But Mom,” Pippa whines without any real sincerity, “it’s my birthday.”

Nicole lifts her brows in that way that suggests that she is the mom and there is no arguing here, even as she very calmly says, “I will turn this calendar year around and you won’t have a birthday if you try that, missy.”

There’s a moment of silence that stretches between the two.

Nicole is the first to crack, snorting a laugh through her nose and pressing her hand up against it as though she could retroactively keep it from coming out.

Pippa turns her attention back to Zachery and informs him, “She tries to pretend she’s mean, but she’s not good at it.”

The giggles are expected, and do little to change Zachery's expression. It's only when he looks to Nicole when she laughs that some amusement finds its way onto his face, too, a smirk appearing as if against his will.

"She's really not, is she," he fires back in Pippa's direction, leaning her way ever so slightly and lowering his voice as though this is some sort of secret they're sharing — all the while not taking his eye off of Nicole. "But to be fair, you are sort of hard to be mean at. Also," he looks at Pippa directly, now, relaxing back in his chair, "you should definitely share that recipe with me. I'm sure I'm no Uncle Dirk, but I'm…"

He pauses, smirk losing strength as his gaze unfocuses a little. "I'm probably someone's uncle." That counts for something, right.

Nicole’s expression softens when Zachery talks to Pippa. If she hadn’t already agreed to marry him, that might have done the trick. She’d been worried, a bit, about how well the two would get on, given their limited experience together. However, things seem to be going well.

“I don’t know how he makes it,” Pippa admits with a small frown. “He says it’s made with unicorn fluff and sugarplum fairy syrup.” Her nose wrinkles, stating matter-of-factly and in that way that children do when they are trying to prove that they are so grown up, “Those aren’t real. I know the fluff is just whipped cream!”

“It is a mountain of whipped cream,” Nicole confirms with a hint of resignation. But for all the things a Pippamint mocha is, the fact that it is 60% whipped cream is at least a blessing.

Under the table, Nicole’s stockinged foot brushes gently over Zachery’s shin. Not in any way that’s meant to be suggestive, but to get his attention back on her and away from his stray thoughts about the fact that he’s almost certainly uncle to children he’s possibly never met.

It yields little response, beyond the twitch of his brow and his gaze lowering to one of his own hands on the table. It's balled loosely into a fist before he drags it off the table, and finally answers, "No one's even seen a unicorn in at least six thousand years. Although…"

Now he looks at Nicole again, the combined efforts of her gesture and something popping into his mind of its own accord succeeding in pulling his attention back to the matter at hand. The very extremely serious matter. "I could probably introduce you to someone who could change that, and show us a walking, talking one. If you haven't met them already. Wait— do kids even still like unicorns?"

He asks of his fiancée, before remembering one of the aforementioned children is sitting right nearby and darting his attention to her instead, nose wrinkled with an expression of doubt. "Do you even still like unicorns?"

Pippa is in the middle of another bite of ice cream when Zachery addresses her again. She’s used to adults talking over her head by this point, posing questions about her to her mother instead of asking her directly. She also expected it would be Nicole who would redirect it, as she’s very good at making sure her daughter is treated like a person with her own thoughts and feelings, capable of answering for herself. That Zachery course corrects on his own seems to earn him points, if her big smile is any indication.



The girl shrinks down in her chair just a little bit. Not significantly cowed, but at least reminded of her manners. “Sorry. I mean yes, I do like unicorns. They’re like ponies, but better.

Nicole flashes an encouraging smile to her daughter. That’s better. For Zachery, she lifts her brows a bit. “You know someone who has a unicorn?” She’s playing along. “I’d really like to see that.” There isn’t a lot in Pippa’s life that’s magical. Even if hardship and war hadn’t been the mold she was cast from, she was born into a world of superpowers. Magic has always had an explanation rooted in science.

“Were there really unicorns six thousand years ago? Were they like dinosaurs?” Pippa is now giving Zachery her undivided attention. For all that she clearly prides herself on being too smart to be tricked into little kid stuff, she wants to believe this.

At this point, Nicole knows Zachery well enough to recognise that every moment of Pippa forgetting herself for a moment is like a prize to him. Points to win in an imaginary game.

But — it might be one that he'll choose to lose, in the end, because it's precisely because of those manners that he's been managing to hold a conversation with her at all. In the meantime, the tug of war helps him settle back into his chair, gives him something to focus on.

"I didn't say there were," he corrects, angling his head upward while leveling a thoughtful stare at Pippa, "I said 'at least'. It's probably closer to thirty thousand - the Pleistocene period isn't really my area of expertise, if I'm honest — I could get you a paper on it, if you'd like. However…" And this is when he looks to Nicole again, his smirk returning when he says with absolute certainty, "… I really do know someone who could show you a unicorn. It just might require your mother to let you into work with me some morning."

Because he sure as hell isn't inviting work in here.

Pippa’s eyes get bigger the more Zachery talks about unicorns as though they are a probable creature that could be confirmed by science. “Primal,” she breathes out, which causes Nicole to lean back in her chair just a little bit, brow furrowed. “Mom, can I go to work with Zachery and see the unicorn?” The blonde turns her head and catches the look on her mother’s face. “…Mom?”

Nicole blinks a couple times, but can’t quite manage to banish the consternation from her face. “Who taught you that word?”

The spoon digs in for one of the last bites of ice cream. It’s Pippa’s turn to be confused. “What word?”

“Primal.” Nicole shakes her head and leans in toward her daughter just a bit. “Who taught you to say that like that?” Because that’s not a typical application of the word. Not among Pippa’s peers.

Confusion gives way to concern. Pippa casts an askance glance to Zachery. Does he have a better idea of what’s going on here than she does? “I don’t know. It’s just a thing people say?”

"Don't look at me," Zachery immediately shoots back, shoulders rising in a shrug. "I didn't even know what words children used when I was one."

