Ever After

A Howl's Moving Castle story by Sakura

Standard disclaimers apply.

More waff than plot.

With most sincere apologies to Diana Wynne Jones.


                It was unusually hot for morning.  The shop door --- propped open with a small rock --- let in what little breeze was there, and it was not enough.  Sophie sighed and fanned herself with a paperback, listlessly staring out at the cobblestone street full of people.  A sunbeam sneaked its way through the awning of gardenias, fell over the neatly swept front step with the sign that read: H. JENKINS FRESH FLOWERS DAILY, and stretched pale fingers up the welcome mat that Sophie laid on the floor.

                "I probably should close shop now," Sophie murmured.  There were only about a dozen or so flowers left in the vases, and some of them were beginning to wilt in the heat.  A while ago they glistened with dew, just like the bouquets of roses and irises and poppies that had been snapped up and wrapped in paper and handed over to eager customers, who flocked in as soon as they opened shop.  The shop had always been popular in the town of Market Chipping --- first for its flowers, then for its tall dashing figure of a shop owner, and then for Sophie herself.  Sophie was pretty, but it wasn't her looks that drew people to her --- it was what she had gone through that roused their curiosity.  The (now dead) Witch of the Waste had cast a spell on her, causing her to hobble about for months as a ninety-year-old, before certain events turned her back to the pale, red-haired young woman she was.

                It was definitely something the townspeople had never heard of before, and so every morning Sophie had to brave a crowd of curious faces and answer a lot of silly queries --- does your back still pain you?  Do you feel happy about having your hair un-white?  What did the Witch look like?  Is it true that the Wizard Howl saved you?  

                Sophie put down the paperback she had been fanning herself with and stretched arms above her head, yawning as she did so.  On the table before her lay some wrapping paper, a pair of shears, some ribbon, and another apron similar to hers.  The apron was Michael's.  The boy dutifully helped out in the shop, but now had a habit of making a beeline for the door as soon as the clock struck nine.  You won't mind, would you, Sophie? he always asked, cheeks flushed pink, even though he knew she would say yes.  His visits to Cesari's were frequent, and he always came back with a treat --- a cream cake, petit fours, a chocolate lattice pie --- and would be humming to himself and walking about with a happy distracted air that only meant he had seen his 'Lettie' again.

                Sophie smiled and draped the apron over the back of a chair.  Her sister Martha was looking more like herself with each passing day, but it didn't seem to make any difference to Michael whatsoever.  Good for her, Sophie thought, getting up to put things away and close shop.  It's not everyday you find someone who'll take you for who you really are.

                At that a certain face came to mind, and Sophie felt her face color a little.  Annoyed with herself, she gave the doorstop a little kick, and the door creaked shut, shop bells tinkling as it did.

                "Now then," Sophie turned to the leftover flowers wilting in their vases, "I trust I'll be seeing you all bright and lovely tomorrow."  The flowers did not speak --- there was no way they could --- but she knew by tomorrow morning most of them would still look as if they had been freshly picked.  And it was all because Sophie had told them to stay fresh.  Apparently, she had this strange gift for having things stay alive if she willed them to.  It still surprised her sometimes.

She fingered the petal of a hyacinth for a moment as she paused to think, then finally moved up the stairs to the broom cupboard.

* * *

                The fireplace, much to Sophie's disappointment, was empty when she came in the room.  Only a fool would light a fire on a summer day --- but it was not the heat Sophie craved, it was the company.  A blue-faced fire demon named Calcifer used to live in the grate, but ever since he had been freed from his contract with the Wizard Howl, Sophie had been seeing less of him lately.  "Maybe tonight," Sophie said.  "He usually shows up at night for a log or two."  The thought cheered her up a little, and she shrugged out of her apron and hung it over the workbench on the side of the room.

                The room was less filthy than it had been when Sophie first saw it, but for some reason no amount of sweeping and scrubbing could ever make it look immaculate.  The workbench was still crowded with various tools and contraptions, and the window above it was now framed by a shelf of books, some of which Michael took down to pore through when he was working.  Sophie sometimes read them out of curiosity herself. 

Parts of the stone floor were covered with a sheen of something that was not dust but some kind of magical powder, for when Sophie brushed it with her foot, the toe of her slipper turned red.  She frowned.  Michael and Howl had been working on a spell for two nights now, and they were being very messy about it.  She suspected that they dumped the failures in the sink, for the basin was covered with the familiar pink and white slime she worked hard to remove the first time she arrived in the castle.  

