Disclaimer: No, I really don't own Howl's Moving Castle.
Suzu: Here is a short, sweet story to tantalize the heart and soul. I noticed there aren't many fan fictions that put Howl and Sophie in an AU setting/character circumstance, so I made one. It was actually inspired by a Masami Tsuda story, 'the Tiger and the Chameleon'.
- In Which There Is Fateful Encounter -
Ever since birth, Sophie Hatter had been destined for something out of her reach to change.
Her future, her success, they were all measured only by the folklore and general understanding that surrounded the country of Ingary.
Actually, one could argue whether it was Sophie's birth that decided her well-being. Instead, it was probably the birth of two younger sisters that came to spell disaster. You see, Mr. Hatter was a modest man who owned a modest hat shop in a dowdy but still fairly interesting town called Market Chipping, in the country of Ingary. Unlike Ingary's capital—Kingsbury—Market Chipping could be easily overlooked.
But despite lackluster publicity, Market Chipping could still boast several things.
While a view of the green and gray hills dubbed the infamous Wastes of Ingary weren't normally much to declare, the people of Market Chipping were righteously self-important. After all, they were the few who saw the great and terrible magician Horrible Howl. Admittedly, Howl himself might not have been impressive if not for his ghastly moving castle. That was quite a sight. The great looming hulk occasionally peeped through misty white clouds, clanking away down the rolling pastures of the lonesome Waste.
Horrible Howl himself was known to be a mysterious and intriguing figure.
It was said that he ate beautiful girls' hearts. Most people half-believed it, though they assumed they'd never meet Howl on a normal day. Wizards and witches and such weren't supposed to just roam about on any days. Still, this was Ingary, and people had to keep a watch out for such things.
Sophie Hatter, however, had her own life to worry about. It wasn't that she was doomed. No, nothing so horribly doomful or otherwise exciting like a curse or a dangerous quest.
Instead, she was destined to live a life that was moderately and relatively un-superb.
When her mother died (leaving Sophie and her sister Lettie with their kindly father) the two girls had been amiable enough about gaining a stepmother. Mr. Hatter remarried a fairly nice lady named Honey. But it was later that Sophie's misfortune struck. A third child came along, and she was named Martha. So you see, it was Martha's fault, in the end, that Sophie should be destined as she was:
The firstborn of three.
As such, it was not in the cards for Sophie to succeed in life. Her sister Lettie would fare only a little better, leaving Martha, as the third child, to be the one who would seek her fortune one day to splendid results.
While some may have been ungracious and even resentful, Sophie was used to sympathetic stares by the time she'd entered grammar school. She'd read plenty of books to tell her she had not the same chance in life as the other girls in her school. That didn't stop her from taking life as it came, and perhaps figuring a way out of her plight. Young Sophie's head filled up quickly with folklore and almanac facts. She read that parents in Ingary stopped on their second child, but if that method did not work, they promptly had a fourth. Being the eldest of four was so much better than being the eldest of three.
Unfortunately, the three girls' father passed away soon after Martha started school. Honey had not remarried by the time all three Hatter girls were in their teens. The future looked bleak.
But Sophie plugged on with her life, without expecting too much from it in return.
She had taken to spending more and more hours in her father's shop. As the eldest, it seemed like her rightful duty to her father to keep his shop alive.
Lettie, however, being a rare beauty, resented her future in faring second-best. She soon lost interest in the hat shop as a worthy future. She demanded to be put into an apprenticeship where she could seek "as much fortune, no… more!" (she promised those who would listen) as Martha. Martha had tired of the shop too, and wanted to get away from the watchful eye of her mother. The arrangement that the still-young widow came up with was to be expected. Honey had put Lettie with the famous bakery in town, Cesari's, and Martha with a nice old witch who would teach her what she would need to know as the third child to seek her fortune one day.
Martha and Lettie, both being strong-willed, had argued so heatedly that, in the end, Honey gave up and let them go seek whatever profession they wanted. Martha ended up at Cesari's because, although she had wanted to be far from her mother, she had not totally been able to let herself leave home quite so far as another town. Lettie had gone to the old witch, Mrs. Fairfax, and asked in her charming Lettie way for an apprenticeship. She was not denied, of course.
