Nope, don't adjust your screen, folks. It's real. And it's the LAST ONE. Six years later, this story is FINISHED. Win!
Now bear with me a minute, cos it seems we all need to have a talk about cats and continuity, since I've been called out on it, and one of these points is important to understand for this story. Circle time kids, gather round.
I have heard objections on two points. The first is that cats have a short, complication free labor that appears to be pretty easy. I'll buy that, but there is one important fact in play: Sophie is human. Yep, right now she has feline physiology. And once she gave over to her feline mind, Morgan came pretty quickly. But she is a human having her first baby, and it was long and awful no matter what kind of animal pajamas she was wearing.
Secondly, I hear that there is no way that Morgan is walking, because kittens walk at more than a month old. I have never owned a cat myself, so I had to look this up before I even starting writing this fic at all, because I decided that Morgan's stage of development was a good indicator for how long Sophie had been out there. In the story, kitten-Morgan could walk. The reason that he has reached the milestones of a nearly six week old kitten is because he has been out there for six weeks. Add one week before his birth and another week of traveling with Abdullah and co., and Sophie and Howl spent two months apart and ensorcelled. That's why I wrote this. It's a big deal, and since this series is written for not-adults, DWJ couldn't cover it. So I did.
Enough blabbing. Let's get on to the good stuff.
If she hadn't had so much experience with such matters recently, Sophie might have thought it was magic.
One minute, she was crammed into a corner with her freshly disenchanted husband, the castle bursting with royalty from around the world, the air filled with chatter and confusion. The next, Howl was borne out on the current of departing princesses, bellowing that he'd be back after he'd dealt with the King. Then all was silent. Sophie stood in the middle of a suddenly empty room, fumbling Morgan in human arms that still felt long and clumsy, and stared numbly into space. The relief of having everything right again was nearly too much to bear. She couldn't even bring herself to be upset with the dust that had accumulated in the corners.
By the time Sophie realized that Calcifer had been fizzing and spitting at her for the past ten minutes, he had given up and opened the mansion door himself. Fanny and Mrs. Fairfax came bustling in, laden with baskets of cold meat and bread and cheese. When they saw Sophie they dropped everything and ran to throw their arms around her.
"Sophie!" Fanny clutched her tightly while Mrs. Fairfax cooed over the baby, "We've been so worried! Your poor apprentices turn up at the door babbling about Jinns or somesuch thing, and the next we know the two of you have vanished for months! I've been in such a state. Mr. Smith managed things for me admirably well, of course; with so many witches in the family he's learned to take these things in stride. If it weren't for Lettie needing me so—the shock put her in bed for two weeks, poor dear—"
"Mrrf," Sophie responded eloquently from her place against the shoulder of Fanny's best green silk summer gown. The words flowed over her brain like water, and she couldn't seem to make herself really listen.
"…But never you mind, love, because we've come and we'llhelp set things to rights. Howl sent us a message, you know. We're going to stay right here with you until he gets back, and Annabel I am sure it is my turn to hold that baby." Much as he had as a kitten, Morgan mewled indignantly as he was handed off to yet another set of arms. Mrs. Fairfax gave him one last pat and then turned to Sophie. Her brow furrowed.
"Good heavens Sophie, have you eaten today? You look ill." She reached up and patted Sophie's cheek anxiously. "And thin. Perhaps I should ask if you've eaten at all! I shouldn't wonder, running about ensorcelled with who knows what sort of people. You'll have a bit of my honey tonic and a bath, that will put some color in your face, and then you can eat something. Honey does have some wondrous healing properties, you know. The baby—a boy isn't it? He's lovely—will be just fine with us until you're done. Now, now, not a word of protest, dear. You can't feed him if you aren't eating well yourself. Here you are, just a swallow. Now go on, and the two of us will make up a nice supper for you. Then we'll deal with this mess. The cobwebs, Fanny, did you see?"
During all this Mrs. Fairfax had whipped out a glass bottle, tipped something that tasted of honey, brandy, and magic down Sophie's throat, and produced an apron, with which she shooed Sophie into the bathroom.
Sophie shut the door behind her, started the bath running, and began to unbutton the dress Lettie had lent her. Even hooked as tightly as it would go, the dress hung on her like a sack. As the gauzy yellow folds slid silently into a pool at her feet, Sophie tried not to look at herself. But in a room filled with mirrors it was unavoidable. Now Sophie understood why Lettie had burst into tears all over again while the two of them were dressing to race off to the inn—and why Howl, holding her again for the first time in months, had quickly, but not quickly enough, hidden his shock and dismay.
