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between the here and now

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One windy spring afternoon, Too-Ticky discovered that she had misplaced a scarf.

She had other scarves, of course: a nice thick woolen one, a fine silk one from far away, a lovely blue one that Moominmamma had crocheted for her once, and a few more. But it wasn’t cold enough for the woolen one, and she was going out berry-picking today; both fine silk and the loose stitch that Moominmamma had used would surely get caught on thorns and ruined.

No, she wanted the simple one she had knitted herself five summers ago. It was thick enough to keep back the wind, but not so thick as to be stiflingly hot. It was perfect for autumn and early spring, if only Too-Ticky could find the dratted thing.

“It’s early enough in spring,” she said to no one in particular. “I only just left the bathhouse last week. Perhaps I forgot it on my way out.”

It was worth looking, at least. None of the Moomins were using it at the moment, so no one would mind if she went to check.

Halfway down the old beach path, she ran into Snufkin walking in the other direction. His hair was damp and drying in the wind, his hat twirled in one hand, and he smelled of the sea. He was in high spirits; even without his harmonica, there was a song on his lips.

“Just gone for a swim?” Too-Ticky said by way of greeting.

“It’s a good day for it,” Snufkin replied with a smile, and with that he was on his way.

And perhaps the waves were crystal blue and clear and tempting when Too-Ticky reached the shore, but she was there for a purpose. In a few moments she had crossed the jetty and reached the bathhouse.

For years she had used this place as a winter home. It was small, but it was built for heat, and Too-Ticky never needed much room anyway. Besides, there was plenty of space if you knew where to look.

For such a small place there was no shortage of nooks and crannies and hiding-places, and Too-Ticky knew them all. Extra shelving tucked behind doors, a cupboard that was quite a bit bigger than it seemed from the outside, a loose floorboard with enough space beneath to store all sorts of things. She used them in the winter, then cleared her things out by spring so that the Moomins might make use of them, if they were so inclined. They were always empty again by the time she returned in the following winter.

One by one, Too-Ticky checked them all for her misplaced scarf. It was not behind the stove, nor in the closets and cupboards and half-hidden corners, or any of the places she would have expected it to be. They were all empty, and before long Too-Ticky was ready to call it a lost cause. She hadn’t checked under the floorboard, but why in all the world would she have put it there?

Still, it never hurt to be thorough. With a sigh, Too-Ticky popped the loose floor board up and peeked underneath.

It was not empty.

For a few moments, Too-Ticky simply stared at the hiding place beneath the floorboard, and the object currently contained there. Naturally, it was not her scarf.

Quickly, Too-Ticky pushed the floorboard back down, then spread a little rug over the spot before scrambling up and heading for the door. She opened it and paused, casting this way and that to be sure that the coast was clear, then closed the bathhouse behind her and hurried across the jetty and back the way she had come.

She would do without her scarf today.

A whistle came from the garden in the wee hours of the morning, before the sun had quite reached the horizon. It roused Moomintroll from sleep so gently that he couldn’t be sure what had woken him, until it came a second time.

It was Snufkin’s whistle, of course. Moomintroll knew it even before he made his way to the window and opened it to find his best friend standing below the rope ladder. Snufkin whistled the way he did everything else: in a peculiar way that was uniquely his own.

Moomintroll climbed down as quietly as he could to avoid waking the rest of the house, especially Little My. If she found out that he and Snufkin were doing secret things before dawn, then she would do everything she could to involve herself.

Snufkin’s night-eyes shone with excitement as Moomintroll touched down beside him. “I found something,” he said. “What do you think of a walk down to the beach?”

“I like the sound of it,” Moomintroll replied. “If we hurry, we can watch the sunrise. What did you find?”

But Snufkin only smiled and led him across the bridge to the beach path without answering.

“Fine then,” Moomintroll said, when it was clear that Snufkin wasn’t going to answer. “I suppose everyone has a right to their secrets.”

“You aren’t wrong,” Snufkin said with a soft chuckle. “But this won’t be a secret for long. Call it a surprise instead.” As he said this, he reached out and took Moomintroll’s paw to help him over a log that had fallen into the path. His grasp loosened when they were past the obstacle, and Moomintroll reluctantly let him go.

Privately, he would have liked to hold paws all the way to the beach, and all the way back as well. He was fairly certain that Snufkin would have let him, if he’d tried. But Moomintroll wasn’t certain that Snufkin would have liked it, in fact it was quite possible that Snufkin wouldn’t have liked it at all. It was certainly more of a risk than Moomintroll was willing to take.

The worse risk, in Moomintroll’s mind, was that Snufkin would realize why Moomintroll wanted to keep holding his paw.

And, well, that just didn’t bear thinking about.

Still, with or without holding paws, it was a lovely morning for a stroll. They were in a bit of a hurry; with each passing minute the sky grew lighter, and if they weren’t careful then they might miss the sunrise. With the sea to the west, sunrises weren’t quite as glorious as sunsets, but there were enough clouds in the sky this morning to make for some lovely colors, and with fewer trees on the shore, there would be plenty more sky to see it.

A cool breeze swept in from the sea, ruffling Moomintroll’s fur as they broke through the treeline. The sun hadn’t risen into view yet, but the sky overhead was dusky blue with threads of purple and orange. It was going to be a beautiful morning, Moomintroll just knew it.

“It’s this way,” Snufkin said, turning away from the sandy beach and toward the rocks and cliffs that held the caves.

