2016 Secret Santa: Renetiger

Snow White AU

x

Yes, I'm still here and kicking – although you would be forgiven for thinking otherwise – and I am still working on my multichaptered stories, but in the meantime, I've been writing a fair few oneshots on Tumblr, especially during fandom events. Following in YC's example, I've decided to post at those fandom events oneshots altogether here, starting with the first TCR fandom event (at least that I'm aware of) – the 2016 Secret Santa.

That year, I received Renetiger as my person, who requested a Snow White AU, with Baron in Snow White's role. It should have been a short little scene, and I ended up with the majority of a short story because I don't know when to stop.

I'll be adding more soon, but for now, enjoy.

Cat.

ooOoo

Natori, the King's loyal advisor who had been suffering through his job for more years than he cared to count, eyed the giant glass ball that occupied a large corner of the room. After a moment of deliberation, in which he decided he probably was going to regret it, he asked, "What, Your Majesty, is that?"

The King, who was slumped casually in a chair before the glass ball, grinned, and Natori's heart plummeted. "Just a gift from our neighbours, the Nathair Kingdom. It's a magic mirror."

It looked more like a giant eyeball, in Natori's opinion, but he held his tongue. "How… unusual. And what does this magic mirror do?"

"It answers any question."

In Natori's view, anything could do that – in his experience, politicians were experts at it – but it was getting a clear, honest answer that was more difficult. Giant glass balls weren't known for that. In fact, giant glass balls weren't known for much at all. "I see," he said eventually. "Your Majesty, you have a meeting with the minister of foreign relations–"

"Sure, sure, I'll be there." The King waved Natori's prompting away. "But first, time to test out the new present." He straightened and cleared his throat. "Magic mirror, who is the most powerful man in all the land?"

The mirror was silent.

"Magic mirror, who is the most powerful man in all the land?" the King demanded, louder this time.

"Have you tried turning it off and on again?" Natori offered dryly.

The King scowled and then, muttering furiously, snatched up what looked suspiciously like an instruction manual from the table beside him. "Set the mirror on its stand… Slot side A against beam C and place in a well-lit room…" he murmured. "Aha! All queries must be spoken in rhyming couplets…"

Natori's heart dropped yet further. They were going to be here for a while. "Your Majesty, the minister–"

"Hang on, I'm thinking!" The King glowered at the mirror and then, after much thought and very slowly, said, "Magic mirror in this room, who is the most powerful in all the kingdom?"

The mirror didn't respond at first, the mist swirling slowly as it seemed to consider the attempt. Then the blue fog cleared to form an oval in the centre, with a golden light at its heart. "Close enough," it said. The oval shimmered and now became a mirror, reflecting back the image of the King. "You are, my king."

The King beamed. "Fantastic. Magic mirror in this room, who is the richest in all the kingdom?"

The reflection rippled and then returned, showing the image of the King again. "You are, my king."

"This is fun, isn't it?" the King asked. Without waiting for Natori's answer – which was good, because 'fun' was not the word Natori would have chosen – the King turned back to the glass ball. "Magic mirror in this room, who is the most loved in all the kingdom?"

Natori's breath hitched as, not to his surprise, the reflection wavered and, this time, did not come back. Instead, the image of a young man swam into view.

The King, however, was less prepared. A noise that sounded like a strangled goose rocked through the monarch, and the instruction manual was flung at the glass ball. "Him?" he howled. "But I'm the King! I deserve their respect and love! What has he done that makes him so much better than me?!"

Natori watched as, in the mist of the magic mirror, the young man ran to help an elderly couple who were struggling to bring up water from a well. "At a guess, I'd say feeding the poor, helping those in need, those kinds of clichés."

"Well, I'm having none of it! Natori, have this man arrested and executed immediately!"

His advisor paused. "Your Majesty, perhaps you should reconsider publicly executing the most beloved person in all the kingdom." For good measure, he added, "Think of what it'll do for your approval ratings."

"You're right. Send for the assassin!"

"Sire, perhaps taking this magic mirror as infallible is a mistake. After all, there are many different ways to be loved."

"Of course. Maybe it's broken," the King muttered. "Magic mirror in this room, who is the most handsome–"

"And maybe we should focus on the task at hand," Natori quickly interrupted. If they continued down this avenue, half the kingdom would end up on the chopping block before lunch. "The minister–"

"Forget the minister! I have much more pressing matters to attend to! Natori, who is that man?"

