Curiously Invited

x

A/N: This fic is inspired heavily by the 2017 West End musical that stole my heart with its wholesomeness, and thus is written with that context in mind, although the musical plays very closely to the book. You can either read Ratty and Mole here as a ship or as platonic, but either way their interactions is 100% what sold the show to me.

Enjoy!

x

The invitations started off inconspicuously enough, or as inconspicuous as Toad was capable of.

The first one was a simple letter, delivered by post and almost entirely ordinary, save for the meticulously-scribed address that was certainly not Toad's handwriting, and the quality of the paper within.

Ratty, it began. (Rat didn't wince as much as he used to at the childhood nickname, for reasons that were sitting in the corner reading a gardening magazine.)

Apparently, it continued, you have a new houseguest and you didn't see fit to tell your oldest friend? (One question mark would have sufficed, Rat was sure.) Preposterous! I had to learn about it from my butler, of all animals! I insist we meet immediately! Drop by any time tomorrow.

Toad.

"A please wouldn't go amiss," Rat muttered, and folded the letter in on itself.

"What was that?" Mole asked.

Rat folded the letter again for good measure. "Nothing. Just a reminder for the swimming club's sports day next week."

In his mind ran through several facts. The first was that Toad was an insufferable busybody who needed constant entertainment like a fish needed water. The second was that Rat's circumstances would certainly provide it (and Toad knew it), and the third was that Mole was many things, and an enabler was one of them.

He gave the letter a final decisive fold and tucked it into a pocket, whereupon it mysteriously found its way into the river to be dissolved into obscurity upon the following boating trip.

And that was that.

Until the next letter came.

It arrived two days after the first in a significantly fancier envelope, and – in hindsight – that was probably an indicator of things yet to come.

"Ratty!" Mole called from the door. "You have a letter. A right posh one and all."

"Posh how?" Rat called back.

"Well, it's... green."

Rat was out of his chair faster than a minnow after flies. "Must be junk," he assured as he deftly claimed the envelope. "Brochures advertising hedge trimmers, lawnmowers, shears, that sort of thing." He pocketed it and wondered if the green dye would burn interestingly. "We get them every year; no need to worry yourself about it, Moley."

Mole eyed Rat with the sort of look Rat was becoming accustomed to as Mole tried to decide whether he was being Riverbanker Odd or just Regular Odd. Eventually he seemed to rule in the former's favour, for he shrugged and collected up the rest of the post. "The garden does need a trim, so maybe we should consider it," he said. "You know that if you put these things off, they only become a bigger problem later."

Rat tried not to think about the letter-sized, toad-green problem lying crinkled and creased in his pocket.

"Not always."

x

It was when three letters arrived, several days later, that Rat considered that this might, indeed, be developing into A Problem.

And the problem was, Rat thought as he hastily stuffed the obnoxiously-green envelopes into a nearby book to hide them before Mole could spot them, the problem was that this was evidently becoming a game for Toad. And Toad had both the money and the lack of self control to tip this game straight over the edge of sanity.

It wasn't that he disliked Toad or visiting Toad Hall (but neither, in the same manner, could he admit to actively liking either) but Toad tended to bring chaos in his wake, and Rat was quite fond of his quiet little life on the river, thank you very much.

And the problem, the other problem as far as it could be called a problem, was that Mole threw himself into all new adventures with the same level of enthusiasm, regardless of the adventure itself. It was as if he had reached his maximum novelty level with life on the river and everything else was simply an extension of that.

(Rat had seen the way Mole looked at the Wild Wood and the Wide World beyond with the kind of curiosity that most Riverbankers knew better than to express, and it unnerved him.)

The outcome was that Rat rather felt that Mole would be happily caught up in whatever mad schemes Toad concocted, and he, Rat, would be left to cobble some common sense out of the chaos. All the while, he would be dragged away from his river just so Toad could show off the latest fad he had wasted away his wealth on.

So Rat felt no guilt when he discreetly disposed of the next trio of letters, this time written on pop-up cards with moveable characters that danced when the tab at the bottom was moved.

Toad would have to give up eventually.

