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September 2014

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~☆ Happily maybe after - Part IV ☆~

No, this not a belated Christmas present or a too early New Year's whatever - it's exactly on time as it should be *cough*
Anyway - hey hey! It's Part IV already. And trying to fit two different fairy tales into one story wasn't easy, it took me really quite a time until inspiration struck. But here it is.

Btw, I didn't feel at all like proofreading this one, so in case you find any strange mistakes - a very drunken, forgetful pixie put them there... ;)

Warnings and Disclaimer: See as always Part I 'the Princess in the Tower'

The Princess in the Tower (Part I)
The big, bad Wolf (Part II)
The bully and the Gingerbread House Part III

~ Fur balls and rotten apples ~

It was late afternoon and the sun was already setting as they finally reached the town at the foot of the Seven Mountains. A myriad of little lights, decorating every tree, every window and every bush, turned it into a spectacular, glittering sight. Despite the cold, the streets were packed with people, chatting and laughing and dancing. A band, standing on a makeshift stage in the centre of the market place, filled the air with joyful music. Lining the place were stalls of different sizes, offering everything from food to the most beautifully crafted jewellery and the latest fashion by the most popular designers.
Bran stared open-mouthed at the whole spectacle. He had been to winter fairs at home and the neighbouring villages, but none could compare to this.
“Beautiful, isn’t it?” Finn asked at his side. “They say this is the most beautiful winter fair in all twelve kingdoms.”
“That’s not hard to believe.”
“Well, you’ve seen nothing yet. Let’s get Buttercup into a warm, cosy stable and then we can take a look around.”
They led their loyal steed away from the hustle and bustle of the crowded market place and followed the elaborately carved signs pointing into the direction of the stables. As there were not enough stables in town to accommodate for the influx of tourists and their beasts during the winter fair, every year, at the northern edge of town, with enough green around for paddocks, temporary stables were set up.
Bran had expected the fair to be restricted to the market place and the main road, but to his surprise, it spread out all through the town. Here, with a bit more space to stretch out, jugglers and bards presented themselves, as did various craftsmen, showing not only their finished work but also their craftsmanship.
When they reached the fence dividing the paddocks and stables from the rest of the town, Finn stopped.
“Pax, you and Bran stay here, I go and find the stable master.”
“Roger that!” Pax piped and hopped from Finn’s shoulder. Hanging in mid-air, a frown slowly formed between her feathery brows. “Just… um… what’s a Bran?” she asked sheepishly.
Bran sighed. “I am. I’m Bran.”
“Oh!” Pax huge, luminous eyes focused on him and actually lit with something akin to recognition. “Right.”
Perhaps Pax actually did start to remember him, Bran had no way of knowing, but the pixie fluttered towards him and settled down on his shoulder – something she had never done before. It made Bran unexpectedly happy. Finn smiled affectionately at the two of them, then hurried off towards the stables.
Bran leaned against the fence and took the opportunity to get a look around the glittering spectacle in front of him. Children’s laughter drew his attention to one of the paddock next to them. An old woman stood by the fence, animatedly telling a story to the children. And equally old, white horse was grazing listlessly by her feet. Intrigued, Bran pushed himself away from the fence and went over to them, pulling a reluctant Buttercup after him.
“And then the unicorn gathered all its courage and charged!” the old woman cried. “And drove the red bull into the sea. There, on the ground of the sea, it’s imprisoned for all eternity.”
The children cheered loudly. The noise made Buttercup toss his head, irritated. With the old woman’s tale finished, the children quickly scattered and Bran stepped forward.
“The unicorn and the red bull, ey? I loved that story when I was a kid,” he said.
“Oh, it’s not a story,” the croon rasped. “No, no, no, it’s all true. Seen it with my own eyes.”
“Of course, why else would I still be travelling with that unicorn?”
Bran blinked stupidly. Unicorn? He looked around the paddock, half expecting the unicorn to step out from behind the old woman’s back, but there was nothing except the skinny old mare. Yet the woman grinned proudly at him and nodded. Bran took a closer look at the animal, then at the woman, who was still nodding, and finally he understood.
“That’s a horse,” he stated blatantly.
“What are you saying? It’s obviously a unicorn,” the old croon countered.
“No, no, no. It’s a horse – and a very old one to boot.”
“Ignorant fool! Just because you are not sensitive enough to see the fantastic, you dare belittle such a noble creature? Here, I shall help you see the truth, you fool. Close your eyes.”
Bran sighed, exasperated. Where the hell did all those loons come from and why did they always seem to find him?
“Come on, close your eyes.” For peace’s sake he did as he was told, but not before he had rolled his eyes at the nonsense, for good measure. “Good. Now, take a deep breath and open your mind for the fantastic. Are you done?”
“Yeah, yeah.”
“Then you can look now, but slowly.”
Bran opened his eyes exaggeratingly slowly and stared at the haggard, old mare. And he stared a bit longer and a bit longer.
“You’re holding a horn to its forehead,” he sighed at last.
“What? How dare you,” the croon shrieked. “Of course I don’t. I’m just helping that idiotic mind of yours to see what’s right in front of your eyes.”
Too late did she notice that the mare had hung her head again. She hastily moved to hold the horn back against the beasts forehead. Bran shook his head sadly. Just then, Pax finally decided to pay attention to her surroundings.
“Oh my, that’s one hell of a nag. Poor thing, worse even than that cow here.”
Bran turned his head slowly and scowled at the mutant fly hovering in the air.
“What cow?” he asked through clenched teeth, already knowing what she would answer.
“That one.” Pax pointed at Buttercup, happily demolishing a small, neatly trimmed bush.
“That’s not a cow and you know it. That’s a noble steed.”
“I’m telling you, it’s a unicorn!” the old croon shrieked again, only to be ignored.
“Pfft, noble steed,” Pax snorted. “In that case, I’m a June bug.”
“Oh, are you not?”
Their eyes locked in a silent battle of will. The old woman and her hornless unicorn were duly ignored, no matter how much she cursed and yelled at them.
Finn returned before things could get out of hand. He ascertained the situation in one glance, deemed it not worthy of his interference and stepped next to Bran, putting an arm around the young man’s shoulders, and said joyfully: “All right, let’s get Buttercup to this cosy stable and our stuff to the next inn and then throw ourselves into the midst of this lovely fair. You can buy me a present, how about it?”
“Yes to all of it, except the part with the present. Why should I buy you anything?”
“As a token of your love for me?”
Bran only snorted gracelessly. He tugged on Buttercup’s reins, but ended up having to pull the horse away from the sad ruins of a former full, evergreen, cupid shaped bush. He started to follow Finn’s lead when the old woman stopped them hastily.
“You sir, you look like someone who respects and appreciates the fantastic,” she cooed, giving Finn a gap-toothed smile.
“Yeah, yeah,” Finn said impatiently. “That’ really a nice griffon you got there.”
“What? No, it’s a unicorn.”
“Please, it’s obviously a griffon.”
“Sir, that’s a unicorn.” The old woman gestured wildly at the skinny, old mare, that stood around so listlessly one had to wonder if the horse might start crumbling just because it didn’t feel like keeping itself together any longer.
“Oi, Finn, just ignore her,” Bran whispered, trying to push the prince forward.
“Not that half dead nag,” Finn replied, however. “That griffon over there.” He pointed into the far corner of the paddock.
“Eh?” Bran, Pax and the old croon exclaimed in chorus, simultaneously squinting into the direction Finn was pointing.
“I don’t see anything,” the woman complained, but kept staring strained into the corner.
“Finn, is there really a… Finn?”
The prince was already half-way to the stables by then. Bran gripped the reins tighter and hurried after his friend – or rather he tried to hurry, Buttercup, on the other hand, didn’t feel much like moving at any speed quicker than a snail.
When he finally caught up to Finn, Bran was out of breath from pulling the huge horse after him.
“Hey, Finn,” he panted, “was there really a griffon there?”
Instead of answering, Finn only smiled secretively.
“Oh, come now, tell me.”
“And what do I get if I tell you?”
“W-what do you want?” Bran asked anxiously. He didn’t like the way this was going, it was never a good idea to let Finn gain the upper hand.
“Hmm,” Finn pretended to ponder about it. “A kiss,” he said finally.
“On the cheek?”
“No, a real one.”
“Forget it.”
“Oh, you’re sure you don’t want to know?” Damn, Bran thought, that little drag queen knows me too well by now. Using Bran’s curiosity against him, that was just low. Cringing his teeth, Bran said curtly: “Yup.” Then he busied himself with ridding Buttercup off the tack. He could hear Finn chuckle softly and avoided looking at the young man.
Pulling the saddle from Buttercup’s back, he noticed Pax still sitting on top of it, her luminous eyes still fixed in the direction of the paddock. The pixie would know if there really was a griffon, wouldn’t she?
“Hey Pax?” he asked carefully.
“Hm?” She slowly turned her head his way.
“Say, was there really a griffon in that paddock?”
“What paddock?”
“That… you know, the one with the unicorn?”
“A unicorn, really? Wow, that’s rare.”
“No, no, it wasn’t a real uni-“ he broke off, realising by the look she was giving him that she had no idea what he was talking about.
“Sorry,” Pax piped, “but I didn’t quite catch your name. You are?”
“Bran,” he sighed hopelessly.
“Nice name. You know, I think I knew a Bran once.”
“Really? That’s nice.”

