It was getting on in the afternoon, and Sophie was just in the process of closing down the shop for the day when she heard the castle door open and close with a near slam. Setting down her basket of flowers she hurried inside the house, only to hear the bathroom door close loudly as well before she could even make out who it was. Of course, the fact that it was the bathroom door that slammed told her anyway.
She turned to Calcifer, who was looking at the bathroom door, a rather confused expression on his face. Then he turned to her, and with a shake of his head, told her that she should just leave Howl alone, for now.
It was several hours later before Howl came out of the bathroom. His suit was in pristine condition, his spells were in place, he smelled like lilacs and his now raven black hair was combed back in an impeccably neat fashion. He smiled to her and bent down to kiss her cheek in a very flirtatious way, saying, "Sophie my love! That meat pie smells absolutely divine! When do we eat?"
Sophie smelled a rat. Howl had never gotten so dressed up just for her, and now that it was getting to be late in the day, she doubted there would be anywhere else that he would be planning to go.
Sophie's nose started to itch.
Still, she had sworn she was going to get some food into the man, so she decided to do that first. Calling Michael in from the yard where he had been working on a spell, she set the work bench and soon everyone was sitting down and chatting amiably, or at least they tried to.
"So Howl, what was that spell you two were working so hard on the last two days?"
"Oh, can we please not discuss work. I don't want to think about it anymore. I really have been over working too much. The king must think that wizards are capable of surviving without sleep."
When Sophie looked at Micheal, he just shrugged his shoulders. "Don't look at me, I never really even got to touch it." The apprentice shot an accusing glare in Howl's direction, but said nothing.
They ate in silence for a moment. Just when Sophie was about to ask another question, Howl turned to Micheal.
"So Micheal, how is your Lettie?"
"I told you, here name's really Martha." And there he turned an accusing glare at Sophie, "And I can't believe you didn't tell me. All this time I've been calling her 'Lettie' and that's not even her name. I feel like a fool."
"Ah, Love makes fools of us all." Stated Howl, with an air of noble melancholy.
Sophie snorted, "Some more than others."
Howl turned to her, "Speaking from experience, Sophie?"
Sophie almost chocked on a piece of crust, and sent her fiancé a withering glare while Michael and Calcifer snickered together.
"Yes, yours." She managed, once she could speak again. Howl leaned forward and touched her forehead with his hand.
"Are you sure you're feeling alright Sophie? Your comebacks usually aren't quite so…lame…"
And again Calcifer and Micheal snickered and Howl sat back, looking smug.
"I'll show you lame." And she kicked his shin under the table. Howl grabbed his injured leg and held back few expletives while Michael and Calcifer began roaring with laughter. "And there's plenty more where that came from." Sophie stood and went to retrieve the cake.
"You laugh, but don't forget who pays for everything around here. I am so under appreciated. It's tragic!"
"The flower shop pays for everything, you're too much of a spendthrift to make money." Calcifer corrected.
"Speaking of money Howl, where did that sack go that the king gave you? There must have been two dozen coins in there at least!" Exclaimed Michael, eyes wide.
"And I thought we agreed not to speak about work anymore tonight. I'm so tired."
"Slitherer." Sophie muttered as she brought the cake out. Howl pretended not to hear her.
Half way through the cake, Sophie's patience ran out and she finally asked the question she'd been waiting to ask all night.
"So, Howl, is everything all right in Wales now?"
"Say, Michael, this cake is delicious. What's it called?"
Michael looked at Howl as if he'd grown a third nostril, "It's marvelous cake. Your favourite."
"Ah, yes well, this one is exceptionally good, tell me-"
Sophie was tempted to mash the remainder of the cake into Howl's face. "I said, is everything all right in Wales now? Is you sister okay? Is her husband back? What?"
"Perfectly all right. Gareth is back at home where he belongs, and Megan is happy once again. Mmm. They must have changed the recipe somehow. More chocolate? More cream? Or is it less of something."