"I have no idea," Natori lied.

"Then I shall just have to ask the mirror. Magic mirror, who is that man?"

The mirror was silent.

"Right. Rhyming." The King slumped back into his seat, and Natori could hear him muttering as he attempted to find a rhyme to 'man' or 'name' that fitted. Natori was feeling hopeful that this might pass without incident when the man in the mirror offered a handkerchief to a babbling child. On one corner was a blue-backed crest with a griffin embroidered onto it.

The crest of the Gikkingen family.

The King turned to Natori, his smile threatening to swallow his whole face. "Natori, summon the royal assassin."

"Sire, we don't have a royal–"

"Then find me someone who is up for the task! There has to be some mercenary willing to make their weight in gold!"

ooOoo

Oblivious to the threat to his life, Baron Humbert von Gikkingen wiped the tears from the child's blubbering face. "Now, there; it's going to be okay. Where did you see your mother last?"

The girl waved a hand fretfully in the direction of a bakery. "But… But she's not there anymore!" she bawled. "I don't… I don't know where she is! She – She–" The child hiccupped and then stared at a dark-haired woman who had just rushed out of the adjacent butchers.

"Is that her?" Baron asked.

The girl nodded and ran off into the arms of her mother.

"Not even a thank you. Charming."

At the familiar voice, Baron looked up and saw his fiancée leaning against the far side of the well, a teasing grin lighting up her face.

"You know I never demand repayment for kindness, Haru. Simply the knowledge of a good deed well done is my reward."

Haru wrinkled her nose at the much-heard rhetoric. "So you're not avoiding organising the winter fair then?"

Baron grinned back. "Well, maybe there is that." He sighed and rose to his feet, carefully folding up the snot-laden handkerchief and tucking it into a pocket. "Do you know I've had sixteen complaints about the layout of the stalls? Sixteen. They're all in the Grand Hall – what difference does it make whether one is nearer the door or not?"

"A lot, apparently."

"So I've realised."

The apprentice seamstress laughed and rounded the well, coming over to Baron's side to lean against him. "Well, far be it for me to discourage a good deed, but if you want to avoid your winter fair obligations for a little longer, we could walk down to the lake."

"I really should focus on the winter fair…"

"We could pick some holly and hawthorn to decorate the Grand Hall with while we're walking," Haru offered with a smile. "Then it's not technically procrastination, right?"

Baron laughed. "I like your thinking."

ooOoo

"Okay, now we're officially procrastinating." Regardless of her statement, Haru picked up another flat stone, eyeing it critically before sending it flying across the lake's surface. "Four skips! I'm winning!"

"Were we competing?" Baron asked. "Someone should have told me." With that, he grinned at Haru and sent his own pebble skimming out onto the water. It skipped five times before finally sinking.

"Well, now you're just showing off," his fiancée muttered.

"Help! Somebody, anybody, help!"

Baron and Haru exchanged glances, before both dropped their pebble collections and started towards the source of the cries. They didn't have far to go before they were almost run over by a young woman. Baron caught her shoulders before they could collide.

"What has happened? Are you in trouble?"

"No, I – my husband – he's fallen down a gully–" The woman hiccupped, nearly hyperventilating as she tried to force some coherent answer out. "He's not responding – I need – I need – a doctor–"

"Is he far?"

The woman shook her head, her pale, almost snow-white hair swaying at her ears as she did so. "No. But he needs help – is there someone – can someone–?"

Baron and Haru looked at one another, quickly coming to a decision. "We can't just leave her while we fetch a doctor," Haru said quietly. She didn't add that it looked like the woman would collapse without someone to hold her up – and that someone was currently Baron. "You go and see how her husband is, and I'll run back into town."

Baron nodded. "Bring Doctor Thomas here, and I'll return as soon as I've seen if anything can be done immediately for her husband." After Haru had offered an uneasy smile and had set off running back towards the town walls, Baron turned to the woman clinging half-hysterically to his arm. "We're going to do everything we can for your husband, madam; please, can you show me where he is? Do you think you can manage that?"

Sniffling, the woman nodded, and began to lead Baron through the forest.

After about fifteen minutes of steady, if slow, walking along unfamiliar paths, the woman halted at a scar running through the earth's landscape. Baron stepped up to the edge of the gully and peered down. Apprehension tickled at his nerves. The gully was empty.

"Madam, are you sure your husband was here?"

