I noticed there aren't many fan fictions that put Howl and Sophie in an AU setting. This was loosely 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 resentful, Sophie was used to sympathetic stares by the time she entered grammar school. She 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.
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 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 and the teasing only exacerbated her reclusiveness. Life settled into the routine of shopping each morning, opening the hat store, sewing more hats, gazing at the passerby when they didn't come in, and trying to ignore the gossips that still crowded outside the door.
It was on one of these days, a rather sunny, clear morning, that this story begins.
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 with pale fingers that then traveled down to inspect the produce. Maybe some tomatoes for a sandwich at lunch. The open crates hosted a colorful selection, and she picked her choice under the watchful eye of the shopkeeper. The morning air 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.
"Oh, 'bout a two-pence." The man stroked his great brown moustache as he accepted the money. Sophie was a familiar face that made calculating shopkeepers smile, 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 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.
There was a bread stall down the lane. But she felt like doing something a little more today—maybe because of the slow days and weeks, rolled into an endless, monotonous parade. She hadn't had one of Cesari's cakes in a while. Although luxury was not something she often spared for herself... today 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 framing a crooked smile.
Mel smiled at Sophie. "Sophie Hatter, I did not know you left the hat shop at all these days."
Sophie ignored them. It was a very tiresome, time-consuming affair, to be 'pitied' by either Lissy or Mel. 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. 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'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.
"I-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," this fact was stressed, 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 scent that trailed her late mother after she brought in bright bouquets every morning to spruce up the shop, back when it did well.
Sophie, whose natural curiosity rebelliously piqued as in her grammar school days, retracted her steps to the cusp of the dim alley. She didn't expect to see anyone, since they had walked with such haste. And the last thing on her mind was to identify a perpetrator and demand an apology, as Lettie undoubtedly would have.
With the purest of intentions, Sophie peered into the alleyway. She caught a flicker of movement in the darkest part of the narrow, shadowed space. She leaned forward into the space between the two walls, shopping basket clutched tightly in both hands.
Out of the dark, two striking blue eyes blinked back.
Then, a shadowed figure stepped forward, as if peeling away from the wall. She could see a vague outline of him. He was tall, male. That was two descriptors too much for her. 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.
Slowly, the stranger brought a finger to his lips. The trace of a smile lingered there as he shook his head, 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 somewhere behind his chin-length hair.
Sophie exhaled a breath she didn't know she'd been holding, and turned away from the alley.
Nothing to see here.
But, again overcome by curiosity, her neck seemed to turn on its own. The man had leaned back against the wall, as if resuming a hide-and-seek game where there was no seeker. Even as Sophie forced herself to walk a few steps more toward the direction of her home, that image of those bright, glassy blue eyes mystified her. Resolute, she clutched her hand against her basket handle and turned back to the main street.
"You there! Miss!"
Sophie flinched at the gruff voice. A well-dressed sergeant and his crew marched briskly 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 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 scalloped sleeves. 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.
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.'
She 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, as a light laugh echoed near her ear.
"No need to be afraid."
Sophie really did jump this time. The voice behind her seemed to muffle a chuckle every time her shoulders twitched. Numbly, she turned to face whomever was at her back.
Those sleeves again! This time clearly attached to the arm, then a warm hand with tapered fingers, perched casually on her shoulder. Everything was much more vivid in broad daylight.
Sunlight confirmed exactly what she'd suspected (and feared, a bit): he was devastating to look at. He appeared 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 observation—not a leer, but a smile revealing a proportionate amount of dazzling white teeth. It was likely the King of Ingary would kill for the persuasion in that smile.
"Thank you, for just now."
"Oh." Quite unfortunately, Sophie's body seemed to seize up at this interaction. Her 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. Furthermore, men followed social cues from other women, and that was worst of all, for a firstborn.
As if sensing her discomfort, the man removed his hand from her shoulder. Sophie immediately readjusted her stance, taking a step back, then scolded herself for her manners.
"You're welcome," she got out, stiffly.
Silence all-too-quickly resettled the space between the two. The stranger kindly attempt to melt a bit of the tension, and opened his mouth. "You really saved me back there," he smiled. "I was in a lot of trouble with those men." But at the sound of his smooth, easy tenor, Sophie felt herself tense again, much to her own disapproval.