The winter fair, spreading out through the entire town, was by far too large than anyone could possibly see all of it in only one day. Therefore, Bran and his friends decided to only concentrate on the area around the market place for the time being. The rest would have to wait for the following days.
It was a pleasant evening. They laughed, they sang, they even danced (though not before Bran was appropriately drunk). Big, feathery snow flakes floated in the air, illuminated by the myriad of lights, they sparkled like crystals.
Bran couldn’t stop himself from marvelling at the sight of his surroundings like a small boy and he didn’t even care about being teased by Finn and Pax because of it. None of the winter fairs he had ever visited had been anything like this. The food that was offered, had been prepared by the kingdom’s best chefs, the clothes by the most popular designers, the various crafts by the most outstanding craftsmen – all of it, for once, affordable even for the smallest purse.
On the stage in the middle of the market place, on a raised podium behind the band, stood a magnificent, sparkling, elaborately carved crystal coffin – Queen Snow White’s, the one her dwarf friends had built for her. The piece was far too beautiful to be a thing of such dreary matter. But what really caught Bran’s eyes was the girl sitting on top of it, waving to the crowd and smiling radiantly. She looked every bit like the young Snow White: ebony hair, lips red as blood, skin as white as the snow that began to settle, only her eyes were not the colour Bran had been taught, instead of dark brown those were grey as slate.
Finn explained that each year for the duration of the fair, one girl from town was selected to be that year’s Snow White. And on the last day of the fair, the Queen’s return to life from her eternal sleep would be re-enacted. The prince for this occasion would usually be the girl’s beloved or, if she did not have a sweetheart, she would chose from amongst her many suitors. These suitors had time to woo her as long as the fair lasted, but in the end, only the kiss of her chosen one would wake her.
After the band had played their last song, Bran and his friends made their way back to the inn. Swaying more than walking, in fact, as all of them, even Pax, who had drunken four whole kegs of Honeysuckle Wine, more than just tipsy.
Bran didn’t even care about getting undressed, the long journey and the excitement of the fair had finally caught up to him. He kicked his boots off and, overwhelmed by tiredness, fell into bed like a stone and was fast asleep before he even hit the mattress.