There was a sigh behind him, and he looked back to see the damsel in distress straightening. She rolled her shoulders, any sign of the broken, grief-stricken wife gone as she stood tall. "You know, you really should be more wary of the strangers you trust." Almost absent-mindedly, she cleared away the tears with the corner of a cream handkerchief. "I've had more trouble snatching candy from a baby."

"Who are you?"

"I'm the one the King hired to kill you."

Baron immediately became aware of the fifty-foot gully behind him. "The King? But why?"

"Something about you being more loved than him, I don't know." The woman ran a hand through her hair, straightening her chin-length locks back from their bedraggled state. "All I know is that I've been offered the King's weight in gold to bring your heart back on a platter. Originally it was my weight in gold but, you know, a lady's gotta eat."

Baron watched the woman before him, tall and confident, and bearing an ease in her manner that suggested she had no doubt in her own abilities. "I suppose this is the part where I beg for my life?"

She rolled her eyes. "Are you always this melodramatic? You can, if you like, but it won't do anything except make this slightly awkward."

"Then my apologies for making my death awkward," Baron replied. "I'm sure your other victims are far more considerate." He eyed the woman, and this time took note of a distinct lack of visible weapons. After a moment's thought, he stepped away from the gully's edge. "Talking of which, how exactly am I meant to meet my grisly demise? Poison? Stabbed? Fill me in here, please."

The woman sighed. "All right, let's get a few things cleared up here. I'm not killing you – if I were, you'd already be dead."

"But you–"

"I'm a mercenary, not a murderer. It's not my fault if the King doesn't know the difference."

"But you accepted the job," Baron said.

"Because what idiot refuses a king?" she demanded. "A dead one, that's what. And I don't know about you, but I like my head on my shoulders."

"Then what are we doing here?"

"Well, you could go back to town, call out the King on his attempt to kill you, be arrested and tried for treason for such claims, I get quietly arrested for disobeying the King, and both of us end up with our heads on a spike. Or you could go back to town, keep quiet, wait until the King discovers I've failed and tries to kill you again, and our heads end up on a spike anyway–"

"Why do all these plans end up with us dead–?"

"OR," she continued, pushing past Baron's muttering, "I can buy a pig's heart from the butcher's, claim it's yours, collect the gold, and we both go into hiding until the King forgets about this."

"And how long is that going to take?" Baron asked flatly.

"The King's advisor assured me that the King's attention span is deficient enough that we should be long forgotten in about six months or so–"

"Six months?!"

"The other option is I kill you and collect the gold and don't risk being beheaded for treason," she reminded him. "Your choice."

Baron was silent.

He had encountered the King's advisor before on royal functions – an overworked, bedraggled scholar who had somehow found himself the King's right hand man – and Natori knew how to manage the King's irrational moments better than anyone. If he had indeed suggested that – and Baron had no assurance that the mercenary was telling the truth – then it probably was his best chance.

"Let me tell my fiancée–"

"What? That the King wants you dead? I'm sure that won't put her in danger at all."

Baron again was silent, and this time with the image of Haru marching up to the castle and demanding an audience with the King. And she would. He had absolutely no doubt about that.

Then again, she was asking him to leave Haru grieving, lost and confused as to why he'd vanished without warning. "No, she has to know. She's smart – she'll know to keep up the act until it's safe for me to return. I'm not going to break her heart."

The woman shrugged. "Fine. I'll let her know when things quieten down. Talking of which…" She spun on her heels in the direction of the town. "I suppose I should pay the butcher's a visit. Oh," she called over her shoulder, "and the name's Louise. I guess you should know."

ooOoo

Baron stared with surprise at the little woodland cottage before them. When Louise had spoken of going into hiding, he had come to the reluctant conclusion that it meant they were going to be spending the next six months scrounging in the forest or travelling to the next kingdom. But the house before them, if slightly squat and tired, looked almost respectable. For a woodland cottage, anyway.

On entering, however, he wasn't quite so pleased.

"Haven't you ever heard of cleaning?"

"Are you volunteering?" Louise located the kettle from amongst the pile of dirty crockery, and kicked a dwindling fire back into spluttering life. "In my defence, this isn't my doing. Toto refuses to wash up if Muta's left a mess, and Muta refuses to on principle that Toto has asked him to."

Baron took an uneasy seat on one of the kitchen chairs. The legs wobbled precariously, but didn't give way. "Muta and Toto? Who else lives here?"

"Just a thief and an outlaw. Oh, don't worry – they're mostly harmless."

