There is company just beyond the light of his campfire; Snufkin has a certain sense for these things, lifting night-eyes to scan the woods around him. Everything is gray in the daybreak, hard to make out, but he still finds what he’s looking for.
“I know you’ve been following me since I left town,” Snufkin says mildly. He stirs the pot of stew with a patient hand. “There’s plenty here for the both of us if you’d like to join me.”
After a moment, someone drops down from a nearby tree. He pads over the leaves and forest litter without making a sound and settles down an arm's length away from where Snufkin is sitting. His legs are folded up, arms draped over his knees, as if he absolutely needs to be in position to nap at a moment’s notice.
Snufkin smiles. His usual reaction to this particular creature is fond amusement, and tonight is no different.
The Joxter tilts his head, blinking slowly. In the low light of pre-dawn, his eyes are very dark; or it could be his round pupils, swallowing up all the blue.
“H’llo, Snufkin,” he says, voice a lazy stretch, like taffy left out in the sun. “You don’t mind the company?”
They’re two of the same, and Snufkin knows his father would leave without ire or hurt feelings if Snufkin asked him to. As it is, though, “Not at all. I won’t be alone for much longer anyway. Spring is here, and it’s only two more days to Moominvalley.”
It’s unnecessary to point out, because the Joxter is probably familiar with the way himself by now. Since meeting Snufkin there two years ago, an adolescent son he had never known about, the Joxter has made it a point to spend at least summers in the valley. It’s common ground for them both, an easy place to navigate newfound family or peel away for time alone or time with friends.
Sometimes the Joxter leaves early, too restless to sit still, and Snufkin doesn’t begrudge him that. They always cross paths again on the road at some point, or in some faraway city or unmapped village, so there’s never any true need for goodbyes.
Snufkin is beginning to think his father is keeping loose tabs on him. This early morning is a perfect example. He just can’t think of why, when they both know Snufkin is self-sufficient, and has been since he was very small.
“Three days,” contests the Joxter, chin sinking down to rest on his knees. “You don’t sleep enough.”
Snufkin ignores the remark comfortably, passing him a bowl of the finished stew. His father gets most of the meat in his serving, and Snufkin most of the vegetables, and they’re both content as they tuck into the warm meal.
The peace lasts for about three minutes after that, and then a sudden frantic voice from overhead has Snufkin jumping in surprise.
“You there! Little snufkin! Won’t you help me?”
“Oh, dear,” Snufkin says, setting his food aside and climbing to his feet. There’s a bluebird swooping in frantic circles above his camp, and it can hardly calm down long enough to land on the arm he offers as a perch. “Slow down, my friend. What’s the trouble?”
“A snake came in the night and tried to eat my nestlings,” the bird cries. “My neighbors helped drive it away, but it upset the nest, and now my babies will fall!”
Alarmed, Snufkin skirts the fire and starts to run, without pausing even to grab his hat. “Lead me to it, and I’ll do my best to help.”
The bird takes flight and stays low, eye-level. The Joxter is keeping pace beside Snufkin on silent feet, curious and watchful.
“I forget that you can speak to birds,” the Joxter says. Birds avoid him, as do most small creatures, because he’s as much a predator as a snake in a nest. He knows better than to eat any of Snufkin’s companions, and generally has stopped offering to bring food to Snufkin’s campfire unless it’s fish. “How is it that you learned? It all sounds like chatter to me.”
Snufkin keeps his eyes on the bluebird so he doesn’t lose sight of it, even as he explains, “When I was young, there was no one else to talk to but the birds in the trees. After a while their music began to sound like language. It helps that I’m a good listener, I suppose.”
The Joxter doesn’t say anything after that, and it’s only moments later that they reach the bluebird’s tree. A quick glance doesn’t reveal any nests in precarious positions, so it must be on a higher bough. Snufkin spares a moment to wish he had had time to pull his smock on over his undershirt, because his arms will surely get scratched on the way up.
“I should do it,” his father says suddenly. “I’m the better climber.”