As they crested the highest points, the sun finally made its appearance over the jagged horizon of the distant Lonely Mountains. Light bled into the sky, its warmth chased way the night’s chill, and Moomintroll paused for a step to admire it all against the treetops and the mountains and the peak of Snufkin’s hat.

There were few things more comforting to Moomintroll than moments like this: a quiet moment early in spring, with Snufkin at his side, the sea to the west and the sunrise to the east, painting the sky in rainbows.

He stole a glance at Snufkin’s paw, half-hidden in his well-worn sleeve. It wouldn’t be so strange to take it. They were climbing over rocks, after all—it was only safe.

With a shake of his head, Moomintroll turned to look at the sea again.

“It’s down this way,” Snufkin said suddenly. “The inlet past the caves.” The rocks sloped downward, and Snufkin took Moomintroll’s paw as the path grew steep.

Moomintroll took this as an excuse not to let go until they reached the bottom.

By the time the inlet came into view, the sun was high enough to still reach them. Snufkin tugged Moomintroll along, following the water further inland until it widened into a miniature lagoon. The water was bright blue, almost cerulean compared to the darker ocean. At low tide there were plenty of sandy shores and jutting boulders to swim out to.

Moomintroll had liked this lagoon when he was younger. It had been a wonderful swimming hole, back when he was first mastering the skill. These days it was a bit shallow and boring, but it was still a lovely place to sit and think and watch the clouds roll by.

Now, Snufkin kicked off his boots, placed his hat beside them, and waded into the shallow water. “It’s easiest to see from that boulder there,” he said, pointing. “Now that the sun’s up, I bet it’ll look even better.”

Mystified, Moomintroll followed his lead. It was shallow enough to wade the entire way, but deep enough that they could still paddle and swim the short distance, just to get there faster. Snufkin’s sodden clothes clung to him as he grasped the rough rock and climbed out, reaching back to pull Moomintroll up beside him.

The rock jutted out of the water about twice as high as Moomintroll was tall, but there were plenty of pawholds. Moomintroll reached the top and shook off his wet fur, then stood up near the highest point to look out over the water.

He gasped.

For a moment, he thought the stars themselves had fallen and landed in the lagoon to twinkle up at him from the sand. He blinked, dazzled for a moment, before the colored spots in his eyes vanished and he could see beneath the water more clearly.

They weren’t stars at all; they were coins. Silver, gold, copper, and bronze winked and sparkled merrily in the sun. By the time Moomintroll realized he was grinning, his cheeks already ached.

“Thought you’d like it,” Snufkin said. “It’s like a hidden treasure.”

“Or a wishing well.” Moomintroll leaned over the top of the rock as far as he dared. “When did you find this?”

“I was going for a stroll before dawn,” Snufkin replied, taking his paw again to keep him from falling off the rock. “Even without the sun, you can just about see them from the shore. I thought you might like to see them, too.”

“You were right.” Moomintroll squeezed his paw with a shiver of delight. He made the mistake of looking back at his friend, and saw Snufkin’s smile, and the sunlight turning his hair to as bright a gold as the coins beneath the water. “Snufkin, it’s beautiful,” he said, because saying anything else that was in his heart at that moment was far too dangerous.

Snufkin turned his head away, reaching up as if to tug the brim of his hat over his eyes, but he’d left his hat on the shore, so there was nothing to tug. Moomintroll was overwhelmingly tempted to press his damp snout to Snufkin’s grinning face right then and there.

The morning was beautiful. The sky, the sea, the sunrise, and the coins—and Snufkin, too, was beautiful. He was beautiful the way the sea was beautiful, vast and wild, untamed and free, and Moomintroll loved him so desperately it felt like a betrayal. To Moomintroll it felt like freedom, but to Snufkin it would surely feel like a cage.

And Moomintroll loved him too much to hurt him that way.

Eventually they made their way back from the rock to the shore, bickering gently over whether or not to tell the others of Snufkin’s find. By the time Snufkin had retrieved his hat and dried his feet enough to put his boots back on, they had reached the consensus that Little My and Snorkmaiden might be all right, but Sniff would definitely ruin it by trying to retrieve them.

“You may as well tell Snorkmaiden,” Snufkin said. “She’d never forgive us if she found out we saw this and kept it from her.”

“Let’s go, then,” Moomintroll said.

“There are a few more things I wanted to look at first,” Snufkin replied. “You go on, and I’ll catch up later. If you hurry, you can tell Little My and Snorkmaiden before Sniff even wakes up.”

This sounded like an excellent plan to Moomintroll, who waved to Snufkin and set off back toward the beach.

He was caught up in a playful argument with Little My when Snufkin finally joined them. Perhaps, had he been paying better attention, Moomintroll might have noticed how pale and shaken he was.

For the past few weeks, Snufkin had been acting… odd.

Of course, everyone knew that Snufkin acted odd. He was odd, to most creatures who didn’t know him well. But there was a difference between being odd and being out-of-character, and Moomintroll was more and more certain that Snufkin’s behavior was the latter.

For example, it wasn’t out of the ordinary for Snufkin to wander off even in the spring and summer, to find a secluded fishing spot or climb a peak in the Lonely Mountains to see the view. But never this often—and many times he invited people along, usually Moomintroll but sometimes the others as well. He didn’t simply vanish.

