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Mouse in Winter

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The one thing Joxter didn’t like about sailing was that he couldn’t just sneak away in the winter to avoid the cold. The weather he’d be in wasn’t up to him, but that bothersome Moomin, who was supposed to be hibernating. He insisted they go somewhere cold to experience winter to its fullest, not caring for the mumrik’s opinion on the matter. The absolute cheek of it.

The snow was too bright for his tired eyes, the smell of pine hit him too hard, and, most importantly, the cold didn’t just nip at him like it did the others. It bit deep below his skin and burned him. Maybe that was a tad dramatic, but he didn’t care. He’d be as much of a drama king as he wanted when it came to such an unpleasant feeling.

He grumbled under the Muddler’s borrowed scarf while they trekked toward some insignificant village in the mountains. 

Speaking of Muddler, he was completely mesmerized by the white dreamworld that Joxter hated so much. New places did make him awfully curious and he’d be needing to see every little thing before they left to be satisfied. The last time they’d left a place too early, he began collecting buttons to distract himself from his nagging thoughts about everything that could’ve been there.

They’d be here for ages.

Muddler suddenly dropped his arm around Joxter’s shoulders and pulled him in close. He must’ve been colder than he thought because the warmth from his body felt like heaven in that moment.

“What are you th...thinking?” A rhetorical question as he knew Joxter would never answer that. “I’m thinking about the stories Hodgkins used to tell me. The ones with snow and games and fairies. D...D-Do you think those are real? Ah- I mean, the fairies. I- I know snow and games are real…”

“Maybe.”

Of course fairies were real, but better to keep the mystery up for him. He also just didn’t feel like talking all about it until they were somewhere warm. A nap would be good, too.

“Wouldn’t it be fun to look for one?”

“I’m sure Moomin and Hodgkins would love to.”

“Well…” He paused, anxiously fidgeting with the hem of his jacket. “I was um- If you’d like- I was hoping you’d look with me, actually. You d...d-don’t have to, um- obviously…”

There he went again, trying to spend some time alone with him. It was very sweet, but he couldn’t afford to be alone with him. He’d surely catch some feelings if he did. Or rather, his condition would worsen as he’d undeniably already caught them. Closeness was the one illness he couldn’t survive if it became severe.

So, he didn’t say anything. Not responding seemed to act as a lazy ‘no’ most of the time and it did here, too. Muddler pulled his arm away and hugged himself, speeding up to talk with the others. They’d definitely go with him, anyway. He’d get the cute, little adventure that he wanted. There was no conflict. He’d still end up happy.

Regardless, guilt pooled in his stomach.

No. Not guilt. It was something much worse that made his eyes go dark with suspicion and his tail flick from side to side in agitation.

A foreboding.

He’d have to stay on his toes now. The others still didn’t quite believe him whenever he told them that something was to go wrong soon. It was his responsibility, then, to protect them from whatever would bear down on them later. How he hated having responsibilities. 

This was no time to seethe and brood, however. He needed to stay focused and watch for the impending danger. An exhausting task that he’d definitely demand gratitude for, later on.

 



The feeling fizzled by the time they reached the village. Still, he remained noticeably on edge. Any one of the villagers could be thieves or murderers. If not that, then perhaps a building would collapse near his friends. Maybe an avalanche would be coming soon and they’d all be trapped under a mountain of snow if he didn’t notice in time.

His dark air was certainly putting a damper on the mood. Not even the colorful lights that strung from building to building nor the friendly faces offering them pleasant greetings could keep the group from feeling the effect of his aura. They tried to distract themselves by looking into the little shops along the path or by asking the villagers about their home, which worked for all, but Muddler.

A glance in his direction showed Joxter that he was anxious. Well, more anxious than usual, that is. His tail had slipped out the back of his shirt and was swiping at the snow behind him while he fretted over a produce stand. He’d pick up an apple or a peach for a moment before setting it down again with a shake of his head, like none of them were quite right. He was a perfectionist like that.

Then, he paused and just stared at the group of fruits and vegetables in front of him, fidgeting here and there, signalling his deep thought. His face went through so many different emotions in that moment, finally settling on an oddly contented smile. He seemed to have calmed himself down. Now, he was humming to himself as he carefully decided what he’d buy, much more confident in his choices this time around.

What a lovely sound, Muddler’s humming. He didn’t have a particularly good voice, but still, the soft melody he produced made Joxter’s heart flutter. And the way he calmly collected ingredients just made the feeling so much more intense. For a second, he thought that it might be nice to live his life by his side. To settle down with him and live simply and pleasantly.

Before his thoughts could go any further, he distracted himself with Moomin, sneaking over to him and peeking over his shoulder. He was looking over a book, an empty one, and mulling over whether he should buy it or not. Joxter smirked and decided to answer that for him.

“Haven’t you got enough books, Moomintroll?” he asked, a little too loud for the distance between them.

He jumped and dropped the book in the snow, effectively waterlogging half the pages before he could pick it up again. He’d have to buy it now.

“Don’t you ever get tired of scaring me?”

“Never.”

He sighed, exasperated, and paid for the wet journal, apologizing to the shopkeeper before scampering off with Joxter at his side. He looked through the pages as he walked, tutting at the state of them.

“You’ve ruined it. It’s all crinkly now. It’ll be harder to write on, you mangy cat.”

“Well, if the ship sinks, it’ll be pre-soaked.”

“The ship will not be sinking,” Hodgkins butted in, all too annoyed that Joxter would even suggest such a thing. “It is the sturdiest ship in existence. It would take fire raining down from the sky to sink it and even then I made it fireproof.”

Joxter obscured his eyes under his hat and gave him a smirk, teasing, “Or an explosion in the engine room.”

“You wouldn’t dare.”

“You’re right. I wouldn’t. Not while it’s in the water, anyway. Cats don’t like water, ya know.”

“You’re not a-”

Hodgkins couldn’t finish his thought as Moomin had begun laughing. It didn’t take long for him to let out a chuckle as well, lowering his face into his hand and shaking his head at the absurdity, a common gesture with Joxter around.

Once he’d collected himself, Hodgkins said what he’d been meaning to, “Anyway, the locals told me a place we could stay. They said it’s a while away, but that nobody lived there and travelers were permitted to use it, so long as nobody else is there.”

"How convenient. You and I won't be using it much, though, will we, Hodgkins?"

"And why shouldn't you?" Joxter asked the moomin, raising a brow at the suggestive nature of what he'd said.

"We're going to climb the mountains. Muddler said he didn't want to come. Something about making dinner and going out. And, well, I just assumed you'd rather rest."

That made more sense, but what was Muddler up to? Where exactly did he plan on going, all alone? He wasn’t the type to go off on his own and he was, quite honestly, far too clumsy to survive on his own. Something was off, here.

"You'd assume right. I've had enough walking for the next month."

He glanced back to Muddler as the other two talked. He was still preoccupied with his produce, double and triple checking what he'd bought for any bruises or mold. It was hard to imagine him doing anything dangerous, really, but Joxter couldn't get the dark feeling out of his gut.

He watched him carefully for the entirety of their walk, regarding him with a mixture of concern and suspicion. He’d thought to ask, of course, but words were often meaningless. Lies were so easy for others to tell. Muddler was trustworthy enough, but there were so many things that went on in that head of his that Joxter couldn’t understand. And, surely, there were thoughts that he chose not to share or to lie about. He couldn’t possibly be exempt from those nasty impulses that pushed people to commit acts of violence or jump off of cliffs.

There was little time to dwell on such a worrying thought. They’d reached their destination and Hodgkins and Moomin merely sorted their things for the trip, leaving what they didn’t need, before they went, in search of adventure. It was just Joxter and Muddler, now, in their winter cabin.

It was too small. Even for just the two of them.

Mumriks didn’t much like enclosed spaces, all of them having some degree of claustrophobia. Nature and open spaces were in their blood. They’d prefer the wide expanse of the ocean and the freeness of rolling fields of grass and flowers to cozy, little homes like this one. Though, they certainly didn’t dislike coziness. The nearly feral beings just wanted their coziness limited to fire pits in cool caves and small hideaways in the trunks of trees.

There were no caves or warm cracks in the trees, however. He only had this cramped house and snow as far as he could see. He was trapped here.

His friend had busied himself with prep-work for whatever he had decided to cook, rhythmically chopping something that had a wonderfully sweet scent. Despite his love for all things fruit, he couldn’t quite place it. It was almost like an apple, but also so different from an apple. Didn’t sound like one, either. It sounded softer when it was cut.

As he contemplated what the fruit could be, his ears appreciated the way Muddler minced his ingredients with a steady pulse. The sound was calming, in a way, almost like a heartbeat. He closed his eyes, taking in the sounds and scents without any visual distractions. Soon enough, the smallness of the room had been pushed to the back of his mind and dreams of warmth and nature and berries pulled him in.


His newly rested eyes opened to darkness through the windows and around the room, except for the low burning of embers in the stove. A quick glance around the room showed no signs of Muddler, or anyone else for that matter. Heavy snow silently buffeted against the window he’d napped next to, melting so gradually that the temperature outside must’ve been similar to the poles. Frigidness aside, it was piling up against the glass, obscuring his view of the outside world.

It was boring, watching nothing, so he stood, immediately getting caught in the blanket that he hadn’t noticed was covering him. He hissed, startled, and stumbled into the wall, kicking the dastardly thing off. He glared at it for a moment, contemplating scratching it to bits, but he shook it off. It wouldn’t do any good to destroy one of his main sources of warmth.

Warmth. That’s right. He headed over to the stove and checked the embers, still hot enough to add more wood from the pile by the door. A few pokes and prods and he had a modest fire to warm his hands with.

Rubbing them together, he looked around the room again, not really searching for anything in particular. Muddler’s things were gone and there were a few random things missing, from a couple blankets to the matchbox that had been on the dining table. He must’ve gone out without telling him. No matter, he’d be back soon.

A crushing feeling in his heart told him that wasn’t quite the case. Something was wrong. Terribly wrong. He gripped his chest, the pain almost unbearable and bringing tears to his eyes. He’d never had a foreboding this debilitating. He needed to go. Something truly dire, maybe even fatal, was about to happen and he was the only one that could stop it.

He didn’t even stop to think or prepare for the harsh climate he had to face, rushing out of the safety of his cabin and into the frigid blizzard without any sense of self-preservation. A mistake, to be sure.

Chapter Text

The snow was up to Joxter’s knees, not yet packed enough to walk on top of, so he trudged through the powdery nuisance. Each step sent shivers shooting up into his body as fresh snow found its way into his boots and melted against his heat. His pants had begun to dampen and freeze. A bother, but nothing his fur couldn’t counteract.

Well, actually, his fur couldn’t counteract it. Regardless, he ignored it out of sheer will and carried on into the bitter night. 

His eyes were peeled for any sign of Muddler and his ears twitched in this direction and that, though he couldn’t hear anything through the roaring gusts that threatened to steal his hat away. While one hand was safe in a pocket, his other was being subjected to the freezing temperature in order to hold onto that hat. Despite his thick coat, his fingers were quickly going numb. As were his nose and ears and tail, all losing sensation a bit faster than he’d expected.

If he just kept moving, he’d heat up again in no time, surely. Using the trees as shields from the wind, he slogged through the rising snow, making his way toward an open field, in the middle of the forest. He would’ve gone around to keep his buffer, but something caught his eye.

Through the snow, faintly in the distance, just across the wide expanse, there was light. It was small, isolated, but it was light. At this point, his fingers were rigid and unable to move and his feet completely numb and his body stung and ached from the piercing cold. There was no question that he had to get to that light. It might be badly needed heat. It might be Muddler.

Stepping out into the open, he wondered how he’d help his friend if his body was becoming weak and immoble. His frozen fingers could barely keep hold of his hat, they wouldn’t be able to dig or apply first aid or fight, if necessary. And, as he made his way across the field, he noticed his steps were off. If Muddler needed any suturing or help drinking or eating, he’d be too shaky and disoriented to do any of it safely.

Wait, why were his steps so off? He glanced back to examine his footprints and found they weren’t nearly as straight as he’d thought they were. There was wide variation in the amount of space between them and a few looked as thought he’d stumbled. How had he not noticed?

Another step had him lurching forward and falling flat into the snow. It threatened to bury him, the height having increased to his hips by now. Struggling, inhaling slush, his body burned badly and approached, but never reached, a state of shock. Barely, he managed to get his head above the snow and he found himself reeling, nearly falling back into it. Everything twisted and turned, got closer or further, dazing him momentarily before he could get himself back on his feet.

He staggered forward, desperate for warmth. That experience had been less than ideal, freezing him all too much for his taste. He stopped whenever dizziness took hold and waited for it to pass before continuing on.

His chest had that agonizing feeling in it again. Distantly, he wondered if he was going to die. It wouldn’t surprise him if he did. Years of avoiding cold climates would be catching up to him. Had he actually learned how to survive in freezing temperatures, he wouldn’t be in this mess, but that was all behind him. He was in danger, now , and he didn’t know what to do. The lady of the cold would take him and Muddler would be next because of his failure.

He was nearly to the other side when something cracked beneath him. He hadn’t even heard the sound before icy water pushed a gasp out of him.

Eyes wide, body frozen in shock, his mind went wild as he sank into it. This is what would kill him. He was going to die. He’d die. He’d die. He’d die. No. No. He couldn’t. Not yet. Please. Please. Please. Please…

He grappled for the surface, lungs burning, his sensationless fingers barely registered the bottom of the ice pressed against his palms. When he did, panic became the only thing he could feel while he searched for an opening. He was going to drown and nobody would ever find him. Bubbles escaped his mouth. How could he let this happen? Darkness started closing in on him. Everyone would just think he’d gone off on his own. The rest of his breath left his body. They’d wouldn’t know he died. His chest felt like it was filled with acid. They’d think he abandoned them.

Hands gripped onto the edge and he pulled himself up, coughing violently onto the ice, spitting up freezing water. He’d made it. He tried to pull himself out, but just ended up slipping back in, only to come back up, sputtering like a fool. He was stuck. He would die, after all.