Her hair, long since tumbled from the bun Lettie had shaped for her in Kingsbury, softened but could not hide the increased sharpness to her jaw, the slightly more prominent cheekbones, the way her eyes loomed larger in her face. The strain of feeding a ravenous child while half-starved herself was evident in her jutting collarbones and ribs. Her body was covered with the bruises she had accumulated on her adventures, now purple and sickly yellow. She looked...fragile.
Scowling, she whirled away from her reflection, scraping the loose hair off her face and climbing into the steaming water in one fluid motion. She steadfastly looked down until the heat fogged over every mirror in the room.
An hour later, having emerged in a nightdress and dressing gown, Sophie did have to admit that between the bath and three ham sandwiches, she felt properly human again. Fanny and Mrs. Fairfax were kind in their bustling, chattering way, as they made the main room sparkle. They insisted that Sophie didn't need to do a thing, so she sat in the chair by the grate and did her best not to bungle up feeding Morgan. It took a long time and a lot of well meant, largely unhelpful advice before she got it right.
"Bother!" she whispered to him, stroking the fat little hand curled reflexively around her finger, "We were much better at this when you had paws and I didn't have buttons." After he ate, Fanny talked her through the aftermath, which seemed unnecessarily foul after his tidiness as a kitten. Then Morgan fussed for a further half hour, while Sophie learned to walk with a soothing sway to her step. When she sat back down again, the straight-backed chair had become a thickly-cushioned rocker thanks to Mrs. Fairfax.
The spitting noise that was Calcifer's version of clearing a throat made her look up in surprise. Though he had watched the proceedings with interest, the fire demon had been quiet for most of the evening, as he usually was in Fanny's presence.
"Suliman's sent a message," he crackled. "Your sister's having her baby now. He's asking for your stepmother."
"Well, that can't be right." Mrs. Fairfax said, briskly dusting off her apron."Lettie has another month to go. Tell Ben it's false labor. She'll be all right."
"He said something about broken water… breaking water is hard, I should know. At any rate, she shouted at the King until they were both purple, and she was still going when this happened. Ben says it's real and it's all the King's fault and he needs you." In an undertone, Calcifer added to Sophie, "Can't you Hatters produce offspring at a convenient time?"
Sophie sighed—she was beginning to wonder the same thing—and rose carefully, sliding Morgan to her shoulder in a motion that was almost starting to feel natural. Fanny waved her sharply back into her seat.
"No, I have to go," Sophie protested, "I promised Lettie I would be there! I'll just get dressed, and—"
"Nonsense," Fanny retorted. "Howl wanted you to rest, and I certainly think you deserve a quiet night at home. Lettie will be just fine with Annabel and me there. Sophie, for heaven's sake!" She bustled over to block the stairwell just as Sophie was moving purposefully toward it. "You can come in the morning, after you've had a decent night's sleep." She paused, then added firmly, "Don't you think your husband might like to see you tonight?"
"I have to go," Sophie repeated, this time with a small sigh. She could hear the chair calling her back to its inviting depths. She was exhausted, she knew she didn't need to go, she could admit to herself that she didn't even want to go. And yet…
"Fanny's exactly right, dear. We'll send for you in the morning. There will still plenty to do; of that you may be sure." Mrs. Fairfax smiled reassuringly as she repacked their basket. Fanny, in the meantime, had guided Sophie right back to her chair and eased her back into it without Sophie even realizing they were moving.
"It's all right, Sophie, Fanny said, leaning over her to brush a stray wisp of hair from her face. "I'm sure Lettie wants you to rest, too. We'll take fine care of her." Sophie hadn't expected to see the understanding that shone in Fanny's eyes. "She won't be left alone, not even for a minute. Do you need anything before we go?" Sophie shook her head and busied herself with settling Morgan just so, to give herself time to swallow the lump in her throat.
She waited until the ladies had called out cheerful goodbyes and left through the Kingsbury door. Then she looked down at Calcifer and gave him a watery smile.
"Well, come on," she said. You've been very patient."
"As long as you don't drip on me." The fire demon retorted, vaulting from the grate and hovering carefully over her shoulder. Morgan turned his head toward the light and warmth, blinking and waving his clenched fists jerkily. After a moment, Calcifer let out his hissing chuckle.
"He wants to know if I'll turn him back into a kitten. And he thinks Fanny's perfume is too strong."
"He told you that?"
"Not in so many words." Calcifer began to weave slow patterns over Morgan's head, while the baby tried to follow him with his eyes. "He's young still, so he remembers the language of the world he came from. It's a lot like what the stars speak. He'll forget it as he grows up. Yikes!" He jerked back in a streak of blue, dodging a particularly emphatic fist-wave. "Did you feel that? Howl was right. Chip off the old block. Good luck when he learns to focus all that power. I'm moving out at the first hint of slime."
