AN: This is my very first HMC piece. Obviously, it takes place after Howl's Moving Castle, but before Castle in the Air. This is my take on how exactly Howl came to realize what it mean to have a heart and be in love.
DISCLAIMER: I do not own Howl, his moving castle, his lady love, his apprentice, his fire demon, or his heart.
What Comes of Loving a Coward
Sophie sat at a table in the kitchen of the castle, writing as tears ran down her face. A small bundle say on the floor beside her and a traveling cloak was draped over her chair. She was leaving.
Running away, to be more precise. She was alone, which was what she wanted. She had packed last night, and now she wanted to finish her farewell note and leave before anyone got back.
She was leaving because it had been six months since the fight with Miss Angorian. Six months since Howl had gotten his heart back. Six months since he had said to her I think we ought to live happily ever after. But nothing had changed.
Oh, she had changed, yes. She was no longer in the guise of an old woman, but nothing important had changed. Howl treated her the same as he ever did. She was still cleaning, still mending, still cooking. And it was agony to watch Michael and Martha be so happy, to see Lettie and Sulliman so happy and have things be exactly the same between her and Howl.
She had watched carefully this past week, and it had told her what she already knew, but had hoped with all her heart wasn't true. Howl, even a Howl with a heart, didn't see her as anything he could love. Maybe at one time he had, but six months had passed and he had surely moved on in that time. He'd never even kissed her. And so, though it was nearly killing her to do so, Sophie knew she had to leave.
She loved him. She was a fool for doing so, she knew, but she couldn't help it. She couldn't stop. She loved him so much that it was that much more painful to spend every day with him knowing he did not, could not love her back. And it was time to move on with her life. Time to find someone who truly needed her. Needed her, not just her skills with a mop and a needle.
Yes, the time had come for her to leave.
But knowing that didn't make it any easier for her to sign the note, fold it, address it, pick up her things and head toward the door. She decided to try for Kingsbury. Perhaps there would be a school nearby that would be willing to take her in and teach her to use her magic. But she wanted, stubbornly, to leave the way she'd come – down the mountain side.
She had just opened the door to slip out when she heard a voice. "Sophie?"
Calcifer! He was back already! Praying he wouldn't see her, she tried to slip through the crack in the door. "Sophie!" came his voice again, and from the tone of it, Sophie knew she'd been caught. She raised her eyes to meet the fire demon's.
A long look passed between them and for a moment, Sophie feared he might stop her. But then, with a sigh and a sense of understanding, he deliberately looked away so that she could make her escape.
Thank you, Calcifer, she said silently as she closed the door behind her. She looked around the meadow that had once been the Waste. She was finally free.
But somehow, the thought didn't make her any happier.
Calcifer had been dismayed to see Sophie sneaking away, but, in all honesty, he wasn't surprised. If he hadn't vowed not to interfere . . . But he had, and besides, he knew Sophie was right in this. Damn that wizard for what he was doing to the girl! Calcifer could have told him he was going to lose Sophie soon if he didn't start acting as though she really mattered to him. Calcifer knew Howl was in love with her, and he also knew that Howl thought he was doing a fair job of expressing that. But he had been without a heart for so long . . . and he hadn't seen the look in Sophie's eyes the past few months, searching. Searching for a reason to stay. Howl hadn't given her one, or at least, not a strong enough one.
Calcifer sat pensively in the grate for a long time. Long enough for Howl to return, bounding through the door and calling Sophie's name. Of course, he got no response.
He looked around, puzzled and trying to be amused. "Sophie?" he asked again, crossing to her room and knocking on the door. It hadn't been latched, and that soft pressure caused it to swing open and reveal an empty room. Frowning now, Howl went to the staircase and called up. "Sophie? Sophie!"
When it was clear to him that Sophie was not in the castle, Howl came to Calcifer. "Calcifer, do you know where Sophie is?"
Calcifer thanked whoever might be listening that Howl had asked a question he could answer truthfully without giving Sophie away. "No," he said.
"You didn't see her leave or talk to her?" he asked.
"No," Calcifer said again. He hadn't seen her leave. He'd looked away. He hesitated, then said, "but there's something on the table." Howl turned to see the letter. He picked it up to see his name written in Sophie's hand. All color left his face as he stared at it. Slowly, he opened it and began to read.
As he took in her words, his face became slowly more ashen and anguished. "No," he whispered, as if with that one word, he could will it not to be true. "Sophie, no."
"Howl?" Calcifer asked. He looked up wildly.
"She – she's gone. She's left," he said in disbelief and shock. "I – I have to find her. I have to find her!" And he tore upstairs to his room, letting Calcifer flicker to the table to read what Sophie had said to the wizard.
