"Well, I guess that's that," Lucas remarked. He carefully wriggled about till he was resting upon his knees before proceeding to lower himself onto all fours. He began to crawl towards the doorway, his diapered behind waving shamelessly in the air behind him. "Nice meeting you, I guess."
"That's...I mean, huh? What? Where are you going?" Taken aback, Cherry jerked to her feet and hurried to cut him off, beating him to the exit with seconds to spare. She looked down at her crawling companion incredulously. "What do you mean, that's that? And why are you crawling?"
Exasperation flashed across Lucas' face, and with exaggerated care he planted himself down on his backside once more. "Where am I going?"He echoed. "Evie's got you right where she wants you. Do you really think you're any use to me now? To your sister? You can't do anything without her swooping down on you and putting you in the crib next to me. I'm leaving." He dramatically slapped his flat chest. "Can't have her taking off these now, can I?"
"You've got nothing there to lose." The little put her hands on her hips. "That doesn't make any sense."
"Well, no...but that's not the point," he snapped back. "I have lots of other fleshy bits that dear Mama thinks are expendable." He gestured to his legs. "I've already lost these. That's enough."
It was then that Cherry realised she had yet to see Lucas walk.
With growing disgust, she began, "She...she took your..."
"I don't know if she took anything, per se.” He flexed his splayed legs before him, and sure enough, they moved with ease. Cherry couldn't see anything wrong with them, at least taken at face value. "Technically, I'm perfectly capable of walking. Evie, being the wonderful mother that she is, apparently had a change of heart after she did her number on Dawn. No more knifework. I've just been hit with a bit of light hypnotism, same as what they do to you littles at those etiquette schools.” He shrugged, as if it was nothing of note. “If I try to get up and walk, I fall down on my ass, but otherwise my legs work the way they should. It's not a real disability, although some stupid part of my brain thinks it is." He paused before adding, "And it's not permanent, thankfully. It can be undone. Or so I'm told."
"And that makes it okay?" Cherry spluttered, aghast. Every time she thought she'd finally unearthed the floor of Evelyn Goldsworthy's depravity, something else reared up and knocked the bottom out of the sight. Christ, what was wrong with this woman? "Lucas...what the fuck?"
"You tell me." He made a point of looking at his wrist, which was remarkably lacking a watch to consult. "Look, Cherry, it's been nice meeting you and all, but this isn't going anywhere, is it? You can't help me. If you'll excuse me, I'll be going..."
After his rant about Dawn being spineless, he was going to pull the same exact stunt? Was he for real? "You’ll be going? To do what? To play on the swings?" Suddenly angry, Cherry again blocked the tiny in-betweener as he moved to crawl past her. "To have a go on the see-saw? To build sandcastles? To play on the slide? What the fuck is more important here than helping me?"
"Well, right now, I'm capable of talking to you like an adult." He made a pained face. "I'd say something more than important than helping you is making sure I'm still capable of helping you, ignoring whether or not I do that. See my point? "
It proved to be her breaking point. Fighting the urge to scream senselessly, Cherry instead opted to take a leaf out of her sister's book and physically pushed him down into the dirt. He looked up at her dumbly, too surprised to formulate a response.
"You're going to sit your ass right there," Cherry growled. "And we're going to come up with a plan that - "
"What's going on in here, hmm?" Daisy asked lightly from somewhere far too close for comfort.
Both Cherry and Lucas flinched.
Before Cherry could so much as stammer a half-hearted denial of any wrongdoing, her caretaker's huge hands were around her waist, and the next thing she knew she was standing outside in the open, looking up at the Amazon's imposing figure. The towering woman stood threateningly over the little, hands on hips and a disapproving curve to her lips.
"I thought you were a little too agreeable this morning," she said irritably, glaring down at Cherry. "I leave you alone for all of ten minutes and you're off bullying the baby. Do I really have to tell you we don't push people here, Cherry?"
She wasn't done being pissed at Lucas. "He deserved it, though."