"Wonderful," Sophie snorted. "And if you think that was strong, try feeling it from the inside."
"Oh, and by the way," Calcifer replied, still circling Morgan's head but at a safer distance this time, "Howl said to tell you he'd be home soon, and not to wait up for him."
Sophie snorted again. "If he thinks I'm not going to wait up for him then he's been brain-damaged by that idiotic djinn's spell." Yawning, she added, "But I suppose I can wait for him upstairs. I need to try to get Morgan to sleep anyway."
Morgan chose that moment to arch his back, angrily screwing up his face and uttering a whining, kittenish noise. Something about that impatient little mewing clicked in Sophie's mind.
"He's hungry again," she and Calcifer both said at once.
The fire demon's eyebrows furrowed. "I thought you couldn't understand him."
"If you say so," Calcifer said skeptically, drifting back into his grate.
Hoisting Morgan against her shoulder again, Sophie managed to struggle up the stairs without dropping him. She even managed to hold him one-handed long enough to jiggle open the bedroom door. Then, with only the moonlight streaming through the window to guide her, she found her way to her side of the bed and sank gratefully into its familiar jumble of pillows and quilts.
By now, Morgan's hungry mews had turned into wails.
"Oh, come on, buttons!" Sophie pleaded, struggling one-handed with her robe. "Please don't be difficult… "
Obligingly, two buttons undid themselves. A third slid halfway out its hole. The rest simply wriggled a bit before going still.
"Please?" she tried again, in a small voice. This time she got no response at all. After helping Abdullah earlier, even this simple, intuitive bit of magic was too much for her. She still hadn't recovered properly.
In the meantime, Morgan's cries had grown to a full-blown caterwauling. For the third time that day, Sophie nearly burst into tears. She slid to the floor and very carefully laid a thrashing Morgan flat on the bed. She surrounded him with pillows so that he couldn't roll, turned around, and dropped her head into her hands. She stood that way for a long minute before acting. Sophie jerked at the sash, tore off the robe, and flung it across the room. Then she unbuttoned her nightgown with trembling hands, pulling so hard she ripped a button off. Yanking the thing over her head, Sophie threw that, too, breathless with frustration.
"And I...I'm not picking you up tonight!" she told them fiercely. "Maybe not tomorrow, either! You can just lie there and wrinkle forever, for all I care!"
Morgan was now red-faced and shrieking. She hurled herself onto the bed and pulled him to her. Fortunately, things came together more quickly this time, and he soon quieted. Sophie scrubbed at her eyes with her free hand and then propped her chin on it, watching him. Slowly, she began to calm again. As had so often happened when they were cats, they both grew drowsy as he nursed.
Then she was wide awake. From downstairs, she had heard the bathroom door close.
"If your father takes two hours in there tonight, bespelled for months or not, I'll cut up every suit he has," she told Morgan softly. "And you know, I don't understand what everyone keeps saying about you looking like us; to me you just look like a baby. Well, your hair is dark, like his, but Annabel says it's probably all going to fall out anyway. Wouldn't he have a tantrum! Do you think you could do that for me?" Sophie laughed. Morgan didn't give much of an answer either way.
To his credit, Howl appeared in one hour, in just his trousers and shirtsleeves. By then Sophie had gotten Morgan changed and in his cradle and was sitting propped on some pillows, fighting to stay awake.
Howl was pale, his hair not quite perfect, and there was a distinct slump to his shoulders. Though he raised an eyebrow at her lack of attire, he made none of the remarks he normally did when he walked in on her less than fully dressed. He looked just as exhausted as she was. She hopped off the bed and began to cross the room, but was stopped dead by his expression. There was a funny tightening around his mouth as he slowly surveyed her head to toe, his eyes unreadable. There was a long, awkward pause.
"What?" Sophie snapped, more to break the silence than anything else. "Nothing you haven't seen before." Howl shook his head briefly and closed the rest of the distance between them.
"I was considering confining you to bed and feeding you butter wrapped in bacon until you don't look like I'm starving you." He rested his fingertips on her bare shoulder, gently urging her to turn. He whistled. "What were you doing out there? Playing rugby with the other woodland creatures?"
Sophie looked over her shoulder. Howl was studying a particularly vivid purple bruise on her hip, the size of his palm.
"I think that one was from mistiming a jump and slamming into a tree," she informed him. "My dinner didn't just sit around and wait for me to eat it, Howl. I probably have a bruise for every meal I had."
"And a few you didn't, I think." he added wryly. Suddenly something was in his hand, glinting silver in the moonlight: a tin of healing salve she and Lettie had created together, conjured from the workbench; it was gently scented with lavender and especially effective on mild cuts and bruises.