I'm sorry, but I can't do this anymore. I can't stay here any longer, not with so many things left unresolved the way they are now, and you not seeming interested in resolving any of them. When I was under the Witch's curse, it was easier. I could hide behind the old lady like the little mouse you say I am. But I admit, I expected things to change once it had lifted. After all, you said you thought we should live happily ever after. But things haven't changed, except I look different now. That isn't enough, Howl, and I think you know that, and I know it isn't good for either of us. It's best if I go. Staying would mean perpetuating unpleasantries you obviously wish to avoid. I know it won't be long before you are able to find another gullible young girl to occupy your mind and your time, far better, I'm sure, than I ever could. I suppose it's too much to ask you not to break her heart, too. To make this easier on myself, I tell you now that I love you. I love you too much to stay when it doesn't mean anything to you. I love you, and now that you know, you can give up the chase, Howl, find yourself another, and I can go about trying to forget you. And when I find that that is impossible, I shall simply try to live as best I can, alone. Thanks to you, I know it is possible to live without my heart. I truly wish you every happiness, and I'm sorry to force you to find a new cleaning lady.
Calcifer gave a low whistle. No wonder Howl had been so upset. Well, Calcifer mused, maybe this would be good for him. Having to find Sophie and prove his love for her would show maybe even him just how much he needed her. And his having to do so would possibly convince Sophie far better than any of his pretty words might.
When Michael returned from Martha's a few moments later, he saw the open letter, Sophie's empty room, and heard Howl's frantic noise from upstairs and knew something was wrong.
Sharing a look with Calcifer, he went straight to the table and read Sophie's note. When he finished it, he shook his head in regret. "It's no surprise," he said to Calcifer.
"Not to us, maybe," Calcifer told him, "but Howl was quite shocked." Michael sighed.
"I can well imagine. He doesn't even realize how he's been tearing Sophie's heart to pieces for months, does he?"
But Calcifer was given no time to answer, for Howl came downstairs then, dressed in traveling black, fastening a cloak around his shoulders. He saw Michael and said, "I have to find her." And then he was gone, out the door, with no further explanation. Michael exchanged another look with Calcifer.
"He's probably gone to Sulliman's," Michael said. "And I should go see if she went to Martha's." And he picked up his cloak once more and headed for the door. Halfway there, he turned back. "If she is with Martha, should I tell Howl?"
"Not unless he asks you," was Calcifer's reply. Nodding, Michael left the castle and retraced his steps to Cesari's.
Martha was surprised to see him again and knew something must be wrong. When Michael told her of Sophie's departure and what she had said in her note, Martha grew sad. "Poor Sophie," she said. "And poor Howl."
"You can't say he didn't deserve this, though," Michael pointed out.
Martha shook her head. "No, but then he only just got his heart back. He doesn't really know how to be in love for real. Well, Sophie hasn't shown up here, maybe because she knew it would be too easy to find her, but I'll keep my eyes and ears out for her. But Michael," she grew even more serious. "Surely you know that if Sophie doesn't want to be found, no magic is going to find her."
"Well then, let's hope love can succeed where magic can't," Michael said, just as serious.
Michael returned long before Howl. No word came to any of them of Sophie, though Howl was often gone for days at a time, stopping back at the castle only briefly to replenish his magic with Calcifer. He had to be forced by Michael and Calcifer to eat, rest, and bathe.
Sophie knew none of this. She had found a small school in a town not far from Kingsbury that took in girls and taught them magic. Since she had no money to speak of, she had made an arrangement with the Headmistress – in exchange for lessons in taming and controlling her magic, Sophie would keep the school sparkling clean. The Headmistress, quite impressed with Sophie's magical skill, would have taught her without charge, but Sophie wouldn't hear of it.
She was very nearly happy, despite the small part of her that had hoped that Howl would come after her. But when a week had come and gone, she knew her suspicions must have been true. After all, she may have shielded herself from Howl's magic, but she hadn't shielded herself from Calcifer, and if Howl truly wanted her back, he would have gone through Calcifer first.
After a week of her new life, she wrote a letter to Martha, telling her not to worry, that she was safe, she was learning, and she was happy. The last was almost true. She did not give the name of the school she was attending, nor the town she was living in. If Howl didn't want to find her, she didn't want to make it seem like she was pining for him. She knew Martha would give her letter to Michael, who would tell Howl about it, if Howl was truly concerned for her. Howl would use every resource he had if he truly cared about her. But she had been gone for a week now, without any sign that anyone was looking for her.
When he did not appear after that week, then a week and a half, then two, Sophie tried to push that small part of her away and begin her new life, free from any ties to the old. It was truly time to move on.
"She says she's fine, she's healthy, and she's learning a lot," Martha said, skimming Sophie's letter for Michael. "She also says she's happy, but I don't believe that for a minute. She doesn't write as though she's happy."
"Does she say where she is?" he asked anxiously.
Martha shook her head apologetically. "No, just that she's attending a small school for female magicians. That could be anywhere. And there's no return address, either."
"Where's the letter mailed from?" Martha checked the envelope.
"Kingsbury." She looked up at him. "Does that help?" Michael sighed, running a hand through his hair.
"It's a place to start, at any rate. Calcifer told me she's not in Kingsbury, though, so this school must be in a small town near Kingsbury."
"When will you tell Howl?" she asked. He sighed again.
"When he thinks to ask me," Michael admitted. Martha looked shocked.
"You mean he hasn't asked you to try and find Sophie through me yet?" She could hardly believe Michael's affirmative response. "But . . . that's so unlike him!"
"I know, and Calcifer says it's good. He thinks it'll help convince Sophie once Howl manages to find her."
