The woman kneeling in the front garden must have been beautiful in her youth, and even with the first traces of middle age starting to make their presence known, she was stunning. Honeycomb hair streaked with grey cascaded from the confines of a floppy straw hat, falling to her shoulders like a waterfall of liquid gold. Her face was lined but noble; her frame thin but sturdy. She was enamoured with her gardening and didn't look up as the car came to a rest on the opposite side of the street, even when Raymond lowered the windows to let the afternoon breeze inside. Cherry watched her work with no small amount of relief. She'd half expected to find the house deserted. After everything Evelyn had put the poor woman through over the last year, it wouldn't have surprised the little in the slightest.
"That's my mother," said Lucas. His voice was solemn as he leaned past Raymond to lay eyes on a family member for the first time in months. The in-betweener had been restored to his former height mere days after leaving Thornbridge, and the effort required wasn't as enormous as it might have been a few weeks ago. "Man, she's still here."
Francis Pearce toiled away in her garden bed, as of yet completely oblivious to her son's return. Cherry couldn't see exactly what it was she was doing, but the older woman had a spade in hand and a variety of plants scattered about the grass beside her. The sight fascinated Lucas to no end. The in-betweener looked as if he didn't quite believe his eyes, as if he fully expected his mother to evaporate in a puff of smoke at any given moment. Cherry had felt the same way concerning her sister during that first week back in Hearth, and she had to grin. It was heartening to watch someone else go through the same experience.
"Should we go say hello?" Dawn suggested. The little had made every effort to cloak herself in adulthood since the night of her escape, and as a result the smile on her lips was the colour of freshly picked grapes. She'd taken to makeup like a burning man took to water over the last month, and today was no exception. Her face wouldn't have been out of place at a sit down dinner. "She's waited long enough, don't you think?"
"She's going to freak." Lucas glanced over his shoulder with an easy grin. "Sarah too, if she's here." He shook his head wondrously, then almost as an afterthought added, "God, I hope she's here."
"Shall we go find out?"
They got out of the car then, pausing only long enough to collect their belongings before making the short trek across the road. Lucas led the way, with Cherry, Raymond and Dawn only a step behind. The little marvelled that the minuscule boy she'd rescued a month previous was the same giant who's shadow she now literally walked in. Raymond had driven the three of them to a local little's clinic in Hearth the very same day they'd returned, and without any questions or fuss the doctor present had cured Evelyn's victims of their assorted afflictions. All Cherry remembered of the experience was being sat down in front of a pulsing screen in a sterile hospital room; when she came to, she'd been catapulted an hour into the future and into the back of Raymond's car, free of her nasty thumb-sucking and pants-wetting habits. Both Lucas and Dawn had undergone a similar reversal of Evelyn's hypnotic suggestions, and on top of that, the doctor had also returned Lucas' height to him. After spending a week with a tiny boy confined to his hands and knees, Cherry didn't think she'd ever adjust to the new Lucas. He was only slightly shorter than Raymond these days; he was level with the Amazon's chest, and she was level with the in-betweener's belly-button. She stared at the back of his head as they crept up behind Francis, marvelling at the chain of events that had led them to this moment. It was a crazy, crazy world.
Lucas came to a halt a scant meter away from his mother, and for a long moment he hesitated. "Do you need a hand?" he finally asked. His voice was uncertain, as if he was afraid she might turn around and send him off to Evelyn all over again. "Mum?"
His mother had been bent over her task, and at the sound of Lucas' voice she quite literally fell forward into the dirt. Francis' hat came lose and tumbled away, but she paid it no mind. The in-betweener spun around, her face flustered and startled, and when she at last caught sight of her son her eyes immediately began to water. "I'm dreaming," she declared uncertainly. Her voice had gone hoarse in the split second it took to recognise her son. "You died, all the papers said you...you died. She took you from me, and when her place went up you...she..."
Her voice trailed off as Lucas spread his arms. "Someone forgot to tell me I was meant to be dead." He grinned. "Oops."