The next morning Bran woke with a terrible hangover. He moaned and groaned, rolling out of bed and went looking for a glass of water to rid himself off the foul taste in his mouth.
“You’ve never drunken Honeysuckle Wine, have you?” Finn chuckled and handed him a big cup of clear, cold water. Bran gulped it down in one go, then shook his head, not trusting himself to speak. He regretted his action immediately.
“What you need is a decent breakfast and a bitterroot tea,” Finn said, helping his friend to his feet. “It tastes horrible, but it effectively counters all after-effects of liquor.”
“How come you’re not hungover?” Bran rasped. Finn, as he did simply every blasted day, that little bastard, looked as fresh and radiant as a spring morning. And so did Pax, hovering in front of the mirror to pull the ends of her spiky hair into order.
“I’m used to it, I guess,” Finn replied. Of course he would be used to it, right? Wit a godmother like Pax, the young prince must have learned how to hold his liquor before he could even spell the word.
The common room of the inn was almost empty when they entered, only one large table was occupied. Bran couldn’t help but stare at the group for a moment. At least seven of the ten men sitting around the table were dwarves. Bran had never seen a real dwarf before, they tended to stay deep within their mountains, enviously guarding their treasures – as if anyone would want those rocks. When Bran was little, he had always imagined the dwarf treasure to be gold, jewels, diamonds – but it turned out that they couldn’t care less for those kinds of things. No, what a dwarf really loves are stones, common, everyday stones. Boulders, pebbles, rocks – you name it. They could spend an entire day admiring a single, small pebble.
The innkeeper took one look at Bran, smiled and vanished into the kitchen. He came back with a tray of freshly baked bread and buns, honey, jam, butter, sausages and cheese and put it down on the table next to the group of men and dwarves. He was followed by a small kitchen boy, carrying a steaming pot of what smelled deliciously like coffee and a mug of some other steaming beverage.
“Here, sir,” the boy piped and put the mug right in front of Bran.
“Drink it, it’ll help wonders,” the innkeeper said in a tone that was a mixture of amusement and sympathy. “But you have to drink it all before you take anything else to you, you hear?”
Bran would have licked chalk if they had told him it would dispel that pounding headache. So he lifted the mug and took a deep draught – and gagged.
“I told you it tastes horrible,” Finn said and spread a very generous amount of strawberry and peach jam on a bun. “No cheating there, you have to drink all of it.”
Bran took a deep breath, pinched his nose and gulped the nasty bitterroot tea down. Shaking himself in disgust, he finally put the mug down with a bang.
“That’s my brave hero,” Finn cheered, smiling proudly. Bran didn’t waste a second, he fell on the laid out breakfast like a swarm of locusts. Pax, his sole rival, eating at least twice as much as he on a normal day, felt challenged and sped up stuffing her tiny face.
“No, it’s the fourth time now it happened,” one of the dwarves growled. His voice sounded like grinding stones. “The fourth time and there is not a girl in this town left who wants to take the position. They are not that stupid, you know. They know the others didn’t just all fall sick coincidentally.”
“So what do you suggest? We can’t have the winter fair without a Snow White,” a man with a grey beard that almost rivalled those of the dwarves snapped.
Bran, hearing the groups discussion loud and clearly, was too engrossed with his breakfast to be bothered. Unlike Finn, who turned in his chair and interjected before anyone else had a chance to say anything more: “Excuse me.”
Twenty pairs of eyes turned in their direction, it made Bran feel very self conscious.
“Hi,” Finn continued unfazed. “It seems like you have a real problem at hand. I would like to offer our assistance. My fiancé –“
“Friend, it’s friend!”
“- is a very promising, aspiring hero. One of his greater achievements is the slaying of a goblin. One of the Rumpelstiltskin family.”
A collective ‘Oh’ ran through the group. Bran blushed furiously and lowered his gaze. He didn’t like being praised for something he had done more on accident than on purpose. He hadn’t even intended doing anything to the creature, it just so happened – and then they called him goblin slayer.
“Well, actually, we already have someone working this case,” the grey-bearded man replied regretfully.
“Ha! That nutcase wouldn’t even find his own feet if they weren’t attached to his legs. He could do with some help,” the dwarf with the grinding voice barked. His argument was met by great accordance, especially amongst the dwarves.
“So, here’s the thing,” he continued. “Snow White has been poisoned.”
“The Queen?” Bran gasped, shocked.
“No, not the Queen. This year’s Snow White. To be precise, she was the fourth already since the winter fair began. All the girls have ended up being poisoned. Not dangerously, mind you, but enough to inconvenience them.”
“And you’re sure it’s poison?”
“Yes. One would have been bad luck, two would have been really bad luck but by the third things began to look really suspicious. And now we have four sick Snow Whites. All of them are covered in a really angry rash. We consulted a doctor and he said it’s clearly impberry poisoning.”
“Do you already have any suspects?” Finn asked.
“No, we suspected it might be one of the girls, but they’re all out of the equation now.”
“Why is that?”
“Because no one wants to be Snow White anymore now.”
Silence spread over them like a blanket, giving Bran and Finn enough time to think about what they had learned. At last, Finn clapped his hands once, looking every bit like a small boy having just received a new favourite toy.
“That sounds like fun, I’ve always wanted to do some sleuthing,” he exclaimed joyfully. Pax popped the last morsel of sticky, honey smeared bread into her mouth, wiped her hands and hopped onto Finn’s shoulder, ready for action. Though Bran highly doubted she even knew what was going on. Sleuthing. Bran wasn’t very keen about that one. He didn’t have the brains for combining loose ends and no patience for things like riddles and puzzles. On the other hand, this did seem like a decent case for them for once. Then he remembered they were not working this one alone.
“Um, what about the one you’ve already given the job?” he asked slowly. The grumpy dwarf, who seemed to be the leader, snorted disgustedly. And at that moment, the door to the common room swung open.
“Ah, speak of the devil.” He nodded towards the door. Bran turned around and found himself face to face with the most bizarre little man he had ever seen. It didn’t take Pax and Finn even the length of a heartbeat to burst out laughing. Pax laughed so hard, she toppled over, dropping form Finn’s shoulder to the table, where she lay on her back, clutching her stomach, cackling wildly. Bran fought to suppress his own laughter, but succeeded only barely.
The little man, looking highly irritated by their laughter, tossed his head and strut with great dignity towards the dwarves table. He wore a grey fur coat and fingerless gloves that were of the same grey fur on the upper side, and of grey soft leather on the side of the palm, and knee-high, well-worn boots. Nothing about it would have looked that strange, if he didn’t have cat-ears, a bushy tail and whiskers.
“I am Puss in Boots,” he announced haughtily. “Might I inquire as to who you two gentlemen and… um… fairy are?”
“I… I…” Bran yapped, still fighting a laughing fit. “I’m Bran, this is Finn and that’s Pax,” he managed at last.
“Puss in Boots?” Pax hooted. “Seriously?”
“Well, excuse me, it is not my fault that some evil wizard turned me into a human. I can assure you, I used to be a very formidable tom cat.”
“Of course you were,” Pax giggled.
For a while everything in the room came to a standstill. Puss stood glowering at Pax and the others, while the pixie was still giggling uncontrollably. Neither the dwarves nor the three men seemed inclined to help the man-cat out, on the contrary, they seemed rather amused. But finally, after what seemed like an eternity, even Pax stopped laughing and lay on the table gasping for breath.
The lead dwarf stood up, went to the wannabe cat, who wasn’t much taller than the dwarf though he had 5 cm high heels on his boots, and put a hand on the man’s shoulder.
“Puss, they will be your partners for now,” he said smugly. Puss only made some noise that sounded very much like a hiss.

