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Merle sat on the toboggan with Tinker as it slid over the frozen river. She was tired, she was cold, she was hungry, and she was utterly miserable. Xaa's powerful form strode before her, dragging the toboggan down the river steadily. He'd removed his boots so his clawed toes could find some traction against the ice, and then just begun walking again.

Tinker, for his part, was sleeping. Once Tinker had finally gotten used to being in the outdoors all the time, he started reverting to more normal winter behaviors for mice. When he wasn't actively needed for something or eating or relieving himself, he simply slept. His nimble fingers had healed well, and when the trio reached the river, it was Tinker who fashioned two runners for the toboggan out of a pair of saplings, turning it into a sled. He'd turned up the tips of the runners after heat-treating the wood over a fire, and then nailed them in place with the hammer and nails he'd included in the tools he brought along in his enormous pack. Tinker had been very proud of his work - and rightfully so, Merle thought - but Xaa had merely nodded politely.

Xaa, in fact, hadn't said much of anything since that night three weeks ago in the cave. He was polite to the point of being formal, never snarled or growled anymore, even when Tinker occasionally became petulant. He'd simply led them down out of the mountains to this river (Merle was glad to learn it was easier going down a mountain than up it), told Merle this was the second landmark he'd been looking for, and began dragging them down the river. When he spotted game, he'd stop, pull out his bow, and go hunting alone. He always told Merle to stay behind and watch Tinker. "You're his protector," he'd rumbled when Merle asked, and had walked off without saying another word. With what Xaa had recovered from the cave and what he was able to hunt, there was plenty of food. Merle just couldn't bring herself to eat. She was too miserable.

Merle knew she had hurt Xaa, and deeply. She knew he had feelings for her, and from what she understood of what Byarl said, she understood that he was probably embarrassed and ashamed of these feelings. From the perspective of Xaa's people, the mus, Merle was too young - still a child. From Xaa's perspective, his feelings for Merle were morally wrong, and that knowledge burned painfully in his soul. Yet, even so, he had wanted her.

And she had turned to Tinker.

From Merle's perspective, that of the musties, Merle was an adult. An inexperienced adult who might sometimes make foolish choices, perhaps, but an adult nonetheless. Old enough to be mated, old enough to have children of her own, old enough to hunt the bears, and old enough to be killed doing it. She wanted Xaa as her mate. She knew that now, in her heart. Tinker was a good friend, and his building the runners for the toboggan was just a small display of his real talents - talents Merle both shared and enjoyed, that of inventing and building new things. In the end, though, his petulant little whining about every small discomfort, his timidness in the face of danger (which was normal for his people, of course), and his smug self-righteousness and self-centeredness was disenchanting. No, it wasn't Tinker she wanted. It was Xaa.

And she also knew that now, she'd never have him.

Merle looked to Xaa again while Tinker snoozed beside her. Merle watched his powerful legs flexing, the claws of his toes biting into the ice, pulling them onward step by step, relentlessly. 'I can't just let it go like this. I can't,' Merle thought. Gently, so as not to wake Tinker, she slipped out from under the blanket and stepped onto the ice. She nearly lost her footing the instant she did, the rabbitfur booties slipping on the ice, but by keeping a paw on the goods piled on the toboggan she managed to keep her balance. Once she thought she had it, she stepped up to Xaa's side. Xaa didn't even look down at her. His eyes were busy scanning the terrain ahead, watchfully. For several minutes, she couldn't think of anything to say to him. Finally, she just decided to say what was in her heart.

"I'm sorry, Xaa," Merle said, quietly.

"It's alright," Xaa rumbled back.

"No, it's not. I was very upset that night when I realized I'd hurt you. I'm sorry."

"Merle, it's alright. What you did wasn't wrong. I was the one in the wrong, and seeing you with him made me realize it. You're just a child, and my feelings for you were wrong. He's the one you should be with. He's your proper mate, not me. My mate is dead. Has been for years. I have daughter your age, as well. Certainly she doesn't know I'm her father anymore - for the most part, she simply sits and stares. Even so, she's still my daughter, and she's a year older than you, perhaps a bit more. I was a fool to fall in love with you. A stupid, lonely fool."

"No, you weren't a fool. You're a wonderful, kind, compassionate mouse. You're brave, you're strong, and you're very, very smart, and I - ACK!" Merle yelped as she slipped and started to fall. Xaa's right paw lashed out and grabbed the back of her dress, pulling her back to her feet before she hit the ice, then letting her go. Merle looked up to see Xaa standing still, looking back down to her, his expression unreadable. "May I hold your paw, please?" Merle asked.

