And It Means Forever
The first time Howl fell in love (that childish little love that came from sharing crayons and liking the same flavor of milk with lunch), he had gone up to the girl and done the only thing he could think of that fully expressed his feelings; he lifted up her skirt and told everyone in the play-yard that her bum was flat. That was the first time Howl felt the sting of rejection as her hand landed across his cheek and she shoved him angrily into the mud.
Thankfully, after many years of practice and careful study, Howl learned how to more astutely charm girls. He could recite poetry, weave lovely compliments out of thin air, could make any girl feel utterly melted and special in his care.
The first time Howl truly fell in love (that adult love that stemmed from desires and understanding and other such mature things), he found himself unable to call upon those years of practice and perfecting his art, and instead told Sophie that her nose was too long for her own good and that she quite possibly was the most insane woman he ever had to go dash off to save. He said this with stubble on his chin and his hair tangled from a fitful few hours sleep, and grew more and more horrified at the thought of another rejection similar to his first.
Instead Sophie grabbed him by the shirt and kissed him with a messy determination that showed she didn't often force kisses upon wizards who had just saved her life.
It was terrifying, this new love, terrifying and exhilarating and so many things tangled together in a knotted mess of heartstrings he hadn't quite sorted out yet. He woke up every morning to her face across from his at the table as they ate bacon and eggs while Michael tried to rub the sleep from his eyes and Calcifer sparked contently in his hearth. He went to bed each night knowing that the next day that it would happen again. Yet, while he lay in bed and watched mobiles made of string and colored glass twirl above his head, he found that wasn't enough.
He had promised her a happily ever after. Yet as he stared at himself in the bathroom mirror, hiding roots and freckles with his potions, he realized he didn't quite know how to do that.
"Calcifer," he said to the fire demon one day when Sophie was out shopping for dinner, "What exactly does happily ever after mean?"
"How should I know?" the flame huffed, "That's some human nonsense. You said it; you should know."
"I know what it is," Howl argued, "I simply don't know what it means I should do. Can't you understand that?"
"I can't understand much of what you say," Calcifer gave a little flickering shrug, as a long tongue of flame snaked out to grab another log, "and I used to hold your heart."
Howl sighed, turning away to drop into the rocker beside the hearth. "You're hardly any help."
"Ask Michael," was the muffled reply in between the snaps and pops as Calcifer enjoyed his log, "Or even Sophie. She's smarter than you."
"I can't ask Sophie," Howl sat up a bit, aghast, "I can't let her know I have no idea how to do the one thing I promised to do."
"Like she doesn't already," Calcifer snorted, and Howl gave him a sour look. "Just ask, you little ninny."
"I won't," Howl shook his head, and stood, "I'll find out on my own."
"Best of luck," his fire demon said with half sincerity, as Howl turned on his heel and headed for the door, black side down.
"What are you doing here?" his sister didn't bother to hide her look of disdain as she opened the door. Howl only returned it with a sneering sort of smile.
"I came to see Mari."
Megan rose a brow, and the frown never left her face, but she moved aside to let him in. "She's in the den, watching telly."
"Thank you," he didn't look back as he strode in, heading to where the sound of a television program was coming from.
Mari looked up when he appeared in the doorway, and she let out a squeal. She sprung to her feet and into his arms, wrapping her arms tightly around his neck.
"Hello Uncle Howell!" she greeted happily, pulling back a bit, smiling widely, "Look, I lost a tooth!"
"I see that," he smiled at her, and she giggled, "Mari, I came to ask you a question."
"What about?" she blinked, and he placed her down before kneeling to her height.
"Tell me, what do you think happily ever after means?"
"Oh, that means you fall in love with someone and get married of course!" she replied simply, giving a bit of a shrug, "Why?"
"Ah, well," Howl sat carefully on the floor, resting an elbow on his knee, "I'm mostly curious."
"I want a happily ever after," Mari played with the hem of her skirt, "and to live in a castle and have a pony! No, a whole stable!"
"What else would you like?" Howl encouraged, and Mari grinned excitedly.