He rises from his seat, his slow wandering a telltale sign for Pippa that she'd better finish that last bite fast or he's taking the bowl with what's left in it. "I'm the unicorn expert, not the etymologist."

“What’s an etymologist?” Pippa is perfectly content to ignore whatever it is that her mother is doing right now, because it’s frankly a little unnerving when Nicole turns that calculating gaze on her rather than some inanimate object or abstract concept. She also pulls her bowl closer to her chest while giving Zachery a look that firmly states I’m not done yet.

It isn’t just a thing that people say, though. Only certain people say it, and there is a perfectly plausible explanation for it, but when it’s not the one supplied, it has Nicole jumping to conclusions that would be frankly outlandish. Still, she can sense when it’s not good to push her little girl — and there’s been so little pushing done since Ryans left them — so she lets the subject drop. Filed away to be addressed again later.

Paying Nicole no mind, apparently, Zachery puts his hands up. He shoots a look right back, one that firmly states fine, I didn't want your bowl anyway.

He does. Because she might drop it. She hasn't yet but it doesn't mean she won't. So he'll hover, arms folding over his chest.

"Etymologists are funny people," the sneer present only for those two last words disappears upon the arrival of the next, "who care more about the history of a word rather than the meaning of them when it comes to how we use them today. They're a useful bunch, but so often complete bastards."

Well, that worked to get Nicole out of her own mind. Slowly, her head tilts, eyes widening as she fixes a look on Zachery after his use of language. She works very hard to censor herself in front of her daughter, who is giggling nervously at Zachery’s use of profanity in her presence. It’s not like she doesn’t hear it — it’s impossible to completely avoid — but Nicole has most of the adults in her life trained by this point.

Scraping the butterscotch remnants from the bottom of the bowl and onto her spoon, Pippa presses her lips together to stifle her laughter. “They sound silly. Words are important.” She means how words are used in common parlance, because obviously etymologists agree that words are important, but she lacks the nuance to explain her position.

“If you even think about going into the etymology of that word, Zachery,” Nicole warns. She doesn’t finish the thought, because the implication ought to be enough.

"Bastard's not a-" Zachery tries, but almost immediately loses confidence in winning that particular argument. Trained he is not. Trying at best.

In more ways than one, maybe.

He inhales - slowly, and as deeply as he can - before turning his head to observe Nicole's expression, and to evaluate the risks involved in saying what he's thinking aloud. But. "… No," he ultimately decides, after a few seconds of silence. "Because that would require me to acknowledge that the French language ever did me any favours and I'd really rather not."

He begins slooowly reaching for the bowl again, without looking, adding flatly, "This is an interesting little peek into our future, though, isn't it." You know, if things go even remotely as planned. "What a thing to look forward to."

Well, she’s averted the phrase technically, you’re a bastard! being levelled at her daughter, so Nicole will consider this battle won for the time being. Zachery wins his own little battle when Pippa relinquishes her bowl and spoon, satisfied that she’s gotten all the syrupy goodness she’s going to get out of it.

“Okay,” Nicole pushes away from the table to stand up, gesturing toward the hallway. “Go wash up, Pipsqueak. You make sure you get all the stickiness off your hands and your face—”

Before I put my dress on,” Pippa finishes exasperatedly. “I know, Mom. I’m not a baby.

Nicole softens again, smiling with a little bittersweetness. “No, you’re not. And you know what to do. Go on and get ready so we can take you to Jonah’s.”

The birthday girl scooches back from the table in shorter starts and stops than her mother’s smooth movements. Before she turns to head for the hallway, she throws her arms around her mother’s waist, prompting a quiet oof from Nicole at the force of it. She settles her hands on top of her daughter’s head, absently brushing over golden curls. “Please tell me you didn’t just get butterscotch all over my butt.”

Pippa looks up with her big baby blue eyes. “Maybe a little.” She’s probably kidding. But she smiles mischievously — a look Zachery’s seen on Nicole’s own face at least once before — and breaks away from the hug to go skipping off down the hallway.

Nicole rolls her eyes ceilingward and sighs deeply. Turning her back to Zachery, she requests, “Spot check.”

Clink, goes the bowl, as it's set back onto the table. Nevermind that, apparently.

After casting a glance out to Pippa leaving the room, Zachery breathes out a sigh. His grin dissipates almost entirely as he gestures something vague in front of him, complaining, "I'm not dry cleaner either."

Regardless, he wanders forward until he's closed the distance and - maintaining eye contact - slips his hands around Nicole's waist, and then downward still. "But alright, yeah, that feels fine, actually. You're all good." Up close, she can still see the enjoyment clear on his face, even if it's less overt and a lot more quietly self-satisfied. "The things I do for you."

There’s no admonishment for his roaming hands. In fact, it’s met with a bit of a grin. It’s gratifying the way that he seems to want her. Turning to him more, she rests a hand on his cheek, brushing her thumb over his cheekbone lightly.

“I can see you’re really trying with her,” she acknowledges. “And I want you to know it’s appreciated.” With that out of the way, she leans in for a kiss, wrapping her arms around his shoulders slowly.

Zachery's hands come back up again, one staying resting against the small of her back in order to pull her just that little bit closer as he returns the kiss, and the other reaching for one of her hands to guide it to his neck. Right over the carotid artery.

She might not be able to read bodies the way he does, but she can sure as hell feel his heart working overtime should she let him guide her fingers to the right spot. With his face near hers, he keeps still a moment longer, and finally settles on a quiet admission in reply. "I'm really, really hoping you didn't make the wrong decision. This can't just be madness, right. It's got to stop being terrifying eventually."

Her hand is guided easily enough, and she presses her fingers in gently to feel the quick pulse beneath his skin. Nicole locks eyes with him, a hint of sympathy there. “I have no idea.” If this is the right decision. If it will ever stop being terrifying. If it isn’t just madness. “I suppose we’ll find out together.”

