After he left the orphanage, Moominpappa had thought he would never see the caretaker again.
He hadn't expected the second encounter, on the Oshun Oxtra, but she'd been carried off by nieblings, so Moominpappa could be forgiven for thinking he was safe from her.
(She hadn't even been grateful for the first rescue. After what she'd pulled on the Oxtra, well, Moominpappa didn't really feel guilt over not rescuing her a second time.)
He let himself forget what it had been like there, even went so far as to romanticize it when he worked on his memoirs. A proper hero had a difficult childhood, but not too difficult, not too traumatizing, he rationalized. He'd even started to find some family, blood family to pad out the family he'd created for himself, although the blood family was often proving to be more trouble than he'd ever anticipated.
Aunt Jane could be nice enough, but that obsession with money...
What of it if he let himself forget or downplayed what it had been like at the orphanage? It wasn't as though he were likely to see any of the other orphans or the caretaker ever again, after all. It was all in the past, and he let it slip from his mind, confident he wouldn't have to face it again.
He hadn't realized how much he was counting on that until just now.
What was she doing here? How did she find him?
Why did she find him? He was an adult now, she had no control, no authority over him.
And yet, standing on the front steps of Moomin House, he suddenly felt as tiny as Little My, and more helpless than Little My had ever been in her entire life.
His limbs had locked into place, trembling and frozen, his voice locked tighter than Aunt Jane's safe as the fillyjonk lectured, voice strident and piercing.
Something about her reduced him down to a child again when faced with her, with her bulldozing of everyone around her, the way she ignored everything that she didn't care to listen to, dismissed any evidence that things could be other than how she believed they were. That anyone could want things to be anything but how she thought they should be, the 'proper' way things should be.
Memories he'd kept locked away had streamed back the instant he'd seen her, turning him back into tiny number thirteen, dominated by her stronger personality, by her authority over him, despite the fact that they were equals now.
The principal would never have accepted anyone being equal to her, let alone someone who'd once been unfortunate enough to be in her care.
He'd blocked away so much more than he'd realized.
The tirades, the verbal abuse that left all of them shaking, cowering away from her, tearing them down. The denial of dinners, the dark closet, the numbers on their backs and the strict regimen of blind obedience.
The casual yanking on the arm of a child too slow, the pulling of whatever appendage was closest to paw.
The way she would slap, would spank, if they seemed to be so much as thinking of disobeying her.
It was amazing that they hadn't gone invisible.
The words washed over him, a sea of noise, with only the individual one standing out to strike at his heart with the accuracy and pain of a dagger.
Worthless. Idle. Fool. Dreamer. Greater fool, to have run off, with dreams of grandeur, thinking himself something special. Born under special stars, indeed! Troublesome stars, more like. A writer? A liar, more like! No respectable person concocted stories for a living, but what could one expect from an unlucky number like thirteen?
Everyone else who had been at tea was too shocked to speak, to move, as she continued her tirade, unable to believe what they were hearing. Unable to believe what they heard, to have this level of vitriol in Moomin Valley and directed at Moominpappa, at Moomin House, even at Moomin Valley, stunned into frozen disbelief.
Until she raised her paw.
Moominpappa braced himself for the blow which never fell.
Not on him.
Joxter staggered with the force of the blow, head snapped to the side.
There was a breathless, indrawn silence as he straightened, paws clenched and cheek already turning red. Silence as it registered with everyone that he'd thrown himself in front of Moominpappa and taken the blow instead.
Joxter stood between Moominpappa and the principal, arms wide and tail bristling, ears laid back as his now slitted eyes glared at her defiantly.
“That's enough,” he hissed. “You leave him alone. You don't have any authority here, and you're talking nonsense anyway.”
The caretaker reared back as if she had been the one slapped, her eyes narrowing after a moment in renewed anger as the rest of them moved to surround Moominpappa, as though they only needed something, one little thing, to break the spell of shock that had held them all immobile.
“Nonsense? Nonsense‽” she cried in outrage before her eyes narrowed. “I see, you want to skip ahead in line and have your turn early, do you? Don't get me started on you! This is the best you can do, number thirteen? A filthy, worthless vagabond?” she said, sneering down at Joxter. “This is your best defender? Amazing that you were able to stir yourself to move, when you're so lazy. Everyone knows what mumriks are like. A mumrik and a vagabond, how is it not in jail? Filthy little thief, always where you're not wanted. I'll bet you leave children behind you wherever you go, to fill orphanages like mine.”
Joxter reared back, the slightest flinch – missing out on Snufkin's childhood had left him more guilty than he could express, no matter that Snufkin had forgiven him, that it had been circumstance and not an abandonment, that he wished more than anything he could have been there – and she latched onto it.