No. He wouldn’t allow it. Not yet.

Swallowing his pride, he called for help. Deep down, he knew there probably wouldn’t be any, but he still had hope. That light wasn’t too far. Maybe they’d hear. He’d just keep calling until he couldn’t anymore, whether it was because his throat went raw or he died. Still, he continued attempting to escape on his own, only getting more and more exhausted with each failure.

Everything started to feel so surreal. The cold didn’t even bother him anymore. Instead, his insides burned hot, making him appreciate the frigidity of the water. It was almost comforting, despite nearly killing him just seconds ago.

His cries slowly turned into an incoherent series of pleas and screams. He wasn’t even sure what he was yelling for anymore, but he knew that’s what he was doing, so he continued.

He stopped abruptly when his mind recognized that he was being carried away from the lake. There were words, but they sounded far-off and jumbled, and he could only make out some his savior’s - captor’s? - outline, the rest obscured by blurry tears. Scent wasn’t an option, either, as his nose had been stuffy for hours.

Fear suddenly shot through him and he struggled against the grip, almost pathetically. He yelled and cried and pushed away, but it wasn’t enough to get away. Claws it was. He scratched at his captor’s face and chest, except his claws wouldn’t come out. The numbness had rendered his paws completely immovable.

He’d have tried biting them, but his eyes glazed over and sleep took him and held him tightly, some distant song ringing in his ears as a sense a peace washed over him.



Muddler panicked.

He clutched Joxter’s frozen body in his arms, trying desperately to recall what Hodgkins had taught him about the cold. They’d gone over hypothermia, certainly, but he was far too hysterical to remember exactly what had to be done beyond making a fire and getting protection from the wind. Both already accomplished as he’d been staying in a cave, insulated except for the tiny opening at the end.

He rambled to himself as he thought, asking himself questions and answering them, only to question himself about it again. If he got this wrong, his friend could die. He knew that much. A terrifying thought. If he did one wrong thing, Joxter could die . He did things wrong so often. He’d die. He’d die for sure.

He still had to try, though. Right?

Deep breaths. One. Two. Three. Four. Okay. He was okay. He wasn’t dead yet. He could still save him. It’s okay. One. Two. Three. What did Hodgkins say after fire? Give him blankets. No. No that’s not it. One. Two. He’s got this. Think. He’ll get it. It’s okay. One. Get him dry. That’s it. That’s the one. See, he’s got it. It’ll be fine.

He dragged his bag over to himself, not willing to move Joxter in case it hurt him. He took one of the blankets out of the pack, only to stop himself and shake his head. Clothes first. They were completely frozen onto him. That fall in the lake had really made this much more difficult than if he hadn’t. Muddler sighed and convinced himself that everything was fine. This was no different than taking care of him after he slept for weeks on end. 

He dug through his bag and found his knife, taking in a deep breath before carefully cutting away what he couldn’t pull off. Then, he used the blanket to dry him off as best he could. It was hard with all his fur, but he managed, dabbing, squeezing, and rubbing away any dampness until he was almost completely dry. The other blanket he brought was used to wrap around him, insulating him in a soft cocoon.

More worried than he’d ever been, he kept an eye on him while he thought of the next step. His body heat alone wouldn’t be enough and the fire could only do so much. He knew he was supposed to offer him warm food or drink, but he couldn’t do that while he was unconscious. He needed to heat him, somehow.

Oh. Right. That’s how.

He questioned it for a moment. It sounded so invasive that it couldn’t be right, but he was sure that’s what Hodgkins had told him. Maybe he hadn’t. Maybe he was just remembering it wrong. Though, if it was right, that’s what he needed to do. Better safe than sorry, he supposed. His friend wouldn’t get mad at him for trying to help. Probably.

After adding more wood to the fire, he hesitantly stripped down, still unsure if this was the right move. Wrapping the blanket around both of them now, he pulled Joxter in close, chest to chest and, embarrassingly, hip to hip. It felt even more wrong now that he was actually doing it, but he could feel that his body heat was helping. His skin was warming, albeit slowly.

He’d calmed down by now, so his thoughts weren’t as muddled as before. He thought of what it meant to die, but quickly shoved it away and thought, instead, of what it meant if Joxter died. He’d never get to say what he’d wanted, or show him anything he’d been working on, or make things up to him.

He’d asked him to spend time with him earlier, even though he knew it bothered him whenever he did. He’d just so wanted to be alone with him. That’s probably what bothered him. He was probably creeped out by how eager he was.

Regardless, he had decided to make it up to him with food and an experience. He’d made a pie for him and he’d gone out to find a fairy. He was sure Joxter would’ve been impressed with him if he brought him one and he might’ve even wanted to hang around him more. Now, he was close to dying. Trying to impress him seemed like such a childish idea in the face of death. If he hadn’t gone out, he could’ve kept him inside and this wouldn’t have happened. 

He found himself whispering an apology to him, which was immediately followed by another. And another. And another. Then, he began rambling to him, listing off all those times he’d messed up and didn’t get the chance to say sorry. With each mistake he fessed up to, more and more tears came to his eyes until he was sobbing into his friend’s hair. His apologies turned to begging, crying for him to be okay. For him to wake up. To stay alive. Muddler needed him to. What would he do without him? He was his best friend. He loved him.

His breath caught in his throat as he stared down at Joxter’s pale, sickly face. That’s something he’d completely forgotten about. He’d never get to tell him that if he died. In fact, his chest tightened around his heart because, in that moment, he looked dead. Only after checking his pulse, finding only some faint heartbeat, did the feeling lessen its grip on him. It showed him something about himself, though. How his heart could be so easily tormented by things as simple as appearances.

He supposed that was why he’d never said anything to him. Rejection outweighed all other risks before now. Today showed him the realities of the world. Death was a risk, an actual, genuine risk and not just some abstract concept in his head. It wanted to take the people he loved, to take him, and there was nothing he could do about it except try to stave it off.

He gently squeezed his Joxaren and pressed a soft kiss to his forehead. He whispered sweet nothings to him, telling him every little, lovely thought that came to mind. How he loved him and how aloof he was. How he wished to be more like him. How very much he liked to see him smile. He hoped his words would find their way into his dreams, if he was dreaming, and lift him into consciousness. He’d keep it up until it did.

Chapter Text

Joxter didn’t open his eyes when he woke up. He wouldn’t be giving up such a wonderful sleeping position so easily. Warm and soft, with fur brushing over his face and leaving a sweet, yet metallic scent, it was perfect. To move now would be a waste. Beside that, Muddler’s heartbeat thumped gently against him, their bodies tangled up comfortably, and he couldn’t help but focus on it.

He let himself just feel his friend. The warmth had to be the most notable part, feeling heavenly against his still chilled flesh, but his fur was the most captivating. They were so close together that he didn’t even need to move to feel where it was softer or coarser, where it thinned out and gave way to bare skin, and shamelessly, he felt, against his own abdomen, where it trailed from his navel to his pelvis. Little impulses to touch him had his fingers twitching.

His tail would have twitched, too, if it wasn’t still completely numb from the night before. He could still feel the cold stabbing into his body, threatening him with an icy death. It would be a permanent mark in his mind. Though, he couldn’t remember everything yet. He could only feel what had happened to him like his body had been imprinted with frost and frigid water.

A chill swept through his body, forcing him to push further into Muddler’s chest as he shivered. This wouldn’t have been so much of an issue if his friend hadn’t pulled him in tightly and adjusted the blanket for him without needing to be asked. He finally opened his eyes to look up at him from this position, everything a little blurry from sleep, but he could still see that he was giving him the sweetest, most gentle smile with just a touch of worry in his brows. He also looked exhausted.

“Afternoon,” he said, sleepily and in a low, soft voice that Joxter had never heard before. “How are you feeling?”

“I’m-”

A violent cough answered for him, shaking his whole body and making his lungs recall that acidic feeling from when he nearly drowned. Muddler sat him up and carefully patted his back until it passed. He didn’t try talking again and instead opted to bury his face in his friend’s fuzzy chest while bits of the night came back to him.

He had been so afraid. Terrified. There had been no doubt in his mind that he was going to die and it was honestly jarring to realize that he survived through all of it. That familiar, squeezing feeling gripped his chest and he choked on air when it forced tears out of him. Something bad was still going to happen and he’d completely incapacitated himself. If he’d died, at least it would’ve been trying to protect everyone, but now he couldn’t do a single thing and it was his own fault. They were going to die and there wasn’t a thing he could do about it.

He couldn’t breathe. His sobs came out strangled. They were going to die and there wasn’t a thing he could do about it. As the feeling became more and more pronounced, his mind was overwhelmed with the certainty that they were going to die any second. His claws dug into Muddler’s chest as an absolute terror overtook him, the worst foreboding he’d ever had.

His friend winced, but continued to offer him comfort, running his fingers through his hair and offering gentle words of reassurance. For some unknown reason, though he liked it, it made the feeling worse. It was like just being near him was enough to drive Joxter to panic. This was so unlike any other foreboding as they usually never had a specific trigger and they certainly never got worse like this. This wasn’t right.

What was happening to him? This was the first time he didn’t know exactly how and why he was feeling. Was this what dying was like? Was this the end? He did remember feeling just like this when he was drowning, so it wasn’t so far fetched.

Muddler seemed to have realized something and said, “Take d...d-deep breaths, Joxaren. I’ll count for you. Don’t give me that look, just trust me.”

Four seconds. In. Seven seconds. Hold. Eight seconds. Out.

Again.

Slowly, all of the panic that had built up subsided into just a twinge of anxiety. Strange. He couldn’t normally breathe away his forebodings. It must not have been one, but what else could it be? He’d seen Muddler break down like this before, he supposed, but he wasn’t- it couldn’t have been the same. He was the calm one.

“Better?”

“Oh- Yes. Much better.”

Their eyes met and the feeling pulled at him again, so he looked toward the dwindling fire in the center of their little cave. He supposed that meant his friend was the cause, but it had never happened before.

“Are you sure?” he asked delicately, like he’d already decided for him that he wasn’t.

“Yes.”

“Are you hungry, then?”

“Mmh.”

He watched the Muddler push himself to his feet and stretch before he realized he needed clothes and immediately got his pants back on. It was oddly disappointing. He hadn’t gotten a proper look at him. Though, his pants hung loosely around his hips, and that was certainly enough for Joxter.

He shook away the obscene thoughts that had started forming in his mind and pulled the blanket over his face to hide the blush. How could he go from panicking when he saw him to exploring his body so quickly? The lack of oxygen must’ve really gotten to him if his moods were this unstable.

“By the way, why were you out in th...th-that blizzard?”

“Was looking for you, mouse.”

A moment of silence made him drop the blanket from over his face to see what Muddler was doing, but the response came almost as soon as he did.

“Don’t do that again. Please.”

He didn’t meet his eyes when he handed Joxter a bowl filled with a mixture of roasted vegetables and a slice of bread. He really had been more prepared than he thought.

“I know, I should’ve trusted you.”

“No.” He glared at him, but his face quickly softened. “Well, yes. T...Trust me, but- well- No. You know you almost died , right? Don’t risk your l… Don’t risk your life for me.”

“I got a foreboding, so I wanted to find you.”

“I still don’t want you dying for me. Or anyone. J...Just- Don’t die! Okay? Please! Please…” He buried his face in his hands and held back tears. “I was so worried, Joxaren. I thought… I thought I’d lose you.”

Seeing him like this made his heart drop. He’d always been the nervous one, worried about one thing or another, but he’d never done this. It was sadder and more desperate than usual, like he’d been deeply troubled by what had happened.

“I’m… I’m sorry.”

“Well, thank you for um- for caring so much, but uh- d...don’t do it again! Er- Well- I mean, don’t hurt yourself again. Not um-”

“I got it, mouse.”

He finally started eating, appreciating each bite of Muddler’s cooking. It really wasn’t the best, but he loved how he’d taken time to cook and plate a meal for him, especially after taking care of him all night. His friend prepared himself a bowl and slid up next to him and under the blanket. The mood was much more relaxed now.

“Um- I need to t...t-ell you something.”

“Mm?”

He bit his lip, staring down at his food, clearly forming his words in his head. His mouth opened and then closed again, probably rethinking how he wanted to say something.

“Never mind.”

“Mm.”

“It’s not important. Really. And uh- I forgot. Yeah. I forgot.”

“I didn’t say anything.”

“Right!” he said, just a bit louder than necessary, and glanced toward the cave entrance. “The snowstorm uh- really isn’t g...g-giving up, huh? We’ll be here for a while.”

“Suppose so.”

“You know, snow doesn’t bother me as much as um- as regular storms. It d...d- It d...doesn’t feel as dangerous as- Oh! It is dangerous, but it just doesn’t feel like it, right, so…”

He was rambling now, a sure sign he was nervous about something, but who wouldn’t be if their friend had almost died. Joxter listened, regardless of how dull it was, because it was easy and it would make him happy. If he’d also had to respond, he wouldn’t have been so kind as he definitely didn’t feel well enough to keep up a conversation like this.

He talked for a long while, moving on from his weather preferences to a series of little stories from his youth, which was much more interesting to Joxter. He had curled up against him and was watching the way the firelight flickered over his face and how his mouth moved when he spoke. He wondered if they were as soft as his fur. Then, he found his eyes wandering down his body, filling his head with racy fantasies.

He didn’t push them away this time, instead, letting them run wild while he contemplated telling him the truth. Nearly dying had changed his perspective on his feelings. He supposed it was better to be open with them right away than to keep them all bottled up inside until the right moment. The right moment might never come, after all. It scared him, though. He’d never been so close with somebody before and there was always a chance he’d lose him.

He took a few deep breaths to calm himself rather than allow the spiral to continue. This wasn’t even a bad moment. They were cuddling under a blanket, in the firelight, and nobody else was around. It was, quite honestly, the moment that he’d always said would be perfect. Muddler had even calmed down and was contentedly sipping tea while he told him about the time he’d painted a bunch of little stones and left them for people to find. He was so very sweet. And beautiful. And interesting.