The sound of water running from the bathroom only becomes conspicuous once it’s absent again. Pippa’s footsteps can be heard dashing across the hall and to her room, presumably to change into her party clothes.

So, Nicole steals one more kiss, slow and lingering. “We’ll tell her after…” She glances away, suddenly pensive. “Once things have calmed down at work.” Meaning after the operation on Shedda Dinu in Rochester. She hasn’t told him that’s what it is, any of the details, but he knows something’s coming, and that she’s involved. “She’s going to be excited,” Nicole promises.

There's something a little greedier about Zachery's lean into the second kiss, an unwillingness to let her go showing in how his guiding hand moves to her neck, fingers snaking into hair.

"I'm not that worried about her, if I'm honest," he hastily replies, oblivious to the fact that there's more pressing matters to be worried about, and before the words just sort of keep on coming. "My worries are more about the big black void of unfamiliarity, about the fact that I, at the core, don't believe in bad, or good, really — and being good? It's exhausting. This can't be healthy. Behaving any time at all is a sham and I never should have been talked into it."

Now, it's his turn to aim a glance to the side, before his attention lands squarely back on Nicole again. The terror still there, but with something else besides. His hands pull her a little closer, and he shifts his weight to try and guide her wholesale now, her back toward a wall. "Asking how much time she usually takes to get ready is the wrong question right now, yes?"

Nicole’s back connects with the wall and she lets out a quiet sound of need in tandem with the lidding of her eyes and setting of her jaw. But shakily, she nods. “Yeah. Wrong question. Wrong time.” As much as she wishes neither of those things were the case. “Raincheck?”

All of those other things he said, though, they stick in her mind and they resonate. It’s a problem that he finds behaving to be a chore. But she has to believe that he’ll grow into it. That it isn’t as bad as he’s making it out to be. It has to be something like that, or she is making the wrong decision.

And her gut — or something just a little deeper than that right now — is begging for that not to be true. Slowly, she braces her hands against his shoulders and starts to gently encourage some space between their bodies. Space she doesn’t want, but needs right now.

The question of a raincheck is not addressed - maybe it's enough to watch the response for now.

Enough for Zachery to find a wry grin to put back on his face, and enough for him to lean some weight eeever so slightly closer but then to relent - hands going up as he sucks in a breath between his teeth. Fine, fine.

"When your thing at work is done…" He forces himself to turn around, finding that bowl still there, and decides to finish the unstarted task of taking it to the kitchen. "You're taking a week off. Send me somewhere else too, for all I care, if you want the quiet. Point is - you need a break."

Which, clearly, she wouldn't know if he didn't tell her.

Fact is, she almost certainly wouldn’t. When Zachery finally steps away, Nicole brings her hand up to her mouth, running her thumb along the edge of her lower lip first, then the knuckle of her index finger in the dip of her cupid’s bow before finishing up with the third finger over the top of her upper lip. This is not her first rodeo fixing smeared lipstick without the aid of a mirror. She inspects her hand for a moment and just rubs her fingers together until the smudges are blended in. She’ll wash up later.

“Oh, that sounds nice. A week, just you and me? I think I know what we could get up t—” Footsteps in the hall necessitate an abrupt change to the subject. “Hi, baby!”

Mom!” Pippa groans, tipping her head back to look at the ceiling as she tromps across the living room.

“I’m sorry, I’m sorry,” Nicole placates, holding her hands up in front of her. “You’re a little lady now. Not a baby.”

Pippa, satisfied by the recognition, instead turns to a topic she’d been wondering about all day. “What’d you do to your hand?” She points to the unicorn bandaid wrapped around the fourth finger of Nicole’s left hand. It’s darkened at the edges, a little frayed after a week of wear, but hanging in there.

“Oh. It’s just a papercut,” Nicole answers sheepishly. Her daughter rightfully looks skeptical.

"It's a promise!" Zachery corrects from the kitchen, followed by the sound of running water as he gives the bowl a quick rinse like a responsible adult.

This, before he pops back up in the doorway, shooting Pippa an expectant look and asks, calmly, "Alright, all dressed up and ready to vomit, then?"

Pippa watches the way her mother’s eyes widen just a bit too much in that way they do when she blurts out something she wasn’t supposed to. Like, does that lady have a birdnest on her head or Carter looks really weird without his front teeth or even Rhys’ heels are taller than yours. Slowly, she looks at Zachery — or what she can see of him from over the counter between her and the kitchen sink — and raises her light brows in question. She doesn’t understand why what he said was not what her mother wanted him to say, but she understands that it wasn’t what he was supposed to say.

This also means she’s smart enough not to question it. Not now anyway. She’ll ask Zachery later, while her mom’s not around. “So, can I bring my new pony to the party?”

No,” Nicole says firmly, moving along to start grabbing coats off hooks by the front door. “The party is for Jonah and you don’t want to bring something to show off when he’s going to want to show off his new things. You can show him your new pony at school on Monday.”

Pippa sighs and stuffs her arms into the sleeves of her puffy purple winter coat when her mom holds it up for her. “You promise, though? Monday?”

“Yes,” Nicole confirms. “I’ll let Iggy and Sofia know I said it was okay.” A violation of the strict no-toys-at-school policy Nicole instituted some time ago. It’s okay once in a while, as a treat. “Grab your bag and let’s go to the car. Sofia’s going to pick you up from Jonah’s after the party.”

The little girl pouts. “Can’t I come home? I want to stay with you.

As always, Zachery is all too content to stand back whenever any actual parenting needs to be done. He is under no illusion that Nicole is in charge when it comes to all things Pippa, even if he does occasionally test some boundaries for his own amusement.

But it's something else that has him looking thoughtful now, purposefully ill-informed about schedules and relations and rules. Before Nicole is able to answer, he finds himself interrupting without moving from his spot in the kitchen, curiosity pulling the words from him when he says, "Why can't she?"

