What We Had To


pippa2_icon.gif zachery2_icon.gif

Also Featuring:


Scene Title What We Had To
Synopsis The gulf between what the heart wants and what must be can be very wide indeed.
Date January 30, 2021

Bay Ridge

Maybe eating ice cream in the park in the middle of winter is weird. But the little girl rocking idly on the swing she’s using as a seat doesn’t care. And neither does the man who’s watching over her today. Each bite of frozen, rich, slow-churned chocolate goodness makes her feel a little warmer.

“What’s the weirdest thing you ever saw when you worked for the corner’s office?” Her mother would be correcting her crisply about now. Cor-o-ner. But her mother isn’t here, is she?

It feels like her mother isn’t there even when she is physically present.

Pippa takes another bite of ice cream and turns to look at Zachery expectantly, waiting for the answer.

Several seconds pass.

Zachery, sitting on the swing on Pippa's left, is clearly too big for the seat he's claimed, swing chains bowed out and his back hunched, soles solidly on the ground.

"What?" He asks, snapping out of the haze he sunk into and casting a sharp glance in Pippa's direction with a small creak of metal at his side. "Oh." He makes some noise in the back of his throat, clearing it and his thoughts both to make room for the present.

"There was a stretch, there…" He answers flatly, staring off ahead of him again, "Of some real winners. There was one woman so brittle they accidentally broke her on the way in. She looked like a mummy. Except unlike her heart, the watch she was wearing was still ticking."

“A mummy?” Pippa’s eyes get big and she takes in a quietly audible inhale that may as well be a gasp in slow motion. “Primal.” Her nose doesn’t even screw up at the notion of a person crumbling to dust upon being touched. It might have if she’d been in front of her mom. Either she’s young enough to not have such horror instilled in her developing brain yet, or maybe that’s just the kind of person she’ll shape up to be someday.

“Did you solve the mystery?” This part is very important. Working for the medical examiner means mysteries! Not all of them are particularly tough, she realizes. Sometimes it’s like the mystery of one plus one. That’s not a hard one to answer, but someone still had to answer it. “Was it an evil vampire?”

She might actually not be referring to something fictional, given the world she’s growing up in.

A corner of Zachery's mouth twitches outward, until the rest of his face joins him in a wry, tired grin and lazy sideways glance.

"Maybe," he answers, clearing his throat, tone of voice serious. "I solved my part of it. Sometimes all you can do is that. Hand it off to the next person when you think you've done what you can, or need to."

His grin subsides, attention drifting down until it's on the dirt ahead of them. With a deep inhale, he pulls his focus back from where it threatens to lock itself, and says, "Were you hoping I'd say yes?"

Pippa laughs, an easy thing. “Yeah.

She’s like a completely different child when she’s not under Nicole’s straight-laced supervision. She’s more relaxed since she’s gotten to know her step-father better. She doesn’t confide much, because that’s just not his role in her life and she has other siblings and aunts, uncles, and “aunts” for that, but she has more inquisitive conversations beyond ponies and typical girlish interests.

Maybe part of it is that Zachery isn’t as fragile right now as her mother seems to be.

“It’s cool, though. I’m not able to do everything on my own, right? Like I can’t make spaghetti, but I can help mix up the sauce. It’s teamwork.” She’s starting to put concepts together that used to be over her head. Pippa smiles and swings in a little broader arc, though the toes of her green snow boots still drag through the dirt mixed with trodden snow.

Whether Zachery decides to pick up the thread of her conversation — her attempt to connect — or not, she seems content to continue on with her ice cream. The crunch into the waffle cone he splurged on for her is satisfying.

The open air helps. The literal kind, but Pippa's smart enough to see that Zachery, too, is a different person when he's not around Nicole.

When he is given space to think, on the side of the tasks he's assigned. It's not that he doesn't struggle here, still - but Pippa's judgement about the silence that follows is not one he's worried about as he stares blankly ahead again and lets the gears turn at whatever rate they're able.

He finds something to say, eventually, either way.