They spend the rest of the morning following the cat-man to the houses of the victims. All four of them suffered from reoccurring sickness and, as Hogar, the lead dwarf had already mentioned, a severe rash. But none of the could tell them anything helpful at all. As Snow White, it was normal to receive gifts from suitors as well as children, not one of them had seemed suspicious, nor had they tasted anything weird on their drinks and food the day they had been poisoned. And when asked about the people who had given them presents, in hopes of finding one single individual who had given them all a gift, they only said there were too many as that they could remember every single face. In short, the girls were no help at all.
Frustrated and hungry, they went back to the inn to have lunch and reconsider their further actions.
During the whole time, Puss occasionally hissed at Bran and his friends, being terribly unfriendly otherwise. And Pax? Every time she had forgotten about the strange man and saw him anew, she had a real fit, laughing so hard each time she fell off of Finn’s shoulder. At last, he put her into the big pocket of his coat.
“This is futile,” Puss groaned after he had downed a whole pint of warm honeyed milk. “Those girls are useless and we don’t even have the smallest lead whatsoever.”
“How about staying close to Snow White and check on all the gift bearers to see if there’s someone who stands out,” Bran wondered aloud. “Or we could-“
“You forget that we don’t even have a Snow White,” Puss rudely cut him off. “And besides, that’s a lousy plan, as if the culprit would do anything when they see us sticking closely by.”
Bran lowered his gaze, feeling down. Just now, he had thought he might actually get the hang of this detective work – well, or at least come up with some clever plan, but now he only felt like a loser once more. This moody flea circus was beginning to grate on his nerves. Unexpectedly, it was Pax who came to his defence.
“Shut up, fur ball. As if you had any clever idea so far. Balduin is right.”
“Bran, it’s Bran.”
“You got to check the presents and where they came from. If you want to be a cat, then act more like one, be a bit more cunning. And about that Snow White problem in general… well, I have the perfect solution for both our problems.”
Bran was so surprised by Pax’ clear-headedness and willingness to help, not to mention that she remembered him (more or less at least), that he didn’t argue with the pixie’s plan, nor did he see find any fault,, until they were standing in front of the dwarf delegation and the three men, who had turned out to be from the town council, and were explaining their brilliant plan.
“Really?” Hogar exclaimed, a spark of hope in his eyes. Behind him, the other dwarves grinned collectively, obviously happy about the news.
“Excuse me, am I the only one who sees the fault in this plan?” Bran cried. “How can he be Snow White? He’s a freaking man!”
“He’s perfect,” Hogar drawled, either not listening or not caring about Bran’s argument. A chorus of agreement rang from behind the dwarf leader.
“He’s a man!”
“Who cares? As soon as he’s wearing the dress and the wig, he’s going to be the perfect Snow White. No one will know. Look at this smooth white skin, that beautiful face.” A sigh came from the dwarf delegation. The whole bunch of them looked positively besotted with Finn. And the once already mistaken princess? He actually had the nerve to blush prettily and lower his gaze, smiling coyly. Bran would have loved to strangle him right there and then.
“You know, Bran,” Puss weighed in, putting one of his gloved hands paws on Bran’s shoulder. It wasn’t easy for him to do so, he had to stand on the tips of his toes to make it look like a casual gesture. It obviously failed.
“You’re fiancé-“
“Friend, damn it!”
“- is really quite pretty, I do think he can pull it off.”
“Do you know that your ears are somewhat askew?”
“What?” Puss hastily reached for his cat ears, only to find them sitting perfectly on his head. Bran smiled smugly. Real ears my arse.
But being the cat he was, Puss quickly changed tack and tried to hide his embarrassment by licking his paw and cleaning his bushy brows.
“Look, Bran, darling,” Finn’s voice reached his ear, in a tone that sent an unpleasant shiver down his spine. “We both know this is the best plan we have. The fair ends tomorrow and then the culprit will just get away with it and the end of the fair will be ruined.”
“All right, all right, do whatever you want. It’s not like anyone cares about my opinion anyways.”
“Aw, don’t pout, honey.”
“Stop calling me honey or darling or anything else like this.”
“I know you’re just worried about me.”
“Certainly not.”
“You’re so sweet.”
“Shut the hell up.”
The sound of quiet chuckling caught his attention. Bran turned and saw the whole dwarf delegation chuckling softly and regarding them both with awfully fond expressions.
“What?” Bran snapped.
“You two are such a sweet couple,” one of the dwarves sighed.
“We’re not a couple!” More chuckling from the dwarves’ side killed his protest. Annoyed, exasperated and simply not caring anymore, Bran threw his arms in the air and gave up. As if he had ever stood a chance in the first place.

