As Others See
Rating: M overall, this chapter T. Some language, sexuality.
Summary: A magical misfire ends with the wrong Howls in the wrong worlds. Howl's Moving Castle (Movie) crossover with Howl's Moving Castle (book).
Author's Notes: AND I now have the approval of the betas to post this last bit-- thanks to sakura haru and sharpeslass! And thanks for your patience, readers.
Disclaimer: I do not own the characters in this story, Diana Wynne Jones or Studio Ghibli does. I'm just playing with them.
x x x
Chapter 10: Home and Home!
This time when everything went black, Howl/Howell was conscious. It felt right, like doing magic should feel, when it wasn't being flubbed/botched/blocked/interfered with. It was an eternal trip, over in a second.
There was a whoosh--
x x x
"--um." Howell arrived home after what had seemed an interminable and yet instantaneous trip with his hand still upraised, and the words still on his lips. He knew it was home because he arrived in the small dark room he'd built himself, and those were his books and bottles, and that was definitely the door to his bathroom. If he went upstairs he knew that there would be his sister's house in Wales out his bedroom window, just where it should be.
The crisp autumn sunlight shone through onto where he stood at the bench. And like all the very best entrances, he had an audience for this one. Standing or seated in various places were Michael, Ben Suliman, Lettie, and yes-- there, standing by the table, was his Sophie, glorious in her veil of red-gold hair and looking amazingly lovely in an orange dress.
"Hullo, everyone!" he said with a jaunty little wave of the hand he'd been holding in the air.
"That's Howl, all right," Sophie said, and then to Howell's immense surprise and delight, she practically threw herself onto him, arms wrapping around his shoulders to hold him tight. She gave him a quick, hard kiss, and Howell thought he might die of happiness from the sweet taste of her cool lips. Then she stepped back and smiled at him, the same besotted smile she'd given him the day she'd returned his heart. The heart in question thumped against his breastbone once, then twice. It was startling and it was fantastic at the same time.
"I can't be in the right place," Howell said, and held out his arms for more.
Sophie stepped forward again, hugged him for a brief, harsh moment, then stood back once more and slapped him. Hard.
Howell stared at her, raising a hand to his tingling cheek. He hadn't seen that coming. He'd have stopped it first, if he had. It hurt. "Good heavens, am I to be assaulted at every turn?" he finally asked her.
"You probably deserve all of it," Sophie said with a glare and crossed arms.
That was the Sophie Howell remembered. Not too nice and not too logical, just the way he liked her. Howell smiled, and rubbed at his cheek. He had his own family, and they had their own camaraderie. It may have been a somewhat contentious one, but it pleased him. Guilt was not for him.
Still, that slap had been in front of an audience, and Howell couldn't let it pass too easily. "Ben, why don't you do that thing you did before? The thing that calms down the hysterical ladies?"
"If you're home, then my work is done and I'm out of it, Howl," Ben told him, shaking his head. He looked at Lettie and stretched out a grey-cloaked arm. "Would you like me to show you what else I was working on before all of this business?"
"That's gratitude, Ben. Remember your head, and how you got it back," Howell pointed out. He was glad to be here, and thankful for Ben's help, but that didn't mean he could be mistreated or disregarded so easily.
Both Lettie and Ben ignored him. Lettie smiled, rather stupidly. "I'd love to."
"Well then I'd better go, also," Sophie said, giving Howell a look that could have been described as a cross between 'Tasmanian devil' and 'frightened rabbit.' "Michael, you'll finish cleaning up, won't you?"
"Sophie!" Howell gasped. What had Ben told her? Howell would have to find out, later. But now-- he didn't want to be alone. He wanted to talk with Sophie, and appreciate her, and do whatever he could to erase the memory of the other one. "You're not leaving already!"
"Why shouldn't I?" she asked, with raised eyebrows.
Howell had been wrong, before. This was not his same old Sophie. This Sophie had a bit of a new attitude, more assertive than passively-confrontational. He decided he sort of liked it. He wanted to know what had brought it on. He wanted to know everything. But she wanted to leave. He couldn't let her.
He didn't want to beg. But he knew he might sort of... have to. Today had been a learning experience all around, with all sorts of adventures of the soul. And Howell knew in his heart that she, of all people, most deserved to reap whatever benefits he could offer. "Please," he practically whispered, and then he coughed to strengthen his voice and his resolve to plead if he needed to. "Don't go. I… missed you. I'd like you to stay for… a while."