"Strangely enough, that doesn't reassure me."

Louise filled up the kettle and set it to boil over the fire. "You'll get used to them. Tea?"

Baron glanced at the mess of cutlery and crockery that was forming a small mountain about the sink. "I think I'll manage without."

She shrugged. "Suit yourself."

ooOoo

Natori found the King slouched in a chair before the magic mirror. The room, which up until now had been an unused, dusty room in the west wing of the castle, had become known as the Mirror Room, and was now a favourite of the King's. In a recently-added cabinet lining one of the walls was a beautiful little ebony box, inside which rested, what the King believed to be, the heart of Baron Humbert von Gikkingen.

"It's a good day to be King, Natori."

But not such a good day to be a king's advisor, Natori suspected. All the same, he pampered to his monarch's good mood. "Of course, Your Majesty." He eyed the mirror, which he was fast becoming impatient with. "Sire, Prince Lune has sent his regards and will be returning from his honeymoon at the end of the month – perhaps it would be good to organise a celebratory feast for his and Princess Yuki's return–"

"Fine, fine. See to it, Natori."

The advisor's mouth thinned. "In all due respect, Your Majesty, this is your son we're talking about – it seems fitting that you should have some input in the proceedings–"

"Fine, fine."

"And the minister of foreign relations is worried that something is afoot in the Nathair Kingdom–"

"Now that that Gikkingen lord is out of the way," the King said, ignoring Natori's warnings entirely, "I suppose I must be the natural candidate for most loved in all the land."

"Sire, please–"

"Magic mirror in this room, who is the most loved in all the kingdom?"

Natori winced, and waited for the inevitable. Sure enough, the mirror fogged, and cleared to show the now-familiar face of Baron Humbert von Gikkingen. Instead of the town surroundings, he was standing in a dimly-lit kitchen, arguing with a man a head taller than him.

"WHAT?"

The King clambered uneasily to his feet and grabbed the ebony box from the cabinet. "But I have his heart! What is this? Magic mirror, tell me!" He snarled at the mirror's silence, and snapped, "Magic mirror if you don't tell me about this heart, I'll take you to pieces, part by part!"

Natori allowed himself to be mildly impressed by the King's improvised rhyming, but the mirror seemed less so. It shimmered for far longer than was probably necessary, before finally answering with, "The Baron still lives, most beloved in the land. 'Tis the heart of a pig you hold in your hand."

"That woman lied to me!"

"She was a mercenary," Natori pointed out.

"I paid gold for this heart!"

"The most expensive offal in all the land," the advisor said.

The King roared and flung the box across the room. To Natori's relief, it didn't shatter, but bounced off the wall and came to a rocky stop at the foot of the mirror. His relief was quickly killed when the King went storming out of the room.

"Wait, Your – Your Majesty, what–?"

"You know what they say, Natori – if you want a job done well, do it yourself."

Natori grabbed the King's sleeve, in a desperate attempt to slow the mad monarch. "Kill the Baron yourself?" At the strange looks of passing staff, Natori lowered his voice. "And if word gets out that you murdered a subject? Let it go, Sire! What does it matter if people love him?"

"It matters because they love him more than me!" The King finally halted, and Natori could see the mental gears slowly whirring into action. "But you're right – this has to be handled… delicately." A devious grin spread over his face. "If he's so loved, then let's see if that'll save him." He cackled and stalked towards a room that Natori was sure the King didn't even know existed – the library.

Natori watched the King slam open the royal library's doors.

"This cannot be good."

ooOoo

"Ah-ha! Found it!"

Natori ducked as another, probably priceless, tome flew through the air. At the far side of the room was the librarian, who was doing a remarkable job of hiding her distress at the King's damage while she quietly returned what books she could.

"Found what, Sire?"

"This!" The King slammed a heavy book of herbal remedies and potions down onto a table. The librarian audibly winced at the treatment. "It's perfect!"

Natori looked down at the page the King had jabbed a finger at, awakening a cloud of dust from the neglected pages. "Sleeping Death?" he whispered, very aware that the librarian was still skulking at the far corner. He eyed the drawing of the ruby-red flower, his gaze sketching over the plant's description. "But Sire, that's…"

"Fitting, don't you think?" The King had one of his smiles that usually preceded a bad plan. "If he really is so loved, then let's put that to the test."

"But Sleeping Death–" Natori caught himself, and lowered his voice again. "It puts its victim under… well, sleeping death… forever. Isn't that a little extreme?"