Nicole’s breaking heart is abandoned in favor of annoyance at her partner’s question. She throws a look in his direction, her lips pursed tightly. “We’ve been over this,” she grinds out while still looking at him. They haven’t gone over this, but she has with her daughter. And everything about her is softened again by the time Pippa reclaims her attention. “Mommy can’t be here all the time to watch you. You need to stay with Ingrid and Sofia. They have the time.”

“But I don’t want to hang out in the flower shop all day!” Pippa argues, stomping one small foot in shiny patent leather mary-janes on the floor. “It’s boring.” What she means to say is it doesn’t have you.

While Nicole’s expression stays stern, Zachery knows better. Not because he knows her moods by now, but because he can see that it has nothing to do with anger. She isn’t having the physical response that she should for it. This is a mask she’s wearing to try and cow her daughter into behaving.

“You like learning how to arrange flowers!” Nicole responds with exasperation, as though that was supposed to be enough to replace the void she’s left in her daughter’s life since September. “I just need you to be strong for me, Phillipa. I just need you to do this for me.”

Pippa’s annoyance at being turned down again is instant. “No!” she spits back with another stomp of the opposite foot now. “I want to come home! I want to be with you! Why can’t I come home?!”

“Because your father fucked it up for all of us!”

The words leave Nicole’s lips so fast that it startles her once she realizes she’s actually said them. She gasps sharply and stares agape at her child. This was something she promised she wouldn’t do. She promised herself she would never speak ill of Benjamin Ryans in the presence of their daughters. They needed to form their own opinions and not simply parrot hers.

Nicole sinks to her knees while Pippa looks on in stunned silence. Not only did her mother swear, she used the worst one and it was about her dad. She isn’t even sure how to react to the statement yet, she’s so thrown by that one word.

This is a situation that requires know-how, sensibility, and patience.

Zachery remains standing where he is, brow knitting and curiosity vanishing into thin air. Looking, now, incredibly unsure about being in possession of sufficient amounts of any of the aforementioned traits.

"… Rrright," he sighs the word out when the silence has carried on a little too long for comfort, and leans forward into a saunter elsewhere — to go grab his coat. One hand is pressed idly against the side of his leg now that he's been on his feet for a bit, though it's almost more out of habit than pain at this point. "How about I drive you to the party, provided I can work out the location," it wouldn't be the first time he's wrestled with GPS more than with things multitudes more complicated at work, "and your mother has a nice drink - or a bath. Or something."

It's not comfort, precisely. But then pragmatism doubtlessly ranked higher, in the Miller household.

“Pip,” Nicole whispers, voice strained with emotion. Her daughter steps back when she’s reached for, apparently settling on anger when the initial shock has worn off. She starts to walk over to Zachery, holding her hand out for him to take, because she always has to hold hands when they walk to the car. That’s the rules.

There are so many arguments Nicole wants to make about how Ryans is responsible for this situation. How it isn’t safe for Pippa to be here. How even this was possibly a foolish endeavor that may have endangered her. But in Pippa’s purposefully limited view of the world, Ben Ryans is a hero, even though he left them behind. Nicole cannot — will not — take that away from her.

“Keys are on the hook,” Nicole murmurs, gesturing toward the door, where there is, in fact, a row of small hooks on a wooden sign that reads ‘KEYS’ on the wall. The familiar fob for the Buick stands out among the various spare keys to other family homes. She presses a shaking hand to her forehead and drags it down her face. Only by digging the nails of her opposite hand into her palm does she keep from letting out a whine.

Pippa grabs her backpack from its place by the door, silent.

If Zachery could check out of the conversation any harder, he would. Despite the fact that he's clearly listening - grabbing those keys when he's retrieved his own coat and slung it over an arm - there's probably more than one reason he's looking to get out the door and physically away.

The same reason his brow never really smooths out after the subject of Pippa's father was reintroduced. It's still there when he opens the front door and looks to find, suddenly, a tiny hand in waiting.

"Ah, I- dhh… mh. Yyyeah." Every near-meaningless syllable sounds more doubtful than the last, before his shoulders sink down and he lifts his gaze to the ceiling with a tightening of jaw muscles.

"I'll call you on the way back," is the last thing he says, before correcting his posture and reaching down to accept the much smaller hand in his own, stilted with unfamiliarity. "Let's go, lightning bug."

Nicole nods wordlessly, not really able to turn and look back now. Not when the first of the tears have started to fall. She doesn’t need her daughter to see her like this. Pippa’s entitled to her anger and Nicole is wary of making the same mistakes with her as she clearly did with her older sister.

Pippa clutches Zachery’s hand, but lingers in the door. “I love you, Mommy.” Her fingers squeeze his a little tighter then.

Again, Nicole nods, pressing the back of her hand against her nose to stifle a sniffle before she responds, “I love you too, sweetie. Have a good time at Jonah’s, okay? I’ll come see you again as soon as I can.”

“Alright.” It’ll have to be good enough for now. Pippa turns back to the door and lets Zachery finally lead her outside.

There's an awkwardness to the way his hand doesn't grip back, and to how stiffly he moves forward when the door is shut behind them.

"So, two questions," attention ahead of him, he slows his pace a little after a few too-fast steps, "first of all, would you like to ride in the front?" He leaves little room for an answer, assuming he knows what it'll be already. "And secondly," he steals a glance to the side and down, absentmindedly fidgeting with the keys as he ponders something, "how much do you really like this Jonah?"

“Yes, I would,” Pippa responds crisply in that way that her mother often does, confirming what he already suspected. Mom never lets her ride shotgun, so this is a rare treat that she’s not about to pass up. She’ll consider it Zachery’s birthday gift to her.