Not an hour later, Finn was sitting on top of the crystal coffin as had the girl the evening before. He wore the same dress the girl had and a long haired, glossy black wig. He waved to the crowd and smiled his most charming smile, making everyone who caught his eyes – men and women alike – blush. He had them all under his spell.
Bran leaned against his table, watched the spectacle and pouted into his mug of spiced cider. He hated to admit it, but Finn was truly stunning. That damned drag queen looked exactly the way Bran had always imagined Snow White. A fact that only soured his mood more.
“So, what exactly is it that makes you so averse to this plan?” Puss asked, putting his mug of honeyed mil down. “Is it that you fear something might happen to him or that you’re just the jealous type and hate them all making cow-eyes at your beloved?”
“For the hundredth time, he is not my beloved. He is a friend and nothing more. He’s a bloody man, damn it. Why is no one ever finding this strange?”
“How should I know? I have no idea how human relationships work.”
“That, I actually do believe you.”
“What’s that mean?”
He lifted his mug again and slowly sipped his cider. It was delicious, but at the moment, Bran couldn’t appreciate it. He didn’t care about other people swooning in the presence of Finn. What he cared about was that once again, he was just standing by stupidly. There was nothing for him to do. His own uselessness, that was what was gnawing at him. That, and the barking laughter of his father when he had told him that he would become a real hero. It was still ringing in his ears. Almost a year had passed since he had left his home and the best he had managed so far was making a goblin pop, and not even on purpose. Perhaps he should just give up and go home. Not a pleasant thought considering the ridicule and taunt that was waiting for him there.
He sighed deeply and shattering and let his head hang, feeling gloomier by the second.
“There, there,” Puss purred and softly patted his arm.