"Oh yes, I'm sure you're the victim here," was the disinterested retort. The giantess shook her head as she crouched down to pick up Lucas, who abashedly lifted his arms to make her job easier. Shifting him onto her hip, Daisy then used her free hand to take Cherry's wrist and began to lead her off towards the room at a brisk pace. "You can go stand in the corner for a bit while I get the other kids ready for snack time, okay? You're out of chances."
The daycare was ominously quiet without the clamour of kids at play cluttering the soundscape. Daisy's footsteps echoed through the room with an authority that was surprisingly unnerving, and Cherry found herself listening to the sudden staccato of her own heartbeat as she was walked across the show-and-tell mat to the far wall. The memory of the toilet paper rising higher and higher scant inches before her face again rose unbidden to her mind's eye, and she shuddered. As much as she’d told herself that she had learnt her lesson yesterday, she was still making careless mistakes. Sure, corner time wasn't that bad in comparison to...to that, but...why had she thought it was a good idea to push Lucas?
Because he's a cowardly little shit?
That really wasn't good enough, though.
There was apparently a method to undertaking corner time correctly. "Hands on head," Daisy grunted. She pushed the little towards the wall with her free hand. "Nose on wall. Not a word. You can stay there till I have the kids settled."
Cherry tried to bite her tongue. She wasn't totally successful. "You're the boss," she agreed as she assumed the position. She awkwardly pressed her nose into the plasterboards and her hands to her head, feeling utterly ridiculous as she did so. "Have I embarrassed myself enough yet?"
The answer was evidently no, because the next thing she knew her backside was subjected to three hard, fast blows from her caretaker's hand. They didn't hurt all that much, considering the padding she wore beneath her dress, but it was surprising enough to make her yelp and instinctively attempt to prance away. With her face already against the wall, all it resulted in was her staggering forward precisely nowhere and crushing her nose in the process. "I'm the teacher," Daisy corrected irritably as her charge hurried to right herself, rubbing her poor nose as she did so. That had hurt more than the spanking. "And if you back-talk me again, you'll be bare-assed over my lap before you know it. Got it?"
I don't think you should talk like that in front of the baby. "Yes ma'am."
She could hear the steel in Daisy's voice, and she cringed as she realised her mistake. "Yes what?"
Cherry sighed. "Yes Ms Bell."
"Good girl. Now you stay there while I bring the other kids inside to eat. I don't want to hear a word from you."
That was that. The sound of receding footsteps reached Cherry's ears, followed by a muttered, barely audible, "I don't get paid enough for this."
Ditto, Cherry thought to herself, reflecting on her own situation. She rolled her eyes at the wall as she pressed her battered nose back into position and grabbed the top of her head. What else could she do? Ditto the fuck out of that.
So it was that Cherry began her first timeout in twenty years.
The next fifteen minutes, while torturous, were also surprisingly productive. Cherry's session in the corner began with a fleeting moment of self-pity before evolving into the topic that dominated the first half of her period of isolation: ruing the individual who put her there.
Lucas had been all high and mighty when the going was easy, and the moment it became clear that his own ass was on the line he'd turned tail and washed his hands of her. The mere memory of the diminished in-betweener falling to his knees and nonchalantly attempting to make his exit was enough to infuriate the little all over again. She found herself balling her fists as she stood her vigil, unable to believe that her only hope of pulling off a successful rescue had turned his back on her. Was it something in the water here that turned imprisoned littles into spineless creeps?
She spent a good few minutes inventing all sorts of creative descriptions of her new acquaintance before realising that she still had to do something, with or without Lucas. Whether she believed it or not, Dawn was depending on her intervention to get out of Evie's grasp. Cherry knew her enemy now, more or less: the next question was what was she going to do about it?
She threw herself into that soliloquy headfirst as Daisy began to let the kids in. They filed into the room in dribs and drabs as each clique hurried inside from their own corner of the playground. Each and every one of them took the opportunity to snigger at the little as they were admitted. Cherry was acutely aware of the not-so-subtle ribbing that followed the arrival of the daycare horde as they came through the door, regardless of her blindness to anything that wasn't the wall. The sensation of being the laughing stock of a daycare was not exactly pleasant, and so it was that the little began silently scheming as much to save her sister as to distract herself from the world that seemed so set on demeaning her.
