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A Place Beyond a River

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“Where are you two sneaking off to this time?”

Little My’s appearance should have been accompanied by the shriek of alarmed violins, but then again, she was quite shrill enough as it was.

“Oh, nowhere important,” Snufkin replied airily, looking at the sky and wishing, more than anything, that Little My would stop making a habit out of this.

 “You expect me to believe that?”

“Why shouldn’t you?” Moomin challenged, mirroring Little My’s posture by planting his hands firmly on his hips.

“If it’s nowhere important, then you won’t mind me coming with you,”

“It’s very boring, Little My,” Moomin said, a measure of forced aloofness creeping into his voice.

“Oh yes, extremely boring,” came Snufkin’s agreement.

“Hmm?” Little My looked at them suspiciously, “How boring?”

“Well, we’re just going to lie in the woods and talk about things,” Moomin and Snufkin smiled at each other. No doubt it would sound infinitely boring to Little My. But the days where they could just lie and talk had quickly become Snufkin and Moomin’s favourite days. Soul-sharing days, Snufkin had called them.

“But you did that yesterday!” Little My’s voice was pitched and indignant.

“No, we had a picnic yesterday,”

“Without inviting everyone else – how very rude!”

“Snufkin hadn’t caught enough fish for everyone else – there was only enough for us. And you and Sniff eat such a lot you know,”

“No more than you, greedy guts!”

“Well you definitely can’t come with us now,”

“Don’t want to. Sniff’s going looking for buried treasure,” Little My stuck her tongue out at them both.

“Oh, that sounds fun,” Snufkin tried, without much hope, to bring the conversation back into calmer waters.

“Because I’m so nice, I’m going to invite you along – the others are already at the beach,”

“Maybe later, Little My,”

“Oh please, you never spend any time with us anymore!”

“We do too! And besides, we don’t feel like it today,” Moomin looked to Snufkin for agreement, and the mumrik obligingly shook his head to compound the point.

“Suit yourselves!”

Little My ran off, skipping over boulders in her path.

“Greedy guts. She called me greedy guts,” Moomin glared at her retreating figure before looking down at his stomach.

“That’s just nonsense and you know it,” Snufkin reassured him, strolling on ahead. “You mustn’t let her get to you, you know?”

“I know, I know,” Moomin muttered. “I do feel bad though. The others must be feeling rather left out, I suppose,”

“Well they do have a treasure hunt to keep them occupied,”

“Did you want to go treasure hunting, Snufkin?”

Snufkin looked thoughtful.

“It sounds fun, but I’d rather spend the day with you,”

“Oh good,” Moomin sighed in relief, looking quickly over his shoulder before tucking his paw into Snufkin’s. “I sometimes feel like I might be getting too old for those sorts of games now. Not all the time of course…I don’t know how to explain it entirely,”

“Oh, I understand. I think I feel the same. You still want to play, but there’s a part of yourself that wants to be very quiet and think quiet and important things, and it simply can’t if you’re always playing all the time,”

Moomin beamed at Snufkin, before clearing his throat and looking away. Snufkin always did understand, or at least, he always understood the important things.

“I wonder that Little My doesn’t need to think about quiet or important things… she’s older than us after all. Perhaps it’s because she’s so small,”

Snufkin chuckled and they walked on in a warm and tender silence.

That is, until the quiet was rudely broken by an even ruder voice.

“So you’re holding hands now?”

Moomin’s fur stood on end as he leapt at the sudden appearance of a figure jumping onto the path. To Snufkin’s credit, he remained slightly more composed, but still stumbled backwards at the unexpected voice.

“Ugh, Stinky,” he said crossly, looking back as Moomin flattened the fur between his ears with one paw and narrowed his eyes at the troll.

“The very same!” Stinky cackled, circling them mischievously before clasping his hands together and making kissy faces at them. “Is there something that you two haven’t told your good old friend about?”

“And which good old friend would that happen to be?” Moomin said, raising an eyebrow.

“Why, me of course!” Stinky pretended to look heartbroken. “Do the others know yet?”

“Know what?” Moomin crossed his arms and closed his eyes, turning his head away from Stinky.

“Come on Moomin, let’s leave him alone,” Snufkin touched Moomin’s shoulder gently.

“Know what, Stinky?” Moomin repeated, winking one eye open and glaring.

“That you’re holding hands of course! I bet that’s not all you’re doing either-“ he made another kissy face and Moomin balled his hands into fists.