“They’re frightened enough as it is without you prowling around their babies,” Snufkin retorts, and eyes the lowest branch, which is still well above his head. His father has more than a foot of height on him, which lends itself to a handy solution, and he turns to wave the taller creature over. “Give me a boost, please. And then wait for me down here so you don’t send anyone into a fresh panic.”
Grumbling under his breath, the Joxter hoists Snufkin up enough that he can grab the branch and pull himself the rest of the way into the tree. Snufkin calls down his thanks, and the bluebird lands on his knee.
“This way,” it says, “not much farther! Oh, hurry!”
Snufkin follows it up easily, thanking all the warm afternoons he and his friends spent playing in the trees around the valley, because the experience certainly helps. His grip slips a few times, and once a branch bends beneath his weight, but he makes it to the nest without incident.
Right away, Snufkin can see the danger. The small bunch of branches the nest was safely built into are broken, the skirmish with the snake causing what was stable to lean hazardously to the side. The little ones inside have picked up on the bigger birds’ distress and their shrill cries work straight through Snufkin’s heart.
“Alright,” he says softly, “there’s no need to fear. I’ve got you.”
He works the nest into the cup of his palms and holds it carefully. The bluebird directs him to a new place for it, a hollow in the trunk that a squirrel helpfully surrendered, and Snufkin can only breathe easily again once the little nestlings are squared away inside.
“Thank you!” half a dozen birds seem to say at once, coming to perch on his arms or the branches around him. The mother bird adds, “To think what might have happened if I hadn’t found you— !”
Pleased with the positive outcome, Snufkin says, “Don’t think of might haves. You and your nestlings are safe and that’s all that matters. I’m happy I could help.”
He leans back to make room for yet another perching bird, shifting his footing as it flutters by, and something snaps beneath his boot. He realizes with a second to spare that he’s about to fall, and then there’s no time to grab hold of anything before the birds are shrieking in alarm, and gravity is snatching hold of his shirt and tugging him backwards, and Snufkin’s mind is blank with fear—
But he doesn’t hit the ground. He lands much sooner than that, against something much softer.
Snufkin blinks, reorienting himself, and finds himself halfway down the tree, tucked securely between his father’s arm and chest.
“Ah,” the smaller snufkin says, more relieved than anything. “Thank you.”
The Joxter picks his way down carefully. His dark fur is raised, tail like a bottle brush, and his claws are caught in Snufkin’s shirt. He doesn’t let go until the ground is firm beneath their feet, and even then it takes him a long moment to decide to set Snufkin down.
“Next time,” the Joxter says slowly, “I am climbing. I would rather scare the little birds than watch you break your bones.”
Snufkin has to work not to roll his eyes. He’s a little hardier than that. It wouldn’t have been the first time he fell from a tree, and it surely won’t be the last. Not as long as there are little birds who need favors.
The Joxter seems to sense the repressed eye-roll and his own eyes narrow. The pupils in them are slitted now; Snufkin doesn’t think he’s seen them like that since the day they met, the day Moominpappa introduced them to each other and the Joxter startled so badly he dropped one of Moominmamma’s best teacups.
“A twenty foot fall is not nothing.” The Joxter’s quiet tone has taken a sharp turn. “If I hadn’t caught you—“
“But you did,” Snufkin says, his own hackles rising. These might haves again, and right after he told the bluebird not to think of them! “And I said thank you. There is nothing else to talk about.”
“We could talk about risking your life for an animal. A bluebird,” the Joxter says in distaste, “one of a hundred thousand bluebirds. What’s next? Will you help an injured creep cross the river? Save a squirrel kit from a landslide?”
An argument, Snufkin realizes, his stomach turning sour. He has witnessed this uncomfortable scene a dozen times before in a dozen places, a child and their parent screaming at each other in marketplaces or city squares.
The Joxter is taller than him, bigger, sharp where the Mymble’s blood made Snufkin soft. His voice is usually low and unobtrusive, a storyteller’s voice, but it sounds so different in anger. Snufkin wonders what it will sound like when he is shouting the way those other parents shouted, and a very cold feeling slides around inside him.
But Snufkin never learned how to back down. The orphanage matron tried to teach him but those lessons didn’t stick. Whether it’s park keepers, or the traveler who came through the valley last year and thought they could get away with calling Sniff simple, or his own father, Snufkin stands his ground.