"Do you know how much I miss being able to do that?" Sophie sighed, flopping face-down onto the bed and demolishing the mountain of pillows she'd been propped up on. Howl slid up after her, and pulled her to him. She lay silent, feeling the reassuring thump of his heartbeat against her back. More than magic, than hot water, than anything in the world, she had missed this…
From the nursery came a fretful whimpering. Sophie groaned, hiding her face in her hands. "He's not hungry," she said. "He can't be!"
Howl shrugged. "I'll get him then. Close your eyes for a bit."
Sophie did so obligingly as he went to the archway, but she couldn't help cracking them open to watch as he scooped Morgan up with an ease that she envied. Howl walked him to the window and stood there, swaying a little, speaking in words too quiet for Sophie to hear without asking the curtains for help. Morgan hiccupped, and Howl hiked him up, tucking his head under his chin, rubbing his back soothingly. Something about the sight made her tear up. Again. Damnation!
Morgan was soon quieter than he had been since the moment he was born. Howl held him for a bit longer anyway, then laid him carefully in his crib and came tiptoeing back to bed. Quickly Sophie squinched her eyes shut.
"You're a horrendous pretend sleeper, Mrs. Nose," Howl said in a low voice, taking advantage of her ruse by attacking her notoriously ticklish feet. Sophie squealed and tried to get away, almost kicking him in the face. He shushed her, toeing off his boots and taking up the salve again before clambering up beside her and urging her onto her stomach.
"He should sleep till dawn, I think," he went on, applying the soothing balm to the tiny scrapes and bruises peppering the backs of her legs. "And now that we're home again, we can make you something to get your magic back into balance. It doesn't seem to be resolving on its own."
Sophie hummed in lazy agreement. Low-grade aches, which she'd carried so long she hardly noticed them, were slowly replaced with tingling warmth as Howl worked methodically up her back. His hair occasionally brushed her skin when he leaned down to kiss an especially ugly mark, sending pleasant shocks up her spine. After he'd soothed away the last, a yellowing splotch behind her ear that had prompted him to check her for a concussion, he gently set the salve on the table by the bed, then turned back to Sophie.
Without prompting, Sophie turned over, intending to pull him down to her.
But he held back. That guarded look was still there. Sophie thought she could see what was behind it, but she didn't understand what she saw. Sadness, worry, relief, yes; but… guilt? It made no sense. She looked up at him quizzically.
Howl smiled a lopsided smile, knowing he was caught. "I miscalculated," he said, tracing her ribs. "You should have been in Kingsbury months ago." "When we first caught up with you, I thought you were fine until I saw you changed back… And honestly, cariad—"
Sophie braced herself. Honesty and endearments in one breath were not good.
"You look awful," he said miserably. "I botched the whole thing. I could have lost you both."
Sophie waited for the quip she was sure would follow. When it didn't come, she realized that she wasn't the only one with feelings that would need dealing with.
"Well, you didn't." she said tartly. "And anyway, it's half my fault for refusing to leave. I'll be good as new in a few weeks. And it could have been worse—at least I wasn't a ninety year old cat."
Howl snorted, as she'd hoped he would.
But you will need to run out and get some bacon in the morning," she added severely. "Several dozen pastries would be nice, too. But nothing with cream. I'm sick of cream."
This time, a laugh. A small one, but enough. The danger was past.
"But for now," Sophie continued more gently, reaching up to smooth blond hair out of his eyes, "We're home, and we're safe, and by some miracle, the baby is sleeping. Do you think you might do something about it, maybe before I'm past my prime a second time?" Her fingers flicked open the top button of his soft linen shirt.
Howl laughed again and rolled to his side, taking her with him. "Well, to be truthful," he whispered mischievously, "he may be sleeping so soundly thanks to my little variation on the Sleeping Beauty spell."
"Howl!" Sophie hissed, trying to sit up.
He pulled her back down and kissed her once, twice, loosening her braid. "He's safe and sound asleep, Sophie." He smiled as only Howl could smile and pulled her closer. "And we've only got till dawn," he said. "That's the variation."
And she knew then that it would be all right.
"Now, as for what I might do about you—" he said, and with a casual wave of his hand the drapes around the bed closed silently. "I plan to make much of time."
Hopefully I managed to make a realistic reconciliation that was in character despite being feelings-y. We'll see, I guess. There was a teeny, tiny nod to Robert Herrick's Poem "To the Virgins, to Make Much of Time" in there. I don't own him, either.
And let this be a lesson to you all! Never give up! Ancient stories CAN be finished.
Thanks, again, to Iolanthe, without whom this either wouldn't have happened, or would have happened badly.