Only Sophie had stayed in the shop, sewing the seams and cutting out material for extra lace.
Growing up around the craftsmen in the workshop behind the store, Sophie already knew the trade. She was also naturally gifted with the needle. One could see that the hats she did were charming beyond what a little hat shop in a little town usually produced.
And so Sophie kept on.
In time, even Honey grew bored of the monotony of the hat business. Perhaps the young widow discovered a gray hair one day, and finally decided to live life and put the past to rest. She spent more and more time away from the shop. Without Honey's chipper knack for business, sales declined. The usual buyers, who were friends with Honey, came less for hats than for gossip.
It wasn't that the hats weren't satisfactory—far from it, in fact. Sophie had become even more skilled in crafting fetching bonnets without help from her stepmother. Soon, seeing the business the hat shop was not getting, Honey told Sophie she was going away for a while to Kingsbury, supposedly to find a new location where they could start fresh, making hats or starting a new profession altogether.
While Honey was gone from Market Chipping, the shop declined even more. The hired help at the shop quit or retired, one by one. Soon, Sophie was left alone in the now dreary little hat shop. Honey had not been heard from in three months.
Sophie was the sole person still keeping the hat shop in business, if it could be called business.
Not many came to shop nowadays.
Occasionally, Martha would breeze in like a breath of wind to cheer Sophie up with a fine cream cake from Cesari's Bakery. But like the wind, she soon disappeared. These occasional visits became rare as the days went by, since Cesari's grew quite popular, leaving Martha less time to visit.
Sophie swore to herself that she would keep the shop running, no matter what.
It became harder and harder to do, however, when girls that used to attend grammar school with Sophie caught her on the streets buying groceries or behind the counter sewing would come up to Sophie and sneer at her. It was the especially prissy type, who were either the only daughters of woodcutters or just had a good omen determined at their birth. Their favorite subject to bring up with Sophie was always how she was the eldest of three…and how 'dear, poor Sophie' would probably never get out of the hat shop in order to seek her fortune—which would result in disaster, anyhow.
By and by, Sophie grew more and more reserved. She was rather practical and shy to begin with, so the extra hours in the shop by herself and the occasions when her peers would tease her were only added tortures to her nature. Her life settled into the routine of doing the shopping each morning, opening the hat store, sewing more hats or gazing at the passerby when they didn't come in, and trying to ignore the peevish comments and gossips that still crowded outside the door, talking just loud enough so Sophie could hear their 'whispered' comments.
It was on one of these days, a rather sunny, clear morning, that are story begins.
And fateful encounters, which often take place in Ingary as often as not, just happened to drop in.
Why, Sophie Hatter, eldest of three.
The sun was well into the sky when she left shop that morning. The Hatter house behind the artisan workshops led to the courtyard, which led to the front door of the store—and that was the route Sophie took to access the busy streets of Market Chipping in time to buy groceries each day. She hadn't much money, now that the hats weren't selling very well. But it didn't take a lot to feed just one.
Ginger hair fell into her eyes as she made her way to the produce stands. She brushed it aside, ruefully considering her pale skinny fingers as they traveled down to inspect the produce. Maybe some tomatoes so she could make a sandwich today at lunch. The open crates hosted a colorful selection, and she picked out her choice under the watchful eye of the shopkeeper. The morning air was fresh and carried wisps of smells from baking bread, boxes of soap, sweat from working hands, and whatever else the people of Market Chipping were up to that morning.
Sophie's voice was rarely used these days, but she was a familiar face that made calculating shopkeepers regard her warmly.
"Oh, 'bout a two-pence." The man stroked his great brown moustache as he accepted the money. He smiled before turning to help another customer.
She dropped her purchase in her shopping basket and hurried on. Sophie could wish nothing more than to hurry back to the isolation of her workbench, but she still needed to buy bread. The shoving hands and prodding arms of all the people on the street were almost like a tidal wave. A sharp scent of cloves assaulted her nostrils, a heady smell, not so different from the plants sewn onto the autumn bonnets in a few months time.