It also wasn’t out of the ordinary for him to be up late at night or very early in the morning, after midnight and before dawn. Snufkin kept his own schedule, no matter how strange it might be. But he still slept—he never looked this tired, as if he were up all day and then all night with hardly a nap in between.

So here he was, with bags under his eyes and ever-present worry lines, always lost in thought on the rare occasion that he spent time around the others, vanishing at odd hours and deflecting invitations and requests to spend time with him.

It was a little maddening, if Moomintroll were being honest. In fact, it was a little frightening. Was Snufkin upset about something?

…Was Snufkin upset with him?

At last, after weeks of watching this odd behavior, Moomintroll stumbled upon his friend quite by accident. Snufkin was at his campsite, sitting with his back against a log and doing… not much of anything, as far as Moomintroll could tell. (And there was another oddity, because Snufkin was always doing something, be it smoking or fishing or watching the sky.) As far as Moomintroll could tell, he was resting—and from the look of it, he greatly needed it.

Without waiting for an invitation (if the past few weeks were any indication, he wasn’t going to get one) Moomintroll crept into Snufkin’s campsite to sit with him. When Snufkin didn’t immediately tell him to go away, he let himself relax a little.

“Have you been sleeping well?” Moomintroll asked.

“What an odd question,” Snufkin remarked.

“That’s not much of an answer.”

Snufkin tilted his head downward, ostensibly to light his pipe, but Moomintroll knew that he was hiding his eyes behind the brim. The dark circles underneath them were getting worse; even Sniff was bound to have noticed by now, and Sniff didn’t notice much of anything that wasn’t already of interest to him.

“You just seem… off,” Moomintroll said uncertainly. “You’re a little pale, and slower than usual, and you’ve been avoiding company like you’re trying to hide it—which isn’t working, by the way.”

“Thank you,” Snufkin said in a long-suffering voice.

“Snufkin, I’m worried,” Moomintroll informed him, and Snufkin sighed.

“I know,” he said. “That’s why I’ve been trying to hide it. It really isn’t something you need to concern yourself with, Moomintroll. I can handle myself just fine.”

“Are you sick?” Moomintroll asked. “Is your tent all right to sleep in? You’ve had it for years, so maybe it’s getting a bit old and worn—”

“Old and worn is precisely how I like it,” Snufkin said sharply. Moomintroll fell silent, ears drooping a little, and his friend sighed again. “I didn’t mean to snap. But I really am all right.”

Moomintroll frowned. “You’d come to me if you weren’t, wouldn’t you?” he asked. “If you needed my help… you know it’s no trouble, don’t you? All you have to do is ask.”

Snufkin smiled at him, and it was almost reassuring. “Yes, Moomintroll, I know that very well. And thank you.” He stood up, pipe stem held in his teeth. “Why don’t we go walking? I’ll bet the fresh air will do me some good.”

Normally, Moomintroll would agree, but just looking at him now…

Oh, it was such an awful thought. He hated to think it, that Snufkin could ever look fragile. Snufkin was never fragile, or breakable, or anything like that. He was the strongest creature Moomintroll had ever met. He could be prickly and impatient and even sensitive sometimes, but he was never fragile.

No, that was a thought that Moomintroll needed to put out of his mind, right this instant.

“I think a walk sounds good,” he said. “We could go down to the beach again.”

“That’s the best idea I’ve heard all day,” Snufkin told him.

Along the way, they talked. Or rather, Moomintroll did most of the talking. Snufkin listened attentively, answered here and there, and chuckled when Moomintroll made a joke. He was clearly making an effort, which was good, but these quiet conversations in the woods were usually more, well, effortless.

They were halfway to the beach when Moomintroll realized that Snufkin had gone quite a few minutes without making a sound. “Are you sure you won’t tell me what’s wrong?” he asked. “If you’re sick, then Mamma could help.”

“I’m not sick,” Snufkin said. “You don’t have to worry about me.”

“Well, I don’t have a choice in the matter,” Moomintroll said. “You seem so tired, and you’ve been pulling away and keeping to yourself lately… and it’s still in the middle of spring, so it can’t be… unless…” His voice trailed off.

“Moomintroll?” Snufkin slowed to a halt.

“I know you need your space,” Moomintroll told him cautiously. “But… it feels like you’ve been needing your space a lot, recently. And if… and if you have to leave, even this early, then I understand! I’m just—I’d just be surprised, since it’s not even summer yet, but I understand. Really, I do. And it’s all right with me—I mean, not that you need my permission to—”

“Moomintroll,” Snufkin cut him off gently. “It isn’t that, I promise. I can’t—I don’t want to leave yet.”

“I just wish you’d let me help,” Moomintroll whispered.

Snufkin smiled sadly. “I know. And I wish I could, I really do. But there’s…” He paused. “There’s nothing…”

That was all the warning Moomintroll got before Snufkin listed forward and crumpled against him. It was only because they were close and Snufkin was already facing him that Moomintroll managed to catch him.

“Snufkin?” Moomintroll tried to help him upright again, but Snufkin only slumped limply against him. His hat fell off, and his head lolled against Moomintroll’s neck.

He was cold. Why did he feel so cold?

“Snufkin?” Moomintroll cried desperately. “Snufkin, what’s wrong?” Tears pricked at his eyes when Snufkin failed to answer, driven by fear that threatened to turn to panic. Moomintroll fumbled until he got his arms under Snufkin and lifted. His friend offered no resistance. His eyes were closed, his face pale and still.