"Lots of flowers everywhere! And I want to have a big princess dress! And…Uncle Howell, why are you writing this down?"
He came home from Wales while Sophie was starting supper. Once he stepped into the house she looked up, and suddenly he felt words bubbling out of his throat.
"Sophie, would you like to be buried next to each other?"
Sophie went still and stared. Calcifer leaned out of his grate and Michael dropped the silverware he was setting on the table.
"…Are you planning on killing us Howl?" she gave him an odd look.
"That's…I'd like to thank you for always cooking meals Sophie, and I was wondering if you would mind continuing to cook them. In my house."
Sophie continued to stare. "Don't I do that already?"
"…Forever then?" he tried instead. He heard Michael sigh in exasperation.
"You want me to stay in your house forever as your maid?" her brow rose, and Howl felt panic start to curl in his gut.
"No, of course not, it can be your house too, if you'd like!"
"…Now you want me to pay rent?"
"Ren— No! No, Sophie, that's not at all what I'm trying to say, I…" his hands came up in a flutter of distress, but he quickly gave up and instead pressed one to his face. "You'll have to excuse me," he said carefully, lifting his head and brushing his hair from his eyes, "I have to attend to something upstairs."
And he fled to his bedroom, throwing himself onto the mattress with a pathetic sigh.
"That was the worst proposal I've ever seen," Calcifer piped up as Howl scribbled markings into the floorboards, his hands white with chalk. "Almost as horrible as the one you tried the other night. Buriednext to each other Howl?"
"I'll throw water onto you," Howl threatened through the corner of his mouth as his brows came together in concentration.
"Don't get fussy with me because you can't get a simple question right," Calcifer quipped, and Howl threw him a look over his shoulder, "Just say 'Sophie, will you marry me?'."
"It's not as easy as all that," Howl retorted, using his thumb to rub out a misplaced line, "If it was, I would have by now."
"You just enjoy having a difficult time, don't you?" Calcifer sighed, "If it isn't dramatic, it doesn't suit you."
"That is not what the problem is at all," Howl disagreed, "For once, I'd actually welcome something ordinary," he shuddered at the word, "if it meant I could spit out this bloody proposal."
Calcifer was obviously shocked, because he didn't attempt a response.
"Howl, what are you doing?" Sophie sighed as she walked into the kitchen with a bundle of tulips from the garden, and before Howl could stop her, stepped onto one of the chalk drawings, setting off a spell that shot enchanted flowers into the air from the floor, exploding the room into a flurry of petals and fireworks.
"It wasn't quite ready yet," Howl explained once the noise and commotion calmed down, and he quickly began to sweep up daisies with his hands, "Don't worry about the mess, I'll take care of it…"
"Howl," Sophie's voice had an edge, and he glanced up at her through his bangs, "What on earth are you up to lately?"
"You see, Sophie," he got to his feet, shuffling through lilacs and ribbon to stand before her, carefully taking a hand, "I know this must seem quite odd, but really, I'm simply trying to…" his words died in his throat, and he coughed to try to get them out again.
"Are you trying to propose Howl?" she asked bluntly, and Howl nearly staggered. He stared at her a moment, and she returned it with a blink.
"Ah. Well, I…Yes," he was embarrassed at how feeble the words came out, "In the long and short of it, I am."
"Then simply ask me Howl," she all but rolled her eyes, "Really, fireworks and a horse are hardly necessary to do that."
"It's actually a pony," he corrected quietly, but Sophie gave him a look. "You're right," he relented, "Of course you are, I'm sorry to have been so difficult. I suppose I should do it then," he looked to her, and she looked back expectantly. Howl swallowed and dropped to one knee, holding her hand in both of his. "Sophie Hatter, would you do me the honor…" his jaw tightened a moment, and his mind was suddenly blank, "do you mind terribly…I have a lovely house and happen to love you a bit, so…"
"Oh, spit it out," she scolded, but her eyes were smiling.
"…I think we should get married," Howl said finally, and she squeezed his hand.
"I think we should too."