First off: Evie.
Was Lucas right? Had she been doomed right from the beginning?
Cherry chewed her bottom lip as she thought it over. Really, there was no way for her to know exactly how much Evie knew. The giantess obviously knew her name and her relationship with Dawn, considering the substance of the original letter, but beyond that it was hard to say. How much had Dawn told her? How much had she shown her? Cherry wasn't exactly the social media butterfly that some of her friends were, and she didn't think there were many photos of her face floating around the internet. Unless Dawn had actually been carrying a photo of her around physically at the time she was taken or been forced to conjure an old family photo-book, surely it was possible that Evie was going into this as blind as Cherry had. Maybe the giantess was hoping to catch Cherry in the act of breaking Dawn out without actually knowing what she looked like. Would Evie actually recognise her face?
Somehow, Cherry didn't think that was likely. Dawn wasn't the sentimental type that carried photos around, and if she had been forced to show Evie a picture, then she'd have had no right to act so surprised at the sight of her little sister yesterday. She’d have known Evie was setting a trap and wouldn't have acted the way she had...right?
Maybe, if, but. She didn't think Evie would recognise her, but she there was no way to know for sure. At the end of the day, she couldn't rule out the possibility that the Amazon hadn't gone online and simply dug up a Facebook photo. Cherry had always been careful not to post her face online - for explicitly this reason, actually - but she'd certainly been tagged in photos on Raymond's wall, as well as a smattering of other friends'. Those might not show up straight away, but with a little digging...
So where does that leave me?
At the start. She didn't have a plan. She squirmed with frustration in the corner, acutely aware of the show she was putting for the kids as they retrieved their lunch and sat down. Those snickers were pretty self-explanatory. What was she going to do?
I can't do this playdate anymore. It’s too risky, she silently mused to herself, impatiently gripping and un-gripping her hair. The dummy run is out of the question now, which means...
...which means I need to talk to Lucas and find out what I need to know about the security. Once we know that, we can break in. I can still do that much. Right?
If Lucas would co-operate. Chances were good the little twerp would decide he didn't want the information leak traced back to him, because hey. His precious, non-existant boobs.
If he doesn't co-operate, I'll break his legs for real.
It wasn't a great plan, but it was a plan. That was more than she'd had five minutes ago. Cherry contented herself with the fact that all she had to do was quiz the baby at this point and settled in for the remainder of her corner-time.
Daisy eventually returned to put her out of her misery. "Are you going to be a good girl?" the Amazon piped up unexpectedly from behind Cherry.
Cherry rolled her eyes at the wall, safe in the knowledge that the gesture was invisible to the woman behind her. "Yes Ms Bell."
"Good. I don't want a repeat of earlier." Large hands fell upon her shoulders, flipping her around to face the rest of the classroom. The kids were enjoying their lunches at their little rainbow tables, and a much louder smattering of giggles broke out at the sight of the reprimanded little's face. Cherry glared at the collective whole with as much dignity as a little girl in corner time could. She wasn't going to take crap from a group of toddlers.
Daisy was having none of it, either. "Enough. If you think it's so funny, then you can all stand in the corner for a little while," She warned. Cherry duly observed that her stunt before had very clearly pushed the Amazon past her bullshit threshold. Her patience had gone AWOL with Lucas' spine. "Don't think I can't fit all thirty of you somewhere or another."
The mirth died down instantly, but the eyes remained. Cherry could live with that. She gave the group her biggest shit-eating grin.
Daisy stared the group off for a long minute until the kids began to divert their attentions to their lunch, and when it was clear that the novelty had ebbed she knelt down to deal with Cherry. "How about you go sit down with Dawn," Daisy said softly. There was no warmth in her voice, despite the subsequent implication otherwise. "You two looked like you were getting along well yesterday. I saved you a seat so you had company over lunch."
