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Sugar and Spite and Setting Things Right

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"Well, Sugar. The princess is gone. How about you and I have a civilized conversation. Think we can do that?" 

"No! Absolutely not! Release me at once!" 

Mother Ginger propped an elbow on the console, pointedly nudging the key a little mouse had fetched back for her, hip cocked, one foot crossed in front of the other. She eyed the pouting fairy on the platform, her fingers wrapped tight around the bars of the new golden cage, clenching them in white-knuckled fists. Hm. As much as it wasn't what she'd come for, that was just a delicious look, all that pink ruffled rage. 

"I demand to see my court! Guards! Guards!" 

"One push and you're tiny again, Sugarplum. Let’s cut the hysterics, shall we?" 

Oh, that glare was twice as loud as her flutey, flouncy voice. Sharpened like the point of a candy cane left too long in a child's greedy mouth. 

"Bring me back just to gloat, then?"

Yes, there it was. The full-grown tyrant buried under all that fluff, just waiting to be set loose in that lower, deadly, pop-rock dust drawl. Always half a pout in her smile, and always an edge to the lot of it. Gloating was nice. After too many years left in the forest to rot, gloating before her banisher in a gilded cage? Downright tasty. But Mother Ginger had something altogether more delicious in mind. 

"No. Believe it or not, I think you might even like what I have to say." 

She paused just for the spite of it, watched one of Sugarplum's pink ruffled toes begin to drum a staccato heartbeat against the platform. Wondered, just for a second, if she could hold enough out on that line alone to watch her sprout those glossy, gossamer wings, her irritation send her spitting into the air. 

"Well? Are you going to say it or not?" 

Ooh, the squeaky crack breaking the last word would absolutely do for now. 

"They really are willfully blind, aren't they?" She cast a pointed look out the great glass window. "Half the world between them and still, they'll simper and bow to whichever one of us is nearest by." 

Sugarplum went very, very still. Even the lighter-than-air sugarpetals of her skirts stilled so utterly, she must have stopped breathing. A neat trick, that. Mother Ginger wondered if that could be cultivated, could be re-learned by a few weeks back as an unliving, unbreathing thing, or if it was just part of what Sugarplum had always been which she had not; otherworldly, eerily perfect; life given to something more than human rather than less. For a moment, the darkness beneath her skin pulsed hot in the crack of her cheek, but she shook her head, straightened up, away from the platform, and chose her next words. 

"How easily they turned against you at the little princess's command. How quickly they forgot why you all threw me to the rats in the first place. How quickly they cease to care why there ever was a war, given back their flowers and their snow. Men have always made the worst of regents. Why, Sugarplum..." She put on a drawl of her own, though she knew hers would never sparkle with that glittering ill-intent quite like the living doll in the cage. "Just think what we'd both have, had we done away with them instead of each other." 

"Oh, you dreadful witch," Sugarplum hissed, tugging at the bars. "You think I would ever, ever forgive what you did?"

Mother Ginger stepped down from the console, began the walk to the stairs. She'd known it would come to this when she'd set about crafting the birdcage, when she'd set the hand-sized, porcelain figure before the light, and let her grow back like rock candy on a string. She was ready, after many, many years, to face this anger. Too long living in your own head, even a head higher than all the rotting trees around you, was like as not to drive you a little mad, but it was also the perfect place for a spot of dark and dizzy self-reflection. Set it to a melancholy waltz spinning off a player piano in a faded cerulean blue under the watchful stares of several soulless six-inch clowns and the conclusions to come of it were bound to be... colorful. 

"I don't," she said when she stood before her at the edge of the platform, hands clasped behind her back. "I don’t expect a thing from you. But still, I can hope you do." 

"You sent her out there!" she cried, teeth bared. "You cost me everything!" 

She cocked her head. "She could not be amused here any longer, Sugarplum. You knew it, I knew it. She was torn between worlds. She gave us this one. It was only right, that I give her something back." 

"She was my queen!" The pain beneath the fervent declaration tugged at old guilt like bubblegum in hair, impossible to get out with hands and wishes alone. She could feel the crack on her forehead widen another inch, feel the licorice tar spread and bubble beneath, unseen. Some things took scissors. Carving knives. 

