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The Long-Awaited Invitation

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After the day’s adventure, it was dark by the time they returned to Moominhouse. Mamma had already prepared hot apple cider, eager to hear all their stories. had been an eventful day.

The day before, Pappa had actually been fast enough to get to the mailman before Little My and actually managed to get hold of the newspaper. Apparently, there was a type of rare bird that migrated south for the winter, and would be flying over Moominvalley on the last days of autumn. Obviously, they had been very eager to see the creatures fly overhead, especially if the only passed Moominvalley every five years. According to the paper, however, they flew so high that one needed to scale the Lonely Mountains, just to catch a glimpse.

Naturally, Snufkin immediately suggested they do just that.

It had been a hard path to the viewing spot. They had to not only scale a sheer rock face, but also squirm through tight crevices. There had even been a spot of swimming. Moomintroll had quite enjoyed the whole venture, but it hadn’t been entirely smooth sailing for everyone else. Sniff had almost been eaten by a moose, Little My, ignoring both his and Snufkin’s warnings, had eaten some interesting mushrooms (which turned out to have an even more interesting effect), and Snorkmaiden had chipped a claw and bemoaned the whole venture.

At least, until they got to the top.

“It was beautiful Mamma! Like watching a whole jewellery box flying!” Snorkmaiden enthusiastically told Mamma, one of the fallen feathers glittering behind her ear. Moomintroll had caught one himself. Of course, he’d first offered it to Snufkin, but he’d just smiled and told him Mamma would probably be able to keep it in much better state over the winter.

“How wonderful. It sounds like you all did well,” Mamma said, setting a tray of hot apple ciders on the veranda table. Moomintroll took one, breathing in the warm scent of cinnamon. He passed the another to Snufkin, who was sitting on the veranda railing.

“Snufkin got us lost,” Sniff said, still sore about not getting a feather of his own.

“He did not!” Moomintroll said immediately, kicking Sniff under the table.

“I did, actually,” Snufkin admitted, one leg curled up to his chest and the other hanging from the railing, kicking back and forth. “It was only because you noticed that rock formation that we ended up on the right path. We’d still be wandering around up there if you weren’t so clever.”

“Oh, ha, well,” Moomintroll replied, preening a little. “We would never have gotten over that gap if you weren’t so nimble –“

Little My groaned and threw a soggy slice of lemon at Moomintroll.

“If I have to listen to this, I wish I had more of those mushrooms,” she said. Moomintroll peeled the lemon from his fur and hurled it back at her. She caught it in her mouth and swallowed it.

“I don’t think I even hear them anymore,” Snorkmaiden said, giggling. “The flirting is white noise at this point.”

Both Moomintroll and Snufkin ignored this. While they used to get very indignant and defensive over such a comment, they’d long ago gotten used to it. After all, they’d been officially coupled for five years now. They had to be used to it at this point.

Mamma went back inside - the cold was a little much for a moomin of her age, and she had a painting on the easel she was eager to return to. The others sat quietly, enjoying their apple cider and the brisk autumn breeze. Snufkin sat on the fence, turned away, hat in his lap and paws folded around the cider, foot still kicking to that unknown rhythm of his, looking lovely and serene in the gentle lamplight.

The trees behind him were skeletal at this point. Noticing that, Moomintroll couldn’t help the coldness that settled into his stomach. The slow dread that always accompanied the turning from autumn to winter.

Over the years, he’d gotten better and better at managing the cold and dark creeping in, but he couldn’t help but be sad when the trees began to stand black and bare like that. Once the leaves were underfoot, Snufkin would leave, and no amount of maturity or understanding would stop him aching over it.

It was in this silence, that Snufkin spoke, face still turned away:

“You should come along with me this winter, Moomintroll.”

Snorkmaiden spat out her drink. Sniff almost swallowed a cinnamon stick. Little My barked ‘What?’ and slammed her cup down.

Moomintroll, for his part, could only gawk.

“Huh?” he managed eventually, certain he was about to wake up in bed.

“I think it’s perhaps time,” Snufkin said absently, looking up at the moon.

Huh?” Moomintroll repeated, his vocabulary failing him entirely.

“Just consider it,” Snufkin continued, just as casually. He set down his cup on the table and hopped down from the veranda. “Tell Mamma thank you for the cider. Good night!”

With a tip of his hat he was off, swallowed by the dark autumn night.

