Just a sort of filling-in-the-gap between Howl's Moving Castle and Castle in the Air.
Chapter 1, In Which it Storms Both Inside and Outside the Moving Castle
Sunlight streamed through the window, golden and warm.
Tendrils of its glow spilled lazily over Howl and Sophie's closed eyelids, both breathing gently while they still lay enveloped in sleep. Howl's arms were circled around his wife's waist while Sophie's cheek rested on his chest, right above his heart—the heart she had returned to him almost a year ago.
Her head tilted and her mane of red-gold hair brushed against Howl's stomach as she did, lightly tickling his bare skin and causing him to stir. He blearily opened his eyes and immediately squinted as the sun glared into them. Tightly squeezing his eyes shut again, he made a twirling motion in the air with one hand and the curtains hanging on either side of the window came together to block out the light.
That accomplished, he pulled Sophie closer before he fell back asleep.
Sophie's voice penetrated through to his subconscious, and although his head was buried under his pillow, he registered that he was in trouble.
There were thuds and clatters of her tearing around the room. Suddenly, he found the pillow he had been hiding under snatched away and replaced with Sophie's face, centimeters from his own.
"Howl," she repeated with a scowl, "you knew I had to meet Lettie and Martha this morning, but you closed the curtains and I thought it was earlier than it actually is. I was supposed to be at Ben's two hours ago!"
"I was tired," Howl shrugged in that maddeningly serene way he knew drove her crazy.
"Is that all you have to say for yourself?" she asked.
"You should set the alarm next time."
Sophie was staring at him exasperatedly, her cheeks stained with pink in her agitation and her hair loose around her shoulders. He couldn't help himself. Quickly leaning towards her, he kissed her on her parted lips and pulled away to duck under the covers, but left a space to peek out at her.
"You're infuriating," she said with no conviction in her voice now. She was even grinning, but trying to hide it from him. "I'll be in Kingsbury for the day. That is, unless my sisters have already gone without me."
"Aren't you going to ask me to come along?" he asked after her as she made for the door.
Sophie turned and smiled at him sweetly. "No."
Without another word, she walked out of the room.
"Isn't it gorgeous?" Lettie squealed as she displayed the back of her hand and wiggled her fingers—one in particular—excitedly.
"It's a lovely ring, Lettie," said Sophie, beaming. "About time Ben got on with it. Howl was beginning to think he would never ask."
Martha darted up to her sister and threw her arms around her neck. "I'm so happy for you! D'you know when you're going to set the day yet?"
"Martha, if he just proposed last night, it's a little early to be—"
"Soon," Lettie readily interrupted her. "I want it to be soon."
The three sisters had been wandering around the shops in town when Lettie broke her news, bringing her hand out of hiding from the folds of her dress where she had been keeping her engagement ring a secret for nearly half an hour.
With her younger sisters prattling and giggling behind her, Sophie led the way through the crowded streets, pausing now and again at store windows to look at some odd trinket or other. She was feeling particularly cheerful as they meandered on in this way. The early July weather was beautiful, she and her sisters were finding happiness in their lives both in work and in love, and other inexplicable inklings of brightness came from a source she could not quite put her finger on. She nearly laughed as she saw Lettie stretch her arm out in front of her for almost the hundredth time since telling them about her engagement and study her ring at different angles, a smile blooming on her face.
As she looked at a few books on display in a brick-faced shop, Sophie caught the eye of a stranger in the reflection of the glass pane. She whirled around, and Lettie and Martha glanced at her quizzically.
"What's wrong, Sophie?"
"I thought I saw…" Sophie craned her neck to seek out the man, but he had become lost in the bustle of the street. "Never mind. It was nothing."
An hour later when the girls sat down to lunch at a quaint outdoor bistro, Sophie found her attention grabbed again as she started to order.
"…Sophie. Sophie?" Martha was calling her.
"The waiter asked if you're ready."
"Oh," she was completely distracted at this point and didn't even spare the server a glance. "Nothing for me. I'm not hungry."
There was a small silence before she heard Lettie say, "She'll have what I'm having, thanks." When the waiter finally walked away, Lettie looked at her elder sister. "Now really, Sophie, something is obviously the matter. What are you looking at?" She turned to look in the direction Sophie had been staring but could see nothing that would be worth holding her attention.
Sophie's eyes were still fixed somewhere across the street as she haltingly responded, "I think…that we're being followed."
Immediately, Martha and Lettie squared their shoulders and drew closer together as if closing ranks against a threat. Ever since Sophie's run-in with the Witch of the Waste, she had been particularly watchful of these sorts of things, and her sisters trusted her intuition without hesitation.
"What is it?" Martha asked out of the corner of her mouth, like whoever it was could hear what she said if it was spoken any higher.
"I don't know. I could be wrong, but there has been a man I've seen near us several times while we were walking, and I thought I saw him again just now. He's not there anymore."
"What did he look like?"
Sophie looked back at her sisters, who she could tell were somewhat spooked. "He had strawberry-blonde hair and was wearing a blue cape. His eyes are strange; gold and catlike."
The sisters' appetites were spoilt. They decided to leave the bistro and head for Sophie and Howl's house, which was the closest, though still a mile off. They were quiet but on the alert as they treaded down the cobblestone paths, their eyes flicking around them to take in everything they could. The unexpected rift of their day together dampened their spirits considerably, and Sophie felt guilty, chiding herself for being such a paranoid ninny.