"I'm sorry the spaghetti hasn't been very easy to make, lately, at your mother's."

Even if it's not something that comes easily.

Pippa’s swing stops again. For a time it’s just the crunching on her cone, interspaced with silence as she has to eat more ice cream to get to more cone. Peeling paper back as she goes.

“Why doesn’t Mom cook anymore?” the girl asks, not looking over at Zachery when she does. She can blank stare ahead with the best of them. And she sounds smaller now than she normally does when she’s with him. More like she is with Nicole. Trying to make herself take up less space, to give her mom the room to… whatever it is that Nicole needs to do that Pippa feels she’s somehow in the way of.

The same voice she had when Zachery found her and her mom in that cellar. The last time she saw her father.

“Did I do something wrong?” Nicole loves to cook. To bake. It’s how she unwinds. Is it why she’s so tense all the time now? Pippa has no idea. When she sniffles, it’s not just from the cold that nips at her nose, exacerbated by the chocolate ice cream.

There's another small creak, before any response happens - friction between metal chains as Zachery shifts on his too-small seat. His head dips, like he knows he's made a mistake. But, as with any gamble, now comes the decision of what to do with the result.

So he commits.

And while he doesn't do so in time to get an answer in to that first question, he does join in for the second, and quickly, with a firmly delivered exclamation of, "No."

Pressing one hand to his knee, he shoves the other palm up across his face before it comes to rest on the side of his neck. "Christ." Anger slips into his voice as easily as it does in the look he shoots to the side, to search Pippa's face. "Your mother's not well. When she had the accident," he stalls for a moment. Because how many nebulously framed 'accidents' have there been, lately? "Her… the last one, she lost some things. Just because she can't remember the literal spaghetti to your figurative spaghetti sauce doesn't mean she doesn't…"

The gears get stuck again. His fingers dig into his neck. "Or are they both literal in this case…?" He asks, as if Pippa might know the answer.

Pippa looks back at Zachery, her ice cream temporarily forgotten. Her brows have lifted with her desire for him to continue, but also her concern and melancholy. (Though she hasn’t learned the word for that emotion yet.)

The swearing doesn’t faze her. It’s not like she hasn’t heard the words they use when the bedroom door is closed and they think she’s asleep. That she can’t hear them. They’re adults and can use whatever words they want. It just means this is serious and he’s being honest with her if he’s using his Not Parenting Vocabulary.

“I heard her crying in the bathtub again last night. I left my drawing pencils in your room when I was playing dress-up.” Pippa looks down at her feet. That’s not as much fun anymore either. Nicole’s heart isn’t in it, but she knows it’s because her mother’s in constant pain.

“Is Mom sick like Dad was?” Through the many hen clucking sessions Zachery’s been forced to sit through since his marriage into the strange Nicole + Ryans Clan, he’s heard about Ben’s cancer, and how he recovered against all odds. It means the girl’s question is Is she gonna die?

"No," says Zachery again, in almost the exact same manner from before, and just as quick. He takes a breath to follow it up with something, but…

But what?

He rolls his jaw before his mouth shuts, and he aims a glare at someone not Pippa, but some stranger standing off in the distance, the hand on his neck moving to grip the chain at his side. Something solid, something cold - distracting.

Enough to carry on, even if with reluctance clear on his words. "I don't know how to do any of this, Pip. How to speak for others— how to… comfort. But I don't want you to be left out of the conversation either, like your mother has the tendency of doing, so where does that leave me? Other than hung up."

This question is not meant to be answered, made immediately evident when Zachery rubberbands to the other subject at hand and tacks on without pause, "She's going not to die."

“That’s why I ask you,” Pippa admits, voice still soft. “You don’t lie to me about stuff like everyone else does.” If there’s one thing he doesn’t do — maybe doesn’t know how — it’s sugarcoat.

That little blonde head gives a shake. “Did something else happen to her? She said she was going on a trip last weekend, but she came back right away and now she’s just…” Without a word for it, she takes another bite of her cone to get to the ice cream inside before it can melt and make a mess of her fingers.