She nodded once, and then strategically looked down at her feet. 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, the stranger in his flamboyant clothes seemed to stand out like a beacon, pushing to the background the sloshing waves of people. This only added to Sophie's discomfort.
"So, where to?"
Sophie considered this. 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 a child with big dreams for the future.
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!"
Her knees knocked together, shocked stiff by her own outburst. Her shoulders hunched over like an old lady as she cringed at what rebuke might come. Words rasped out in short syllables as her face burned.
"You don't... have to." Her tongue seemed to have a mind of its own. "I'm comfortable by myself."
As her fists slowly unfurled, Sophie reminded herself of her duty. The hat shop. Her father's will. Taking care of her younger sisters and stepmother. Yes. She would walk home from here, and it would take less than five minutes. The last five minutes of her silly little escapade from tasks more befitting of the eldest-daughter life. She willed herself to be composed. To muster up the pragmatism that was her greatest companion since childhood.
But the stranger looked perplexed. Curious. In the years that she'd been pitied and teased, nothing compared to this.
"I..." Unfortunately, her stubborn tongue refused to continue.
"I think we ought to set out, then," he said smoothly. "I know a great place for a refreshment. It's just around the corner and down that street."
"If I must escort a lady, let me do it properly." Following that declaration with a twinkling laugh, the stranger held out his arm to Sophie. Tentatively, she took it, and they marched together straight down the now very crowded street (no small feat).
The next several minutes blurred together. The sun beat down upon the busy marketplace, and while Sophie felt lost among the loud sounds and clamoring streets, she also felt light, floating above all the other swarming crowds. It was a world where she didn't stare straight, or shrink, or stumble, as they toured the bustling city walkways. He didn't seem to have a direction at all, and Sophie had to half-run to keep up. Where was this 'place for a refreshment'? Unwittingly, Sophie let it go. She strode with the mysterious stranger beside her, gradually mimicking his sure, confident steps, as they occasionally flashed smiles at the people who passed by and nodded, charmed by the young pair.
Both Sophie's smile and heart fell when they came up a familiar street. The front of the Hatter shop featured a gaggle of girls, milling about in the front and laughing, peering inside while jostling each other.
Lissy wasn't in the group, but Mel was. She took one look at the tall figure beside Sophie and balked. Though they were still a distance away, Sophie tried not to squirm under the multiplying gazes. 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 they saw such a fine specimen with a Sophie Hatter look-alike. The girls twittered, before dispersing like a ring of brightly colored parakeets, some heading in the direction of Mel, others returning to business they had left unattended before.
Curious, her companion glanced down at Sophie, who now felt a rush of anxiety.
She shouldn't have lied to the sergeant. She should have finished her chores more quickly. It was past noon. Now she was faced with the dilemma of choosing to abruptly excuse herself from the stranger, wherein the girls would undoubtedly re-flock, or heading inside the hat shop, and revealing all its financial troubles.
Leaving abruptly was undeniably the safer route, since she had no desire for more pity if he found out about her situation. And leaving sooner was better than later.
'I need to open shop.'
Maybe it was a paltry excuse. But anyhow, her words tumbled out.
"I-I am the eldest of three."
But the man continued to stand by, quite tranquil, while Sophie's own feet now felt glued to the spot. His voice broke the silence.
It wasn't what she'd been expecting. The innocent way in which it was said offered her courage. And yet, at the same time, a big stone in her gullet seemed to roll out of its place, and out of the hole, unhappiness after unhappiness tumbled out—despair at the months holed up alone with no company; uncertainty at the future of her family's financial situation; disappointment at being denied the dream of a different life, just because she had two sisters after her.
"I'm sorry! I can't get refreshments. P-please." Sophie tried to wrestle her arm back, and step away from him.
"Don't apologize," he said carefully. "Are you busy?"
She tried to explain, but the words came out a mess. "I-I have responsibilities. 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 can't fail my late father now—"
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. Out poured the things about her sisters' apprenticeships, what her stepmother 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 to society. She revealed the truth of the girls who stopped by everyday just to tease her outside the hat shop window.
At the end of it all, Sophie felt like a complete fool.
"I'm" - hic - "quite s-sorry! I imposed myself!"
She dared not look up at him, but the young man's tone was warm.
"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.