***

Moomintroll did think about it. He thought about it so much that, even though he’d excused himself for an early bed-time, he found it quite impossible to go to sleep. Eventually sick of staring at the ceiling, he got up. Mamma was tucked into bed with her book. Little My had scampered off to do whatever horrifying thing she did on evenings, and Snorkmaiden had went to visit whoever it was she was seeing these days.  Sniff was asleep out on the veranda, having drank a little too much apple cider. Moomintroll fetched a plush blanket from inside and tucked it around him. Sniff was too big and heavy to carry to bed, these days.

He paused at the veranda, watching the snow beginning to fall. It was the weak autumnal kind, that would turn to rain at the first change of the wind and only lay as slush on the grass in the morning.

He saw Snufkin’s campfire glowing by the bridge, the comforting shape of Snufkin shadowed against it. It was tempting, and for a second he found himself taking a few steps towards him, but he stopped himself.

An outside opinion, he thought, that was the trick. Fortunately, it was close enough to winter that the second-wisest person he knew was in the valley.

So, Moomintroll made his way to the old boathouse. It held odd memories these days, being the first sign of Moominvalley he’d seen after returning alone from that long, strange November, all those years ago. Some were nice memories, of course. Yet it was hard not to feel melancholy remembering how small and tired Snufkin had looked, waiting out there with his feet dangling above the water.

As he approached, however, the boathouse’s windows were yellow and cheerful, and there were lively voices and movement coming from within.

Moomintroll paused, not sure he was in the room for whatever merry company Too-Ticky was keeping at this hour, when the door was flung open.

“Oh, hello Moomincalf!” the Muddler squeaked. “Joxter, you were right, we were being watched! It’s Moomintroll’s son!”

Moominpappa’s snout appeared above the Muddler’s head, as did a mug of mulled wine.

“Moomintroll! Here to join us?” he said, face flushed and cheerful.

“Join…what?”

“We,” Pappa said importantly, puffing his chest out, “are having a men’s night.”

“Er,” Moomintroll said, not quite sure what to do now. This wasn't what he imagined at all. “Is Too-Ticky here?”

“Did you not hear what I just said?” Pappa said, laughing. “We’re having a men’s night! Of course she’s here!”

He would have much rather went home and talked to Mamma instead, but somehow Pappa and the Muddler bustled him inside. Inside, Too-Ticky, the Joxter and Hodgkins were sitting around the small table, clutching their cards. At the very least, Too-Ticky and Hodgkins did – the Joxter didn’t seem to be even looking at his cards, and instead was consumed with eating all of the little fairy cakes Too-Ticky had at the centre of the table. A fire flickered in the hearth, bathing the small room in a warm orange glow.

“Evenin’, young Moomintroll,” Too-Ticky greeted. “Here to play a round of poker?”

“I hope you’re a better player than your father,” the Joxter said pleasantly, but he gave him rather a searching look. Moomintroll fidgeted.

It wasn’t that he didn’t get along with Snufkins’s father. It hadn’t always been easy, but he’d actually gotten quite fond of the man, eventually. Despite his menacing appearance, the Joxter was just a daft old kitten, really. Completely harmless. In fact, most of what he did was sleep and eat and roll about being a nuisance. If he was really getting on your nerves, all one needed to do was threaten him with a bath and he’d slink off.

Yet sometimes the Joxter looked at Moomintroll as though he knew something he didn’t. As though those wide cold eyes saw something that Moomintroll simply couldn't. Moreover, he always seemed to enjoy it immensely.

This was one of those times.

“No, no, I’m not here to play cards –“

“Wine, son?” Pappa offered, already thrusting a full mug into his paw.

“Is Moomincalf old enough?” the Muddler asked.

“Has been for a long time now,” the Joxter said, looking as though he were playing with a little canary seconds before killing it.

“Well I’ll be!” the Muddler said. “Is my son old enough as well then?”

“For better or worse,” Hodgkins grunted. “Are we dealing Moomin Jr in or not?”

“No, uh,” Moomintroll said, trying to find some excuse to head back to the house. “I was just having a walk. I had something on my mind and –“

“Oh?” the Joxter said, smirk growing. “Has my son finally popped the question then?”

The effect was instantaneous. Too-Ticky barked out a laugh and a ‘Jolly good!’, the Muddler squealed and fell off their chair, Hodgkins lifted an eyebrow (a very large reaction indeed, coming from Hodgkins), and Pappa spilled mulled wine all down his front.

“I never thought I’d see the day!” Pappa shouted (a bit offensive, in Moomintroll’s opinion). “Fantastic news! We’ll have to get to work immediately. Obviously things can’t be so official with you two but we shall do our best! Now, Mamma may already have some ideas and –“

“Pappa!” Moomintroll interrupted, glaring daggers at the Joxter, who merely stirred his mulled wine with half-lidded, serene expression. “That’s not – he asked me to travel with him this winter, that’s all.”