“Alright Snufkin, let’s go,”

Moomin stalked away, and Snufkin along behind him. Stinky began to hop after them, badgering them the entire time. Even Snufkin started to get annoyed, before a genius idea struck him.

“You know Stinky, the others are having a treasure hunt if you wanted to join them. I hear there’s going to be lots of gold,”

“Oh, the treasure hunt,” Stinky stopped in his tracks and slapped his hand against his forehead as if just remembering something. He quickly tried to cover himself however, a wily smile fighting to be seen on his face “Er, I mean, a treasure hunt? Really?”

“Really!” Snufkin replied loudly. They had hastened their step quite substantially upon seeing that Stinky might be lost behind them, and were consequently some distance down the path by now.

“Why don’t you come too then?” Stinky had to cup his hands around his mouth to reach the retreating Snufkin.

“Oh no thanks! I don’t really fancy treasure today!”

Stinky sighed, eyes narrowing crossly as he kicked at the dust.

“Drat and bother,” he muttered, unheard by the other two. And then he was gone.

“I really don’t like him,” Moomin said darkly, his fists yet to relax at his sides. He’d slowed his pace after Stinky had rolled over the hills towards the beach, but his anger was yet to dim.

“Well, he’s not a very likeable character,”

“No he is not,”

Moomin stumped forwards. Snufkin found the whole display rather endearing, in an amusing sort of way.

They reached their clearing in due course. They had discovered it some time ago; one of their days when they decided to explore the sunny parts of the forest that didn’t have paths. Bordered on one side by a slim but deep stream and only accessed by winding one’s way through a maze of overgrown thickets and grasses, it was the perfect size for two best friends who wanted to hide alone together. A diamond of sunlight fell between the trees that grew up around the glade, and small wildflowers scattered themselves across the expanse of spring green moss.

“There now,” Snufkin said, stooping down to pick a small forget-me-not, rolling it between his fingertips and smiling down at it shyly. “It’s nice without anyone else to bother us, isn’t it?”

“I’ll say!” Moomin threw himself onto his back, stretching out in the patch of sunlight and letting the golden air warm his limbs and relax the tension that was still left over from Stinky’s interruption. “Do you think Stinky will tell them? About us holding hands I mean?”

“So what if he did?” Snufkin said carefully, trying not to let it show as his brain wobbled and tried not to think about the feelings that were rapidly filling the clearing and seemed utterly inescapable. “We’ve held hands before,”

“I suppose you’re right,” he rolled onto his side and Snufkin took the opportunity to tuck the forget-me-not behind Moomin’s ear, smiling as Moomin’s hand reached up to touch his. They stayed a moment, just like that, each breathing in the softness of the moment, the gentleness of the other’s touch. But they couldn’t hold the moment for long. It was like a soap bubble and dissolved within an instant, leaving them laughing and rolling away from each other, still giggling.

 “It’s so easy to talk with you,” Moomin said, voice almost disbelieving as their laughter cooled and echoed away down the stream.

Snufkin didn’t say anything, but he did tuck his paw back into Moomin’s.

-------------

Little My stomped onto the beach, looking at the others and then rolling her eyes as she indicated the two missing persons.

“Guess who decided not to come,” she said, looking at the two noticeable absences before glaring pointedly at Sniff.

“Hey, it’s not my fault! I thought a treasure hunt would be just the thing. You mean to say they really just said no?”

“Even Stinky couldn’t convince them,”

“I tried, I really did. I even bullied them! They were holding hands and boy did I make fun of them for that! Now where’s my gold?” Stinky stood proudly on a boulder, hands on his hips and looking for all the world as if he should be receiving a medal for services rendered.

“You’re very mean, Stinky! And there’s no gold, which serves you right. We just wanted to see if they’d come with us to the beach,” Snorkmaiden said, examining a shell she’d found.

“You mean there’s no treasure?” Stinky sat down heavily, disappointment growing monstrously on his face as he ignored the sand that puffed up around him and filled his fur with grit.

“No, no treasure,” even Sniff looked disappointed, and he was the one who came up with the idea. In retrospect, the plan might have enticed a gold-obsessed Sniff, but was unlikely to be so persuasive to the other two.

“It was a stupid idea,” Little My confirmed, “They weren’t even the least bit interested! I wouldn’t mind so much if they were actually doing something, but all they do is talk! And it’s about stupid sappy stuff too, like the stars and how the moon looks after a long hot day,” she stuck her tongue out in disgust as Snorkmaiden sighed dreamily.

