;;Disclaimer// I do not own Howl's Moving Castle, merely borrowing its characters for my own selfish purposes.
;;Summary// When he didn't show up for their wedding day, she was disappointed, but not at all surprised. Five years later, in a cruel twist of fate, they see each other again, and Sophie struggles to hold together the pieces of the fragile life she's built, not only for her, but also for her child – their child.
;;Warnings// Alternate Universe – this is a contemporary fanfic. Ratings subject to change. Great amounts of drama in future chapters.
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Chapter III – Shatter
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The bowl of pancake mix inadvertently came crashing to the ground with a ridiculously amplified thud. With shaking hands, Sophie gathered a dishrag, cursing her clumsiness, and tried to mop up the mess she'd made. What a waste, she thought regretfully. There was a curious, curious feeling in her stomach, as if her innards were trying to jump out of her skin. Surely, surely, she'd heard incorrectly.
She had fearfully awaited the day when she would hear that name come from her son's lips, and now that day had come. Unexpectedly, and unfair, because she'd not had any time to prepare for it at all. All she could do was wipe absently at the floor in shock, terrified. She would not believe it until she saw for herself.
Giving nary a thought to her outward appearance – her hair in a sloppy ponytail, her apron shabby from old age – she slowly made her way to the living room, a sense of foreboding creeping over her.
Morgan had not been in the wrong. She could see the back of his head, blond as daylight, as he sat on the battered sofa, chatting amicably with a delighted Minna. Nostalgia and regret filled her as she remembered his relationship with Mari, how they'd been as close as could be, how he'd spoiled her rotten and how she'd looked at him with adoring eyes. It was all she could do not to jump out of the window. Morgan was here, watching her carefully, and she could not let father and son have any more interaction than the little time they'd had talking at the door, not if she wanted to come out of this ordeal with relative normalcy and the least amount of pain.
"Morgan, Minna," she said in a wavering voice; she hadn't wished to speak at all, for that would alert him to her presence, but what else could she do? The time for confrontation had come, and she had no way out. This was something she had to face alone, however. "Why don't you run over to Mrs. Lee's for a while?"
Protests came from the little girl, who was clearly enjoying herself in Howl's company, but Morgan cut her off tersely, taking her hand and walking out of the apartment with his unwilling friend. He didn't look back. Sophie wondered about his behavior. He'd acted so serious and. . . hostile – the complete opposite of his usual courteous demeanor. She put the matter aside and decided she would talk to him about it later. Right now . . .
Howl stood from his relaxed position and turned around to face her, a slight smile quirking his lips. She tried to return the gesture, but it came out forced, nervous. She couldn't bring herself to look at him. As it was, her brain was already on overload from all the emotions his visit had brought with him. She was afraid that if she looked into his eyes, she would break. Her hands balled into fists beside her. She'd already broken so much.
"Sophie." The voice was deep, hypnotizing, achingly familiar. She felt it from the hairs on her head down to the tips of her toes.
"S-sit, please," was all she could manage, waving a hand towards the sofa and wincing a little as she was reminded of its poor state. She didn't mind the thing so much – actually it was rather comfortable – but he was here. He'd always been so extravagant, vain, and – oh! The shock was slowly ebbing away from her head. He was here, in her apartment. . . Her small rat hole, just a tad better than living out on the streets. . . He was here. After five years –
She didn't want him here. She wanted him out. He had no right, absolutely none.
But her throat was rebelling, doing the exact opposite of what her mind insisted and completely ignoring the alarm bells ringing in her head. It was as if another force had taken over her – her body did not feel as if it belonged to her, her common sense had abandoned her, her wits had betrayed her.
"Would you like anything to drink?" she asked nervously, unsure. Avoiding eye contact must be her top priority, she thought as she glanced around the room busily. As it was, she could already feel the furious heat on her cheeks.
"No, thank you." That was all well and good. In any case, she had nothing in the refrigerator but water, milk, and orange juice, and she'd daresay that someone as accustomed to luxuries as he was would recoil at the thought of children's milk or – the horror – peasant water.