How generous of her. "Can I sit next to Lucas instead?" Cherry tried hopefully, knowing she was pushing her luck but not really seeing an alternative. She needed to know what she was up against. She looked around for her new acquaintance, uncertain as to where he'd been spirited away to, and found him sitting in the mock library all by himself. He was resting on a beanbag with his back to the rest of the cohort, apparently drinking from a bottle. In a stroke of inspiration, Cherry added just the right inflection of regret to her voice and said, "I want to apologise for pushing him before."
She wasn't sure how that was going to go over, and her companion clearly felt similarly. Daisy looked at her doubtfully. "Lucas is just a baby, he doesn't sit with anyone but me over lunch. You can apologise later, okay? How about you - "
"I want to do it now, though." Cherry interrupted. Seeing Daisy's frayed patience disintegrate altogether, she quickly added, "I feel really guilty. Please?"
For a moment, she was sure that her caretaker was going to force her to go make awkward small-talk with her sister. Finally, though, the Amazon caved. "Make it quick," she instructed with a sigh. She didn't look like she believed the little's declaration of guilt. Nor should she, Cherry thought ruefully. "Then go sit with Dawn."
Score. Hiding her relief, she offered a quick, "Yes Ms Bell," then hurried across the room to interrogate Lucas.
The in-betweener-turned-little's eyes followed Cherry as she came up from behind him, but he didn't stop suckling from his bottle. He glared at her over the nipple.
"What?" Cherry asked uncertainly.
He violently spat the bottle out. "I told you, I don't want your help anymore," he said flatly. "Go away before you get us both in even more trouble."
"Half an hour ago you were taking all sorts of jabs at my poor sister because she's too scared to do anything." Cherry matched her companion's vitriol with ease. "Now look at you."
Lucas shook his head angrily, visibly becoming more and more agitated as her presence failed to evaporate. "That was before you mentioned Evie's interest in you," he growled as menacingly as he could in a onesie, a diaper and the cutest face a mother could ask for. "Piss off. I'm drinking."
She felt her nails dig into the palms of her hands. "Listen to me," she said slowly. She wasn't going to lose her temper. She wasn't. "I don't want your - well, I do want your help, but obviously I'm not getting that. That's not what I'm here for."
He was silent for a moment. At least, he acquiesced a grudging, "Go on."
"All I want is information. I'll do all the hard work if you tell me what I'm up against. That's what you want, isn't it? To have someone else risk their hide on your behalf?"
He ignored the jab. "What you're up against?" he instead echoed sharply. He cast a wayward glance in Daisy's direction, who was fussing over a table for some reason or another. "What do you mean, what are you up against? You're up against Evie. That's not enough?"
Was I this slow when I was a teenager? "I'm going to break you both out," Cherry said impatiently. She tapped her foot against the carpeted floor. "Me and my friends. What do I need to worry about when I rock up? Nanny-bots? Armed guards? Booby traps?"
"Booby traps?" He stared at her in disbelief. "Are you...no, there's nothing. It's just Evie. She's a chemist, not a James Bond villain."
"Just Evie? Fine. See, how hard was that?" The little sighed. She shook her head. "If it's just Evie, then...we can..."
A thought then occurred to her.
If it was just Evie, she could have broken into the Amazon's mansion from day one. She'd never needed to do this stupid charade.
The feeling that engulfed her was akin to the one your average person experiences when Microsoft Word unexpectedly dies and consumes hours and hours of unsaved work. "It's just Evie," she repeated dumbly. She groaned, unable to believe her luck. "Man, I almost wish she was a Jame's Bond villain."
"You got a Stephen King villain. Close enough."
She could lament her misfortunes later. "So why won't you help me, then? Why haven’t you helped yourself already? It's one Amazon. How hard can it be to – ”
"You don't know what you're talking about. It's not that easy." Lucas interrupted. He slumped down into his beanbag, his fingers clenching and unclenching his bottle unconsciously. "You can't just break in and call it a day. She has tracking chips on me and Dawn, in case we somehow manage to escape. I can’t get around to get rid of it myself, and Dawn’s Dawn. She won’t even try. You're gonna have to disable them if you want to break us out."