"You forget, Natori – there is a cure."

"Yes, but does anyone really believe that True Love's Kiss actually works?" the advisor hissed. "It's a story, a myth, a… a fairytale!"

"I can always return to my original plan."

Natori's next accusation died on his tongue.

"Eternal sleep is kinder than death, wouldn't you think?" asked the King. He grinned and returned his attention to the book. "Now, all I need is a disguise and a way to trick the Baron into taking Sleeping Death…"

ooOoo

It had barely been a fortnight, and already Baron was growing restless.

Of course, the unkempt state of the cottage did little to aid his mood. Even if he had come to tolerate, and even like his cottage companions, it didn't change the fact that a) they were his only source of company and b) they were Grimm-awful at household chores. After several heated discussions, a few thinly- (and not-so-thinly-) veiled threats, and at least one shouting match that nearly resulted in the casualty of the single decent tea pot, the kitchen was still a mess.

Baron had admitted defeat.

He waited until Louise, Toto, and Muta had left for the day before going on a search for cleaning supplies – after all, there was no point in letting them know he had admitted defeat. To his relief (and, quite frankly, surprise) he eventually found a broom cupboard with the necessary materials. It had taken some finding, since someone had seen fit to place an armchair in front of it, and it looked like it had been untouched for years, but there was indeed at least a broom, a dustpan and brush, and a mop and bucket.

It was a start.

He began with the kitchen surfaces, removing all the cluttered dirty crockery onto the table until finally the wooden counter was revealed beneath. He set to work cleaning the layer of crumbs and debris away until finally he felt the surface was fit for preparing food. After that, he set to washing up the dirty plates and bowls, only to find his plan scuppered when he discovered the dishevelled state of the cupboards' interiors.

He groaned and threw himself onto a chair. It squeaked at the abrupt weight, and Baron glanced down at the rickety piece of furniture. "Don't you go giving way on me now. If you can hold Muta, you can hold me."

A knock at the door interrupted him. He pushed himself tiredly to his feet, while a renewed sense of curiosity rose up on him – after all, none of his companions knocked when barging through the door without warning was an option.

With that in mind, he warily opened the upper half of the door, leaning out to inspect his unexpected visitor.

Beard was his first thought.

The man had a huge, bristly white beard. It looked like it had attacked the man's face, and the effect wasn't diminished by the fact that the hood hid much else of the stranger's features.

"Take pity on a poor, lost old man?"

The voice was familiar, but that meant little – Baron had met many people in his life. Although he was pretty sure he'd remember such a beard. However, that didn't change the fact that he was being asked for help, and he could not refuse such a plea.

"What do you need, good sir?"

"A place to rest my weary old legs, and a warm meal. I can pay with a few good apples from my orchard." The stranger uncovered the basket he held in his hand, revealing about half a dozen rosy-red apples.

"Of course, but there's no need for payment–"

In mutiny, his stomach gave an audible rumble, and the beard rustled into the shape of a smile.

"Of course, but what about a gift of thanks? Here, take an apple…"

Baron found an apple thrust into his face, and his stomach reminded him that he hadn't eaten anything since breakfast – if some dry bread and cheese counted as breakfast. He took the apple and started to place it on the kitchen counter when he spotted the way the old stranger was staring at him.

Well, it would be rude to not even take a bite, his mind muttered. And there are stories of fairies who test the good nature of humans – if this is the case, then I might be about three seconds away from being cursed…

With that thought in mind, he brought the apple up to his lips and took a courtesy bite.

Coldness seeped across his skin. For a brief moment, it tickled the nape of his neck, as if someone had slipped an ice cube down his back, and then shivers wracked his shoulders, the cold so severe it almost seemed to be burning instead.

He grabbed the doorframe before his legs could give way, but the world was already swimming before his eyes. "What… What was that?"

The stranger – with a little effort – tore the beard from his face and threw his hood back. The King grinned.

"Who's the most loved now?"

ooOoo

There was a flurry of curses when Muta returned to find the front door unlocked, unmanned, and blocked. He gave it several hearty shoves before leaning through the open upper half and peering at the cause.

There was several more curses as he spotted the unconscious form of Baron.

Toto returned just in time to see Muta storming round to the back.

"What's the matter, numbskull? Forget your keys again?"