"Michael, it's been a week," Martha said, worried. "Don't you think there's a chance that . . . Sophie might have given up hope for him?" Michael's expression clouded over.
"I hope that's not true."
She smiled a little. "Yes, but for whose sake?"
"His. Hers. Mine," Michael said, returning Martha's humorless smile. She patted his hand to give some comfort, and they both wondered what to do next.
"I don't know what else to do!" Howl said in a temper one night a week later. "I've looked in all the obvious places, but she's not in Upper Folding, she's not in Market Chipping, she's not in Kingsbury! I've even searched Wales! There's no trace of her in the Waste or in any of the surrounding areas and towns. Sulliman can't find her, Lettie's had no word, and I –" he sat down abruptly, staring into the fire. "I'm a fool," he said softly. "I'm a fool and a coward and I've lost her. And I lost her because I never deserved her in the first place."
And he looked truly lost. More so than Michael had ever seen him. And it was only then that Michael began to fully realize just what it was Sophie had done in the house for the past year. He exchanged a long look with Calcifer, who finally nodded.
"Her family has had no contact with her?" Michael asked, kneeling beside Howl's chair.
"No, they –" He broke off, staring at Michael. "I am a fool!" he whispered. "Martha! I forgot all about Martha! And you. Michael! Do you think – I mean, could you . . . Would Martha have had any word, do you know?" Howl gripped Michael's arm so fiercely that Michael didn't want to think what might happen to him if Howl found out that Michael had been talking to Martha about Sophie for nearly two weeks now.
"I –" He swallowed. "I can ask her," he said. Howl nodded.
So Michael went to Martha's, and asked if he might take Sophie's letter back to show Howl. She, of course, agreed, and within the span of half an hour, Michael was back.
"She's had a letter," Michael told Howl, holding it up. "Just today," he lied. Howl snatched it from his hand and read.
By now you may have heard that I left Howl's. I needed more, and I couldn't get it there. I'm more than ready to move on now, truly. I found a small school for females willing to take me and teach me how to use my magic. I assure you that I'm fine and healthy. I'm learning a lot here, and I think it will be useful for whatever I decide to do next. I'm happy and content here, sister dear, so please don't worry over me.
"She's happy," he whispered, anguish lining his face. "Where is this school, do you know?" Michael shook his head with regret.
"No, and neither did Martha, but the letter was mailed from Kingsbury." Michael expected that information to get Howl moving. He was wrong.
Howl looked back to the letter. "She's happy," he repeated. "Maybe I should let her go." "What?" Michael and Calcifer said together. They couldn't believe what they had heard.
"She's happy," Howl said for the third time, his voice devoid of emotion. "She's learning things there, and she's content. Maybe I need to stop chasing. Maybe she's right. Maybe I should let her go." Michael and Calcifer now exchanged frantic glances.
"You can't mean that, Howl," Michael said emphatically. "After two weeks–"
"Maybe she could never be happy here, Michael. And if so, I could never force her to stay for my own selfish reasons. She's made her choice, hasn't she?" He sounded indescribably sad.
"But . . ." Michael said, searching for something to convince him. Then he remembered. "But Martha said she didn't sound happy, whatever she may say!"
"What does Martha know?" Howl said bitterly, obviously feeling very sorry for himself.
Michael gave Calcifer a look clearly indicating that if he didn't try to get Howl moving, they might well be knee-deep in green slime soon. The fire demon sighed and flicked a flame to Howl's hair, startling the wizard out of his miserable stupor.
"Now you listen to me, Howl," he said, growing to his largest size while Howl frantically extinguished his singed hair. "How do you know Sophie's not waiting for you to come after her? Have you ever considered that maybe your magic hasn't been able to find her because she's been trying to test your devotion?" Howl mouthed wordlessly, speechless for perhaps the first time in his life. "Obviously not," was Calcifer's stinging reply. "Well listen up, you nitwit. For months you've been tearing Sophie's heart to shreds, and you never once saw. So don't think that this despair you're going through is anything to be proud of! You'll get no sympathy for it, and it helps no one, not you, not Sophie, not us. You say you love her? You say you need her? Then find her and prove it, numbskull, with more than those pretty words you spew at every passing female! Think about someone else for a change! Find that girl and do the right and courageous thing for once in your life!"
Howl drew himself up, looking positively defiant and more like himself than he had for the past two weeks. And without changing his clothes or washing his face or resting for one night of sleep, without one single word to either of them, he strode to the door, turned the knob Kingsbury side down, and disappeared into the night.
"Idiot," Calcifer muttered, returning to normal size. Michael looked to the fire demon and grinned.
Sophie woke thinking of him, as she did every morning. Was he thinking of her? How was he getting on without her? Did he miss her? Did he even realize she was gone? How much grime had piled up in the castle without her to keep it away? Did he wish she was still there? Did he want her back to do something besides clean? Should she go back to him?
Did he love her? Why hadn't he come after her?
Then, also as she did every morning, she scolded herself, telling herself that she had made the right choice in leaving, and if Howl needed her, he would have found her by now, and so she had best get on with her life. She resolved, once again, to think of him no more.