The second question causes her to squint faintly. That expression, Zachery almost certainly won’t recognize, comes from her father. “Jonah’s my birthday twin,” Pippa explains, as though that’s all the answer he might need. All the same, she elaborates. “We’ve been best friends since birth.

A surreptitious glance is darted back toward the Varlane brownstone, then back up to Zachery. “What did you have in mind?”

"Mmh." It's not a noise of disapproval, but it's damn close, leading Zachery to muse aloud, "Well, if it's a twin thing…"

The corners of his mouth dip down for a second as he considers, before he comes to a stop and lets go of Pippa's hand - and then hands the keys off to her. Hold these a second, will you. He takes out his phone, then declares, "We'll get you there, but first - a pitstop."

A drive later…

Raytech Corporate Housing

"So," Zachery stands back from the door he's just watched open, and before so much as offering a greeting, clears his throat and asks slowly, "Do you… and Baird… take requests?"

Pippa holds on to Zachery’s hand, standing at his side and just a little behind him as the door opens. She’s not a shy child by any means, but she’s breaking her mother’s rules, so she seeks a little unconscious protection from Zachery.

Her eyes are wide and curious as the door opens and reveals a face with which she’s not familiar. “Hello.” Despite her half-hidden stance, Pippa’s voice is clear and confident, remembering her manners where Zachery may have forgotten his.

It's with caution that Seren opens their door, blinking and opening it further once they see Zachery. They've dressed down for the night, baggy black tee and blue-black plaid pajama pants plainly visible as they come into view. The text they'd received had only said Can you do me a favor? and their reply had only said What is it? and now…

"I mean…"

Their gaze tracks abruptly to Pippa when she speaks, cutting themself off. A lift of brows punctuates their surprise, putting the brakes on any oh. The breast pocket on the front of their shirt rustles, tiny pale hands grasping the top of it and dragging it down to hoist up a tiny body. A yawning face of a pixie pokes free, electric blue hair pulled back from that equally tiny face. The pixie sees Pippa and her wings snake free of the pocket next, gossamer things flicking and coming to attention in her delight. Seren doesn't appear to notice the splash of color and fancy on their front at all, looking back to Zachery instead.

Instead of asking for an explanation of any kind, they call out over their shoulder, one hand still on the doorframe. "Hey, Baird?" Seren lets that hang for only a moment. "We've got company."

An exasperated, Disney-like lion roar of protest comes from down the front hall, apparently from the living room. Seren glowers at nothing, then rubs the side of their neck. "Buddy, you sure you don't want to make a new friend? I mean, you were asked for specifically." Whatever fearsome animal down the hall lets out another, less offended growl.

He's thinking about it, okay.

Okay, thinking's over.

A scramble of limbs and nails hit the floor in the living room, an excitable tangle of legs trying to get momentum and traction enough to send the figment rocketing toward the front hall. He can't just teleport. No, there are rules. Those rules also include no flying in the house unless you're tiny.

It doesn't stop him from using his wings to bank around the corner to the main hall, or so he thinks, at least until Seren gives him a stern eye. Cowed, the unformatted blob of winged grey at the end of the hall impossibly seems to grow farther away owing to how he suddenly shrinks, wings beating to take flight, greys shifting, becoming yellower and tawny in many places.

The small creature that soars down the hall with the face and wings of a tawny owl lands on Seren's outstretched arm with the paws of a siamese-colored cat, greyed pads kneading skin as he settles in to peer down at Pippa and fold his wings behind him. Yes, hello, he was specially requested??? Seren turns back to Zachery, knowingly informing him, "Baird does what he wants. But we've got some other friends hiding around here, too, and beyond that…"

Their silver-limned eyes turn to Pippa with a small smile. "We can cook up some special requests for special occasions. Is today a special occasion, little one?"

Only once the scramble of nails is heard does Zachery's hand finally return the hold on Pippa's, his attention shifting immediately to the noise rather than Seren.

A whole host of different emotions shows on his face, then — curiosity is poorly hidden behind a more familiar grimace of discomfort, both at being part of a social interaction and at the fact that being in Seren's presence means he needs to expect the unexpected, always. It's a combination which they're not unused to seeing on his face. It's followed shortly by the usual look of uneasily forced patience, brow creased as he stands, frozen, waiting for his brain to accept the current situation as acceptable even though he'd really rather not.

But this is… a little different than when he's usually treated to Seren's mental menagerie. This is neither work hours nor workplace. Why — he even finds himself absently lifting his face in brief greeting to Baird, specifically, even if his shoulders still get squared under his coat. Hi.

The grip on Pippa's hand loosens, and he juts an elbow out, arm pulling sideways to lead her out from behind him fully. "Go on."

Pippa’s eyes go big as saucers when the pixie first starts to poke out of Seren’s pocket. But she’s distracted from it when she hears the roaring from further inside. At first, she shrinks further behind Zachery, but then she steps out again at his urging so she can peer through the door and watch for what’s coming.

She gasps with astonishment at the sight of Baird. His physical form, his ability to take flight, the way he lands on Seren’s arm. All of it. “Primal,” she whispers in awe. Pippa takes one hesitant step forward, then another. “I’m Pippa Allyn Varlane,” she greets properly now. “And it’s my birthday today.” So, yes, the occasion is a special one.

With a light touch of breath, Seren's surprise is palpable. From invisible sconces— or maybe from nowhere at all?— streamers pop and sparkle down around their head and shoulders, though Baird seems to be free from the line of fire. Noisemakers resound for just a moment. "Happiest of birthdays to you, Pippa!" they enthuse lightly. "How old are you today?"

At this point, Seren begins to crouch down, ending up looking up to Pippa rather than the reverse, all with their arm hoisted so Baird can take a closer look at his newest admirer. He snaps his beak with a twist of his head, talking in a language only he knows as he peers at the birthday girl with curious amber eyes. The tiny pix in Seren's pocket excitedly bounces up and down in the basket it makes for her, leaning forward onto the outside of the pocket. Leaves the colors of pastels adorn her pale body, the gradient of them visible a little more with each hop.