“Is she gonna get better?”

Zachery shakes his head, but just that won't suffice as an answer. "I don't know." And that won't either. "I— I don't… I don't know."

With that stammered and out of the way, he manages— "I mean— yes, probably. She calms down eventually, right." He both sounds and looks unconvinced of this, chin lifting but both of his hands drawing inward so he can shove them into the pockets of his coat.

His words slow, like these sort of words require extra effort to be pulled from him. Not against his will, but unpracticed all the same. "Things keep happening to her. And she keeps happening to them. It's like she feels she's running out of time, and maybe— maybe she's right, in a way, but lately she's also just… just running. Like she has to. And I think she underestimates who might be able to keep up. Even if it's just her being honest, hurting you, or I, or…" He turns his head to look at Pippa again, gaze lingering on her face.

"Well, maybe it's just us, at the center of it. I don't know," he says a third time, frowns, and then asks with a wince, "Does that make sense?"

Pippa too is honest when she shakes her head no. It doesn’t make sense. “Running out of time for what? This isn’t Final Jeopardy.” Nicole isn’t under the gun from Alex Trebek to find the question that correlates with some vague answer.

When the last of the ice cream has been licked from the cone and the paper won’t come free cleanly anymore, Pippa looks around for a trash can. There’s one not far, but there’s also not anyone else very close to them either.

In a fit of anger directed at her mother, Pippa throws her trash on the ground only a couple feet beyond the edge of swingset from her. Nicole would hate it if she saw, which is exactly why it’s the perfect act of rebellion. “Why can’t she just be my mom?!” she demands to know, her little voice breaking from the effort it takes not to scream it into the park.

Following the trajectory of the discarded paper, Zachery's attention is tempted outward again. Out and up, when Pippa demands, as if her distress should first reflect badly on him somehow, and a cursory scan of their direct environment must be his first course of action.

"I don't know, bug," he says again, hurriedly, for lack of something better, his face somewhere in between the beginnings of panic and annoyance both. "The same reason she can't just be my wife, probably— no, that's… not fully…" He shakes his head.

It's a whole other story. And besides that, it's his, not Pippa's, whose honesty he values too much to waste it under a mountain of his own complaints. There is another whine of the swing before he rises to his full height - a little stiffly, following the discomfort of his chosen perch. He lowers himself back down on one knee in front of Pippa, one arm reached toward her shoulder but not quite all the way, as if he's not quite sure this is the right thing to do, either.

One thing he does know, though, is the only thing he can think to say next. "But it's not fair to you."

She takes the gesture for the beginnings of a hug, where the completion of it is left in her corner. Pippa pushes off of her swing and wraps her arms around Zachery’s shoulders, feeling safe enough to cry now that she can use him as a shield to hide behind. She’s not afraid to cry, and doesn’t even avoid it. Early on she was told it’s better to cry than to keep things bottled up, but she’s been bottling a lot lately. Trying to be a big girl. Trying to be stronger than her mother is able to be.

“It’s like she’s not even there, Z,” his step-daughter whispers desperately. Like if she acknowledges the problem, they can start to fix it. “And Doc says both you and Mom are sad because of—” Even she has trouble trying to say the names that should have belonged to her younger siblings. “But you’re still you,” she insists. She’s not so blind as to be unable to note the changes in him. She still sees glimmers of who he was when he was happier. He hasn’t changed, he’s just hurting.

Nicole has changed.

And none of it is fair.

One of Zachery's arms come up behind Pippa, the sleeve of his coat resting somewhat late but gently against her back. If it signifies any sort of fondness, it does not show this on his face, his expression grim as his gaze fails to fall on anything in particular. Too busy thinking, those wheels starting back up.

"I have a concern," he states somewhat clinically, in contrast to Pippa's whole heart laid out for him to see. "But first— you believe your mother wants you around, right? When she is there."