The streets were somewhat deserted as everyone had gone to enjoy their midday meal and rest at home. Sophie was beginning to think that maybe it would have been wiser for them to stay at the bistro because at least there had been comfort in numbers when she spotted a flash of blue whip around the corner of an alleyway up ahead.
Touching her sisters gently on their forearms, she gestured for them to hang back while she walked ahead. She reached the storefront next to the alley. It was the one where she had been glancing at books.
In a fluid half-leap, she stepped into the mouth of the alley and found herself face-to-face with the man she had described to her sisters. There could be no mistaking it for coincidence now: he had been following them. Not waiting for him to assail her or even speak, Sophie acted.
Noticing the books laying innocently in their window, she waved her hand before her and called, "Come on, you books! Help me." At once, the thick, leather-bound tomes shattered through the glass and flew towards her. "Get him! Smack him around the face! Give him bruises he won't forget and a headache to boot!" The books raced to obey, soundly walloping the man, who had thrown his arms above his head to ward off the blows.
By the time Lettie and Martha had run up to find this spectacle playing out, the cowering stranger was crying out as the spine of an exceptionally fat book connected with his ear.
"Ow! Gerroff, gerroff! Sophie, call the blasted things off already!"
Sophie knew that voice.
"Stop," she ordered. At once, the books froze in mid-swing and then fell to the cobblestones with several loud whumps. As she peered at the man while he straightened up, she saw his reddish hair was now blond and his eyes were dyeing themselves a familiar green.
"Howl!" Lettie and Martha exclaimed.
"Ladies," Howl responded with much more dignity than a man who had just been beaten by half a library should have claim to muster.
"What on earth were you doing following us in a getup like that?" Martha asked bewilderedly.
Lettie added, "You scared us half to death."
"That was not my intention," he apologized. "Quite the opposite in fact. There's a wild wind coming off from the Waste and I came to keep an eye out and make sure you all were safe. I didn't want to break up your girls' day, so I trailed in disguise, but…" He trailed off because they knew the rest. Before they could ask any questions, he continued, "Now if you don't mind, I'd like to accompany you back to your homes. It looks like it's about to rain anyway."
Howl was right. The sky that before had been practically cloudless was now overcast and quickly becoming darker.
Sophie remained uncharacteristically silent as they escorted Lettie back to Ben's and Martha went on through the moving castle to her flat near the bakery, but the second they were alone, she whipped around to face Howl as he closed the door.
Her eyes were flashing. "Do you not care about me at all, Howl, or is it just that you don't understand anything that doesn't have to do with you?"
"What?" Howl said, completely gobsmacked.
"You knew I haven't been able to see both my sisters properly what with one thing or another for ages, but you still had to be selfish and come to ruin it, didn't you?"
"I told him you'd be mad," a voice from somewhere by the fireplace said. A flickering blue teardrop of flame that was Calcifer appeared and floated in the air by the couch.
"Now hold on—" Howl protested.
Sophie cut across him. "The lie about the wind was a nice cover by the way." She strode towards the staircase, but he caught her arm halfway across the room and turned her around to face him.
"I wasn't lying! There was a wind coming from the Waste and it felt restless, like trouble is starting up. I came to do exactly what I said."
Sophie was thrown off by his honesty, but in another moment her anger won out again. "Just the excuse you needed to gatecrash then. I can take care of myself."
"So I've seen." Howl put his free hand to gingerly touch his split bottom lip and drew his fingers away to see them flecked with blood. "You didn't have to tell them to hit me quite so hard, you know."
"Oooh! I only wish I had made them bang you harder!" With that, she ripped her arm away from Howl's grip and escaped upstairs.
Outside, the storm that had been brewing broke with a loud clap of thunder that shook the castle. The bedroom window, which Howl had enchanted to overlook his sister's garden, did not show the rain but instead let in the sunshine of Wales. Still, Sophie could hear the drops pelting against the shingles.
She paced the length of the floor fuming and…why was she fuming? She sat on the edge of the unmade bed. Howl had only come after her to make sure she was safe. So, why was she so angry?
Sophie's temper was waning as she deliberated its feeble foundation. She was starting to feel very tired and a wave of nausea washed over her unexpectedly, but she controlled it as best she could.
A knock at the door made her jump. Howl let himself in and came to sit next to her on the bed.
"Still mad?" he asked.
At the same time she blurted, "I'm sorry."
He laughed softly before a serious air took over his face. "I know you're frustrated that I messed up your time with your sisters."
"Yes," Sophie said unsurely, trying to convince herself that that was the reason for her flare up.
"I realize I'm a selfish idiot most times," Howl went on, looking at her profile as he did, "but I love you and I would never do anything on purpose to make you unhappy." A grin pulled at the corners of his mouth. "Not seriously, anyway. I really did just want to make sure you were okay."
"Oh, Howl," she said, recalling her words with chagrin. "I know. It was just something I said. I didn't mean it."
With a sigh, she got up and went down the hall into the chaotic rainbow of his bathroom, coming back with an unstoppered bottle of salve and a cotton-piece in her hands. As gently as possible she dabbed the stuff onto the little scrapes over his face, last of all applying it to the cut on his lip.
After a minute, it was not the cotton-piece that was pressed to Howl's mouth, but Sophie's own lips as they fell back onto the bed and rolled into each other's arms.
End Author's Notes
I've planned out about ten chapters for this, and I'll do my best to update weekly.
This story is featured at FFNet's "The Best of DWJ" and "Closet Stories" community archives.