He sat up on his knees to get eye level with him before taking his chance and bluntly asking, “Muddler, could I kiss you?”

He swallowed too hard with his surprise and coughed, choking a little on his tea. His eyes were teary by the time he’d been able to relax, so the mumrik wiped away what trickled onto his cheeks, just turning him even redder.

“C...C-Could you repeat that?”

“Could I kiss you, please?”

He hesitated, then nodded, already leaning closer eagerly with some excited glint in his eye. Surely, Joxter was excited, too, but the apprehension from before pulled at him, made him wonder if he was really ready to open himself up so much. He was. He had to be because the feeling of Muddler’s warm lips finally pressing against his own took his breath from him and, when he backed away, he found himself wanting- needing- more, wrapping his arms around his shoulders and pulling him in for another. There was no more hesitation between either of them, impatiently pecking at each other until one of them, neither knew who, pushed their tongue against the other’s pleasurably. And suddenly, they were on top of each other, breathlessly nudging against the other’s body, claws digging into Muddler’s back, a gasp escaping Joxter when he finally gave him the touch he didn’t know he needed by bucking into his hips. Something snapped deep down inside him, sending a warm feeling to his abdomen, making him desperate for something more. Something obscene. The mumrik’s hands wandered down to his companion’s waistband, but he pulled away before he could push things further.

“Muddler?” he practically whined with a tone that seemingly begged him to come back.

“You’re ill.” He wrapped the blanket around him, both to warm him and hide his body. “You need t...t-to rest or you might get worse.”

“I don’t want to rest. I want you .”

His face flushed a deep red and he seemed to contemplate it while he poked at the fire, but he shook his head.

“No.”

“Okay.”

Abruptly, he said, “I love you, Joxaren.”

“Okay.”

That may not have been the best response to a confession like that, but he just hadn’t been ready and, at the time, he was very afraid. He felt that, if he said it back, he’d be giving himself up to be burned, but he certainly felt it. He’d felt it for a long, long while, actually. It had been tugging at his heart for months. Wasn’t that enough?

He was too tired to be thinking about all of this, drained from his earlier panic and the night before. He resolved to handle it when he woke up from his nap.

Chapter Text

Muddler used his sleepless nights to overthink and hide his breakdowns from Joxter, who’d become terribly emotional over the past few days. He’d always wanted him to open up more, but he’d never expected the mumrik to be so tormented in his thoughts. Part of him wished he’d never opened up to him at all. Then, his heart wouldn’t be aching so much every time he cried or, in one case, screamed. The memory of his screams sent shivers down Muddler’s spine and kept him from sleeping.

He’d brought him back to the cabin the night they kissed and had noticed he’d been getting worse, so he trekked down to the village and came back with a doctor. She’d examined him for a long while, poking and prodding him and running tests until he’d shut down completely from all the touch, and, with a grim look to her, she told them that he’d need his tail amputated as the tissue had died. If they’d have noticed sooner, they could’ve stopped it before it progressed too far, but that hadn’t been on their minds and his fur had concealed the red skin until it turned black in the cold.

He’d had to hold him down while she performed the procedure. He’d struggled and cried and screamed so piercingly that it shot deep into Muddler’s chest and seared the memory into his mind. He reassured him, told him how great he was doing, how he’d be alright, but he knew all his words had fallen on deaf ears. He wasn’t even sure he could see anything during it. He just seemed so lost and terrified, completely consumed by his agony.

Now, little twitches and whimpers in his sleep filled Muddler with so much shame that he found it hard to stay in the room with him. He was out in the cold, sobbing to himself, illuminated only by the low light from the lantern by the door. Guilt pushed and pulled at him, tore away at his heart, nauseated him, and he had nobody and nothing to comfort him. He wouldn’t have accepted comfort, regardless.

All of this came from his idiotic, selfish desire to impress him. Had he just stayed home with him, he wouldn’t have gone out, wouldn’t have developed hypothermia, wouldn’t have nearly drowned and damaged his lungs, wouldn’t have lost his tail in the most excruciating way. It was all on him. All of it. And there wasn’t a single thing he could do to make it up to him.

His self-pity also wasn’t helping anyone and he still continued to cry nearly nightly. How could he be so selfish as to feel sorry for himself when Joxter was in so much pain? What kind of egocentric monster was he? Surely, a good person wouldn’t be whining about someone else’s misery. A good person wouldn’t even think about it the way he was. He supposed that meant he wasn’t one, but that just made him break down further.

Joxter must’ve known he was a bad person. He must’ve blamed him, correctly, for all that happened to him. That must’ve been why he didn’t love him back. They hadn’t brought that night up at all since it happened, so maybe he just wanted to forget it. Muddler couldn’t blame him for that. He wished he could forget it, too, so he could drop the guilt that came with letting him make that mistake.

The front door creaked open and Joxter’s feeble voice quietly called out, “Muddler? Come inside. You’ll catch cold out here.”

He looked so small and fragile, with worry on his face and a hint of pain in the way his body trembled. How he still felt any compassion for Muddler, in this state, was a mystery to him.

“G...G-Give me a moment…”

“No. Come in. Now.”

The sudden strength in his words surprised him and had him at the door in mere seconds. Joxter gently pulled him inside and wiped his tears away for him, keeping his hands on his cheeks for a moment longer before shaking his head and pushing him over to the fire. Then, he went and put the kettle on, staggering when he walked.

“I thought we learned our lesson,” he scolded. “What were you thinking?”

What was he thinking? How stupid he was for going out in the cold to cry. If he’d caught a cold or, worse, developed hypothermia, he would’ve been putting him at risk. He should’ve just kept it in, no matter how hard it was for him. Guilt pushed more tears out of him and he was sobbing again, apologizing far too much and pointing out all of his flaws. He couldn’t help it. He needed to know how horrible he really was.

“Hey, it’s okay.” He kneeled down in front of him and took his hands in his own. “You’re okay. I’m not mad, mouse.”

“You should be! I’m always d...d… I’m always doing things wrong and- and- and I got you hurt! You almost died because of me and now… and now you don’t have your tail and you’re so sad all the time and-”

He gently shushed him and pulled him into his chest, letting him sob inconsolably. The comfort only compounded his guilt. Joxter was the one that needed support, not him. He had to be the worst friend in existence. How could Joxter care for him when he was so self-centered and dramatic? He must’ve manipulated him. Surely, nobody could care for somebody like him naturally.

He forced himself to stop crying with great difficulty, but started up again when the kettle whistled as it reminded him too much of the mumrik’s screams. He covered his ears and shook his head while panic took hold of him. He recalled images of his face, filled with terror and covered his tears, and of the mess of blood that matted what was left of his tail and soaked so fully into a towel that its original color was lost. He had caused all that pain. It was all him. Him.

No amount of breathing exercises could ease the crushing feeling in his chest and nothing could distract him from all the blame he was putting on himself. He choked on his shame and, distantly, he understood he was rambling, but he couldn’t hear himself. His words were obscured by his obsessive thoughts of death and how he deserved to feel nothing but endless pain for not being the one who’d been hurt. It should’ve been him who nearly died from cold and drowning and lost his tail and he deserved so much more on top of all of it.

Claws dug into his wrists as they were pulled away from his ears. The pain brought him back just a bit, but sent some new fears into him. Was Joxter going to hurt him? Did he hate him that much? He supposed that’s all he’d earned, but he was still just as afraid. Then, he noticed the scattered bits of fur on the ground next to him. He had pulled it out, hadn’t he? Joxter just wanted to stop him. Of course.

Finally, something the mumrik said caught his interest and pulled him just a bit out of his panic.

“I’ve met a fairy before, would you like to hear about it?”

He took a deep breath and nodded, finding it just a bit easier to breathe. His chest still felt as if it was being squeezed like an orange, but the new focus would certainly alleviate it in just a few moments.

“Right. Well, they look a bit like a Mymble, but much fuzzier and they’re awfully small little things. They’re almost as small as a ladybird, actually.”

“Oh.”

“Yes. Very hard to find, but we mumriks have an interesting relationship with the creatures. When I met one, he came to me and, well, they rarely show themselves. It was an honor.”

“Are they nice?”

“Mm. To me, they were. If they like you, they’ll show you the most beautiful spot in their forest. If they don’t, they won’t approach, but, if you find one anyway, they’ll lead you to somewhere dangerous.”

“Would they like me?”

“Of course. You and I have a respect for nature and no need for fame.”

“Fame?”

“They’re very wary of those who want glory, like Moomin or Hodgkins. They might try to catch the fairies and boast about it.”

“And, would you show me this beautiful spot one day?”

“Of course, but I’m afraid it may be quite dull when compared with you.”

Muddler had mostly calmed down by now, so he was able to appreciate the compliment, which made a blush cross his face. All of his bothersome thoughts had been replaced with fairies and flirtation, but there was still a dull pain in his chest.

“You d...don’t mean that.”

“Of course I do.” He pushed a cup of tea into his hands with a sly smile. “I find you incredibly appealing. It’s awful.”

He couldn’t hold back a laugh, nearly spilling his drink when he let it out. He’d forgotten how flirtatious Joxter could be. He really was the most charming man he’d ever met, despite how he’d only bathe once a month and only when pestered. It was surprising how his charisma made up for his hygiene. Though, he supposed, the messy look did work for him.

He sipped his drink thoughtfully and watched as the mumrik stood and staggered over to the bed, only to come back and wrap a blanket around the both of them. He leaned into him and they watched the fire crackle, wordlessly enjoying each other’s company now that Muddler had grounded himself. Though, their conversation felt unfinished and Joxter was the one to continue it.

“It’s not your fault,” he abruptly, but softly told him. “I should’ve been more prepared. Don’t blame yourself for my oversights.”

He contemplated it for a moment. Joxter may not have blamed him, but that didn’t get rid of the guilt that had latched onto him.

“But-”

“No. Muddler, listen. You aren’t responsible for me. People are only responsible for themselves.”

“Yes, but what about-”

“You’ve got the softest heart, and that’s very sweet, but I need you to understand that not everything is for you to take on. Please .”

The look that he was giving him was so serious and so earnest that he understood, somewhat, that his guilt was hurting him. Joxter would never outright say that it hurt him, but it was clear to him and he had to accept it. So, he nodded and Joxter sighed with what must’ve been relief.

“Thank you, mouse.”

“I’m sorry for feeling guilty...”

“Don’t be.”

“And for kissing you.” Though he was staring down at his tea, he could feel Joxter’s eyes on him, so he continued, “You were scared and ill and I t...t-took advantage of that. I’m sorry.”

He began to sweat when he didn’t get a response, but could still feel his gaze on him, making his fur stand up on his neck. Had he said something wrong? Maybe he hadn’t remembered that they’d kissed. That would explain why he never brought it back up.

“And, am I still scared and ill?”

“I don’t think so?”

When he turned his head to look at him, he was pulled into a rough kiss that almost made him drop his cup. Then, he had to set it aside because Joxter clumsily shifted into his lap and pushed against him. It was escalating again and he knew it, but he couldn’t help himself from wanting it to go further. Though, of course, he knew he wouldn’t actually let it.

He’d been panicking earlier, but now he was as relaxed as he could possibly be. Joxter liked him, genuinely liked him and wanted him. It wasn’t confusion from hypothermia or a reaction to fear. It was actual, real attraction to him. Each restless kiss just solidified that fact further and that tightness in his chest turned into some strange, floaty feeling.

When Joxter started pulling away, he eagerly followed to prolong the experience, but was gently pushed back to make room for him to speak.

“Better?”

His voice was deep and heady, dripping with the undertone of impure intentions. It made him gulp and squirm, pushing the limits of his control. He supposed that answering ‘no’ would lead elsewhere and, for a moment, he contemplated it. Ultimately, though, he nodded and carefully pushed him off, which the other happily complied with.

It just wasn’t time for that. It was too early and Joxter was still injured and, quite honestly, he wondered if that’s all he wanted him for. They hadn’t shared any affection that hadn’t become suggestive within seconds and Joxter hadn’t said he loved him back. It put him on edge, but he also knew that he wasn’t used to actual relationships.

The mumrik started purring while he leaned on him and a glance toward him saw that he was smiling. Maybe it was too early to be making assumptions.

Chapter Text

A button had fallen off Joxter’s shirt, so Muddler had taken the opportunity to sew all the tears back together as well, leaving the mumrik shirtless for much longer than he would’ve liked.

It wasn’t that he was embarrassed, but rather that he’d been sat on the floor, looking himself over in the mirror for the past ten minutes and was growing increasingly upset with the state of his body. His paws had grown a few blisters from the frostbite, his fur had been so matted that parts of it had to be removed, and, well, his tail was just a sore sight. He was an ugly, splotchy mess and he just couldn’t look away from it.

At least, it explained why Muddler kept rejecting his advances. He wouldn’t want to have sex with him, either. Though, if nobody wanted to have sex with him, that made him more of a failure.

He already wasn’t a good mumrik, staying in one place for too long, not having his own park keeping nemesis, and, worst of all, falling in love. Now, he couldn’t even mate. He should’ve had at least one litter by now, but, well, he liked men so much more than women. Still, he couldn’t even mate with men. Nobody wanted him and, he supposed, they never would since his tail had been mutilated.

Remnants of pain shot up his spine when he thought about it, but he shook it off and pushed the trauma back down, not wanting to give people more reasons to reject him. He glanced toward Muddler to distract himself, but found his heart dropping when he did. 

He was smiling to himself as he worked, sewing up that old shirt so skillfully and thoughtfully that it showed just how much he cared for Joxter. It was terrible, really, to see him like this. It reminded Joxter of just how much he loved him, which was just too much for a mumrik.

Mumriks didn’t fall in love. They hated the idea of monogamy and marriage and parenting and would simply mate, never speaking to their partner again. Every time he remembered that, it stung him. Especially in times like this, when he could so clearly see himself taking Muddler as his husband and staying with him for the rest of their long lives. Maybe they could even have children and raise them together, but mumriks didn’t raise their children. Mumriks weren’t meant to be raised, either. 

