AN: More at the bottom, but guys. Nearly 700 reviews? I love you. So much.
DISCLAIMER: ALL CHARACTERS BELOW TO DIANA WYNNE JONES, AUTHOR OF HOWL'S MOVING CASTLE. The fanfic is based upon the BOOK, NOT the movie.
Howl's Moving Castle: The Aftermath
Chapter 28: In Which Time Grows Short
She turned her gaze from Howl to see Michael running over to her. His chest heaved lightly with exertion. Focusing on swallowing the lump in her throat, Sophie brushed a hand through her tangled hair.
He skidded to a stop in front of her, his head turned slightly to glance at Howl's disappearing back before facing her.
"I'm sorry Sophie, I didn't mean to say those things like that," he panted. "It's just that...it's been..." He trailed off helplessly, and Sophie couldn't blame him. Thinking about it now, Michael never once commented on her and Howl's tumultuous relationship, and neither did he condemn either of them for their actions. It was just like him. And, Sophie realized, it must have been difficult being in between the two of them.
Especially Howl, Sophie thought with a fond grimace. She only hoped Michael didn't have to deal with any kind of green slime or piteous moping.
"It's alright Michael," she sighed, reaching out to lightly pat his shoulder. "I'm not exactly..." She looked back on their argument, and the worries she had unearthed still floated uncomfortably at the forefront of her mind. She sighed again instead of finishing her sentence.
Suddenly, she found herself under an arm, being cheerfully squished into a side.
"Come along then, Sophie!" Michael boomed. She looked up at his face, which was smiling brightly, if not a little awkwardly.
"Let's go get some lunch, I'm starved. Martha promised to bring along some of those new tea cakes and I can't wait to see if they're anything like the ones in Kingsbury..."
Sophie returned the smile, and let herself be dragged away from her worries for the afternoon as Michael chattered away.
It was late at night, and Calcifer was flickering faintly in her room's fireplace. It was hot and stuffy in the room, but Sophie didn't dare to open any windows or doors.
"So that's why Atkin's after Howl?" Calcifer's voice was low, tired.
"Yes," Sophie rubbed her forehead furiously. "And honestly, it threw me off balance, Calcifer. I nearly ripped Michael's head off today about it."
"I don't remember an Annabelle," Calcifer said thoughtfully. "But it sounds like the girl was a bit overly obsessed to me."
Sophie panned a glare at him. "If you love someone, there is little you wouldn't do for them." Such as pretend to get married to a sociopath, she thought bitterly.
He shrugged his tiny shoulders.
"What could he have gained from telling me this? That is mostly what I cannot understand," groaned Sophie.
Calcifer flickered green for a second, before settling back into the dark red color that was now his daily appearance. "He's been acting more strange as your wedding approaches. When he summons me, he sits as far away from me as possible and tells me stupid things about all the annoying people he talks to. It's boring."
Sophie cast him a worried glance. "And you, are you okay? You aren't looking well," she murmured.
He shrugged his tiny shoulders again.
"He's still taking magic from me. We won't have much time left."
Sophie placed the tips of her fingers on the hearth in a gesture of comfort.
"Only two more days," she said. "Do you think you will be able to go through with the plan?"
He made what she thought was a nod.
"I think I'll stay in your fireplace until then, if that's okay."
Sophie nodded, and stood to place a small pile of firewood next to him, within a spark's reach.
"Goodnight then, Calcifer."
She stepped across the floorboards to her bed, and slipped under the cool sheets.
Only two more days.
The words reverberated in her head, following her into her dreams.
It was the day before the wedding, and the dress was being fitted one last time. Sophie stood in Fanny's room as the mirrors were bigger (she'd insisted, as Calcifer was snoozing in her own room), being tucked into one of the most extravagant dresses she'd ever had the luck to wear. It was a piercing white satin, covered in lace. The collar spread out like a palm frond, and stiff lace spiraled down her arms. She could barely bend her elbows to hold the bouquet.
As the stiff silk rustled about her, she couldn't help but look at her reflection and think of how much she hated Edward Atkin at that very moment.
A pin found it's way into her lower back and she let out a small yelp of surprise.
"Sorry miss!" said the seamstress, who looked as if she wasn't sorry at all.
Sophie sighed, when the door banged open and her sisters came marching in.
"Oh Sophie!" cried Martha.
"You look..." started Lettie.
"Like a giant cloud," Sophie corrected.
Martha protested vigorously, while Lettie hid her true feelings behind a gloved hand and twinkling eyes. Another pin found its way into her side and Sophie flinched.
Save me, her eyes pleaded towards the reflections of her sisters as they gathered next to her.