"Let me introduce you. I'm Seren, Seren Evans. It's a pleasure to meet you." A smile is sent the girl's way. "This here is my friend Baird. He's a wonderful thing— we've been best friends my whole life." That would seem to be that— except the pix takes flight and makes herself known. "Oh," Seren breathes out, unable to keep the excitable fae exactly in sight with how she flits here and there and waves at Pippa, then rounds demandingly on Seren to introduce her. With a tilt of their head at the unexpected addition to the conversation, Seren goes on, "And this is …" And now they take especial focus to try and look directly at the pixie. Hands ball and then gesture toward Seren in exasperation for the lack of a smooth introduction while she explains herself, bare feet kicking midair.

"Larkspur, apparently," they recover and translate with as much grace they can, though they seem tired by the pix's antics. "She used to like being called Orchid, but she's trying a new name out."

With a chuckle, Seren asides, "Can't say I've not been there before…" before looking back to the birthday girl. "Was it you who had a special request, or did Zachery have something special in mind?"

With Pippa now distracted, Zachery lifts his hand out of hers properly, takes a step back, and straightens with a deep inhale and a squint at that pixie. It's a much needed bit of distance in between him and the noise and the colour and the cheer, his own face still markedly lacking warmth as his attention drifts between all of the goings on before him with the enthusiasm of an unwilling participant watching a Christmas movie.

Except for the fact that he drove his own damn self here of his own volition.

"I made a wager," he begins to answer Seren's question immediately, voice lowering because this is a very serious matter, "that if anyone would know a unicorn around here, it would be you."

With hesitant hands, Pippa reaches out toward Baird. Her father’s taught her well how to approach unfamiliar animals. Her movements are slow and she gives Baird a chance to register and acknowledge her before she reaches further with the intent to stroke the chimeric creature. And while she does that, her eyes fix on the fluttering pixie again. “It’s nice to meet you, Larkspur,” she says with a giggle. “And you too, Baird.”

But there were streamers and confetti and noisemakers for her, which was even more than she got at home and it’s great. “I’m eight years old today,” Pippa informs Seren. “So’s my best friend, Jonah. We were born on the same day.”

The little girl looks over her shoulder at Zachery now when he admits to their little bet, then back to Seren. “You know a unicorn?” It’s Larkspur that captures her attention again after that. “Are you friends with a unicorn?” she asks in an awed whisper.

Seren takes in a breath when Zachery explains. "A unicorn," they remark with especial care. A big request indeed. To Pippa their attention returns, arm extending out carefully so Baird can 'sniff' the girl's hand and then butt his head against her knuckles. His plumage is downy, his being so soft he seems fragile, discouraging rough pets.

Larkspur turns back to Pippa while her wings flutter in a rainbow, hummingbird glimmer. She presses a finger to her lips, winking at the girl. "You see," Seren starts to explain, "Unicorns are really rare. They don't appear for just anyone." The pixie flits closer to Pippa in a flash, a pinprick of pressure to her nose as Larkspur pats the tip of it before zooming out of her periphery, finding the hiding Zachery instead. She hovers at height with him so he doesn't have to peer down, first crossing her arms in her study and then setting her fists on her hips.

Seren keeps their attention on the young girl, unruly pix left to her own devices, and Baird scooped off of their arm so he can be held in their crouched lap, his tail wrapping around his paws. "Unicorns show themselves only to those pure of heart, and only in places they feel safe. There are… so so few places and people like that today."

Silver-limned eyes narrowing in a touch of thought, Seren finishes their study of Pippa and gives her a small smile. "I'm pretty good at reading people, though. And I think you make the cut."

Zachery's eyebrows twitch upward, head angling upward in reflexive response to the pixie invading his personal space. Then, he lifts a hand to scrub it across his brow, jaw setting before his other hand is lifted to shoo the pixie away like she's a persistent fly.

This is so much more than he bargained for. Regret sets in like a wet blanket, challenging the patience he's trying so hard to hold onto.

"All right, that's quite e-fucking-nough," he mumbles under his breath, promptly whipping around on a heel to start moving elsewhere, within earshot and sight. "I knew I should have stayed in the car."

Pippa giggles with delight when Larkspur taps her nose. Meanwhile, her hands are very carefully smoothing over Baird’s plumage, wondering at just how soft he is. It’s a lot to take in, but she manages to focus on Seren again while they address her. “Unicorns aren’t real, though, right? But…” Again, she glances at Larkspur, now over her shoulder and harassing Zachery. She shouldn’t be real, either, but there she is. She felt the tap on her nose, so how can it be more real than that?

Her face flushes pink when Zachery mutters. “You said the bad word,” Pippa whispers, like he needs a reminder. Her sisters often do. But his wish to have stayed in the car dampens her spirits a little and it shows in the sagging of her shoulders, some of the sparkle fading from her eyes.

Seren catches onto that quickly, leaning forward to confide to Pippa, "He's not wanting to stick around because he knows the unicorn might not stop by if he's around. But we'll see what we can do, won't we?" Baird wriggles free to crawl up onto his summoner's shoulder, all while they extend a hand to Pippa. "Let's go see what we can find."

Coming to their feet, they look up and over at the pair that Zachery and the pixie make, one trying to wave her off while the other just seems to feed off his irritation, equal parts incensed and gleed and definitely not leaving him be. Much like a wasp, she apparently neither knows better and also takes offense to his reaction. "Orch— Larkspur." Seren's eyes narrow as they try to regain command of the frenzied pix. When the name, improper and proper both, fail to call her attention, they lift their brow.