"Is that where the coins went?" This from Michael
"Oh bother the money. That's all I am to you, isn't it?"
"Ha!" Calcifer snorted, "A second ago he was complaining about being under appreciated!"
"What is this, 'gang up on Howl' night?"
"Howl. If everything's fine, when can we go tell them about the wedding?"
"Not you too Sophie, love? I'm tired."
"You spent three hours in the bathroom when you could have taken a nap. When can we tell them about the wedding?"
"Oh come now Sophie, do we really need to do that..."
"YES! Yes we do!"
Howl let out a long, suffering sigh, placing his half eaten cake back on the table as he started to rise. Sophie was just about to protest again when he spoke.
"We're not going to." He said, still looking at the table, "I'm shutting down the Wales entrance first thing tomorrow. Excuse me."
No one spoke for a moment as Howl slowly made his way to the stairs. Calcifer and Michael shared a meaningful look and Calcifer disappeared up the chimney while Michael headed for the flower shop. Sophie stared at her fiancé.
"…Howl." She began gently, but when he refused to answer her voice gained in volume. "Howl? What happened? Why are you shutting down the Wales entrance?"
He mumbled something she didn't quite here.
"Howl?" She reached for him, And in an instant, he turned on her.
"I SAID LEAVE IT ALONE!" The whole house seemed to shake with the force behind those words. Jars rattled, doors shook and dust fell from the ceiling.
Sophie jumped back instinctively, terror crossing her features.
It died down a second later, and she was left staring up at Howl, whose air quickly shifted from blind rage, to guilt, and shame. He muttered a hoarse, "sorry", turned, and fled up the stairs.
Sophie lay in bed that night, completely bereft of sleep. She had gone to bed early, hoping to maybe talk to Howl about what had happened, or at least comfort him in some way. Howl had been passed out snoring, dead to the world, and remained that way still. Sophie reminded herself that the man had been exhausted, and let him sleep.
She, however, remained wide awake, her mind a swirling mess of worry, guilt and anger. What had happened to make Howl want to leave Wales? As far as she knew, his family had always looked down on him, but that had never made Howl want to alienate himself from the country of his birth altogether. Whatever happened must have been truly hurtful to Howl. And, she added with a feeling of guilt, her nagging probably hadn't helped matters either.
A soft moan from her side made Sophie realize that all her tossing and turning were beginning to have an effect on Howl's slumber. Sighing quietly, Sophie removed herself from under the covers and put on her robe for warmth. Maybe tea and a chat with Calcifer would settle her brain. She took a minute to admire the handsome face of her beloved in slumber, his hair tousled and out of place, and a shadow growing on his chin. She smiled and slipped down the stairs.
She did not stop at the bottom though, nor did she stop at the kitchen. She didn't stop until she was standing before the door and the knob, gathering her courage before she turned it black side down. Mind made up, she strode across the room to the hearth, and used the poker to gently prod Calcifer from his sleep.
"…mn…heat your own water Howl…"
Sophie jabbed a little harder, "Calcifer!"
"What! Ow! Sophie!"
"Shhh yourself! What do you want?"
"I need you to open the door for me when I come back."
Calcifer twisted green eyebrows in confusion, "Come back? Where are you going?"
There was a determined set in Sophie's jaw. "Howl won't talk about what happened in Wales, so I'm going to wake up the only other people who know and make them tell me."
Calcifer balked at her…then slowly relaxed into a mischievous grin. "He'll be mad as hell at you for it, Miss Nose. He may even slime the place…"
"Ha! Like I haven't dealt with that before."
The smile only grew. "Well then. Promise to fill me in on all the juicy details."
"As many as I can get." And with that, she was gone.
Megan was pulled out of sleep by a steady pounding, which she came to recognize as a sound, which was coming from their front door. Her heart instantly froze and Gareth stirred beside her.
"Bugger all. It's fucking one in the morning! What do they want!"
"Do you think it's Surrey?"