“There could be a hundred thousand snufkins just like me,” he shoots back. “Better snufkins, even, who can play more than just guitar and harmonica, who have never been invisible and never gotten lost and never fallen out of a tree. What makes me worth so much more than that bird?”
The Joxter surges a sudden step forward, and all of Snufkin’s courage deserts him. He ducks his head, missing his hat dearly, and braces himself for furious hands.
They don’t come. He opens his eyes.
His father is crouched in front of him, hands in his lap, eyes round and hurt. The anger, if it was ever anger, is gone. When he reaches out, Snufkin is ready for it this time, and he doesn't move away.
The Joxter's dark paw lands very lightly on Snufkin's auburn hair. It's a gentle touch, and then it's gone. The Joxter pulls back and straightens up and does a tidy disappearing act into the trees. Snufkin loses sight of him within moments.
It's just Snufkin and the worried birds and the rising sun. Their comfortable breakfast feels like it happened a year ago.
He wraps his arms around his middle and stares at the ground. He doesn't like arguments, for all that he can be contrary and difficult when his principles are fringed upon, when his personal boundaries are broken. Pulling up fences and signposts is one thing, but fighting with words? Just talking with words can sometimes be too much, let alone fighting with them. There is a reason he tends toward silence and solitude.
"If I didn't have birds to talk to, I wouldn't have anyone," he murmurs miserably. "I'd drive them all away. All except dear Moomintroll."
The name is like a balm, and Snufkin lifts his head to the north. Two days— less than, if he pushes himself— and he could see Moomin again. The one person whose welcome he's never had to doubt.
Snufkin rushes back to the camp to pack his things. If he's hoping to run into his father there, he's sorely disappointed. But that's only if.
look at this beautiful fanart a talented anon drew for the last chapter, i am beside myself !!!
When he sees Moomin on the bridge, a fluffy white figure already waving frantically, Snufkin crams his harmonica in a pocket, drops his pack, and starts to run. Moomin meets him halfway and catches him in a hug that is well worth traveling hundreds of miles for. They swing around a few times, caught up in giddy momentum, breathless with their own special brand of spring joy, and for a moment Snufkin is as weightless as he is warm.
“You’re back!” Moomintroll says. “You’re here! You must tell me everything I missed over the winter, everything that happened while you were away!”
But of course, the first thing that comes to mind is the awful argument of two days ago, and Snufkin’s happiness trips over the memory of his father’s pained eyes. Moomin, as perceptive as he is kind, notices at once and pulls away, holding Snufkin between his paws at arm’s length.
“What is it? What’s wrong?”
“The Joxter and I had an argument,” Snufkin explains in a low voice.
It’s not really a secret, and mulling it over by himself has gotten him no closer to figuring things out, so he tells Moomin the whole story. They walk back to recover his pack while he talks, and make their way over the bridge and up the hill to the welcoming blue of Moominhouse.
“I had to help the bird,” Snufkin says at the end. “It came to me and asked, how could I tell it no?”
“I think you’re right,” Moomin declares, a firm frown on his face. “It’s not as though you could just let the little babies fall out of the tree. It’s odd he’d be angry about that!”
Some of the tightness in Snufkin’s heart eases, his best friend’s understanding soothing away a little bit of the sharp uncertainty he’d been carrying around. He’s unlike a lot of people he’s encountered throughout his life, taking issue with things they could care less about, and caring less about things they take issue with. It’s hard to say whether he’s in the right or in the wrong sometimes, but it always helps to know that Moomin is on his side.
“I’m not sure if he was angry, really,” Snufkin says. “It seemed very complicated.”
He wishes he understood the look on the Joxter’s face before they parted. Or the own sour pit in his own stomach that lingered for whole days afterwards, that lingers still. He’s very new to the concept of family you don’t go out and find for yourself-- family that can just show up out of the blue and care about you at the drop of a hat, without even knowing you very well-- so perhaps there’s some vital clue he’s missing. Some integral understanding that only someone with long experience at having such a family would know.
