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Cherry Sweet Hearts

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Syd has a lot of regulars. Most of them live or work within a few blocks of her bakery. There's the morning and lunchtime rushes, filled with people in a hurry to get their coffee and pastries and hurry out with barely a thank you. They're her bread-and-butter, but they're not her favorites. She likes the ones who come in when it’s quieter. Some of them are just looking, or wrestling with temptation. She lets them browse, knowing they'll give in eventually. Others have a standard order, and are so reliable that she could have their take-out boxes ready before they even ask.

But asking is part of the fun, for them and for Syd.

There's one regular in particular that it takes Syd a while to figure out. A woman, maybe ten, fifteen years older than Syd, with straight brown hair and cautious eyes. Syd knows her name from her credit card: Amy Haller. For months now, Amy has come in once a week at the quietest lull of the morning, and carefully selected a few things from Syd's display. She never eats the items herself, not even a nibble from the edge like most do. She holds the box carefully and thanks Syd politely and then she's gone for another day.

And then one morning, the answer to the mystery of Amy Haller walks in with her.

"Hi," says the man, Amy's-- Husband? No, probably not; he's not wearing a ring and she is.

"Morning," Syd greets.

"Morning," the man says, glancing back and forth between Syd and the pastries. He doesn't seem sure which he wants to look at more. Syd's used to getting attention from her customers, though she's comfortable giving them a polite but firm no if they ever try to act on that interest.

This guy's cute. Tall, with fair, short, kinda messy hair. Nice build, kinda retro clothing, but what really gets Syd's attention are his eyes. They're a bright, startling blue, and they also happen to be the exact shade of blue as her cat's eyes. She named her bakery after Matilda -- The Ragdoll Bakery -- And Matilda-inspired art adorns the glass store front, the walls, even some cookies and cupcakes. Those always sell like hotcakes. No one can resist her blue eyes, and Syd finds it hard to look away from this man's.

"David," Amy calls, getting his attention. "Choose whatever you want."

"I think you've bought me one of everything," David admits, scanning the rows of cookies, muffins, pastries. "Are you sure there's nothing with cherries?"

"Is that what you're looking for?" Syd asks.

"Well," David says. "I mean, all of your stuff is great, I really like it."

"Flatterer," Syd says, amused.

David laughs, and though he'd come in looking somewhat tired and stressed, his smile lights him up and makes Syd's insides flutter. She reminds herself to stay professional. Just because he's cute doesn't mean flirting with him is a good idea.

"I'm David," he says, introducing himself. "Amy's brother. Um, you know Amy, right?"

"Of course," Syd says, giving Amy a smile. She turns back to David. "I'm afraid I don't have anything with cherries. How about strawberry? Raspberry?"

David scrunches his nose. "I really like cherries best," he says. "Will you have something tomorrow?"

"Actually, ah, I never use cherries," Syd admits. She's had the occasional request, but it's not a very popular flavor, so she's been able to avoid it.

But David seems crestfallen. "Never?"

"Sorry," Syd says. "I don't really like cherry-flavored things."

David stares in utter disbelief.

"Or orange-flavored things," Syd adds, hoping that will soften the blow. "Is there something else you like?"

"I guess-- Anything sweet," David says, but he can't hide his disappointment. Then he perks up. "Do you have something with waffles?"

"Sorry," Syd says, regretful. She hates disappointing her customers, and David's blue eyes are very disappointed. "There's a cafe next door that serves waffles for breakfast?"

Amy checks her watch. "I don't think we have time for that today. David, just pick something, we have to catch the bus. We don't want to be late for your appointment." She walks over and puts a hand on his arm and gives it a reassuring squeeze.

It's clear that whatever this appointment is, David needs the reassurance. And that's when Syd realizes that the items Amy buys every week are treats for David, to cheer him up from whatever he's dealing with. Syd looks him over again, noting that his clothes seem larger on his frame than they should be, and on his wrist-- A medical ID and a hospital bracelet.

And then it all makes sense. David's sick. Flirting with him is definitely a bad idea.

David choses one of the cupcakes decorated with a happy cat face with bright blue eyes. Amy pays, and then again urges David to hurry so they don't miss the bus. David glances back through the open door, and then he's gone.