Then she got up and began her day. Since it was a weekend, there were no classes, and since the school was not a boarding school, there was no one in residence apart from Sophie, the Headmistress, and the cook. Sophie had decided that she would give each classroom a complete cleaning on Saturdays. So she dressed in her oldest working clothes, tied her hair up in a kerchief, fetched her bucket and scrub brush, and headed to the classroom at the farthest end of the hall.
She enjoyed cleaning because she didn't have to think while she did it. It allowed her to clear her head. The work was rhythmic and predictable. Back and forth, back and forth, the brush scratched against the wood of the floor. Her thoughts roamed freely. Unfortunately, they soon began to spiral to Howl. She jerked them away, thinking instead of what she had said to Martha. She was content here. That was true. Happy? Well . . . nearly. As happy as she could expect. And the ache would go away, with time. Of that, Sophie was certain.
But she couldn't keep her thoughts away from Howl Jenkins forever, and soon they began to fly back that way. She couldn't stop them any more than she could stop the tears that came with them. Stubbornly, she sat back on her heels, wiping them away with the back of her hands.
"Sophie?" She heard the Headmistress call her name. "Sophie, can you come here for a moment, dear?"
Not wanting the Headmistress to see her red eyes and streaked face, Sophie swallowed her tears and called back, "I'm up to my elbows in wash water just now, Headmistress. I'll be through in a moment." And she attacked the floor with renewed and unnecessary vigor, as if the floor itself was the cause of her problems, and by scrubbing it ferociously, she could scrub her problems away with the dirt.
"Well, it's nice to see that you put everyone through this torture, and it wasn't just me," came a voice from the doorway, an extremely familiar voice. In shock, Sophie dropped her brush and, forgetting that she was still kneeling on the ground, whirled. Her skirts caught on the bucket of water and tipped it over. Tepid, soapy water began to spread across the floor, soaking her hem. Howl seemed not to notice.
Slowly, trembling, she rose. "Howl," she whispered. She stared at him. He was looking at her in a most peculiar way. "What–" she started, but her throat was so dry, she couldn't get a sound to come out. She swallowed and tried again. "What are you doing here?" It was little more than a whisper, but at least it was audible.
"Looking for you," he said, his face, tone, and intentions all unreadable. Until he took a step toward her, which frightened her so much that she immediately moved away from him, only narrowly missing tripping over the fallen scrub brush.
"No!" she said, immediately feeling guilty as he froze. "I - I mean," she swallowed again. "I - I'm all over soapsuds and water. I'll get your suit all wet," she said quietly.
"I don't care," he said, and before she had any time to react to his claim, he proved it by striding across the room, oblivious to the slowly spreading puddle of water, and taking her in his arms, dripping hem, sudsy hands and all.
She allowed herself the momentary luxury of letting him hold her, whispering her name. Some detached part of her noted that either she was trembling or he was or they both were.
But she wouldn't let him use her again. And so, after a moment, she gently pushed him away, hardening her face. "Howl, why are you here?" she asked softly.
He looked down at her, uncertain and struggling with something. "Because," he said finally, his voice nervous and quiet. "I love you."
She wanted so badly to believe him, to believe that he meant those words that she had wanted to hear for so long. Her heart begged her to believe him, but her head told her to be cautious. She looked away from him.
"Sophie," he said, obviously hurt that she didn't believe him.
"You've said that to a lot of girls, Howl," she reminded him defensively, still looking away. "None of whom have been me."
"I never came after any of them when they left," he said quietly. "I never needed any of them, Sophie. Not like I need you."
A bitter laugh escaped her as she shook her head, angry tears threatening now. She knew why he needed her. "To mend your suits and keep your house clean," she said bitterly.
"Sophie," he whispered, sounding almost amused. She felt cool fingers under her chin, forcing her to meet his gaze. He smiled sadly at her. "I can mend my own suits," he said. "And the only one who ever needed my house to be clean was you." She tried to look away again as the tears began to fall, but he wouldn't let her. "I need you for reasons that are far more important. And far more selfish."
And then, much to her astonishment and dismay, he knelt before her, right in the puddle of soapy water without so much as a wince or even an acknowledgment that he had done so. "I've been a fool and a coward," he said, as serious as she had ever seen him. "And I –" He seemed to be struggling with what to say. "I got so caught up in avoiding confronting what I felt that I never even noticed what I was doing to you. I never saw how I was hurting you, and there is no excuse for that. There is no excuse for the pain I put you through."
Her tears were falling in earnest now, as she listened, trembling to what he had to say, fighting an inner battle all the while.
"If you can never forgive me, that's fair. Say the word, Sophie, and I'm gone. I'll–" He took a deep breath and forced himself to continue. "I'll walk out of your life and never bother you again, if that's what you want. If that's what you need." He closed his eyes, looking pained, and composed himself as best he could. "But I'm asking for one more chance, a chance that I know I don't deserve. Give me one more chance, Sophie, to show you what I should have shown you before. And if another six months go by and you aren't perfectly happy, you can –" He had to stop again, and when he went on this time, his own eyes were glistening. "You can walk out of my life. For good. You're the only one who has a right to decide, Sophie. But please – tell me I haven't lost you," he whispered, his voice ragged.
It sounded as though it was the hardest thing he had ever had to say.