Lucas' mother caught sight of the group behind her son then, and when she saw Dawn, she let out a weak, wet chuckle. "Hello there. You're looking very grown up these days. How did you convince her...too...no, wait." Francis wiped at her eyes, suddenly angry. "No, you're meant to be dead too. Both of you are meant to be dead." She climbed to her feet and stepped away from her son. "Is this a trick?" she snapped. "Has she sent you to grab one of your sisters? I won't have it, I should never have let her take you, so if you think you're going to run off with Sarah or Ashleigh you can damn well - "
"Mum." Lucas matched her retreat and slipped his arms around her waist. He was a half a head taller than his mother, and he rested his chin on the crown of her head."It's not a trick. I'm...I'm home."
Cherry wasn't sure when everyone started crying, but before she knew it, everyone was crying. Francis starting bawling, and then Lucas started bawling, then her sister starting sniffling beside her and there must have been something in the air, because by God, she started sniffling too. Raymond was the only one immune to the rampant emotions wrecking havoc on the front lawn; he took one look at his roommate before chuckling to himself and shaking his head, looking away across the street to give everyone some privacy. The exasperated look on his face drew a choked giggle from Cherry. She patted at her eyes with a handkerchief and quietly thanked God that she hadn't put on any eyeliner that morning, unlike her sister. Dawn was going to look like a raccoon in a minute. The thought made her start giggling all over again, giggling like a lunatic until she was gasping for air.
After a long minute, Francis at last pulled away. Cherry didn't think she'd ever seen someone so happy. "How did you get away?" she asked in a rush. Words tumbled out her mouth like rain from the sky. "Did she let you go? There was that massive fire, they think it was because she was a dealer, did you - "
Lucas cut her off with a grand, sweeping gesture in Cherry's general direction. "Mum," he began cheerfully. His smile was gash that threatened to slice his head in half. "I'd like to introduce you to Cherry, prison-break extraordinaire and the bravest little to ever live. "
Cherry smiled awkwardly as the spotlight fell squarely upon her shoulders. "Raymond helped," she added helpfully. She looked up at her roommate and grinned. "It was a team effort."
"Someone had to break the doors down." Raymond shrugged and returned the smile. He ruffled her hair, laughing as she shrugged away. "Cherry can't even break down a pet door."
"You'll have to tell me everything." Francis' eyes were shining as much from tears as excitement. Having got over the initial shock of having her dead son returned to life, she was suddenly as animated as a bee on a caffeine high. "Come inside, I'll put a cup of coffee on." She turned back to her son, and seemingly unable to help herself, she hugged him again. "Your sisters are going to be thrilled, Lucas. You've been away a long time."
"Sarah hasn't moved out yet?" Cherry could hear the naked hope in his voice.
"Lords, no. I can't even get her to move out of her bedroom." Francis laughed to herself and bounced away, crossing the front garden in what seemed like all of two steps. "Come in, all of you, come in!" She called over her shoulder. "Make yourself at home. I'll go tell the girls you're here!"
Then she was gone, and they were alone on the front lawn.
"She's very happy for someone that just saw a ghost," Dawn quipped. She seemed incapable of banishing the smile from her face. "Two of them, in fact."
"I'm surprised she remembers what you look like. She only ever saw you once or twice." Lucas chuckled to himself and wiped his eyes. He looked about sheepishly, embarrassed at having been caught crying. "I didn't realise how much I missed her till just now. She's right; I was away a long time."
Dawn hugged him as best she could from her altitude. "You're home now," she offered gently. She flashed Cherry a smile over her shoulder, and the younger little knew what she was thinking. The connection made her all warm and fuzzy inside. It makes everything worth it, she thought to herself. "That's all that matters. You have plenty of time to make up for it."
"I guess you're right." He hugged her back. After a minute, they pulled away, beaming at each other, and without a word made for the front door. Smiling to herself, Cherry went to follow them...
...only to have Raymond pull her back.
"Hey," she exclaimed, following the enormous hand on her shoulder up to her friend's grizzled visage. There was an odd look on the Amazon's face, one that was simultaneously affectionate and uncomfortable. Cherry raised an eyebrow. "What gives?"
"You did a good job, you know."
She wriggled free of his grasp. "So did you. I meant that."
"A good job of what? Breaking down a door or two?" Raymond shrugged and sat down on the ground. Even seated, he was still taller than his roommate. "Cherry, you were the one who did all the heavy lifting. All I did was watch from the sidelines."