Rather than lean back to give him the benefit of seeing her face, Pippa just takes a moment to think about that question. Her broken heart wants to respond in the negative. That she can’t tell her mother wants her around, because if she did, why would she seem to spend more time with her sisters and her brother than she seems to spend in her own home sometimes? It’s gotten better since Zachery’s been there, but Pippa knows that’s down to him and not Nicole.

What she does give him is the courtesy of thinking through her response. He’d tell her to take her time and use her brain. It calms her down when she gets too upset about something that she finds frustrating. Her tears lessen, her breathing gets a little more even. “Yeah,” Pippa decides finally, lifting her head so he can see her nod rather than just feel it against his shoulder. “Yeah.”

"Good." Zachery replies only when he's gotten verbal confirmation, sliding his arm to Pippa's side and straightening so he can get a look at her expression, tears and all.

Speaking only just loud enough for Pippa to be able to hear him, he sounds no less certain for it when he announces, "I'm going to have you spend some time away from her. A few weeks. Maybe a month, to start with. We can figure out, together, where you'd like that to be."

There's an unmistakable flicker of worry that furrows his brow, then - for several reasons. Still, he watches Pippa's face, leaving some space for her to speak before giving those reasons a voice.

There’s no resistance to Zachery holding her at arm’s length so they can share this moment of seriousness between them. Her dad used to do that with her. It’s comfortable in its way.

Even when her face twists with her anguish. Her breathing gets hard, occasionally with the exhales breaking into small whimpers muffled behind buttoned lips. But she never starts to sob. In the end, she just nods. It’s not the first time her mother’s needed time. She would stay with her dad if Nicole had the flu. Maybe this isn’t that different.

“Will you still come see me?” she asks, wiping her face with her sleeve. “Maybe just for chocolate chip pancakes? Maybe just sometimes?”

There's a pause, in which Zachery's shoulders sag, his jaw clenched shut. There's scrutiny in the search of Pippa's face, but also something else. Something a little more… uncertain. Confusion fuelling a small shake of his head as he waits for the other shoe to drop in having this make sense.

But it doesn't. So he simply gets to his feet again, with cold, wet dirt still clinging to his leg.

When his answer comes, it's with a dry curtness not suited to this particular situation, aimed not at Pippa but at some tree some way away. "If I must."

He begins to walk the slushy path created by others before them, though treaded snow. And, coincidentally toward a trash bin. It might look like a solemn sort of wandering if he didn't immediately also let some extra words slip in the form of, "You know, sometimes I wish you were horrible. Just a wretched little goblin, like I was. Can you work on that, please. It would make things much simpler."

If he must. Pippa may be young, but she’s not oblivious. Not the way Nicole thinks she is. But she is brave the way that everyone says she is. Because she’s had to be. Pippa slides off her swing and grabs the trash from the ground, following behind Zachery a little ways, sticking close but not too close.

“It’s okay if you don’t want to,” she finally says when she gets up on her toes and tosses the remains of her cone and the paper wrapping into the tall bin. “You don’t have to be my dad.” Her voice breaks on the last noun of her sentence. It’s not about Zachery, though. The subject of Ben Ryans is a tough one for the girl who bears his name.

"It's not about being your dad," Zachery only barely turns his head to answer, before a glare is sent ahead. He listens for the smaller footfalls behind him, having slowed just a little. His own voice is steady, but kept so by design. The sneer that threatens to work its way onto his face is a clearer hint of what he might feel about the subject of Pippa's familial relations.

But. "It's about retaining whatever scraps of humanity you can. If that means chocolate chip pancakes, then I'll be there, accidentally leaving the hob on in someone else's house while I do it. Besides…"

Once he reaches the main path, his right hand goes lifted, just slightly out toward the empty space at his side. "If we only ever did what we had to do, life would be a lot less interesting, wouldn't it?"

Pippa flinches at first, looking back over her shoulder for want of something to focus on other than Zachery ahead of her. It isn’t as though she can run off. First of all, he’s got longer legs and he would catch her. Second, where’s she even going to go? She knows she’s safer with him, even if her heart is hurting right now.