And then, as Moomintroll watched in growing panic, a single lock of his brown hair faded to white.

Turning, Moomintroll raced back the way they had come, trying not to jostle Snufkin any more than he had to. He scarcely breathed as he ran, heedless of twigs and stones under his feet or the burn in his lungs. It took far too long for him to reach the tree line and stumble out into the valley, but he put on an extra burst of speed when he spotted the stream and bridge and Moominhouse on the other side. His chest ached from sprinting with Snufkin in his arms, but Moomintroll still had breath enough to shout.

“Mamma! Mamma, help!

The spare rooms weren’t made up, the bed linens still in the wash, so Moomintroll offered up his own bed with hardly a thought. Mamma worked quickly and efficiently, and Snufkin was bundled up warm beneath the covers in hardly any time at all.

“Is he sick?” Moomintroll asked, unable to contain himself. “It’s not a fever, is it?”

“No, dear,” Mamma replied. “It’s quite the opposite. His temperature is very low.”

“But what does that mean? The only thing I can think of is maybe the Groke, and she hasn’t been seen in the valley since winter—and even then, Snufkin would have said—”

“Moomintroll.” Mamma placed her paws on his shoulders, stilling him. “I know you’re frightened. I’m worried about Snufkin, too. But panicking won’t help him. You know that, right?”

“I know,” Moomintroll sniffled. “I’m trying not to. I’ll try harder, Mamma.”

“That’s all anyone can ask,” she said. “Here—go down to the kitchen. Turn the oven on low, and heat some clean towels for Snufkin. Heat some water, as well—you remember how to make warm compresses, don’t you?”

“Yes, Mamma.”

“We’ll need plenty of them,” she said. “And it will be good to have hot water for tea, when Snufkin wakes up.”

When, not if. Moomintroll repeated it to himself as he dashed off to follow her instructions.

He was busy in the kitchen with heating towels and boiling water, when Little My came in. He was so focused on what he was doing that he barely noticed her.

“What’s going on?” she asked. “Are we having a cleaning day?”

“Snufkin’s sick,” Moomintroll said bluntly.

“Sick? What’s wrong with him?”

“Don’t know,” Moomintroll replied, and hurried past her to the stairs with an armload of hot towels.

Mamma was in his room, poring over the index and table of contents in her grandmother’s recipe book. She flipped back and forth between pages, frowning deeply.

“Any luck?” Moomintroll asked as he carefully tucked heated towels around Snufkin’s back and shoulders. His friend shifted a little in his sleep, but did not wake. Snufkin’s hat, which Moomintroll had gone back to retrieve, sat on the bedside table.

“Some things seem similar, but nothing sounds quite right,” Mamma replied. “I may just have to read page by page if I hope to find anything. I’m working as quickly as I can, dear, don’t you doubt that.”

Eventually Mamma went downstairs to mind the stove and search for a remedy, leaving Moomintroll to watch over Snufkin for any changes in his condition. He passed the first hour or so in a haze of frantic energy, pacing the room and startling at every sharp breath or rustling blanket. Mamma brought more towels when the previous ones cooled, and Moomintroll kept himself busy tending to Snufkin as best he could.

By the end of the second hour, his nervous energy had bled away, leaving him drained and tired and still sick with worry. Solitude was the perfect place to cry it out; the only one there was Snufkin, and he was sleeping too deeply to see Moomintroll’s tears.

It felt good to cry. Like he’d been holding back for long enough that letting it out was as natural as exhaling. He may as well have been holding his breath since he caught Snufkin mid-faint—maybe even before that, when Snufkin started pulling away and disappearing.

The when didn’t matter. What mattered was now, with Snufkin as warm as they could make him, and Moomintroll with tears dripping down his face as he watched over him and tried to keep him comfortable.

At last the weeping ran its course, leaving Moomintroll red-eyed and smoothing out his tear-stained fur. He took long, deep breaths until the shuddering and hiccuping stopped.

Were the towels still warm, he thought as he uncurled and got up from his chair. He should check—

Snufkin stirred, murmuring faintly. His eyelids moved as if trying to open.

Moomintroll was by his side in an instant. “Snufkin! Snufkin, can you hear me?”

Snufkin’s fluttering eyelids opened, as slowly and arduously as if they were made of lead. “M… Moomintroll?” The covers shifted. He tried to sit up, only to roll over with a weary sigh. “What happened?”

“You collapsed,” Moomintroll replied, doing his best not to sound like he’d just been crying.

“Oh dear.” Snufkin managed to free one arm from beneath the blankets, and pressed it against his eyes. “How foolish of me. I’m very sorry about that.”

“What are you sorry for?” Moomintroll’s voice cracked. “I’m not upset with you, I was just—” Scared, he didn’t say. Snufkin would probably hate the thought of frightening him even more than angering him. “I mean, one moment you were talking to me, and the next—you just dropped, and I almost didn’t catch you, and you could’ve hurt yourself falling like that. And when I picked you up, you were so cold, and…” His voice trailed off.

Snufkin blinked blearily up at him. “And…?”

“Your… your hair, Snufkin,” Moomintroll said, reaching out to touch the white streak. “Some of it’s turned white.”

Snufkin pulled away from his paw, and Moomintroll pulled back didn’t try to touch him again.