"Now Sophie," Martha started. "I believe...Sarabeth was it? Yes, Sarabeth is nearly done, so please do your best to stay still. You look lovely, really."
"Yes," Lettie agreed. "Lovely."
Sophie glared at them both, though the strand of hair curling in front of her nose rather dampened the effect.
"Where is Fanny," Sophie asked, moving her arms slightly and wincing as the thick lace bit into her skin.
"Oh, she's busying herself with your fiance. Apparently, she wanted little kittens to be part of the reception gifts, and Edward is duly taking the time to dissuade her of the idea," said Lettie, her amusement apparent.
"Kittens?" Sophie squawked. "What in the world..." At least Edward is doing something correct, for once.
"I know!" squealed Martha. "Though they would be a bit of a nuisance...so I suppose it is a good thing Edward is really insistent on just giving the gift baskets."
Gift baskets? Sophie shook her head incredulously, which earned her another pin prick.
"Martha, you'd better go check with them. You know how Mother gets," instructed Lettie.
Her sister bounced out of the room with a cheerful wave, leaving Lettie to look at Sophie's reflection.
"That dress is ridiculous," she said flatly.
"Tell me about it," Sophie sighed.
There was a small huff from Sarabeth. Both girls ignored her.
"Sophie, are you really sure about this?" Her sister locked eyes with her in the mirror, her mouth set in a serious line. Lettie was definitely the most beautiful of the sisters, Sophie mused, with her glossy black hair and perfect skin. It didn't surprise Sophie how well things had turned out for her, even if she was the second child. It was still better than being the first.
Sophie sighed, feeling the restricting corset protest her breathing.
"Yes, I am."
Lettie's face was all but satisfied.
"I know how you look at Howl even now, Sophie," she started. "I can't help but wonder why you're marrying Edward when it's obvious that you still love that wizard."
Another pin prick, except it was more of a stab this time.
"Sarabeth," Sophie gritted out. "I think the dress fits. You can go."
"You can pick up the dress later."
The crotchety seamstress left the room with many annoyed mumblings, her sewing kit bumping at her side.
The room was silent, with only the muted sounds of chirping birds carrying through the open windows.
"I love Edward, okay." Sophie's voice was jarring in the nearly empty room.
"If you're sure," Lettie said sceptically. Her lips pursed in a way that made her look uncannily similar to Fanny.
"I've asked Suliman to give me away," Sophie broke in abruptly. She broke her gaze with Lettie's mirror reflection to look at her sister's actual face. "Is that okay?"
It was a bit awkward asking the wizard to walk her down the aisle, but it sat him at a strategic area in the church.
Lettie, looking a bit thrown off guard, nodded. "Ah, yes that's fine Sophie. Why wouldn't it be?"
Sophie took a deep breath. "I just...I miss Papa."
Her sister sucked in a breath, and reached over to gently pull Sophie into a hug.
"Papa wouldn't haven't minded," she whispered.
Sophie nodded, and hoped Lettie wouldn't bring up Howl again.
Talking about her father made her feel lonely, and Sophie found an immense urge to go visit his grave and her mother's. After having Lettie help her peel out of the dress, she had lunch with the three women in her life. Atkin, to her great relief, was forbidden from seeing her until the wedding day. Thank goodness for inane traditions.
After lunch, she begged off from a ride into the country, claiming fatigue. Except, instead of going to take a nap, she waited until the party had all traipsed out into the carriage. Wrapping a dull scarf around her bright hair, she dressed in one of her old, dull, Mrs. Witch dresses and made her way over to the castle. Her parent's graves were in Market Chipping, and the portal door was the best way to get there in secret.
When she arrived a the castle's mansion door, she knocked tentatively on it.
There was no answer.
When she tried the door, it swung open easily enough, and Sophie quickly let herself in.
The castle was as dark as ever, if not darker, and Sophie grimaced as she noticed the accumulation of dirt and spiderwebs. Her jaw clenched as an urge to start cleaning rose up steadily, but she shook her head and turned back to the door, spinning it until it was the appropriate color, and stepping out into a different kind of sunlight.
Her neck prickled slightly as she closed the door behind her, but she dismissed the sensation as she stepped onto the busy sidewalk.
The way to the cemetery involved a bit of ducking and dodging and alleyway taking to avoid being seen by anyone who might recognize her. The church for their wedding was in Market Chipping, and thus the entire town was in tune. It was a great annoyance to Sophie.
Thankfully, there was no one visiting the dead when Sophie arrived. The sun shone hotly despite the steadily cooling days, and as she stepped through the gates she felt a comforting breeze brush across her face.
