Gil's Cafe was one of those places you saw every day on the way to work, tucked away between two anonymous buildings in a nondescript shopping strip beside the main road. The front windows revealed a tidy eating establishment no different to any other found in the outlying suburbs of a prosperous city, nor was the shopping strip itself anything of note. It was nothing more than "the cafe down the road," the kind unknown to anyone on the face of the Earth but the locals. Had Cherry not travelled across half the country to stand by the road before it, she had no doubt that she would have remained ignorant of its existence till the day she died.
The car beeped obediently as Raymond locked up. "Why are we here?" she asked cautiously, looking around with a hint of unease. There didn't appear to be anyone around to see her little-girl outfit, but there was nothing to suggest that that couldn't change. It was bad enough she'd had to dress up for daycare; out in public there was the added possibility of stumbling across someone she knew. "In case it escaped your attention, I don't particularly want to showcase myself right now."
She couldn't see Raymond around the car, but she certainly heard his indulgent chuckle. "You're the cutest thing out," he said with good cheer, and he was grinning as he trekked onto the footpath and into sight. "What's the problem?"
"My problem is that I'm the cutest thing out." She hurried after him, feeling utterly ridiculous. "Your kind are a bit like sharks with blood when it comes to cute littles, last time I checked."
“My kind?” Raymond openly laughed. "And what does that make me?"
She smiled slightly at that. "Don't pretend you're not enjoying this. You're a shark too. You're just a...gummy shark."
He pushed the cafe door open, glancing down at his exasperated companion as he did so. A tiny bell announced their arrival. "I guess there're levels of enjoyment," he admitted shamelessly. "Mine’s barely a blip on the radar, though."
"Fantastic." She followed him through into the cafe. "Now will you tell me while we're here?"
"Me and Megaladon herself spent the morning in the city getting re-acquainted, and this is where we ended up afterwards." He held the door open for his roommate as she entered after him. "This week's been pretty shitty for us as a couple, as you might be aware, so we've been doing our best to rectify that. I left her here while I picked you up."
"Now that I have," he went on, letting the door swing shut behind them. "She's sitting by the window, over there - " he pointed. Sylvia was sitting by the window with her head buried in her phone. " - so go say hello while I make a trip to the little boy's room, okay?"
The little sighed. "You know leaving me alone with her is bad for my health. You seem to do it a lot."
He winked. "It's all in good fun."
He gave her a gentle push in Sylvia's direction. "I'll be right back. Chirp three times like magpie if you require my assistance."
Then he was gone, leaving Cherry alone in the doorway of Gil's Cafe.
Raymond had rescued her from the frying pan just to throw her back into the fire. Cherry grimaced and crossed the short distance between herself and the giantess, who still seemed oblivious of her presence. It was just like Sylvia to become unresponsive to the world whilst immersed in whatever thrilling activity there was to be undertaken on her phone. No doubt she was set on conquering the latest level of Candy Crush. Preferably, she'd stay that way without ever realising Cherry was in the vicinity.
Sylvia didn't notice her arrival until Cherry was practically standing beside the table, but when she did her reaction was immense. “Ohmygod!" she squealed, bouncing to her feet fast enough to draw a quizzical look from the man behind the counter. "Ohmygod!"
Confused, Cherry could only stare up at the taller woman. "I missed you too?"
The giantess began to laugh, shaking her head in disbelief. "You're adorable," she gushed with enough saccharine to put all the sugary treats in the world to shame. "I never dreamed you could be so, so cute."
It took a long moment for it to click. She hasn't seen your outfit yet. You snuck out of the motel this morning, remember?
The Cherry of Wednesday morning would have made a smart-ass remark. The Cherry of Wednesday afternoon held her tongue and simply managed a small, "If you say so." Annoyed at the blush that rose to her cheeks, she pulled back the chair opposite Sylvia's and looked up at the intimidating edifice. Her chin was only barely level with the seat. Hating herself for asking, she reluctantly turned to Sylvia and asked, "Hey, can I get a boost?"
"Don't be silly, I can do better than that for my favourite little girl."
But she was gone. Excitement had put wings on Sylvia's heels, and she was racing away across the restaurant. Cherry winced, watching the giantess' blonde mane flutter comically in the air behind her. What were the odds this was going to end well for her?