Gareth was silent for a moment. "More likely the police, looking for that no-good brother of yours."
The pounding continued.
"Fucking hell! All right already!" Gareth cursed and pushed himself from the bed. "Gods, this had better be good!"
Behind him, Megan was up as well, ready to fly to the nearest phone just in case it was Surrey again. She memorized the number for 911, thanking every deity she could think of that her children were still across town. She waited on the stairs while Gareth looked through the peep hole.
"What the bloody hell!" Gareth had the door open before Megan could move. "Lady! Do you know what time it is! For Chrissakes!
"I'm very well aware of the time, thank you, but this is important." Something about that voice sounded familiar and Megan struggled to place it. "What did you do to Howl?"
Megan made the connection immediately while Gareth started cursing up the storm.
"Miss Hatter?" Gareth stopped to stare at his wife. "Is something wrong? Is Howl okay?"
"Serve the bugger right if he got hit by a car." Megan and Sophie both glared at him, and Gareth decided to shut up.
Sophie began, "No he's not okay. He came home this afternoon very upset. He's threatened to never return to Wales again. I want to know why."
"How the hell should we know why that idiot does anything? You woke us up in the middle of the frigging night bec-"
"Gareth." There was a warning tone in Megan's voice. Gareth sighed.
"Look. I dunno what happened to him. I just told him to leave, and take his frigging drug money with him. Here, you can have it back. Like I said, we'd rather starve to death than live off his goddamn blood money." Gareth turned to retrieve the bag from the living room but stopped when Sophie spoke.
"…blood money." And she repeated again, as if in trance, "blood money?"
By this time it was quite clear to Gareth that the strange woman was shaking in rage. "Blood money! How dare you! How dare you, you stupid, hateful, wretch of a man! Blood money! Howl worked for that money to be able to help you and you turn around and accuse him of being a MURDERER!"
And then another thought struck Sophie, and she became pale just as quickly as she had become enraged. She let out a gasp of, "Oh gods, Howl!" and then flung her self at the Perry's front door. Gareth, thinking she was attempting to break into the house, moved to block her.
"Woah, hey now! What the hell do you think your doing!"
"Move! You goon, I'm trying to go home! I don't care if Howl never sees you again and so help me I wish he had never tried to help you in the first place. I should have listened to him about the wedding and not tried to invite you, and then he wouldn't have…oh Howl." She stopped struggling long enough to wipe tears from her eyes. Before reaching for the door with renewed strength. Gareth held firm.
"Damnit move!" By this time, even Sophie could feel that she was being hysterical, but didn't stop. "Oh Howl. Damn this war! Damn Strangia and the King, and damn you!" She stomped on Gareth's foot as hard as she could with her heel, only to be pulled away from him moments later by Megan.
"Witch! What the hell do you think your doing!"
Megan sent him a warning glare and returned to soothing Sophie out on the porch of their house, or at least trying to. She mumbled "there there's" and held Sophie in such a way that the younger woman knew she was being patronized. It was enough to sober her from her hysteria. Under control once again, she glared at Megan, an action that seemed to surprise the woman.
"You're just as bad…you know." She took a pause to catch her breath. "You all seem to think Howl's some kind of dead beat. I'll admit he's not perfect, but he's good at what he does, probably the best. There's no one around who can match him."
Megan backed off and Gareth let out a snort, "And what, pray tell, is he so good at? Leeching off others?"
Sophie grit her teeth, and made her decision in a split second. "If you must know, Howl is one of two royal wizard's of Ingary, and the best at what he does. He has a house, an apprentice, AND," She glared at Megan, "a cleaning lady."
In the silence that followed, Gareth moved quietly out the door, and stood just beside his wife. "Megan, go inside. You'd better call Arkam."
Megan blinked, recognizing the name of the local insane asylum. "Gareth?"
"Just go Megan."