She wanted to believe him. She wanted to believe him so badly. She wanted to shout yes and throw herself into his arms and believe that he had changed for her. But she couldn't. Not yet.
"It's been two weeks, Howl," she said quietly. She needed that answer before she could decide.
"I know," he said simply. "I spent them searching for you. It wasn't until last night that I thought to ask Michael if Martha'd had word of you, and she gave us your letter, and I spent last night finding this place."
He'd been looking for her for two weeks? She took a closer look at him, her resolve beginning to break. He was still kneeling in puddle of soapy water. The leg of his suit had to be completely drenched by now, and yet he truly looked as though he hadn't noticed. There were dark circles under his eyes. His clothes were wrinkled and carried the grime of the streets. His hair hung limp, and part of it looked as though it had been burned away. He needed to shave. But what convinced her the most was the fact that his true hair color was beginning to show at the roots. The old Howl, even the Howl of the past six months, would never have left the castle looking like this. He looked as though he had been searching for her for two weeks. Yes, and not taking any breaks for anything else, as well.
She was growing more and more uncertain that she had been right before. "I -I thought you didn't care," she said very softly indeed. "I thought it was just me, and that I would just . . . slowly disappear into the woodwork for you, that it would always just be me . . ." Her voice trailed off. He took her hand in both of his.
"And I am truly sorry for everything I ever did to give you that impression. I know it's been a lot. I never realized how much I did care, how much you truly meant to me until you were gone. And then it was too late. But the thought of you never being a part of my life again –" He couldn't finish. And she knew he meant it.
"Howl," she whispered, giving his hand a small tug. He stood, slowly, and they just looked at one another for a moment. Then Sophie suddenly fit herself into his arms, crying anew. Howl held her tightly, kissing the top of her head.
When they pulled away this time, Sophie was laughing through her tears and Howl was smiling in relief. Gently, he wiped away her tears in a startlingly romantic way. "I love you, Sophie Hatter," he whispered.
"I know," she said. "And I'm not going to let you forget it, either!" He laughed at that.
"I believe you," he said, and then he kissed her.
He kissed her in a way that Howl Jenkins had probably never kissed a girl in his life. It was nervous and hesitant, asking a question whose answer he almost feared to receive. He needn't have worried. Sophie was more than willing to give him another chance.
"You look awful," she told him afterwards. He laughed.
"You are the only girl I've ever met who would tell me that after everything that just happened," he informed her. She smiled.
"Yes," she agreed, "but I mention it because Michael once told me that he would know you were truly in love the day you spent less than two hours in the bathroom each morning, and right now you don't look as if you've spent two hours in the bathroom this whole week!" He smiled indulgently at the jibe, then grew serious.
"I'll change that for you, Sophie. I'll –"
"Howl!" she said, stopping him with a laugh. "You silly man, I don't care!"
He looked uncertain how to respond. "I'm not going to take advantage of you this time, Sophie –"
"Oh, Howl, of course you are," she said, smiling still. "Of course you're going to take advantage of me; you wouldn't be Howl if you didn't! But listen: I don't care! Take advantage of me! Spend two hours in the bathroom each morning, dye your hair ridiculous colors, be as vain as a peacock, be utterly impossible, sulk, make fun of me, call me names, and yes! Grow accustomed to me! Do it all! That's you; it's who you are, and for some strange reason, I love you for it."
Howl looked thoroughly confused by now. "But – I don't –"
"Need me, Howl," she said simply. "That's all I've ever wanted. I'm not asking you to change; I'm asking you to just need me. For me. For who I am. Not because you need a woman around and not because you want something and can't find it. Need me because you love me and because you've tried to see your life without me in it and you can't. Need me for all the reasons why I need you," she finished.
"I do," he said.
"Then we're going to be fine," she whispered, smiling and touching his cheek. "We're going to be fine, and it's going to be better this time. Because you'd have to work pretty hard to make it worse!" she finished with a laugh. He smiled once, then took her hand and pulled.
"Come on," he said, but she didn't move. "What?" he asked her, the smile fading from his face.
"You can't expect me to leave with this place half clean, can you?" she asked. He stared at her.
" You're telling me that you're actually not coming back until you've finished cleaning? I don't believe it." he asked, in disbelief. She quirked one eyebrow in his direction. "Actually, yes. I do believe it."
"I should think so," she said. " And as it is, I'll have to start over, as my water's gone cold, not to mention that a great deal of it was absorbed by your suit." Howl grimaced and shook his leg, sending water droplets onto the floor.
"Yes," was all he said.
"But I promise. If I'm not back in . . . oh, say six hours or so . . . you can come and fetch me."
"And you'd best believe that I will," he said, joking but at the same time, completely serious. Sophie smiled.
"Oh, I do. Now get back there and get some rest, would you? You look like Death could come claim you at any moment! And then, you know, I'd have to take time away from my cleaning to fight him for you." And she was joking, yet also completely serious. "Besides," she told him. "It'll be better this way." When he looked mildly puzzled, she added, "For Michael and Calcifer." For Sophie had managed to work out the part that Michael and Calcifer had played in all this, and while part of her understood why they had done it, the other part of her was not at all above getting some of her own back.