"What?" Sophie's jaw dropped, not as much as the other's had, but her surprise was evident all the same. She blushed a little, even curiouser and more exciting than her surprise. "I-- well-- all right, I'll stay for a bit."
They stared at each other for a few silent moments. Michael coughed.
"Welcome back, Howl," he said, and reached out a hand to shake Howell's.
Howell grasped Michael's hand and gave it a firm shake, feeling thankful in that moment that he had such a sober and reliable young man as an apprentice and not a distractingly cute young kid. Though he suspected that Michael might not be around all that much longer. The thought gave Howell's stomach a tiny twist; he'd just gotten his family back. "Did you miss me?"
"Oh. Of course," Michael said, stepping back and stuffing his hands into his pockets with a look that said, you're spooking me and I want to go, anyway. "That other guy-- Howl-- was pretty nice, though. But he wasn't you."
"Ah," Howell said. Nice was just as he'd expected. And all for the best, considering what havoc a wretch could have wreaked-- witness his own behavior. And this boring black suit he was wearing.
Though Howell was uncomfortably aware that something had changed in his absence. He was here with Sophie and Michael and there was no Lettie or Martha. The lovely Lettie had skipped out with Ben as if she hadn't a care in the world for hers or Sophie's reputations, and yet before yesterday, their reputations had been Howell's constant, frustrating companions.
And there was Michael even now, making leaving and Martha noises.
"Oh, just go on, Michael," Sophie said, cementing Howell's stupefaction. She looked at Howell and shrugged. "Calcifer's here."
"Oh, yeah," Howell said, and turned to his hearth to see that familiar blue-green face hovering there. His Calcifer was so much more cool. "Hey, Cal. Did you miss me, at least?"
"Nah," Calcifer said with a flap of his green flame-hair. "I figured you'd be back sooner or later."
"Did you?" Howell asked, and laughed. He was so very glad to be home, where nobody clung to him and made him feel guilty.
Michael ran out and despite Calcifer's presence, Sophie's face took on a bit of that nervous, twitchy aspect she'd had before. She turned in a rush, sending her pretty orange dress swinging about her ankles, and began to straighten the already-perfectly-straight things in the kitchen. Howell experienced an uncomfortable sense of déjà vu.
"So," Sophie said over her shoulder. "What was it like there?"
"Difficult. You can't know the day I've had," Howell said truthfully and with more of that déjà vu feeling.
"Ah." Her voice was carefully casual. Howell thought it was charming. "So I hear there was some sort of trouble when Ben arrived. What-- was that all about?"
Perhaps she was not so nervous and not so cute as Howell had first thought. That question had been so pointed he feared it might cut him open. He sat at the table, resisting the urge to change clothes, or rather, escape. "A misunderstanding," Howell said, equally as careful as she.
"I'm not surprised, mind you," Sophie said, still not looking at him. She took a deep breath. "Did sh-- they know who you were when it happened? When you were… switched?"
Howell's stomach gave a quick short wrench; it did not feel like nostalgia, as it had when he'd thought about Michael. It felt more like fear. Sophie wasn't asking the usual random questions she asked when she was upset. This must be a new mood, one he didn't recognize. A frightening insight that he did not know her as well as he'd thought and could possibly lose her was creeping into his brain. He would have to answer well. He'd already decided she deserved his good behavior, so he couldn't back out now (or, as Sophie might have put it, slither out). And he'd had lots of practice, this morning.
"Well…" he said. "Actually, no. As I said, a misunderstanding. I didn't know right away what had happened. They didn't know I wasn't him. I didn't want to lose that advantage."
"My," Sophie said, turning and giving him an odd look from her brown eyes. They were particularly knowing; or else Howell was simply growing paranoid. Then she turned back to her fidgeting at the kitchen counter. "You sound as though they were enemies, rather than victims of circumstance. They can't have been horrible. He was very… nice."
"So I hear," Howell said. He rocked his chair back and stretched out his legs, and looked at Sophie thoughtfully. "How nice?"
"Indeed," Howell said. Now he was becoming angry. Sophie didn't fall for nice people. She wasn't only trying to get information, she was needling him. And it was annoying. "Tell me more."