She was tempted to point out that he'd learned manners in the last five years, but didn't want to bring up any mention of their past, didn't want to face the grief that would follow such remembrances. She'd wanted, had tried so desperately, to forget that she'd ever even known him, but it proved to be as impossible as trying to stop the sun from following the moon, and the moon from following the sun.
"Come sit with me, Sophie," he said, his tone unreadable, as was expected. Even when they'd been as close as they were before, there were moments when she'd been unable to decipher a single expression from him, and it had scared her because then she'd think she really didn't know him at all. Which had proven to be true. "It's been a while."
She obliged him and sat down on the armchair opposite the sofa he reclined on, keeping her eyes on the tightly clasped fingers in her lap. "Yes," she agreed softly, "It has been quite a while, Howl."
She felt her eyes water as she realized the reaction of her body, her heart, her soul to his mere presence, even after all this time, but she took a calming breath and forced herself to be strong. She would not cry in front of him. She could very well do it when she was alone – in fact, she had done it countless times. The tears helped sometimes, but mostly they were so painful it was almost a physical hurt. Nevertheless, she'd long ago accepted that pain was a natural part of a person's life, that without it one could not appreciate the finer things in life, but she liked to believe that her pain was a little more than an average person was meant to have, and that she was only stronger for not letting it consume her. It wasn't significant that she'd broken herself a thousand times, only that she still desired to live, and that she lived with some semblance of happiness. Morgan had made that possible.
A silence, thick and the farthest thing from comfortable, settled over them, and her brain whirred trying to think of what to say. What does one say to someone they hadn't seen for five years? What does one say to an ex-fiancé? What does one say to the unknowing father of their five year old child? What does one say to someone they love who doesn't love them back?
He wasn't meant to do this. He was Howl, irresponsible, ruthless, heartless slitherer-outer. Yes, a selfish part of her had hoped that she would see him again, if only one last time, but she hadn't actually thought it would happen. When he abandoned her at the altar, he had wanted to be rid of her, didn't want to have anything to do with her – even if he hadn't said it in words his actions more than made up for it. Certainly a coward wouldn't seek her out, definitely not to beg for her return, definitely not because of a guilty conscience, definitely not because one day he remembered her and said, "Oh, yes, Sophie. . . Harriet, was it? Yes, Sophie Harriet, whatever happened to her?" and decided that he would find out for himself.
It was all wrong, him being here in her apartment. That just wasn't the person he was; he wasn't supposed to be here. She was supposed to never see him again and long for him for eternity, watch his success from afar. She had planned it all out quite splendidly, really. It was a little satirical of her to do so, a little cynical, and a lot heart-wrenching, but she wasn't saying that it was one of her greatest life achievements. She was supposed to live in relative peace and contentment with her son, and die an old, lonely maid. The prospect did not scare her that much, admittedly. She had subdued herself to her fate. Then Howl came and made her remember, made her heart flip strangely and her blood race enthusiastically, and made her want for more. She wasn't supposed to want for more. He wasn't supposed to make a reappearance. He wasn't supposed to ruin her plans for a second time. She hadn't thought he'd have an opportunity to do so.
That was one of the things he was good at, ruining her plans in a heartbreakingly proficient way. The first time he'd done it, he'd taught her the real meaning of pain, not a mere physical injury that would heal over time and would only leave a scar, but the kind that ripped her very soul apart and the kind that she still carried with her everywhere she went, the kind that she could not escape. But she thought she'd somewhat survived that, that with her son – her miracle, her life, her saving grace – she'd be able to go on and accept her past and all the ghosts that came with it. She was doing fine, up until now.
She was really making progress, being able to live through Morgan, through his achievements at everything he set his mind to, through her love for her child. She would never want to leave him. Then Howl had to come along and make a mess of everything once more – her emotions, her heart, her world. All it took was for him to sit there, nonchalantly, in her living room, and she shattered into pieces. Everything she'd worked for, all the emotional recuperating she'd been doing, gone with the wind. It hadn't even been five minutes yet.
A bitter laugh escaped her lips, much to her dismay. He had so much power over her, and even after all his sins, he was still her puppeteer, and she was still naught but a limp marionette dangling on imprisoning strings.