“Mamma’s been looking through her grandmother’s book,” Moomintroll went on when the silence grew too much. “She hasn’t found what’s wrong yet. But don’t worry! I’m sure she’ll find it. She’s bound to, her grandmother’s book has everything, and I’m sure she’ll…” His voice trailed away. With each word he spoke, Snufkin’s face was closing off, until his friend finally started trying to sit up again. “Snufkin?”

“You don’t have to trouble yourself,” Snufkin told him. “In fact, I think I’ve stayed too long. You shouldn’t worry too much. I’m sure if I sleep this off in my tent, I’ll be right as rain.”

“But—wait!” Forgetting himself, Moomintroll caught hold of one of his paws, and winced at how ice-cold it felt. “Snufkin… do you know what’s wrong? Do you know what this is?”

“Yes, and that’s how I know you don’t need to trouble yourself.” Snufkin tugged at his paw but didn’t pull it out of Moomintroll’s grasp. Either he wasn’t really trying, or he didn’t have the strength.

“I don’t think that’s true,” Moomintroll said, his voice cracking again. “That’s not true, is it? You know what this is. And you know that it’s bad. No, Snufkin—” He pressed forward until he was leaning over the bed, trying to get Snufkin to look at him again. “If you know what’s wrong, then you should tell us! That way Mamma can find it in her book and—”

“Moomintroll, this isn’t—”

“—we can help you, we can make you better again, if you just—”

No, Moomintroll,” Snufkin cut him off. His eyes were glassy when they met Moomintroll’s, but they didn’t waver. “You can’t.”

“How do you know that?” Moomintroll challenged him. “If you’d just tell me what’s wrong, then I could—”

Snufkin looked away. “Didn’t you tell me, not too long ago, that everyone has a right to their secrets?”

“Who cares about secrets?” Moomintroll demanded. “You’re sick, and that’s more important to me than any old secret! You need help and you won’t even let me try!”

It was the wrong thing to say. Moomintroll knew it as soon as he’d said it, as soon as he saw Snufkin’s shoulders tighten, as soon as Snufkin turned around and curled up again with his back to him.

“Go away, Moomintroll,” Snufkin told him, and said nothing more.

Moomintroll stood speechless for a moment. He forgot what he was going to say next. He forgot, even, that they were in his bedroom and Snufkin was in no place to tell him not to be in it. When Snufkin said to go away, he meant it.

It was good that Snufkin had turned his back. It made it easier for Moomintroll to hide tears on his way out. Mamma probably noticed anyway as he rushed out of the house, and Little My definitely did, but Moomintroll was past caring.

Of course there was nowhere he could go to feel better. Usually when he was upset he would either talk to Mamma or find Snufkin, but now Snufkin didn’t want to see him, and Mamma was busy trying to find out how to help Snufkin, and the last thing Moomintroll wanted to do was distract her with his worries and hurt feelings. Little My would only press him for details or mock him for being a crybaby. Sniff would only listen politely before offering some platitude and turning the conversation around to whatever he wanted to talk about. Snorkmaiden would try to distract him, and Moomintroll didn’t want to be distracted. He wanted a solution, and that was the one thing he couldn’t have.

And so Moomintroll crept off into the woods to sit by the pond alone. He cried a little more until he stopped feeling so clogged with sadness, then sat back and stared listlessly at the water.

He wanted a solution, but how was he supposed to find one if he didn’t even know what the problem was? Mamma might find something, but Snufkin knew what was wrong and seemed so sure that it wasn’t in any book, even his great-grandmother’s recipe book.

What if that meant there was no remedy?

This thought brought a fresh wave of tears, and because Moomintroll was having the most miserable luck that day, that was when someone happened by and saw him.

He startled at the sound of rustling bushes, hastily wiping his eyes before the brush parted and a familiar voice called to him.

“I thought I heard someone—Moomintroll? Is something wrong?”

Too-Ticky. Why in all the world hadn’t he thought of Too-Ticky?

“Oh, dear,” Too-Ticky said gently, setting her basket down to sit beside him. Out came a handkerchief to dry the rest of his tears. “What’s gone wrong, Moomintroll?”

“Snufkin’s sick.” Moomintroll sniffled miserably.

“Well that’s no good. I imagine Moominmamma’s delving into her recipe book, then?”

“She hasn’t found anything,” Moomintroll said, wiping his eyes. “And Snufkin knows what’s wrong, I know he does, but he won’t tell me. I got frustrated and pushed too hard and now he’s angry with me and I just don’t know what to do, Too-Ticky.”

Too-Ticky was still and silent for a moment, thinking carefully and deeply. “You say he’s sick,” she said. “Sick how? Is it a fever? A cold?”

“No, none of those things,” Moomintroll answered with a shake of his head. “That’s the whole problem, Mamma doesn’t even know where to begin. But he’s been so tired lately, like he hasn’t been getting enough sleep. And this morning we were out walking when he fainted. One moment he was all right, and the next he was just—gone.” He shuddered at the memory. “He’s so cold, like ice. And when he fainted, a lock of his hair turned white. Mamma says she’s never seen anything like it.” He turned to Too-Ticky, his eyes finally dry. “Have you ever heard of anything… like…?”

The look on Too-Ticky’s face told him all that he needed to know.

“You do know!” Moomintroll scrambled to his feet. “You know what’s wrong with him, don’t you? Too-Ticky—”

She cut him off with a paw on his arm. “I don’t—I don’t know for sure,” she said. “I suspect, but…” She sighed and got to her feet. “I didn’t want to do this. Ohh, I didn’t want to do this at all, but I’ve got to. I need to talk to Snufkin.”