                "They'll hear about this tonight," Sophie grumbled, already imagining the scene at the dinner table hours later --- she launching into a tirade on unkempt wizard habits, Michael looking sheepish, Howl continually changing the subject, and Calcifer looking on with wicked amusement. 

                Calcifer.  Where was Calcifer?          

                Sophie sighed and knelt by the grate, using the poker to sort through the ashes.  It seemed to her that Calcifer had been a lot friendlier ever since he had been free to come and go as he pleased.  When he came, he told her about the sights and sounds of the towns he visited, gossiped to her about certain personalities, and did not even mind when Sophie asked him to bend his head for a moment so she could warm a cup of milk.  It was when he was done talking that the old wicked smile would lift his lips, and the dreaded question would come: and how are you and Howl doing? 

                Sophie never knew how to answer that question properly without having Calcifer smirking at her like that.  It always seemed as if he knew more than she was telling --- or was that because the fire demon had lived off Howl's heart for the longest time?  Ask him yourself, Sophie often told him when she did not feel like volunteering any information.  He'll be back this afternoon

The truth was, there were just some things she could not make herself share with Calcifer and Michael, or even with her sisters.  She suspected Howl of keeping his own mouth shut on the matter as well --- though Howl had always been a 'slither-outer' and could never be made to tell the truth.         

                Except when he felt the need to be honest.

Which was still not very often.

                Sophie smiled a little at that.  After a few more pokes at the grate, she got up, dusted off her skirt, then went upstairs for a broom.

* * *

There was one night Sophie would always remember --- the night she regained her youth, Calcifer got his freedom, and Howl got his heart back.  It also happened to be the night Howl's bedroom had finally been subjected to the sweeping, dusting and scrubbing it deserved --- no thanks to Mrs. Fairfax and Sophie's stepmother, Fanny.  Hours after the excitement had died down and the castle was free of guests, Howl stood at the door of his now sparkling, lavender-scented bedroom, a mystified look on his face.  "Sophie," he finally said, "I do believe it's genetic."

"What is?"

"Manic cleaning."

She peered over his shoulder curiously.  Gone were the spiders he loved so much.  The walls and ceiling were blue, and the sheets were silk.  There was even a fluffy white carpet on the floor, and a mischievous addition --- two pairs of bedroom slippers.

Howl coughed.  "You won't be sleeping under the stairs from now on."

                It sounded more like a question than a statement.  For a moment they stood in uncomfortable silence, completely aware of what lay ahead of them, and Sophie felt her face burn.  But when Howl turned to her expectantly, she forced herself to look at him.  "I want my own room."

                There was a pause.  "I see."

                "I have to get used to sleeping on a proper bed again," she said.       

                "Very well."  He smiled.  "Perhaps you'd like one of the new rooms upstairs?  You may find the floor rather rickety though."  His tone was cordial, but his eyes had already clouded over with something, she did not know what, and that was enough for her to take his hand between hers and keep it there as she tried to tell him so many things she could not find the words for.

                I think we ought to live happily ever after.

                She closed her eyes.  "One week."

                "As you wish."  Howl sounded happier now.

                "It might take longer than that, I'm not really sure."

"I'll wait."

She did not have to look at him to know that he meant it.

* * *

                Sophie fished a broom and a dustpan out of the new broom cupboard (a real cupboard this time) and, on impulse, headed for the bedroom.  It had been a month since Howl declared the castle and everything in it theirs instead of his, an announcement that generated so much disbelief that even Michael and Calcifer, who knew of Howl's not-so selfish side, were stunned into silence.  But Sophie thought little changed in spite of that, and life went on as usual --- he complained that she cleaned too much, she told him his closet was slovenly, they never agreed on things like spiders and scraps of metal in the yard and spell fees and such.  But she knew they would never have it any other way.

And changes, when they did come, were of the pleasant kind.

                For instance, Howl spent less time in the bathroom now.  The first time Howl came out of the bathroom after a mere fifteen minutes, dressed in black and with the faintest whiff of jasmine, Sophie dropped her frying pan on the floor and Michael fell off his chair in shock.  It was Calcifer who had enough wits about him to comment that Howl must have slipped in the shower and hit his head on the curtain rod, to which the latter replied that certain fire demons had better keep their mouths shut unless they wanted soup for lunch.  But Sophie noticed other things as well --- how Howl preferred his black suit to his other suits and left his hair black to match (though he often cast a spell over it to make it glossy), how he seemed happier and less restless when he was home, how his eye, when it did stray, strayed in her direction.  It was altogether very strange. 