"What's on your mind?" he asked, and she scrambled to find coherent words.
"Nothing," was her pathetic reply. There was no way she'd tell him she was resentful for his control over her, still intact even as an ocean has separated them for years.
Neither of them seemed compelled to say anything more, and for the hundredth time she wondered what he was doing here. She gathered her courage and braced herself to ask him that question herself, but he beat her to it.
"How have you been, Sophie?" he asked softly, reluctantly, as if he knew that he was treading on fragile ground with her, as if he sensed that any second now, she was going to do something she'd well regret – release all the emotions she'd bottled up inside her and cry and yell and do some physical damage, all at the same time. She wasn't a doll, damn it! He couldn't just play with her and, once he got tired of it, throw her away, and pick her up again if it suited his fancy. She was a human being, for God's sake, with real feelings and real dreams that were easily crushed if done by the right person.
"Fine." She tried to limit her words, say as little as she possibly could, because she didn't need him back – despite how much she wanted him back – and it was best if he didn't find out any more than was necessary.
Frustration flashed across his face, and was gone so fast she thought she'd imagined it. With him, she could never tell, but it was almost reflexive how she tried to decipher his emotions. She'd done it so often in the past that even now the habit hadn't fully left her.
"Oh?" he said, for some reason desiring to keep the conversation going. "Is that so? What have you been up to?"
Sophie was getting a little irritated now. All she wanted was for him to leave her be and the clod seemed determined to stay. What did he want from her? Was it too much to ask to let her nurse her wounds in peace?
"I work at a bookstore," she replied in a clipped voice.
Instead of exclaiming dramatically how her tone wounded him, a smile, almost sad, tugged at his lips, and tugged at her heartstrings. He looked so beautiful, with his features wistful, and he looked almost remorseful. Almost. She knew that he could control his emotions, to make himself look regretful or ecstatic if he so wished – in fact, that was his job, wasn't it? She should have hated him for deceiving her in such a manner, for hiding his real thoughts from her, but she could only hate herself for caring.
"I remember, Sophie," he said, and in his rich baritone her name sounded like an endearment. "I remember you told me that if money wasn't a concern, you would love to be a librarian." He laughed, and that, too, managed to sound melancholic, nostalgic. "And then you decided that you changed your mind and wanted to open a flower shop."
On the corner of Burke and Bourbon, she thought, thinking of times past and opportunities wasted and dreams shattered. The memories were so painful. . .
Abruptly, she stood up and turned her back on him, just in time to cover the tears that she could no longer restrain. She needed him to go now. Before she lost her control and demand why he'd left her five years ago, before she started begging him for an explanation – why hadn't she been enough? – before he completely obliterated all the defenses she'd set up around her heart, the very defenses that came crumbling down at the mere thought of him.
"Howl," she managed to get out in a choked voice. "I'm going to have to ask you to leave."
"Sophie –" he started, but she quickly interrupted.
"Please," she said in a tiny, broken whisper, pressing the palm of her hand to her mouth to ward off the sobs and trying to keep her shoulders from shaking. "Please."
To her immense relief and disappointment, she heard shuffling sounds that signaled he was on his way out. Before he walked out on her again, however, he spoke in a low, utterly serious voice.
"I'll be back, cariad. I'll be back for you."
Morgan returned not thirty minutes after Howl left, lips pressed together grimly, his eyes shining with suspicion. At that moment, Sophie knew she had to confirm what he'd already suspected, no matter how much she was against it. The moment of truth had arrived, had sneaked up on her and lunged viciously, without mercy.
He spotted her sitting on the armchair and she offered him a wobbly smile, her eyes still burning from freshly-shed tears. He didn't ask and she didn't try to explain.
"Morgan. . ." she began hesitantly, her voice hoarse.
"He's my father, isn't he?" he asked, so harshly that Sophie flinched at his tone. "Howell Jenkins is my father."
"Morgan, I'm sorry that I didn't tell you earlier. I –"
"No, Mom," he interrupted. "None of this is your fault. Not a single thing." He moved closer and scrambled to sit on her lap, wrapping his arms gently around her waist, so gently she was afraid she would cry from the tenderness of it. It was so unfair, to have this brought upon an angel such as her son, but right now she could only be grateful that she had him to lean on to. He might not be aware of it, but he was the one she drew strength from at times like this, when it seemed that the world would fall apart and there was no more point to tomorrow.