They also had tails.

Maybe he wasn’t a mumrik any longer. He was so far removed from their usual behavior that he must’ve been something else. A mutt, maybe? No. Both of his parents were mumriks. Must be defected, then, or maybe he’d been dropped as a kitten. He supposed the reason didn’t matter. He was flawed, either way.

The door creaked open behind him and dread found its way into his chest. He recognized those footsteps. He’d be getting questions in a moment. Questions he didn’t want to answer. Answers he didn’t want to admit.

“Oh! You’re back! How was it? Did you make it t..to the top?”

“We did! It was very difficult, though,” Moomin answered and Joxter heard him sit at the table, across from Muddler, most likely. “Let me tell you, the wind was atrocious. Did you see that blizzard? Awful. Trapped us in our tent for a whole day...”

His rambling quickly turned into background noise as he thought of responses to the questions he’d surely be asked. Where is your hat? Lost it. What’s happened to your tail? It’s always been like this. Are you okay? Certainly. What have you been up to?

He didn’t get to find an answer to that one as Hodgkins asked the inevitable, “Joxter! What ever happened to your tail?”

He could feel everyone’s attention shift to him and his stomach dropped, all of his answers slipping away. He shrunk into himself and hid his face as best he could, tears beginning to surface.

Then, Moomin gave him a concerned “Joxter?”

Muddler answered for him, stuttering more than usual, “He lost it when he saved me from the blizzard. I um- I went out and g...got stuck in a cave, so uh- so he came looking for me. I would’ve died without him, surely.”

Wonderful. He had the most honest person in the group lying for him. He’d ruined his integrity. Muddler deserved so much better than this. Of course, he wouldn’t be honest with them, either.

“Be more careful, boy. I knew we should’ve brought you,” Hodgkins scolded, though he didn’t deserve it. “You should know better. What if he hadn’t come for you? What if he’d gotten more hurt? Hm?”

“I’m sorry.”

“I know, pup. Just be more careful.”

“Yessir.”

Footsteps and then Hodgkins was next to him in the mirror. Joxter stiffened when he put his hand on his shoulder.

“Thank you for keeping him safe.”

His eyes met Muddler’s when he nodded and he had to look away, ashamed of himself for making him lie like this and getting him in trouble. He didn’t deserve this praise. Muddler should’ve been getting it. He’d been the real hero.

He sighed and joined the others around the table to listen to Moomin talk about their trip.

 



“We’re running low on provisions,” Moomin noted, already grabbing his hat from the rack. “Muddler and I will go find more in town.”

No. Joxter wanted to be alone with Muddler.

“You just got back. I’ll go with him.”

“Oh, but are you sure it won’t be too much? Aren’t you still healing?”

He rolled his eyes. “I’m fine, Moomin.”

Before the troll could respond, he pushed his way past him and out the door, perhaps a little more aggressively than needed. Muddler followed behind him, draping a coat over his shoulders as he’d forgotten one yet again.

“You aren’t fine.”

“I am.”

“How d...d… How does your shirt fit?”

“It’s fine.”

Then, the only sound was the crunching snow beneath their feet. A sound that, quite honestly, set Joxter on edge. Snow was as dangerous as it was pretty, just like love.

He had to tell him, but the fear would snatch his words away any time he tried. If he told him, there would be no going back. He’d be solidifying his fate as a defective mumrik and opening himself up to the possibility of pain. Though, Muddler was sweet. He’d never hurt him on purpose and he’d hurt himself before hurting him accidentally.

Still, the words wouldn’t come out, so he took a deep breath and carefully, slowly took his hand while they walked. At first, he thought he wouldn’t be getting a response, but Muddler’s fingers intertwined with his and a silly grin occupied his face, much to his relief. His hand was warm and soft, so unlike the coarse fur on Joxter’s. Every part of him just felt so nice when they touched that he was beginning to wonder if he actually felt this pleasant or if it was just a symptom of being completely enamored by him.

He found himself staring at him, analyzing every little detail of his face from the color of his eyes to his crumpled whiskers. He was just the most beautiful, little thing, but also the most handsome, charming man he’d ever met. He loved him so very much. There just wasn’t any point in denying it any longer.

Okay. Deep breaths.

In. Four seconds. Hold. Seven seconds. Out. Eight seconds.

Come on. He needed to calm down. He could do this. It was just his deep, personal thoughts and feelings that he wasn’t supposed to have that he was revealing.

“Muddler?” He stopped walking, still taking breaths to relax.

“Yes? Everything alright, Joxaren?”

Their eyes met and, for a moment, he had to look away, but he quickly made eye contact again as the moment warranted it. He squeezed his hands a bit too hard and his eyes began to tear up, but he pushed himself to get on with it.

“Muddler, I um- Give me a moment.”

“Of course.”

“I should just- No. No. Okay. You’re very- That’s not it!”

He was starting to get frustrated with himself. It shouldn’t have been that difficult to say three God damned words. Three.

“Take your t...time.”

They shared a soft smile while Joxter got himself together. It wasn’t so difficult, really. Muddler had already said it, so it wasn’t as if he was putting himself out there for rejection. They were already practically a couple, anyway.

“Muddler, I didn’t say it back in the cave, but I um- I hope it’s not too late to say that I... love you.”

His eyes brightened and a wide grin grew on his face as he pulled Joxter in for a hug. He happily reciprocated, planting little kisses on his cheek and jawline. Though, Muddler quickly took the chance to kiss him back, much softer and sweeter than their usual ones, but splendid nonetheless.

“I love you, too.”

“Hadn’t noticed,” he teased with a cheeky grin on his face, still very close to him.

“But, I told- Oh! Oh, so it’s like that, is it?”

“I dare say it is.”

He gripped his hips and jerked him forward so that he’d trip into him, eliciting a gasp from the mumrik.

“Well, you’ve been very obvious, p..practically falling for me.”

Joxter’s face went hot and he didn’t have a hat to hide under, this time, so he buried his face deep in his companion’s shoulder, body hunched with his embarrassment. He hadn’t expected that from Muddler of all people. He wasn’t the type to flirt shamelessly, like that. That was supposed to be his thing.

“T...T-Too much?”

A pause, and then, “Not at all.”

“It felt like too much.”

“It really wasn’t.”

“I love you.”

“I love you, too.”

It still felt strange to say out loud. He supposed it would feel normal after a while, but that wasn’t much better. It wasn’t supposed to feel normal. It wasn’t normal. Mumriks weren’t supposed to love anybody or anything and here he was, airing his depravity out like it wasn’t something to be ashamed of. Though, if he was supposed to be ashamed of it, why did he like it so much?

Perhaps, he was just an evil being, perverted beyond redemption. Mumriks liked the taboo, but they’d never go so far as to break their own moral principles. This was unforgivable. Reprehensible. What would he do next? Kiss a park keeper? He’d be ostracized, surely. There were no doubts about that.

Would that be such an awful thing, though? Muddler was a delightful person and loving him felt… right. He wouldn’t be giving up that rightness for… for what exactly? Tradition? He wasn’t supposed to follow tradition, anyway. That wasn’t what mumriks were made for.

His eyes went bright and a grin slowly spread across his face as he walked with his mouse.

That wasn't what they were made for at all. In fact, they were meant to break traditions, so the appropriate thing to do would be to break this one as well. After all, it must've been a mistake for mumriks to have any traditions in the first place. He simply had to correct it. Perhaps, he'd even fix their other mistakes as well, if he so chose. Maybe he'd get married and actually try raising his children. Maybe he didn't have to fight a park keeper, but rather a florist, who keeps flowers contained in small boxes. Maybe he could even settle down somewhere and sleep in a fruit tree outside their home during clear summer nights.

Well then, it looked as if he'd have to plan the downfall of the entire mumrik culture and get himself a proper partner at the same time.

Chapter Text

Muddler had left the cabin with no intention of going back the same day. He felt a bit guilty about it, actually, as he worried if his friends had wanted to spend time with them, but the feeling didn’t last long. He had more important things to think about.

Joxter wanted intimacy and he’d decided to give it to him, even before they’d shared ‘I love you’s.

That’s why, when they reached a fork in the path, he led him toward the ship instead of the town. The mumrik made a noise when he did, definitely noticing where they were going, but he didn’t say anything about it.

Regardless, he felt the need to explain himself and said, “I uh- I misplaced something, so we need t...t-to go get it first.”

“Really?” He raised an eyebrow at him, probably seeing right through his lie as usual.

“Yes, really! I left my um- my… my… thing.”

“Your thing , you say? Heavens, we better hurry then.”

He definitely saw through it. It had been a stupid idea to try lying when he wasn’t even good at it in the first place. Still, he probably didn’t know exactly what he had planned, so he wasn’t panicking just yet. He wouldn’t be able to go through with it if he knew.

This certainly wasn’t the first time Muddler’s been… intimate. In fact, he'd been intimate quite a few times. This was Joxter, though, who was definitely more experienced than him, so his head filled with what ifs and worries. The more he thought about it, the less confident he became. There were just so many things that could go wrong.

He could be too awkward to carry it out. He could be bad in bed. He could push things too far or not far enough. He could be unattractive. Joxter may just not be in the mood. He may leave afterward. And there was the question of Joxter’s lower half. He supposed it didn’t really matter, but maybe it did to him. He’d have to ask and that would be awkward, to say the least.

Actually, he had a lot of questions for him. Way too many for one night and far too personal to ask so soon, but the answers could be important. He’d have told him if they were, though, right? He supposed that there were also questions he did need to ask to get a response. Are they an item? Does he want children? Will he marry him ?

Oh. Oh dear. 

He was going too fast again and he’d surely chase him away if he didn’t rein himself in. Oh, but he’s never been able to keep his feelings a secret for long. It was just a matter of time before he scared him off. A quick glance in his direction confirmed that.

He was smiling in that moment, just a bit of mischief in his eyes, but mostly, he just seemed content. He always had that sort of smile around him. What it meant, he wasn’t sure, but he hoped he’d keep it up forever. He looked especially handsome when he was happy. Was he happy? He supposed he didn’t really know, but he definitely wanted him to be, more than anyone else.

Losing him would be devastating. Too bad it was inevitable.

But, maybe it wasn’t. Maybe, if he did particularly well that night, maybe then he’d stay. He just had to hope he was better than anyone else Joxter had been with. That wouldn’t be so hard, right?



Night had come by the time they reached the ship. It had been the first time Joxter had been outside at night in a while, so he took the opportunity to watch the stars, leaning on the ship’s railing. Muddler was off doing something below deck, so he finally had a bit of alone time.

The past week had been too much for him with all the suffering he had to go through. Every part of him still ached, especially his lungs and spine, but he’d been pretending it didn’t bother him. He didn’t want more pity or to worry Muddler more than he already was, but it was getting harder and harder to ignore it. He’d even vomited during some nights due to just how much pain he was in and had just barely kept it secret.

It had subsided a bit over the day, no longer unbearable, but still present. He wondered if drinking would help, though he’d been told not to. He wasn’t the type to follow orders, but it would be a risk to his health if he didn’t. Not that he cared about his health. Muddler did, though, so he’d better just suck it up.

He had to roll his eyes at how weak he could be for that mouse. He knew he’d do anything he asked, no matter how rebellious he was. That wasn’t necessarily a bad thing, though. He only ever had good intentions, so there was no reason to fear being manipulated. In fact, it was probably a good thing because there were just some things that Joxter had never worried about before that he probably should have, like his own well-being.

He stared down at the blisters peppering his fingers and thought back to the week before. Muddler had been so very sweet, generously giving up his own sleep to make sure he rested easy, giving him all of the gentle care that he needed, and giving him space when he felt too overwhelmed. He hadn’t really deserved any of it, but he appreciated it no less.

He heard footsteps and a dumb grin took over his face without his permission. He had to bite his lip to rein it in a little when Muddler wrapped his arms around his waist from behind and pressed little kisses to his cheek. 

“Aren’t you c..cold?”

“Mm. Maybe a bit.”

“Well,” Muddler’s voice dropped to a low whisper, lips brushing against his ear. “I could warm you up, if you’d like.”

He couldn’t have been suggesting that they… While he was like this? He was hardly attractive at the moment, his fur splotchy and his extremities blistered. There was no way, but lips pressing against his neck told him otherwise.

“Please do.”

He was pulled along quickly almost as soon as he’d responded, down below deck and into his own, unused bedroom. The lantern on his nightstand dimly illuminated the room, casting dark shadows where it couldn’t reach. It was curiously warm compared to the rest of the ship. He must’ve been preparing it while they were separated. How thoughtful.

Muddler’s fingers found their way to Joxter’s top button, gingerly brushing over his spine, hesitant. “May I?”

“By all means.”

Slowly, his shirt fell away, slipping off with ease and tossed to the side. There was a pause, but then he felt hands drift down his sides, resting on his hips for just a moment before one traced his waistband, stopping at his abdomen and sending a shudder down his spine. 

“And, could I?”

Please .”

His hand slid down into his pants and the mumrik had to hold back a gasp when he put pressure on his nerves, pushing his body against him and whimpering when he felt teeth graze over his neck. Each sensitive touch driving him mad, already much better than he’d expected.

Fingers teased his rim, wordlessly asking for permission, and he nodded, only to gasp once they pressed into him. This was really happening, a thought that he couldn’t quite comprehend. He was finally going to mate and it was with his dearest companion, the one he’d loved for so very long.

An unexpected flash of pleasure made him jolt and cry out, reaching back to grip Muddler’s hip, claws digging into it. He didn’t wince, however, and instead gave him a moment to relax while he pulsed around his fingers, thighs pressed firmly together now.

“You’re alright?”

“Y...Yes.” His voice came out at a higher pitch than he’d been expecting.

“Should I keep going?”

“Muddler, please just get on with it!”

“Oh.” He withdrew his hand, making Joxter shiver, and pushed him toward the untouched bed in the corner. “If you insist.”