“I knew it! Filthy vagabonds, worthless and lazy, someone needs to teach you the meaning of a hard day's work and proper discipline, even if they have to use a heavy paw to do it! It's past time someone took you in hand! Why, if I had a proper cane right now...”
Mymblemamma cut her off before she managed more than those few bitter, sharp words. “That's enough. My Joxter is not worthless. Nor is Moominpappa. The only unwanted person here is you.”
Her voice was sharp, and angry, a tone none of them had heard before from the sunny, happy, carefree mymble.
The caretaker attempted to sneer down her nose at Mymblemamma as she had Joxter, but as Mymblemamma stood a good two heads taller than Joxter (and a head taller than the caretaker) it didn't work as she'd planned.
“So the tomcat found himself a mate as vulgar as he is? A mymble? Between the two of you, you could fill my entire orphanage. And utterly uncontrollable, the lot of them, I'm sure. We surely would do a better job at raising them than a careless, forgetful...”
As she spoke, over her shoulder Mymblemamma could see Snufkin coming at a run, leading – to her surprise, as Snufkin had taken after his father in so many ways she assumed the attitude towards authority figures was one of them – a police officer, and the two of them followed by a small group of people.
It was that alone that kept her paw on Little My, keeping the most spirited of her children from giving the fillyjonk the biting she deserved and she dearly wanted to see her be given.
She could feel Little My trembling under her paw, snarling with fury, barely able to keep Little My from releasing retribution on the woman hurting her family.
The principal looked down at Little My and sneered.
“Such children you have!” she sniffed. “Absolute little savage!” She turned her head to the noise, and sniffed again. “Ah, and here's another of yours I gather, another worthless, filthy little vagabond like his father.”
“What's all this then?” The police officer demanded, coming up on the group and panting only slightly. His eyes narrowed, taking in the scene.
“Nothing for you to concern yourself with, Officer,” the caretaker said stiffly. “Just a reunion between myself and a wayward charge, along with his ruffian friends. Why do you allow such filthy vagabonds in your valley? Surely they ruin everything? You should all count your valuables, or check his hidey-holes to make sure he hasn't taken anything. Everyone knows about mumriks and vagabonds, and these two are both. Now, I'll be taking them under my charge and teaching them a few things about discipline and proper behavior, so you can stop worrying.”
“I see. So you are the principal of the orphanage Moominpappa wrote about?” the Police Inspector said.
The fillyjonk drew herself up proudly. “I am indeed!”
“I've been wanting a nice, long conversation with you for a long time now,” the Inspector said, seizing her arm. “You, ma'am, are under arrest for multiple counts of child abuse and endangerment, along with slander. There's more, I'm sure. The list is back at the station, so just come along quietly now.”
The fillyjonk gaped at him for a moment. “How dare you!” she shrilled. “I am the principal of an orphanage! I am a respectable person! Respectable people are not arrested for such things!”
“When they do them, they should be,” the Inspector said. “These are respected members of our community you're harassing. Another charge to add to the list!”
“Don't forget assault,” Moominmamma said, a hard edge to her voice none of them were used to hearing. “She intended to strike my husband, but struck the Joxter instead when he shielded Moominpappa, like the brave, true friend he is,” she elaborated when the Inspector looked at her questioningly.
He looked quickly to the Joxter, taking in the forming bruise on his face. “Are you all right? You should have Moominmamma look at that bruise, it looks quite painful. Very noble of you to take it in your friend's place. I'll have to ask you to come by the station later so I can make a formal note of what happened,” he said, firm but gentle, to the stunned Joxter. “We don't approve of such violence here in Moomin Valley.”
Behind the Inspector, Snufkin caught his father's eye and nodded, the barest dip of his head, so Joxter nodded slowly to the Inspector.
He didn't trust most authority figures as a rule, but if Snufkin said they could, well...
The Inspector tilted his hat to the group and began to lead the caretaker, still protesting shrilly, away, trailed by some of the group who'd followed.
The rest stepped forward with questions, with concerns, confused over what had happened and to check that everyone was all right, drifting after the Inspector when the answers were short and shocked, everyone slowly realizing what had happened, the words finally sinking in, the adrenaline wearing off and the shock beginning.
Words of reassurance, of support, were passed to the family before those who offered them left to give them time to deal with what had happened.
Moominmamma had a feeling there would be quite a few baked goods coming their way tomorrow, and more still for Joxter, who still was watching after the Inspector as if he couldn't believe an authority figure had actually defended them while Snufkin explained about the Inspector to his parents.