She could have gone to the plain bread stall that was down the lane. But she felt like doing something a little more than usual today—maybe it was because she was tired of the slow days and weeks, rolled into an endless, monotonous parade. She hadn't had one of Cesari's cakes in a while. And while luxury was not something she often spared for herself... it was May Day. Maybe she would buy herself a small slice of cake, with fresh cream and strawberries, and take it home to finish between several meals. With measured steps, careful not to get stepped on by the large crowd in front of Cesari's, Sophie approached. Her grip on her basket of meager contents was vice-like, knuckles white, as she squeezed through like a shadowy wisp.
Martha will be glad to see me, at least, she thought. However, before she had the chance to pass the throng idling in the front of Cesari's, three young ladies dressed in fine costumes with billowing skirts stepped in her path. The bright colors and lively patterns of their dresses stood in stark contrast to the gray drabness of Sophie's no-nonsense work dress.
"Well, look who it is."
Lissy, the silversmith's second daughter, turned her dainty mouth upwards when met with Sophie's silence. Mel, behind her, was a girl with a big voice to match her frame. Since grammar school, Mel had decided that, by bullying Sophie some, she would gain the favor of Lissy, who was by prettier and smarter (one had to admit) than herself. Gwen, the third, crouched behind Lissy, her lanky blue-black hair half-covering her face.
Mel smiled at Sophie. "Sophie Hatter, I did not know you left the hat shop at all these days." Gwen cracked a beaver-toothed smile.
Sophie ignored them. To be perfectly honest, she was desperately searching for an escape route from the three worst people she could have run into. Not that she particularly despised them. Everyone in town held their biases toward firstborns of three. These girls were just more explicit about it. It was that the three had so often in childhood liked to make other people's misfortune—or supposed future misfortune—the social 'project' of their own lives.
It was a very tiresome, time-consuming affair, to be 'pitied' by either Lissy or Mel.
Lissy tittered with the two girls standing behind her like oddly mismatched guards. "Have you heard the latest gossip, dear Sophie?"
"No." Sophie avoided eye contact. "I-I'm afraid I've been busy with errands."
"Come now, dearest, take a guess."
They clearly wouldn't leave her alone until she'd thought of something satisfactory. The crowded streets and people pushing and shoving into her space seemed to make the ground tremble at her feet. Sophie tugged her shawl closer to her. Maybe she was spending too much time in the hat shop. She sighed as she answered.
"I don't know."
This caused Mel to crow at the top of her lungs. "Of course you don't know! You're the simpleton—eldest of three. I should have known you wouldn't know about Georgina Rice."
Lissy frowned at Mel's unlady-like outburst, but flashed a sugar-coated smile at Sophie. "Well, dear Sophie - " and here Lissy inserted a soft, sad look at her addressee " - everyone knows that two days ago, Georgina Rice was accosted by a wizard."
"—Horrible Howl" added Mel, flipping her locks over to one side of her round face.
Lissy nodded slowly, gauging the Hatter's reaction, looking for a weakness to attack. "Had her heart stolen. Poor Georgina, she's locked herself in her room, you know. I went to see her," Lissy added with great importance. "The dear wouldn't accept any visitors, but I've heard her ranting about how handsome and sweet he was." And here Lissy laughed lightly, as if she found her old classmate's anguish extremely amusing. Sophie felt a pang of sympathy for Georgina, although one had to admit that the girl had always been a little too bubble-headed for her own good.
"I see." Sophie tried to sidestep politely, but Mel spoke up after her.
"You'd better watch out for the roaming wizards nowadays. Maybe, if Howl stole Georgina's heart, he'll come after you next!" shouted Mel. "Lord knows wizards have taste!"
Sophie ignored the comment, moving away at a brisk pace.
She turned from Cesari's to walk along the alleys as to not bump into fresh waves of people. Why those girls were always so interested in gossip never seemed to reach Sophie's head in clear understanding. Georgina probably didn't even meet a wizard. It was probably just a regular fellow, one of those tavern men who drank ten gallons a day and sought women everywhere. This was the kind Honey had warned her, Lettie, and Martha about. Georgina was just the type to get heartbroken by such a brute. The outside world really was far too dangerous and wicked. She needed to get back to her familiar world of thread, felt, and wax. She needed to head home and -
Caught up in her rush to get home to open shop, Sophie nearly collided with someone.