“He’s in my room,” Moomintroll told her. “I don’t know if he’s still awake.”

“All right.” Too-Ticky nodded. There was a tension in her jaw that he had scarcely ever seen before. If he didn’t know better, he might have thought she looked almost angry. “Moomintroll, I’m going to need your help. And I’m going to need you to trust me.” She looked him in the eye, her face solemn and serious. “And that means not asking me questions before I know for sure. Do you understand?”

Moomintroll swallowed his frustration and reluctantly nodded. Why was everyone so determined to hide the truth from him? “What do you need me to do?”

“When I go in to talk to Snufkin, I need you to make absolutely sure that we aren’t disturbed,” she said. “No one comes in. No one interrupts. And no one, not even you, can listen at the door.”

“All right, I can do that,” Moomintroll said.

“And if I’m right, and it’s what I fear,” Too-Ticky went on, “then I still might not tell you everything. I need you to understand that if you ask me a question and I say that I can’t answer it, I mean it.”

Moomintroll was silent. It was asking an awful lot; how was he supposed to be helpful if he only knew bits and pieces? “I hope it’s not what you fear, then,” he said at last.

“Believe me.” Too-Ticky smiled bleakly at him. “So do I.”

Moomintroll stopped at the door to his own bedroom and hung back. “I think he’s still upset with me,” he murmured, staring down at his feet. “It’s better if you go in. I’ll watch the door for you, and I promise I won’t listen in.”

Too-Ticky held his gaze for a moment, as if searching for a lie, but there was none. She went in and closed the door behind her, and that was that.

With a deep sigh, Moomintroll sat down on the hallway floor and leaned back against the wall. He could hear Too-Ticky’s voice through the door, just barely, though she was speaking too quietly for him to make out any words. Just to be safe, Moomintroll began to hum. It was tuneless at first, but it gradually melted into melodies he recognized. “All Small Beasts Should Have Bows In Their Tails.” Snufkin’s latest spring tune. A ditty about a caterpillar that Snorkmaiden had stuck in her head a few days ago. After a few more, he cycled back to “All Small Beasts” before he was finally interrupted.

“What are you sitting and humming out here for?” Little My demanded, startling him. He had been so lost in thought and focused on not listening through the door that he hadn’t seen her come up the stairs.

“It’s none of your business,” Moomintroll answered. And then, because trying to hide things from Little My was basically impossible, he added, “Too-Ticky’s in with Snufkin right now.”

“Why Too-Ticky?” she asked, walking past him to the door. “I want to talk to him, but Mamma says he’s been sleeping. Are they talking right now?”

“Too-Ticky says you can’t go in,” Moomintroll said, getting up. “Not even me. I was humming so I wouldn’t eavesdrop by accident.”

“That’s no fun,” Little My scoffed. “Come on, let’s see what’s going on.”

Moomintroll did something very risky, then: he picked Little My up and tucked her under his arm, stopping her from going in. “You can’t. Too-Ticky told me to watch the door.”

Little My wriggled in his grip, teeth clacking as she tried to bite him. Thinking quickly, Moomintroll turned her upside down with her back to his body and his arm across her middle. She was still pulling at his fur, but it was harder for her to get her teeth into him. Casting about for a more permanent solution, he spotted the wastepaper basket nearby. He upended it with his free paw, then popped Little My underneath like a ball in a shell game and sat on it to keep her there. The basket shook beneath him as Little My tried to get free, but eventually she stopped trying to knock it over and settled for kicking it every now and then.

Eventually Too-Ticky emerged from Moomintroll’s bedroom and closed the door behind her. Her grim not-quite-anger from before was gone; now she just looked horribly worried.

“Well?” Moomintroll said, jolting a bit when Little My kicked the basket again.

“It’s what I thought,” Too-Ticky said. “Perhaps it’s worse. I thought maybe he’d know… well, never mind. I’ll need your help, Moomintroll.”

“Of course.” Moomintroll finally got up, and the basket went flying into the wall when Little My flung it off.

Too-Ticky barely batted an eye. “I meant what I said before,” she told him. “If I say that I can’t tell you something, you mustn’t press me.”

“I promise I won’t,” Moomintroll said.

“I don’t promise a thing,” Little My said. “What’s going on, anyway? What’s wrong with Snufkin?”

“What do we first?” Moomintroll asked, ignoring her.

“First I speak with Moominmamma.” Too-Ticky was already on her way down the stairs. “You’ve been very kind to let Snufkin have your room, but I’ll have to move him.”

Moomintroll followed her, and Little My followed Moomintroll, still worrying at his ankles like a terrier. He did his best to pay her no mind, but she was persistent.

“Oh hello, Too-Ticky,” Mamma greeted, glancing up from the recipe book. She was most of the way through it, and looked as if she had been reading it cover to cover for some kind of clue.

Gently Too-Ticky took the book from her paws. “Get some rest, Moominmamma,” she advised. “The cure for Snufkin’s ailment isn’t in any recipe book, not even your grandmother’s.”

Mamma’s tired eyes lit up. “You know what’s wrong, then?”

“I do. There isn’t much I can say about it, but I’ll do everything I can to help. First, I need to move him.”

“Where to?” Mamma asked.

“Not far. Just to the bathhouse.”