Genius strikes. "Hey, I heard that Ms. Kaylee's cat has the softest fur, Lark," they call out knowingly. That gets the pixie's attention, leading her to whip around and look at Seren, judging their intention. Not for long enough, because she gets ahead of herself in her excitement and takes off in a whispering flit, vanishing with a trail of pastel sparkles behind her. Appropriately apologetic in the glance to Zachery, the summoner nods to the front hall. "You can come in and make yourself comfortable. We should know before too long if this will work or not."

They hope it will.

Still, the steps that Seren takes back down the main hall of the apartment, and the turn they make at the living room— DVD still visibly paused midscene on the TV— begins to lead them down the hall to the other rooms. Ignoring the opened door to the bedroom, they let go of the young girl's hand and make a gesture to wait, setting their hand on the handle of the closed door in the hall. With a furrowed brow, Seren lowers their head in thought and then twists the knob, pushing it open.

The door swings in on a mostly empty room, standing easel set up the corner with paints surrounding it, and a work desk set up against the wall. The room is drab— and notably void of unicorns. "Hm."

Pulling the door shut, Seren looks back down to Pippa, one eyebrow arching at her like to confide a secret. "Let's try that one more time, shall we?" they ask, then push the door open again.

The room is gone— and in its place is a shaded forest grove dappled in errant sunlight. Green the likes that shouldn't appear this time of year hang from tree boughs, and for all intents and purposes, the mundane before state of what laid behind the door seems to be gone. Seren breathes a careful sigh of relief as they step ahead onto the grass beyond the doorway, reaching back to take Pippa by the hand again to carefully guide her through the new world they've stepped into.

Their smile's a little tight, but no less sincere. "If we wait here for just a few moments with open hearts, and if you focus on your birthday wish… a unicorn just might come to visit."

No promises, of course. But might feels a tad more possible, with the fantastic step away from reality they've already taken.

There isn't much gratitude in Zachery's look back to Seren, the look he fixes them closer to accusation more than anything else. Thinning willingness to be here pulls deeper lines into his face, but he swallows back the next thing he was about to say.

Fine, fine, let's go.

As the party progresses forward, he stays quiet, entering last and hanging back while keeping her within sight. It's only when Seren arrives at their destination that he stops, letting some distance be created when they guide the girl forward.

But though he does not make himself comfortable, he does turn his attention elsewhere — down to his phone, as if it should provide some much needed reminder of normalcy to balance out the situation. He taps out a quick message, but when he looks up again, even he can't help but look a little captivated, phone held but forgotten for a moment.

Seren’s attempt to recapture Pippa’s attention is successful. The excuse they offer in defense of Zachery is one that makes sense to her. Adults, by all accounts in the books she’s read and had read to her, lose some of their sense of magic as they grow up. So he’s just trying to make sure he doesn’t scare the unicorn away! It doesn’t even occur to her that the answer might be that he doesn’t pass the unicorn’s purity-of-heart test. Her mother seems to love him, therefore he must be good.

The offered hand is readily taken and Pippa allows herself to be led through the apartment, looking around curiously as she goes and following the trail of sparkles left behind by Larkspur with a big smile. She’ll miss the pix, but maybe she’ll see her again!

It’s when they stop at the plain door that she looks back up to Seren again, not quite dubious, but uncertain as to how there’s going to be a unicorn in someone’s home. Unicorns don’t live in houses or apartment buildings, right? At first, it seems her skepticism is rewarded when it’s a plain artist’s studio that comes into sight beyond the door.

The second time around, however…

Pippa gasps and watches Seren step inside the room, patiently waiting in the hall like she was instructed until the moment she takes their hand again and steps inside. “Is this Narnia?” she asks with big eyes and a round mouth. Unicorns do live in Narnia, so maybe there is something to this after all.

Seren lets out a breath, part laughter, part sigh of relief Pippa's as enchanted as she is. "Narnia's in a wardrobe. This place is something else. If you give it a name, it might go away."

Lately, lots of things didn't survive names. It started to put rules to them, and the more logic behind them and less whimsy, the less likely it was to hold.

Though the space they enter seems vast, the person responsible for it knows there's only so much to it. Their steps are careful in the grass before they settle down to sit, bare feet shifting so they can sit crosslegged. Seren motions for Pippa to settle in as well, careful not to look back at the door and the real world beyond for fear of disrupting the detail of this one. They then look off to one 'corner' of the room— to a grove beyond this one.

"Just be patient," Seren whispers, closing their eyes and taking in a deep breath… feeding their focus.

A tree in that visible distance rustles, the beginnings of a white nose and head peeking into view… followed by the point of a golden horn set into the creature's forehead. It doesn't look their way yet, but it's there, listening intently. One of the unicorn's ears flick to the side.

“Just the one time,” Pippa counters, regarding the portal to Narnia. But this is Seren’s world, and if they say it has no name, then Pippa believes that’s the way it is and the way it must remain.

Carefully, she settles down on the grass, smoothing out a pale pink skirt over simple black leggings. There’s a solemn nod given to indicate that yes, she can be patient. And very quiet and very still, too. Pippa’s gaze roams for a moment, not looking back over her shoulder, lest the magic of this place be inadvertently broken, then follows Seren’s.

The birthday girl’s breath audibly catches in her throat when the unicorn pokes its head out. Her lips press together tightly to keep from making an excited noise, but her eyes convey it perfectly well. The screaming is internal. In fact, she looks completely overwhelmed with joy. A small hand reaches out to press against Seren’s knee, for lack of a better gesture to convey her need for support.

Seren's eyes flutter open at the touch to their knee, immediately focused in the direction of the unicorn. Yes! On the back of their shirt, Baird adjusts his grip clinging to Seren's back, his form losing detail to sustain the rest of this. He's little more than a blob of color and eyes, all while the summoned magical creature in front of them looks as real as life.