Howl got that look on his face that meant he was working through something. Nodding, he turned to leave, so caught up in his puzzle that he completely forgotten to say goodbye – but Sophie knew that was just one of his quirks. And, once he got back and realized what he had done, he'd be extremely apologetic, which might be fun for her.
He had just crossed the threshold of the room when he turned back. "Sophie," he asked. "When did you send that letter to Martha?" Sophie smiled knowingly.
"A week ago." Howl nodded to himself, looking for all the world as if he was just now starting to realize he'd been had, and he intended to do something about it.
"And . . . Calcifer could have found you at any time, couldn't he?"
Sophie laughed. "Yes," she told him, grinning.
"Right," Howl said, and the multitude of meaning he put into that one word was really quite impressive, Sophie thought. She laughed again. Then he crossed the room, took her in his arms, and kissed her goodbye properly. "That'll teach you to laugh at my misfortune," he said when he was done.
"It certainly will," she replied, quite breathless. "I'll have to do it more often, if that's how I'll be punished." He raised an eyebrow, giving her a highly suggestive half smile.
"Clean your floors," he said, releasing her from his embrace. Then he turned again to leave.
"Howl?" she called as he passed through the door. He looked back. "I love you," she said. He grinned.
"I know," was his reply, and then he was gone. Sophie took the bucket to refill it, shaking her head and smiled. He was so cocky, so self-assured!
"And you love him for it," she whispered to herself, and then went back to her cleaning, replaying the whole exchange in her mind, hardly daring to believe it.
Howl was doing the same as he headed back to the Kingsbury door. He could hardly believe what had happened. He had gotten a second chance. He didn't know why someone had thought he deserved one, but he was determined not to mess things up this time.
Then he thought of Calcifer and Michael. To think this whole thing could have been fixed and concluded a week ago, if they hadn't been so uncooperative! And that Howl had missed that fact! They had taken advantage of his distraction, and he, like Sophie, was more than willing to get some of his own back.
So he allowed his expression to cloud over as he approach the Kingsbury door. He threw it open with no small amount of force, an action which caused Michael to jump, startled. He gulped with one look at Howl's face.
Howl did not allow for much conversation. He strode across the room to the stairs, not even acknowledging Michael and Calcifer. After an apprehensive look to Calcifer, Michael followed him up the stairs.
"Didn't you find Sophie?" he asked.
"Yes," was all Howl said as he stalked down the hallway to his bedroom, Michael at his heels.
"And she didn't come back with you?" he asked nervously.
"No," was the short reply.
"But–" Howl slammed shut his bedroom door and cut Michael off. It was all he could do then to keep from laughing aloud. Then, using the jug of water he kept in his room, he began to freshen up as discreetly as possible.
Michael stood staring at the closed door for a moment, then sighed heavily and walked slowly down the stairs again.
"Well?" Calcifer asked when Michael's feet were in view. "What did he say?" he asked.
"Very little," was Michael's response. He looked at Calcifer gravely. "It doesn't look good." Calcifer sighed.
"Oh, Sophie," he murmured.
Michael took his cloak down from the peg by the door. "I'd better go tell Martha," he said. Turning the knob to Market Chipping, he left.
Calcifer sat in the grate, shaking his head sadly. "Mortals," he muttered, and then he left as well.
When Sophie got to the castle a few hours later and pushed open the door, the place was deserted. Amused but puzzled, she poked her head inside and looked around. Seeing no one there, she came all the way in and closed the door behind her. She took a closer look around. It looked as though no one had even thought about the existence of things such as sponges, brooms, or soap since she left.
There was a huge pile of dirty dishes stacked in the sink. There was food left out on counters and crumbs on the floor. Pairs of shoes lay in random corners, dust lay an inch thick, and the floor looked as if it hadn't had even a glimpse of the mop or broom in the time she had been gone.
Smiling and shaking her head, she left her bundle by the door, opened the cupboard door very carefully, hung her cloak up, and got to work, tackling the dishes first. There she remained for an hour, until all the dishes were finally clean. Drying her wet hands on the apron she wore, she began stacking plates to put them away. That's when a voice rang out.
"Who's there? I warn you, I'm not to be meddled with!" Sophie smiled. Calcifer had returned.
"I certainly hope you have a good excuse for yourself, then," she said without leaving the sink.
"S-Sophie?" Calcifer said in disbelief, flitting around the corner to stare in disbelief. Sophie turned, hands on her hips and said, "Well? What do you have to say for yourself? This place is a pigsty."
"You – you're back!" he said.
"Obviously," she replied. "Now then, as for your partner in crime . . ."
"Howl?" Calcifer asked.
"No, Michael. Where is he?"
Just then, the front door opened. Inwardly, Sophie grinned. She could have asked for better timing. "There he is," she said, very sternly. Michael, who had entered most dejectedly and unobservant, stopped in his tracks at her voice. He then turned very slowly and met Sophie's glare.
"Sophie?" he whispered, his face mirroring Calcifer's disbelief. "Is that really you?"
"I should warn you that once I get done cleaning up your mess down here, I'm heading upstairs.
"It is you!" he cried joyously, giving a whoop and picking her up to swing her around. "Oh, Sophie you don't know how glad we are –" He stopped, wary. "You are here to stay, aren't you?" Smiling, Sophie nodded.