Howell rocked the chair forward, and its legs met the floor with a clunk. "You'd better just give it up now, Sophie, and tell me everything, because I'll find out one way or another."
"You have no right to tell me what to do. I am your fiancee, not your apprentice or your servant," Sophie said, swinging about to clench her fists at her sides and glare at him again.
Her eyes were practically glowing with anger, and her cheeks were pink, and her body language assertive; Howell's annoyance fled and his heart-- that item which was only an organ in his body and not connected with emotion at all-- clenched with that sudden fear again. And something else. Sophie had always been a feisty sort of kindly person but this-- this was an anger he'd never seen from her before. It was… exciting.
Fear and lust and anger made even more a heady mix of emotion than guilt and desire and comfort. Adrenaline coursed through his veins, and Howell forced himself to clasp his hands in front of him and only stare at her. He'd used to hate quarreling, but this was sort of exhilarating. And he would win. He would. "Tell me, Sophie."
"No. You tell me. You tell me what you did to those people. To her."
Enough was enough. Guilt and good intentions would only take him so far, and now they were completely useless. Howell jumped up from the chair and grabbed at her arms, holding them at her sides, and kissed her.
And wonder of wonders-- she kissed him back. Very well. There was aggression there, but also possessiveness, and passion. Somewhere in Howell's burning mind he knew that it wouldn't be like it had been with the other Sophie. It would be better.
He forgot Calcifer, forgot his worry and his guilt and his anger. At some point he released her arms and grabbed her waist to tug her closer, and she found an equally firm grip on his shoulders. After a few blissful minutes of completely abandoned activity, just when Howell thought he might go down on his knees and offer to be her devoted slave forever, he felt a sharp pain in his shin.
"Ow!" Howell yelled. She'd kicked him, hard, with her little ankle boot. He released her altogether in surprise, and she jogged back, out of reach, and then ran over to the closet to grab her cloak. Howell didn't try to stop her; he was still too stunned. From everything.
"I'm going home," she announced, breathing a bit heavily. "You'll probably see me again."
Little witch, Howell thought as he watched her whip out the door and slam it behind her, sending leaves from the street outside swirling through his castle room. And here he'd thought she'd been looking like a frightened rabbit. How he loved her!
Ever had he fallen in and out of love instantly; did his continued enchantment with his Sophie's ire in all its forms mean that he'd changed? He thought so. And he had the perfect woman for him.
Howell turned to see Calcifer hovering above his logs, with a look on his blue face that said he'd seen everything but was trying to pretend he hadn't. "So?" Howell said to his old friend.
"You'll be the one telling her everything, is all I'm saying," Calcifer said. "People. You're so stupid."
"Yeah, I know," Howell said, and laughed. He knew he should be contrite, but he could be that later. He'd done it before, after all. Sophie would keep him in line. Happy, secure, yes. But right now he wanted out of these clothes, and he wanted a bath. "Cal, I've got a favor to ask you."
Calcifer made a sighing, crackling noise. "Hot water, I suppose?"
Howell laughed again and stomped off into the bathroom.
x x x
Howl felt like he was being poured into something. And then, unlike last time he'd switched worlds and had been knocked unconscious and vision had returned slowly and reluctantly, this time it was instantaneous: the return of light and sight was quick and brutal and sharp.
He was standing over a table. No yellow surreal sensation here: all was utter clarity. It looked like his magic bench. The bottles and books and packets had been rearranged slightly, perhaps, but they felt right. He glanced down at himself and saw that he wasn't wearing what he'd had on a few seconds (years?) ago. It was his old blue suit, though the sleeves had been messed with and dangled from his wrists a bit frothily. Ick. And he was wearing his best black boots! Who had that other Howl thought he was? But further inspection revealed the red-and-silver ring on his forefinger, where it belonged, reassuring.
Howl could feel himself being watched. Hands held up for cautious defense, he swiveled his torso to the right to see four pairs of eyes staring hard at him. There was red-headed Markl (the correct one, Howl thought), Granny Witch and Heen on the couch. Calcifer, round and orange and just right, hovered over the hearth.
Over in the kitchen Howl spied a back that seemed familiar and a head of silver hair that was even achingly more so. He knew it was Sophie, he could feel it, but she wouldn't turn around so he could verify her existence with his own eyes.