After all, it wasn't as if he ever stuck with any project for more than a few weeks.

Rat could wait it out until then.

Maybe.

x

If Rat had been feeling more generous, he might have credited Toad for his tenacity. After all, the amphibian's attention span rarely survived this long on any one subject.

However, staring up at the bright green balloons spelling out "YOURE WELCOME" (no apostrophe) across his garden path, Rat felt anything but generous.

"What," he asked, "am I meant to do with those?"

The hare holding them shrugged. "Ain't my problem, mate. I'm just the delivery animal. Now, if you could just sign here–"

"I don't want them."

"Then pop 'em, release 'em, sink 'em in the river, I don't care. I just need you to sign to confirm they've arrived."

"Well, now they've arrived, they can go back."

"That's not how it works."

"Sure it is. You just do everything you did on the way here, but in reverse," Rat said with venom in his voice that was mostly aimed at the absent toad. "There's nothing to it – in fact, I'll show you how it's done. Watch me do the reverse of opening this door–"

"Ratty, I'm back!"

He froze. At the other end of the house he could hear the front door swing shut and the rustle of bags.

"Oh, fishcakes," Rat muttered. He snatched the clipboard off the hare and hastily scrawled something that might have been a signature into approximately the right box. "Alright, done. Now scram."

"They didn't have the tea that you wanted," Mole called across the house, "so I bought the next best one instead– what's this?"

Rat spun on his heels and tried his hardest to look nonchalant and definitely not out of breath as he finishes scrambling the balloons. "Hello, Moley. Fancy you being back." He gave the balloons another irritated shove. "So soon."

Mole squinted up at the balloons. "Oi ivy denture?" he read doubtfully. "Is someone going to the dentist? Is that something riverbankers celebrate?"

Rat briefly entertained the thought of running with that conveniently-supplied lie, but quickly discarded it for the kind of ruse that would probably lead to more issues than it solved. "No, it's, ah, a present." He moved the balloons round again, in the hopes that inspiration would strike. "For, ah, one of the rabbit families."

"Why?"

"Cause they've had little ones, you see?"

"I don't see how that equates to balloons," Mole said.

"It's the initials of the kits. One for each kit."

"They've had..." and Mole counted, "twelve kits?"

"They have very large litters," Rat said, not entirely lying but also very aware the conversation was a carriage with only a single wheel still on the road and it would take precious little to lose it altogether. "You know, it's why they have the old phrase about bree–" He faltered and decided that would be an Unhelpful Addition. "And I couldn't remember what they named all the kits," he continued with forced surety, "so I picked up a few extra ones."

"With twelve names to remember, I don't blame you," Mole said. He glanced back at the grocery bags. "Just let me tidy these away, and we'll deliver them."

"You can't."

Mole looked at him. "What? Why not?"

"Because they, uh, live in the Wild Wood," Rat said. "So it's best not to go too far. We'll just leave them on the edge of the wood and I'm sure a rabbit will pass by and pick them up."

"But, Ratty, if you've gone to all the trouble of buying them balloons, you should at least get to see their faces when they receive them."

"Ah, but the Wild Wooders are very private animals. Best not to risk encroaching on anyone's home." Rat patted Mole on the shoulder. "But it's nice of you to think so."

And that was how an afternoon was spent boating up to the Wild Wood to leave balloons on the far shore. Rat wasn't sure what became of them and, frankly, he was too afraid to ask.

x

It was a whole week before he encountered Toad's next attempt. By that point, life on the riverbank had drifted into a new routine, and Ratty had even begun on Mole's boating lessons. Mole was taking to it, if not like a fish to water, then about as well as a water rat would take to digging, Ratty supposed. There had been one capsizing already, and after assuring Mole that it was no bother, especially for a water rat, Mole had become more assured as the worst that could happen had happened.

He wasn't even aware of when he had shifted from Rat to Ratty.

So between the picnics and the messing about on the river and the idle conversations, Ratty had quite forgotten that he was meant to be keeping an eye out for more Toad invitations and, as such, the next one nearly sunk him.