And at that moment, Sophie made her move. Dashing around the far side of Megan, she lunged for the door, managing to grasp the handle just as Gareth forcefully pulled her out of the house. Sophie let him, taking the door with her, and then brought her leg up to kick him in the mid section once the door was closed. She called out, "Calcifer!" and then opened the door again, barely making it inside before she was tackled, this time being dragged harshly down to the floor.
"Get off of me you oaf! Get off, get off!"
"Megan, call the… …"
There was a rather long period of silence as Megan and Gareth took in their surroundings. Too stunned to keep Sophie pinned any more, she wiggled out of Gareth's grasp and stood, dusting herself off. She waited a moment longer before letting out a long sigh.
"Come on, get up, get up. And be quite, Howl's sleeping upstairs."
Megan found her voice, "Th-this is Howl's house?"
"Castle actually, well…shop…manor…thing…We live here."
"Well for now, anyway. We may have to look elsewhere when Howl finds out you invited his family over. There'll be green slime for a week at least!" He looked over to find Megan and Gareth staring at him, mouths open. "What! Haven't you ever seen a fire demon before?"
"D-demon?" Gareth managed, intelligently.
"Oh for…Look, I'm out of here. Good luck Sophie." And then he was gone.
Sophie snorted. "Deserter." She reached over and lit the lamp on the workbench. There was another long silence, which was eventually broken by Megan once again.
"Um…Miss Hatter? What…what happened to our house?"
Sophie blinked. "What? Oh, nothing. Wales is right through that door."
Megan and Gareth looked, but only saw nothing.
"Oh hang. It's a magic door, see? Watch." And Sophie moved to shut the door, expertly spinning the knob yellow down, and opening it wide.
Market Chipping was a silence, dimly lit by the many gas lamps up and down the street.
She shut the door and spun the knob again, purple down.
They were greeted by stars and the smell of flowers drifting in on the evening breeze.
"The black dot leads to Wales." She said, closing the door yet again, "And connects with your front…door…" She drifted off, her attention being drawn by a commotion upstairs.
Howl woke with a start, having just experienced the most horrible, absolutely terrifying nightmare in his life. Ben had failed in destroying the device like they had planned, and the deaths it caused had been phenomenal. There had been blood, twisted and mangled bodies, eerie screams, and all of them directed at him, their murderer. And that hadn't even been the worst part.
"Sophie." He groped for her in the darkness, his heart jumping in his chest when his arm reached the edge of the bed without finding her. Panic seized him. No, it wasn't true. It couldn't possibly! He sat up in bed, and shouted out a light spell in his terror. Too strong, it blinded his eyes which had been accustomed to the darkness. Covering his eyes he stumbled out of bed, tripped over a chair, fell, cursed, got up again. Killed the light spell. Opened his eyes, saw spots. Found the door and was soon pounding down the stairs. He burst through the door at the bottom, Sophie's name on his lips, and stopped, frozen.
Megan was in his living room.
And so was Gareth.
And so was Sophie.
Shock and anger welled within him, warring with existing fear and the desire to run to her and hold her.
Green eyes locked on Megan. Anger won.
"Out! OUT! Both of you out right this instant! OUT!"
Megan surprised everybody by walking straight across the room and slapping Howl clear across the face.
"Humph. Is that anyway to greet your sister in your home?"
"I don't remember inviting you to my home, now-"
"Well you bloody well should have! Jesus Christ Howl do you know how worried I've been about you? How we've all been about you? You waltz in at any time of day, from where/going where only god well knows. You left us no permanent address, no phone number, no possible way of contacting you and expect us all to be okay with that? You bloody well know I had Gareth out combing the streets for you the first time you disappeared and mother and father never forgave themselves for failing you, blaming themselves…"
"Oh don't go there. Don't you dare! The only way I could have not failed them was to have kept dad's company and become a lousy furniture salesman like he was."
"That's not true-"
"It is true! He never wanted me, he wanted some bloody clone of himself, and you know it!"
"He wanted you to be happy the only way he knew how."
"Of course it was the only way he knew, he never even tried to do anything else."