"There's our boy," the old lady said, and creaked to her feet. "Welcome back. I'm going outside for a smoke."
"Master Howl?" Markl asked. Howl gave him a quick smile. The robed shoulders in the kitchen flexed in a well-known and well-remembered way as-- Sophie's--? hands messed about with something on the counter. Howl's heart thumped hard for a moment, filling his ribcage.
"Sophie?" he called.
The hands attached to the shoulders stilled and the form turned. Sophie's face was pale and stone-like, but her eyes were huge and heartbreakingly beseeching.
"Is it you?" she asked.
"I think so," Howl said and laughed out loud in sheer happiness. He strode over to her and clasped her shoulders. Her eyes never left his face.
"Hooray," Howl said and kissed her. And there it was, that thump of his heart again and the instant rushing of blood through his fingers and knees and toes, that whirl of emotion that was so much more than simply physical. He was home!
But something was off; Sophie was too still. She'd set her little fingers on his shoulders like she might usually do when he kissed her, but they were holding him in a way he might call vague. After a few moments of happy, distracted kissing Howl pulled back a scant inch or two and stared at Sophie's wonderful face in his hands. She stared back at him calmly.
"You dyed your hair back already," she said in a flat voice.
"Uhhhh!" came Markl's voice in an impatient groan. The old lady chuckled from the doorway.
"Hey there, Howl," Calcifer mumbled.
The rest of the family was apparently impatient for him to get this reunion over with, but Howl was trying to concentrate on Sophie. Something was wrong with-- Oh, he thought as he realized what it was.
"Sophie, darling," he said. "Somebody's put a spell on you."
"Yes, I know," she said, her voice cool and collected. "It was Mr. Suliman. I believe he was trying to be helpful."
"Ah," Howl said. Ben had been rather evasive about how they'd resolved the tossing-people-out-of-the-castle issue. Howl waved a finger at her. It had been a calming spell of some sort, and the effect of removing it was instantaneous. Her cheeks, nose and chin regained personality and emotion all at once, forming themselves into a very unhappy face. Uh oh, Howl thought.
"Howl!" Sophie cried, and kissed him, this time with quick passion, but the kiss was all too short. She practically shoved him off, said "oh!" and then pivoted and ran, thumping her way up the stairs.
"Sophie!" Howl called, but she was gone. He stared around for a few moments, unsure whether or not to follow her.
"She's being weird this morning," Markl said. "I don't know why."
"Um," Calcifer said. The normally-loquacious little flame was being strangely quiet. That was never a good sign.
"Heh," Granny chuckled again from the doorway to the side-yard. She was leaning against the doorjamb, one hand holding her cigar outside. Every couple of moments she'd take a drag and blow a cloud of blue smoke that spiraled into the wind. "Just give her a few minutes. She'll be all right."
Howl set his hands on his hips and looked at her. "What happened? What did he do? Tell me everything."
She rolled her eyes in her flabby face. "I'm not telling."
"Telling what?" Markl said, jutting his chin in childish frustration. "What has everyone been talking about all morning?"
"Granny," Howl warned. He so rarely called her that, he figured she'd know he was serious.
"I don't know what you're talking about," she said with a grin. "You boys shouldn't worry your heads over nothing."
Howl sighed. He'd been gone one day, and already a secret society of women had formed under his roof. Well, truthfully, it had already been there. Howl knew he hadn't been king of his own castle for several months now.
"Calcifer?" he said, looking at the little demon.
Calcifer shrank down behind one of his logs, peeping only his yellow eyes above it. "Well, it was me who figured it out. This morning. Though I sort of suspected it last--"
"Master Howl, are you going to tell us about it, what everything was like? Tell me about the spell, and the apprentice like me," Markl interrupted, ignoring Calcifer and the old lady.
"Hold that thought a bit, Markl," Howl said, distracted by bits of white and gold flashing about outside, past Granny in the open door. It looked like clothing was raining down into the yard. "What is going on out there?"
"Um," Calcifer said.
"Sophie!" Howl called and ran upstairs. He didn't want to give her a few minutes. He wanted to know what was going on, wanted to confirm or deny anything the other Howl, the sly one, might possibly have done. And then make it better if he could, and move on. Everyone else he'd met in the other world was already beginning to feel like a fiction: this was real and home and he wanted it to stay that way.