She hugged him to her heart, thankful, ashamed that he was the one who had to be strong for them, and afraid of what would come next now that there was this obstacle to overcome in front of them. No matter what, they would face it together.
"Morgan," Sophie spoke again. "You don't understand. There's a past here that you don't know about. Your father –" Howl, she was about to say, but it felt like a curse on her tongue, that if she openly said it he would materialize again and wreak havoc in their lives. "He's an honorable man," she said, thinking of his ease with his nephew and niece, and even Minna, who was a complete stranger. Would he have pampered his own son in such a way?
But that was too painful to think of – the what-could-have-beens and what-ifs – and she instead focused on closely examining Morgan's reaction.
He had a hostile look on his face, and disbelief was evident as he asked, "If he's such an honorable man, then why are we here right now, without him?"
"Or maybe I'm just one of the many children he's left fatherless," he continued heatedly.
"Morgan, that's enough!" Sophie knew that Morgan was angry, that he was confused and sad and experiencing a hundred other intense emotions, that he didn't understand what he was saying, but certain lines weren't meant to be crossed. As cowardly and dishonorable the man she'd known from before was, she couldn't believe Howl could be so cruel. Especially judging from his love of children.
Morgan maintained a mutinous expression. Sophie sighed, wondering how she could explain it to him.
"He doesn't know about you," she admitted, and she caught his surprise. "If he knew. . ." If he knew, what? What would Howl do if he knew?
"Why didn't you tell him this morning? Didn't he wonder why you have two children – by all appearances – living with you?"
I didn't give him a chance to ask, she thought with an inward sigh of relief.
"I don't want him back in my life, Morgan," she said softly. Then, more resolutely, and with as much fervor as she could muster, she reassured, "We don't need him back in our lives."
She said it more for her peace of mind than anything else.
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;;Author's Note// Well, we're already four chapters in, and it seems as if some of you are still unfamiliar with the meaning of 'Alternate Universe'. This fiction is CONTEMPORARY, ladies and gentlemen, so there will be no moving castles, no fire demons (I'm still trying to figure out how to fit Calcifer in the story; suggestions are welcome :D), and absolutely no magic, if you don't count the undeniably magical powers of technology nowadays. Please don't complain that you aren't aware of this, because I have warned you at the beginning of each chapter that this is AU. If you don't dig that kind of thing, just don't read it, okay? I admit I don't find snide remarks very humorous.
Sorry. Didn't mean to bring that out on you guys. There's just this one reviewer who's been nagging me ever since the beginning about all the changes I've made in the HMC universe when I've said time and again that it's AU. Some people just don't get it. -sigh- But oh well. People have their own opinions. I still love my dear reviewers. Keep 'em coming, you guys! I appreciate your thoughts! -hugs- :D
I noticed quite a few of you mentioned Howl's hair. Yes, I am aware that Howl has dark hair, but when I first began this story, I stubbornly believed that blond-Howl was sexier-Howl, and I planned to keep him that way throughout the story. Then I realized that any-Howl is sexy-Howl, and he will be returning to his sexy brunette self later on (eeek! She reveals a plot point!). Morgan, however, will remain blond, and on this matter I am resolute. Even though Morgan is Diana Wynne Jones's character, I feel like I'm the one who developed him (he's seen so little in 'Castle in the Air') in character, and I can only see him as being a blond now. Besides, it's too late to change it now. :D Hope you guys understand.
On a final note, I would like to bring up one more time this matter concerning everyone's favorite fire demon, Calcifer. I have no idea how to fit him into this modern-day story. As a person? As a dog? As Morgan's action figure? I have no idea. Preferably something that's animate and something that talks, because Calcifer does play quite a big part in 'Howl's Moving Castle'. Your suggestions will be greatly appreciated.
Isn't this a quick update, you guys? I'm very proud of myself. :D No? Not quick enough for you? -sweatdrops-