“The bathhouse?” Mamma looked confused. “I don’t know, Too-Ticky, it gets awfully cold with the wind coming off the ocean. Are you sure it won’t harm him?”

“Mamma,” Moomintroll broke in. “If Too-Ticky knows what’s wrong, then she knows how to help, so I think we should listen to her for Snufkin’s sake.”

Her face softened. “Of course. You’re right, you’re both right.”

Too-Ticky smiled ruefully. “I know it isn’t winter, but I’ll have to impose on you for at least a little while.”

“For Snufkin’s sake,” Mamma repeated with a tired smile. “Thank you for your help”

“There’s no need to—ouch!” Too-Ticky pulled her hand up, rubbing at a fresh set of small teeth marks.

“We could all be a little more helpful if we stopped dancing around the truth,” Little My said sharply, baring her teeth again. “For the third time, what’s wrong with Snufkin?”

“You should ask him yourself,” Too-Ticky told her. “If he wants to tell you then he’ll tell you. If not, then there are other ways to be helpful.”

Moomintroll half-expected Little My to bite her again, or at least argue. Instead her eyes widened, and she said nothing more. It might not have been surprising on anyone else, since that was the closest that Moomintroll had ever seen Too-Ticky come to scolding someone, but still. This was Little My they were talking about.

“Let’s be going, then,” Too-Ticky said, more to Moomintroll than anyone else. “Knowing Snufkin, he’ll want to make the journey on his own two feet.”

In this instance, Too-Ticky didn’t relish being right. It would have been far less trouble to carry Snufkin down to the shore, but of course he was too proud to let them.

Of course, pride was no substitute for strength, which left him leaning on Too-Ticky whenever it got to be too much. Moomintroll hovered by him worriedly, paws wringing in agitation but never touching him. Snufkin had spoken little since they helped him out of bed and down the stairs to the door, and every now and then Moomintroll made a feeble attempt to start a conversation that fizzled out to nothing in the end. All the while, Snufkin seemed unwilling to even glance in his friend’s direction.

It was difficult to watch, even more so when Snufkin’s ailing strength finally failed him three-quarters of the way to the sea. Moomintroll made a dive to catch him as he slumped forward, but Too-Ticky had it in hand. She swung his limp form easily into her arms, and Moomintroll simply retrieved Snufkin’s hat from where it had fallen.

Snufkin was terribly pale, and every bit as cold as Moomintroll had said. His eyelids were drooping but not quite shut; he was too weak to walk any further on his own, but not weak enough to be unconscious, and all the more miserable for it if Too-Ticky was any judge.

In fact, it was only when they reached the sea that he stirred again, nose twitching at the breeze that whipped about them. Too-Ticky wasted no more time in getting him across the jetty and into the bathhouse, where Moomintroll leapt to help set up the bedding she used in the winter. In a matter of minutes they had Snufkin set up and comfortable, and Too-Ticky left a window open to let in the fresh air. He was asleep by the time she turned back around.

“Right,” she said softly. “He’s settled in, then. Let’s go.”

Moomintroll left Snufkin’s hat within his reach, followed her outside, and asked, “What do we do?”

Right, of course. This was the hard part: getting help from Moomintroll without telling him what was going on. Too-Ticky dearly hated being in this position, but to do otherwise would be a betrayal, both of Snufkin and of herself.

But it was hard, so hard, seeing Moomintroll droop after Snufkin shied away from his touch, unable to tell him why.

“I’m sorry,” she said. “I know it’s a lot to ask. There are things that… well. It’s not for me to say whether or not you deserve to know them, but I understand that it hurts not to know.”

Moomintroll blinked and fidgeted with his paws. “It… does hurt,” he said. “Just a little. But it would hurt more to lose him. The most important thing right now is to help him, and if I forced him to tell me things, or if I went behind his back to find them out, that would be the opposite of helping him, I think.” He clasped his paws together to still them. “Do you know how to help him, Too-Ticky?”

And wasn’t that a complicated question? Of course Too-Ticky knew what would cure Snufkin’s condition. Whether or not she knew how to get it was another matter entirely.

“I know what he needs,” she said at last. “We just need to find it.”

“And you can’t tell me what it is,” Moomintroll said. “Or what it looks like. Or anything about it.”

She swallowed the lump in her throat. “No.”

“Alright.” Moomintroll took a deep breath. “That’ll be hard. But I’ll do my best.”

Too-Ticky smiled. “Thank you, Moomintroll.”

“I want to help Snufkin,” he said. “So just tell me what you need from me, and never mind telling me the rest, whether it’s later or not at all. Tell me how I can help him now.”

It comforted her as much as it twisted at her heart. Would that Snufkin could see the trusting light and calm determination in Moomintroll’s eyes. Would he change his mind if he could? She was almost sure of it.

But that was not for her to decide.

“Snufkin told me you both went to the inlet further down the shore,” she said. “When he showed you the coins. Can you take me there?”

He nodded. “It’s this way, toward the south. We just have to get over those big rocks with the sea caves underneath.”

Too-Ticky followed him up, and then down again. It wasn’t far, only about the length of a morning stroll, before they reached the inlet and the lagoon further inland. It was a nice little spot, and with the sun high in the sky, Too-Ticky could still see the twinkle of coins out in the center of the water.

“We swam out to that rock,” Moomintroll told her, pointing. “The water wasn’t as deep at the time.”