"She was our queen. All of us. She was never yours." 

"She loved me," Sugarplum hissed. 

Mother Ginger stepped closer to the cage. She reached out, rested the tips of her fingers against white-tight knuckles, felt the candyfloss-fine trembling there. "Not like that, Sugar. Not like that." 

Taffy lips split wide, teeth splayed for the cry of rage and anguish that only came after several seconds of trapped air. Her hand jerked free of the bar, grabbed Mother Ginger's wrist instead, and for a second, she feared she'd come too close too soon, feared how tightly those not-at-all-porcelain fingers gripped her, the strength of those pink-lacquered nails against her oil-slow pulse. Then, the scream ended in a sob, the hand slackened around her, and she crumpled to the floor of the cage, face pressed cruelly against unforgiving gold, pink-lemonade tears spilling from her eyes. "Why!" she gasped out. "Why did you have to give her that horrible, horrible song! Why!" 

Mother Ginger kept to her feet, staring down at Sugarplum's hand where it had slid into hers, the pale, delicate lines of her, so terribly eaten by regrets less visible than her own. How many times had she wondered the same, in the years since Drosselmeyer had come to her, had told her of the boy beyond the gears of their world who had caught their queen's eye, and of their queen who needed something of this world, some small bit of their magic, and her own power, to take back with her, to remind her she was more than the strange inventor-orphan who lived in the workshop below the city and ruled in the land of lies given life beyond it? How many times had she stared at the blue piano in the crumbling circus attic made in her own image, remembered it sitting in the palace instead, remembered plucking out notes for beauty, strength, and love, all the while Sugarplum lurked around her, spun and danced and laughed and asked, over and over again, what magic she was making with her fingers today, to whom she would gift this beautiful song? How many times had she stumbled, struck a particularly tragic chord, snuck it into the oboe between the strings, unable to let it go even from this lovely. lilting thing that was supposed to send their queen to happiness, because she knew—just as she knew what the look in Sugarplum's eyes was when she gazed upon their queen on her throne, just as she knew, and ached with the knowing, why she could not meet those very heart-of-mauve eyes when they were alone in her head any longer—that sending their queen to happiness would be sending their queen away, and away would break Sugarplum's pure, sweet heart into so many pieces of peppermint bark that all Snowflake's horses and all Flower's men could never put Sugar together again... 

And still she'd spun the most beautiful, sorrowful music, plucked her best novelties to play all the parts, and slipped it away in his little silver egg, and slipped her away forever. Still, she'd given her that horrible, horrible song. 

"Because I couldn't give it to you." 

Pink-tracked cheeks turned her way, eyes wide beneath glittering violet brows. Expecting horror, Mother Ginger turned away, let go of her hand. It was truth, but it wasn't why she'd come here. She knew those words would only bring more pain, but she'd had to say them, couldn't keep them locked up in her head-in-her-head any longer. Now, she had only one head left, and there simply wasn't room for so many unsaid things. "Because we never could, could we? We never were allowed to have. Anything. Anything at all of our own." She spoke to the window, to the waters and the skies and four realms boxed in by the limits of a creator who'd made a world, then treated it like a dollhouse. "Because people kept saying, 'Mother Ginger, give us a show' and 'Mother Ginger, craft us a carnival' and 'Mother Ginger, write us a song!'" 

She had to rein this in. Her voice had all but broken, there, and she had many, many broken things to her name, but her voice was still her own, still whole. 

"No one ever asked, did they. No one cared why I wrote what I wrote, played what I played." Or why it all went hollow, the day you threw me out for it. The day you went through the clock and heard my song in the ballroom, saw your queen dancing with the nervous boy in the blue silk suit for a painful, slow-motion minute, and came back through screaming my betrayal. Why I didn't fight as you banished me to the winds. 

"You were right about one thing. We always did deserve better. We always deserved to rule." 