Sylvia returned lugging a high chair. She slotted the plastic behemoth against the end of the table with a look of supreme satisfaction on her face. "If there was ever any doubt as to where you belong," she bubbled animatedly. "I think your outfit has officially dispelled it, don't you think? High chair it is."
Cherry felt the ghost of Daisy's hands between her legs. "Sylvia," she said in as restrained a voice as she could manage. "I'm not sitting in there. Get rid of it."
"Little girls don't get a say in where they sit." She took a step forward.
"I’m not a little girl," Cherry sighed, compensating by taking two steps back. "I mean it. Back off." She cast a look over her shoulder, searching for Raymond. He'd thought she'd been kidding when she'd said Sylvia was bad for her health. "I've had a long day, okay? Please. Drop it."
"You always say you're not a little girl," Sylvia countered easily, suddenly walking towards Cherry with long, meaningful strides. "And that's why Raymond has always gone out of his way for you, but...look at you, Cherry. Do you really think that's going to fly anymore? Dressed like a three year old? Are you wearing your diapers, too? Of course you are."
Unless she was planning to make an escape straight through the floor, there was nowhere to run, and a disgusted Cherry gave up and let Sylvia haul her into the high chair. Drawing the line at the straps around her crotch, though, she slapped the Amazon's hands away and did them herself. "Sylvia," she began, fighting to keep her irritation under control. "I really don't know why you bother with all of this."
Sylvia’s awe didn't lessen one iota as she sat back down. Smoothing her hair out, she asked pleasantly, "What do you mean?"
"We both know Raymond is going to come back from the toilets, take one look at this, and slap you silly."
She tried a new tact. "Look...you’re only here to save your relationship, right? Do you really think doing this to me is going to help that? You're on thin ice. You know that. Get me out of this thing before Raymond gets back, and you can avoid breaking it. It's not too late." As an afterthought, she added, "I live with him. I can tell you all about how long he takes in the bathroom."
Sylvia didn't bat an eye. Her smile was as pleasant as ever as she asked, "How long have we known each other, Cherry?"
That was a good question. Confused, Cherry began, "Off the top of my head, I don't - "
"I image it's somewhere near five, six years," Sylvia answered herself. Her smile broadened. "So let me put it this way. For five or six years, I’ve had to put up with my boyfriend humouring you, which has in turn stolen him away from me more than it should have. Would I be mistaken in saying that?"
The giantess held up a manicured finger. "For one, I can't live with my own boyfriend because he has it in his head that he's better off bunking with you."
Cherry stared. "Well. Yes. But - "
A second digit joined the first. "Two, you're, like, his closest friend. I can't go anywhere without him taking you along."
This was shaping up to be the big brother of their conversation outside Babies R’ Us. A stupendous idea occurred to the little in the highchair as finger three was rising. "Sylvia...you're not jealous." She stared up at her companion. "It’s one thing for you to save your relationship and whatever, but please tell me you’re not jealous. That’s ridiculous."
"Jealous?" the giantess laughed out loud, and there was a slight shaky quality to it. Cherry took it for confirmation. She felt her heart sink. Was this the core of everything? "No, I'm not jealous - you and Raymond? Seriously?"
"I'm not fucking your boyfriend, Sylvia."
"Of course you're not. You'd have more luck running a train up the exhaust pipe of our car."
Cherry cringed at the scene that painted in her mind. "So what, then?"
At long last, Sylvia's expression became strained. "Raymond's not going to break up with me," she said firmly. She tented her fingers before her and casually leaned her chin upon them. Her eyes never left Cherry's face. "I was his high-school sweetheart long before I met you. Do you really think he'll throw that away for some little with delusions of grandeur? Of course not."
"Are you sure about that?"
"Are you sure he won't?" Sylvia shrugged. "You know how Raymond is - once you get past the macho, he's a puppy. He loves me, you said it yourself. I guarantee you that if push comes to shove, he'll pick me over you. It's all bluster."
To Cherry, that sounded remarkably like a solution in search of a problem. "Alternatively, we could avoid this altogether and just never have to find out?”
"And miss out on putting you in your place for once?" was the cool response. "I don't think so. It's about time you had a dose of reality. I'm going to enjoy it while I can."
She thinks she's untouchable.
Sometimes, you just had to accept that there was no getting through to an Amazon. "For your sake, I hope you're right about Raymond," Cherry said, stony faced. Not.