Too-Ticky hummed thoughtfully and continued around the water’s edge. Coins were all very well, but not what she was here for. About halfway around the lagoon, the sand gave way to rocky ground that stretched from the water’s edge well into dry land. With Moomintroll at her heels, Too-Ticky crossed the rocks carefully, gripping the wet stone with her feet to keep from slipping.

Out of the tide’s reach were a pair of rocks noticeably darker than the rest, leaning against each other side by side. Too-ticky shifted one over, revealing a hollow dug into the sand and dirt beneath it. It was empty, and Too-Ticky could smell nothing but the usual scents of the sea.

“Moomintroll,” she said.


“You have a better nose than I do. Can you smell anything besides the tide?”

Moomintroll eagerly complied, but came away with a look of disappointment. “No, nothing. Sorry, Too-Ticky.”

“It was a long shot,” Too-Ticky said. This was surely the first place Snufkin had checked, anyway. “Don’t worry, Moomintroll, we’re not finished yet.”

Moomintroll frowned. Too-Ticky could tell he wanted to ask more, but was holding himself back. She appreciated it very much.

Footsteps and scattering rocks heralded the arrival of company: the old Hemulen was coming down the path from inland, his specimen bag slung over his shoulder. At the sight of them, he waved.

“Hello, Mr. Hemulen,” Moomintroll greeted. “What brings you here?”

“Botany, of course,” the Hemulen replied. “I’ve been considering expanding my scope into seaweeds—they are plants, after all. I’ll be quite busy, I expect. Good day to you both!” He moved on without wasting a moment.

Something clicked in Too-Ticky’s mind. “Of course,” she said. “Yes! Moomintroll, I know of a way that you can help.”

“What?” he asked eagerly.

“Make your way around the valley,” she said. “Talk to any Hemulen you meet, and find out what their business is—what they collect, if anything. See if they can tell you about any relations of theirs, as well. The more Hemulens you find out about, the better.”

Moomintroll looked confused for a moment, before his eyes widened in realization. “The cure for Snufkin is something we have to find,” he said. “You think perhaps a Hemulen might have it, or know how to find it?”

“Close enough,” she said. “Do that, while I check on Snufkin and follow up on other leads.”

Moomintroll needed no second urging. Without another word, he turned and dashed after the Hemulen to talk to him first.

With that done, she made her own way back to the jetty with all the speed she could muster. She ducked into the bathhouse and found Snufkin sleeping fitfully, twitching and shifting beneath the covers. He was still far too cold, even with the house well heated. Too-Ticky fussed over him, tucking him more snugly in his blankets, but ultimately there was little she could do.

She stepped outside the bathhouse, leaned against the door, and breathed. The salt air of the ocean helped clear her head, settling the clutter and uncertainty into something manageable.

If there’s nothing you can do, then there’s no point in worrying. If there’s something you can do, then do it, and there’s still no point in worrying. Another deep breath. I know what to do.

Of course, she didn’t know if it would work. But if it didn’t, then she still knew what to do next.

The stamp of a small foot on the jetty drew her attention, and she opened her eyes to find Little My standing there, fists on her hips. “So when is anyone going to tell me what’s going on?” she asked.

“Snufkin’s sick,” Too-Ticky answered readily. “And we’re doing all we can to help.”

“Well I know that,” Little My scoffed.

“Then you know all you need,” Too-Ticky said, and walked past her toward the shore.

Little My followed her all the way back to the sand before she spoke again.

“It’s his cloak, isn’t it?”

Too-Ticky halted in her tracks. It took a moment for the fur on the back of her neck to lie flat again, and for her heart to sink from her throat back to her chest.

“His cloak?” she said after a moment. “I’ve no idea what you mean. It’s washed and hanging outside the bathhouse—you must have seen it.”

“Except you do know what I mean, and you know I’m not talking about that old green thing,” Little My pressed.

“Little My,” Too-Ticky warned.

“You seem to think I’m stupid,” Little My said. “That, or you’ve forgotten that he’s my brother.”

It was hard to argue with that.

Too-Ticky turned around at last. “So you know, then. How long?”

“I didn’t know for sure until recently,” Little My answered. “But after what’s been happening, it wasn’t hard to figure out. I remember his father, too.”

“Have you told anyone else?”

“I haven’t told anyone at all.” Little My scowled at her. “It’s his business, and I’m no tattletale. What do you take me for?”

“You couldn’t have known for sure that I knew,” Too-Ticky said sharply. “And what’s more, I don’t recall asking you which parent he got it from, but now thanks to you, I know.”

To her surprise, Little My looked away.

“You’re trustworthy,” she said.

“That’s not for you to decide,” Too-Ticky told her. “Don’t be so carefree with secrets that aren’t yours.”

Little My’s scowl deepened, for all that she was looking at the water instead of at Too-Ticky. “I didn’t come here to be scolded by the likes of you. I’m here because I want to help. I’m no good with that bedside manner stuff like you or Moomintroll, but I can help get it back.” Finally she met Too-Ticky’s eyes. “I’ll help you break the one who has it, if I have to.”

“I’ll keep that in mind,” Too-Ticky said, raising an eyebrow. “I don’t know who took it, or why, but depending on the answers to those questions, we may need all the help we can get.”

“Who cares why?” Little My asked. “Selkies need their cloaks, and that’s all that matters to me.” She hopped off the jetty and into the sand. “I won’t speak of this to anyone else, not even Moomintroll. But the second you know who has it, tell me. I’ll make them sorry they ever touched it.”