The idea comes to him like lightning.
“You have a dad!” Snufkin says, spinning to include Moomin in his epiphany.
Dear Moomin, following right along, gasps aloud. “I do! Let’s go!”
So they break into a run, and thunder up the porch steps, and Snufkin barely remembers to leave his pack on the veranda instead of hauling the dirty thing inside. Both the Moominparents are in the drawing room, looking over a book together, and they break into smiles when they see who their son has hauled inside.
Moomin says, “We have a problem to solve!”
“Oh, my,” Moominmamma says, coming around the table. When she reaches for Snufkin, it’s slow and self-evident, and he doesn’t have any reason to lean away from the hand she rests against his cheek in greeting. “And you’ve only just arrived! That’s very quick work.”
Snufkin smiles, pleased despite himself. “I cheated, actually. I brought the problem here with me. It’s been going ‘round in circles in my head nonstop, and I’ve just about exhausted my thoughts on it.”
“Come sit,” Moominpappa says, gesturing them over to the chairs. “Let’s all put our heads together. We’ve fresh tea and fresh minds, haven’t we, Mama?”
“And fresh tarts,” she adds sagely, nudging the serving plate in the boys’ direction.
And so Snufkin settles in, and tells his story for a second time. It’s a little bit easier to navigate the confusion and the pitfalls this time, having told it once before, and he’s able to linger a bit on how high up the nest was, and how the wind tugged and tore at him even before he fell, and his father’s claws poking little holes into his shirt on the climb down, though they didn’t go far enough to scratch him.
“It was a close call, certainly,” he says into the quiet room. His knees are tucked up against his chest, but no one scolds him for sitting that way. “But it seems silly to get so worked up over something that didn’t even happen, don’t you think? Even if he wasn't angry, which I'm not sure that he was, he was very upset."
Moomin nods, perfunctory, but his parents trade swift glances and don’t answer right away.
“I certainly understand where you’re coming from, dear,” Mama says after thinking for a moment. “So let’s work out where your papa was coming from. It isn’t always easy, trying to understand someone you haven’t known very long, but it’s important that we try.”
Snufkin agrees, leaning forward in his chair. He likes meeting people, sharing a meal or a pipe with them, exchanging stories about faraway places and long-ago adventures. He feels richer for every encounter, no matter how strange they might seem at first.
But sometimes, even when they are perfectly civil, people can seem very cold. Sometimes they’re not easy to talk to at all, their words and their intentions escaping his comprehension like a school of silver fish escaping his net.
Since they met, this is the first time his father has felt like one of those people. It’s an incredibly lonely thought, for all that he’s only had a father for two years.
“I’ll be having words with him for raising his voice at you,” Mama goes on, in a tone of voice she usually only brings out for Little My at her most destructive. “But I do agree with you that your father wasn't angry. It sounds to me like you scared him very badly."
Snufkin blinks. That isn't what he expected to hear.
Taking pity on him, Mama says, "That bluebird was certainly distressed when you met her, wasn't she?"
"Well, yes," he says slowly. "Understandably so. Because of her nest. Her babies almost fell."
"And so did the Joxter's," Papa says in a gentle way.
Snufkin couldn't have been more startled if someone dumped a bucket of cold water over his head. He sits up in his chair so suddenly that Moomin jumps and declares, "I'm not a baby."
"You're very grown up," Mama agrees. "But you don't ever outgrow being someone's child."
"I'm hardly his child," Snufkin retorts hotly, his heart beating so hard it hurts. "We only just met a handful of seasons ago."
"You haven't known Moomintroll for very much longer." Papa's tone is reasonable and unhurried, even though Snufkin is bristling at his dinner table like a hostile forest creature. "You wouldn't want to see him get hurt, would you?"
"That's different. I love Moomintroll. He's my best friend, we understand each other." Beside him, Moomin sits a little taller. Snufkin digs his fingers into the knees of his pants, even though they're already due for a mending and the seams begin to give beneath his grip. "I don't understand the Joxter at all sometimes. I don't understand him now. I don't understand how he could love me without knowing me."