After mastectomies and forced hypnotisms, that didn't even sound that bad. Tracking chips. She could deal with that. "Alright. How do I do that?"
He hesitated. "It's built into a piercing." He parted with that information with great reluctance. "I'd show you, but Daisy will be on us like a fly on shit if I touch my onesie. It's a little padlock that she's got hooked through our belly-buttons, and there's a sensor built into the padlock. You need to unlock it and get rid of it."
"And where does she keep the key?" Cherry instead asked, pointedly ignoring the floor dropping out under the weight of Mrs Goldsworthy's depravity once more. The sub-basement was next in line, surely. "That's all we need, right? If we can get these things off you and Dawn..."
"I don't know where she keeps it," Lucas admitted. "She's not likely to tell me of all people, is she? Besides, Cherry...you can't do anything. Evie's set you up, she's expecting you." He shook his head. "Just go, before she turns me into a vegetable. Why are you even here, Daisy' gonna be back to feed me any minute and she'll tell - "
This was not on, not after the progress they'd just made. "You're awfully eager to jump on the doom and gloom train," she snapped. Her mind was awhirl as she tried to conceive yet another plan on the fly. She had to get inside Evie’s place and find these keys. What was the best way to do that? "Just...just hold up for a minute, okay? Let me think.”
Lucas crossed his arms. “I don’t know if you have a minute. You’re better off asking Daisy.”
True, but could she do anything about that? “You’re not helping.”
“I don’t want to help.”
She ignored him.
Think, think, think. How was she going to go about this?
How easy are these keys going to be to find? Cherry wondered, staring at Lucas as she did so. He looked back impatiently. It’s just Evie. If we break in overnight, all we have to worry about is her and finding these keys. Can we break in and find them before she realises we’re there?
That sounded awfully optimistic. Ideally, they wanted to pull this stunt off without Evie having any cause to suspect their involvement, and this course of action had the potential to put that factor into deep jeopardy.
So...what? We break in wearing balaclavas, tie her up and then look for the keys?
That was possible, but...well, their trio consisted of an artist, a waiter and an architect. Not one hit man between them. Could they pull that off even if they wanted to? Sure, they’d outnumber her, but...did they really want to go the physical violence route?
They needed the best of both worlds. They needed to find the keys quickly, and they needed to be out before Evie had the opportunity to suspect their involvement. How did they do that?
They needed to know where the keys were before they even broke in; if they knew that, they could be in and out quickly. That meant she needed to do some research, and that meant that despite the risk of Evie recognising her, the original playdate plan was surely still the best option. Not with Dawn, though, that clearly wasn’t going to happen anymore. It’d have to be with Lucas.
But if she knows my face –
She’d have to chance it. There was a very good chance Evie didn’t know her face, anyway. If she could get in and find the keys, she could break in the next night with Raymond and free Lucas and Dawn without Evie knowing what hit her. They could be in and out quick enough to avoid that. If she didn’t find the keys in time, well...they’d have to improvise.
That’s what you’re going with? Her inner voice piped up dubiously. Really?
She didn’t have a better idea.
“I have a plan,” she announced slowly.
Lucas cast an agitated glance Daisy’s way. “I’m all ears.”
“I told you before how I initially wanted to plan a playdate with Dawn, yeah?” Cherry chewed her lip. “To check out the security? Well, same deal, more or less. I’ll go on a playdate with you to scout for the keys. Get it?”
He visibly thought about it, but he remained unconvinced. “But she’s set you up,” he said dubiously. “She’ll know your face, surely. That’s the whole problem.”
He’d stumbled on the one flaw in her plan far sooner than she’d hoped. “I don't think she does, you know."
"Listen. To. Me." she snarled, carefully enunciating each syllable. She was the only hope he had. Did he not get that? "I need to get inside and look around for your keys before I break in and bust you out. I’m going to need time to do that. We do this playdate this afternoon, we find the keys, then we unlock and break you out tomorrow night after she’s gone to sleep. Raymond can wait for us outside, pick us up, and then we all go incognito and live out our lives as free littles."