Joxter turned to him only to receive an eager kiss, tongue invading his mouth, smoothly running across his own rough one. He hadn’t even been given a chance to breathe before Muddler was pinning him to the bed, situated between his thighs and biting at his lip, leaving hot bruises on the sensitive flesh. It was all just a little too much.

And then he had to go and make it even more overwhelming, bucking his hips into Joxter’s and pressing wet kisses to his neck and collarbone. He let up when claws tore into shoulder blades, drawing blood and bringing tears to his eyes. Still, he was kind.

“Joxaren- ow- What… What’s the matter?”

He retracted his claws brought his hands to his chest, only to find that he was trembling. “It’s just… a lot.”

“We c...c-can stop if-”

“No! I mean… I’m just not used to it yet.”

“Not used to-” His eyes went wide with realization and then they went soft and he grinned, bringing a hand to Joxter’s cheek and rubbing it delicately with his thumb. “You should’ve t...told me, button. I’ll be more gentle now, alright?”

He normally would have mentioned the new nickname, but Muddler’s gentleness and understanding had completely overwhelmed him with feelings. Sure that he’d cry if he spoke, he just nodded in response and held his breath when he slipped his shirt off along with his pot.

Tears welled up, obscuring his vision, all of the emotions that he’d been repressing coming to surface. He was beautiful and splendid and just so unbelievably wonderful and he was so incredibly grateful to have him, but he couldn’t speak lest the lump in his throat turn into euphoric sobs.

Muddler carefully removed the rest of their clothing and ran his hands gently over his thighs, lightly nudging against him rather than bearing down on him like before. A few soft kisses later and he was cautiously sliding himself into Joxter, repeatedly glancing up to him, likely making sure he was handling it well.

He stayed put for a moment, letting him get used to it and smiling fondly down at him while he wrapped his arms around him again, claws retracted. When he did start rocking into him, Joxter buried his face in his shoulder both to muffle his whines and to be as close as he possibly could.

“I love you so much,” Muddler whispered, voice dripping with genuine affection. “You’re such a gorgeous man.”

That did him in. Tears flowed steadily into Muddler’s shoulder, but he bit back any sobs that tried to escape, not wanting to worry him. Not wanting him to stop.

He clung to him, only letting out small whimpers when he hit his sensitive spots, body hot and electric, mind turned to a sentimental jelly. Soon, a searing heat swelled in his abdomen and he found that he couldn’t control his own body, legs squeezing Muddler’s hips between them with involuntary tremors. Was this supposed to happen?

Yes. Yes it was.

He cried out when intense pleasure shot up through his body, everything tensing for just a moment before relaxing again, leaving him in a breathless daze. Muddler pulled out a second later and Joxter felt a quickly cooling warmth drip down his thighs and just the smallest bit oozing out of him.

They just held each other for a minute, letting out stuttered gasps and both trembling, until a sob finally slipped out. And then another. And another. And, sure enough, he ultimately broke down from all the overwhelming joy and love and sensations that he’d never felt before.

Muddler was quick to act, rolling off of him and jumping to his feet to find a towel, but, finding nothing of the sort, he snatched his undershirt from the floor and went back to clean him up. He seemed so concerned that it just made Joxter more emotional.

“What’s wrong? T...T-Tell me, please!”

He barely choked out, “Nothing!”

“But you’re c..c-rying!”

Joxter sat up only to fall into his chest and hold him tightly and, hesitantly, Muddler pulled him close to cradle him in his arms. He slowly calmed down, though there were still a few stray tears.

“I’m sorry.”

“Don’t ever be. Can you t..tell me now?”

Rather than tell him, he pulled him down into a deep kiss, so much softer and more affectionate than all the others. Though, of course, he would have to use his words to clear up Muddler’s anxiety, but what could he say?

“I just… You’re just… amazing.”

Smooth.

“Oh.”

He sat down next to him, grinning ear to ear, and gently wiped the tears from his cheeks before pulling him in again. He sniffled.

“So are you.”

Chapter Text

The sun peeked in through a small window while Muddler watched his companion sleep, recounting the events of the night before. Bleary-eyed and unsteady, Joxter had needed help with the clean up, willingly getting into the bath for once. It was then that he admitted to being embarrassed and, more importantly, afraid.

His delayed affection had been from that fear rather than anything the Muddler said or did. It was a relief, really, but he couldn’t help but wonder what he was so scared of. He wouldn’t answer that question, so he could only guess.

The only thing that came to mind was that he may be afraid of abandonment, but he’d never expressed anything of the sort before then. It would explain, somewhat, why he was so aloof and uninterested in the people around him. Though, Muddler knew he wasn’t actually disinterested. He had so much care and concern in him that came out subtly when everyone was together that there was no doubt about any of his friendships.

But there was doubt about their relationship.

Sure, he'd cried tears of joy at being with him and he'd told him many times now that he loved him, but Muddler still didn't think he'd stay. He didn't like being tied down and, well, he was a mumrik. That was enough to make him nervous.

He supposed that meant he was the one afraid of abandonment. Projecting his feelings as always.

He sighed and he ran his fingers through Joxter's hair, appreciating the softness and unusual lack of grease. He could feel his purrs vibrate in chest and his heart swelled. He was such a lovely mumrik, handsome, patient, and level-headed and, though he tried to hide it, his heart truly ached for the suffering. He was everything Muddler had ever wanted.

Joxter stirred and then delicate kisses were being pressed against his chest, finding their way up to his lips before stopping. Hands on his companion’s hips, Muddler started to speak, but was promptly quieted with more surprising affection, the mumrik nuzzling him and purring loudly by his ear. Then, they were making eye contact, foreheads pressed together tenderly.

This was the first time Muddler didn’t feel the need to look away as his eyes weren’t as piercing as usual. There was an unexpected amount of softness in his gaze, eyelids drooping and, for once, his pupils weren’t completely constricted. It all made the blue of his eyes less icy and more sympathetic. They were surprisingly pretty like this.

“Morning, mouse.”

“G...G-G…”

He could feel heat settling in his cheeks while he stammered, words tangled up in his throat. He must’ve been more flustered than he’d thought. 

“Good morning?” Joxter finished for him. “Glad I can still make you blush. Was worried I lost it.”

He sat up and glanced toward the mess of clothes they’d neglected to clean up, sun highlighting his features beautifully. He hadn’t had the chance to appreciate them the night before, so he let his eyes meander over his face and down his body. 

With curiously defined muscles hidden just below his fur, clearly present where there was none, and an unkempt, scruffy bunch of fuzz down the sides of his face, he was just the opposite of dainty despite his small size. It was clear that he could take care of himself. Even in the smaller details, like how he confidently executed every action or how his crippled tail still tried to sway when he was happy, he was obviously resilient. 

He didn’t need Muddler, or anyone else, yet he still chose to spend his time with him and their insecure friends. He probably hadn’t even been bothered when he fell through the ice, likely knowing that he’d get out of it just fine. He hadn’t seemed fazed by it, after the initial shock.

Oh, how he wished to be like Joxter. Maybe then he’d be capable enough to become independent from his uncle. Then, he’d be able to-

He brought his hands up to his face and audibly groaned. He was thinking about marriage again, though he knew it wouldn’t do him well to propose so soon. It only ever served to scare his partners away.

“Something wrong?”

“Not really wrong… more um- off? Oh, I’m just bothering myself again. Nothing’s the matter.”

Joxter finally slipped off of him and sat at the edge of the bed, reaching down to find his underclothes. “You’re lying. Just tell me when you don’t want to talk.”

“How are you so… c...c-onfident?”

“Confident, am I?” He began dressing, being especially careful around his tail. “I wouldn’t call myself that.”

“Then what are you? Because you seem confident.”

“Impulsive. Blunt. Stubborn at best.”

“You’re kidding?”

He twisted round and tossed Muddler’s pants to him. “I’m a vagabond, dear, not a warrior. I have my own worries.”

“But, you always brave them. You d...don’t get overwhelmed like I do. How do you do that?”

Did he just roll his eyes? He did.

"You’re too uptight, you know that?” He paused in the doorway, smiling softly. “I’ll be in the galley. Come find me when you’re dressed.”

And, with that, he left Muddler to his thoughts while he collected his clothing from the floor. His undershirt was still dirty, so he just tossed it aside again and slipped on his button-up, wincing when it rubbed against his claw marks. 

He’d been given quite a few of those. They stung, but were a decent reminder of the night’s events. Of how emotional and meaningful it had all been. It felt so different than all his other partners. Perhaps, it was because they’d been pining for so long or maybe he’d just loved them less than Joxter. Possibly both.

Anxiously picking at the fur on his ears, he walked down to the galley, stopping in his tracks once he’d walked through the door.

Joxter was sat on the counter, sloppily peeling potatoes the way he’d shown him. It wasn’t a particularly special sight. He’d helped him cook before. This felt different, though, comfortable and intimate, pushing a thought into his overcrowded head.

He shook it off and continued their conversation. “I’m not uptight. I just worry what people will think of me whenever I do things.”

“Sounds uptight to me.”

“Joxter.”

“Okay.” He hopped off the counter, setting what he had to the side, and took Muddler’s hands. “You don’t have to stop worrying all at once, or even at all, as long as you don’t let it get in the way of what you want. Can we do that?”

“Well, I d...d-don’t know if that’s the um- the best advice right now.”

“Why not?”

His eyes had gone soft again, making Muddler’s heart flutter. Oh dear. Oh no. What was he to do?

“There’s something I uh- something I very much want t..to do, but I’m afraid it wouldn’t be a very good idea.”

“How bad could it be?”

“I um- I’m not sure. Terrible, probably. Most likely. Definitely. Definitely t..terrible.”

“Only one way to find out, right? Tell me?”

His breath caught in his throat as he realized that this would be possibly the best opening for a smooth proposal, but he didn’t have anything to propose with and he was sure it would be too soon. Though, he did want to and Joxter had just told him not to let his worry get in the way and the way he was smiling was just too pleasing not to think about it.

He wouldn’t be able to restrain himself for long. Better take the chance while the opening was there and nobody else was around.

Not letting go of Joxter’s hands, he got down on one knee and drew in a shaky breath. He felt the mumrik tense up and all of his confidence fizzled.

“Um- Will- Would- Uh- Will you m...m-m… Will…”

He let go of his hands and buried his face in his own. It had been such a perfect moment and he’d ruined it, just like everything else in his life. How stupid was he? Now, Joxter would leave. Idiot.

But, Joxter didn’t leave and instead kneeled down in front of him, gently pulling his hands away from his face.

They were silent for a minute, staring at each other, before Joxter asked, “Will you marry me?”

Was he asking him to marry him or was he asking if that was what he meant to say? Their fingers intertwining tenderly told him that it had been the former, but he wanted to be absolutely certain.

“Do you- D..Do you mean that?”

“Well, we’ve known each other for long enough, haven’t we?”

“You really are impulsive.”

“I can take it back.”

“No! D..Don’t um- Yes. Yes, I would like to- Oh my heart- I would love to marry you!”

They fell into each other’s arms - more Muddler than Joxter - and began going through the typical range of emotions that came with getting engaged. First were Muddler’s tears while Joxter laughed and then they both laughed at the absurdity of it before finally settling on just being giddy and dizzy with delight.

When everything calmed down, Muddler couldn’t take his eyes off of him. They were getting married. Joxter was going to be his husband. He wanted him to be his husband already. The wait would be too much for him.

“We c..could- If you’d like- We c..c-could elope in town before we go back?”

Joxter helped him to his feet and pressed an earnest kiss to his lips. “After breakfast.”

“Right. After breakfast.”

And then, he thought, they’ll be partners in life.

Chapter Text

There weren’t as many people in town as the days before, which was unfortunate for Joxter, who just wanted to slip away and never come back. He’d been fighting the urge all day, knowing that it was just his mumrik instincts, but it had confused his emotions. He wasn’t sure which feelings were mumrik and which were him.

What he was sure of, however, was that he’d made a mistake in rushing things.

He loved Muddler so very much, but he just couldn’t get married yet, no matter what resolutions he’d made. His anxiety told him that much. Or maybe it was cold feet. It didn’t matter to him, he just wanted out .

If only he’d realized sooner.

The only way out now would be to tell him and break his fragile little heart. He wasn’t sure he could do that to him. He’d seen how terribly sad he’d gotten after all of his other failed proposals, isolating himself for days.

But, he supposed, it wasn’t like he wouldn’t marry him. They’d just have to wait a bit longer for him to be comfortable with it. They’d still be engaged, so it surely wouldn’t be as bad as the others. Right?

Maybe not.

Even so, he was itching to be alone, longing for that sweet solitude that let him get all of his thoughts in order and recharge. He’d have to leave either way to preserve his sanity. Getting hitched would just get in the way of that. He wished- no, needed- to slip away and forget it all for just a little while and his needs came first.

Anxiety boiled over, choking him gently, pushing some uncomfortable, restless feeling into his chest. He needed to go. Needed to. The feeling was too urgent to fight any longer.

Pulling his hand from Muddler’s, Joxter took a few steps backward and, before he knew it, he was blurting out some incoherent excuse as he turned round and fled. He didn’t look back. Didn’t offer any reassurance. He just ran and ran toward beautiful isolation, not slowing until he was far from town and wintry silence overtook everything around him.

His steps slowed to a halt, the loud crunching stopping with them, and he listened. There was only silence at first, but soon his ears picked up on the gentle brush of air flowing through the spruce trees while he took frosty breaths to calm himself. Then, he heard the heavy beating of his heart, something he could’ve gone without being reminded of.

His heart had caused all of this mess from falling in love to running away from it. If only the cold would just freeze it until he couldn’t feel any of these complicated emotions. Or, better yet, wrap his whole body in a thick veil of ice until what sensations were left in him were completely drowned in frost.

Perhaps, he was being a bit melodramatic. It would all sort itself out in time as all things did. That was just the nature of things.

Shoving his hands in his pockets, he began wandering the melancholic landscape. Each step made sharp crunches and crackles that quickly faded away, sound quiet and muffled. He was the only living creature in the forest, he was sure.

