The lanterns flickered their malevolent flames as Sugar beat the eggs into a foamy sea. The fire in the grate melted her aching muscles enough to continue working for the eleventh hour.
Twenty-six years old and she was already exhausted, pink dress twirling between kitchen counters and cupboards. Her petticoats protected her modesty and the pencil holding her savory colored hair protected the food from contamination.
She'd baked enough bread, on to the biscuits.
'You work too hard...' Bailey chimed as he grabbed his jacket to leave. '...You'll miss the entire season at this rate.'
Sugar shrugged half-heartedly, looking up from her whisking. Bailey's lean and hungry stare, eyeing the mountain of scones, made her heart melt. She stopped to pack some into a hamper with an assortment of jams, freehand waving off his refusal.
'Fruit and nut, cranberry to boot...' She smiled.
'...Will soon provide the ultimate lute.' Bailey concluded, having heard the phrase a million times.
'Enjoy the feast. See you bright and early tomorrow morning.' Another smile and the wicker basket exchanged hands.
'You're a marvel, Miss Plum. Thanks to you we'll have a Christmas turkey this year.' Bailey's mind floated back to the many Christmas' his family had spent without even a sprout. Thanks to Miss Sugar Plum's generosity, they'd finally have a decent spread.
'We won't have a crumble next year if we don't defeat Miss Green at the Festival tomorrow.' Sugar muttered, returning to her biscuits.
The image of her rival appeared in Sugar's mind's eye. The licorice hair, known by Sugar's memory to lie below Miss Green's hips, was always tied back in an obnoxiously tight bun. Sugar's train of thought jolted to the chocolate chips on the counter. The same color as Miss Green's harsh eyes, she thought. She smacked the dough and rolled her eyes, making similarities between the rolling pin and Miss Green's wooden posture.
'It's a shame, Miss...' Bailey interrupted.
Her eyes refocused, 'What is?'
'... That we can't team up with Ever Green. Join forces, then there'd be no need for a competition.'
Sugar scoffed at the suggestion, not impolitely, but as if to say that the idea was unimaginable.
'I've tried to make her see sense. We used to be such good friends, now she can't even look at me. A civilized conversation would be a miracle.' She sighed, hands falling limp around the dough.
'Some friendships aren't meant to be.' Bailey sympathized, perching on the whittled stool by Sugar's station. He felt a sudden sense of Deja-vu, remembering a similar conversation he'd had with his daughter only a few nights prior. Sadly, he couldn't offer the same warm hugs and hot cocoa to his employer.
Lost in thought, she shaped her biscuits into hearts, then mumbled, 'Why? How can friendships end without a reason?'
'Everyone has their reasons.'
Sugar softened, 'Yes, well, I wish people would explain their reasons. They may be foolish.'
'They often are.'
A thoughtful silence loomed over the bakery for what felt like a lifetime.
'Pop these in the larder before you leave?' She smiled, removing her apron.
Bailey began packing away without question until he spotted the tiny Sugar Plum cakes by the window. 'What about these?'
He wondered why they'd never sold them, given his employer's name it seemed like a missed opportunity.
'No, no, those are... not for sale.'
And he didn't question it further.
Sugar took the cakes as she ascended the stairs to her small apartment, cradling them like a child.
'See you tomorrow, Miss Plum.' He called up gently. He didn't expect a reply, one never came, but he closed the door behind him a little softer than he would normally.
The cold hit Bailey like a ton of bricks, snow dusting his cheeks as he pulled his jacket tight. The only warmth coming from the lanterns lighting his way as he crossed the cobbled street.
He looked back, peering up to see Miss Plum, sat in her bedroom's bay window, reading a book. She looked fine, he concluded, and made the rest of the journey home.
Miss Plum, though she looked okay, didn't feel it.
She looked down at the only gift she'd ever been given, a journal of pressed flowers.
Sugar flicked through. There were many blank pages to fill towards the back of the book.
The full pages were decorated so beautifully. Lilac sprigs with lavender ribbons, roses, and forget-me-nots, wrinkled primrose by her favorite sunflowers. Each page held a different memory.
When she reached the last full-page, she huffed. And as if on cue, the knock at the door downstairs came.
Sugar ran as fast as her tiny feet would allow, almost tripping over the last step. Her toe would surely bruise by morning, she thought. Hastily, she pulled the door open, hearing the bell chime above the frame.
As always, there was no-one there.
The streets were empty, except for the sprinkle of snow and a whistle of the wind.
'Fudge!' Sugar cursed. She'd run faster than she had in previous years. She'd have to stay downstairs next year to hopefully greet the mystery gift giver.
And speaking of gifts, Sugar looked down at her feet to see the unsurprising box, staring up at her. Wrapped in gold paper and tied with a black satin ribbon. The package, as usual, was immaculately done. She felt bad pulling it apart.