"Oh, and you tried so hard to understand him?"
"Oh for - just get out!
"No! Not until you invite me to your wedding!"
Howl didn't quite know what to say to that one. He glanced pointedly at Sophie, who looked just as surprised.
"I'm right aren't I?" Megan forged onward, "She mentioned a wedding…no cleaning lady goes and wakes people up in the middle of the night because their worried."
Sophie blushed lightly at that one.
"I'm still your sister, right? You'll invite me to your wedding, right?" there was a slightly pleading tone in Megan's voice now, "Right, Howee?"
It's a well known fact that Howl Jenkins has a soft heart, and that one word all but melted it. Wrapping his sister in his arms, he whispered, "I thought you had forgotten that…"
"Never Howee, never, you're my little brother after all."
"Hmph. I though I was just a irresponsible mooch, sucking you dry…"
"That's your fault, Mr. Wizard. You should have told me!"
"Would you have believed me?"
The happy moment lasted for a little longer, before Gareth cleared his throat. It seemed his brain had finally caught up with what was happening around him.
"Megan, its late. We should go now…"
The siblings gave each other one last squeeze before parting. "Come over for dinner tomorrow, I'd like to meet your cleaning lady."
"Now, now Megan." Howl scolded, "My fiancé and I will be sure to attend." Sophie and Howl escorted them to the door together, watching as they slipped through the thin veil of nothing. Sophie sighed, glad things had been worked out and now she could finally get some sleep. The moment she turned to leave, however Howl grabbed her, and Sophie soon found herself pinned to the back of the door by a rather angry looking wizard.
"Well Miss Nose, what do you have to say for yourself?"
"I, uh, Howm-mm" She felt her head pressed against the hard wood of the door, and the warm wetness of Howl's mouth slanting across her own, keeping her there.
"Sophie I love you."
And again the wood, the warm, and the wet…
She awoke to the sound of birds. Their songs filtering in with the sunlight that graced the sky in Wales. She shut her eyes against it, burying into the warm flesh below her. She knew she had to get up, but didn't really want to. She moved again, trying to block out more light. Arms circled around her, tracing lazy patterns down her naked back.
"I had the most awful dream last night, Sophie."
Sophie blinked and turned slightly to look at him, expecting to see humor in his eyes. She was surprised to find him serious.
"I used magic against Strangia in the war. High Norland found out, and sent people after me…but it wasn't me that they… they…"
Sophie moved into him, pressing her body against his, letting him feel her. "So that was how you got the money. You gave in to the king's request." The king and his advisors had been trying for months to get Howl and Ben to produce magic for the war, but both had refused, until now…
"Don't worry about it, Cariad" Howl kissed the top of her head, playing gently with her red-gold hair. "After all, you're engaged to the greatest slither-outer of all time"
Ben Suliman, first royal wizard of Ingary, stood at the front of the regiment beside the massive hunk of iron that was Howl's destructive magic spell. Staring out ahead at the Strangian army before him, Ben had only one thought.
"You owe me big time for this, Howl."
Facing the large object, he grasped it with the power of his magic and lifted it above his head. He hurled it across the gap toward Strangia's army when a sudden, single cannon ball seemed to fly out of their ranks and smash the spell to smithereens. There was a huge explosion, soldiers on both sides were knocked first backward and then forward as the wind rushed passed them and up, forming the most gigantic mushroom cloud anyone in Ingary had ever seen. There were mini explosions and flashes of lightning from inside the cloud, and the heat could be felt right to the back ranks of both armies. But for the most part, no one was hurt.
Strangia's moral was severely shaken, however, and they decided to pull back for the day and re-group, especially when Ben cast an illusion spell to make it seem as if he had ten of the same weapon standing at the ready. Ignoring their commands, the Strangian soldiers ran, scattering like flies. Ingary declared its victory soon after.
"Real shame about that cannon ball though," one general was heard to comment. "Imagine the chances of that happening?"
And everyone agreed.