"Hey," they breathe out in the direction of the unicorn, and it turns its head toward the two in the grove of trees. More deerlike than horselike, its ears turn in its perk of attention. "Hi," floats from Seren next, all with the fondness of someone greeting an old friend. They lift their hand out, fingers curled and palm down.

It's slowly that the unicorn begins to make its way over, revealing that it's hardly as tall as Seren is when they're fully standing. Black hooves lead it, pure white of its being marred by dappled grey socks and a silvery mane. Bright green eyes consider Seren and Pippa in turn as it comes closer, lingering more than a meter away when it comes to pause, the tip of one hoof to the ground while it decides what to do next.

Seren ultimately lowers their arm back to their lap, leaning to Pippa to murmur, "We're just gonna watch, I think. I'm not sure it'll come any closer."

Or of their ability to make this any more convincing than they already are. Behind where the two sit, in Zachery's view, the forest becomes less defined. The light and shadows become stagnant— all for the sake of making everything else in Pippa's line of sight as real as possible.

From the mundanity of the hallway, it all seems less like magic and more like effort. Zachery observes the scene as a bystander, letting the phone slide back into his pocket without looking at the returned message popping up on the screen.

He waits just a little bit longer, gaze flitting first to what he can see of what's in the forest beyond, then resettling on Pippa. His mouth opens a few seconds before he actually speaks up. "We'd better go, now. Jonah's wondering where you are."

It's firm, but not loud. "Say good bye."

When the unicorn actually makes an approach, Pippa’s unable to contain the quiet squeak of delight that rises up within her. As much as she wants to run over there and throw her arms around the creature, she follows direction and continues to sit very still. It’s like bunnies in the park. If you go running toward them, they’re going to get spooked and run off.

That a unicorn looks a bit more like a deer than a horse seems to make perfect sense to her. Maybe the books got it all wrong! No one’s really seen them in forever. And if you only see one from far away, it could look like a horse? “I love them and I want them to be my friend.” The little girl’s whispering voice quivers with emotion, tears welling up in her eyes. Not because she’s sad she can’t give the unicorn a hug, but because she’s just so happy she even gets to see a unicorn at all.

But then Zachery speaks up and calls for an end to it all. Pippa’s mouth pulls into a frown from the effort it takes not to really start crying. Not because of his words, but just because she wants to be a big girl. She’s eight now, after all.

Not wanting to look this gift horse unicorn in the mouth, she looks up at those green eyes and whispers, “It was nice to meet you. I hope we meet again.” She turns to Seren then with her bright blue eyes and asks, “May I give you a hug?”

The unicorn starts at Zachery's voice from beyond, but Seren lifts their hand again in a soothing gesture. "It's all right," they coo, even as they carefully come to their feet. They give the wary but trusting creature a deep nod of their head in a grateful sign, and it dips its head in return, mane shifting. With a breath, the silver ring at the edge of Seren's grey eyes becomes a little more pronounced as they work on bringing the world around them back into focus.

Smiling down at Pippa, Seren nods and nudges her forward with their hand. "Yeah. Let's go back first." They let her lead the way, though, lagging behind to look back over their shoulder at the unicorn that watches them go, at the brilliance of the scenery they'd been able to conjure.

Thank you, they mouth at the fantastic creature, tears stinging the corner of their eyes, and then they turn away.

It's only after the door to the artroom is pulled shut that Seren wraps their arm around Pippa's shoulders, grinning at her. "It was wonderful to meet you too, Pippa Allyn Varlane. I hope you have a wonderful rest of your birthday, okay?"

"And—" They lift one hand to their mouth, index finger pressed to their lips while they wink down at her. "Maybe keep what we saw between us? I wouldn't want anybody getting disappointed they couldn't see the unicorn too." Seren's smile returns again, smaller this time. "They're… shy, you know? Not all my friends come when I call for them. Not always."

Baird, though, he's in for the long haul— even if he hides his tawny head mostly behind Seren's shoulder save for the occasional owlish peek.

Zachery's shoulders lift under his coat as he shoves his hands in his pockets, and he's already halfway turned around when Pippa and Seren make their way out of the room. After casting a sidelong glance to Pippa first, looking her over just in case any imaginary greenery stuck with her, his eye lifts to Seren one last time.

Everything about him communicates the fact that he wants out. If he had anything like their ability, he would probably be manifesting blinky neon arrows toward the front door. Alas, all he has to offer are spoken words, and so what leaves him is, instead, "Thank you."

The gratitude is sincere, the underlying concern he's failing to keep off of his face doubly so. "Time to go."

Pippa hugs Seren back fiercely, sniffling quietly against their shoulder. “Thank you,” she says in a squeaky voice, letting out one miserable little sound from the back of her throat before she finally starts to get herself under control again, now that they aren’t surrounded by the enchanted glade. She wipes her stray tears away before she even entertains the notion of turning back toward Zachery. She has her mother’s pride. “I won’t even tell Jonah,” she promises of this whole magical affair.

Then, she finally turns around and lifts her face to regard Zachery. “Thank you for taking me to see the unicorn.” He doesn’t get a hug. She can sense that he doesn’t want one right now. But she does take his hand again, since they’re going to head back out to the car, and those are the rules.

“Bye, Seren,” Pippa chimes with more cheer than she managed a moment ago, now that she’s managing to calm down again. “Bye, Baird!” Her free hand waves enthusiastically. “Please say bye to Larkspur for me, too!”

Seren lets out a faint laugh, lifting one hand in farewell as they watch Zachery and Pippa leave from their doorway. They don't remember getting to the front hall again, not exactly, but they're aware their other hand is bracing the door open, and that it's holding on a little tighter to its shape than they normally would otherwise. "I will, once she comes back from harassing Ms. Kaylee's cat," they promise, giving one last broad press of a smile they imagine covers over the signs of overuse of their ability, but maybe it doesn't.

"Bye, now. Drive safe," Seren calls, and then the red-painted door to the home clicks shut.

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