That blonde head faces front again when Zachery continues. Her footsteps crunch in the snow until they find the path. Pippa holds her breath when she sees that hand reach out. Then she rushes to catch up and take hold of it in her smaller one.

There’s a small smile for Zachery’s question. “I guess so,” she agrees readily. She squeezes his hand just the once, and not too hard. It’s an experiment of sorts.

A sigh leaves Zachery on the next step, from as deeply within him as humanly possible, gaze locked ahead of him. He is ill fitted to this situation, and more with every day. But might still serve as motivation. To change that situation, steer it off course just a little, and hope that it's not an action that will haunt him quite as much as inaction might.

"Come on," He grates, before his fingers twitch, briefly pressing ever so slightly tighter against Pippa's. "Help me find where we parked."

Bay Ridge
Miller Residence
January 31, 2021
2:02 AM

Zachery wakes up to the sound of creaking floorboards. It isn’t unusual. Pippa wakes often enough in the night and moves across the hall to use the restroom, or out to the kitchen for a glass of water. But the other side of his bed is empty, and the sound of the footsteps too heavy.

"… Not again." His first thought, given voice in a whispered plea. It's not fear but fury, though, that drives him to get out of bed as fast as his panicked mind will let him, and has him stalk out into the hallway with nothing but the boxers on him and his baseball bat from under the bed clutched in one hand.

But his wife hasn't disappeared. And instead of her kidnapper, he finds Nicole standing in the middle of the hallway, staring at the slightly ajar door to Pippa’s room. Even in the darkened house, he can see her eyes without her ubiquitous shades to hide them from him. She’s seeing, but not really seeing. He’s seen her do this before. She’s dissociating. That stare is a thousand yards away.

There’s a gun curled in her hand.

She’s dissociating, and she’s holding a presumably loaded weapon.

Though still on high alert, he stops in his tracks. Without taking his eye off of the scene in front of him, without blinking, he lets the bat slip lower in his grasp until he can set it down, leaned precariously against a wall.

Beginning to move forward, he says as gently as the tension still within him allows, "Nicole. Hey."

It takes a moment, just long enough for Zachery to begin to think that she hadn’t heard him at all. But her chin lifts a fraction first, then she blinks and turns her head to look at her husband in the doorway to their bedroom. “Hey,” she says softly, like she’s suddenly cognizant of where she is and doesn’t want to disturb the child sleeping soundly.

“I, ah…” Shaking her head slowly, her pulled back hair swings like a pendulum. “I thought I heard something…” A tilt toward the way she came from — presumably — indicates the greater living spaces of the home. “Had to check.”

"Mmh." The noise that leaves Zachery in response is one of doubt, an expression of hard judgement still lingering a few seconds longer.

Then, after that leaves him with a shallow sigh through his nostrils, something gives. A decision drops into place, his shoulders and expression relaxing. He steps forward, laying a hand carefully on Nicole's cheek as he looks her in the eyes and says quietly, "I'll check around."

With her attention hopefully sufficiently on his own face in turn, he reaches with his other hand for her arm, to slide his fingers down until can cautiously pry the weapon from her. "Why don't you go back to bed. You look tired. Get some rest."

The judgement isn’t seen. That would require more presence than Nicole currently possesses. But she does have enough awareness to recognize the hand on her cheek. Her eyes close heavily for a moment, a grateful little smile playing on her lips. He’s right. She’s tired. But she has been since November. Every night, a nightmare. There’s no relief found in rest.

The gun is relinquished without complaint, without resistance. Nicole just nods her head and begins to make her way to their room. She stops in the doorway and turns back to him halfway. “Be careful,” she asks of him. “But I’m sure it’s nothing now.”

Now that he’s taken away the danger.

"I'll be with you soon," Zachery lies with the full knowledge that his words may mean nothing anyway, a hand already laid on Pippa's door.

Waiting, so he can take more, still.

Unless otherwise stated, the content of this page is licensed under Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 License