She hadn't known it when she left, but she learned. Merely being their maker did not make their queen a god. The Realms ruled by someone who was not one of them were realms contained, strangled by existing merely for the pleasure of another. The Realms ruled by four in her stead were weak, divided, unimagined things. The men were content with their gardens and their winter storms. Only she and Sugarplum had ever looked farther. Wondered, watching their queen bring new toys and companions to life, what might happen if they placed snow-globes beneath her invention, or maps, or miniature sculptings of dream-made places in new, impossible lands. Only they had sat together in their thrones by starlight, wondering in midnight whispers if she could make them entire worlds, only to be left with nothing but this. This world they could ride across in a day, and dreams of the tiny golden key that used to gift them wonders. 

That key was hers, now. All that remained was a bridge of a tree, and there was no tree that did not fear fire.

"No more human princesses. No more human queens. No more regents. You don't have to forgive me. All I am asking for is truce. Alliance. We can have everything you wanted and more. You can make up your tin soldiers. Parade with your armies. I don't care. But Hawthorne, Shiver... I don't want to rule with them, Sugar." She heard her own bitterness, all the more stark for the cavity-sweet thing behind her in her cage. "I don't what to share a throne with them. I want to rule with you." 

She waited. She couldn't bring herself to turn around. Her earlier spite seemed petty, but sometimes spite was needed to start something like this. For courage. For sheer momentum. She un-clipped and re-clipped the leather latches at her belt. Sword. Whip. Sword. Whip. Sword. She withdrew neither. 

When she felt a hand on the back of her arm, she missed the clasp. She turned with it hanging undone, and still couldn't look her in the eyes.

"I never knew." The thin, breathless wonder of the words grabbed her by cracks and pulled, threatened to break her in two. "Oh, Ginger, won't you look at me?" 

No, I can't, because your voice is all candied up again, and I can't trust it not to rot me through.

“Ginger, Ginger please.”

Oh, but that plea beat at her like butterfly wings, and those slim, sugar-pale hands were tugging at her, pulling her close enough they could cup her cheek, draw up her angry, guarded eyes before she was ready to see…

Not horror. Not truce, either. Something altogether stranger, more dangerous, less possible to understand. “I never did want to rule,” she said, saccharine placation Mother Ginger would never believe, except…  “Not really. I just wanted to be seen, and wanted, and safe, and not forgotten, and…”

Her fingers were wandering. They traced her pale, unscarred cheek first, then sprinkled across her jaw to stroke alongside the aching, open darkness on the other. “…I always thought, handsome knight you are, you’d want someone who would… send you off on another quest to find after another unparalleled amusement in another far-gone place, someone who could give you all those things we dreamed about, instead of just dreaming them.” She stroked her temple, then, just below the starburst darkness that ached and reached for her touch.  

Then she did, ever so gently, the faintest brush of her finger over the cured, curled edge of it, and Mother Ginger knew she had lost the last thing that was wholly hers, because her voice was entirely gone.

“I think I should like to rule with you, though,” she murmured. “If you will look at me just like this, always.”

I would, she thought. Gladly. I would, I would, I would. And the thought, thought hard enough, thought enough times through like a mantra, like a spell, cracked open her voice again just enough to croak out, “I would.”

And Sugarplum laughed, then, that dizzy, pink-champagne froth of sound which had lit so many of Mother Ginger’s nights so very long ago, and she swayed towards it like it had served just that purpose, filled her with spirits and stolen her balance and sense, and Sugarplum’s hands on her cheek and waist were all that kept her grounded as that porcelain-perfect face drew closer, those daydream-violet eyes searched her own, and lips still curled with joy pressed to the corner of mouth, just between kissing her and kissing her darkness, just enough that when she sprouted her wings and whirled away, Mother Ginger could taste the sweetness with the tip of her tongue, like she’d been kissed by a single drop of honeysuckle dew.

It was only after, only when she’d drifted down the stairs in a daze of triumph and joy, crossed back to the console, and pressed up the lever which would lift the birdcage free, only then did she feel the lightness at her hip, feel the loosened flapping of the scabbard, and see that Sugarplum held her sword.

Oh, the shame of knights with pretty damsels everywhere, to be thieved of one's honor with a kiss.

And to think she could have left it at the smaller satisfaction of spite.