Inside the box sat a new addition to her journal.
Sugar felt a chord strike her heart, a shiver run up her spine that wasn't from the cold, as she'd shut the door.
'A fond farewell or forever yours?' she mused.
Sugar took the present to her room, placing it amongst the other dried flowers.
With a heavy heart, she ate her Sugar Plum cakes and drifted into a deep sleep. Her imagination conjuring up happier days, spent in sunny meadows, running through flowery fields.
The ceremonial trumpets signaled the coming morning and Sugar shot out of bed. Her alarm hadn't gone off.
She smoothed the pages of the journal that had somehow managed to get squashed in her sleep and in haste, threw it into her bag.
It took only a moment for her to chuck on her usual pink dress and twizzle up her hair, a few strands escaping to frame her face as they normally did later in the day.
The biscuits still needed baking, she stressed, bustling down the stairs to the kitchen, wary of the final step and her bruised toe.
To her surprise, Sugar instantly inhaled the familiar aroma of baked goods. The biscuits were already in the oven.
Bailey, true to his word, had arrived bright and early.
'Thank the stars!'
The wooden huts glistened in the Town Square, shining with warm lights and twinkling glitters. The same stalls of assorted produce, ready for customers to scour and for judges to judge. It had all been the same for as long as anyone could remember.
Sugar arrived a little later than intended and instantly noticed something was different.
Opposite Sugar Plum's soft pink hut would normally be Mr. Chestnuts Toy Emporium, a sunny yellow stand with touches of pastel blue. But Mr. Chestnut was nowhere to be seen and his stall had been replaced by an elegant black and gold design.
It didn't take Sugar too long to figure out who it belonged to.
'Miss?' Bailey, holding armfuls of bread, came to stand beside her, wondering what could have stopped the woman in her tracks.
'Miss Green's stand is opposite ours, Bailey.' Sugar stared.
'What?' He turned, 'That doesn't make any sense! We're normally on opposite sides of the square.'
She looked equally as puzzled. 'I'll go speak to Marsh, surely there's been a misunderstanding. Would you mind taking care of things here?'
Marsh was easy to find. Center stage in the heart of the Town Square was his domain.
Sugar smiled up at her friend as he tested the microphones. He was on and off faster than the flick of a switch. He too looked like he'd missed his alarm that morning.
As she was about to approach him, someone came from the opposite direction and intercepted him first. Someone she'd hoped not to run into yet.
Sugar hid back, clutching her bag and checking her journal was still in there. She edged closer to listen.
'Mr. Mallow! Might I speak with you?'
Ever Green in her high-neck black dress and tight bun marched up to the plump rosy man with fury in her eyes.
'Miss Green, how lovely to see you. You look so... smart.' When Ever didn't respond to the reluctant complement, Marsh continued, 'What is the problem this year?' He hoped to keep the exchange short and sweet. The festival was supposed to be a happy day.
'You know darn well what the problem is. You've put my stand opposite Pips.'
Sugar's heart clenched at the name. She'd not heard it in so long.
'I'm not in charge of any of that this year, Miss Green. You'll need to take it up with my supervisor.'
Marsh caught eyes with the Reindeer Dance Troupe. 'Must dash, much to organize.' And he was gone.
Ever glared furiously, her hands balled, and her eyes squinted after the man. She could burn a city to the ground with that scowl, Sugar thought, just as the woman in question turned and almost bumped into her.
'Ever! What a surprise!' She stammered, unable to look away from the strong eye contact she was receiving.
'Miss Plum, it seems that our stands are opposite one and other.'
'Yes... so it does.' Sugar frowned at the use of her surname. She loathed the formality, the cold shoulder, the hardened expression on Ever's face. She looked nothing like the woman Sugar had known all those years ago. Ever used to be so carefree. It was hard to imagine now, seeing her so wrapped in her cocoon of sternness.
'Well... may the best baker win.' Ever eluded, offering her hand.
Sugar stared at it dubiously. It felt like a trick, but she took the gloved palm even so and replied, 'May the best baker win.'
Sugar returned to the stall and filled Bailey in on the exchange.
'We'll beat Green easily, Miss.'
She smiled, admiring her companion's competitive nature, especially since she felt so unmotivated herself. Ever so easily got under her skin.
'What's happening over there?' Bailey said.
She glanced over the street at the rival stand. It was thriving. Curiosity killed the cat, Sugar tried to remind herself, but when regular customers seemed to bypass them in favor of the dark side, she couldn't help being coaxed.
Bailey followed, surprised to see the rare mysterious smile on Ever's face as she handed out orders.