The cold and frost had taken the life out of everything, but there was something to it that he hadn’t ever noticed before. The snow made its attempts to glisten, to be beautiful, sitting atop comatose trees and stealing the colors from the world around it. The crisp air filled his lungs with cold, made his heart begin to chill. The thin, muted atmosphere left him with nothing in the way of distractions. Winter wasn’t at all like any other season.

It was sobering.

The other three, they showed the cycle of life. Everything bloomed in spring, reached their full potential in summer, and withered in fall, but winter was the aftermath of it all. Winter was where he was meant to reflect on all that he had done in the year, whether it was all worth it or not. It was where he contemplated all the things he had been repressing for the previous 9 months. It was where he thought about the future and all the dreadful things it held.

He supposed that must’ve been why he’d been avoiding it for his whole life. Though he was the wisest of the bunch, he couldn’t bear to think about the inevitable passage of time. It changed things, whether it be a living being or an experience or a relationship, and you wouldn’t know if it had been for better or worse until years down the line when there was no way back.

But spring always came and, with it, new beginnings and beauty. He just had to get through his bitter winters before everything blossomed again. And then, he’d reach the peak of that cycle and fade away once again. Up and down. Over and over.

He didn’t want to go through another down. It was all too late, though, as he’d run from the one that would help him avoid it. 

The others would be upset with him. Perhaps, they’d even leave him here or, if they were feeling generous, they’d drop him off at home and he’d never see them again. He’d plunge quickly into his winter and he’d saunter slowly through it, just as he was doing now, until something in him was brought back to life.

Sighing, he realized he was going off on a tangent in his mind. None of this really made sense. He just couldn’t sort out his feelings without relating them to the natural world, which probably didn’t do him much good. Nobody would understand what he was on about if he told them these thoughts.

He sat at the base of an evergreen to get some much needed shielding from the wind. It had been picking up for a while and he hadn’t even noticed, too distracted by his thoughts. His cheeks and nose stung in that too familiar way, so he pulled his scarf further up over his face and let out hot breaths to warm it.

There wasn’t much to look at, only evergreens as far as the eye could see and, in the distance, the mountains that Moomin and Hodgkins had scaled. The only color other than white being the dark grey of tree trunks and the blue-green of frosty pine needles.

As he huddled into himself, he wondered how these trees could survive in such harsh conditions. Adaptation, he supposed, and perseverance. How else would a plant stay active for an entire cycle of seasons?

His body jolted with his epiphany.

He’d been thinking about everything all wrong. People weren’t at all like seasons and neither was he. People persevered through hardships to keep themselves sane and happy and healthy. When there was something fundamentally wrong, they adapted to solve the problem. They didn’t just sit and wallow until something solved it for them.

He just needed to push himself a bit further than what was comfortable. Then, he could get used to sticking around and letting himself feel all those complicated emotions. He could finally give away that vulnerable little part of him that Muddler deserved to own. 

That is, if Muddler still wanted it. 

The poor mouse was probably devastated. Joxter wouldn’t blame him if he wanted to stay away from him after what he’d done. He hadn’t even given him a chance to respond or ask questions or anything at all.

He buried his face in his hands and groaned, sliding them up to his scalp to tug at his hair. He really needed to get a handle on himself before he made more stupid mistakes. More than that, he needed to figure out what to say to Muddler.

Honesty just didn’t seem like the best policy here. It wouldn’t do him any good to go up and tell him that he’d been fighting the urge to get away from him all day and that the thought of marrying him was just so frightening that he’d ran off to have an existential crisis. Oh, but there was no need to worry because he’d sorted himself out until the next big change happened and he spiraled all over again.

Better not.

He stood from his spot, brushing off what snow had fallen on him, and continued his meandering. The wind was still picking up and the sun had begun to set, so he began scanning for a place to stay for the night. 

Going back to the cabin simply wasn’t an option. He didn’t want to face the consequences of his actions just yet. That was a problem for future Joxter. Present Joxter had shelter to find.

He hadn’t even taken one step before darkness pooled up in his stomach. 

He paused to assess the feeling. There was no chest tightness, no breathing issues, no racing thoughts, none of that. It couldn’t be another fit of terror, which left only one possibility.

Something terrible was going to happen.

To Hell with the consequences, then. No matter how hesitant he was to see Muddler, his safety was more important than a few misplaced worries. After all, there wasn’t much point in opening up to a corpse.

Now, which direction was it? 

Normally, he’d have had no issue deciphering where he needed to go, but everything looked just the same in the snow. It was just tree after tree after tree and they all looked almost exactly the same. He couldn’t even follow his footprints because they’d faded away already and he’d made far too many turns to just keep going.

Getting higher up would have been helpful, but, as soon as he extended his claws to climb a tree, pain shot up from his fingers to his spine. A cursory glance found that two had ruptured blisters and three had failed to come out altogether. 

Height was out, then, and now his hands hurt as well. He should’ve thought it through before running off or, at least, paid attention to where he was going. 

Biting back the pain, he headed toward where he thought the village might be, but darkness was quickly approaching. He wouldn’t be able to see nor keep warm for much longer. He had to hurry. He needed to get to them before whatever was going to happen.

He broke into a sprint, struggling through the snow, but not wanting to waste any more time. It quickly tired him out, though, and he found that his sweat was beginning to cool far too much for comfort. 

Luckily, he came across a familiar mass of ice and oriented himself, but he couldn’t really see much by now, too dark for even his eyes. He had to take things slowly and carefully to avoid breaking through any ice, then. There was no telling where the lake definitively started and stopped.

Each step made him nervous, more nervous than he felt he should’ve been. Memories of freezing water, acid lungs, and pure terror made him too hesitant. He needed to go slow, sure, but not so slowly that it would be day by the time he got around it.

A particularly loud crunch from his steps sent paralysis through his body. He knew it had just been the snow, that there hadn’t been any ice or water, but his ears still swiveled this way and that, listening for any telltale signs of cracking ice.

He didn’t find any, but he did hear the faintest hint of music. It seemed to be coming from all angles. That didn’t make sense, though. There were no echoes in snow. Maybe he was hallucinating, succumbing, again, to hypothermia.

The music grew louder and he could make out that it was some kind of singing. It was alluring, but unemotional. Bitter, even.

He took in a sharp breath. He’d heard about this before during his travels. Some said just to stay indoors, others said not to listen, and others still said not to look toward it. You’d die for sure, they’d all told him, you don’t want to be caught outside when it comes.

Well, it was here and he just had to be in a dangerous position. Perhaps, the foreboding had been for him, a sign that he needed to get inside. Maybe it was for all of them as he truly didn’t know if the others were safe. And he supposed that he’d never know. 

His fate had been sealed as soon as the Lady began her song.

Chapter Text

Left alone in the middle of the street, Muddler’s heart had shattered. The pain was nearly unbearable, so much worse than all of his other rejections, but tears didn’t come, only a hollow feeling deep in his chest.

He’d been so close to having a partner, someone to hold him when times were tough and to care for when they needed it. And it had been his Joxaren. His beautiful, patient, perfect Joxaren.

But, he’d left him as soon as he could. Maybe he’d been right about Joxter’s wants. Maybe he was just an experience for him, which would’ve been fine had he not been given false hope. 

He’d been so happy to be with him. Now, he just felt cheated and unlovable.

Nobody, in their right mind, would take him as he was. He was clingy and fast and he always messed things up in one way or another. He’d probably said something he shouldn’t. Or maybe Joxter was upset that he’d… pulled out too late. It couldn’t have been comfortable.

And Joxter had cried tears of joy when they were together. Perhaps, he’d lied to make him feel better. It could’ve hurt or maybe he regretted it. He probably regretted it. Why else would he run away? He didn’t even say anything.

The tears finally came, flowing steadily down his cheeks and chilling by the time they reached his chin. Then, he crumpled into himself on the ground, sobbing into his knees, getting curious looks from passersby. It didn’t bother him, though. He was too upset to notice.

How could he have been so utterly stupid? He shouldn’t have even tried with Joxter. Now, they probably weren’t even friends anymore and he’d have to be on a small ship with him every day for at least a couple months. Just days and days of awkwardness and sorrow.

Large hands lifted him to his feet and then he was being pulled into a warm hug. This wasn’t the first time this had happened to him, so he wasn’t at all worried or surprised. He actually buried his face in what he correctly assumed was Hodgkins’ chest and sobbed, gripping onto his coat for dear life.

Then, he was pulled to a nearby alleyway, away from the prying eyes of the locals, and was offered soothing words and soft coddling until his tears slowed enough for him to ask, “What are- What are you d..doing here?”

“I was looking for you, pup.” He wiped away Muddler’s tears with his sleeve. “I was worried you’d gotten yourself lost. Speaking of, where’s Joxter?”

Muddler just began sobbing again, pressing himself further into the comfort of his uncle’s arms. He didn’t want to tell him he’d made another mistake, that he’d fallen in love with someone when he was unlovable, himself. Hodgkins would think he was stupid for sure.

“Muddler, doll, what’s the matter? Is he alright?”

He nodded against his chest, though he supposed he really didn’t know. Even so, he just wanted the conversation to be over. He didn’t want to think about Joxter any longer, but he knew that wasn’t an option. Even if Hodgkins let him ignore it, his brain wouldn’t.

He pressed a soft kiss to the top of Muddler’s head. “This week must’ve been hard on you. I’m so sorry I wasn’t there.”

“It’s okay.”

“No, it’s not. I’m supposed to keep you safe and now Joxter’s hurt because I didn’t do my job.”

Muddler wiped away his tears with a sniffle and smiled up to him. “It’s not your fault.”

“Oh, son, if only that were the truth.” He looked so genuinely guilty, it made Muddler wonder if this is how he always seemed. “You’re my responsibility and I…”

Hodgkins sighed and ran a hand through his hair. “I’m just sorry.”

“I’m my own responsibility.” The words fell out of his mouth before he could even comprehend the thought. 

“Huh?”

“I’m responsible for myself and you’re responsible for yourself. So, d..d-don’t be sorry.”

“Wow.” He rubbed the back of his neck, contemplating it. “When did you get so mature?”

Was he mature? He didn’t think so. Mature people don’t break down in the middle of the street and go down a deep, dark spiral over a boy.

“Joxter said it. I think he’s right.” Was that true? “It’s my fault if I d..do something stupid, like get lost in a blizzard or…”

“Or what?”

He bit back tears, not wanting to ruin his ‘maturity’ as soon as he’d been given it. “Propose… again.”

“Oh, Muddler, we talked about this. You can’t keep proposing to women you’ve only just met.”

“I know. Can we just g..go get the provisions, please?”

Hodgkins looked him over, seemingly pitying him, as he always did when this happened, and nodded. “Of course. Why don’t we try to find you something new for your collection, too, hm?”

Muddler just shrugged, not really interested at the moment, so Hodgkins took his hand and squeezed as he led him away from the alley. It was rare that Muddler didn’t want to collect, only happening when he was at his lowest lows, so he had probably been worried.

Muddler wasn’t paying any attention to that, though, lost in his own head.



While Hodgkins shopped, Muddler had been staring at the same red fabric for over ten minutes. It was the same color Joxter’s old hat had been, though it felt a bit different, less worn, stiffer. It wasn’t perfect, but it’d have to do. He could always throw it in the mud and wash it multiple times to get it to the right texture.

He wondered if Joxter would even come back for him to give a new hat to him. He wondered if he could even make a hat. He’d never done it before, but it couldn’t be that hard. It had been a fairly simple hat, after all.

He sighed and hollowness filled his chest again. 

There just wasn’t any way to escape the empty feeling that came with thinking about Joxter. At least, it kept him from crying.

Hodgkins came over to him and put an arm around his shoulders, taking a look at the fabrics, himself. “Are you getting that?”

“Yeah. Hey, Hodgkins?”

“Hm?”

“It was Joxter.”

He supposed he’d find out eventually, so it was just better to get it over with. Maybe Hodgkins also knew something about Joxter that he didn’t.

“What was?”

“I proposed t..to Joxter. That’s why he left.”

He withdrew his arm and made Muddler face him, gripping his shoulders. “That’s not funny. Don’t joke about that.”

“I’m not. Is it really that bad?”

“He’s a mumrik, Muddler. What were you thinking?”

“He loves me… or he said he d..d-did, so I thought…” He turned back to the table of cloths and felt their textures to ground himself. “He said yes, but then he ran off before we c..could get married.”

Hodgkins pinched the bridge of his nose and let out an exasperated sigh. “Mumriks don’t fall in love.”

“Yes they do!” Muddler gave him a wide eyed look, not quite believing himself. “He said so! He wouldn’t lie t..to me.”

“He probably just mistook lust for love.”

“No he didn’t! He’d never t..tell me his feelings if he wasn’t sure.”

“Look what he’s done to you. You’re arguing with me.” He folded his arms and glared down at him. “You never argue with me.”

Tears welled up in Muddler’s eyes as he snatched the red fabric from the table and headed toward the shop’s counter. “Talking t..to you was a bad idea.”

“Even if he did love you, he’s too old for you.” He followed close behind. “He’s almost my age. You can’t expect me to be okay with that.”

Muddler turned back to him, sniffling. “Well, he left me anyway, so you d..d-d… you d..don’t have anything to worry about.”

With that, he shoved the red cloth into his hands and stormed out of the shop before he started crying again. He leaned against the outside wall and took deep breaths, willing his tears away while he thought.

As upset as he was, despite thinking Joxter had lied to him earlier, he’d still defended him in an argument. He’d actually argued over him and he was sure he’d do it again if he had to. Maybe he trusted Joxter more than he thought. Maybe it was just denial.

He’d take denial over hating himself. He could tell himself that Joxter would come back, that he still loved him, that he’d just been scared and then everything would be alright. Joxter had never said they were broken up, after all, so he couldn’t really know for sure that he’d left him. Of course, he wanted to stay with Muddler. He just needed some alone time is all.

Hodgkins didn’t know what he was talking about.