After grazing her with a very fancy trailing sleeve, the figure hurriedly dodged into the dark alley. If Sophie had cared to stop the rude passerby and take in her surroundings, she'd have known that the alley led to a dead end. As it was, Sophie hurried on further before coming to a halt.
The subtle scent of hyacinths caught her attention. It was the same perfume as her late mother's, and it was far too expensive to use on any of the hat shop products.
Sophie, whose natural curiosity still rebelliously piqued as in her grammar school days, retracted her steps to the cusp of the dim alley. She didn't expect to see the person who had been going at posthaste speed. The last thing on her mind was to demand an apology, as Lettie undoubtedly would have.
Peering in with the purest of intentions, Sophie was caught by a flicker of movement in the darkest part of the alleyway. She leaned forward into the space between the two walls, shopping basket clutched tightly in both hands.
Out of the narrow dark space, two striking blue eyes blinked back.
Then, the shadowy figure stepped forward, peeling away from the wall, so that she could see a vague outline of him. He was tall, male. Sophie felt the urge to run away, in case the strange young man was dangerous, you understand. But even in the poor lighting, she could see he was that dashing, noble-looking specimen (if you liked that sort), and seemed uninterested in accosting her. It seemed almost comical for her to flee.
The man brought a finger to his lips. Then he shook his head slowly, as if telling her not to draw near. From his tapered wrist, the inset of fine embroidery gleamed on a fashionably trailing sleeve. A twinkle from a jewel winked out of the darkness.
Sophie exhaled a breath she didn't know she'd been holding, and turned away from the alley. Nothing to see here.
But, overcome by curiosity, she turned her head back. The young man had leaned back against the wall, as if resuming a hide-and-seek game where there was no seeker. Even after Sophie forced herself to walk a few steps more toward the direction of home, that image of those bright, glassy, blue eyes still mystified her. She resolutely ignored the tugging in her chest. She clutched her hand against her basket handle and turned back to the street.
"You there! Miss!"
Sophie flinched as a gruff voice shocked her senses. A well-dressed sergeant and his crew marched up the lane. Their rhythmic steps on the cobblestones were almost as loud as their outfits. Passerby parted give way. Sophie's nerves thrummed as the bearded sergeant demanded something in his loud, booming voice.
"Miss. You've seen an overdressed young fellow with ridiculously long sleeves rush by here?"
It was almost a statement, and not a question. Sophie immediately thought to the man in the alley, and the silhouette of scalloped sleeves against the shadows. But then Sophie remembered the finger he'd put to his lips to signify silence. And the way he'd smiled to reassure her.
Her voice was small compared to the sergeants, but she replied evenly.
"I… I think he might have gone that way." Finger steady, Sophie felt almost not herself as she daringly pointed towards the big crowd at Cesari's and lied to the officer. "Towards that crowd of people, Sir."
The sergeant didn't doubt her word. Sophie almost felt inclined to tell the man that soldiers were far too naive and quite bad at their jobs these days, but thought better of it. The sergeant barked a command at the guards behind him, and the group marched back up from where they came. The street filled again as people returned to the humdrum of market day.
Sophie stood there, frozen in place.
'Oh drat! I am the firstborn of three after all! Becoming a liar is surely in the cards.' She wrung her dress a bit. 'It's okay, Sophie. You won't do it again, and the police won't come back here and question you. And you will not save any more strange men in alleyways.'
Sophie had taken to speaking to herself in the past few months. Not that one could blame her that much. Having nothing but hats for company for a great deal of time does make one rather lonely, whether they would admit it or not. For the second time, she barely noticed when a figure came up behind her.
A warm pressure settled on her shoulder. Sophie flinched.
A light laugh echoed near her ear.
"No need to be afraid."
Sophie really did jump this time. The voice behind her seemed to chuckle every time her shoulders twitched. Brain racing, Sophie turned around to face whomever was at her back.