The plan was as follows: Finn would sit all day on his crystal coffin, charming people senseless. Whenever he’d receive a gift from someone, he’d graciously accept it, taking a good look at their face to memorise it. As terrible as his godmother’s memory was, as formidable Finn’s was, as if he had to compensate for the mutant fly.
Further, he would not eat or drink anything that was given to him. The cold temperatures were in their favour, too, as it was only reasonable for Finn to wear gloves all the time. It minimised the risk of being poisoned just by touch.
Finally, the Queen’s doctor and her apothecary had agreed on testing every single present for the poison in the evening. Bran felt inconceivably useless. It made him wonder how Puss took all of this so calmly although it had been his case to begin with. Perhaps it was his cat mentality and he simply couldn’t be bothered to give a damn about anything. Bran wished he could be so indifferent.
And for now, the plan seemed to work perfectly. Late at night, after the fair had finally ended for the day, they had a large bounty to carry back to the inn. Too large a bounty in fact. Given the time of night, both the doctor and the apothecary nearly despaired at the load of work they were presented with.
“My goodness, we’ll need all week to test all of this,” the doctor exclaimed.
“But we don’t have a week,” Hogar argued.
“Well, but testing for poison takes time. If you have any idea how to speed things up, you’re welcome to share it with us.”
Hogar only grumbled something into his beard. Bran, on the other hand, suddenly perked up. Through the mist of ale clouding his mind, a sudden idea had struck – no, an epiphany!
He grabbed Finn’s arm, a grin spreading over his face, and quickly started explaining his most brilliant idea. Or rather, he tried to but…
“Inemasiefahqbfkeqhgiot,” was what his knotted tongue produced. Unfortunately, in his head the words sounded perfectly fine and so he grinned even more broadly at Finn, impossibly proud of himself. Yet Finn didn’t at all react the way he had expected. The prince/princess just blinked at him when he should have smiled and praised him.
“Bran, darling,” Finn drawled at last. “Could you please repeat that once more? You’re words were kind of jumbled really badly.”
Bran sighed, exasperated. There he was, having the most splendid epiphany and suddenly the rest of them had become dense. Tragic. But he had no time to waste now.
“Just help me line all that stuff up, will you?”
“Um… sure, but why?”
“You’ll see.”
“Is this really going to help?” Hogar rasped doubtfully.
“It is. Now help me or it’ll take all night.”
They opened the big, velvet sacks and put out all the little – and sometimes not quite that little – trinkets out on the floor. There were all sorts of things there: bracelets, hat pins, little porcelain figurines, embroidered handkerchiefs. And then there were the more likely culprits: cookies, pralines, cakes and an apple. One perfect apple, one side a pale green, the other a pretty, brilliant red.
“There, that’s it!” Bran exclaimed and picked the apple up. “Voilá, that’s how all those girls were poisoned.”
“How do you know that?” Hogar asked.
“Well, if you poison Snow White, it has to be with an apple.”
“It could also be a comb or a belt.”
“It’s the apple.”
“But you’re not sure. The real Snow White was-“
“It’s the apple!”
Suddenly, Puss stood in front of him, staring at the offending fruit in Bran’s hands and sniffed the air.
“I say he’s right,” he said with a hiss.
“Oh, please.”
“Ha! There you go, the cat agrees, and an animal would never eat anything poisonous.”
“He’s not a real cat and besides it’s not true that an-“
“All right,” Finn finally ended their discussion. “No matter if it turns out to be what’s poisoned them or not, it’s as good a place to start as any. So why don’t we just test it and then we’ll know for sure.”
“Snow White is right,” the apothecary agreed. He took the apple from Bran and carried it to the table where his instruments stood ready as if it was a bomb.
All they could do now, was to wait. The dwarves had a game of dices, playing not for gold but pebbles. Puss busied himself first with a nice cat wash, then curled up on a plush armchair. Just looking at the cat-man’s awkward position gave Bran a back ache.
Pax was sleeping (after having drunken three kegs of spiced cider) and Finn – well, Finn was making cow-eyes at Bran, twisting a lock of glossy, black wig hair around his finger.
“Could you stop that, please?” Bran snapped.
“Stop what?” Finn breathed.
“Looking at me like this. It gives me chills.”
“Aw, but you were so cool just now, the way you took the initiative and that clever mind of yours, working out what was poisoning those girls.”
“Yeah, yeah, whatever,” Bran grumbled, but had to hide a smile. Secretly, it pleased him enormously to be praised by Finn. But, of course, he wouldn’t ever tell him that.
“You know,” Finn continued, “tomorrow evening is when Snow White’s return from the dead is being re-enacted. Um… well… you are my prince.”
Bran nodded, only half listening. It took him a moment to register just what his friend had been implying. “What?” he cried finally. “No! No way! I’m not your prince, damn it. And I’m so not going to kiss you!”
Finn’s sensuous lips curled into a pout.
“Don’t be like that,” Hogar suddenly intervened. “If you as his own fiancé won’t kiss him back to life, who will?”
“For the gazillionth time,” Bran growled, “I’m not his fiancé, he’s a man, bloody hell. Why am I the only one who has a problem with that.”
“Good question, why do you? How the hell did you guys meet anyway?”
“He rescued me from the tower,” Finn reminisced.
“Please, rescued – pah. That blasted tower wasn’t even locked.”
“But I couldn’t get out.”
“You were out all the time.”
“But I couldn’t leave. Getting out and leaving are two completely different things.”
“Are not.”
“They are,” chorused Finn and the whole delegation of dwarves.
Bran harrumphed, turned away and decided to simply ignore them. Luckily, the doctor chose that precise moment to cry a triumphant ‘Eureka!’ and announced that Bran had been right all along. The smugness he felt then lightened his mood enormously, so much even that he suffered Finn’s admiration wordlessly.