Henry and Mary Hatter lay under the shade of a great oak tree, and leaves lay scattered haphazardly across their resting place. Sophie cleared them away lovingly, and brushed the carved letters of their names when she finished, settling down in between them, knees tucked to her chest.
"Hello Papa, Mama," she said, a lump in her throat growing. "I'm sorry that I haven't visited you in such a long time. It's been quite busy."
She looked up to the sky, watching the fluffy clouds pass by as she controlled her urge to cry.
"You wouldn't believe what has happened in these past months," Sophie began again, after she'd collected herself. "The Witch of the Waste came into the hat shop and turned me into an old, old woman. I became the cleaning lady of the infamous Wizard Howl, and I met a fire demon of all things. And you wouldn't believe the mischief Lettie and Martha got into when they went off to their apprenticeships. Can you believe they had switched places?"
A small smile curved her lips at the memory.
"But it's alright. Switching suited them quite well. And I, well I broke Howl's contract with his fire demon and he destroyed the Witch of the Waste. And I'm back to myself again. And I'm getting married," she added. "Not to Howl though, to this man called Edward. I met him in a shop while I was having tea." Her voice trailed off. He had seemed so nice then, when they had first met. She never imagined what an utterly evil piece of swamp muck he actually was.
"I wish that you were here," she whispered, a familiar sigh escaping her lips. "I wish that you were walking me down the aisle Papa, and I wish that I..."
The words sat on her tongue, but they were too heavy to speak.
Silence sat between father, mother and daughter for a while, and she took comfort in being alone with them.
"The dress I'm wearing is atrocious," Sophie started again after what seemed like an hour, the thought just popping out of her with a small chuckle. "You always hated lace Mama, or at least that was what Papa told me. I think I hate lace too. And the collar, if it were any bigger I think I wouldn't be able to lift my arms. Not that I could, with those absolutely dreadful sleeves."
She bit her lip, tears threatening to escape once more.
"Oh god," she exclaimed, burying her face into her skirt covered knees. "I don't want to marry him." Her words were muffled by her skirt, and the effort to not cry made her voice thick. Heavy, panicked breaths escaped her.
She lifted her head from her knees, her eyelashes wet.
"I don't want to marry him!" she howled. Her scarf fell limply from her head.
The tree above her rustled as a strong breeze passed through it, and a few leaves spiraled downwards.
"Sophie?" a voice came, almost sounding like the wind itself.
Her body froze.
Clenching her eyes shut, she prayed hard and fast that the voice was just the wind, that it wasn't who she knew it was, and she would accept being a crazy person who hears things if that voice wasn't real, oh please.
Footsteps became louder on the gravel pathway. Sophie let out a few very unladylike curses, and opened her eyes.
Her parents' graves lay before her, unaltered but for a few leaves. Grass rustled behind her, and she felt a whoosh of air as two legs folded themselves elegantly next to her in a sitting position.
"Everyone is looking for you," Howl murmured.
Thoughts raced through her head. How did Howl find her? What should she say? Why was he just sitting next to her? And most importantly, did he hear what she just shouted to the heavens? She could smell him, a mix of his superfluous perfume and his own scent, and it trailed seductively under her nose.
And his voice.
Oh god, if all was gone but his voice, she would be happy.
"I'm sure," she finally managed after a few minutes of tension filled silence.
"I'm sorry!" she blurted out. She didn't dare to look at him. "I don't know if you heard yesterday but it sounded like you did, and I don't think you're heartless Howl. I never have," she rushed to say in one breath. She hadn't planned to say that, but out it came anyway.
She heard him let out a long sigh, and inwardly winced.
After another moment of silence, she spoke up again.
"How did you find me?"
She heard a rustle of clothing as he shrugged. "I was passing by the entrance and caught sight of you sitting here. A lucky find, if I say so myself."
She looked behind her, towards the entrance.
The place they sat was completely obscured by trees and randomly placed mausoleums. Her eyes narrowed sceptically, but she didn't question his response.
A breeze passed between them.
"What are you doing, Sophie?"
Nonplussed, Sophie turned to face Howl with a furrowed brow. "What do you mean?"
Howl's returning stare was devastating. Sophie couldn't remember the last time she'd been on the receiving end of his green glare and she could feel her knees tremble. His mouth was set in a grim line.
"I won't pretend I didn't hear what you had just shouted loud enough to wake your parents, and all their neighbors."
So he had heard. Sophie felt the color drain from her face as her stomach dropped to the ground.
"I won't pretend that I haven't noticed how pale and thin you've become. I won't pretend that I don't see you going off to speak with Suliman or Fairfax in corners with your eyes filled with worry, and I won't pretend that I don't notice that you flinch every time your fiance," he snarled the last word, "comes into the room."