Scalloped, silver-trimmed sleeves, attached to the arm, then the hand on her shoulder.
The silver filigree and silky blue fabric put to shame anything the other people in the square were wearing at the moment.
Her eyes trailed upward to a smiling face.
It was much clearer in broad daylight. Here was the young man. He looked in his twenties. Fair, golden hair fell loosely to brush his shoulders. Sure enough, striking blue orbs twinkled with a hint of mischief in a face Sophie couldn't help but compare it to the portraits of Prince Charming that Martha used to dribble with the hot wax in the shop.
The man grinned at her clinical observation—not a leer, but a full smile that revealed dazzling white teeth. It was likely the King of Ingary would kill for the charm in that smile.
"I wanted to thank you."
"Oh," Sophie's mouth felt dry at the sheer proximity of another human. She was no misanthrope. But the months of working alone in the hat shop had caused her social skills to mold. Even less developed was her understanding of men. Men, Sophie knew close to nothing about. If it were boys, at least there were the old crowd in grammar school that teased her for her hair.
As if sensing her discomfort, the man removed his hand from her shoulder. Readjusting her stance, she scolded herself for being as weak as to swoon like a schoolgirl.
"You're welcome," she got out, stiffly.
Then silence all-too-quickly resettled the space between the two. The stranger smiled down at her. He was kind enough to attempt to melt a bit of the tension. But at the sound of a rich tenor, Sophie felt herself tensing again, much to her own disapproval.
"You really saved me back there. I was in a lot of trouble with those men."
Owlishly, Sophie blinked. She nodded once, and then strategically looked down at her feet as she tried to turn away. Since she couldn't think of much polite and socially appropriate conversation at the moment, she had to resort to drastic measures such as sign language.
I need to go, every part of her seemed to radiate.
The young man only laughed again.
"Don't be scared, you little mouse. I'm only trying to escort you to where you're going."
He paused, and looked around the square at the crowds of people that rushed by. Against them, he seemed to stand out like a beacon, pushing to the background the sloshing waves of people, illuminated and commanding attention.
"So, where to?"
Sophie shook a little, eyes averted so as to not look at the figure beside her. Normally, not looking at someone, trying to not hear them, and by all effects willing to remain anonymous to others did the job. However, everything about this man demanded attention: his mannerisms, his voice, the twinkle of his eyes framed by the golden fan of his hair. The smell of the hyacinth traveled up her nose and unnerved her. Its nostalgic edge made her think of the past, of her mother, of when she was not the eldest of three, when she was a success, when she was free.
Sophie took a deep breath, but before she could make herself release it slowly, it came out in one, big, quivering rush.
"It's really alright!"
She stood there, shocked stiff at her own outburst. Her shoulders hunched over like an old lady as she cringed at what rebuke might come. Taking a raspy breath, she let the words out in short syllables as her face burned with what she knew was shame.
"I m-mean—you…don't…have…to." Her tongue seemed to have a mind of its own to clamp up. "I'm q-quite comfortable by myself."
Letting her clenched fists slowly unfurl, Sophie reminded herself of her duty at the hat shop. Yes. She would walk home from here, and it would take less than five minutes. The last five minutes of her little escapade from the dull monotony of her eldest-daughter life. She willed herself to be composed, and gain the pragmatism that was her greatest companion since childhood.
The sophisticated stranger, seemingly determined to accost her, only smiled, although Sophie detected traces of sympathy in that dazzling grin. It made her face burn in shame more intensely.
In the years that she'd been teased, nothing seemed to compare to these few minutes (was it even 60 seconds?) spent with him.
Her voice came out sounding like a squeak.
"I think we ought to set out, then," he responded kindly, pityingly. "I know a great place for a refreshment. It's just around the corner and down that street."
"S-Sir, if you insist." This next sentence came out better, and Sophie congratulated herself a little, feeling more confident. The young man brushed aside flaxen hair and peered down the cobbled sidewalk.
"All right then, if I must escort a lady, let me do it properly." Following that declaration with a twinkling laugh, he linked his finely sleeved arm with Sophie's and marched them straight down the crowded street (which was no small feat).