§

When Syd closes the bakery that afternoon, she goes to the cafe next door for an early dinner. Running a bakery requires very odd hours.

"Your usual?" Daniel asks.

Syd gives a distracted hum.

"Something wrong?" Daniel asks, switching out of waiter mode. He and his husband Clark own the cafe, and Syd's become good friends with them. They helped her get her bakery into the black, and in return she helps with their dessert menu. The Division Street Cafe gets rave reviews for its desserts.

"I don't know," Syd sighs. "There’s this guy--"

Daniel raises a hand. "Hold that thought. Clark!"

Syd huffs. "It's not like that."

"It's totally like that," Daniel decides. "I'll get your order in. You and Clark do your girl talk."

Syd rolls her eyes at him, but she's still relieved when Clark joins her at the small table.

"You two are making way too big a deal out of this," Syd tells him.

"Uh huh," Clark says, not believing her. "So tell me about this one."

"You make me sound like I fall in love every week," Syd protests.

"You don't, that's why we're having this conversation," Clark replies. "And 'fall in love'?"

"I didn't--" Syd curses whatever ridiculous notion made that slip out. She's a very practical person, she has to be. She doesn't do silly things like fall in love with cute men who are clearly undergoing some kind of health crisis. "Look, nothing happened."

"Then why are you upset?" Clark asks, and frankly it's a valid question.

"I don't know," Syd says. "He's the brother of one of my regulars. Cute, interested, I think, but--"

"Married?"

"Oh please," Syd says. "No. I don't know what's wrong, but-- He's sick. Some kind of hospital treatment. His sister's been bringing him my stuff as a treat."

"Sweet," Clark says, and then snorts at his own pun.

"She obviously cares about him," Syd continues. "That's a point in his favor, but--"

"You don't want to set yourself up for heartache," Clark says.

"Yeah," Syd sighs.

"But you want to anyway?"

"Yeah," Syd sighs again. "He likes cherries. He was heartbroken that I didn't have anything with cherries."

"So make him something with cherries," Clark says, being his usual reasonable self.

Syd makes a face. "I don't like cherries."

"You are so painfully single," Clark declares. "Do you know how many things Daniel and I hate about each other's tastes? You've heard our arguments. But we compromise. Make the guy a cherry danish. It's not like he's asking you to paint the walls of your cafe in ugly hexagons."

"It's modernist," Daniel calls from the back.

Clark gives a long-suffering sigh. "Want to trade? I'll take yours, you take mine."

"He's not mine yet," Syd says.

"Yet? Oh this is serious," Clark decides. "I've got some frozen cherries in the freezer. They're all yours."

§

Syd isn't nervous. She's definitely not nervous. She's going to keep telling herself that until the nervous butterflies in her stomach actually listen to her.

The morning crawls by even when it's busy. She keeps glancing at the clock, wondering, waiting. And then there they are, Amy and David together. Same time as last time. They won't have too long before they have to make the bus.

"Morning," Syd greets.

"Morning," David says. Despite his disappointment yesterday, he still seems happy to see her. Maybe even happier. She wonders if he's been thinking about her the way she's been thinking about him. She hopes so.

He starts looking at the case, pondering his options, and Syd puts a small box on the counter.

"What's that?" David asks.

"For you," Syd says, feeling obvious and a little shy. She glances at Amy, but she's looking at her phone. "Since cherries are your favorite."

David takes the box and opens it. "You really made this just for me?" he asks, amazed. "I-- I don't even know your name."

"It's Syd," Syd says, smiling. "Sydney Barrett."

David stares at her. "Um, David Haller, obviously, um." He smiles. "Thank you, Syd. This is really thoughtful."

"You're welcome," Syd says, pleased.

"I'd take a bite now, but uh, it's kind of a tradition to wait," David says. "A reward for getting through another round, you know?" He sobers. "I'm uh," he points at his head. "Sick."

"I guessed," Syd admits. "I saw the bracelet."

"Oh!" David says, realizing. "Yeah, that's kind of obvious."

"Do they think you'll be okay?" Syd asks, hoping it's not an upsetting question.

"Probably," David says. "My doctors are really good. Experts, you know? They tell me it's going well. Doesn't always feel like it, but, uh, I trust them."

Syd notices Amy watching them, and tries to put on a more professional air. "So will I see you again next week?"