"The first time I held my little Moomin in my arms, I knew I would love him like I'd never loved anything before," Mama says. Her eyes are very gentle, and she looks at Snufkin like she's fond of him even now, when he's arguing and being difficult. "He was barely a few moments old, and I knew."
Snufkin shakes his head. His chest feels like a vice, closing around his lungs and heart. "Don't you see? You kept Moomin. No one kept me. We weren't the same manner of creature even then."
A sharp noise in the kitchen draws their attention, a sound like a dish breaking against the floor. After a moment, Moominmamma stands up.
"I'll go and take care of that, shall I?" she says, but her voice is thick and watery. She pauses next to Snufkin's chair and shows him her hands before she reaches for him. When she touches his hair gently, it reminds Snufkin of the way the Joxter touched him after his near-fall.
It's not fair that one parent could remind him of another when they're not anything alike. It's so frustrating and confusing. Maybe that's why his eyes are itchy and hot with tears.
Mama's touch lingers with a warmth and certainty that the Joxter didn't have, and then she moves away toward the kitchen, closing the door behind her.
"Snuf?" Moomin asks in a near-whisper. He takes one of Snufkin's hands, threading their fingers together as easily as he threads together dandelion chains. Snufkin's own paw is scarred and dirty against Moomin's clean white fur, but neither of them care about something like that, and it's nice to have him to hold onto. "Do you want to leave? We could run down to the river and get muddy and catch fireflies. We don't have to talk about this anymore."
Snufkin shakes his head. Moominpappa is watching them with patience and sadness, sitting across the table like he would sit there for hours if that's what it took to help.
"He would have kept you," Papa says. "You may not know him well, but I'm sure that I do. Trust me when I say he would have been proud to keep you."
"Might-haves don't help," Snufkin insists. This is something he is certain of. "They just make you lonely. It's easier to think about what really happened, and what could happen, than what never did."
And what did happen was that Snufkin was abandoned, and that he was found in a basket by a helpfully misguided fellow who delivered him to the orphanage, and that he forgot-- for a time-- that people could be kind. He escaped as an invisible child, and the birds sang to him and chatted with him for as long as it took to bring his reflection back, and he found his own way in the world.
It wasn't always easy, and it wasn't always nice, but sometimes it was so wonderful Snufkin forgot how to breathe. The first time he saw the sea, the first time he saw a falling star, the first time he heard an instrument and realized people could make their own music. He discovered these things for himself, wandering from place to place to place, and maybe he never would have had the chance if he'd grown up with a mother and a father and a house that never moved.
"Do you blame your dad?" Moomin asks. He looks as though he's working very stubbornly against tears of his own. Dear Moomintroll, with a heart that's too big. "For leaving you, and for-- all the rest of it?"
"Of course I don't," Snufkin says. "It wasn't his fault. He never even knew I was born. I'm sure it wasn't mother's fault, either, not when she has so many children to keep a watch over. One or two was bound to slip through the cracks."
Moomin's expression says he disagrees with at least part of Snufkin's statement but doesn't want to argue. Moominpappa's expression is almost laughably similar. Cut from the same cloth, Snufkin thinks, and it makes his heart hurt a little less.
He's like his father, too. They both wander and they both make music and they both tell stories. They both wage war against park keepers and make disdainful faces at city signs. They can travel in silence for hours, not needing conversation to prop up their time together, and Snufkin is remarkably comfortable around him most of the time. He likes to be around him.
"I don't know that I believe in it," Snufkin says slowly. He wipes his eyes on his sleeve. "A love you don't have to build, that can just come up out of nothing. Loving someone without knowing them seems an awful risk. What if they're rude, or mean, or they swear? You'd have thrown away your love on someone you don't even like."
Moominpappa lets out a short sound, the ghost of a laugh. "You're a practical little thing. Sometimes I forget, since you get into mischief with the other kids so often."
Snufkin thinks there's nothing wrong with being both practical and mischievous, but he keeps it to himself.
"Love is something magical, though," Moomin interjects. "It doesn't always have to make sense, does it? Just look at all the fairy tales you've told me, Snuf. Half those princes and princesses hardly knew each other, but their love was enough to break curses and defeat evil. It must have been true love if it defeated evil."