“Oh,” Pappa said, deflating. Moomintroll knew his father would love nothing more than to give a grandiose speech to a room full of finely-dressed people holding champagne glasses. The fact none of them, not even Snorkmaiden, had given him such a gift was a constant source of disappointment to him.

“Hm, oh, well, I’m not the expert, but…” the Muddler said, rolling their mug between their paws thoughtfully, “that’s sort of the same thing, from Snufkin, isn’t it?”

“Well, that’s a point…” Pappa said, rubbing his chin.

That did not help Moomintroll’s nerves in the least.

“Is it?” he squeaked. “He didn’t make a big fuss of it.”

“Aye, well, he wouldn’t. Not exactly keen on fuss, is he?” Too-Ticky pointed out.

“Could’ve fooled me,” the Joxter said, tail curling upwards. “He’s been fussing about this for weeks.”

“So I suppose you won’t be hibernating with us this year, son?” Pappa said.

Moomintroll grimaced.

“I don’t really know.”

“You don’t?” the Joxter said, jovial tone hitting a hard, hard corner.

Oh dear. Moomintroll desperately wished he’d stayed bundled up in bed.

“Aye, well, a lad needs to think about these things,” Too-Ticky said gently, putting a paw on the Joxter’s shoulder.

“Really? I didn’t think about it at all!” the Muddler chirped.

“We all know that,” Hodgkins said.

The Joxter just kept staring at him, pupils narrowed to slits and whiskers twitching.

“Oh, don’t look at me like that,” Moomintroll snapped, wishing he had a rolled-up newspaper to swat him with (he’d seen the Mymble do so on a few occasions and always wished he had the courage to give it a go). He sighed, looking down at his wine. “I just wonder if he’d regret it, that’s all.”

A thoughtful silence followed this.

“Travelling together can put even the closest of chums at one another other’s throats,” Pappa remarked.

“We all nearly killed each other loads,” Muddler added. Hodgkins made the short huffing noise that passed for his laugh.

“Well the Mymble and I have never argued once, not even while travelling together,” Joxter said.

“That’s because you’re both too daft to even have an argument,” Pappa scolded him. The Joxter only shrugged and rested his chin and arms on the table, yawning enormously.

“Don’t sleep, I just dealt a new hand,” Hodgkins said. It was no use; the Joxter would sleep the second he rested his chin on something, and that would be that. Surely enough, he began to snore, a little rumbling noise that sounded awfully like Snufkin. Pappa sighed and scooped up the Joxter’s cards, shuffling them back into the deck.

He looked across at Moomintroll and gave him an encouraging smile.

“Now don’t look so downcast, son. Snufkin wouldn’t ask you if he wasn’t certain. He doesn’t do anything by halves, that boy,” Pappa said, and then cast a glare at the sleeping Joxter, “unlike somebody we could mention.”

“The day the Joxter puts his all into something, we’re all in trouble,” Hodgkins said, reshuffling the deck. The Muddler laughed, new hands were dealt, and Moomintroll’s troubles were quite forgotten.

Moomintroll stood in the doorway, still holding the cup of mulled wine, and was suddenly so annoyed he barely knew what to do with himself. What was this supposed to be! Why did nobody thing it mattered!

He had expected to sit with Too-Ticky. It would have been very solemn and quiet, and she would have made him soup, and he would have explained the whole thing very eloquently, without anyone shouting over him. More than that, he would have had his dilemma taken very seriously, given it all the weight of the world. If it had been her alone, this would have been just fine, but with Pappa and the Joxter there, as well as his Uncle and Grand-Uncle, there was no hope of it.

Families! One couldn’t count on them for these things!

Deciding now was a fine a time as any to storm off, Moomintroll did just that.

The snow was still falling, thin and wet, not settling on the ground. If he hibernated, he would not see it settle. And if he left –

He wasn’t sure what would happen if he left.

Trudging back towards Moominhouse, he saw the final embers of Snufkin’s fire by the stream. Moomintroll paused – the flag Snufkin hoisted when he went in to sleep for the night wasn’t up yet, but the fire was almost out, and he didn’t see Snufkin anywhere. Approaching the campsite, he realised Snufkin was asleep next to the fire, slumped with a book in his paws and making that gentle rumbling sound.

It was tempting to scoop him up and tuck him into bed. After all, it would be a shame to wake someone sleeping so sweetly. The problem was Snufkin became rather agitated if moved without his knowing, so it was best not to.

Mouth twitching, Moomintroll leaned down to nudge his shoulder with a paw. Snufkin grunted and blinked up at him, as confused as he always was when he first woke up.