That seemed to amuse the giantess. She chortled to herself as she returned to her phone, and lo and behold, Cherry could see she was indeed playing Candy Crush. "As much as you may wish otherwise," she remarked lightly. "Of course I'm right. I'm his girlfriend; I think I know him better than you do."
Cherry wondered about that.
Raymond didn't return for another five minutes, a time period notable only for the deafening silence that enveloped the two women, and when he did, he wasn't quite as mad as Cherry had been hoping.
"Would I be correct in assuming Cherry came up to you and politely asked you to find a high chair?" The lanky Amazon asked with a sigh, standing between his two companions. His face was one of exasperation rather than frustration, his forehead creased with a tumultuous sea of trenches and rises.
Sylvia flashed her partner a dazzling smile, displaying an array of pearly whites that undoubtedly cost her fortunes. "She needs to tell us what happened today, doesn't she? She can't do that if she can't see us. That's all I was thinking."
"Sure. And all I'm thinking is that you're overdoing the baby crap to the point it must be getting on the nerves of anyone who's followed the story so far," he grunted, sliding into the seat beside the giantess. Rather than admonishing his lover, he instead fixed Cherry with a look of utter exhaustion. She stared back imploringly, perfectly ready for him to prove Sylvia wrong. "What is this, the third, fourth time we've had this conversation since Friday night? All you need is a curly moustache and you'd be Saturday morning villain, Sylvie. I love you, but...this is getting old."
"I'll pass on the moustache, thank you."
His tone became stern. "And both Cherry and I would happily pass on you making a fool of my best friend. As we've discussed so many, many times before."
Sylvia's smile faltered. Cherry beamed.
"But," Raymond grudgingly went on. "With that said, though, I guess we would have needed a booster for her anyway." Suddenly, he was apologetic. "I'm sorry, Cherry, but we might leave you there for now. You're going to be doing the talking for the next little while, she's right. It's convenient."
Sylvia's grin could have put the sun out of business. Cherry scowled. "Isn't this the point where you slap her silly?"
Raymond gave his girlfriend a sceptical glance, who was a second too slow to wipe the smug smile from her face. He sighed again and shook his head. "Just tell us what happened today, okay? We'll chalk this up to a misunderstanding."
There was no point arguing. Sylvia clearly wasn’t out of chances yet, and debating that was only going to lead to another screaming match."Fine," the little sighed, disgusted. "Fine. Whatever. Have it your way. Should I tell you about today then?"
Raymond nodded, but Sylvia nonchalantly picked up her phone and returned to her game of Candy Crush. Cherry watched incredulously. What was more important – Candy Crush or her sister’s future? The sheer nerve of it rankled her. "You sure should," Raymond prompted. He ignored his girlfriend and instead waved Cherry’s attention back to him. “Over here. Talk to me. Seeing as you're here instead of on a playdate, I'm guessing it didn't go too well."
"You have no idea."
He smiled a crooked smile. "I don't."
"You'll wish that was still true by the time I'm done."
"That's why I'm - " he paused, then gave Sylvia a sharp jab in the ribs with his elbow. The giantess squealed as her phone clattered to the table. " – why we're here. No one said it was going to be rainbows and unicorns."
"No one said it was going to involve mastectomies and brainwashing, either." Cherry finished with a shaky laugh she didn't recognise as her own. It wasn't till it left her lips that she realised just how precariously she was perched on the edge of hysteria, and she suddenly realised she was close to tears. Wouldn't that be a sight for Sylvia? Angrily forcing them back down into the depths of her tear ducts by sheer force of will alone, she said, "And yet here we are, hey?"
To her surprise, that comment proved to be the one that drew the giantess into the conversation. "Excuse me?"
She looked at Sylvia, and the giantess stared back. She looked stunned. "Mastectomies?"
Shock gave way to horror. "Not your sister, surely?"
Cherry felt a lump in her throat as she nodded. She wasn't going to cry. She wasn't.
"Cherry," Raymond said tensely. Up until then, he’d deliberately remained cheerful to placate his companions, but suddenly he just looked worried. The tendons in his neck stood to attention. "What happened?"
"It was horrible, Ray," she said miserably. "We had no idea. None."
She started talking.