Sophie was in his-- their-- bedroom. She had the window open and seemed to be tossing the entire contents of his bed out the window. Howl leaned on the doorframe and watched her quick, vengeful movements. It seemed something had happened, at least. He was upset at Sophie's unhappiness, for a sweet and trusting nature betrayed was an ugly thing. But he wondered why he didn't feel angrier for himself. It was probably because he was not himself blameless. He'd caused it all in the first place, he decided, by trying to perform the iffy, unknown spell. It seemed like forever since he'd done it. Lots of things had happened in those intervening hours. And he could only control what he did from here on out.
"Sophie, what are you doing?" he finally asked, trying to keep his tone free from his amusement and worry.
"What does it look like I'm doing?" she asked in a snippy little voice. She didn't even turn around. "I'm doing laundry."
Actually, she seemed less upset than Howl might have thought she'd be. That was a good sign, right? Sophie was stronger than most people, including himself, gave her credit for. She'd dealt with plenty of danger and weirdness from him. And the now was what was important.
"Ah," Howl said. And then, "I missed you."
Sophie tossed the last pillowcase out the window and spun to face him, arms crossed.
"Well, I would have missed you, too," she said. "Had I known. I thought he was you."
Anger wasn't even an issue for Howl, now. Sophie looked and sounded so peeved and adorable that Howell wanted to laugh and hold her. But some deeply-buried, male survival instinct told him it would be a very bad idea at that particular moment.
"That's not your fault," was all he said.
"Hmph," she said. Then she fisted her hands at her sides and stomped past him to the door. "You need to pay more attention to what you're doing when you play with your spells. I'm not going through that again."
Her motherly, bossy attitude was so delightful, Howl's heart clenched in his chest with a keen ache. He'd missed her more than he'd known until this very moment.
"Where are you going now?" he asked.
"I'm taking a bath!" she said, and crossed the hall. She threw open the bathroom door and made to shut it in Howl's face, but he reached out an arm to wedge it open. She ignored it. "Alone!"
Staring at her tense little figure as she bent over and turned on the taps, something else clenched, lower, in Howl's belly. Had it really been only half an hour since he'd had indecent thoughts about her? It seemed like forever. She was so appealing and he loved her so dearly and wanted to comfort her so much, he didn't know if he could keep his hands off her. Howl suspected that whatever jealous anger he felt at the other Howl was making itself known to him in other ways.
"That reminds me, Sophie," he said to her back with a fond, feral little smile that she couldn't see but could probably hear. "I had this dream about you last night, sweetheart. It was lovely. There was a puddle, and--"
"Oooh!" Sophie spun to face him at that, her silvery, fine hair whirling about her head. He wanted to bury his fingers in it. Her chin was jutting out at him. She was incredibly desirable when she was angry. Her cheeks went all pink. "Men! You make me sick. All of you," she grated out, and with surprising strength, pushed him out of the doorway and slammed it in his face.
Howl heard the lock click. It wouldn't stop him for an instant if he really wanted to enter, and he knew she knew it, but Howl decided that retreat was the better part of valor in this instance. He didn't want to have to spend the rest of his days sleeping on the couch in his own flying castle . So he removed the defaced blue jacket, then sat on the floor of the hallway and leaned against the wall to talk to her.
"Did he hurt you?" he called through the door, half-dreading the answer.
"No!" came her muffled voice over the sound of running water. "Not really. That's what's wrong."
Howl smiled to himself with relief. "I don't blame you for anything, Sophie."
"That's nice," her snippiest little voice told him. There was only the sound of the water for a few minutes. Then she said, "I'm just afraid-- what if-- Oooh! I can't even say it aloud."
Did she mean, she was afraid of being pregnant? "Nah, please don't worry about that, Sophie. Please," Howl called to her. Howl himself wasn't worried. That wouldn't happen in his bedroom, at least until he removed-- well, he wasn't going to bring that up to Sophie now. It would take a bit too much explanation for her current mood.
"Well, I'll know better next time," Sophie called out. She turned off the taps, and Howl could hear water splashing. "Though you'll make sure that doesn't happen. Right?"