Xaa was silent for awhile, and Merle's heart sunk. 'Now he won't even hold my paw so I don't fall!' she thought. Finally, he reached out his paw. Merle gripped it tightly, her eyes watering. "Thank you," she said. Xaa merely nodded, and resumed walking.

"You were not a fool to fall in love with me, Xaa," Merle said, trying to start again.

"Yes, I was. You are a child," Xaa rumbled.

"I'm not a child, you know. To my people, I'm an adult. I'm old enough to choose a mate, I'm old enough to have children of my own, and I am old enough to make my own decisions. Most female musties are mated at my age, or soon after, and many of my friends who are only a year older than me already have their first pups."

"Perhaps. But to my people, you are a child. If I brought you back and called you my mate at only fourteen years of age, I would be shunned as a cradle-robbing beast. In the eyes of my people, my soul would be condemned to the hellfires, to burn for all eternity. In my own eyes, as well."

"What are you two talking about?" Tinker asked sleepily from behind them.

"Umm... Nothing, Tinker. It's alright. Go back to sleep," Merle replied. Merle looked up to Xaa, and struggled to speak in his growling, rumbling speech. "If me older, then okay?"

Xaa peered down at her. "Hrm?"

Merle tried again. "If me older, if me eighteen years, then okay?"

Xaa chuckled deeply, his eyes scanning the nearby terrain as he trudged onwards down the river. To him, her voice sounded like the puling yips of a young mus. But she was trying, anyway, and he did understand her. Xaa thought about it. Finally, he looked back to her. "Yes. If you were eighteen years old, I think that would be fine. I think four years would also give you time to grow more as a person, and truly know whether it was me you really wanted. Four years would be good for me, as well, to give me time to know if it was you I really wanted, or if it was merely my loneliness and the closeness of your little den that sparked my feelings. A million things could happen in that time. You could change your mind, and decide to become Tinker's mate. You could go home, and become the mate of another mustie instead. I could meet another mus-wife, and take her as my mate. Or, I could be killed in this war. Yes, a million things could happen. But, if in four years you still want me and I still want you, then yes, it would be fine," Xaa rumbled, smiling.

Merle kicked herself mentally. 'Argh! I didn't mean EIGHTEEN, I meant SIXTEEN, the same age as HIS 'age of majority'. Four years is FOREVER! Stupid, stupid Merle!' she thought to herself. 'In four years, ANYTHING could happen! He could forget all about me, or even get killed in this stupid war! ARGH!' Merle looked up to Xaa, and managed to growl in his language for the first time ever. "Me NOT forget you! Me STILL want be your mate! Me STILL love you when eighteen, and me ALWAYS love you! Me swear like mus, on tail! Me always love you!"

Xaa stopped, looking down at Merle. Merle let go of his paw, then reached beneath her dress, swinging her tail over, and held the furry appendage out with one paw. It wasn't as long or as flexible as a mouse's tail, and it certainly wasn't prehensile, but she was just as serious. Xaa had explained once that when a mus swears on their tail, they mean that they will cut it off if they fail to uphold their word. Merle couldn't think of any other way to show Xaa she was deadly serious about her feelings for him than to imitate this practice.

Xaa's face took on a serious look, and he studied Merle carefully. Finally, he nodded, flicking his own tail around his wrist and placing the tailtip in his paw. "Alright, Merle. And I also swear by my tail that if in four years I am still alive and you still want to be my mate, then I will take you as my mate," he rumbled in reply, then flicked his tail behind him and held out his paw to her.

"Yes!" Merle chittered, grabbing his enormous, callused paw in her two tiny ones and nuzzling it lovingly. Merle looked up to Xaa's face, and he was smiling back at her. He then turned and resumed walking. Merle walked beside him, squeezing his paw and smiling with joy.

"Merle? Aren't you going to come back here and sit with me?" Tinker asked from behind them, a small pout in his voice.

Merle bristled, but Xaa simply squeezed her paw. "Go sit with him. You need to keep him warm, anyway. We're out of the mountains, so you don't need your boots and mittens anymore - slip them over his. That will help keep him warm, too," Xaa rumbled.

"Alright, Xaa," Merle said, sighing, and turned back to the toboggan to sit beside Tinker. Tinker snuggled up to Merle happily, and accepted the booties and mittens with even greater happiness. Merle pulled the cap off, then sat on it, looking Tinker over as he snuggled up next to her. 'Yes, Tinker. You're my very best friend, and I love you very much. But I do NOT want to be your mate. Xaa was right - you're a little fat piglet, and a pain in the tail. And someday, I'm going to have to figure out a way of telling you that without hurting your feelings too badly,' she thought.

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