"Yes, Michael. I am." He gave another whoop, an exuberant kiss to Sophie's cheek, then bounded for the stairs, climbing halfway and yelling, "Howl! Howl! Sophie's here! She's back! She came back!"
And Howl's calm answer came floating down. "Yes, thank you, Michael. I am aware." Thunderstruck, Michael turned to Calcifer.
"He's aware?" Calcifer's face expressed quite clearly that he had no more answer for the statement than Michael. Worried now, Michael came back down the stairs, crossing straight to Sophie, who was trying not to show her amusement. "Sophie, I - I know it sounds like he doesn't care, but really, he does. I swear it. You haven't been here, you haven't seen – the past two weeks -- he's been a wreck! He –"
"Thank you, Michael, that will do," said Howl, cutting his apprentice off as he came down the stairs, straightening his sleeves. He stopped mid-tug when he saw Sophie. With a wry smile, he crossed his arms and addressed. "So, you've come back, have you?"
"Had to," she told him. "I was having nightmares about the state this place had fallen into in my absence." She looked slowly around the room, one eyebrow arched. "And they weren't far wrong."
His expression not changing at all, he took a few slow steps toward her. "I knew it," he said. "You only love me for my dirt."
"Too right," was her ready response, fixing him with a leveling stare while a half-smile played on her lips. "And you should know, I intend to stay here until every dish is in its proper place and every spider is homeless."
"Then I hope you intend to stay for a very long time indeed, for I am not about to let you turn my spiders out of house and home," he responded, with another step toward her.
They were, at this time, staring each other down, mere inches apart, their stances and half-smirks identical. "Well, they'd better be ready to fight me for a space here. Of course, even if I do get them all out, I'll have to stay to make sure you don't let them back in as soon as I go."
"Exactly how long are you planning to stay, Miss Hatter?" Howl asked, with an arched eyebrow.
"As long as I'm needed," came the quiet response. Howl smiled.
"Excellent," he whispered. "Welcome back, Sophie," he said, giving her quick kiss.
"I'm confused," Michael said, more to the room at large than to any one person in it. Both Howl and Sophie turned to him then, but it was Howl who spoke.
"Yes, Michael, that I was able to gather. At least, I think it is the only solution you would like me to come up with for why you would claim that a letter sent a week ago was only received yesterday," he stated slowly and sardonically. Michael paled.
"Howl . . . what you have to understand is – it's possible that it didn't –" he hedged. Howl arched an eyebrow as he waited for the explanation. "It wasn't my – he made me do it!" he finally exclaimed, pointing an accusatory finger in Calcifer's direction.
"Oh, sure!" Calcifer responded almost immediately. "Blame the demon!"
"It was!" Michael hissed, turning to him. "'And what if Martha's had a letter?' I asked you! 'Should I tell Howl?' I said. 'Not unless he asks!' that's what you told me!"
Calcifer sniffed disdainfully, looking away, and not admitting anything. Sophie laughed.
"Well, whatever the cause, the damage has been done, and you can't say it wasn't for the better, Howl," she told him. His face softened as he looked at her.
"No, I don't suppose you can," he said. He bent to plant a kiss on her, but she ducked away from him, laughing.
"No, sir," she told him. "You're certainly better than you were this morning, but you've still got a ways to go, and I'm not letting that stubbly chin near me any more than I have to. Upstairs with you!" And she made shooing motions at him. After taking a few steps toward the stairs, he paused, clearly uncertain.
"You don't mind?" he asked a Sophie who was busy hunting for the broom.
"Mind?" she asked in a tone that clearly said she thought he was being a dunce. "Howl, I'm encouraging it! If I ever saw a man who needed two hours in a bathroom, it's you. Now, go! I've got more than enough to keep me occupied down here, believe me!"
Grinning, Howl took the steps two at a time, leaving Sophie shaking her head after him.
"You know, you really are the best thing that ever happened to him, Sophie," Calcifer told her. Still looking toward the staircase, Sophie smiled.
"I know," she said. Crossing to the grate, she knelt before the fire demon. "Thank you, Calcifer. I'm almost certain nothing would have been fixed without you. You're not so bad after all." Calcifer looked momentarily uncomfortable.
"Don't let it get around," he told her. "It was mostly for me anyway." Sophie laughed.
"Of course," she said. Then, with a gesture toward the half-buried broom, she began tackling the mess around her, not minding returning to her role as the cleaning lady in the slightest.
It has been six months, Sophie mused, sitting in front of the fire, cradling a mug of tea. Six months, and . . ."And nothing has changed," she whispered with smile. She looked around the main room of Howl's house. It was, of course, spotless. Clean but cozy, just as a home should be. For the moment, she was alone. Howl was away on business for the king, though he had said he would try and return today. Calcifer was away on a travel of his own, not to be expected back until at least tomorrow evening, and Michael . . . well, Michael was on his honeymoon.
Sophie smiled, remembering the wedding that had taken place only a week ago. She had never seen her sister look happier. "Things are going to change," she said to the broom that leaned against the wall. It rustled in agreement. "I mean, what with Michael moving out. It will just be me and Howl here now. And Calcifer, when he's home." Her smile faltered a little at the thought. She loved Howl, and now she knew that he loved her. The past six months had been wonderful. All she could have dreamed of and wished for. But . . .