"Shut up and help me." Without waiting to see if Toto was following, Muta slammed open the back door and through the cottage. He spared a moment for the half-cleaned state of the kitchen – he wasn't even aware there was that much surface space – before locating Baron.

"What in the seven kingdoms happened?" Toto joined Muta at the kitchen door, lingering only a moment in disbelief before moving to inspect the prone body. He glanced back to Muta with the first pricklings of fear. "I'm not getting a pulse."

"Perhaps you're not doing it properly–"

"Oh, I'm sorry, perhaps the person without the medical training would like to lecture me on finding a pulse," Toto snapped. He rolled Baron onto his side, moving him out of the door's way. He pressed a couple of fingers to Baron's neck, and then wrist, waiting far longer than it should take to find a pulse. He sat back, running a hand through his hair. "Nothing."

"Don't be stupid; he can't be dead," Muta growled. "Are ya telling me he fell over and died? I know he's nobility, but he's not made of glass."

"And I'm telling you there's no pulse!"

"What's going on?" Louise arrived at the door, a bag of supplies over one shoulder, and her parasol over the other. "What's happened?"

"It's Baron. He's collapsed – I think he's dead."

"Dead?" Louise echoed. She pushed the door open and dropped down to Baron's side. "You're being ridiculous – how can he be dead?"

"I'm telling you there's no pulse."

Even as Toto spoke, Louise was checking Baron's wrists and neck. She pressed an ear to his chest, her eyes widening in overt panic. "Mirror," she ordered. When no one responded, she said, "Somebody get me a mirror – there should be a small one in my room at the very least."

Muta returned a minute later with a handheld mirror from Louise's desk; she snatched it from him the moment he came within reach. The other two mutely watched as she held it above his mouth. The seconds passed, and finally she dropped the mirror down to one side. "He's not breathing."

"Why does no one believe me?" Toto murmured.

"Toto, is there anything…?"

"I was a doctor, not a necromancer." Toto's response was quiet, with an undercurrent of bitterness at his limitations. "I can't bring back the dead."

Louise sat back, visibly shaken but her mind was whirring through their choices. She gently closed Baron's eyes. "Do we know what happened?"

"He was like that when we got here," Muta said.

"There's no sign of a struggle," she said. "No outward injuries. A heart attack, perhaps? Or some other illness? Is that possible?"

Toto weakly shrugged. "I don't know. Without being here when it happened…"

"We don't know," Louise finished. "Right." She glanced down at the silent body, and her heart sank. "He has a fiancée. She should know."

ooOoo

"Gone? What do you mean 'gone'?"

Haru's landlady was unmoved by Louise's confusion. She kept the latch on the door, leaving only a sliver of her face visible through the crack as she eyed the slightly dishevelled traveller. "I mean she's gone. The girl said something about going to visit some relatives for a few months, and left. Why? Do you want to rent her room, because it's yours if you have a good enough offer–"

"No, it's fine – I just need to find her."

"Can't help you then, lady. She didn't leave an address."

"Then you don't know–"

"No."

Louise's mind was racing as the door was slammed in her face. When she had told Haru about her fiancé's predicament, she had warned the seamstress that it would be wise to leave, just until things had blown over. Natori had told her that people tended to get swept up in the King's mad schemes, mostly with bad outcomes. It seemed Haru had listened.

Haru should have had at least the option to see Baron before he was buried. She knew that better than she cared to admit. Haru should have had the chance to see him and lend some closure to his death.

But with her gone, that made things rather difficult.

ooOoo

"Really? On the table?" Muta groaned as he ducked through the front door, a wooden casket slung over one shoulder. "Do we have to leave the dead body there? We're gonna have to eat there later."

Toto was leaning against the wall, absent-mindedly running his fingernails over one another as he eyed Baron's corpse. After several long seconds, in which Muta came to the conclusion he was being ignored, Toto said, "You know, I'm not sure he is dead."

Muta slammed the casket down against the kitchen cupboards. "Why didn't you say so before I bought the freaking coffin? Fine, stole," he amended when Toto spared him a withering glance. "Dead, not dead – make up your mind!"

"I've seen a few corpses in my time…" Toto started, not really sounding as if he was listening to Muta, "After all, unless you're a miracle worker, it's difficult to be a doctor and not be familiar with death, but… I've never seen anyone look like that…"

"Like what? Not breathing?"

"Don't be flippant, lardball. Look, I know he's dead… technically… but he doesn't look it. He looks like he's sleeping. And that only happens in stories. In real life… you know when someone's died. You can see it in their face, as if something's missing. He doesn't look dead."