The next moments seemed to pass like a blur. The sun beat down upon the busy marketplace, and Sophie felt lost among the loud sounds and clattering footsteps in the walkways. However, with the man's arm around her own, she also felt light, floating above all the other swarming heads. It was just her and her escort beside her, who was taking sure, confident steps out into the world, occasionally flashing a white smile at the people who passed by and nodded. Her heart picked up its thudding only when they came up to the front of the shop to see a group of girls already there, milling about in the front and laughing, peering inside in jostling manners.
Sophie knew they were looking for her.
Lissy wasn't in the group, but Mel was. She took one look at the dashing figure the stranger cut beside Sophie and balked. Though they were quite a distance away, Sophie tried not to squirm uncomfortably. Fortunately, Mel seemed to size up the situation, and promptly decided to pick up her skirts and walk down the street posthaste towards the healer to have her eyes checked.
It was not everyday you saw such a gorgeous one with a Sophie Hatter look-alike. The other girls twittered, milling around a second more before dispersing like a ring of gaily-colored parakeets, some heading in the direction of Mel, others returning to whatever business they had left unattended before.
The blonde man, sensing his companion's slowing down but seemingly oblivious to the hostile disbelief nearby, glanced down at Sophie.
Sophie's head was spinning at this point. She still felt terrible about lying to the sergeant, and she still hadn't eaten food that day. It was past noon. She was faced with the dilemma of excusing herself from the gentlemanly stranger, of telling him about the girls who would undoubtedly re-flock, making her excuses about attending the hat shop, revealing it had very little business… about her own fate…or denying him all that and letting them remain strangers.
It was undeniably the safer route, since he would probably look at her in contempt and leave if he ever found out about her standing in the family. Sooner was better than later.
'I need to get home.'
She felt dizzy. Those clear blue eyes seemed to know everything already, peering through her with that inquisitive glance. Sophie's throat felt dry.
Maybe it was an excuse. Perhaps punishment for lying. Anyhow, the words tumbled out.
"I-I am the eldest of three."
The man continued to peer at her in that tranquil way, while Sophie was now frozen to the spot for disgrace and humiliation. Finally, his words broke through her silence.
It wasn't what she'd been expecting. The innocent way in which it was said offered her hope, and yet, at the same time, a big milestone in her gullet seemed to roll out of its place, and out of the hole, guilt upon guilt rushed out—despair at the months holed up alone with no company; disappointment at being denied the ability to dream in life just because she had two sisters after her.
"P-please." Sophie tried to wrestle her arm back, and step away from him. At the same time, she tried to explain, but the words came out a mess. "I—I have responsibilities to my late father. I need to open the shop today, or they'll be no money for next month's orders of autumn hat trimmings and I haven't visited my sister and I—"
She wanted to tell him. There were things that could be divulged to strangers that could never be, to familiar faces.
A small stone started the avalanche-like parade of words. She told him about her sisters, about their apprenticeships. Sophie confessed her inner thoughts about what Honey had said before she left for Kingsbury, leaving her by herself to take care of her father's shop when the rest of the girls her age were being introduced in society. She revealed the truth of the girls who stopped by everyday just to tease her outside the hat shop window. The things she'd been bottling up came crashing down upon this poor, handsome near-stranger.
At the end of it all, Sophie felt like a complete fool.
"I'm"-hic-"quite sorry… I imposed myself too much!" she gasped out.
Sophie stood there, mutely. Her heart thudded against her chest, and she felt rising flush on her cheeks.
She dared not look up at him, but the young man's tone was warm as he leaned down towards her.
"Let me help…"
It all started out so innocently.
Sophie felt his hand brush a strand of ginger hair from her face.
"I'll make you a bargain…
Since you helped me this morning"
I never knew it would lead so far.
"I'll lend you a hand with your father's hat shop…"
His soft breath tingled by her ear.
"—for seven days"
Fate extends its hand in strange ways…
"Wait for me when you open shop, tomorrow... "
Sophie's breath caught mid-beat of her heart.
"…on the first day."
But I think he did things even more strangely.