“I hope one day someone loves me like that,” she said wistfully.

“What, you wish someone will love you without even realising it? Seems like a pretty stupid wish to me,”

“Well, no, but they look at each other in such a way, you can just tell that they keep falling in love all over again and one day they’re going to realise it and oh! It’s going to be just lovely,”

“Yuck. They’re just annoying in my opinion. Hey Sniff!” Little My yelled across the beach, “Bring the board!”

“Maybe they just want to make it last,” Snorkmaiden sighed again, “It must be so exciting and especially romantic to be chasing each other all the time,”

“Love’s forever, but my patience isn’t,” Little My grouched, scrubbing out the numbers on Sniff’s betting board and rewriting the odds. “Alright, odds on Snufkin and Moomin coming to their senses before spring next year - 100/1…”

----------

They lay there for some time, basking in the warmth of the day and in the warmth of each other. Moomin had started to notice that Snufkin’s hands were always slightly cool, like the dew on the early morning grass. And he realised that he wasn’t sure how long they’d been doing this. It felt like they were growing together, like two tree trunks that slowly, over time, merge into one beautiful tree that shows two different flowers but is always remarkable for being one whole.

“Do you think it means anything? Us holding hands? I don’t really remember when we started,” The words are out of Moomin’s mouth before he realises that he’s thought them. But the weather has made him so sleepy and content that he’s glad that they’re there, hanging like raindrops on a spider’s web.

“Nor do I,” Snufkin said thoughtfully. “I don’t see why it should mean anything different if that’s the case though. Surely if we can’t remember how it happened, it can’t mark a big change in anything,”

“You think so?” Moomin asked, then mentally scolded himself. This wasn’t the sort of thing they usually talked about. This was straying too close to acknowledging a part of the relationship that had always been there but had never been spoken to.

“Maybe,”

“Snufkin?”

“Yes?”

“Do you think we’re really alone?”

“I imagine so – it feels like we are,”

“Yes it does, doesn’t it? Although…” Moomin paused, trying to work out how to say it, “Although, do you ever sometimes feel like we’re completely alone, even when we’re with other people?”

Snufkin needed some time to think about his answer and Moomin recognised this, sitting up and tactfully letting go of Snufkin’s hand as he went to craft a chain of wildflowers.

----------

“Moominpappa!” Little My declared, standing in the doorway of his study and bellowing his name like a battle summons.

It was a testament to the Moomins’ life with Little My that he barely even blinked at the interruption, instead rolling his eyes and staring mournfully out of the window.

“What is it, Little My? Did you find any treasure?”

“Of course not!”

“Oh what a pity,”

“Yes, it is a pity. Especially since Snufkin and Moomin didn’t come,”

Moominpappa smiled knowingly. Ah, so this was what it was about.

“You know, you can have fun without Snufkin and Moomin,”

“I know that!” Little My scuttled into the room, jumped up onto his desk and peered at his work. “The others are downstairs having tea. Mama wanted to know if you wanted any,”

“Maybe I will,” he agreed, before sighing shortly to himself, “I should probably talk to Mama about those two,”

“What is there to talk about? Snufkin and Moomin are being boring and rude and not spending any time with us, and we’re all very cross about it,”

“Well you know sometimes, when you have a relationship like those two have, you need to spend a lot of time together before you work out what it is, or even that it’s there at all,”

“But we all know, so why don’t they?”

“These things take time,” Moominpappa reassured her, hoping he was saying the right thing. Moominmama had always been so much better at this than he had. “But I have a feeling that it won’t be long now, Little My. And then they’ll be back to normal, or normal enough, and will spend even more time with you to make up for all this time that they’ve spent by themselves. They probably don’t even realise how much time they have been spending together, you know. Me and Mama never did,”

“I hope you’re right Moominpappa,” Little My said, swinging her feet over the edge of the desk, “I have a lot of money riding on it!”

“Money?”

“Oh, don’t worry about it,” Little My said, covering her guilt with brash laughter, “You should come down – your tea will be getting cold!”

“Hmm,” Moominpappa agreed, looking at her suspiciously as she practically threw herself down the stairs. Shortly afterwards, a billow of laughter puffed upwards from the children below, and Moominpappa wondered whether Snufkin and Moomin had any idea of the games that were going on at their expense.

----------

Snufkin looked up at the sky.