"Apart from the whole, ya know, no heartbeat thing." Muta cracked a half-hearted smile. "Maybe he's a vampire. Should I fetch a stake?"

"I hardly think that will be necessary." Louise returned from her visit into town, letting herself back into the cottage with a sigh. "I can't find Haru – according to her landlady, she's left town for a while. What's this about Baron not being dead?"

"Birdbrain thinks Baron's a vampire."

"I didn't not say–" Toto caught himself before he could get too distracted with throwing back insults, but he did smack Muta with a tea towel. "I said that he doesn't look dead – there's a difference, idiot."

"So is he dead or isn't he?"

"I don't know. But I know I don't want to be the one to bury him."

ooOoo

The days ticked by, and Baron's body did not yield to decay. His colour retained, if slightly paler, and an air of dreamless peace surrounded him. It was, as Toto had said, as if he were merely sleeping, albeit without breath or heartbeat. And, as the days turned into weeks, and the weeks into a month, still he did not truly die.

But neither did he wake.

Eventually, the occupants of the cottage created a glass coffin, so that Baron could remain in his unchanging death – or, if he did ever return to the land of the living, then they would know. For none could bring themselves to set him in a wooden coffin and lower him into the ground, but neither could they leave his body resting in his old room. Both seemed morbid in their own way.

And, one day, after several months, news reached them that Haru had returned in the hope that the danger had passed.

Louise found the young woman and told her of Baron's mysterious death. She brought the seamstress back to the cottage, and to the glass coffin just beyond where Baron rested, so that Haru might see with her own eyes Baron's half-death.

"He never looked that calm in life," Haru murmured. She swept a hand at the hair falling over his face, and could not help but notice how his skin was still warm. "He was always thinking or planning or occasionally panicking; he never stopped for a moment. Now it appears he's stopped for eternity."

She smiled bitterly and dropped her head to his, their foreheads gently touching. If she closed her eyes, the warmth could almost make her believe he was alive. "You weren't meant to die," she whispered. "You weren't meant to leave me. Please… don't leave me."

Her lips softly brushed over his, the echo of a kiss, and she dropped her head against his shoulder. Even in death, he still smelt the same. Tea and mint. She inhaled the scent, wishing that she'd never forget, and tears sprung in her eyes, soaking into his shirt.

A hand lightly rested against the back of her head, caressing it reassuringly

A gloved hand.

"Come now, Haru; there's no need to cry. Everything will be okay, I promise."

Haru shot up, nearly falling in the process. "You."

Baron blinked, clearing out the last of the sleepdust, and attempted a smile. His mouth moved slowly, as if his muscles were just remembering how to work again. "You look as though you've seen a ghost–"

He was barely able to finish the sentence before Haru threw her arms around him. A tearful, amazed laugh bubbled through her, much to the confusion of Baron. He returned the embrace, but now his eyes were moving over the spectators, many of whom shared the same bewildered expression Haru had seconds before.

"Not that I'm not pleased to see you, but what's happened?"

He glanced down at his resting place.

"And why am I in a coffin?"

ooOoo

In the palace, the King sat before his magic mirror and demanded the same question he had asked many times before. When the mirror supplied the same answer, stress, age, and a terrible diet finally caught up with the monarch, and he was struck down with a sudden heart attack. The Kingdom mourned, but many were relieved when the much saner Crown Prince took the throne, and ruled alongside his wise and no-nonsense Queen.

With the mad king gone, Baron could return to his home with no threat of beheading for such a simple thing as being loved, and Haru finished her seamstress apprenticeship in relative peace. The two were happily married, and their wedding was allegedly attended by several renowned criminals.

As for the criminals themselves, some reformation did take place. With some financial help, Toto was able to renew his medical training, and eventually acquired the title of 'Doctor'. His lockpicking skills became relegated to a neat party trick – or mostly, anyway.

Louise swore off mercenary work after that fiasco (again, mostly), and took to travelling the seven kingdoms for adventure, both causing and preventing chaos as she went, before eventually settling down to a pirate's life. (The tales she tells keep Haru and Baron's children entertained for hours.)

Muta was Muta, and he did what he pleased, and apparently that included dropping in by the Gikkingens' for cake every other Sunday. After getting to know him, Haru warmed up to him, even if he did regularly deplete their food stores.

And, finally, Natori happily retired to the countryside and never had to talk politics again.