“Are you absolutely certain about that?” Graystokes, the grey bearded man form the town council, asked, pulling them all to a stop.
“Of course I am. You even have the confirmation from the girls,” Finn replied. Graystokes nodded curtly and on they went.
The fair didn’t open till afternoon, so the streets were almost deserted. The few people who were already out to enjoy the fresh air and winter sun, cast curious glances at their strange group, hurrying towards the eastern end of town. Bran feared they might be mistaken for an angry mob, the way the large group of dwarves, council men, the doctor and the apothecary, the cat-man and Bran and his friends raced through the cold.
At last they arrived in front of a neat little house with an unusual red door. It swung open on the third knock, revealing a grumpy woman in her mid-thirties. She wore hunting garment beneath a crimson cloak with a huge hood.
“What?” she snapped.
“I think you know why we are here,” Hogar snapped back.
“I wouldn’t know what business a dwarf should have with me.”
Hogar bristled but held his tongue. Instead, Graystokes gave Finn a slight push forward.
“Repeat what you told us about who gave you that poisonous apple, lad.”
“A plumb woman with shaggy brown hair, wearing a red riding hood,” Finn recited like a well-behaved schoolboy.
“What the hell? I’m not plumb,” the woman snarled at him. Only a second later she realised her blunder. She stomped her foot and swore.
“And here I thought you’d make it difficult for us,” Hogar sneered.
“So,” Graystokes interjected quickly, “it has been you, Little Red Riding Hood.”
“Who?” Bran said, taken aback. He grabbed Finn’s arm and drew the young man aside. Lowering his voice, he asked: “For real? That’s Little Red Riding Hood?”
“Yup,” Finn answered in an equally low voice. Then he raised his voice again, loud enough for them all to hear and added: “Though not quite that little anymore.” Red Riding Hood glared at him, the dwarves snickered. Graystokes cleared his throat, looking amused though.
“And, may we learn why you did it?”
“Why? Because it’s always Snow White here, Snow White there. That woman is just plain annoying. And she’s nothing but a lousy hypocrite,” Red Riding Hood spat disgustedly. “Oh, Snow White, she’s so perfect and so good and so merciful. Pah!”
“Um… is this about your husband?”
“First she pretends to be our friend and then she revokes his hunting licence. Of course it’s about my husband, you idgit.”
“She gave him a chance, he didn’t take it, it’s his own fault.”
“Own fault. Just because he’s different.”
“Sorry, to interrupt, but is your husband that hunter that saved you and your grandma from the big, bad wolf?” Bran inquired shyly. To his surprise it was Puss who answered.
“It is. But it turned out that it was nothing but a scam. He did this in several kingdoms actually. There never was a big, bad wolf.”
“Ha? What exactly are you saying?”
“I’m saying he was the wolf. That’s also why he was convicted for fraud.”
“Fraud. I don’t remember suing him. I’m telling you it’s just because he’s different,” Red Riding Hood growled.
“Yeah, different, right. That weirdo actually thinks he’s a wolf.”
Every single one of them turned to Puss, eyebrows raised. The cat-man took a look at all the dubious faces turned towards him and bristled.
“I’m telling you, there was this wizard and-“
“Oh, shut up, Oscar,” Red Riding Hood snapped. Bran blinked at the angry woman.
“Wait, you know him?”
“Hmph, he’s my brother-in-law.”
Again, all eyes were trained on Puss, who bristled even more and sputtered some incoherent words.
“I see, it runs in the family, ey?” Pax broke the silence. The man-cat glared at the pixie, looking out from Finn’s coat pocket. He pointed a shaking finger at her and opened his mouth, but nothing but a squeaking sound came out of it. “What’s wrong?” Pax asked mockingly. “Cat got your tongue?” She vanished inside the pocket, laughing so hard from her own joke she couldn’t even stand upright anymore. The dwarves joined her, and both, Finn and Bran had to fight down their own laughter. At last, Bran pulled himself together and asked:
“So, what, just because you’re angry with the Queen, you dipped the apples in impberry juice and poisoned those innocent girls?”
“Oh, come now, a bit of rash and sickness, in a few days they’ll be as good as new. But yes, I wanted to sabotage the Queen’s lovely winter fair. Don’t you know, no Snow White, no winter fair. That’s how it’s always been. Well, seems like I didn’t quite succeed, but look what they had to resort to, a man as Snow White.”
“So you at least see the problem here, don’t you?” Bran stated, grateful someone at least understood him. But Hogar pushed him aside, with a big grin on is bearded face and declared triumphantly: “Well, hag, seems like your plan has backfired, now we have the most perfect Snow White since the Queen herself.”
Red Riding Hood tossed her head back and ignored him, trying to hold on to at least her imaginary victory. The council men took her in their midst and announced to bring her to the Queen to be judged. But before they could leave, Bran thought of something and stopped them.
“Say, where is your husband now?”
“In the woods, he’s… he’s… well…. Argh, damn it. He’s a wolf, all right.”

