The Apple Never Falls Far From The Tree.

"Your uncle?" Sophie smiles softly, tucking a strand of white hair behind her ear. "For the way you spoke of him, I'd have thought–"

"No, no, he just travels a lot." Howl grins, taking her hand, brushing a kiss against his knuckles. "Do you want to meet him?"

"I'd love to meet your uncle," Sophie agrees, surprised when Howl starts pulling her towards the door. "You mean now? But the grandmother and Michael! Howl! I'm not dressed for visiting anyone! And we should take something for him and he's not going to be expecting us!"

Howl laughs, mischievous, grinning as he pulls out a strange key from his pocket, pushing it against the door before he opens it.

"Believe me, Sophie– I've yet to know a god, let alone a person, who manages to catch Clow Reed unprepared."

"Here we are, Howl."

He looks up. It's a beautiful house and the garden is flourishing. Howl isn't sure what the man who had introduced himself as his uncle had done for them to be there when a moment ago they had been standing inside his house, but grief is still too shocking for him to pay much attention.

His uncle smiles at him, and at least his eyes are the same warm, deep blue his mother's eyes are. Were. He looks down again, his hand still over the man's hand.

Then his uncle kneels forward, smiling at him, a hint of sadness in his eyes. Howl hasn't asked why his mother never talked about her older brother, but the man knew enough of his mom and his dad and even of him for him to be too wary.

"I know it's hard," the man says, gentle. Howl focuses on the gold of his clothes instead of his eyes, trying to blink away the sting of tears. "But I promise you that, in the end, everything is going to be alright."

He doesn't know how everything could possibly be alright again, but then his uncle takes his chin in hand, still gentle, as if he didn't want to startle him.

"Would you like some tea and shortbread? I made it this morning."

Howl isn't sure how his uncle could've made anything in the morning if by noon he was with him; he's still uncertain about how his uncle reached him so soon, but Howl sees in his uncle's eyes that he's going to find out sooner or later.

"Yes, uncle Clow."

They don't appear immediately inside a house, but have to walk for a little while. Sophie doesn't mind; her arm linked with Howl's, she looks up towards the brilliantly blue sky and thinks that it's going to be a nice day, the smell of flowers blooming everywhere, even as Howl talks about his uncle.

"He's very eccentric," Howl says as he smiles.

Sophie can't help but snort a little, completely unsurprised about that. "You don't say..."

"We used to travel a lot when I was younger, before Calcifer and I made that deal."

"Did he get mad?" Sophie asks, frowning gently. It's the only reason she can think for not seeing your uncle for as long as Howl has.

Howl grins as he shakes his head no. "Allow me to explain."

"You already know what's going to happen, uncle." Howl pouts. His uncle laughs, warm, hands over his shoulders.

"You have to work for your 'happily ever after'. Unless, you want me to contact Yuuko dearest..."

Howl shivers at the unsaid threat. Sure, the Dimensional Witch is lovely and watching her and his uncle get drunk is one of those things Howl knows he's never going to forget, but just trying to think on what he'd have to pay for his wish makes him want to get Calcifer to run the castle as fast as he can. He still clings to his uncle's hand.

"But why can't I go back home?"

Clow's smile softens as he puts his hands over his shoulders again. He has been fixing the castle, cleaning it and giving him dishes and tea and making sure he knows how to cook. Now he does look sad instead of amused, which Howl thinks it's a little better.

"Because you are linked with Calcifer." Clow nods towards the fire, but then he smiles back at Howl, still gentle, the same he had been when his parents died. "You need to remain here and find a way to free you both. And I can't help you with that."

Howl looks down. He can't say he feels sad – Calcifer stops him from feeling like that, but he gets a shadow of would-be-darkness at the thought of not seeing his uncle for a long while.

Clow's smile is still soft. "Close your eyes, Howl."

He does, trusting, surprised when he hears his uncle murmuring a spell. When he opens his eyes, he's wearing a gold and pink cloak, completely different than the one his uncle uses but just as warm and heavy. Clow also smiles as he gives him a small, weird key and places it in his hand.

"Once you're free, nephew, do come and visit. I'll be expecting you two."

They're greeted by a woman dancing; the woman laughs and places flowers in their hair and a few other creatures running outside the house to play at the garden under the great shades of a cherry tree. Sophie blinks because some of them are flying and there's a big winged lion under there and--

"Howl!" She turns just in time to look as Howl is embraced by a tall man with dark hair and she stops trying to wonder about what she has just seen, focusing on meeting Howl's uncle. "Took you long enough, nephew!"

Howl laughs as he hugs back the man, stepping aside with a wide grin. "You didn't give me many clues, uncle Clow. Now, uncle, let me introduce you to--"

"Sophie, my dear!" The man's joy is obvious as he steps towards her, taking her offered hand and kissing the back of her fingers gently. He doesn't release her hand after this, still clasping it between his. She doesn't ask how he knows her name. "I've been impatiently waiting to meet you. Do come inside, dear. I've some ice tea and pastries ready in the garden."

The man has the same mischievous smile that Howl has. Sophie darts her eyes to look towards her fiancé, not-at-all surprised when she finds him grinning.

Oh dear.