She left absolutely nothing out of her summary except the finer details of the bathroom scene - a girl had to have some secrets - and by the end she had both Amazons on the edge of their seats. While Raymond was relatively successful at maintaining his composure throughout, Sylvia looked close to tears. The infamous hater of littles was quiet for much of the soliloquy despite her attentiveness, but she was the first to break the silence that descended upon Cherry's parting silence.
"They took your sister's boobs," the giantess said, appalled. "It's one thing to adopt a dwarf, but to...to do something like that..."
Suddenly, her eyes were leaking. She angrily brushed away the start of her waterworks. "Your poor sister."
It‘s fine to kidnap a little, but surgery‘s crossing the line? Really, Sylvia?
Her roommate spoke up before she could voice her inner cynic. He shook his head, disgusted. "Is that all?" he asked hoarsely. "Is that everything?"
"Is that all?" Cherry echoed with a hollow laugh. She sat back in her plastic prison. Man, was that a stupid question, or was that a stupid question? "Yeah Ray, that's everything. Just another day in the office."
Raymond’s hands were balled into fists. "I didn't mean it like that and you know it."
He wasn't taking this as well as he was letting on. Cherry winced. "I'm sorry, Ray. I'm as stressed as you are."
"We have to go home."
Both Raymond and Cherry turned to look at the distraught giantess. She was wiping at her cheeks again, and she said, "Cherry, you can't go back there. You can't, look what they did to your poor sister. If this whole thing has been a trap for you, you're lucky you made it out today. It's not safe. Who knows what those...those monsters might have in mind for you."
She shook her head vehemently. It sent her golden locks flying in an erratic carousel. "I won't let you go back to that place," she said thickly. "For all our differences, I don’t want to see you get hurt. If there's a chance you'll end up in the same boat as your sister..." She began to cry in earnest, burying her face in her hands as she did so. "Ray, tell her she can't go back."
Raymond was silent.
Sylvia looked up. "Tell her."
"I guess it's up to you, Cherry," Raymond answered slowly.
"No, it's not up to her," Sylvia reprimanded. She stared at her boyfriend as if he were mad. "We're done here, you hear me? This isn’t what I signed up for, I don't care, I won't - "
"I said it's up to Cherry," he said harshly. He stared long and hard at his girlfriend. "We knew it wasn't going to be pretty before we left. Yeah, this is extreme, but it was never out of the realms of possibility. Get a grip."
"'Not out of the realms of possibility'? Are you mad? They cut off her boobs and you're telling me to get a grip?"
"I have to go back."
Her voice sounded foreign to her own ears. Both Raymond and Sylvia quit their bickering instantly and turned to the little in the high chair. She smiled weakly, trying to look braver than she felt. Going back for round two with Daisy Bell was the last thing she wanted to do. "She's my sister. Besides, when did you start caring about...well, anything concerning me?"
"When this became more than an in-and-out rescue mission where no one got hurt!" Sylvia exclaimed. She sprang to her feet, and having seemingly forgotten how she'd taunted the tiny woman only minutes beforehand, said in a loud, emotional voice, "I hate what you've done to my relationship, Cherry, but I wouldn't wish what they did to your sister on anyone. You can't go back there."
"Sylvia," Raymond said in a strained voice. He looked over his shoulder, and following his gaze Cherry saw that people were beginning to stare. There weren't many people around - just an old guy in the corner by himself and two or three couples scattered around the room - but their table was clearly the most interesting thing on the menu right then. "Sit down."
The giantess turned on her boyfriend. "I'm meant to be the bad guy, and I'm the only one trying to look out for her?" she said incredulously. "Ray, this has well and truly gone too far. This has to end. Now."
"I said sit down." He roughly grabbed her arm and dragged her back into her seat. "You're making a scene, Sylvie."
"Someone has to," she said curtly, snatching her arm back. She turned her attention to Cherry. "You both seem happy to march her off into the arms of some butcher for a dwarf that doesn't even want to be saved. Are you listening to yourself?"
Not knowing what else to say, Cherry quietly repeated, "She's my sister."
"She was your sister," Sylvia corrected. "She seemed perfectly happy to disown you today, didn't she? She's probably in on the whole damn plan to catch you. This entire thing has been some psychopath's game to lure you in, Cherry, you, and you're happy to waltz right into their funhouse tomorrow morning beneath the playground. It’d be one thing if it got you adopted and that’s the end of it – God knows you need it - but you're going to end up dead...and who knows what they'll do to us for helping you?"