Looking around for another distraction, he noticed little ice sculptures sitting at the doorsteps of most homes. Some were of animals and others were of the same woman, but all of them hadn’t been there the other times he’d come through town.

A mymble, not too far away, was still working on hers. It looked like maybe it could be a dog or wolf of some sort. Going closer proved that it was, in fact, a wolf, but it also got the mymble talking as mymble’s often did.

“What do you think? Is it the best offering in town?”

“Ah um- Yeah. What’s it for?” He leaned in to get a closer look now that they were interacting with each other. “Some k..k-kind of festival?”

She looked up at him and grinned. “Oh! You’re one of those boys! No, not a festival. It’s an offering for the Lady. Do you know of her?”

“I… No.”

“She’s supposed to be very pretty.” She went back to chipping at the ice. “Or that’s what people say. Anybody who’s actually seen her hasn’t lived to tell us if she’s pretty or not. No, the people who get a peek at her always end up frozen.”

“Heavens! Is she a-” He lowered his voice. “-a witch?”

“Oh, no, she’s much worse than a witch. You don’t want to be outside at all when she comes.”

“When is she c..c-coming?”

“Tonight. You better get to wherever you’re staying before night, dear, or she’ll find you.” She spoke so nonchalantly about it all, like it wasn’t as terrifying as it seemed. “Oh, don’t worry about the offering, either. It’s just a thing we do as an extra measure.”

He hoped Joxter had gone back to the cabin. “And… can you save someone if she freezes them?”

“Well, it’s certainly never happened here.”

“Oh. Thank you for um- t..telling me.”

“Of course.”

He took a step back and ran into someone. “Ah! I’m so- Oh, Hodgkins.”

“You aren’t sorry anymore just because it’s me?” He shoved a box into Muddler’s hands. “Help me carry this. It’s the least you could do after causing a scene.”

“Why are you being so mean? I was already g..going to help you.”

He opened his mouth to speak, but paused before sighing and saying, “Sorry, pup.”

“It’s alright.”

“What were you talking about with that woman?”

He told him about the sculptures and the Lady and how it had scared him while they walked back to the cabin, finally, with their supplies.



The sun was almost gone by the time they got back to the house, setting Muddler on edge. 

Hodgkins hadn’t seemed all that afraid of the Lady, but that didn’t do anything to ease Muddler’s. It made it worse, actually. He had wanted him to take it seriously. It could be bad if he didn’t.

Moomintroll took the box from Muddler’s hands as soon as he went inside. “Let me help you.”

“Oh. Thank you.”

“Where’s Joxter?” He leaned a bit to look past the two of them, but frowned when there was no sign of him.

“He hasn’t been here at all?”

“I haven’t seen him, no. Should he be here?”

“I’ll g..go find him.”

He turned to leave, but Hodgkins took him firmly by the shoulder and pushed him further inside before closing the door behind himself. He set his boxes down and started unpacking them like he hadn't done anything, though.

“What was that for?”

“He’ll be fine on his own.”

“He might not know about the Lady. I’m going.” He headed for the door again, but Hodgkins stepped in front of him. “Stop it!”

“You’re going to get yourself hurt. Leave him be.”

“Why are you so… so… uptight?”

Moomintroll pushed his way between him with an awkward smile on his face. “Guys, let’s just all go look for him, together. He shouldn’t be outside in his condition, Hodgkins.”

“Really?” Hodgkins shook his head with a sigh and stepped aside for them to get out the door. “I suppose you’re right.”

“Of course I’m right. He doesn’t even- Muddler slow down!”

He would not be slowing down in the slightest. There was something pulling at a chest in the strangest way like something awful was about to happen. It didn’t feel like panic. He wasn’t sure what it felt like. All he knew was that he had to find Joxter.

The feeling dropped into his stomach when icy wind, colder than anything he’d ever experienced, passed over his body. Then, there was snow. Lots and lots of snow. A blizzard like the one that had taken Joxter’s tail.

Something urged him toward the cave they’d stayed in, pushed him, really. Maybe he was staying there for the night. Maybe he’d fallen through the ice again.

He ran as fast as he could through the sleet and heavy snow, pressing on even when his cheeks began to burn and his fingers started freezing over. Had he not been so sure something was wrong, he would’ve been scared, but his restlessness overpowered whatever fear he should’ve had.

A siren song rang out through the night, echoing despite the blizzard, and he felt the dread build up in his gut. It took over his entire being, heightened his senses, made him act without thought and, when he found the lake, he took no precautions and merely sprinted across it. 

He didn’t slip at all, feet nimbly passing over the ice just as they’d done on the ground. It did crack, just a bit, but he wouldn’t let it take him. Joxter was on the other side, he was sure, and nothing would get in the way. Not even his own safety.

This must’ve been how Joxter felt when he came looking for him. This was why, even when his fingers had turned blue and his tail had lost all feeling, he’d still searched for him like he was the most important thing in the world. And, as far as Muddler was concerned, finding Joxter was the most important thing in the world.

A foreboding?

There wasn’t time to contemplate it. The song had stopped and he’d reached the other side, but there was no sign of Joxter. Something told him that he had to be close by, though, but where? There weren’t any footprints, he could barely see through the onslaught of snow, and he definitely couldn’t smell him.

He followed the edge of the lake without caution, scanning wildly for any slight suggestion of Joxter’s whereabouts. His chest was starting to hurt by now, the feeling no longer tugging, but squeezing his heart. Urgency forced him along with fear finally slipping in. Fear that he might’ve lost him this time.

Then, far up ahead, he saw something leaning against a tree: the stiff, blue body of his dearest friend.

Chapter Text

Unbearable heat was the first thing Joxter felt when he woke up, the second being the stuffed toy in his arms. Soft, but matted, and littered with buttons, it had to be Muddler’s teddy bear. Pressing his face into it and breathing in, he found it also smelled like him. Honey and rust. His favorite scent.

Finally opening his eyes, he found the dim light of the room was much to bright for him, so he pulled the blanket over his face. It was red and worn and he’d certainly never seen it before, but he was sure that this was his bed. He knew what it felt like despite rarely using it.

“Hm? Joxter?” It was Hodgkins’ voice, coming from behind him. “Are you awake?”

“Mm. Are we on the ship?” His voice came out much weaker than he’d been expecting.

“We didn’t want you to keep getting frostbite. And, before you ask, you’ve been out cold for the past week.”

“Sounds like me.”

He sat up and rubbed his eyes, trying to force them to adjust to seeing again. They watered so much that tears slid down his cheeks and he had to assure Hodgkins that he really wasn’t crying. Then, he noticed the hat on his nightstand.

It looked almost exactly like his old one, but the color was brighter and a button, Muddler’s favorite button, was sewn on one side. He took it in his hands and felt it’s texture, perfectly worn and soft enough to be comfortable. Had he really made this just for him?

“He cares about you too much,” Hodgkins abruptly said. “He spent hours on that thing and you’ll probably just lose it again.”

“What’s this about, hm?”

“He told me about you two. I don’t appreciate you lying to him.”

Joxter slowly moved over to the edge of the bed and stood, carefully going over to the mirror in one of the corners. “I’ve never once lied to him.”

“Oh, really? Because he said you told him you love him. You and I both know that mumriks don’t fall in love.”

Looking in the mirror, he saw that he was wearing an old nightgown, probably one of Moomintroll’s, and his hands had lost most of their fur. Actually, his whole body seemed to have lost most of its fur, but his hair seemed untouched. No. Wait. There were white strands in it.

“No, Hodgkins, they aren’t supposed to fall in love. That’s different than not being able to.”

“You’re probably just in heat.”

He put his new hat on and grinned. It was a perfect fit and it looked quite nice on him. The button had also been the nicest touch. Muddler had to be the sweetest man in the world.

“So what?” He adjusted his hat until it was just right. “What does that change?”

“It’s just your instincts telling you to get him pregnant or something. It’s not love.”

“It would be awfully hard to get him pregnant, considering.”

“You know what I meant.” He finally stood from the chair by the bed and headed over to Joxter. “He loves you and you just want to mate.”

“Well, I’m not in heat anymore, so it couldn’t be that.” He sidestepped to his dresser, looking in each drawer until he found his clothes. “We made sure that it wasn’t just my heat.”

“Excuse me?”

Joxter slipped his pants on under the nightgown before changing into his shirt. “You’re excused.”

“Did you mate him?”  

Hodgkins’ tone was starting to get on his nerves, so he turned back to him with a sly smile. “Heavens no. He mated me. But he didn’t mark me. What do you suppose that means?”

Pain shot up through his spine when Hodgkins shoved him against the dresser and trapped him with his body. It was bad enough that tears started streaming down his cheeks and he had to clench his teeth to keep from crying out, though he hadn’t really been pushed that hard.

“You seduced my nephew? He’s nearly ten years younger than you! You met him when he was fifteen!” He was starting to scare him. “Have you been after him the whole time?”

“No!”

He didn’t think Hodgkins would hurt him, but, just in case, he wanted to bring out his claws. None of them would extend, though, stuck in his barely mobile fingers. He was defenseless.

“And you’ve got him arguing with me! Arguing, Joxter! He called me uptight! Sounds awfully familiar, don’t you think?”

He tried to get on top of the dresser, but Hodgkins dragged him in again, gripping his arms hard enough to leave bruises that would undoubtedly turn black. “Where do you think you’re going? We’re not done here.”

“Let me go.”

“Not until you promise to stay away from him. He’s fragile, you know? He can’t handle so much heartbreak.”

“He’s not fragile and I certainly won’t stay away from him.”

“Yes you will.”

“It’s up to him, not you. You don’t get any say in this.”

“It is my job to protect him! You know that!” His grip somehow tightened even more and Joxter could feel his hands go numb. “I found him crying in the middle of the street because of you. He put himself in danger for you when you decided to run off like an idiot. He hasn’t slept in days and I only just convinced him to take a break from caring for you and you know what he’s doing? He’s worrying so much about you that he can’t sleep.”

Was he really? Even after everything he did?

“Hodgkins, please.”

“You make his life harder.”

“Hodgkins, you’re hurting me. Please.”

He quickly retracted his hands and backed away, guilt written on his face for just a moment before shifting back to anger. “Well, you should have said so sooner!”

Rubbing his arms, Joxter started to slowly sidle his way toward the door, hugging the wall. He wasn’t afraid anymore, but he did want to get to Muddler to ease his anxiety. The poor thing really hadn’t slept well in weeks.

“I really do love him, Hodgkins. I’d do anything for him.”

“Except marry him, right? That’s what he wanted and you ran away from it.”

“I’m still going to marry him.” He was almost to the door. “I was just… scared.”

“He doesn’t need someone who runs from their fears, Joxter. He does that enough, himself. He needs someone to protect him .”

Joxter stopped and balled his fists up at his sides, breathing to keep himself calm. “He’s more capable than you seem to think.”

“He got lost in a blizzard and proposed to a mumrik.”

“He did not get lost. I did. If it wasn’t for him I’d have lost a lot more than my tail. And what is your problem with mumriks?”

“You’re all flighty criminals. You can’t seriously expect me to let him marry someone like you.” There was a bite to his words that told Joxter they were no longer friends. “You’ll just get him into trouble.”

“You’ve crossed a line, Hodgkins.”

“Oh, I’ve crossed a line? You’re trying to marry my nephew. You had- You seduced him. You broke my trust.”

“I’m sorry you feel that way.”

Joxter left the room, but immediately bumped into Moomintroll. “Joxter? Whatever is going on?”

“Where’s Muddler?”

“He’s in… the kitchen, but-” 

Joxter moved past him, careful not to bump into him, and hurried his way to the galley, refocusing himself on what he’d say to him. An apology would be in order. Then what? 

He supposed he’d have to open up to him even more than he already had. He’d have to tell him why he ran away and explain just how much he loves him. That would be easy. The hard part would be asking him if he still wanted to be with him. He’d lost Hodgkins’ friendship over their relationship, so he didn’t know if he could handle Muddler rejecting him. 

Of course, he probably wouldn’t even have to. Muddler loved him too much.

Still, he hesitated before opening the door to the galley and found Muddler doing the dishes. He was slouched over the sink with dark circles under his eyes and splotchy fur on his ears. Not only that, but his tail was curled anxiously around his leg, something he only did when he was panicking.

Joxter walked up next to him and began drying the wet dishes he’d left on the counter, quietly working up the courage to talk. They were just words. It shouldn’t have been so hard, but Muddler wasn’t talking either. Why wasn’t he talking? Was he ignoring him?

His heart prematurely dropped to his stomach and whatever words he had formed in his head were gone. Now, he just wanted proof that Muddler didn’t hate him.

“Um- I’m… sorry for running away.” His hands started trembling, making it hard to hold the cup he was wiping out. “I should’ve at least said something.”

“Mm.”

A lump formed in his throat at Muddler’s response. “I just got scared. I still… I still love you.”

“Please don’t lie t..to me.” He handed a damp plate over to Joxter.

“I’m not. I’d never lie to you.”

“Mumriks don’t fall in love, Joxter. It’s okay. I’ll be okay.”

"Did Hodgkins tell you that?”

“Yes. He won’t stop t..t-telling me that.”

“Muddler, please. I really do love you.” He set the dish he was working on down and leaned over the sink to get eye contact, but Muddler just looked away. “I want to be with you.”

“I don’t think that’s a good idea.” He was clearly holding back tears.

“Why not?”

It was getting hard to stay calm. Hodgkins had scared him, made him angry, and now he was ruining his relationship with Muddler without even being in the room. He might cry or scream or maybe he’d even die.

“You’ll have to leave, eventually, and you might not c..come back.”

“I’ll always come back for you.”

“Come on, you d..d-on’t really believe that, do you?”

“I’ll prove it. I’ll… I’ll let you mark me.”

He was getting desperate now, tears threatening to build up and break him down. He couldn’t lose Muddler, too.

“Joxter, no! That’s permanent! What if you change your mind?”

“I won’t. I promise.”