Do you ever sometimes feel like we’re completely alone, even when we’re with other people?

There was some part of him, some part that he couldn’t quite hear or pin down, that was telling him what Moomin meant. He was quite sure that he would be able to hear that part of himself soon, but right now he couldn’t make it out. It was drowned out by their combined history which curled around them like the slow growth of vines, like ivy covering up a sign. A sign that might say something obvious, like DANGER or KEEP OUT, but really couldn’t be made out after all the years of nature’s work. Snufkin liked nature, liked how it took back what man tried to steal for one borrowed moment or two, and didn’t much like signs at all, but he couldn’t help but wonder at what this sign said. It didn’t say DANGER or KEEP OUT, he was quite sure of that. Perhaps a skilled gardener would one day discover it.

He let his mind wander slowly, listening to the birds and trying not to listen too closely to his mind. There was something about what Moomin had asked that had made his stomach flutter like a hoard of so many butterflies. Did he feel alone when he was with Moomin? Well, not in the traditional sense of being alone of course. But there was alone in winter and then there was this alone-togetherness, that Moomin seemed to have noticed as much as he had.

In that moment, he thought he peeped one corner of the obscured sign that hid in his mind. Though it was still illegible, it leant a small, brilliant prism of enlightenment to the situation. He could answer Moomin’s question at least.

“That time when we were dancing. After the picnic. I didn’t quite feel like we were alone, but it felt like we were very far away from the others. Even further away than we really were. Is that what you mean?”

“Yes! That exactly,” Moomin beamed at him, before going back to weave a few final flowers into the chain that had rapidly become an elaborate pink and blue wreath. “Tadah!” he held up the finished product, twisting his handiwork this way and that to admire it.

“Bravo!” Snufkin applauded him, before Moomin turned on him with a wicked glint in his eye.

A small, light-hearted tussle ensured as Moomin pounced on him, hearing Snufkin’s surprised laugh like the peal of tiny bluebells. His hat fell off quickly and Moomin took the opportunity to loop the flowers round the mumrik’s neck.

His objective completed, Moomin grinned and settled himself against Snufkin’s shoulder, pleased with the way Snufkin shook his head, his cheeks thoroughly pinked. Snufkin wasn’t like this usually, but Moomin could make him turn his usual quiet composure on its head, make sounds of real, untainted joy roll out of his mouth like wind blowing through the trees.

Still breathless from laughing, Snufkin picked up his hat and pressed it onto Moomin’s head, grinning as it flopped down over his eyes. With his next long exhalation of breath - a happy sigh that rolled down the stream and away from them into the distance – he thought he might just have seen the sign rise up to greet him. And it wasn’t a sign after all, it was the vines themselves that were the important part. The picture of their lives together.

Moomin glanced at him then and in that moment Snufkin was sure that Moomin had seen it too. The sign, the vines, the entwined trunks.

Snufkin wasn’t quite sure when their hands had snuck back to each other, but he also realised how inevitable it was. How inevitable to be drawn together like this, like a river running to the sea.

Nothing could undo the course that fate had them eddying and whirling down, and it was this bold realisation, occurring at the same time to both of them, that had them leaning closer together, Snufkin’s lips meeting Moomin’s nose in the gentlest, softest, hybrid kiss that had ever touched Moomin Valley.

Moomin carefully removed Snufkin’s hat from his own head, holding it in both his hands as he raised his eyes to meet Snufkin’s. There was no giggling this time. This was something grand, as much as it was something that they both knew had been coming to them for some time.

A slow smile unwound between the both of them, stretching out until it was pulled breathlessly tight and filled with so much hope that it would have bowed under the pressure. But it was a strong thread of a smile and it did not bow, and it would not break.

The rest of the day developed slowly, like a small infinity. Finally freed to look at the part of themselves that had always been there, that had inspired everything from the start, they kissed each other with smiles, with meaning, with adoration. With reckless abandon and careful deliberation.

And when the day drew quietly to a close, seeming to whisper its apologies in the evening air, the two shuddered, shared a final kiss and agreed that they should head back. The others would probably all be inside by now, and perhaps they’d even have some treasure to show them.

As they walked back, fingertips brushing each other and over the tops of long grasses, they talked about the darkening sky, and how it made the stars so important, and how the moon, fuzzy-edge and bright, looked after the long hot day. And though the night had fallen, their lives were still fairly illuminated by the earthly magic of the other.