He stared down at the field mouse dressed in tell-tale green and uneasily eyed the penny whistle it held. "And what are you meant to be?" he asked tiredly.

"A singing telegram, sir," the mouse piped.

"If I pay you a farthing, will you go without singing?"

The mouse's bottom lip trembled. "But, sir, I've been practicing all day. Don't you want to hear it?"

Not really, Ratty thought, but the mouse looked like it was on the verge of tears. He glanced back to the cellar door where Mole had descended to gather supplies for a picnic. "Oh, all right. But how quietly can you sing?"

"Very, very quietly, sir, if needed."

"Trust me, it's needed."

The mouse beamed and played a single note on its whistle to tune itself, obligingly soft, and began to tap-dance. "This is your singing telegram, I hope it finds you well," it whispered. "You're invited to Toad Hall, 'cause we think you're really swell."

There was the sound of steps ascending the cellar stairs, and Ratty motioned furiously for the mouse to hurry it up.

"Come along now, Ratty, don't make me cajole, but I really think it's time I met the egnima... eggimatic..."

"Enigmatic," Ratty supplied.

"Enigmatic Mr Mole."

An enigmatic Mr Mole-shaped silhouette arrived in the cellar door, paused, and then descended again, muttering something about, "I always forget the pork pies," as he went.

Ratty remembered to breathe again and tuned back into the song that was still somehow going on.

"As your friend, I really think it's really rather sweet," the mouse continued, "but stop your hiding, it's high time we meet."

There was only a momentary scuffle as Mole evidently located the wayward pork pies and began to return. Ratty motioned again, this time with significant curtness, for the mouse to pick up the pace.

"It won't be the same without you–"

"Quicker."

"–so we hope that you say yes."

"Quicker," Ratty whispered.

"SopleaseohpleaseRSVPandcomebeourguest."

"Are you done?"

The mouse nodded.

"Ratty, I need a paw in the kitchen!"

"Coming!" Ratty gave the mouse an apologetic look. "I'm sorry, but I'm about to slam the door in your face; please don't take it personally."

He only caught a glimpse of the mouse's dumbstruck nod before he heard Mole coming round the corner and he followed through with his promise as quietly as he could manage. He proceeded to put himself between Mole and the door for good measure. "Moley. I see you've done all the legwork today."

"Not quite," Mole said. "You need to stop putting the lemonade on the top shelf; you may be able to reach it, but it's somewhat impractical for an animal like me." He paused with the picnic basket still in his paws. "Ratty? Is everything okay?"

"Everything is fine," he assured, taking the basket from Mole and scooting to the kitchen, hoping that Mole would follow him, and being very relieved when he did so. "Now, what was it you were after? Lemonade?"

By the time they left, there was no sign of the singing telegram, and Ratty didn't even want to consider what the next step Toad was going to take.

x

Ratty came to miss the letters. The letters were easy to hide.

A marching band was not.

It was pure luck he was the first one out of the door that afternoon, having gone to make some tea and discovered they were clean out of milk. And to think he'd almost let Mole do the grocery run.

It was a grey spring day with a fine veil of mizzle that caused him to pull his coat up and over his ears, so he didn't even realise there was a full set of rabbits and brass instruments occupying his front garden until the, "One, two, three..."

A cacophony of instruments blared into wheezing life, along with words that sounded suspiciously like "Be our guest" that were cut off when Ratty grabbed the trumpet of the lead rabbit.

"Not a sound, you understand me?" he hissed.

"But Mr Toad insisted–" the lead rabbit started.

"Well, Mr Toad isn't here right now, is he?" Ratty asked in a tone he knew Toad would classify all-too-familiarly as 'catty'. "I'm here and all I want is a peaceful afternoon without shenanigans from that amphibian, alright?"

The rabbit stared balefully at Ratty, but he had already given in to one singing invitation and it had almost cost him the ruse. "Alright?" Ratty repeated.

The rabbit's ears drooped. "Alright," he echoed. "But Mr Toad will not be pleased."

"I'm sure he'll recover," Ratty deadpanned.

"Ratty! Oh, Ratty, the washing, we've left it out!"