“Snufkin, it’s too cold to sleep outside,” Moomintroll said gently. Snufkin yawned, sitting up and retrieving his hat.

“Didn’t intend to,” he said, rubbing his eyes. “Suppose I must be more tired from today’s adventure than I thought.”

Well, there was no time like the present for vengeance, Moomintroll thought.

“I suppose it could be that, but…” he said casually. “Your father mentioned you’re probably tired out from fretting about something over the past couple of weeks.”

Snufkin’s eyes narrowed.

Did he now? I shall have to have a word with him about gossiping,” he said. Moomintroll grinned to himself, hiding his mouth behind his paw. He sat down, watching as Snufkin stared into the glimmering embers. Snufkin was acting so quiet and calm, it was as though he hadn’t asked Moomintroll anything unusual at all.

That didn’t seem right at all, so Moomintroll watched him a little more carefully. He kept glancing back at Moomintroll, nervousness dancing behind his eyes. His toe kept twitching as well, as though he were only just barely stopping himself from jiggling his leg.

Perhaps it was selfish but seeing that Snufkin was nervous made Moomintroll feel a great deal better.

“So…just, hypothetically…” Moomintroll asked, nudging their shoulders together, “what would happen if I went with you this winter?”

Snufkin folded his paws in his lap, expression thoughtful.

“Hard to say, being something we’ve never done before,” he said. “I imagine we’d make a direct route south, there’s a small town I usually pass through on the way. I think you’d quite like it. From there, I suppose we would follow our noses.”

Moomintroll tried to stop himself saying the next question on the tip of his tongue, he really did. Yet sometimes, one needed to know something more than one needed to retain their dignity.

“And you wouldn’t get fed up with me?”

Snukfin looked at him, surprised.

“How am I meant to know that?”

“That’s not very reassuring,” he grumbled, poking at the ashes with a stick. Snufkin got that hunted look in his eyes he did when he realised he’d put his foot in it, and didn’t know how to get himself out.

“I don’t think I would permanently,” he said firmly, “but I’m not about to promise we would never get on each other’s nerves.”

“You never get on my nerves.”

“Now, I won’t have any of that nonsense,” Snufkin replied sternly. “I do, and you know it.”

“Well…perhaps. But only now and then,” Moomintroll amended fairly and then hesitated, rubbing the back of his head. “That isn’t a bad thing, is it?”

“Not at all. It would be very strange for two people to spend as much time together as we do and never irritate each other,” Snufkin continued, folding his arms and nodding to himself. “We could only avoid stepping on each other’s toes if we were completely identical to each other. Liking and disliking the same things in the same way, and always agreeing on every little thing. And what would be the point of that?”

Startled, Moomintroll laughed.

“You’re right. That would be too dull to even bother with,” he said. “Still, it’s a long time. Sleeping in the same tent every night and travelling about together every day.”

“Oh, I imagine we’ll have days we want to go our own paths,” Snufkin said. “We needn’t be joined at the hip.”

“So perhaps we could…part for a few days and rejoin each other along the path?” he said, wondering why this didn’t occur to him. One problem with joining Snufkin for winter was that he couldn’t enjoy his stories as much, if he’d been present for each of them. If they still had their own paths, they would still have stories to share.

“I don’t see why not,” he replied. Moomintroll laughed.

“Well, it doesn’t sound scary at all when you put it like that!” he said, reaching over to take his paw. “You know, you should have just let us talk about this for longer than a second.”

“Well, I was nervous,” he huffed.

“I know,” he said, smiling at him.

“I did mean to ask you earlier, but I’m afraid I kept finding excuses,” Snufkin said. He glanced up at the falling snow. “I ended up not really giving you the time to think on it.”

“It’s just as well I’ve thought about this plenty beforehand,” he replied. “I’d really like to.”

Snufkin turned to look at him, snow piled on the brim of his hat, smile brighter than Moomintroll had anticipated. He coughed, suddenly a bit flustered, which was terribly silly after so long.

“Ha…well…we should probably talk a little about the specifics now,” he said. After all, even if they made up the route as they went along, there was the issue of who would sleep where, carry what, how they would put up with each other should they have a tiff. All the sensible things that made exciting things possible.

“Quite,” Snufkin said, squeezing his paw, “then shall we stoke the fire and brew a pot of coffee?”

Moomintroll nodded, standing to help Snufkin gather wood for the fire, suddenly excited.

“Coffee sounds perfect,” he said. “I think we’ll need it. We might be in for a long night.”

After all, there was a lot for them to talk about.