"That's bullshit, and you know it."
"Is it?" The Amazon didn't look convinced. "Unless I'm very much mistaken, you were the one the infiltrated the daycare from Hell. You were the one who suffered through Daisy Bell."
Cherry stared at him, bemused. Why was he so keen to write himself out of the story? Infiltrating the 'daycare from Hell' had even been his idea, after all. He wasn't being fair. "Yes, but - "
"You were the one who arranged a playdate with Lucas." He was literally ticking criteria off his fingers now, one by one. "You were the one who put up with the thumb sucking, with the diapers and the God knows what you're too embarrassed to tell me. You were the one who convinced your sister she couldn't help herself unless she helped us, and you were the one that suffered through my psychopath girlfriend every step of the way." His eyes bored holes into her soul. "You realise that you're the hero of the story, right?"
How many heroes wear diapers, though? Cherry sat down beside her friend."What's your point, Ray?"
"I know you," he answered, eyeing the open the door a stone's throw away. "We're going to go in there, and they're going to shower you with praise, and you're going to talk it down. Like it was no big deal. Well, you're free to do that...but what you did was a big deal, and I want you to know that." He ruffled her hair again, and when she'd managed to clear it from her line of sight, she was shocked to see that Raymond was tearing up. "You saved two people from a really horrible fate, Cherry. I'm proud of you."
The warm fuzzy feeling she'd felt before returned like a tsunami. "I'm touched, Ray."
"I mean, I get where you're coming from," he went on. "But don't go telling everyone I have an equal share in the glory, okay? I almost ruined everything." He abruptly looked away, shaking his head and staring at the grass between his splayed legs. "Absolutely everything. I forced Sylvia to come along, forced her on you every step of the way. If I'd been smart enough to realise she was a lost cause, that last night in the motel would never have happened. That was as much my fault as it was hers. We were all this close - " he held his thumb and forefinger a scant inch apart " - to spending the rest of our days in a crib, waiting to be fed from a bottle and getting our diapers changed. This close!"
"You couldn't have known."
"Of course I could have. That's the problem." He sighed. "How could I have missed it?"
They were quiet for a long minute then. The little watched her roommate, watched the gears ticking in his head. Sylvia had been wrong in thinking there'd ever been a romantic interest between the two of them, but right then, Cherry had never loved him more. Here he was, beating himself up for selflessly jumped into a volatile situation to help a little in need. Sure, Sylvia had ended up being a right piece of work in the end, but all Raymond had wanted was to reconcile her differences with the smaller folk of the world. No one could ever hold that against him. "What did you do to her?" Cherry heard herself ask. She caught his eye. "Afterwards."
The look Raymond gave her was unreadable. The last Cherry had seen of Evelyn and Sylvia, the Amazonian waiter had been escorting them up the front steps of the Thornbridge Correctional Facility for Troublesome Littles, an etiquette school and adoption agency rolled into one. He'd returned all by himself, and he had yet to divulge a word of what he'd instructed the matron there to do with his prisoners. The look on his face implied that this was not something that was about to change, and sensing a blunder on her part, Cherry rushed to say, "I mean, if you're comfortable - "
Her roommate got to his feet. "We should probably go inside," he said, brushing himself down of grass and dirt. "We're the main attraction, after all."
"That's a little egotistical." Cursing her own stupidity, Cherry followed in his footsteps, accepting the hand he offered to help her up. Of course he doesn't want to talk about what he did with Sylvia, she chided herself. It's only been a month. He's still not over her. "More important than Lucas?"
"Of course." His grin was as unexpected as it was welcome. "As far as I'm concerned, you and I are the two most important people on the face of the planet. You should know that by now."
She laughed with him, and the last vestiges of doubt dissipated like frost in the afternoon sun. "Me too?" she teased. "That's a bit risky, isn't it? You're putting your faith in someone that's proven she has every chance of pissing on your carpet."
Raymond chuckled at that, and for the third time that day he ruffled her hair. This time, she let him. "Cherry," he said, taking the little's hand and pulling her into Lucas' family home. "You can piss on my carpet anytime you like."