Papa looks bemused, starts to say, "Moomin, that's not..." but he glances at Snufkin and stops short. Snufkin hardly pays him any mind, thinking Moomin's perspective over with a furrowed brow.
"I suppose," he allows reluctantly. "But real life is hardly a fairy tale."
"It was real life to them," Moomin points out reasonably. "Just because it's a fairy tale to us doesn't mean they didn't live it. Maybe you ought to give your dad's love a chance, Snufkin. You're so easy to love, you know, it makes sense to me that he'd love you already. It's been two years since you met! I loved you after two days."
That's enough to make Snufkin smile, hiding behind the floppy brim of his hat. It seems to melt the remaining tension, and Moominpappa eases out of his chair with a careful stretch of his back.
"I had better go rescue your papa while there's still something left of him," Papa says, and Snufkin looks up at him in surprise.
"He's here?" That must have been the noise they heard in the kitchen. Right away, Snufkin's stomach starts to squirm, and he darts an uncertain look at the closed door. "Should I-- leave?"
"No, dear, I think he'd like the chance to talk to you. Only if you're comfortable with that," Papa says, looking at Snufkin sternly. "He's an old friend of mine, which means I'm allowed to throw him out on his ear."
"Don't do that," Snufkin says quickly, not sure if the elder moomin is joking. "If he's not angry, then I want to see him."
But for some reason that means Moomin gets shooed out of the room as well, and he goes so reluctantly Papa ends up propelling him by the shoulders into the kitchen. Snufkin is left by himself at the table. From the next room he hears Papa say, "Just talk to him, Joxaren."
And then his father is slinking through the door. His predator's eyes, the striking blue beneath that dirty mop of dark hair, are full and round. There is something very weary about him, for all that his expression gives very little away. Snufkin thinks of baby birds falling and the desperate way the Joxter held him beneath the tree and Mama saying there was one thing Snufkin would never outgrow, and he hurts from it all. His heart is so full and heavy he thinks he's probably trapped beneath its weight, stuck to the chair, unable to move even an inch.
"I'm sorry," he whispers.
"Don't be," the Joxter replies in an instant. His voice is quiet and soothing, the way it should be. "If anyone is sorry, it's me."
Snufkin looks up at him as he comes closer, and the Joxter shows him his hands, the way all the valley people do. When he reaches for him after that, Snufkin doesn't move away. He leans into the arms that come around him, instead, breathing in the familiar wood-smoke smell of the Joxter. It's comfortable, and it feels very safe, and Snufkin hooks his fingers into the back of his father's patched coat and holds on.
"I should have let you climb," he says, muffled against the larger snufkin's shoulder.
"I shouldn't have yelled at you," the Joxter replies. His words lurch uncertainly, like the first few steps across an unsteady bridge. "I'm still learning, little bird, but I won't make that mistake again."
He says little bird with as much care as Mama says my dear, and it's silly but it makes Snufkin's heart finally settle. He doesn't think he can believe the love just yet, but he believes the care.
"A story for a story," the Joxter says suddenly. "I'll tell you any one you want to hear. And then perhaps you could tell me about-- being invisible."
Snufkin doesn't often think that far back, but he nods. "That sounds fair," he says, leaning back until the Joxter's arms let go. He holds his tail to keep it from moving about in a way that would betray him and how happy he is. Only Moomintroll gets to see his tail wag without Snufkin feeling self-conscious for it.
"Tell me about when you learned to play the fiddle," he decides, drawing his legs up again and hugging them. "It's the trickiest instrument I've ever touched."
The Joxter pulls a chair around next to his, as scruffy and weathered as Snufkin is in this clean, pleasant house, and it's one more thing that makes them two of a kind.
For all his faults and his mistakes, Snufkin has seen many places, and met many people, and he'll get to see and meet even more. He has this place to come back to, and these friends, and this family he chose who chose him right back. And now he also has a parent who looks at him as though he wants to know him, as though there is no person in the world worth knowing more.
There is no one else as lucky as me, Snufkin thinks, and settles in to listen to his papa's tale.