"Yes," David says, eagerly. "I mean, you made me this, how could I not?"

Syd can't help but smile back.

§

As a baker, Syd's heard plenty of jokes about the way to a man's heart being through his stomach. But it's never felt so true. Not that she thinks David only likes her for her baking, but every time he opens the boxes she gives him, each with a different cherry-flavored item inside, those blue eyes light up so bright.

Clark was right, of course. It was nothing, really, to make a small compromise to make David happy. Even if they're still just baker and customer-- David and Amy show up a lot earlier than they used to, just so David and Syd have time to talk. Their weekly visits have become short, impromptu dates, meeting across the counter instead of over coffee. Amy doesn't seem to mind. She takes one of the small tables by the window and patiently looks at her phone, only glancing over at them occasionally, a fond, relieved look in her eyes. Syd thinks Amy’s glad that David has something to look forward to every week, someone to talk to. Syd’s mom was sick for years, and her death was what compelled Syd to finally make her bakery dream a reality. She knows how lonely sickness can be.

Syd wants to see more of David, and she’s sure he wants to see more of her, given his longing looks as he leaves each time.

“Hey, would you like to do something together?” Syd asks. “We could see a movie, or go eat someone else’s food.”

“I would,” David says, pleased, but then his expression falls. “But I don’t think I can. Um, today’s kind of my good day. The treatments, the chemo—“ He falters. He’s been very shy about what’s actually wrong with him. “I’m usually laid out for a while. And by the time I’m feeling better, it’s time for the next round.”

“I’m sorry,” Syd says, empathetic. “My mom had cancer. Sometimes she thought the treatment was worse than the disease.”

“Yeah,” David agrees, heartfelt. “It’s been— Really rough. Honestly, coming here is the highlight of my week.”

“For the cherries?” Syd teases.

“No,” David says, and looks at her with those big blue eyes, full of so much feeling. She could spend a lifetime looking into those eyes. She just hopes she has the chance.

“But the end is in sight,” David says, with forced cheer. “Chemo’s almost over, and then it’s the big day. Um, I’m looking forward to, uh, waking up to one of your pastries after that.”

The way he says that makes Syd think he’s not sure he’ll get the chance.

“I’ll make you something really special,” Syd promises. “And then you’ll come back and tell me how much you liked it.”

“That's, um—“ David swallows. “I’d really like to do that.” He gives her a soulful look, then sighs. “Time for the bus again.”

Syd wants to reach across the counter. She wants to walk out and hug him, comfort him. But she hesitates, uncertain, and then it’s too late.

She didn’t want to set herself up for the heartache of losing him the way she lost her mom. But holding back makes her heart ache, too.

§

David's 'big day' comes all too soon. David and Amy come by early that morning, just after the bakery opens. Syd refuses to think of it as David saying goodbye, but it still feels like that might be exactly what they're doing.

"It's a brain tumor," David finally admits, though Syd guessed as much. "And the funny thing is that they thought I was schizophrenic for years. I had hallucinations, heard voices. But apparently it really was all in my head." He gives her a pained smile. "The misdiagnosis cost me a lot of time. That's why the treatment has to be so aggressive. They have to get it out now before--" He looks away, swallows. "Melanie and Oliver-- They're my doctors, um. They're married so calling them both Doctor Bird would be kinda confusing. Anyway, they think they can get it out. But, you know, brain surgery. So there's these surgeons, the Loudermilks, we met last week. They're the ones who are gonna go in and--" He makes a grabbing motion, like a claw machine.

"That's a lot of doctors," Syd says, with gentle humor. "It sounds like you're in good hands."

"They keep telling me to keep pushing," David says, and he's obviously terrified. "I push and they pull, like-- I'm trying to give birth or something. I thought-- I should call the tumor Athena, since cancer cells are immortal and it's being pulled out of my head. My own personal god." He pauses again. "Or devil, probably. The things it did to me-- I know it's just a clump of cells, but-- It kind of tortured me."

"You know, you're very strong to have survived all that," Syd tells him.

"I don't think it counts as survival until after it's over," David says. "But if I do--"

"When you do," Syd says, not wanting him to doubt.

"When," David allows. "I, um, used to feel like I couldn't have good things in my life because I was sick. But I'm getting better now, I hope, and--" He swallows and looks her in the eyes.