For a moment, Ratty was sure he felt his soul depart his body at the pure untimeliness of Mole's realisation, and then he snapped back into the situation and reacted with the first solution that came to mind.

Namely, throwing the drizzled washing – sheets and all – over the incriminating band and spinning around to face the distressed Mole with a smile. "Moley, Moley, Moley, what's the rush?"

"Ratty, we've left the washing out in the rain and– what's going on?"

"Oh, that?" Ratty asked nonchalantly, turning as if he had only just noticed the warren of sheet-covered rabbits making mud of the beautifully-kept lawn. "These fine fellows were passing by and offered to help bring our washing in, until the wind got the better of them."

Mole tried to lean around Ratty.

Ratty leant with him. "Say, be a good chap and get the kettle on so we can thank these fellows with some tea when they're done, why don't you?"

"We're out of milk," Mole reminded him.

"I'll send one of the rabbits off with a few pennies," Ratty answered. He continued smiling, as much to curb the hysterical laughter as anything else. "Please?"

Mole eyed him with evident suspicion, but then weakened when he saw the now-bedraggled state of the rabbits. "Oh, alright. But give them a few pennies more and ask them to pick up some cold ham too; we're clean out and I'm not sending anyone out into those April showers twice."

"Amazing." Ratty waited until Mole had retreated back into the kitchen before pulling the door shut and turning to face the marching band. "Instruments in the potting shed."

"But–" the lead rabbit began.

"Potting shed," Ratty repeated. "Now. Or," he added, "you can leave them out in the garden in the pouring rain. Your choice."

They opted for the potting shed.

x

"Well, that was all very lovely," Mole sighed after the last rabbit had gone. "It's always nice to meet new friends, isn't it, Ratty?"

"What?"

"New friends," Mole repeated patiently. "Nice."

"Ah, yeah. Right,"

Mole lowered the book he was reading and squinted over at his housemate. "You alright, Ratty? You seem a little distracted."

"Nothing, it's nothing," Ratty said. He couldn't quite believe he had managed to pull off that little stunt without Mole getting even a little suspicious – okay, without getting suspicious enough to uncover the truth – and the relief had quite turned his limbs to jelly. He couldn't imagine what Toad's next attempt would encompass.

No, that wasn't true. His imagination was quite apt enough to supply images of airplane trail messages and dirigibles with invitations painted on their sides or on banners flapping behind. Ratty couldn't exactly drag them down from the sky or throw a bedsheet over them.

He came back to the reality of here and now when a paw pressed softly against his forehead.

"Oh, Ratty, you're burning up," Mole worried. "I knew it was a bad idea to bring the washing in in such bad weather. We should have waited until the storm blew itself out; it wasn't like the washing was getting any wetter after the first downpour."

"A water rat getting a cold from a bit of rain?" Ratty laughed, shifting back to gently break the contact. "Nonsense. Moley, why don't you go back to your book and I'll finish the washing up? Look, you've even dropped your bookmark–"

"Bookmark? What bookmark?"

They both turned simultaneously to the bright-green paper rectangle that had slipped from the book when Mole had risen to his paws.

Suddenly, Ratty remembered the early invitations he had hastily stuffed into books in a desperate attempt to hide them, and came to the nauseous conclusion that he evidently hadn't found all of them for the later disposal.

"It's a letter," Mole remarked, already with the envelope in hand. "From Mr Toad." He slid it open and pulled out the (also bright-green) paper inside. "Mr Toad would like to invite Mr Rat and Mr Mole to Toad Hall," Mole read, "for introductions and lunch at the soonest opportunity." He looked up. "How nice of him."

Ratty exhaled. At least Mole had found one of the invitations where Toad had been pretending to be professional, as opposed to the ones that had been literary equivalent of a nod and a wink.

"Yes," he echoed. "Nice."

"Well, I suppose we should go."

"Should we?"

Mole fixed Ratty with a look that indicated his mind had already been made up. "Of course we should. After all, he's gone to all the effort of inviting us, and I haven't met him yet."