"I'll certainly do my best, sweetheart," Howl called back quickly. Still, magic was a dangerous business. Best to be prepared. They should-- He heard more splashes. She would be naked. He thought about that for a moment, then remembered what he'd been thinking about just before that. "We'll have to think up code words or something, just in case. How about… 'elephants?'"
He heard her give a snort of laughter, quickly muffled. That was definitely a good sign. Strong, yes. But she turned it into another hmph all the same. "So. What was she like?"
"Uhhh." Howl knew exactly who she meant. He thought hard. What to say at this moment? Finally he said, "Prickly?"
He didn't really want to talk about her, and didn't think Sophie would appreciate it anyway. The other Sophie hadn't been all that bad once he'd understood her a bit better. But he couldn't say that. And it would be unfair of him to vilify her. If he did, Sophie would only become suspicious, anyway.
Though Calcifer-- the blue one-- had said something odd this morning... Howl wished he'd known what sort of witch the other Sophie had been. He'd been concerned elsewhere and hadn't picked up on it. He supposed, given time to think about it, he would have realized…
"Sophie," he called. "Have you ever thought that you might have it in you to be a witch?"
"No!" Her vehemence surprised him. She soon explained, however. "Look how much trouble it causes, sometimes. You need someone normal around to keep an eye on you."
"I do, indeed," Howl admitted. He wasn't offended. When Sophie was in a good mood she loved the magic he did. Rather, he felt reassured. Sophie had rescued him from a harmful contract, and saved Calcifer, and enchanted them both, and that had just been her way. Her magic was all in herself.
"Does she know?" Sophie called out, tentative.
"Yes, I think so." Howl knew exactly what Sophie meant. And he didn't pity the other Howl at all. He would get what he deserved. Probably, he'd get less than he deserved, or more, depending on how one looked at it. Murder might do it, but that was a bad idea no matter how one looked at it. Still, his heart ached mostly for Sophie. If Sophie wanted it…
"Do you want me to kill him?" He kept his voice light, but the question was serious.
A few moments of silence passed. "No, not really," Sophie finally answered.
"I would, for you."
Howl heard small feet on the stairs, and then a thump and a 'hey!' from Markl.
"Leave 'em alone, kid. You'll hear all about it later," came the old Witch's voice.
Then Howl heard a wheeze from Heen, and more footsteps going back down the stairs. Calcifer's voice mumbled, "That's what I'm afraid of."
Howl smiled to himself and his heart did that melty-swelling thing that felt so odd and wonderful. He'd have to thank the old lady later. How he loved his family. Michael and Martha and Lettie and Ben and even Sophie had been interesting enough (too interesting at times), but they would have worn him out if he'd spent more than a day there. Life there seemed hectic, jumbled. That wasn't his life, and it didn't suit him any longer. This one did, shut doors and sitting in hallways and all. He hummed a few bars of the sad barmaid-and-solider song.
Sophie heard him. "Why are you so happy?" she called, but her voice had lost that confrontational air. Howl was glad.
"Sophie, darling, I missed you," Howl sighed. "I'm so glad to be home."
"I'm glad too," Sophie called through the door, followed by a mumbled something that sounded like every day an adventure.
Howl's abdomen and chest ached. "Sophie, can I please come in?"
"Fine," she said after a moment, with a sigh of her own.
Hooray, Howl thought. He jumped up and threw open the door, and slammed it shut behind him. Sophie was buried under bubbles but her shoulders and knees showed and they were all wet and gleaming and her hair was dripping. She was the loveliest and most arousing thing Howl had ever laid eyes on. She gave him a little smile.
"Elephants," Howl said, and just sort of toppled over in the bathtub, splashing water everywhere. Sophie shrieked and Howl's mouth and hands were filled with soap bubbles and skin and all was made clean again.
Phew! A teensy bit gooey but I just had to do it, I'm such a softie. At first I'd really been dying to do a dark!Howl story and had originally envisioned a little different tone to the story and a less happy ending, but overall it pretty much wrote itself. There could have been a lot more with the different worlds etc., and bringing in different characters, but in the end that wasn't what this story was about. I'm still really dying to do a Dark!Howl story, BTW. ;)
Thanks for reading!! Tell me honestly what you think! Does anyone like it? Does anyone HATE it? Does anyone feel, "Eh?" :)
I really appreciate your comments and your time. I write fanfiction for fun and it's always wonderful to hear what people think, and whether they enjoy it or not!