She looked at the boy in the diaper for assistance. "It's not difficult...if you help me."
Lucas sighed. "Except I'm not helping you."
She could have struck him. "Lucas!"
"Cherry!" he exclaimed emphatically. His voice was shaking slightly as he said, "Your sister lost her boobs. I lost my legs. I lost my dad. You're asking me to go another round with Evie when we already know that she's got the dice loaded. I've lost enough as it is. I'm not doing it. No way."
"You don't know if she has the dice loaded," Cherry insisted. "You're making this out - "
"I'm not doing it," Lucas said adamantly. He looked close to tears. "End of story. It was one thing when we were doing this behind her back. This...this is suicide."
They stared each other off for a long moment, realising that they'd reached a chokepoint.
She was going to have to change tactics. The Lucas of that morning – hell, of half an hour ago - was long gone, replaced by a terrified sixteen year old who was in way over his head in a horror film turned reality. Brute force wasn't going to change that. He was scared and lonely and more powerless than anyone had the right to be, and here she was trying to talk him into potentially worsening his situation. For all his bluster earlier, he was right - they were risking a lot with this. It sounded simple enough when she spelled it out the way she had, but if something went wrong...
She wasn't going to get through to him by screaming. "You don't really have another choice though, do you?" she said gently, reigning in both her tongue and her temper. "I'm the only hope you've got."
"Of course I have a choice. I can choose to stick with the fabulous life I have now - " he gestured grandly around the daycare with enough sarcasm to wilt grass. " - or I can choose to put God knows what part of my body on the line and make things even worse than they are now. What am I meant to do?"
"Don't be such a baby," she said, not considering the irony of that statement till it was out of her mouth. They both cringed, and she hurried to fill the breach with, "That's what you can do. Literally. Don't be a baby."
"If only it was that easy."
"Theoretically, it is. It can all be over tonight, if you want it to be."
He stared at her, torn.
Come ON. "She doesn't know my face, Lucas."
"You think she doesn't know your face."
"I'm pretty damn sure she doesn't know my face." She wasn't damn sure of any such thing. "Again. I'm open to other suggestions. If you can - "
“I’ll think about it.”
Cherry shut her mouth. “Yeah?”
“Yeah.” Lucas’ face was ashen. “Leave it with me, okay? I’m not promising anything, but...I’ll think about it.”
She quietly thanked whatever deity might be eavesdropping on their conversation. “I guess that’s all I can ask for.”
“It is.” He shrugged and made a shooing motion with his hands. The milk in his bottle sloshed dramatically. “Go eat, okay? I’ll...I’ll get back to you.”
And that was that. He wouldn’t entertain anything more than a firm maybe.
There wasn't much more she could argue that she hadn't already, so Cherry decided to leave it there. It was in Lucas' hands now. "I'm going to go sit with my sister," she said, not unkindly. "That’s where I’ll be, if you want to talk. I’m happy to try this if you are."
“Yeah, okay.” Lucas didn’t look convinced. “We’ll see.”
She ran into Daisy as she departed. The giantess had been on the way back as it was, and she was holding a jar of baby food, a spoon, and a scowl that was undoubtedly inspired by her troublesome charge. The Amazon looked down at her suspiciously as they greeted each other just outside the reading area. "What took you so long?" she asked. "I thought you were just apologising."
Cherry had actually forgotten to do that. She'd have to do it later - she hadn't been lying when she'd said she felt guilty about pushing the smaller boy around. Unfazed, the little put on her brightest grin and said, "I wanted to do it properly. Don't mind me."
"You don't give me much choice but to mind you," was the cross retort.
There was more than a kernel of truth in that. "You always have a choice," Cherry answered in spite of herself. She gave the wary daycare worker a reassuring tug on the leg of her pants, acting the part that was expected of her. "Come on," she prompted. "I'm hungry. Let’s go visit my best friend, eh?”