A half hour later, with everyone gone and the house and Moomin Valley quiet, Joxter lay cuddled in Mymblemamma's arms inside Moomin House.
She sat on the floor, her back against a pile of cushions and lying in more, slowly stroking Joxter's hair as much for her own comfort as for his.
Her children, other than Little My and Snufkin, were off with Mymble and Too-Ticky, a little treat (and with two women who knew how to control the horde) and Mymblemamma was more grateful than she could put into words that they hadn't been here for this.
Little My was pacing, still too furious to rest, as Snufkin curled near the sofa, hidden from view, the fillyjonk's words (those he had been unfortunate enough to hear) racing through his head.
Joxter lifted his head, and the call he gave was more a chirrup, a mew, than proper words.
Snufkin peeked out from behind the couch before crawling over to his parents, settling into their arms, wrapping his own around Joxter.
Little My crawled in as well, squeezing in to nestle between Joxter and Snufkin.
Upstairs, Moominpappa sat in his study, staring at his bare desk blankly, his paws still shaking.
That woman's words still rang in his ears, not just the ones she had flung at him, but the cruelty she had so casually, so viciously, slapped at Joxter, at Mymblemamma, at Little My and Snufkin and the rest.
And he'd frozen. Not a word, not a paw raised in their defense.
What must they all think of him now? Had it really been that bad, back then, that he was choosing to forget and bury himself in stories about how heroic and noble he was? How special? How had he blocked them out so deeply, forgotten them until now, when they all came rushing back?
What if she was right? What if her words, cruel as they were, were the truth of the matter?
The door creaked open, and a soft paw touched his shoulder.
“Pappa,” Moominmamma said, gentler than usual, and he turned slowly to look at her, tears burning in his eyes. How could he look at her? He barely deserved to be in her presence. “Come downstairs with me?”
Right now, he could deny Moominmamma nothing, so he let her lead him from the study, to the landing where Moomin waited, Moomin who held onto his Pappa tight for a moment before leading him downstairs along with Moominmamma.
The pile of people on the floor nearly broke Moominpappa, seeing them all clinging to each other for comfort – even Snufkin, who so rarely sought physical touch, nuzzled against his father as if to comfort him – and Moominpappa's legs shook as he crossed the floor, barely able to walk and sinking to his knees in front of the group of them, faltering as they looked at him.
“I'm so sorry,” he said brokenly. “I never...I should have...” his paws flew up to cover his face, unable to face any of them in this moment. “I should have stopped her, and when you all needed me, I froze.”
“Of course you froze,” Moominmamma said gently. “We all did. None of us blame you for it.”
“Joxter didn't freeze,” Moominpappa said softly.
There was shuffling, and a paw tugged at his, pulling it down from his face. Joxter's face was there, inches from his, tossing his hat to the side to pull his face down and rest their foreheads together.
“She was wrong,” Joxter said quietly. “No, Moominpappa, she was wrong. Maybe I am lazy and dirty...”
“Not as much as you once were,” Mymblemamma teased gently, to giggles, nervous and tense ones but still giggles as Joxter blushed, glancing shyly at Mymblemamma. Mymblemamma liked Joxter clean, liked playing with his hair and fur, and Joxter didn't like being filthy for her, so bathing was now a much more regular thing for Joxter than it had ever been when he was on his own.
“Fine, maybe I am lazy, then, but I'm not worthless, no matter what someone like her says. Maybe you do dream, but you're not a fool. And Snufkin's never been worthless. He's kind, and gentle. Little My's a bit of a gremlin, but she's protective, and we love her. That woman only saw the surface. And we're loved. We're so loved. It took a long time for it to sink in, but it's the truth.”
Other paws pulled on Moominpappa, drawing him into the hug, joined by Moomin and Moominmamma.
“We love you, Moominpappa,” Moominmamma said gently. “She was wrong about every one of us. And she'll never know what it is to be loved, only feared.”
There was silence for a few moments as all of them absorbed her words and the arms around them, the truth of what Joxter and Moominmamma had said.
“Pappa? Joxterpappa? Are you going to be all right?” Moomin asked timidly.
“With time,” Moominpappa said wearily.
“It's not the first time people have said things like that,” Joxter shrugged. Mymblemamma pulled him closer, her paw running over his hair.
“It's still neither right nor true,” she said, rubbing her cheek against his hair.
“Wounds to the heart take longer to heal,” Moominmamma said gently, stroking her husband's back. “But we're here. And we're going to make sure you never forget how much you're loved, any of us.”
But right now, surrounded by people who loved them, those wounds were beginning to.