"Well, then, have a nice trip. Try not to get caught up in any crazy schemes while you're there–"

"Both of us, Ratty."

Ratty sank lower into his chair. "I was afraid you'd say that."

x

"And then there was the one that – stop laughing or you'll capsize the boat!"

Mole cradled his snout in his paws, doing his best to muffle the laughter that was shaking his shoulders. "I'm sorry, Ratty, but a singing telegram? He actually sent one?"

"Yes, and you missed it by seconds." Ratty watched his shipmate attempt to calm the laughter, waiting it out with visible fondness. "Do you want to hear the rest of his invitations, or shall I stop at that?" he teased.

There were more?"

"Oh, like you would not believe."

"Do you remember any of the song from the telegram?"

"No, and I don't want to," Ratty answered. "The lyrics were terrible and the tune was uninspired. The tap-dancing wasn't bad though."

"Okay, now I'm very disappointed to have missed it."

"I'll give you a rendition when we're back on dry land. Will that do?"

"Only if you tap-dance."

Ratty laughed. "You drive a hard bargain, Moley, but for you, I will tap-dance. I won't guarantee it'll be any good, mind." He considered the fiasco of last spring, and added, "There was also the marching band invitation."

"I cannot believe I overlooked an entire marching band."

"You invited them in."

"I never!"

"Do you remember those rabbits who helped us bring in the washing?"

There was a strangled pause from Mole. Then, "Is that what they were really doing on our lawn?"

"Originally."

"And you made them bring in our washing instead?"

"It took surprisingly little strong-arming."

Mole raised an eyebrow. "Blimey."

"I kept whole marching bands and singagrams out of sight and that's all you have to say on the matter?" Ratty laughed. "Blimey?"

"I could say a lot of other things on the subject. Such as asking why you waited an entire year before admitting to any of this."

Ratty tried to wave it away. "Oh, you know how it is, Moley. You get dragged onto the open road and your friend becomes obsessed with motor cars and embroiled in criminal charges, and you quite forget things like confessions of smuggling out unwanted invitations."

"Well, yes," Mole conceded, "but still, what was so bad about meeting Toad in the first place?"

"Do you remember the year we've just had, Mole?"

"Of course I do, but there was no way you knew it'd end up like that." Mole canted his head. "And it did all work out well in the end."

Ratty snorted and took the oars from Mole. "Eventually. And maybe I didn't know the exact details, but I was right about the chaos. As I told you before, he likes to show off, the more the merrier."

"That's not so bad, is it, Ratty? After all, you seem quite happy to show off your river."

Ratty grumbled something and, without realising it, upped the pace of the oars.

"There's something else, isn't there?"

Ratty grumbled something again, this time sounding along the lines of, "Don'tknowwhatyou'retalkingabout," until a pair of paws caught his and slowed the oars.

"Ratty," Mole admonished. "Come on, you know you can tell me anything, especially after the year we've had. And don't tell me it was because he was curious, not courteous, because it was still very nice of him to invite us, especially after all the trouble you gave him with the invitations."

Ratty spluttered. "Me giving him trouble?"

"You slammed a door in the poor singing telegram's face."

"First off, I warned the mouse before I did that, and secondly if you think about all the trouble he's given us–"

"Ratty..."

"Fine. I thought you might enjoy his adventures more than my provincial little life on the river," Ratty muttered.

There was a silence.

"Oh, Ratty..."

"Don't you 'Oh Ratty' me," he said. "You did enjoy life on the open road, admit it."

"Well of course I enjoyed it!" cried Mole indignantly. "Before I came to live with you, I had spent most of my life in my tunnels. Of course I enjoyed getting out there, but mostly it was because it was done with friends! Do you think I would have enjoyed it half as much without you? Why do you think I tried to hard to persuade you to join us?" Mole sat back in the boat with a huff. "Anyway, I'm here, aren't I? With you."

Ratty didn't reply immediately. "I suppose you are," he said eventually.

"Indeed. So you can pack up all your worries about me running off to the Life Adventurous without you, because you're stuck messing about in a boat on the river with me for the rest of our lives."

Ratty smiled. "Sounds perfect."