                Sophie walked to the window and parted the drapes.  The sky outside was gray, and rain poured down in torrents on the yard that Howl's sister swept clean every morning.  "Bad weather in Wales," she murmured.  She sometimes caught Howl watching the yard with a wistful expression and knew that he still longed to be part of that family.  Just enough to feel welcome to visit on weekends and such, he admitted.  You can't have everything, after all

                And then their fingers would touch and something would pass between them so Sophie understood, fully, what he meant. 

It was all very strange, but still very nice.   

* * *

            "Cleaning, cleaning, cleaning again."

                Sophie looked up from sweeping the offending magic dust off the floor to meet Howl's amused stare.  She had been too preoccupied with her task to notice that the doorknob had turned red-side-down and Howl had entered with a package tucked under one arm, whistling Calcifer's silly song about saucepans.  When he finally had her attention, he kicked the door shut, fixed his sunniest smile on her, then held his arms out for an embrace.  "I'm home."

                "And just in time," Sophie said.  "Come over here and sweep the mess you made last night.  You and Michael had better find another place for working those spells, because I'm having a hard time cleaning up after both of you." 

                The smile turned into a wounded look.  "I skip the King's luncheon to be with you and this is what you say to me?"

                "You always skip the King's luncheons."

                "He has terrible food," Howl conceded.

                "It's not so bad."

                "You make better pies."  He dropped the package in one of the chairs.  "Now are you going to welcome me home?"

                Sophie had to smile at that.  "Welcome home."  Then she kept on sweeping.

                He sighed dramatically.  "Your coldness wounds me, my dear."

                "Speaking of cold, Calcifer hasn't showed up yet, so if you would be so kind as to put a warming spell on the casserole, I'd be---"  Sophie did not get to finish her sentence, for Howl had impatiently crossed the room in great strides, snatched her up in his arms, and was now fully absorbed in silencing her with a kiss.

She stood still for a moment, trying to figure out where she was and what she was doing, before her mind finally decided to shut down on her and Longing, fiercely warm and uncontrollable, coursed through her veins.  She leaned forward helplessly, seeking more of him.  She was half-convinced this was Magic, the way his mouth on hers made her lose all thought and feel nothing else but him, but when she reached up to press a hand against his chest and felt his heart throbbing madly under her palm, she knew that this would always be more than a spell. 

This was something real.

                He drew back to lean his forehead against hers, breathing deeply.  "Sophie."


                "You said something about Calcifer."

                "I did?"

                "I think so."

                "I don't remember."

                He lifted his chin to brush his lips against her temple, once, twice.  "Something about lunch."

                "Oh."  Now she remembered.  "He hasn't shown up yet."

                He blinked.  "That's strange."

                "Isn't it?" came a knowing reply from the hearth, causing Sophie and Howl to jump.  Calcifer's blue face hovered in the grate, grinning meaningfully at both of them.  "And just when I think everything's ready for lunch, I come in here and find you two---"

                Sophie clamped hands over her ears.  "Don't say it!"

                "---smooching, and…OW!"

                Howl had just given Calcifer a sharp jab with the poker, and was now staring at him with narrowed green eyes.  "You and your wonderful sense of timing."

                "Well how was I supposed to know that you and Sophie were---"

                "What?" asked Michael, stepping inside the room with a cake box.  "Oh, hello Howl.  Lettie let me bring cake home again today.  This time I think it's strawberry.  Is lunch ready?"

                "Just about," Sophie hastily said, rushing to the cabinet to bring out the plates.  She caught Howl's eye as she set the table, and his exasperated look told her that he had been looking forward to being alone with her, but there was no chance of that happening now that the two had arrived. 

His words, spoken months ago and so softly that she almost did not hear them, rang out in her head one more time:  I think we ought to live happily ever after.

                A smile lifted her lips.

                You know what, Howl?  I think I'd like that very much.


[ The End ]


[1] You can shoot me now.

[2] Trust me to take a perfectly written ending and infuse it with ridiculous amounts of sap.  When I finished reading this book, I knew I had to write something.  I think a life with Howl would definitely be "a good deal more eventful than any story made it sound", but I couldn't keep myself from taking a shot at it.  Now that I'm done with this, I guess it's time to take my hands off the book now.  *flaps arms*  Damnation, it's stuck!

[3] I sort of sailed through the book instead of reading it carefully, so please feel free to correct me if I got certain details wrong.

[4] …And Howl is really so much like Fandom!Eriol, isn't he? o_O