"I'll be here," Syd promises him. "All the good things will be waiting for you, okay?"

She offers her hand to him. He hesitates, seemingly afraid to take it. But he reaches out and holds her hand, and then lets out a shuddering breath, gives her a shaky smile.

When he and Amy leave, Syd closes the bakery for the day. She goes home, sobs her eyes out, and then curls up on the sofa with Matilda and a bottle of whiskey.

That night, she gets a text from Amy that says: "It's out. No news until he wakes up. Induced coma, might be days."

Syd shudders with relief, but still feels suspended. "Thanks. Keep me updated?" she texts back.

Amy sends her a heart emoji.

Syd sends her one back. "You can eat the pie," she adds. She'd given David a miniature heart-shaped cherry pie. There's no need for it to go to waste. "I'll make something fresh."

§

It's a week until the doctors decide David is ready to be woken up, but it feels like a year. Syd visits Summerland hospital every afternoon to see David and give Amy moral support. She and her husband Ben have been holding it together for David, but now that they've done everything they can, they need to take care of themselves before they fall apart. Syd sends them off to the Division Street Cafe, knowing a change of scene and Clark and Daniel will lift their spirits. It's kind of nice, feeling like they're all one big family. Syd's been too alone since her mom died, since she threw herself into running the bakery.

She meets Lenny, David's self-described 'cancer buddy' who shared chemo time with him. She meets Melanie and Oliver Bird, and Cary and Kerry Loudermilk, and gives them huge boxes of thank-you pastries. She meets David's nurse, Ptonomy, who's all business but warms up with his own thank-you box.

She sits by David's bed and holds his hand, willing him to wake up for her even though she knows it's the doctors who decide when he opens his eyes. She wishes she’d told him how she feels. She wishes she'd kissed him and not just held his hand.

The night before David's scheduled to be woken up, Syd bakes and bakes, trying desperately to calm herself. She thinks she might be starting to like cherries. She drinks too much tea and then passes out around dawn, exhausted.

She wakes, sore and blearly, surrounded by cherry pastries, pies, cookies, cupcakes. She checks her phone. The battery's low, but there's enough left for her to check her texts.

"He's OK," writes Amy. "Resting now. Come visit." And then a heart emoji.

Syd texts back a heart emoji, then plugs in her phone and drags herself to the shower. She stands under the hot water and feels like she can finally breathe again.

§

Syd knows David is okay. She knows the surgery was a success, that the tumor is gone, that the inflammation in his brain has healed enough for the doctors to wake him up. She knows everything's okay now. But she doesn't believe it until she walks into his hospital room and sees him.

David is lying back in his hospital bed, which is adjusted so he's mostly sitting up. He looks tired and stressed, but when he sees her, his smile lights him up and makes Syd's insides flutter. Lenny is sitting with him, and her eyes lock on to the box Syd is carrying.

"Dibs on whatever your girlfriend's got," Lenny declares.

David blushes, and it puts some life back into his pale complexion. "She's not--" he starts, then falters.

They never actually-- Talked about what they are. David clearly wasn't ready, not with his surgery hanging over him, and Syd-- Maybe she wasn't ready either. But after the week they've all had, she thinks she's ready. She wants to be.

Before Syd can give the box of pastries to David, Lenny nabs it and steps out of reach. She opens the box and starts poking around, delighted. She takes her picks and then returns the box to David with only a vague air of apology.

"You two kids have fun," Lenny says, heading off with her plundered treasure. "Don't do anything I wouldn't do, which-- Actually doesn't rule anything out." She shoves a cupcake in her mouth and then she's gone.

Syd looks after her, feeling somewhat at a loss.

"Sorry about that, Lenny's, well-- Lenny," David says, and picks up the box. "Wow, there's still a lot in here. Did you make me all of this?"

"Yeah," Syd admits, embarrassed by her baking frenzy. "And more. I, uh, needed to keep busy. Baking's always relaxed me."

"I guess that's why you opened a bakery?" David asks.

"Pretty much," Syd admits. "How are you feeling?"

"Like someone opened up my head," David says, trying to make light of it even though he's clearly struggling. He touches the bandage on his head, secured with elastic netting. Tufts of his hair stick out of the netting. "They had to shave part of my head. I'm thinking of going punk."