“I’m not going t..t-t… I’m not going t..to tie you down like that.”

“At least let me love you, then.” He choked back his tears as he came to a realization. “Unless… you don’t want me anymore.”

Muddler laughed a bit too awkwardly. “We can still be friends…”

Had he really messed up that badly? Of course he did. Muddler had probably been so heartbroken after he left him alone. This was all he deserved, but he didn’t want to accept it.

He buried his face in his hands when a quiet, pathetic sob escaped him.

“Joxter-” Muddler reached out for him, but he backed away. “Joxter, I’m sorry.”

He took off his new hat and shoved it into Muddler’s hands before running off, tears streaming down his cheeks. This was the first time he’d ever cried from sadness. No. Not sadness. This was so much worse than sadness.

This was a complete splintering of his heart. The worst emotion he’d ever felt. It was physically painful, like a knife burying itself deep into his chest. Maybe he really would die.

And he had nobody to go to for comfort. Moomintroll was nice, but they simply weren’t close enough for that, and Hodgkins had been his best friend for years, but he hated him now. He didn’t have anybody.

Nobody.

He’d never thought that he’d become so dependent on people and now he was paying the price for letting it happen. For making friends and falling for someone. For letting his guard down even the slightest bit. For trying to be happy.

He locked himself inside his room, as Hodgkins had left by then, and screamed into his pillows until his throat was raw and he couldn’t cry anymore. Then, he let himself fall asleep, already exhausted of what energy he’d had. Part of him hoped he’d stay asleep forever so he wouldn’t have to deal with the people he’d so stupidly decided to love.

Chapter Text

Days passed and Joxter still hadn’t said a word to Muddler, just hiding his face whenever they passed each other in the halls or on the deck. He’d also been sleeping in his room instead of in or around Muddler’s can like he used to.

He missed Joxter even though he saw him every day.

In the bridge, he watched Hodgkins work on one of his gadgets, occasionally stopping to check that the ship was on course, and he thought about running to Joxter despite his doubts. He would take him up in his arms and give him so many kisses and apologize and-

Oh, he’d give him all the love he had if he could, but Hodgkins had assured him, many times over, that mumriks lacked the ability to love. That Joxter had just been lying to him because he was in heat or because he was playing some sick game with him. He was inclined to believe his uncle since they were family and family certainly didn’t lie to each other.

Sitting forward on the couch, he started picking at his ears again when guilt pooled in his stomach. He was doubting that thought.

It really hadn’t seemed like Joxter was lying to him. It had been so hard for him to get his feelings out there and he’d taken care of Muddler even when he wasn’t the injured one and he’d even cried multiple times. He’d cried from fear, from joy, from sadness and it had all been in front of him. Nobody else.

When Muddler told them they weren’t together any longer, he’d seemed so genuinely distraught that it was hard to think he’d faked it. He’d sobbed and ran away and Moomintroll told him, later on, that he heard him crying well into the night. Why would he keep up the act when Muddler wasn’t around? 

He asked Hodgkins, who just kept casually working on his trinket. “Well, Muddler, if you want people to believe your lie, you’ve got to make sure nobody finds out you’re lying. It’s best to keep it up even when you think nobody is around.”

“I d..don’t see him doing that.”

“That’s the point.” Hodgkins sighed and set his work down, spinning his chair back toward Muddler. “You’re really naive if you can’t understand this.”

“No, I’m not,” he mumbled, eyes falling toward the floor. “It’s just… He’s never d..d-done that before. Crying like that, I mean.”

“He’s just trying to guilt-trip you. Don’t fall for it.”

“I don’t think he is.”

“Are you saying I’m lying to you?” Hodgkins leaned forward in his chair, giving Muddler a piercing glare. “I love you, doll. I’m trying to protect you.”

“No. No I- Um…” He lowered his voice to a quiet murmur. “I just think you’re wrong about him.”

“I’m never wrong.” He stood from his chair and stepped in front of Muddler, who had to lean back to look at him. “Don’t you ever say that I’m wrong. Especially, not about Joxter. I know him better than you.”

“I… I know you d..d-d… I know you d..do, but I think-”

“You don’t think. That’s your problem.” He balled up his fists at his sides and took a sharp breath through clenched teeth. “You just act on your frivolous emotions and never stop to use your head. Without me, you’d be long dead.”

Tears welled up and a sniffle escaped him, making Hodgkins stop for a moment before sitting down next to him and taking him in his arms. Muddler didn’t particularly want to be in his arms as he’d been the one to hurt his feelings, but he didn’t have much of a choice. He didn’t want to upset Hodgkins further.

He’d thought that his uncle’s opinion on him had changed, seeing as he’d called him ‘mature’ just over a week ago, but now he knew that had been a false hope. Serves him right, as well, believing something like that. As if he’d ever be ‘mature.’

He was always doing something wrong, whether it be something as simple as the way he cut vegetables to who he chose to start a relationship with. Hodgkins was always quick to remind him of that, but he’d never been quite this mean. He’d never outright told him he thought he was stupid, so he had been able to pass it off as being too sensitive, but now the truth was out there, in the open.

It hurt more than he’d thought it would.

Hodgkins let out a sigh and shifted, only having one arm around Muddler now. “I’m sorry, pup. I didn’t mean to be so harsh. I just worry about you.”

“I know.”

“Hey, chin up. I said sorry.”

“Okay.”

Muddler had receded into himself, shutting down like he’d often do when people were mad at him. He wanted to leave. To distract himself. He just needed an excuse.

“You don’t look like you’ve brightened up.”

“I uh… I just need some sun, I think. Ch...Ch-Chipper in no time!”

Hodgkins gave him a look when he stood, not quite buying it. “Are you trying to avoid me?”

“No! Never! I just need some fresh air is all.”

“Alright.” He went back to his workbench, clearly suspicious of Muddler. “If you say so, pup. I’ll talk to you later.”

“Yes. Later. Definitely.”

Muddler leaned on the door once he shut it and let out a long sigh. Had he been holding his breath? He hadn’t had a reason to, but he most certainly had been. He must’ve just had a bout of anxiety. Nothing to worry about.

Now, he was just hungry.

Heading down to the kitchen, he tried to take his mind off of Hodgkins and Joxter, just pushing more thoughts in. He tried counting, looking for colors, and thinking about his collections, but they were always at the back of his mind. 

Someone took him by his arm, suddenly, and he winced like he’d been expecting to be hurt. Nobody had ever hurt him before and yet he was still afraid. Something must’ve been off with his mood.

“You alright, mouse? You’ve got that look on your face.”

He spun round to face Joxter, almost reaching out to take his face in his hands, but stopping himself before he could touch him. He looked so pretty with the splash of white in his hair and fur and he seemed groomed for once. Muddler had to be careful or he’d get taken by him again.

“You’re… talking t..to me?”

“I won’t if you don’t want me to. I just wanted to make sure you’re alright.”

“No, I…” 

...miss you. He couldn’t tell him that, though. They weren’t together anymore and it had to stay that way or Muddler’s heart would surely break again. At least, that’s what Hodgkins had told him.

“You’re worried about me? But I… I thought…”

Joxter shoved his hands in his pockets. “Just because you don’t want me doesn’t mean I stopped caring.”

He hadn’t?

“Oh… That’s… That’s sweet.” Was he blushing? “I just had a fight with Hodgkins is all. It’s not um- Not a big d...d-deal.”

He’d expected Joxter to tell him he deserved it or to get mad at Hodgkins, but neither happened. Instead, his face softened he asked before touching him. He had really asked. Hodgkins never did that.

Muddler nodded and Joxter took his hands so gently it almost tickled. “He’s not um… hurting you, is he?”

“Oh my heart, no!” His own hands squeezed Joxter’s at the surprise. “I just kept making him mad. He didn’t hurt me, though! He just… said some things I d...didn’t like.”

“Like what, mouse?” His hands were making his way up Muddler’s forearms, gently soothing some of his anxiety.

His eyes welled up when he was prompted, though, as he really didn’t feel like thinking about it. He couldn’t admit it had been about Joxter, about how stupid Muddler was, thinking he may have feelings for him. 

He awkwardly sidestepped out of Joxter’s reach and nodded toward the kitchen, silently inviting him along on impulse. It could’ve been a very bad idea, but he wanted his comfort so very much. He wanted Joxter to hold him and kiss him and tell him that everything was alright, that he loved him, but he knew he’d have to settle for just being close to him and that was good enough.

Entering the kitchen, he was able to shove some thoughts away, replacing them with recipes. He was always able to focus when he cooked after he’d forced himself to stay away from distractions. He didn’t want to repeat the cog incident. Hodgkins had seemed so disappointed in him when he found them in his omelet.

“What are we making?” Joxter was already getting out the knives and cutting board. “The usual?”

He hadn’t expected Joxter to actually help, thinking he’d just sit back and be there for him. Not that he wasn’t grateful for the help. It had just caught him off guard.

He opened the doors to the pantry and gave it a once over, mentally checking off the ingredients that would go bad the quickest. They still had quite a few fresh fruits and vegetables that needed to be taken care of.

“Stew, I’d think… and maybe a few pies.” He gathered up his ingredients in his arms and dumped them all onto the counter. “That’s not t...t-too much, is it?”

"Not at all, mouse. I’m sure we’ll eat all of it.”

“I meant the work. I d...don’t want to bother you.” He set to work dicing a tomato to distract himself. “I know how much you hate work.”

“I want to help.”

Muddler heard him get another cutting board ready for himself, but no actual cutting. A cursory glance saw that Joxter was watching him intently, eyes following the way he sliced the fruit. For a moment, Muddler thought he’d tell him he was doing it wrong, make fun of him or chastise him, but he just tried to copy his movements, albeit much slower.

He had to stop working to watch Joxter, not wanting to cut his fingers when he wasn’t paying attention. Whenever he cooked with Hodgkins, he had to change his methods to meet his standards, but here Joxter was, following his example, no questions asked. It felt nice, being the teacher for once, getting to cook how he pleased.

Joxter glanced over to him and he quickly switched his attention back to the prep work, cheeks burning red. He’d been caught staring and he could only hope he wouldn’t be teased.

And he wasn’t.

Instead, they worked together silently, Joxter occasionally leaning over to see how to do something. It felt so homey and domestic that Muddler almost forgot they were on a ship along with two other people. 

It reminded him of their night together and the morning after, where Joxter had been sitting on the counter and looking so pretty while he peeled potatoes, the day he proposed. It had also been the day he almost lost him for good. The thought sent a chill up his spine.

The Lady had gotten to Joxter just moments before he did and his heart had been beating so slowly it felt like he didn’t have one. The others were sure that he was dead, but he wouldn’t give up on him like that. He’d believe it when Joxter was dead and warm. It had taken days to get him warm, though, as the Lady’s magic had really sunk into him.

There were multiple points where Hodgkins insisted they bury him already, that he was already dead and Muddler was pampering a corpse, but he’d refused to listen to him. It was lucky he did, as well, as his heartbeat got stronger after a few days. That was when the white started showing up in his hair. A sign he had survived, the locals said.

Now, he was next to him, helping him, even after almost dying and having Muddler reject him. It almost seemed surreal, that his friend wasn’t dead after everything they’d been through, that he’d been told to break up with him for his own good, and he still cared for him.

Maybe it was another of his tricks. He could just be pretending to care about him until he gave in and took him back. That’s what Hodgkins would say, at least. Muddler didn’t really know if he agreed or not, but he figured he had to agree since he couldn’t see into Joxter’s head. There wasn’t any real way to-

Pain shot up from his hand to his spine, forcing a squeak out his mouth that had Joxter dropping everything to check on him. He hadn’t even gotten a look at the damage before Joxter had a rag over his hand and was applying pressure, looking for the emergency bandages in one of the cabinets, but not quite reaching them.

Muddler grabbed them for him and smiled when he handed them off, despite the tears forming in his eyes. “How bad is it?”

“Oh, it’s just awful.” He used his teeth to rip the bandages, one of his hands busy keeping Muddler from bleeding all over everything. “I think we’ll have to amputate.”

Muddler’s eyes went wide, but Joxter just laughed it off like it was nothing to worry about, so he relaxed and let him work. When the rag came off, he saw it really hadn’t been that big of a cut, just a knick really, but Joxter was still treating it as though it were worse. He was very careful in wrapping it, asking multiple times if it was too tight or too loose, kissing his hand ever so lightly when he was done. It was all too terribly sweet.

He even handled the cleanup, getting Muddler a new cutting board and knife, replacing the food he’d ruined. He told him it was alright, that it happens to everybody, while he washed the blood from the soiled tools, confusing him.

Hodgkins would’ve had his head for this. He hated it whenever Muddler got hurt and would always berate him any time he got so much as a scratch. That’s why he’d insisted Hodgkins stop cooking with him in the first place, taking on the responsibility as the sole cook just to avoid being yelled at. That had always been the norm.

Being with Joxter had him thinking that maybe it shouldn’t be. If he could be kind and caring and sweet even after everything, even after being told Muddler didn’t love him anymore (a lie), then Hodgkins should never be yelling at him over these things. It could just be tough love, though. Hodgkins would never hurt him on purpose.

He didn’t like these thoughts, but Joxter kept bringing them back to the surface. Thinking of his uncle as mean just wasn’t something he could deal with right now.

“Joxaren.” Oops. “Joxter, c...c-could I finish up on my own, please?”

He saw him pause out of the corner of his eye, just the slightest tremble in his hands. “...Of course. Where do you want me to put this?”

“You can just… leave it. I’ll c...clean it up later.”

“Okay.”

Muddler heard him set his knife down and walk toward the door, each step soft, like he didn’t want to bother him with the noise. He paused when he reached the door.

“Sorry for kissing you… I… Yeah, I’m sorry.”

He was gone before Muddler could respond, door squeaking shut behind him. Had he thought that’s why he wanted him to leave? Oh dear. He’d have to correct that later. He didn’t want him feeling guilty over something he’d enjoyed.

Maybe he’d correct some other things, too, but, for now, there was dinner to be made and distractions to be had.