"That's enough," Raymond growled. "She won't die. Stop that."
"You don't know that."
"Sylvia," Cherry interrupted weakly, staring at the frenzied giantess before her. "I have to do this."
"No, you don't."
"Yes, I do. And you can't stop me."
It was weird, having to tell Sylvia to stop looking out for her. She didn't think she'd ever genuinely like the giantess, but right now she was coming close to it. She admired the twin rivers trickling down the taller woman's flustered cheeks, and suddenly realised she'd started crying at some point as well. Sylvia's face was likely a mirror of her own. Feeling a confusing affection for the giantess as she angrily wiped her face dry, Cherry said for a third time, "She's my sister."
Sylvia looked at her long and hard.
Cherry stared right back, hoping she looked much surer than she felt.
It was the giantess that broke eye contact first. "You're going to get hurt," she said hoarsely. "Cherry, we have our disagreements, but I don't want to see you get hurt, or worse. Do you really want to end up like your sister?"
"I'll be careful."
"Are you going to see her tomorrow like she's told you to?"
She hesitated. "Yes."
"Then you're not being careful."
"Okay, enough," Raymond interrupted. He looked as tired as Sylvia looked miserable. "For real. Let's all take a deep breath, okay? Calm down."
Both women hesitated.
"Breathe," Raymond ordered firmly.
They both waited a moment longer, watching each other as if out of some desire to not be the first to do so...then they inhaled deeply.
"Good." Raymond shook his head. "You know Cherry, I'd really rather you didn't go too. I won't stop you, but..." His voice reluctantly trailed off, leaving his unsaid objection perfectly audible.
"Now you're on my side," Sylvia muttered to herself, sinking back into her chair. "After I make a total idiot of myself."
Cherry shook her head. She knew the risks more than anyone else, but it wasn't an option. Not really. She knew Dawn would be there in a heartbeat if their situations were reversed. "I'm sorry Ray, but I mean it. I have to do this."
He suddenly looked very tired. "I know," he sighed. He cast a sidelong look at Sylvia. "I guess we all have to do stupid things for the people we love sometimes, hey?"
"Something like that."
"Fair enough. Promise you'll be careful?"
Did she really need to promise that? Of course she'd be careful. "Promise."
They lapsed into silence again.
Well, they'd had their unavoidable freak-out. Time to talk strategy. In an attempt to steer the conversation away from its soap opera heritage, Cherry forced her false bravado back onto display and chirped, "Are we ready to discuss the finer details now without losing our heads?"
Sylvia looked at her dourly, not rising to the bait, but Raymond shook his head. "You know what's got me confused more than anything?" he answered. "This Daisy character. I can buy the time skip, I can buy the psychopath kidnapper...but I thought this place was all automated. That’s what the thing at the door was implying yesterday morning.”
Cherry shrugged. "She's the only exception, so in the end it all works out the same. We still can't bust her out from there. There's a nanny-bot on door duty and a swarm of them out back, and that’s not even considering the rest of the security. You should have seen it, Ray. I wouldn’t be surprised if they have automatic turrets hidden in the roof to deal with break-ins."
Raymond frowned. "I'd still like to know where she came from. The bouncer explicitly said there was no one with a brain on campus."
"For all you know, it lied to you to protect state secrets that might put the kids in danger."
He didn't look convinced. "I don't know. Something doesn't sound right."
Cherry thought back to Daisy's odd comment at the end of the day about keeping the humans outside. She'd taken it as a joke at the time, but hey, who knew? "Maybe she's a robot too. Incognito. She just doesn't want us to know because reasons."
Raymond shrugged, missing Cherry's lack of seriousness altogether. "Could be."
"Hottest robot ever, but hey. Weirder things have happened."
To her surprise, her shitty joke got a genuine smile from her roommate. "Yeah. Sylvia stood up for you."
Cherry stared at him for a long moment...and abruptly, she began to laugh.
He was right. Sylvia stood up for her.