Sugar looked over the display with intrigue. What could be drawing her customers away? Salted caramel cookies, dark chocolate truffles, lava cakes, and assorted tarts but nothing out of the ordinary.
Sugar couldn't fathom what was so special about Ever's stand, until she saw them, sat prettily in the center. Her face drained of all color, her heart dropped, and she felt tears prickling behind her eyes. The anger built in her chest and exploded.
The shout caught Bailey by surprise, for he'd never heard Sugar raise her voice above a sweet scolding.
The customers around them froze and Ever's eyes did a double-take in her direction.
Sugar felt years of suppressed emotions taking over, her next words escaping in the form of a child-like sob. 'How could you?'
Fearing the tears that were about to fall, she turned away and retreated to her stand. Bailey followed swiftly behind.
'What's wrong?' He pressed when they were safely in their haven.
Sugar's eyes, blinded by unshed tears, managed to grab hold of her bag. She pulled the journal from it, planning to destroy each page, rip them up, scrunch them into balls, burn them in the fire, she didn't care anymore. She managed to open the cover when gloved hands took hold of hers and closed the book once more.
Light eyes met dark and Bailey took it as his queue to leave the kitchen.
The tears finally spilled over the edge and she repeated, 'How could you?'
'How could I what?' Ever's hands were firm, searching for eye contact as they always did.
'You're selling our Sugar Plum cake!' Sugar blurted.
Ever didn't respond, just stared at her blankly, so Sugar continued, 'You stop talking to me, for no reason I might add. No explanation and on the Eve of our first Festival together. We were supposed to be partners, friends, Ever! And you just left! You left and now you're selling the one thing we promised never to share with anyone? Why?'
Ever frowned, cheeks burning red, 'Oh, don't come off all high and mighty, you know exactly why I stopped talking to you, Pip!'
Sugar's tears suddenly halted. She stared at Ever, her brows knitted, jaw dropped.
'No, Ever, I do not.'
Realization suddenly dawned on them; the air thickened. Ever seemed to retreat into herself, eyeing the door. Sugar gripped her hands in a tight vice.
'Please, don't leave... Just talk to me.' Sugar pulled her closer, noticing the way Ever's hardened exterior seemed to give in to the gesture.
'I came to the bakery that night to drop off your present...' She began, glancing down at the book before continuing, 'And I overheard you talking to Mr. Mallow.'
Sugar thought back to that night, growing even more confused. Nothing bad had been said, not that she could remember. They'd had one too many glasses of sherry, that's all she recalled.
Ever continued, 'Mr. Mallow asked you about me, and you told him I was just your friend as you always do and I suppose, well I thought I meant more to you than that... or I hoped... It was silly...'
Ever confessed, trying to fight back her tears of frustration.
'... I then overheard Mr. Mallow telling you how he felt about you, how much he cared for you and I realized that night... you and I weren't on the same page. I decided to distance myself. Every time I saw you, it was a reminder of how I felt and how you'd never feel. Being cold with you was far easier than being kind.'
Sugar dumbfoundedly exhaled, 'How could you possibly know how I felt if you never thought to ask me?'
The expression on Ever's face dropped rather comically to one of complete perplexity and confusion.
'Marsh was never and is never going to be interested in me like that, Ever. He came over that night to thank me for setting him up with my cousin. Sadly, it only lasted the week, but truly he and I are just... friends.'
The final word hung heavy in the air. Ever had clung onto every syllable and seemed to drift into another world entirely, overanalyzing her memory to recall exactly what she'd heard that night.
Sugar decided to change the subject, 'Why did you decide to open your own bakery?'
'It's the only thing I knew how to do.'
'You couldn't have opened a florist?' She laughed, looking down at the book in their hands. She turned to the most recent page, the Dahlias. 'I kept everything, that should tell you enough.'
The knock on the door bursts their bubble.
Bailey apologetically stuck his head through the door, 'I'm so sorry, Miss but the Judges are here.' And he left again as quickly as he entered.
'You work too hard.' Ever softened.
'Yes, I have been told.' She smiled.
'Go on, I have some Sugar Plum cakes to remove from the stand. We'll talk afterward.'
Sugar glanced at Ever's reassuring smile and noticed the flickers of doubt peeking through. The assertive arch in her brow was returning and Sugar decided that she couldn't let her leave without making sure they were on the same page, quite literally.
The Dahlias sat prettily, she looked down at them and mumbled, 'A fond farewell or forever yours...'
Ever looked up, feeling a tightness in her chest. Sugar only smiled, squeezing the hand she still held.
'I have loved you for as long as I can remember.' Sugar confessed, resting her forehead against Ever's, she felt her heart hammering in her throat.
In the next sentence, she whispered, 'How long will you love me?'
There was no pause, no delay, no hesitation.
'For Ever, Sugar.'