In the end, it hadn’t been much of a case. Red Riding Hood admitted everything at once and was banished from the winter fair, this and every other year – she wasn’t sad about it. Unlike about the fine she had to pay.
Puss pretended nothing had happened and his family’s secret fetish for animal costumes had never been revealed. Town council and dwarves were happy about the outcome, but in fact, they hadn’t even really cared about it anymore ever since Finn had agreed on being their Snow White.
“Sorry you didn’t get to see that much of the fair,” Finn said as he got ready for his grand finale as Snow White. “We’ll come again next year, all right?”
“It’s fine. I’m you didn’t get to do much sleuthing,” Bran replied.
“It’s fine.” Finn put his black haired wig on and turned to his friend, smiling. “But you know, you really should get ready now.”
“Ready for what?”
“For the kiss, have you forgotten? You’re my prince, you have to kiss me awake.”
“I most certainly don’t”
“But you’re my fiancé.”
“I’m so not and you know that.”
“If you don’t do it, Snow White will remain dead.”
“Well, bad luck for her then.”

Despite his protestations, at 7 o’clock this very evening, Bran found himself kneeling besides the crystal coffin, looking down on Finn, pretending to be dead. As much as he hated to admit it, Finn really was a stunning beauty. It didn’t make this any easier though. Nor did being the centre of everyone’s attention. The place was packed with people, some of them were even sitting on top of some of the more sturdier built stalls.
Bran took a deep breath. There was no way he could get out of this now. Right in front of the stage stood Hogar and the other six dwarves, ogling at them with big, teary eyes. Pax was sitting on Hogar’s shoulder, paying the most attention she ever had to anything before.
Slowly, Bran leaned down and took another breath.
“You do know it has to be a real kiss,” Finn whispered, hardly even moving his lips. “No peck on the cheek or anything like this. A real kiss.”
“I know, I know.” Gee, he would rather strangle that transvestite but he had no choice. How on earth had he ended up in this situation?
“You’re so going to pay for this,” he hissed.
“I know.” There was amusement in Finn’s voice.
Now or never, Bran thought. And with all the determination he could muster, he leaned down and pressed his lips against Finn’s.
He had to admit, it didn’t feel so bad. Finn’s lips were warm and soft and for a moment Bran could even forget everything else. Until he tried to break the kiss. Finn’s arms suddenly came around his neck, pulling him back down into a long, passionate kiss.
The crowd cheered. The dwarves bounced happily up and down as if it really was Snow White coming back from the dead. Pax clapped her tiny hands as hard as she could, a single tear running down her cheek.
After what felt to Bran like an eternity, Finn finally let go of him. He felt strangely light-headed and out of breath when he helped the fake Snow White out of her coffin.
“You’re so going to pay for this,” he repeated under his breath. Finn merely chuckled, waving and smiling at the still cheering crowd.

It was still early when they picked up Buttercup from the stables. Pax was fast asleep in the pocket of Finn’s coat. The pixies debauchery the night before had outshone everything before it. She had drunken four kegs of honeyed ale, one barrel of spiced cider, five kegs of Honeysuckle Wine and one pint of Blackcurrant Ale. Bran was astonished she hadn’t drowned herself.
The dwarves had been crying when they had said their good-byes, Puss/Oscar, on the other hand, had been pure indifference.
And ever since that kiss, Finn threw him glances that didn’t bode well for Bran. He had to think of a way to subdue whatever idea got stuck in Finn’s pretty head, but at the moment, his brain was still too alcohol addled.
It was then, that he noticed they were being followed. He pulled Buttercup to a stop and turned around. A furious looking goblin stood in the middle of the road.
“You! You are the one who has me brother on his conscience!” the goblin screamed. It took Bran a moment to understand what the creature was talking about.
“Oh, that goblin in the bar,” he said at last. “What was his name again? Jack?”
“Don’t you dare speak hi name, filthy human! I’m here to take revenge for him.”
“Are you now. And who are you? His brother John?”
The goblin suddenly went very still, his eyes widened and without any obvious cause, the ground beneath him began to smoke.
“That… the devil told you that name!” he screeched and with a loud popping noise vanished in a cloud of smoke.
“Again?” Bran cried. What was it with him and those goblins? And anyway, weren’t their names supposed to be hard to guess?
“Oh my,” Finn purred, throwing his arms around Bran’s neck, and gave the stunned young man a peck on the cheek. “You’re a regular goblin slayer.”
“That’s not my fault, what the hell is wrong with that family of theirs? Who’s next? Their uncle Bob?” Bran cried, exasperated.
“Argh! The… the devil-“ came a high pitched cry from the bush to their left, only seconds before they heard a loud popping noise and the bush began to smoke.
“Seriously, this is getting ridiculous,” Bran sighed. But Finn hugged him more tightly and breathed into his ear: “My hero.”
Despite his dislike of having Finn stick to him like that, Bran couldn’t help but blush and feel warmed by those words.
“Whatever,” he said roughly to hide his embarrassment, pushed Finn off of him and continued along the road.
Well, at least someone thought of him as a hero.

~End of Part IV~

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Nyaaaa, thank you :3 I'm really glad you liked it *happy dance*