The front door creaked open, bringing her out of her musings. "Sophie?" came Howl's voice.
"And where else would I be?" she asked. He came into the room and closed the door.
"Nowhere, I hope," he responded, coming over and kissing her hello.
"Your business went well, I trust?" she asked as he took off his cloak and, after a stern glare from her, hung it up in the closet instead of draping it over the table.
"Oh, yes," he said, waving a hand in dismissal as he brought a second chair over to the fire. "Dratted nuisance, really. If I didn't know the king, I'd have sworn he'd timed it on purpose. I had to work quite hard to be back by tonight, you know."
Sophie smirked. "That must have been a change for you," she said. Howl pretended to look affronted.
"Well, if you are going to be that way about it, Miss Hatter, I shall keep your present for myself!" And with that, he stood to move away, but Sophie laughed and pulled him down again.
"You'll do no such thing," she said. "What you shall do is tell me why it was so important for you to be back tonight."
"It has been six months, tonight," he said simply. Sophie looked down.
"I didn't think you meant it literally," she said.
"Ah, but I did," he said, his tone now serious. "I said that if, after six months, you were not perfectly happy, you could walk out of my life. And I need to know, Sophie. Are you? Are you perfectly happy?"
"Howl," Sophie said, uncomfortable now. "I'm not going anywhere."
"I don't believe that answers the question," he told her, a little smile on his face. "Are you perfectly happy, Sophie?"
"I am content, Howl," she said earnestly. "I am happy enough."
"Are you perfectly happy?" he asked, gently but stubbornly persistent.
"I don't need to be perfectly happy, Howl," Sophie said quietly, not meeting his gaze. The truth was, she wanted to be perfectly happy. She truly did. But there was that one, small part of her . . .
"So that's a no," he said softly.
"Howl–" she started, pleading, but he held up his hands.
"No, it's all right," he told her. He hesitated a moment, then, "I'm not either." Sophie felt her stomach drop. She sat and waited. He leaned forward, elbows on his knees, head tilted to look at her. "And I couldn't figure it out," he said. "I have you. You've given me a second chance. How could I be anything but perfectly happy? But I wasn't. There was something missing. And I couldn't figure it out, Sophie. And as I puzzled it and puzzled it, I discovered something I couldn't do."
"Find an answer?" she asked, very softly. She was amazed that she had been able to say anything at all. She was oddly numb, her insides feeling as though they had disappeared. She didn't like where this conversation seemed to be going. Surely . . . he wasn't going to turn her out? Tell her it had all been a mistake? The past six months, the promises, the words of love . . . surely it hadn't all been a lie.
"No, I found an answer all right," he said. "In a shop in town. I passed the window and happened to look in, and then I knew. I knew what was missing."
She steeled herself for whatever might come next. A tale of some shop maiden, no doubt, prettier than Sophie, more promising, more complacent. He had cast her aside for another, he was about to tell her she no longer meant everything to him. Surely –
But he pulled something out of his pocket then, and held it out to her. "Your present, Sophie," he said. She took it with great trepidation. It was a flat square box, which Sophie opened with trembling hands. Inside was a black velvet pouch. Shaking with dread at what she was about to find, she untied the strings at the top and upended the pouch over her hand.
A simple ring of intertwined gold and silver bands fell into her palm. She stared at it, unable to say or do anything. "And we come to it now," Howl's voice said, and she turned to look at him. The look he gave her was so intense that it took her breath away as much as the ring had. "The thing I cannot do. You see, Sophie," he said, moving now out of his chair, "for the past few weeks," he took the ring from her, "I have been trying," he knelt before her, "to see my life without you in it." He slid the ring onto her finger. "And I can't," he finished. "I know what's missing."
Tears pricked at the corners of her eyes as he knelt before her, looking up at her. How could she have doubted him? How could she have thought for an instant, after the past six months, that anything could have changed how they felt about each other?
"Sophie Hatter," he said, never breaking their gaze. "Will you agree, will you consent . . . to marry a scoundrel and a coward who is so far from deserving you that he knows he shall never have a hope of it? Will you grant that scoundrel, that coward, a chance at perfect happiness, despite what he is and what he has done, trusting only that he loves you beyond all else?"
"You forget, sir," she whispered through her tears, "that no one is permitted to say such things about that scoundrel and that coward but me. For he is the man I love," she laid one hand against Howl's cheek, "and nothing in this world could make me happier than being his wife."
He kissed her then, standing and pulling her to her feet as well, spinning her around in his joy. They laughed together that night, and after, sat together by the fire, arms around each other, not needing to say any more than had already been said.
They would sit there all night in companionable and joyful silence. When the dawn came, they would spread their news with the sunshine. They would marry a few months later, and though their household would be full of disagreements and bickering and occasional fights, it would also be full of laughter and children and magic and make-ups and love. And sometimes, in the evenings to come, if you stood outside that place when the windows were open and the lights were dim, you would hear Sophie Hatter Jenkins say, "Yes, Howl. I am quite perfectly happy."
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