Syd laughs. "You could definitely make that work."

David laughs, too, and then looks into the box, reaches for something, hesitates. Then he closes the lid again and smooths his hands across the top, letting out a shaky breath.

"Not hungry?" Syd asks, concerned.

"Starving, actually," David says. "But um-- I've been waiting for this day for so long. I don't-- know if I'm ready. This-- Tradition Amy started for us. I guess this is the last time."

"Your reward for getting through another round," Syd recalls. "You know, healthy people eat pastries, too," she teases.

David gives another soft laugh. "I know. But your boxes always felt-- Special. Waiting to open them, knowing-- There was something good waiting for me." He gives her a shy look.

Syd wants to reassure him, but-- She senses there's more he needs to say. She sits down in the chair beside his bed and pushes it closer, then holds out her hand. He takes it, not hesitating this time, and grips it tightly. He takes another shaky breath, lets it out.

"They said I'm clean, but-- There's always a chance it'll come back," David admits, quietly. "If there’s a stray cell left behind." He swallows. "I want to believe I'm not sick anymore, that I can fall in love and live happily ever after-- But if I surrender to that hope and I'm wrong--"

"David," Syd says, softly.

David's eyes well up with tears, and when he blinks they fall. "I don't want to hurt you."

Syd can't watch David cry and not do anything about it. There's no counter between them now, no more excuses to hold back. If Syd wants this-- She has to make the choice. So she makes it. She takes the box from him and sets it aside, and sits on the edge of his bed and pulls him into her arms. It's not how she imagined she would first hold him, but when he overcomes his own resistance, when he holds her back and clings like she's the only thing keeping him alive-- Regret is the last thing she feels.

"Shh," she hushes, rubbing his back through his thin hospital gown. "You don't have to be afraid. I'm not going anywhere, okay?"

David weeps, his face buried against her shoulder, but soon calms. He loosens his hold on her, leans back against the pillows. He sniffs and she hands him a tissue, and he blows his nose. His eyes are swollen but he looks better. He was all nerves before the surgery, carrying so much fear. Syd thinks he just needed the release.

"Hey, I have an idea," she says, lightly. "How about instead of finishing an old tradition, we start a new one?" At David's curious look, she continues. "Instead of celebrating that something's over, let's celebrate-- That something's starting."

"Are we?" David asks, uncertain but hopeful. "Starting something?"

Syd gives him a thoughtful look. "My mom used to say-- We wake every day to survive again. That isn't always an easy thing, being alive, but-- It's definitely something to celebrate."

David eases, but gives her a pouting look. "That wasn't what I was asking."

"No," Syd says, amused, then sobers. "I told you about my mom. Losing her-- It did hurt me. I didn't cut myself off entirely, but-- I didn't let anyone touch me. But then I met you." She looks into David's eyes, just as striking as the first day they met. "I don't want to be untouchable anymore."

David ducks his head, then looks up at her through his lashes. "You don't feel very untouchable to me."

"I was asleep and you woke me up," Syd tells him, honestly. "So our new tradition-- That's for both of us. And we should celebrate it every day for as long as we have, no matter how long we have."

David looks at her with awe. "Do you want to be my girlfriend?" Then he winces. "Sorry, that sounded--"

"Yes," Syd answers. "But only if you eat some cherry pie with me."

"I thought you didn't like cherries?" David asks.

"I do now," Syd tells him. She grabs the box and opens it. "C'mon, I made these just for you."

David hesitates, then takes out one of the miniature, heart-shaped cherry pies. "It's different with you here," he admits.

"Yeah?" Syd prompts.

David nods. "It's better." He smiles, then brings up the pie to eat it.

"Wait," Syd says, and leans in and kisses him. David gives a small noise of surprise and then falls into the kiss. His lips are chapped from the breathing tube, and there's not much strength in him yet. But there's no denying the passion that pours out of him once his fear falls away.

When she pulls back, he looks more alive than she's ever seen him.

"Is that part of the tradition, too?" David asks, a little breathless.

"Absolutely," Syd decides. "Now let's have that cherry pie."

Syd knows all about looking from afar and wrestling with temptation. But no matter how long she lets her customers browse, eventually they find the treat that's just right for them. And then they make their choice, and their lives are all the sweeter for it.