"I won't pretend that I believe you when you tell me you don't love me," he finished in a whisper. "So tell me, Sophie, what in the bloody hell are you doing."
She could feel her mouth open to reply, and then close. And then open. And then close. Her throat felt dry and her fingers were numb and shaking.
"I don't..." She swallowed. "I don't know what you mean," she said faintly.
"The hell you don't!" he exploded, looming over her. "Stop lying to me Sophie," he demanded fiercely. He grabbed her arm, squeezing.
His touch seemed to awaken something within her, and she tugged her arm out of his grasp furiously. Scrambling to her feet, she tripped on the long hem of her dress as she ungracefully stood up.
"I don't know who you think you are," she shrilled. "I can't believe you have the nerve to say such things to me, after...after everything!" Inadequate, her words were, but she couldn't quite manage to speak properly through her sudden fury.
He was on his feet as fast as she could blink.
"After everything? Do you mean the weeks we spent living together in companionship where you cut up my clothing and tried to kill my spiders? Or do you mean the note you left me in cold silence? Or the many times you told me to stay away, that you didn't love me? Or after you screamed just now, quite passionately, that you did not want marry? Because I think all of these things give me the right to say things to you, and I won't stand for any more of your half baked excuses."
He didn't yell the words, but he might as well have. He had paced back and forth during his speech, and now he stalked toward her to grab her upper arms.
"What are you doing, Sophie," he asked again in barely more than a whisper, desperation creeping into his voice.
"Howl...," she whispered, caught in his gaze, drawn to it like a lonely moth to a blazing bonfire. Her lip quivered with restrained emotion.
"God, Sophie," he cried brokenly, and pulled her into his embrace, wrapping his arms around her tightly. "Let me help you, tell me what is going on, don't hide from me anymore."
Her cheek pressed to his jacket, her arms folded against his chest, his face buried in her hair. A sudden calm rushed through her, and she felt the rigid tension disappear from her body as she relaxed into his hold.
She felt his hand creep up to cup her jaw, moving her to face his eyes once more.
"Let me in," he implored her.
She shook her head, not trusting herself to speak.
"God damn it, Sophie!" He ripped himself away from her, stalking towards the oak tree. She trembled in his wake. She had seen Howl angry before, but somehow she couldn't help but be affected by it. When he reached the tree, he stood there for a moment before he stalked back towards her, his brow angry and his shoulders taught.
Her eyes widened fearfully as he harshly pulled her to him once again. She watched his eyes rove her face, and she tried to think properly of how to get out of this mess but her mind was awash with fear and longing.
And then his mouth descended onto hers, and her mind went blank. The searing warmth of his lips felt like stepping into a warm house on a winter's day, where the heat slowly creeps across your skin, scaring away the chill.
Warmth spread through her body as his lips moved against hers fiercely. Almost unconsciously, her hands gripped him closer and a mewl of excitement crawled out of her throat.
Encouraged by her response, Howl gripped her face, keeping her close and out of breath as their teeth and tongues clashed fervently. Their bodies pressed together close, and Sophie felt as if she were falling. Sunlight warmed her face, making everything red behind her closed eyes.
Howl broke apart from her with a ragged breath, his lips still so close, his head pressed against hers. A cool wind swirled against her ankles, making her shiver.
It was in that moment that she realized what position she had put herself in.
"No," she whispered, her eyes clenching shut. Taking a deep breath, she pushed Howl off of her, and stepped away from him.
His hair was mussed from where her hands had made their way through, entangling themselves. His eyes were bright and his mouth was a delicious, swollen color.
"Sophie," he begged.
"No! I can't...I can't do this. Please, Howl, please let me be. Just trust me, just let me go," she pleaded, stepping backwards with each word.
"I'll never let you go again," he growled, starting towards her.
"No!" she screamed, and thought fiercely of being home as she turned on her heel and ran.
To her immense surprise, her surroundings disappeared with a pop, and she landed in an ungraceful heap in her bedroom.
Calcifer peeked over at her from the fireplace, and before she could say hello, she promptly fainted.
AN: Okay so I rewrote this a couple times and I'm still not happy but I'm already 11 minutes past the deadline and I REFUSE TO GIVE UP CAKE BECAUSE I DEMAND A THIRTY MINUTE GRACE PERIOD.
Anyway, I hope you enjoy. The story is soon coming to its end! Thank you for reading this far, and sticking with me. ;n; And though I've been majorly slacking with replying to reviews, know that I always read them and save them in my email and love and cherish them and they make me smile on bad days and glow on the good ones. So. You know the drill. Reviews please. /holdsyou
So. You know the drill. Reviews please. /holdsyou