Taken aback, it took Raymond a second to recover, but before long he was chuckling along with the little. Not long after that, Sylvia managed a reluctant smile in spite of herself too. "Don't get used to it," she grudgingly acquitted. She leaned on Raymond's shoulder in search of love, and he willingly obliged by throwing an arm around her. Her eyes were on her boyfriend as she said to Cherry, "We're still not friends, you and I. That doesn't mean I want to see you get mauled. What they did to your sister..."
She visibly shuddered, and she looked at the table. "That's atrocious. I feel sick even thinking about it."
The reminder of Dawn's state stifled any merriment that might have flittered around the table. "I'll take what I can get," Cherry answered as her laughs tittered off to hiccupping giggles. "Just when I thought our relationship couldn't be salvaged, Sylvia."
"Don't get used to it," the giantess repeated.
Raymond stepped in before their conversation could develop beyond good-natured bickering. "I think we've heard all we need to hear," he said. "To recap; the current plan is for you to go in again tomorrow, meet your sister for real, and get her to tell you what we need to worry about. Better still; arrange a playdate as per the initial outline. If you can do a dummy run, that’d be best.”
"Something like that."
"Okay, good. Well, I'll show up again at three to make sure everything is going smoothly, and hopefully I'll find you've already left with your sister to scout the premises. Easy."
Cherry managed a small smile. Easy for the Amazon who wouldn't be there, sure. "So you'd think."
"I might even tail you tomorrow, you know," he said thoughtfully. He looked down at her. "If you do end up heading to Dawn's, I mean. I'll park out front of her place in case you get the chance to make an early getaway."
"That's not a bad idea."
"Of course not. It's mine." He smiled playfully, and the last vestiges of tension finally dissolved. "Are we done then?"
Cherry nodded. "I guess so."
"As much as we're going to be," Sylvia agreed. She looked at Cherry. "I really wish you'd change your mind, though."
She shook her head.
Sylvia sighed. "Can't say I didn't try."
"Sylvia and I are going to an art exhibition in the city tonight," Raymond went on. "We were thinking of dropping you off at the motel and then heading out. Is that fine with you?"
"I didn't realise you were the arty type, Ray."
"The things I do for love," he said, looking across at Sylvia.
The giantess smiled faintly. "I've always wanted to see the gallery here in Thornbridge. It's supposedly one of the bigger ones in the country. Should be good."
Cherry wasn't that big an art buff, but it was something to do. Not waiting for her brain to catch up with her tongue, she asked, "Mind if I come along? It has to be better than watching TV."
Sylvia's smiled faded. "Yes, actually, I do."
Oh. Right. "On second thought," she hastened to add, back-pedalling rapidly as the finer details of her prior conversation with the giantess returned to her. "I think they're showing Blues Clues re-runs tonight. Wouldn't want to miss that."
Raymond smiled. Sylvia didn't.
"Me and Sylvie had a great time this morning," her roommate said, climbing to his feet. "It's been too long since we were...you know, not at each others' throat, so we figured we'd make the most of the downtime while we waited for you. We saw the exhibition was on tonight and bought the tickets then. They'll be sold out by now anyway, I'm sure."
"No problem at all."
Raymond had the decency to look guilty. Sylvia just looked like Sylvia.
They were finally ready to leave, and that could only be a good thing. Cherry was itching to change into her normal clothes after a full day of strutting around in a diaper and a sunflower t-shirt, for one, and perhaps more importantly, she was done with the high chair. She was perfectly happy to admit that it was novel being elevated to the point she could socialise like a normal human being...but at the same time, it was a high chair. She gratefully let Raymond lift her out, eager to feel terra firma beneath her feet, and was on the way out before Sylvia even stood up. Time to go. Day done.
She managed a grand total of two steps towards the door before her stomach protested violently. It had waited patiently while they talked, but upon realising that they were leaving the cafe without satisfying its needs, it decided enough was enough. Cherry abruptly stopped, her hands flying to her gut as it began to kick and scream like a little kid throwing a tantrum. Suddenly, she was ravenous, and she realised that while her sister and friends had been enjoying their juice boxes and snacks earlier, she hadn't been smart enough to pack a lunch. She was starving. She didn't even know when she'd last eaten - it must have been the night before, at the earliest.
"Cherry?" Raymond asked from somewhere not far behind. "Problem?"
She turned around. "Can we get something to eat before we go?" she asked in a small voice. She gestured back up at the high chair she'd been so excited to vacate only seconds before. "Put me back in that thing, would you?"